I should have taken my car, Ren thinks. I took the train because I wanted to work on a paper on the way to the conference. Which didn’t happen, because even though he was in the specially designated ‘quiet carriage’, there were still people loudly talking to each other, and shouting into mobile phones. There was, of course, no-one policing the quiet carriage, and even if he’d complained to the ticket inspector when he made one of his pass-throughs the likelihood was that the inspector would do nothing, or nothing more than say ‘Quiet please’, and Ren would have achieved nothing other than earning the enmity of the creeps making all the noise. Now he’s in the quiet carriage on the way back home from the conference, and the situation is much the same.
Sitting a noisy quiet carriage is so much worse than sitting in a noisy normal carriage, Ren thinks, because when you’re in a noisy normal carriage, although the noise might be annoying, you don’t feel that those making it are doing anything wrong, other than being impolite. But when you’re in a noisy quiet carriage, where there are people sitting next to ‘This is a quiet carriage’ signs and making a lot of noise despite that, you start having thoughts about boxing ears and flattening a few noses. ‘Makes my blood boil,’ he mouths to himself in a Cockney taxi-driving voice.
He’s been in this situation before. Asking the miscreants if they could please be quiet as this is a quiet carriage, no matter how politely you ask, only gets them angry. He’s been threatened before for this by a group of shell-suit-wearing chavs, straight out of central casting. (Central casting is pretty busy in Britain these days.) He reckoned at the time that he could have taken them all on, the sallow one, the weaselly one, the fat one, the even fatter shouty woman with dreadlocks, but he knew that CCTV footage of him brawling with trevs on a train would not be good for his career. So he has to sit there silently fuming. Quiet carriages may work in some of the more genteel parts of the country, assuming they are any of those places left. But in most of the the country they only make things worse.
And now they’re all stuck in the sidings and the freight yards. He’d been counting down the minutes until he could get away from these braying donkeys who broadcast every intricate detail of their trivial daily business, when the train started to get slower and slower as it came in towards the station. And now they’ve been trapped together for forty minutes, looking at the graffiti. And still the phone calls go on. One woman seems to have called every single person she knows to inform them that she is stuck just outside Grayvington Station. Unless she’s on her way to a big birthday party that all her friends have organised for her, Ren’s not sure why all of them need to know this. (And if they’re all going to the party, one phone call should suffice.) Ren has brought along Material Beings by van Inwagen, which was intended to be light reading that he doesn’t have to take too seriously, but he should have brought a novel, or some history, because he can’t concentrate well enough with all this noise to get anywhere with it.
He has a look through his briefcase for something else he can read that will require less concentration. He’s brought along a few philosophy papers from his ‘forever pile’ – that is, a pile of reading to do that’s gotten so big it can never be gotten through in one human lifetime – but he’s not in the mood for any of them. He’s also brought along some old copies of Sausage Gravy which he found in the library, but if he’s reading those then it will be even harder to get the noisy people to take him seriously. He decides it’s time to look at some of Lucius Birch’s social psych papers that he also brought, as he’s been meaning to read them as part of his investigation into Lucius’s work. He picks one out called ‘Dirt and Discrimination: Some Unconscious Biases That Drive Behaviour’, co-written with Tobias Woolley from Lilydale University. Ren remembers this paper being reported on in the national and international media at the time. He starts to read it, and is amused at the coincidence – the research takes place in the Grayvington Railway Station, the very station that his train is currently starting to inch towards.
In the article Lucius describes how he set up some experiments at the station. In the first stage of the experiments the station was put into a deliberately messy state: the floors were made dirty, litter was dumped around the place, and the windows had dirt smeared on them. Some of the signs were temporarily replaced with copies that had been broken. In the second stage the same experiments were carried out after the station had been put back to normal.
The studies involved volunteer participants being given a short murder mystery story to read. They were then asked to say who they think committed the murder. More people picked out the black character as the murderer when the station was dirty than when it was clean. The participants were then asked to rate the trustworthiness of various strangers in photos. When the station was unclean the perceived trustworthiness of all the black people in the photos went down compared to when the station was clean, and vice versa for the white people in the photos. This applied to almost every participant in the study, even the black people.
Lucius claimed that this study shows that in virtually every mind black people are unconsciously associated with dirt, crime and slovenliness, and thus that we are all unconsciously racist. This applies even to people who aren’t consciously racist. It even applies to black people themselves. The study also supposedly shows that when there is disorder we ‘fall back on’ stereotypes.
