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Academics – Life as an Extreme Sport
Life as an Extreme Sport

Another Kind of Fake News: Covert Marketing As Academic Research

Fake news and bad reporting (faithless journalism, perhaps) have been in the news pretty extensively since the election, and folks are trying to detangle trust, knowledge, and facts from fake news and click-bait headlines. One topic I haven’t seen addressed much is news around science articles – oh, I see the discussion of click-bait headlines and the flipflops of EGGS GOOD/BAD/WHO KNOWS. But what I don’t see so much of is a discussion of author affiliation.

For example, the Washington Post published a Wellness article about choline last week that caught my eye. There were an awful lot of claims being made about this supposed wonder-nutrient we don’t get enough of, and reading the original article seemed like a good idea. So I did.

Now, something that might not occur to folks is a normal part of reading academic articles for me: looking at author affiliations and disclosures for conflicts-of-interest. And in this case, it didn’t take long to find one. Sure, the first and corresponding author seemed okay on the surface (a professor of nutrition at George Mason), but the second author? Oh that second author.

That second author, a Victor Fulgoni the Third, is employed by Nutrition Impact, LLC. Who are they, you ask? Well hell, I didn’t know until I looked – but that’s the point. I looked. And I found:

Based in Battle Creek, Mich., USA, Nutrition Impact has helped one client successfully complete a new health claim petition (plant sterol esters and heart disease), helped another client successfully complete a Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act (FDAMA) notification authorizing another new health claim (potassium and blood pressure/stroke), and helped a third client obtain a new nutrient content claim (choline).

Emphasis mine.

This, of course, calls the entire research paper regarding choline into question, because the job of the second of two authors was to make choline a noted and noticeable health claim (almost certainly a supplement company looking to goad consumers into purchases), and the Washington Post fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Is this fake news? Certainly not of the Facebook-style fake news generators, but it is a kind of fake news: it’s hiding a company agenda in the veneer of academic research, and thus eroding trust in both academic research and science/medical journalism.

Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings – A Joke or A Necessity, or Something Between Extremes?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about trigger warnings for college courses and safe spaces on campus, to the point that The Onion is mocking the idea of someone made uncomfortable by confronting beliefs that are not her own. One of the frequently held up examples is a op-ed that wants to merely facilitate discussion with professors on how to best support students who are triggered by potentially triggering materials—and already I’m sure people are rolling their eyes at the use/over-use of triggered (a compulsion I have, too).
But then I remember Jessica.

Jessica was bubbly and sarcastic and bitchy and going through a bad divorce that made my divorce look like a Disney movie, but it was at the same time and like many things, the broad details of divorcing students trying to navigate the University of Washington was much more important than the finer details of her misery and my relative ease. She was a PhD student at UW; I was an undergrad. We got together for lunch all the time, or dinner, or to just watch the water at Drumheller Fountain. She teased me through my first post-divorce crush, made sure I went out, I took time for myself, I ate. She taught me self-care…

She overdosed in her bathtub and wasn’t found for several days.

The world I had so carefully constructed for myself, one of being a returning (older) student, of being post-divorce, of everything those first eight months of time at UW, crashed around me and shattered. There was the investigation, the funeral, the cleaning of her apartment of everything after her body had been removed.

And the last thing I was capable of, in those few weeks, was academic material on death and transformation.

Oh, I tried. It was a summer course, and I was on an accelerated schedule, and I had to do this. HAD. TO. And it wasn’t even the sort of thing that should have had a warning at all, it was so mild and so I was just going to do it and then didn’t. Then I was sitting on a stone bench in the quad trying to remember how I got outside with all my things because the last thing I remembered was sitting in the classroom.

Clearly it was a fluke. Just tired. Tomorrow would be better.

Except when tomorrow came, I found myself on that same stone bench before class even started, my feet and butt rooted in spot like I’d turned into a tree. There was just no making my body go inside. And my professor, who I’ll leave unnamed for his privacy, bless him. He saw me, and he got the class situated, and then he came to sit outside with me. We sat there and idly chatted about the cherry trees and the blue sky with fluffy clouds and the different shades of green all around us, the recapping of the dome of the building we were in and the irritation of the construction and the lack of air conditioning that summer, all as tears streamed down my face.

After a bit the tears stopped, he got up, patted my shoulder, and told me to come back to class starting the next week, because we’d be on a new chapter then, and I could finish the material I was going to miss later, when I felt capable.

It was a small gesture of kindness—not the first, not the last—from a professor at a major research university. I’m sure some people would think he was coddling me, or that the professor who nicely gave me another assignment so I wouldn’t have to read a book on divorce the week after my divorce papers had been filed was just letting me off easy.

