Most of the time, my reaction to these news stories does not necessarily reflect any disbelief in the findings, but arises from pure cussedness. My mother has often quoted me announcing, at the age of nine or so, that I loved correcting people, and it seems that this personality trait has not faded with age. Whenever I hear about new research, my first instinct is to pick holes in it, even when it's in a field (like cancer research) that I know very, very little about. I've taken about a semester and a half of fairly shallow statistical training, and from that I tend to think that I know more about statistical analysis than the researchers whose work is being reported. (I may know more than the journalists reporting it, but I doubt the experimenters themselves failed to control for all those nuisance variables*.) I try to fight against it, but sometimes I run up against the sort of thing that makes my intellectually elitist sensibilities crawl, and for that, I turn here. Please be warned: this is an extremely snotty post about people whom I consider less able than myself, and it will probably be disagreeable to read if you have any amount of empathy for your fellow man or any reasonable amount of healthy aversion to self-satisfied entitled snobs. I am aware that people who participate in the sorts of crimes against academia (or simply against my own preferences) described below are good, honest people who have the same goals in mind that I have, but what I've written below expresses none of this empathy; rather, it is an outpouring of disdain at how these people go about their goals in ways that I disapprove of.
1. For my dissertation research I'm carrying out a few studies on speakers of Russian. In order to carry out research on human subjects, my school (and I think all schools in the US) have to have the experimental protocol approved by an Institutional Review Board---a bureaucratic hassle that I whole-heartedly support, because it was set in place to prevent further abuses of the sort found in the Stanley Milgram and Tuskegee syphilis studies**. However, it is run by bureaucrats, not researchers (again, not necessarily a bad thing, since researchers can get blinded by the aims of research, whereas bureaucrats certainly don't), and that shows. The particular example I'm thinking of has to do with the portion where I needed to justify the background for my study, and which I was perfectly happy to do. I had a few paragraphs about how Professors Smith and Jones had found this and Professor Green had proposed that as an explanation, and I wanted to determine whether these effects could be observed in experimental data. And then I wanted to know how to cite my sources. Is it okay, I asked an IRB officer, to simply type in my references below those few paragraphs, or should I attach a separate works cited list in the attachments section? And she said---get this---that I didn't need to include my references at all. "Don't worry about citing the sources," she said, "just explain the background research in this section." My quotation may not be exact, but I can assure you that she was straightfacedly assuring me that it is possible to summarize existing research without actually citing sources. It is so bizarre a way to think that I still cannot actually believe that she meant it. Part of explaining background research is including sources! And my intellectual snobbiness stepped in and I reflected that she was probably one of those students in college who had never really gotten the point of works cited lists and comforted herself by thinking that once she got into the "real world" she would never have to deal with them again. Hmph. Anyway, I typed in the sources below those few paragraphs and no one complained, but I'm still enormously disgruntled that someone in charge of approving academic research could possibly imagine that citing sources isn't part of explaining background research.
2. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a set of message forums that I find quite interesting. I've been keeping up with the teaching message board since last fall, and one thing that pops up fairly often is a reference to a poem by Tom Wayman, called "Did I Miss Anything?", an excellent poem written in reaction to students' most common question after they miss class, a poem that the professors on the CHE forums absolutely love. I like it too, and just from reading it I was favorably disposed towards this Tom Wayman fellow:
Did I Miss Anything?
From: The Astonishing Weight of the Dead. Vancouver: Polestar, 1994.
Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours
Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 per cent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I'm about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 per cent
Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose
Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?
Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human existence
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
but it was one place
And you weren't here
And then I found that he has a page of FAQs about this poem, and I read it, and was terribly disappointed. It's essentially a high-school level analytical essay in the form of answers to awfully boring SAT-style questions: "How would you categorize the tone of the poem?" "How is the theme of religion used in the poem?" And the most horrible of them all is the last question: "What does the poem really mean? That is, what hidden meanings are present in the poem?"
Now, I am not a literature person, and I have even less qualification to evaluate whether the answers to those dreadful Tom Wayman FAQs are as awful as they seem than I have qualification to comment on elaborate statistical analyses. As far as I can tell, however, the responses do accurately characterize the poem, but they do so in such a wooden, boring, pedestrian way that they completely undo the point of writing a poem to express the sentiment that it expresses. What's the point of writing a poem, if you're going to include a Cliffs Notes page of it? And Wayman's responses to those FAQs are really woodenly written: The use of a recurring indented stanza is intended to show the speaker is swinging back and forth widely in his or her sarcasm, between answering "Everything" or "Nothing". His cold dissection of his own work puts me in mind of Billy Collins's excellent comment on poetry analysis, "Introduction to Poetry":
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
from The Apple that Astonished Paris, 1996
University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, Ark.
Copyright 1988 by Billy Collins.
All rights reserved.
