Sunday, September 28, 2014

No, Noelle McAfee Did Not "Spread Misinformation"

Over in the comment thread on the "fair and balanced"1 story that CHE did on Brian Leiter, someone claiming to be a former student of his asked Noelle McAfee: "...[W]hat is your response to his claim that you spread misinformation about the PGR?"2 This had nothing whatsoever to do with what Noelle had just said, but it will be entertaining to respond to it.

The use of the phrase "spread misinformation" here is a wonderful example of a propagandistic use of language. These words make insinuations that have no basis in fact and yet are so subtle that one almost doesn't notice them.

Let's start with "spread". I take it this is meant in the sense of "spreading rumors". If so, however, then Noelle was not spreading anything, unless posting something on your own blog amounts to "spreading" it.  So that description is at best extremely tendentious.

Now to "misinformation". If I ask Google to define that term, it tells me that it means: false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive (my emphasis). And that seems right to me. So the use of this phrase not only accuses Noelle of having stated something false but tends to imply that she did so deliberately. Is there supposed to be evidence of her doing that? If so, where?

Perhaps, then, we should assume that no such implication was intended. If not, however, then what Noelle is being accused of doing ("spread[ing] misinformation") amounts to no more than this: making some false statements about PGR on her blog.

Really?

If, indeed, that is what Noelle is accused of doing, then the correct response to the charge had already been given earlier in the thread by David Velleman:
..."[M]isstating basic facts" warrants correction, not threats of lawsuits by attorney's "you don't want to meet".
That is: It's irrelevant whether Noelle made such false statements, and asking her to answer the charge is just derailing. I.e., it serves no purpose other than to deflect attention from Leiter's threatening and insulting emails.

But let's keep going a bit. I'm not sure exactly which statements of Noelle's Leiter's so-called former student has in mind here. (Did Leiter use these words also? I don't read his blog.) Noelle did acknowledge making some false statements of fact that were not integral to the point she was making, and in response she more or less just deleted them (since, as I just said, they were not all that relevant). It seems almost unimaginable, though, that these are the only "false statements" she is supposed to have made.

The particular post on which Leiter commented was the second in a series of three (here, here, and here), posted on consecutive days, in which Noelle argued that the PGR rankings exhibit gender bias. Is that supposed to be false? Whether it is or not, it is a perfectly valid topic for discussion, and one on which Jennifer Saul has published a paper in the Journal of Social Philosophy.

No doubt, people can have different views about this sort of question, and I would not be surprised to learn that Leiter regards Noelle's views on it as being false. But it would be ridiculous to threaten and insult Noelle because she had made "false statements" of this kind: statements that are actually the subject of academic debate in a peer-reviewed journal. I would argue, moreover, that academic freedom means nothing if it is acceptable to intimidate and threaten those who disagree with you.

As I have said, I don't know which false statements Noelle is accused of making (either by Leiter or by his "former student"). But, either way, Velleman's point stands.



1 This may be unfair. The story reads as one-sided, but some of my wife's friends in journalism have suggested that perhaps the author decided that the most effective way to show the world who Mr Leiter really is was simply to let him speak for himself. The last section of the story, and especially the last paragraph, very much has that feel.

2 The same person also asked why she said that he "is not a philosopher". The simple answer to this is that McAfee was using the phrase "is a philosopher" to mean: is a person who holds a position in a philosophy department. This is a very common use of the phrase and, in context, was obviously how McAfee intended it.

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