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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Hacking academia

Mike Murray, head of intelligence for the security firm Lookout, tells a briefing at the US Capitol on Oct. 4 that hackers seeking to disrupt the US elections may install malware on mobile phones of candidates, journalists, donors, and activists.
Mike Murray, head of intelligence for the security firm Lookout, tells a briefing at the US Capitol on Oct. 4 that hackers seeking to disrupt the US elections may install malware on mobile phones of candidates, journalists, donors, and activists. (ROB LEVER/AFP/Getty Images)

Rosa Klebb is back — as a hacker. In April, the heirs of 007’s nemesis attempted to hack the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, after the OPCW had exposed Moscow’s use of chemical weapons in an attempted assassination.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have been slipping tiny microchips into the motherboards of servers used by the Pentagon, the CIA, and the US Navy — not to mention Apple and dozens of other companies.

In other news, Facebook announced last week that it had suffered yet another massive hack, compromising the accounts of at least 50 million users. In this case, the attackers have yet to be identified.

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Yes, my fellow netizens (or “data cows,” as you are known to the folks who milk you for your personal information, contacts list, and browsing history): Cyberwar is here and we are all under attack, even if most of us don’t yet know it.

Yet none of the above was the biggest hack revealed last week. Raise a glass to my new heroes, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay, and Peter Boghossian.

In an article published on Tuesday, “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship,” the trio revealed that they had pulled off one of the greatest hoaxes in the history of academia. In the space of just 10 months, they dashed off 20 spoof articles and submitted them to established journals in the fields of cultural studies, identity studies, and critical theory.

As Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian say, their papers were all “outlandish or intentionally broken in significant ways.” Each contained “some little bit of lunacy or depravity.” The hack was devastating in its success. No fewer than seven of their articles were accepted for publication, and four were actually published before the hoaxers were rumbled (by the excellent Twitter account Real Peer Review and The Wall Street Journal).

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It’s hard to choose a favorite. But let’s start with “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon,” published under the fake name Helen Wilson in Gender, Place & Culture, “a journal of feminist geography” owned by Taylor & Francis, an illustrious British brand. The abstract gives a flavor of the authors’ genius:

“This article addresses questions in . . . the geographies of sexuality by drawing upon one year of embedded in situ observations of dogs and their human companions at three public dog parks in Portland, Oregon. The purpose of this research is to uncover emerging themes in human and canine interactive behavioral patterns in urban dog parks to better understand human a-/moral decision-making in public spaces and uncover bias and emergent assumptions around gender, race, and sexuality.”

“Dr. Wilson” posed three questions, each of them ludicrous:

• How do human companions manage, contribute, and respond to violence in dogs?

• What issues surround queer performativity and human reaction to homosexual sex between and among dogs?

• Do dogs suffer oppression based upon (perceived) gender?

The stated goal of the article was to “suggest practical applications that disrupts [sic] hegemonic masculinities.” But the real authors’ implicit proposal was “to train men like we do dogs — to prevent rape culture.” This drivel was praised to the skies by the academic peer reviewers who read it (“a wonderful paper — incredibly innovative, rich in analysis, and extremely well-written”) and recognized by the editors as one of the 12 best articles in their journal’s 25-year history.

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Another article, published in Fat Studies (“an Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society,” also a Taylor & Francis title), was “Who are they to judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding.” This Swiftian piece proposed “a new classification within bodybuilding, termed fat bodybuilding, as a fat-inclusive politicized performance and a new culture to be embedded within bodybuilding.”

Avid readers of Sex Roles (a Springer journal) were treated to “An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant.” (The restaurant in question was Hooters.)

Note that Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian are not professional pranksters. Pluckrose is a scholar of English literature. Lindsay is mathematician. Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University. Nor are they conservatives: They are self-proclaimed “left-leaning liberals,” which makes their exposé of the whole field of what they call “grievance studies” all the more damning.

The hoax articles are, of course, very funny. Even less funny are the non-phony articles published alongside them. Even less funny than that are the university affiliations of the editors of these journals.

Yes, cyberwarfare is scary. The enemies of what Karl Popper called “the open society” are hard at work, and the Internet has made their task easier. But I have long believed that our most dangerous enemies are within. Ideologically opposed to the principles of science itself, the monstrous regiment of grievance studies has established bases in nearly all the universities of the Western world, not merely tolerated by administrators, but enthusiastically funded by governments, foundations, and credulous donors. Now that’s what I call a hack.

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The friends of the closed society are also hard at work. The rubbish they publish is the counterpart of the rubbish they teach, and the people they teach then graduate with rubbish degrees and live among us. You could see some of them in Washington last week, carrying signs saying “We Believe All Survivors” and “Respect Female Existence or Expect Our Resistance,” and making believe they were the heirs of Rosa Parks — as opposed to unwitting allies of the other Rosa’s hacker heirs.


Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.