Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Collaborative Self-Evaluation Rubric for Writers

It's a truism that the best writers are often their own worst critics. There's a reason for this: To become a good writer, you have to be able to give yourself all the painful feedback that other people tend to avoid giving you. (At this point, some readers will start muttering to themselves about writing groups and writers' circles, which also work. But they work in part because they train the author to become a self-critic, to internalize all of those other voices so the author doesn't have to ask someone else's opinion after each draft.)

It's possible to train yourself to do some of the things that good self-critics do naturally, without a formal writers' workshop. Below are four tests that comprise a sort of rubric. Think about something you've been writing, and walk yourself through the tests that apply.

The Obsession Test

Instructions: Think back on your writing process.

Question to Answer Afterward: At any point in this process, did you fall so in love with the potential of your project that you obsessed over revision or research, hoping to make it as perfect as you were sure it could be? Put another way, did you ever (perhaps at the beginning) work on it because you couldn't help yourself?

What Your Answer Means: If you didn't answer "yes" to this question, then you're forcing yourself to work on the project. It's a relationship defined by duty, rather than obsession. Chances are, readers will have to force themselves to finish it, just as you're forcing yourself to create it. If that's the case, it's not the end of the world. But you have to find a way to fall in love with your project before you continue much further with it. You might need to tweak it, or uncover its most original facet. You might want to go a direction that's more ambitious, more challenging. Or perhaps your project is already so big and challenging that it's daunting and demoralizing, and you need to take a cue from George Lucas: Pick the part of it you find most fascinating and develop just that part for now. (Lucas famously trimmed down a story way too big for the screen to come up with "Episode IV," the first of the Star Wars movies.)

On the other hand, if you did answer "yes" to this question, then you very likely have an idea or goal worth pursuing, even if you've lost sight of it recently. At times, the love will seem to fade away, and frustration will take its place; this happens, but will often pass. Work through it. And be prepared to do a difficult thing: Be prepared to let go. It won't ever be perfect. Get it as close as you think you can, and then start circulating it.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: The promise of your core idea, thesis, and/or purpose.

The Disclaimer Test

Instructions: Imagine handing your written work to a friend, or colleague, or stranger.

Question to Answer Afterward: How many disclaimers would you feel compelled to utter while handing over the paper? (Example of a disclaimer: “It’s not done yet, and I wrote it at 2 a.m., while drunk, on a manual typewriter with only two working keys. And I collaborated with a monkey.”)

What Your Answer Means: If you feel compelled to prep your reader with lots of disclaimers (more than you normally would), you have something fairly critical to say to yourself about your work. You should listen to you.

Yes, it’s tempting to hand the work off to someone, hoping he or she will love it more than you do. But this never happens. No one ever loves your children as much as you do. No one ever looks at your darlings as they bounce on the couch and scream for cookies and thinks they’re as adorable as you do. The same goes for your written children.

If you feel the need to apologize, you’re already aware of a problem and need to deal with it.

Moreover, the problems you’re feeling awkward about are almost certainly the sort that your reader can’t help you with: structure/organization, strategy, development. That is, you’re probably feeling un-ready because all of the pieces of your masterpiece aren’t in the right spots yet—some might not even be in the picture yet.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: Structure, strategy, and idea development.

The Reaction Test

Instructions: Listen to what your friend, colleague, or stranger says about your work.

Question to Answer Afterward: What specifically did the reader comment about?

Did your reader say something like “Hey, it’s pretty good! There are some grammatical errors here and there, but fix those and you’re in great shape”? If so, the only thing your reader commented on was grammar. I know, I know. It sounded like your friend had more to say; she didn’t. Trust me. Write down “grammar.”

If your reader asked questions, or said something substantive, like “I’ve watched Avatar about fifty times, and I never noticed the Cyndi Lauper references before. I’m not sure about the ones you mentioned on page 3, though. I think maybe you’re wrong about them,” then write down “content.” The same goes for creative writing: If your reader is mad you killed off a character, brags she saw your plot twist coming, or says the ending isn't realistic, write down "content."

What Your Answer Means: Here's a rule of thumb that's absolutely critical: People cannot help reacting to content if they've read it and understood it. It's involuntary. They can't watch a movie without having something to say about the twist ending or a character. They can't read a novel without commenting on how witty or dull the dialogue was. They can't read an argument on a controversial topic without agreeing, disagreeing, or asking questions.

If your reader doesn't do any of those things, it's because he or she couldn't focus on what you were saying.

The most common reason for lack of focus is that the reader is distracted by grammatical errors. If there are enough of them, they can make your text confusing or frustrating to read.

However, your reader is probably a friend. And no one likes a grammar nazi, anyway. So your friend probably isn't going to say, "I couldn't read this. It's almost illiterate." That's not a friendly thing to say.

Instead, he or she probably said something like "It's really good. I liked it. Just fix the grammar errors, and I think it'll be great!" If you want to make your friend feel very awkward, press for details about the parts he or she liked. Ask what he or she thought about your paragraph about "Rock the Vote." Chances are, your reader will have to open the paper back up to look at that again; she'll bite her lip and say "um" at least once as she stalls. You've trapped her: She wants to be helpful, but she didn't follow the paper, and doesn't want to hurt your feelings by saying so.

On the other hand, if you distribute your paper to three buddies or classmates, and they all react to the content -- if they all ask questions or argue with you, focusing on specific points, that's great. It's wonderful, even if they disagree. It means your stuff was readable.

All of this applies to creative writing, too. If you’ve written a screenplay and hand it off to someone familiar with screenplays, the comments might be about formatting instead of grammar, but they mean roughly the same thing. (Example: “It’s a great script. You just need to put it in the right font and fix the margins, and you’re in good shape!” This typically means the reader couldn’t get into the story because he or she was distracted by all of the document features that made it look like it wasn’t a screenplay. Formatting is the screenwriter’s grammar.)

It's ironic that the last concern of writers is the first concern of readers. Any good writer will tell you that you should worry about content first, and save editing (or screenplay format) for the last stage of your writing process. And that's true, for writers. But readers invert that order: They can't get to your content until you've squared away the formalities. It's not fair, but it's the way it is.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: Editing and format (i.e., formalities).

The Viral Test

Instructions: Distribute your work to some folks, or post it online somewhere.

Question to Answer Afterward: Did anyone not allied to you by blood, politics, friendship, or sexual chemistry pass your work on to someone else or recommend it for others to read?

