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“Any old map will do” meets “God is in every leaf of every tree”

As a statistician I am particularly worried about the rhetorical power of anecdotes (even though I use them in my own reasoning; see discussion below). But much can be learned from a true anecdote. The rough edges—the places where the anecdote doesn’t fit your thesis—these are where you learn.

We have recently had a discussion (here and here) of Karl Weick, a prominent scholar of business management who plagiarized a story and then went on to draw different lessons from the pilfered anecdote in several different publications published over many years.

Setting aside an issues of plagiarism and rulebreaking, I argue that, by hiding the source of the story and changing its form, Weick and his management-science audience are losing their ability to get anything out of it beyond empty confirmation.

A full discussion follows.

1. The lost Hungarian soldiers

Thomas Basbøll (who has the unusual (to me) job of “writing consultant” at the Copenhagen Business School) has been writing in different places about the a story that has been making the rounds over the past few decades among organizational sociologists and management consultants. The story started with a discovery that of plagiarism by the eminent scholar Karl Weick but then moved toward a more general exploration of storytelling and belief. (I learned about this example via an email from Basbøll (who had become aware of my interest in plagiarism); it turns out we also have a common interest in the bases of scientific and scholarly ideas.)

From Basbøll’s latest and most historical telling (linked from here, via Basbøll’s blog), supplemented by Wikipedia, I summarize what happened in time order (which is somewhat ahistorical in that it does not represent the order in which Basbøll, and perhaps Weick, learned about these events):

1916: Albert Szent-Györgyi, a medical student in Budapest, serves in World War 1.

1930: Working in Szeged, Hungary, Szent-Györgyi and his colleagues discover vitamin C. In the next several decades, he continues to make research contributions and becomes a prominent scientist, eventually moving to the U.S. after World War 2. He dies in 1986.

1972: Medical researcher Oscar Hechter reports the following in the proceedings of a “an international conference on cell membrane structure,” published in 1972:

Let me close by sharing with you a story told me by Albert Szent-Györgyi. A small group of Hungarian troops were camped in the Alps during the First World War. Their commander, a young lieutenant, decided to send out a small group of men on a scouting mission. Shortly after the scouting group left it began to snow, and it snowed steadily for two days. The scouting squad did not return, and the young officer, something of an intellectual and an idealist, suffered a paroxysm of guilt over having sent his men to their death. In his torment he questioned not only his decision to send out the scouting mission, but also the war itself and his own role in it. He was a man tormented.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, on the third day the long-overdue scouting squad returned. There was great joy, great relief in the camp, and the young commander questioned his men eagerly. “Where were you?” he asked. “How did you survive, how did you find your way back?” The sergeant who had led the scouts replied, “We were lost in the snow and we had given up hope, had resigned ourselves to die. Then one of the men found a map in his pocket. With its help we knew we could find our way back. We made camp, waited for the snow to stop, and then as soon as we could travel we returned here.” The young commander asked to see this wonderful map. It was a map not of the Alps but of the Pyrenees!

The moral of the story, as given by Hechter and by Bernard Pullman at another symposium a year later, is that the map gave the soldiers the confidence to make good decisions. Basbøll writes:

The map of the Pyrenees is like a controversial paper or a tentative model study in science. Whether or not it turns out to be an accurate representation of the “territory” is less important than the stimulus it may provide to further research, argue both Hechter and Pullman.

1977: Immunologist Miroslav Holub publishes a poem (of the prosy, non-rhyming sort) telling the lost-soldiers story (again, crediting Szent-Györgyi) in the Times Literary Supplement, translated from the Czech. Holub may have actually attended the meeting reported on by Hechter.

1982: Robert Swieringa and Karl Weick publish an article including a nearly word-for-word transcription of Holub’s poem, but not using quotation marks or acknowledging Holub at all, presenting the story as “an incident that happened,” and placing the event (implausibly) in Switzerland.

“Sometime in the mid-1980s”: Weick tells the story to Bob Engel, a “top Wall Street executive” who “was about to take leadership of a new strategic planning group at Morgan Guaranty.” The moral of the story: “When you are lost, any old map will do.”

1995: Weick writes:

What is interesting about Engel’s twist to the story is that he has described a situation that most leaders face. Followers are often lost and even the leader is not sure where to go. All the leaders know is that the plan or the map they have in front of them are not sufficient to get them out. What the leader has to do, when faced with this situation, is instill some confidence in people, get them moving some general direction, and be sure they look closely at cues created by their actions so that they learn where they were and get some better idea of where they are and where they want to be.

