Dr. Peter Boghossian and James A. Lindsey, two well-respected academics, collaborated to create a purposefully nonsensical paper titled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” to critique what they call morally fashionable bias. They made it ridiculous on purpose and cited fake sources from made up publications. And yet it was published.
The peer review process is equal parts vital to the continued health and progress of modern society, and deeply flawed.
We’ve devoted significant attention to its strengths, most notably in our multi-part series Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Peer Review (and probably more). And we are not above pointing out its weaknesses like we did when a paper written using iPhone autocomplete was published and its “author” was invited to speak at a hoity-toity conference.
But this . . . we’ve never seen anything like this.
Boghossian and Lindsay share the full story of their experiment and its takeaways on Skeptic.com.
It’s difficult to overstate how absurd a paper this actually is. The original publisher has since pulled it down, but fortunately they summarize some of its most hilarious passages in their explanation. They’re just too good not to share.
It begins with this opening sentence:
The androcentric scientific and meta-scientific evidence that the penis is the male reproductive organ is considered overwhelming and largely uncontroversial.
And then gets better:
Manspreading—a complaint levied against men for sitting with their legs spread wide—is akin to raping the empty space around him.
And just when you think peak absurdity has been reached . . .
Toxic hypermasculinity derives its significance directly from the conceptual penis and applies itself to supporting neocapitalist materialism, which is a fundamental driver of climate change, especially in the rampant use of carbon-emitting fossil fuel technologies and careless domination of virgin natural environments.
It continues like that for more than 3,000 peer-reviewed words. The paper cites several fake references that the pair invented with the help of the Postmodern Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulkhak that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded. One of the cited researchers was “S. Q. Scameron” for goodness sake.
In the run up to publication, one of the reviewers even requested additional examples beyond the original 16 sources (five of which were fake), so the pair offered up even more fake citations which were enough to warrant publication in a journal called Cogent Social Sciences.
In reflection they write this:
The most potent among the human susceptibilities to corruption by fashionable nonsense is the temptation to uncritically endorse morally fashionable nonsense. That is, we assumed we could publish outright nonsense provided it looked the part and portrayed a moralizing attitude that comported with the editors’ moral convictions. Like any impostor, ours had to dress the part, though we made our disguise as ridiculous and caricatured as possible—not so much affixing an obviously fake mustache to mask its true identity as donning two of them as false eyebrows.
If the peer review process—our principal method for self-regulation—is so deeply flawed, should we be surprised that the American people elect one of academia’s loudest critics to the highest office in the land?
In an era when scientists feel they must take to the streets demanding respect, we have to be better than this.