Respectful Insolence

Continuing on a theme, physicians can be really clueless sometimes; case in point, what happened at my medical school a couple of days ago.

The university that I work at is pretty large. It has three campuses several hundred, if not over a thousand, faculty members spread out between the campuses. Like many large universities, it has multiple mailing lists which are used to distribute information and make announcements. There are mailing lists for the basic science faculty, for graduate students, for medical students, for the residents of various departments, for staff members, and for everyone.

And, of course, there’s a mailing list for the clinical faculty, which is where my rant begins.

I’m sure that many of you who work in large organizations or companies have come to detest certain mailing lists, and I’ve come to dislike (but not yet detest) the clinical faculty mailing list. Every department seems to use it to hawk their Grand Rounds (really, I don’t care about Neurology Grand Rounds and have never gone to it!) and make pointless announcements that are really of interest to a very few people. The Department of Surgery, fortunately, doesn’t do this, as there are mailing lists for surgery faculty and and staff, but I can’t really unsubscribe from the clinical faculty mailing list because sometimes important news for the whole faculty is distributed using it.

Yesterday, it was through the clinical faculty mailing list that members of the clinical faculty demonstrated just how clueless they are with regards e-mail listservs. It all began when an announcement was apparently sent out in duplicate. This prompted faculty member to send an e-mail message requesting removal from the list. The problem is, this clueless wonder apparently hit “reply to all,” and the message requesting removal from the server went out to all the hundreds of clinical faculty at our university.

I bet you can guess what happened next.

Soon, others were doing the same thing. Within a few hours, dozens of requests to be removed from the mailing list had been sent to the mailing list, clogging up the e-mail boxes of everyone on the list. The effect snowballed. As more pointless messages were sent to everyone on the list, more people decided that they didn’t want to be on the list anymore, and they started sending out “remove” requests to the list. One of them was someone I knew, a truly brilliant physician and researcher that I have admired since I first met him. I couldn’t believe that even he was clueless on this matter.

Really, it was comical at first, but rapidly went from comical to profoundly annoying.

A couple of voices of sanity tried to stop the flood. One of them (a surgeon!) posted a message explaining that hitting “reply” to such messages sends the message to every member of the listand not to the list administrator who has the authority to remove addresses from the list. Because such replies go to everyone except the correct person, this voice of sanity said, they waste the sender’s time as well as that of other faculty members who have to deal with such untargeted messages. He also made a complaint that too many departments abused the list to send out messages of very little interest to the vast majority of the faculty. Personally, I wanted to point out that it wouldn’t matter anyway; the clinical faculty e-mail list is designed to get information to the clinical faculty. As far as I know, faculty can’t really opt out and probably shouldn’t if they could. For my part, I sent out the occasional nastygram (cut and pasted after the first couple) to some of these folks (only to individual offenders, not to the list) whenever the flood started to annoy me, while wondering why IST allowed literally anyone to send e-mail to these lists.

This incident has taught me two things, though. First, cluelessness tends to proliferate exponentially until it burns itself out. Second, physicians are just as prone to cluelessness as anyone else.

Here’s your chance to tell your tale of similar annoyances, if you wish. The comments are yours.

Comments

  1. #1 Barry
    May 5, 2006

    We just had something like that a few weeks ago; a student sent out an e-mail for the student government election to a university/medical center staff list.

    It’s a pretty stupid set-up, to start with; only a small group should have authority to send to that list. Otherwise the list is vulnerable to being used by spambots.

    Also, if only a few people can send to that list, it cuts down on the mailings which are clearly not suitable for such a general list.

  2. #2 Dave S.
    May 5, 2006

    Yes, it would be a shame to miss such valuable e-mail offerings such as the chance to sign the Physicians and Surgeons for Scientific Integrity petition against “Darwinian macroevolution”.

    As medical doctors we are skeptical of the claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the origination and complexity of life and we therefore dissent from Darwinian macroevolution as a viable theory. This does not imply the endorsement of any alternative theory.

