The Mind of the Plagiarist

Jul 202011

Here’s a fascinating article on the psychology of plagiarism, particularly how the plagiarist’s ignorance of his own ignorance is often his undoing: The Mind of the Plagiarist:

It never occurs to the plagiarist, therefore, whether panic-stricken or calculating, that submitting someone else’s prose under his own name might alert a wary reader that shenanigans are in play. It never occurs to him that a vapid three-sentence paragraph of his prose, with simplistic sentences, bad grammar, and misspellings, when followed by a paragraph in a competent writer’s professional prose will create a sense of disjunction in the very party whom the gesture aims at defrauding.

If there were such a thing as an intelligent or well-educated plagiarist, the idea of a careful patchwork of paragraphs, culled from various websites and rewritten to make the style homogeneous and framed within original prose that endowed on the whole something like a convincing structure — that, I say, might occur to him. But if the plagiarist were intelligent and well educated, if he were that capable, he would probably not be a plagiarist; he would be an honest student who acquits himself in courses.

Go read the whole thing!

Bob Pasnau on Studying the History of Philosophy

Mar 182011

Bob Pasnau — noted medieval scholar in my own CU Boulder Philosophy Department and generally awesome guy — makes a compelling case for young philosophers specializing in the history of philosophy. Here are a few choice quotes:

The discipline of philosophy benefits from a serious, sustained engagement with its history. Most of the interesting, important work in philosophy is not being done right now, at this precise instant in time, but lies more or less hidden in the past, waiting to be uncovered. Philosophers who limit themselves to the present restrict their horizons to whatever happens to be the latest fashion, and deprive themselves of a vast sea of conceptual resources.

Despite the above list of names, many philosophers today are presentists – they think that the only philosophy worth reading has been written in the last 100 years, if not the last 30 years. This attitude is hard to justify. The historical record shows that philosophy – unlike science and math – does not develop in steady, linear fashion. Perhaps the very best historical era ever came at the very start, in Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. If that was not it, then one has to wait some 1600 years, for the century from Aquinas to Oresme, (Who’s Oresme?, you may ask. Exactly.) or wait 2000 years, for Descartes through Kant. I’m leaving out important figures, of course, but also many quite fallow periods, even in modern times. Maybe subsequent generations will judge 2011 and environs as the highpoint up until now of the whole history of philosophy, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Every generation of philosophers has been equally prepossessed by its own ideas.

Of course, I am no more capable than others of judging my own times, but certainly I am not alone in feeling some amount of dissatisfaction with the way philosophy looks today. Tyler Burge nicely expresses my own worries when he remarks, in the preface to his recent book, that “if philosophy is not to slide toward irrelevance and become a puzzle-game-playing discipline, good mainly for teaching the young to think clearly, some central parts of philosophy must broaden their horizons.” Burge mainly has in mind science as a broadening influence; I think the history of philosophy can play a similar role. Although a background in the history of the subject is obviously not a prerequisite for doing deep and original work, it helps, and I fear the discipline’s present collective neglect of its past contributes to its often insular character.

Personally, I was always far more interested in the history of ethics than in contemporary ethics — for many of the reasons that Pasnau discusses here. While the history of ethics is taught (somewhat), philosophy departments don’t recognize a research specialty in the history of ethics, except for ancient ethics. The history of philosophy, with the exception of ancient philosophy, is focused on metaphysics and epistemology. So if you write a dissertation on the history of ethics, the standard result is that ethicists will regard you as a historian and historians will regard you as an ethicist, such that you’ll have a devil of a time getting a job. (That happened to one of our sharpest and most talented professors at Boulder.)

In academia, my two favorite areas of philosophy for study and teaching were philosophy of religion and the history of ethics. I just loved to dive into the ethical texts of the great figures in the history of philosophy — Kant, Hume, Mill, Aquinas, the early Christians, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and of course, Aristotle — so as to develop a clear view of their ethics. That’s something that I hope to return to doing soon, in some form.

