Ethics Quiz: The Good Hoax?

A scholarly journal called “Sex Roles” published what t thought were the results of  a two-year study involving “thematic analysis of table dialogue” to uncover the mystery of why heterosexual men like to eat at Hooters. A journal of feminist geography, whatever that is, featured research om “human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity” at dog parks in Portland, Oregon. Another paper was deemed worthy of publication in a journal of feminist social work:  titled “Our Struggle Is My Struggle,” it merged current feminist cant into passages lifted from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

Last week, the three authors of these and many other hoax papers  revealed in an article for the online journal Areo explaining that their fakery was part of a project to expose the lack of integrity in academia. “Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields,” they wrote. James A. Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian  (above) said that they wrote 20 fake scholarly papers and had several accepted and published in journals. The embarrassed publications rushed to retract the fake scholarship…

…while many scholars praised the hoaxers. for casting a harsh and revealing light on the “peer-reviewed research” scam.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz Of The Day:

Was the hoax project ethical?

I’ll give my answer now: emphatically not. This is a pure “the ends justify the means” abuse episode. The hoaxers punished readers, who wasted their time reading these silly papers because they trusted the publications. This is like swindling someone, keeping the money, and piously lecturing the victims about how they should be more careful in the future.

This is just a more extensive, more elaborately rationalized version of the fake news hoaxes on cheesy websites like The News Nerd and others. There are always more ethical methods of alerting the public to a problem than lying to it.

But as readers here know, I detest all hoaxes, even funny ones. Maybe you can convince me that this is the exception: https://ethicsalarms.com/2017/05/25/the-good-hoax/

 

83 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Good Hoax?

  1. I see it as both ethical and necessary.

    I’m not sure how else you would show that the Emperor has no clothes. You can say “They’re just publishing rubbish”, but the indoctrinated won’t believe any outsiders saying that until they prove it with the above method.

    As for your concern that readers were deceived, I think that concern is easily addressed by the following:

    Nobody reads academic journals.

      • The parents of children who are sent to Universities, because the professors are often there precisely because they got the articles published in those academic journals that no one reads.

        I’d rather my son’s professors be there because they’ve written good articles no one reads, rather than rubbish articles no one reads.

      • Jack,

        Other professionals read the articles, and surveys of results are typical to show that there is a body of evidence supporting a particular conclusion. If a bunch of bunk is being passed off as good science, that feeds into further papers and can eventually influence public policy. This is especially true in softer sciences, where results are much murkier than than in the hard sciences, but even the hard sciences suffer from the problem.

        The question is, how do you show that there is a problem in the peer review process, and that articles are being discarded because they don’t toe a party line, and articles are being accepted not on their merits but because they do toe the party line? You can’t write a good paper and show bias by having it rejected, because the rejection is supposed to be proof that the paper is bad. But you can deliberately write a bad paper, and if it is accepted, you can call foul because you can show you deliberately put together a bunch of garbage.

        Is this ethical? I think it would certainly be ethical if the system were intentionally built so that some people were tasked with creating bogus papers to keep peer-reviewers on their toes. It is sort of like secret shoppers in the service industry. But we don’t currently have this built into the system. Is playing vigilante in this effort unethical, then?

        The moral premise in question is that lying is wrong. The ethical application, as mentioned above, is that ends do not justify the means, in that it is not ethically permissible to conduct evil in order that good may follow. But there are other ethical considerations to make. One is the rule of lesser of two evils. If the only choices in front of you are evil choices, then you are obligated to take the lesser of two evils. The classic example is hiding Jews in your home in Nazi Germany, and you’re asked if you have any Jews in your house. Your choices are to lie and say no; tell the true and say yes, or tell a truth in such a way as to deceive. Any of these are not good answers. Lying is wrong, and even telling the truth in a manner meant to deceive is wrong, and betraying people in your care is wrong. In the analysis of the situation, the least wrong option is telling the truth with the intent to deceive.

        How does this apply to vigilante paper-writing? There’s a perceived evil, which is the biased publishing of politically-driven junk. There’s the question of one’s responsibility in confronting such an evil. Specifically, is it a worse evil to do nothing at all when one has the power and will to confront that evil? Are there alternatives to fighting this bias other than trying to publish hoax papers? One very daunting problem is that one has great difficulty proving that a good paper was rejected due to bias. One doesn’t have proof that a paper is good unless it passes the peer-review process. So following that path is essentially self-defeating.

