We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Mock the anointed at your peril

Then:

Laws protecting a nobleman’s “honor” illustrate the importance which the noble attached to his person. Preservation of honor (i.e., reputation) was a serious matter, essential to ensure that society would respect noble rank. Honor was a distinguishing mark which set nobles apart from commoners, since townsmen and peasants were not thought to possess it. Offences against honor included insulting the noble personally, charging him with a crime, or calling into question his own or his mother’s legitimate birth. If the antagonist could not prove his charges, he was punished at law. According to King Casimir III’s statute for Little Poland, a person who impugned the honor of a noble had to pay a fine and retract his insult in court, repeating “with a dog’s voice” the words: “I lied like a dog in what I said.”

– from East Central Europe in the Middle Ages, 1000-1500 by Jean W Sedlar.

Now:

Portland State University Says Hoax ‘Grievance Studies’ Experiment Violated Research Ethics

Peter Boghossian, a professor of philosophy best known for his involvement in the “grievance studies” hoax papers, is now in trouble with Portland State University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), which has accused him of violating its policies regarding the ethical treatment of human test subjects in the course of his experiment.

“Your efforts to conduct human subjects research at PSU without a submitted nor approved protocol is a clear violation of the policies of your employer,” wrote PSU Vice President Mike McLellan in an email to Boghossian, according to Areo.

This charge makes Boghossian sound like Dr. Frankenstein. But the “human subjects” in question are the peer reviewers and journal editors who accepted Boghossian’s hoax papers for publication. Their reputations may have suffered as a result of being duped—and they were indeed unwitting participants in the experiment—but their physical well-being was not compromised. Moreover, it may not have been obvious to Boghossian and his co-conspirators that research conducted outside his field, bearing no formal connection to Portland State University, was still subject to IRB approval.

Nevertheless, the professor could face sanctions for his conduct, including possible termination.

– Robby Soave, writing for Reason magazine.

19 comments to Mock the anointed at your peril

  • pete

    Human nature doesn’t change.

    We are the same as people were hundreds and thousands of years ago.

  • Nullius in Verba

    It reminds me a little of Lewandowsky’s “Fury” controversy. Stephan Lewandowsky was a climate activist and purported psychology researcher who wrote a paper claiming that climate sceptics were conspiracy theorists. One of the complaints about it related to his ethics application, that only claimed to be analysing publicly available posts on blogs, when in fact he was distributing questionaires and deceiving participants regarding his own participation by going through an intermediary. There was a lot of discussion around the need of any psychology researcher to obtain informed consent from participants in any psychology research, and for especially stringent measures to be taken in any case where it is necessary to deceive subjects.

    The journal wound up retracting the paper, claiming that while there were no scientific or ethical issues with it, the legal position regarding the protection of subjects’ rights was sufficiently ambiguous they couldn’t support it. But the enquiry by his own university cleared him.

    They take those rules seriously. If there’s been a complaint, they have to investigate. If it was indeed classed as psychological research, then they do indeed need informed consent, or clearance from the ethics committee to allow the deception.

    It’s the same sort of issue as the band of researchers who investigated whether you could do drug testing by analysing the contents of sewer outlets from people’s homes. Somebody could, in principle, identify who is using illegal drugs in a community without the need for a warrant, using only publicly accessible resources. Even though taking drugs is criminal, and they’re not invading private property or using force of any kind to obtain a sample, it would generally be considered unethical to identify individuals as such without obtaining informed consent for a drugs test first. The ends are not considered to justify the means.

    It will be interesting to see what happens. Even if the ethics complaint is upheld, I think the massive global publicity that generates is going to do the “grievance studies” community no good at all! But still, the conclusion might be that the test itself was academically legitimate, but the proper procedure should have been followed. If it means the other side have to follow the ethics rules too, then it’s worth complying.

  • 1) I shudder to think what the IRB would have made of Robert Conquest’s spoof lit. crit. papers arguing that Lucky Jim was a Christian fable, and that overt sex in novels indicated the author had a repressed fear of flying.

    2) Could Professor Boghossian et al. have had cause to suspect that if they had informed the IRB administrators, they would have banned such narrative-challenging research and/or tattled to its targets.

    3) Discriminating between research that is good and bad, sane and crazy, real and fake, is precisely the task that peer reviewers are paid to do. An ethical issue is indeed raised by revealing that, in particular subjects, they are hopeless at this task, but I don’t agree with Vice President Mike McLellan about what it is.

