Censorship Has Many Fathers

Censorship Has Many Fathers


Censorship has Many Fathers:
A progeny of excuses for suppressing information that one dislikes

by Richard P Phelps

I once wrote an article that critiqued certain research conducted by the federally-funded Center for Research on Education Standards and Student Testing (CRESST), and sent it to the same American Educational Research Association (AERA) journal that had published the CRESST research. Not surprisingly, my article was rejected for publication. The journal editor sent me copies of two reviews. One review recommended that my article be published provided I made certain revisions, which I would have been happy to make. The second review recommended rejection outright.

The second review was short, and very revealing. The reviewer’s summary misidentified my article’s theme, purpose, and content. It was obvious that the reviewer had not read more than the first page or two, if that much.

Also, I could see the reviewer’s name. Someone in the editorial office had attempted to swipe a black highlighter over the name, but missed the target. So, who was the reviewer? a researcher and administrator at CRESST.

The late Lew Solmon related a similar experience. He wrote a scholarly, empirical (and devastating) critique of particularly poorly done CRESST research and submitted it for publication to the same AERA journal that had published the CRESST research. It, too, was rejected outright by one reviewer—a reviewer at CRESST, Lew was to learn later. So, he submitted the article to another AERA journal and achieved exactly the same outcome. He finally gave up on AERA journals and submitted his article to an education finance journal, where it was accepted without strings.

I complained to the editor who had sent my critique of CRESST work to CRESST for “blind” review. He asserted that sending critiques of research to the “incumbents” for review was quite common and an acceptable procedure. But, he also seemed quite embarrassed at getting caught doing it, and was apologetic. He offered me a second review, with non-incumbent reviewers guaranteed.

Poorly-done, fallacious, and even fraudulent, research abounds in mainstream education journals, but just try to publish a critique of some of that research. If the fallacious research produces results that support popular education doctrine, and your critique does just the opposite, you are, as some might say, spitting into a headwind. Not only are you likely to face a solid wall of journal article rejection, you risk endangering your career.

I once wrote a critique of a book-length journal article that I considered not only very poorly-done, but clearly fraudulent. The author had mis-cited sources, surreptitiously altered the definitions of terms, altered some data, and made dozens of calculation errors. Moreover, all the “mistakes” led in the same direction, strongly suggesting that they were deliberate.

I had taken the time to check all of the author’s claims, all his data, and all his calculations. I conducted the kind of thorough review that all reviewers should conduct, but very few do. Of the dozen or so research conclusions the author had made, I found none that stood up to any scrutiny.

I sent my critique to the editor of that journal, one of the currently most prominent mainstream education journals. I never heard back from him, at least not directly. The editor did, however, have conversations with my superiors at my place of employment in which, apparently, he suggested that I be fired.

The fraudulent article has now been cited hundreds of times as “evidence” of this or that assertion about education policy and practice. The journal never published my critique, of course. It did, however, publish an abridged version of another scholar’s critique of a single aspect of the fraudulent article …two years after the editor received it, and long after the topic in question had faded from public attention.

On another occasion, I submitted an article to a journal with evidence that contradicted a claim made by the well-known psychometrician, Robert Linn, longtime co-director of CRESST. One reviewer insisted that the article be rejected out of hand. The one-paragraph review was of the “How dare you!” variety. The review asserted that “no one has done more for psychometrics over the years than Robert Linn.”

I had not criticized Robert Linn, whom I have never met, nor had I broached the topic of his contributions to the profession. I simply presented evidence that contradicted a single research conclusion that he had made. But, that was enough to end consideration of my article submission.

On yet another occasion, I was absorbing an emotional, hour-long scolding from someone who apparently disapproved of my work, when, at the penultimate moment, he inserted what he seemed to regard as irrefutable proof that I was wrong: “I’m told that you even criticize Bob Linn.”

In other words, disagreeing with another person’s research conclusions is somehow personal. Years ago, I was included in a conference panel on trends in testing. Another speaker reported on a survey her organization had conducted which found that the American public was opposed to the practice of using a “single standardized test” to make graduation decisions. Her organization urged policy makers to pull back on the testing, since the public obviously thought they had gone too far.

When it was my turn to talk, I offered that there was no state in the country that used a single standardized test for graduation decisions and probably never had been. All states allowed candidates several, many, or an unlimited number of retakes to pass. The tests were not timed. The tests were set at a 6th- or 7th-grade level of difficulty. And, there was no state in the country that required only a test for graduation—there were attendance requirements, course accumulation requirements, course distribution requirements, community service requirements, and on and on. Moreover, anyone failing so much as one semester of English or Physical Education could not graduate in most states, no matter how well they did on their graduation exam. All states used multiple measures—always had, and always would.