I see it a little differently, though. I see professors who were willing to flex with the need of their students, and who recognized that the education in total was more important than a single individual component of a syllabus or class. I also see an older student (me) who, if hiccup-y and tear-stained, was capable of advocating for herself—sometimes, a “no fucks to give” attitude is useful.

But we’re doing students everywhere a disservice if we think they’re all going to be able to self-advocate over tough subjects. (And trust me, you professors really don’t want every student to be like me. I’m a nightmare as a student and I know it.) Beyond that, they’re college kids, you’re college profs. You have the experience to help people learn how to navigate through rough waters and tough subjects; giving students a heads up that those tough subjects will exist in the course isn’t pandering or softening, it’s creating the sort of space that tells students that you, professor, are aware—and approachable.

This was a lesson I remembered when I started teaching. While I didn’t place a trigger warning on my first syllabus, I did make sure to talk to my students and tell them that some of the things we were going to talk about would be rough. We were talking about torture, death, abortion, personhood, more death—all the fun topics in applied ethics. I had office hours and I had students in those office hours wrestling with the material and their lived experience. Giving them notice? That’s not coddling, that’s being nice.

The Columbia students aren’t asking professors to stop teaching material that will trigger students, or force people to confront awful memories, or however you want to phrase it. They’re just asking their professors have a bit of compassion about the diversity of lives that end up in a classroom, and not force everyone into the same mold, the same model, of approach to material and education. To understand that maybe a raped woman won’t find beauty in text describing rape. That someone who is dealing with divorce paperwork in the evening may not find a book where the main character is getting divorced funny. That someone who was knocking on the door of a dead woman may need to step away from material on death as transformation.

Somewhere along the line, people have swung away from compassion and towards mocking—if you request empathy, you must be weak. If you demand empathy? Hoo-boy! But I just have to wonder at the people who think an appropriate response to “hey, maybe you could be empathetic” is “suck it up, princess.” We’re trying to move away from that negative (and gendered!) response in the sciences-possibly it’s time for the humanities to make that move, too.

A Primer on Apologies

I’ve talked before about trust as a limiting factor, and the steps to take to repair trust. But I haven’t actually spelled out an important first step to that, which is the apology. And, as you might know, today Nature apologized for a piece of correspondence published earlier this week that has people slightly irritated (see list, end of post).

NatureApologyWhile Nature’s apology is better than a nonpology, it’s not actually a full apology, and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s not being as well-received as the editors likely hoped. I detailed some of my issues with the apology on Twitter this morning, but I wanted to take the time to actually expand on what is necessary for a complete apology.

You can find quite a few different opinions on what constitutes an actual apology. I am fond of a four stage approach: Recognition, Responsibility, Remorse/Regret, Remedy. I think it’d be easiest to go through each of these and the Nature apology, to see where they succeed, and where they fail. Hopefully this will be illustrative not only to them now, but others in the future.


The first part of an apology is being able to articulate that you understand what you are apologizing for in the first place. This is often where nonpologies fall down; they apologize for hurting your feelings, rather than recognizing that what they said is the issue. When you recognize your mistake, you need to be specific. This is what Nature said:

On re-examining the letter and the process, we consider that it adds no value to the discussion and unnecessarily inflames it, that it did not receive adequate editorial attention, and that we should not have published it.

This isn’t a bad start. Ultimately, there is recognition that the commentary was inflammatory and it shouldn’t have been published. That said, what would have made it a good example of recognition is acknowledgement that the commentary that was published was offensive, as well. It’s not about adding no value, or even being inflammatory–it’s that it’s a point of view that has been systematically deconstructed and debunked over years, to the point that people who hold it are actually advocating biased, if not complete misogynistic, positions.

This part of an apology is pretty simple: you accept your responsibility for what you said or did. You don’t blame culture or shift it over to other people, or distance yourself from what happened. Nature’s apology does a decent job here; they note there was not adequate editorial attention and that it should not have been published.

Remorse or Regret
Anyone who watches nonpologies knows that it’s surprisingly rare to hear an apology stop with “I am sorry.” Nonpologies often creep in, with “I am sorry you feel that way.” In here, Nature also does well, simply stating “we should not have published it, for which we apologize.”

And this is where Nature’s apology completely fails. An important part of apologizing is noting how this mistake will not happen again. If you’re chronically late to meetings, simply saying “I’m sorry I’m late” isn’t going to cut it. Following it up with a statement on how you’re going to change things so you’re not late again (“I will start setting my watch 10 minutes ahead”) is necessary, so that the person receiving the apology knows what you intend to do to prevent having to apologize for the issue again.

This is completely missing from Nature’s apology. The closest they come is this:

Nature’s own positive views and engagement in the issues concerning women in science are represented by our special from 2013:

When you screw up, you don’t get to say “and look at what I did before I screwed up, that’s how you know I won’t screw up again!” It doesn’t work like that; when you screw up, you need to offer information on what you’re going to do in the future to avoid another screw up of the same kind; clearly the past wasn’t good enough, because here we are.

