Many years ago, I was responsible for a program called Global Issues at the University of Tampa. All freshmen took a Global Issues course. That meant that I was overseeing more than 60 sections of the course each year. I recruited/hired the faculty (depending on whether they were full- or part-time), supervised the team that coordinated the common events and, when the need arose, handled student and parent issues.
I vividly remember one particular student complaint over an F received for a paper he had written in his Global Issues class. The student brought me the paper and insisted that he had earned a much higher grade. The professor, he asserted, was prejudiced against the position he had taken in the paper and had failed him for that reason and no other.
The paper’s thesis: There are no issues whatsoever with providing adequate energy for the world’s inhabitants, now or in the future, because perpetual motion had been invented.
Perpetual motion. You know, that fantasy concept that a machine could be started with a small boost of energy and then would run literally forever without additional energy being added?
Only this claim went a step further, asserting that this perpetual motion device could do work, driving other machines, while continuing to operate forever without any additional energy input.
The claim defies everything we know (okay . . . everything I know, anyway) about physics.
I told him I was intrigued and asked to read his paper. I skimmed it quickly, looking for the sources on which he relied. All but one of them were papers, allegedly technical, published only on the Internet . . . and all by the same sole author, who had “published” them to the Internet himself.
The one exception was a story from a local newspaper in the town in New Zealand where the author of the other papers lived. That story described him as “wacky.”
When I walked the student through his own citations, the light dawned. “So . . . this guy’s just nuts? He made all of this up? And there’s no perpetual motion?”
“I’m afraid that’s what it looks like.”
“So I guess I earned an F.”
“I’m afraid that’s what it looks like, too.”
This experience came to mind as I thought about Governor Scott’s State of the State address and the PolitiFact story on the claim that Florida has four of the nation’s 10 best high schools. The claim gets a “Half True” rating from Politifact.
Politifact’s critique focuses on source credibility, in very much the same way (though Newsweek is a much more credible source than the wacky inventor) as the professor’s critique of the student’s paper.
Politifact’s Half True grading of the claim rests on multiple challenges to the validity of the Newsweek ratings, including sample size, selection criteria (only 5,000 of the nation’s high schools were invited to participate, compared to the 21,000+ covered by the rankings done by US News and World Report) and other methodological concerns raised by education policy experts about all such rankings.
Governor Scott might have earned a True rating if he had simply added the phrase, “According to the Newsweek’s 2013 rankings of the nation’s best high schools, out of more than 2,000 reviewed, . . . “
But . . . that just doesn’t sound like a politician’s speech.
Because, as a practical matter, this more accurate, and consequently more qualified, claim isn’t that strong. It’s nice, but it’s not compelling.
I know it sounds “wonky,” but could I ask our political leaders (of all stripes) to do what I require of my undergraduates? State the claim, but give us the source. And if there is considerable dispute among professionals about the claim, tell us that, too.
That’s dealing honestly with the public and with the consequences of our policy choices.
They’ll get a better grade, too.
Thanks for reading!!!
I’ll be “disconnecting” next week during the University of Tampa’s Spring Break. I’ll be back with fresh thoughts and recharged batteries Monday, March 17.