Boghossian in a panic!


He thinks he’s going to be fired from his position at Portland State. That’s not necessarily the case, but Boghossian has been found guilty of ethical misconduct for his “grievance studies” exercise.

Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University and the only one of three researchers on the project to hold a full-time academic position, was found by his institutional review board to have committed research misconduct. Specifically, he failed to secure its approval before proceeding with research on human subjects — in this case, the journal editors and reviewers he was tricking with his absurd but seemingly well-researched papers.

Their defense is peculiar. James Lindsay literally says “It’s not actually scholarship”, Pluckrose says, “They can’t say we needed IRB approval…because there weren’t any real human subjects”, and that they couldn’t ask for IRB approval because that would tip off the (human) reviewers they were trying to trick. But that’s nonsense — of course you can do blind and double-blind studies on humans, IRBs approve those all the time. Here’s what they actually expected:

“An IRB protocol application should have been submitted to the Office of Research Integrity,” reads a determination letter from Portland state’s IRB dated last month. “University policy requires that all research involving human subjects conducted by faculty, other employees and students [on campus] must have prior review and approval by the IRB.”

Exactly. As an extra bonus, having an official declaration of exactly what they were trying to do and how they planned to analyze it ahead of time would have been more persuasive that they were actually doing a real study. But they weren’t, and they’ve even admitted it — if it’s not really scholarship, then what was it? I don’t know. Garbage? A publicity stunt? Propaganda?

It’s also the hypocrisy.

Over all, Christensen said he and Sears believe that Boghossian “wants to have it both ways.” That is, publicly presenting his project as a “rigorous study that exposed flaws in the peer-review system” while also “claiming that the hoax wasn’t a genuine study, and therefore IRB approval doesn’t apply.”

I don’t do research on humans, but even I know this kind of work demands IRB review (spider research doesn’t, at all), and I’m a bit shocked that they didn’t even discuss it with an IRB officer. I don’t even see any reason to expect that the application would be turned down, except possibly over its lack of rigor and poor foundation. By not going through the protocols — which even Boghossian admits are important and necessary — they did a disservice to research.

I agree with this assessment.

“We think that he did commit academic fraud, by design, and that some professional sanctions might be warranted,” Christensen continued. Boghossian and his colleagues “did misrepresent themselves, they did falsify their evidence and they did commit a serious infraction of research misconduct by deceiving these editors, wasting the time of the readers and then publicly slandering the journals and their fields. It is the right of any university to investigate fraud perpetrated by its employees.”

They also wasted the time of reviewers — you know that reviewing papers is unpaid service work for professors, right?

But guess who is defending Boghossian: Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker. Of course.

At least we’ve got the authors on record now admitting that their “study” wasn’t a study, and wasn’t even any kind of scholarship at all.

Comments

  1. crebit says

    Really, you don’t need review or approval for animal research? Is there not enough love for spiders, or is this true for your zebrafish and the cuddlier species too?

    Btw, the Bhogossian affair reminds me a lot of this one, just add political partisanship:

    No Stomach Pills, But Many Legal Bills

    It was an academic research project, but it left a decidedly bitter taste with many of the restaurant owners who were its subjects.

    And it has meant a legal bellyache for Columbia University and the faculty member who cooked up the project.

    In August 2001, Francis J. Flynn, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, sent letters to many New York City restaurants saying he had suffered severe food poisoning while eating there. The restaurants included culinary stars like La Grenouille and Aureole and popular bistros like Chez Josephine, which is owned by Jean-Claude Baker, above.

    After a graphic description of gastrointestinal reaction, including pain that Mr. Flynn said had sent him to his bathroom floor, the letters said he expected that ”you will respond accordingly.” He did not indicate what such a response might be.

    Several weeks later, Mr. Flynn sent a second round of letters to the restaurants. He said there had, in fact, been no food poisoning, and apologized for the ”stress and turmoil” caused by the fabricated accusation, which he called ”a mistake in judgment.” He revealed that he had been seeking data for a study on ”vendor response to consumer complaints.”