And Nature has some explaining to its readers. In particular, yesterday, Nature asserted that they published Koube’s commentary because it was representative of numerous comments they received. Many people immediately saw the flaw in this justification:

Emily Turtles

When you publish letters that are loaded with blatant bias (or otherwise use language fraught with social meaning), you are responsible for the ink and the publicity and the reputation hit, even if you didn’t mean it. It’s not enough for Nature to say “this doesn’t reflect the views of our organization” because they granted legitimacy simply by publishing the commentary and giving it a DOI. Nature needs to come back and address the questions raised by the justification of “but we got lots of the same comment.”

Nature needs to explain what the editorial failure was. Likewise, what are the editorial standards for commentaries, and do they differ from the rest of the publication? If so, how? And if not, how did a someone with no qualifications for commentary other than “being representative” get accepted for publication in the first place?

YertleDownAnd most importantly, how will Nature insure that something like this doesn’t happen again? And why, in particular, were they unable to weed out the issue with Koube’s commentary, but seem to have no problem weeding out endless turtle arguments, anti-vaccers, climate deniers, mermaid fans, the Flat Earth Society, and endless other conspiracy and crackpot theories?

These aren’t idle questions, and they’re all raised by Nature’s choice of published commentary, online explanations of what happened, and subsequent apology. If Nature is taking the approach of promoting false balance in commentaries, letters, and other comments, this is something that readers should be aware of, so that adjustments of expectations can be made. If false balance isn’t the intent, then Nature needs to share how they’re going to do their best to prevent publishing non-scientific, deliberately antagonistic and inflammatory content in the future.


Final Thoughts
In any apology, the “remedy” stage seems to be the hardest part for anyone (person or publishing group) to do, in part because it often requires a transparency of process that is uncomfortable. But when you screw up, you don’t get to ask for faith, because what you’ve done in the process of causing hurt is lose trust. You can ask for it back all you want, but chances are you’re going to actually need to earn it. You start earning it though a strong apology, and you finish earning it by being transparent–and not repeating the mistake again.


This is the current list of blog posts addressing Nature’s decision to publish, that I am aware of:

Feel free to let me know if I’ve left someone off the list.

How Many Times Does “Don’t Promote Misogyny” Need to Be Discussed?

In December, Nature published an editorial reporting on the results of their effort to broaden diversity in their pagest to increase the number of women contributing to their content. Some of the news is good (an increase in female authors) and some isn’t (a decrease in referees). Overall, though, it seemed like a nice bit of accountability, showing the actual effort being made to move away from the Old Boys Club of science.

Which they then went and undid completely this month, by publishing the following letter (right) from Lukas Koube, titled Research: Publish on the Basis of Quality, Not Gender.

Where do you even start with something like this? Do you start with the blatant misogyny? The barely-veiled Men’s Rights Activist language? The false idea that women aren’t represented in the sciences because they have babies? Do you just pound your head against the desk until you feel better? Maybe you ask Nature WTF they were thinking. Unfortunately, you won’t like that answer, either:



Well, I guess you could talk about “whatever his provenance”: a bit of quick sleuthing from Anna Goldstein yesterday found this wonderful anti-feminist, misogynistic screed from Koube; not exactly the sort of thing you’d think Nature would want to give any legitimacy to (and yet). We could talk about the ‘author’ (a term I use loosely) having just received his BA in political science, not exactly the sort of person you’d look to for authority on scientific research and publishing. We could continue having a conversation about what it means to confer authority on a letter, or blog, by publishing it under the auspices of a respected organization, regardless of the fact that correspondence is not supposed to reflect the views of anyone but the person writing it (at least in typical magazine disclaimer).

But all of that continues to dance around the single, central issue revealed in both Koube’s letter and Nature’s explanation/defense of publication: multiple people wrote in expressing misogynistic beliefs, and Nature chose one letter out of those many as representative and published it.

As Janet D. Stemwedel asked, “If they had a lot of Flat-Earth letters, would they feel compelled to publish one? If so, they might want to rethink their editorial judgement.

Women know that there is misogyny in science, academia, humanities, the work space, the world. We face it every single day. Many of us can’t get out of the house without facing it, let alone get through a work day without being reminded that people think we are less than, not as smart, not as capable, all because our reproductive organs happen to be on the inside.

And we have the research that shows the bias against women is real. We have so much research on it, Nature took the steps mentioned in their December editorial to try to combat the under-representation of women in their pages. For well over four years, people have been discussing The Feminist Philosophers’ Gendered Conference Campaign and the idea of boycotting conferences that have all-male (or all white male) conference panels.