The Simpsons on Graduate School & Academia

Feb 092011

This was pretty damn funny, particularly since I’m no longer in academia:

Why Caltech Is Different

Jan 182011

I recently read a fascinating article entitled, Why Caltech Is in a Class by Itself“. Here is an excerpt:

Of the top two dozen or so elite universities in America only one has managed both to avoid the craziness of the post-60s intellectual fads, and to establish something pretty close to a pure meritocracy — California Institute of Technology, which has not received the general recognition among academics that it clearly deserves…

If you can’t meet the stellar performance requirements and show an intense love for science and mathematics, Caltech isn’t interested in you and will not lower its standards. When you apply to Caltech the admissions committee is interested only in your intellectual merit and passion for learning. It has little or no interest in your family heritage, your race, or your skill in slapping around a hockey puck…

Perhaps the most striking difference from all other elite universities — including institutions like MIT and the University of Chicago which forgo athletic recruitment — is Caltech’s complete indifference to racial balancing.

In a state and a region of the country with the largest Hispanic population, Caltech’s entering freshmen class in 2008 was less than 6 percent Hispanic (13 out of 236). The unwillingness to lower standards for a larger black representation is even more striking — less than 1 percent (2/236) of Caltech’s 2008 entering freshmen were listed as “non-Hispanic black”.

This “underrepresentation” of blacks and Hispanics, of course, was more than made up for by the huge “overrepresentation” of Asians. Only 4 percent of the U.S. population, Asians made up a whopping 40 percent of the incoming freshmen class in 2008, a slightly larger proportion than the 39 percent figure for whites.

Applicants to Caltech are clearly seen as representing only themselves and their own individual merit and achievement, not their race or their ethnic group.

(Read the full text.)

I found the “no legacies” and “no racial preferences” policies especially interesting. Given how rigorous the school is, it would simply be cruel to admit a legacy student or “underrepresented racial category” student who couldn’t otherwise handle the academic pace. It also means that if you’re a black or Hispanic student at Caltech, everyone there knows you are there because you met the same admission standards as the white and Asian students, rather than being stigmatized with the “affirmative action” label.

And even though I’m a proud alumnus of MIT, Caltech is purer in how it applies its meritocratic principles.

(Via Marginal Revolution.)

Questions on Academia

Jul 092010

Some FormSpring Questions and Answers on academia:

Congrats, you’ve earned a phd, now i’d like to ask: Couldn’t you have gained the same level of understanding by simply reading a series of books and performing exercises in said books with out interacting with professors and paying exorbitantly high fees?

In some respects, I could have learned far more on my own. I could have spent more time reading classic texts, for example.

However, some aspects of philosophy are part of an oral tradition, so that I definitely benefited from classes. Part of that oral tradition is methodology; that’s a mixed bag. More important is knowing the seminal texts and standard interpretations thereof. You can’t rely on secondary sources for that, as they almost always suck. Also, I had to take classes to get feedback from professors in class and on papers. Undoubtedly, I matured as a philosopher because of that.

Also, you don’t have “exercises” in philosophy books like you would in mathematics. You read, talk, and then write papers. You need guidance and feedback from a knowledgeable person on that. You can’t check your answers in the back of the text.

Also, graduate school was cheap for me, because CU Boulder is a state school. Mostly though, I paid no tuition because I was working as a TA, instructor, or on fellowship. (That’s standard.)

Was changing careers and getting the degree worth it? Would you recommend it to someone else?

It was definitely worth it to me, but the process was also grueling like nothing else I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else without knowing the particulars of their situation.

Were you surprised by the other academics you discovered at College? I went in expecting them all to be monsters, and while most hold (to some degree or another) laughable beliefs, they were friendly, engaging people, willing to listen to a good argument.

Yes, I liked most of my professors in grad school, as well as the graduate students. (Some of the die-hard feminists were an exception.) I was somewhat surprised by that, but not entirely, as my undergraduate experience in philosophy at WashU was quite good too.

Based on your knowledge and experience, would it be possible for a student to bypass formal undergraduacy and apply directly to a graduate program, assuming he had all of the intellectual capacities to do so, and have a chance in hell of being accepted?