    But his admission just sent the pot to a higher boil. The owners of two dozen restaurants sued Mr. Flynn and Columbia. Their claims, including libel and infliction of emotional distress, cited fears that the poisoning accusation would damage their reputations and business, though none said this had occurred.

    Today, complaints by only three of the owners are alive, after court rulings on motions by Columbia and Mr. Flynn to dismiss the suits. Under the rulings, Mr. Baker and Frank Valenza, the owner of Restaurant 222 on the Upper West Side until it closed last year, can go to trial on their emotional distress claims; Nicholas Criscitelli of Da Nico in Little Italy can do so on his libel and misrepresentation claims.

    The emotional distress claims of the others were dismissed as not specific enough. But a lawyer for those owners, Thomas R. Moore, said last week that the ruling allowed them to submit more specifics in an effort to revive their claims, and that many would.

    Mr. Flynn’s lawyer, Arthur M. Toback, said he and his client, who still teaches at Columbia, would not comment, and neither would a spokeswoman for the university.

  2. says

    Invertebrates require no approval. If I didn’t love them so much, I could take a chainsaw to my babies and no one would care.

    Zebrafish do require IACUC approval, but research on embryos gets kind of rubber-stamped.

  3. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Meh. He can always fall back on that lucrative IDW grift and convince supposedly skeptical people to send him thousands of dollars every month for mumbling “SJW BAD” online.

  4. says

    IMO, Bhogossian has his covetous eye on all that green Lobster Daddy Peterson is pulling down on Patreon every month and wants a cut of that action. He even has his own “ZOMG MUH FREEZE PEACH sacrificed on the altar of political correctness!!!1!” narrative all ready for the rubes now…

  5. says

    James Lindsay literally says “It’s not actually scholarship”

    If ethical review is all about making sure that the benefits are greater than the costs, Lindsay’s defense is kind of like saying, “but there weren’t any benefits to speak of!” Isn’t this the same guy who claimed to spend 90 hours a week on this project?

  6. says

    Yeah, I don’t think he’ll have to worry about money. There’s good cash in right-wing martyrdom.

    Me, on the other hand, I get told I’m pandering to trans people for all the clicks and power and money and to build my empire, which I find hilarious. Wish I knew where capitalist market forces were hiding that funnel dollars into the pockets of people who support the causes of oppressed minorities.

  7. keinsignal says

    I’m not usually the first one on the Pinker hatewagon, but his response…

    It saps the credibility of the university just when it is under attack from demagogues and know-nothings […] I have often been asked, ‘Why should we trust anything coming out of a university, like the claim of global warming? Everyone knows that universities allow only a narrow range of politically correct dogma, and punish anyone with a contrary opinion.’ Your action, which surely will get lavish coverage in right-wing media, will make life harder for those of us who defend universities against this charge.

    Did he even read what he wrote? That’s not an argument for giving Boghossian a pass, that’s an argument why he shouldn’t have pulled the stunt in the first place! (And does Pinker really think what he’s doing is defending academia? He’s given the trolls more ammo than any halfway serious academic I can think of.)

  8. says

    According to Pinker, the way to defend the integrity of the university is to have no ethical standards for conduct, and the way to avoid the specter of “political correctness” is to obey the judgments of alt-right anti-intellectuals about what is politically acceptable.

    Because Science(TM)!

  9. says

    I looked at Twitter in hopes of finding more humorous takes on the story. But I think his supporters may have heard about this story before we did. The “martyr for free speech” narrative is in full force, as is the waffly perspective that he only deserves a slap on the wrist. Nobody even bothers to defend the ethics of Boghossian’s “study” because they don’t even think that’s what it’s about.

  10. firsttimelongtime says

    Truly unbelievable that PZ is laying blame at the feet of the hoaxers here. Question: has any hoaxer, ever, applied for and received IRB approval before pulling off their hoax? It’s a time honored tradition, the whole point of which is secrecy!

    But this bit really kills me, “They also wasted the time of reviewers — you know that reviewing papers is unpaid service work for professors, right?”