2005: Barbara Czarniawska reports on a 1998 talk:

“If any old map will do to help you find your way out of the Alps,” Weick had said, “then surely any old story will do to help you find your way out of puzzles in the human condition.”

As Basbøll notes, the moral of the story keeps changing! In the earliest known tellings (by Hechter and Pullman), the only clear role of the map was to calm the soldiers os they could find their way back to camp on their own. By 1998 (or 2005), the map has an actual instrumental use. What is creepy (to me) is that the story has changed from a story about people using an external device (the map) as a way to calm themselves and make a reasoned course of action, to a parable about savvy managers (“leaders”) who can manipulate their underlings, to the conclusion that “any old story will do,” a claim that makes the original events (or non-events) irrelevant and would seem to me to encourage a form of scholarship that does nothing but confirm people’s preconceptions.

This is where we come to the point about anecdotes that I discussed in the three paragraphs at the start of the post.

2006: Basbøll and Henrik Graham uncover the Weick plagiarism. Various scholars engage in discussion of the case over the next several years.

Full circle

Going beyond questions of plagiarism and scholarly ethics, the Szent-Györgyi/Holub/Weick story is relevant for our discussion because it sheds (anecdotal) light on the relevance of anecdotal reasoning and the nature of evidence. Weick’s misrepresentation of Holub’s texts suggests how such flexible uses of stories can lend themselves to flexible conclusions. Reliance on anecdotes is already iffy because of selection problems, but when the stories can be altered, the concepts of confirmation and falsification are turned on their head. (Weick and his ilk may very well argue that his stories are not evidence but merely entry points for involving the audience to think about his deeper principles, but then this just pushes the question back one step: What, then, is the evidence for those principles, and what is the role of anecdotes in the translation of principles to the outside world?)

2. Which leaf on which tree are you talking about?

I was giving a talk the other day to a group of statistics graduate students, on the subject of connections between teaching and research, and I mentioned one of my favorite sayings, “God is in every leaf of every tree.” What this means is that if you study any problem carefully and seriously enough, you will come to interesting statistical research problems.

If you’ve been reading this far, the above paragraph should sound familiar. The meta-statistical principle that “God is in every leaf of every tree” is very close to Weick’s “any old story will do to help you find your way out of puzzles in the human condition.”

Now, though, let me explore the differences as well as the similarities between the two quotes. In the leaf/tree scenario, it is important—crucial—that the statistician or scientist look carefully at the particular leaf in question. By carefully trying to resolve the contradictions involved in a single sampling problem, or a single causal inference, or a single dataset, or (in Holub’s field of immunology), a single medical patient, we might take ourselves along the path to a general solution—or at least a recognition and better understanding of a problem with the current scientific formulation. But you have to study the actual leaf! Studying an abstract leaf, or a secondhand story about a leaf, won’t do the trick. Constructing the leaf from a research hypothesis, or altering the leaf to fit the hypotheses, won’t give you as much (although you can still learn something, for example if you take care to note how many changes you needed to make to keep your audience happy).

Similarly, the history of the various misrepresentations and changes to Szent-Györgyi’s story, as related and interpreted by Basbøll, give some sense of the various uses that the story has been put. Each telling comes with its own “moral” or message.

3. The methodological attribution problem

One of my meta-principle of statistics, which in my published discussion of an article of Brad Efron I call the “methodological attribution problem”:

The many useful contributions of a good statistical consultant, or collaborator, will often be attributed to the statistician’s methods or philosophy rather than to the artful efforts of the statistician himself or herself. Don Rubin has told me that scientists are fundamentally Bayesian (even if they do not realize it), in that they interpret uncertainty intervals Bayesianly. Brad Efron has talked vividly about how his scientific collaborators find permutation tests and p-values to be the most convincing form of evidence. Judea Pearl assures me that graphical models describe how people really think about causality. And so on. I am sure that all these accomplished researchers, and many more, are describing their experiences accurately. Rubin wielding a posterior distribution is a powerful thing, as is Efron with a permutation test or Pearl with a graphical model, and I believe that (a) all three can be helping people solve real scientific problems, and (b) it is natural for their collaborators to attribute some of these researchers’ creativity to their methods.
The result is that each of us tends to come away from a collaboration or consulting experience with the warm feeling that our methods really work, and that they represent how scientists really think. In stating this, I am not trying to espouse some sort of empty pluralism—the claim that, for example, we would be doing just as well if we were all using fuzzy sets, or correspondence analysis, or some other obscure statistical method. There is certainly a reason that methodological advances are made, and this reason is typically that existing methods have their failings. Nonetheless, I think we all have to be careful about attributing too much from our collaborators’ and clients’ satisfaction with our methods.