    Please note the last sentence, meaning they have nothing to do with Intelligent Design. Oh, sure they link to another petition which states:

    We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.,

    and even though this statement may look very similar to the above, and even though the linked site is to the Discovery Institutes CRC (ground zero of the ID movement) that does’t mean the physicians statement has anything to do whatsover with ID.

    Not that ID is not a purely secular science that has nothing to do with religion of course.

    I have to wonder who keeps making these claims, that get them so upset, that mutation and natural selection account for the origins of life .

  3. #3 Ahcuah
    May 5, 2006

    I used to work in Bell Labs, so we were ahead of the curve on these sorts of mishaps. :-)

    Things were OK for quite a while, since way back then most users really were technologically savvy. But then they started adding in all sort of non-technical managers, and eventually all of AT&T.

    So what we had happen was that somebody would accidently send a Word document memo to the whole company. Not only that, but, since the document had been started as an older memo that the sender just overwrote with new stuff (and the older memo was from an even older memo, etc.), the history of edits sometimes meant that the file size was around a megabyte (even though the visible part of the memo was quite short).

    And, when people replied to complain, all the replies had this document attached. So, not only was all the clueless traffic generated, but it all had a megabyte file attachment.

  4. #4 Greg Baumbach
    May 5, 2006

    We had a spate of this in the Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) mailing lists. We’re an industry trade group that works to combat spam, phishing and pharming. Anyhow, you’d think that the group of people who originally signed up for this would know better than almost anyone about improper use of email, and how to get off a list the RIGHT way.

    You’d be wrong. Several times over.

  5. #5 Greg P
    May 5, 2006

    A properly set-up mailserver could prevent these kinds of problems.
    Clicking on Reply should only go to the intended recipient, not everyone else in the To category.

    There is a lot of institutional spam that is generated by people for some reason feeling compelled to CC everyone they think might be interested in the drivel they’re putting out. Perhaps it’s a way of proving that they were working that day. What’s even worse, many people seem to be unable/unwilling to read and delete their mail electronically, so they print all these out using massive amounts of paper, which very quickly gets tossed out.

  6. #6 atlheel
    May 5, 2006

    I too am on a variety of mailing lists: for all three departments in which I study, a couple sports teams and several clubs. Every listserv e-mail has, at the bottom, a note that says “You are currently subscribed to [listserv] as [e-mail]. To unsubscribe, please send a blank e-mail to [special address for that sort of thing].” And STILL every year a few weeks into the semester when (mostly) freshmen who signed up for lots of things they didn’t plan to join realize this, they send e-mails to the entire listserv asking to be removed, as if any of us have the power to send a blank e-mail from their account.

  7. #7 Flex
    May 5, 2006

    About once a year our company has close to the same problem, but mainly with the automated out-of-office replies. The auto-reply-reply echoing has been fixed, but it occasionally breaks and the e-mail servers suffocate under the load.

    However, there are other problems which crop up. I was once a deliberate annoyance to our division when the fourth reminder for the HR sponsored relfexology sessions was spammed to the thousand people in our group.

    I call it spammed because the HR person, who apparently believes in the quackery, simply took the HTML advertisement sent by the ‘reflexologists’ and copied it to everyone. Including all the bogus health claims embedded in it.

    I don’t get mad very easily, but I was tired of the spam, so I responded to the entire list with my opinion that our company (an automotive parts supplier) really shouldn’t be providing medical advice. After all, even if our HR department has the best intentions, the company is now assuming some responsibility for any employee who chooses the reflexology quackery over effective medicine.

    The response was as expected. Most people ignored it. I got about 50 direct e-mails thanking me for trying to put an end to this quackery (I reminded people not to reply-all in my message). And two people did reply to everyone saying that the reflexology treatments were important to them and how dare I say they were not medicine (Those I ignored).

    I also got a reprimand from the director of IS who, while he sympathied with my position, reminded me that the company policy is that anything that our HR department sends out is, by default, our corporate policy and cannot be limited by the IS department. But my response is not corporate policy and thus is in violation of the IS anti-spam requirements.

    Funny huh? Corporate policy allows the promotion of quackery, even though most of the employees are disgusted with it. However, my response is considered unprofessional.

