Was Peter Boghossian Silenced?

Was Peter Boghossian Silenced?
Fraud on Keyboard, by Mike Lawrence, https://www.flickr.com/photos/157270154@N05/26707092409

In part two of this series, here, I discuss the cases of Peter Boghossian and Beverly Gage, the final two academics discussed in the Twitter thread by the Economist on October 19, 2021. Part one discussed the controversy surrounding Kathleen Stock.

During this discussion of academics silenced by a stifling orthodoxy—in fact, between the release of part one of this series and this piece—both Kathleen Stock and Peter Boghossian have now confirmed that they will be joining the University of Austin as founding faculty members. The University of Austin is a new organization founded by Pano Kanelos, formerly of St. John’s College and funded by Cicero Research, the nonprofit run by Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale. The university is not accredited yet, and does not offer any degrees, but they plan to launch a Masters in Entrepreneurship and Leadership in 2022, followed by others. The board of advisors consists of such illustrious heterodox thinkers as Bari Weiss, Heather Heying, Glenn Loury, Steven Pinker, Dorian Abbot, Larry Summers, Andrew Sullivan, and Jonathan Katz.

Peter Boghossian

Image from Twitter @TheEconomist

When required to describe himself pre-resignation, Boghossian would say he was “a non-tenure track assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University who was recently denied promotion to associate professor.” This phrase appeared in his Twitter bio (it now says something else) and the author description on his paper arguing to reinstate his hoax paper. The first tweet about Boghossian implies that his resignation from Portland State University is the result of his criticism of “post-modern ideology” by placing the two sentences one after the other. The thread makes no other claims about why he resigned. Boghossian’s resignation letter claims that his school has become a place where students are afraid to speak openly and honestly, ironically linking to a video of students being given a platform to air their objection to the “social justice agenda” at the school. 

In his resignation letter, Boghossian claims he faced “retaliation” for simply asking questions about the DEI efforts of his school. As support for this claim, he brings up a Title IX accusation from 2017, for which he was cleared. He was advised not to make discriminatory remarks about members of protected classes, which was apparently deeply offensive to him and constituted censorship. He claims that a stunt (he and James Lindsay, a blogger and anti-CRT activist, wrote a fake paper satirizing gender studies, which they got published through a low-impact “pay what you will” journal after being rejected from some higher-impact venues) prompted retaliation such as sharpied messages on bathroom stalls on campus and a bag of feces in front his office (this latter claim has not been corroborated beyond). He provides a photo of one message on a bathroom stall reading “Peter Boghossian is a secret Nazi” but no other evidence. Apparently, the university punished him for asking them to act on the bag incident, which is again not substantiated and makes little sense to anyone acquainted with university disciplinary processes. Also presented as retaliation to his supposed DEI-related questions is his investigation for research misconduct (detailed below). 

Other claims of “retaliation” include someone speaking during a panel he was doing with Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying (now known for their contributions to ivermectin conspiracy theories), a fire alarm going off, an activist pulling a mic cord during a talk with James Damore (the talk was not stopped), and someone posting flyers on campus. The first PSU employee I spoke with told me the flyers simply displayed verbatim quotes of Boghossian’s. Another observer told me they saw a poster showing him as Pinocchio, as a reference to his having lied about the Sokal Squared hoax. What about these events should lead us to believe that he was targeted for his skepticism of postmodernism, as the Economist claims, is unclear. As a theoretical framework, postmodernism is far from the only one being actively pursued by academics. The book that supposedly summarizes the hoaxers’ understanding of postmodernism casts doubt on whether anyone involved can accurately describe it. 

There do not appear to have been any large-scale public demands for Boghossian’s firing, and the university did not request his resignation. Boghossian simply did not enjoy being unpopular and removed himself from his own job. It is perhaps appropriate that his resignation letter is hosted on Bari Weiss’s extremely lucrative substack, as Weiss, too, quit her own job due to being unpopular at work and called it “cancel culture.”

It is also strange that Boghossian would be so concerned about people feeling free to explore their academic and philosophical interests without undue interference, given his tendency to declare his unwillingness to tolerate the beliefs he considers to be “wokeness.” But he feels that his life and work have been disturbed by objections to his academic output, so the responsible thing to do would be to investigate the claims related to the act he feels most caused the retaliation he alleges: the Sokal Squared Hoax.