As suggested in my discussion, I came to this meta-principle through my indirect experiences of hearing various researchers talk about the efficacy of their statistical methods. Theoreticians and methodologists often have extreme confidence in their approaches, and applied researchers often have what seems to me to be oddly strong opinions about statistical methods.

Playing tennis without a map

As the saying goes, research is when you don’t know what you’re doing. We don’t have maps; much of research can’t be automated. In the spirit of Weick’s writings, let me say that statistical models and scientific theories can play useful roles even when far off from the truth.

I discussed this a few days ago in the context of the two-edged nature of belief. On the one hand, belief is powerful. By conditioning on assumptions, we can rule out alternatives and move quickly and surely. But belief is risky, especially since all of our beliefs, if stated precisely enough, our false. The resolution is that we can use the strength and power of beliefs to better study their limitations.

From a statistical (and philosophy-of-science) perspective, strong assuptions play two roles: First, with strong assumps we can (often) make strong and precise inferences. The likelihood function is a powerful thing. Second, strong assumptions are strongly checkable and falsifiable. We take our models seriously, work with them as if we believe them unquestioningly, then use the leverage from this simulation of belief to check model fit and explore discrepancies between inferences and data.

4. Building up a store of anecdotes

One difference between academic statistics and the academic study of management (as embodied by Karl Weick) is that applied statisticians such as myself live in the world of “tabletop experiments” (as they say in physics) whereas Weick (and, I assume, other scholars of his field) do “big science.” What I mean is that I work on lots of little problems and a few big ones, whereas Weick has a couple of main areas of focus. I have built up a huge store of personal anecdotes about statistics, whereas Weick must largely rely on the anecdotes of others. I’m David Sedaris, he’s Jay Leno (not the best analogy here; what would be a better example of a storyteller who uses recycled stories but tells them well?). Weick represents storytelling as an important part of his style, which puts him at a particular dependence on interpreting events that did not happen to him.

I’m not saying that I’m better than Weick in this dimension; we’re just different. A historian of the Middle Ages, for example, would have no directly relevant personal experience at all. That’s just the way it is!

Getting back to the comparison: I really do use anecdotes as evidence, as well as to illustrate existing principles. My hundreds of statistical experiences have been important in the development of my ideas. This shows up even in my published papers and in how I evaluate the methodological contributions of others: I typically trust an idea to the extent that it helps solve what seems to me to be a real applied problem.

Weick is in a different situation: he uses stories to grab his audience and perhaps to inspire him to come up with new theories or modification of existing theories. For Weick, anecdotes play the role of the map in his some of his interpretations of Szent-Györgyi’s story: It’s ok if you get the details and sourcing wrong, all that matters that it motivates you to move forward. As noted, that approach would not work in statistical research (or, I suspect, in medical research) because it would deprive us of the opportunity to learn from anecdotes’ specific features. Maybe it’s ok in Weick’s area of management research, as long as the stories and their alterations are accurately sourced.

5. Putting it all together

I have discussed several themes relating to the use of anecdotes in scientific learning. It’s easy to laugh at anecdotes, but I recognize that they are crucial in my meta-statistical understanding. That is, much of my judgment about what methods to use, comes from my own personal experiences. I suspect that many people without my breadth of statistical experience are still relying on it indirectly through my books and articles.

In other fields, though, anecdotes play a different role, and their truth or falsity, even their sources, do not seem to be so important. But I am make this judgment based on anecdotal evidence. All of this is also related, I believe, to out recent discussions of the problems of scientific publications, statistical significance, and so forth.

In particular, all of this is related to model checking. Anecdotes with accurate sourcing can reveal problems in a model, whereas when you start altering an anecdote and hiding its source, you lose a key opportunity for learning. This relates to the much-discussed selection problems in quantitative research.