        The next consideration to make is the difference between writing something false with the intent of convincing people that it is true (as is the case with fake news) and writing something false and never having the intent of it being take as truth. Again, the distinction is much sharper and the ethics much clearer if there is an acknowledged and agreed upon QA/QC process.

        So here’s my final analysis. It would be wrong not to challenge academic journals if one believes they are corrupting the peer-review process in favor of publishing party-line papers. It would be wrong to intentionally deceive the publishes and peer-reviewers. It is utterly ineffective to protest that a good paper was rejected due to bias, because the only way to “know” a paper is good is for it to be accepted. Finally, it is ethically acceptable to speak a truth in a deceptive manner if the alternatives are objectively greater evils.

        I think the analysis falls just short of being in favor of the people writing the bogus papers. One’s words do not have to be true on the surface to be telling a truth, such as in the case of sarcasm. A paper written so badly that an honest analysis would identify it as objectively false is not an effort to deliberately pass as truth something false, though it is an effort to deceive. It less of an evil than not confront bias, and it fits into a mold of best practice QA/QC checks that should exist, but currently do not. But a better path potentially exists, in demanding that in academia those specific QA/QC checks be brought into practice. Only once that path has been exhausted would recourse to hoax papers truly be the least of all evils presented.

        • I think there is a middle ground; submit the bunk paper, but refuse to let it be published if accepted.

          Even then, there is room for abuse. Repuputable journals will ask for clarification or revisions. This is the review in peer review. Participating in such back and forth in bad faith is not ethical, as you are putting pressure on them to publish in a blatant attempt to embarrass them. Academia, like any profession, relies on honesty.

          However, if the journal accepts garbage without comment, that does tend to expose a journal as a fraud. The quality of other articles, however, would likely make such a sting operation redundant.

          • Academia, like any profession, relies on honesty.

            Given the bunk we get from Academia, especially this area, I find your comment ironic, to say the least.

            Academia is as dishonest as the day is long.

        • Totally agree. A hoax unacknowledged would be unethical. This exposition is, unfortunately, very much needed. So much junk being passed off as legitimate social science research.

        • This is the exact correct response, every bunk statistic in the feminist cannon; The 1 in 4 rape victims, the 77 cent wage gap, the low rate of false allegations, among hundreds of others, all find their way back to publications like these, and that’s just the feminist portfolio.

          Good science is supposed to be replicable, but feminist science almost never is; What they do instead is perform a cherry-picked, ideologically motivated discreetly aimed hit on one of their pet projects, they’ll get their tripe published. And then other authors will reference their work, and not do their own, treating the politically motivated, cherry flavored statistics as foregone conclusions, THAT study will in turn be referenced, and so on and so on, in a self-reinforced whirlwind of bullshit, until it slips out of the echo chamber and into the mainstream via rags like Salon, from where it is disseminated through the Media at large and into the public consciousness. At that point, it’s gone through so many iterations that it’s basically impossible to verify the original work, there will probably be about a dozen paywalls on the way, and the original work might not even include the methodology.

          If any lefties want to spout the adage: Not all (black) is bad, using “feminist science” as the fill in the blank… I’d agree, sometimes even feminists have a point. The problem is that the ratio of absolute garbage to actual fact is so skewed that I have no reason to take anyone’s work at face value, and because even the good work is hidden behind a dozen paywalls, I have absolutely no incentive to do the job of convincing people for them. This is one of those things where people concerned about the legitimacy of their movement should correct in order to build faith in their brand, but always… always fall short of.

          Another thing to note here is that the hoaxers specifically targeted “grievance studies” journals. That’s not fair. Academic journals at large have this problem, and have for a while, remember the story about the fellow who literally fed books through a gibberish generator and the submitted gibberese was actually published? The difference, if one is to be made, is that the gibberish wasn’t consequently weaponised and used in the public space to agitate for public policy.

  2. I actually think this may be in the gray area, perhaps allowing it to be ethical. The state of academic peer review is horrible, but it is such an insular field that trying to point it out and fix it is beyond the means of most. My graduate advisor had a great deal of trouble publishing things that dealt postively with fossil fuels or negatively with anthropogenic global warming. In the softer sciences (psychology, sociology, etc), it is even worse. If you don’t follow the leftist cant, getting published is nearly impossible unless you choose a journal that has a lower standard than peer reviewed, which automatically gets your work devalued.

