Archive for: October, 2012

An open (cease and desist) letter to a sixth grade English teacher.

Dear Sixth Grade English Teacher,

I know you mean well. I even agree that giving my kid homework assignments that request antonyms for adjectives and adverbs seems pretty pedagogically sound.

However, demanding that students come up with antonyms for any given noun seems like a problem.

What, pray tell, do you expect students to identify as the antonym for "utensil"? Or for "cat"? Or for "mass"?

I would submit to you that these three nouns do not have clear opposites -- or even plausible opposites -- and that they are not unique in this regard.

But framing these vocabulary-builder assignments as if every word in the language must have an antonym, and putting the students on the hook to work out what they are, forces vulnerable children to engage in a category mistake as if it were not a mistake.

I will have you know that some of us, teaching adults, already spend altogether too much time trying to get them to step away from category mistakes. Creating more in the sixth grade vocabulary homework of future generations of college students is not helping.

Just stop it.


The younger Free-Ride offspring's mother

55 responses so far

Chem Coach: a career outside of science with more chemistry than you might expect.

In honor of National Chemistry Week, See Arr Oh is spearheading the Chem Coach Carnival, which he describes as an "online repository of chemistry job success stories". The posts from the first two days make for interesting and inspiring reading.

Given that, by official reckoning, I leaked out of the science pipeline, it wasn't obvious to me that I had a chemistry job success story to share. But See Arr Oh asked me to share, and I love my job, and it turns out that chemistry has more than a little to do with how I do it. So, here we go:

My current job:
Associate professor of philosophy at a teaching-focused university, with my teaching and research focused on philosophy of science and ethics in science.

What I do in a standard "work day":
Let's skip over the parts that make it "work" (i.e., grading, committee meetings, getting swallowed up by bureaucracy) since I imagine those are pretty similar to what chemistry professors get to do. Instead, I'll tell you about the teaching and research.

In the classroom, I teach mostly upper division students (juniors and seniors, but with some masters students in the mix). About half of my teaching ends up being an "Ethics in Science" course (multiple sections each year) that is required of our chemistry majored, heavily enrolled by other science majors, but also taken by a good handful of non-scientists who are curious about what's involved in doing good science, and in scientists and non-scientists successfully sharing a world. You can peek at the current syllabus to get a feel for the sweep of the topics we discuss. The other half of my teaching assignment is usually "Philosophy of Science" (again, multiple sections each year), a straight-ahead intro to the subject with the usual philosophical discussions of how the scientific knowledge gets built, whether we have good grounds for believing the scientific method can deliver on its promises, what attitude we should take towards our best scientific theories (approaching literally true, or merely empirically adequate), and so forth. The interesting twist is that a lot of the population taking "Philosophy of Science" is there to fulfill the upper division general education science requirement. (Yeah, I know.) So, basically, this is an opportunity to take a whole bunch of people who are kind of scared of science and get them a basic understanding of where scientific knowledge comes from.

The research I do focuses a lot on the different conceptual and methodological toolboxes different scientific disciplines use to build science (philosophers of science of yore loved physics but really neglected chemistry), and on saying useful things about how to understand "ethical practice of science" in the particular circumstances in which scientists and scientific trainees find themselves in our world.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there?:
As an undergraduate, I double-majored in chemistry and philosophy. Then I got my Ph.D. in chemistry because I kind of thought I'd just read philosophy at home after work. Well ... it didn't turn out that way. The philosophical questions about science kept squeaking for my attention, and when I recognized that pursuing those was probably what would make me happy, I got another Ph.D. in philosophy, with a focus on the history and philosophy of science.

I should tell you that I got my chemistry Ph.D. relatively quickly (4.25 years), which made re-upping for another Ph.D.-length stint in grad school far more palatable than it would have been otherwise. If I had taken more like 8 years to get the first Ph.D., I think I would have been more likely just to get an M.A. in philosophy, or to do a "Ph.D. minor" in philosophy (that was an option my graduate institution had that I didn't find out about until I was well into the second Ph.D.).