The article is noticeably thin. Not only is it short, it doesn’t have much argument backing up these claims, or much on the logic that supposedly links the claims. But, Ren concedes, that’s what non-philosophy papers are usually like. Under-argued. And poorly argued.
The response rate of the participants who were asked at the station to take part is eighty-five per cent, which seems abnormally high to Ren. You’d think it would be more like fifteen per cent. Would most train passengers getting off a train, most with places to get to, really agree to take part in a somewhat lengthy and involved study? He knows that thirty-five to forty per cent is considered a good response rate for a standard survey, so eighty-five per cent in this case seems very high. Still, he’s not a field psychologist, so maybe it’s not so unusual. In any case it’s no basis for thinking that Lucius has fiddled his data.
He also notices that there is a lot of simplistic talk of ‘stereotyping’, as though stereotyping is a one-dimensional, monolithic trait that can be dialled up or down as a whole. As though anyone who starts thinking that all capitalists are rapacious money-gougers will automatically start thinking of all musicians as drug-taking weirdos. There may be someone who thinks both these things, but there’s no guarantee that just because one stereotype gets cranked up, all the others follow. And different people will have different stereotypes in their head. (And how does a stereotype differ from a well-established generalisation anyway?) It’s very poor that a publication with World Science’s stellar reputation should have let Lucius get away with such cartoonish material. But then Ren’s science friends have been telling him for a while now that World Science is going downhill.
But none of this proves anything. Ren looks at the graphs, and looks at what data there is, but it’s pretty sparse. There’s not much there to be going on with. Maybe an experienced statistician could still find something dubious in there, but there’s nothing for him to work with.
There’s also no information at all about how these experiments were carried out, and no acknowledgement of those who helped run them. That’s not entirely surprising, because science journals as prestigious as World Science want to fit lots of articles into every issue, so they want their articles to be free of all excess, unnecessary material, so it’s hard to get that sort of thing in even if you want to. But it means that he doesn’t even know whether Lucius’s collaborator Tobias helped out with running the studies, or did them all, or whether he just did some analysis.
He can’t just ask the guy, because that might set alarm bells ringing prematurely. Is this other guy in on the fiddling, assuming there was fiddling? You might assume so, but then it would suit Lucius to find someone naive who has a spotless reputation to publish with, because that would help to deflect any suspicion. All Lucius would have to do is to say that he’ll run the study, and the other guy just has to help with the analysis. So the collaborator might have no clue as to what’s really going on – he’s a collaborator, but not in the French sense. Lucius need only nudge a few figures in the right direction, and then he can send them off to his patsy.
Ren can’t wait to get back to his office so he can get on the internet to look Tobias Woolley up. If only his attempt at creating a mobile internet connection had worked – he’d tried to create this by getting a laptop and jury-rigging a connection to his mobile phone, but the connection was too slow to even download his e-mail, let alone browse the internet. Browsing on the train is going to have to wait a few years.
Ten minutes later the train has finally arrived at the platform. As he’s walking through the gates he gets an idea – he could talk to the staff at the station about Lucius’s study, and pretend he’s going to do something similar. Then he can ask them about how Lucius did his study, and who was involved. He could say he’s doing ‘experimental philosophy’, something there’s been talk of recently.
He talks to one of the security guards, who takes him to the general manager’s office. After a ten-minute wait she shows him in.
‘Thanks for seeing me,’ he says. ‘I’m a lecturer at the University, and I was wondering whether the station would be interested in hosting another psychology-style experiment.’
The manager looks puzzled. ‘What do you mean, another experiment?’
‘The station hosted a psychology experiment done two to three years ago by Doctor, now Professor, Lucius Birch. He asked questions of volunteer subjects when the station was dirty, and then when it was clean.’
‘The place was made dirty for some questions, then it was cleaned up for later questions.’
‘Nothing like that has ever taken place here.’
‘Perhaps you weren’t here at this point.’
‘I’ve been in charge for five years. You say this happened two to three years ago?’
‘Well, perhaps you were away at the time.’
‘Nothing like that would happen without me knowing about it. Is that the article? Let me see it.’
She has a scan through the paper that Ren passes her. ‘No way did this happen here. Has he changed the name of the station for some reason?’
‘Well, I don’t know what this about, but this just didn’t happen.’
