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When ‘Ethics Review’ Becomes Ideological Review: The Case of Peter Boghossian

On Tuesday, Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University (PSU) in Oregon, publicly shared a letter he’d received from his employer, outlining the results of an academic misconduct investigation into his now-famous 2018 “grievance-studies” investigation. As was widely reported in the Wall Street Journal, Quillette and elsewhere, Boghossian, researcher James Lindsay and Areo editor Helen Pluckrose submitted nonsensical faux-academic papers to journals in fields such as gender, race, queer and fat studies, some of which passed peer review—and were even published—despite their ludicrous premises. The project was defended by 1990s-era academic hoaxer Alan Sokal, who famously performed a somewhat similar send-up of fashionable academic culture two decades ago. While many cheered Boghossian’s exposé, some scholars within these fields were horrified, and it has long been known that Boghossian, by virtue of his PSU affiliation, would be vulnerable to blowback.

PSU’s Institutional Review Board decided that Boghossian has committed “violations of human subjects’ rights and protection”—the idea here being that the editors who operate academic journals, and their peer reviewers, are, in a broad sense, “human subjects”—and that his behavior “raises concerns regarding a lack of academic integrity, questionable ethical behavior and employee breach of rules.” As punishment, he is “forbidden to engage in any human-subjects-related [or sponsored] research as principal investigator, collaborator or contributor.”

This is a bit rich, of course, since the point of Boghossian’s project was to expose the lack of “academic integrity” in whole academic fields. Such a project would be impossible to conduct if editors were made aware of the research methods in advance, so the effect of the sanctions against Boghossian may be reasonably interpreted by Boghossian’s defenders (including me) as a means to punish him for exposing the rot in certain sectors of academia—and to deter others from following his example.

For those who are not steeped in the protocols of university life, all of this may seem confusing: How could the gatekeeping function of research-ethics oversight be used to achieve this result? The answer is that this field has drastically changed since its original conception seven decades ago. It once was about preventing harm. Now, it’s about protecting ideas.

* * *

Before the Second World War, there weren’t really any systematic rules in place governing what kind of research could be done by academics on human subjects. But the horrific experiments conducted by the Nazis raised awareness of the need to impose limits. Indeed, the basis for modern research ethics policy, the Nuremberg Code, emerged from the Nuremberg trials in the late 1940s.

The code, which begins with the sentence, “the voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential,” outlines principles that medical scientists today take as fundamental truths: the risk of harm must be outweighed by the potential for benefit; testing on animals and other methods should be used to estimate risk of harm to humans; and experiments “should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.”

U.S. officials refined the principles in the Nuremberg Code and incorporated them into the 1974 National Research Act, which formalized the requirements for institutional review boards (IRBs), also called research ethics boards (REBs). (As names vary by region, I’ll use “IRB” here to mean a group responsible for ethics review at a research institution.) This was done both through statute, and by implementation of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, a body created under the National Research Act. This commission produced a highly influential 1979 document called the Belmont Report, which instructed IRBs on three high-level principles: respect for persons, beneficence and justice.

The report acknowledges the sometimes difficult-to-define nature of “consent,” noting, by way of example, that “under prison conditions, [potential subjects] may be subtly coerced or unduly influenced to engage in research activities for which they would not otherwise volunteer.” It also notes that the act of participating in research presents an opportunity to be helpful to humankind, and so consent should not be unreasonably withheld.

In discussing the idea of “beneficence,” the authors direct researchers to ensure they “maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms,” while acknowledging the difficulty of ascertaining when it is justifiable to seek certain benefits despite the risks involved. Under the heading of “justice” comes the principle that benefits and harms should be allocated fairly. The report discusses examples of how a minority group with little power could be more easily persuaded or even subtly coerced to participate in a study, perhaps for administrative convenience: “Social justice requires that distinctions be drawn between classes of subjects that ought, and ought not, to participate in any particular kind of research, based on the ability of members of that class to bear burdens and on the appropriateness of placing further burdens on already burdened persons.”

To a modern research scientist, all of this will seem like common sense, and such principles now are taught even in some undergraduate courses. But their universal adoption can mask real questions of interpretation, such as what the term “harm” means. In some cases—such as Nazi experiments aimed at determining a prisoner’s capacity for pain—the presence of harm is horrifyingly obvious. But in many modern contexts, the project of defining such terms is much more difficult, and subject to all sorts of political and ideological influences.

* * *

I am Canadian, and affiliated with the University of Alberta. But modern academic culture is little concerned with borders. And research ethics principles have become somewhat standardized internationally, at least in western countries.

In Canada, enforcement of ethics principles is done in large part through universities themselves, and through the application of funding criteria by granting bodies. This, too, is typical of how other countries operate.

Canadian institutions are bound by the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, 2nd edition (TCPS2), a set of guidelines federal research funding agencies first published in 1998 that has evolved over time. Today the TCPS2 repeats familiar calls for researchers to procure informed consent and to be mindful of risk-reward ratios, and uses very similar language to that in the Belmont Report. But the document also takes considerable linguistic liberties with the word “harm.” The word now is taken to include not only actual physical and psychological harms, as the Nuremberg Code authors would have recognized them, but the causing of mere offence or reputational damage.

For example, the TCPS2’s chapter on genetics research warns against research that “may raise ethical concerns regarding stigmatization,” or cause “social disruption in communities or groups.” It goes on to direct researchers to discuss with group leaders “the risks and potential benefits of the research to the community or group.”

The TCPS2 also has a chapter on research involving Indigenous peoples. It notes that scientific research approaches “have not generally reflected Aboriginal world views,” and requires that Indigenous peoples’ “distinct world views” are represented in all aspects of research, including “analysis and dissemination of results.” An obvious problem here is that not all “world views” (whether they emerge from traditional Indigenous societies or from traditional Western societies) are consistent with the scientific method.