What Your Answer Means: If a complete stranger (or, better, a stranger who has a reputation in the field) recommends your work to someone else, you should be submitting it for publication, trying to get an agent, and taking other steps toward professional distribution. The person recommending your stuff is taking a risk to do so. If other readers don't like it, that can reflect badly on the person who recommended it. Professionals in the field, in particular, are careful with their reputations. If someone took a risk to recommend you, you ought to be taking more risks, too.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: Reader interest (and, holistically, all the other criteria, too).

Monday, May 9, 2011

xkcd conjures Marie Curie

xkcd has a great comic for students today (particularly women students, but really for everyone). I'll repost it here, along with a word of encouragement to check out xkcd's other stuff. It's a great strip.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Grammar Nazis

Those of us who consider grammar when grading student writing are often accused by students of being "grammar Nazis." Students often argue that we should evaluate what they said, rather than how they said it. This plea is particularly common in classes outside the English department: I hear it a lot when I teach business communications, and my wife hears it whenever she assigns papers in political science.

If you or someone else you know finds the above plea persuasive, try this experiment: Come up with a grade for the student essay below (which is a real essay, typed verbatim) -- as well as a justification for the grade that isn't based on grammar or mechanics. If you give it a good grade, you need a reason for it. If you give it a low grade, you need a reason for it (other than grammar). Without talking about grammar, can you come up with a justifiable grade for it at all? Imagine the student comes to you demanding to know why it got a "D" or a "B" or an "A-" (instead of an A). What's your content-based answer?

Although the paper below is an extreme case, it illustrates a real problem: Badly written papers are often difficult or impossible to evaluate fairly by any other criteria: You can't understand the content well enough to evaluate it. (Similarly, if a student's documentation is terrible, his or her research and support become difficult or impossible to evaluate.) Sure, I can evaluate the content and argumentation of a well-written paper quite easily, and the research of a well-cited paper easily.

But personally, if I were required to evaluate the paper below based on a criteria other than grammar, I'd be flummoxed. Take a look at it, and see if you can discern what I mean.

Student essay on “I Am the Enemy” by Ron Kline (2006)

With this argumentation Ron Kline wrote this I do agree so in the opening sentence started off like this one of those vilified, inhumane physician- scientists involved in the animal research. Do most of these animals that are getting tested have the rights to not be tested because the law has state that the animals have to be test on what is going around? In the first couple of sentences you can see that Ron Kline is pediatric oncologist and the former director of the bone marrow transplant program. You could say that the animal’s rights activists would suggest a fourth choice that the claiming that computers models can stimulate animal experiments thus they are making the actual experiments unnecessary to do this.

The argument is that I would have to agree in the this favor because looking at the little short statement reading on that Ron had put together a lot of good point. “ One of the terrifying effects of the effort to restrict the use of the animals in medical research is that the impact will not be felt for years and decades the drugs that might have been discovered will be and fundamental biological processes that might have been understood.” Understood to the better of one ability is what Ron put out there to make all those points since that he is that the enemy of himself. Is what the truth about this true then you could say that information is what they thought to be? Ron has this open opinion to say what has been going on for as long as we all know it was happening.

One other thing that I saw that at the in America today death has become an event isolated fro it earliest our daily existence out of the sight and the thoughts of most are believes. In common one that the doctors today watching children die today in the world that the parents and the animals grieve in the same was, I quietly understand and agree that animals have the similar way too. Argumentation

With all the technology up grates it would be a lot for the animals to be test and scientist think that it is just not right to do. Having this said the things are remain mysteries until time can be said. Knowing that the things being done are just what they are helped. The are danger that the politically expedient solutions will be found to that they will placate a vocal minority that while consequences of those decisions will not affect all of those decisions that are made on ones minds. “Fortunately most of us enjoy just being in good health and the trauma of watching one’s child die has become a rare experience

Ron has a lot of good supporting facts that are just right to the things that might be look at is that the great to site. In the argumentation is that I just do believe in that he saying because with all of the technology going on it just seems a lot of differences in medical science of the animals right today in USA.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

F#@ked by Ray Bradbury?

I'm alluding, above, to one of the recent Hugo nominees for best short-form dramatic presentation: a music video titled "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury."

The video is ... well, exactly what it sounds like. It's an explicit proposition by writer Rachel Bloom, set to music, posted on YouTube for Bradbury's 90th birthday. It's explicit enough, I'm surprised the author survived watching it. It's also fun -- a bit of a kick. It's nice to see sci-fi getting some love from the distaff side, and to see reading getting some love from the high auto-insurance premium generation. (And by love, I mean ... er, let's move on.)

Historically, short-form nominees have been TV episodes and a few scattered short films. A couple of years ago, though, the Internet sensation Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog won, and that may have been a harbinger of things to come. (And by come, I mean "arrive." Stay focused, people.)

I think "Fuck me" might win. I'm not sure it ought to, good as it is, but I think it will, and I think the reason is worth some attention.

Bloom's erotic tribute is up against three television episodes and a short animated film ("The Lost Thing" by Shaun Tan) for the short-form award. All three TV nominations are for Doctor Who eps: two by three-time winner Steven Moffat and one by Richard Curtis (writer of Love, Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral).

I haven't seen "The Lost Thing," but I've seen the other four. I think all three Doctor Who episodes are probably better than "Fuck Me." I personally would vote for Moffat's "A Christmas Carol." I know other people who would vote for "Vincent and the Doctor." I'll be stunned if any of the Who episodes wins.

Surprisingly, I'm not saying this because Doctor Who is up against itself, and will divvy up the Doctor Who fan vote. That's certainly a reliable pattern for the Academy Awards, but it's not quite as true for the Hugos, which often sees episodes beating up their siblings. (Doctor Who won last year despite having three nominations, for instance. And last year, I would have given the prize to Joss Whedon's "Epitaph One" for Dollhouse.)

So why do I think three-time winner Moffat will do worse this year?

Because the winner is determined by a vote of Hugo members, not by a panel of judges. A panel of judges might watch all five and compare them, but with a large membership, odds favor the show with the most viewers.

This year, that strange physics favors Bloom's let's-have-sex tape, which is likely to end up with far more viewers than any other nominee (in any category, really).