6. The mysterious move to Switzerland

One of the few things that Weick adds along with his plagiarism of the Holub poem is to place the action, identified only as Hungarian soldiers in the Alps, in Switzerland. What were Hungarian troops doing in Switzerland, one might ask? My guess, following Nick Cox’s comment on our earlier discussion, is simple ignorance: Weick is American, and when we hear about the Alps, we automatically think “the Swiss Alps.” When we think about World War 1, we think about western Europe. Perhaps Weick in 1982 did not realize that not all the Alps are in Switzerland, nor was he primed to reflect upon the location of the theater of the war involving Austria-Hungary and Italy. This small error is irrelevant to the use of the story as a management parable—Weick could just as well have used a clearly fictional example such as that of Winnie the Pooh or the Sneeches or Yoruga la Tortuga (I imagine that the sort of managers who would hire a sociologist in the first place would love the morals of those stories!)—but it demonstrates the risks of copying a story without attribution. The deadly combination of word-for-word quotation and gratuitous error (as in the notorious case where Ed Wegman copied 2^n and it came out as 2n) reveals an ignorance of the underlying material, leading outsiders such as myself to question the scholar’s competence as well as his integrity.

32 Comments

  1. MIchael says:

    “example of a storyteller who uses recycled stories but tells them well”
    Shakespeare

    • David Manheim says:

      Slightly more modern, and possibly less useful, Youtube.

      And I’d suggest Geoffrey Chaucer (Canterbury Tales) as a better pick; Chaucer ripped off stories more cleanly, instead of rewriting tales from scratch.

      • Nick Cox says:

        In general, the further back you go, the more emphasis there seems to be on a storyteller being one who re-tells existing stories (and ideally retells them _well_). It may be that the idea that you should tell a _new_ story is relatively recent, perhaps emerging most clearly in the 17th/18th centuries.

        Someone will now put me firmly in my place by identifying an enormous literature on this kind of point.

  2. John Mashey says:

    1) ’1995: Weick writes:
    What is interesting about Engel’s twist to the story is that he has described a situation that most leaders face. Followers are often lost and even the leader is not sure where to go. All the leaders know is that the plan or the map they have in front of them are not sufficient to get them out. What the leader has to do, when faced with this situation, is instill some confidence in people, get them moving some general direction, and be sure they look closely at cues created by their actions so that they learn where they were and get some better idea of where they are and where they want to be.’

    This is actually OK management advice, although not very deep. Silicon Valley is home to a horde of ferociously-competitive companies, many of whom are quite fast moving, always having to make decisions under uncertainty, some fraught with great risk. There is *constant* tension in decision-making between:
    a) Doing more analysis of existing information.
    b) Expecting some relevant new data to arrive and purposefully waiting for it.
    c) Making a decision with incomplete information, knowing that the wrong one may put your company out of business, either quickly or after a delay of a few years. It certainly works best if a leader makes a firm decision and moves, since success often depends on a lot of people believing and working hard. Google: steve jobs reality distortion field

    People have often designed products that would take several years to bring to market, that would incorporate components (sometimes unique) from multiple suppliers, and that might have to live in an unintended market or standards environment. For instance, sometimes the decision to build some computer product due in 2 years hinged on the promise of some supplier that a component they were designing would be in volume production at the right time. Were they right? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Of course, bigger companies are more resilient, but it is unsurprising that most startups fail.

    Some bad decisions can wipe you out … but of course, “paralysis by analysis” is guaranteed to be slow death. On occasion, it may actually be better for the leader to flip a coin and then show great confidence in the result.

    2) One minor nit:
    ‘notorious case where Ed Wegman copied 2^n and it came out as 2n) …’

    We do not *know* that, since the paper was Said and Wegman(2009). Wegman’s name was on it, so he shares responsibility, but if I had to guess who actually copied the text, I’d say Yasmin Said. It’s hard to know with multi-author papers, but there are enough other examples to make me lean that way. Of course, with 80+ pages (p.4) identified so far among Wegman and/or his students, exactly who did what may be a moot point.

    • Thomas says:

      “On occasion, it may actually be better for the leader to flip a coin and then show great confidence in the result.”

      That’s of course true for the reasons you state. The problem is that we don’t know in advance which occasions, and Weick doesn’t help us to sort situations where false maps “will do” from ones where they’ll lead you off a cliff. It’s important to keep in mind that Weick’s argument is most often taken to be cognitive (that’s what the “cues” are about), so he’s not telling leaders to “show” confidence, he’s actually giving them confidence. His 1982 paper “Affirmation as Inquiry” makes that point explicitly, saying that presidents should not be warned of the dangers of their actions but should be given confidence in their actions. That’s why I find that conversation with Engel so disturbing. It shows the sense in which social science “underwrote” the financial crisis. Wall Street had a great deal of confidence in their models and no particular interest in finding out whether they were actually maps of Mars. And Weick was giving them all the encouragement he could.

