24 July 2009

Standard Rant #415

One thing that irritates me no end—and I've seen this all my life in letters to the editor, heard it from callers on talk radio, and now read it in comment threads—are people who recycle talking points and then pretend that these are their own notions, wisdom distilled from a lifetime's experience, or from wide reading, or from personal research. You know, the other day when I was casually thumbing through the writings of Lincoln (some guy will claim), I was struck by his prophetic words, "You cannot raise up the poor by pulling down the rich." Or as Patrick Henry put it (some earnest young woman will write) America was founded by Christians, not by religionists (and then act offended if you point out that Barton or Kennedy are hardly reliable sources). Well I never heard of this Barton (she will claim), I just like to read what our American Founders actually wrote.

You know why I call bullshit on these kinds of claims? Because you, Mr. Strawman, never got that from reading the writings of Abraham Lincoln; you got that from the misattribution of some ideologue. And you, Ms. Chimera, didn't get that religionists line from a lifetime reading the Founders; you picked it up from some fool with an ax to grind. How do I know that? In these cases it's easy; they're fake. You won't find the one in the writings of Abraham Lincoln, or the other in the speeches of Patrick Henry, because they're made up.

And even when they're genuine, you guys give yourselves away again and again by quoting Adams, say, with the same sentence omitted, or by citing rule number two of the 1642 Harvard student rules as rule number one. Copying from an anonymous e-mail is not doing your own research, and pretending that it is is not only dishonest, it makes you look as much of an ignorant fool as the ignorant fool whose work you're stealing.

For those who wish to pass off other people's work as their own I do have some suggestions. First, steal from the best. The more accurate the work you're stealing from, the harder it is to prove theft. It's the mistakes and misrepresentations that give you away.

Second, cross-check your material. If the material you're stealing cites a source, check it out. Maybe you can find something a bit different from that source that you can use that will at least give the appearance that you came to it on your own. If more than one writer is making similar points, blend them. That will muddy the trail. And if you can find somebody writing in opposition, check them out. If there was a mistake in the material you're stealing they will be likely to find it out, and at the very least it will enable you to anticipate likely objections.

Third, if at all possible add some original touch to your theft. A quotation, observation, or other bit of hard data that hasn't already been circulating with your stolen talking points will go a long way toward giving the impression of originality.

And fourth, don't repeat your talking points in the same order as everybody else. It's a dead giveaway. Two people looking at the same material independently are not very likely to come up with the same exact talking-points in the same exact order. And for God's sake vary the wording. Nothing is so fatal to the impression of originality as repeating the same wording as every other writer on the subject.

And last, leave the bogus points out. If your source says, for example, that the fossil Lucy is a known fake, drop that point. It's poison. There's a lot of made-up shit out there, and nothing is so fatal to the impression of originality as repeating a bogus "fact."

Of course you could sidestep the whole problem by not stealing in the first place. If you're using somebody else's research, say so. It really looks better than a transparently baseless claim of originality. And if you're too embarrassed to admit your source, maybe you're better off not using the stuff in the first place.

No comments:

Copyright © 2005-2021