Is Anyone Reading This Headline?

Authors of statistics textbook proudly declared, in a footnote, that no one reads footnotes. Photos of the footnote keep going viral.

December 14, 2017
 

This story is about a textbook, specifically a textbook on statistics, published in 2007.

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Hoping to combat inattentive, lazy or uninterested students, the authors of Stats: Modeling the World titled their introductory chapter “Chapter 1: Stats Starts Here.” They explained their methodology in a footnote, found on the first page of the chapter.

The footnote boldly declares:

This chapter might have been called “Introduction,” but nobody reads the introduction, and we wanted you to read this. We feel safe admitting this here, in the footnote, because nobody reads footnotes either.

But it appears that at least a few people have indeed read the footnote. The passage was recently pointed out by the Twitter account Academia Obscura, which aims to highlight the weird and obscure side of academe, often highlighting passages from books. The book was quickly identified in the replies to the tweet as the 2007 edition of Stats: Modeling the World. That identification was confirmed by a PDF version of the book found online, and in other instances it’s gone semiviral on other sites.

A sociologist picked it up on her blog in 2011 from College Humor, and the picture appeared on Reddit in 2013, where it was lifted from Imgur.com. Those weren’t the last times it was posted on Reddit or Imgur, though -- it appeared on both sites again in 2015. It’s also appeared on Pinterest.

It’s not clear who first posted the footnote. Like an introductory chapter in a college textbook, that part appears to have been skipped over in the never-ending race to post viral content.

Unlike an introduction chapter, however, people appear to keep reading the passage, spreading it around to different corners of the internet as they do. Based on Inside Higher Ed's rigorous research, there appear to be at least two different versions of the photo, based on the way shadows fall in the pictures depicting the passage. At least two students assigned to read the book, perhaps, were not fooled by the footnote.

But how well did the footnote work? How well did the authors really evade detection of their trickery before it was picked up by College Humor? Were they called out earlier?

Contact information for one of the authors, David E. Bock, was not immediately available, although he has posted a comment to this article. Richard De Veaux, a statistics professor at Williams College, replied in an email sent to him and the other co-author, Paul Velleman, of Cornell University, to say he couldn’t properly open the link, but he posited that “it’s important enough that we should write something together.”

By press time, and after a follow-up inquiry, no response had come.

It appears the origins of the footnote’s history prior to 2011 will remain a mystery. But who came up with it? Had the authors ever gotten feedback on it? How well did their strategy to rebrand the introduction as “Chapter 1” work? How long did it take for students to notice the footnote?

Answers to these questions -- much like a student’s will to read an introductory chapter of a statistics textbook -- remain nonexistent.

Update: In an email sent after this article's original publication, Velleman delivered some clarity on the footnote.

"Of course, our purpose wasn't to get students to read the footnotes, but to entice them into reading the book itself," he said in an email that he declared was "more useful than what you posted."

"Our gambit seems to have worked well. We’ve had many responses to this footnote, including emails from students assuring us that they do indeed read the footnotes. And more notes from students saying that they have read the book. Some even express wonder that they did that when they aren’t used to reading textbooks. We’ve even had notes from parents like the one that said, 'My daughter doesn’t read books. But she’s reading your textbook!'" he continued. "So it is a good example of how some well-placed humor can help instruction."

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