Human Subject Rules As A Violation Of Academic Freedom

Disapproving Of Tactics Isn't Grounds For University Discipline

I don’t know what I think of Boghossian’s hoax. I’m fully convinced these subjects fundamentally lack any truth-relevant standards. However, I haven’t actually read the papers in question and some of the rebuttals have claimed that the papers made observational claims. Peer review isn’t meant to challenge those kind of claims but it is meant to reject nonsense. So, before I settle on a view about the hoax I’d need to see if the papers themselves were obviously absurd even taking the factual claims for granted. However, how you feel about the underlying hoax doesn’t really matter here. There is no question that the hoax was undertaken as a rhetorical tactic to demonstrate the intellectual weakness of certain academic disciplines via the normal practice of submitting journal articles (even if there was dishonest intent). Moreover, many prominent academics praised it as an important contribution. Even if you think this was a pointless, dishonest and mean spirited attack on these disciplines it is well within the traditional academic role. This makes the use of human subject experimentation rules to punish Boghossian for his antics raises serious academic freedom concerns.

While Boghossian’s punishment was, in one sense, a slap on the wrist the particular form it took (essentially a complete ban on participating in human subject research) is very concerning. It is suggestive (though not conclusively) of a desire to bar him from doing further work on this question and not just a desire to see the niceties of IRB review followed. Regardless of the motives of his punishment the value laden choice to apply human subjects rules to a context where they are generally not applied raises concerning questions about academic freedom.

To illustrate the fact that we don’t normally think of human subject rules as being applicable to interactions with other academics in anything resembling normal practice consider the following examples.

Consider the case of Professor Wood debunking N-rays by surreptitiously removing part of the apparatus (without effect) to show it was a hoax. If this episode happened today should we punish Wood for performing an experiment on professor Blondlot without his knowledge? As this episode illustrates, misrepresentations in academic discussion have a long history and as such shouldn’t just be pushed outside the protections of academic freedom.

But maybe you’d object that Boghossian’s research was systematic in a way that Professor Wood’s was not. In that case consider Nosek’s Open science Collaboration. This collaboration literally asked people (other researchers) to perform a task (replicate these existing results) and published papers evaluating the percentage of those tasks that succeeded (successful replications). The project was expressly designed both to prompt researchers in the field to engage in these representations (so wasn’t merely observational) and then to do a systemic evaluation of how the researchers performed (successful replications or not). That’s the archetypal structure of research that requires IRB approval in other contexts.

Or what about going to a philosophy conference and asking your colleagues how they feel about some interesting moral dilemma you thought up. Is it human subjects research to write a philosophy paper noting that this dilemma seems to divide philosophers in such and such a fashion? Does making sure you ask a wide range of colleagues mean it suddenly qualifies? What if your goal is to write a paper arguing that other philosophers are deeply confused about some issue? Surely we don’t want to be running to an IRB every time we get a gestalt sense of what our colleagues believe or accept as evidence. Is it somehow that one is being inexact and summarizing a gestalt sense one’s colleagues believe that saves ones from needing IRB approval?

In that case consider all the conferences, such as the American Geophysical Union meeting, which have taken to releasing the race/gender breakdown of submitted/accepted papers to facilitate analysis and publication. That’s an archetypal experiment which any IRB would deny in another context. The reviewers (subjects) surely didn’t give meaningful consent as they risked professional consequences if they tried to back out after being informed the data summarizing their behavior would be released, if they were informed at all. I mean imagine what your colleagues would think of you if you backed out after finding out that your work would be statistically analyzed to determine racial and gender fairness. Worse, the research would convey potentially highly disturbing information directly to friends and colleagues aware of your status as a subject (perhaps even able to infer how you affected the data if conference organizers gossip).

I’m not saying that any of these behaviors is comparable to Boghossian’s misrepresentations. But I think they show that the choice to apply the human subject rules to Boghossian was highly value laden. Indeed the case with Wood shows we approve of this behavior when we believe the victims truly are charlatans suggesting it’s the belief that grievance studies researchers aren’t charlatan that is driving this application. No matter how wrong you may think that conclusion may be, not being punished for advocating (even in a mean, disrespectful and unpleasant way) for an incorrect view is at the heart of academic freedom.

I mean if universities can use human subjects research ethics as an excuse for condemning Boghossian in this situation I see no reason why they couldn’t do the same next time a philosopher talks to a bunch of colleagues at the APA to get a sense of their view on some controversial topic, e.g., the argument that we have a moral obligation to abort the disabled. I happen to be a fan of what Boghossian was trying to do (even f I might quibble with his implementation) but even if you aren’t you should recognize the potential to apply human subjects rules to do an end run around academic freedom guarantees and use their interactions with other academics, attempts to achieve more transparently on racial/gender fairness and other normal aspects of academic life as an excuse to apply them to controversial academics.

For instance, even though it’s a normal practice to get widespread feedback on a philosophical puzzle or argument from colleagues and reference the overall nature of those opinions in subsequent papers one can easily imagine that in the face of a public controversy about a philosopher advancing a a version of the (very philosophically reputable) argument that women have a moral duty to abort a disabled fetus the same excuse might be used. Just gather evidence that they had indicated their intent to poll colleagues about this argument at the conference (say because they planned to write a paper arguing that philosophers are insufficiently responsive to unpopular moral views) and use that to claim it was a systematic investigation of human subjects.

Peter Boghossian on Twitter

Attached is the outcome of Portland State University’s disciplinary investigation into my Grievance Studies probe. (1)