    Like a policeman going undercover and saying things he does not believe to catch criminals who may otherwise escape prosecution, these spoofers wrote false papers to uncover the problems inherent in the system. If the system cannot be taken down from the outside (and I truly believe it could not) then it must be taken down from the inside and I truly cannot see another method that could have accomplished it. While I know that sounds like “the ends justify the means,” I believe that in this case, it may be true. In a way, this is not unlike lying (an unethical act) to the Gestapo to save a Jew. Saving the Jew is ethical, more so than lying is unethical in this special case. Today, the peer review process is unethical and must be taken down. A hoax, which is generally unethical, if it is the only way to do this, is less unethical than polluting our processes to find truth through science and the dumbing down of America.

    As a note, the authors have stated that they wrote these papers with conclusions that would sound good, but no facts and only jargon to go off of, so not only should people not have been fooled, if they read more than the conclusion, but they should have actively seen it to be a hoax. Is this not either a case of “buyer beware”, or as another poster suggested, the Emperor’s New Clothes?

    • Oops, this posted too soon, I hit the wrong button. There is one other point I wished to make better, and see that Mr. JP brought it up below, which is that of testing a system or hypothesis. Just as businesses hire secret shoppers to test that customer service is up to par, or software engineers test a program by throwing junk at it to see how it responds, someone with a hypothesis that the peer review system is bunk needs to test the process with an unbiased test. Warning the reviewers would actually cause the experiment to fail.

      This ties in to my “undercover police” item too, though these spoofers are not government funded they are acting as a check on a broken system. If you desire not to have spoof papers, read them!

  3. I’m kind of on the fence here. As someone who has to use academic journals for my dissertation, I would be extremely annoyed by what is happening here. However, I trust the publications to do their due diligence and things like this show they are not. Yes, it is wrong to scam the publications, but I might argue that it is even more wrong for the companies to let them do it (victim blaming?).

    Frankly, I think the hoaxers have a valid theory based on anecdotal evidence.
    Assuming there were doing an academic study themselves, I can not think of any other way to test it. To let the publications know would be to skew the results themselves or defeat the purpose.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the Milgram experiment. I imagine that would fall along similar lines as this particular study.

  4. Okay, just for the fun of the debate, I’ll take a stab at convincing you this was ethical.

    Any reasonable hypothesis must be tested by experimentation. In this case, the hypothesis was that at least some academic journals present themselves as legitimate sources of research information when, in fact, they publish garbage – or, at minimum, papers that are of extremely dubious value. A corollary of the hypothesis was that the so-called “peer review” process is, in many cases, so weak as to be worthless. This, by the way, is not a problem limited to “social sciences” – hard science journals have lately had a worrisome number of retractions due to such failures.

    The experimental method here was to produce garbage papers and see whether any of the journals accepted them. Some didn’t, but enough did to establish at least some validity for the hypothesis.

    Now, having clearly established that validity, the experimenters could have followed at least alternative paths. They could have published their findings in another academic journal to serve as something of a warning to other academics. That could have been a tall order; one presumes a certain amount of professional courtesy between journals, even those that compete. Alternatively, the trio could also have presented their findings at academic symposia. Had either of these paths – or comparable ones I haven’t thought of – been followed, I have a hard time believing the research could be considered unethical.

    After all, these three simply created an experimental design, executed upon it, and waited to see what happened. Had the journals that accepted the papers done their due diligence, particularly with the peer review process, the experiment would have established that the process works and the journals both have academic value and are on the up-and-up. There would be no story.

    But the experimenters at least partially proved the opposite. Had they limited circulation of their findings to close academic circles, the academic community would have received valuable insight into a real problem and the public would be none the wiser. Would THAT have been unethical? What if the names of the journals that accepted the bogus work were masked? Would there be another valid way to prove or disprove the hypothesis?

    Instead, the story became public. It could certainly be argued that at least some of what has occurred since it was released is unethical; though it has been reasonably widely covered by a variety of news sources, including the New York Times, it has been particularly treasured by conservative media in that it supports the narrative that academia is a den of fuzz-brained bullshit artists.

    Perhaps the method of releasing the findings – and what has happened since – could be described as unethical. But I don’t think the experiment itself was.