The hoax

The Sokal Squared hoax, also called the Grievance Studies hoax, was a prank pulled by then-Associate-Professor Boghossian and two activist bloggers, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose. It was undertaken to unmask the dangers of postmodernist thought. The trio wrote twenty fake articles under pseudonyms and attempted to get them published in various journals that focus on gender studies, queer studies, critical race studies, and other fields related to identity. The article linked in the Economist’s thread describes Boghossian’s participation in the Sokal Squared Hoax as an attempt to “expose what he saw as a willingness to publish anything that used the right jargon.” It claims that seven were published, and suggests that this feat shows the state of universities: that they are no longer places for free inquiry but factories for producing social justice ideologies.

Seven papers were not published, and none were published as initially submitted. Four were published, and only after extensive review which required significant rewriting, removal of certain claims, and adding support to others. The Economist article claims that the published articles include “one on “queer performativity” in urban dog parks, and one calling astronomy imperialist and suggesting physics departments study interpretive dance.” The astronomy paper was not accepted or published, nor does it suggest that physics departments should study interpretive dance (it suggests that feminist interpretive dancers should do dances about astronomy), but the journalists would have to have verified Boghossian’s claims by reading the paper or its reviewer comments, both of which are publicly available, to find that out.

Summarizing the hoax in Vox, Zack Beauchamp points out some of the main issues with the project as a whole. For one, as political scientist Matt Blackwell points out, they did not bother to engage in anything resembling a scientific method. They started from their conclusion, that “identity” studies would be accepted uncritically because the field is irredeemably corrupt, and only focused their efforts on getting papers published there. They did not try to pass off any papers in other humanities disciplines, or in STEM fields. They also sent some papers to low-impact journals that rarely get cited, and whose editorial board members are largely not academically affiliated, such as the Journal of Poetry Therapy.

An ideology factory?

When the trio submitted the papers, most were rejected, but those that reviewers did think showed promise received comments that actually demanded rigor, not ideological and jargonistic conformity. The hosts of the podcast “I Don’t Speak German” covered the hoax in a recent two-part series, and they helpfully collected all of the papers and their reviewer comments in their show notes. In the case of the astronomy paper, which received a “reject (revise and resubmit)” verdict, reviewer comments indicated serious doubts about the paper as submitted. Reviewer 1 says, “I found the paper disappointing and unconvincing. If the paper is to be published in WSIF, it requires quite a bit of reworking.” They go on to object to claims that “are rarely backed up by arguments.” Reviewer 2 agrees that the paper “requires major revisions and reworking in order to strengthen its overall argument for feminist astronomy.” 

One of the primary aims of the hoax was to show that one could simply name drop some famous scholars and use some jargon, but Reviewer 1 corrects this, saying “it is not sufficient to cite a couple of old papers … feminist science studies has a long and rich history, and there are many, many papers which explore how the masculinist vision of the natural sciences has developed.” They also catch that some of the citations do not reflect the content of the work cited, remarking for example, “In the following sentence, there is a specific focus on astronomy, referring to Harding and Plumwood, neither of whom wrote specifically about astronomy.” Reviewer 2 asks, “where is the literature review?” and goes on to list many works that would be useful to the authors. They also suggest adding a case study with analysis, essentially suggesting a way to make the paper a real paper with some academic rigor to it. 

The main point of the paper is that there ought to be a feminist astronomy, which is not actually a difficult claim to substantiate. It is the other, weaker claims that the authors attempt (but fail) to conceal with jargon and complex writing style. Reviewer 2 notices the trick a bit, writing, “In my first quick read of the manuscript, I was fascinated by the possibilities of a feminist astronomy and beguiled by the diction and syntax. It was not until subsequent, more methodical reads, that many areas in need of attention became more apparent.”

One of the claims of the Sokal Squared trio is that there is an unfounded, unrigorous focus by “postmodernists” to legitimize other forms of knowledge, and that those forms of knowledge are themselves silly and non-empirical. However, the astronomy paper reviewers ask that the authors change their paper to specify what those knowledges are, what they can contribute to astronomy, and how. Reviewer 2 asks, “how are practitioners to do feminist astronomy, specifically?” and lists some feminist science studies methods that might be possible avenues for them to explore, and objects to the vagueness of the suggestion that feminist science scholars should do ethnography, feminist analysis of mythological analysis, and feminist interpretative dance.