      • Andrew says:

        Thomas:

        Sure, but to be fair, Weick was probably being paid pretty well for that advice, so these bankers should’ve known to discount his words of soothing reassurance. (I say this as someone who’s given paid corporate lectures myself.)

        • Thomas says:

          Yes, that’s why in one of my early papers on this I used Jacob Brackman’s 1967 piece on “the put on” as an epigraph:

          ‘[The put-on artist] doesn’t deal in isolated little tricks; rather, he has developed a pervasive style of relating to others that perpetually casts what he says into doubt. The put-on is an open-end form. That is to say, it is rarely climaxed by having the truth set straight—when a truth, indeed, exists. “Straight” discussion, when one of the participants is putting the others on, is soon subverted and eventually sabotaged by uncertainty. His intentions, and his opinions, remain cloudy.’

          So, yes, the bankers willingly let themselves be put on. Everything gets cloudy. Just the way the bankers wanted it, I would argue.

      • John Mashey says:

        Yes , I agree, which is why I said “not deep.”
        Maybe I should have used stronger words. I used to give talks on relevant criteria for sorting decisions in software projects, the merits of planning for fast/cheap failures, willingness to lose scouts to avoid sending the software army over the cliff, etc. That was 30 years ago, in talks done in Bell Labs. software engineering project management course.

        I’d never heard of Weick before, but I have certainly encountered management consultants like this.
        Maybe they actually deliver deeper material, or maybe this is news to some entities, or maybe people just get hired to tell management what they want to hear (finance?)

        But the idea that one would hide the dangers from a President… Eek.

  3. K? O'Rourke says:

    Might have something to do with whether you wish to confuse folks (unfreeze from attached concepts) versus block confusion (re-freeze to your proposed concepts)

    e.g. create disorder versus salience for the representation/model

  4. zbicyclist says:

    Maybe this is a completely off the point, BUT

    1. Why the heck would a Hungarian be carrying a map of the Pyrenees? I can understand having a map of some other part of the Alps, or maybe the Carpathians, sure. But the Pyrenees?

    2. I am not convinced by the contention that a map of the Pyranees would be useless in the Alps. The map was a map of a mountainous area. Certain features tend to occur in similar terrain. For example, cities tend to be in valleys, often where streams flow together. Where a ridge line ends, you may find a stream (and so forth). So even a map of a similar terrain would provide cues that young soldiers might not know on their own (particularly since a good part of Hungary is on a plain.) A map of the Moon would not have provided the same guidance.

    In management terms, point #2 is similar to reasoning by analogy, which is common in novel, uncertain circumstances — both in management and in statistical consulting. But not all analogies are created equal.

  5. Paul Alper says:

    Regarding instilling confidence even when unfounded, note this from http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/1854795295
    #####
    A BBC broadcaster described once sitting next to Churchill as he gave a speech, keeping his audience hanging on to his every word. The broadcaster noticed, howver, that what appeared to be notes in Churchill’s hand was only a laundry slip, and he later remarked upon this to Churchill. “Yes”, said Churchill. “It gave confidence to my audience.”
    #####
    While John Molloy (author of Dress for Success)is perhaps not as well known as Winston Churchill, according to http://www.thedressforsuccesscolumn.com/?page_id=6,
    “While working in a Connecticut prep school Molloy participated in a government-funded education research program. He chose to study the effect teachers clothing had on learning in the classroom. His research proved that what teachers wore substantially affected their credibility and authority. While these findings were largely ignored by the educational establishment, they immediately attracted the attention of the business community.”
    A pity we know nothing about the way Szent-Györgyi dresses. However, I would be willing to wager that Karl Weick had snappier duds. In case you doubt that assertion, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Szent-Gy%C3%B6rgyi to see what a Hungarian soldier wore in 1917 Italy.

  6. Bill Harris says:

    I once heard Tufte speak about the “PGP” process for teaching (and I think he passed out an article by Mosteller describing it, so I think it was due to him). PGP stands for Particular-General-Particular: open a talk or lecture with a particular story to grab people’s attention, move to the general theory, and close with another particular story to cement the ideas in people’s minds.

