A mindshift in sciences and humanities is the only antidote to hoaxes


A mindshift in sciences and humanities is the only antidote to hoaxes

Recently, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay published a peer-reviewed paper, subsequently retracted by the publisher, titled “The Conceptual Penis”.

The paper was ridiculous in every respect. It appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, albeit one that’s pay-to-publish. These journals require the author to pay “page fees” for publishing. They may be rigorous but typically have low circulation, which is why they ask authors to cover costs. Financial dependence on authors raises obvious questions and challenges for such journals.

The whole exercise was meant to show that the discipline of gender studies is deeply flawed. It was a hoax characterised as “Sokal-style” after a famous episode in the 1990s, which saw physicist Alan Sokal publish a spoof article in a well-regarded journal.

Such hoaxes are troubling for those of us working in the humanities. They grossly mischaracterise what most of us do, which I would fiercely defend as rigorous, critical, insightful work – and which is anything but easy to publish.

Yet they strike a chord, even with many dedicated humanities scholars. There is discontent within the humanities. For as long as I can remember, people have talked about “the crisis in the humanities”. There is also discontent with the humanities: whatever else the hoaxes are, they most certainly constitute a public relations disaster.

Read more: I got a hoax academic paper about how UK politicians wipe their bums published

So what do the hoaxes really show, and how should the humanities respond?

What the hoaxes don’t show

Hit the right political tone and use the right jargon, the hoax authors argue, then target a pay-to-publish journal – and you’re in print, even if you write transparent garbage, and even though your piece goes through peer review.

The authors contend that we live in an academic world where scholars do what they must to get published. The result, the authors argue, is entire disciplines filled with ideological propaganda of no intellectual worth.

Some responses to the hoax have been unhelpful. It does not further our cause to argue, for instance, that these male authors seek to prevent study of gender and have penis issues. Such responses do nothing but support the critics’ claims, being ad hominem, question-begging, and evasive with regard to the intended point.

However, there are serious defences to be mounted. One is that pay-to-publish journals are not very well-regarded, or at least not well-cited.

Secondly, bias is an unfortunate feature of academic life in general, and not confined to the humanities. Scientists, too, can be ideologically tainted. Nor are the sciences free of their own embarrassing academic hoaxes.

And it has nothing to do with the ease of getting published. It’s often no easier, perhaps harder, to get published in a humanities journal. Below the stratosphere (Nature, Science), acceptance rates are no higher and may even be lower in humanities journals than in equivalent science journals.

What went wrong?

Defences are necessary but not sufficient. Is there anything important that the hoaxes show, either in substance or in the traction they gain? How did we get into this acrimonious mess of academic discord and public mistrust?

I don’t know for sure, but here’s a hypothesis.

Academic disciplines were formerly much less numerous and less sharply distinguished. Explaining the way the world is, and theorising about how it should be, were done together, by the same people.

But new empirical methods – accompanied by a new division of academic labour – proved extremely successful at explaining the natural world. The “moral sciences” were contrasted with the “natural sciences”, and the “fact/value distinction” arose. Scholars who did not use empirical methods were left with, on the one hand, purely conceptual questions, and, on the other, human topics.

So, I hypothesise, many of the humanities scholars styled themselves as experts in should rather than why. They were gripped by the idea that expertise requires an exclusive domain. Science appeared to be the expert in offering answers to why-questions in every domain. So humanities scholars stopped claiming to be experts in why, and styled themselves instead as critics and commentators – experts in should.

This is a caricature, of course. Still, I think it traces a recognisable outline.

In their ascendancy, the sciences lost something too. They lost their grip on should: they lost the critical stance that characterises humanities approaches, and binds them together more than any shared subject matter.

Humanities and sciences merge

The solution is for the sciences and humanities to come together.

The sciences need to rediscover the value of critical thought, without losing what is valuable about disciplined cooperation. The humanities can provide that in spades.

The humanities, for their part, need to reestablish themselves as investigations, with the goal of understanding the world. It’s time to reassert their role in answering why-questions, and not merely commenting on what the sciences claim to have “discovered” as “facts”.

The humanities must also acknowledge that they have no special domain of explanatory expertise – and see that that’s ok. Contemporary science is science of everything. But the humanities can offer much-needed explanations and understanding in the same domains as the sciences, with the sciences.

There are some exciting cases where such interaction is already happening. One is interdisciplinary palaeo-research. Another is work on evidence-basing of policy, medicine, and other interventions designed to make life better. Contemporary work on causal inference is another great opportunity for science-humanities collaboration.

The opportunities are out there. Taking advantage of them requires a mindset shift in both humanities and sciences, and perhaps also institutional structures. I’m not sure when the integrated Faculty of Science and Humanities will become the norm. But I believe it’s “when”, not “if”, and I suspect it’s sooner than we might think.