A Tale of Two Resignations
Two philosophy professors recently announced their resignations from their respective universities. Both say that their administrations failed to adequately defend their freedoms and protect them from harassment and threats. But there are some differences between the stories that affect what might be learned from them.Last week, Peter Boghossian publicly announced his resignation from Portland State University. In his announcement, he complained about both the character of the university—its emphasis on social justice and what he sees as its “illiberalism”—and about how he was treated by some students, faculty, and administrators.
The latter set of grievances include:
- the university investigating a Title IX complaint a student filed against him. He was ultimately cleared but it was recommended he recieve “coaching” on the university’s discrimination and harassment policy,
- someone (probably students) writing his name and swastikas on bathroom walls and his office door, leaving a bag of feces by his office door, and hanging derogatory flyers about him—episodes on which, Boghossian says, the “university remained silent”,
- faculty expressing, in the student newspaper, their objections to the project Boghossian took part in to publish hoax papers in academic journals in fields he disdains,
- being reprimanded for not submitting the hoax project to the university’s institutional review board for approval, as it was research on human subjects (journal editors and reviewers),
- being briefly interrupted during a panel discussion by a faculty member in the audience asking a question,
- students attempting (but failing) on a couple of occasions to disrupt events (talks, interviews) in which Boghossian participated, and the university, according to Boghossian, doing “nothing to stop or address this behavior”.
(Edited to add: see this comment from David Wallace for additional items Boghossian complained about.)
Boghossian had graduated with an EdD in education from Portland State in 2004, and afterwards was hired by the school into a non-tenure-track position to teach in its Department of Philosophy, a job the contract for which is renewed annually.
Boghossian prides himself on his having asked “questions out loud and in public” challenging certain ideas he believes were dominant on his campus and bringing people to speak in his classrooms who aren’t often invited to do so, such as flat-Earthers, climate skeptics, and critics of diversity initiatives. Despite his frequent experiments pushing against what he took to be academic orthodoxy, his allegedly “illiberal” university rehired him each year, for over a decade. At the time of his resignation, he had been scheduled yet again to teach philosophy courses in the upcoming term at the university, an institution he says is characterized by “intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions.”
The other recent resignation is that of Nathan Jun, a tenured professor of philosophy at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. In autumn of 2020, Jun wrote on a friend’s Facebook page, “I want the entire world to burn until the last cop is strangled with the intestines of the last capitalist, who is strangled in turn with the intestines of the last politician.” It was intended as a riff on a quote from Diderot—“Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”—and was made in regard to the killing of George Floyd in May, 2020 according to Jun (as reported by Times Record News).
Jun’s comment was screenshot and circulated widely, making him the target of harassment by “a group of local far-right extremists” with news of his words discussed nationally by Rush Limbaugh and others. At the time, according to The Washington Examiner, Jun said that his home had been vandalized and that he had received over 300 death threats.
Jun’s university initially defended his freedom of speech, but then the President of the University, Suzanne Shipley, switched directions, telling the public that the university was working with the state’s attorney general to figure out whether they could fire him for what he said. They couldn’t. But, Jun wrote in a recent email, the viciousness of the attacks on him, the death threats, and the betrayal by his university left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He says:
I am writing to let you know that I have been forced to resign from Midwestern State University. As a result of last year’s scandal I ended up developing severe PTSD for which I have since been hospitalized on three separate occasions. Having already thrown me under the bus in October 2020 by publicly condemning me and refusing to defend my safety and reputation against attacks by a white supremacist mob, the university subsequently saw fit to deny the accommodations I had requested under the ADA. Faced with the choice of being terminated or resigning, I ultimately opted for the latter.
Long story short: the far right—in concert with the soulless, amoral administration of Midwestern State University—has succeeded in destroying my academic career and, frankly, my life.
In short, it appears that the administration of Midwestern State University ultimately used the trauma it helped generate as part of a strategy to oust the professor suffering from it and thereby appease right-wing activists, politicians, and donors.
Jun’s resignation was effective August 23rd, 2021. Via email, he mentioned that he would like to continue working in philosophy. He specializes in political philosophy and 19th and 20th Century European philosophy. You can learn more about his work here.
What do these two resignations tell us? Well, with just these two, generalizations are not in order. But one might observe that in the first case, we have a philosopher complaining about the intolerance of an academic institution that kept rehiring him despite his seemingly trying repeatedly to provoke it into firing him.
One might take that as a small piece of evidence in favor of the view, expressed by Sigal Ben-Porath (a philosopher at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education), that “[a] commonly held, and wrong, belief is that colleges and universities suppress speech as a matter of course. In fact, the higher education sector is where the open exchange of ideas is more protected and valued than most other sectors in society.”
In the second case, we have an overreaction by a right-wing mob aimed at canceling a professor for expressing anti-racist political opinions on social media, and an apparently craven administration doing its best to carry out the cancelation.
One might take that as a small piece of evidence that the value of “the open exchange of ideas” in higher education may not be adequately appreciated by those who are outside the university but are nonetheless in a position to put pressure on it. Perhaps what’s needed are more instances, at more places, of the Syracuse Strategy.
This summary seems to leave out some of (what struck me as) the most serious claims in Peter Boghossian’s account:
Obviously I don’t know the accuracy of Boghossian’s claims (that’s also true for your other example). But if true, then (1) looks potentially like a fairly serious academic-freedom issue (though the devil is in the details); (2) is harassment and assault, and (3) is at least concerning, especially for someone on a renewable teaching contract.
I don’t have a broader conclusion to offer – I just don’t think Justin’s summary fully expresses the strength of the case Boghossian makes for maltreatment.Report
I added a note directing readers to your comment, David. Thanks. I agree that in regards to 1, the devil is in the details. I also think the university could have done more than what Boghossian says it did in regard to investigating what happened to him.Report
So I’m clear: in the first case, there are threats of violence and racist attacks against an academic, and your characterization of the departure is that he was a complainer with the supposed *intention* of getting fired? And in the second case, which could reasonably be interpreted as a call to violence by an academic, the problem is cancel culture targeted at someone simply expressing an ‘anti-racist’ opinion?
