SIO44: Debunking the ‘Conceptual Penis’ Stunt with Eli Bosnick

An embarrassingly unskeptical article appeared in Skeptic Magazine recently featuring a hoax paper published in a Gender Studies journal  by two authors: James Lindsay (past guest of the show) and Peter Boghossian.  Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, and several major figures in the skeptic movement like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins took the conclusion that Gender Studies as a field has been demolished by this hoax. This is incredibly irresponsible. The hoax paper accomplished no such thing, and Eli is here to explain in depth why.


Skeptic Magazine Article

Other sokal hoaxes:

  • A US nuclear physics conference accepted a paper written entirely in autocomplete.
  • A trio of MIT grad students created an algorithm that creates fake scientific papers – in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing found 120 published papers had been generated by the program.
  • A paper entitled “Get me off your fucking mailing list” was accepted for publication by computer science journal.
  • A 2013 hoax saw a scientific paper about fictional lichen published in several hundred journals.

Cogent OA FAQ

Lichen Paper published in 45% of DOAJ publishers

Gender Studies Journal Rankings

Excellent Debunk by Bleedingheartlibertarians

Other Excellent Debunk, with Source for Sokal Quote


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34 Replies to “SIO44: Debunking the ‘Conceptual Penis’ Stunt with Eli Bosnick”

  1. You forgot to define “Gender Studies.” There are those of us so pre-modern that we don’t even know what that is, or what it’s supposed to be.

  2. “You seem confused. Nobody is saying that the field is useless because it published this paper. We’re saying that it published this paper because it is useless.”–from the skeptic article. You’re entire podcast is arguing against a straw man.

  3. Made the mistake of commenting before I got to the part of the episode I was anticipating most: Eli’s self righteous rant.

    Eli comes on the show every once in a while and gasses Thomas up on something he’s mad about.

  4. Lol, there’s plenty of evidence that Gender Studies, formerly (pre-1995) Women’s Studies (basically radfem-in-academe), is bunk, not all of it anecdotal. First off, the anecdotes are of the untrue-for-me variety, which is quite a bit more powerful than the true-for-me ones. And @RealPeerReview and their predecessor on Twitter show the field is full of anecdotal “studies” based on that ideology, which is extra-academic and Marx-based. And Marxism was of course falsfied in 1922 (Mises), which means its existence in academe (as Critical Theory) is a scandal. Furthermore, insisting on using the NHST in place of science invalidates every field that uses it, with the exception of pharma which tempers it with real science when possible.

    Yes, the Lindsay/Boghossian hoax proves little on its own. But had it been earnest, it would have been a single instance of a long line of similar papers.

  5. “Jokes start with ‘knock, knock’ or ‘what do you get when you cross a….'”

    As much as I want to view Boghossian and Lindsay as a couple of merry pranksters poking fun at the stuffy old boys’ club that is the field of modern Gender Studies, as mentioned in the episode, they, along with Shermer and any number of individuals retweeting this as “a well-founded takedown of Gender Studies,” are doing so in a particular cultural climate and acting as de facto representatives of the “skeptic/atheist/whatever you want to call it” community.

    By “a particular cultural climate,” I mean both the ongoing, wholly vapid debate in which self-identified “rational” people assert that there are only two genders, because that’s what they learned in kindergarten (so it’s good enough for them!), and the larger real-world context of trans people being statistically more likely to be the victims of assault (physical and sexual), to experience homelessness, to engage in harmful substance use, and to both attempt and complete suicide, in no small part as a result of being ostracized by families and faith communities. In studies of trans youth, the best mitigator of these outcomes is often found to be acceptance and engagement in a group or community, especially communities that contain or are actively welcoming of LGBTQI individuals.

    Beyond that, we exist in a political environment in which there are no federal protections for trans individuals that cover right to work or rent property, which is to say, in many states, being discovered as a trans individual by one’s boss or landlord can mean being fired or evicted with no legal recourse. Worse still, Trump has issued an executive order which aims to allow businesses the option to refuse service on religious grounds, further eroding trans people’s ability to participate in day to day life with any sense of dignity and respect.

