Is Civil Discourse in Its Death Throes
Backlash to Boghossian's hoax articles raises censorship questions

Boghossian in a bathrobe telling videographer that he got an email telling him about a meeting with the institutional review board chair. Illustration directly traced from a still from this video posted by them. illustration by Jake Johnson

From fall 2017 through autumn of 2018, Dr. Peter Boghossian, philosophy professor at Portland State University, and coauthors Dr. James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose submitted hoax articles to peer-reviewed academic journals in fields they refer to as “the grievance studies”: including queer studies, fat studies, and gender studies. 7 of the team’s 20 papers, written under pseudonyms, were published before the authors’ identities were revealed; additional papers in various stages of the review process were dropped. PSU’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies is conducting an ongoing investigation into Boghossian to determine whether the journals’ peer reviewers constitute human research subjects. Department Chair and inquiry leader Dr. Mark McLellan never responded to The Pacific Sentinel‘s request for comment. Despite the fact that Boghossian’s hoax articles targeted topics relevant to—and the validity in general of—their field, PSU’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department also declined our request for comment.

I spoke with Dr. Boghossian in late January, 2019. He described his concern with the growing number of academic papers treating “intersectionality as a religion.” Boghossian believes they are presenting moral opinion as moral fact and because of that there is a consequent impossibility of debate or examination. “I think there’s a kind of a culture where people just don’t want to talk to each other or voice alternative opinions or anything that runs contrary to the dominant moral orthodoxy,” Boghossian said. “I’m worried about what’s happening to the university system.”

Boghossian described how he and his collaborators reverse-engineered papers in fields they considered to be engaging in lackadaisical scholarship. This resulted in the publication of a number of papers—even awards—for pieces with deliberately faulty reasoning, written in impenetrably obtuse prose. Some of the more noteworthy examples include rewritten sections of Mein Kampf using intersectional terminology and ideology, and a paper asserting that masturbation and sexual violence are synonymous.

The hoax papers not only presented opinion as fact, but used fake data to support those opinions. To what extent does the inclusion of quantitative data make a paper appear more valid than it is? How effective is the peer review process if it fails to distinguish between false and genuine data? Perhaps the peer review process is not designed to catch these issues. What, then, is its purpose? Is it an ideological, rather than epistemological, vetting process by which advocacy of opinions shared by the reviewer are  accepted as fact? The immense pressure on faculty to publish—so summed up in the exhortation to “publish or perish”—is one factor that can lead to the acceptance of bogus, inadequate, and potentially fraudulent articles. Perhaps it is time to radically retool the peer review process. Depending on the nature of the research, submission of audio and video recordings could be required. Changes to how journals are funded could allow reviewers, who generally work without compensation, to spend more time scrutinizing papers.

But none of this addresses the underlying issue: Language in academia is deeply flawed.

The contemporary problem with academic language is not a new one. George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” originally published in April 1946, addressed academia’s inaccessible language issues. That piece took special issue with the then prevailing support of Stalinist communism by British academics and liberals, though more broadly attacked obfuscating language used in service of orthodoxy. The use of an “inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism” with “a mass of Latin words [falling] upon the facts like soft snow, blurring outlines and covering up all the details.” The acceptance and publication of the grievance studies articles demonstrates just such obscuring of meaning in academic journals. As Orwell pointed out, the use of cloudy and opaque language also “perform[s] the important service of concealing your meaning from yourself.” Meaning is not only indecipherable to readers, but also to the authors themselves.

Intentionally turgid written language as a mode of non-communication is part of the larger, cultural inability and unwillingness to engage in reasoned dialogue. From the destruction of sound gear at James Damore’s appearance on PSU’s campus on February 17, 2018, to the President Donald Trump’s use of ad hominem attacks, our society continues to move further away from engaging in constructive discourse by retreating into enclaves of enforced orthodoxy.

As the Damore event indicates, this substitution of unreasonable for reasonable engagement extends even to PSU’s campus. Twelve of Dr. Boghossian’s colleagues saw fit to pen an anonymous missive, published by Vanguard in November, 2018, claiming Boghossian is “interested in scoring cheap political points” and has a history “of actively targeting faculty at other institutions.” Boghossian criticized a faculty member at Syracuse who had created a petition that called for the retraction of and apology for the initial publication of a controversial piece on colonialism titled “The Case for Colonialism.” The article argued Western colonialism is good and should be considered again as a modern solution for issues facing countries around the globe—the author defended the article after it was published saying that the piece was satire. Vanguard’s anonymous op-ed linked to a petition that says that the faculty member Boghossian criticized “received hate mail, targeted online harassment, and mischaracterizations” as a result of the petition. Vanguard declined to comment on the Boghossian articles; all assessments reflect my own readings and interpretations and not those of Vanguard or its editors.

