Prof. Boghossian and co-authors’ reception of the letter.
On November 9th, Vanguard, Portland State University’s student newspaper ran a very strange article written not, it claims, by students but by twelve anonymous faculty members. This extraordinary missive takes the form of a letter to the student body criticizing one of their own colleagues, Peter Boghossian, who is also depicted in the accompanying image as a kind of grotesque comedy villain. (This image might have been chosen by student editors.) It nevertheless accuses Boghossian of lacking the collegial spirit and presenting some kind of threat to students’ education.
The letter focuses specifically on Boghossian’s involvement with the recent grievance studies probe led by James A. Lindsay, in which I also took part. Although the letter does not concern itself with me, it addresses our shared project and so I have decided to respond to it. I have done so by breaking it down into points and responding to them, much as I would if it were a submission to my own magazine, Areo. The letter is reproduced in bold italics and responded to below.
Their letter begins:
Dear Portland State students,
What should we make of the recent rash of hoax articles that supposedly “[reveal] deep problems in social sciences” and show “something has gone wrong in the university?” What does this mean for your education?
Having shown what Portland Mercury and New York Times make of the situation, you ask what we should make of it? Who is “we?” Is it the group that is writing and describes itself as a “collective?” Or does “we” extend to the student body being addressed and told that this could affect their education?
Some—including the authors of these hoaxes, Peter Boghossian, Heather Pluckrose and James Lindsey…
You mean Peter Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose & James Lindsay, presumably? An inauspicious beginning given that not one of twelve faculty authors noticed the names of those whose work they were criticizing were either misspelled or simply incorrect. Be aware that getting the names of the people whose work you are criticising wrong does not reflect favourably upon the depth of your research.
…have compared this rash of hoaxes to the notorious Sokal affair.
Have they? Yascha Mounk in his Atlantic piece, named the probe “Sokal Squared,” and this has certainly caught on. The authors, while being appreciative of his support and incisive argument which cut through very confused responses, found this title somewhat regrettable. You will not find them referring to their project as continuing the work of the admirable Alan Sokal.
In 1996, esteemed physics Professor Alan Sokal entered the so-called Science Wars by submitting an article that was largely nonsense purporting to be a postmodernist take on theoretical physics to a leading humanities journal, Social Text. The journal, which is not a peer-reviewed publication, published it.
Precisely. Sokal submitted a nonsense paper to show the problem with a particular (type of) journal passing through work they did not understand. None of the papers in the grievance studies probe do this, and it’s hardly complimentary to those among your own ranks to suggest they did. Rather, targeting only peer-reviewed journals, the papers in the Grievance Studies Affair draw extensively on the existing body of research to accurately extend or adapt its papers to make their own arguments. Central to the probe was that reviewers must understand exactly what they were authorising as legitimate scholarship, which includes an intersectional feminist rewrite of Mein Kampf which, in Hitler’s voice, excoriates women for making their own choices.
A New Sokal Affair or Just a Sucker’s Affair?
Let us be clear. We’re not necessarily opposed to a well-executed hoax.
Is it accurate to describe this project as a hoax? The explanation of the probe says it is best understood as a kind of uncontrolled reflexive ethnography. It is lengthy and reading it requires much more commitment than scanning a few short op-eds, but it’s always best to go to the primary source rather than relying on how secondary ones have represented the topic. After having read that source, you will plainly see that among the conclusions is that hoaxing these journals didn’t and wouldn’t work.
But we must ask: What are the contributions of the recent hoaxes? How do these recent hoax papers reflect any understanding of the academic disciplines they aim to critique?
Absolutely. Question, challenge, evaluate. Again, go to the primary sources. In this case, to discover whether the papers reflect any understanding of the academic disciplines they target you could actually read the ones that were published and look at the citations and arguments. Then you could go to the comments of the editors and reviewers. Phrases like, “truly marvellous paper,” “important contribution to knowledge,” and “excellent contribution to feminist philosophy” might stick out.
The first attempt by Boghossian and others, posting a concept called the “conceptual penis,” aimed to demonstrate the field of gender studies was without quality standards and biased against men. It was rejected by these journals, which presented an enormous problem. The paper instead went to a so-called generalist social sciences journal for publication, a journal so esteemed one of us recently found a blanket invitation to publish there in our email spam folder.
