Hoax against ‘grievance studies’ may get academic fired

Portland State University says Peter Boghossian’s attack on academic explorations of race and gender failed to get ethics approval

January 10, 2019
Portland State University
Source: iStock

A US academic who has spent several months defending a hoax designed to embarrass academic explorations of race and gender is now facing a more substantial critic: his own university.

Peter Boghossian, a non-tenured assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University, has been accused by administrators of violating its policies regarding the ethical treatment of human test subjects by sending fabricated articles to numerous academic journals. The penalties could include firing.

Dr Boghossian has drawn heavy media attention for succeeding, along with two partners outside academia, in getting several journals from mainstream publishers to accept some of articles that the authors wrote in satire as a mockery of political correctness.

The intentionally fraudulent articles covered such topics as rape culture among dogs, the use of sex toys to confront homophobia, and “fat-exclusionary” cultures such as bodybuilding. Dr Boghossian described their project as an expose of “grievance studies”, which he and his two co-authors regard as a “culture of scholarship that values a type of radical left-wing activism over the pursuit of truth”.

Dr Boghossian and the co-authors wrote and sent out at least 20 hoax articles, getting seven published before their project was uncovered by a Wall Street Journal writer looking into one of the papers. But Portland State’s vice-president for research and graduate studies, Mark McLellan, faulted the method.

Effectively enlisting editors and reviewers at the targeted journals as part of the study represented “a clear violation” of PSU policies requiring institutional review board approval of research involving human subjects, Dr McLellan wrote to Dr Boghossian.

The project by Professor Boghossian and the co-authors – Helen Pluckrose, editor-in-chief of the opinion magazine Areo, and James Lindsay, an author and mathematician – is part of a history of ruses aimed at illuminating weaknesses in a system of academic publishing that relies heavily on trust and volunteer peer reviewers.

This particular type of hoax was a valuable addition to the genre for various reasons, Dr Boghossian said, including the fact that it exposed reputable publishers – Taylor & Francis, Springer Nature, Wiley-Blackwell and Sage – and a “specific kind of political activism in place of academic rigour”.

The hoax offered a message of resistance “to students who are being intellectually crippled by being taught resentful garbage like it’s factual and to academics who are bullied into treating grievance studies with kid gloves”, he said.

Some PSU faculty remain to be convinced. Ten academics and a graduate student signed a letter in the PSU student newspaper saying that the project was more about humiliating than offering constructive critiques of whatever its authors see as shortcomings in the fields that they attacked. “Nothing about this affair suggests anything but academic dishonesty and flat out disrespect of colleagues,” they write.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

The prosecution of people who criticise grievance studies is just confirming what these authors are trying to prove - prosecuting people who criticise will only backfire and convince more people about the cult-like properties of these grievance studies. The constructive response would had been to launch a reasoned/empirical response to counterargue their attempts. It is strange that the 11 signatories of that letter denouncing Dr Boghossian were done anonymously for fear of reprisal when in fact it was Dr Boghossian, instead of those 11, who is now at the threat of being fired. This just shows the level of misplaced victimhood of the 11.
The whole case is revealing. The authors were right to expose the relativist quagmire and absence of nerve that permits blatant rubbish to be taken seriously (although I don't see the activist politics as 'left wing'). The University is acting typically in its amour propre and its sophist use of ethical rules to defend an injustice. The anonymous protesters have predictably rushed to claim victim status as a standard response. The useful case made by the hoaxers has been ignored and hidden under the blustering outrage

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