Friday, 11 June 2010

CE-research: the pits

Things can't get worse than this. Can they?

A fascinating posting this morning on Susie Mallett's Conductor blog. She reports on an email that she has found in her spam box. This is what it says:

my name is ... and I am a Masters’ student at …University ..., UK.
Working on a school project I am doing research on conductive education and my focus is CE furniture;
your help would be greatly appreciated. If you are interested in helping me, please let me know.
Thank you,

Click across to the Conductor blog to see Susie's eloquent response to receiving this. Along the way she examines the possibility of its being a joke or a hoax, and concludes that it spam. She writes –

I am still tending, however, towards its having landed originally in the correct box and is indeed spam.
I think this is because I just do not want to believe that this is what is going on in the academic/research-world of conductive education

Maybe she is right. Or maybe her viewpoint, from Germany, has skewed her perceptions. Of course it is beyond credence that such a communication would ever be sent from a Universität – but one would hardly expect it from a Fachschüle either – or even a Gimnasium

Did you get this email? Whether you did or not, do you think the same sort of things about it as did conductor Susie Mallett. She has dealt with the substance of the enquiry – 'furniture' – in detail enough in the past and I myself find no reason to disagree with her line of argument.

I do, however, disagree with the reasoning behind her conclusion. I think that the email is genuine.

Devil's advocate

I have to ask the usual forensic question, Cui bono? – to whose benefit would such an approach be, whether joke, hoax or some kind of scam rightly spotted by the computer and consigned to the spam-box.

I disagree with her reason quoted above for still considering this some kind of spam. I have not been living and working in Germany for years.

I have lived and worked in England. I really would like to think that no academic – and certainly no school-wide project – would ever enter into the fieldwork stage of an investigation without a thoroughgoing and critical examination of the phenomenon under investigation. But I have also read almost every published academic investigation into Conductive Education over the last twenty-odd years and have to say that this is not common amongst such studies. Funny, the systematic reviews, which take all sorts of minutiae into account, tend to do the same. In 'real science', I guess, it might be more confidently assumed that the investigators have considerable, tested knowledge about the phenomenon on which they are collecting data.. The review from Finland reported here on Conductive World only two days ago falls into the same trap and never considers this factor. How could it?

It is reasonable to cold-call an academic question by email to somebody who is professionally involved in a field – and especially someone who is very publicly involved. It is futile to do so in a way that is immediately aversive – and ethically undesirable to do so in a way that raises indignation or, worse, anxieties in the recipient. Both the substance and the manner of external communication should be at the forefront of an academic supervisor's attention, and the supervisor's effectiveness in ensuring high standards in this should be of prime concern to the university, both in respect to its quality-assurance systems and its external public relations.

One should always consider the basic personal-security security issues. Junk, spam is not sent without a reason, somebody wants something. What? Probably no more than your money But funny letters might have funny folk at the end of them, a pain enough in itself but just about tolerable if they stay just there – at the end. One might not wish them to approach any closer. The best advice is always to keep a distance and if as here you open a possible dodgy email, don't enter into correspondence. Most people are aware of these matters nowadays and any half-competent email-based enquiry has to take reciprocal account of this awareness, and make sensitive and sensible efforts to counter its effects.

Who dunnit?

Discretely, Susie withholds the name of the writer and of the university involved. Whereas I would probably have done the same myself with respect to the student (students in the UK nowadays seem as much victims of the system as do any other clients of the public sector), I would not have withheld the name of the University.

Without such detail it is impossible to find out more of what is going on here. I presume that the university in question is not one of the Russell Group (the UK's equivalent of the Ivy League) but this leaves rather a lot to choose from (for the moment!). What sort of 'school is involved, a school education, a school of health sciences, or on of those jumbles of health, education and social studies? The letter offers no clue. Who is supervising this student, managing this 'school project', with what relevant knowledge and orientation? At the very least it would be nice to click on the CVs of the academic(s) involved in this, examine publication histories and, probably most illuminating, do some checking on the grapevine.

Knowing the university in question would also enable one to write to the Dean of the School, forwarding a copy of the letter. This would not be to discuss the furniture question – hardly the Dean's problem. Nor would there be much need, I suspect, to mention the quality of the letter and what this does to the university's public reputation, nor even to enquire about the competence of the supervision or whether this study has been passed by the School's Ethical Committee. These are all matters that Deans are paid to think about for themselves, and usually do so rather well. Correspondingly there would be no need to suggest or urge any particular action. Such matters are best left to those on the spot (deliberate pun).

I did not get this email (I checked my spam box, in vain). Check your own.

I was disappointed that I did not receive one, not least because Conductive World has also carried items on the furniture fetish (most recently, only earlier this week). If I had received one, of course, I should know the university from which the email was sent, and acted accordingly.

The state we are in

Never mind the specifics of this episode. It will pass and the school-wide study will likely leave no discernible ripples sub specie aeternitatis. But perhaps the episode does indicate something about the present academic position of poor, hapless Conductive Education.

Maybe, as the title of this item suggests, this really is 'the pits', as far as researching Conductive Education goes, but do not hold your breath. Worse can still happen! When it is not possible to tell for sure whether, prima facie, a research enquiry is genuine or some sort of spoof, then the field is in trouble. I am reminded of the Sokal affair that made such a fool of the 'postmodernist critique' of science. I know that the specifics of this situation are nothing like the same, but some of the academic preposterousness that has attached itself to Conductive Education lends itself to hoaxes and spoofs of at least proportionate magnitude in this little world.

But I still think that this particular email was probably genuine!


Mallett, S, (2010) Research or spam? Conductor, 11 June

1 comment:

  1. Andrew, I am wondering if you misunderstood my conclusion.

    I had indeed decided to leave the mail that I received in the spam box because I think it originally landed in its rightful place. Not necessarily because I think it is not genuine but because I refuse to believe that this is how such things are done these days and also that this can actually be the subject of research into CE.

    As I said in my posting I have received requests for help from students before and I am used to things being done quite differently here in Germany and elsewhere.

    Yes, of course I am wary of getting into correspondence with strangers, people who ask me for help without any introduction, as is the case here. A part of me really is unsure if it is genuine so I am playing it safe.

    I have already, just as you suggested you would do, started checking up. I have begun to find out which academics could possibly be involved and, now that I have a day that is free from work with littlies, biggies and in-betweenies, I hope that I will find time to write some enquiring emails.

    I will keep you informed on my blog of any developments.