BY AARON BARLOW
Retraction Watch, one of my all-time favorite blogs, posted an interview today with psychologist John Antonakis, who had identified the five diseases of academic publishing, significosis, neophilia, theorrhea, arigorium and disjunctivitis. I was immediately struck by the first:
Significosis is the incessant focus on producing statistically significant results, a well-known problem but one that still plagues us. Because the players in the publication game only consider statistically significant results as interesting and worthwhile to publish, the distribution of effect sizes is highly skewed. The potentially wrong estimates feed into meta-analyses and then inform policy. A result could be significant for many reasons, including chance or investigator bias, and not because the effect is true.
Significosis sidetracks all sorts of debates, including those over the situations of adjuncts and contingent hires in American colleges and universities. I’ve even seen people claim that adjuncts can make as much per hour as tenured faculty, so their situation must be pretty good. “Per hour,” for an academic position, is rather meaningless (corporatization has not gotten that far) and the question as to whether or not tenured faculty have it “good” is certainly debatable. The best way to understand adjuncts is to talk to them, many of them and at a variety of institutions. Trying to make numbers describe their experiences is dishonest in many ways, as even cursory familiarity with Darrell Huff’s old How to Lie with Statistics will remind us. Numbers have been in the driver’s seat in university settings for some time but they aren’t as foolproof as many would have us believe. In fact, they are often just the opposite. Significosis is a disease we all have to fight.
The other four diseases are equally as destructive to real intellectual discourse; all of them made me nod in recognition as I read the interview. We have all experienced each of them in our own scholarly pursuits, each of us contracting each from time to time. Even if we have recovered, we need to be vigilance against relapse.