How does chemistry inform my work?
In my research (in philosophy, this looks an awful lot like reading and writing!), my experience with chemical methodology and the "forms of life" of scientists who do chemistry ends up being really useful when I read someone making sweeping generalizations on how all good science must work based on a close examination of physics. Chemistry differs from physics in interesting ways, which means a careful philosopher of science needs to build a model of science that can accommodate chemical practice too -- or else dismiss chemistry as an "immature" science or some hogwash like that. Indeed, philosophers have been working on developing an interesting subfield in philosophy of chemistry.

The ethical practice of science part of my research is more informed by the types of human interactions in knowledge-building that I observed during my misspent scientific youth, but some of the issues that are especially important to chemists (like safety, so the knowledge-building doesn't kill you) are of special interest to me.

You can probably guess how that misspent scientific youth is important in providing examples for discussion with my "Ethics in Science" students. It also helps me frame discussions of strategies for being ethical in situations where one is decidedly on the low end of the community power gradient. In my "Philosophy of Science" class, of course, I sneak in examples from chemistry whenever I can!

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career: 
I've been on conference panels a couple times with a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, but only after I started doing philosophy. (Once was at a philosophy of science meeting, the other was at a chemistry meeting.)

* * * * *

If you'd like to honor National Chemistry Week and the chemistry bloggers who keep its spirit alive every week, you might consider kicking a few bucks into the Chembloggers general donations during the DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students Challenge.

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Want to play BINGO?

Apropos of some of the talk around the 'tubes, it's possible that you may be in the mood for a game of BINGO.

You came to the right place.


These are "Blogging Science While Female" cards, but in a pinch they work pretty well in a "Being Female in Science" BINGO game.

You are invited to download the PDF here.

Or, if you'd like a set of 6 cards printed on nice card-stock, I will send you some for a donation of $1 (or more) to my DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students giving page. Just email me (dr dot freeride at gmail dot com) with the snail mail address to which you'd like them sent (and the name under which you made your donation, if it's not obvious from your email handle).


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The point of calling out bad behavior.

DrugMonkey posts on a senior neuroscientist (and fellow of the AAAS) using social media to display his sexist stance towards women in his scientific field. (Too many unattractive women at the Society for Neuroscience meeting! Oh, the humanity!)

And, totally predictably, in both the comments on DrugMonkey's post and on the Twitters, there is the chorus of:

  • What's the big deal if one guy reveals himself to be a sexist jerk?
  • You're not arguing that we should limit his free speech, are you?
  • If you call him out like this, in public, there is no way the man will Learn and Grow, let alone issue a sincere apology. Be nicer!

Plus most of the rest of the squares on the BINGO card.

It's almost like people have something invested in denying the existence of gender bias among scientists, the phenomenon of a chilly climate in scientific professions, or even the possibility that Dario Maestripieri's Facebook post was maybe not the first observable piece of sexism a working scientist put out there for the world to see.

The thing is, that denial is also the denial of the actual lived experience of a hell of a lot of women in science (and in other fields -- I've been sexually harassed in both of the disciplines to which I've belonged).

I can't pretend to speak for everyone who calls out sexism like Maestripieri's, so I'll speak for myself. Here's what I want:

  1. I want to shine a bright light on all the sexist behaviors, big or small, so the folks who have managed not to notice them so far start noticing them, and so that they stop assuming their colleagues who point them out and complain about them are making a big deal out of nothing.
  2. I want the exposure of the sexist behaviors to push others in the community to take a stand on whether they're cool with these behaviors or would rather these behaviors stop. If you know about it and you don't think it's worth talking about, I want to know that about you -- it tells me something about you that might be useful for me to know as I choose my interactions.
  3. I want the people whose sexist behaviors are being called out to feel deeply uncomfortable -- at least as uncomfortable as their colleagues (and students) who are women have felt in the presence of these behaviors.
  4. I want people who voice their objections to sexist behaviors to have their exercise of free speech (in calling out the behaviors) be just as vigorously defended as the free speech rights of the people spouting sexist nonsense.
  5. I want the sexist behavior to stop so scientists who happen to be women can concentrate on the business of doing science (rather than responding to sexist behavior, swallowing their rage, etc.)