    While I see power in stories, I see danger, too, and I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of stories (anecdotes) not supported by documented data. Yes, you can obfuscate good documentation in jargon to make it useless. Done willingly, I think that’s even worse than using unsupportable stories badly. If done inadvertently, someone at least has a chance to make sense of it.

  7. David Huelsbeck says:

    There is a less well known story of a similarly situated Italian patrol that occurred around the same time as the original story. Sadly for the Italians, who also followed their map of the Pyranees, they did not happen to chance upon the rest of their unit and, as a consequence, froze to death. The story is perhaps less well known because none survived to tell the tale, or so I hear.

  8. Nick Cox says:

    Focusing on the last section, why Switzerland, and so forth:

    Andrew reports what he calls “My guess”. Andrew, in what sense is this “your” guess?

    1. You thought through this yourself previously and are now reporting your analysis.

    2. You have taken note of previous discussion on this blog and are now aligning yourself with that too, i.e. the sense is that of “my guess, and that of others too, naturally”.

    3. As above, but with reference to previous discussion of the Weick case outside this blog.

    4. Something else, or you choose a wording.

    I am not trying to trap Andrew here. The ongoing context, as even casual observers of this blog should know, is that Andrew is very severe on plagiarism. Once again, to try to stop myself being misquoted, I want to emphasise that I hate it too.

    But section 6 contains no references whatsoever to anybody else’s prior discussion. Are you claiming to be reporting a fresh analysis in section 6 that no one else came up with?

    The simple point is most of us write things like “My guess”, but when other people said the same thing too, what does it mean?

    • Andrew says:

      Nick:

      1. When I quote someone word for word, I use quotation marks.

      2. When I write “I think” or “I guess,” these thoughts or guesses are conditional on whatever information I have available, including what I have read.

      3. In this particular case, my guess regarding the Switzerland claim is just that, my guess. i emphasized that it was my guess in order to make clear that the guess was not based on any other information. Weick may very well be a cosmopolitan guy, but I have the impression that for many Americans, “the Alps” = “the Swiss Alps.”

      • Nick Cox says:

        That’s fair enough by me.

        But I just think you are laying yourself open to accusations of plagiarism by writing in this way. Plagiarism is presenting others’ ideas as if they were your own. Whether words were copied verbatim is a key detail but not the main point. As said I am not trying to trap you. I just want to point out that your own writing is open to criticism on this point, on which you are so often so critical of others.

        • Andrew says:

          Nick:

          Feel free to criticize—but it would be helpful to have a specific example of actual plagiarism that I’ve done, rather than merely an indirect comment that somebody else could accuse me of the offense. I can’t think of a single case in which I’ve presented others’ ideas as my own, but I’ve written a lot, so maybe I slipped up somewhere and didn’t properly acknowledge. If so, just let me know of the specific case; I have difficulty trying to respond to hypotheticals.

          (The closest I can think of is the cover of Red State Blue State, which has my name and not my couathors’. I think the acknowledgment is clear enough, though, as all five authors are on the cover page, and I was the organizer of the project and wrote almost every word of the book. In retrospect, I wish we’d put all five authors on the cover as well, but I don’t think I misrepresented others’ work as my own.)

          • Nick Cox says:

            I thought that is exactly what I have just done. The key words of Section 6 include “My guess”. You give no references and do not even allude to earlier comments or discussions of the points you make.

            Surely to goodness you know that critics go on what you say, not on what you meant to say, what you claim you would have written if you wrote more carefully, what you would say is referenced elsewhere, or what is defensible as standard stuff or what anyone with any intelligence could say. Suitably jaundiced critics (not me) could attack that section as claiming originality to which it has little or no right.

            That would be a fairly trivial criticism, to be sure, but I am making a point of principle here.

          • Andrew says:

            Nick:

            I confess to being completely baffled by this exchange. I had a guess and I wrote “my guess.” This is not presenting others’ ideas as if they were my on. On the contrary, it was my idea, and given that it had no direct support from any data, I wanted to emphasize that it was my guess and not an implied statement of fact. If you consider that paragraph of my blog post to be plagiarism, I think you are holding a view that is very much in the minority.

  9. K? O'Rourke says:

    Andrew, regarding “unusual (to me) job of “writing consultant”.

    The director of one of my former clinical research groups, tried to hire one but was unsuccessful.