The policy directs researchers to plan their research such that it “should enhance [Indigenous peoples’] capacity to maintain their cultures, languages, and identities.” These may be worthy social and political goals, but embedding them explicitly in a document that purports to instruct academics on ethics has the effect of turning researchers into de facto activists. Over time, sound research and science generally will improve the human condition as an indirect result of the accumulation of knowledge. But recognizing this fact is very different from a policy of insisting that every act of research must be justified according to its role in directly promoting a specific social and political agenda regarding a specific demographic group.

The document warns that the requirement of “justice,” a fundamental principle listed in both the Belmont Report and the TCPS2, may be compromised by such actions as “misappropriation of sacred songs, stories and artefacts, devaluing Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge as primitive or superstitious…and dissemination of information that has misrepresented or stigmatized entire communities.” The problems here begin to multiply. The word “misappropriation,” for instance, now has a completely elastic definition that expands daily, with every new social-media outrage. Moreover, the very idea of the “sacred”—whether it is being applied in an Indigenous or non-Indigenous context—is in complete tension with the truth-seeking project that informs true research, which always should be aimed at dispelling dogma and superstition, “primitive” or otherwise.

Regarding research that may uncover “sacred knowledge,” the policy informs us that “determination of what information may be shared, and with whom, will depend on the culture of the community involved.” The policy also warns that “territorial or organizational communities or communities of interest engaged in collaborative research may consider that their review and approval of reports and academic publications is essential to validate findings, correct any cultural inaccuracies, and maintain respect for community knowledge (which may entail limitations on its disclosure).”

Though the authors seem to have been careful to craft this language in a way that doesn’t explicitly permit an outright publication veto, this seems to be what is effectively mandated. When a disagreement between researchers and Indigenous communities arises on the interpretation of data, the policy directs the researchers to either provide the offended community with an opportunity to make its views known, or report their side of the disagreement. This “opportunity to contextualize the findings,” in the euphemistic wording of the TCPS2, is analogous to forcing immunologists to reserve a few paragraphs at the end of their papers for a dissent penned by anti-vaccine activists.

Seen in light of the history of research ethics, the trend here is clear, and it helps us understand the real reasons why Peter Boghossian was sanctioned. Over the last 70 years or so, we’ve moved from (a) preventing actual harm to an individual, to (b) protecting a group’s reputation, stature or prestige. In effect, some groups in our society are to be protected from research that may cast into doubt preferred narratives, even if those narratives are completely at odds with what we learn about the natural world. By couching these principles in the language of ethics codes, violators may be decried not only as misguided or even ignorant, but literally “unethical.” And while those accused of poor scholarship often get a fair trial, so to speak, those accused of being unethical are seen differently.

Most of these disputes play out behind closed doors. But Boghossian, a rarity among academics, received a deluge of public support from both the broad public and from other high-profile intellectuals, who recognized that, far from engaging in unethical behaviour, he was exposing a wider culture of incompetence and cultishness in the constellation of liberal-arts disciplines that he and his colleagues called grievance studies. He wasn’t accused of risking the infliction of injury or harm to anyone (as any ordinary person would understand those terms). He wasn’t even accused of poor scholarship.

I spoke to Boghossian on the phone while preparing this article. He wondered aloud whether an analogous sort of disciplinary process could unfold in other fields. If, for instance, the peer-reviewed engineering literature promoted an obviously unstable design for a bridge (for fear of offending the “sacred” architectural principles of some professional subculture or other), anyone who exposed the practice would be thanked for their efforts—as such exposure likely would serve to save many lives. In the case of grievance studies, however, there are no lives at stake. The purpose of scholars in these fields isn’t to improve human societies, but rather to find new ways of impugning them.

As we spoke, Boghossian laughed about the many demands he got from critics for proof that this research was approved by an IRB (which, of course, it wasn’t). I have seen the same process in regard to my own controversial research, as discussed recently in Quillette. When there’s nothing wrong with one’s research, but people don’t like the results or its implications, they can always fire off an ethics complaint. When you don’t have a coherent counterargument, a well-staffed ethics office often is the only body that will return your emails.

Moreover, since these offices often are staffed and served by academics who share the same cliquish views—and enforce the same no-go zones—the whole idea of reviewing ethics effectively can blur into enforcing ideology. I dare say that some might even call it unethical.

 

Brayden Whitlock is a student in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Alberta. He is focused on biotech startups and intellectual freedom. Find him on Twitter @Whitlock_BDW

Featured image: A still frame from the video PSU Accuses Peter Boghossian of Ethical Misconduct, by Mike Nayna.

Comments

  1. Thus article goes under reasons why I am SO glad I got out of academia.

    There are things we’ve talked about openly in neuroscience, mentioned publicly, for example, at Society for Neuroscience. Can you say them in public, even if backed by decades of data? No. And soon we may not be able to say them at conferences, because some activist will go to the press, and now we’re too afraid…

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61 Comments

  1. I don’t know anything about the Oregon legal system but if this case arose in Canada he would stand a good chance of success on judicial review. The interpretation of “human subjects” research as including peer reviewers and editors seems unreasonably broad and the penalty unreasonably harsh.

  2. Closed Range says

    He should do what Sokal did next – write a book about it. This ban should make for a nice juicy chapter on just how corrupt and morally bankrupt universities are.

  3. chronos says

    I don’t know the details of IRB review and whether it should apply in this case. But I would think that, even if it does apply, it does nothing to show that the grievance studies journals that Boghossian et al published in aren’t problematic. These journals still published bogus “research” that fit with their political perspectives and despite the research containing poorly developed arguments. So I think the basic conclusion of the grievance hoax still stands and Boghossian has done the academy a service.