Let's put it this way: Which one of those nominees has a link on this page? A link directly to the nominated performance? "Fuck Me," that's the one. If you haven't been watching Doctor Who, no link will take you to a free, online, convenient performance. You'd have to rent it, or catch it on a TV repeat. And if you want to watch "The Lost Thing," you'll have to buy a copy on iTunes, which I haven't done yet. Have you? It might be the best of the five, but you have to go out of your way a bit to test that.

Now look at the official list of Hugo nominees. Only one of the five nominees has a "Watch now" link next to it: Bloom's. That immediate link, right on the virtual ballot, is going to give Bloom a "Fuck Me" pump that'll be hard to beat. (And by "beat," I mean rhythm. Really. I'm sure the sentence makes sense that way.)

I'm not sure it's fair to match 45-minute episodes only available on BBC and DVD, or short films only available to people at film festivals, against a YouTube video available to everyone with a computer. We'll see how this year goes; maybe I'll be wrong.

But if Ms. Bloom wins, along with sending her congratulations -- honest congrats, as the video is cool -- we might want to send Hugo a recommendation to come up with a new category for the free online stuff.

After all, we want to be fair to Mr. Moffat. He's only won three times.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Game of Thrones

Reactions to HBO's Game of Thrones, now just two episodes into its first season, so far have been mixed, but there's an interesting pattern to the mix.

Fans of the books mostly like the series. That tells you the adaptation is reasonably faithful.

Television critics tend to like the series if they've read the books, or if they've seen the first six episodes (which were sent out in preview DVDs to some critics).

Critics who've only seen the first episode or two don't much like it, and neither do many viewers who tuned in to see what the hype was all about, without knowing much more than what they've seen so far. They tend to think it's derivative, teen-boy, D&D, predictable, sexist, racist, and dull. Nasty and brutish, without being short.

Why are the two groups seeing things so differently?

To the uninitiated, it might seem like a case of "well, the fans and critics were just brainwashed by the HBO marketing machine, or they're easy to please." In other words: Those guys are suckers.

But there's another explanation: People who have peered more deeply into the story (by reading the books or seeing more than two episodes) may, just possibly, know something that the others don't.

I've read the books, so I know the second explanation is the correct one, in this case. Without spoiling too many plot points, virtually all of the elements that are drawing fire from one-off viewers and one-episode critics change. Dramatically. All of the formulaic pins are set up, and then a bowling ball careens through them, leaving them all on the ground.

Author George R.R. Martin plays an interesting game in this series: He starts it off like a formulaic, predictable fantasy slog with a cast of stereotypes (the blonde, scheming villain; the savage Dothraki barbarian; the hopeless damsels; the tough, wise dad with a sword; the kids with their matching direwolf pets).

And then he quite deliberately screws with everything. Sabotages it. Inverts it.

That predictable story arc you thought you saw coming? Way off.

You thought the kids and puppies were safe? Sucker.

That foreshadowing you thought you saw? Guess again.

That woman who seemed so passive, and so overshadowed by the guy next to her? Nope, she's one of the most competent, central characters in the series, and he gets himself killed. Try again. (I'm not spoiling any particular plot point there -- I'm spoiling several of them. This happens with more than one character.)

That savage barbarian? Actually, not a bad dude (once we get past his wedding night). Also, not as important as his wife.

That guy you think you're supposed to hate, because he's clearly the villain? No, you're going to like him. Yes, even though he did that horrible thing to a ________. Later, you're going to like him. You won't be comfortable with it, but it's going to happen. (Again, this happens with several characters.)

That's what the critics who've seen six episodes and readers of the books are talking about -- and not talking about. No one wants to spoil the twists and turns, so we're just being vaguely excited.

We've seen hints of this in the first two episodes, each of which ends with an event that's totally shocking, not because it wouldn't happen in real life, but because we're surprised to see it in a fantasy story. If you've seen the episodes, you know the two incidents.

But the whole series is like that. Lots of rugs, and lots of having them yanked out from under you. I kind of hope the critics who think the show is _____-ist and predictable watch long enough to be ... well, floored.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rapist Row

A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, by Caitlin Flanagan, has one of those titles that pretty much sums up her thesis: "Shutter Fraternities for Young Women's Good."

Flanagan describes fraternities as "providing [young men] with a variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women," and refers to its members as a "boorish cartel."

Her opening example, which describes how a young student in 1984 was drugged and gang-raped by fraternity members at the University of Virginia, is horrifying. No one believed the student then. It took 20 years -- and an unsolicited (if weak) confession from one of the men -- for her to get justice. In fact, until the trial, she had not had any evidence she'd been gang raped. She'd lived for years having to proceed as though she'd been raped by only one man, and ultimately, only one of the men was convicted.

I've written before about my own background as a fraternity member, back when I was an undergraduate, and I'll confess that my first reaction to Ms. Flanagan's article was defensive. I thought she was going too far, much as many of the readers commenting on her article online have suggested. I was one of several nondrinkers in my fraternity, and one of many who saw the fraternity experience as a way to build deep bonds with fellow human beings, engage in philanthropic work, and enrich an intellectual college experience by adding to it a study of principles and values. I was never (and still am not) much of a partier. My primary role at such functions was wallflower (during) and designated driver (after). I thought, and continue to believe, that organizations for young men can save them from their tribal and savage instincts, endowing them with civilization and morality.

But I had another reaction to the article: I was angry. Not at Ms. Flanagan, but at the men in fraternities around the country who are drugging and raping women, chanting "No means yes. Yes means anal!," and otherwise acting like brutes. The brute in me would like to see them hanged. (The civilized part of me might insist on a trial first.)

It's taken me a while to sort through those conflicting emotions, to make some sense of them.

Are fraternities worthy groups deserving of protection, or houses of horror that ought to be closed?

Answering this question requires some understanding both of young men and of group dynamics. Some observations:

1. Untamed young men are often disorderly, violent, and hypersexual.

2. In aimless groups of peers, led by other untamed brutes, young men tend to engage collectively in destructive, deviant, or criminal behavior. We see this in everything from street gangs to the rape and death squads of developing nations in civil war. Group polarization is part of the problem here: Most of our instinctive behavior is based on what we think normal is. People tend to become more extreme when the people around them are extreme, because the sense of "normal" shifts. Young men who might otherwise be only inclined to grope may, in the presence of someone raping (and no one objecting), go further. Men who might be inclined not to participate at all might cheer. Men who might normally be inclined to object or rescue might stand mute. That silence, in turn, throws more fuel on the fire. Now the cheerers begin to grope; the rapists start looking for sharp objects. Few things in life are as terrifying as a mob in spiral.

