Is theology baloney? Reflections on the latest Sokal-styled hoax
I an indebted to Ray Ingles for making me aware of this blog post which chronicles a clever Belgian philosopher’s appropriation of Alan Sokal’s modus operandi. (Sokal, you may recall, was a scientist who famously submitted a nonsensical article to the postmodern journal “Social Text” which passed peer review. He did so as a way of exposing the postmodern discourse that regularly went on in the journal as baloney.) In this case, however, the conference was put on by the “Association for Reformational Philosophy” which, as best I can see, seems to be associated broadly with continental and specifically Dutch Reformed philosophy.
This is a perfect illustration of why I wrote the essay “Theology as a Bull Session” (Analytic Theology, eds. Michael Rea and Oliver Crisp, Oxford University Press, 2010), 70-84.) It would probably be poor form to say I am gratified to see this confirmation of my claim that much contemporary theological (and continental philosophical) discussion suffers from inadequate controls to identify and prevent bullshit (where “bullshit” is defined in the technical, philosophical sense for which see my discussion here). Instead, my reaction is more a sober “I told you so”, like the structural engineer who, after having warned for years that the levees wouldn’t hold, is now witnessing the first breach.
Suffice it to say, any theological or philosophical conference that observes the rigorous standards of analytic philosophical expression would never allow such a baloney proposal to pass muster. Perhaps we need more folks like Maarten Boudry (the philosopher behind this hoax) who can test the peer-review standards of theology and philosophy journals and conferences (especially those under an obscurantist continental influence) to submit nonsense proposals and papers to see which slip through and get confirmed for presentation or publication. This may be ultimately the most effective way to point out the shoddy standards of some academic discourse.
As a final word, let me stress that we need to be careful that we do not draw wholly unjustified conclusions from an exercise such as this. Consider an analogy. Imagine that you want to test the cleaning staff at a hotel to see whether they change the bed sheets every day, so you leave a mark on a bed sheet in invisible ink. That evening you return to the room, pull out your black light, and confirm that the bed sheet was not changed. You would now be wholly justified in concluding that the cleaning staff had not changed the bed sheet. But it would be unjustified to conclude that they never change any bed sheets or do any cleaning.
Likewise, the fact that a nonsense abstract gets accepted into a theology or philosophy conference with dozens of papers does not warrant one to conclude “See? It’s all baloney!” Rather, it would only warrant one to conclude that the peer-review processes for this conference were inadequate to ferret out nonsense.