  4. Farris says

    Speaking of novel legal theories, I would advise professor Boghossian to seek legal refuge under the “Whistle Blower” statutes.

  5. Fran says

    IRB’s can easily devolve into individuals throwing their weight around and accumulating power. They go on sanctimoniously about how they are preventing harm, but have different standards for their friends. There is also a tendency for members to play the ‘My ethical standards are higher than yours’ game. I speak from many years experience with IRB’s and Ethics Committees. Peter Boghossian has my heart-felt sympathy.

    • François Grin says

      True – I have seen precisely this occur at other institutions.

  6. Morgan Foster says

    I look forward to a long period of publicly embarrassing legal action by Peter Boghassian against Portland-Antifa University, with many more Quillette articles to come.

  7. Geary Johansen says

    The real problem comes when these faulty theories are then used to inform government policy. Many government persist in attempting to raise kids in gender neutral contexts, educationally, because because they believe that ‘gender is a social construct’. The science is quite clear that gender is biological, even up to the cognitive level.

    Another example, was that the UK government suspended various policing techniques, under the assumption that, because there were a disproportionate number of stops of young black British men, police practice must be racist, without bothering to look at underlying crime rates by race in the communities in question.

    This is really dangerous stuff as it can have real world consequences. The fact that much of the literature that was aimed at children featured girls having adventures and boys as confidantes or sidekicks, had the unintended consequences of harming boys reading proficiency levels, and possibly reducing their engagement with reading for life- a situation the British educational establishment has only recently begun to address.

    I would argue that this case should be made into a movie, as well as a book, but I doubt that any script sent to Hollywood would ever be translated onto the big screen…

  8. I look forward to moving to Canada, where my sacred Catholic belief that every sperm is sacred and life begins long before conception will be protected.

  9. codadmin says

    ‘Peter Boghossian was sanctioned’

    Absolutely terrifying words. Winter is coming.

  10. TarsTarkas says

    So we are now forbidden to humiliate the enablers of liars, fakes, and fraudsters? In other words, the reviewers of papers of wackos trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers should be immune from criticism because it makes them feel bad? They can go f**k themselves. A great example of the ongoing imposition of tyranny of feelings culture, whereby the feelings of the ‘masters’ and their sycophants trump any actual harm done by their insanity.

  11. Shamrock says

    How dare Peter Boghossian point out that the Emperor has no clothes.

  12. Pingback: When ‘Ethics Review’ Becomes Ideological Review: The Case of Peter Boghossian | Sassy Wire

  13. Leif says

    Peter Boghossian’s case is similar to that of Elizabeth Lofthus and Melvin J. Guyer faced in the early 2000s. Lofthus and Guyer were memory researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Michigan, respectively.

    In 1997, David Corwin published an article in the May 1997 ‘Child Maltreatment Issue’ “Videotaped discovery of a reportedly unrecallable memory of child sexual abuse: comparison with a childhood interview videotaped 11 years before.” In this paper, Corwin reported he had found a bona-fide case of recovered memory of sexual abuse.

    Lofthus and Guyer were skeptical. By examining court records and interviewing witnesses, they established that there were significant misrepresentations in the way Corwin presented the case, as well as justifiable doubt the sexual abuse occurred in the first place. (http://staff.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/JaneDoe.htm)

    For their pains, Lofthus and Guyer faced the ire of their IRBs as well as a lawsuit. (Eventually, they were exonerated). https://ritualabuse.us/research/memory-fms/the-alleged-ethical-violations-of-elizabeth-loftus-in-the-case-of-jane-doe/

    Boghossian along with Lofthus and Guyer use methods that come from journalism, not science. These cases bear nothing in common with Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. Instead, they are like a journalist getting himself thrown into prison in order to report on conditions therein.

    The Portland State University IRB is guilty of overreach. They confuse research with exposé. IRB offices are designed to protect human subjects and to ensure institutional integrity, not to cover-up academic fraud.

  14. Chris says

    I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Boghossian. Journals are not designed to preemptively investigate the veracity of submissions for publication. The submissions come from credentialed researchers who have a responsibility to present accurate information. If somebody does fake results, it is handled post publication and the submitter’s credentials are cancelled, as they should be in the case of Boghossian. It is not a limitation on your academic freedom to constrain political attacks being done under color of research. What if people submitted fake results for medical procedures or engineering problems in order to scratch their resentments?

    There are other means of exploring the issues that Boghossian wanted to bring to light, Investigative journalism, analysis of sincere articles that were published,etc, that don’t involve polluting research results. Crap, just read the journals. If they are so ridiculous you should be able to destroy the real articles with your keen wit. Not so much, huh? The only reason to fake articles is that the genuine articles don’t clearly demonstrate what you are claiming, so you put your finger on the scale by making a fake article to critique.

    As hard as it is for the low wattage people who focus on these issues (and insist on seeing everything in black and white) to understand, postmodernism is a mixed bag. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. I don’t need to tell you which is which: If you are smart enough you’ll figure it out, if you aren’t smart enough there is no use in talking to you about it.

    We don’t need conservatives enforcing right-think any more than we need liberals doing so. If you are unwilling to allow people to have different opinions than you, and need to deplatform them (in this case by destroying their journals with dishonest submissions), you are the problem, whether you are intellectual dark web or antifa.

    • Mike says

      As I recall from interviews he did a few months back, Boghossian didn’t fabricate any evidence. The submitted articles used real data, or presented hypotheses without evidence. The arguments he presented replicated the poor logic, ideology and postmodern doublespeak of, as he calls it, the grievance studies. Except they were nonsense.

