…and we do with them what we can.
When I was a child, my father read to me the Uncle Remus stories. Now, to be honest, I don’t know if it’s because my father really only read me one chapter, or because I have a limited memory of the stories he told me, but the end result is that I really only remember one of those tales.
It’s probably the same story you remember, if you’ve ever read them: it’s the one about the tar baby.
I fully realize that this latter term has now become somewhat verboten, given that certain persons — we’ll just go ahead and call them “crackers” — have used the phrase in, shall we say, unorthodox ways. Be that as it may, I am using it here in its original sense. That is to say, in the sense invented by a while reporter who openly admitted to stealing the cultural patrimony of a family servant.
That little caveat out of the way, let us move to the present situation. I recently received an e-mail inviting me to respond to certain criticisms of an article I will soon be publishing in a peer-reviewed journal. The substance of the criticisms — more on which in a moment — are less important than the simple fact that the…jackass who has penned these criticisms has done the professional version of shoving me in the shoulder and saying “you want some, punk?”
He has, to borrow from the old metaphor, set up a tar baby on a log, stood behind it, and started shouting ugly things, all for the purpose of trying to get me to punch said tar baby.
Here’s where the metaphor starts to twist away from my grasp. In the original story, the tar baby was the only time where Brer Fox was able to outsmart Brer Rabbit. It was Brer Fox who set up the tar baby, got Brer Rabbit to punch it, and when Brer Rabbit got hopelessly entangled in the tar, was able to move in for the kill. It was only by begging to be thrown in the briar patch that Brer Rabbit was able to escape becoming a meal for Brer Fox.
Brer Fox was always the enemy in these stories — equal parts patroller and overseer, the dogsbody to the master, the functionary and enforcer of a fundamentally evil system. Always an idiot, he was continually outsmarted until the day he came upon the idea of tempting his prey into physical combat.
This…is not really where I want to enter the story. I don’t particularly want to punch the tar baby. I want to keep on walking my merry way, focused on the tasks at hand. There is neither pleasure nor purpose in responding to the insults offered me at the present time, just as there was neither point nor prettiness in responding the 11-page (!?!) detailed critique of my work this same jackass mailed to me, my boss, his boss, her boss, the media, and (oh yes indeedy, because bitch is crazy) certain members of the legislature.
And let’s get to the substance of those critiques, shall we? Yes, let’s talk about what I said, precisely, that was so wrong. What is was, precisely, and I shan’t quote, that suggests that everything I have ever said should be pulled from publication and quashed from the record.
Point #1: that I dared to engage in an analysis purported to be inappropriate to the project design.
Point #2: That the project was so poorly implemented that no analysis should ever be done on the data.
Point #3: That I actively engaged in subterfuge in order to obscure point #2.
These are serious charges. They are, in a basic sense, some of the most ugly things one could say to someone who takes his academic and professional reputation seriously. They amount to saying, quite specifically, “you don’t know statistics, you don’t know how to manage a project, and you lied in order to cover up your own incompetence.”
And here’s where it gets truly problematic to punch the tar baby. I have strong evidence — not perhaps the strongest (e.g., documentary), but yet and still among the strongest there is (oral testimony by eyewitnesses) — that my accuser has never actually conducted a statistical analysis himself, that those projects he was in charge of were taken away from him precisely because he alienated everyone he dealt with, and that he specifically told those responsible for collecting data that the results were already known ahead of time and that it was their job to go out and collect such information as confirmed those results.
Not to put too fine a point on it, these are accusations that, in my humble and yet still rather well-informed opinion, stem from a reaction formation. And last time I checked, getting into a fight with someone who was crazy doesn’t actually accomplish much. If you lose, you end up humiliated. If you win, all you’ve done is beat up on a disabled person; there is nothing to be proud of there. And finally, to read back to a very old old text, it is best not to touch pitch at all, lest we be defiled.
Sadly, I may not be able to avoid breaking that particular rule. So, Lord help me, for I am about to sin.
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