    I also wrote a more specific letter to the head of our HR department pointing out the potential libaility our company assumes if they provide medical advice, and that our company is not in the medical business. Since then, while the announcements have been still sent out by HR, there are no medical claims listed in them. At least I got that part of it squashed.

    If the opportunity arises, I’m going to ask how much our company is charging the quacks to rent the space they are using in our office to charge $20 for a 5-minute foot-rub. After all, if our company is providing the location, shouldn’t we charge some nominal rent?

    Cheers,

    -Flex

  8. #8 Shygetz
    May 5, 2006

    This incident has taught me three things, though. First, cluelessness tends to proliferate exponentially until it burns itself out. Second, physicians are just as prone to cluelessness as anyone else.

    And third, counting is harder than it looks.

  9. #9 Orac
    May 5, 2006

    Ack!

    As you see, there were originally three things I was going to mention, but I got rid of one and forgot to change the text.

    I’ve fixed it now.

  10. #10 Dan
    May 5, 2006

    I’m not sure which is worse . . . at my fiancee’s medical school, there are absolutley NO mailing lists.

    The IS department there is clueless (for example, they require password changes every 30 days). As a club officer, my fiancee wanted to send e-mail to all the members reminding them of upcoming meetings and so forth. However, the club is not allowed to have a listserv so she had to address the message to all of the 100 or so members. Of course, the SMTP server only allowed 25 messages to be sent at once . . .

    Even some of the academic courses (250 or so people) don’t have mailing lists. If half of your message consists of a list of addresses, you’ve got a problem. (No one there has heard of BCC either).

  11. #11 ThePolynomial
    May 5, 2006

    Oh God, this happened twice (TWICE!) while I was in college with two mailing lists that went out to the whole undergraduate body…over 5,000 students. Both times it was funny until the entire school’s email system was clogged and it took over 45 minutes between sending an email and the recipient being able to read it. It was totally lord of the flies…some people just continuing to be asked to be taken off the list, some people giving helpful advice for how to dismantle the list (even though only one person could do it and he or she was clearly out of touch), others threatening to personally slaughter the next person who replied to all, and still others turning it into a venue for self-promoting humor (echem). Human nature has never been so clearly bared outside a crowded laundromat.

  12. #12 HCN
    May 5, 2006

    I’ve seen these on a few listservs over the years.

    On one listserv I saw lots of other odd things, including the absolutely annoying “Out of office autoreply”.

    One listserv had an option of a daily archive digeswt, where you got all posts were sent in one L-O-N-G email. A few times someone would reply to the list with the entire daily archive digest quoted in the body.

    Another version of the user asking to be removed to the list is the person who sends this request to one random list member.

    I got one who replied to one of my messages with just a cryptic “Remove me from your list”. So I replied back “What list? My grocery list? My Christmas list?”… to which the clueless person thought it might help to respond in ALL CAPS… “REMOVE ME!”. After a couple of rounds of this, I finally explained that I was not the list owner, and if he looked at the bottom of each email from the listserv there were clear unsubscribe instructions.

  13. #13 ebohlman
    May 5, 2006

    Conjecture: the members of a large mailing list often behave in the same ways as do people who are part of a physical crowd. In crowds, people often act in ways that they wouldn’t in non-crowd situations, ways that are plainly irrational if looked at closely (e.g. shoving to try to get to an exit faster). Often crowd behavior involves simply mimicing what the guy next to you is doing. If one person starts shoving, a bunch of others will follow suit; if one person sends an “unsubscribe” message to a large list, at least a few other people will experience an automatic “me too” reaction (It wouldn’t surprise me at all if many if not most of them smacked their heads a moment after it was too late, wondering how they could be so dumb). I suspect that much human crowd behavior actually originates in the “reptilian” part of the brain with minimal “interference” from the pre-frontal cortex.

  14. #14 TheBrummell
    May 5, 2006

    Recently, the electoral control freaks at the student society wanted to try out email as a method of political discourse. They created a mail list for the entire university and told a few people “you can mail to this to get your political views out there for the upcoming student elections”.

    As an experiment, this was a smashing success: DON’T USE MAILLISTS FOR ELECTIONS! A very clear result.