It would be more helpful if the positions here were less covert; simply state that the behavior of someone with one political affiliation is always justified because of the apparent truth of such political opinions, and otherwise unacceptable behavior against someone with a less desirable political affiliation is almost always justified because of the immorality of having/expressing political beliefs that run afoul of leftist politics.Report
The notion that the second case “could reasonably be interpreted as a call to violence by an academic” is plainly absurd.Report
Jun says he received some 300 death threats, Boghassian says that he was threatened and spit on by passersby. In Jun’s case, the University tried to find a way to fire him. In Boghassian’s case, according to him, the University didn’t do enough to protect him from abuse and harassment. It is obvious to me that Jun’s post on a friend’s Facebook page cannot reasonably be interpreted as a call to violence, but you seem to think otherwise. Overall, I think they both got some shit they didn’t deserve, but the University behaved in a much more appalling way in Jun’s case.Report
What’s the “much more appalling way”? The denial of some unspecified accommodations?Report
No. The university refused to defend Jun, publicly or otherwise, from violent, antisemitic attacks. Rather, it capitulated to the very Nazis and white supremacists who were perpetrating those attacks by needlessly condemning Jun in a public statement. THEN, once Jun had developed PTSD as a result of enduring all of this crap for 8 months, the university refused to provide him with accommodations, effectively forcing him to resign.Report
Just from the publicized case, I agree with with this. N. Jun’s case strikes me very different insofar as the “cause” of all this is a misinterpretation of something that he posted privately on social media, not intending it for public domain. His position with the university was also different (should have had more protection) and the response to the university was very much different (very hostile). P. Boghossian’s case strikes me differently – he has been, quite obviously, engaged in public actions (including publishing) that were deliberately meant to provoke a response, both positive and negative and, it seems, he is not happy with the way those responses occurred and assembled over time. Perhaps he is right, that he should have been more protected and less attacked. In fact, to some extent, I even share some of his “suspicions” of current academic fashions and ideologies – yet, even so, I do have to ask myself about his motivations when it comes to his public hoaxes and so on and once I do that, I have to think about his resignation in that context. For example, I am not happy with the way (and motivations of the) university administrations have been pushing the diversity agenda into academic life – yet, at the same time, I believe that there is a serious underlying social problem that does need to be addressed and even if the current diversity initiatives are not exactly to my liking, they are at least addressing those issues (as opposed to doing nothing) and might, overall, bring some positive changes. Similarly for other issues and causes (feminism, and so on). Although I am not an activist in any of them, I also don’t really think it is a good thing to ridicule them – in fact, I think it’s probably quite bad to do so. To take an example – one need not be exactly fond of some particular religion and yet one might also think that ridiculing that religion (and people who are of it) is a pretty bad thing to do, and so for many reasons. For example, in certain parts of the world, some religions are predominantly the religions of the poor people and ridiculing them is part of ridiculing the poor. It is one way in which the elites express their distaste for them. In any case, PB strikes me along those lines – it’s not really about promoting “rigorous” thought as he puts it – it’s more about putting some people or ideas down. Whether or not his case is technically justified, it might be, it’s hard for me to have too much sympathy. N. Jun’s case is different here – I think his stance (and view expressed) is not exactly the most thougthful thing I have heard but it’s being private and clearly not literally meant, just makes it a very different case for me.Report
As if you can accurately gauge what someone’s stance is, let alone whether it is thoughtful or not, from a single tongue-in-cheek FB post…Report
You’re right. It’s a complete mystery what it can possibly be, seems completely disconnected from recent events…how dare I think anything? Mea Culpa. I crawl back into my hole, stupid foreigner that I am.Report
Seriously, what exactly do you take Jun’s stance to be, and why do you consider it unthoughtful?Report
Can we just skip the “stance” step and observe that the post was facially unthoughtful? Because I get the feeling this is what Joe was trying to assert.Report
A “facially unthoughtful” Facebook post? Surely you jest.Report
Yes, Mary, surely. I jest thusly, and t’was a good time had by all at court. Carry on trying to make your devastatingly incisive point.Report
I think you meant *facially* devastating.Report
Hey Mary, apparently DN’s resident mean-girl: Your drive-by snideness is really showing your deep intellectual prowess. Perhaps you can slow the devolution of your posting instincts by at least explaining why you’re attempting to mock my use of the word facially?Report
Have a good night, Mr. Cantu. And I mean that more than facially. 😉Report
This is the most disgusting and cringe-inducing nakedly biased article I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot.
Having feces delivered to you is not a valid reason to be angry and feel unsafe ? Is Dr. Peter a huge baby in the author’s opinion because he couldn’t handle it ?
I find it bizarre that the author is surprised the other person mentioned generated more heat than Dr. Peter. He called for people to die in a gruesome fashion and for violent riots to happen, off course he attracted more heat and backlash than a person who invited someone to speak respectfully and make their case in front of an audience. There is no sane comparison here.
That person still shouldn’t have lost his job, nobody ever deserves to lose a job over something they said no matter how idiotic and untrue it is, but it’s very amusing the author want to make an “anti-racist” hero out of him. Really drives home their political persuasion.
It’s also curious how the author cherry-picked Syracuse’s response to that professor who praised the death of some 3000 people, while ignoring the fact that the same university fired another professor for calling Covid-19 the “Wuhan Flu”, arguably a much more objective statement than any of the incoherent garbage that other professor spewed on twitter.
You know, Honesty Is The Best Policy. If the author is just in favor of “free speech” when their side is taking flake, there is nothing wrong with saying that. I won’t respect the position, but I will respect the honesty of conviction.
