Blogs > Cliopatria > Fact-checking Cuts Both Ways....

Mar 14, 2005 3:32 pm

Fact-checking Cuts Both Ways....

I've been ridiculed for attention to detail, and I'll admit that I'm the first one out of my chair to the dictionary or encyclopedia or Shulchan Aruch if a question comes up in conversation that I can't answer (well, second, if my father is there), but sometimes you find something interesting. And sometimes you don't find anything, which is also interesting....

The dog that didn't bark this time is David Horowitz's: he's been citing a certain case of academic repression -- the Bush as war criminal midterm story -- for some time now, but it doesn't seemto be true [via Butterflies&Wheels]. What's particularly odd is that Horowitz's own site has links which appear to be citations but which go to hearings in which the testimony in question clearly doesn't appear. There's plenty of good material for Horowitz in those hearings, so you wouldn't think he'd need to make something up. (You'd also think that he'd pick good students as poster children and wouldn't lie about public figures but you'd be wrong about that, too) I suspect that he's been caught up in an urban legend that he can't let go of, and used the links as a sort of meaningless footnote.

No, it doesn't mean much, but it does mean something.

Update (14 March): Scott Jaschik, of the increasingly essential reading Inside Higher Ed, got a response from Mr. Horowitz to the effect that the lack of evidence is the result of his (and his student informant's) attempt to protect the anonymity of the student involved. My first reaction is that there have to be better ways to do that than by citing the case in national publications, which is probably why that possibility didn't occur to me sooner. Mr. Horowitz also implied that I am one of the"legions of left-wing academics who are in extreme bad faith on this issue, since they are collusive in a repressive system and haven't uttered a peep on behalf of students who disagree with them politically." I probably do qualify as"left" in his definition, but I reject the charge that I am a collusive, repressive, non-peeper.

My thanks to Scott Jaschik, Glenn Reynolds, Randy Barnett, and particularly RalphLuker for their support in making this a question to be answered and put to rest instead of a lingering distraction from larger issues.

Second Update: Students for Academic Freedom have released details of the UNC case, and Mr. Horowitz has commented here. With the caveat that the details of the case are not as clear (or as substantiated) as Horowitz has presented them, I'm reasonably convinced that he was citing an actual case in relatively good faith. Apparently new transcripts of the actual relevant testimony will be posted on the SAF website sometime today, and I want to publicly thank SAF for their efforts in transcription and publication. I don't know if this statement qualifies as the"appropriate retraction" which Mr. Horowitz has, via e-mail, demanded of HNN. I also don't know if he will be apologizing for his slurs cited above. More thoughts later on the actual case and related source issues which this discussion has brought forth...

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melissa A anderson - 12/5/2005

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Jonathan Dresner - 3/14/2005

This has been a pretty fast-moving story over the last 18 hours, as evidenced by the two updates above. I'm struggling with the disjunction between Mr. Horowitz's twin responses, roughly paraphrased as: these attacks are political hackery; I should have cited sources to support my assertions. In a sense, though, it's very similar to my response to the Ward Churchill discussions: I'm very concerned about the agendas and proposals for "reform" coming from Churchill's most vocal critics (including Mr. Horowitz); I'm very concerned that the legitimate political and public activities of scholars not bias the teaching and scholarship which is the lifeblood of the academy.

Whitney Sprague - 3/14/2005

Horowitz isn't quite so full of it after all, it seems:

John H. Lederer - 3/14/2005


If Horowitz is accurately reported he is apprently a bit confused about the source, but the student both exists and is reported on in a January 6th story on Front Page.

chide Horowitx for not accurately remembering the circumstances of the case, and

chide the "fact checkers" for not checking the reporting in the publication they complain of

And...let the surface of the tea cup still

Jonathan Dresner - 3/13/2005

I've tackled bad arguments and bad source use in both historical and political arguments I generally supported. I think I'm pretty open-minded about these things, and tried to put this particular issue in some perspective. Frankly, I'd like to see Horowitz/FPM address the issue either with citations or corrections, to keep the focus on the substance of the matter, but if they won't, that tells us something, too.

I've noticed this "natives call it" thing before, and it strikes me as odd with regard to CU/University of Colorado, because I strongly suspect that there is probably some variance among locals (though the extent will probably depend to some degree on the length of residence and degree of acculturation you require before acquiring "local" or "native" status).