3. However, in the right kinds of groups, ones that provide moral leadership and codes of behavior, men can learn to channel their energies toward the defense of a community and its values. The codes and role models provide a moral compass. The sense of "normal" becomes codified and resistant to spirals. In such environments, men can learn to become husbands, fathers, guardians, protectors. Although results may have varied, the chivalric codes and bushido, codes for knights and samurai, respectively, were aimed at such a result -- at taming the savages in the community and turning them into protectors and role models for young boys. That we have historical accounts of unknightly knights doesn't mean the codes were meaningless, but rather that in some areas or instances those codes were forgotten or unenforced; human beings, women included, have a disturbing tendency to view traditions as funny, expendable, or highly malleable and subject to creative interpretation. An unenforced code is little more than graffiti. Whatever their mis-steps, without such codes, Europe and Japan likely would not have developed as they did. A community without such codes is hard to distinguish from 1994 Rwanda.

Fraternities can be the right kinds of groups, if fraternity leadership hews to the virtues that most such organizations espouse, if senior members act as role models, if the larger community insists that they do so and enforces society's laws, if all parties collectively condemn not only rape but the precursors of rape: groping, drugging, talk of rape.

If members behave ignobly, they should be stripped of membership, prosecuted by the law, and, I mean this part seriously, held in dishonor. Quaint as it sounds, honor is the key to all such codes. Public shame is a better deterrent to poor behavior than whipping. The stocks are a better tool than the electric chair. (Arguably, one of the most destructive developments of the last 50 years has been America's campaign to protect the privacy of wrongdoers. The skyrocketing rates of academic dishonesty of late can, for instance, be traced back to the death of the honor codes of old: In the past, a plagiarist was identified publicly. People knew what he'd done. That had a pronounced effect on behavior. Schools can't out their cheaters, by law. But a fraternity can publicly denounce a former member as dishonorable, and should.)

However, without guidance or enforcement, a fraternity is little more than a disorderly peer group with a funny name.

Which brings me to my complicated reaction to Ms. Flanagan's article.

Fraternities not already doing so need to step it up. They need to take their codes more seriously, and not simply see them as things that pledges have to recite while standing on their heads. The founders of those organizations meant them. They put thought into them. Codes matter. Without them, the fraternity is not really a fraternity, but an impostor. Fraternities need to work with their communities -- and the women in them -- to channel young men in productive directions.

Fraternities that refuse to do this, that remain unguided brute-led rabble, do need to be shuttered.

A fraternity that's functioning can be a good thing, providing focus and direction for young men who might truly need guidance -- but a malfunctioning fraternity is far worse than none at all.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nigerian spam lords and yet another reason to edit your stuff

My wife has been listing things on eBay lately (because we're trying to clean out the house a bit), and she's received three messages from one guy, whom she has deliberately ignored. The messages are unedited, uncapitalized, abbreviation-heavy, and terse -- like a dashed-off text message.

She says she's ignoring them because one of the things you have to look out for on sites like eBay are scammers or rip-off artists, and one thing most of those guys have in common is terribly edited writing.

"This guy might be legitimate, and may really be interested, but I'm not going to talk to him, just in case," she told me.

It occurred to me, when she said this, that I tend to treat unedited messages as though they're from spammers or con artists, too, and after a few seconds of thought, I realized why: those Nigerian 419 email scams. (You know the ones.) They're always filled with goofs and howlers. When I see an email or unsolicited Facebook message written in anything like that style, I tend to ignore or delete it (unless I recognize it's from a student).

It's a safe bet that lots of literate, educated people have instinctively adopted this Ignore-the-Error-Filled-Message defense. It's sensible and efficient. Of course, it's also likely to hit some false positives along the way. In all likelihood, a few legitimate messages are being lost in the process.

Is this phenomenon a kind of discrimination, like racial profiling, but targeting uneducated people instead of, say, Arabs? Maybe.

Is it reasonable to assume spammers and scammers are going to have lots of errors, and that well-edited messages are more likely to be legitimate?

Yes, I'd say that's reasonable.

If that seems to be a stretch -- and I realize it may -- here's why that assumption makes some sense: Conning people and spamming people are numbers games. The more people you hit, the more likely it is you find a sucker. Most of the suckers are not going to be terribly sharp. So if you're a con artist or spam lord, there's really not a very good reason to worry about grammar. The people who will spot the errors weren't likely to fall for the scam anyway. The people who are likely to fall for the scam aren't likely to care about or notice errors.

For this reason, most people who spend their days sending lots of messages into the Internet's ether, hoping to hook a mark or two, don't bother to edit their stuff. There's simply no compelling reason to bother.

Meanwhile, if you're going to email a complete stranger to ask a legitimate favor or to ask for money for a real thing, you're sending a message to just one person. You probably know the receiver is going to wonder, "Who the heck is this person, and is this some kind of spam?" Most reasonably intelligent senders will slow down to edit, so they'll be taken more seriously and make a good impression.

So, for reasons entirely unrelated to education, legitimate messages will tend to look more carefully edited than dishonest ones.

However, this does mean trouble for some writers out there: If you're writing honest messages but not slowing down to edit, you look exactly like a Nigerian spam lord, and smart people are inoculating themselves against that sort of thing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The what what?

Students often think "well-written" means grammatically correct.

There's certainly a correlation between good and correct, but the two are not the same thing. Some great bits of writing (including some of my favorite books, and several texts assigned by the writing program that currently employs me) are filled with grammar errors. They're still good.

Meanwhile, sometimes even sentences or headlines that are grammatically correct are badly written.

Take, for example, this recent headline from the Press-Enterprise: "Mojave Desert: Tortoise finds curtail solar-site construction."

The headline is perfectly correct. Heck, it even contains a complete sentence, which is odd for a headline. That's the first rule that usually goes out the window.

But my bet is most readers couldn't make sense of it, or tried reading it but gave up after deciding it was grammatically incorrect. When I first read it, I was thrown off by the word finds, and ended up shaking my head in confusion. I had to look at it twice to figure out what was intended by the headline writer. (The headline writer is probably not the journalist who wrote the article -- those are usually different people.)

Finds in the headline is a noun, not a verb. It's being used in the same sense as "Wow! What a find!" It's a noun meaning something that's been found. They found some stuff related to tortoises. Usually, when we see find used this way, it's a singular noun and it's modified by a clear adjective, like archeological. If the headline had said, instead, "Archeological find curtails solar-site construction," those of us comfortable with the word curtail probably would have understood it just fine.

