Recently, snark and sarcasm about my University’s Sportball program led me into the seedy, human-waste-filled undertow of the Social Web. Here are my thoughts on my experience, and on the danger of social twits imbuing a faculty member with more power than they actually possess.
Update, Nov. 22, 2015: NOT SERIOUSLY: Last night, my University’s Sportsball team crushed the opposition in an incredible victory. This confirms the claims of the twits that it was me, and me alone, who controls the fate of our University’s Sportsball program. I demand a commensurate pay raise. BUT SERIOUSLY: Joking aside, the twits should be ashamed. My original tweet laid no blame for failure or success on any single person – it was a sarcastic lament on outcomes of the Sportsball program. But the twits blamed me for the program’s failures. How dare they. A student’s failure is ultimately their own, just as their success is ultimately their own. I cannot make a student absolutely fail any more than I can make them absolutely succeed. To lay the blame for their failures on a single sarcastic faculty member is disrespectful to the students on that team. My claim of being the sole reason for their success is purely a joke; but my disdain for those vocal people on Twitter who grossly oversimplified the many complicated interlocking reasons why a single team of students succeeds or fails is real.
The following is the underlying text I wrote as the basis for a talk at the TEDxSMU-sponsored event, “Loyd on the Lawn.” It was held at Loyd Residential Commons at SMU, where I was invited to give a short (~10-minute) talk last Sunday night. Enjoy!
Writers are born young. Good writers learn their craft through practice, trial, and error. Failure is the best teacher. Given my view of writing, there is much my own University’s weekly campus paper, the SMU Campus Weekly, can learn from this recent article that claims to assess the “Paleo diet.” [ARTICLE] I got so upset about this article and its complete lack of scientific assessment, I actually wrote a letter to the Editor of the paper. This is not the first credulous diet review article in our campus newspaper, but it is the last straw for me – a professor who teaches a class in the scientific method and how to construct a good assessment of a claim. This article represents the worst kind of science writing. Check out the article. Then read my letter below. I marked typos that I wish I’d caught before sending the letter with “[sic].”
UPDATE: I updated this after receiving a response from the Editor. I summarize her response, print my own email reply to her, and then document an assessment of the claimed “experts” used in the article.
Science is a process by which reliable information is obtained by repeated use and assessment. In science, all claims are up for revision; however, absent better information when there is enough reliable information to make a decision it is usually considered wise to do so, even if future revisions (which one cannot predict) might cause adjustments to past decisions. This past week, the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute, on whose Faculty Advisory Board I serve, hosted a panel discussion  of four scientists moderated by a local public radio journalist. The event quickly became a microcosm of the very problem that the public has in understanding and using scientific information, and about public understanding of what it means to be a scientist. I’ve had a few days to process this event, and I want to share my personal observations and thoughts here.