‘Perhaps the studies happened more than five years ago, and Lucius sat on the data for a while before publishing it.’
‘No. If that had ever happened I would have heard about it.’
‘You’re definite about this.’
‘Absolutely definite. I don’t know what this guy is playing at, but this does not describe anything that took place at Grayvington Train Station.’
‘Shouldn’t there be a date in there saying when the studies took place?’
‘There aren’t any dates listed.’
‘Really? This is supposed to be science, and there’s no date? Does it at least say the year?’
‘No, that’s not listed.’
‘Science must have changed since I was a girl. Then it was all about precision, and listing relevant factors. I liked all that. That’s why I’m good at running a train station. Dates and times are important here.’
‘Okay, well, what I should do then is go and see Lucius and ask him what’s going on.’
‘I think you should.’
‘I’m sorry to have wasted your time.’
‘Is this a psychology experiment you’re doing on me now?’
‘No, it isn’t.’
‘But you’d have to say that, wouldn’t you, if you were. How do I know you’re telling the truth?’
‘We’re not allowed to do things like that. There are ethics forms to fill in. Funding depends on it.’ According to Miles, anyway. ‘Any experiments that involve deception have to involve telling the subjects at the end of the experiment what has happened, and what was being tested.’
‘But what if this isn’t the end of the experiment?’
‘You just said it wasn’t an experiment. Now you’re saying it is.’
‘No, I mean, if it was an experiment, this would be the end, where we part ways. I wouldn’t be allowed to pull the wool over your eyes at this point if it was an experiment.’
‘That’s if you’re telling the truth.’
‘You can go on the internet and look up psychology ethics. A department that did anything like that would be in big trouble and would risk getting its funding pulled.’
‘But what if all those webpages have been planted… It’s all right, I’m just yanking your chain. You go and have a word to your Professor, and ask him what’s he’s playing at. Perhaps he’s doing an experiment on you.’
‘Perhaps he’s doing an experiment on a lot of people. Anyway, thanks for your time.’
On the bus home Ren digests what has just happened. He suspected that Lucius had been fiddling his data, but he never dreamed that he’d be so shameless as to just make whole studies up. But that looks like what he’s done. Is there an alternative, innocent explanation? He can’t assume at this point that there isn’t. Maybe a study was done, and the general manager somehow didn’t know about it. He can’t challenge Lucius at this stage. He’s an arrogant man, hungry for power and advancement. (Miles reckons he’s now angling for a Professorship at Oxford or Cambridge, or London.) If Ren asks him about the study he’ll try to brazen it out, and he may succeed. And then he’ll start covering his other tracks too. More evidence is needed before he goes blundering in making serious allegations.
Then something else strikes him, something that has been niggling at his unconscious but which he’s now in a position to see more clearly. A lot of Lucius’s papers involved studies that were done at Lancedown University, the place that Lucius was at before he came to Grayvington, even though at the time of these papers Lucius had been at Grayvington for a few years. So Lucius was going back to his old place to carry out his studies. That isn’t suspicious in itself, he’s presumably got good contacts there, and they’re presumably happy to have him come back to do some work, as it reflects well on them. But no-one from Lancedown University is listed on the papers as a co-author. He gets some papers out again to check. Yes, no-one from Lancedown is listed on any of the papers Lucius has where the studies were done at Lancedown University. That’s very strange. Some are by Lucius only, some by Lucius and Tobias, and one is by Lucius and someone else. But why would Lancedown let him come and use their facilities if none of their people were involved? Experimental facilities are usually in demand. Even empty rooms are in demand. Maybe he just hired the rooms out, for himself only. But none of the experiments described require anything much in the way of specialised facilities. He could easily have done them at Grayvington.
It’s hardly a smoking gun, and there are possible explanations. Maybe he has family in Lancedown, and he spends time there, and that makes it convenient to carry out some studies at the University. Maybe these results are all from very old studies he did at Lancedown before he moved, and he didn’t have time to analyse the data before he moved to Grayvington. There’s no dates on any of these papers listing when the studies were carried out – well done the station manager for bringing that point up. But for all he knows that’s standard practice in Psychology, although it’s pretty piss poor if it is.
Still, this aspect of Lucius’s work has increased Ren’s suspicions. If Lucius is faking studies then it’s very convenient for him that these ‘studies’ take place away from Grayvington, where no-one from Grayvington can notice that they never happened.