I just wrote a math journal article, and it only took me thirty seconds. Here it is: Scalars and Monge’s Conjecture. Pretty good, considering I can’t read any of it. I did it with the just-for-fun random mathematics journalizer, MathGen. You can write one too!
Okay, it’s idle fun that means nothing—except that the journal Advances in Pure Mathematics reportedly got Sokal-hoaxed with MathGen. The journal is reported to have accepted a random MathGen paper for publication, with just a few recommendations for improvement from the anonymous peer reviewer(s). The author replied to one of them,
4. The author believes the proofs given for the referenced propositions are entirely sufficient [they read, respectively, “This is obvious” and “This is clear”]. However, she respects the referee’s opinion and would consider adding a few additional details.
You’ll get a good laugh out of the rest of the article.
Meanwhile you might also take a moment to pause and wonder whether this kind of thing happens more often than we realize.The whole enterprise of academics rests on the competence and trustworthiness of its practitioners. Its pronouncements come with a heavy weight of authority, which the rest of us have to accept on the basis of trust.
Now, I’m confident that if the journal had actually published the paper, its error would have been exposed within hours. That’s possible in mathematics, but not in most research-based fields. Sokal-style hoaxes aside, I’m hardly the first to ask, do we really know what we think we know?
One of the great virtues of science is that its results can be checked and verified. That process really is effective for confirming the authority of scientific findings. There’s a caution to go along with that, though. Most people think that process goes on virtually all the time. Most of us are inclined—you might even say trained—to grant every journal article, or every media report of a new finding, the full authority that comes with a thoroughly tested result. Is that trust deserved?
This MathGen incident is silly and inconsequential, something to get a good laugh from and move on—except that it exposes once again the weak underbelly of scientific authority. Caveat lector, caveat emptor.