Thursday, May 06, 2010

Researched Ignorance

Continuing the whole agnotology theme, I want to mention the fetish on the right for all the books by people like Ann Coulter (whom Alan refers to as "She Who Must Not Be Named"), Bill O'Reilly, Dinesh D'Souza, Jonah Goldberg, and others. Quite apart from the practice of buying up whole warehouses of the books to artificially boost sales numbers, one often hears the claim of "careful research" and the number of footnotes (or, in the case of Coulter, their confusion with endnotes, but whatever) as a sign that such books are far more than simple ideological pamphlets.

For some reason, the mere existence of footnotes seems to exist as some kind of sign that any claims allegedly bolstered by the claimed research cited are beyond question or reproach. I find this a fascinating example of agnotology-in-action. Ignorant of the reasons for citing a source - beyond simple issues of plagiarism and intellectual honesty - the right has adopted the practice of pretend scholarly research in the service of ideological ends. The results can be quite funny, as for instance the fate of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism is certainly the most laughed-at by the internet Left. Dredging up decades-old smears against FDR, Goldberg's incoherent book offers readers the opportunity to see ignorance paraded around as carefully researched argument.

It was Coulter's defense of one of her books - "It has footnotes!" - that got me thinking about this particular subject. She seemed to think the presence of citation was sufficient as an argument supporting the intellectual legitimacy of her work. With Goldberg's book, this particular schtick has reached a kind of zenith/nadir. Anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge recognized immediately what Goldberg was up to. Even a casual perusal of the book in question - not to mention its tortured journey to publication - should have cost Goldberg not just credibility, but his employment as a commentator on political affairs.

Part of the reason for the spreading of this particular non-intellectual contagion is the ignorance of the use of footnotes. That they serve to show that a writer has done his or her homework is less important than the fact they serve as a way to evaluate the arguments presented and allegedly bolstered by the works cited. Using footnotes serves the reader as a way to ask questions, including that most important one - has the author used the source correctly? Footnotes don't exist to stop critique. They exist as the beginning of serious critique.

This simple, undergraduate reality seems lost on all those right-wing authors who seem to think the claim of "research" and the presence of citations is enough to show that a work is intellectually honest. I'm not sure why it is this reality has escaped them - again, I don't really understand the social dynamics of this phenomenon - but I offer this as part of the problem we face with the flood of books that continue to pour out from right-wing publishers.

Virtual Tin Cup

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