Friday, August 24, 2012

The Totality of What Is Known and Said

A scholar has to believe on some level that things are known or understood only after being investigated, tested, read, interpreted, that there’s something unseemly about robbing the graves and morgues for cast-off “facts” in order to assemble them into a shambling, monstrous conclusion built from a hackish blueprint. Being an intellectual takes some form of thoughtfulness, some respect for evidence and truth, something that goes beyond hollow, sleazy rhetoric that plays dumb every time it gets caught out truncating quotes or doctoring charts. Being an expert means you guide an audience through what is known and said about a subject with some respect for the totality of that knowing and saying before favoring your own interpretation. (Timothy Burke)

Brad DeLong has a very pointed critique of Niall Ferguson up on his blog. He refers to the errors in his critique of Obama as "lies", calls for his firing from Newsweek and for (unspecified) "sanctions" from Harvard. "There is a limit, somewhere," he says. "And Ferguson has gone beyond it." Burke (above) agrees, though he does not call for any punishment. "I don’t have to regard Ferguson as a professional by the standards of any of my worlds, as a person entitled to say that he’s inside any of those sets."

I think this is an important discussion. Ferguson has lost the respect of (at least some of) his peers in the academic community. This is not because they disagree with him, or even because he is wrong, but because he seems to be willfully misleading his readers. Most importantly, as Burke puts it, he does not respect "the totality" of "what is known and said about" his subject. That respect is what scholarship is based on.

Also worth reading: Justin Fox at HBR and Daniel Drezner at FP. [Added Sept. 15, 2014: And John Cassidy at The New Yorker.]

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