Campus Free Speech

Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jordan Peterson, Others Urge Portland State Not to Punish Peter Boghossian for 'Grievance Studies' Hoax

"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that if the rules forbid it, it's the rules, not the researchers, that have gone wrong."


Screenshot via Mike Nayna

Several well-known academics wrote letters in support of Portland State University (PSU) philosophy professor Peter Boghossian, a co-author of the hoax "grievance studies" paper now facing academic misconduct charges.

As I reported on Monday, PSU administrators have claimed Boghossian's efforts to trick academic journals into publishing fake studies violated institutional review board (IRB) protocols because he did not seek approval to carry out experiments on human subjects. Boghossian and his supporters—co-authors Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay among them—have protested that they didn't need any such permission, and asking for it would have risked giving away the game.

To recap: Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay submitted hoax papers with social justice themes—animal sexuality, fat studies, etc.—to leftist academic journals in order to demonstrate that fake, jargon-filled treatises on oppression and intersectionality could easily pass for the real thing. By some measures, they were successful: Seven of the papers were approved for publication. But this little experiment has landed Boghossian—the only one of the three with an actual academic position—in hot water with PSU's IRB, which determined that he conducted unethical research.

Boghossian has asked his defenders to write letters of support to PSU's administration, and several prominent names have done so. Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature, urged PSU not to seek revenge on Boghossian for raising legitimate questions.

"This strikes me (and every colleague I've spoken with) as an attempt to weaponize an important [principle] of academic ethics in order to punish a scholar for expressing an unpopular opinion," wrote Pinker. "If scholars feel they have been subject to unfair criticism, they should explain why they think the critic is wrong. It should be beneath them to try to punish and silence him."

The author Richard Dawkins used even stronger language, accusing PSU of seeking to punish satire.

"To pretend that this is a matter of publishing false data is so obviously ridiculous that one cannot help suspecting an ulterior motive," wrote Dawkins.

And Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and leading thinker of the so-named Intellectual Dark Web, wrote that "any 'academic misconduct' that is occurring is being perpetrated by those who are raising and pursuing the allegations, and most certainly not on the part of Dr. Boghossian."

In the last 24 hours, I've interacted with many scholars, academics, and higher education experts with a variety of opinions about PSU's actions. Not all agree that the administration is in the wrong. Joel Christensen, an associate professor of classical studies at Brandeis University, told Inside Higher Ed that Boghossian "did commit academic fraud, by design, and that some professional sanctions might be warranted," but he believed that such sanctions should not include termination. (That was in line with what Jeffrey Sachs, a lecturer at Acadia University, expressed to me when I asked him for comment on Monday.) Others have furiously debated whether the IRB would have been likely to authorize the project.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's Robert Shibley worries that Boghossian's situation is evidence that IRBs in general have moved well beyond their original mandate, which was to protect test subjects from real abuse. The federal law requiring scientists to consult IRBs before gathering research dates to 1974, and was originally intended to prevent misconduct along the lines of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which researchers failed to give proper medical care to hundreds of black patients who had contracted the disease. According to Shibley:

Over time, the use of IRBs has become increasingly commonplace, and seemingly required, even for social science research or experiments that have a far less direct effect on the humans who might be involved. As Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger, a prominent critic of the current role of IRBs, has pointed out, even oral history projects and opinion poll research, which simply consist of asking people for their own stories or opinions, can be subject to change or simply forbidden by IRBs. (Oral history, at least, was relieved of this burden by federal regulatory changes that took effect just last year.)

Particularly when removed from the medical context, it becomes all too easy for some fundamental IRB rules—such as the requirement that studies be done only with the informed consent of all human participants—to fail to work well. As Lindsay and Pluckrose point out, the Grievance Studies Affair is one of these situations, as "it is impossible to conduct a valid quality assurance investigation, which this audit was, after informing those being audited that they're under examination." Assuming it's correct to characterize the journal editors as subjects of an experiment who needed to be protected from its potential physical or psychological harm, the IRB process would at the very least have required that the authors inform all of the potential "subjects" that faked research papers were coming their way. Truly "informed" consent might have required rather more specificity than that. It doesn't take a scientist (or a whole group of them on an IRB) to understand that such a restriction would make this particular research effort pointless, but PSU nevertheless determined that the research violated its rules and was worthy of discipline.

Shibley concluded his post with this observation: "When it comes to this type of research…it's hard to avoid the conclusion that if the rules forbid it, it's the rules, not the researchers, that have gone wrong."