Monday, 01 March 2010

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To better serve the truth, we teach them to lie well. Despite flubbing the sample size argument (proving in the process why I should not be teaching my writing students how to do standard deviations), the exercise outlined in my previous post had benefits (intended and otherwise). The unintended benefit of being upbraided by the Internets was that it allowed me to show my students how to handle criticism honestly and with humility the week before they engage in a massive peer review exercise. Teaching insecure undergraduates how to dish out (politely) and take in (constructively) substantive criticism is always a hairy ordeal, so having an object lesson at hand is convenient. The intended benefit is more easily quantified: they learned how to couch their results of their minuscule survey in (some might say inappropriately) strong terms without resorting to outright lying. Consider this sample paragraph comprised of sentences my students produced in class today: Before elaborating on the findings from this study it is necessary to emphasize certain limitations that should be taken into account when interpreting these results. We lacked the time and resources required to collect data on thousands of college students, but the data we did collect consists of self-reported statements about variable emotional states. However, despite the fact that our sample population was relatively limited, we believe further analysis demonstrates that the results obtained via our survey support the hypothesis we put forward. Moreover, because there are strong theoretical reasons and an emerging literature suggesting the importance of findings, our provisional belief is that the relationship captured in our results is likely to be ubiquitous and that future research will bear this out. Due to variables present in every methodological approach, no type of data is perfect, and no single analysis can unequivocally answer a complex research question like the one we asked. Further research should be conducted in light of these limitations in order to confirm our results. Before you declare that I am training students to obscure the limitations of their work behind statements of technical honesty, remember that in order to present material that is only technically honest, they must understand what they can claim without lying and calibrate their prose accordingly. Forcing them to pay attention to the relationship between their arguments and the language in which they couch them is difficult to do. Students balk at evaluating the strength of what their words claim because they believe that their readers will intuitively understand the purview of their arguments. This exercise disabuses them of that mistaken notion, so while it may be ignoble in its execution, its effect on the structure of their claims is revelatory. Consider the conversation the class had about this sentence: We lacked the time and resources required to collect data on thousands of college students, but the data we did collect consists of self-reported statements about variable emotional states. They thought that mentioning "thousands of college students" implied that they had surveyed "hundreds," and that using "but" instead of "and" suggested, on a grammatical level, that relying...

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