Politics, Social Science

“It Has Come to My Attention…”  How Institutional Complaints Procedures are Being Weaponized

In 2005 Charles Murray published a paper entitled ‘How to Accuse the Other Guy of Lying with Statistics’. It summarised methods that social scientists in the USA use to discredit academics whose findings are inconvenient for progressive ideology. Smoke-making, goal post-shifting, nit-picking, the Big Lie – Dr Murray’s paper is stuffed with useful tactics. And judging from their attacks on me over the last couple of years, the left-wing of the UK’s social science community have given it a careful read. Foremost amongst them is Jonathan Portes, whose latest broadside appeared recently in the venerable leftist magazine, the New Statesman

My cardinal sin was to publish a book three years ago called The Welfare Trait that summarised data linking personality and welfare dependency. Positing such links is blasphemy to those on the left who believe that life outcomes are solely influenced by structural rather than individual factors. And so my discrediting began. In public it took the form of webpages dedicated to detailing my thought-crimes, abusive messages on social media and articles in the left-wing press, such as Mr Portes’s New Statesman piece.

But the public campaign against me is fluff compared to the tactics deployed in private. The self-appointed guardians of permitted thought are always on the lookout for better ways to silence dissenting scientists and in institutional complaints procedures, they have found one. This tactic might seem boring, but it’s a more powerful and lasting type of harassment than a public attack because it hijacks the power of institutional processes to hit you in your bank account and your CV.

Perhaps the highest-profile target of this tactic is Sir Simon Wessely, once a leading researcher of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). A less deserving target it would be hard to imagine: Sir Simon is a wonderful man who has devoted his life to healing others (and was my head of department for several years which is almost as saintly). Nevertheless, the campaign against him was so vicious that in 2001 he decided to stop studying CFS. Not that this stopped the complaints, as he explained to the Times in 2011:

If I’m giving a scientific conference they will write to people who are sharing a platform with me to tell them how terrible I am. Or they will send e-mail circulars to my university. You can see on their website that they know the most remarkable details of my personal life. They know most of my diary, I don’t know how but they do. They use — abuse — the Freedom of Information Act. They make frequent complaints to my principal, to my Dean, to regulatory bodies, to ethics committees, to misconduct committees. I mean it’s just a constant litany.

A more recent case involved Dr Andrew Dunn, who was Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Lincoln. He blasphemed in 2014 by publishing data showing that unemployed people on average have weaker work-motivation than employed people. He was then subjected to a campaign of complaints and was fired last year.

So in case anyone reading this is thinking about publishing data that challenges progressive orthodoxy, here is a summary of what to expect. Your adversary will begin by sending a poison pen letter disguised as a formal complaint to your employer/publisher. They will use what is known in rhetorical jargon as a loaded question. Something like:

It has come to my attention that you employ/publish Dr Perkins who is well known for holding unacceptable opinions about XYZ (cites anonymous websites, hatchet jobs by left-wing newspapers, etc.). I am concerned that Dr Perkins’s views on XYZ will affect the way in which he treats students/the honesty of his data analyses. Please could you let me know what steps the university/publisher is taking to safeguard students from Dr Perkins/check the integrity of Dr Perkins’s work?

Your harasser will ask the institution to conceal their name from you because he, she or ze will typically be someone with whom you have already clashed publicly. Anonymity will prevent you from nipping their complaint in the bud by pointing out their conflict of interest. The complainant is then free to masquerade as a neutral, disinterested observer, rather than someone who is using the complaints procedure as a weapon in their vendetta against you. Moreover, if the institution doesn’t realise that the complainant has a vested interest in harming your career, and they take the complaint at face value and end up firing you or retracting one of your publications, your harasser’s anonymity ensures their name is not connected to your firing/retraction. This allows them to then crow publicly about your firing/retraction, citing it as independent confirmation of their negative opinion of you.

