Helen Pluckrose

The trial of Peter Boghossian

The trial of Peter Boghossian
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When James Lindsay, Peter Boghossian and I spent a year writing nonsense academic papers on topics such as 'dog-park rape culture' and 'fat bodybuilding' and submitting them to journals known for producing a similar standard of 'scholarship,' one question came up repeatedly: 'What are they going to do to Peter?' James and I were relatively safe because neither of us work in a university. We anticipated smear pieces and online abuse which is unpleasant, but ultimately survivable. Peter though, was much more vulnerable.

Portland State University (PSU), where he works, is notorious for its Social Justice culture, its student protests and its Antifa presence. The surrounding city frequently features political protests and clashes between far-right and far-left groups that the mayor and local police have struggled to control. Portland is so infamous for its ideological eccentricities and extremes that it has inspired a hit comedy show, Portlandia.

In the middle of this ideological volcano is professor Peter Boghossian, the philosopher who made his name with street epistemology, a Socratic method of engaging people with unsubstantiated beliefs. Street epistemology makes no assertions but encourages people to question their convictions and consider what evidence they have for them and whether their reasoning is sound. In keeping with this, Peter has regularly invited people with whom he strongly disagrees to have conversations with him and has advocated for the inclusion of even the ugliest ideas into the arena for debate. In today's political climate, this has, of course, been perceived as both wicked and dangerous.

Even before we revealed our year-long exposure of academic grievance studies, Peter experienced an alarming amount of hostility on campus. He found abusive notes stuck to his office door, spurious complaints were repeatedly made about him and his photograph was defaced with profanity and Nazi swastikas. In person, he has been shouted at, followed, threatened and spat upon and consequently requires bodyguards at events he attends.

Why, then, some might ask, did Peter take part in this probe? If he was already subject to so much hostility, abuse and threats, why would he intensify this by challenging Social Justice scholarship? The simple answer? Because it matters. Ideologically biased scholarship which relies on shoddy methods, unevidenced ‘theory’ and ethics that are dependent on one’s gender, racial and sexual identity abound within these fields and they undermine both scholarship and social justice. One cannot expect a philosopher who has devoted his career to evidence-based epistemology and liberal ethics to ignore this alarming threat to both.

Since we revealed the project last year the hostility to Peter has intensified, but he was most apprehensive about how Portland State University would respond. He predicted they would look for a way to find him guilty of misconduct, even though academia has a long history of satire, parody, academic hoaxes and exposés. Within a few days, he received a letter informing him that there were concerns he had fabricated data. This was essential to our probe. We could not test whether journals would appropriately reject extremely implausible data and unwarranted conclusions drawn from them without offering them some. We revealed this ourselves so there was no chance of it entering the canon of knowledge.

Now Peter has been found guilty of failing to secure IRB (Institutional review board) approval for 'conducting research on human subjects'. 'But your papers had no real subjects,' you might say. The human subjects they refer to are the reviewers and editors. By submitting papers and recording acceptances and rejections and directions, we are told, we were conducting research on humans, which requires IRB approval. We have no way of knowing whether it would have been granted and kept confidential or if we would have been required to get informed consent which would have invalidated our goal. We are currently watching bemused as academics argue among themselves as to whether this was likely, whether what we did was research, whether we researched humans or a system and whether Peter is accountable to PSU for work published in an online magazine.

We do not yet know what PSU will do. They have already said that Peter failed to secure IRB approval, suspended him from conducting research on human subjects and ordered him to take training in IRB requirements if he wishes to do more studies. We are waiting to hear if there will be further sanctions and whether they will pursue the charges of fabricating data. Many people, including scores of members of the public, several prominent intellectuals and students that Peter has inspired with his teaching on critical thinking have written to PSU and urged them to make the right decision. Maybe they will. In the meantime, this latest furore over technicalities is a wonderful distraction from addressing the rather more pressing problems we highlighted in identity scholarship.