He would have no chance of being accepted. If a person is that smart and super-educated, he should be able to skip grades of high school, as well as years of college. By doing that, he could enter graduate school at age 18 or so.

Professor Reports Student to Police for Defending Concealed Carry

Feb 282009

At Central Connecticut State University, student John Wahlberg was reported to the police by his professor Paula Anderson, after he gave a presentation in class on campus violence in which he defended concealed carry.

After Wahlberg raised the point that allowing students with concealed weapons permits to carry on campus might have saved lives in incidents such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, Professor Anderson filed a complaint with the campus police against Wahlberg stating that his presentation was making students feel “scared and uncomfortable”.

The police questioned Wahlberg about his own firearms and where he kept them:

“I was a bit nervous when I walked into the police station,” Wahlberg said, “but I felt a general sense of disbelief once the officer actually began to list the firearms registered in my name. I was never worried however, because as a law-abiding gun owner, I have a thorough understanding of state gun laws as well as unwavering safety practices.”

I guess Professor Anderson doesn’t think that academic freedom extends to students arguing to exercise certain constitutionally-protected rights.

As another student noted:

“If you can’t talk about the Second Amendment, what happened to the First Amendment?” asked Sara Adler, president of the Riflery and Marksmanship club on campus. “After all, a university campus is a place for the free and open exchange of ideas.”

Update: As others have noted here and elsewhere (e.g., Volokh and Instapundit), we may not have the full story. So appropriate caution is warranted before leaping to hasty conclusions.

Philosophical Gourmet Report

Feb 262009

The Philosophical Gourmet Report was just updated for 2009. It’s the ranking of graduate programs in philosophy. I’m delighted to see that University of Colorado at Boulder has risen to #26.

Toward the end of my coursework in 2004/2005, our department was in shambles. About half the faculty had left for greener pastures, and even the chairman was on his way to Oxford. The remaining faculty was worried. We graduate students were in something of a panic. If the department tanked, we faced an unpleasant choice of (1) completing the much-disvalued Ph.D at Boulder, then facing less-than-stellar job prospects or (2) starting over (or nearly so) at a different Ph.D program. Almost all of us decided to stay, based on some reasonable assurances that the department would be rebuilt.

From what I understand, the primary difficulty with rebuilding the department was foot-dragging from the administration. The university uses the salaries of vacant faculty positions for other programs, so they wanted to keep our hiring to a snail’s pace.

Happily, Bob Pasnau took over as chair. By working some kind of medieval magic on the university administration, plus making some very clever hires, he managed to build our department back up to nearly full strength. Then — two years ago, I think — David Boonin took over as chair. He continued to build the department, with excellent results. We’re now quite full, as far as I understand.

Overall, the department is better than it was in 2002 when I entered — not just in terms of its rank, but also in its overall atmosphere.


Note: If you wish to say something unpleasant about my department — and thereby disrespect me and make an ass of yourself — you are most emphatically not welcome to do so in these comments.

Stop Drinking Responsibly, Adults! You Might Corrupt the Binge-Drinking Children!

Dec 052008

Wow, this story is undoubtedly the worst kind of false-alarmist local television news:

Despite years of fighting their “party school” reputation, the University of Colorado hosts regular drinking events for staff, students and visitors, a CALL7 hidden-camera investigation found.

Over several days, CALL7 investigators visited the Boulder campus, finding drinking events that appear to have little to do with enhancing either research or education at CU.

[Scary, bad, scary... the story continues...]

Here’s what the story is actually talking about: After departmental colloquia and other scholarly events, alcoholic beverages are sometimes served to and consumed by the faculty, graduate students, and visitors in moderation to facilitate friendly conversation. In other words, the legal grown-ups in an academic department awkwardly chat over a glass of bad wine in a plastic cup after a somewhat boring lecture. Notably, such alcohol cannot be purchased with state funds; it can only be purchased with money from donors who must sign a form saying that they understand that the money might be used to purchase alcohol.

According to 7News reporters, Arthur Kane and Tony Kovaleski, such events are “parties” of the same sort that make CU Boulder known as a “party school.” Somehow, departments are setting a bad example for the many CU Boulder undergraduates who regularly drink themselves into a blackout, rub genitals to persons unknown to them, and fall asleep in their own vomit.

