Are You My Mother?

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Published on: March 25, 2015

One of my daughter’s favorite books is Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman. In the book, a baby bird hatches while its mother is away finding food. The bird decides to leave the nest in search of its mother, all along not being sure exactly who his mother is or what she looks like. He has several ideas, attempting to connect with a kitten, a dog, a cow, and an airplane until he is finally returned to his nest by a hydraulic digger (it’s a very cute story) just before the mother returns to the nest with a worm.

For a while, I’ve felt like my writing on this blog has been akin to that bird and its quest. I feel like I’m trying to connect with different styles of writing, but those styles simply are not me. I’ve tried being irreverent, I’ve tried touting my knowledge without discussing methods, but the words ring hollow in my ears. Last week gave me the opportunity to actually sit and think for a few minutes (but only a few) about what I value and what I really want this blog to be.

I thought about the times I felt valued and like I made some small contribution to a discussion on the internet. The last time that happened was the night everyone was talking about #TheDress. Half the people in my department are vision researchers, so I’ve been subjected to a lot of vision presentations in my time. I had just finished teaching the section on luminance perception in my Intro class and I had something to say. I didn’t say much, but people seemed to find value in it and it felt very good.

I read Bill Connelly’s article about the important, unanswered questions in college football. It’s a good piece designed to spark a search for answers. The interesting thing for me is that the answers to two of the first five questions are sitting on my hard drive right now. Understanding how to answer them isn’t particularly complicated or inventive. It just takes finding the right tools. Tools I know a great deal about due to 10 years of studying interacting, interdependent groups and teams. Tools most other people don’t have because hardly anybody spends 10 years studying interacting teams unless one already has tenure (not me) or gets phenomenally lucky in employment (there I am).

I also thought about times when I didn’t feel right about my whole enterprise of data analysis of football, that being the Patriots deflated ball controversy. That was a weird time to be interested in data analysis of football because someone that isn’t particularly interested in reproducible, publicly available analysis attempted to answer a question. That question wasn’t answered particularly well, and the whole thing really spiraled out of control. However, it did get me thinking of the notion of credibility and how truly important credibility is to me. The guy that answered the question initially isn’t particularly credible, but then I had to confront the question of how much outward facing credibility I have given that we both hide how we arrive at the conclusions we do.

I thought about my academic area as a whole, and how much of a credibility hit it’s taken lately. I’m a social psychologist. You might not be aware of this, but for the last 3-4 years, social psychology has taken something of a walk off the credibility cliff in academic circles. Reports of outright falsification of data[link], poor data management, and “massaging” of results have become too numerous to mention them all. Frankly, it’s been very depressing to be a social psychologist these last few years. I’ve survived by teaching, but I haven’t been able to get excited about research the way I used to. I have a dissertation that was nominated for (but didn’t win) an international award just sitting, unpublished, because I can’t force myself to get it out the door. I’d never really connected my publication struggles to credibility before, but upon reflection I think that may be a major cause, if not the primary one.

So here is where we’re at.

  • Scientific credibility is important to me, both personally and for the field of social psychology and the sub-specialization of interacting groups that I work in
  • I need to do research to keep my day job
  • I am struggling to do research because I have issues with the credibility of certain elements of my field
  • In my own internet space, I am not acting in a way that brings about scientific credibility either to myself or to my chosen field

This is a contradiction I cannot have, and the solution is to change the approach. I’m going to continue publishing here in an attempt to rebuild my own sense of credibility. Hopefully, this will rebuild my taste for research in my day job with the ultimate goal of gaining some job security for once in my life. Starting next week, I’m opening up the kitchen [link] to show everyone how I’m building everything I’ve built here. I’ll be discussing science as it relates to interactive, interdependent teams in the context of professional football. Hopefully, you’ll be able to apply some of what I say to contexts beyond football. I’m going to be spending a lot of time covering techniques and methods used to study interacting teams as they are reasonably uncommon methods of data analysis. I’ll be talking in a very scientific, academic tone with how I approach these concepts as that’s what I am.

This has been my realization. I am not a scout or a journalist. I am not a gambler or a tout, or an information broker. I am a scientist.  Come back next week and we’ll learn something together.

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