Peter Gregory Boghossian
July 25, 1966
|Education||Portland State University (EdD)|
|Era||Contemporary philosophy|
|Region||Western philosophy|
|Institutions||Portland State University|
|Atheism, critical thinking, pedagogy, scientific skepticism, Socratic method|
|Socratic pedagogy, street epistemology|
Peter Gregory Boghossian (//; born July 25, 1966) is an American philosopher and pedagogist. Born in Boston, he was an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University for ten years, and his areas of academic focus include atheism, critical thinking, pedagogy, scientific skepticism, and the Socratic method. He is the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists and (with James Lindsay) How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide.
Boghossian was involved in the grievance studies affair (also called "Sokal Squared" in media coverage) with collaborators James A. Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, in which they published several hoax papers in low-impact academic journals which put forth intentionally preposterous ideas as a way of demonstrating the ease of having ideologically leftist papers published in relation to gender studies and other fields. After an investigation, Portland State University restricted Boghossian's future work on the basis of what they considered his research misconduct, including failure to adhere to institutional review board (IRB) processes. In September 2021, Boghossian resigned his position from Portland State University, citing harassment and a lack of intellectual freedom.
Boghossian coined the term street epistemology for a set of conversational techniques he described which are designed to enable examination of strongly held beliefs, especially of the religious kind, in a non-confrontational manner.
Boghossian's primary interests are critical thinking, philosophy of education, and moral reasoning. Boghossian's thesis looks at the use of the Socratic method with prison inmates for critical thinking and moral reasoning with the intention to decrease ongoing criminal behavior. The research was funded by the State of Oregon. Boghossian was Chairman of the Prison Advisory Committee for the Columbia River Correctional Institution and he is currently a fellow at the Center for Prison Reform. Boghossian was recently employed as an assistant professor at Portland State University, quitting in protest due to what Boghossian viewed as a culture of illiberalism.
Boghossian is the author of two books, A Manual for Creating Atheists, a book with a foreword by Michael Shermer, and How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide. He also contributed a foreword to Stefan Molyneux's book Against the Gods.
As part of his ongoing interest in Prison Reform, Portland State University entered into a partnership with the Columbia River Correctional Institution in 2009 to address the needs of inmates releasing into the community. Details of this partnership have been elaborated in an article titled Prisons, Community Partnerships, and Academia: Sustainable Programs and Community Need.
Boghossian has been a speaker for the Center for Inquiry, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and the Secular Student Alliance. He has been nominated as a member of the Global Secular Council.
In September 2021, Boghossian resigned his position from Portland State University. In his resignation letter, Boghossian called the university a "Social Justice factory", said that he faced harassment and retaliation for speaking out, and accused the university of limiting free speech in order to promote racial equity and social justice.
Boghossian has called all faith-based beliefs "delusions". He has been described by The Daily Beast as aligned with the New Atheist movement. He advocates using the Socratic method to dissuade religious believers, though he recommends focusing on criticism of faith as a way of knowing (he calls it an "unreliable epistemology"), rather than the outward trappings of religious communities.
In a 2015 interview with Dave Rubin, Boghossian described himself as a classical liberal who has never voted for a Republican candidate, but is "not a fan" of the Democrats. He stated that any of the Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election "would be an unmitigated disaster". He donated to and endorsed Andrew Yang for the 2020 United States presidential election.
Grievance studies affair
The grievance studies affair, also referred to as the "Sokal Squared" scandal by the news media, consisted of the submission of hoax academic papers for peer-review, performed by Boghossian, James A. Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose on a series of academic fields which they termed "grievance studies", a sub-category of race, gender, feminist and sexuality studies which they believed were characterized by low scientific standards.
Previous hoax paper
In 2017, Boghossian and Lindsay published a hoax paper titled "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct". The paper, which the authors said was intentionally absurd and written in a way that imitated the style of "poststructuralist discursive gender theory", argued that the penis should be seen "not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity". Boghossian and Lindsay initially submitted the paper to Norma, where it was rejected. They later submitted the paper to Cogent Social Sciences, an open access journal which has been criticized as a pay-to-publish operation. The authors later revealed the hoax in Skeptic magazine. Boghossian and Lindsay stated that they intended to demonstrate that "gender studies is crippled academically by an overriding almost-religious belief that maleness is the root of all evil", and also to highlight problems with the review processes of open-access journals.
A number of critics questioned whether Boghossian and Lindsay's paper demonstrated a problem in the field of gender studies. Alan Sokal, a mathematics professor who was responsible for a similar hoax in 1996, noted that Cogent Social Sciences was a low-tiered open access journal that did not specialize in gender studies, and said that it seemed unlikely the paper would have been accepted at a mainstream gender studies journal. While the journal did conduct a postmortem, Boghossian and Lindsay concluded the "impact [of the hoax] was very limited, and much criticism of it was legitimate".
A 2021 study assessing the grievance studies affair concluded, "1) journals with higher impact factors were more likely to reject papers submitted as part of the project; (2) the chances were better, if the manuscript was allegedly based on empirical data; (3) peer reviews can be an important asset in the process of revising a manuscript; and (4) when the project authors, with academic education from neighboring disciplines, closely followed the reviewers’ advice, they were able to learn relatively quickly what is needed for writing an acceptable article. The boundary between a seriously written paper and a “hoax” gradually became blurred. Finally (5), the way the project ended showed that in the long run, the scientific community will uncover fraudulent practices."