The problem is that we can imagine a tortoise finding something, and finds with an "s" at the end is less familiar. Moreover, finds agrees with tortoise, so just about anyone reading "tortoise finds" is going to picture a tortoise saying "Aha!"

Readers who don't know the word curtail will picture some sort of vague thing that can be found: "Ah, the tortoise found a curtail, whatever that is." But then the rest of the sentence makes no sense. For those of us who know all the words, we're lost as soon as we hit curtail -- two verbs in a row? That's peculiar. (Then again, I did just read a student paper in which a sentence said "Recently, a judge wrote admitted ..." In that case, it was an error.)

It's tough to avoid these. Pretty much everyone creates a sentence like that at some point. However, most of the time, if you take the writing process seriously, you can catch this sort of thing. Peer reviewers can circle the sentence and write "huh?" in the margins, prompting you to look at the sentence again more carefully. Reading it aloud (or having a buddy read it to you) can help you catch stuff that's easy to mis-read. My point isn't that the Press-Enterprise screwed up; the paper has tight deadlines and these writers are often more rushed than students are. (Hard to believe, but true.)

My point, instead, is that students who want to dramatically improve their writing should review their work not just for errors but for wording that simply doesn't work, regardless of how grammatical it is.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"It has not escaped our notice"

I was looking over a recent scientific article from a research team that includes DNA giant Craig Venter (though he is not the lead author), and it's interesting stuff. They seem in some ways like they're being very cautious and conservative in their discussion of some preliminary findings, which suggest they may have discovered a fourth domain of life. One existing domain is bacteria. Another is every animal with more than one cell (us included). That should give you some idea of how big a domain is.

That's far more significant than discovering a new species, if it's true.

While I was reading through the article, I spotted this sentence:
It has not escaped our notice that the characteristics of these novel sequences are consistent with the possibility that they come from a new (i.e., fourth) major branch of cellular organisms on the tree of life.
That sentence really jumped out at me, because it echoes another very famous sentence in biological science:
It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.
That second sentence is from the 1953 article by James D. Watson and Francis Crick that first described the "spiral staircase" structure of DNA, and showed how DNA might replicate. It's the Nobel Prize-winning article that set into motion almost all of our later discoveries about how life works. The famous short article is perhaps the most frequently analyzed text in science, and that is one of its most famous sentences -- in part because of its hypercautious understatement. They'd pretty clearly made an electrifying discovery, and rather than make a bold pronouncement, they said, in essence, "Oh, yeah, and over here there's this possible ramification, which would be interesting."

For comparison, imagine a priest walking into a landscape where he sees a giant ancient ship parked on a mountain top, a burning bush, and a guy in sandals standing on top of a lake. He writes an article in a religious magazine describing these observations, and then says, "It has not escaped my notice that these may have religious implications." He leaves it at that. That's the sort of understated conclusion that Watson and Crick drew.

By echoing that statement, the "fourth domain" researchers are sending a weird, mixed signal: They're echoing one of the most cautious, humble lines in scientific literature, so you might think they're being equally humble and cautious. But by using that language, they're also clearly associating themselves with some landmark, world-changing discoveries. Intentionally or not, they're implying that "We've found something on the scale of that DNA discovery."

If I had to guess, I'd say the echo of Watson & Crick is a deliberate signal to the community. It's saying, "Officially, on the record, we're not drawing conclusions, but we're letting you know that off-the-record, we think we're onto something huge." If that's the case, it's not remotely humble or cautious at all. It's just clever.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Invisible Errors

If you heard what sounded like a clap of thunder earlier this week, it might have been the sound of self-published author Jacqueline Howett's intended career imploding.

In response to this review by BigAl's Books, Ms. Howett appears to have had something of a public meltdown. She rained hostility on Big Al, and became an Internet sensation -- and not in a good way. She started the day with a review that said her book, The Greek Seaman, had a good story but needed to be better edited. Her day ended ... well, it was a train wreck. If you want to see it, click the previous link and read the discussion thread below the review. It's ghastly.

As a teacher of writing, I have email conversations similar to that discussion thread at least once a term, but they're private. (If they ever went public, the students involved would almost certainly become unfortunate celebrities like Howett.) Most students are great. But a few students every year react to my evaluations of their work almost exactly as Ms. Howett reacted to that review.

It's easy to pick on Howett and those rare explosive students for their manners, or their lack of self-control.

But there's another issue, and it's one that affects even the well-behaved, mature students: It's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Simply put, people who have difficulty putting sentences together often think their sentences are just fine. Like Ms. Howett, they simply don't see what the problems are. They may react politely and professionally to reviews or grades, but they're still mystified and quietly suspect that the reviewer/grader is being unfair. This is a tough situation to be in: To recognize that the feedback is accurate, they first need to be competent, but to become competent, they need to take the feedback seriously. It can prove to be a nasty Catch-22.

Ms. Howett's sentences -- the ones that the reviewer quotes and that Ms. Howett says are fine -- have serious articulation problems. The reviewer isn't just being picky. The sentences don't make sense. We can guess (maybe) about what she intended to say, but we have to do a bit of thinking to puzzle it out. Writing teachers see a lot of those sentences in student papers -- sentences that make only the vaguest or fuzziest sense, or which fall apart as soon as one starts trying to decipher them. When the sentences are truly riddled with problems, we'll mark them as "awkward" or "unclear" or we'll scribble a question mark in the margins, or we'll diagnose them more specifically as mixed constructions or as word-choice errors. But for most students, these remarks are themselves unclear. Students look at them, scratch their heads, and figure, "Well, the prof is just a grammar Nazi, I guess."

Bridging that communication gap is insanely difficult. It's like trying to explain to a person who was born blind how to adjust the color on a high-definition television so that Avatar looks right. There's a right or wrong answer, and it matters, but the person on the other end can't see the difference. The only way I've seen to explain articulation is to provide comparisons.

For instance, here's a sentence from Ms. Howett's novel:

Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance.

Here's a revised version of that sentence:

Mesmerized by Gino's ability to balance coffee cups on a platter, Don and Katy silently watched him put cups at a nearby table.