And, I'll level with you: while, in an ideal world, one would want the perpetrator of sexist behavior to Learn and Grow and Repent and make Sincere Apologies, I don't especially care if someone is still sexist in his heart as long as his behavior changes. It's the interactions with other people that make the climate that other people have to deal with. Once that part is fixed, we can talk strategy for saving souls.

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The glorious return of DonorsChoose Science Bloggers for Students (plus the story of how it began).

Since 2006, science bloggers have been working with and our readers to help public school students and teachers get the resources they need to make learning come alive. Is there an origin story for the annual Science Bloggers for Students drive? As a matter of fact*, there is:

Science Bloggers for Students Origin Story (Transcript below)

If you're reading blogs in this neighborhood of the blogosphere, chances are you care about science, or education, or both. Probably you're the kind of person who thinks that solid -- and engaging -- math and science education is an important resource for kids to have as they hurtle into the future and face the challenges of our modern world.

It's a resource that's getting squeezed by tight public school budgets. But we have the opportunity to do something small that can have an immediate impact.

This year, from October 15 through November 5, a number of science bloggers, whether networked, loosely affiliated, or proudly independent, will be teaming up with DonorsChoose in Science Bloggers for Students, a philanthropic throwdown for public schools.

DonorsChoose is a site where public school teachers from around the U.S. submit requests for specific needs in their classrooms — from books to science kits, overhead projectors to notebook paper, computer software to field trips — that they can’t meet with the funds they get from their schools (or from donations from their students’ families). Then donors choose which projects they’d like to fund and then kick in the money, whether it’s a little or a lot, to help a proposal become a reality.

Over the last several years, bloggers have rallied their readers to contribute what they can to help fund classroom proposals through DonorsChoose, especially proposals for projects around math and science, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, funding hundreds of classroom projects, and impacting thousands of students.

Which is great. But there are a whole lot of classrooms out there that still need help.

To create the scientifically literate world we want to live in, let’s help give these kids -- our future scientists, doctors, teachers, decision-makers, care-providers, and neighbors -- the education they deserve.

One classroom project at a time, we can make things better for these kids. Joining forces with each other people, even small contributions can make a big difference.

The challenge this year runs October 15 through November 5. We’re overlapping with Earth Science Week (October 14-20, 2012) and National Chemistry Week (October 21-27, 2012), a nice chance for earth science and chemistry fans to add a little philanthropy to their celebrations. There are a bunch of Scientopia bloggers mounting challenges this year (check out some of their challenge pages on our leaderboard), as well as bloggers from other networks (which you can see represented on the challenge’s motherboard). And, since today is the official kick-off, there is plenty of time for other bloggers and their readers to enter the fray!

How It Works:

Follow the links above to your chosen blogger’s challenge on the DonorsChoose website.

Pick a project from the slate the blogger has selected. Or more than one project, if you just can’t choose. (Or, if you really can’t choose, just go with the “Give to the most urgent project” option at the top of the page.)


(If you’re the loyal reader of multiple participating blogs and you don’t want to play favorites, you can, of course, donate to multiple challenges! But you’re also allowed to play favorites.)

Sit back and watch the challenges inch towards their goals, and check the leaderboards to see how many students will be impacted by your generosity.

Even if you can’t make a donation, you can still help! 

Spread the word about these challenges using web 2.0 social media modalities. Link your favorite blogger’s challenge page on your MySpace page, or put up a link on Facebook, or FriendFeed, or LiveJournal (or Friendster, or Xanga, or …). Tweet about it on Twitter (with the #scibloggers4students hashtag). Share it on Google +. Sharing your enthusiasm for this cause may inspire some of your contacts who do have a little money to get involved and give.

