Academic writing and “intended misdirection”

I teach a research methods class for graduate students studying applied economics. In order to drive certain points about research and academic writing, I often give my students simple puzzles and brain teasers in class. I used the following today, which is widely known as the Missing Dollar Problem (MDP).

Three men walk into a hotel to rent a single room. The manager says the room costs $30, so each man pays $10. Later that day, the manager realizes that he overcharged for the room by $5; the room should have been $25 rather than $30. He gives the bellhop five $1 bills and asks the bellhop to give the money to the three men in the room. The bellhop is a bit dishonest and puts $2 in his pocket. When the bellhop gets to the room, he hands each man $1. Thus, instead of paying $10 each for the room, each man has now paid $9. Now, $9 paid by three men is $27, which added to the $2 in the bellhop’s pocket makes $29. Where did the extra dollar go?

Teachers can use the MDP to talk about the importance of math or why ethics matters. I use it to illustrate the importance of clarity and honesty in academic writing. The MDP is a problem because of a flaw in how the story is told. It is true that the men paid $27 instead of $30 for the room, but the $2 kept by the bellhop should be subtracted from the $27 rather than added to it. (The room cost $25, so the money returned to them means they paid $27; the difference between the cost of the room and the amount paid is the $2 kept by the bellhop.) In other words, an intended misdirection in the telling of the story resulted in readers having an incorrect understanding of reality.

Unfortunately, pressure exists for academics to produce and publish novel and important results, thus creating an incentive for “intended misdirection.” In extreme cases academics engage in “questionable research practices,” as one report of research on the topic noted, and worse–outright fabrication (see the discussion of Academic Integrity by the National Institutes of Health for examples).

Certainly, academia is not the only industry where “intended misdirection” happens (think lawyers, and politicians, and used car salesmen, and …). But surely academia can do better and should hold to a higher standard. Academic writing needs to be clear, precise and accurate … and honest.

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Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

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