    To whatever extent there is a “skeptic/atheist/whatever” community, these are representatives of it, whether self-proclaimed (e.g., the editor of “Skeptic” magazine, or the author of “A Manual for Creating Atheists”) or not (e.g., tweeters, and the guy who thinks Disney Crows are progressive civil rights figures), making elaborate jokes undermining and dismissing the validity of a field of study that not only actively fuels social progress in demonstrable, targeted ways (e.g., advocates for women’s health, anti-discrimination, and human rights laws, etc.), but also validates and welcomes individuals who are, again, at astronomically heightened risk of being rejected by family and faith communities.

    I don’t believe that this is a malicious, willful attempt to make life less safe for trans individuals, or to make “skeptic/atheist/whatever” communities less welcoming, or even to deliberately disrespect the meaningful work produced by those studying gender and its wider socio-cultural and mental/physical health implications. That said, I think the people involved in this joke weren’t aware and/or didn’t appreciate that this is what they were doing.

    Jokes are funny. This was cruel.

  6. Don’t forget the old “A guy, a palm tree and a desert island walk into a bar” trope. Bob Mankoff came up with 192 cliché cartoon setups.

  7. That makes sense that “Gender Studies” would be the “Women’s Studies” of yore. Nowadays if you give a subject or a course a gender-specific title, you risk losing your junk.

  8. Hi Thomas!

    I haven’t had a chance to comment in a while even though I keep meaning to, but I just wanted to say that I’m really loving SIO. You always did a great job of providing a balanced view on topics but somehow it feels like you’ve stepped up your game and these episodes have been really fascinating. You and the research team have managed to provide some really high quality content.

    I loved this episode, I’m baffled that so many people are still trying to defend the “hoax”. I feel like all that’s happening here is that people hate gender studies and so they’re happy to support anything that attacks it. And of course Eli was, as always, an incredible guest!

    I did want to raise one pretty minor point though which you might be interested in. A lot of people criticising this “hoax” are doing so by comparing it to the Sokal hoax and presenting it in a way that suggests Sokal succeeded in ways that these authors failed. But the interesting point here is that the two “hoaxes” were pretty similar both in how they approached the topic and in how they failed (with Sokal’s saving grace being, as you guys discussed, his more nuanced and humble description of his piece).

    So near the beginning of the podcast (around 4:30) Eli says something to the effect of Sokal’s hoax being a ‘demonstration of the abuse of scientific language by postmodernists and proved it relatively well’. But there are some issues to be aware of here. For starters, Eli suggests that ‘Social Text’ is/was a relatively reputable journal and sure, it had a bit of a name, but it also only has an impact factor of 0.31 (and that’s for today, it’s been increasing over the years so was likely much lower when the hoax was done). So it’s significantly lower than the “Take me off your email list” computer science journal.

    But the bigger problem is that we have to ask why Sokal picked ‘Social Text’. It wasn’t the biggest postmodernist journal around, or most well-known, or anything like that. It was, however, notable for the fact that it explicitly did not have a peer-review process. The editors set it up as a highly experimental place where published articles were intended to be like a stream of consciousness rather than rigorously written articles. Now, whether we think that’s a good idea or not, the fact remains that getting an article published in a journal without peer review isn’t particularly difficult…

    However, it gets worse for Sokal. The journal without peer-review rejected his article. Or rather, due to the “hokey” nature of it (as the editors describe it) they reviewed it and asked for many clarifications and edits to be done to make it more coherent. Sokal refused and so they rejected it. Later, assuming good faith on the part of Sokal, they set up a special edition of the journal in order to encourage dialogue between postmodernists and scientists and suggested Sokal could resubmit to represent the side of the scientists. They again asked him to make edits, and upon failing, decided to publish it as-is since they viewed it as a representation of how scientists understood and interacted with postmodernist ideas so there was value in allowing him to express his knowledge however he liked.

    You can read about the whole series of events here (, but to me learning that Sokal’s paper failed peer-review in a fairly obscure journal that didn’t have peer-review suggests to me that his “hoax” didn’t really end up telling us anything about postmodernism either.

    Anyway, as always apologies for the long-winded comment, and keep pushing out this great content. All the best!

