Friday, May 09, 2014

The Ethics of Writing (2)

It is disappointing, to say the least, to discover that an author we like has plagiarized a passage or fabricated their data. On learning the truth about the source of their knowledge, our initial admiration for the way one author tells a story or the way another designs a study is dealt a serious blow. Our admiration for the particular story or study is immediately affected of course. But something also happens to the esteem that we hold the scholar in in general, their ethos in the rhetorical sense—their reputation as an author. Any other story or study that we run into, ostensibly authored by them, will be approached with greater suspicion. We're no longer going to be, first and foremost, impressed. In fact, we may simply ignore the paper altogether. This, I want to argue, is a fundamental ethical consequence of plagiarism and fabrication. It affects our relationship with the author, it undermines their authority.

Now, consider a situation in which the author, confronted with the transgression, says "Really? That bothers you?" That is, they do not reject your claim that the passage in question was plagiarized, or the data at issue was fabricated, they just sort of shrug it off as no big deal. Let's say that they are here squandering an opportunity to rebuild their ethos; they are in fact denying that they are in a ethical situation. They may of course be in a kind of denial, and they may even be in the right, but by trivializing the issue they tell you something about their character. Now, let's, for good measure, imagine that all this happens in public, in the blogosphere or in the journal literature, or both, and that the general reaction to the "scandal" suggests that this also doesn't really bother your peers either. (This will often happen when an author has a great deal of initial ethos, i.e., a strong reputation that precedes them going into the controversy, and people are unwilling or afraid to challenge it.) Well, now, the entire ethical habitus of your field has been undermined, as it becomes clear that there is no ethical risk in plagiarism or fabrication. This is called "moral hazard".

These are relatively clear cases. The question I raised on Wednesday is an attempt to find similar clarity about a much murkier situation, namely, the one in which you an author says something—something that may even be true, and something you may even agree with—that, on closer inspection—either by reading the text more carefully or by engaging them in conversation—you must conclude the author doesn't really understand. It may be that the passage in question is one that you found very difficult to understand too and, when talking to the author, they just admit that they don't understand it either. They can recover their ethos here simply by admitting that it was a mistake. But many authors have a "So what?" attitude about this sort of thing. Yes, they say, "I don't understand it myself, and never have, but it's the sort of thing we have to say, right?"

Perhaps it was something that a reviewer suggested they put in the paper, so they did, even though they didn't understand why it was necessary. I sometimes get this suspicion in the second round when I review papers. The author is clearly trying to satisfy me by reacting to a criticism I've made, but they have not understood that criticism, and can't possibly understand the paragraph they've written to please me (because it's clearly nonsense.) It really lowers my opinion of the paper, and, indeed, gets me forming an opinion about the (fortunately anonymous) author.

This sort of thing happens in more or less formal ways, of course. When I was a grad student, I once talked to a philosopher who was a major figure in an area that often appealed to arguments articulated in formal, logical notation. Indeed, the paper we were discussing (neither mine nor his, but cited in both) was an exercise in mathematical logic that I had struggled for months to understand and finally believed I'd spotted an important error in. His response was not to set me straight about why the error was not really an error (the argument had been very influential, so surely I could not have been the first to see that it was flawed if it really was); rather, he simply admitted that he wasn't good enough at formal logic to know whether or not I was right. (This said something quite disturbing about how the argument may have become influential in the first place, of course.)

If you ask me, it is like admitting you don't have a working understanding of statistics in a field driven by statistical arguments. Or it's like being an anthropologist who never really learned how to do ethnographical research—and yet entering discussions that require such competence. We have an ethical obligation, in my opinion, not to weigh in on topics that we don't understand well enough to make a useful contribution to. Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like I'm in the minority.

1 comment:

Charles Nelson said...

Although you shouldn't be, I do imagine that you are in the minority.