After the talk, the other speaker, visibly agitated, cornered me and accused me of “making an ad hominum attack.”

Pointy fingers

I used to think that it was best not to name names when alleging, say, research fraud or research error. Identifying a person can make the issue seem personal, I surmised, which can misdirect the readers’ or listeners’ attention when one wishes to focus, instead, on the fraud or error. Moreover, the etiquette of researchers would seem to demand an air of dispassionate, even aloof, neutrality, by minding one’s own business, and judging others’ work only from behind the screen of anonymity such as that of a “blind” journal reviewer.

When one does not name names, but one still accurately describes another person’s actions, or accurately repeats the other person’s words, here’s what happens:

·   One may be accused of making things up—after all, if someone did such-and-such, why would one not identify them—what is one hiding?, some observers will say.

·   One may even be accused of being a coward by not identifying the other party, with the insinuation that, if one’s argument was strong, one would not be afraid to name the other party and have a debate.

·   Readers will try to guess to whom one is referring and some of them will guess wrong (indeed, some will mistakenly assume that you’re referring to them), implicating the innocent and making one more enemies.

·   The other person will find out.

·   The other person will not be able to defend themselves without looking silly and paranoid, because they haven’t been identified.

Moreover, you may end up looking guilty. Just recently, an editor insisted that an article I had submitted could only be published as a “commentary” in his journal, and not as a research article. Why?

“Some word choices and phrases seem unnecessarily provocative, even a bit inflammatory. Unnamed ‘prominent educators’ are mocked a bit for ‘describing…placard-waving students and parents taking to the streets.’ Some of the writing in this paper has a tone of thumbing eyes. …my responsibility as editor is to promote reasoned and respectful debate.”

I agree with most of what the editor writes. The language was provocative, and more than a bit inflammatory. But, it wasn’t my language. I had quoted (but not cited) testing opponents in most passages and, elsewhere, I paraphrased what they had written in order to tone down their provocative, inflammatory language.

You just can’t win with some of these guys. The editor never sent my article out for review, where it might have gotten a more tolerant reading; he killed it in his own inbox.

Labels instead of names

Here is an excerpt from a review of my book Kill the Messenger: The War on Standardized Testing, from the American Library Association, as published in their review journal Choice

“With an educational viewpoint shaped by socially and economically conservative ideologies, …[the author] repeatedly asserts that economists, psychologists, and ‘testing researchers’ should have a voice in the conversation while teachers, school administrators, and teacher educators should not, because they have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. …Summing Up: Not recommended.”

To the contrary, Kill the Messenger repeatedly asserts that everyone should have a voice in the conversation but that, at this point, only the vested interests have a voice. No where does the book advocate replacing one type of censorship with another. Nor have I ever advocated that any point of view be muffled; my cause, for fifteen years now, has been exactly the opposite.

The most amusing criticism in the review, however, is also the most familiar—that I am politically conservative. Naturally, the reviewer knows nothing of my politics and nothing about how my “educational viewpoint” has been “shaped.” I have always considered my advocacy against censorship in education to be associated with a fondness for consumer rights, the public’s right to know, transparency in the administration of public institutions, and quality control over the use of public resources. How one comes to classify those predilections as “socially and economically conservative” is unknown to me.

Tagging those with whom one disagrees with some reviled position along the mythical unidimensional liberal-conservative scale is, unfortunately, quite common in education debates. Since, among most educators, “liberal” is considered good and “conservative” is considered bad, getting a conservative label to stick to an opponent can aid one’s argument.

In my experience in education policy debates, those who wish to silence those with whom they disagree often will do whatever works, will use whatever excuse, to achieve their censorship. So-and-so is “too right wing.” So-and-so is “too extreme.” So-and-so is “too whatever.”

The labels are often nothing more than a means to win an argument by making certain that those who can do a good job presenting the other side are not allowed to speak.

Sour grapes & keeping quiet

In John Le Carré’s masterful cold war spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Karla, the Soviet KBG handler of the mole inside the British secret service, most fears and respects the abilities of the novel’s protagonist, George Smiley. To reduce Smiley’s effectiveness, Karla encourages his mole (the character Bill Haydon in the novel) to make romantic overtures toward George Smiley’s wife. The overtures work as intended, Haydon and Ann Smiley have a rather public affair, and George Smiley is humiliated.