Neither sentence is very good. But which one is better? Most people will pick the second one. It's much more clear. The first sentence is a disorganized jumble, with adverbs badly misplaced. In order to spot the problems in the first version, you need to be capable of coming up with something like the second sentence. That's the challenge for editors, reviewers, and teachers who are working with new writers. How do you tell a person what's wrong with a sentence without doing all the rewriting yourself? I still don't have very good answers to that question.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Counting Swans

A juicy argument has emerged among the cast and crew of Black Swan over who did most of the dancing that we see from the protagonist on screen: Natalie Portman, or her dancing double Sarah Lane.

According to Contra Costa Times, director Darren Aronofsky has counted.

He declares Portman the clear victor. The article in question borrows the following Aronofsky quote from Entertainment Weekly: "I had my editor count [...] There are 139 dance shots in the film. One hundred eleven are Natalie untouched. 28 are her dance double Sarah Lane. If you do the math, that's 80 percent Natalie Portman."

Sarah Lane, meanwhile, has maintained that "95%" of the time you think you see Portman dancing on screen, it's really Lane.

Those appear to be very different numbers.

So one of them must be lying, right?

Mmmm, not necessarily.

If I had to guess, I'd say both numbers are accurate. I know that seems strange, but if you pay close attention, you'll notice they're counting different things: Aronofsky is counting shots, but Lane is counting total screen time.

If you've watched much film, you will have noticed that shots -- the length of time the film goes before there's a cut -- vary a bit in length. You might get a long take of 1 minute, as a camera bounces back and forth between two actors, or as it lingers on a dancer's movements, followed by a 1-second shot of a facial expression.

If it's true, as Aronofsky himself has stated, that digital images of Portman's face were dubbed over Lane's performance for "two complicated longer dance sequences," then it's entirely possible that Lane is the dancer for 95% of the on-screen dancing time, while Portman is the dancer is the vast majority of shots.

I'm not saying that's in fact what happened -- merely pointing out that the two apparently-contradictory statements aren't necessarily in conflict with each other. It's possible for both to be true.

Scholars call this behavior -- making Portman look like she did no dancing by focusing on screen time, or like she did lots of dancing by focusing on shots -- framing. Depending on how you frame information, you can change the way your audience perceives it.

One great example I like to use is from the California gubernatorial debates between Schwarzenegger and Angelides. The challenger, Angelides, argues that Schwarzenegger has raised tuition at UCs and Cal States so much that a four-year education now costs thousands of dollars more. The Governator replies that he only increased tuition by less than something like 10% a year, on average. Anyone doing the math would find that they were both right -- it's just that one of them used scary dollar figure totals, while the other one used an average yearly percentage.

I'm used to seeing these framing and reframing moves in politics, but it's quite refreshing to see them among artists who once worked together. Fascinating, even.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Oh, Those Little Trivial Details

Faculty often have a lot of rules they expect students to follow.

Most students look at the long lists and figure, "Rather than read this, I'll use my common sense, and hope for the best."

This is understandable. However, there were reasons for the rules.

A colleague, Jenn, also a teacher, recently had an experience that illustrates this perfectly.

I'll warn you that this is a dizzying (if amusing) story -- pay attention.

In the last week before final exams for one of her classes, a student (whom we'll call Courtney) told Jenn that she didn't think she could make the final exam -- Courtney was pretty sure it was scheduled at the same time as one of her other finals. This shouldn't happen, unless a student has enrolled in two classes that meet at the same time, so Jenn was puzzled. Jenn asked Courtney to doublecheck and to email her the specifics.

Later, Jenn got an email from Courtney, who was using a personal (off-campus) email account, apparently restating that Courtney had a schedule conflict for the final exam. Courtney asked if she could take an Incomplete in the class.

Jenn said it would depend on the reasons for the absence, and asked what the other class was. After the final exam had taken place, and Courtney had missed it, Courtney emailed again, providing Jenn the name of another professor (let's call him Smith) and another class. Sure enough, Smith's class had been scheduled at the same time as Jenn's class -- not just for the final, but for regular class sessions as well.

Had Courtney, like Hermione Granger, somehow been attending two classes at once? Jenn emailed Dr. Smith, who confirmed an interesting fact: Courtney had missed four of his classes, while she had only attended four of Jenn's classes. That seemed to settle it: Courtney appeared to have been concurrently enrolled in two classes at the same time, without permission. Jenn talked to the department chair (let's call him Dr. Jones), who said to stop looking into the matter and simply fail the student. Jenn, following Jones's instructions, emailed Courtney to say she had talked to Dr. Smith, and based on what he'd said, that Courtney couldn't make up the final or have an Incomplete.

Courtney showed up at the department, demanding to speak to "the department chair," saying Jenn had unfairly denied her a chance to make up her work, without giving her a chance. Departments are used to this sort of thing, so they nearly blew it off. However, Courtney thought the department chair was named "Smith," and when she was told that Smith wasn't the department chair, she asked who the heck he was -- an odd question for someone enrolled in his class.

Something was amiss. (Are you with me so far? I know: It's dizzying.)

Here's why it's dizzying: Jenn and the department secretary started looking through files to try to figure out exactly what classes Courtney was in. They discovered there were two Courtneys -- Jenn had been talking to two different girls, each one in a different class. Both Courtneys were using personal email accounts, and signing only with their first names. Both were saying they couldn't make the final exam (though they were talking about different finals). Both spelled their first names exactly the same.

One Courtney had, after talking to Jenn, figured out she was wrong about the schedule conflict, and without saying another word, had shown up and taken her exam with Jenn (in a class that Jenn didn't think they were talking about). The other Courtney had then started emailing Jenn about a different schedule conflict, having nothing to do with Smith's class. Eventually, that Courtney missed her final exam, for reasons we still don't know anything about.

Jenn had no reason to imagine these were two different students taking turns making very similar requests. The freaky coincidences -- including the bizarre fact that one Courtney had missed four of Smith's classes while attending four of Jenn's -- simply hammered in the impression that the two women were one person.

So, what's this have to do with nit-picky faculty rules?

Well, we frequently insist that students email us from their campus email accounts (not personal accounts), that students put their full names (not just first names) on any communication meant for the professor, and that students indicate which class they're enrolled in. Both Courtneys ignored these customs, figuring they were the only Courtney, that Jenn was only teaching one course (the course for that particular Courtney), and that it didn't really matter which email account was being used. But if either one of them had done any of these things, there would have been no confusion.

So how common is this kind of event?

To be frank, this particular story is unique.