Charles V. Mutschler - 3/13/2005

Ralph, In answer to your questions: I've read the paper in question. I'm certainly not defending it - as I say, poor work is poor work, and that paper meets my definition of poor work. An odd choice for Horowitz, since it seesm like a very weak reed to support his arguments. A fair criticism of my remarks to a point. I wasn't claiming you did poor work, but I was trying to move the discussion a bit further along, hence the new heading. If that isn't appropriate, so be it. And, since I looked at all the items referenced by Mr. Dresner, I found another example of the point I was trying to make in my initial post. The point being that I think people sometimes overlook poor work in things they think support their arguments. For instance, I note that Horowitz makes several references to "Colorado University," and "CU" in his Front Page article. I think I've mentioned this before, but that useage is an easy give-away that the writer is not a Colorado native. The University of Colorado is located in Boulder. Natives call it "CU." They have for a long time. In spite of efforts by some of the trendy set in the 1980 to re-educate the masses and call the University of Colorado "UC," or even "UC - Boulder," the students and alumni know that the University of Colorado, at its original Boulder campus is CU. Anyone calling it "Colorado University," or "UC," or "UC - Boulder" is clearly not a local.

So is Horowitz' failure to use of the university's familiar name proof of his utter lack of veracity? Maybe. Or maybe not. Like Mr. Dresner, I would say it shows a lack of precision and familiarity with his subject, which does say something.

Happy reading and foot-note checking all.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/13/2005

Charles, You're missing my point altogether. Did you read the student paper that Horowitz claims an instructor gave a failing grade to as an example of leftist oppression of patriotic speech in the classroom? If you didn't read it, then you haven't done the work for comment that Burke, Dresner and Luker did. I _never_ said that you claimed _we_ did poor work. I simply asked you if you read the student's paper. Did you?

Charles V. Mutschler - 3/13/2005

Actually, with all due respect, I think we are much more in agreement than you think. I've no great brief for poor papers, regardless of their politics. Bad work is, indeed, bad work - which, I think, I what I said in my comments above. I've seen nothing to suggest that I am implying that you, Mr. Dresner, or Mr. Burke are doing poor work. Please don't read more into my statement than is there.

Thanks for reading.


John H. Lederer - 3/12/2005

Some decades ago my law school seminar on International Law started out our enquiring minds with a rousing discussion of whether there was such a thing as International Law. After two weeks of debate we had pretty well concluded that there was not....somewhat to the discomfiture of the professor who had spent his professional life in the field, though he did allow that on occasion in his position at the State Department he had had doubts.<grin>

The key problem is the political authority normally regarded as necessary to make a custom a law.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/12/2005

Dr. Mutschler, Dr. Dresner did not claim that the example cited rose to the level of Bellesiles-like fraud. You are the one who set that standard, not him. In effect, then, Bellesiles appears here as a strawman in order to discount Dresner's finding in this case. Have you read the student's essay? Do you, unlike the other professional historians here who have read it, claim that it deserves a passing grade? Do you believe that the judgment of Burke, Dresner, Luker, et al, that this paper is a weak junior high presentation, unworthy of college level credit, is shaped by our politics? Why must the poor judgment of David Horowitz be vindicated -- unless, of course, it is because you regard him as a fellow conservative? I suppose that, if Professor Dresner was suggesting that fact-checking cuts both ways, I'm suggesting that motive-questioning also cuts both ways.

Charles V. Mutschler - 3/12/2005

Her again we see the problem which has similarities to the peer review problems in the Bellesiles case and others. Most of the people who agree with the author are not likely to put much effort into checking the sources, and verifying footnotes. So having at least one person with an open minded skepticism on the review panel may be a help.

I would expect the people on the right of the spectrum to put the work they are philosophically opposed to under closer scrutiny than their own. So Horowitz probably pays a lot closer attention to Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky and looks for what he perceives to be failings in the work they do than he does for reports he agrees with politically. Likewise the people on the left look at the writings of a Horowitz and show up what they perceive to be errors. The problem is when either group decides that emperical evidence is not required to support their position.

The whole issue of Michael Bellesiles' veracity became an issue after his critics found methodological problems with his scholarship, and his attempts to explain away the concerns of the critics did not offer any substantive answers. I suppose this is old fashioned, but I think one can learn a lot if one has an opne mind coupled with some honest skepticism. If you can show where the author - either Horowitz or Chomsky - is in error, then the work needs revision, and we should be able to increase our understanding of the subject by revising accordingly.

If we only want evidence to support our particular choice of useable history, I think we are moving out of the realm of historical scholarship into the land of boosterism. Personally, I've found most of the one-sided, cause driven history to be rather unsatisfactory, regardless of which political party is is overtly written in aid of. I've said it before - show me the evidence and show your citations to back it up, and I may believe you. But griping about how so and so cannot be trusted on account of his political view doesn't get my attention as well as a thoughtfully and fully documented critique of the work itself. Which was one reason the Contra Costa County Historical Society's response to Mr. Bellesile was so effective. If you can show Mr. Horowitz is guilty of the same effort to manipulate the facts, please do so. Until then, it's really not helpful to damn his political viewpoint.