Here’s the permalink to my giving page.

Thanks in advance for your generosity.

*It's possible the origin story presented here is not entirely factual, but it sure is compelling! Also, it was created with less than 10% child labor!

Transcript of the video:

In 2006, a small band of science bloggers was bitten by a radioactive spider.

They soon realized their only hope was for teachers to help kids learn math and science so those kids could, some day, find a cure for the relentless tingling.

Public school teachers and students need our help. DonorsChoose gives you the great power to support the classrooms, the supplies, the projects, the field trips that matter to you.

Help Science Bloggers for Students get a generation of kids the math and science education they deserve. Thank you, and we'll see you on the web.

3 responses so far

Questions worth asking yourself if you're thinking of cheating.

This should not be taken as an exhaustive list by any means.

  1. Has your instructor warned you that course policy rewards cheating and plagiarism with a failing grade for the course, and with the filing of academic integrity violation reporting forms with the relevant administrative offices? If so, cheating might be kind of risky.
  2. Have you been asked to indicate your explicit agreement to a statement that particular sources of information and help are not allowed for this assignment? If so, consulting one of those sources for information and help is not allowed (i.e., it will probably be viewed as cheating), and the instructor who secured your agreement to the ground rules may well pursue sanctions against you if you do it.
  3. Is the assignment on which you're considering cheating one of the requirements for an ethics course? If so, being caught cheating is likely to demonstrate something like a lack of comprehension of the course content. This may well undercut any plea for leniency you're inclined to make.
  4. Are you betting that the instructor evaluating your work will not detect the cheating? If so, you might want to entertain the possibility that he or she can distinguish typical student work from a Googled source, and that past instances of cheating on his or her watch have sharpened his or her discernment. You might also recall that professorial types generally have strong research skills and experience with search engines like Google.
  5. Do you need to pass the particular course in which you are considering cheating in order to graduate in your major? If so, there might be a principled reason that the people training you in your major subject think you should learn the content of this course -- and cheating (rather than actually mastering that content) might put you at a disadvantage in your future education or employment at that kind of major. Also, if you're caught cheating, it may delay your ability to graduate in your chosen major.
  6. Is there only one faculty member who teaches this course-required-for-your-major in which you are considering cheating? That means if you are caught cheating and you want to graduate in this major, you will have to take this course again with this same instructor who already failed you once for cheating. Is that possibility really less uncomfortable than buckling down and doing your own damn work in the first place?

I mean, seriously. Maybe it's time to "update your priors" or something, kids.

6 responses so far

To tweet or not to tweet the professional conference? (Some thoughts in 140-character chunks.)

There's a lot of discussion kicking around the tubes at the moment about whether it is appropriate to live-tweet a session at a professional conference. The recent round of discussion looks to have originated among English faculty. At the blog Planned Obsolescence, The Modern Language Association's Director of Scholarly Communication, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, offers sensible advice on tweeting or not at meetings. Meanwhile Prof-like Substance is quizzical about the request to keep private what a scholar is presenting in the public space provided by a professional meeting (while recognizing, of course, that there are venues like Gordon Research Conference that have explicit rules about not publicizing what is presented beyond the bounds of the conference).

It's no secret that I've tweeted a meeting or two in my time. I've even mused at some length about the pros and cons of tweeting a meeting, although mostly from the point of view of the meeting attendee (me) absorbing and interacting with what is being presented, compared to taking notes in my notebook instead.

If pressed for a blanket statement on whether tweeting a conference presentation is OK or not OK, I would say: it depends. There are complexities here, many linked to the peculiar disciplinary norms of particular professional communities, and given that those norms are themselves moving targets (changing in response to the will of active members of those communities, among other things), any ruling that somehow got it right at this moment would be bound for obsolescence before very long.

