Your Proposals, Visuals, and Annotated Bibliographies are due today by 11:00 pm
Plan for Today
- Analyzing Ethics
- “How to Lie with Statistics” by Darrel Huff
We could study ethics related to technical communication for an entire semester much like many of our other topics. Unfortunately, we only have time to scratch the surface. Many overlook ethics in technical communication because they mistakenly see “technical communication” as transmitting “truth” from the expert (engineer, scientist, or technician) to the reader. However, like all communication, we must make choices concerning what to include and what not to include…hmm…that can get a bit tricky.
- If you include something, why?
- All writers/communicators pick and choose what to include in a message.
- If you don’t include something, why not?
- Additionally, all writers/communicators pick and choose what not to include in a message.
- The act of picking and choosing what to convey and how to convey it makes it difficult to claim any communication is 100% objective.
- Do you have a naturally bias-free disposition?
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s look at how ethics form. I hope if you haven’t had a class related to ethics in your major, you soon will. I’d hate to be your only “ethical” perspective in college. Let’s jump on over to our ethical analysis webpage.
Ethical Dilemmas for You
Take a look at these dilemmas for class. To whom are technical communicators responsible in business settings? Are there any non-business technical writing (or communicating) settings?
And what class assignment would be complete without having a homework assignment to follow up? Exactly–none. Here’s your Ethical Dilemmas Assignment–due Wednesday 6/17.
Ch. 3 “Writing Ethically”
Let’s breeze through Ch. 3 (a very short chapter) and then move on to think critically about statistical (mis)use. Below are some important aspects of the chapter:
- Review the various groups to whom you’re obligated professionally (pp. 31-32).
- Tebeaux & Dragga mention that “Typically, none of your choices will be entirely satisfactory, and from time to time all your choices will be unsatisfactory” (p. 32). One goal of your college education is to learn to deal with ambiguity, and a sign of maturity is to deal with situations that aren’t black and white. We have to learn to deal with gray areas.
- Or, as Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones put it (paraphrasing): “Everyone is a little disappointed, so that must mean the decision was correct.”
- Codes of Conduct
- Various professional organizations require adherence to codes of conduct. These codes can be rather formal like the ones defined by “the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants or…the American Medical Association” (p. 35).
- Although we talk about legal gray areas, violating these codes of conduct can be pretty clear evidence of liability in litigation brought against you or your organization.
- Ethical Communication
- “Writing clear, accurately, and effectively is a crucial part of your job. And once a document leaves your control, it takes on a life of its own” (p. 36)
- Notice that Tebeaux & Dragga mention “deliberately using imprecise or ambiguous language, manipulating statistics, using misleading visuals,…and distributing misinformation” are unethical (p. 36).
- Furthermore, “promoting prejudice” is also unethical, and there is no shortage of the kinds of trouble people and organizations have gotten into–especially lately–because they promoted prejudice (p. 36).
- Obviously, passing off work as your own without proper credit being given to the original source is plagiarism. However, that’s not all that falls under plagiarism, and it’s your job to make sure you’re appropriately citing material and/or using copyrights, trademarks, and brand standards with permission.
Chapter 3 has a good discussion on manipulating data and illustrations (pp. 39-41). Darrel Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics” is a classic example of data manipulation, so please read that before tomorrow.
Readings for Analysis
Usually, I bring up the following reading around Halloween, but it’s interesting to consider in terms of statistics:
The above article uses statistics to debunk vampires and zombies. Although zombies exist metaphorically (see Black Friday shoppers), they’re fictional representations making social commentary, so we can critique those narratives based on artistic as opposed to scientific merits. The same is true about vampires; however, I think the above article misses an important factor about vampires when stating, “if a vampire sucked one person’s blood each month–turning each victim into an equally hungry vampire–after a couple of years there would be no people left, just vampires” (“Vampires and Zombie,” 31 Oct. 2006).
- What if the vampire bite didn’t always turn a victim into a vampire but killed them?
- What if vampires could live off animals?
- What about feeding off of already dead people?
- How about if they robbed blood banks, so they drank blood but never bit a human?
Sometimes even science can’t answer the most important questions in life.
Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance Selection
Below I have a discussion about a statistic from Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (1992)–on Canvas. The overall point isn’t to debunk evidence of the Earth warming; instead, it is about our (social, perhaps) commitment to facts, figures, and statistics.
The Al Gore excerpt is relevant for our next discussion on statistics, but I wanted to use it as an introduction for critically thinking about statistics and the false equivalence fallacy.
- Gore explains that the scientific community is overwhelmingly in agreement that Global Warming (he wrote this in 1992) is happening, yet some people want “equal time” devoted to the other side, the group that rejects the Earth is warming because of human activity. Gore’s point is that it’s misleading to give the opposition “equal time” because doing so implies there’s more doubt than there is or that both perspectives have the same amount of support. Again, overwhelming evidence, supported by the scientific community, demonstrates the Earth is warming. The small fringe group of scientists shouldn’t get “equal time” because that actually distorts the scientific view.
- Gore also does something that’s misleading, but it doesn’t really take away from the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming. He states “when 98 percent of the scientists in a given field share one view and 2 percent disagree, both viewpoints are sometimes presented in a format in which each appears equally credible” (pp. 38-39; emphasis added).
- I’m not trying to debunk global warming or claim Gore is way off base with his claims. If anything, the fact that his source is nearly 30 years old, and we’re feeling the effects of global warming (now called “climate change”) proves his reporting was correct.
- However, Gore uses percentages to describe a scientific field’s agreement and disagreement regarding global warming. His percentages aren’t real. By “real” I mean they aren’t a survey of all scientists or a representative sample of scientists in climate science. If they do represent a survey or other enumeration, he doesn’t provide evidence.
- Again, I’m not refuting the idea that humans are causing the Earth to warm. I only want to point out that Gore is using 98 percent in ways that we might in everyday conversation, which doesn’t follow strict scientific verification.
- How often have you claimed, “99% of the time, I take an Uber if I go out drinking”; or “90% of the time, I’m happy with my spouse/partner/significant other”?
- We say “99% of the time…” quite often when we really mean the following: “My perception is that I overwhelmingly do something very often.” We can’t possibly quantify all our habits in such precise percentages, so our claims or “99%” can’t be taken literally.
The takeaway here is to be careful when presenting statistics or what you hope to pass off as “overwhelming evidence” by grabbing a random “98%, 99%, 99.9%, etc.” out of thin air when your audience expects quantifiable evidence gathered appropriately according to the field’s adherence to the scientific method.
Keep Up with the Syllabus
We’ll continue our discussion on ethics tomorrow (6/16). If you haven’t read Darrel Huff’s “How to Lie with Statistics,” do so before the final–it’s on Canvas.
After tomorrow, all that’s left is for you to put together your portfolio revisions, do your presentations, and study for the final exam. Your Portfolios are due this Thursday, 6/18. I have presentation guidelines up, but I need to know if you want to do the presentation one of two ways:
- by video you upload to Canvas
- via Webex during our original class meeting time of 11:0-12:30 pm
I have a survey on Canvas I’d like you to do by Thursday, 6/18 at 5:00 pm. The survey asks you to commit to one of the options above, so I can plan for a Webex meeting for those who want to do their presentation live.