The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on disciplinary proceedings against Peter Boghossian at Portland State University, following his participation in a publication hoax that has since been nicknamed “Sokal squared.” Many scholars have come to his defence. Harvard University psychologist Stephen Pinker, for instance, wrote that: “If scholars feel they have been subject to unfair criticism, they should explain why they think the critic is wrong.” Alan Sokal, of the original Sokal hoax, suggested that the university would become an academic laughingstock if the proceedings found that the hoax constituted research on human subjects.
As a student of bioethics, I find these defences concerning. The hoax perpetrated by Dr. Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay involved writing hoax papers parodying what they call “grievance studies” – which notably includes queer and feminist studies – and submitting them to academic journals.
Research involving human subjects is subject to approval by an Institutional Review Board. Human subjects are defined under federal regulations as any “living individual about whom an investigator (whether professional or student) conducting research: (i) Obtains information or biospecimens through intervention or interaction with the individual, and uses, studies, or analyzes the information or biospecimens; or (ii) Obtains, uses, studies, analyzes, or generates identifiable private information or identifiable biospecimens.” This requirement isn’t optional, and journals typically demand proof of IRB approval.
On the face of it, it seems plain that this hoax is a research project involving human subjects. Academics are not excluded from the definition of human subjects when it comes to research ethics; to the extent that the authors are directly studying editors’ and peer reviewers’ willingness to publish the papers they wrote, it counts as research on human subjects and must be reviewed by an IRB. They both interacted with those who they were studying and intervened on their environment by submitting papers. If Dr. Boghossian didn’t believe that the requirement applied to him – for instance, because he suspected an exception to the requirement was applicable – the appropriate behaviour would have been to make a submission to the university IRB asking for a determination on whether approval was necessary.
In his seminal 1969 paper, “Philosophical Reflections on Experimenting with Human Subjects,” Hans Jonas pointed out that there was what he called a “sacrificial theme” to human subject research. This sacrifice, exposing people to risks and abrogating personal inviolability for a greater good, is an indelible ethical stain on research which warrants higher ethical standards. Because research treats its subjects solely as means to an end, we must be satisfied that the greater good which is pursued outweighs the risks, and this is done through IRB approval.
Because of the mandate of balancing knowledge creation – an indubitable good – with risks and objectification, one of the things IRBs do is advise on how to maximize the quality of the research. This is a step which would have greatly benefitted Sokal squared, as it makes a range of assumptions which undermine its ability to convincingly support its conclusion that low academic standards in “grievance studies” sows doubt about the quality of scholarship within those fields.
One of the main flaws of their project is that they failed to adequately establish that the papers they submitted were undeserving of being published. This is how the authors describe their methodology: “The goal was always to use what the existing literature offered to get some little bit of lunacy or depravity to be acceptable at the highest levels of intellectual respectability within the field. Therefore, each paper began with something absurd or deeply unethical (or both) that we wanted to forward or conclude. We then made the existing peer-reviewed literature do our bidding in the attempt to get published in the academic canon.”
If I were to write a paper taking the stance that trans people are an affront to nature, supporting the claim using theological literature, and got it published – something I would not normally do, being trans myself – would I have shown that theological literature is ridiculous or that I don’t share the field’s intuition about what defensible theses are because of my own ideological leanings? I’d say that I showed the latter, rather than the former.
That the theses they defended were absurd or deeply unethical is merely their own estimation. Yet this estimation seems to reflect more their own ideological leanings than any widespread agreement. One paper suggests that we can learn about rape culture from how people treat dogs. One paper argues people shouldn’t masturbate while thinking about strangers without their consent. One paper argues that the potential masculinist and imperialist biases in programming make super intelligent AI risky. Another argues that it’s perfectly fine being fat.
None of these seem patently absurd or unethical to me. The dangers of AI bias is a serious topic of inquiry in the philosophy of AI and computer science, fields which fall outside of what the hoaxers consider “grievance studies.” As for not masturbating while thinking about strangers, I personally don’t think that’s absurd. Does that make me irrational? Perhaps, perhaps not.
The authors of the hoax try to stave off accusations of ideological bias by identifying themselves as leftists. Being a leftist, however, doesn’t preclude ideological bias. That they consider the hoax papers absurd may simply reflect their own ideological leanings. Going through the IRB process would hopefully have highlighted weak points such as this one and asked them to conduct the project in a more rigorous manner, ensuring that they are genuinely supporting the conclusion they set out to draw.
To ask researchers to be rigorous and go through IRB approval for research involving human subjects isn’t unreasonable, nor is it censorship. It’s following the law and one of the most quintessential norms of academic research.
Conducting a hoax project may be in the public interest, the critique may be a valid one, and satire may be an underappreciated form of academic expression. Still, none of those factors exempts researchers from obtaining IRB approval. Next time someone wants to come after critical studies, they should seek out IRB approval and ensure that their methodology is rigorous. The resulting critique is bound to be much more convincing. As for Sokal squared, I remain unconvinced.
Florence Ashley is a Master of Laws candidate at McGill University and a fellow of the McGill Research Group on Health and Law.