In other words, I don't have a grand argument covering all the relevant contexts. Instead of trying to frame such an argument, I'm going to give you my thoughts on this, in tweet-sized bites:

  • Tweeting a meeting is a way to include members of the professional community who didn't have the funds or flexibility to be there IRL.
  • Tweeting a meeting is a way to include interested people beyond the professional community in the audience and the discussion.
  • Since Twitter is interactive, tweeting a meeting is a way to promote discussion of what's being presented RIGHT AWAY, for better or worse.
  • For worse: discussion may start before relevant facts, ideas are on the table, assuming things speaker isn't claiming as speaker's point.
  • For better: speaker can get rapid feedback on which points are persuasive, which seem iffy, as well as on fruitful tangents and connections.
  • Worry: conference tweeters distracted from engaging with speakers, people in room, & asking questions there. Some folks are not on Twitter!
  • Worry: conference tweeters may give inaccurate account of speaker's claims, fail to distinguish their commentary from reporting of talk.
  • But, if multiple attendees tweet session, more basis to tease out which thoughts are from speaker, which from tweeters responding to talk.
  • Worry: live-tweeting sessions opens speakers to having results/ideas/arguments swiped by someone not at the meeting. Might get scooped.
  • Of course, others in the room could swipe speaker's results/ideas/arguments. Why assume you couldn't already get scooped?
  • Is community pressure stronger on people in the room (not to scoop speaker) than on members of the community following tweets? If so, why?
  • Live-tweeting meeting w/proper attribution of speaker could serve as record of results/ideas/arguments and who presented them. Protection!
  • Challenge to proper tweetribution of talk contents: getting speakers' Twitter handles right. These could be listed in conference program.
  • Could be issues including speakers' Twitter handles in tweets of their talks if their use of Twitter is primarily personal, not profesisonal
  • Some speakers freaked out by people tweeting their talks (especially in workshop-y/preliminary results scenarios). Should that be respected?
  • Are they also freaked out by people taking notes at their talks? Is worry sharing-beyond-room or rapid amplification potential?
  • Big Q: Does community view its professional meetings as public venues or something more limited? If latter, what is rationale for limits?
  • When meeting tweets help scholars figure something out, will they cite tweets? Easier than citing chat at hotel bar & easier to recall later
  • Expectations different in different disciplines; tweeting interdisciplinary conferences likely to expose differences in norms.
  • Never a bad idea to ask if speakers are OK with having their talks tweeted. If not, talking about why afterwards could be informative.
  • Things not to tweet (identifiably) from a talk: how bored you are, commentary on speaker's looks. Save that for your notebook.
  • If tweeting conferences becomes a standard thing, might be tensions between "official" tweeters and independent attendee tweets.
  • Mass tweeting might also make serious bandwidth at conference venue a requirement. Expect that would increase registration fees!
  • Some fields likely to have harder time with 140 char limit than others. Push to be concise might be a positive influence on them.

I welcome your thoughts in the comments (and you can use more than 140 characters if you need to).

3 responses so far

Passing thoughts on online courses and the temptations they present.

It is interesting to me that there are certain denizens of the university community who are anxious for faculty to increase the number of online courses that we offer, and that this desire for us to pursue this aim is not generally driven primarily by a desire for us to better serve students with inflexible work schedules or scary-long commutes, or even to free up scarce classroom space. Rather, some of the most vocal proponents (at least at my university) of expanding online course offerings seem to believe online classes can accommodate much larger enrollments than can traditional classroom-bound classes.

Technically speaking, that's true -- you can set things up so that your online class will allow hundreds of students to enroll in it, and the fire marshall won't bat an eyelash. However, making enrollments really, really big also makes the workload to assess student work (including discussion board-based discussions, which now read like papers without the benefit of spellcheck) really, really big. Plus, you also get to deal with all the technical glitches the students find with accessing materials and submitting materials and joining groups for discussions and not blowing deadlines. (It doesn't take a really, really big online enrollment for your students to discover every technical glitch there is to find.)

