May 30, 2007

Under scrutiny

In this morning's IHE article on Ward Churchill, we read one of the two serious arguments put forward by Churchill's defenders:

James Craven, a professor of economics at Clark College, in Washington State, said that Churchill was subjected to a level of scrutiny that few professors have ever faced or could withstand. "How many scholars could have their own work vetted as his was?" said Craven.

Without addressing motives and the horrible traffic-stop analogy that has been floating around the blogosphere in the last day or two, we can look at this as a separate issue, or rather two: as an empirical question of whether all scholars' work is as flawed as Churchill's and as a more general question of what type of scrutiny is appropriate when questions arise about any scholar's work.

First, to the empirical question: Could my work or that of most of my peers withstand the type of scrutiny that Churchill's had? I think the answer is easily. The problems that the peer reviews found at the University of Colorado were not matters of the occasional citation flub or typographical error, the missing acknowledgment of a peer or the "why don't you look at X's work?" question that is common in article manuscript reviews and in book reviews (if conjugated in the latter with the regretful past indicative instead of the suggestive imperative interrogatory). Churchill's errors were crucial to his intepretation, repeated, deliberate, and uncorrected.

Above all else, the last quality is what separates you and me and the birds from Mr. Churchill. If someone points out a mistake to me, or if I see it myself, I've tried to find some way to acknowledge and correct the error. If someone is truly after my hide, I will trust that my various attempts at errata will protect me from allegations of misdeeds if not criticism. And that's the difference between a legitimate investigation and a witch-hunt: a witch-hunt doesn't care about the evidence.

More generally, I'm not sure we can say what level of scrutiny is appropriate when conducting investigations, except to say that such an investigation is necessarily going to be broad-ranging and, er, um, usually will rely on published sources, material that we academics have written and sent out there to be read. Yes, boys and girls and grad students, the published work of academics is public. Despite some lingering doubts in the occasional subspecialty with 2-3 experts in the entire world, we generally write stuff that we want people to read, perhaps even understand. Under most circumstances, we would be highly flattered if someone read every one of our writings carefully.

The consequence of this small but important fact of academic life is that we have no complaints when our stuff is read closely. Apart from the occasional typographical error introduced by typesetting, the flaws in my writing are my fault, and I have no one to blame if someone actually reads it.

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Posted in Academic freedom on May 30, 2007 8:07 AM |