    • I agree with Arthur in Maine’s main points. I disagree with his conclusion though, where he writes, “Perhaps the method of releasing the findings – and what has happened since – could be described as unethical.” Releasing the findings the way they did was not only ethical, it was required to demonstrate how lazy academia has become. Yeah, Fox News jumped all over it, probably with Sean Hannity saying something truly inspiring like, “See! We told you universities are worthless”.

      The authors’ actions were ethical – they sought to prove that peer-review methods are worthless. A cursory reading of any of the papers would have demonstrated that their papers were ridiculous. Look at what they studied. How could anyone take that seriously. If the journals were ethical – that is, they read and actually thought about the articles – they would have rejected them as unacceptable. They didn’t. They published fake studies and nobody in those areas of studies read them and said, “Hey, wait a minute. This is a stupid article. Why is this being published?” This didn’t happen.

      jvb

  5. If there were any other way to expose publications like this, I would agree with you that this is unethical, in the same way that shooting a person is unethical if you have the ability and opportunity to subdue them through other means. I’m just not sure that there is.

    In contrast with what valentine0468 said, people do read these journals, at least within the academic social sciences community and the Social Justice bubble that’s formed around it. Many of these people that I have interacted with don’t listen to reasoned arguments or outside opinion – if you disagree with them, they automatically presuppose that you’re not only wrong, but ignorant and/or evil. Journals like these ones are the support for their ideological sacred cows, and I’m not sure what other means of exposing them you would propose. I think that things like this, though extreme, might be the only way to get through to the people who believe these journals, and see such actions as a last resort before simply writing them off.

    You’ve complained, over and over again, about the rot infecting our academia. These journals, and others like them, are where that rot begins. They’re the foundation of sand that the social ‘sciences’ are built on. Perhaps you’ll think me callous or ethically deluded for saying this, but here it is: anyone who genuinely believes that white students should be chained up in class because they read it in an academic journal is beyond help or reason, but seeing something so insane printed might be enough to break through to the people who can be helped.

    • I vaguely recall one of the commenters here used to insist, to everyone, that some of the wackier progressive ideas (such as gender being only a social construct) were “valid academic ideas” and could not be dismissed. This is the veneer of credibility that pseudoscience enjoys when it’s infiltrated academia.

      • I vaguely recall one of the commenters here used to insist, to everyone, that some of the wackier progressive ideas (such as gender being only a social construct) were “valid academic ideas” and could not be dismissed. This is the veneer of credibility that pseudoscience enjoys when it’s infiltrated academia.

        If it is asserted as a ‘social construct’ it could be asserted independently of scientific description. There is a logic behind the notion that gender roles are social constructs and can be deconstructed and reconstructed. This is a very common and generally-accepted idea that operates all around us and everyone on this blog (I will assume) has some level of assent to the assertion (that gender roles are social constructs, to one degree or another).

        It is a ‘valid academic idea’. But it is not necessarily a valid philosophical assertion. One can reconstruct gender roles, of this there is no doubt. But the issue is if what will result from it is good and positive, or something else.

        Or, the idea is part of a structure of view (I do not know how else to put this) that has merit and also some weight.

        In respect to the false-papers, it seems that their purpose is to point out, through a somewhat underhanded means, how far it is possible to go with certain abstracted modes of thought. They parody and ridicule *that* but do not undertake a more profound analysis of what these odd idea-assertions portend.

  6. A possible argument in favor:

    Suppose not three, but an army of thousands of pranksters were consistently submitting rubbish articles like this, to journals of all sorts. Unethical behavior generally makes society worse when multiplied. I’m not sure that in this hypothetical, the results wouldn’t be positive.

    Serious academic journals would tighten up their quality control and be more vigilant about publishing garbage. Which would even reduce the number of garbage studies NOT produced by hoaxers.

    And quack journals and publications posing as “academic” (like most of the feminist ones) being unscientific by nature and having no filter by which to distinguish good from bad, would be swamped with “fake” articles, and this discredited.

    • Pretty sure this is the point of the hoaxers and the objective for offering them a shot at redemption (not that they believe in that sort of thing). The hoaxers themselves are not even centrists by the accounts I’ve read.