  • Ian

    It’s spelt “anointed”. I brace myself for the outrage at this imposition of my white patriarchal hegemonistic colonianism.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Ian, curse you, running dog of the prescriptivists and their linguistic imperialism!

    Will correct.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Discriminating between research that is good and bad, sane and crazy, real and fake, is precisely the task that peer reviewers are paid to do.”

    They’re usually not paid, and they’re not given anywhere like enough time and resources to do so. That’s not really their purpose anyway, despite the misrepresentations of some.

    The purpose of peer reviewers is to provide a very quick and cursory filter on papers to ensure they are of interest to the journal’s customer base. They’re supposed to see if the result is interesting, novel, not obvious lunacy or already known to be wrong, offers an appropriate level of support for the claims made, and appears to provides sufficient detail to attempt verification. In short, that it’s not a waste of a busy researcher’s time to even read the paper. They generally do nothing at all to verify sources, check calculations, or seriously replicate or challenge the paper. That’s the reason for publishing it in the journal – to enable the rest of the scientific community to check it.

    ‘Settled science’, to the extent there is such a thing, is found in textbooks, not peer-reviewed journals. The journals are ‘work in progress’ – ideas, hypotheses, attempts, suggestions, follow-ups, and contributing evidence. Only after it survives this scrutiny does a theory gain scientific credence.

    There are exceptions, in both directions. Maths journals do generally try to do a detailed check of a proof. Conversely, other sciences (notably climate science and psychology) have utterly failed to apply due diligence to the process, even after publication. But still, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

  • William Newman

    It’s simple: adjoin a joint, appoint a point, anoint a noint, except when sounded as ‘a’.

  • bobby b

    “Somebody could, in principle, identify who is using illegal drugs in a community without the need for a warrant, using only publicly accessible resources. Even though taking drugs is criminal, and they’re not invading private property or using force of any kind to obtain a sample, it would generally be considered unethical to identify individuals as such without obtaining informed consent for a drugs test first.”

    Just curious: I’ve had clients who were convicted through evidence obtained by searching their outdoor garbage bins. There being no reasonable expectation of privacy for your disposed-of garbage, there is no legal prohibition of this practice. I’ve also been involved in cases in which our state version of the EPA tracked down illegal waste disposal by monitoring sewage pipes out of suspected areas. Are you calling out some specific duty that falls only on medical researchers? I ask because, generally, what you discard is fair game once it leaves your control.

  • Nullius in Verba

    bobby b,

    Interesting question – I don’t know.

    Researchers have published ethical guidelines that universally assume the need to protect individuals. The motivation seems to be to avoid raising public opposition and protect the reputation of the field.

    There are a number of police forces using it to do things like gather intelligence on market share for the various different drugs, and assess the effectiveness of drug education measures. But the only case I know of leading to an arrest was in China.

    I know when I first read about it years and years ago the idea was mooted then of doing tests on individual houses (the infrastructure to do it systematically at a national scale would be expensive, but on an individual basis you can take test samples upstream and downstream of each house to compare), and the indications given there were that it was technically perfectly feasible, but they decided not to for ethical reasons. I don’t remember where I saw it, so I don’t know if that was only academic ethics.

    [apologies for splitting here – my first attempt to post this got blocked, I assume, for the number of links]

  • Nullius in Verba

    [continued]

    Even people who don’t take drugs find the idea of random drugs tests to be an intrusion into their privacy, and I think lots would be disturbed if the authorities took to routinely searching through their garbage. Even if not illegal, lots of people do things they’d rather keep private. Some of the ethical considerations applying to DNA tests could also apply to urine tests that can pick up illnesses and medical conditions. Possibly they are concerned about triggering a public reaction against it, resulting in more laws protecting the privacy of your garbage. And there is a law regarding theft that applies to rubbish.

    There may be some technical or economic reason stopping them. Or it may be something as basic as knowing that if word got around that they were doing it, the druggies would instead take to pissing in the streets…

    But I don’t know the real answer. Maybe they do, and just keep the fact secret?

  • “Discriminating between research that is good and bad, sane and crazy, real and fake, is precisely the task that peer reviewers are paid to do.”

    They’re usually not paid, and they’re not given anywhere like enough time and resources to do so. That’s not really their purpose anyway, despite the misrepresentations of some.

    The purpose of peer reviewers is to provide a very quick and cursory filter (Nullius in Verba, January 9, 2019 at 11:19 pm)

    (Trivially) Peer reviewers usually have a job or jobs that entail their doing such work, along with publishing their own papers, etc. I agree some are, in a real sense, unpaid and I could have said ‘expected’ to do rather than ‘paid’ to do.

