“No” is usually the right answer when an article is headlined with a question. Jesse Singal has authored an article in NY Magazine titled, Is a Portland Professor Being Railroaded by His University for Criticizing Social-Justice Research?, and think we can cut through all the garbage by simply saying “no.” Singal tries to present both sides, but one side is not at all convincing.
The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a mini forum which showcased a variety of different views on the subject. “The entire force of their stunt lies in the fact that they managed to get several satirical papers published,” wrote the University of Washington biologist Carl T. Bergstrom. “But it makes no sense to judge the health of a field by looking at what an insincere author can get through peer review.” On the other side was Yascha Mounk, a Harvard lecturer in government, who condemned the circling of the academic wagons and what he viewed as unfair attempts to undermine the hoaxsters. “[E]ven if all of the charges laid at the feet of Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian were true, they would have demonstrated a very worrying fact,” he wrote. “Some of the leading journals in areas like gender studies have failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit.”
I think Bergstrom already answered Mounck’s objection. You can find bad papers getting published in every field, even, for instance, molecular biology. That there are swarms of worthless submissions and that a few of them leak through is inevitable and to be expected; we shouldn’t be blithe about it, of course, and we should act to tighten up procedures where ever the problem arises, but there was no serious, responsible call to action by the “grievance studies” experiment, other than to simply abolish all of gender studies.
I would point to one extreme example of bad science in molecular biology: the ENCODE project. Does the existence of that badly executed and interpreted project mean that all of molecular biology has “failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit”? I don’t think so. And before you whine about the inclusion of morality as a criterion, I remind you that ENCODE cost $200 million dollars, and if you don’t think sucking away that much money lacks both scientific and moral consequences, well, I don’t think you’ve got much in the way of an intellectual contribution to make.
Here’s the money shot from Singal’s article, though, and why it’s safe to answer “no” to that question.
For the purposes of Peter Boghossian’s case, three facts about IRBs matter a great deal: “study” is defined rather broadly in the federal guidelines; possible risks to humans — even ones that non-IRB nerds may view as negligible — are taken very seriously; and IRBs tend to look especially closely at studies involving deception. For these and other reasons, each of the four IRB experts I spoke or emailed with agreed that yes, the grievance-studies hoax needed IRB approval; yes, it clearly involved human subjects; and no, PSU’s decision to investigate it on that front cannot be reasonably viewed, on its own, as politically motivated. In other words: This particular aspect of the university’s response smells more like a standard reaction to improperly vetted research than a witch hunt.
All the rest is noise; yes, people complain about the onerous paperwork of IRBs, and sometimes the committees tie up research, but only a fool would suggest that we get rid of them altogether.
Should IRBs (human subjects research approval committees) be dismantled? [Probably yes.] http://t.co/5mxhEycEA5
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) July 24, 2015
One other point is that Boghossian is afraid he might get fired. He should be! Not because this one “study”, but because he’s already on somewhat shaky ground. Boghossian is a non-tenured, non-tenure track assistant professor! He has no path to promotion, and he’s probably on a year-by-year contract. This is not to say that it is a good thing how PSU manages their faculty: they have 9 tenured/tenure track philosophy faculty, an equal number of adjuncts, and 6 full time non-tenured instructors, of which Boghossian is one. He’s employed as long as his department finds him a useful contributor to their teaching needs, but if the negatives start to outweigh his utility, they could easily let him go at their next contract review. And this is academia…it’s not as if there aren’t heaps of philosophy Ph.D.s who’d love to get a full-time appointment in a lovely city like Portland.
I doubt that this fuck-up he’s made will get him fired, but it will put a black mark on his record, and administrators will remember it. I would suspect that he’s already signed a contract for next year — no one likes last minute, rushed job searches to fill an abruptly vacated position — so what will be interesting is what PSU does next year, after all the hubbub about this issue has died down, and it’s decided whether his appointment is renewed.
If I were him, I’d be shopping my CV around right now. Although he might be instead banking on notoriety to help him squeeze donations out of alt-right fanbois, since he’ll have his very own grievance to tout.