Seeking to conceal the fact that no serious scholar would view this sort of hoax as having much value, the authors railed against the dangers of online pay-to-publish journals as well as the field of gender studies. The first is a genuine, if entirely unoriginal, concern. The second claim is utterly inappropriate given the hoax failed.
Indeed. The collective will find this covered in the Areo explanation too where the methodology for the more recent endeavor is explained as having been based on valid criticisms of the “Conceptual Penis” hoax. Boghossian and Lindsay openly admit to having taken those very seriously in determining how they would proceed in this endeavor.
Undeterred, Boghossian and his coauthors crafted more fake pieces to flood the journal-scape…
Is “undeterred” the correct word to use when someone sets out to learn from their mistakes? Should they have been “deterred” by an ambiguous result, or should they have attempted to probe deeper into the question to resolve the ambiguity? Which is more scholarly?
Also, in what sense were the papers fake? Does something become “fake” based on the identity or motivations of the author? Given that it is almost impossible to know the latter and the former is rarely checked, how much work out there could be “fake” if this is the criteria, rather than the argument itself? More importantly, how could you tell?
…further clogging the pipeline for scholars who want to publish actual research.
It would have been good to see some analysis of the differences between these papers and the “actual research” it cites and thus some way to determine if these papers would have ever been considered anything other than “actual research” had the trio never come forward.
Some of the junk pieces were “theoretical” pieces, providing so-called theory…
In what way does the collective think that the approaches used — e.g. black feminist criminology, critical pedagogy, and feminist and critical race epistemology — do not constitute legitimate theory?
…willfully designed to obfuscate…,
Again, this suggests a lack of engagement with primary sources. The papers in this project have been written clearly and should be quite comprehensible to a bright and engaged undergraduate. If the collective still finds the content difficult, it might need to go to the references cited and get a grounding in the kind of scholarship it is struggling with.
…while other papers actually involved completely falsified data, a thing that we ought to call by its name: fraud.
The anonymous collective has done nothing to substantiate this weighty and legally specific claim. This does, however, raise the question of the ease of acceptance of extremely implausible data which claims to provide evidence for a certain argument. And, more pressingly, does it, in fact, do so? If the authors had genuinely examined the genitals of 10,000 dogs, would this really legitimize a claim about the existence of a human rape culture, that dog parks and nightclubs are “rape-condoning spaces,” and the advocacy of training men like dogs?
Since there were 20 or more pieces and journals of any quality require at least two peer reviewers—a job that academics perform without pay because they actually care about improving their disciplines—we can deduce these junk papers involved the authors knowingly wasting the time, effort and goodwill of at least 40 reviewers and at least 20 editors.
This is not how the project worked or how math works. Many papers were sent to the same journals with the same editors, and you must know that journals share reviewers, so while you are almost certainly correct, you cannot deduce any such thing the way you have. Avoid math claims if you can’t do math. Also, what does it mean, in a scholarly context, to have “wasted the goodwill” of a reviewer?
We cannot conclude there was some kind of intellectual value provided by the non-research papers…,
No, I don’t think the collective can conclude this, but not for the reason it is suggesting. It has not yet engaged with the papers or the purpose of the project, so it cannot reasonably make an evaluation of the intellectual value of either.
but we can identify the drain on valuable unpaid time of real scholars these “hoaxes” directly produced.
Some of your own professors are likely to be among those doing this unpaid work; this is part of the workload competing with their teaching and mentoring activities.
Quite possibly, but should they really be resentful of having their methods tested? Should we care if they are? Aren’t the standards and criteria of peer review important enough to merit evaluation? Professors also contribute to the journals, and they benefit from an improvement to the standards of scholarship their work appears alongside. In fact, it could be suggested that “professors” are not of a hive mind on this and are likely to be divided between those annoyed by having this kind of scholarship highlighted as a problem and those pleased by it. This might well correlate with whether or not they are responsible for producing it.
There is also the matter of attempting to compel the students of PSU to believe that they may have professors among those who evaluated papers in the grievance studies probe, taking away from their teaching and mentoring activities. But to which students would this apply? It must be those with professors working in grievance studies—not, say, engineering, mathematics, or music. But the audit appears to have showed these fields are in need of reform and improved rigor before they can ethically be taught to students in a university system.