Of course, increasing support for graders might help, but this doesn't come up so much, since the point is to save buckets of money. (I should note that my better half, who has been taking some online courses through organizations that hope at some point to turn a profit, was invited to be a "community TA" for one of the courses so taken --for free! Obviously, the best way to become profitable is to recruit skilled labor that is also free.)

Well, say the hopeful advocates, there are rumors of automated programs for grading student papers. Maybe you can run all the work through those?

Even if I trusted those programs to prioritize the things I'm looking for in student papers (and, you know, to provide useful feedback to my students on their work), the boom in online classes has given rise to a boom in "services" for students "taking" online classes. Inside Higher Education describes the scene:

These sites make an appeal to the busy online student, struggling through a class they’re not good at or not interested in. The description of one site,*, reads: "I’m sure you are here because you are wondering 'how will I have time to take my online class?' It may be that one class such as statistics or accounting. We know some people have trouble with numbers. We get that. We are here to help.”

Prices for a “tutor” vary. advertises a $695 rate for graduate classes, $495 for an algebra class, or $95 for an essay. When Inside Higher Ed, posing as a potential customer, asked for a quote for an introductory microeconomics class offered by Penn State World Campus, offered to complete the entire course for $900, with payment upon completion, and asked for $775, paid up front. Most sites promise at least a B in the course. ...

“If we just had a course that was just a multiple-choice final at the end there’d be a high chance of cheating,” [Eric] Zematis [director of Enterprise Systems at Charter Oak State College, a fully online institution] said. “When we design courses we try to look at having more interaction to try to discourage cheating.”

In the case of a site like We Take Your Class, Zematis surmised, the amount a student would have to pay would probably increase based on the number of assignments. If there were enough assignments, tests, or required discussions, then, using an online class-taking service could become prohibitively expensive.

A couple things worth noting here: First, the pedagogical steps that make it harder for students to cheat in an online course also tend to make student work in those online courses harder to grade. Second, the kids who have enough money to pay someone else to do that work for them seem like they're going to have a better shot at gaming the system and getting credit for taking online courses for which they've done essentially bupkis.

Does this leave me oddly comforted that students in my online classes probably don't have the means to hire someone to do their school work for them? Maybe ...

But wait! Can the Invisible Hand (and the excess of Ph.D.-holders) make sophisticated and hard-to-detect cheating affordable even for lower income students? Perhaps:

The website has teachers writing papers for students.**

“So you can play while we make your papers go away” is its tag line.

Organizers say education has already become a commodity and with tenure harder to get, teachers need work. ...

“I’d say this service represents a new solution to an age-old problem,” said one [person working for], adding the justification is supply and demand and a void in the marketplace.

Noting that has effectively barred students from buying recycled essays on the cheap, the professor said potential clients include international students whose English is poor, students too lazy to complete the work, students too busy with jobs paying for their education to do the work and science students who resent being asked to write papers in the humanities.

The service says the work should not be used to fulfill an academic requirement — but offers to supply dissertation chapters and personal statements used for admissions — and should be used as a guideline.

“This removes the ethical dimension on our side as we have no control over what a client does upon paying for and receiving the project,” said the professor.

“In fact, it places the ethical burden squarely on the shoulders of the student.”

The service started last fall and has recruited about 30 professors. While it doesn’t guarantee an A, it does guarantee high-quality work and turns away about 15 applicants for every one it hires.

I guess when people who have trained for academic careers cannot sell their expertise to a college or university, eventually selling their integrity might become a live option.

Here, if the professorial cheating-enablers are delivering what they seem to be promising, it's likely to be fairly labor intensive for them. At least part of the labor would involve writing a paper that actually sounds like a student paper. (Believe it or not, we can usually tell.) So either they're charging clients through the nose, or they're being financially exploited at least as much as they would be as adjuncts.

There seems to be a possibility, though, that a willing employee of a service like this might not have qualms about cutting some ethical corners herself -- perhaps providing the same basic paper for more than one client (upping the chances that those clients are caught using a paper that has been run through a service like TurnItIn already), or even plagiarizing in the production of a paper.

