Xtreme nerdview

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I don't do surveys, so don't ask. I cannot afford a quarter of an hour answering an ill-designed list of questions for you so that your manager can use the scientifically worthless results to make out a case that your service unit is doing a good job. And don't call me on the phone and tell me you're doing some social science research, because I just know there will be a follow-up call trying to sell me carpets or enrol me in a political action committee. However, my colleague Bob Ladd encouraged me to do a survey about the new building in which the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences lives its generally happy life at the University of Edinburgh. He told me there would be a treat at the end in terms of what I have dubbed nerdview. And boy, was there a treat. The survey was terrible — hopelessly designed, and will yield worthless results — but the feedback to the user at the end did indeed give me the best example of nerdview I ever saw.

Here is what they sent me by email when I had finished the survey (I omit a few personal details fields and content I typed into free-form text boxes):

Many thanks

You submitted this survey information (alphabetically by variable name)
on Thu Aug  4 15:12:07 2011 GMT.  If you did not fill in the free format
fields they are shown as blank.  Other empty fields are not shown.  

Age: 2
AirSDry: 3
AirSFresh: 3
AirSOdourl: 2
AirSOver: 6
AirSStil: 4
AirWDry: 3
AirWFresh: 3
AirWOdourl: 2
AirWOver: 6
AirWStil: 4
Behaviour: 1
Bus: 1
Cleaning: 7
CntCo: 1
CntHt: 1
CntLt: 6
CntNse: 2
CntVt: 1
Collaboration: 5
ComfOver: 6
Department: LEL
Design: 6
Dyswk: 5
Effect: 6
Floor: 2.23
Furniture: 7
Health: 6
HrsDay: 9
HrsDesk: 7
HrsVDU: 7
Image: 7
ImpCntCo: 1
ImpCntHt: 1
ImpCntLt: 1
ImpCntNse: 1
JHBest: 20
JHNormal: 25
JHWorst: 30
JTWBest: 20
JTWNormal: 25
JTWWorst: 30
LtArt: 4
LtArtNgl: 4
LtNat: 4
LtNatNgl: 4
LtOver: 3
Meeting: 7
ModeWalk: 1
Needs: 4
Normal: 1
NseColl: 4
NseInside: 4
NseInterruption: 2
NseOutside: 4
NseOver: 6
NsePeople: 5
Prod: 7
Resyn: 1
Safety: 7
Sex: 1
SpaceBuild: 4
SpaceDesk: 4
Speed: 7
Storage: 6
SurveyType: 11552Two Page
TSHot: 3
TSOver: 4
TSStable: 2
TWHot: 4
TWOver: 6
TWStable: 4
Walk: 1
Window: 1
WkGroup: 1
WkdBld: 2
WkdDesk: 1
WorkReq: 7
subject: 11552 Survey

Isn't that a useful message? You can really get a sense of my overall evaluation of the building, can't you?

No, of course you can't. They even alphabetized it by the opaque and compressed internal variable names (which as a person taking the survey I had never seen and knew nothing about), so that everything is in a random order compared to the sequence of questions that you answered. It would baffle even someone who compared it with the survey page. (The email says "You submitted this survey information (alphabetically by variable name)", but of course I didn't; I submitted it in the order in which the questions were originally arranged. That is what the alphabetization destroyed.)

What does "Prod: 7" mean? Or "Resyn: 1"? I did the survey five minutes before, and I have no idea. Only a lunatic could think it was sensible to send this back to the survey-taking subjects.

The defining feature of nerdview is the confusing of the viewpoint of the technical specialist on the inside with that of the general public outside, so that language suited only to the internal/technical perspective gets delivered to an external/layperson audience, resulting in unintelligibility. And here you really see it writ large, to a degree that seems almost moronic. This would scarcely seem plausible in a Dilbert cartoon strip. This is xtreme nerdview.

[Comments are closed; but Language Log's survey department will be getting in touch with you all later so you can express your opinions.]

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