    I was bombarded with truckloads of “vote for me”, followed by truckloads of “don’t vote for him” because everyone who could recieve these emails could send them – and that includes off-campus, independent emails, like hotmail or yahoo! The funniest part was when someone started a massive storm by sending a long rant on the general futility of voting in student elections.

    Due to a past history of sticking my nose into these things in a useless and comical (to me, at least) manner, I had friends FORWARDING these messages to me (as if I wasn’t getting them anyways) with comments like “c’mon, make me laugh!”

    Why are so many people so fantastically stupid?

  15. #15 Mrs. Coulter
    May 5, 2006

    I was working for an internet consulting company back in the late 90s and early 00s. When the Anna Kornikova virus appeared (which was OBVIOUSLY a virus if you had any techie sense), not only did the clueless marketing folks click on the damn thing (replicating it through the corporate mail system), but so did a bunch of the male programmer/geek types. Apparently possession of a Y chromosome outweighed technical understanding of the obvious indications of a virus. Not quite the same thing as mailing list abuse, but still, I expected the culprits to know better.

  16. #16 silvermine
    May 5, 2006

    I work for a company that makes routers and other various bits of hardware and software. You know, a really high tech place. You’d think people here would be savvy enough to understand email. The same thing happens here all the time.

  17. #17 Greg P
    May 5, 2006

    “As you see, there were originally three things I was going to mention, but I got rid of one and forgot to change the text.”

    Orac, you’re slipping — you could have turned into a Python-esque bit.

  18. #18 David Harmon
    May 6, 2006

    The Shark Tank includes a lot of similar anecdotes:

    http://www.computerworld.com/departments/opinions/sharktank

    Regarding Orac’s miscount, whose “law” was it about making mistakes while correcting others’ mistakes?

    One story from “the other side”: I founded a mailing list before the prevalence of modern mailing-list-managers, using procmail for filtering and a homebrew digestifier. It took me a while to realize that my buggy scripts were why my ISP kept crashing….

  19. #19 Julia
    May 6, 2006

    This is the sort of thing that leads me to volunteer to be an admin for any mailing list I’m on that could use another admin. (Mailman has an “emergency moderate all messages” option that an admin can activate if necessary, so I like lists that use Mailman.)

    DH was on a list that exploded this way about half an hour after the admins had left for the weekend. He knew how to unsub, posted the directions for unsubbing, unsubbed himself, and waited 2 weeks to re-sub, after which he figured it would have blown over. (It had.)

    One of my favorite lists has the default “reply-to” set to “reply to sender”, so if you participate in a thread, you’ll often get 2 copies of whatever was sent after your post, but it’s a lot harder to spam the list with total cluelessness. You have to work a little harder to reply to the list as a whole.

  20. #20 Renee
    May 6, 2006

    Several years ago, a HR manager at my company sent out a friendly reminder to all 1500 employees who go on business trips. The reminder was to beware of ‘kidney harvesters’. You know, the people who steal one of your kidneys, and sell it to transplant programs. The clue that this has happened to you is if you wake up in your hotel room, laying in ice in the bathtub, and have a large incision in your back.

    She didn’t mention what a person should do in such a predicament. (Call the police? Go to the hospital?) One of the big reasons to avoid being a ‘harvestee’ was that such an event would be considered an ‘on-the-job’ injury, which would have a negative impact on company safety statistics. It wasn’t discussed whether workmen’s comp would be applicable in this scenario.

    This woman was clueless, and had no idea that ‘kidney harvesting’ was an urban legend. She didn’t bother to check out the story before sending out the email to all employess. Curiously, few people questioned the ‘facts’ in the email.

  21. #21 decrepitoldfool
    May 6, 2006

    There’s a pattern: lots of people who should know better, don’t. Design guru Don Norman would say that if one person makes a given mistake, he may be an idiot, but if a lot of people make a given mistake, the designer is an idiot.

    Being in computer support I see this all the time. Large numbers of very smart people make the same mistake. This is an indication of bad system design.

  22. #22 vandalhooch
    May 8, 2006

    “To declare something as completely foolproof, grossly underestimates the ingenuity of complete fools.” – Douglas Adams

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