In other words, responsible drinking by legal adults is a serious problem at CU Boulder that must be stamped out immediately, lest underage binge drinkers get the wrong idea.

Um, okay.

Getting Rand Wrong

Oct 192008

As someone who takes ideas seriously, I’ve always found it frustrating when philosophers take it upon themselves to offer judgments on subjects they haven’t bothered to devote serious time and attention to studying. The charge that philosophers (academic or otherwise) sometimes judge where the epistemically virtuous would fear to comment isn’t new. (For instance, it isn’t rare to hear someone claim that speculation from the philosophical armchair is a poor method of settling some contentious issue.) What makes this phenomenon — the venturing of unwarranted opinions — especially pernicious in the case of philosophers is that philosophers are supposed to be the guardians of rationality, revering the mind by sacrificing hasty conclusions at the altar of the well-formed argument. Philosophers are supposed to love wisdom and shun mere belief; when they make assertions that betray culpable ignorance, they sin against their profession as well as the truth.

I don’t know what it is about Ayn Rand that makes many philosophers think they can get away with saying whatever they damn well please about her without having studied her work carefully and honestly. I suspect that the real explanation has less to do with Rand and more to do with personal biases on the part of her critics. But whatever the cause, the phenomenon is nevertheless real. It isn’t just that many philosophers dislike Rand. We philosophers are an opinionated bunch; we dislike all sorts of things. Rather it’s that many philosophers will attribute all sorts of nonsense to Rand without actually considering what she has to say.

To offer an example, below is a passage from Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics. This work, published relatively recently by Oxford University Press, is intended to be used as a textbook on, unsurprisingly, virtue ethics.

“We can interpret Thrasymachus, and more obviously Nietzsche and Rand, as saying that, rather like hive bees, human beings fall, by nature, into two distinct groups, the weak and the strong (or the especially clever or talented or ‘chosen by destiny’), whose members must be evaluated differently, as worker bees and the drones or queens are.”

Um… what? Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with Rand’s ideas will realize that she believes no such thing. Rand’s philosophical anthropology — her theory of human nature — does not recognize a distinction between types of human beings. Her ethical theory evaluates individuals on the basis of their choices, not their unchosen attributes, and she appeals to a univocal standard of moral evaluation — not to distinct standards for distinct types.

Hursthouse does not provide any sources that might justify her ‘obvious’ interpretation of Rand’s philosophy. But this totally wrongheaded interpretation of Rand was good enough for her editors and peer reviewers at OUP (as well as the numerous philosophers who gave her editorial comments on the final manuscript). Apparently that group of distinguished professors found nothing objectionable in Hursthouse’s characterization of Rand. Of course, realizing Hursthouse’s error would have required reading Rand.

(On a grimly ironic note, the above passage comes from chapter 11 of On Virtue Ethics. The chapter title? “Objectivity.”)

Hursthouse isn’t the only person who presents Rand’s views incorrectly in a way that betrays ignorance. Chandran Kukathas’s entry on Rand in the otherwise excellent Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy is another example. No, Kukathas… Rand didn’t think that integrity was “at the root of the idea of freedom,” her “real concerns” were not “the defence of the value of integrity (to the point of self-sacrifice) in the face of evil and moral despair,” and The Virtue of Selfishness was not a novel.

So far, we’ve seen a philosopher attribute views to Rand that she ‘obviously’ didn’t hold, and we’ve seen another philosopher misunderstand the fundamentals of Rand’s politics and misconstrue her central concerns. But Gerald Dworkin, a professor of philosophy at UC Davis, has recently exemplified yet another way of getting Rand wrong: saying that her ideas lead to catastrophe.