Further, in all research fields, rules of scholarly conduct exist. In the social sciences particularly, the recent “hoaxes” likely constitute a form of academic dishonesty. Just like students, faculty have a code of conduct. In fact, the very first standard in this code reminds faculty members to practice “intellectual honesty, seeking and stating the truth as [they] see it; [They] devote [their] energies to developing and improving [their] scholarly competence.”
Is there not worth and an important kind of intellectual honesty in stating the truth as a certain approach to scholarship sees it in order to engage with it? To prove one understands it and to criticize it upon those grounds? To “steelman” it to the extent of having the very guardians of knowledge production within those fields sign off on it? Provided they are ultimately open about still not agreeing with it?
Moreover, a faculty member is supposed to be a good colleague. By purposefully wasting colleagues’ time and goodwill, Boghossian and his coauthors failed to follow any of these guidelines.
Is a good colleague one who does not challenge bad scholarship where he sees it? If so, are you being bad colleagues right now by criticising Boghossian, et al.?
While many would normally consider these non-research, educationally-irrelevant “hoax” activities to be unworthy of addressing, credulous journalists interested mainly in spectacle have taken these frauds and introduced them to the broader world.
It wasn’t the journalists who were credulous though, was it? They saw the problem with the papers being produced and showed them to the general public who also saw it, and that is, in fact, how the probe was exposed. Be careful about suggesting that the non-academic perspective is worthless, foolish, and ill-motivated where it comes to evaluating arguments and ethics. Academia cannot survive unless it engages with the perspectives of people outside it, particularly if it seems contemptuous of the views of people without their academic advantages.
When supposed scholars repeatedly engage in fraudulent behavior violating acceptable norms of research in any discipline, we have to start asking what the purpose is.
A good place to start is with some but preferably many of their writings on the subject.
Desperate reasoning, basic spite and a perverse interest in public humiliation seem to have overridden any actual scholarly goals.
Nothing about this affair suggests anything but academic dishonesty and flat out disrespect of colleagues.
This is why Boghossian does not design and conduct studies to weigh in on biology and gender—instead he is continuing the pattern he began in previous years of provocation for the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement.
The collective has not shown any of this. Argue rather than assert emotively and provide evidence for your arguments. Again, you are assuming that your colleagues all share your perspective on the issue rather than having their own. Collectivism, conventionalism, and unsupported assertion have been problems throughout this confused and poorly-researched piece.
His invitation of Google engineer James Damore to tell us why women are incapable of excelling in tech fields was certainly disrespectful of all of his colleagues who identify as women—Damore proved barely articulate, much less a serious gender scholar.
This is your first attempt at providing evidence for your claims. Unfortunately, it fails, yet again, due to a failure to consult primary sources. In this case, reading the original memo and watching the talk in question would have revealed that Mr Damore made no such argument and, in fact, specified the opposite. Again, we see a problem with contempt for the non-academic perspective and a personal attack on an autistic software engineer for not being a gender scholar with much experience of and ease with public speaking. Nevertheless, Damore provided a well-informed and well-reasoned argument and addressing that would be far superior to criticizing him for not being like you. Also, is the collective suggesting that only gender scholars are qualified to render an informed opinion on these matters? They’re gender scholars, not gender priests.
Similarly, in asking slyly “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” as he has in public presentations, Boghossian shows he less interested in the hard work of scholarship and more interested in scoring cheap political points without actually engaging pivotal concepts.
What pivotal concepts were not addressed that speak to the question of whether intersectionality acts like religion? Did any of the collective watch that public presentation? How does it justify the adverb “slyly”? Was this not done in a publicly announced, open discussion to which many gender scholars were invited but declined to attend?
In this context, the “hoaxes” are simply lies peddled to journals, masquerading as articles. They are designed not to critique, educate or inspire change in flawed systems, but rather to humiliate entire fields while the authors gin up publicity for themselves without having made any scholarly contributions whatsoever.
The collective has not shown any of this. Neither has it engaged with any of the contributions. This is ironic because, if it had, it would have seen that one of the papers in the probe, titled “When the Joke Is On You,” makes the same argument about academic hoaxes that it has made here, and in far greater depth. It argues that hoaxes of social justice scholarship must always be recognised as ill-motivated and worthless rather than as legitimate critique, as must all critique. Of course, this was written to demonstrate that feminist philosophy accepts this appalling attitude which shuts down any possibility of self-correction. This is an attitude which the collective has now endorsed.