More importantly, however, Smiley is neutralized as an accuser. Any suspicion he might have that Bill Haydon is the mole will be discounted as sour grapes and personal vindictiveness.

In the novel, the maneuver works marvelously. Smiley retires from the service in disgrace and a series of bloody fiascoes befoul the integrity of the British secret service as the mole Bill Haydon is able to operate free of suspicion and scrutiny.

In the Introduction to my book Kill the Messenger, I relate still another personal story of censorship, and I name those who were involved, either in aiding or not aiding the censorship. I had had my doubts about including it in the book, but my publisher encouraged me to retain it. To his mind, the events were real, after all, and nothing to be ashamed about (at least on my part), and they added an air of authenticity to the book.

Some good friends of mine, however, criticized the Introduction. Here’s what two of them wrote:

“The personal elements of it, while true, might make some readers wonder if you might be biased by perceived slights from the people in power. This could potentially distract from a strong case and give people who may be on or near the fence a reason to doubt.”

“What the public will see is: ‘they’re whining, because they haven’t achieved celebrity status’ or ‘because their articles aren’t being published.’”

And, there were others who offered similar critiques. But, there were others who said just the opposite. People unfamiliar with the gravity of the situation were more likely to think that including the Introduction was a bad idea. Those who had been through experiences similar to mine were more likely to cheer me on. Why?

Think of the rape analogy. I bring it up not because I believe that having one’s writing censored is as bad as being raped; it most certainly is not. I mention it because it is the analogy with which most readers are likely to be familiar, and to which most will have given some thought.

According to my reading on the topic, for years the vast majority of rape victims did not report the crime to the civil authorities. There were many reasons for this response (or, rather, lack of response), but one of them was a fear on the part of some victims that many would assume that they must have done something to “lead on” the assailant, that they probably had accumulated a sordid reputation, that they were tainted from that point on, and worse.

For individual rape victims, it may well be true that they have little to gain personally and a lot to lose personally by pressing charges. A large population of potential rape victims, however, has much to gain and nothing to lose if a rape victim’s testimony can help to put a rapist behind bars.

Likewise, anyone who cries “censorship!” when her research work is slighted, ignored, or misrepresented may well be labeled a whiner by many. There is likely little or no personal benefit to raising the accusation; more likely, one will diminish one’s own standing in the profession, lose respect, and cause some to be wary of dealing with one seemingly so quick to accuse.

A large population of other researchers, however, stands to gain much, as they are less likely to be victims of censorship themselves from that point on. Society as a whole stands to gain much, too, if less information can be suppressed and more can be made freely available.

Sure, it is possible that some may read self- or ill-motive into one's accusations of censorship. But, it is certain that if no one speaks out against censorship, censorship will prevail.

What to do if one is a victim of censorship? The choice may be clear. If one needs to worry about oneself, say nothing, at least not publicly. If one is willing to accept the risk of a lowered reputation, however, society will benefit by one’s speaking out.

My response to the two friends who advised me to keep quiet was something like the following.

If one plays nice, one may get to play at the edge of the playpen. But, one does nothing about the locked gate to the playpen that keeps out others. If one plays nice, one may get one’s work published—as the odd “other viewpoint” sandwiched among the many works that toe one or another party line. But, that will do nothing to fix the problem that the sandwich as a whole has e coli poisoning; indeed, it defers legitimacy to the sandwich as a whole, and to the e coli.

Education research is full of fraudulent studies (e.g., studies that include doctored data, surreptitious changes of the definitions of terms, selective references) that have no trouble getting published. Many of our beliefs about truth and fact in education are based on this fraudulent research. Many of these fraudulent studies were written in a fine "tone." Perhaps the intrepid citizen must decide which is more important--tone or accuracy. If one works in education and is worried about one's own job security, it is tone. If one is worried about the fate of society, it is accuracy.

But, I think there is a gross double standard in education research when it comes to tone, anyway. It seems to be perfectly acceptable in education research publications to imply all sorts of ignorance, incompetence, and ill motive to politicians, corporations, government officials, and the public. It is simply not OK to do the same with other education researchers, even if one does nothing more than quote them directly. Censorship has many fathers.

Substantial educational improvement will not be possible unless and until it is OK to call censorship censorship and to call research fraud research fraud. So long as both get to parade as legitimate discourse and fact, the occasional lone voice of reason allowed will be inaudible above the cacophony produced by the numbers and power of the vested interests, and is just wasting her breath.

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