The Noted Is Always Notable

…but the notable is frequently unnoted.

This post, along with the always thought-provoking repartee with my friend Chris Bonneau, inspires me to write a  post about selection effects and their ability to magically turn a mountain into a molehill.  The short version of the story is that a brouhaha was breaking out at the University of Colorado-Boulder regarding Patricia Adler, a Professor of Sociology whose course in “Deviance in US Society” (which looks fascinating) attracted unwelcome attention.  I will dispense with the details of the case, but note that Adler was ultimately not formally punished. As a faculty member myself, I rightly and consciously adopt a default position of “the critics generally know less about how to do it than the faculty member and, accordingly, often have even worse motives when they attempt to intervene.”

But, to be clear, this post is not about Adler’s case, per se. Rather, and I think more fairly, this post is about the argument advanced by  in the post linked at the beginning.  In a nutshell, Schuman—or her copyeditors—argues in the subtitle:

How would you like it if a bunch of online randos could get you fired? That’s life for professors.

Well, I wouldn’t like it. Indeed, you could omit the “online” qualification.  Or, for that matter, substitute “anyone” for “a bunch of online randos.”  But, more to the point—and I feel bad picking on Schuman, because it’s a common mistake in this kind of crisis post mortem and I believe the intentions are (very) good—Schuman’s argument is prone to a classic selection effect.

Specifically, the article presents no evidence that “online randos” (i.e., some sort of viral flame against Adler) had provoked the CU-Boulder administration’s initial actions.  In some searching, it seems that what did provoke it is still unclear.  The remarkable thing about viral anti-intellectual vitriol is it tends to be VERY CLEAR.  (Doubt it?  Just click here.) So, let’s suppose that some soon-forgotten wave of outrage from the “internet review board” did not actually bring upon the Adler brouhaha.

No, the viral storm started after Adler (understandably) went public about the burgeoning brouhaha.  And, to repeat myself, Adler was ultimately inconvenienced, but not otherwise punished. Yes, I am sure that the ensuing viral maelstrom attracted vitriolic detractors.  But, to be honest, if you’re in the middle of a brouhaha and you surf the blogosphere, it’s not really reasonable to expect not to find a deluge of derogatory detritus.

Caveat surfor, as the Roman kids say.

In fact, in spite of the anti-Adler/anti-Sociology/armchair-intellectual/professional-anti-intellectual invective that followed the initial splash of Adler’s tribulations, again…she was ultimately not formally punished.  So, this isn’t about the internet (even potentially) getting a professor fired.  Rather, it’s more likely reflective of the reality that a tenured professor at a nationally prominent university being investigated/harassed by her administration is/was per se notable.  (Let’s hope it stays that way.)

Before concluding, let me provide a simple, three-pronged analogy to this:

  1. Internet criticism of President Bush caused his inept performance during and following Hurricane Katrina,
  2. Internet criticism of President Obama caused his inept performance with respect to Benghazi and/or the Affordable Care Act rollout, and
  3. Internet criticism of Governor Christie caused his inept handling of traffic leading to George Washington Bridge.

Of course, none of those causal stories seems plausible.  As much as I am suspicious of those who spend precious time pestering faculty, I really doubt that the ex post ranting of “online randos” was somehow the ex ante cause/inducement of her troubles and travail.

With that, I leave you with this.