A hoax that got out of hand


I was angry with Alan Sokal back in 1996. He missed the point, to say the least, and, subsequently, did a great job providing everyone who didn’t want to think with an easy piece of shorthand to gesture at when they wanted to dismiss entire schools of thought without engaging with them (see also: Dawkins, Richard re: religion, whose blistering insights about the Problem of Evil and the Teleological Argument have only been debated for ~1500 years or so before he was born; a spectacular case of getting everything right but missing the point completely).

And so, in the grand tradition of academia, I decided to get back at him. And how better than to get him at his own game? A hoax of my own. It would take time, planning, effort. It would require coordination with someone just unscrupulous enough to want to see a proud man taken down a peg. And we wouldn’t go after some podunk little journal with no readers and even less renown. No, we’d hit one of the big time journals, one of the unassailable, unimpeachable bastions of integrity that represent the industry as a whole. The kind that the lay people have heard of.

So, my friend and partner-in-crime Andy and I started cooking up a paper that, clearly, had to be bullshit. There was no way anyone could read it and think that we were serious, that we had found a correlation. We stacked on as much garbage as we could, putting in as many spurious claims as we could link, each trying to out do the other in a marathon session that involved many bottles of wine and many scratch pads, trying to come up with the most ridiculous theory possible. It would be the “Naked Came the Stranger” of science publications.

“Autistic Enterocolitis” was the name we settled on.

We then stapled together some photos of sad kids and their upset parents, cribbed together some sentences about MMR from other papers we found lying around Andy’s office, copied the index out of an old Vladivostok telephone directory, and sent it off.

For the first year, nothing. If you don’t know what waiting for peer review is like, it’s an agonizing period of hurry up and wait. You are scrutinized by an anonymous jackass whose main concerns are advancing their own careers and making sure that they’ve been cited enough times in the bibliography that they feel like a part of the intellectual community. You will be given this person’s lowest possible priority, your paper lost underneath some student work, the novel they started last year, a coffee ringed calendar with numerous other “important” events they are blowing off, and the three complimentary textbooks they’re considering reviewing for next semester. But, if you’re lucky, some intern will knock the stack over when they rush in with multiple vials of blood that they’ve mislabeled and are hoping (praying?) that there’s some test that can be performed to identify the people they belong to so that they don’t have to do 18 more draws from even more doners in order to complete the experiment, and your (now bloodstained) paper will end up on top when the student finishes picking everything up through tears and goes running down the hall, wondering why they thought they could ever do anything right. Then you get a glance through to check that their name is somewhere in there, and a few notes to make it look like they did something. (“Nice use of commas, too many semi-colons. One is enough per paper to make the author look like s/he knows English grammar. Could have written more about mathematical diabetes, but otherwise acceptable for publication”)

Imagine our surprise when, on 28 February 1998, The Lancet published  “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children”

We were flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. It worked! We jumped up and down like teenage girls who’d just been asked to prom, hands clasped, the pictures on the walls of Andy’s apartment shaking each time we landed. How could they have taken the bait? Vaccines cause autism, which presents itself as a bowel disease we invented whole cloth? Who’d believe that garbage? And a sample size of only 12, a third of whom hadn’t presented autistic symptoms? We’d done it. All the was left was to call Social Text and let them in on the joke. They deserved it, after all they’d been through. They could drop the story and we’d let is spread like wildfire. We figured we’d let it stew for a week or two, then announce that we’d fabricated the whole thing — just enough time for the praise and adulation to start rolling in, but not enough that people would start actually acting on it. We didn’t want people to get hurt, after all. I was just wishing I could be there when Alan got the news that he’d been punked back.

But then, a funny thing happened. Not funny “ha ha”. More, funny “sad clown is going to hang himself and is on his way to the store to buy rope, and slips on a banana peel and falls off a bridge to his death”.

Somehow, people believed us. People really believed us. The newspapers and the TV didn’t bother to read the paper, they just ran with it. Those sorts of people emerged. Granola people. “I’m a Christian and a Mother and I Vote” people. Survivalists. Christian Scientists. The people who think the fluoride in the water contains mind control drugs. And these people convinced other people. It spread like a virus, like one of Dawkins’ memes, through the populace. It was too late. We’d let it loose, and there was no way to get it back into the cage.

And then Andy got weird; he started believing it too. We had an angry phone call one night, and we haven’t spoken since. He now denies that he ever knew me. It hurt, losing a close friend like that. That was 17 years ago. But he has famous friend now. Jenny McCartney loves him. So does Charlie Sheen. Alicia Silverstone. Donald Trump. One of the Kennedy kids. What use would he have for me?

It spiraled and snowballed, growing worse and worse. More and more people got in on the hoax. Old diseases came back, and came back with a vengeance. Children were disfigured. Babies born with horrific defects. Corpses piled up, needlessly. The Lancet finally retracted the paper, but the djinn was out of the bottle, the monkey’s paw had already closed one of its sinister fingers. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I never wanted to cause the extinction of the human race. I just wanted to rib back someone who’d ribbed us.

Gotcha, Alan. Ha ha?

Intellectual Laziness

Something that has existed since, well, probably forever (even though this paragraph originally started ‘Something that’s become more and more of a problem…’, it’s almost certainly been an forever), is the problem of intellectual laziness.

