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Background / My problem:

I believe to have found a substantial error in my professor's original research. After getting answers to my previous question, I emailed her about it, but she was dismissive. Of course, I could be wrong and it is very possible that I am. My professor seemed not interested at all to talk to me though, so I cannot discuss this with her further.

It is not a factual error, but an error that concerns the logic of her argument. To simplify, I think that she says that both P & -P. This is not obvious at first, and it becomes apparent only after some entangling of her whole argument.

The field is small:

Now, I do not personally know anyone who is interested this field. The field is very small and I can assume that pretty much everyone knows my professor and that my professor knows pretty much everyone too and that they talk.

What do I do now? / How do I get feedback?

Ideally I would like to get feedback from other experts. Maybe I am wrong. I am happy to be wrong, but I need to understand why. I could maybe email them, but I am not sure how responsive they would be.

Also, I am worried now that if I ask other people to have a look, my professor will hear of that. She will then know that I did not take her dismissal seriously, and am working on a paper. How would I go about this? I am worried to look like a backstabber, esp. if I email other people and say "Look, I believe I have found an error in Professor XXXX work" after my professor already told me it is not an error. If I do something like this, I would also be especially worried that should I be wrong, all of this will be very embarrassing for me.

PS: This concerns original research, not a textbook. I am in the Humanities. Please give me a chance, even if you believe that I am probably wrong,

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    You should know that this site (unfortunately) is very heavily stacked away from the humanities in terms of the participants' academic fields. For me (a mathematician with some cultural awareness of the humanities). I would be interested to hear a bit more about the nature of the "substantial error." Some might say that "there is no such thing as an error in the humanities"...but not me. However, definitely "substantial error" will mean something different in your academic field than mine. Could you please clarify? – Pete L. Clark May 12 '16 at 13:29
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    @K.Schaffer Have you considered phrasing things as "Could you help me understand X" instead of "I found an error in X"? The former is far more likely to get a positive, non-defensive response. – Fomite May 12 '16 at 18:30
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    @Fomite All of these were mentioned in the OP's prior question. – jpmc26 May 12 '16 at 21:16
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    Also, what was the nature of the dismissive answer? Something along the lines "no, that is fine"? "that is irrelevant"? – Davidmh May 16 '16 at 10:07
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In this case, you should consider iterating with you professor again. Perhaps in person, rather through email (the explanation could be lengthy and that might be the reason why your professor was dismissive). You should also consider changing your approach, try to assume that the original research is correct and from that standpoint approach your professor for an explanation (again a situation when a personal approach might be better than an electronic one - the tone of your email might be misunderstood). You can then guide the discussion toward the issues you see.

If all the above fails, I would still hesitate to go to other people (whether in the field or not) with the attitude "My professor made a mistake and refuses to discuss it with me, I need you to confirm for me that I'm right". You course in this case is to learn as much as possible about the area and determine for yourself whether or not there was a mistake. During these actions you can and should ask and discuss your work with as many people as possible.

With original research it is often the case that even experienced researchers need to follow the above path (although their's is shorter than a student's) to state whether or not something is wrong.

  • thanks. i did not mean to tell people that my professor is wrong and dismissive about it. I was just talking about going to someone else with a paper which criticises my professors work. I'm not sure if my professor would be amused about this, but I would like to have some feedback and she wont give it to me. Shall I just not do this then? – K. Schaffer May 12 '16 at 15:19
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    Second the talk to her in person. Almost all professors have some sort of office hours. Just go with the attitude of I don't understand this could you explain it to me. – gtwebb May 12 '16 at 18:22
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Approach the professor with some variation of this statement:

Could you help me understand my mistake?

In other words, assume you are wrong and approach the disagreement with that attitude. You should do so even though you think you are correct.

Why?

1. Humility and Respect

From the way you phrase and respond to things in this question and the preceding one, I think you have a small problem being humble, which goes hand in hand with being respectful. This isn't a slight of any kind; it's something I struggle with personally. I understand just how difficult it can be. Many other people do as well (maybe even a vast majority of people), and a lot of people with this problem aren't aware of it or have no interest in addressing it.

But the reality is that humility is extremely valuable to everyone. Showing it reduces personal conflict and negative emotions, allowing everyone involved to bypass ego and get to the real issue (especially yourself). This happens even if only one side shows it. By showing it, you make it easier for your professor and anyone else to analyze your work seriously.

2. Inexperience

You have studied your field far less than your professor. Statistically, the odds are in her favor. By assuming that you're incorrect, you acknowledge this reality.

