Wednesday, July 12, 2006

We Are Supposed to be Better Than This

I just completed recording another course for Recorded Books' 'Modern Scholar' series, this time on Rhetoric and Composition, so I'm even more focused than is usual on logical fallacies. So it's no surprise that when I read two of the latest disasters to come out of academia (the Prof. Deb Frisch making sexualized comments and only slightly veiled death threats towards a two-year-old incident and the "Wisconsin hires '9/11-was-an-inside-job' conpiracy theorist to teach a course) I began noticing a blizzard of logical fallacies engulfing the blog world.

Where to begin?

First, with the Prof. Frisch situation, we have secundum quid, the fallacy of the "hasty generalization," when one data point is taken as indicating a large pattern. Read the comments on the Inside Higher Ed passage, and you'll see a significant number of people stampeding to the conclusion that Frisch represents the "unhinged" Left and that her (completely over the line) behavior shows how Leftists behave on-line and in real life. No. Frisch's behavior shows how Frisch behaved (abhominably); it does not prove anything about anyone else.

But, lest you think the "Left" was covering itself in glory here or that individuals on the "Right" were the only boneheads, I offer you the tu quoque fallacy, one of my favorites. Back in my youth in New Jersey we used a version of this fallacy when we would say: "yeah, well so's your mom" (usually punching followed). Continue with that comment thread at Inside Higher Ed and you'll see a whole slew of people saying "well, Frisch might be wrong, but look what 'Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, ?? Hannity [I don't know his first name], Karl Rove, etc. do." Nope. Doesn't matter. Frisch's behavior has to stand on its own. If what she did was blatantly wrong (and bringing a two-year-old into an insult fight, and using sexually suggestive and violent rhetoric about that two-year-old is blatantly wrong), then what someone else does, particularly someone who never engaged in a discussion with Frisch, is irrelevant.

Then there's my favority comment, which I didn't archive unfortunately, and which I can't be bothered to track down, but which said "Whatever Frisch said, it's not as bad as what Bush is doing killing thousands of Iraqi children, etc." This is a truly beautiful example of ignoratio elenchi, also called the "red herring," in which one injects an entirely new thesis into the argument in order to attempt to change the subject.

For more fallacies, let's go to the embarrassment of University of Wisconsin in Madison hiring someone who believes that the World Trade Center was brought down by controlled demolition (those gigantic planes slamming into the towers while we all watched? Just a cover up). That in itself just shows that this person is gullible and ignorant about engineering: he theoretically could teach another, unrelated class. But no, he intends to include his idiotic conspiracy theory in a class for University of Wisconsin students. But the fallacy I want to point out isn't in this crackpot theory, but in one of the commenters at Ann Althouse's blog who is defending him. Scroll down to some of the comments by "Christian Anarchist" and note the application of plurium interrogationum, or "too many questions," where a mass of questions -- most of them rhetorical and not answerable -- are piled on top of each other in order to give the impression that there are all kinds of doubts that reasonable people have about the question. You can raise as many questions as you like and then try to badger your interlocutor into a "yes/no" answer (Congressman John Dingell was an expert on doing this with scientists brought before his committee, absolutely smearing Nobel laureate David Baltimore), but you're still engaging in a logical fallacy.

Now, you may ask, why should I care? One line of argument in the comment threads is that these people are "just" adjuncts and therefore not representative of the academy. That's a pretty lousy approach to adjuncts, first of all, and does cast some light on why reasonable people might have significant doubts about how much academia values adjuncts: if you don't even care when they behave in reprehensible ways (Frisch) or promote goofball theories in the classroom, it's hard to believe that the institution really respects people in the same condition when they just do a solid job.

I'm even more concerned about the long-term damage that Ward Churchill's plagiarism and various other examples of academic bad behavior and/or loopiness are doing to a very important institution. I'm sure this will be offensive to a lot of people, but I really do believe that we in academia are supposed to be better. Seriously. We are not supposed to use logical fallacies, we are not supposed to engage in name-calling in place of debate, and we are supposed to uphold high standards in our professional lives. It is fine for talk-show hosts, politicians, political authors, etc. to engage in non-intellectual, boorish and stupid behavior. I could not possibly care less what Rush Limbaugh or Michelle Malkin or Al Franken have to say about various issues. They are entertainers. They aren't professors. They therefore do not have a special responsibilty to attempt to live up to the highest standards of intellectual debate (by the way, readers may think, from that list above, that I'm being too critical toward the "right," but the leaders of various "politically correct" causes at Carnegie Mellon in the 1980s were just as dishonest and intellectually flacid as those rightists I've mentioned above; their pet projects were leftist, and I criticize them, in print, with great frequency).

So I don't care about talk show hosts. But I do care very much about the ways that people like Churchill, Frisch and the guy at Wisconsin are damaging the institution of academia. A lot of my colleagues are very leftist in their politics, but none of them engage in this kind of behavior (plagiarizing, making sick sexual comments about children, teaching false theories in which they have no actual expertise --i.e., Wisconsin guy isn't an engineer). The politics that drives people to defend this stuff is mindless sports-fan ('my team, right or wrong') rooting: rather than defending 'our own' we academics should be the strongest and most intellectually rigorous critics of those who trade on the good names of universities, painstakingly built over many years, for their own selfish purposes. They are eating our seed corn, and we will not find it easy to replace the stores thus depleted.

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