    His motivation came after having an editor wrecked one of his papers: “had it been better written when submitted, I would not have to spend all this time now fixing this mess the editor has created”.

    Also, Basbøll’s ideas on “coaching” (on his blog) made a lot of sense.

    I have always wondering why there is not more methodological/statistical and computational coaching being made available for academic groups.

    • Thomas says:

      I should clarify that I’m no longer employed as a writing consultant at the Copenhagen Business School. After about five years there, I decided to go freelance. But I still do recommend that research institutions get themselves a “resident writing consultant”, i.e., an in-house language editor and writing coach. There are a lot of things that academics in all fields (including natural and social science and the humanities) misunderstand about the craft of writing, which makes everything much more difficult than it sounds. Having someone around to keep writers on track can be a really good idea. Do check out my blog and/or drop me a line if you want to learn more.

  10. Claire says:

    The slow altering of the soldiers’ story to suit the tellers’ purposes reminds me of Baudrillard’s rants about the hyperreal. It’s natural to want to fit an anecdote to your data or management lesson, but when people start believing revisions of revisions of the original, the importance of the latter, and of history at all, comes into question.

  11. Ben Bolker says:

    Can’t reply to the Nick Cox/Andrew Gelman thread above because it’s too deeply nested, but I think Nick Cox is referring to this: http://andrewgelman.com/2012/04/another-day-another-plagiarist/#comment-79155 , in which Nick says ‘It seems more likely to me that somebody (Weick, perhaps) just remembered “Alps” and automatically associated the Alps with Switzerland’, which is pretty close to Andrew’s ‘My guess is simple ignorance: Weick is American, and when we hear about the Alps, we automatically think “the Swiss Alps.”’ Independent, or unconscious?

    • Andrew says:

      Ben:

      When I write, “My guess,” I don’t mean that I own the guess. I mean that it’s my guess based on what information I have. The point of saying “my guess” was not to claim ownership but rather to make it clear that it’s merely a guess, not anything based on any particularly reliable information.

      P.S. To clarify, I added a link to Nick’s comment.

  12. Nick Cox says:

    I see no votes here, and in any case am wary of counting votes on such matters.

    I have evidently failed to make my point clear to Andrew, and will not pursue it further.

  13. Lee Sechrest says:

    Montaigne (ca 1560, Volume 1 in my paper edition) wrote that when he read something written by another person, like Plato, and understood and believed it, that something became his own thinking (intellectual property?), and he did not feel any need to attribute the ideas to someone else.
    I deplore plagiarism when I come to know of it, but unless the issue involves the exact terminology without quotes, uncertainty prevails. I, for example, was greatly influenced early in my career by Don Campbell, who said and wrote many important and memorable things. I have often, luckily, quoted him accurately and way more often paraphrased him, all without attribution. My students and close colleagues, of course, have known of my association with Campbell, and perhaps that accounts for an implicit attribution. I would bet a lot that Andrew’s students and colleagues have done the same, borrowed shamelessly from his personal intellectual domain.
    I recently found that I have been quoted (with attribution) in a book for something I said, which was, in fact, the punch line of an old joke. I had acknowledged to joke in my own article, but it is embarrassing to be quoted for something so trivial.

  14. David says:

    Not really germane, except to the title, but I can’t resist quoting E.A. Robinson:

    “God slays himself with every leaf that falls.”

  15. [...] or Campbell Brown. Academic researchers, though, have a tradition of thoughtful dialogue (with some exceptions). I appreciate Hastie’s thoughtful [...]

  16. Enrico says:

    One thing that I think might be important to point out is that the work of Weick is in no way typical of Management research. This is actually why he is so successful: he produces ideas that are often controversial and provocative, and which are sometimes at odds with conventional wisdom.

    That is why-apart from the plagiarism issue, on which I agree with you 100%-I think that work such as that of Weick plays an important role in a research community ecosystem: you need those people that are good writers and can stimulate the creativity of other researchers in any discipline. Oftentimes they are not the most rigorous, but they still add something important to the discussion. I see Weick’s anecdotes just as rhetorical devices to get the conversation started (a hook, so to speak), and not as evidence for the theory that is being presented.

  17. [...] connects to something that Basbøll and I have been discussing a lot lately: the importance of specificity in stories, the idea that, even if a story is used [...]

  18. [...] a long and interesting post on storytelling in science, Andrew Gelman makes the following remark about some famous [...]