    (Importantly) In a sense it is a “quick and cursory filter”, but it is intended to have some value. The power of what Boghossian et al. did lies entirely in the assertion that a filter so quick and so cursory that it passed those papers is a fraud – is exposing the whole area. In the case of Fury, the journal (but not the university) sustained a formal objection, but the substantial issue that discredited the research was partly

    the use of the term “conspiracy theory” in Fury became very elastic, no longer limited to untrue fantasies involving governments and major institutions but morphed to include even the most minor methodological criticism, even if the criticism was valid. [From your Steve McIntyre link above]

    An old SlateStarCodex post on Reptilian Muslim Climatologists from Mars notes some other issues with Lewandowsky’s approach.

    It may be that the journal’s retraction of Fury on formal ethics grounds was motivated by their belatedly noticing these points, or it may be that the retraction was done solely for itself, either because Lewandowsky had not done his formal duty to wind back the deceit by informing all questionnaire recipients (which Steve McIntyre and SlateStarCodex discuss) or for some more formalist reason not so relevant to the research being actually erroneous. (If you accept Steve McIntyre on that, then the university’s exoneration was formally wrong: either slovenly, or “protecting our own” or motivated by their liking Fury’s result too much to disavow its method.)

    Robby Soave clearly thinks that the findings of Boghossian et al. are not subject to similar criticisms, and that the IRB is motivated by a desire to discredit that result rather than a disinterested desire to apply rules impartially. My opinions about modern PC academic subjects make me very receptive to that opinion. AFAICS, Boghossian, unlike Lewandowsky, has performed the wind-back duty.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “(Importantly) In a sense it is a “quick and cursory filter”, but it is intended to have some value.”

    It does. But it’s value is pramarily to the journal’s profitability, not the interests of science. They aim to deliver what the audience wants. It depends a lot on your audience.

    I agree with the idea of exposing the journals peer-review as not worth much, but there are two ways that can go. Either they can tell the public that peer-review *is* generally a mark of good/reliable science, and the grievance studies journals were an outrageous exception that must urgently be corrected, or they can tell the public that peer-review in general is not to be trusted with ‘scientific authority’. I’m more in favour of the latter.

    The scientific method says that hypotheses can only gain scientific credibility by surviving competent and motivated challenge. The original intended function of journals was to enable results to be scrutinised by the scientific community as a whole, as part of that process. But then science got funded by governments, and bureaucrats demand measurable results, and somebody had the bright idea of using publication counts as a measure of researcher performance, and suddenly the incentives were not directed towards scientific quality, but towards enabling academics to publish as many papers with as little opportunity for challenge as possible. To support the use of the metric, they started claiming that publication in a peer-reviewed journal was a gold stamp of scientific authority that meant they were an expert. And of course they all volunteered to do the peer review for one another, sit on journal editorial boards, etc. Peer-review was never intended to be a very rigorous test, and it only got worse when ‘publish or perish’ was introduced.

    “Robby Soave clearly thinks that the findings of Boghossian et al. are not subject to similar criticisms, and that the IRB is motivated by a desire to discredit that result rather than a disinterested desire to apply rules impartially.”

    They’ve probably got motive – damaging the credibility of peer review threatens the academic business model. (On the other hand, Soave as a supporter does too.) I don’t know what the proof would be, though. Nevertheless, whether or not they’re applying the rules impartially, *we* still should. I wouldn’t want to think of myself as the sort of person who would castigate Lewandowsky for breaking the rules, but drop my objections to the same rules being broken when I liked the result. That’s exactly the sort of double-standard lack of scientific integrity we accuse them of! It would undermine our own moral position to do so.

    If it was me on the ethics committee, I’d say that the result was of public and scientific interest, that deception was clearly necessary to getting an honest result, but that they need to ensure the test is fair (i.e. that there are clearly identifiable logical flaws in the papers, and it’s not simply that they’re politically dissonant), that the journals have the opportunity to be kept anonymous unless they choose to reply, that the deception is revealed after the paper is accepted but before it is published, and that journals are allowed to present any counter-arguments or reasons they might have to justify their decision to publish. If it counts as formal research, used official funding for any of the time or facilities, or is presented to the journal as formal research using the university’s credentials (official addresses, email accounts, etc.), then it should need ethics approval. If it’s a private political stunt done on the reearcher’s own time and with their own resources, and with the appropriate disclaimers in place, it’s not the university’s business.