If your harasser follows these rules their complaint letter is likely to result in you being hauled over the institutional coals like the egghead equivalent of a Cathar heretic. But the clever thing about this tactic is that the complaint doesn’t have to cause a firing/retraction to harm you because even if the administrators eventually reject the complaint, the investigation will by then have eaten up so much of their time, and caused them so much unnecessary work, that they cannot help becoming fed up with you.

Claims of politically-motivated harassment might appear paranoid, but I have worked at King’s College London since 2007 and until my book was published in 2015 there were no complaints about me. However, since my book came out, there have been five separate complaints alleging, for example, that I possess “a small narrow mind” or have “contempt” for working class people. The unfortunate truth is that scientists like me are permitted to toil away in peace, provided our findings are restricted to obscure journals. But the moment we publicly blaspheme we are targeted by the Witchfinder Generals of the academy. Which brings us back to Mr Portes: one complaint involved a 2013 paper of mine in Personality and Individual Differences that provided evidence of links between personality, employability and reproduction.

Every study has limitations so researchers often attack each other’s work in the rough and tumble idea-refinement process that we call science. I welcome my work being challenged as part of that process, but it needs to be in the open, otherwise observers are unable to weigh up the evidence of the opposing camps and decide for themselves which to favour. They also cannot take into account any ulterior motives your assailant may have.

The attack on my 2013 paper was different because it failed to present counter-evidence (i.e., that personality, employability and reproduction are unconnected) and instead used some typos in the paper as a Trojan horse to attack matters of statistical opinion as if they were factual errors (smoke-making in Charles Murray’s parlance). It also departed from the scientific norm because it took the form of a secret letter to the publisher and went for the metaphorical jugular by calling for the retraction of that paper rather than merely challenging its argument: “I think it is important to be absolutely clear about how glaring an error this is; on its own, it is as solid a justification for retracting a paper as could possibly be imagined”.

Luckily for me, Elsevier is a conscientious publisher with expert statistical advice at its disposal and so did not rush to retract my paper: rather, it patiently evaluated the complainant’s statistical opinions, which amounted to thousands of words. Unfortunately for the complainant, neither the eloquence or sheer scale of their missive could compensate for its lack of scientific substance. After careful deliberation, Elsevier published a corrigendum that fixed the typos and rebutted the complainant’s statistical reasoning (you can read the corrigendum here). Moreover, the complainant’s obsessive determination to cause a retraction backfired because its raised concerns that they were not a neutral observer, but a pre-existing adversary of mine. As the complainant’s retraction campaign intensified, Elsevier’s concerns increased and they revealed the complainant’s identity to me: surprise, surprise, it was Jonathan Portes.

I have never met Mr Portes even though he’s a colleague of mine at KCL and only became aware of him when he began critiquing my book despite, by his own admission, not having read it. But at least our previous exchanges were in public and so allowed neutral observers to weigh up both sides of the argument. I was therefore surprised that Mr Portes decided to spurn the healthy scrutiny of public debate in favour of secretly trying to censor the scientific record by causing the retraction of my 2013 paper. This act also seemed to show a lack of insight because science is like humour: none of us are special enough to decide which topics should be off limits. Not me, not you and definitely not Mr Portes.

Those of you who have read his New Statesman article may notice that Mr Portes cites the corrigendum as evidence that he was right all along, as if it’s independent confirmation of his attacks on me. But you will also notice that Mr Portes kept quiet about his own involvement, as well as concealing from Elsevier that he had a pre-existing beef with me while he was secretly lobbying them for my paper’s retraction. Failure to declare a conflict of interest to a publisher is unorthodox, to say the least, but I hope Mr Portes doesn’t lose his job over this issue as I have a lot to be grateful to him for. Prior to his campaign, The Welfare Trait was little known, so if we bump into each other in the King’s College canteen, I’d be delighted to buy him lunch as a token of appreciation for helping me call attention to the issue of perverse welfare incentives warping the personality profile of the population


Adam Perkins is a Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at Kings College London and is the author of the book The Welfare Trait: how state benefits affect personality. Follow him on Twitter @AdamPerkinsPhD.