    I mean, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. These reviewers are, in part, the ‘subjects’ of Boghossian’s experiment. In many cases instead of identifying Boghossian’s papers as fake, the reviewers recommended them for publication. That’s not wasting a reviewer’s time, that’s exposing them as having wasted their time as a reviewer from the beginning. If someone can review a fake paper and then recommend it for an award, then they have no business reviewing papers at all. They’re a fraud. Those are the people toward which you should direct your ire, not the people who exposed them as frauds.

    You’re letting your politics get in the way of seeing the truth here. Science has to have some standards, right?

  11. says

    I didn’t need a badly designed, poorly executed “study” to learn that there are lazy reviewers in academia. Anyone could have predicted the outcome: there are bad journals and bad reviewers and bad editors, and if you fling enough shit you’ll find some that sticks somewhere.

    Yes, the reviewers are the subjects of his I-won’t-dignify-it-with-the-label “experiment”. The reviewers are humans. That’s why you have to let ethics experts look at your protocols first. If I design a kitten-smushing experiment, I don’t get to argue my way out of IRB review by shouting that the kittens are the subject of my experiment, therefore they don’t get a say. That’s irrelevant.

    Now also, sure, we should weed out incompetent reviewers. But Boghossian & Co. went further than that, saying that we should weed out entire disciplines. It’d be like me pointing out that Paul Davies keeps publishing garbage papers on his “new”, wrong theory about cancer, therefore all physicists and all cancer researchers should be fired.

  12. says

    Also, yes, science has to have some standards. That’s the whole purpose of IRBs — to set ethical standards for experimentation. Boghossian & Co. violated scientific standards. That’s what PSU has determined.

  13. says

    firsttimelongtime @12,
    Pshh “time honored tradition” carries no weight in an ethical investigation, and no weight with me. You’re saying that of course they didn’t apply for IRB approval because they would have been rejected–so you’re saying the hoax could not possibly have been ethical?

    Point in fact, there are lots of psychology studies that deceive their human subjects, and yet still manage to get IRB approval. And usually subjects get compensated for their participation.

    I don’t know if this study could have ever gotten IRB approval, but there are some really obvious steps they could have taken to reduce harm. For instance, withdraw the papers after they’re accepted and before they’re published. By the time they’re accepted, they’ve already gotten the “evidence” they wanted. Publishing the papers and letting them sit for months before revealing the hoax is pointless.

    And saying that reviewers were already wasting their time on “fraudulent” fields–isn’t that assuming Boghossian & pals’ conclusions before they’ve even conducted their hoax? You could just as well justify harming any group you don’t like, by claiming that they’re already harming themselves, according to you.

  14. monad says

    @12 firsttimelongtime:

    These reviewers are, in part, the ‘subjects’ of Boghossian’s experiment.

    What experiment? The hoax I read didn’t sound like one; it had no procedure, no control group, and no possible outcome except the one they wanted. They just kept submitting papers until some got through, either less-bad papers or in more-bad journals, and then pretended that proved their hypothesis that something was peculiarly wrong in those fields.

    And it sounds like Lindsay and Pluckrose don’t consider it an experiment if they don’t think it is scholarship or had human test subjects. It’s a shame – they could provided real data if they had made sure there was a proper experimental design before they wasted other scholars’ time with it. Maybe someone else could have caught the problem, say some sort of approval board.

  15. says

    They just kept submitting papers until some got through, either less-bad papers or in more-bad journals, and then pretended that proved their hypothesis that something was peculiarly wrong in those fields.

    Interestingly, It think that if you’re willing to fake your data (as Pluckrose, Lindsay, & Boghossian were), it’s probable that you could get papers through p-chem, chem, or materials science journals pretty easily. To know for sure would require doing research I wouldn’t be interested in doing, but it’s highly unlikely that so-called “hard sciences” have adequate peer review to prevent the publication of papers with faked data. Some journals will have the money to prevent that in most cases, but you can always (as PLB did) simply downshift your publication targets until you succeed.

    Hell, the Lancet published bullshit about tracheal transplants. Is medical research a fraudulent, worthless field? Of course not.

  16. monad says

    Yeah. Seeing as how none of their initial articles got published at all, until they either spiced them up with fake data or made them much closer to real arguments, one could equally well pretend the results were “fields like gender studies hold up to fraud unusually well.” Without any actual comparison to fields like chem or medical research, there’s no way to decide.