We get it.

Really, truly, and honestly, women know this.

I understand the dilemma of letters to the editor and correspondence pages—remember, I used to work for an academic bioethics journal! If you want to see letters, angry letters that can span the range of opinions of valid to “did we remember to lock all the doors?”, try reading those for a month.

But at the same time, I understand that at some point, you have to drop the idea that you are going to give fair airing to “all sides.” False balance is a plague upon publishing, and there needs to come a point where you—in this case, the editors of the correspondence section of Nature—draw a line in the sand and simply refuse to give ink to ideas that have been soundly refuted with science.

Not doing so doesn’t just reflect badly on the ‘author’ of the correspondence, but the organization doing the publishing. If you communicate about science, and you do so with authority, you have a responsibility for what you produce. Shirk that responsibility often enough, or continue to promote via publication ideas that are anathema and offensive to a section of your audience that you are trying to improve your outreach to, and you’re going to lose that audience permanently.


Edited to add:
Nature apologized for publishing the commentary on Friday. My response to that apology is here.

Know When to Ask, Know When to do More Research

I had a pretty strong idea of what I wanted to go to graduate school for — and it may surprise you to know that I didn’t think I was going to find what I wanted in a philosophy department.Of course, that’s where I ended up, and we know how that turned out. Separate from those issues, I really didn’t play well with people who saw no point to applied ethics (Or maybe not; one presumes you know me if you’re reading this.) The thing is, none of my professors from undergrad really knew where I could do what I wanted, either.Another thing worth talking about some time would be the people who encouraged where I ended up for Grad School v1.0. Not for the encouraging, but for the conversations I had a few years later with several of them, which boiled down to “oh yeah, we knew those risks but didn’t think we should tell you.” Please, if you’re advising a student, don’t do this to them. So they told me I should reach out to people working in related fields and ask them where the best places to apply would be.

So I did. I reached out to names in the field, people who are names now but weren’t well-known then — I reached out to everyone I could think of. I sent simple emails, expressing my interest, explaining that no one at my university did the research I was interested in so I needed to branch out for advice, why I thought it was relevant to their own work (with citations if possible), and if they had suggestions for academic programs I should investigate, or other researchers that I should talk to. I made it clear I wasn’t going to be all “Professor Awesome in Field told me to apply to your program” but was merely trying to get a handle on something sort of obscure.

I sent ten emails. Eight people ignored me, one person wrote me back to tell me my ideas were a waste of time, and one person — the only professor emeritus I wrote to, and someone whose work I tend to use and quote from extensively in my own — wrote to tell me that if I couldn’t figure out where the right school was then I shouldn’t be trying to go to school, and that clearly I wasn’t cut out for academia. He managed to insult my general intelligence, too, as if I should somehow be able to intuit where researchers working in overlapping areas were without there being any guides or academics journals dedicated to the ideas.

Needless to say, I was dejected. I did still manage to get grad apps out, and got in to two schools — and well, we know how that story ends.

The reason I was thinking about this prologue to my graduate school experience was Carl Zimmer’s recent Open Letter to Science Students and Science Teachers. He talks about the sort of burnout that happens when you get people contacting you all the time, and I’ve always tried to charitably read the responses — and lack of responses — I got to my simple inquiry as something akin to this.

Of course, a generous read doesn’t mean that it still wasn’t frustrating and disappointing, and I think Zimmer (and the responses from the numerous academics and writers replying in the comments thread) would agree that the responses I got were inappropriate. (Not really in the “nurturing a curious mind” vein, anyhow.) But I can also see how the responses I got were likely borne out of lots of people — students of all levels, media, etc — reaching out without first doing as much of their own research as possible, and the inevitable burnout that happens.

These days, if I were to get such a rude response from someone in an academic institution, I’d probably turn around and fire it off to their department chair with a note about inappropriate behaviour. That may or may not be the appropriate answer, and it’s largely influenced by a lack of fear — I don’t need to worry about grades or getting in to school or things like that, and my reputation isn’t going to be more tarnished than it already is. But I inhabit a place of “fuck it all” that a lot of people can’t get to (at least yet), and they shouldn’t have to deal with the fall-out of other people’s bad manners.

So really, do your part: if you’re a teacher, emphasize when to contact an expert and when to do research. Take Zimmer’s advice and make the letter-writing a part of the homework, so that it can be reviewed for appropriateness (I had a uni prof who did this and it was a very illustrative exercise), and be sure students understand when to and when not to approach that expert in whatever field. If you’re a student, make sure the email you send isn’t something that could be cloned from anyone else in your class. Do the reading and research and think about questions based on what you’ve read, and figure out if you even need to contact the researcher or if you can figure out the answer on your own — even if that means more research!

In the end, everyone will benefit.