The dog park paper was desk rejected, but the managing editor of the journal suggested that a re-attempt might be considered if the paper was rewritten. The re-attempt was apparently better written. The reviewers still had several revisions they would require before publishing, but they were generally positive about it. The biggest problem, which peer review is not designed to catch, is that this paper was based on fabricated data. Sneaking a paper through review by faking data is a pervasive problem that did not require a hoax of this kind to investigate, and it is under no circumstances to be seen as exclusively a problem in feminist and queer studies, or even the humanities. The website “Retraction Watch” maintains a collection of retractions on the basis of faked data, and a perusal of this collection suggests that STEM is not even close to being free of this issue. One of the things reviewers like best about the paper is that the fieldwork is deeply detailed and provides empirical evidence for something not previously demonstrated. Reviewers are unable to verify that the purported authors actually went to dog parks and did this fieldwork, so they could not know that it was made up. Reviewer 2 begins to recognize the issues that stem from the data being fabricated, wondering about how the author developed their plan for data collection: “It sounds to me like you did a kind of ethnography… but that’s not entirely clear here. Or are you drawing on qualitative methods in social behaviorism/symbolic interactionism?” Similarly, when the data is presented, they suggest, “I think it would be helpful to present some of these statistical data in a table.” They also notice that while the author claims to have taken field notes, they do not provide any excerpts, which would be standard. Interestingly, Helen Pluckrose claims in Areo Magazine that “We wanted to see if reviewers or editors would ask to see this data or question the conclusions we drew from it. They did not.” But a quick skim of the reviewer comments shows that they did.

The draft contained silly claims like that dogs could be defined as “oppressed” based on the fact that they “were engaging in queer behavior.” Reviewer 1 found this “reductive and inaccurate” and pointed out that it contradicts the other work cited in the paper. They provided multiple other works that the authors neglected to include. Reviewer 3 agrees that this is not substantiated enough. In fact, Reviewer 1 offers an extremely detailed, line-by-line review explicitly suggesting ways to change, add to, and remove elements of the paper in such a way that simply following their clear and actionable advice would vastly improve the paper empirically and theoretically. Reviewer 2 notes that the paper might accidentally suggest that violence between animals is equivalent to that between humans, which is discussed and critiqued in other work, and asks the author to clarify their position and engage with the existing research. Reviewer 3 asks for more careful and specific exploration of why the author thinks “rape” is an appropriate descriptor for uninvited sexual behavior between dogs and points out that the author does not have a strong basis for determining when humping was “resisted” or not, given they do not describe the body language of the humped dog or give any credentials suggesting they know about animal behavior. They, correctly, suggest that the paper would be better if it were about human interpretations of dog behavior rather than “dog rape culture” as the hoaxers try to sell it. The paper, as published, did make this change, contrary to the claims of the Economist.

The hoaxers tried to make “fur color” a factor in their analysis so that they could later argue that the journal accepted anything that seemed vaguely antiracist without interrogating it first, but that is not the case. Reviewer 2 suggested that they change this to talk about the dogs’ breeds, and see if they could make any conclusions about the owners’ race, demographic tendencies to own certain dog breeds, and attitudes toward the dogs’ behavior. Reviewer 3 rejected the relevance of fur color outright, saying “the analogy between fur color and race brings up many problematic questions about race, species, and conflation of different forms of oppression. My instinct here is best not include this section on fur color unless it is given significantly more attention and discussion.” Fur color was in fact absent from the accepted paper.

Boghossian, in his resignation letter, claims that the paper also recommends leashing male humans as we would male dogs, but the paper does not do this. It instead makes some extremely obvious metaphorical comments about ‘leashing’ men by stopping our culture from condoning rape.

In summary, the papers were either rejected outright, accepted but never published, or, in the case of just four papers, published after extensive rewriting but retracted on the basis of fraud. No Sokal Squared Hoax papers are currently published. Of the four that were, the reviewers essentially held their hands and led them to the information they needed to turn their papers into real academic works, by providing necessary citations, recommending ways to add support to their claims, and suggesting they remove the more outlandish and less-substantiated arguments in their papers. This was, ultimately, a demonstration of the peer review process working correctly. Just using niche jargon and arguing for “social justice” values was nowhere near enough for these papers to get through review, and the documentation shows that definitively. The fact that mainstream journalists took the claims of the trio at face value, to the point of reproducing outright lies about what was in the papers and how they were received, demonstrates a lack of journalistic ethics that has caused real harm to the pursuit of knowledge.