      Academic peer review is intended to catch poor study design, poor logic, and unsupported conclusions. It should have caught these studies. In several cases, his papers were rejected because they weren’t extreme enough, and he was asked to “problematize” certain conclusions and resubmit. In other words, his conclusions didn’t directly to enough oppression for the papers to be acceptable in those journals.

    • Leif says

      Dear Chris:
      Your comments merit a brief response.

      If somebody does fake results, it is handled post publication and the submitter’s credentials are cancelled, as they should be in the case of Boghossian. <<

      Boghossian’s papers were designed to be ridiculous from start to finish– but the reviewers never noticed. Richard Dawkins argues about the Boghossian affair : ‘How would you react if you saw the following letter: “Dear Mr Orwell, It has come to our notice that your novel, Animal Farm, attributes to pigs the ability to talk, and to walk on their hind legs, chanting ‘Four legs good, two legs better’. This is directly counter to known zoological facts about the Family Suidae, and you are therefore arraigned on a charge of falsifying data…” ‘

      Crap, just read the journals. If they are so ridiculous you should be able to destroy the real articles with your keen wit. Not so much, huh? The only reason to fake articles is that the genuine articles don’t clearly demonstrate what you are claiming, so you put your finger on the scale by making a fake article to critique. <<

      Following are two quotes from ‘real’ papers published in Gender, Place, and Culture– one of the hoaxed journals:

      “In this article, I trace the situation of feminist geography in Hungary by applying the concept ʻcurved spaceʼ. This concept adapted from modern physics claims that mass creates a gravitational field, i.e. it bends 4-dimensional ʻspacetimeʼ. My argument is that the situation of feminist geography in Hungary can be interpreted as an embodiment of ʻcurved spaceʼ. Using this analogy, I argue that the current Hungarian government has amassed such a huge amount of power that has enabled it to curve the space of feminist geographical knowledge production.”

      ‘Other means superior to the natural sciences exist to extract alternative knowledges about stars and enriching astronomy, including ethnography and other social science methodologies, careful examination of the intersection of extant astrologies from around the globe, incorporation of mythological narratives and modern feminist analysis of them, feminist interpretative dance (especially with regard to the movements of the stars and their astrological significance), and direct application of feminist and postcolonial discourses concerning alternative knowledges and cultural narratives.’

      I believe this ‘research’ speaks for itself. But consider: a hoax may also act as a critique. If a journal’s reviewers cannot tell the difference between an obvious hoax and ‘real’ research, doesn’t this point out some serious issues with research standards?

      We don’t need conservatives enforcing right-think any more than we need liberals doing so. If you are unwilling to allow people to have different opinions than you, and need to deplatform them (in this case by destroying their journals with dishonest submissions), you are the problem, whether you are intellectual dark web or antifa. <<

      We could not agree with you more about right-think– but wasn’t this exactly Boghossian’s point? Ordinarily, academic papers disseminate research, not opinion. There are many platforms for opinion, but relatively few for research. What happens to human knowledge when we no longer draw a distinction between opinion and empirical evidence?

      One last thought: an educated person should have a good BS detector.
      This includes a basic knowledge of statistics and rhetorical strategies, some basic knowledge of the world, and a preference for empirical evidence. How many ‘grievance studies’ students are truly educated?

      • Peter from Oz says

        Leif
        I agree with you.
        I would add to your list of attributes of an educated person a basic knowledge of law, in particular the rules of evidence.

        • Leif: Yes, and more:

          What is the purpose, then, of peer review? Is it to bless compliant orthodoxy or to challenge weak scholarship?

          The social sciences have had several bad years recently in which attempts to replicate theoretically solid research results have instead discredited a surprising number of broadly accepted “truths.”

          Under the circs, the gracious way to handle being punked by a joke academic article would be not to condemn the submission (and run the author out of his job) but rather to admit to insufficient skepticism and to pledge greater rigor in assessing future “research.”

          A note of regret and thanks to the punkster would be a further bit of humility/finesse, but that apparently is beyond well-educated persons these days.

    • Morgan Foster says

      @Chris

      “I don’t need to tell you which is which: If you are smart enough you’ll figure it out, if you aren’t smart enough there is no use in talking to you about it.”

      Although there is much in your comment that I like, I don’t care at all for this sentence.

      Intersectional feminists and BLM hustlers use this same language to shut down conversation. It’s never helpful or persuasive.

  15. Kyle says

    I don’t understand why the project is characterized as “research on human subjects.” It is obviously not “research on human subjects”. It is simply a prank designed to illustrate the stupidity of certain institutions and their leaders. The prank might be seen as mean-spirited by some and maybe grounds for discipline since it is work related. Employers probably do not want employees engaging in work-related pranks. But I don’t see why it falls into the purview of an IRB as “research on human subjects.”

  16. The editors and reviewers were human subjects if he and his collaborators planned to use the responses of the editors and reviewers in research intended for publication. If the work had been submitted for publication without prior IRB approval of the research design, the IRB would have been justified in demanding its withdrawal/suppression/retraction and could have imposed sanctions, as they did. What isn’t clear from the narrative above is not whether editors and reviewers were potentially human subjects, but whether this was research or merely a prank as suggested by Kyle. If the latter the IRB clearly overstepped its legal mandate. Of course, IMHO almost all social-science research should be exempt from the IRB mandate.

  17. Peter T says

    Mate there is a movie brewing here. At the moment however, there are too many villains and not enough heroes.

  18. John Lammi PhD, psychologist says

    Undercover US agents pretending to be purchasers of black market missiles should be stopped and pronto because of the HARM that will be done to the reputation and SELF-ESTEEM of this minority group called black market weapons dealers. So, dishonest or just RETARDED?

