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Why ‘Grievance Studies’ hoax is significant, and why it isn’t

Posted by / November 6, 2018

The Grievance Studies have been making the rounds on both liberal and conservative media outlets, with predictable differences in interpretations. Before we dive into what we think the significance of the studies is––and more importantly, what it is isn’t––let’s talk background.

If you’d rather watch a two-hour podcast about it, you can watch Joe Rogan’s interview with the perpetrators of the hoax:

Here’s a short intro if you don’t want to watch the podcast (or if you don’t trust it, which you shouldn’t).

What is the “hoax”? 

Basically, three people submitted twenty articles to academic journals. All of these articles were fake––they contained no real research, statistical or otherwise. The articles were also within the fields of Gender and Sexuality Studies or Women and Gender Studies (though these go by different names at different universities). The articles were intentionally caricatures of articles that might appear in such journals, meaning they made arguments about so-called identity politics ad absurdum. For example, they took large swaths of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and replaced the word “Jews” with “white males,” added some theory, et voilà an article about “intersectional feminism” is born. Or they pretended to find a link between the way straight males raise dogs and “rape culture”––in that case, an award-winning article was born.

So of the twenty bogus articles that were submitted, seven were accepted and four were published.

What does it take to get an academic article published?

Publishing an academic article is very challenging. It takes a scholar anywhere from one year to several years to complete one good article, including research and writing. Once the article is in good shape, the author submits the article to an academic journal that publishes similar pieces. An editor reads the article to see if it fits with the kind of material the journal publishes.If not, it’s dead in the water. If so, she or he sends it to anonymous readers for evaluation. There are usually three readers who are experts in the relevant field, and they tell the editor that the piece is great and can be immediately published, that it needs work before publication, or that it likely can never be published.

It’s important to understand that readers are not assuming that articles are faked. The vast, vast, vast majority of scholars don’t fake data for the simple reason that most of them love what they do. Even if they were tempted being busted faking studies, outcomes, or anything is a career-ruiner. Put simply, few people would go through the trouble to fake articles and readers, as a result, wouldn’t expect it.

What were the hoaxers trying to do?

According to the hoaxers themselves, their goal was to expose flaws within the academy. They hoped that publishing ridiculous articles filled with jargon and fake data would prove that academics are so biased that they would simply approve anything that fit their ideological agenda. As a result, they were hoping to expose inherent political or ideological biases. That the fake articles actually got published confirms, for them, that “The Academy” has become a far-left echo chamber.

Did they accomplish what they set out to? 

According to urban legend, someone once asked Chinese official Zhou Enlai what he thought the effects of the French Revolution were. Although more than a century had passed, he replied, “Too soon to tell.” I’m invoking a similar answer here. I think it is too soon to tell if the “Grievance Studies” actually highlighted anything about the state of “The Academy.” That’s partly because academics themselves are still reacting, and the reactions are split. That’s also because the way “The Academy” looks today is not how it will look tomorrow, and I’m very hesitant to say what that change will look like. Most of the reactions to the hoax are too overblown and partisan to make much of now. The best opinion comes from the New York Times:

The problem is not that philosophers, historians or English professors are interested in, say, questions of how gender or racial identity or bias are expressed in culture or thought. Gender and racial identity are universally present and vitally important across all the areas that the humanities study and hence should be central concerns.

The problem, rather, is that scholars who study these questions have been driven into sub-specializations that are not always seen as integral to larger fields or to the humanities as a whole. Sometimes they have been driven there by departments that are reluctant to accept them; sometimes they have been driven there by their own conviction that they alone have the standing to investigate these topics.

In either case, because graduate students and junior faculty members in the humanities are expected to produce journal articles and citations much in the way graduate students and junior faculty members in the sciences are, and because they are discouraged by tenure committees and sometimes by their own ideological provincialism from thinking broadly and connecting their work to larger questions of universal relevance, there is an increasing incentive to publish in journals with narrow purviews that are read by correspondingly few scholars. The proliferation of journals that few people are invested in, along with the pressure to produce ever greater numbers of articles, leads to more work being published with fewer safeguards guaranteeing its quality.

Furthermore, hyper-specialization in the humanities means that the very people who should be thinking broadly about culture and ideas, and teaching students to encounter and engage with a variety of positions and opinions, are becoming accustomed to defining their interests in the narrowest possible terms. They read and exchange ideas in hermetic academic bubbles, in very much the same way that the public has increasingly tended to read and exchange ideas in hermetic news bubbles.

So perhaps the hoax has accomplished something, but not what its creators intended. Rather that point out bias or ideologues within “The Academy,” it also pointed out structural flaws. William Egginton’s NYT commentary is spot on, there. There’s one more thing that needs to be added though.

Why do you keep using scare quotes around The Academy? 

Phrases like capital-T “The Academy” and “Ivory Tower” impart the very false notion that academics are of one mind about, well, anything. They’re not. And one of the important things to consider is that academics differ on their own relationship with the political sphere. Hard-line historians, for example, believe that their work is purely documentary and objective. Other fields are more interested in direct political action. The Grievance Studies Hoax is a great reminder that there are a spectrum of opinions on politics and political ideologies within the academy. Targeting Gender Studies, as they did, in order to expose them as political should be shocking to precisely no one. The problem is one of perspective. The hoaxers think that the academy should be one thing, and their critics think otherwise. Here’s the good news: academics have a variety of opinions about this. The upshot, then, is that the hoax does not pull the mask of some hidden liberal agenda. Instead, it reminds us that the academy still has––as it almost always has––diverse opinions about political engagement. In other words, there’s nothing new under the sun.


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