Ethical violations

Boghossian and journalists who cover him tend to describe his investigation for the Sokal Squared hoax as unfair retaliation for challenging the heterodoxy. The fact is that he really did violate research ethics. The procedure that should have been followed was for a protocol to be filed via PSU’s Institutional Review Board, which deals with human subjects research. Even when a researcher believes they should not have to file an IRB protocol, if human subjects are involved they need to file for exemption. Boghossian and others argue that it is silly to treat journal reviewers and editors as human subjects. This is, however, a completely normal process for ensuring that participants in research have their safety and privacy protected, and to document that their consent has been obtained for research on them to be published. Even in a case like this, in which the participants would have to be lied to initially, the IRB has provisions for how to secure consent after the fact. This is vital for protecting the individual rights of the people whose behavior or speech we are using as data. As a linguist, I have had to complete IRB protocols any time my research involved observation because while I was not subjecting them to any substances that could harm them, I was being given access to their names, activities, and other details that should not be compromised. I had to demonstrate that I was procuring informed consent from all my participants, that I was using pseudonyms for them, and that any identifying information was either in a physical lockbox or in encrypted files. Boghossian and his co-conspirators did none of this. They also claim that it is unnecessary as the reviewers are already anonymous. They might be, but using their words requires permission, and the editors of the journals are not anonymous. The Sokal trio redacted their names in the documents they released, but it is easy to go to the websites of the journals and find out who they were.

It’s also worth noting that the reviews for the submitted papers represent significant labor and expertise from a large number of academics, which was wasted on work that was never intended to further the field in which it was entered. The reviewers were diligent, respectful, and principled in their pursuit of rigorous research, and they were exploited. An IRB protocol would require the researchers to discuss this cost to the participants and find a way to offset it.

The participants claim that this was an audit rather than an experiment, and that this word game somehow absolves them of responsibility, but they have written a paper discussing the hoax, thereby placing it under the purview of research ethics.

Another element of the fraudulent nature of the hoax is that they signed an agreement with each journal that they were indeed the authors of the papers and had done the research themselves. They used false names, with invented academic affiliations and credentials, and they fabricated data. This is a clear case of fraud, which should naturally carry repercussions for an academic. Science, even science in which participants need to be lied to for part of the study, depends on trust and honesty. Only the people who designed and executed an experiment know what really happened. This hoax does not show what the trio said it did, but it does lay bare the vulnerability of honor systems in academic publishing. 

Having been found guilty of academic misconduct, the only consequences issued to Boghossian were that he was restricted from conducting human subjects research until he could finish a standard training on research ethics. This is a training every researcher is supposed to do before engaging in human subjects research, even before submitting an IRB protocol. I did the training in graduate school; it is neither difficult nor especially time-consuming, considering it is a crucial element of protecting the rights of the people who are making our research possible.

A larger pattern?

The next tweet in the Economist’s thread expands the field beyond Boghossian’s resignation to a claim that there have been 426 cases of scholars being targeted with demands for investigation, demotion, or censorship in the last five years. This is a reference to a report put out by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. This claim cleverly conflates students initiating complaints about professor conduct with demands for professional consequences, does not separate spurious complaints from legitimate ones, and confuses “scholars” with “cases,” assuming incorrectly that each case involves a different scholar. 

Image from Twitter @TheEconomist

The database from which FIRE generated their report has already been criticized for being poorly managed. The “threats from the left” include things like a copyright claim on a YouTube video uploaded by Bruce Gilley of Portland State University. On the topic of Gilley, another “attack from the left” claims that he was “subject to a petition demanding the retraction of his peer-reviewed paper” (the paper was technically peer-reviewed, in that it was desk rejected, but the Editor-In-Chief elected to ignore this decision and sent it out for review anyway, at which time reviewers disagreed on whether to reject it, and the tie-breaker was the same Editor-In-Chief). The database is desperately vague about many of the incidents, for example suggesting that Thomas Brennan “was terminated over his tweets about COVID and posts involving memes deemed racist and anti-Semitic.” In fact, he promulgated extemely anti-Semitic conspiracy theories involving the moon landing being fake, the atom bomb actually just being a lot of TNT, and COVID-19 being “a stunt to enslave humanity,” all in fulfillment of the prophecy of the mark of the beast. Was his termination an example of a threat to free speech? FIRE seems to think so, and it goes in the database as a politically motivated attack from the left.

