Phi Beta Cons

Fact Checking 101, Part 1

Writing at InsideHigherEd, John K. Wilson argues that the University of Colorado investigative committee’s extremely overbroad definition of research misconduct is “opening the door to a vast new right-wing witch hunt on college campuses that conservatives could easily exploit across the country.” ACTA is exhibit A in Wilson’s McCarthyesque scenario:


The far right is already pursuing leftist academics for expressing their views in the classroom. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni just issued a report on “How Many Ward Churchills?,” proclaiming that “professors are using their classrooms to push political agendas.” ACTA’s alleged proof that Ward Churchills are “common” on college campuses is a survey of course catalogs and syllabi, objecting to classes that mention social justice, sex, or race. (The ACTA report denounces a University of Colorado class on “Animals and Society” because it “[e]xplores the moral status of animals.”


ACTA threatens that academic freedom will be revoked from colleges unless they start censoring their professors and ban such courses.Colleges “must also recognize that if they do not take swift and decisive action, they risk losing the independence and the privilege they have traditionally enjoyed.” According to ACTA, “students, parents, trustees, administrators, and taxpayers have a right to be concerned. They also have the right to raise questions, demand answers, and compel action.


Wilson goes on to denounce David Horowitz and to signal the “harrowing possibility” created by the Colorado committee’s “irresponsible claims,” arguing in effect that the standard of scrutiny established by the committee is going to do more to damage scholarly integrity–by opening scholars to attack–than to secure it. Concentrating on how the Colorado committee read Churchill’s footnotes, Wilson sets aside the questions of Churchill’s plagiarism and ghostwriting to focus on how the committee has set a precedent for treating garden-variety sloppiness as research misconduct.


Leaving aside the merits–or the lack thereof–of Wilson’s argument about footnotes, it’s interesting to examine the integrity of his own citations and characterizations in this article. There is much that could be said on that front, but for the sake of brevity I will simply focus on Wilson’s portrayal of ACTA’s recent study, as Wilson’s own rhetorical techniques leave much to be desired. There is much to observe on this more local front as well–Wilson’s introductory ad hominem attack (evoking “right-wing witch hunts” and then equating ACTA’s report with such by using it as supporting evidence for this extreme characterization), Wilson’s skewed portrayal of what the ACTA report actually says about college courses, Wilson’s slippery manner of eliding the meaning of ACTA’s phrase “compel action” with David Horowitz’s ABOR campaign (ACTA’s work is distinct from the ABOR).

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