Monday, September 10, 2007

Repeated Assertion ≠ Fact

An odd sort of symmetry prevailed today between my work and national events.

In the news today, General David Petraeus issued a report on the war in Iraq. The upshot was the same as it's been for years: every day, in every way, things are getting better. Hunky-dory. Stay the course.

In my own work, I finished reading a book that claimed to prove something about topic X. In final analysis, it really made a nice, well-supported, if not too earth shattering argument about topic Y. Topic X (the one I was interested in) was certainly a presence in the chapters, but a minor one, and the evidence really didn't support the argument about X that the author claimed. It would have made a nice leitmotif to the better argument about Y -- admittedly, a less sexy topic than X. Yet in the introductory and concluding sections of each chapter, the author kept asserting that that chapter's evidence proved something conclusive about topic X.

In both cases, I was deeply irritated by the constant insistence on a conclusion that the evidence didn't really support. When someone, whether academic author or public official, does this, I feel like my intelligence is being insulted.


squadratomagico said...

Ahhhh, the old bait-and-switch! I just read an article with similar issues... Sometimes when I encounter this, I wonder whether the author originally wanted to write about Y, but was encouraged by advisors, colleagues, or editors to try to make an argument about X instead, because it's a sexier topic. In the end, the writing becomes a hybrid piece that satisfies no one.

Belle said...

Voice A: ... so that's our conclusion, right?
Voice B: Right.
Voice C: Does it matter that it doesn't match our thesis? Or our analysis?
Voice B: No, why should it?

True story. They were graduate business students, writing up their case study.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

SquadroM -- I wonder about that. But surely one of the reviewers at the publishing house should have caught this rather major problem.

Belle: Wow. That's just... wow.