Ethical review of academic hoaxes

I learned from PZ that Peter Boghossian is under ethical investigation for his “grievance studies” hoax.  Peter Boghossian was one of three authors of the hoax, but the other two (James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose) do not hold academic positions, so are unlikely to be sanctioned.

An institutional review board (IRB) concluded that by involving journal editors and reviewers, they were conducting research on human subjects, and per standard policy they should have gotten IRB approval before beginning.  Everyone–including Boghossian’s defenders–suspects that if he sought IRB approval, he would have been rejected.

Note, there are plenty of experiments that deceive human subjects and still get IRB approval, but I suspect this particular hoax would encounter problems beyond mere deception.  They were undergoing peer review, which is rather arduous labor to get from non-consenting subjects.  The hoax also involved fabricating data, and the IRB decision on that matter is still pending.  I would also say that the hoax did not have much scholarly merit, which is a legitimate consideration for these ethical reviews.

Boghossian’s defenders, of course, are spinning a “martyr for free speech” narrative.  If the target of his hoax were something more acceptable, would he still have been criticized on ethical grounds?

Well, actually…

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On the obsession with penis size and race

cn: discussion of genitals, porn

PZ brought to my attention a “joke” where a comedian mocked the penis size of Asians. My emotional response to this joke is not offense, but rather concern and bemusement.

Concern, because this obsession with penis size sounds hazardous to your health. I would be very surprised if psychologists found that an obsession with penis size were not associated with mental health problems. It’s like if someone “jokingly” mocks another group for not getting smash drunk all the time.

Bemusement, because I knew in the abstract that many people care about penis size, but it still feels unreal. How does this cultural obsession even get transmitted between generations? It’s not a normal topic for kid’s television, or for conversations between parents and children. Are sex ed teachers directly telling kids about the importance of a good dick? Or maybe it mostly affects those souls so unfortunate as to enjoy “edgy” stand-up comics? Or maybe it comes from porn? Hmm, that last one might be the front runner.

As I was reflecting on this, I grew attached to the hypothesis that it’s mostly White people who care about penis size, and Asian people only care insofar as they’ve been affected by cultural imperialism and stereotyping. Of course, a hypothesis demands evidence, and this one is impossible to google. All I could find were think pieces talking about how racist the Asian stereotype is (no, duh).

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The skeptical mythology of postmodernism

Ever since I started blogging in 2007, one of the boogeymen of the skeptical movement was so-called postmodernism. Postmodernism, as skeptics understood it, was an ideology where anything goes. It was extreme moral relativism. It was the idea that truth itself was a social construct. It was the idea that no one could know anything, and yet people could have their own personal truths, which may differ from one another. In short, it was one of skepticism’s antitheses.

Transcript: You have your truth, and I have mine. All knowledge is theory-laden. All perception is internal to the perceiver. There is no meaningful "reality." In the shadow cast by this knowledge, I decide for myself what is good and what is not. Caption: Postmodernism is the only explanation for black licorice.

Source: SMBC. I think the best way to describe the skeptical concept of postmodernism is by showing how skeptics choose to portray it in parodies.

Even in 2007, this seemed kind of sketchy to me. I recall writing a post titled “What’s with postmodernism?” wherein I complained that the term was inconsistently defined, and trusted sources offered a completely different picture of what postmodernism really was. Now that I have more experience in academia, and a much greater degree of cynicism about the skeptical movement, I feel more confident in simply calling bullshit. Postmodernism is a villain invented by skeptics, originally based on a real thing, but so far abstracted from reality that it may well be called mythology.

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Just how bad is evolutionary psychology?

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2012.  This is one of the things I had in mind when I recently wrote “So you want to discredit an academic field“.  It’s super old, so I felt it needed some light editing for clarity, and to remove references to old drama nobody cares about.

Both critics and defenders of evolutionary psychology (henceforth EP) agree that popular EP is terrible.  The question is, how deep does it go?  There are four possibilities:

  1. Journalists are misinterpreting and exaggerating studies.
  2. Journalists understand correctly, but pick out terrible studies from a generally reputable field.
  3. There are large sections of EP which are just bad, but attract more media attention.
  4. EP is rotten all the way through.