  19. John Lammi PhD, psychologist says

    “Social justice” is a hoax concept, just embarrassing. Retarded to the max

    • Geary Johansen says

      @ John Lammi

      There was nothing wrong with the social justice concept under the auspices of MLK and when it was expressed on the basis of common humanity- anything that promotes the cause of compassionate humanism is to be lauded.

      But in the same way that feminism was hijacked from genuine reformers looking for equal justice in employment and under the law by Marxist academics, who played no effective part in the battle for equality, the social justice ethos has been kidnapped and held hostage far left ‘scholars’ who follow the completely failed ‘Malcolm X’ branch of social justice, rather than the so successful strategy of Dr King.

      There can be no greater proof on the subject than that the aspiration to “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” is no longer the goal, but rather an offensive failure to acknowledge the inherent victimhood of some groups, and your complicity in their oppression.

  20. Arguing with a postmodernist is like arguing with a conspiracy theorist. Conventional forms of evidence are simply dismissed. In the case of a conspiracy theorist, seemingly contradictory evidence is only proof of how widespread the conspiracy is. For postmodernists, forces of oppression contaminate the evidence. Alternatively, they create their own reality. Feelings of oppression or discrimination are equivalent to actual discrimination. Given our inability to observe mental states, we can’t prove the claim is opportunistic. All outside reference points are unreliable because outsiders can be dismissed as oppressors. Thus, one of the only avenues to debunk such claims is to construct a hoax.

  21. S. Cheung says

    Does PSU’s IRB’s prohibition carry any weight beyond itself? So Boghossian can’t do any human subject research under the auspices of his in-house IRB, but does that have any bearing if he were to get central REB approval, or if he were to approach any other IRB? I would think not, because PSU’s IRB has no jurisdiction over anyone but themselves. If that’s the case, then this is just an optics exercise for them to show themselves to have “done something”.

    • Rev. Wazoo! says

      @ S Cheung
      Could be more than that as his employment there may be subject to their recommendations. Should he violate their prohibition at all, say by participating in another such escapade, they presumably could use that as cause to have him fired by the university for “continuing to act unethically after acwarning and in violation of the ethics committee’s structures.”

      Imagine he were a psychology professor: goodbye all research and advancement. It was probably a bridge too far to do that right now but they have flexed their muscles and the sword of Damocles now hangs over his head. One more trumped up ethics charge and he’s history there and everone else knows it which is much the point: to make an example of him to discourage others.

    • Darwin Cares says

      Irony is the first intersectional victim of the Social Justice Worriers. It is also the perfect way to glue up their brains.

      Peter Boghossian is a risk taking truth seeker. Truth still matters and so does this chap.

      Have a great summer and keep up the great work!

  22. Erik says

    I am glad that there are international standards regarding human and non-human subjects in academic research. However, I do not think the editors and peer reviewers strictly meet the criteria of a subject in this case. Imagine for a moment that all the articles had been falsified before publication. In that situation I doubt any of the editors or peer reviewers (or institutions backing them) would have have seen themselves as having their human rights breached or needing protection (or been embarrassed). They had complete freedom, as they do with all submissions, to vet them properly and either accept them or reject them. That was the whole point. By punishing Boghossian the IRB are only strengthening the point of the expose. On the other hand, if the IRB punished the editors and peer reviewers who accepted the bogus submissions in the first place, for not meeting even the lowest criteria that one would expect from this level of academia they would reinforce at least a modicum of faith in the academic system. Students of these charlatans should be demanding their money back!

    Well done Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose!

    • Erik says

      …. a subject in a study is manipulated. These editors and peer reviewers weren’t manipulated at all. No more or less than any submission they vet would do. They were simply carrying out the tasks their jobs require, and they failed.

    • @ Erik
      Quite so. The editors and peer reviewers were NOT the subject of the studies but merely collateral damage. The actual subjects were the sex-crazed dogs or whatever they were. As if they haven’t made themselves look ridiculous enough already, perhaps the university authorities might bring a suit on their behalf?

  23. Erik says

    Chris,

    Glad you are admitting that these studies are not scientific in nature – “Some of it works, some of it doesn’t. I don’t need to tell you which is which: If you are smart enough you’ll figure it out, if you aren’t smart enough there is no use in talking to you about it.” Actually, when people are getting an education at a university the whole point is that they are taught “which is which.” I am really glad that this is not how we build bridges or practice medicine. I think this needs to be a big disclaimer at the heading of each of these courses… that they are subjective in nature and not objective, and that there are known biases among its witches and wizards (don’t get yer knickers in a knot… I’m just having some fun).

    There are three dynamics at play here, not just two.

    Imagine that during the construction of a bridge concrete samples are regularly sent to an engineer for stress testing to make sure the concrete meets requirements for that particular project as stipulated in the plans. Normally the concrete will meet requirements. But lets just say that once in a while an unscrupulous contractor tries using sub-par concrete to save money. During regular sampling and stress testing, the inferior concrete is discovered and the fraudulent contractor is busted. The bridge is built properly and everyone who uses it is safe. Many bridges and buildings are built successfully. Separately, regulatory bodies send concrete samples for testing to make sure that testing methods are also meeting guidelines. It’s a fail safe. It’s important to have the one fail safe: to test the concrete. But it’s as important to know that your testing methods also work.

    You seem to think that Boghossian is the unscrupulous contractor in this case? Boghossian, Lindsay and Pluckrose are more akin to the 2nd fail safe in this analogy. They have exposed a flaw in the system. To carry the analogy further: the editors and peer reviewers are akin to unscrupulous engineers – having not caught the obviously substandard product (they made this shit up after all). Worse, it appears the regulatory body is also corrupt in this case because they insist on supporting substandard practices.