3. Now, in a perhaps seemingly contradictory complaint (especially coming right after #2), I would like to submit that there is really no need for fancy prose in anything other than fiction or poetry***. In particular, I'm getting sick of journalists setting the mood in some long article by describing the location and the actors in whatever story they're reporting, or spending a full quarter of some op-ed about nanotechnology talking about Walt Whitman. We get it: you want a Pulitzer, and you've read the classic American canon. Now can you get to the point already?
*At least, I doubt that experimenters in the hard sciences fail to control for nuisance variables. In the social sciences I know that there are some excellent researchers who know a whole lot more about statistical analysis than I ever will, but there are also people who are distressingly naive. Mr. Philena tells some extremely dispiriting tales of how the education researchers in his credential program and how the administrators at his school try to use "data" as some sort of holy grail for school assessment, when in fact their interpretation of the data is massively flawed. For example: Students who take algebra in ninth grade get better grades and are more likely to go to college. Therefore, let's force all students to take algebra in ninth grade, even if they can't add two-digit numbers! In fact, let's make it a school policy that no math class lower than algebra be offered. That will improve student achievement, because it means we have no students in remedial classes!
Linguists are also not free from this sort of mistaken belief that data is data and all interpretations are equally valid. I have enormous respect for researchers like Stephan Gries and Florian Jaeger and Harald Baayen, all of whom are brilliant (Harald Baayen literally wrote the book on analyzing linguistic data), but there are many who are far less able. I believe I once mentioned a professor who, in response to my question about how she was going to to analyze the results of some survey we'd done--ANOVA, Chi-squared test, t-test, regression model--responded, "I don't know what you mean. I'm just going to calculate the p-values." This is roughly equivalent to someone deciding that she wants to make cookies from scratch, and in response to a question about whether the cookies will be chocolate chip or oatmeal or snickerdoodle says, "I don't know what you mean. I'm just going to make cookies." It's possible that the cookies will turn out okay, but it's pretty clear that the baker doesn't know much about baking. (In the linguistics case, it turned out the professor was planning to use a chi-squared test, which was entirely inappropriate for the data. Her cookies would have tasted pretty foul.)
**I do get a bit annoyed, however, at the way the IRBs allow researchers to reuse generalized protocols for very different experiments. I recently took part in an experiment where I was given a consent form that was clearly part of the lab's general-use consent form, and it was so speckled with expressions like "you may be asked to do X" and "the procedure might include Y" and "If you are undergoing this experiment because of Q, then you may have to also do W," that it actually told me nothing about the particular experiment that I was consenting to take part in. Then they wanted my social security number before they would send me the compensation, which meant that I didn't get paid, because like hell I'm going to give out my social security number to people who I know damn well don't need it! Probably that requirement just part of the general use procedure, since this lab also does clinical trials, where patients' SSNs are genuinely necessary, but that doesn't make me any more willing to go along with it. It just solidifies my annoyance that the IRB can approve this sort of general-use procedure in this lab, while still tying me in knots about whether I'm putting text in Box B when it should be in Box A before approving my work.
***And I dislike most poetry because it seems that the poets are using unnecessarily fancy writing to talk about something entirely straightforward. Given my love for some poets--among them, Billy Collins, Carl Dennis, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Bishop---this distaste for poetry as a whole might be a bit inconsistent with my own delight in the one small corner of it. I maintain, however, that my opinion towards poetry as a whole reflects the fact that most poets who try to use fancy writing to describe straightforward things are simply doing it wrong. If you do it wrong, it's unnecessarily fancy. If you do it right, it's necessarily fancy. But hardly anyone does it right, except for the poets named above.
Sometimes, however, I do step out from the Ivory Tower, and often I am charmed by what I find. Most recently the thing that charmed me was seeing The Avengers with summercomfort. I thought it was great. I don't think I'm invested enough in the series to write a long reaction to it as newredshoes did, but I will make one comment. A number of people on the internet have commented that it was disappointing how evil Loki became, and how the sense of tortured uncertainty about his own identity and the indignation at the people who kept his true nature from him that so characterized Thor are entirely missing from The Avengers. He turned from a terrific, ambiguous, human antagonist to a fairly standard villain. I agree that this is disappointing given Tom Hiddleston's wonderful portrayal of the more complex Loki from Thor, but I actually think that the entirely evil one worked well. Most importantly, it worked well because it was based on the fact that this Loki fellow isn't human. Human emotion, human mercy mean nothing to him. The whole metaphor of him being a boot and humans being ants is good for making him seem callously evil, but it's also good for emphasizing the otherness of this kind of villain, and if it's done well an entirely other villain is just as good as a complex, conflicted human villain. Indeed, this is one reason I so like the portrayals of Faerie that we find in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and in Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. They aren't good or evil; they're just strange in a way we can't comprehend, and I for one would be very interested in seeing this side of Loki being exploited more. (It would be even more interesting to see it come out a bit in Thor as well, who is no more human than Loki, but I doubt that will happen.)