  9. I’m not sure it’s enough to write “we do not claim to have any evidence of our central thesis” in a comment at the bottom of an article.

  10. What was the actual point of this episode? There was no argument, and even less proof regarding the debunking of the paper. Eli’s argument wasn’t one, it was a breathless piece of self justifying confirmation bias.

    Any attempt to take Eli seriously was rendered pointless with the ‘argument’ that since both his parents have doctorates he is therefore familiar with the peer review process. This suggests a Trumpian level of self delusion. Rage and vitriol does not make an argument, it makes you look like a ignorant fool.

    Why do Thomas and Eli consider themselves to be skeptics? I have seen absolutely nothing that suggests that either of them are, and based on the evidence that I have seen they are nothing more than conformists.

  11. *I have no opinion about ‘Gender Studies’, and know virtually nothing about the field.

    I am not certain how the article in Skeptic would have been have published in a good journal too. It is nearly a rambling paper where their thesis is unclear, the methodology is flawed, and the coy foreword is seemingly unrelated, aside from a possibly bias conclusion that paper really doesn’t address in a meaningful way.

    They seem to make put forth their thesis at the end of their paper but for me what is most damning is the lack controls on the variables that they are testing. Is it the pay-to-publish journals that are at fault or the lack of gender studies rigor? We really cannot know from their paper.

    I would hope that Lindsay, as a mathematician, would give my statistics paper about the Honda Civic’s auto theft statistics a poor rating if I had presented only Honda Civics to known criminals. They presented a bad paper to a bad journal, that is all we know.

    “You seem confused. Nobody is saying that the field is useless because it published this paper. We’re saying that it published this paper because it is useless.” This is not from the article but a comment from a reader (as far as I can tell) and is unclear on its position. But again highlights the lack of focus by Boghossian and Lindsay on crafting a coherent and testable hypothesis.

    Useless paper is useless. Would have the journal published a paper by Feynman in conjunction to the faux paper? Would a equally nonsensical paper on cyclical poverty or quantum physics have been published? The Lancet published the Wakefield study.
    Pay-to-publish models seem to happily print whatever regardless of content. If they had published to a journal with an impact score of greater than zero this might be more convincing.

    I don’t think we can know much or they can suggest much from their one example that has its own problems. I think they overstep their evidence and make sweeping conclusions (especially on the field of gender studies) based upon their evidence, without citing any previous examples/studies in their conclusion.

  12. Kyle, you are defending a field of study from ridicule instead of determining that the field of study is true and ridicule would just bounce off of it. Like when Kent Hovind makes fun of evolution, it falls flat because evolution is true.

  13. Eli not Thomas disagree with you. Thay stated that.
    All they did was argued about “publishing this paper => gender studies is bunk”

  14. That is just as stupid a statement considering the journal that published the paper was pay to play. They couldn’t get a real journal to take it from the sounds of things, kind of making exact opposite point.

  15. Thanks for explaining that. I see what you mean, and I agree to some extent. Ultimately what Michael Shermer, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian think about Gender Studies is irrelevant to the validity of Gender Studies, and the fact that they’re embarrassing themselves as “skeptics” with this prank/article should speak for itself.

    I’m less concerned about protecting Gender Studies from criticism than I am about representatives of a community I’m a part of making that community seem less respectful and accepting of trans people.

  16. The “real” journal recommended this journal instead of just rejecting it outright. At least 4 people reviewed this nonsense and it still was published.

    The real problem is this study doesn’t sound too much different than other studies and it isn’t the only hoax out there. About a 100 studies site a study generated by the post modern generator as a legit source of info.

  17. Gender studies has nothing to do with transpeople. Transpeople exist and have real issues whether gender studies is true or not. To be honest if gender studies is complete bullshit then they do a diservice to the communities you are trying to protect.

  18. Hi Dan,

    It’s not true that the journal recommended Cogent and they didn’t peer review it. They deemed it too bad to even consider getting anyone in to review it and rejected it straight away.

    Then the PUBLISHER sent an automatic reply to the authors to advertise another journal. Basically they got spam in their email and interpreted it aa a recommendation from the journal.