    So personally, I wouldn’t say there was nothing to investigate, but it probably merits a warning and official slap-on-the-wrist for not following procedure rather than dismissal. But there’s going to be a lot of political pressure and public scrutiny from both sides for different results.

    At the same time, though, I think there *also* needs to be some sort of formal review of what’s going on with the journals. Is there anyone proposing to follow that up?

  • Mr Ed

    As I have pointed out here before, if Isaac Newton’s alchemy had been through a rigorous peer review process, it would still be bunk.

    In his physics, Newton had no peers to review his work.

  • The Pedant-General

    Re search of garbage, this was the entire premise of a mediocre 80s Michael Douglas flick:
    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086356/

  • Paul Marks

    The left do not like being exposed as charlatans – with their (Frankfurt School of Marxism and French Post Modernism inspired) ideas being exposed as nonsense.

    But, as you say Natalie, it is more than dislike – they are using their power to PUNISH people who try and expose the “Critical Theory” (ironically named – as it allows no criticism of itself) of academics as nonsense – even when the exposers are themselves academics (and not, I believe, of conservative opinions).

    No doubt in the future such critics of “Critical Theory” will be “unpersoned”. Already the independent scholar Anthony De Jasay (a great critic of socialism and “Social Justice”) is being quietly shoved down the Memory Hole (try and find his Wikipedia page) – the left failed to find any dirt to discredit him, so they have decided to purge all memory of him.

  • Paul Marks

    Those people who think that the left will “only” seek to control the humanities are mistaken – the left seek to control everything, including the physical sciences.

    Should the left succeed in taking control of the study of physical sciences a new Dark Age of ignorance and superstition will occur.

    Being accused of “racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia” (and on and on) is already akin to being accused of heresy or witchcraft.

  • djc

    Nullius in Verba
    January 10, 2019 at 1:57 pm
    “(Importantly) In a sense it is a “quick and cursory filter”, but it is intended to have some value.”

    It does. But it’s value is pramarily to the journal’s profitability, not the interests of science. They aim to deliver what the audience wants.

    Unfortunately the academic business model is rather disconnected from what the audience wants. Journals are sold to academic institutions not as single subscriptions but as ‘big deals’ covering all or most of a publisher’s output. More publications mean more places to publish, more nominal editorial positions, all good for those publish or perish metrics. So many journal article are unreadable and not worth reading, but the temptation to review them, the mutual back scratching, is strong.
    What the immediate audience wants does not align with what the public who, for the most part, ultimately fund of this racket need.

  • I largely agree with Nullius in Verba (January 10, 2019 at 1:57 pm).

    Where Nullius says

    Either they can tell the public that peer-review *is* generally a mark of good/reliable science, and the grievance studies journals were an outrageous exception that must urgently be corrected, OR they can tell the public that peer-review in general is not to be trusted with ‘scientific authority’.

    I am more ready to embrace the healing power of ‘AND’ – i.e. grievance studies journals are an outrageous exception to an already untrustworthy standard especially, but far from exclusively, in the soft sciences.

    As regards ethics rules formalities, his university’s exoneration of Lewandowsky sets a standard to which we can compare what happens to Boghossian et al. I noted the apparent superiority of Boghossian as regards the not-merely-formal issue of wind-back; other points may emerge.

  • Being accused of “racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia” (and on and on) is already akin to being accused of heresy or witchcraft. (Paul Marks, January 10, 2019 at 3:58 pm)

    There were important national differences in witchcraft trials. In Germany, in renaissance times, a group of learned judges were once asked hypothetically how persons accused of witchcraft should defend themselves, and confessed they were baffled to suggest any legal way of doing so. (There were practical ways – an accused man once confessed immediately and named the investigating staff as his accomplices; they could not torture him because he had confessed, so the case went up to the bishop, who quashed it.) In England, by contrast, where torture was illegal in common law, the majority of witchcraft trials ended in acquittals, since it was a difficult charge to prove solely on evidence (conviction was on numerous occasions helped by the fact that the accused person was convinced they were a witch).

    My impression today, based on the probably very partial set of examples that have come under my notice and on the I-hope-unrepresentative attitude of the Scottish executive, is that if you can get a jury trial on a hate speech charge then your chance of acquittal is good, but when magistrates are given the case the odds are poor. (Legally-aware UK readers may be able to correct me.)

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