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?