The forum in which Dworkin makes this charge is Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog — a blog featuring “news and views about philosophy, the academic profession, academic freedom, intellectual culture… and a bit of poetry.” The blog is run by Brian Leiter, currently John Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, and Director of Chicago’s Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values. Leiter is also the editor of The Philosophical Gourmet, which ranks the top philosophy departments in the English-speaking world. I read Leiter Reports semi-regularly, as it is a good source of professional news related to academic philosophy (faculty hires, moves, deaths, retirements and whatnot). In addition to this valuable material, the blog also features occasional leftist cultural commentary of more dubious value. Of extremely dubious value is Dworkin’s post “Blame it on Ayn Rand” in which he claims Rand is a cause of our economic troubles. Dworkin doesn’t really provide much of an argument for this claim, so I’ll attempt to provide him with a charitable reconstruction (a courtesy I’m not so sure he deserves… but for the sake of argument…).

Dworkin quotes a recent New York Times article on Greenspan’s involvement in the current financial crisis. (That article seems to get Rand wrong too; Rand didn’t have “a resolute faith that those participating in financial markets would act responsibly” but that’s beside the point.) The article implies that Greenspan’s positions on regulation — specifically the regulation of derivatives markets — were causally relevant factors in producing the recent financial crisis. Why did Greenspan hold his positions on regulation? Here, Dworkin invokes Keynes:

“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

(I can’t resist noting that Rand held a similar view to Keynes about the importance of philosophy in history, though her insight was deeper than Keynes. Rather than viewing history as being primarily driven by political philosophy, Rand viewed metaphysics and epistemology as being much more influential. For more on Rand’s insights here, consult the title essay of For the New Intellectual, as well as the title essay of Philosophy: Who Needs It. Peikoff develops Rand’s insights on the philosophical motor of history in Ominous Parallels, the epilogue to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, and in his forthcoming book on how epistemology shapes society.)

Greenspan was a student of Rand, and Rand argued for the principled separation of the state and economics, and thus for an absence of government interference in voluntary economic exchanges. She was a categorical opponent of governmental regulation in financial markets. Greenspan opposed regulation of derivatives markets. The current financial crisis was supposedly brought on by an absence of regulation in these markets. Thus Dworkin claims that Rand is “an important cause of the catastrophe we are in.”

Let us examine this argument.

This argument gets its force from the claim that Greenspan was practicing what Rand preached. In an update to Dworkin’s post, Leiter snarkily remarks that “Greenspan was not only a friend of Rand’s, but a lifelong devotee of her ideas and her ‘philosophy,’ such as it is.” While it is true that Rand and Greenspan were friendly toward one another, it is demonstrably false that Greenspan was “a lifelong devotee of her ideas.” It doesn’t take a hell of a lot of legwork to discover this; thanks to Google, I didn’t even have to leave my armchair.

In The Age of Turbulence, Greenspan’s recent autobiography, Greenspan discusses the important formative influence Rand had on his intellectual development. In his discussion, he talks about how Rand encouraged him to look beyond mere economic data and more deeply into the values and ideas that move history and influence human action (including economic action). She was credited with broadening his perspective on the world and helping him reject logical positivism. He even describes himself as “writing spirited commentary for [Rand's] newsletter with the fervor of a young acolyte…”. But this enthusiasm was not to last; Greenspan’s autobiography claims that Rand’s philosophy has inherent contradictions, and that his “fervor receded.”

So Greenspan isn’t an Objectivist. His policies, as we shall see, reflect this fact.

We’re in the midst of a recession, teetering (some might say) on the precipice of a depression. What were Rand’s views about recessions and depressions? Well, Dworkin doesn’t say. His blog post doesn’t even bother to discuss which of Rand’s ideas were supposed to get us into this mess. He doesn’t explicitly discuss her ideas at all. If one consults Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal to discover her views on the causes of recessions and depressions, one is directed to the works of Ludwig von Mises. It is important (for getting Rand right) to recognize that while Rand found Mises’s economic analyses convincing, she had substantial philosophical and methodological disagreements with him. Mises was a Kantian who viewed economics as a primarily deductive enterprise (and thus was inclined toward epistemological rationalism). He also attempted to do economics in an ethical vacuum, divorcing economic analysis from any underlying normative framework. Rand, of course, rejected Kantianism, rationalism, and a strict division between morality and economics. But despite his errors, Rand thought that Mises’s economic theories represented a significant achievement.

