The Plural of Testimonial is not __________.

Remember when you were a young school child and your class had the exciting event of a visiting speaker to the classroom? Later on after the presentation, your teacher then had the opportunity to use that event as the basis for an exercise on How To Write A Letter. Chances are the class’ letters went something like this:

Dear Mr Visitor,
Thank you for coming to our class to talk about blah.
It was very interesting.
Now we know lots of blah-blah-blah.
Yours truly,
A. Student*

Having been the adult recipient of such, I can vouch that there’s a not-so amazing consistency in the form that these letters take, and I’m not referring to the construction paper covers. Whenever a number of people are invited to write a document, and their efforts are in direct response to a series of questions, there is going to be a formulaic quality to the answers.

Requesting feedback on specific services in itself is not necessarily a biased thing; for example, when the employing colleges or inviting organisations ask the attendees for evaluations of instructors or guest speakers, there are specific factors about the presentation that are being assessed.

However, when eliciting responses one has to be careful to not slant the wording of the questions so the responses are not biased. Similarly, verbal requests for impromptu responses or exit surveys must likewise be worded carefully to prevent coaching.

It’s very rare that every client or conference attendee will fill out an evaluation form; the office responsible for creating evaluation summaries has to realize that such volunteers are going to be somewhat self-selecting, if for no other reason than the fact that those were the people who weren’t in a hurry to get somewhere else. On the other hand, a true evaluation has to look at all the all the responses returned. A cherry-picked group is never going to be representative of the entire cohort.

When looking at any kind of response document, there are shadows behind the discourse that merit critical analysis. These include the unwritten assumptions of the author, such as who they considered to be their audience, what they presume the audience to know, and what kinds of details were deemed necessary to include to support the statements given.

What is not included is also equally important. Unless the document is an expository theme or persuasive essay, there are beliefs about social reality that are built in the framework of the discourse and are not explicitly mentioned.

These beliefs are assumed to be mutually held and self-evident. (You know, the sorts of assertions that when challenged, provoke a, “Well of course we had to …” response.) Sometimes people aren’t even aware of these world-views, because they are so encompassing, not unlike like fish being unaware that water is “wet”.

I don’t claim to be a forensic linguist, but as an author and behavioural observer, the following curiosities from the Judge Rothenberg Center’s Web site (the 18 testimonial letters and excerpted quotes all referred to therein as “comments” by JRC parents) certainly caught my attention.

Like the children’s thank-you letters, there’s a formulaic quality to them. It shows through in the sentence structure and word choices. Theoretically it’s possible that those letters represent the way the parents always compose missives; we naturally lack known writing samples for comparison. And yet … one gets the impression that there are leading questions that yield repeated patterns of content.

Our child has X and did YYY. No place else helped him.
JRC uses the “GED” skin shock device.
Now he is controllable. The “GED” is the answer!
He has been there for years. We are very happy.

Okay, that’s a trifle simplistic; the testimonials that are letters are longer. My example is a distillation of quotes.

On the amazon.com site, you have probably seen the term "statistically improbable phrases", which refers to those constructions and idioms specific to the particular book being described. They are phrases that jump out of the text because they’re not the sorts of things commonly found in writing.

In this kind of critical analysis, if a writer inserts a few "twenty-dollar words" when the rest of the letter is just "fifty-cent words", they stand out. They are statistically improbable phrases, or compositional outliers. There will always be some terms that people will just pick up from interactions with staff (such as using the term “GED”). But in verbal and written communication most lay people don't go around using jargon specific to a particular discipline or industry. When those "twenty-dollar words" show up, well, one gets the impression that there likely are leading questions or requests guiding the effort. A prime example of this would be the Shields letter, which is composed of a series of declarative sentences, but also includes the expanded technical phrase: “GED” skin shock device.

Surprisingly, JRC is not just a temporary location for controlling children with behaviour problems; it’s also an institution for lifetime confinement. Some of the inmates have been there for over a decade, at least as reckoned by the dates of their parents’ letters.