    I meant to add at firsttimelongtime:

    In many cases instead of identifying Boghossian’s papers as fake, the reviewers recommended them for publication. That’s not wasting a reviewer’s time, that’s exposing them as having wasted their time as a reviewer from the beginning.

    And the many cases where reviewers did reject the papers? Including some where they found some nice things to say while turning them down, and so got slammed for their trouble in Aero Magazine despite doing their job properly? What does their wasted time count for? Maybe you can say they are fair collateral damage, but I would have liked to have somebody less biased than Lindsay, Boghossian, and Pluckrose make sure in advance.

  17. Zeppelin says

    You know what would have made their “experiment” actually sort of useful? If they’d submitted equivalently nonsensical papers to journals in all sorts of disciplines, not just the one they had a grudge against.

    Then at least we could have started to compare the reliability of peer review in different fields. As it stands, all this “experiment” tells us is “sometimes peer review fails”. And we knew that already. Is the rate of failure in the social sciences unusually high? We don’t know, because we have no basis of comparison and they didn’t bother to create one.

  18. says

    Crip Dyke (#18):

    … it’s highly unlikely that so-called “hard sciences” have adequate peer review to prevent the publication of papers with faked data.

    I found 152 entries in the RetractionWatch database for physics and chemistry articles retracted because the authors fabricated or falsified their data and/or results. So, yeah, it definitely happens.

  19. DanDare says

    Their hoax was entirely political, not scientific.
    They used their academic creds to perpetrate a manipulative political stunt.
    They have leveraged the emotive response to further their political goal.
    Firing him is the least response to be expected.

  20. Pablo Campos says

    I could sort of understand that Boghossian and his ilk were attempting to reveal the perceived “excesses” of certain fields but from what I’ve been reading and researching they take it to the extreme and call the fields of little use. From here they project their dislike for the Humanities and Social Sciences in general. This is very bad. As someone who is dabbling in a degree in anthropology, linguistics and history I encounter otherwise smart and open minded sciency people who are chronically ignorant or illiterate when it comes to history, peoples, and religion. When I point out their lack of expertise or misconceptions I’m called a apologist or a regressive Leftist. I’m no religious person and I consider myself secular so when I try to correct the record it’s not because I’m defending religion, nor because I’m a religious zealot nor to be “PC” but out of expertise. This is not to disparage science or those who practice it. There’re experts in their fields and rightfully so. And others are experts in their own fields. Anyway what I’m trying to say is that while Boghossian may want to “correct” flaws in certain fields he (whether on purpose or not) lazily lumps most to all of the fields related to the Humanities together as flawed. Also I need to rant that Pinker and Peterson are hacks. The former has been criticized by historians for his lack of expertise in the field and he constantly distorts history for his own gain. Peterson is just terrible. Period.

  21. says

    I was curious about whether previous academic hoaxes ever underwent ethical review, so I did some research. I blogged about it.

    I couldn’t find any examples, but I learned that John Bohannon’s 2013 hoax on open access papers, despite having a lot more scruples than PL&B, is frequently criticized on the grounds that it should have gotten IRB approval. He likely escaped because he’s not really an academic.

  22. chrislawson says

    @firsttimelongtime–

    Researchers get ethics approval for experiments that involve hoaxing/deceiving subjects all the time. If anything, it is considered more important to get ethics approval for experiments that involve deception.

    You seem to be under the misapprehension that there is only one ethics committee in the world and that committee is made up exclusively of reviewers for humanities journals. There is basically a near-zero probability that submitting a study proposal to one’s own university ethics committee will tip off prospective academic reviewers.

    Finally, if you think this was a valuable exercise, please consider the testable hypothesis. As far as I can see, it’s “we can falsify data and modify papers until they get accepted by some journals we don’t like”, which as has been pointed out many times upthread, does not need an experiment to verify. Even the most prestigious journals publish crap from time to time and no journal is able to psychically reject a paper due to fraudulent data — the only way to catch fake data is replication and/or data auditing.

    To quote:

    “We’ve learned that when you send in a convincing paper full of fake data, you can get it published. But we’ve known that for decades,” said Ivan Oransky, from the site Retraction Watch.