3. Learning

By approaching this from the perspective that you're wrong, you will make yourself more receptive to new information you hadn't considered before. This will let you learn about the topic. It's very likely that your professor has acquired knowledge over the years that you haven't yet, and some of this knowledge could be the key to understanding her reasoning.

4. Involving others

If for some reason the professor can't help you understand the issue, by setting your goal as proving yourself wrong, you make it easier for her to recommend someone else you could approach.

It also makes it easier for you to involve someone else without dragging them into the middle of a conflict between you and your professor. They're not trying to help you disprove her work; they're trying to help you disprove yours.

5. Strengthening your case

In the event that you're correct (as unlikely as it may be), trying to prove yourself wrong can only make your case stronger. You will flush out problems with your ideas you hadn't even considered, and you will learn much more effective ways of defending it. But doing this cannot be your starting goal. You must start by legitimately assuming you are wrong and looking for why you're wrong.

If this all sounds sort of general, it is. This kind of approach is helpful in resolving all sorts of disagreements, not just ones in academic fields.

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    This approach is useful in lots of other situations, even when there isn't an obvious disparity as there is between a student and professor. It's a lot better for everybody if a discussion begins with "I don't understand X" than if it begins with "I think X is wrong" (or, worse yet, with just "X is wrong"). – Andreas Blass May 16 '16 at 1:26
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If I were in your shoes, I would approach another professor in the department—preferably one I'm on good terms with—and ask my question of them. Specifically, I would show them the relevant passage in the textbook, and bring the references that I think contradict the statement, or set of references from which I infer that the conclusion in the textbook is wrong. If I couldn't find a professor with whom you can discuss this I would approach a postdoctorate fellow with similar expertise. At the very least, I would approach the professor who taught the course that covered this material, or at least the material most similar to the topic. Basically, I would try to find someone else who could either corroborate or argue the point with me.

At the end of the day, you're in a scenario pretty similar to this one:

enter image description here

Sometimes you just can't fix the world.

  • I use that xkcd as my avatar! It captures my personality all too well. :P – Peter Cordes May 12 '16 at 21:03
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I'd go something like this:

  • read the book again
  • read the paragraph/section/chapter which contains the error again and again (these first two points are just for your safety; you want to be 100% sure of what and why you're criticizing)
  • write down in a (not too long) document your prof's statements, your concerns and why do you think you're right/prof's wrong
  • ask your teacher politely to read your concerns, to explain the problematic statements in the book and to show you why your arguments are wrong (doing this by email is not indicated... maybe a discussion face to face is in order)
  • if your professor refuses to speak with you or to explain those things to you, search for other opinions

Only after you've exhausted all these and you are still convinced you are right, then try something else (eventual publication). I'd also think about the consequences of going after an error in the book. Is it essential for you to correct it if the prof still claims it is valid? Is it worth fighting for? (it may get ugly)

Young researchers are not in a good position of going after established researchers. If you are wrong and you make a big fuss out of nothing you may throw away any chance of working in that field of research and in academics at all... That's why you must be sure what you're doing.

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    Instead of asking the professor to explain the problematic statements in the book, it might be better to simply ask the professor to explain the problematic statements in the response you write. Clearly, the professor believes the student is wrong; by phrasing it this way, it becomes a, "Help me learn what I did wrong," request instead of a, "You're wrong until you prove I am," statement. – jpmc26 May 12 '16 at 21:20
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If you found an error, and its a substantial one and the response was to just dismiss you then I suspect that you are probably correct in your thinking. Professors love to talk about how much they know (at least they are in the field I am in) and I'm sure that she would have enjoyed explaining why you were mistaken if that was actually the case. It's a very odd response, I know for me at least, if someone suggested my research was wrong I'd explain to them exactly why they were wrong.

One thing you could do is try speaking to her and bring it up in such a way that it looks like your saying you don't understand could she explain why it is right (so you can learn from her great wisdom). If she is still dismissive then drop it, and never speak of it again.

My reasoning behind that is that as much as it pains me to say this, there are people who knowingly commit misconduct in research. There are also people who've become so arrogant/have so much to lose that they'd refuse to even consider for a second that they could ever be wrong. If your professor happened to be one of these people then for your careers sake, it would be best that it was left alone. I know this from experience, I was niave, there were fundemental flaws in some research, I wouldn't leave it alone, you do not want to make that mistake.