That self-serving dance where they pretend to support free speech while not-so-subtly implying that the people of the wrong opinion deserve it less than your favorite political tribe is really disingenuous and painful to read.Report
“If the author is just in favor of ‘free speech’ when their side is taking flak”… First, you don’t know what my “side” is, but even if you did, I don’t understand the basis of this assertion. I’m not opposed to Boghossian’s free speech, and I don’t endorse the content of or like how Jun put things in his Facebook comment.
I will add that I think a university should do more than what Boghossian says it did in regard to investigating the kinds of things that happened to him.Report
It is 100% untrue that Jun “called for people to die in a gruesome fashion and for violent riots to happen.” Report
First, your description of the faculty story that is being “ignored” is misleading. The professor in question also referred to Covid-19 as “The Chinese Communist Party Flu” in their *course syllabus.* Moreover, the professor was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. The professor in question was also *reinstated* in 2020 given certain conditions, and, as of today, is still listed on the university web site as a “Distinguished Professor or Chemistry”. So, the university didn’t “fire” the professor merely for calling Covid-19 the “Wuhan Flu”.
Second, your description of the faculty member who recently stirred controversy over tweets on Sept 11 is also misleading. The professor *in no way* “praised the deaths of some 3000 people”.
That the professor’s tweets constituted “incoherent garbage” that “praised the deaths of some 3000 people” is “the most disgusting and cringe-inducing nakedly biased” interpretations of two tweets that I’ve ever encountered, and “I have encountered a lot”.Report
Justin, you say that Jun was harassed by a right-wing mob for “expressing anti-racist political opinions on social media”. I don’t think this gets the core issue right. Supposing they wanted to, right-wing mobs would have difficulty exerting that sort of pressure even on a professor who advocates for the abolition of the police, much less one who holds more moderate anti-racist positions. What sets this case apart is that Jun used hyperbolic and violent language in criticizing the police (I don’t think many Americans much mind extracting the entrails of capitalists, but I could be wrong).
I believe that society is much better when people are free to use hyperbolic language, however violent, in contexts where no clear threat is at stake. But what’s needed — both here and surrounding events like the January 6th insurrection — is for people to grapple with uses of hyperbole and uses of violent rhetoric. University administrators probably understand these issues very poorly, by and large. I can understand a professor who attends a campus protest and urges students to violently resist the police facing consequences. But this case doesn’t resemble the situation with Jun at all. And addressing the problem as being about opposition to anti-racism only illuminates a portion of what’s going on.Report
Thanks for this. I agree that it would be good for people to, as you put it, “grapple with uses of hyperbole and uses of violent rhetoric.”
I also agree that “addressing the problem as being about opposition to anti-racism only illuminates a portion of what’s going on,” and I don’t take the above post to be all that might be usefully said about the relevant events and issues. Report
Jun had been harassed for expressing non-hyperbolic anti-racist and anti-police viewpoints online for nearly four months prior to the offending post. Indeed, the very same people who had been calling for his termination for posting an “Abolish the Police” image on Facebook in June (many of them avowed neo-Confederates and white supremacists) were responsible for screenshooting and disseminating that post. See https://www.chronicle.com/article/these-scholars-denounced-the-police-do-their-universities-have-their-backsReport
Mary, I didn’t realize that, thanks. The university needed to get out in front of this, and instead they seemed to be looking for the opportunity to get someone they considered a troublemaker out of their employ.Report
Yes–and they did so in precisely in order to appease a bunch of racists and antisemites…Report
It’s probably important to note the “right wing mob” did not just verbally and electronically attack Jun. As Justin’s story noted, his house was vandalized; what was omitted was that some of the vandalism included swastikas. As Jun is Jewish, this is a clear antisemitic attack meant to not only chill his speech, but physically intimidate him (his case has been discussed–in revolting terms–on numerous white supremacist and neo-Nazi web forums). Antisemitic stereotypes not only include tropes of an intellectual Jewish cabal running the world (in which universities have been a primary target), but also that Jews seek to subvert White European rule through their collaboration with people of color (e.g., supporting Black Lives Matter and efforts to defund the police). Importantly, his university’s administration did not make any public statements to repudiate or counter the antisemitic attacks he faced, thus leaving all the associated bigoted implications made by Jun’s critics officially unopposed.Report
Dana, much appreciated points. The university clearly behaved terribly here. My point was just that our society has trouble distinguishing hyperbole from sincere threats, and that administrators need to be savvy about such matters.Report
Any takeaways from these two cases should be sensitive to the broader context.
Whatever your opinion of the Boghossian case, it is absolutely unconscionable to insinuate that a tenured professor somehow deserved being subjected to six months of death threats, harassment, anti-Semitic vandalism, etc., etc. by Nazis and constructively discharged by the administrators of his university over a fucking Facebook comment.Report
I’ve listened to Boghossian on both the Quillette Podcast and Honestly with Bari Weiss, I have read his resignation letter, and I think the grievance with the Title IX investigation is mischaracterized. The above makes it sound as though Boghossian’s grievance is i) that he was investigated and ii) the recommendation given (even after he was cleared). From how he describes it, the more important (and perhaps only) grievance is that the way in which the Title IX investigation was carried out was unjust. It is important to distinguish objecting to the use of an investigation from objecting to how an investigation is carried out. From what I can tell his grievances include i) not having access to the particular accusations, ii) not having an opportunity to defend himself, and most importantly iii) (from his resignation letter) “that students of mine who were interviewed during the process told me the Title IX investigator asked them if they knew anything about me beating my wife and children. This horrifying accusation soon became a widespread rumor.”
It might correctly strike one as petty that someone would object to being investigated. But, it seems more than appropriate to hold a grudge against a university that, in the course of it’s investigation, has suggested that one beats his wife and children.
Perhaps one should be forgiven in that it is easier to confirm that an investigation did happen than it is to confirm that Boghossian believes the investigation was unjust, but in listing grievances, what matters is what the individual believes the facts to be and not what they actually are. Determining whether the grievances are appropriate is to be done elsewhere from listing what the grievances are.Report
I usually comment under my own name, but I have a very passing connection to all this so I won’t this time. I also don’t relish hate mail and other things that bubble up from the various internet cesspools.
