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In my opinion

Even an academic hoax needs ethics approval

The authors of the fake “grievance studies” papers would have made a stronger point if they’d gone through an institutional review board.


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.

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  1. Bryn Williams-Jones / February 8, 2019 at 15:44

    Just to be precise, “IRB” refers to the US ethics review structure; in Canada its they’re called Research Ethics Boards (REB) or Comités d’éthique de la recherche (CER).

  2. John Dickinson / February 9, 2019 at 09:54

    Here is the final paragraph from Sokal’s ‘seminal 1969 paper:’

    “There would now have to be said something about nonmedical
    experiments on human subjects, notably psychological and genetic,
    of which I have not lost sight. But having overextended my limits
    of space by the most generous interpretation, I must leave this for
    another occasion. Let me only say in conclusion that if some of
    the practical implications of my reasonings are felt to work out
    toward a slower rate of progress, this should not cause too great
    dismay. Let us not forget that progress is an optional goal, not an
    unconditional commitment, and that its tempo in particular, compulsive
    as it may become, has nothing sacred about it. Let us also remember
    that a slower progress in the conquest of disease would not threaten
    society, grievous as it is to those who have to deplore that their
    particular disease be not yet conquered, but that society would
    indeed be threatened by the erosion of those moral values whose
    loss, possibly caused by too ruthless a pursuit of scientific [or social]
    progress, would make its most dazzling triumphs not worth having.
    Let us finally remember that it cannot be the aim of progress to
    abolish the lot of mortality. Of some ill or other, each of us will
    die. Our mortal condition is upon us with its harshness but also
    its wisdom—because Without it there would not be the eternally
    renewed promise of the freshness, immediacy, and eagerness of
    youth; nor, without it, would there be for any of us the incentive
    to number our days and make them count. With all our striving to
    wrest from our mortality what we can, we should bear its burden
    with patience and dignity.”

    Definitely worth reading to the end.

  3. Rob / February 9, 2019 at 10:51

    “None of these seem patently absurd or unethical to me.” Therein lies the problem.

  4. John / February 9, 2019 at 12:36

    Nonsense. This is nothing but excuses. If president Trump had been fooled in a similar manner, these critics would clap until their hands bled.

  5. Stephen Coulson / February 9, 2019 at 14:38

    I was going to comment much more generally but I have to admit that I am now much more interested in your ideas about your statement in paragraph 10:

    “As for not masturbating while thinking about strangers, I personally don’t think that’s absurd.”

    Which refers to the idea that it is wrong to masturbate while thinking about a stranger without their consent. I am interested to hear how you recommend this topic be dealt with in practice. Would it be your recommendation that you should seek consent from any stranger you think you might masturbate while thinking about, or perhaps just everyone to be on the safe side, or do you suggest that if you find yourself thinking about someone you haven’t obtained consent from you should immediately stop thinking of them or stop masturbating?
    A more difficult problem would be obtaining consent from people who you only experience as images, either in still photography or in videos. Would it be practical to set up an agency of some sort to process consent requests in an efficient manner, or should we restrict ourselves to actors who work in pornography who we can presume are giving some form of consent for the audience to use their image for sexual arousal?
    I also find the focus on the stranger to be interesting as I am not sure whether the implication is that the same consideration would be extended to acquaintances, colleagues and friends.
    Finally, how should we deal with transgressions? Should there be a way for abusers to confess and make restitution with the victims? Should it be anonymous?
    As you are someone who doesn’t find the idea absurd, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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