I'm a Ph.D. candidate in social sciences and last month I presented and defended my thesis in an Eastern European university. The full text of my thesis is available to the public. A couple of weeks after my defense, a math professor from the U.K. wrote a blog post in which he utterly misrepresents my results and suggests that my work is pseudo-science. His opinion does not deal with statistics or any other parts that may be a common ground for mathematics and social sciences. When I tried to publicly defend my work on his blog and to point out that his claims are malicious and untenable, he accused me of homophobia, implied that I am a psychopath, and said that the methods I'm using have driven people to suicide (none of which is true, but rather nonsensical - I had a serious WTF experience when reading these claims).

All of the above happened on a niche blog that is widely read among my colleagues, and I fear that it will affect my career as a researcher. Some signs show that this may have already happened. I want to file an ethics complaint against this professor at his university and I would like to hear whether the above are sufficient ground for such a complaint. Do university ethics committees dealing with other cases beside research misconduct and harassment? Should I present this as a research misconduct case or as something else? I feel that this belongs to presenting flawed interpretation of data and misrepresentation of qualifications or experience which is not held (a math professor thrashing social science research), but I do not think that a blog post would qualify as 'research' at all.

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    ff524 is right. University regulations are quite lax on these matters, but UK laws are extremely strict. I believe under UK law the burden of proof would lie on the math professor in such a case. Seek professional legal advice, which you probably cannot get on Stack Exchange. Also, consider ignoring the matter. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect Jan 31, 2016 at 10:09
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    Just to be clear: Is it "a math professor from the U.K.", or someone claiming to be "a math professor from the U.K."? What is the rest of the blog like? Matter-of-fact and neutral analyses, or exaggerated, higly opinionated and even borderline satirical intentionally confrontational articles? Jan 31, 2016 at 13:08
  • @O.R. Mapper: A math professor from the U.K. who use a pen name but whose identity is widely known (he even publicly admitted that he is the one behind it). And the later; overtly political opinion articles which are, more often than not, intentionally confrontational.
    – HunSoc
    Jan 31, 2016 at 13:18
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    To go along with @xLeitix's comment, realize that, particularly in social sciences (but not restricted to), many people denounce other people's work as not important or interesting. People in different camps tend to look down on each other, so you need to get somewhat used to "outsiders" making biased criticisms of your work/field. As a consequence, I expect most people in different camps pretty much ignore what other camps say most of the time.
    – Kimball
    Jan 31, 2016 at 14:34
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    @ff524 actually, at my university launching an extreme ad hominem attack on a fellow researcher by calling them a psychopath and similar things with no factual basis could well be interpreted as hate speech and a violation of university policy that may be subject to disciplinary action. Academic freedom has its limits, just like freedom of speech. I'm speaking hypothetically here, I don't know of a precedent where this policy was actually used, but in the abstract it's not strictly true that "universities are not supposed to police what their faculty say".
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 31, 2016 at 15:53

3 Answers 3


Cases like that are best treated in "cold blood". Get one or two trusted friends to listen to your story and get them to give an outsider's view of how the blog appears. We cannot judge without further details how consolidated your work is, but I'll take here the stance that it is well-founded, scientific work without major methodological flaws.

One thing you have to remember is that in my experience, there is a significant "facultism". Mathematicians, especially, are, in my experience, not prone to any other type of discrimination, but they do look down on practically all other disciplines (with possible exception of physicists, whom they begrudge the ability to get away successfully with the most outrageously ill-founded mathematical sleight-of-hands).

You have to realise this, and that social sciences will not rank very high on mathematician's scale; so, rather than your particular piece of work being attacked here, it may be that it is your whole discipline. If that is the case, this can inform your strategy.

In your responses, you should stick to facts, not too many, but point out where he is wrong. Factually and focused. Don't make long replies, or people won't read it, pick 1 or 2 points where he is clearly wrong.

As for personal attacks, if his blog is satirical, and you attempt to silence it, you will, as mentioned before, get backfired upon. He is much better trained than you to run a smear campaign.

If you do not wish stay silent on the personal attacks entirely, you could try to say something along the line that he is not trained to judge your psychological makeup and should confine himself to make judgement about facts that he understands about. However, it would be even grander if you would just brush it off as not the issue of the moment and completely concentrate on discussing your results.

One thing that strikes me is his accusation of homophoby. You should check where this comes from (if not from the devolution of your interaction with the person): if there is something in your results that could be interpreted in a way that is politically unwelcome to various agendas (and it doesn't matter which one it is), you need to tread particularly carefully. In the latter case, it is particularly important to utterly refrain from any entanglement into personal invectives, and clarify, drily and accurately what your results say and what they don't say; where their limits of applicability lie and where they are valid.

I haven't answered about the ethics complaint. That's because I think, yes, you might have grounds, but, no, it may not be a good idea. Instead, see my advice above.

