Thursday, July 3, 2008

Moral Quandry

I've been asked by a journal to consider writing a rejoinder to a paper they've just accepted that's a criticism of my views. I was enthusiastic about this, especially since the paper makes what seem to me a several glaring errors. But then I noticed that the author of the paper I'd be responding to is untenured. What's the right thing to do here?

I suppose having a more senior person respond in print to one's work is a good thing for a junior person's CV and tenure file. But if the content of that response is largely negative, it could hurt a tenure file, right? I suppose I could try to respond in a way that is philosophically forceful, but does not make the author look amateurish; yet, given the character of the criticisms, this will be difficult to achieve. I suppose I could simply decline, but that's unsatisfying in its own way. Part of me thinks that writing the gloves-off, I-drink-your-milkshake rejoinder would be a sign of respect. But would a T&P committee see it this way? Perhaps I have an inflated sense of how much damage I can do? Suggestions? Thoughts?

14 comments:

imipolex_g-unit said...

Respect their milkshake and drink the hell out of it.

If they deserve tenure, then they'll have other things to write about besides a single thing that got torn up by a single response article. Maybe those other things will be some devastating objection to you that you can't find amateurish errors in. Also, this will be in the service of our collective movement toward the truth.

Walk away from this one, and everyone's harmed.

Drink it up!

729 said...

I have to cast my vote with Impolex--drink the milkshake.

As far as I know, from at least where I am at, the tenure process is complex and too difficult to call from any distance. The external review letters will be significant, and there's no way of knowing ahead of time, who the reviewers will be, their positions, and how charitable/uncharitable they are generally (maybe they already hate you, and will favor the person's attempt to refute you--no way to know). Then, there are administration and higher level committees, who very often look at citation counts. If you write a reply, the whole exchange becomes citable (see X for Blah, and see Y for not-Blah). And then there's the matter of the dept. and its politics, and whether they will or will not find reasons to tenure the person, none of which are transparent.

If there is anything good at all in the paper, maybe in terms of the formulation of the problem, or focus, whatever it was that made it publishable, you could acknowledge this fairly, then refute. This is standard anyway, but also offers the ext. reviewers something to write. It is a pretty big deal that the person's paper will be assessed by the philosopher it concerns. I think it is *rare* that any philosopher's responses to others' work on their ideas are positive. Insofar as you might first respectfully clarify the problem, then drink the milkshake, reviewers and folks at the dept. level will create whatever language they are so inclined to create for the tenure file.

Santa said...

Spiros: You have shredded me in the past and it made me better at refining my ideas and clarifying my world view. Drink the milk shake. It is the best thing that can happen to the person's development. 'Tis better to school someone proper than let them off easy. The person will never progress to the next level without such honesty. The odds of your review being the tipping point either for or against tenure is small unless this person has a history of being refuted decisively and often. In either case, you are doing this person and the field a service by doing your duty much in the same way Socrates shredded Gorgias.

Ben said...

I don't really know about the machinations of tenure (not being from the US) but, speaking as someone just out of grad school, I'd be fairly happy to have a senior academic respond to criticisms I'd made in print. Admittedly, if your objections are as good as you think then that may dampen things a bit - but then, of course you think you're right. The usual pattern, I believe, would be for him to publish a rejoinder to your initial response. Assuming you're respectful in your response, and he still has something to say afterwards, then I'd say the whole simply boosts his publications, citations and profile.

Spiros said...

Good comments, all. Many thanks. Looks like the milkshake drinkers win. But let me ask:

Let's say that I can't figure out a way to do this rejoinder without charging the author with making a very basic equivocation, which then feeds into a baby-logic formal fallacy. That is, let's say that there's a degree of ineptness in the original paper that I'd have to call out. There's no polite way to say "affirming the consequent is a fallacy." Would this change things in your view?

Santa said...

Spiros: You are an educator and a logician first and foremost, correct? When someone engages in fallacious reasoning in your classes, do you ever feel that you should not point out the error so that the student can realise the mistake and get better? I doubt that. In that same vein, you should feel a need to engage this potentially future colleague in the field and point out a glaring error lest you create a monster like a philosophical Bill O'Reilly by not nipping the problem in the proverbial bud and schooling the person properly. If this person really cares about a creer in the field, they will learn from their mistake and be a better philosopher in the future. If this person is just a bad philosopher, you will have potentially helped weed the field of one more bad element.

cw said...

Isn't this thing peer-reviewed? Did two reviewers miss such a basic fallacy?

Spiros said...

CW:

It's tricky. The affirmation of the consequent is clear only once the equivocation is disentangled.

Spiros said...

Santa,

Part of me of course agrees with you wholeheartedly.

cw said...

Spiros:

Got it. So then it sounds like it might actually be helpful, to the community, at least, to clear things up. For the author? Well, it sounds like an instance of a simple error, but one that others could easily make. Maybe that's not quite as damning for the author. (Maybe you could lessen the sting by pointing out that two - or however many - reviewers missed it as well?)

729 said...

Im with CW on this. If two (or more) reviewers missed the fallacy on account of an equivocation, it would seem to stand that there is significant confusion at large that directly impedes understanding your argument.

It sound to me like you can frame your response so that the focus is on a "common" misunderstanding, one that is "at large" in the literature, a "certain type" of misunderstanding, or however you might put it. There's nothing wrong with shifting the onus from a particular person to a more general situation in the literature. We do it all the time--create diagnostic classifications for types of responses or approaches in order to sift through discussions of the literature. If the author's equivocation has other sources the author is in someway beholden to, it would be helpful for everyone for you to clarify and trace those sources. This would also frame the discussion in a wider context and help your own argument stand apart. If the author's equivocation is entirely unique and has no background whatsoever, I'd be surprised, but I'd also be less inclined to think that a novel equivocation should slide by so easily. And if it did, there's so real trouble.

The Brooks Blog said...

I think I agree with all the above. Of course, it may well turn out that a quite negative published comment on such a person's work may do little good for that person beyond improving citation rates. That said, and I do think you're right to feel a bit mixed, I think at least two further things.

First, if the paper published dealing with your work makes such glaring mistakes, then, well, they should be corrected. We all have a duty to be careful with what we stand behind.

Secondly, I think even a negative reply could serve the person well (beyond the citations). After all, both the journal and yourself would then not only view this person's work as worth being aired, but worth being responded to. Much work is published, but far less is replied to.

Krinos said...

Brooks nails it. You have a duty to correct mistakes you detect, and that duty is much greater in your area of expertise. The issue, as I can gather isn't really whether to point out the error, since not to do so would be a failure not only to your subject area but also to your colleague -- that of not taking him/her seriously enough to correct. Instead, the issue is the tone of your response... your reference to 'drink your milkshake' indicates not only a correction, but a bit of browbeating or sport made of those who commit errors. This is trickier, since that is appropriate, I think, only in cases where the person not only needs a correction, but a lesson. Surely the latter will influence readers for a tenure case, but if this person needs a lesson, this person may not deserve a tenured position.

Spiros said...

All:

Sorry for the delayed response. You've convinced me. Look out.