Never Forget How to Let Go of a Bad Hypothesis

In blog-land, I know I am an insignificant creature among insignificant creatures. Up goes another blog. Three people read it. There I go posting a comment on someone else’s blog. I put an hour into it, and then look aghast at my day. If blogs get forgotten, blog comments get doubly and triply forgotten.

Not always, though. In late January 2009, when Eduwonkette “hung up her cape,” a comment appeared on her blog. Though anonymous, it clearly came from a wise and knowledgeable person. It is about the importance of admitting that you’re wrong, when you are wrong. (“Eduwonkette” was the pseudonym or “mask” of the magnificent education blogger Jennifer Jennings, now assistant professor in the Sociology Department at NYU.)

I think I was moved to something like tears at the time. Maybe not tears, maybe just a gulp and a lot of thinking. I have thought back on that comment many, many times. I have no idea who wrote it. The person used the pseudonym “Right2BWrong” (just for the occasion, I presume).

I am reprinting it here, with full attribution: it first appeared as a comment on Eduwonkette’s Education Week blog on January 27, 2009, the day after the last day of the blog. I will comment on one aspect of it in a separate post.

Here it goes:

Like everyone here, I am sorry you will not be blogging, but agree that you are making a wise choice. Finishing your dissertation is the key to your future and NYU is not a bad place to make money while you do it.

Since no one else has dared to offer any advice, I will. As you know, anonymity gives people a chance to say what they really mean without the fear of reprisal. So, let me offer this anonymous advice. Whatever else you do with the rest of your life, do not become any of the people your critics once imagined you to be.

As you recall, before your unmasking, many of the people behind the studies and press releases and policy “think” tanks you reviewed tried to guess who you were. What did they guess? Some thought you were a policy wonk whose only interest in data was to score political points. They speculated as to who might be funding you; some wondered about EdWeek’s motivation. Others thought you were a disgruntled DOE employee out to settle a personal vendetta against certain people. Some thought that, given your actual skills with data, you were a tenured academic, an ivory tower radical set to bring down the system without any concern for what might be built to replace it.

These are people who commonly battle it out in educational research “debates.” Is it any wonder your critics assumed you were one of them? But the critics were wrong.

Do you recall what bothered them most? They couldn’t figure out whose side you were on. After all, everyone on both sides of these issues has a vested interest in keeping this battle alive. If schools are not broken, who would be paid to fix them, who would be paid to report that the fix did or did not fix it, and who could build a coalition to fight the fixers or organize those who really believe in fixing? The game is called “cops and robbers.” There is no game called “robbers” because that is not much of a game. But you didn’t want to play the policy game. All you cared about was data.

And you had a secret weapon, the ultimate superhero advantage: Your future and your past were not dependent on the outcome. Consider the work of some people twice your age who have spent a professional lifetime dedicated to a hypothesis that does not seem to supported by the data, most of which has been gathered too late in their careers for them to turn back. Consider the people whose reputations are built on their being the “data guru,” but who you have exposed as being perhaps one standard error below proficient in that role. Even some people your own age are already invested. Consider the work of some people your own age whose dissertations started with a policy conclusion and ended with a lot of data massaging, the numbers caressed until they could provide their funders with a happy ending.

You weren’t invested. You could follow the data. If your hypothesis was supported, you could report that. If your hypothesis was not supported, you could report that. In the blogosphere, you can even publish null results, something not as widely accepted in the academic world.

But soon you will become a bit more like your critics. As you grow in your academic career, you will find that certain results, certain publications, lead to opportunities. A sincere, scientific paper might result in a paid speaking engagement. A line of research on some policy might lead to an offer to head a new research department. In the academy, work that supports the current wisdom will help to secure your tenure. Success supporting a hypothesis may bring offers to edit a journal, write a book, or, who knows, become Dean. Success in the academic world may even lead to offers of much more money from a think tank or policy group, especially for someone who can communicate to a large audience. Oh, the places you could go — with all that money!

Soon, you will enter the world in which your critics live. You have visited many times, but soon you, too, will be a resident. No more green card. Full voting rights. Fully invested in the game.

So, how do you avoid becoming any of the people your critics thought you were? Here is the secret. Never forget how to let go of a bad hypothesis. The world of educational research is full of people who must, absolutely must, be right. Their reputations, their careers, their salaries, their retirement, and their personal relationships — their entire lives are dependent on being right about a hypothesis. Never allow yourself to fall into a position in which you become a slave to a hypothesis.

Years from now, remember that your critics tried to attack you here by proving, just once, that you were wrong about something. Any little analytical error would suffice, even if it was because they had provided you with the wrong data. They thought that by showing you were wrong, they could destroy you. In their world, being right is all that matters, regardless of the data.

The policy wonk, dependent on funders; the disgruntled employee, obsessed with petty squabbles; and the ivory tower radical fighting the system all have one thing in common. None of them can afford to admit when they are wrong. If you think about your heroes, even those who have been in this game for 20 or 30 years, you might realize that they all are people who are still willing to admit when they are wrong. Some of them are blogging, just around the corner…

Remember: Being right is a good defense, but being able to admit that you are wrong is the best defense. It is the secret superhuman strength that all real researchers possess. You have it now. It is yours to lose.

Like others here, I, too, look forward to hearing about your work and hope you will continue to contribute to educational research in the years to come. I hope that you are always right about everything. But the only sure proof that you have not become who your critics wanted you to be will be in the times when you report that you were wrong. I doubt you’ll need to say it often, but you will find a great strength in saying it when you do.

Good Luck,

Anonymous Still 

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2 Comments

  1. Is It Possible to Care Only About Data? « Diana Senechal
  2. More of the Same? | Education in Iowa

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