Thursday, April 18, 2013

Oops! We Take It Back!

One of the often-invoked rules from my childhood was "no backsies!" This was usually said by one child who had traded places with or otherwise given another child something, and didn't want it back. The basic social logic was clear: you took it, you're stuck with it.

The internet has reinforced this rule by providing a space in which stuff is recycled, recirculated, re-tweeted, and archived, such that very little ever actually dies. Because of that, the following attempt by a couple of groups to "take back" what they said probably isn't going to work very well:
Groups Retract Paper That Criticized Faculty Workloads
When this report was first released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in March, it caused quite a stir with its main contention that tenure-track faculty teach a lot less today than they did 20 or so years ago. That this argument was made publicly, by an organization representing one side (Trustees) of the classic higher education labor-management divide, immediately set off a round of angry recriminations and blaming. Anti-faculty forces (both within higher education and in the conservative public sphere) were quick to use the report to blame faculty for the skyrocketing cost of higher education. Pro-faculty groups fired back angry responses with varying heat/light ratios.

But then a funny thing happened. Some faculty, being researchers and scholars, dug into the data and the methods of the report. They discovered that the conclusions the authors drew are not in fact supported by the data or the methods. This, in itself, is not that surprising - stretching data to try to fit pre-existing conclusions is practically a literary genre of its own these days. But in this case, the stretch was a few bridges too far, and now the groups who wrote the piece are trying to retract it to save some semblance of credibility.

The damage, of course, has already been done. The next time either the Trustees' group or its partner, Education Sector, release a report on this subject people aren't going to take them very seriously. To his credit, the study's lead author (Andrew Gillen, Education Sector's Director of Research) takes personal responsibility. But most people won't read his statement; they'll see the headline and move on.

There's a cautionary tale here for both academics and those who want to enter into academic policy debates. There's not a lot of room for sloppiness in this arena. You need to bring your A game, or tread very cautiously, because the people looking over your work are very smart and they will find your mistakes. And maybe the next time someone decides to argue a pre-determined truth with a ginned-up study, they'll think twice. At least, we can hope.

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