I think it’s worth emphasizing two related points here:
Finally, a lot of the other stuff he whines about is, even if true, hardly unprecedented or the kind of thing that calls for a response from admin or anyone else. How many readers here have scrawled something about a professor they hated in a washroom in their undergrad or even grad days? (And just how is admin supposed to do about this? A campus wide ban on sharpies? Bathroom cams? Is the president supposed to issue a statement every time some professor is named in mean graffiti?) When I was an undergrad I had professors advise me not to take classes with other professors for various reasons. I’ve done it a few times myself as a professor. And what kind of response is called for here? A press release? Disciplinary action against the offending faculty? A public statement to the effect that everyone should take his classes? The funny thing here is that like a lot of people who claim to be all for unfettered discussion when it comes to other people Boghossian doesn’t seem to think the same principles apply to him. When Boghossian or someone he invites into his classes says means things about students or groups they belong to, well they need to suck it up, but if someone says something mean about him? Well then admin or someone is supposed to what punish whoever said it? Or at the very least do something to protect his feelings. That hardly seems like something a real champion of free speech would say.Report
I do not trust that man. I recall a recent interview he did where he described a conversation he supposedly had with a proponent of intersectionality, who told him that the value of a person’s opinion depended on how oppressed they were. I immediately thought, “That never happened.”Report
I’ve seen it happen. Standpoint theory is an example of how various mechanisms of modern social justice discourse can give rise to such assertions. PB’s claim is entirely plausible.Report
I know of no version of standpoint theory nor intersectionality that says that the value of someone’s opinion depends on how oppressed they are. If you think this alleged claim is “entirely plausible” then please identify an actually existing standpoint theory or theory of intersectionality that fits the bill.Report
Ben. My point was that while standpoint theorists themselves may not attempt to establish these kinds of truths, their ideas inspire such rhetoric by others in broader social justice discourse (rightly or wrongly).
For example, I’ve have repeatedly heard it argued that a person of color deserves deference in describing something facially innocuous as racist. Why? Because people of color MUST understand the subtle ins and outs of culture better than whites in order to survive in a white supremacist culture. I.e., the value of a given person’s opinion about whether something is racist depends, in the view of some, on how oppressed they’re deemed to be. Satisfied? Or do you want cites to such casual conversations?Report
You like the word “facially,” it seems.Report
That’s a very different claim from “the value of a person’s opinion depended on how oppressed they were”. It’s one thing to say that experiencing oppression more often gives people better insight into some features of that oppression. It’s another to say that experiencing oppression more often makes all of your opinions more valuable. If one means the more specific thing, one should say the more specific thing, rather than passing it off as the more general thing.Report
“That’s a very different claim from ‘the value of a person’s opinion depended on how oppressed they were'”
No, actually, it’s literally what you just described: someone claimed that a person’s opinion had more value because they’re oppressed. It’s really quite simple. How you can see it as a “very different claim” bewilders me.
I’m not sure why you think PB was trying to pass off the “specific thing as the more general thing.” I didn’t read his claim to be that he was told that oppressed people’s opinions about EVERYTHING are ALWAYS of more value. And, no, his failure to “say the specific thing” does not warrant the assumption that this was his point.Report
Your point about academic fraud strikes me as poorly argued and somewhat partisan.
For example look at this hoax (https://youtu.be/FjizvV9HXcs?t=154) were some young media commentators and journalists wanted to make a point about how journalistic standards had badly deteriorated such that journalists were no longer doing basic checking of sources when it might get in the way of a good story. So they set up a website for a fake institute (full of obvious clues that it was fake) and sent out a press release claiming that the institute had completed a study proving some sensationalist claim (the press release had a link to the full study which was itself full of absurd claims and even said that it was a hoax). Many of the major media organizations then reported the fake study as truth and gave it significant publicity. Shortly afterwards, the hoaxers revealed on their TV show that it was a hoax and made their point about lax media standards.
As with all hoaxes, there is an interesting debate to have about whether the behavior of the hoaxers was reasonable and ethical. However, the following would not be a helpful contribution to such a debate:
This reply misses the point by ignoring the fact that the journalists where not fabricating sources and making false claims as part of their normal journalistic practice but rather as part of a special project aimed at exposing bad journalistic practices among their peers, practices that themselves lead to fraudulent experts and their lies being spread by the media. The archetypal liar or fraudster, who we all agree is in the wrong, wants their lies and fraud to stay hidden so that they can get some personal advantage from it. That is very different from someone who lies or commits fraud with the intention of shortly publicly revealing their fraud and lies in order to expose the widespread propagation of fraud and lies by others.
None of this is to say that any of these hoaxes are ultimately justified. Maybe what these journalists did, or what Boghossian and his collaborators did, is all things considered wrong. But, for those who want to discuss this matter, please put aside your personal biases and political allegiances and stick to giving principled, well-thought reasons about when, and in what conditions such hoaxes are unjustified.Report
Without opening on Boghossian’s general character (though I note that your language, ‘whines’ etc. is highly pejorative), calling his various hoax articles academic fraud is misleading.