However, incidents like it are common: students often use off-campus email accounts and fail to sign with their full names, leading to confusion and bewilderment.

Some, shockingly, sign with no name at all, like so:

Subj: im so confussed

what r we suppose to do for this assignment im cnfused thx
That leaves us wondering who SexxxyHottPrincess6969 is, what class she's in, what assignment she's talking about, and (let's be honest) whether she should really be in college.

So when we say we need these kinds of details, we have reasons, even if they aren't quite as extreme as Jenn's. And every once in a while, other things -- not the same as Jenn's, but just as weird and preventable -- happen that drive the point home.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why Rebecca Black's "Friday" Is Better than You Think

The past week or so has produced two universal conclusions:
  • Now is not a good time for that trip to coastal Japan you've been planning.
  • The Rebecca Black song, "Friday," isn't very good.
That said, it's not the "worst song ever."

In fact, you can pretty much count on it that any song ever nominated or selected for title of "Worst Song Ever" ... isn't. If tomorrow, another song comes out, everyone watches it, and everyone agrees "it's even worse than 'Friday,'" that song will also not be the worst song ever.

To draw this kind of hatred, a song has to be at least a little good.

Think about it this way: You don't spend a lot of energy telling people how much you hate things that no one likes. You reserve your energy for the stuff that you think people might like, but shouldn't. You don't go on and on about how you hate the taste of feces. You don't even bother with it. But lots of people will rail about mayonnaise. Similarly, I like to beat up on movies like Armageddon -- movies that could have been brilliant, should have been better, and even have cool little moments in them. (Despite myself, I still get misty eyed at the end of Armageddon, when Liv Tyler gets saluted.) Because they're almost good, I find their weaknesses and flaws all the more painful, and I'm acutely aware other viewers will like the movies. Maybe they didn't notice the flaws? Or they didn't care? I'll fix that!

The same thing happens with any other kind of argument. As I've noted before, no one spends a lot of energy explaining why murder is wrong. They don't expect any opposition. Instead, they argue about things like abortion or the death penalty or torture -- subjects that are guaranteed to trigger divided opinions.

We don't hate the really bad stuff. We're apathetic about it.

What we really hate is the almost good.

That's what's happening with "Friday." Those of us who dislike the song nevertheless see the potential for a runaway pop hit (however slim) and feel the need to weigh in. Sure, the lyrics are bad, but the idea to create an age-appropriate pop song about spending time with friends has some real marketability. And the tune is kind of catchy, even if we don't want to catch it. Plenty of one-hit wonders have that characteristic. Ms. Black may be young and her talent may not be fully developed, and the auto-tuning may be annoying, but we've seen auto-tuned talent at her level succeed before -- she's not bad enough to guarantee failure. If all of this stuff were truly, truly terrible, we wouldn't bother to watch, comment, or think about it. We discuss it because we can imagine someone liking it. (As, in fact, some people have admitted to.) We imagine that five years from now, we'll be in an elevator, listening to a muzak version of "Friday." That's why there are so many comments about it.

And, ironically, if her critics continue, they'll almost guarantee that result -- something that Ms. Black seems to understand better than her haters. Indeed, I think this event could spark a whole career for Ms. Black, not necessarily in music, but in public relations. She has handled the unexpected hate brilliantly. People in business and public relations courses will be using her experience as a case study in five years, regardless of what happens with her song. She'll be the new Odwalla.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Blue's Clues and High-Definition Writing

My two-year-old son is a huge fan of the children's show Blue's Clues, though he doesn't fully understand it yet. Watching the show recently with him, I came up with a way to illustrate a point I often try to make with students about what good writing does, and I thought I'd share it here.

Let me start with a claim that will seem strange to anyone who knows Blue's Clues.

CLAIM: Blue's Clues always has more than three clues, in every episode.

If you've ever seen the show, you'll probably recall that Blue leaves her paw prints on the clues, but you may be wondering if I can count, since she always leaves three paw prints. One of the catchphrases of the show is, in fact, "We've found all three clues!"

Now, I could just leave you with my thesis statement: The show always gives more than three clues. But by itself, that's pretty cryptic. You might reject it outright, since you don't know why I said it.

So now I have to defend it. Let's consider an example. In one episode, Joe and friends are putting together an "alphabet train" -- a series of boxes, each labeled with a letter of the alphabet and containing an object that starts with the appropriate letter. Joe asks Blue what should go in the "Z" box, and Blue leaves three paw-print clues to tell him what she thinks should go in the box (a stuffed-animal zebra). By the time you or your child is sitting in the "thinking chair" and trying figure out the puzzle, you have the following clues:

1. You know it goes in a box.
2. You know it starts with the letter Z.
3. You know it involves the color white.
4. You know it involves the color black.
5. You know that every time the clues are shown, Blue's Clues plays a snippet of African drum music that's unique to this episode.

That's more than three clues. Only three came with paw prints, but the others are still clues. The show regularly (and cleverly) tucks additional clues into its program. Sometimes there are musical clues, like the one above, or there are pictures hanging on the wall in the background related to the puzzle's answer. But there's always more than three clues for the viewer to think about.

What's this have to do with writing?

Well, from time to time, students will complain to me about writing or reading assignments, saying that we college folk seem to like stuff that's really long-winded. Last term, a student asked me, point-blank, "Why not just come right out and say what you mean? I don't think it's necessary to go on and on about it."

But if I'd done that with my observation about Blue's Clues, you might have rejected my point entirely -- it's a strange point, and without an explanation looks like it must be wrong. To make my point clear -- or even remotely acceptable -- I had to explain what I meant. I had to give an example.

Now, if I'd said, "Blue's Clues has three clues," I wouldn't have needed to explain much. It's a fairly obvious point and not immediately controversial. What's to explain? It can be stated in a single sentence and left at that.

The same dynamics apply to thesis statements in student papers or assigned readings.

If your thesis is familiar and noncontroversial ("Murder is wrong!"), writing three pages on it probably feels strange. It should.

On the other hand, if your thesis is controversial or surprising ("Computer hackers are worse than murderers, and should be executed"), you need to do more than just "get to the point." The point isn't enough. You need to give reasons. (The computer hacker example is real, though Landsburg is playing Devil's advocate a bit, and having fun. Click the previous link to read his argument.)