  7. I think you’ve got it all backwards. This was not a hoax. This was a sting. The hoax consists of the journals themselves, their peer- review process, and large swaths of the disciplines themselves. It is they who are wasting not only readers’ time, but students’ time and money. Not that stings are free of their own ethical pitfalls, but the mere fact they deceived unethical people, or exposed bad behavior by those who didn’t want to be exposed, are not among them.

  8. The problem with peer review is peer review.

    The scientific community that reviews such “scholarly research” are often seeking third party validation of their own hypothesis. This leads to biased evaluations of the research under review. Reviewers are selected based on their own work in the subject matter and not for their ability to be objective and critical. Review teams often know each other professionally and are loathe to question the evaluations of the lead team member who is often the most published researcher on the subject matter. The others, defer to the team leader’s authority so as not alienate the person who may hold their own careers in his/her hand.

    Most research in the social sciences is publically funded and being selected to be a reviewer is a coveted prize that will help promote the reviewer’s future grant application. Unpublished research does not further that aim.

    These hoaxes actually may serve a public purpose much like tests the TSA uses to validate its security systems. If it forces the policing agency to upgrade and refine its systems to ferret out that which peer review is designed to do then such hoaxes are appropriate. However, test hoaxes should never find their way into the public discourse on the subject matter.

    • Most academic journal submissions are less about third party validation and more about whether the material is considered serious and strong enough work to be considered by others in their fields with or without validation. (And, let’s face it, even more so for Rank and Tenure committees.) All the better reason to expose frivolous work and weak cases for, essentially, life appointments.

  9. As someone who once worked in an academic library on the logistics of acquisisitons, I would have appreciated some imput on which publications were competant. There were always new publications coing in that wanted a slice of our pie. We had no training in those academic fields are ‘looking’ serious and competent was all the managing librarian had to decide with.

    The publicity about this should hit these journals where they truly live, in the pocketbook. Many readers may not be sophisticated and the zines qould not like to admit they are incompetent. While this may look unethical, I see it the same as a software tester, you have to stress the system, even doing illogical and just plain weird input to test a stress-important system works. Some bugs will still slip through but that doesn’t make the tester unethical. Testers have to jump up and down to try to slow or stop a software release when management cares more about the release date than if its done right. I think everyone has seen a software bug in an app or game that has been classed a ‘known issue.’ The last resort for a third party to a hinky publisher-author cycle is publicity. This is messy, but not much more unethical than a pooper-scooper.

    I would be interested in learning how or if any publications responded negatively. I get that they might not want to dignify a scam with a response, but I would love to see if some did with choice words.

  10. For years, academics have pointed to the peer review process as an indication that their published research is soundly-premised. This assumption may not be warranted. Recent attempts to replicate many of the findings published in the social sciences have found that some research cannot be replicated.

    (Disturbingly, the research criticizing social science research has its own methodological problems: See https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2016/03/study-that-undercut-psych-research-got-it-wrong/ .)

    These apparent intellectual blind spots suggest that a significant amount of research isn’t based in sound science, but is instead a swindle, an ever-growing accumulation of largely fraudulent claims intended to bolster and propagate the publishing academics’ worldviews. These false claims are used as the basis for public policy decisions, court rulings, and economic decisions. They mislead the public and contribute to harmful economic and social outcomes.

    If temporarily deceiving people is the least harmful way to shut down ongoing deceptive practices in academia, then such deception may be the least unethical option to reduce the social harm caused by such “research”.

  11. Other means of “exposing” the lack of integrity would be a formal audit.

    The results of which the organizations impugned would likely object to, calling it a partisan witch hunt, etc., ad nauseam, if they opened their doors to an audit at all.

    Organizations with integrity rejected the false papers and didn’t publish them.

    This was nothing more than a blind audit.

    The standards of which are laid out by the scientific community itself.

    Not unethical at all.

  12. I don’t like it.
    I don’t like it for the same reason I don’t like lots of sociology study(and, more generally, human experimentation): you are using people as a means to an end.
    You are studying them without their knowledge or consent, while deceiving them for your own purposes.
    Now, it might be that there would be no other possible way to study the phenomena without deception, but I do not think necessity is an adequate justification.
    -Jut

      • I remember learning about them in my psych class. My teacher told me they were viewed as highly unethical and changed the way ethics and psychology interact. However, when I read about them now, I never see anything regarding the ethical nature of the experiment.