Of course they were nonsense filled with bogus data etc, and filed under false pretences – it was a hoax. He didn’t try to make out that this good quality research: the whole point was that the papers were ridiculous in concept and execution, and he and his collaborators widely publicised the fact. This is not equivalent to academic fraud which aims at passing off fake research as real or valuable.Report
Rollo Burgess and JTD,
To be quite blunt here both of your replies display a really shocking ignorance of both the facts of the Boghossian hoax and the basics of how peer review works for papers that rely on empirical results. The thing here isn’t that Boghossian sent in a generally shoddy papers or papers that had an obvious flaw a decent reviewer should have caught. That’s what Sokal did and it’s a different thing entirely. That’s quite shabby in my book but I wouldn’t call it academic fraud. Where Boghossian et al. crossed a very bright line was in fabricating empirical results. Not only did he and his accomplices fabricate results but they lied when one journal gently challenged them on those fabricated results. (If either of you would like to actually familiarize yourself with the basic details of the case before commenting further, which I’d really recommend, this Slate article is very good: https://slate.com/technology/2018/10/grievance-studies-hoax-not-academic-scandal.html). And the news comparison is quite off base. News sources can and should fact check every claim. But when we get into empirical fields in academic journals it’s simply not possible to check all empirical results. To do that you would literally have to run the study again in most cases or, given that one study can have anomalous results, you’d have to run the same study multiple times. Because of that fact journals in empirical fields or any journal that publishes empirical results rely, and must rely, on contributors not to fabricate empirical results. Anything that eats away at that trust and those principles is contrary to the whole enterprise of seeking truth. Which makes Boghossian’s claims to be a brave warrior for truth really rich. What he did is fundamentally at odds with the practices necessary to seek truth in scientific fields that rely on peer review. And lets be clear on this, exactly the same thing that Boghossian did is one of the roots of the replication crisis that’s undermining the very foundations of psychology as a science. Fabricated data is also what gave us the claim that vaccines cause autism. Granted Boghossian probably did less harm (though maybe we should wait and see on that) but his actions violate exactly the same principles as these egregious cases of academic fraud. And violating the principles against fabricating data is a much bigger threat to truth than are the academic subfields that Boghossian and some others make into such bugbears. If people started lying about empirical results every time they thought they had good reason then the very practice of science would become, if not impossible, then incredibly cumbersome and slow.
As for the “whining” description, I stand by my word choice as the only apt description. I mean if you take out the complaints in the resignation where we have to take the word of a known fabricator, which we shouldn’t, basically all we’re left with is that his colleagues and students were mean to him and someone should have made them be nicer. I struggle to find a neutral way to describe that.Report
I’m not claiming that Boghossian et al’s hoaxes were in any way worthwhile or interesting – in my opinion they weren’t. And I agree that the lying involved in the exercise makes it ethically far more dubious than Sokal’s more elegant hoax.
I’m saying I don’t think it’s useful to call it fraud. The dishonesty went on long enough to get some of their silly papers published after which the team shouted from the rooftops about what drivel they were. There was no attempt to convince the world that the ‘evidence’ was real, beyond getting the papers into journals.
Whatever one thinks about that it is arrantly ridiculous to compare this foolish episode to the actually fraudulent research on MMR – this is a continuing episode of dishonesty for commercial gain on a matter of the utmost gravity, causing people’s deaths as we speak. Boghossian’s silly activities are clearly inconsequential by comparison, and already largely forgotten away from parts of twitter, this blog, etc.Report
It certainly sounds like academic fraud. The whole thing would not have worked if they had not wanted people to believe them (or if not ‘believe’ then some procedural analogue to that) even if it was only for long enough to make their point. At the risk of being too much a philosopher, is the question whether academic fraud in the context of a prank should be permissible where ‘sincere’ academic fraud should not?Report
wouldn’t the academic fraud be, anyways, if we step back from the fabricated data, the passing off of predatory journals as serious targets for academic integrity research and, ergo that he lied and fabricated data for his actual point too? I think that speaks enough of PBs character, to have two lies/fabrications imbricated in each other to serve his viewpoint, to seriously discount his other claims. Now, that’s not even accounting for the subjectivity of an absurd paper, something that wasn’t an issue with Sokal since then it was literally gibberishReport
This is a better attempt at articulating what might be wrong with their hoax than your earlier attempt. However, it still falls short of a strong argument. For instance, you seem to assume that, if we put aside the fake data, there is nothing so objectionable about the content of the hoax papers that makes the fact that they were taken seriously, and in several cases published, damning. I don’t accept this assumption. For example, if I imagine that the data in the dog paper were real (i.e., I imagine that someone had actually really collected this data and then written the paper) I still find the paper absurd and the fact that it was published quite damning for the relevant journal.
At another point, you seem to suggest that submitting fake data to an academic journal is such a serious transgression that it cannot be justified even when it is intended to serve a good end like exposing compromised review and publishing practices. I agree that the use of fake data is a serious matter and probably “raises the bar” of justification needed. But I don’t agree with the absolutism you seem to advocate on this matter. For example, I consider the Sokal affair to be a justified use of hoax tactics to expose a severely comprised area of academic scholarship. But then I can imagine a case involving the same conditions as the Sokal affair except that the relevant discipline is an empirical discipline where published articles always include some kind of data. In this case, for the hoax to succeed, Sokal would need to include some data in his hoax paper, even if the parts of the paper that are absurd and demonstrate the problems with the relevant discipline do not depend on the data. Now, ideally I would want him to use real data. But if doing so was unfeasible, I would be ok with him using fake data, or at least I would if I imagine that the empirical discipline he was exposing was having significant negative effects on society by its compromised research practices. Now, the various conditions at play in Boghossian’s hoax might not be sufficient to justify his use of fake data. But my point is that I would want to see a carefully formulated argument for this claim rather than an appeal to an implausible absolutist claim about faking data being unjustifiable under any circumstances.Report
Texas A&M recently banned the use of chalk on outdoor surfaces because people had been chalking unflattering things about a former president of the university who had also been a Confederate general, and whose statue plays a role in certain campus traditions: https://theeagle.com/news/a_m/texas-a-m-bans-use-of-chalk-as-form-of-messaging-on-campus/article_b7e505c6-e7f4-11ea-9350-bb9d44ba99c6.htmlReport
The issue over which of these cases is worse seems to be obscuring the more important point that, at least as described in the accusations, these are both tales of universities acting in an appalling manner. Which case is worse seems less important than how we can act to make sure that universities are not acting like this, whether the pressure is coming from left or right.Report
One wonders how Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ would fare in todays social media environment.