Chronic and pathological, unscholarly behavior inside an institution of higher education brings negative publicity to the institution as well as the honest scholars who work there.
“Chronic and pathological?” Boghossian is on your faculty. Is this what you meant by “being a good colleague” a few paragraphs ago? Strive for consistency. Also, consider your words. You are getting increasingly hyperbolic. Hyperbole is rarely helpful. Make arguments instead. Your behaviour too reflects upon your institution. You could help address the negative stereotype of the Portlandian student by modelling calm and reasoned responses to ideas you disagree with.
Worse yet, it jeopardizes the students’ reputations, as their degrees in the process may become devalued.
How, precisely? This is the second time it has been implied or claimed that students’ education could be affected by this probe and the second time this has not been explained. If the probe is seen as a positive step toward improving academic rigor, it does the opposite, doesn’t it? Combined with your hyperbolic language, this reads much more like an attempt to enflame student anger and protest by issuing vague warnings that they could be harmed in some inexplicable way by one of their professors taking part in an undercover probe of grievance studies scholarship.
At the event with Damore that the collective mentions above, protests included significant damage to sound equipment and threats being made against the participants to the extent that they needed to arrive early, hide in a back room, hire bodyguards, and have a police escort off campus. Consider whether attempting to enflame students could be irresponsible or even dangerous, not only to the people whose ideas you do not like but to the students themselves who could be expelled, prosecuted, or injured if they take matters into their own hands. Students are not your political weapons. Might it not have been better to attend the free and public event and model calm and reasoned discourse to them as a method of showing the problem with the ideas you feel so strongly opposed to? It could even be argued that projects such as the one you are criticising would not have happened if academics within grievance studies fields would discuss their ideas openly with those who disagreed rather than refusing discussion and calling all disagreements racist and sexist from a distance.
What must be done?
The collective is still sounding a little militant here.
The 1990s were a time of debate and exploration in the field of philosophy of science that rendered Sokal pivotal. However, gender studies, ethnic studies and Black/African American studies programs are not new and have had to fight for their claims to knowledge against an academy designed to minimize them. These intellectual fights are long done (although the political ones rage on), which is why the clown car of hoax writers does not bother engaging with them—the goal, in the contemporary bullying style of Trumpist politics, is to ridicule others for personal gain.
No, these intellectual fights are not done. Scholarship does not end when you manage to establish classes which teach topics in the ways you approve. The discussion continues, and it would be ideal if you would participate in them. This project engaged with them fully, even to the extent of spending a year within them, writing papers that were fully embedded within the research, and getting them published in academic journals. It is unclear what engagement could be deeper than this.
Again, the paper, “When the Joke Is on You,” in the probe addressed this problem directly. It argues, as you do now, that there is no legitimate way to criticise Social Justice scholarship and that any attempt is simply a far-right attempt to preserve one’s own privilege. Do read that paper and see how you could have made this claim better by embedding it in feminist and critical race epistemology and building an argument rather than simply asserting that people who write “hoax” papers are just like Trump. You might want to drop the Trump claim altogether though as it is very unlikely you will find evidence of Trumpists arguing that the interests of marginalised groups are best met by scholarship which relies on evidence-based epistemology and consistently liberal ethics.
Some faculty practice education in bad faith right in your own backyard. This is to the detriment of the university’s reputation and the serious scholars trying to make PSU an excellent place to seek higher education. Unfortunately, education in bad faith seems more newsworthy than all of the great things happening here.
Seriously, don’t do this. No matter how strongly you feel, don’t associate a member of your faculty with the worst elements of Trumpism and everything that is wrong in America, place your anonymous selves on the side of good and him on the side of evil, then remind students he is right there “in their backyard.” This is hyperbolic rhetoric intended to arouse strong feelings. It is irresponsible. It is dangerous.
These types of fraudulent, time-wasting, anti-intellectual activities are something we are becoming nationally known for under the guise of free speech or academic freedom.
Does the collective consider free speech and academic freedom to be problems, then? As Boghossian himself has said at PSU after protesters attempted to shut down the event with James Damore referenced earlier, “This is a university. If we cannot have this conversation here, we can’t have it anywhere.”
Make no mistake: We are some of academia’s biggest critics.
The collective has provided no evidence of this. It’s also vague and potentially misleading. For those, if any, of you who work in grievance studies, it’s no doubt true that you level critique after critique of “academia,” but these are the types of criticisms Boghossian’s, et al., probe called directly into question.
