SIO45: James Lindsay, Co-Author of the ‘Conceptual Penis’ Hoax Paper

Last week you heard Eli Bosnick’s side of why the ‘Conceptual Penis’ hoax paper was disingenuous and unskeptical, and today I speak with one of the paper’s authors, James Lindsay. James has been a previous guest on the show; he’s been someone I have always admired for his intellectual rigor and willingness to back up what he believes and to have the tough conversations. For that much I really, really respect him coming on. But I can’t hide my opinion on this hoax. I think it was garbage and it was latched onto unskeptically by people who fancy themselves critical thinkers. I challenge James on the paper and we get to hear his side of it.

Today’s episode is actually 2 in 1, because after the conversation I reminded James to send me the links corroborating his arguments. When I received them, I was appalled that each description of the scholarly articles he sent was a lazy and ideologically motivated strawman. As such, I emailed him a heads up that I would be going in depth into his sources and describing exactly how he (or maybe Real Peer Review, if that was his source) is either intentionally or just ignorantly misunderstanding these abstracts. I’m incredibly disappointed at this dishonest or careless behavior. If you are going to waltz into a field that ISN’T your expertise and claim that the bulk of it is bunk, it is incumbent upon you to do the research and know what you’re talking about. For the sake of transparency, I will paste word for word the sources email James sent me:

“Hi Thomas,

In all the fuss, I can’t remember what I was supposed to send you, but I’ll give it a try.
Curing erectile dysfunction reinforces hegemonic masculinity: (we cited this paper in ours)
Fat men’s penises might not exist, social construction:
Male lactation can exist through social construction:
Pregnancy shouldn’t be associated with femininity:
Wikipedia shouldn’t demand sources because sexism:
STEM syllabi are sexist because focus on facts:
Feminists see themselves as activists to infect other fields of study with ideological biases, compare themselves favorably to viruses like HIV and ebola:
Meanwhile, almost 15000 kids a year are graduating from such programs:


Those are all the papers. In the later half of the episode I discuss the research I did on all of them and how atrocious James’s descriptions were.

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18 Replies to “SIO45: James Lindsay, Co-Author of the ‘Conceptual Penis’ Hoax Paper”

  1. Some good news SGU #620 includes discussion on this and surprise surprise they somehow share your view because maybe just maybe they DO RESEARCH.

  2. Yeah, just looking at those links, it’s pretty clear that Lindsay let his bias get in the way of basic reading comprehension.

    Like “Male lactation can exist through social construction” somehow obtained from “It argues that male lactation can be seen along a continuum, from the literal production of milk by a small number of mammals of the male sex, to male-identified parents and caregivers breastfeeding their children, to males’ role in shaping breastfeeding norms and practices.”

    I haven’t gone through all of them yet, nor have I even seen the podcast, but it’s astonishing the amount some of these people go to try and prove that wearing pink is inherent to the genes of humanity, going back to the time of cavemen, and if history* says otherwise, then history is wrong!

    *History saying otherwise:

    I mostly stopped following the whole online atheist community a few years back over these kinds of issues, but even then, it doesn’t surprise me Michael Shermer’s opposed to this kind of stuff. It didn’t surprise me to find out the NRA’s main lawyer for 17 years was a guy who murdered someone with a gun, either. Hey, I’m not making accusations, I’m just commenting here. But I don’t think I’d like to share a beer or a glass of wine with either such fellow.

  3. Before I even listen to the ep, wanna say that when I read the skeptic article (prior to listening to last episode), the phrases about payment seems a bit sus, and the line of “a mere $650 and it was published” or w/e basically screamed SCAAAAM. ANY SITE suggesting pay-what-you-want with a 650 minimum should be regarded with suspicion.

    I didn’t even finish the article, but their attempt to pre-spin the publishing into a larger story was quite transparent. Our digitized news cycle lets nonsense fall through the cracks. Seems like they were trying to shoot through some of their own nonsense, believing it to be a vital component necessary to the public conversation.

  4. Glad you called out the litmus defense. Also you suggested the logical next step in their experiment. Submitting to more and more reputable journals to find the questionable peer review threshold. I.e multiple data points.

    And if the issue is the article that Shermer wrote(?) with it’s preconception laden narrative, basically aiming the arrow, then this goes to what he said about twitter and social media deadlines. Perhaps the desire to publish an article is likewise compelling of brevity in action.

    People always talk about how our brains didn’t evolve to perceive our world in a wide range, the same is true for the transference of beliefs – our brain ain’t got the time or energy to investigate all propositions. Which is to say we defer to people we trust have done the vetting for us.

