Are journal editors research subjects

One of my intellectual heroes is Alan Sokal. Sokal got a bit sick of the ‘fashionable nonsense’ coming out of Literature studies departments in the 90s and sought to expose them through a hoax. He wrote a paper which was called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” which argued, among other things, that gravity was just a social construct. 


Sokal submitted the article to a top literary journal where it was published. Three weeks later he revealed the hoax. 


In 2017, three authors conducted a similar hoax on what they believe is the fashionable nonsense of our time, namely ‘critical theory‘ scholarship. The recent hoax has been dubbed the ‘Sokal squared’ (due to the number of fake papers they had accepted) or the ‘grievance studies affair‘.


In both cases the issue of the ethics of deceiving a journal editor has been raised. However, unlike the Sokal case, in this case one of the hoaxers has actually faced censor from his university. Portland State university has censured professor Peter Boghossian over the affair and has banned him from carrying out research involving human subjects. 

But if journal editors are human subjects, then we are faced with a rather difficult problem. Between Sokal and the most recent hoax there have been a number of studies which looked into the issue of predatory publishing or publishers with low standards. Wikipedia actually has a page dedicated to “scholarly publishing stings“. It includes such things as a 2012 maths paper which was randomly generated.  This paper was intending to show the issues with predatory journals (I have written about these here). 


Another paper from 2007, by Thomas Witkowski’s attempted to show how poor quality articles on topics like NLP were being published in ostensibly high quality journals.  His fake paper was not only published but the editors loved it so much they even helped the author to expand on it

According to bioethics researchers then, are all these studies illegitimate? The original hoaxer, Sokal, disagrees and has argued that:

common sense suggests that something has gone seriously awry here, when rules initially written to protect subjects in biomedical research from physical harm — and later extended to social-science research, where the harm could be psychological — are applied blindly and literally to an “audit study” aimed at testing the intellectual standards of scholarly journals. 

You may not have sympathy for grievance studies hoaxers or even for Sokal but decisions like these can have unseen consequences. 

If it is wrong to hoax journal editors to expose pseudoscience or other nonsense, because it is unethically doing research on human subjects, is it also wrong, for example to send, as Ross Thornburn recently did, fake CVs to job companies in order to expose discriminatory hiring practices. In an excellent study, Ross shows that if you are white and trying to get a job in Asia, you have around a 64% higher chance of getting employed than if you are black.  

Thornburn didn’t, to my knowledge, have ethical approval to carry out this research. And he is not the first to have carried out research of this kind. Should we see all such research of this kind as misleading potentially vulnerable ‘research subjects’, or is there an argument that the good this kind of research can do outweighs the possible risks? 

Fantastic Dr. Fox

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation tex2html_wrap_inline1393 under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the tex2html_wrap_inline1395 of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone

What you just read is complete and utter unadulterated nonsense.

But it’s important nonsense.
 

Gobbledgook

The quote is from a published paper called “transgressing the boundaries” by a physics professor at New York University called Alan Sokal. Sokal had a theory that much of what was published in literature journals at the time as post-modernism was nothing more than meaningless pseudo-babble and he decided to test that theory. The essay was submitted to the journal “social text” and was published. Later Sokal admitted that the whole thing was a parody. This became known as the Sokal affair. The fact that what was essentially meaningless rubbish was published in a prestigious journal is the central theme of this post.
So ask yourself this question; would you be able to see through complex sounding hogwash if you saw it?
The answer is most likely “no”.
As Ben Goldacre notes here, the use of complex terms and irrelevant but scientific sounding information tends to make it harder for non-experts to spot poppycock. This is a worrying finding for the field of TEFL in which teachers with very little training may have trouble distinguishing legitimate but complex descriptions of linguistic and mental phenomena (inverted pseudo-cleft sentences, lexical priming and voiced alveolar fricatives) from equally impressive sounding balderdash.
 
Jargon can often mislead people and  “blinding with science” really is a thing. In the same way that putting on a white coat, a suit or a uniform gives someone an air of authority, big words and fancy terms can cow critics and help to convince others of the legitimacy of an idea. So can “dressing up” daft ideas in TEFL help to give them more credibility?  Here’s a quote from the Neuro-linguistic programing TEFL representatives Revell and Norman:
 


The Meta Model in NLP defines and challenges linguistic imprecision. It consists of a list of different kinds of distortions, deletions and generalisations (often called Meta Model violations) and a parallel list of suggestions for challenging them (= Challenges) The Meta Model is too large to be described here in its entirety…but we can start with prt of it known as the precision model. (English teaching professional)

 
NLP writers are not the only ones guilty of this. Swan in a piece criticising the directions of EFL, notes that at IATEFL the array of complex sounding presentations is a worrying phenomena which might be discouraging for new teachers and notes here that the balance between language teaching and those things which are peripheral to it seems somewhat off. In another article he charts the rise of this kind of terminology, which he describes as “impenetrable”, during his days as a young teacher and adds that after grappling with these ideas he came to the conclusion that “If I couldn’t understand a professional book, perhaps it wasn’t my fault after all.” 


 

Dr Fox



And it’s not just laypeople who can be fooled. In the 1970s an actor was paid to pretend to be an academic; the impressive sounding Dr. Fox. He gave a completely meaningless lecture on the made-up subject of “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education” to a group of psychologists, therapists and educators. He practised the speech the night before and despite this, comes across as sounding very authoritative and crammed his speech full of intellectual sounding nonsense. The experiment was carried out three times and each time he was rated as being stimulating and those in the audience felt that they had learnt something from the lecture. I think that this is a cautionary piece of research for those of us in the TEFL world especially when watching conference speeches
 
 

Pluralistic ignorance.



One more factor which might stop you pointing out how awfully nude the king looks is pluralistic ignorance. Basically this is the situation whereby everyone secretly knows something is fishy, but they think everyone else is a believer and so are reluctant to stick their neck out and be the one to invite derision. Last year I was going to give a short presentation skeptically tackling reading skills and learning styles at a small EAP conference in the East Midlands. I ended up getting cold feet the day before and backing out. I had a horrible feeling that the room would fill with an embarrassed silence, my peers whispering “how did this guy ever get a job teaching EAP!?” I do regret that now because as the people who follow this website have shown me, I’m not the only one who thinks there are some dodgy ideas floating around out there.

I think we need to be less afraid to criticise sacred cows, common sense and received wisdom of EFL and education in general, it’s very healthy for the industry as a whole. Science uses complex terminology because it talks about very complex ideas. Calling a negative thought a “meta model violation” doesn’t, to my mind, move us any further forward and is just so much cargo cult science. We have no reason to try to outdo scientists or throw around impressive sounding words, -as English language teachers surely we should be skilled at, and proud of making things as accessible as possible. We need to be on guard against this kind of language, as “Tom” at Englishdroid writes:


superficially impressive jargon, when it’s not obscuring the bloody obvious is all too often obscuring the bloody ridiculous or at best highly questionable. Against such a background, is it any wonder that so many dangerously irrational and anti-scientific ideas flourish