It Gets Better!

New York Magazine has a very informative article about David Broockman‘s efforts to expose what most observers are now calling a case of outright data-fabrication in political science. I’m inclined to see Broockman as a hero in the struggle to reduce the amount of “moral hazard” in the social sciences. That is, it is the existence of thorough and persistent critics of other people’s research, people like Broockman, that establishes a real “risk” of getting caught, not just committing fraud, but also making honest mistakes. That risk, in turn, keeps researchers, not just more honest than they might otherwise be, but more careful in the way they gather and analyze their data. Similarly, people like Kresimir Petkovic, deserve to have their deeds celebrated in epic poems for offering a real, practical inducement to cite our sources properly when using the work of others.

Both cases give us some real-life insight into the difficulty of exposing academic misconduct, and are worth reflecting on in some detail. (As usual, this post will just be an opener. There’s a lot to discuss here.) I’m especially interested in them because they are driven by the work of graduate students, who are, for a variety of reasons, often best positioned to detect these sorts of problems and, unfortunately, least empowered to expose them when they do. It’s therefore important to give a tip of the hat to people like Alan Sokal and Andrew Gelman who are very good about supporting people with less authority than themselves. This takes a great deal of their time and, I’m certain, a good portion of sangfroid in the face (sometimes institutional) push-back from the people whose work comes under scrutiny. (Donald Green also deserves credit for doing the right thing as the co-author of the disputed article.)

At the end of the NY Mag article, Broockman offers a very interesting and insightful analogy to his experience of coming out as a gay man.

“I think there’s an interesting metaphor between what I went through now and what I went through as a gay teenager,” Broockman says. “I felt trapped by this suspicion, it had weighed on my mind for a long time. You know, you try to act on it in small ways in hopes that it goes away, or you find confirmation that your suspicions are wrong. You’re worried about how people will react, so you proceed really cautiously. But finally, the truth is that when you come out about it, it’s really liberating.” He thinks part of the reason he was able to eventually debunk the study, in fact, was “because I’d gone through that same experience before in my life.”

“Part of the message that I wanted to send to potential disclosers of the future is that you have a duty to come out about this, you’ll be rewarded if you do so in a responsible way, and you don’t want to live with the regret that I do that I didn’t act on it [sooner],” he says. “This is sort of my It Gets Better project for people with suspicions about research.”

I think this is right. But just as is (and certainly was) the case with young gay people, we have to be careful about insisting on the “duty” to be honest about your “suspicions” as a graduate student. Young researchers need time to make up their minds about what they have found, just as young men need to figure out what their feelings really mean in their own way. The worry about how people will react is not at all unfounded, whether in questions of sexual orientation or critical scholarship. But what Dan Savage famously told young people struggling with the sexual identity also goes for graduate students who make disturbing discoveries about their colleagues: It gets better!

And there’s actually two senses in which that is true. First of all, as you get older and more experienced, and you begin to live among people who are more like you and also more mature, it simply becomes easier to be the person you truly want to be. That’s just growing up. But it is also true that our culture is always changing, always learning how to include attitudes and perspectives that were previously excluded. And for that, again, we owe our thanks to the pioneering heroism of people like David Broockman and Kresimir Petkovic. The rest of us, who already have our careers established, do well to look to the examples of Sokal and Gelman. We can make it suck a little less, as the kids say, to have a different point of view.

Leave a Reply