Which brings us to two of the most significant problems in student argumentation:
  1. Some students write three pages about why murder is bad, and thus say way too much on something that didn't really need it.
  2. Others say we should execute computer hackers (or something similarly surprising), and don't explain sufficiently why they hold such a strange position.
The best writers, conversely, stake out a thesis that requires defense and then engage in what I like to call high-definition writing.

To understand what I mean by "high-definition writing," imagine watching Avatar in high-definition 3D, and compare that experience to watching the same movie on a small black-and-white television with poor reception.

They both have the same plot. They're the same movie.

Would you get the same value out of each of them?

No, of course not. As a skilled film viewer, you'd probably prefer the high-definition experience. It enables you to immerse yourself in James Cameron's vision much better. The tiny, fuzzy, black-and-white image has too much distortion -- sure, you can follow the plot okay, but you're probably going to be distracted by all the technical issues.

That scenario is very similar to two essays about executing computer hackers: a low-definition one that makes its point, but leaves the reasons murky or muddles them with distracting errors; and a high-definition essay that states reasons clearly, provides examples, anticipates objections, and is edited closely enough that we're not distracted by errors. Both papers say we should execute hackers, but one of them is far more likely to persuade us that the writer isn't ... well, insane.

High-definition writing enables us to immerse ourselves in the author's strange, personal world without being distracted by technical issues. We emerge at the end of the experience having seen the world differently, having seen the world through another person's eyes. We can go to our friend and represent your point of view accurately, even if you're not there to speak up for yourself.

In short, while Blue's Clues highlights three clues for its viewers, I prefer to emphasize just two clues for student writers:
  1. Practice coming up with points of view that require defense.
  2. Practice defending them, perhaps by getting into friendly "Devil's Advocate" arguments with friends.
Of course, just like Blue's Clues, I might have embedded a few other hidden clues along the way.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Value of Duh

A recent article on is titled "Duh! The Most Obvious Scientific Findings of 2010."

Although writer Jeanna Bryner makes some unexpected moves in the article that I find refreshing, acknowledging that some of the "duh" studies she describes might actually have some value, the tone of the headline disturbs me, in part because it echoes a message I've been hearing a lot lately in radio commentaries, editorials, and student papers.

The gist of the message is, "Those silly scientists! They could have just asked me, and I would have saved them a lot of time and money!"

The people sending these messages are often missing the message themselves.

Let's set aside, for the time being, the very real possibility that the journalists are only focusing on the headlines and are missing critical, important, helpful details in the deeper parts of the studies they're discussing. That's often the case, but even if it weren't, the commentators are missing the point.

The point is this: There is value to "duh" studies.

Look at it this way: Every time someone releases a study that surprises us by coming up with an unexpected finding, we pay respect because they've taught us something new.

But the only way they could arrive at an unexpected conclusion is to test the "obvious" stuff we think is right. Scientists learn not to trust instincts. What we think is right is often wrong. So they test everything.

When researchers come up with something surprising, we are illuminated.
  • We discover that all objects fall at the same speed, no matter what their weight is, even though many people (even today) would never predict that.
  • We discover that time passes differently for satellites than it does for people on the ground -- you'd think, if you go with "obvious" instincts, that a minute is a minute is a minute. But no, the satellite's minute isn't the same as yours -- we actually have to make regular adjustments to satellite clocks or else your GPS and cell phones will stop working.
But any search for the unexpected is by its very nature unpredictable: You don't know where the unexpected stuff is going to be. So you're going to hit some dead-ends, and end up verifying some couch potato's half-drunk observations. It's inevitable. And then he'll laugh at you -- as he reads about your work on the Internet, even though the Internet would never work at all if we only relied on our instincts about what is obvious.

Fine, you say. But why report the findings, if they turn out to be obvious?

That's a good question, and, as it happens, there are two good answers:

1. It's useful to researchers to know when the obvious stuff is right. As I noted before, scientists (and other sorts of researchers) learn after a while that gut instincts and "obvious" conclusions can be wrong. So it's reassuring every once in a while to learn, "Oh that assumption I've been making all these years is correct. It means the 30 articles I've written over my career are still possibly valid!"

2. Huge misunderstandings can develop when people don't report results.

Let's say 1,000 scientific studies have determined that, surprise, broccoli is good for you. They don't bother to publish the findings because, well, everyone knew that. Then scientist 1,001 comes along, and simply because incorrect results pop up randomly from time to time, he ends up with numbers that say eating broccoli is worse for your health than eating rocket fuel. Wow. He's wrong, but he doesn't know that. He reports it. Now the only study published on the health effects of broccoli says it's worse than eating rocket fuel. If the other 1,000 scientists had published their work, it'd be easy to take that weird finding with a grain of salt. But as far as the world knows, the only study done on the effects of broccoli shows it'll kill you stone dead.

This principle cuts both ways: It's important to report results, no matter how expected or unexpected they are.

Economist Steven Landsburg (the first freakonomist, before Freakonomics was ever written) wrote a column in Slate a while back in which he talked about minimum wage studies. Years ago, economists had decided that minimum wage increases must kill lots of jobs. It seemed obvious: There would be less money to go around -- you can hire 100 people for $1 each or 10 people for $10 each. And, in apparent support of that obvious conclusion, studies were sometimes published showing that increasing minimum wage reduced the number of jobs on the market.

But it turns out the impacts of minimum wage increases aren't so severe or obvious. Later, statistical analysis showed something suspicious about those previous studies: The findings didn't get stronger when sample sizes increased. If the pattern were real, they should. Economists eventually concluded that lots of their colleagues had been doing studies on minimum wage impacts, but throwing out the results when they didn't match expectations. Self-censorship led to confusion for a whole field.

Similarly, although there are very good reasons to think that alarms over climate change are legitimate and deserve attention, skeptics frequently argue that dissenting opinions frequently get squelched in official channels. If so -- if only articles that report on expected findings are getting published -- that's as bad as publishing only the unexpected would be. (The famous article by Naomi Oreskes, in which her analysis showed no disagreement with the established consensus on global warming in more than 900 scientific abstracts, may be a bad sign, viewed in this light.)

I'm not saying that the majority is wrong in the latter two cases, or that there's no such thing as a waste of grant money. Without doubt, there are studies that didn't deserve a penny. But they should be judged by their methodologies, not their conclusions.

In our age of rapidly disseminated information and promiscuous skimming of headlines, we need safe-text practices to keep us clean of memetic diseases. A good start is to be wary of any commentator who snorts with derision at a study simply because its conclusions are expected or unexpected.