For that matter, does anyone know the reception Swift met with. In the one instance I have found, Swift’s readers understood his proposal as deeply ironic and responded in a similar trope. But of course that may simply be the response that lives on.Report
I think it’s fair to say that the Jun case is appalling. As is what happened at Mississippi with Garrett Felber, or with the Board at UNC trying to determine tenure decisions, or other attempts by right-wing online groups and Republican politicians trying to harass professors and obstruct them from teaching. And I don’t think any of this is controversial among people concerned with academic freedom.
What gets me is that there seems to be some sort of complaint, a distinct class of complaint, that is loosely centered around some kind of alleged ideological “illiberalism” of the academy inline with part of what Boghossian says. It’s the sort of thing we hear from Heterodox Academy, FIRE, FAIR, and, at this point, a good variety of academics. It’s the sort of complaint that accords with what Sean Wilentz recently said about historians feeling pressure to not criticize the 1619 project. It’s the sort of complaint that gets aired in things like Anne Applebaum’s recent Atlantic article. And this sort of complaint just seems to be continually minimized, “contextualized,” mocked, and dismissed by certain parts of the academy and some academics– indeed this very dismissal is part of the general complaint!
Even with this Daily Nous post, I can’t help but get the impression that this Daily Nous post is designed to minimize the worry. When Boghossian’s story broke, it was all over the media, to say nothing of the philosophy social media sphere. Where was the Daily Nous post about it then– a blog devoted to news in philosophy? At the time, I had the cynical suspicion that the Daily Nous would wait to write about the story until it could be “properly contextualized and framed”– which is clearly what happened. When Syracuse President, Kent Syverud, issued his response to support Jenn Jackson (an obviously correct thing to do), Daily Nous quickly posted about it. But with any issue of alleged assaults against academic freedom that are more in keeping with Boghossian’s complaints about a certain sort of “illiberal” ideology adversely affecting the academy, the response from some seems to be tepid, minimizing, and focused on nitpicking and “contextualizing” the issue so as to resist any attempt draw any sort of general inferences here.
So, for my part, I see no problem seeing how Jun’s treatment was terrible and similar assaults against academic freedom should be called-out and resisted. And, sure, maybe Boghossian is not the faultless poster-child to carry this mantle. But at the same time, when scores of prominent academics, lawyers, doctors, journalists, professionals and people from all sorts of political persuasions are sounding an alarm about a kind of illiberal dogma adversary affecting issue in academic freedom, I take that seriously– and I get increasingly concerned when I see some in the academy try to minimize and contextualize-away such concerns.Report
Unless I’m missing something it would appear Jun’s case is receiving far, far less attention than Boghossian’s…Report
From what I see (and YMMV), I see Boghossian getting tons of attention in the “usual” right-wing, culture war venues. NYPost, DailyMail, Glenn Beck, Fox News, among many, many others (and some, but not a lot of attention in somewhat less partisan venues). Much less attention given in academic circles (aside from the usual FIRE, FAIR, etc folks). So, I was more commenting on how I see large parts of the *academy* specifically that don’t see the alleged “illiberalness” as a problem, and don’t see Boghossian’s case as indicative of anything terribly interesting or widespread. Right-wing media, of course, wants to trumpet Boghossian-style complaints as loud as they can because doing so serves their political purposes. Report
I see what you’re saying. Still, I’ve been following the Jun case since July 2020 and it has received shockingly little attention even within academic circles, especially when compared to, say, the cases of Salaita and Maher or, more recently, Farber, Burnett, etc. I also haven’t seen comparable displays of organized solidarity in response.Report
I think that’s fair. Aside from general statements of solidarity and shocked faces, there is a real lack of organized, substantive, and material support in cases like Jun, Farber, et al.Report
Sadly I’m not even seeing general statements of solidarity. I find this especially troubling as a freshly-minted Ph.D.; if something like this were to happen to me in the future, it certainly doesn’t appear that I could count on the profession to have my back…Report
I think it’s worth noting that Brian Leiter has been one of the people posting on Jun’s case all along, and trying to get people to contract the relevant officials, etc. This is perhaps especially relevant because the two are not friends, and in fact have had some small conflicts. It’s clearly done as a matter of principle. Too many people treat academic freedom as if it were just one more chip to be played in various “cultural war” games, but whatever else you may think of him, it’s clear that’s not how Leiter approaches the issue.Report
I didn’t know that–thanks. Good on Professor Leiter for standing up on principle!Report
Here’s an article from today’s New York Times that contributes to the general impression that what we might call “organized touchiness” and “moral (or political) hypochondria” may be out of control at some (even many) institutions:
The University of Wisconsin Smears a Once-Treasured Alum
One way of seeing the comparison is to see Boghossian as actively courting the right-wing culture war while Jun is the victim of the right-wing cultural warriors. Other commenters point out the ways that those on the left can mob people they disagree with. As important as this point is, and here I am surely exposing my own political bias, the reach of angry students may be limited when compared to the reach of Fox News or Tuning Point or any number of powerful right-wing organizations. Both can do harm, and when it comes to upending an individual’s life, both strike me as potentially horrifying for the individuals involved. But looking at the harms done to individuals can cause us to lose sight of the ways we should respond to the harms done by a student or by organized groups of students versus the harms done by organized media companies with international audience. Both can be very wrong, but I think they may be wrong in very importantly different ways. Finally, and as others have pointed out, one has to wonder about what both of these cases say about self-promotion and self-presentation and how these relate to being an academic in our time.Report
While I wouldn’t necessarily claim that what happened to Boghossian is okay, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much at stake in his resignation, at least professionally speaking. Jun was a full professor with tenure and he will most likely never regain that status. Hell, he’ll be extremely lucky if he manages to find another full time academic job. His career was ruined by this affair.Report
Is there such a thing as “courting the left-wing culture war”? If so, is that also wrong? I’ve published saying that Trump was a bad president. Does that mean I’ve courted left-wing culture war?