If you’ve only glanced at a complicated topic, something that people have doctorates in, have written long books about, have done extensive research in, etc. etc., you probably don’t understand it very well, and any criticism you’re going to make of it is going to be rather surface level and will merely question a few of the basic assumptions made by the field of study, as though said baseis have never been questioned before.

For example:

  • Why do people think God exists when something would have had to make God, and also Evil exists?
  • Math has no use in the real world, so why am I bothering to learn this?
  • We should get the government out of things, because all those regulations do it make it harder for people.
  • That’s not art, it’s just a bunch of crap thrown on a canvas. My kid could do that.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of gibberish.
  • Postmodernism is just a bunch of really simple ideas dressed up in fancy terminology.
  • Science has been wrong before, so why should I trust it now?

I could go on, but you get the idea. It seems to go in three stages:

  1. A negative gut reaction to whatever is being presented.
  2. A refusal to actually engage with the material, which might provide evidence counter to the gut reaction.
  3. Repetitions of the same tired criticisms that everyone else makes, especially dismissal of anyone who cares enough to really be invested in “that crap”.

Odds are, if your criticisms can be found in the first two links of a google search for Anti-[whatever], and those aren’t from .edu sites, or are being shouted on YouTube by a man with an ill-chosen pseudonym, you haven’t engaged deeply enough.

(A parable: a fellow was writing a story about a leprechaun, and doing some research into the origins of the mythical figure — what they represented, why they endured as symbols of Irish culture and heritage, how their depictions had changed over time, how the stories told about them gave differing moral lessons. While out drinking one night, a friend of his, one of those folks prone to outbursts and moods, yelled “Your work is shit. You believe in nothing. Leprechaun’s don’t exist. I don’t need a degree in leprehuanology to know that!” Obviously, thought the fellow, but didn’t bother saying anything out loud, because you know how those types can be once they’re in their cups.)

A better method, albeit one that requires effort and opens one up to actual criticism, is Dennett’s “Steelmanning”. Described in his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, the Steelman is the opposite of a Strawman. You attempt to present the other person’s argument in the strongest terms possible, giving them the most charitable interpretations, making an actual case for them being correct, and demonstrating that you understand them completely. Then, and only then, do you begin any criticism.

Now this, of course, requires more than skimming the Wikipedia article on a given subject, and then making up what you think someone (some idiot?) might think about this (stupid) topic. Books are involved. Knowledge of the different schools of thought within a discipline. Replying to actual assertions, rather than the simply the existence of what you assume the thing is.

An short example contrasting the two:

“John Searle is stupid. His stupid Chinese Room doesn’t prove anything about learning or AI, because a person isn’t a computer. Some guy with a bunch of books wouldn’t be able to translate Chinese as well as a super computer, and therefore the other person would notice, and the Turing test would fail. What an idiot.”


“Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment, in which it is asserted that there is no difference between a computer interpreting commands and a person executing commands in a language they do not understand, is an interesting thought problem. The basic conclusion is that no artificial intelligence will be capable of contemplating itself, or understanding it’s own actions, just as the person manually executing the ‘program’ will not understand the language they are working in. There will be no ‘Strong AI’, to use Searle’s term. However, many objections have been raised to this analogy, and the one which I find the most compelling is that Searle’s conclusion (“Therefore there is no Strong AI”) does not follow from his premises. He assumes a dualism between Strong and Weak AI, and, because his experiment seems to demonstrate that there is not a Strong AI, he assumes it must be Weak. This does not follow. It merely proves that, in this particular instance, thought is not just computation. It does nothing to positively identify criteria for thought, nor to establish that computers are incapable of it. It does not prove that, simply because computational processes and their output can occur in the absence of a cognitive state, that thought is not occurring in this instance. Is there any way for Searle to prove to me that he himself is thinking, and not simply interpreting and executing external commands which his unconscious interior does not actually understand? Even more generally, is there a difference between the real thing and a perfect simulacrum? That is a question far too broad for discussion here. Needless to say, despite its numerous flaws, the Chinese Room is an interesting thought project that has entertained philosophers and AI researchers for years.”

As much as I might disagree with John Searle, and find many of his ideas based on incorrect premises, I would never call him a stupid person, or think that he should stop writing. It is chiefly because he is such an intelligent person that he is capable of producing such brilliant (if wrong) things as the Chinese Room. And I assume he’s writing in good faith, because he’s a doctor of philosophy at UC Berkeley.

Try it out next time you feel tempted to, say, claim that Islam is horrible because of the actions of a tiny minority of Wahhabists, or that Feminism is a cancerous political movement because of Andrea Dworkin rather than a multifaceted approach to cultural theory through which any number of subjects can be interpreted, or if you’re about to type “That’s Economics 101!” while not realizing that there is a 102, a 301, a 505, and other much more complicated classes that expand on and systematize the dumbed down and simplified explanations given in 101 classes so that students aren’t overwhelmed and can basic concepts (By analogy, they don’t cover friction when calculating motion in Physics 101. Does friction exist?).

Update: There will be further discussion of John Searle, rest assured.I have a lot more to say about Chinese Rooms, Limited INC., and, well… A lot. We’ll get there.