  24. Many papers about gender&STEM claim results not supported by their data, all in the same direction. Those who paint their political activism as scientific research cannot complain that Boghossian et al. exposed the problem by using methods unusual in research but usual in political activism

  25. The scientific process is one in which there is a public presentation of evidence for different ideas in the long term a consensus about the correct interpretation and explanation is reached and the opposing viewpoints are discreditted. Usually the consensus is correct, occassionally it may not be, but the evidence and arguments are public and in the long run our knowledge an dunderstanding improve. What is inherrent in this process is that there is ‘harm’ to those on the ‘wrong’ whose argumenst are descreditted. This is essential there must in a sense be winners and losers in order for progress to occur. If sensible the harm is very minor if the losing explanations are sensible have evidence to support them and are abandoned when the evidence becomes clear cut.

    The point is that the purpose of publication is to cause the sort of harm allegedly caused, the discreditting of theory and the proponents of it in favour of a better theory. This minot harm is massively outweighed by the good to soceity of having better information. The current situation where models of sexuality and human behaviour completely at odds with the evidenc eis by contrast deeply harmful. There are many obvious examples:
    Flawed models of doemestic violence mean that somewhere between on ethird to one half of teh victims have no support and the underlying causes are unexamined and unaddressed so that the problem continues into the future.
    Bizarre ideas that sexual identiy is independant from biology and physiology are causing increasing numbers of children to undergo irreversible medical treatmenst with dubious benefits and serious negative effects.
    Undermining the theories which run contrary to the evidence in these areas is ethically essential to prevent the long term damage they cause.

  26. Jack Dee says

    Rule 1. Never make the boss look bad.
    Rule 2. Refer to Rule 1

  27. At the end of all this, it will be an own goal for Portland State University and their hypocritical academic staff. Perhaps they should consider a new course in the pretextual paradigm of postmodern feminist hypocrisy as interpolated into a neocapitalist discourse, blah, blah, blah…

  28. ga gamba says

    Had Dr Boghossian conducted an undercover study of the mortgage industry or police, presumably without their informed consent, that revealed irregularities I doubt there would have been an uproar. He probably would had been lauded if extra special severe shortcomings, such as racism, were found that give credence to assertions of activists like BLM.

    His crime was he humiliated the academe, wounding their delicate sensitivities To avenge themselves the IRB distorted the guidelines, an abuse of power, but this ridiculous ruling is a greater humiliation because the academics perpetrated it on themselves.

    Congratulations to Dr Boghossian for another remarkable finding, one that required much less effort on his part.

    • OWG says

      gg

      In fact, haven’t many studies been done by academics regarding discrimination using identical “fake” application information submitted from various identifiable race individuals that proved discrimination?

  29. Don McIver says

    I don’t know…while I think Boghossian’s findings are interesting and problematic for Grievance Studies, and yes, there is much shoddy research being published in humanities and social sciences…the hoax does not reflect positively on Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose’ own motives. It’s as if their hypothesis, “we propose the grievance studies journals aren’t particularly rigorous” (or something to that effect) Then submit to journal after journal until your hypothesis is proven. No one sees a problem with that?

    I’m reminded that several years ago I had a job where I went into restaurants acting drunk to see if the same restaurants would use the techniques that the non-profit I worked for taught them. The restaurants knew that sometime during the length of the program, we’d come in, but they didn’t know who or exactly when. Essentially, Boghossian et al were secret shoppers but the journal wasn’t asking them to do that…that’s where the ethics complaint comes from.

    That the above article that’s reporting this also states, “The purpose of scholars in these fields isn’t to improve human societies, but rather to find new ways of impugning them.” doesn’t bode well for the author’s objectivity (even though he can’t be entirely objective) and isn’t inclined to sympathize with the university’s position.

    The larger problem is that the academy relies on this model of “publish or perish” to act as a way of determining who gets tenure. The system is terribly flawed. Why do you think these journals exist? Because academics want full time work. It’s really no different than all the poetry contests milking poets for entrance fees because the poets need publication/books for tenure/jobs even though no commercial publisher publishes poetry at a level that could make publication a worthwhile metric.

  30. Morgan Foster says

    Before I join Quillette Circle, can anyone tell me what it is? And why it is?

    I don’t see a convenient explanation on the home page.

    • jakesbrain says

      It appears to be a forum that they’re phasing in to replace the less than satisfactory WordPress comment system. I should say that among its main selling points are: 1) replies can actually stack in a coherent manner instead of just all piling up on one level, and 2) comments no longer take nine to twelve minutes to actually show up on the damn page after being posted.

  31. Martin28 says

    Peter Boghossian is a hero. The goal of academics who believe in reason should be that the wider academy recognizes Boghossian as a hero in his lifetime. That’s a reasonable goal to aim and hope for, and if it happens, the academy will be a better place.

  32. Armando Simon says

    Peter Boghossian should be celebrating. If he is smart and hires an attorney, he will be laughing all the way to the bank. The totalitarian fanatics overplayed their hand, no doubt because they reside in the People’s Democratic Republic of Portland and the fanatics live in that bubble. However, the restrictions that they imposed on him, not to mention the campus newspaper printing a slanderous article on him a few months back, leaves them open to a major lawsuit that they cannot possibly win. If I were in his position, I would be doing cartwheels for joy.

  33. Arloe says

    The IRB interpretation of “harm” that addresses loss of reputation as a social harm would have disallowed David Rosenhan’s iconoclastic study of psychiatry “Being Sane in Insane Places”, in which his mentally healthy graduate students feigned auditory hallucinations to gain entrance to mental hospitals but ceased those symptoms immediately upon entering the facility as a patient. The behaviors of the “patients” were interpreted within the original diagnosis, such as note taking for data gathering purposes being seen as paranoid behavior. The general conclusion was that the field of psychiatry was to a demonstrable extent incompetent. The reputational harm to the field of psychiatry was enormous. Rosenhan’s seminal work here is analogical to the grievance studies debacle because both offered fake bait to practitioners who swallowed it, thereby demonstrating their respective fields’ incompetence.