      • I think that is the one I was thinking of, but did not know the name. I don’t like it. The test shows that people will submit to an authority figure and do things against their own conscience (I paraphrase), the test also shows that the testers will experiment on other human beings without their consent, all in the name of the pursuit of knowledge. This irony was apparently lost on the people conducting the experiment.
        -Jut

  13. Some responses here seem to veer toward the “what other option is there?” or “something had to be done” however that rings the rationalization bell for me. My questions for the authors (from the Ethical Decision Making tools page) of the bogus papers include:

    -Did they apply ethical decision making tools before taking on this project?
    -Did they formulate and devise the full range of alternatives and examine each option to determine ethical principles & values?
    – If they determined ethical principles would be sacrificed, were the burdens of such behavior, and their potential to discredit their own scheme, considered?
    -Did the authors define the problem correctly?
    -Did they take every other route possible to address this issue before utilizing deception?
    -Did they consider the ramifications if their efforts were misinterpreted or misunderstood?

    Since their dishonesty had to be rationalized, the authors also had to believe their actions were for the greater good of true academic scholarship. They believed perhaps their dishonest acts were righteous because these journals are even more dishonest and academia is in some kind of peril. Therefore they lied to save us from the sinking ship but in essence had to sink another ship to do it (Unethical Rationalizations 1B, 2, 2A, 3, 7, 8, 8A, 13, 14, 25A, 28, 29, 31, 33, 34,40B, 46, 58, 60).

    Just because we cannot immediately see other options for dealing with a situation that is problematic doesn’t mean there are not more ethically interesting options to explore. Utilizing ethical principles to problem solve is a creative endeavor because it challenges us to go beyond easy lowest hanging fruit unethical tactics and come up with something that doesn’t tarnish our conscience in the process. In essence we don’t have to engage in the same tactics of the less ethically inclined in order to manifest ethical behavior/thought.

    So what other actions those concerned about this issue could take? If attempting to discuss these concerns with academic journals is stifled, how can the word get out using honest means? My own ideas include: ongoing critiques including challenging theories and unethical motivations/actions, encouraging non-intersectionalists to enter academia, and creating a sort of anti-politically correct scholarship journal of their own. I’m sure there are much better ideas out there too.

    For me there was just one too many unethical rationalizations at play for the hoax to be considered ethical. The hoaxers proved right something I believe to be true, but the way they did it matters because it’s a signal that perhaps their other projects will be tainted with deception. This devalues their subsequent works as well the field of academic journal criticism. One of the consequences of their hoax is that now those who protest these journals may automatically be considered untruthful, deceptive, and unethical by such journal publications and their supporters. Simply put, this is a classic “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

    • Direct and very well analyzed, Mrs. Q. I’m curious about your thoughts on sting operations conducted by authorities, as opposed to vigilantes. How do you feel the analysis changes there?

      • What matters is whether vigilantes or authorities adhere to ethical considerations. I’m guessing that authorities conducting stings have certain legal constraints that helps mitigate illegal (possibly unethical) tactics. There are at least some checks and balances when authorities are involved…though to be clear, man’s law is imperfect.

        • I am…unsure… that there are rules for undercover operations. If there were, they would rapidly become known to the targets of such operations, and provide a way to ferret out moles.

          For instance, there was a urban legend that if you asked a cop if they were a cop (like during a drug deal) they had to tell you. This resulted in many crying foul when the buyer (or seller) lied about being a LEO. Of course, there is no rule or law against lying, so arrests were upheld.

          Is this ethical? I think it is beyond ethics, like war: tools are need to service society and therefore inhabit an area outside of societal ethics.

          I am open to debate and fine tuning of my understanding here.

          • Admittedly I know little about lawful stings & you’re correct that some things require potentially unethical approaches. In the case of the hoax by these authors however, much more creative & ethical maneuvers should have been utilized first.

  14. This story is so full of ethical questions that I suspected it was one of those you put on the back burner during the Kavanaugh ethics train wreck. Hoaxes are unethical. In this story there are two major hoaxes. The hoax perpetrated by the University of Oregon professors on the various journals was a hoax designed to expose the larger hoax which is the sham disciplines these journals support. The authors characterize these disciplines as “grievance studies”. I believe that these disciplines are all about “social grievances” as opposed to scholarship as the authors suggest. As such I believe they are a hoax.