At this point, I don’t want to provide a lengthy, detailed summary of Mises’s views on the business cycle. I may write something in the near future about the causes of our current economic woes, but I’ll hold off for now. The following short summary should provide a general indication of the economic views Rand found most convincing.

The most salient aspect of the Austrian theory of the business cycle is that implicates central banks as the fundamental cause of depressions and recessions. Ah! The plot thickens! Wasn’t Greenspan the head of our central bank? He was indeed. How do central banks cause recessions?

In a free market, the interest rate (the price of money) is determined by the law of supply and demand. Roughly, the supply of loanable funds that banks have (our savings) determines the interest rate, when taken in conjunction with the overall demand for money and the riskiness of potential debtors. Central banks, such as the Federal Reserve, distort this market mechanism by setting artificially low interest rates (interest rates below the market rate). What happens next? I defer to Wikipedia:

Low interest rates tend to stimulate borrowing from the banking system. This expansion of credit causes an expansion of the supply of money, through the money creation process in a fractional reserve banking system. This in turn leads to an unsustainable “monetary boom” during which the “artificially stimulated” borrowing seeks out diminishing investment opportunities. This boom results in widespread malinvestments, causing capital resources to be misallocated into areas which would not attract investment if the money supply remained stable. A correction or “credit crunch” — commonly called a “recession” or “bust” — occurs when credit creation cannot be sustained.

Loose monetary policy by central banks leads to people taking on more debt than they otherwise would. Artificially low interest rates allow more credit to be extended to risky borrowers. In our current case this lead to skyrocketing real estate values, since there was an increased demand for houses (made possible by banks extending credit to more and riskier debtors). This effect is obvious enough in the case of commercial banks, which more than doubled the amount of real estate loans they made (thus allocating large amounts of resources into the real estate market — allocations that wouldn’t have occurred in a free market for money and credit.

And then there’s the welfare state. Don’t let’s forget about Fannie and Freddy. The former is a holdover from the New Deal; the latter is a “government sponsored enterprise” created by the Emergency Home Finance Act of 1976, and designed to increase home ownership. Both of which did their part to screw us all by spurring on the housing bubble… and they were able to borrow money at a (de facto, if not de jure) subsidized rate in the marketplace because the public viewed them as being low risk (since the state would presumably bail them out, should the need arise).

All of a sudden, everyone’s in debt and no one wants to lend. Small wonder. Small wonder that risky investors are defaulting on their mortgage payments. Small wonder that the derivatives markets are screwing up (I’d argue that we can only make sense of the kerfuffle in the derivatives market in light of monetary policy). Small wonders that major financial institutions are losing their credit rating because they took on too many risky debtors.

We frequently hear that that the market got drunk. What was it drunk on? Cheap credit. Who was the man behind the bar? You can probably guess.

In May of 2000, the Fed Funds rate was 6.5%. By June of 2003, Greenspan had slashed it to 1%, and it stayed there for more than a year (and remained ridiculously low for much longer). Would Rand have found this type of monetary policy commendable (or even tolerable)? Of course not. She’d read her Mises. Moreover, she regarded central banking as morally repugnant and politically unnecessary.

There’s much more to be said about our current credit crunch and how to evaluate it in light of Rand’s moral and political philosophy. But it should now be evident that Dworkin (and Leiter) are wrong on all counts. They were wrong about Greenspan; they were wrong about Rand. Their errors on these subjects betray a culpable ignorance. One needn’t do much research to figure out Greenspan’s real views on Rand, or Rand’s views on economics. Twenty minutes with Google and Wikipedia would probably have gotten the job done. If a philosopher is going to assert, in a public forum, that another philosopher’s ideas lead to disaster, then they have an obligation to carefully consider that thinker’s ideas, to understand them, and to show how (in practice) they would result in catastrophe. When a philosopher fails to do that, they do a disservice not only to the thinker they criticize, but also to the truth, to their profession, and to themselves.

Academic philosophers often get Rand wrong. They often have only themselves to blame.

Bullshitting in the Humanities

Jul 262008

Here’s a gem from xkcd on bullshit in the humanities. Sadly, it’s all too true!

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