    If Rosenhan’s research was disallowed by an IRB, the reforms in psychiatry that Rosenhan’s work stimulated, especially that related to false positive predictions of “dangerousness” that result in indeterminate deprivations of liberty, would never have occurred. For instance, the American Psychiatric Association now asserts that they cannot accurately predict dangerousness. Work by Rosenhan and others (such as Stephen Pfohl) paved the way for the decarceration of wrongly diagnosed persons in mental hospitals.

    Rosenhan’s work was published in the prestigious journal Science, and responses to the article by psychiatrists decried the fairness of the research on the grounds that doctors should not be blamed for taking their patients’ statements at face value. Perhaps one could make the same criticism of Boghossian’s research–journal editors and reviewers assume that the data are not falsified.

    One of the cardinal felonies of research on humans is to cause subjects social harm by virtue of being in the research study. And I can surely see where social harm to human subjects (editors and reviewers who were duped) because of reputational disrepute associated with the findings. If I was on an IRB reviewing Dr. Boghossian’s research proposal, I would require two things: 1) the names of the journals would be anonymous and identified only by nebulous (but nevertheless descriptive) criteria (such as journal ranking); and 2) withdraw the piece from publication immediately after its acceptance.

    There has to be some way to protect social harm to incompetent professionals while at the same time exposing their incompetencies.

  34. @Quillette: Did I miss something? Why are the new articles seemingly impossible to comment on? How does one get enrolled? I did enroll in Quillette circle – gave my email and password – but I can’t figure out how to comment. Is there some sort of explanatory post I missed? Help!

  35. Marian Hennings says

    The lords and ladies of academia are punishing Boghossian for embarrassing them, but they have only themselves to blame. This sort of nonsense is a waste of time and money and needed to be exposed. That it was done in such a hilarious manner is just icing on the cake.

  36. Chris says

    Leif, Eric and Morgan, I appreciate your engagement with what I said, and the civility of your responses (exceeding my own!). There are so many facets of this issue and only so much time!

    Have you read Postmodernism with an open mind? It is basically an offshoot of literary theory that is pushing towards philosophy. Why would anyone confuse its papers with science? For example, the quote you put forth concerning feminist geography can’t be confused with a scientific description of curved space. I understand it as metaphor. The quote given expressly calls it an analogy.

    Literary and philosophical journals are full of explorations like this. They are not factual, nor generally understood as such. There are a lot of comparisons with science in your critiques, but there is more to academics than science, and not every academic standard is scientific. Sending metaphors that you don’t mean to postmodern journals is like sending poems you don’t mean to poetry journals. Do you think that a journal publishing the poem that you wrote as a joke proves that poetry is BS? Or even more to the point: Should you destroy a Michelangelo because you don’t believe in God? I don’t want to live in a world where we deface each other’s projects out of resentment or anger or to make ourselves feel smart.

    We mostly all believe in non-scientific things. There are plenty of people who are happy to try to constrain my choices based on their religion, even though that religion has no scientific basis. We believe in imaginary things like love or righteous killing. In reality, our culture is driven more by imaginary things than things that stand up to scientific scrutiny. So, yes, some postmodern fans also take their metaphors as reflecting a higher reality and come up with some pretty wacky moral and political principles. But this is more about human nature than postmodernism.

    Why is it that we are always trying to fix somebody else’s self deception, and not our own? Myself included. Treating differences of thought as warfare is revealing of our motives, but it is not scientific.

    • Dan Love says

      @Chris

      Sophistry at its finest. I, for one, am quite familiar with postmodern bullshit.

      Postmodernists conveniently slide between figurative and literal, analogy and reality, whenever it suits them to do so, and you know it. In fact, the term “motte and bailey argument” was first used to describe postmodern argumentation.

      They use scientific terminology not as metaphors or analogies, but to invent a veneer of sophistication to hide the fact they have no ability to think rationally.

      Postmodernists strategically use obscurantism to cover up the fact they don’t know anything – another veneer to appear sophisticated – and everyone has stopped trying to understand the semantic content of what they’re saying because they realize there is none. Postmodern writers throw around words like an infant eating spaghetti. It’s just sad. Watching them try to construct a rational argument is like watching a paraplegic try to run a race.

      The entire field is ideological deep-throating. Show me a postmodernist who isn’t a fringe-left ideologue and show you a Jewish Nazi. They are monolithic dogmatists, in abject fear of even slight variations from 8th wave feminism or LGBTQBSHT&%. They shut down conversations that threaten them, calling it violence, which ends up just being about anything they disagree with. They call that which challenges them to think racist, sexist, homophobic, scientistic, transphobic, alt-right, or any of the other 400 words that are merely synonyms for “how dare you disagree with me!”.

      The last thing they want is to be intellectually challenged, which explains why they live in safe-spaces and publish in journals that have almost no citations – postmodern journals are the safe spaces of publications. Intellectually, students of postmodernism are kindergarteners who can’t deal with intellectual differences or critical-thinking.

      You noted “I don’t want to live in a world where we deface each other’s projects out of resentment or anger or to make ourselves feel smart”. That’s priceless, it’s exactly what postmodernists do – postmodern language manipulation at its best!

    • Rnt says

      @Chris

      You don’t get it, do you, nitwit? Post modernists can blabber on about their drivel as long as they don’t try to destroy our lives. The fact that they are vociferously engaged in that means they need to be destroyed. Fuck you for defending them.