Sequence of events
Beginning in August 2017, Boghossian, Lindsay, and Pluckrose began a much larger attempt in which they wrote 20 hoax papers, submitting them to peer-reviewed journals under a variety of pseudonyms as well as the name of Richard Baldwin, a professor emeritus at Florida's Gulf Coast State College and friend of Boghossian. The project was halted early after one of the papers in the feminist geography journal Gender, Place and Culture was criticized on social media, and then its authenticity questioned on Campus Reform.
After this, the trio revealed the full extent of their work in a YouTube video created and released by documentary filmmaker Mike Nayna, alongside an investigation by The Wall Street Journal. By the time of the revelation seven of their twenty papers had been accepted, seven were still under review, and six had been rejected. One paper, which was accepted by feminist social work journal Affilia, transposed up-to-date jargon into passages lifted from Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.
Tom Whipple of The Times wrote that academic reviewers had praised the studies prior to the revelation of the hoax as "a rich and exciting contribution to the study of ... the intersection between masculinity and anality", "excellent and very timely", and "important dialogue for social workers and feminist scholars".
The project drew both praise and criticism, with author Yascha Mounk dubbing it 'Sokal squared' in reference to the famous Sokal Affair hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal and saying "The result is hilarious and delightful. It also showcases a serious problem with big parts of academia." Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said the project posed the question "is there any idea so outlandish that it won't be published in a Critical/PoMo/Identity/'Theory' journal?" Daniel Engber of online magazine Slate criticised the project, saying "one could have run this sting on almost any empirical discipline and returned the same result". In an open letter, eleven of Boghossian's colleagues at Portland State University wrote that the hoaxes "violat[ed] acceptable norms of research," and were "fraudulent, time-wasting, anti-intellectual activities". Joel P. Christensen and Matthew A. Sears said it was "the academic equivalent of the fraudulent hit pieces on Planned Parenthood" produced in 2015. Carl Bergstrom claimed "the hoaxers appear woefully naïve about how the [peer review] system actually works".
Research misconduct investigation
In 2018, Boghossian's employer, Portland State University, initiated a research misconduct inquiry relating to the grievance studies affair. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the university's institutional review board (IRB) concluded that Boghossian violated the ethical guidelines by conducting research on human subjects without approval. The University also said it is "considering a further charge that he had falsified data".
After news of the research conduct investigation broke, a number of prominent academics wrote letters defending Boghossian, including evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, mathematician and physicist Alan Sokal, philosopher Daniel Dennett, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and psychologist Jordan Peterson. Pinker wrote that Portland State University's investigation struck him and his colleagues "as an attempt to weaponize an important [principle] of academic ethics in order to punish a scholar for expressing an unpopular opinion". Dawkins suggested that the investigation could be politically motivated: "If the members of your committee of inquiry object to the very idea of satire as a form of creative expression, they should come out honestly and say so. But to pretend that this is a matter of publishing false data is so obviously ridiculous that one cannot help suspecting an ulterior motive." Peterson said that those pursuing allegations against Boghossian, and not Boghossian himself, were guilty of academic misconduct.
In December 2018, Portland State University ruled that Boghossian had "violated ethical guidelines on human-subjects research". Consequently, he was banned from doing research until he had "completed training and could demonstrate that he understood how to protect the rights of human subjects".
Street epistemology (often abbreviated to SE) is a term coined by Boghossian in his book A Manual for Creating Atheists. This is a set of non-confrontation conversational techniques concerning a strongly held belief, designed to promote thoughtful reflection and open-mindedness in a participant regarding the belief. Boghossian outlined the method and its application in helping religious believers to reflect on the reliability of faith as an epistemology. However, it has also found effective use in many other contexts, and Boghossian later co-authored How to Have Impossible Conversations with James Lindsay, which describes the application of street epistemology to an examination of a wider range of beliefs.
One popularizer of street epistemology is Anthony Magnabosco who has uploaded many examples of SE conversations he has had to a YouTube channel, created many resources surrounding the topic, and engages with a community of street epistemologists looking to become proficient in the method and apply it in their lives. Magnabosco is the founder of Street Epistemology International, a non-profit organization "whose mission is to encourage and normalize critical thinking and skepticism while providing people around the world with the resources needed to develop and promote Street Epistemology". Resources are available for the community of SE practitioners, which include a guide on how to perform interviews using the style.
Criticism has been published by some who express the concern that the method is one sided, and is used only to make people question beliefs the SE practitioner does not share. A 2018 article in Patheos stated that "Street epistemology, then, is an idea that panders to our intellectual cowardice. If we feel more comfortable making others question their beliefs than forcing ourselves to question what we believe, then we’re not really dedicated to skepticism or freethinking. Skepticism isn’t about exempting our own beliefs about truth, reality, and knowledge from critical scrutiny. Freethinking isn’t about making sure that everyone else thinks exactly the way we do."
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...a third paper, published in a journal of feminist social work and titled "Our Struggle Is My Struggle," simply scattered some up-to-date jargon into passages lifted from Hitler's "Mein Kampf. ... "They set out to write 20 papers that started with "politically fashionable conclusions," which they worked backward to support by aping the relevant fields' methods and arguments, and sometimes inventing data.
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