    Readers of this blog already knew this. This blog and other sources have long been exposing the more extreme positions emanating from various seats of grievance studies in academia. This exposure is the ethical way to combat the larger grievance studies hoax. However, this is one of the only times that I’ve seen this issue addressed in mainstream media. I’m concerned that many young people regard these disciplines as legitimate scholarship. A part of me was gleeful when I heard this story. I suspect that the greater evil in this story is the sham disciplines pervading academia. However, in ethics the ends cannot justify the means.

  15. Okay, Jack, I get that you don’t like hoaxes. I also get that Onion articles are probably not considered hoaxes, because it is well-established as a satirical voice, while others are sites are not and could mislead people.

    If that is the rough standard, what about April Fool’s Day? Everybody knows it is a day for pranks, but people often forget it and get fooled. Is an April Fool’s prank an ethical hoax? If the Onion is sort of the standard, permissible satirical newspaper, I would say yes.

    On that note, I was reading an April 1 edition of some legal newsletter. The headline was that the Supreme Court was banning excess verbiage from its brief; your brief could be stricken if you are too wordy. There was a very succinct (fake) quote by Scalia about the new rule. Then there was another (fake quote) by some lawyer who opposed the new rule because it was “unfair, unjust, and impractical.” It would “unduly, restrain, confine, and obstruct lawyers from making important, crucial and necessary arguments, analogies, and explications to the Court.” (Again, I paraphrase, but that was the sort of sentence structure used.) After a paragraph or two, I figured out the joke.

    -Jut

  16. It seems to me that it is a form of Whistle-blowing. Is Whistle-blowing unethical?
    If they had done this and then not ‘outed’ themselves it would certainly be unethical; pointless, but unethical!

  17. Jack,

    What’s the ethical difference between this series of articles, and the previous similar hoax by two of the same authors that you praised last year? (And which is linked above under “related posts”?)

    • Note that this is an Ethics Quiz. I only frame stories as ethic quizzes when I am uncertain of which way to go. My conclusion on this one was reached after going back and forth on it. The difference? One is the matter of degree. A couple articles to point out a problem is one question, 20 is materially different.

      When Abe Lincoln was asked by a judge how he could argue the opposite position in two cases on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, he said, “This morning I thought I was right, but now I know I’m right.” Last year I knew I was right, and now I think I’m right—hence the quiz.

  18. The primary “victims” were the people who were incapable of doing the jobs they purported to do. I’d call it a litmus test, which they failed miserably, like a supposedly experienced technician falling for a snipe hunt like “elbow grease” or a “left-handed screwdriver”. If someone tells me they are an expert, and I give them a secret test that should be easy, and they fail and make themselves look foolish and unprofessional (but suffer no loss of health or property), have I wronged them?

    The secondary victims, the readers of the journal, merely suffered through reading marginally worse material than they would have willingly read otherwise. I’m not particularly interested in what got edged out by the “gray hat” articles.

    From my perspective, this sort of honest subterfuge (most hoaxers don’t willingly reveal themselves) is important to address echo chambers and academic sloppiness. To prevent the fundamental liability of stagnation (one of four), we need gadflies such as these to reveal institutional folly. As such, testing academic rigor is a core collective duty of society’s true Jesters.

    Jack, what do you think of the Rosenhan experiment? That’s the one where pseudopatients were sent into mental institutions to demonstrate that psychiatrists couldn’t tell the difference between mentally ill people and mentally normal people.

  19. I don’t see any of this as unethical, but it was irresponsible and cruel. There are ( yes you may laugh and ridicule) serious researchers working in these areas and academic journals should provide a forum for communication and development of ideas – including the destruction of unsound thinking and reorientation of research to more productive endeavours. How else are we to proceed? It is unreasonable to expect peer reviewers to act as a police force against fraudsters. In my rare operations as a peer reviewer I have generaly trusted apparently qualified academics from apparently well established institutions to be honest. I’d be livid if I’d been tricked like this. Acting as a peer reviewer is rarely a well paid gig and those doing it are generally trying to facilitate constructive debate.

    • yes you may laugh and ridicule

      Consider it done.

      This ‘research’ area is a scam, plain and simple. Like so-called ‘climate change,’ money is available for research if the predetermined outcome is supported, and not otherwise. Those not in it for the paycheck are in it for a larger agenda, although it can be both at once.

      The agenda is power and political gain.