I wouldn’t want to think that our support for someone’s academic freedom depends on whether we like their politics or not.Report
I could be wildly uncharitable here but it seems like it matters that Boghossian was able to get so much publicity for his case and was able to appear with people like Beck to talk about his views. Unless you were able to get on Maddow and outlets with similar reach for your writing, then I don’t know if I agree with you point. Again, it may not matter, I certainly have my own bias, and my point may not have been clear above. I just think it is too easy to compare the behaviors of a few students, even an organized group of students, to the behaviors of adults in charge of media outlets with tremendous reach. I worry we too easily lose sight of this when comparing individual cases.Report
There’s publishing an opinion and there’s making culture war noise. Sometimes you can do both at once, but I’ve seen enough of Boghossian’s public activity to think that he’s basically Candace Owens with an EdD. It’s just noise.Report
The thing with courting the left-wing culture war today is that one can do it very easily without going on television. All the resources one needs for waging such a war are within academia itself. At most colleges and universities, they are so close by that one does not even need to extent one’s reach beyond one’s own campus gates, or even perhaps beyond one’s colleagues.Report
Boghossian et al.,’s hoax and rationale (exposing the flaws of peer-reviews) are not new but also misunderstands what a theory is supposed to be. At least in the humanities. I’ve read some weird biology papers before. There was one published about the origin of life claiming that it came from a comet in space or something and it was related to the octopus. It was published of course in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Many people who commented on it on Facebook found it ridiculous and asked why such a paper was published.
I think people like Boghossian misunderstand what theories are supposed to be. Theories are falsifiable. It’s what I learned in sociology as an undergraduate. These theories get accepted not because every premise and the conclusion are true or immune from criticism. But because they present new possibilities and that the arguments are nevertheless *valid* in form.
I think people like Boghossian probably have different expectations of what should be published in academia in the first place and what a theory suppose to be and do. It’s important to understand why these people are so frustrated with certain ideas. Often times, we probably misunderstand how our institution functions because we are ignorant about its *purpose* or goal in the first place.
You gotta understand the telos or purpose of something to at least know its function.Report
I think theories are supposed to do more than offer possibilities. If that were true, there’d be no need for peer review, as anything is “possible.” Theories exist to make abstract sense of otherwise disparate facts, the constituent parts of reality. The legitimacy of a theory turns on how useful it is in helping to shape a truly coherent and considered narrative about x or y, in order to better understand x or y in light of other adjacent accepted truths and theories.
It is not a valid academic theory to simply assert that dog humping in dog parks perpetuates rape culture without a threshold analytical and evidentiary bases for the assertion. Again, peer review wouldn’t make much sense if it were otherwise. The bases offered in the paper were intentionally ridiculously weak; it got through anyway. Meaning, a theory that deserved no credence–an invalid theory–got through. That’s bad. This is an inevitable conclusion unless we are to believe that academic theorizing can legitimately be more fanciful, playful, and unmoored than most academics would agree it legitimately can be.Report
Sure I agree. I don’t deny there are many functions of a theory. That’s why I said the form must also be logically valid at least. Validity in logic does not guarantee soundness. I take people like Boghossian want peer-reviews to accept valid and sound arguments *only*.
Peer-review isn’t perfect since humans aren’t perfect. I haven’t read the paper. But the reviewers and editors accepted it for a reason. I’m assuming they did it because it was interesting and deductively valid cloaked in academic prose.
Can’t tell you how many times I see referees say they accepted a paper because it’s interesting and not because every premise and conclusion are true.Report
I guess what I’m trying to say is that high plausibility isn’t always a requirement so long as the paper is ~interesting~ and is deductively valid. All theories should be valid in form e.g. deduction. But the content of such deduction could go in many directions as long as it’s ~interesting~ and generates or stimulates further discussion. This is a common rationale of many referees for accepting a paper. But not all of them think like this of course.
I’m not an academic, but from an outsider looking in, it seems that there is a lot of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and miseducation about not only the *appropriate* or ideal function of peer-review, but also about academic theories themselves.
So long as these epistemological issues aren’t adequately addressed and taught within the academic community, I predict, based on past and current events, that more of these people like Boghossian and James Lindsay are going to keep doing such hoaxes and run a “crusade” against academic freedom in the future.
This is just a piece of wisdom from me.Report
From a strategic perspective, what Boghossian and Lindsay are doing is predictable to me. They’ve defined what they consider truth, peer-review, and theories are supposed to be and do and constantly attack any academic theory, books, ideas, and institutions that deviate from that definition or ideal. They’ve defined their ideals and terms, garner ignorant and naive followers, and now have academia and many of the public at their figure-tips.
They’ve presupposed the truth of their ideas without adequately justifying them because why not? Who cares? The public isn’t THAT smart to poke holes in their presuppositions and assertions. I suspect Lindsay learned a lot from Boghossian since he is a philosopher and we philosophers know how to manipulate logic and argument to our ends. Just something I noticed.Report
It’s my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong Justin, that it’s against DN posting rules for someone to formulate a post attacking someone on the basis based on assumptions about that person’s intentions.Report
Have you not watched their interviews at all?Report
Evan, you’re reminding me of Stanley Fish’s remark that “deconstruction relieves me of the obligation to be right … and demands only that I be interesting.”
It seems to me that the frequency with which reviewers or editors give the thumbs-up for publication because a theory is merely interesting reveals not a feature of the system but rather a bug, one that these gents were attempting to highlight. In other words, this may be a common practice, but that reveals not necessarily that the practice is legitimate but rather demonstrates how widespread faulty peer review may be.
In any event, I still can’t help but think that, when done correctly, peer review filters out those theories that are not plausible in light of not only logic but also adjacent established truths and accepted theories (unless a proposed theory is designed to directly and fundamentally challenge those accepted theories). Otherwise, again, peer review would make no sense, given that the entire reason why peer review is valued is because of the reviewer’s mastery of the given substantive area of knowledge. Any editor can deem a theory logical and “interesting” without peer review.
In any event, if it is true that publication for being interesting is common, hoaxers I think are correct to highlight this problem in light of what it leads so.
