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This Viral Study Was So Convincing It Fooled a Bunch of Academics (and Me)

Yes, I regret the error, but it's also not so simple

In May, I published an article on MEL about “fat bodybuilding.” As someone who regularly lifts weights, but has also struggled with my body image in comparison to more chiseled lifters, I really related to the topic. And so, I wanted to talk to other men who similarly felt that, despite their love of lifting, they’d never truly fit into the world of amateur bodybuilding.

The piece was inspired by a research paper entitled, “Who Are They to Judge? Overcoming Anthropometry Through Fat Bodybuilding.” It was written by Gulf Coast State College professor Richard Baldwin—himself, a former bodybuilder—for the journal Fat Studies, a reputable social science journal, published by the academic powerhouse Taylor & Francis. Baldwin argued that bodybuilding authorities should provide spaces for “fat-inclusive weightlifters.” Some of his suggestions were far-reaching, going as far as to suggest that the Olympics make a separate event for overweight people, called the “fattylympics.” But the overall premise of the paper—that stereotypical bodybuilders and weightlifters should be more welcoming to men with different body compositions—seemed reasonable enough (i.e., the concept of a “fat bodybuilder” was far from the most bizarre subculture I’ve investigated).

I wrote the piece in a conventional way, drawing on interviews with a bodybuilder who referred to himself as “fat” as well as former professional bodybuilder and MEL fitness contributor Oliver Lee Bateman. I also spent a couple of days trying to reach Baldwin, although he didn’t respond to any of my emails or phone calls. All in all, if I’m being honest, the post felt unremarkable.

But last week, it became not just remarkable, but infamous (in our site’s history at least), when I was informed that the academic paper the piece was based on was a hoax. In fact, the hoaxers had even gained Baldwin’s permission to use his credentials to submit the paper. (I was later told that Baldwin had received my emails, but agreed not to answer them for the sake of the hoax.) His paper was one of 20 that looked at everything from “dog-on-dog sexual assault” to the ethnography of men who frequent “breastaurants” like Hooters. They were submitted to established academic journals like Gender Studies, Queer Studies and Fat Studies, which specialize in fields that the hoaxers pejoratively dub “grievance studies,” or areas of academic enquiry they think are “particularly susceptible to nonsense” and where students are encouraged to adopt identity politics to purposefully marginalize themselves.

Writing in Areo Magazine, a publication largely focused on critique of “social justice warrior” culture, the hoaxers claim that university social science departments consist of “scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant,” and that “scholars [are] increasingly [bullying] their students, administrators and other departments into adhering to their worldview.”

In academia, the hoax invited divided opinions. In The Atlantic, Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk wrote that the stunt “doesn’t just expose the low standards of the journals that publish this kind of dreck. It also demonstrates the extent to which many of them are willing to license discrimination if it serves ostensibly progressive goals.” Meanwhile, writer and psychologist Steven Pinker tweeted:

Other academics, though, have criticized the hoaxers, arguing that they not only undermined the work of social scientists generally, but also breached ethical guidelines built around trust and good faith in the distribution of knowledge. To that end, Dutch psychologist Daniël Lakens pointed out that while the papers might seem mundane and irrelevant, they can often be useful for other academic research. And Slate’s Daniel Engber thought that rather than exposing “corruption” in universities, the hoax served “as a cover, in a way, for what appears to be the authors’ lurking inspiration: not their problems with the scholarship of grievance, but with that of gender.”

Helen Pluckrose, one of the hoaxers and the editor of Areo, tells me that the intention of the stunt wasn’t to target journalists like myself—though clearly publishing something based on falsified research put me in a precarious position; instead, she wanted to “expose ideologies that have gone unquestioned in academia,” ideologies that she argues haven been “taken on by journalists and policy makers in good faith.”

When I ask about “fat bodybuilders” she says that the main intention of the paper was to “challenge the conventions influenced by the fat acceptance movement—that an obese body is legitimate in the context of bodybuilding, when all scientific research shows that there are serious health implications that come with obesity.” While Pluckrose agrees that the article’s premise was reasonable enough to warrant investigating, she insists that the paper—and the wider hoax—was simply a means to “challenge the bad ideas that are forming at the places where knowledge is created.” She added in an article in the New Statesman: “These ideas are produced and legitimized in academia and given the status of knowledge via publication in peer-reviewed journals. This affords them power to influence education, activism, media, culture and policy.”

“These fields probably do contain a lot of bullshit,” says Tom Chivers, a London-based science journalist. “And probably more than most scientific fields. But [when those in the harder sciences] say, ‘Look at those silly grievance studies journals, scientists would never fill our journals with stupid stuff like that,’ we allow ourselves to pretend that there are bits of academia that are wrong and stupid, and that this one is somehow qualitatively different from the rest.”

Though Chivers believes that journalists have never been immune to academic hoaxes, he thinks they hold a different significance today, because of the “online culture wars” that are challenging the typically progressive views of media, entertainment and academia. “It’s still absolutely important to report on social science. But—and this is key—there’s good social science and bad social science. Distinguishing between the two isn’t always easy and requires a lot of acquired, hard-to-teach knowledge. And in the culture war space, there’s so much noisy bullshit flying around. Any studies into gender, race, sexuality, etc. will get picked up and/or shouted down by partisans, so you have to be extra careful navigating them.”

For their part, academics suggest that there’s a wider, more systemic problem with the work they publish—namely, the “peer review” process is broken. As Sam Wetherell, a history lecturer at the University of York explains, “I’ve assessed some weird papers before, which are often shitty and need some work. I almost always recommend revise and resubmit and be as constructive as possible because I don’t want to be a dick.” That’s not the norm, though: “Peer review is something that people often have pretty brutal experiences with, so there’s a move among the younger generation of postgraduates and lecturers to be as considerate and constructive as possible.”

This, of course, is how shit works its way into the academic plumbing. “Hoaxes can play at the edges of those insecurities,” Wetherell continues. “If you live at a time when your friends, who are wildly smart, are failing to get jobs because the market is historically bad, and you’re receiving a paper possibly written by a similarly precarious graduate student, your instinct isn’t to be like, ‘Don’t publish this is garbage.’”

Pluckrose’s hoax, though, doesn’t necessarily correct the problem, in some ways it might only create a larger one. “Contrary to what [the hoaxers] or the right-wing think, the humanities departments are the most marginalized on campus,” says Tom Whyman, a philosopher and a former part-time lecturer at the University of Essex. “Increasingly funding bodies want courses to have industry links, so it’s hard to get funding for departments that don’t have that. Incoming rules on most British universities also means that funding bodies are going to start allocating funding based on how employable graduates are, which is also bad news for a discipline that tends to attract committed anti-capitalists.”

So, did I fuck up? Well, I’m still here. But it did shake me. Which, honestly, is probably a good thing. Too often, journalists take what’s written in academic journals as chapter-and-verse and some sort of bellwether of who we are as a people and who we are as a society—mainly because it’s by someone who works at a university (no matter the university) and because it’s been published (no matter the journal).

Maybe that’s the hoax then?