(Reasonable) Argument, Evidence and (Good) Journalism: Is “Crimson” the Colour of Their Faces?

I ran across a story on the Harvard Crimson about a surprisingly high level of suspected plagiarism in a course, Government 1310. The story opens up simply enough in the realms of fact, where the professor suspected plagiarism behaviour in 10-20 take home exams, which was against published guidelines, and has now expanded to roughly 125 suspicious final exams. There was a brief discussion of the assessment of the course and the steps taken so far by the faculty.

Then, the article takes a weird turn. Suddenly, we have a student account, an anonymous student who doesn’t wish their name to be associated with the plagiarism, who “suspected that  Government 1310 was the course in question”. Hello? Why is this… ahhh. Here’s some more:

Though she said she followed the exam instructions and is not being investigated by the Ad Board, she said she thought the exam format lent itself to improper academic conduct.

“I can understand why it would be very easy to collaborate,” said the student

Oh. Collaborate. Interesting. Next we get the Q Guide rating for the course and this course gets 2.54/5 versus the apparent average of 3.91. Then we get some reviews from the Q Guide that “spoke critically of the course’s organisation and the difficulty of the exam questions”.

Spotting a pattern yet?

Another student said that he/she had joined a group of 15 other students just before the submission date and that they had been up all night trying to understand one of the questions (worth 20%).

I submitted this to my students to read and then asked them how they felt about it. Understandably, by the end of the reading, while my students were still thinking about plagiarism, they were thinking that there may have been some… justification. Then we started pulling the article apart.

When we start to look at the article, it becomes apparent that the facts presented all have a rather definite theme – namely that if cheating has occurred, that it has a justification because of the terrible way the course was taught (low Q Guide rating! 16 students confused!)

Now, I can not see the Q Guide data, because when I go to the page I get this information (and I need a Harvard login to go further):

Q Guide
The Q Guide was an annually published guide that reported the results of each year’s course evaluations. Formerly called the CUE Guide, it was renamed the Q Guide in 2007 because the evaluations now include the GSAS and are no longer run solely by the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE). In 2009, in place of The Q Guide, Harvard College integrated Q data with the online course selection tool (at my.harvard.edu), providing a simple and easy way to access and compare course evaluation data while planning your course schedule.

So if the article, regarding an exam run in 2012, is referring to the Q Guide for Gov 1310, then it’s one of two things: using an old name for new data (admittedly, fairly likely) or referring to old data. The question does arise, however, whether the Q Guide rating refers to this offering or a previous offering. I can’t tell you which it is because I don’t know. It’s not publicly available and the article doesn’t tell me. (Although you’ll note that the Q Guide text refers to this year‘s evaluations. There’s a part of me that strongly suspects that this is historical data but, of course, I’m speculating.)

However, the most insidious aspect is the presentation of 16 students who are confused about content in a way that overstates their significance. It’s a blatant example of emotive manipulation and encourages the reader to make a false generalisation. There were 279 students enrolled in Gov 1310. 16 is 5.7%. Would I be surprised in somewhere around 5% of my students weren’t capable of understanding all of the questions or thought that some material wasn’t in the course?

No, of course not. That’s roughly the percentage of my students who sometimes don’t know which Dr Falkner is teaching their class. (Hint: one is male and one is female. Noticeably so in both cases.)

I presented this to my Grand Challenge students as part of our studies of philosophical and logical fallacies, discussing how arguments are made to mislead and misdirect. The terrible shame is that, with a detected rate of plagiarism that is this high, I would usually have a very detailed look at the learning and teaching strategies employed (how often are exams being rewritten, how is information being presented, how is teaching being carried out) because this is an amazingly high level of suspected plagiarism.

Despite the misleading journalism presented in the Crimson, the course and its teachers may have to shoulder some responsibility here. As always, just because someone’s argument is badly made, doesn’t mean that it is actually wrong. It’s just disappointing that such a cheap and emotive argument was raised in a way that further fogs an important issue.

As I said to my students today, one of the most interesting way to try to understand a biassed or miscast argument is to understand who the bias favours – cui bono? (To whom the benefit? I am somewhat terrified, on looking for images for this phrase, that it has been highjacked by extremists and conspiracy theorists. It’s a shame because it’s historically beautiful.)

So why would the Crimson run this? It’s pretty manipulative so, unless this is just bad journalism, cui bono?

Having looked up how disciplinary boards are constituted at Harvard, I found a reference that there are three appointed faculty members and:

There are three students appointed to the board as full voting members. Two of these will be assigned to specific cases on a case-by-case basis and will not be in the same division as the student facing disciplinary action.

In this case, the Crimson’s story suddenly looks a lot… darker. If, by publishing this article, they reach the right students and convince them the action of the suspected plagiarists may have been overly influenced by academics who are not performing their duties – then we risk suddenly having a deadlocked board and a deleterious effect on what should have been an untainted process.

The Crimson has further distinguished itself with a follow-up article regarding the uncertainty students are feeling because of the process.

“It’s unfair to leave that uncertainty, given that we’re starting lives,” said the alumnus, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he said he feared repercussions from Harvard for discussing the case.

Oh, Harvard, you giant monster, unfairly delaying your decision on a plagiarism case because the lecturers were so very, very bad that students had to cheat. And, what’s worse, you are so evil that students are scared of you – they “fear the repercussions”!

Thank you, Crimson, for providing so much rich fodder for my discussion on how the words “logical argument”, “evidence” and “good journalism” can be so hard to fit into the same sentence.

2 Comments on “(Reasonable) Argument, Evidence and (Good) Journalism: Is “Crimson” the Colour of Their Faces?”

  1. Nick, I nominated you for The Booker Award. The rules are fairly straightforward. Provide a list of five books you enjoy and pass this award on to 10 bloggers who follow your blog. Place the image for the award on your site and ask them to thank you for nominating them for this award. You can check it out at http://ivonprefontaine.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/the-booker-award/.

    Take care,



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