Case study: Argumentative Theory

The trouble is that you can hardly talk about EP without talking about specific examples of EP.  And if you only have a few examples, people can accuse you of not having a large enough survey.  But it’s hard to investigate more than a few examples, because we’re lazy and/or have jobs.

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So you want to discredit an academic field

Perhaps you’re an evolutionary biologist who thinks evolutionary psychology is too panadaptationist. Or you’re a creationist who thinks evolutionary biology is the devil’s handiwork. Maybe you think Freud is fraud. Or you think climate science is fake news produced by lizards. Perhaps you find postmodern theory to be a bunch of anti-scientific babble. Or perhaps you have a bee in your bonnet about how gender studies believes in “cisnormativity” in “the workplace”.

No matter your target, whether your crusade is honorable, foolish, or malevolent, discrediting an entire academic field is a tall order. After all, an academic field is the work of many very educated people, and you barely have enough time to read even a few pages. You have difficulty understanding what Gibberish Studies is even talking about (which is of course one of your critiques!), and you have a life outside of attacking academics, and also your writing deadline is tomorrow. What to do?

If discrediting an entire academic field is too ambitious, then perhaps it is also too ambitious for me to write a comprehensive guide telling you how to do it. This might fit into the demarcation problem in philosophy, but it’s an unsolved problem–anyway, who has time to read all that philosophy? I give you something more low-brow, simply a list of practical tips.

1. Get a degree

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Muddling the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect states that people with the lowest competence tend to overrate their competence, but people with the highest competence tend to underrate themselves. This was shown in 1999 paper by Dunning and Kruger.1 Here’s one of the figures from the paper:

A graph showing people's self-assessed ability, and actual test score. The bottom quartile gives themselves a rating in the 60 percentile, and the top quartile gives themselves a rating in the 75 percentile.

This figure shows results from a test on humor. People are scored based on how well their answers agree with those of professional comedians, and then they are asked to assess their own performance. There were similar results for tests on grammar and logic.

The Dunning-Kruger effect has entered popular wisdom, and is frequently brought up whenever people feel like they’re dealing with someone too stupid to know how stupid they are.  But does the research actually mean what people think it means?

Before reading into this subject, I must admit that I had a major misconception.  I thought that people’s self-assessment was actually anti-correlated with their competence.  I thought someone who knew nothing would actually be more confident than someone who knew a lot.  (This leads to an amusing dilemma: Should I choose to give myself a lower rating, because it would that increase posterior probability that I’m more competent?2)

But it is not true.  People who know nothing are less confident than people who know a lot.  People who know nothing are overconfident relative to their actual ability, but they are still not as confident as people who have high ability.

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Public ignorance/awareness of science

Have you ever read one of those news stories reporting that Americans are shockingly ignorant of science? For example, here’s an article saying that a quarter of Americans think the Sun orbits the Earth.

And if you found that shocking, brace yourself for the next one. According to this article, a quarter of Americans think the Sun orbits the Earth!

Okay, so both of the news articles are saying the same thing. But one of the articles is from 2014, and the other is from 1988. They’re both reporting on an NSF study, which has been repeated every couple years for three decades. They always ask whether the Sun orbits the Earth or the Earth orbits the Sun, and they consistently find that about a quarter of USians don’t know or get it wrong. They also ask if electrons are smaller than atoms, if lasers focus sound waves, and if antibiotics kill viruses.* News sources like to put the Sun/Earth statistic in their headlines, because it sounds the most shocking to readers.

You might guess from my tone that I’m a bit more apathetic about the whole thing. Yeah, it’s bad that USians are ignorant of elementary astronomy. But science is not a collection of factoids, and factoids are not the most important component of scientific literacy. As far as facts go, there are way too many for anyone to know all of them, and it’s difficult to judge which facts are more or less important for people to know.  If a fact is “basic” and “obvious”, that might make it socially unacceptable to be ignorant of it, but it also might make it less important to know, given how easy it is to look up the answer.  In my opinion, it’s far more important for people to understand scientific reasoning, like how experiments are designed, and how to read graphs.

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