      • Bad comparison, but apt point. Climate change, even if you disagree with the causes of it, even if you want to discount the effects of it, happens. America saw an influx of Irish people in the mid-1800’s because Northern Europe experienced a small ice age that killed their potatoes…. Now that probably wasn’t caused by human activity, humanity had a significantly smaller footprint at the time, but the act of the matter is that climate *obviously* changes and can do so quickly and frequently.

        That said, I’d like to point out the titles of the publications in question, and just lean back in my chair to consider what kind of research might actually require work with the following titles.

        “thematic analysis of table dialogue”
        “human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity”
        “Our Struggle Is My Struggle”
        “Who are they to judge?” Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding?”

        Yes, I needed that.

        • Clarification: yes, the climate changes. No, man does not change it enough to matter. Climate change in politics and what passes for academia is about power over other people.

      • I’ll have to agree with Humble Talent in that climate change is a fact. The hows and whys and magnitudes of it are not, I believe, nearly as well understood as many politicians would like us to believe, but the climate does change, it has changed many times, and will continue to do so. How significant human input is in this process is, again, I believe not that well understood. It is an incredibly complex field of study and incredibly difficult to know whether you’ve accounted for all the significant variables.

        And I would disagree on the motivations of scientists in both these fields. I feel certain there are many dedicated and honest scientists studying these matters. I feel certain there are many dishonest and cynical politicians and authority figures exploiting these matters for personal gain and pushing agendas.

        Back a couple decades ago I remember reading a couple popular science articles that made the case that it may well have been man made global warming that prevented a new Ice Age — and they were talking about Medieval times, looking at things such as smoke from uncounted fires etc. It could be true — sometimes, I believe, these things can be in a very delicate balance.

        We know that natural phenomena affect the climate. We know that human actions affect the climate. We don’t know the relative importance of these inputs.

        • Diego Garcia wrote, “It is an incredibly complex field of study and incredibly difficult to know whether you’ve accounted for all the significant variables.”

          It’s really only complex because the “settled science” people are trying to hide their bad science. It’s really not complex once critically thinking people step back from the intentional tunnel vision of the “settled science” people and see the whole picture. Here’s what I’m talking about – CLIMATE CHANGE.

          • If it weren’t a complex subject then the science behind it really would be settled, and we would routinely have predictions of how the climate is going to change year to year, decade to decade that are demonstrable and verifiable.

            It seems to me that you’re assuming that because the politics involved have distorted this, and some of the scientists involved have distorted and misrepresented the science, that the whole field is invalid. I cannot agree.

            I am what would popularly be called a climate skeptic, or perhaps even a climate denier. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that this is a valid field for scientific study. I think it is, and I think it desperately needs more, objective reproducible research.

            Part of the problem in any field such as this is that much of the data we need can only be obtained through indirect means. I.e. we cannot travel back for 10k years and make comprehensive measurements of all the data we want. We can infer some of this data through fossils, strata measurements, tree analyses, etc. Then you have to create a model, plug in the data that you have, and see if it makes accurate predictions.

            If you come up with a model that appears to match the data, you have a start, then you see how it does going forward. You also want to try and determine if there are any other models that also match the data, etc. All this is to say — it’s not trivial. You wouldn’t think that astrophysics or quantum physics are simple sciences — neither is climate physics.

            • Diego Garcia wrote, “It seems to me that you’re assuming that because the politics involved have distorted this, and some of the scientists involved have distorted and misrepresented the science, that the whole field is invalid.”

              You have gotten the wrong impression.

              Read or reread the blog I posted the link to.

              • OK, I read the blog post. From that, I’d say our views on this subject are very close together. We don’t know how much human activity changes the climate, and if we can’t make accurate predictions we certainly can’t know that apocalypse is just around the corner. It’s not exactly what I took away from your posts here by themselves.
                We could discuss this endlessly, but I think we can agree that the politicians pushing this stuff would beggar ‘first world’ economies without really accomplishing anything much.

                • Diego Garcia wrote, “I’d say our views on this subject are very close together.”, “It’s not exactly what I took away from your posts here by themselves.”

                  I figured that too, that’s why I originally included the link to make my view as clear as I could without posting my excessively long opinion here. 😉

        • I began to doubt the ‘settled science’ when I realized that ONE volcano vents 100 times the ‘greenhouse gasses’ that mankind has created in over 200 years.

          Yet several volcanoes do this each year…

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