After all, what gets deemed “interesting”? Pieces that reinforce leftist ideological premises about the nature of social reality, even when the bases for that reinforcement are made intentionally absurd? It sure seems like it. At the very least it’s obvious that an equally absurd article taking a pro-life position would not be deemed “interesting” enough, I bet dollars to donuts. And that alone is worth mocking.Report
My concern is that, at least in the humanities, there is yet a consensus about what peer-reviews should be and do. At least not that I know of. You have your idea of what it *should* be about and others have their own.
Here are my questions: Is there a rulebook/manual/oath of peer-review somewhere that academics draw upon to swear by? How do you know your account is the correct one? How can and should academics settle this? How does one reconcile one’s idea with that of the journal’s aims?Report
What is a journal anyway? Indeed, what are we? Who’s to say we’re even here? Am I a brain in a vat?
Joking aside, as I’ve made clear already, my argument that my idea of peer review is the proper one is due to the basic logic of peer review’s existence.
Regardless, your original point, if I remember correctly (too lazy to scroll up) is that PB’s hoaxing reflects a lack of understanding on his part about what is publishable in the humanities. But there’s no reason to assume this is true and, if it is true, it’s irrelevant.
If you’re right that the humanities can’t agree on whether such a ridiculous paper should be published, that’s sad, and thus the hoaxes are illuminating of that fact. And mocking that fact was the plausible goal of PB. If there is, by contrast, a settled conception of proper peer review (explaining “possibilities” that are “interesting”) and the dog humping piece still got through, then that’s mock-worthy, and plausibly what PB intended to highlight. And if it’s true that PB did perform his hoax without an adequate appreciation of common peer review and publishing practices in the humanities, THE PEICE STILL GOT THROUGH. Which is absurd, and PB’s alleged lack of understanding doesn’t change this fact, and thus doesn’t change the validity or utility of his project.Report
I find it very strange that as a professor he clearly has a problem with the humanities and yet didn’t initiate a formal debate about this amongst his community of experts internally beforehand or even wrote a scholarly article addressing the state of peer-reviews and questioning its norms that I know of.
If he has a convincing argument about what peer-review should be, why not organize a professional conference about it? Why politicize this issue so much by going on-air and (directly or indirectly) contributing to the demonization of academia and universities?
To put things in another perspective, where I disagree with him is assuming peer-review as a whole is problematic just because of one or a few hoaxes. Anecdotal evidences are not good when making such a broad conclusion about peer-review. They (Lindsay and Boghossian) based their conclusion and attacks on the humanities from this one example of theirs. That’s not a good argument.
Of course, their argument would be better if they argued that *this* peer-reviewed system from *this* journal is problematic or erroneous. A targeted approach would have saved their fallacious argument. But even then, what’s the point of making their argument so public about *one* isolated example they conducted? (I answer below).
If he wants to convince me that peer-review in the humanities, in general, is overall problematic, he’s going to have to “experiment” on a larger scale than this one example. Alas, many or most of the public, again, don’t know how to evaluate between anecdotal evidence vs. robust research on an issue. If he’s trying to raise doubts in the public’s mind using this *one* hoax, then he’s succeeding, nevertheless, even if his argument is fallacious. 🤷🏽♂️Report
The fact that 9/10ths of this discussion has ended up being about Peter Boghossian and his antics is pretty fucking illuminating…Report
I figured it would be illuminating to try to diagnose some of the core/fundamental issues based on my observation of him (I haven’t seen many discussions about it in a coherent and rational way due to the noise) and try to understand the causal mechanisms that lead to not only his resignation but the (negative) political consequences that were generated by his actions.
I think this is a good learning opportunity from moral, academic, and prudential perspectives at least. Assuming people can and would learn from his antics and their consequences.
But of course, like Socrates once said about justice, this kind of investigation is “one for the [person] who sees sharply.” Sharp minds are rare these days.Report
That’s fair, Evan.Report
The theory that life came to earth on comets is actually not a totally fringe view (though it is fringe to think that this somehow *explains* the origin of life, rather than pushing it back to how life got to the comets). However, at least some of the most prominent pushers of this theory really are fringe figures, like this guy, who didn’t just claim that life came to earth from comets, but also published a paper claiming that some red rain a decade or two ago had space life in it, and that covid 19 probably came from space, rather than from bats or a lab: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandra_WickramasingheReport
I agree. I think there is a distinction between origin of life *on Earth* and origin of life *per se*.Report
I think it’s pretty obvious that Boghossian has been nakedly disingenuous about his treatment by PSU over the last few tears. He’s clearly wanted PSU to make of martyr of him for some time, and when they wouldn’t, he just resigned, and pretended like he was forced out. The fact is, PSU was extremely tolerant, continuing to re-hire him year-after-year even though he lacks the resquisite qualifications to teach philosophy (having had no real formal training in philosophy or publications in mainstream philosophy journals), and even though he participated in something that, in my opinion, bordered on academic fraud. The reason for this bit of acting is that he knows he can make far more money as an alt-right provocateur a la Brett Weinstein than as an adjunct professor at a four-year university.Report
To be fair, he did make $85k last year, according to public record. I’m not sure why his contract would be on a yearly renewal basis. NTTFT at PSU get continuous contracts after a period of time.Report
* I guess that probably includes benefits and stuff.Report
80k is a pretty nice salary, but I’m pretty sure Weinstein, for example, was making six figures as a TT biology professor at Evergreen State. now he’s making far more in conservative media than he could ever have as a professor. I’m not knocking the hustle–I just think both he and Weinstein wanted to take their new found celebrity and move onto greener pastures, and the “martyr for free speech” narrative feeds into the brand they’re trying to cultivate. to your second point, I don’t know why his contract wasn’t continuous. I was just reporting something one of his PSU colleague said to Leiter.Report
Aye, agreed. I just didn’t want people to think he was an adjunct making $3k/class. As far as I can tell, the PSU philosophy dept was very tolerant of him.Report
Do philosophers really not care what happened to Nathan Jun? Please sign and support.Report