"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Disowning Your Writing

In academe, you want to make sure your name is attached to what you write. You want credit for your words and ideas. You even teach your students (or try, anyway) to take pride in what they write and to demand that others give them credit and that they give credit to others where and when it is due.

Outside of academe, you don't always want your name attached to what you write.


As I've written before, Think Tank has a division of climate change skeptic wingnuttery that I fortunately don't have to have much to do with. It's mostly based in Other City, and none of the people affiliated with Crapital City Office where I am work on climate issues and would prefer not to be associated with that particular brand of wingnuttery on the part of their colleagues. In fact, most of the stuff that comes through here is considered "low profile, high complexity," involves bipartisan interests, and is generally inoffensive.

Every now and then something comes up, though.

Yesterday, Think Tank Boss's Boss (who works in Other City and is a climate change skeptic) emails Think Tank Boss two peer-reviewed articles by legitimate climate scientists and asks for 4-5 paragraph summaries. TTBB includes a sample of another article, a summary of some other study that has clearly spun legitimate research with a strong climate skeptic bias. TTBB wants TTB to do the same thing, but TTB, who works with environmentalists, tries not to get too involved with this sort of thing, while at the same time trying to respect TTBB's right to promote the issues ze chooses.

So, TTB asks me to do the summaries instead. Now, I don't mind the task itself. I get to read something mildly interesting (albeit painfully technical) and spend an hour or so putting the arguments in my own words.

Except, here's where it gets tricky. After I read the articles, I find I can say with confidence that this research absolutely does NOT support the Global Warming Is a Myth wingnuts. The authors of the studies are, in fact, making the case that, because global warming is very real, we need the very best tools and methods possible to study it. They critique some tools and methods with the aim of developing better ones and, ultimately, more accurate predictive models.

Except, if you don't read all THAT carefully and you hone in on a few key phrases and repeat them to yourself OUT OF CONTEXT a few times, you might be able to convince yourself that here are legitimate scientists whose LEGITIMATE science supports the wingnut notion that Global Warming Is a Myth. But you'd be wrong to tell yourself this. One of the authors, in an effort to combat what ze sees as the misrepresentation and misuse of hir research, has a page on hir website explicitly describing why hir research needs to be understood within the proper context and how it absolutely does NOT support the agendas of climate skeptics.

*     *     *     *     *


One of the assignments I used to give my freshman comp students early in the semester was to read an academic article (something somewhat complex and usually dealing with a subject people tended to have opinions about) and write a summary of it. They'd leave class that day grumbling, "Summary? Why do we have to write summaries? We're college students. Summaries are dumb high school assignments. All you have to do is put what the author says in your own words. What a waste of time.We're all going to write the same dumb thing."

And so, they'd do the assignment and come back to class, and then I'd call on people to read what they wrote. It was always fun to watch their faces as, one by one, their classmates read summaries very different from their own. They'd just look at each other, mouths open, and, eventually, we'd get into a discussion of how even simple exercises in reading comprehension involve acts of interpretation.  Unwittingly, their interpretations had influenced how they wrote their summaries.

The point of the exercise was not to make some sort of relativistic statement that "everyone is right, and there's no such thing as a wrong interpretation." That's bullshit, which was exactly what I wanted them to see. Of course, no one is ever going to summarize the same article exactly the same way, and we're always going to have biases. But the point of the exercise was to encourage them to become more careful readers as they moved into the research portion of the course -- to take greater care in distinguishing what they might want a source to say from what it actually said. 

So that they could represent their sources fairly and accurately and not make arguments based on distorted evidence.

*     *     *     *     *

So, what did I do with my summaries? I did exactly what the Global Warming Is a Myth winguts wanted me to. I spun the summaries to make it seem as though this research was supporting their views, at the same time preserving, on a technical level, what the articles were saying. I honed in on certain words and phrases and wove them into the text without proper contextualization.

I told TTB I'd be happy to be TTBB's ghostwriter, but I don't want my name on this garbage. TTBB is welcome to put hir name on it. 

I wrote it, but I do not own it.

(I'm already afraid, after being invited, that I may have lost an opportunity after someone Googled my name and found it affiliated in merely an administrative capacity with Think Tank.)

(And, as I'm previewing this post, fucken Rick Perry is on NPR saying that it's the Global Warming Is Real people who are DISTORTING THE EVIDENCE. *headdesk*.)


  1. Ugh, the gap between "doing your job" and "doing what's right" can be so wide.

    Well, look on the bright side ... if not you, they'd find someone else to write the piece. And at least your name isn't attached to it.

    What happened with the conference? Did the person contact you?

  2. Yeah, no doubt they'd find someone else...I really do want to be doing more writing, though, of the kind I can feel good about taking credit for...meh.

    On the conference, yes, the person did contact me a few days later :) Thanks for asking!