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    "his accusation of homophoby (...) should check where this comes from (...) if there is something in your results" - this is mere speculation, but given that the OP mentioned an "Eastern European university", it is conceivable the blogger is not specifically referring to the OP or their research there, but mixes things with general political statements, and I remember some suggestions to ban public promotion of homosexuality in Poland created quite some visible international media uproar a few years back. Jan 31, 2016 at 16:04
  • @O.R.Mapper Well, that may be. However, if the blogger mixes up invectives about the status of politics in a country with the work of individuals from that country, that's clearly disingenuous and borderline scientifically unethical (by linking political agendas with scientific discourse). In any case, a fresh PhD candidate is likely to be more vulnerable by such vicious attacks, and the more it is important that he defends his thesis (not himself! He shouldn't need to!) by facts. All assuming that the work is reasonably sound, for which the peer-acceptance may be an indicator. Jan 31, 2016 at 20:42
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    Sure, the fact that (in particular when drawing from thei author's background as a professor) scientific discourse is mixed with, as pointed out in a comment by the OP, "overtly political opinion articles which are, more often than not, intentionally confrontational" points to an unusual, and possibly questionable hybrid of different media types. Jan 31, 2016 at 20:57
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    Thank you for this answer Captain Emacs. Though cold blood is a rare asset nowadays and particularly in cases when we feel injustice and bitterness, your suggestion sounds reasonable.
    – HunSoc
    Feb 1, 2016 at 6:33

First, and foremost, be very cautious about taking this issue outside of the scientific realm of argument. If you start to file ethics charges or libel lawsuits, then you are likely to be casting yourself in the role of censorious scientific villain, and it is likely to not go well for you.

Instead, if you feel that your work really is scientifically defensible, I recommend that you stick entirely to the evidence to defend it. If you cannot do so, then that is a serious problem --- having not read your thesis, I have no idea whether you or your critic has a better case. Do note, however, that being in a different discipline does not immunize you from a person's criticism: a critic need not have any credential at all to point out a potential flaw in your work, and the nature of science is that if you cannot defend against criticism, your work cannot stand.

Finally, I would strongly recommend talking to your advisor before you take any further steps and strongly heeding their advice. Your advisor is likely to know better than you whether to take your critic seriously, given the state of your work and the field, as well as what types of response are likely to be wise or foolish.

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    "if you feel that your work really is scientifically defensible" It is. Not mentionning that the final version of my theisis was reviewed and accepted by the thesis committee and that I already have a number of peer-reviewed publication from it. In the rather unlikely situation where it turns out to be pseudo-science, I will never do research again and start a new career as a life insurance agent.
    – HunSoc
    Jan 31, 2016 at 13:24
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    I fail to see what “BCA vs. Singh” has to with a “censorious scientific villain”. In this case, esoterics sued a scientist for libel and did not only lose but suffered serious backfire.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 31, 2016 at 14:58
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    @HunSoc obviously we don't know if your thesis is scientifically defensible or not, but just the facts that it was approved by your committee and parts of it were accepted for publication do not guarantee that it is (though these are certainly encouraging signs that provide some evidence for its validity). Conversely, even if it turns out that there are flaws in your thesis, that does not automatically turn it into "pseudo-science". I think it's important not to see this as a black and white issue but to consider objectively whether and to what precise extent your work can be defended.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 31, 2016 at 15:41
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    @Wrzlprmft I am calling the BCA censorious for attempting to silence its scientific critics through formal complaint rather than evidence-based argument (in this case via libel suit). I think that "villain" is a fair characterization of the attitude of many towards its actions (thus, the backlash). If the OP attempts to silence critics through allegations of impropriety, there is a significant risk of being perceived as acting in the same vein. Whether the OP's work has more merit than the that defended by the BCA, I am not in a position to judge, as it has not been shared.
    – jakebeal
    Jan 31, 2016 at 16:03
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    @HunSoc "Free speech" is often the defensive cry of harassing bullies, while "responsible behavior" is often the defensive cry of censorious bullies: without knowing the particulars of your situation, we strangers on the internet simply cannot judge how the balance stands.
    – jakebeal
    Feb 1, 2016 at 11:16

It might be worth taking some time to familiarise yourself with some related cases. I can only think of one off-hand, but I'm sure that others could point to more. It could be reassuring to know that this sort of thing happens to other people, and that they survive. I'm thinking of Terrance Deacon. In this case, the defendant won the case, but only because the complaint was "without foundation."

As for the "pseudo-science" assertion -- that's an easy term to throw around. It might be useful to read up on that, too, e.g. in the work of Imre Lakatos.

"But what distinguishes knowledge from superstition, ideology or pseudoscience? The Catholic Church excommunicated Copernicans, the Communist Party persecuted Mendelians on the ground that their doctrines were pseudoscientific. But then the problem of the demarcation between science and pseudoscience is not merely a problem of armchair philosophy: it is of vital social and political relevance."

The main thing is to approach the issue in a professional manner. Remember that people say all kinds of rude things on the internet that they wouldn't say in person. A polite phone call to the professor in question might be interesting, though potentially also quite fruitless.

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