A Touch of Alyricism

Dedicated to the equally fascinating topics of autistic advocacy and the 'sisterly sophistries' of radical gender feminism. Other topics may occasionally crop up. Contactable at alyric@gmail.com

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Polemicist since Grade 8

Monday, October 10, 2005

When an Academic Journal Isn't

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a certain credibility since by virtue of the title alone, it is intimately associated in the minds of readers with the rarefied atmosphere of centres of advanced learning. By default, the reader will take it for granted that what the Chronicle publishes adheres to rigorously enforced academic standards. In brief, the Chronicle trades in trust.

What then is to be done when it becomes apparent that the Chronicle has slipped from its lofty perch to go trawling in the gutters of tabloid journalism. “Nutty Professors,” penned by Dr Mikita Brottman and published by the Chronicle is an article, which follows no recognisable standards, academic or otherwise. The flaws are numerous, obvious and basic.

It is not the content of this article, distasteful though that may be, which is at issue here, but the fact that a supposedly reputable journal could usher into print an article replete with standards of research below deplorable, simple logical fallacies of breath-taking magnitude and the willingness of the author to transgress all the boundaries by making pronouncements she is totally unqualified to make.

The latter point is the one that should have sounded the alarm to a competent editorial board that all was not well with this article. Brottman invokes Asperger’s Syndrome as a suitable label for two past colleagues who failed her ‘collegiality’ test and are therefore good examples of the Nutty Professors, so disruptive to the tranquil life of academia and the subject of this article. Brottman is an instructor of language, literature, and culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, with no qualifications whatsoever as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist with the requisite expertise in the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.

Having been alerted by this anomaly, the editorial staff should have had no difficulty detecting the faulty thinking employed by Brottman. According to Brottman, flaws such as undue frugality or undue insistence on rights and entitlements can be attributed to a class of people by virtue of a label. This is a classic example of errors of inductive reasoning. That this cannot be true, as these flaws are common to the vast run of humanity, was missed entirely by the editors of the Chronicle.

The most egregious of the errors committed by Brottman has to do with her description of Asperger’s Syndrome as a ‘character disorder’. Neither the DSM IV, the psychiatrist’s Bible of mental disorders, or its European counterpoint the ICD 10, recognise any such entity as a ‘character disorder’. There are personality disorders, but Asperger’s is not a personality disorder as the most cursory examination of the DSM IV reveals. No doubt Brottman felt the need to miscast Asperger’s in this way so that she could then talk knowledgeably of the (non-existent) personality traits associated with the Syndrome. Asperger’s Syndrome has nothing to say about the personality traits of the individual. This is a rather fine example of one distortion being used to prop up another.

On publication of this article, representations were made to the President of the Maryland Institute College of Art, who took refuge in citations of ‘academic freedom’. The local Tallahassee newspaper, which ran the article, also cited alternate viewpoints, when representations were made to them. The Chronicle said nothing at all. Neither argument makes any sense, since the spreading of false information is not what either academic freedom or the freedom to have a differing opinion is about. Opinions stem from well-reasoned arguments after all and academic freedom does not include the freedom to peddle prejudicial nonsense.

This article and by extension, Mikita Brottman, are exemplars of the current malaise of preposterism in the academy. Preposterism, a term invented by Jacques Barzun is characterised in Susan Haack’s words by:

“a rising tide of irrationalism, a widespread and increasingly articulate loss of confidence in the very possibility of honest inquiry, scientific or otherwise…...The sham inquirer tries to make a case for the truth of a proposition his commitment to which is already evidence- and argument-proof. The fake inquirer tries to make a case for some proposition advancing which he thinks will enhance his own reputation, but to the truth-value of which he is indifferent.”

Brottman’s article is a fine example of the latter, since the distortions of fact that Brottman employs argue a true indifference to their truth value. And the motive for that indifference is not very far away. Brottman has a book to sell and writing an article, which might be considered controversial but dignified is one way to enhance the author’s reputation and drum up interest in the author’s work. Consequently, the truth value or otherwise of what Brottman actually wrote, was not terribly important, presenting a facsimile of a plausible argument sufficient to raise interest, was.

The Chronicle’s motive for publication of this sub-standard piece was probably its controversial value. Commercially, it makes sense as a means of drumming up reader interest and hopefully increased revenues from subscriptions. Therefore the incentive to look too closely at its rationale was never present. Even the protests that were raised in letters to the Editor (none published) were in one sense good, since there is no such thing as bad publicity if advertising is the purpose of the exercise. But that is not what sustains selling the Chronicle to subscription readers. Publishing interesting pieces is one half of the equation. Having academics regard those articles with respect is the other. Trust is the tradeable commodity. Publishing too many Brottmans undermines that trust in the long run because it gives aid and comfort to the termites in the academy walls, the fake enquirers and their pseudo-scholarship.

Kathleen Seidel has written the definitive appraisal of Brottman's article, which appears on neurodiversity.com at http://neurodiversity.com/weblog/archives/54/autopsy-full-text

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