Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Considering the sources

Of Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, and Norman Finkelstein (see this New Republic item and this Chicago Jewish News item), the one I fear most is Finkelstein. This is because he's in Chicago and thus is the one I'm least unlikely to come into contact with. Their behavior would be unacceptable from an eight-year-old. Such behavior from an eight-year-old would need to be corrected, lest the youngster grow up to be a well-educated and sophisticated adult like Chomsky, Dershowitz, or Finkelstein.

(The New Republic link requires free registration. Unfortunately, you need to be a paid subscriber to comment at the site, so I'm commenting here.)

Says Dershowitz,

What passes for Finkelstein-scholarship is charging me, and virtually every other pro-Israel writer, with plagiarism for citing material to their original rather than secondary sources. Anti-Israel as well as pro-Israel scholars use the same citation method because it is the one preferred by the Chicago Manual of Style and other authoritative sources. For example, Professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer repeatedly cite primary sources for material they found in secondary sources. I proved this and challenged Finkelstein to level the same charge against these anti-Israel writers as he did against pro-Israel writers. He refused, because his is not scholarship; it is propaganda.

At first I had no clue what "citing material to their original rather than secondary sources" meant (or what the plural "their" referred to). I guessed he meant doing research in primary sources, but it seemed like a weird basis for a charge of plagiarism. He then tells us that this is the citation method "preferred by the Chicago Manual of Style and other authoritative sources." Fine, but he doesn't tell us what he actually means until the next sentence: "cit[ing] primary sources for material . . . found in secondary sources."

Before I get into what is going to end up being my main point, let's look at Dershowitz's style of argument: (1) This technique is OK; (2) if it isn't OK, then tu quoque anyway; (3) someone who doesn't like me called me names for doing it but didn't call other people who did it names.

"Tu quoque" is Latin for "I'm rubber and some other given personage (hereinafter referred to as "OGP") is glue, everything said OGP says bounces off of me and sticks to the above-ref'd OGP"; some translate it as "I know said OGP is, but what am I?" or "But said OGP did it too!!!!"

Back to this scholarly practice that Dershowitz advocates. Let's put aside the question of The Chicago Manual of Style for a moment and just use our own common sense. Imagine a law student in one of Dershowitz's classes who cites Roe v. Wade when he actually is quoting a book called This Is My Opinion on Abortion, and Everyone Who Disagrees with Me Is a Bad Person--a book he doesn't cite. Can we assume Dershowitz would find this OK? And I imagine Finkelstein quotes Dershowitz. Would Dershowitz be satisfied with scholarship that cites Dershowitz while quoting Finkelstein?

This type of research may or may not be plagiarism--this is a legal question that I'm not competent to answer--but it is dishonest; the researcher (or "scholar," as Dershowitz says) is pretending to have read something that he has not read. And it's also foolish--what if the secondary source got it wrong? Dershowitz says he "proved" that Walt and Mearsheimer did this. I don't know how he'd prove this short of surveilling them. Most likely he found that they'd repeated someone else's misquotes or typos. Which should show him why such a research technique is a very bad idea. Some day, I may look up Dershowitz's proof and report back to you. Or maybe I'll read what someone else wrote about the proof and pretend I read the proof itself.

Dershowitz says his method is "preferred" by The Chicago Manual of Style, and indeed the manual usually does use the language of preference. What does the manual actually say about Dershowitz's approach? According to the 15th edition (section 17.274, p. 727),

To cite a source from a secondary source ("quoted in . . .") is generally to be discouraged, since authors are expected to have examined the works they cite. If an original source is unavailable, however, both the original and the secondary source must be listed. (ellipsis in original)

"[M]ust"? Yes. As I said above, the manual usually talks about its preferences. When it gets worked up about having to point out the obvious ("authors are expected to have examined the works they cite"), it sometimes resorts to "must."

So Dershowitz's statement about the manual was a falsehood. That hypothetical student who cites case law when actually quoting some screeching screed may meet Professor Dershowitz's standards, but not those of the Chicago manual. Maybe Dershowitz was lying, but it seems more likely that he was just citing the manual while actually quoting someone who claimed to be quoting the manual. This would be a fitting punchline to an otherwise unfunny joke. On the other hand, maybe the New Republic was misquoting him. Or something.

What do we learn from this? First, if something makes no sense, that may be because it isn't true. (We religious fanatics, of course, should disregard this statement. Why? Because it makes no sense.) And read everything skeptically, even if you and the author are on the same side. After all, both Dershowitz and (if Dershowitz is to be believed) his opponents--people on opposing sides--use the same silly and dishonest research method. Dershowitz has published at least one falsehood, documented here, possibly because he used this method.

Second, if you actually look things up, that's excellent. If you don't, you should at least be honest with yourself and others. If you read Dershowitz's proof of Walt and Mearsheimer's foolishness, or if you figured it out yourself, go ahead, tell people about their goofy research technique. If you read the New Republic link or some similar chunk of primary Dershowitz, you can reasonably say, "According to Dershowitz, Walt and Mearsheimer are as lazy as he admits to being." Otherwise, you should say, "I read on some [self-conscious snickering and rolling of eyes] blog that Dershowitz admits to this silliness and implicates these other guys, so consider the source." Always a good idea.

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