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  1. ga gamba says

    To me Mr Portes really over-eggs the complaint of the seven errors. Whether they were printing typos or due to researcher sloppiness, anyone possessing basic numeracy skills, which would certainly include those reading the study, would know that 0.031 is 3.1% and not 31%. A simple letter to the publisher mentioning these would have been sufficient enough to obtain the needed correction.

    The business management writer Tom Peters wrote that in an aeroplane dirty fold-down trays may imply to the passenger shoddy engine maintenance. Yet, upon seeing a dirty tray how many of us would demand the airline perform checks on the critical systems such as the engines, airframe, and avionics before take off?

    Inattention to details, whether by the researchers or typesetter, gave credence to Portes’s complaint resulting in the engine being thoroughly examined and found sound, metaphorically speaking. Nonetheless, having been “vindicated” Portes is able to persist with his attack on shoddy aeroplane maintenance whilst failing to make the distinction it was untidy trays and not mechanically unsound engines.

    Here we have the bizarre situation of Portes using the truth of misplaced or missing decimal points to perpetrate a greater deception – honest dishonesty, what appears to be sly duplicity. Increasingly I find journalists, academics, and activists resorting to such a stratagem to attack research they find discomfiting to their ideology.

    In the academic setting the common forms of dishonesty are plagiarism, fabrication, deception, cheating, and sabotage. Clearly Dr Perkins didn’t commit any of these. It seems to me Portes is committing both deception and sabotage by making a mountain out of a molehill.

    A lesson to be learnt is don’t dot your t’s and cross your i’s.

  2. A Berman says

    Yes, I recommend everyone click through to read the Corrigendum. The errors are laughably trivial. I’m not sure what’s happening in academia these days, but the professors I knew in graduate school had way too much pride and honor to go after a fellow academic with such shoddy complaints.

  3. Adam says

    “He began critiquing my book despite, by his own admission, not having read it.”

    This is familiar to anyone who gets attacked by the left. They’ve never actually read or listened to the person they’re attacking. It’s always attacking based on a bad faith hit piece (or word of mouth) of someone who has so badly misrepresented a person’s actual meaning to almost comic effect.

  4. Skip says

    Is there any data to indicate this is a widespread problem? Is it more prevalent in certain sectors? Might it be more likely to happen in areas where competition among peers is based on less definitive measures, unlike business, for example, where P&L performance is objectively determinable?

    It also seems some of the commenters here are way too quick to blame “the left” for problems such as this when they may just be the result of professional rivalry or personal animosity.

  5. Adam says

    It may just be handbags at dawn professional rivalry by any means and it certainly happens between academics of all political persuasions but it is CURRENTLY a very noticable tactic of the left (not to say it’s the sole preserve of the left).

  6. Fran says

    There are problems in all areas of science when the “Theory” is more important than the data. I learned this when I was unable to publish the data from my PhD thesis for 3 years in the early 1980’s. I did the whole thing over using different methods and got the same answer in order to persuade my supervisor it was true. Even then I had to publish in 2nd tier journal. I got to see a leader in the field shouting it could not be done, and another leader saying he had done it in the audience at a conference. This all concerned tolerance to the various effects of opioids. Palliative care all around the world now recognises that most individuals can die with good pain control, but the majority of medical professionals still believe you must minimise doses because gross tolerance will occur – it will, but mostly to the side effects.

    My background in behavioural neuroscience does not permit me to criticise Dr Perkins Personality and Individual Differences review. However, if anyone does want to criticise it, I want to see the data discussed: as written, the paper fits with my impressions of the world around me. The data are important, because it is my taxes that pay for welfare. Political name calling just does not excite me.

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  8. Tom says

    Unsurprising that Quillette would go in to bat for someone who screwed up the analysis and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to correct it; this site would swallow any charlatan if they could provide some sob story about being ‘persecuted’, even if just by another academic…following the journal’s recommended corrections procedure, after Perkins had refused to correct the article’s errors himself, as any intellectually honest person would do.

    • Paul Sneed says

      You are a great example of this articles thesis! Are you in fact Mr Portes?

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