    A series of like minded public figures all linked up is like an established neural circuit – firing more easily along it’s length.

    There are bound to be misfiring’s. The structure is arranged to reduce net investigatory expenditure.

    It’s the allure of a story too good to be true, from a source generally reliable.

    The Skeptic article pre-spun the interpretation of the hoax, and this separation is cover for Lindsay, seemingly. If they spoke to Skeptic about their hoax and worked together on the image of it before the big reveal, it just feels too co-ordinated to be anything but deliberate.

    There’s my thoughts, gooood episode. After you go back to Trump, go back to atheism :c. Even just start an interview with “How did you become an athiest” for old times sakes.

  5. Ok, I’ve had myself a listen. It felt like he was keeping you from making points at times, but I was very glad to see you bring up that the paper itself mentions that it’s supposed to be about debunking Gender Studies as a field. Also liked the point about how, if he’s going to fall back on saying there were so many other papers debunking the field, that he should have written about them.

    It has been some time since I had to write a science paper, and that wasn’t at what anyone would call a high academic level, but isn’t there something a bit odd about adding a second variable to a situation after the testing has already started? I know this wasn’t an experiment, but Lindsay’s defense seemed to be that it became about the pay-to-publish thing after a journal actually rejected them. That seemed particularly problematic to me, as a point that wasn’t elaborated on. It felt more like a retroactive attempt to excuse the whole stunt.

    As far as the squirrels go, it seems to be talking about a species of squirrel that’s been introduced to the city of Los Angeles and lives actually in the city and around humans, and how the squirrels themselves are anthropomorphized or their actions interpreted by people. I think I’d have to read the accompanying paper to know for sure, though. I’d never heard of feminist geography before, and I’m sure plenty of people have a knee-jerk reaction to that term, but it seems to be part of cultural geography, where people examine spaces and environments through the lens of various new viewpoints and theories and such that have arisen. Just like the area of history has had people reexamine past events with economics or from a woman’s perspective, or with regards to the poor, it seems to be about looking at the specific ways geography interacts with women.

    So it uses the methods of feminist geography to look at that question of the squirrels that moved into L.A., I think. Not sure if that helps you any. Without having any kind of background in that sort of geography or the L.A. region, nor any paper to read all the way through, that’s the best I can do at understanding that one.

  6. Yeah you’re absolutely right about the squirrel paper, it was essentially a similar analysis to the “alligators teach kids hegemonic masculinity” paper, that Thomas accurately describes as the argument that we infer and project gendered, racial, etc, assumptions onto animals.

    The paper just basically says that the living conditions, location, and eating habits of different species of squirrel in the city lead to people talking about them in a number of anthropomorphic ways. And the argument is that analysing this kind of talk can help us learn more about how these assumptions and beliefs arise, and how they’re generated and applied to people.

    It’s actually a really interesting article. It reminded me of a book by Bronwen Dickey called “Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon” which argues that how we treat, view, and describe pitbulls in American culture shifted when they changed from being a family dog to one owned by poor minorities, and this shift mirrored the kinds of descriptors and beliefs we hold about those minorities. The author was interviewed on The Majority Report podcast a while ago and explained the premise really well.

  7. Since noone mentioned it yet I’d like to point out that James states many times that he chose the useless journal to publish in because “it seemed like a journal that publishes the kind of articles that you find on real peer review”. You should have pointed out how flawed this choice is, it’s kind of a rabbit hole of biases.
    You first have this idea that the minority of ridiculous opinions/papers somehow define an entire field of research.
    Then you find this troll twitter that misrepresents actual articles and panders to people with opinions like yours.
    Continuing forward you decide that you sure would like to call out these people because look how fake their science is!
    And finally you fall into all of your biases and look for a journal that does not represent the field in any way but it sure represents the strawman that you built and surprise surprise these kinds of journals are more often than not ran by cynical asshole scamsters.