Also, given the understanding of how ethics works reflected in the claims from the website, I suspect buying an ethics paper from them might be a really bad call.

The selectiveness of hiring of these professorial cheating-enablers -- 15 applicants turned away for every one hired! -- may drive the prices from higher, but it's surely only a matter of time before those applicants who were turned away find each other and set up their own cheating-enabling service, maybe cutting out some layers of management so they can enable cheating among lower income students!

Yeah, there's a reason I skip higher education news coverage for weeks at a time.

* Since the original Inside Higher Education article, "We Take Your Class" has gone offline.

** As far as I can tell, this service is not marketed specifically for students taking online courses, but it seems like it could be used for that purpose.

4 responses so far

On the request for numerical scoring of honesty and integrity.

Oct 02 2012 Published by under Academia, Ethics 101, Teaching and learning

On the Twitters, becca pointed me to this post which raises an interesting evaluative question:

I was recently completing a recommendation form for a former student and was asked to “rate the candidate on a scale of 1 to 10 for his Honesty & Integrity”. What meaningful answer can I hope to give? What level of honesty earns a 8? How much do you have to steal to earn 3?

I am sympathetic as far as the challenge of evaluating this.

I'm guessing some people would reject the notion that a ten-point scale is appropriate here, since (they might argue) honesty is one of those binary properties that is either "on" or "off". Being a little bit honest, on this view, would be as nonsensical as being a little bit pregnant.

And, maybe that's an appropriate way to conceive of individual acts of honesty or dishonesty, where you are making a representation that is truthful or you are making a representation that is not truthful. Maybe it's not, though, since you might view offering a totally made-up lie as a more serious departure from the Platonic form of honesty than leaving out a particular true piece of information. If there's one thing I've learned from playing "Two Truths and a Lie" with other philosophers, it's that there are lots of interesting ways to make a claim that departs from the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

However you want to keep score on magnitudes of individual claims, though, I think we also have to recognize that evaluating the honesty of an individual is a more complicated project. Individuals, after all, tend to make lots of different representations, in lots of different kinds of contexts. There may be some contexts in which they play faster and looser with the truth, and others where they are extremely careful and rigorous. Presumably, these contexts matter. A graduate program might have no worries at all about the applicant who cheats on sit-ups, or counting strokes in miniature golf, but have huge worries about the applicant who made up every single bit of data in her lab notebook. One of these contexts seems more immediately relevant to the milieu in that the graduate program cares about than the other.

Not that I don't have worries about a habit of lying in one milieu creeping into one's behavior in others -- I do. However, holding out for people who are 100% honest about everything is a good way to whittle your applicant pool to zero.

Besides which, what kind of actual data would an evaluator have to go on here? Honesty and integrity seem to be qualities that we assume someone has until we are faced with evidence to the contrary -- for example, we tend to assume a student is honest until we catch her cheating. So, ranking someone highly on the scale might just amount to saying, "I've never caught him in a lie." You're flagging a lack of evidence of dishonesty, but that's not quite the same as positive evidence of honesty.

Finally, I think what would be more meaningful to know about an applicant is whether he or she has been honest in circumstances where being honest is difficult -- where a lie or an omission might make life significantly easier. If the applicant has stepped up to be honest in a situation where being honest created extra work, that's someone whose commitment to honesty is serious. Especially if it's robust, and he or she is honest in the next situation where being honest brings additional responsibilities. However, I'm not sure that this is information one is likely to get about a student in the typical college course, or even about an advisee in a typical supervised research environment. Maybe you could build such tests-of-character into those situations (as Willy Wonka did in his chocolate factors), but it would be hard to do so ethically.

Ultimately, then, can we expect that your typical college professor can provide such a seemingly-objective numerical ranking of a student's honesty and integrity without being a little bit ... dishonest?

One response so far