Why Plagiarism Matters

No doubt many of you out there are now aware of the furor which has erupted around Sam Harris after his encounter with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show. The ensuing outrage has generally been directed toward Harris & Maher’s statistically verified claims about the religious roots of wildly illiberal beliefs held by vast numbers of Muslims.

There have been numerous efforts to rebut the more ridiculous mischaracterizations of Harris’ words, and Harris himself wrote what is probably the best rebuttal to the attacks against him in a blog post titled “On the Mechanics of Defamation”. Instead of belaboring those points, I want to focus on one of the weirder subplots which has been unfolding in the midst of this nonsense; namely the saga surrounding Harris critic and Salon/Alternet columnist CJ Werleman’s exposure as a serial plagiarist.

Werleman gained some notoriety for his appearance on The Young Turks to make the ridiculous claim that it would be less dangerous to have Sarah Palin in control of our nuclear launch codes than Sam Harris. It was after those comments drew push back online that numerous instances of blatant plagiarism by Mr. Werleman in his Salon/Alternet columns were exposed. It was even revealed that Werleman had plagiarized an entire paragraph from one of Harris’ books.

Rather than recognize the seriousness of his plagiarism and apologize sincerely, Werleman began spewing tweets which ran the gauntlet from attributing his plagiarism to “editing errors,” to issuing benign nonpologies, to tossing hysterical insults at the “Harris Zombies” who exposed him, to the downright bizarre use of a pseudonymous blog/twitter account to (incorrectly) accuse Harris of plagiarism himself.

I want to preface this by saying that I do not write this to simply “pile on” Werleman. I hope that he soon sincerely acknowledges the seriousness of the plagiarism accusations against him, offers an unqualified apology, and temporarily withdraws from public view. Were he to do that I would wish him the best with his career and be happy to give him a second chance in the future. Instead, I am writing to explain, to Werleman and others, why blatant plagiarism is so much more than an excusable “editing error.”

First, there are the obvious reasons we all learned in middle school. (Plagiarism is theft, etc.) Someone else did the leg work to research the topic and decide how best to formulate the words to convey an argument, and you are effectively piggy-backing on their intellectual labor. In the world of online media, where clicks = cash, I’d argue that this is a greater problem than ever before. But while that alone should be enough to condemn plagiarism of this kind, I want to focus on a second negative consequence caused by plagiarizing from the work of others: it is an example of an extreme disregard for the importance of evidence which completely shuts down any possibility of real discussion or argument on important issues.

When an author plagiarizes an argument or a set of facts, what they are really doing is utterly failing to go through the reasoning process. The process of developing an argument on a given issue should involve the gathering of all available facts, an extensive evaluation of those facts, and asking what conclusion is compelled by the facts/evidence you have gathered. Plagiarism is almost always an indication that the author has begun with a predetermined conclusion and then scoured the work of others to find scraps of evidence that can be pieced  together to support that conclusion. In short, it is an indication of intellectual laziness and a disregard for evidence that is fatal to the integrity of the underlying argument.

For example, consider Werleman’s plagiarism of the following passage from a speech given by President Obama:

Source – The Daily Banter/Peter Boghossian

President Obama, speech, December 4th, 2013:

“A child born in the top 20 percent has about a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top. A child born into the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top. …  In fact, statistics show not only that our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentine but it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies, countries like Canada or Germany or France.”

CJ Werleman, Alternet, August 1, 2014:

“In the U.S., a child born in the top 20 percent economically has a 2-in-3 chance of staying at or near the top, whereas a child born in the bottom 20 percent has a less than 1-in-20 shot at making it to the top, making the U.S. one of the least upwardly mobile nations in the developed world. Our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentina, rather than like countries like Canada and Germany, but American voters, in large, believe America is just doing fine.”

Is there any serious doubt that Werleman likely never checked those facts to confirm their accuracy? Is there any serious doubt that he likely didn’t care whether any of it was true? If he had bothered to hunt down the sources for those claims, he would have been able to simply cite to those and be done with it. Having read those sources, he would have noticed any glaring holes in his argument that might require him to re-evaluate his positions. And if he still made a mistake, his readers would have been able to easily track down the source and call him on it. If nothing else, plagiarism such as this certainly implies that Werleman knew what conclusion he was going to be reaching regarding social mobility in the United States before doing any research, and that when he did do research it was merely to find sources that supported his predetermined argument.

Why is that such a problem? Because it causes us to talk past each other when we argue. It is an extreme example of a broader problem in the media; an attitude of, “I know which ideological viewpoint I represent, now let me go cherry picking information to support ‘my side’.” It is an approach that emphasizes winning an argument by any means necessary over reaching the truth in any given dispute.

Consider what would happen if, instead of simply grasping at straws to find ways to prove Harris is wrong, Werleman had genuinely considered Harris’ arguments and asked whether they were supported by the available evidence we have on both sides (Pew Polls, Gallup Polls, studies on the motivations of suicide bombers). Perhaps Werleman would have changed his mind on some of the issues involved, or at least realized that Harris’ motivations may be less sinister than he had initially claimed.  And, if Werleman responded in a reasonable way, perhaps Harris would have had to tweak or refine his arguments to respond to some interesting new points he raised. We’ll never know. At a minimum, if the result was an exchange of fully sourced arguments, the rest of us would be able to go back and evaluate the strength of the evidence on each side for ourselves.

In other words, what I am trying to convey is that plagiarism demonstrates a total disregard for the vital role evidence should play in any argument. It simply screams, “I want to be right and I don’t want to do the work to confirm that I am not actually full of shit.” When arguments stop being about the evidence, they end up becoming a predetermined ideological pissing contest. Nobody learns and nothing is accomplished. That is why, if Werleman is serious about making a career as an author/social commentator, he needs to apologize for these blatant examples of intellectual laziness, and focus on doing the hard work of critical thinking when making arguments in the future.

– The Flying Contrarian

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