“We are the parents of a 35 yr. old autistic adult. He has been in this program since he was 19.” (Shields)
A 32-year old autistic adult has been in this place under the GED aversive system for over ten years. (Soucy)
Yet another person has been there for eleven years, also past legal majority. (Slaff)

Another parent describes their child as benefiting from the GED (or rather, “GED” is the typed word repeatedly pasted over the handwritten note), because “it helps her to eat better, exercise better, learn better, socialize better, and enjoy life better”. ( Bognar) Personally I have to wonder how being the recipient of repeated electric shock punishment enables one to “enjoy life better”.

Obviously, JRC feels the need to assert and validate the necessity for using the “GED” skin shock device; there are people such as myself who strongly disagree with the necessity and efficacy of using punishment. Lots of companies use testimonial letters to show off their satisfied customers. But this isn’t about carpet cleaning. This is about people trying to convince us that systematic, repeated punishment under inescapable conditions, i.e. torture, is both beneficial and necessary.

Now, what’s one of our favourite fallacy flatteners? The plural of anecdote is not data. Or in this case, the plural of testimonial is not validation.

andrea

* Not to be confused with the author of Student’s t-distribution, who was actually Mr W. S. Gosset, a chemist at Guinness Breweries (statistics classes aren’t completely dull!)

2 Comments

  1. qw88nb88 said,

    20 August 2007 at 21:17

    Indeed.

    As I describe in another blogpost, “Being Unruly”:

    An authoritative, punitive approach doesn’t teach the student/child how to identify the true causes of their problems, and then find different ways of solving them. Instead, it teaches one to (1) not get caught, and (2) “might makes right” (where “right” in this case is more about privilege and power than about correctness).

    This kind of framework keeps behaviour regulation extrinsic – the child relies upon others – instead of intrinsic. Even after the child has internalized the “you are a bad person” message and the “you deserve this” message, they still end up seeking approval from others for their good actions. The process is still ultimately extrinsic. All of this creates a state of perpetual rebelliousness and/or insecurity. There’s no real moral growth.

    Likewise, in “The Crime of Punishment”:

    Aversives in the form or corporal punishment (such as the electroshock apparatus used at JRC) teach both the giver and the recipient that aggression and inflicting pain are acceptable and appropriate ways of responding to people when they don’t do what someone else wants them to do. Unfortunately, lots of people have learned this “lesson” all too well …

    Not only does punishment as behaviour modification set up and maintain coercive power systems, but it also distances teachers and others from their students, and puts them into antagonistic roles, rather than as partners in education (contrary to what many school districts’ mission statements assert).

    Punishment can not only ruin learning, but also takes moral development from an inner-directed process and changes it to a situation of “don’t let me catch you doing that again” where the message isn’t avoiding the behaviour and doing something positive, but rather of not getting caught. The focus is on consequences instead of creating interpersonal and social benefits.

    Instead of morality being inner-directed (under a person’s self-control and self-initiation) it becomes personally directed – how to get what one wants for themselves – not how to work with and help others.

    Punishment can stop a problem behaviour, but it doesn’t necessarily change it, and it certainly doesn’t teach what to do instead. Nor does it address the root causes of the behavioural effects.

    The system is designed to justify and continue the system, not to actually help teach people skills they need.

  2. Morpheus said,

    20 August 2007 at 19:00

    When i was at the interview at JRC (I mainly applied there to see if the reports were true, not to actually accept a job…I’d rather be flipping meat burgers!), I asked the interviewer about the validity of negative reinforcement. I stated that in all the studies in psychology that I have read over the years that when a negative stimuli is removed, the person/creature will have developed learned helplessness and either be unable to function (ie. institutionalised) or will go back to that behavior. In all the research I have done, I have yet to find anything that supports the idea that negative reinforcement is a productive way to change behavior. In fact, the person who established the system at JRC (and they laud this guy during the interview & on their Website) used be a student of Skinner and they parted way unamicably primarily due to this reason!

    I said it in a nice way and the interviewer admitted, “Yeah, that’s probably the reason why we have so many students staying here for 15, 20 yrs or more…They can’t leave.”
    There is something wrong when a nine year old child is in an institution & is still there at age 20…and the greatest fear of a teen is that they will not be discharged on the 21rst birthday. I had a former client who ended up there…I don’t care what the child did, no one deserves to be treated like that…it’s our modern day concentration camp and I’m not one to through terms like that around lightly.


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