Thanks for reading.


chris l pettit - 3/12/2005

One could easily phrase the question:

Explain, in terms of international law (both treaty and custom), the reasons why or why not US President George W Bush could be considered a war criminal and the US government in violation of international law...


Defend, using legal justification, what, if any violations of international law have occurred under US government leadership during the "war on terrorism." If one chooses to state that there have been no violations, one must provide legal justification utilizing passages from a non-inclusive list including: 1) the Geneva Conventions, 2) the Hague Regulations, 3) the UN Charter, 4) General Assembly and Security Council Resolutions, etc.

something along those lines...I am sure that there are those in the "academic freedom" brigade that will that vein, I might as well tell you that I have a variation on a similar question on a UCT is the most relevant thing in international law at the moment and needs to be addressed. that being noted, I think the way this prof did things was extremely disagreeable...and that it was a highly partisan ideological question that gives the freedom brigade way too much to chew on.

By the way...if a student were to answer in the same vein to my question, they would also fail because they were interjecting political ideologies into an arbitrary question...if they wanted to defend a position, they would have every opportunity to do it under international law provided they could support it. Writing on hussein is irrelevent to the question and has no bearing on what was asked...thus the failing grade...that I agree with.


Van L. Hayhow - 3/11/2005

True enough, the essay was lousy. But I would work in the type of argument that was in Gordon Wood's book The Radicalism of the American Revolution and point out that the question may lack historical perspective,while still pointing out that the constitution tolerates slavery, etc.

Timothy James Burke - 3/11/2005

The question is bad, too, yeah. Had a student written an essay where he attacked the assumption of the question that the model cited was correct, it would have been perfectly fine, in my book. There's even a way for a student to make a workable version of the argument I can dimly perceive in the bad essay, which is to say that the elitism of the Constitution's founders is immaterial because the document itself provided a self-renewing mechanism that trumped the limitations of its authors. Or an essay which starts with a curiousity that the question itself doesn't evince, about how elites can create something that constrains their own social power in various ways. And so on.

The question's a weak one, but the essay is just some 9th grade off-the-shelf rambling. There's no way to be generous to it, or argue that a failing grade on it is an ideologically motivated action.

Van L. Hayhow - 3/11/2005


Jonathan Dresner - 3/11/2005

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents, but rather because its opponents die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." -- Max Planck

The important thing to remember is that the ranks of "true believers" is smaller than they look. They may be impervious to logic, reason or facts (or they may not be, in the long run), but there's a broader population which is reachable and teachable.

I do think, as you do, that we need to find appropriate ways to respond to that "shamelessness" (or continue our current methods, if they're the best we've got) without becoming shameless ourselves.

David Lion Salmanson - 3/11/2005

Am I the only one picking up a disjuncture between the first part and the second part of the question. It looked like it was heading towards: Evaluate the accuracy of this argument and then it gets incoherent.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/11/2005

It's a Jewish compendium of laws and practices, intended to be a reference work for living according to Torah and Rabbinic dictates. I think the first one was late medieval, but the "standard" is the 19c Ganzfried Kitzur Shulchan Aruch. I have an abridged version at home which is more than enough to answer most of my questions about "what do you do when..." and you can view good portions of it online here (where you can sign up to have a daily snippet with footnotes e-mailed to you!)

It's not a replacement for Torah/Talmud study, but it is a fantastic reference for traditional practice.

Van L. Hayhow - 3/11/2005

No, it didn't answer the question, but then the question wasn't very good, either.

Van L. Hayhow - 3/11/2005


Jonathan Dresner - 3/11/2005

Thanks, Ralph! This ought to be interesting....

Ralph E. Luker - 3/11/2005

I do not have David Horowitz's e-mail address, but I have notified Jamie Glazov, managing editor of Front Page Magazine, of the charges in Professor Dresner's post and have invited Glazov or Horowitz to give us a response.

Timothy James Burke - 3/11/2005

I've maybe had my fill this week of discussions about how to counter Horowitz, but still. The shamelessness among one sector of the populist right still really boggles my mind at times. I followed the link about "good students as poster children", read the appallingly bad essay being trumpeted as the target of discriminatory grading, read a number of conservative political scientists agreeing that it's a bad essay, and then read the threads at those blogs where the true believers and followers of Horowitz more or less demonstrate an absolute impermeability to facts and an absolute lack of embarassment about that. The screaming intellectual illiteracy on display among that hardcore stops me dumb in my tracks. It may be invulnerable to any challenge of any kind.

John H. Lederer - 3/11/2005

for details that would allow checking?