  37. Chris says

    Dan,

    I can understand that a lot of modern politics coming out of the academy is offensive and frustrating.

    But your response remains self-conflicted. You criticize that “Postmodernists conveniently slide between figurative and literal, analogy and reality, whenever it suits them to do so, and you know it.” But the rest of your response, when it is not pure ad hominem, is figure of speech of speech upon figure of speech, analogy upon analogy. So that mode of writing that you criticize in the postmodernist is perfectly fine when you use it? And if I follow up on questionable phrases like “jewish Nazi” (what does that add to your argument?) I am sure you will be ducking behind the nearest “bailey”!

    Is your post a critique of grievance studies, or an example of it? Is it other people saying to you: “How dare you disagree with me!” or is it you saying that to other people?

    Yes, I am taking a postmodern turn with your response. Postmodernism often focuses on the internal contradictions of texts. You present a criticism of postmodernism that is largely an example of what it criticizes. That great postmodernist Krishnamurti wrote: “What we fight, we become.” (No he wasn’t really a postmodernist.)

    Not that this is only you. Humans are rift with contradiction and that is one thing that postmodernism points out.

    But postmodernism is just one perspective. It has its own internal contradictions and there are plenty of other interesting ways of looking at things.

  38. Dan Love says

    @Chris

    You noted “I can understand that a lot of modern politics coming out of the academy is offensive and frustrating.” I never said it was offensive or frustrating. I believe I said it was “deep-throating”. You’re trying to play passive-aggressive armchair psychologist with someone who can see through it.

    First, my response was a well-informed diatribe. I wouldn’t publish what I wrote. Postmodernists publish diatribes (poorly informed ones at that) quite often. That is a big difference.

    Second, I didn’t make up any words, so that also precludes my response from being postmodern. Third, what I wrote was, though scathing, coherent. This is another strike against it being postmodern.

    What I wrote was, moreover, not prostrating to leftist ideology – more evidence it isn’t postmodern. Finally, what I wrote was authentic, genuine, and honest (not necessarily literal) so not only is it not postmodern, but the opposite of postmodern.

    You’re right, I slid between literal and figurative and I’ll tip my hat for you on that observation. But again, I wouldn’t publish something like that, and your observation has nothing to do with logical contradiction (more on that later).

    I think it is fine to dance back and forth between literal and and figurative, given the right context. It’s cowardly and underhanded when it has the (often intended) effect of confusing readers into a daze of submission, especially when they are intellectually vulnerable as students are, merely because they are fruit ripe for ideological harvesting.

    What are you talking about with “Jewish Nazi”? I merely indicated the number of non-fringe-leftist postmodernists is similar to the number of Jewish Nazis – that is, almost none.

    As for contradictions, your assertion my response is internally contradictory is incorrect. There are no logical contradictions in what I wrote.

    Even if my criticism of postmodernism was an example of what my writing criticized (which it isn’t, as I evidenced), this does not make something a contradiction. It could make it hypocritical, or “conflicted” (whatever the hell that intentionally vague word means), or some other jazz, but not a contradiction.

    “Postmodernism often focuses on the internal contradictions of texts.” This literally made me laugh out loud.

    That postmodernists, almost none of whom can factor a simple quadratic equation and almost all of whom would have a mental breakdown learning how material implication differs from logical entailment, are somehow pointing out contradictions, is the pinnacle of my humor for the week. It’s like a monkey pointing out the geometric errors in a blue print.

  39. Jett Rucker says

    It is unethical to disagree with me. Even if you don’t know you’re doing so. And even if I’ve never announced my opinion in the matter.

  40. stephen laudig says

    Boghossian, to have any cred, should not have done what Sokal did not do: lie or hold press conferences to crow “I got them.” Nor is his whining very endearing. He is best viewed in the rear view mirror rather like a suicidal roadkill. Sokal acted honourably. Boghossian not so. Or am I mistaken?

  41. Steve BH says

    Welcome to the era of snowflake anthropology. Who knows what harm may come if some tribe of headhunters should start to wonder about their moral views of the universe? Of course we must requires that Indigenous peoples’ “distinct world views” are represented in all aspects of research, including “analysis and dissemination of results.” They might not like to be known as “headhunters,” for example. Some less negative word is needed. You may need to get the permission of their cultural leaders to write about this, lest you do their reputation harm. And maybe they prefer the term “female circumcision” for some other practice you might otherwise call “infibulation.” It’s a distinct world view, and who are you, the anthropologist, to say it is not?

    The policy directs researchers to plan their research such that it “should enhance [Indigenous peoples’] capacity to maintain their cultures, languages, and identities.” And if that culture and identity is headhunting, infibulation, or involves (say) leaving elderly people out on an iceberg to get rid of them, well, that’s your answer. Ethics requires you to help maintain it. And if it’s unethical and Nazi-like to embarrass headhunters who want to headhunt, or Inuit who have no nursing homes, it follows that Marxist journal editors are just as prickly. If they can’t shrink your head or leave you in the wilderness, they may bone-curse you. Or try to ban you.

    By the way: if “cultural misappropriation” is actually such an obvious sin, why is it that cross-dressers and transgendered people never seen to commit it? It seems to me that THERE the Left comes close to understanding the outrage of the Right at having an aspect of their culture parodied and assimilated. But still, they manage to miss.

  42. Julian Jamison says

    Human subjects committees are well aware that it isn’t always possible to require consent, either for practical purposes or because it would screw up the research, and they are more than willing to approve such work (I have done it many times). So the claim is not that he couldn’t or shouldn’t have done exactly what he did — just that he first should have gone through the same process that the rest of us deal with.

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