    If you look at the Retraction Watch site, you will find that the researcher with the largest number of retracted papers (183!!!) was publishing in critical medical fields (i.e. treatment of cancer) and getting published in respected journals like Anaesthesia. If you look at the top 10 list of most highly cited retracted papers, you will see that all of them are hard biomedical papers, mostly in elite journals like NEJM, the Lancet, Cell, etc. The point I’m trying to get across is that this hoax “study” adds nothing to our understanding of the problem of shoddy academic publication and is designed not to enlighten but to focus distrust and dismissal of any academic finding that does not support a conservative social agenda. And as bad as it is to publish a patently ridiculous article about sexual behaviour of dogs in parks, the harm is nothing compared to the demonstrable presence of fraudulent papers in prestige journals influencing oncologists’ decisions on how to treat cancer.

  23. chrislawson says

    Interestingly, #6 on Retraction Watch’s top 10 most highly cited retracted papers had nothing to do with research fraud or dodgy analysis. It was the paper describing a computer program called TREEFINDER that analyses phylogenetic trees…and after the paper was published the lead author changed the software licence to one that excluded scientists in certain territories. As a result, the journal (BMC Evolutionary Biology) explained that this violated their publication criteria and retracted the paper. (Not fraud, but IMO an equally egregious form of scientific misconduct.)

  24. says

    Good grief. Searching Retraction Watch with nothing but “Hoax Paper” as criteria lists five retractions, all by you-know-who, which kinda indicates that the website created a new search keyword just for them.

  25. Ichthyic says

    from the article cited:

    Portland State, “like many college campuses, is becoming an ideological community and I’ve demonstrated that I don’t fit the mold.”

    or maybe they recognize you’re just being an asshole for asshole’s sake, and they don’t fucking want you any more, Petey.

    fuck knows what university would.

  26. Ichthyic says

    Monad @17 has it exactly right.

    that is what happened, nothing more, nothing less.

    Petey and Co made a pretense at “researching” just out of sheer spite, and formed their conclusions before they even started.

    they literally made a mockery out of the very thing they were trying to accomplish.

    anyone who thinks there was ANYTHING positive to this stunt is a complete and utter idiot, full stop.

  27. Ichthyic says

    Question: has any hoaxer, ever, applied for and received IRB approval before pulling off their hoax? It’s a time honored tradition, the whole point of which is secrecy!

    and there you have it, see?

    complete ignorant dolt speaks up to provide evidence in support of my previous statement.

    and more will repeat, because they are entirely ignorant shits who know nothing about how to do research, nothing about science, nothing about philosophy, and have nothing but an empty voice they shout with.

  28. hemidactylus says

    33- Ichthyic

    and more will repeat, because they are entirely ignorant shits who know nothing about how to do research, nothing about science, nothing about philosophy, and have nothing but an empty voice they shout with.

    That’s a bit over the top if targeted at Boghossian. I think Boghossian knows some philosophy and perhaps something about conducting research. The problem, in this case, rests in crossing the line on ethics (or IRB). This situation adds to my dissatisfaction with him.

    Thankfully Magnabosco and others are developing his street epistemology so that interesting approach doesn’t suffer too. There are parts of Boghossian’s book that put me off, but the approach, though not unique as elenchus, is valuable in not triggering problematic factually oriented zero sum debate that goes nowhere. There’s a fine line between triggering puzzlement and reactant dissonance. I’d have added avoiding backfire effect when tapping into worldviews, but the backfire effect has failed to replicate.

    Unfortunately Boghossian himself leaves much to be desired and has jumped on a culture war bandwagon alongside some of the other new atheists (or intellectual dark webbers) and this hoax paper controversy is just a byproduct of that descent. After other stuff he’s done I’ve pretty much given up on him. He goes far beyond inducing aporia in me. Reactance yes.

    Actually I’ve dabbled with his Atheos app and it seems OK so far. But had to pay to unlock full content.

  29. khms says

    #34 @hemidactylus

    33- Ichthyic

    and more will repeat, because they are entirely ignorant shits who know nothing about how to do research, nothing about science, nothing about philosophy, and have nothing but an empty voice they shout with.

