Monday, August 12, 2013

My 'Stupid' Hypothesis


By Biko Agozino

Have you heard the news from the BBC that one of the Boston Bombers was influenced by right wing white supremacist literature and that he was heard to have said that ‘Hitler had a point’? When I hypothesized that there appeared to be a link between that act of terror and racism, a white male senior professor of literature called the hypothesis ‘crazy’ on an African internet discussion group and a Nigerian school administrator who fancies himself as an ‘intellectual’ joined him in attacking a straw man on that newsgroup, claiming that he did not see the hypothesized link between x and y or between racism and terrorism. They could be forgiven because in their line of work, they may never have stated or tested a hypothesis according to the logic of social research.

More seriously, the editor of the newsletter of a professional association of black scholars in May called for articles on campus climates following the Boston bombing and I immediately sent a report of the responses (below) to my hypothesis. The report was accepted for publication with the offer by the editor to reproduce my original blog but when the issue of the newsletter appeared in July, my report was not included and no explanation was offered. I wonder what the colleagues will say now about this BBC report:

A senior white male professor also called my office number on 4/29/13 with heavy breathing. He immediately told me that he thought that my blog post about the Boston Bombing was ‘dumb, stupid, a waste of time’, etc. I thanked him for his time and reminded him that it was only a hypothesis.

After he dropped the phone, I decided to send him an email thanking him again for his time and this email chain ensued. I have only deleted his name and field of specialization for anonymity but the rest of the email exchange is left intact so readers can advise me whether I handled this exchange very well. To read the original hypothesis, please go to:

“Dear colleague,

Thanks for taking time off your busy schedule to discuss my blog post in my office today (4/29/13).

Although you strongly disagree with the original hypothesis which you called crazy, insane, dumb and stupid, I appreciate that you found the time to share your feelings about it.

It is only a hypothesis and if the null hypothesis is supported by the evidence or the original is confirmed, there will be no hard feelings on my part because they are just hypotheses.

Your strong emotional response, however, tells me that I am on to something with the hypothesis that there is a relationship between racism and terrorism and so I may investigate it more broadly. Please check the updated blog post for a NYT linked article that appears to support my original hunch.

As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts and especially for telling me that you consider me a serious scholar.”

Senior Colleague responds instantly:

“I agree that there is a big connection between terrorism and racism, but just not the specific link that you posit. The interpretation that you make is implausible on its face, and it is not falsifiable. Pursuing such an argument is, I believe, correctly described, in the vernacular, as I did. However my description of your argument as crazy, insate, dumb, etc., was not a scientific statement. It did however, use epithets that improperly stereotype the mentally ill, and that was unfortunate.

I read the NY Times article, and it does not contain evidence that your position is correct. Neither does the SALON article that you cite.

I have no hard feelings. When someone who I consider a serious scholar makes a bad argument, I cannot help but respond. I have done that my whole career. In addition, I always respond approvingly to good, solid arguments and to real achievements. In this case, I think this hunch is a real waste of time. Responding in person is not, however. Responding publicly would be gratuitously negative, would take too much time, and would lend legitimacy to the argument."

My response to colleague

“Okay …, but you appear to be falsifying what you just called the 'unfalsifiable' hypothesis. It is more of a question at this stage and not a full argument. The investigation may serve to confirm the null hypothesis in the end. But if the link exists generally as you say, it is not a waste if time to investigate if there is such a link in this specific case. The policy implications are huge enough to encourage us to explore the hunch further. You are of course welcome to disagree.”

Colleague’s response:

“I disagree and do not have much more to say about it. If it falsifiable, say how. Otherwise it is not worth our attention. Affirming the racism terrorism link does not legitimate your argument about the bombing. It is just an off the wall argument unless you can provide more than wild speculation. “

My response:

“Thanks …, I will agree to disagree with you without being disagreeable. I have never seen such an emotional response to a hypothesis as you display. You say that your choice of language is 'unscientific' and stereotypical of insanity but I have no idea why. It is just a hypothesis, calm down and let us hope that the evidence will support the null hypothesis: There is no relationship between x and y. I have no dog in that fight, as Vick would say.”


“I am passionate about the seriousness of what we do. And I can't stand nonsence posing as scholarly or reasoned discourse. And I especially do not think that anybody gets a pass just because they have a degree, position, etc. If it is my nextdoor neighbor, I couldn't care less. When I get old, I will not care anymore about this stuff. But as for now, I will be as reactive about the next piece of unreason as about this one.

p.s. the words "crazy" and "insane" used as I did are epithets and have no place in a serious discussion, and that is why I described my use of them as unfortunate. However, they were accurate in the context of everyday speech, which I should have stayed away from. “

My response:

“Thanks … for your courtesy. Nonsense to you does not mean nonsense to me, fortunately for us all. It is only a hypothesis that you are fuming about, get a grip. Just write a serious rejoinder without your 'unfortunate' choice of words and let us explore the variables further. Supported or rejected by empirical evidence, hypotheses do not deserve so much emotion from a serious … scholar like you.”


“You are allowed to diagnose me, but I can tell you that I am really ok, and you should not worry.

Nonsense is nonsense. I do not like it, and I say so. End of story. Your argument is not worth any more of my time, and it would legitimate a nonsensical argument for me to write a rejoinder. There is no benefit in me thinking about it anymore. I have reacted to you privately, and that is all I plan to do. “


“Thanks again …. No diagnosis on my part. I guess that I am the one who is a little crazy and 'if you walk a mile in my shoes, you will be crazy too with nothing to lose' (Tupac's nonsense). Your nonsense is not mine. End of discussion. See how much valuable time we have spent talking about nonsense? It must make sense enough for such investment of valuable time. Have a good day. I am off to write more stuff that will probably make no sense to you. No apologies. I can't say that I understand everything you write but I respect your right to write them and I do not think that they are insane.”

The next day, I received in my mail box from an anonymous person, a copy of Belinda’s ‘Gaia’ and wondered if it was some kind of apology, but it might just be a coincidence. The English translation that accompanied the Spanish verse says in part:

‘There is no progress in my pride,

I stained the air and my conscience,

I thought I was greater than God with

My intelligence,

So many false vanities,

I forgot what was important

And I was never the owner of your

Rightful inheritance’

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech and the Chair of the Social Policy Committee, Association of Black Sociologists.


rmj said...

Gosh, this was painful to read - did this actually happen (I know it did, but it still seems like something out of a movie)? When two intellectuals get into to 'fight' (no matter how 'politely'), you'd better watch out! I think you both handled yourselves well under the circumstances and the gesture at the end (if it actually was a deliberate gesture) was just the icing on the cake. Beautiful poem.

Odozi Obodo said...

Thanks RMJ for your kind-hearted credulity. Snow happens. Other than editing slightly to disguise the identity of the colleague, this actually took place. Yes, the poem is very reassuring. Desmond Tutu recently said that the first humans who walked upright must have looked stupid to the four-legged ones at first.