Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Ethics of Writing (1)

Everyone will agree that it's unethical to knowingly write a falsehood. But is it also wrong to write without knowing what you're talking about? I think this question is related in interesting ways to the discussion we've been having recently (and which is now continuing at Pat Thomson's blog) about the possibility of knowing what you think in advance of writing. I guess the question I'm asking is whether people who are not quite sure what they're trying to say, i.e., people who don't know what they think until they see what they say, are at risk of publishing what I've been calling "unfinished thoughts" and therefore of saying things that they don't understand well enough to know.

Consider the simple case of writing something you know should be credited to someone else. If you don't put in the citation you are obviously committing plagiarism, which is unethical. But what about a situation in which you're just not sure where you got the idea, and perhaps merely suspect that you've taken it from something you've read somewhere? Well, here you clearly risk plagiarizing. If your suspicions turn out to be correct, you may be accused of passing off someone else's ideas as your own. Although intention doesn't really matter, in this case we'd even have to say that you ran that risk intentionally.

Okay, now what about a claim like, "This study is based on 27 semi-structured interviews." Obviously, there's nothing wrong with writing this if you really did do 27 semi-structured interviews. If you only did 12, you are lying and making your data set sound larger than it really is. So that would be unethical. But what if you're not sure that the 27 interviews you did were actually "semi-structured"? After all, it's a term of art in interview methodology, so it may be true or false even if you talked to 27 people. You are claiming, then, not only to have done 27 of something, you are claiming to know what a semi-structured interview is and how to carry it out. And, again, what if you're just unsure of yourself here? Is it unethical for you to claim that you did something you're not sure what is?

Consider, finally, a claim like, "Skepticism has universally substituted appearance for Being." Well, first of all, you'd better cite Hegel. But even if you're going to agree with him, you have to have an understanding of the difference between, say, Being and appearance. If you only know that this claim is rightly attributed to Hegel, and like the sound of it, but don't really know how to make sense of it, you shouldn't pass yourself off as someone who believes it.

There is a great line in Shadowlands, the bio-pic about C.S. Lewis: "We read to know we are not alone." Suppose you believe that skepticism has universally substituted appearance for Being, and suppose you feel a bit lonely about this since no one else seems to know what you're talking about or why it's so important. Then you read a paper by someone who does claim to believe it. Excited, you make sure you attend a conference where she's keynoting and seek her out to talk to her. You now discover that she doesn't really know what the claim means, and only put it in the paper because it sounded smart. The issue I'm trying to write about revolves around the disappointment you would feel.

I'll continue this on Friday.


Presskorn said...

The attitude you're ultimately combatting has been concisely phrased by an anonymous tweet: “If you can only be good at one thing, be good at lying… Because if you're good at lying, you're good at everything.”

... And in this context, I'd better cite my source:

Thomas said...

Reminds me of Jacob Brackman’s 1967 New Yorker piece on “the put on”:

‘[The put-on artist] doesn’t deal in isolated little tricks; rather, he has developed a pervasive style of relating to others that perpetually casts what he says into doubt. The put-on is an open-end form. That is to say, it is rarely climaxed by having the truth set straight—when a truth, indeed, exists. “Straight” discussion, when one of the participants is putting the others on, is soon subverted and eventually sabotaged by uncertainty. His intentions, and his opinions, remain cloudy.’