Friday, March 31, 2006

The Footnote Fallacy

Please forgive me if it seems that I have a one-track mind: David Horowitz is not only dangerous and an easy target, but he exemplifies much of what I find wrong with what passes for “research” among today’s undergraduates.

As I teach these undergraduates and struggle to find ways of enabling them to do real and considered research, examination of someone like Horowitz (who presents what he claims is research but who clearly doesn’t understand what research is) helps me develop new ways of talking to my students (not about him—but about the poor methodologies he “exhibits”) when discussing their own research. At the same time, I further a political purpose dear to me: The thwarting of attempts to institute Horowitz’s Orwellian “Academic Bill of Rights.”

An article posted today by Horowitz on his entitled “’The Nation’ Has a Little Lie....” provides a fine example of one misunderstanding of research that Horowitz and the weakest of undergraduates share. That is, dictionary definitions and encyclopedia entries provide the last word. “It says so in the dictionary, so there!”

It’s amazing how many undergrads rely on the dictionary—without ever even exploring just what a dictionary is. It’s an easy appeal to authority that allows one to sidestep any real consideration of the argument being used.

Doing this certainly allows Horowitz to get away with circumventing real discussion. Instead of replying to the argument presented in the article from The Nation that he is responding to, Horowitz zeros in on the use of “Savanarola” to describe him, trying to diffuse a real refutation of his stand by making that particular comparison seem silly. Horowitz later does something similar with “auto-da-fe.” Like the rawest of undergraduates, Horowitz then feels he has “defeated” his opponent.

In addition, Horowitz is an exemplar of the fallacious belief that the existence of footnotes makes something scholarly, makes something “research.”

Though, for a real scholar, footnotes can be a tool (both for the reader and the writer), for the poor scholar, they are no more than a crutch, a false front. The footnotes in this article of Horowitz’s are there for show, nothing more. They add not a jot to his “argument” and do not facilitate further discussion or research on the topic—something a footnote is generally meant to do.

A final note: Horowitz also seems to have missed logic in his philosophy classes. He uses the false syllogism of A implies C and B implies C, therefore A equals B to imply that The Nation is a Stalinist magazine. He feels that he can get away with this because he puts two footnotes in the paragraph—something undergraduates try when writing their papers at four in the morning the day they are due. He even ends his piece with a bit of bluster based on his faulty logic: “the views I attribute to Lingeman and The Nation are not made up.”

Well, they are, for the depiction is based on a logical fallacy as old as the Acropolis.

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