When four scholars set out to show that “grievance studies” scholarship was gibberish, it was an astounding success.
The further one strays from reality, the denser the word salad. It’s not that they’re on to something profound, but they’re on to nothing and need bigger, more meaningless, jargon to make it feel as if it’s not complete gibberish.
How far did they stray from reality?
…a 3000 word excerpt of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, rewritten in the language of Intersectionality theory and published in the Gender Studies journal Affilia.
And that’s only outlandish if you accept the value of studying rape culture at dog parks (spoiler alert: dogs do not first obtain consent). The initial reaction of the punked was to rationalize why the publication of utter nonsense failed to prove the field of study was utter nonsense.
At the same time, though, any field can be hoaxed if you lie about the data you’ve gathered and hide your true intentions: The entire system depends on good faith and honesty. When people break it, by submitting bad-faith arguments or by manufacturing data, the system is not well-equipped to catch it.
Well sure, rape culture at dog parks was a fake data problem, not a foundational failing because the core concept is absurd. They’re dogs. But given the wealth of postdocs whose lives and careers depend on them not being jokes, the billions of dollars that universities spend, and take in, to promote a field of scholarship that barely exists, if at all, it wasn’t enough to defend its honor from the hoaxers. They needed revenge. They needed to burn the heretic at the stake.
Peter Boghossian, a professor of philosophy best known for his involvement in the “grievance studies” hoax papers, is now in trouble with Portland State University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), which has accused him of violating its policies regarding the ethical treatment of human test subjects in the course of his experiment.
“Your efforts to conduct human subjects research at PSU without a submitted nor approved protocol is a clear violation of the policies of your employer,” wrote PSU Vice President Mike McLellan in an email to Boghossian, according to Areo.
For those unaware, colleges require that academic studies be approve by IRBs, who assure that the studies are ethical. On the far edge, they don’t want a Professor Mengele doing experiments. Closer to home, B.F. Skinner would get some unpleasant comments and limits. Shocking, right? But it’s left to a college’s IRB to sanction experiments so that no one is harmed.
But was what Boghossian and the others did an experiment? Was it subject to IRB approval?*
This charge makes Boghossian sound like Dr. Frankenstein. But the “human subjects” in question are the peer reviewers and journal editors who accepted Boghossian’s hoax papers for publication. Their reputations may have suffered as a result of being duped—and they were indeed unwitting participants in the experiment—but their physical well-being was not compromised. Moreover, it may not have been obvious to Boghossian and his co-conspirators that research conducted outside his field, bearing no formal connection to Portland State University, was still subject to IRB approval.
This begs the question, however, as it assumes IRB approval was needed because the IRB says IRB approval was needed. Was this really an experiment? Were the journal editors and peer reviewers “human subjects”? In a world where gibberish passed for profundity without comment, where it’s good enough to get someone a really cool hood, why not?
Compliance with institutional review boards is a common facet of academic life; universities require assurances that professors are not conducting unethical experiments that harm their subjects. (Of course, since IRBs are change-averse bureaucracies, they often construct unnecessary hoops for researchers—see this amazing Slate Star Codex post detailing Scott Alexander’s futile attempts to gain IRB approval for a perfectly benign study.) But it’s possible that Boghossian didn’t realize he needed IRB approval for this project, since it had nothing to do with his job. (Portland State, I gather, considers all research conducted by its employees to be subject to IRB oversight, so this probably isn’t going to work as an excuse.)
The problem for Peter Boghossian is that he’s a prof at Portland State University, and so if the PSU IRB says it’s an experiment, says he violated protocol by neither seeking nor obtaining approval, then his job is on the line. Whether the IRB is right is too squishy a question to be subject to objective determination, but that the IRB says Boghossian’s “experiment” required its approval is all that matters, at least as far as Boghossian’s continued employment is concerned.
Then again, had Boghossian sought IRB approval of his “experiment,” would he have gotten it?
On Twitter, Lindsay opines that seeking the IRB’s approval was impossible—administrators would not have sanctioned the project, and this would have risked blowing their cover.
Musa al-Gharbi, a sociology fellow at Columbia University and director of communications for Heterodox Academy, tells me he thought it “highly plausible that had they followed standard protocol, the IRB board would have rejected their proposal for political/ideological reasons.”
Not only would the IRB have rejected the effort designed to undermine the integrity of an entire field of “scholarly” endeavor, but even seeking approval would have expose the effort. Or maybe the IRB would approve it, but do so with an announcement so that the journals targeted would have been alerted that they were about to be the target of a hoax. That would have worked well.
Robby Soave at Reason sees the significance of “Sokal Squared,” as this hoax has come to be known, as limited.
While I’m far from convinced that submitting elaborate hoax papers was the best way to draw attention to the scholarly deficiencies of “grievance studies,” it would be troubling on academic freedom grounds if Boghossian lost his job simply because he did not ask his university for permission to conduct this little experiment.
Whether this hoax devastated a field grounded in empty jargon or merely shows deficiencies around the edges of what purports to be scholarship, may be worthy of dispute, but for Boghossian, the price could be his job.
Had Boghossian known that his “experiment” required IRB approval and went ahead anyway, he brought this problem upon himself. That the IRB wouldn’t have approved it, or would have blown his cover, is, unfortunately, part of the deal in academia these days. But the vagaries of whether this was subject to IRB approval at all is ironically linked to the hoax itself. In a world of gibberish in, gibberish out, how does one attack the gibberish without the Gibberish Inquisition knocking on the door?
*Edit: Inside Higher Education provides the IRB’s explanation for its assumption of “jurisdiction” over the “experiment”:
The IRB determined that the project, as discussed in Aero, was research since it was “a systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” The determination letter continued, “The publicly available information about the project clearly indicates an iterative and systematic approach to performing the work, with an intention of generalizing the results.”
Does this make the case, or is it more word salad?
Update: Via this twit from Boghossian, see the attached letter from Harvard’s Steven Pinker to the PSU IRG.
Update 2: At FIRE, Robert Shibley provides a little history about the National Research Act, which gave rise to IRBs.
IRBs are required by federal law. In 1974, Congress passed and President Nixon signed into law the National Research Act, in the wake of the exposure two years earlier of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which hundreds of black men who researchers knew tested positive for the disease went without proper treatment for up to 40 years, without their consent. IRBs were intended to prevent this sort of abuse from happening again by ensuring that research that could affect human subjects was approved by a panel of fellow scholars who were tasked with addressing any physical or psychological harm to human subjects by requiring modifications to, and sometimes denying, research plans.
And like all good things, mission creep took it from there.