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    Are you an active researcher in a contentious area? (@K.Schaffer hasn't mentioned the area, but let us suppose that it is so.) I am not, fortunately, but my undergraduate advisor, who was, attracted lots of crank letters from circle-squarers. (Probably most eminent academics eventually start getting such letters.) To the first many, he responded with a clear explanation; but, eventually, it becomes, or at least seems, unproductive to argue with everyone who comes along. I would expect more defensiveness, not less, from an authority figure who knows he or she is on shaky ground. – LSpice May 13 '16 at 2:48
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As I previously answered, you shouldn't have gone as frontally as you did. Now you are at a serious risk of getting in bad terms with her.

I know you're not planning to do your PhD with her, but as you said, she has far more connections than you in the field, and in addition this is a small field: everyone knows everybody else. So if you plan to continue your academic career in this field, I suggest you step carefully from now on.

From your comment above, you are stating that her error is a clear logical contradiction ("P & -P"). If this is true and you are not mistaken, this leads you to two things:

  1. This is a very interesting opportunity, and you can (should) publish something about it.
  2. Your professor probably won't be happy about it.

So what can you do about it?

First, as suggested by others, you should definitely go to your professor and ask her about this issue as a clarification question. First because you are less likely to get in a heated argument, and secondly because this will allow you to understand her reasoning, and confirm if your finding is correct or wrong.

After that, either you were wrong and this discussion will have clarified everything, you're done here. Either you were correct, and then in this case you are presented with two choices:

  1. Publish your finding in a journal, knowing that probably your professor will make a bad reputation out of you. This will decrease your opportunities in the field, but you may get others if you find opponents of her theory that are interested in your work (so be sure to make a really good work!).

  2. Forget about this whole story and publish it later during PhD or Post-doc when you have a firmer root in the field.

It's your choice, for you to see which path you want to take. But definitely you should go see your professor, you can think your next moves after having clarified if your theory is correct or not. Until then, there is no point in trying to do anything else, like contacting another professor: if you are wrong, you will be blacklisted not just by your professor but also by the others. So that's definitely not a good move.

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    I would also point out that if the OP is wrong, then this is quite possibly career suicide. – Morgan Rodgers May 16 '16 at 12:03
  • That's what I tried to point out: going boldly with an argument you are not even sure of is suicidal. But even if his argument is right, his career can still take a hit from this situation. He really has to step carefully now. – gaborous May 16 '16 at 16:24
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If as you're saying her theory leads to a contradiction down the road, then it's both plausible that she didn't foresee it and plausible that the "leads" bit is debatable. Given that, I (as someone coming from philosophy specifically) would suggest the following procedure:

  1. Write out very carefully the series of steps that you think show Professor Q contradicts herself in book A. If you still think so, when it's written out, then
  2. Show this to someone with experience in the humanities (preferably not someone that you have a close friendship or romantic relationship with) even if they don't share the specialization of professor Q. If they find what you're saying convincing and/or plausible, then
  3. Show the argument you've made with edits to professor Q. Listen carefully to where Professor Q think you're going wrong with your interpretation of their text. (Alternately, Professor Q could agree with you and possibly co-author a paper correcting this error). If on the other hand Professor Q is unimpressed but you yourself find this unconvincing, then
  4. Try to improve the clarity of your critique so it will be easier to follow / accept. Adjust places where Professor Q has helped you better understand her argument. Collect the feedback of several more people by perhaps presenting your paper somewhere. If people think it's an on-point criticism, then ...
  5. Submit an article to a journal in that field explaining why Professor Q is wrong in book A.

At 5, there's a fork, If the editors find it convincing, then ... You'll have a published paper on the topic. If editors within subfield don't find it convincing, look at the field more broadly and see if there's a more sympathetic group for it.

To give an example of the fork at five, let's say we're talking Hume and Kant. If you find a flaw in Hume, then probably Hume journals are interested (assuming a non-trivial flaw). But if the flaw you identify is basically Kant's (or very Kantian), then Hume scholars are going to be a lot less interested. In that case, find Kant scholars and submit how Hume was wrong and Kant was right on some point.

Alternately, if you don't want to work your way through 1-5 for this, then there's another very simple option: do absolutely nothing. The world will not come to an end merely because an error remains in an obscure subfield of a humanities discipline. If anything, most books from say 50 years ago in many subfields are riddled with errors or sub-par argumentation. Many of these have been greeted by the cold arms of being forgotten and nothing has been lost.


I get that you've already tried showing your objection to Professor Q, but I do not entirely grasp how you did so and under what manner of presentation. Moreover, I don't know how many people you've confirmed your understanding with. But basically, if something is (has?) to be done about the problems in Book A within the bounds of academia in the humanities, this is how you do it.

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