Tuesday, April 3, 2012

SPSS: Specially Produced Software for Shortcuts

Over the last few months, as I have been reviewing articles and paying attention to the posturing of scholars of a particular breed who are clamoring for legitimacy (most of this is related to resources), I have become particularly aware of the mediocrity of intellectual participation that is ironically shrouded in arrogance that gains legitimacy by putting down others, other ways of doing scholarship, other ways of thinking, and other worldviews.

Sometimes, I am taken aback by claims such as "autoethnography is not scholarship." Where does such arrogance and intellectual pettiness come from?

I am especially taken aback when I hear a graduate student, or a junior faculty member, or for that matter a senior faculty member make such claims. In most instances, I am confident that the person in question has probably never touched an autoethnography. Even more so, when you press the person to give you a reason, you hear them spelling out some heuristic such as "Oh, that's not scientific" or "Oh, that's not based on data," or "oh, you can't just tell stories."

Such strong claims perhaps perhaps are a strategy to deflect attention from one's own mediocrity, to draw attention away from the average nature of one's own work, and a desperate struggle for legitimacy.

When you turn the lens however on these very same scholars and their standards of science, you are often amazed at the lack of understanding of the basic principles of science or scientific processes in their own work. In fact, much of their work is filled with convenient posthocs, explanations for non-significance, and conclusions that are not borne out by the data (For instance, don't tell me your theory was proven and go back to the theory when your data did not bear out the theory). So further scrutiny is critical.

This is what I decided to do this month.

To many of these scholars, crunching out a p value amounts to being scientific, an easy shortcut. On further thinking you realize, you don't even need to know basic statistics as long as you have a manual to walk you through. Many of these scholars develop some quick instruments (which are often borrowed from others), carry out some quick surveys with convenience samples (recruited from student participation systems or from one shot trips to convenient locations), have graduate students enter this information into SPSS, a specially produced software for shortcuts (there's a reason I call it so), and then spout out the numbers. The part that is most disappointing is from reading the reports, you can't even tell if the person writing the report understood the numbers or the design or what was going on. In some instance, thanks to a long tradition of training in math in India!, I am left wondering if they had any clue what they were doing!

In one instance, I sat through a scholar fumble through his own tables as I tried explaining to him what he was doing (for this, I don't take any credit but give it to my amazing Math teachers in school and then in IIT).

For our standards of scholarship to go beyond the jingoism or the mere posturing or the silly claim of "I do science," we have to perhaps begin by training many of our social scientists in the basic principles and philosophies of science. If you want to emulate science, at least begin by reading quantum physics and trying out your hands at algebra, statistics, and calculus.

Aspire toward excellence, not mediocre claims in desperate attempts to hide your mediocrity. Most importantly, get over the false assumption that now you are a scientist, and start taking lessons on humility. You have nothing to be scared of!

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