For Inside Higher Ed, John Warner notes that the database does not include harassment and threats to academic freedom from outside the schools, such as from conservative outlet Campus Reform, which was the subject of an AAUP report detailing the way it mobilizes readers to demand the sanction and removal of professors it considers too left-leaning. For some strange reason, the FIRE report also does not include the incident at Boise State University in which a non-student fabricated a complaint that someone they knew had been made to feel degraded by a diversity and ethics course. This complaint resulted in the entire course being canceled, for reasons that remain unclear. Nor does it include any of the places (and there are several) where university boards and legislators are discussing banning Critical Race Theory because it offends people on the right. One reason FIRE might not be interested in including these threats from the right could be its funders, who champion conservative causes.

Beverly Gage

Finally, the Economist links to a story about Beverly Gage, who was pressured to resign from the Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy Programme at Yale University. Because this one really did happen the way Gage says it did, the Economist was not put in a position in which they might have to fact-check her story or evaluate the validity of any databases, a thing they appear not entirely equipped to do. As the article points out, Gage did not remove the materials considered central to the program, but added some relevant items about social justice movements. Nicholas Brady, one of the program’s two biggest donors, became offended by the content of this program and pressured her to change the materials presented therein, apparently upset that she had not been teaching it “the way Henry Kissinger would.” Brady and the other biggest donor, Charles Johnson, convinced the university to create a five-member board of advisors and even helped select the members. The board was extremely ideologically homogeneous, and did not reflect any other kind of diversity either, which Gage raised concerns about. She threatened to resign if the university did not rectify the issue, and when they did not, she followed through. Students and faculty agree that this represents a serious loss for the students. University President Peter Salovey wrote a letter expressing his regret that he did not try harder to improve the situation, but continued to assert that the donors are “wonderful members of our community” despite their successful attempts to interfere with the academic freedom of that community. He commits to re-evaluate how the community can “ensure that gifts we receive do not infringe on the academic freedom of our faculty.” So far, no tangible steps have been taken to do so, but perhaps with time and continued pressure from the academic community, some plan will materialize.

Images from Twitter @TheEconomist

It is unclear why “activist students” were mentioned in this thread, as the events mainly concern a conflict between an educator and her institution’s donors. Perhaps this was an attempt to connect this event to the two described earlier. In fact, the Stock/Boghossian incidents could not be more different from this one. Both Stock and Boghossian committed serious misconduct; Gage did not. Stock and Boghossian had the support of their institutions; Gage did not. Stock and Boghossian have been criticized by fellow academics for their poor contributions to their fields; Gage has not. Stock and Boghossian have gone on media tours lamenting their cancellation at the hands of some ideological orthodoxy among leftist students; Gage has not. Finally, the objections students had to Stock and Boghossian were entirely misrepresented in the media, while Gage has had her story more or less accurately told. 

Who is silenced?

Combining these three incidents under the umbrella of “academic freedom under threat” represents a serious problem with the way academic freedom is treated in public discourse. The disapproval of students from the left does not generally lead to any tangible consequences; administrations will support their employees, sometimes even in the face of overwhelming evidence of misconduct. Protests and criticisms by students are by and large appropriate exercise of free speech: it is entirely possible that some protesters have crossed a line—for example, if they committed an act of violence, threatened it, or published personal details that would allow someone to harm them—and any such cases are worth condemning, but the actions of a few unidentified individuals do not undo the legitimate accusations against Stock and Boghossian.

Unfortunately, the media has limited attention and a short memory for the perspectives of the students, and chooses to reproduce the claims of the professors without fact-checking them, even after the students’ conflicting perspectives are already on record. Students do not have the power to interfere with faculty’s academic freedom; this power is reserved for high-level donors, politicians, and well-funded political activist organizations. And these parties tend to attack from the right, as they did in the case of Gage. Even when a controversial figure has left their position, they find somewhere to land that can even provide them an even more powerful megaphone with which to pronounce their views and advocate for their political goals, as both Stock and Boghossian have done with the new University of Austin. So why do narratives about academic freedom so overwhelmingly focus on students, who have so little power to impact the administrative decisions of their schools? Perhaps the stifling orthodoxy is not the desire of these powerless students to see their institutions become more equitable: perhaps it is the tendency of the wealthy and powerful to work to maintain a status quo that gave them their power in the first place.