    Here is the comment from NORMA:

    “International Journal for Masculinity Studies received a submission entitled ’The conceptual penis as a social construct’ in the manuscript system of our journal. After the routine technical check of the manuscript, the article was assigned to us, the editors. After having reviewed the text we rejected the article as unsuitable on the grounds that the content was incomprehensible. In short, it was nonsense. The reject message was sent to the authors on April 7. All submissions rejected in the editorial manager of Taylor & Francis are part of an auto-generated transfer system which suggests alternative venues for publication. In this case, Cogent Social Sciences was suggested. This is described as a multidisciplinary, open journal platform for the rapid dissemination of peer-reviewed research across all disciplines. It is an open access platform where you pay ’what you want’ for publishing your article. The article was published in Cogent Social Sciences on May 19. We were shocked to see the article online since we, without any doubt whatsoever, had rejected the article.

    Beyond the immoral bogus behaviour of the two authors, Lindsay and Boghossian, we are also seriously concerned about this orchestrated attack on Gender Studies in particular, and Social Sciences and Humanities in general. On investigating the activity of the authors, we note that they appear to regularly retweet quotations from authors and studies taken out of context, as if to discredit them. This behaviour says a lot about the authors but nothing about Gender Studies. We naturally condemn this behaviour, but we are also concerned about the quality control of ‘pay for publish’ platforms. This is probably the core issue which has been highlighted in this hoax scandal.

    Lucas Gottzen and Ulf Mellström, editors of Norma: International Journal for Masculinity Studies”

    Basically the authors show us hard evidence that proves that it’s impossible to think that this hoax paper was similar to other gender studies papers. It got rejected by a journal with an impact factor of 0. If it resembled other papers in the field then why did a journal with the lowest possible standards in the field reject it?

  19. This is why I won’t listen anymore. Treating Eli like an expert just loses the crumbling credibility Thomas has been tossing away.

  20. Respectfully, Gender Studies has a lot to do with people identifying as transgender, as well as the ways in which society reacts to expressions of gender, the ways in which mental health professionals provide care, the ways in which legislation is passed and challenged, and in many ways, having theories and conceptualization of what gender is in multiple contexts can be personally helpful to individuals trying to figure themselves out.

    I’m not sure what you think Gender Studies is, but as far as I can tell, it’s the study of gender and the ways conceptualizations and expressions of gender interact with society.

  21. It seemed to me like the point was to discuss a thing that happened in the atheist/skeptic community, involved guests of the show, and about which there is a lot of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims.

    If you took what Eli said to be “I know about this, because my parents were professors,” I’d suggest relistening, because what I heard was “I’m not even that qualified to detect bullshit on this issue, but the problems are so glaringly obvious, even I could see them.”

    You honestly listened to a whole episode of these two taking apart an article that makes unsubstantiated claims, claims which many in the skeptic community seem to have accepted at face-value, and you see nothing to suggest they are capable of skepticism? Am I completely misunderstanding you?

  22. If all those so-called “anecdotal studies” are of the type that Lindsay himself cites, then it’s safe to say you’re not critically examining what someone on Twitter tells you.

    And if you’re going to disagree with Marxism, you’d do better to criticize Marx’s theory on history, which isn’t accepted by actual historians, instead of citing Ludwig von Mises. Mises is the archetypal non-scientific economist, to the extent that his work rejects the scientific method and any ideas of using empiricism in favor of his praxeology. You can’t debunk anything under that kind of ideology, the same that gave us Reaganomics and the Great Recession.

  23. No, the reason they published the paper was to prove that the field is useless. If you already know it’s useless then why conduct a test?

    The whole point of this hoax was prove that you can get gibberish published along as it is anti-male and therefore prove that field is shit. Which they failed to do sense only a pay to publish journal published there study.

  24. They should not have an automatic transfer system that does not allow for complete rejection of the paper. They should have to tick a box “transfer this to another journal” in order for the paper to be transfered. The fact they didn’t foresee that a bogus paper could be forwarded automatically is still a fault on their part.

  25. Any examples for your claims? All you’ve done is make vague assertions.

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