But we also believe in the core value of education…
Which is what precisely? Judging from what has been written here, it doesn’t seem to be encouraging or engaging in the free exchange of ideas or consulting primary sources.
…and are pained by the amount of attention being diverted toward unscholarly activities done for individual self-aggrandizement.
Setting aside the fact that the collective has not shown how the project you criticise is either unscholarly or done for individual self-aggrandizement, it would be better to focus less on your alleged pain and more on making some kind of argument.
PSU Pro-Educational Editorial Collective:
Assistant Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Associate Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Faculty, School of Social Work
Assistant Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Assistant Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Adjunct Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Professor, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Associate Professor, Humanities
Ph.D. Student, College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Assistant Professor, University Studies
Professor, Urban Studies
This is clearly not signed and given your argument above that a concealment of true identity makes writing “fake,” we should probably ignore it.
If one does attempt to engage with the substance of the missive, the poor quality of writing, spelling, argumentation, research and basic fact-checking, not to mention the overwrought and catastrophizing language are enough to disqualify it as a serious engagement with its topic. Nevertheless, although it is undergraduatish at best, I have decided to formulate my response as feedback, in the spirit of helpfulness as a (recently) much-published academic and editor of an online magazine. Ultimately, this attempt at critique would be rejected by my editorial team due to its failure to:
Get the names of the people whose work you are criticizing right.
Read the work you are criticizing.
Understand the purpose of the work you are criticizing.
Make any kind of reasoned argument.
Substantiate claims made.
Treat non-academics, journalists and the general public with respect and engage their criticisms rather than contemptuously dismiss them as ignorant and ignoble.
Recognize that different views exist and persuade people why they should adopt yours while avoiding collectivist, self-righteous assertions of your own rightness and assuming the right to speak for everyone at PSU and tell students how they should think.
Use appropriate measured language which avoids hyperbole, ad hominem attacks on individuals, mindreading, emotional reasoning, and highly irresponsible attempts to make students fearful, paranoid and aggressive while hiding behind anonymity for yourselves.
*We have opted to communicate our concerns through a collective identity rather than individually.
Yes, you have. Consider not doing so in future but instead being individuals who openly make arguments they have the courage to stand by.
Boghossian has not only indicated his less-than-collegial attitude through his hoaxes…
Collegial does not mean agreeing with you on everything. It means being supportive of your right to your own scholarship and ideas as he is also entitled to his.
No, he hasn’t. He tweeted that this individual should not have attempted to shut down work she didn’t agree with. Again, this hyperbolic language is not helpful. All academics can disagree with each other’s methods, not just you. Please try to understand this if you really do, as you claim, “believe in the core value of education.”
None of us wish to contend with threats of death and assault from online trolls.
No, we don’t. Nor do we wish to contend with them in person when entering your campus as does the colleague you just have anonymously associated with everything that is wrong with the world and pointed your students at.
Personally, I would have liked to be able to speak at PSU on the subject of whether gender differences in interests exist without a bodyguard and police escort. It would have been nice not to have to be part of regular consultations with police about the plausibility of new threats as they came in, ranging from grenades to bricks to soiled diapers. Please note that the people attending the three other events on women in tech that weekend, which did not address biological differences between men and women, required no such precautions. Then consider not telling students that our writing poses a threat to them but showing them how to argue against us if they feel so inclined in a calm and reasoned fashion instead.
It would also have been fantastic to have merely dealt with reasoned criticisms of our probe since having concluded it. Instead, I have been told not only that I am a fascist, Nazi, racist, and generally evil person for arguing that scholarship into social justice issues matters and should be done rigorously and ethically but that I am a ‘giant, gelatinous mound of lard’ and also that I have no business writing papers that make ludicrous claims about genitals as I am presumably too fat to see my own. Nevertheless, I am aware that abusive, stupid, and hateful people exist and that I will encounter them if I engage with sensitive issues. This is the price I pay for doing so openly under my own name, and the only people to blame for the verbal abuse and threats I have received are those making them.
I will continue to model the kind of behavior I wish others would show to me. I will not attack individuals with highly emotive language and aspersions against their character but engage with ideas that I have taken much time and effort to understand, representing them as they are and showing the problems I see as clearly as I can. I strongly urge you to do the same.