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Carol Nickerson

Nick Brown informed me that Carol Nickerson passed away. Nick writes:

Carol was unemployed for the last five years of her life. She had been associate/adjunct faculty at UIUC for some time, but when I got to know her she was being let go after she refused to do something unethical for the person who signed off on her contracts. Still, she went along to the UIUC library every day to do research. When she lost her library privileges too, she switched to the Champaign Public Library. . . .

She had a tremendous eye for detail. . . . She printed out the whole of my [Nick’s] 2014 translation of Diederik Stapel’s book (http://nick.brown.free.fr/stapel ), annotated every page by hand for typos or incorrect American usage, then scanned them & mailed them back to me. . . .

Nick also mentions that he and Carol had exchanged 10,000 emails, which sounded like a lot—but then I checked my own mailbox and found approximately 1000 from Carol (not just to me; these were part of threads with many participants). So I guess emails just pile up, and they can easily run into the four or five figures.

The news of Carol’s passing is very sad. Like Nick, I’d never met Carol in person, but she had many thoughtful things to say over email. Our last interactions were in 2018, summarized here and here. In both cases, she put a lot of effort into tracking down details of some things that arguably weren’t worth her effort. She wanted to get to the bottom of things.

It’s also poignant to think of Carol in light of our recent discussions of the problems with the “great man” or “heroic mode” of science reporting, where we some pathbreaking genius tells us how he broke the rules and revolutionized how we think about the world. Carol was the opposite of this, in that she put her 10,000 hours into getting the details right. And she deserves our thanks for that.

7 Comments

  1. Jay Verkuilen says:

    I knew Carol well from when I was a student at UIUC. I get to CU about once a year and whenever I was in town, I’d try to meet up with her but I had no idea she was ill. She was a person of the highest integrity and had an exacting eye for detail. She will certainly be missed.

  2. Deepest Condolences and gratitude for her accomplishments.

    Hauser though appears to have exhibited very bad judgment. I would not have picked him out as a point of comparison unless you mean that geniuses, by in large, are unethical or fake their data. I’m sure you don’t mean that. I haven’t come across an autobiographical account where a ‘revolutionizing ‘genius’, so labeled, makes such a grandiose self-serving claim to his audiences. It would sound so corny to me at least b/c in some sense it is sometimes so challenging to parse out credit fairly [measure] for ‘revolutionary’ idea or invention. I just think that genius or no genius, each of us has some eccentric foible to contend with.

    • Andrew says:

      Sameera:

      I don’t think Hauser is a genius. I linked to the Hauser story because it seems that he, and people like him, were being presented as geniuses, as special people who don’t need to follow the rules set by “schoolmarms” (to use Hauser’s term).

      • I have found that the terms ‘genius’ and ‘brilliant’ are labeled promiscuously. The uses of and conversations about IQ, as a measure, have distorted conversations about intelligence, more generally. An IQ of 130 is considered genius by a good percent of my friends and former colleagues. Certainly more than 70% as a rough estimate. Then again I am not a great fan of the IQ measure.

        I did not infer that you thought Hauser was a genius. It sounds really kooky to consider oneself or convey to others that one is a genius. Some who do think such do seek a fair amount of acknowledgment: finding ingenious ways to steer the conversation to the potential for a compliment. That is one of the things which is kinda curious about Twitter. It turns some important subjects into popularity contests by way of the use of the ‘like’ function. Substance seems to get a short rift, in the process.

        Lastly, i am thrilled when somone thinks I’m a schoolmarm. I have empty nest syndrome too.

  3. Nick Brown says:

    Thanks for writing this, Andrew.

  4. Marcus Crede says:

    Carol was a lovely person. I too have a couple of hundred e-mails from her and I she called me a couple of times out of the blue, mostly to chat about some issue that she knew I was vexed about. I spent five years at UIUC as a grad student but never met her there, although we might have passed in the hallway a dozen times for all I knew. I miss her already.

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