    That’s a bit over the top if targeted at Boghossian.

    I suspect it was targetting @firsttimelongtime, given that it followed a quote from his #12.

  30. says

    Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy

    He belongs to the philosophical school of Having your cake and Eating it-ism.

    firsttimelongtime

    Question: has any hoaxer, ever, applied for and received IRB approval before pulling off their hoax? It’s a time honored tradition, the whole point of which is secrecy!

    Getting approval doesn’t mean you necessarily tell the subjects.

    These reviewers are, in part, the ‘subjects’ of Boghossian’s experiment.

    Seems like you belong to that philosophical school as well…

    CD

    Hell, the Lancet published bullshit about tracheal transplants. Is medical research a fraudulent, worthless field? Of course not.

    Do I need to mention Wakefield, MMR vaccine and autism? That publication is still costing actual lives.

  31. latsot says

    They also wasted the time of reviewers — you know that reviewing papers is unpaid service work for professors, right?

    Nonsense. It is mostly unpaid work for students.

    At a guess I reviewed about a hundred papers when I was a student. I’m not complaining, it’s part of training. But I sure as shit didn’t get paid. It is absolute bullshit that professors are the ones doing peer review most of the time.

  32. says

    I’ve never passed on reviewing to my students, so I guess I’m not familiar with that practice; when I was a post-doc, my advisor did give me a couple of papers to go over, but it was because they were on topics I was more informed about.

    This complaint really doesn’t change my point — someone got suckered into doing uncompensated work for the Boghossian game.

  33. joebiohorn says

    OK, I guessI was an absolute sucker, always personally reviewing papers and grant proposals submitted to me: I took it as part of my responsibility to the system since I had papers and proposals reviewed by others. The concept that one might be paid to do a review or that one might pass it along to students just never crossed my mind. What was I thinking? In my defense, I never had any sense that distinguished colleagues on many grant review panels (e.g., NIH Study Sections, Howard Hughes Fellowships) behaved any differently. Perhaps the distinguished PZ moves in different, more enlightened, circles.

  34. firsttimelongtime says

    “Also, yes, science has to have some standards. That’s the whole purpose of IRBs — to set ethical standards for experimentation. Boghossian & Co. violated scientific standards. That’s what PSU has determined.”

    Why are you not concerned about the standards of the journals/fields to which Boghossian & Co. submitted their papers? You’re doing a lot of whistleblower-blaming, and to the extent they violated standards which may or may not have been readily apparent to them, they should be admonished. But please spare a word or two for the people who were taken in – willingly – by the hoax. These are highly important, relevant fields that need and deserve the same rigorous standards of scholarship that are applied in other fields. I’m getting a sense of the soft bigotry of low expectations here and that doesn’t help anyone, least of all those fields which many Americans now think are a joke. You seem to think the hoax Boghossian pulled off could have just as easily been done in a ‘harder’ field like Math of Physics or Biology, but I am not convinced. I think it would be near impossible today to submit a fake paper (using the same methodology) to a journal in one of those fields and have it win an award.

  35. mesh says

    Acknowledging the existence of incompetent reviewers in academia is not holding low expectations for a particular field. Reviewers are human beings susceptible to incompetence wherever they work your incredulity notwithstanding.

    Math isn’t exactly a priority target in the war on political correctness which is highly convenient for your preconceptions. Nonetheless, I’m sure people here will take your informed opinion to heart after they first had to educate you on the “time honored tradition” of deception in research.

  36. KG says

    joebiohorn@40,

    WTF do you think you’re talking about? It’s far from obvious who you are addressing, or why, @39, and PZ made clear @38 that he, like you, never passes on papers for review to students.

  37. joebiohorn says

    KG@ 43 I’m sorry if you were unable to make the connection, but I was really responding to the nonsense posted by latsot@37. I’ll try to remember to connect all the dots next time.

  38. KG says

    joebiohorn@44,

    No, that doesn’t make it any clearer. The fact that PZ’s remark was stated in a humorous way doesn’t mean latsot is showing a lack of humour by questioning an assumption it appears to make – that professors review the papers they are sent themselves.

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