    Their paper in essence is “How we built a strawman and allowed ourselves to believe he is a real boy, we then entered him into a private school for the low low price of 650$”

  8. A cogent comment from a reddit responder after listening to the podcast.
    “OK… so let me take one example here. Thomas says round about 52m that RealPeerReview only works off the abstract (though I don’t quite know where he’s getting this from, since I’ve seen them refer to the body of articles on a few occasions). He then claims that it is a ‘horrible straw man description’ to say that the paper says that fat men’s penises might not exist.
    Well, that is certainly true of the abstract, but here is the very claim mentioned in the body of the article (on p.990):
    The obsessive need to know others’ sex-gender identity unambiguously figures large in explaining the cultural threat of fat male embodiment. Beyond the simple association of fat embodiment with an appetitive gratification, long-connected to the feminine, fatness refashions flesh in a sort of phallic magic trick: the disappearance of the fat man’s penis suggests that it may not in fact exist.
    Thus, Thomas seems to be assuming they’re only working from the abstract, when we have evidence right in front of our eyes that they’re clearly not just working from the abstract. What’s probably going on is a miscommunication of some sort. I think Thomas really did believe he could just look at the abstract, and may well have received assurances (that turn out to be incorrect) to that effect.
    Nonetheless, you might want to say that there is some strawmanning of the paper going on. What people on this sub need to understand is that there is a tendency of ~ Studies people to use a kind of epoché in which they no longer draw a distinction between reality itself and representations of reality. Thus, the shorthand in such papers is that the representation are just treated as reality itself, and that way you don’t have to have clunky sentences all the way through. Thus, the above sentences are not really talking about fat men’s penises not existing, but rather should be understood with an implicit ‘According to the representations we looked at’ clause.
    Now, before we say ‘Ah, so they were strawmanning it…’, let’s proceed more cautiously. What, exactly, is the paper attempting to do? Is it put forward as revealing something about the nature of the representations of fat men found in a representative sample of culture? Or is it attempting to unpack the highly particular, cherry-picked representations of fat men the author decided to look at? These are quite different things.
    Think of it like this. I can analyse the crap out of Hamlet, to use a hammy example, and decide that the entire reason Fortinbras is in the play is to create a contrast to draw attention to Hamlet’s central, tragic flaw – his indecisiveness. But, in so doing, I haven’t revealed anything about, say, the culture of Elizabethan England. After all, I don’t know that Shakespeare knew that that was what he was doing, and thus I cannot draw any inferences about the way Shakespeare or his audience would have understood the play. I would need to do a lot more work.
    But this isn’t what happens in ~ Studies fields. They don’t believe that they’re just doing English Literature. IIRC, Thomas himself refers to postmodern Gender Studies as a ‘soft science’ in the podcast. Here’s the author concluding in that vein:
    What is at stake here is the destabilizing potential of fat male sex: either fat male sex is an aberration, a lie, a figment – or, just possibly, the current gender system itself is not capacious enough to provide fat male flesh a sexual space. The patterns of representations of fat male sexuality serve to alert us to the deep work of culture-making that such containment does, and – just possibly – may suggest a gap where change could occur.
    Here, literally the only scientific response is: ‘You haven’t revealed a God-damn thing about ‘the deep work of culture-making’. You’re not even close to meeting the evidential burden to make that claim. You’re massively deluded about the evidential strength of the considerations you’ve put forward, and the fact you don’t even appear to be aware of this epistemological chasm yawning in front of you is cringe-inducing.’
    That isn’t to say that the paper is not interesting as a form of literary criticism. Some people, usually fairly open-minded, creative people, like that sort of thing, and all power to them. But don’t expect anyone else to take it seriously qua sociological or cultural research. The products of this sort of criticism for criticism’s sake are contributions to culture; not analyses of culture. To do that properly, you’d need to whack out your Bourdieu and learn how to do some hardcore stats. You’d need to do some serious, motherfucking work!
    Thus, I think it is entirely valid to call attention to the literal content of what’s being said, and point out that it is, on its face, complete nonsense. What we’re looking at is a kind of literary criticism, and needs to be understood as such.
    Anyway, this comment is running away from me because I didn’t want to write a ‘hurr durr, gender studies is shit’ comment. That isn’t what I think. I just want to say that RPR and Lindsay really aren’t strawmanning this stuff because ~ Studies people are writing cheques they can’t cash as a matter of course. If people want to write criticism, they’re entirely free to do so. But if they want to pretend they’re doing some sort of social scientific analysis, it’s entirely valid to point out that the literal content of what they say is utter nonsense.”

  9. Sometimes, studying how humans project that kind of thing onto other animals, I’m reminded of Slartibartfast talking about mice running experiments on humans where the humans think they’re the ones experimenting on the mice.

  10. You hit the nail on the head, here. The way they found the zero-impact journal was by looking for where the “nonsense” papers were being accepted, and not once did the idea that this was a poor methodology for testing their hypothesis cross their minds. The fact they were rejected from it is simply hilarious, but rather than learn something they doubled down repeatedly.

  11. The guy seems obsessed with logical fallacies, but doesn’t apparently grasp begging the question.

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