The article advocating for colonialism’s return might have been a satirical piece in the Swiftian tradition, but might also be an accurate representation of the author’s views. This leads to questions about whether satire is still a valid form as an impetus for discussion and change, or whether it has lost its teeth and functions mainly as a cover for euphemism and misdirection. In a time when a reasoned debate about contentious topics, such as the history of colonialism, is difficult, debates that range into the personal seem impossible.

That Boghossian’s own colleagues decried him anonymously is troubling; troubling, too, is that they, rightly or wrongly, felt endangered enough to see this as their only recourse. Some immense sea change in the way people communicate is underway and anonymity, online harassment, termination for unpopular views, and the blurring of personal and political all seem to be intertwined in convoluted ways.

What sense does it make for an anonymously written letter to decry another’s subterfuge (which was eventually revealed)? Alleging that a professor harassed colleagues at other organizations is a serious charge; leveling such an accusation without proof seems more like character assassination than engaging with Boghossian’s actual claims—a third party consciously decided to publish Boghossian’s articles. If his conduct were as reprehensible as the letter describes, then publicly standing behind those claims and providing evidence would be expected. Instead, the collective’s statement stoops to personal attacks by an anonymous group. However, if the group’s allegations are true, at what point do institutions have a responsibility to investigate them?  

The distinction between engaging with ideas and simply trying to ostracize and vilify people who hold, or even describe, alternate views seems to have become completely blurred. Any quantifiable proposition or assertion can be verified or falsified. Conversely, statements of subjective value cannot be conclusively proved or disproved if people ascribe to different moral axioms. Damore’s firing from Google for distributing his thoughts about why men are more capable than women and what happened during his appearance at PSU, demonstrate this. The first thing to note is that Damore was fired and subsequently protested against, for expressing an unpopular view. Perhaps there is an argument that using company time to distribute political and social views is inappropriate, but an immediate and highly public termination for writing something seems extreme—even if the views expressed were demeaning. What this instead illustrates is the culture’s trend toward conflating unpopular opinion with criminality.


Likewise for Boghossian. Should we really consider radical questioning of other fields a crime? If the dialectic has collapsed to the point that hoax papers are the only way to begin a discussion, that is itself a huge problem. If Boghossian, like Damore, holds views so awful as to merit expulsion as the only remedy, why is that the case? Is there a standard for determining when propositions are so dangerous that they must be blocked rather than countered? Are hoax articles and controversy effective tools to question institutional integrity? Are hoax articles in the internet era satire in the Swiftian tradition of “A Modest Proposal” or have the implications and repercussions changed with the technology? If some hoax articles contain fake data, to what extent are reviewers swayed by the appearance of mathematical validity more than the arguments and qualitative analysis? If Boghossian’s team had published hoax articles in philosophy journals, would the uproar have been as loud?

In the words of Boghossian, this topic “has a lot of moving parts.” This article has only briefly touched on some of the issues at play, including academic language, the peer review process, university workplace politics, philosophies of knowledge, the uses of anonymity in publication (in online forums such as Twitter as well as print forms such as college newspapers and academic journals), epistemology, and the place (if any) of advocacy in university disciplines, silencing of alternative voices, and so much more. Even after over a month of research and interviews full of leads, dead ends, and unanswered questions, I feel that I have only barely begun to grapple with the many issues at work.

To what extent, if any, should university disciplines position themselves as arbiters of moral truth? Are there different domains of knowledge, as Stephen Jay Gould once posited regarding religion and science, which arrive at valid conclusions through differing means? If there are different domains of knowledge, what are their boundaries and how can they be determined? What do we do if our epistemology brings us to conclusions that controvert our moral beliefs? Is there an inner, immutable self/mind/soul somehow intrinsically linked to gender, sexual orientation, skin color, etc.? What is the university’s obligation to society, and what is society’s obligation to the university?

I encourage you to engage in the difficult, and possibly painful, process of ongoing questioning of dogma and authority of all kinds—and not merely the questions raised in this article. Sometimes this continuous re-examination of principles and knowledge upends all that came before and lands us squarely among those we once considered wrongheaded adversaries. Don’t be afraid of this.

Keep asking questions.


Suggestions for Further Reading

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

That piece’s genesis as a cover story in The Atlantic:

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell


This list is in no way exhaustive.

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