The Chronicle of the Highly Uneducated; or, The Riley Fallacy

The main problem with Chronicle of Higher Education blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley is not racism.  The main problem is her intellectually lazy, sloppy “journalism” that cherry-picks examples in order to “support” uninformed opinions.  In her recent piece, “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations,” she reads the descriptions of dissertations by five recent Ph.D.s in Black Studies from Northwestern University.  Based on this exhaustive study of the field, she concludes:

If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.

I understand why people call her racist: as commenter chuckkle notes, Ms. Riley “makes definitive evaluations of academic research without having bothered to read it…. She is clairvoyant, and can judge it in advance.  The Queen has delivered her verdict, judging it in advance.  There’s a word for that: prejudice.”  In other words, Ms. Riley’s type of casual generalizations also underwrites racist thinking.  However, Riley’s primary problem (as a writer, at least) is less her susceptibility to the bigot’s false assumptions and more an entire way of reasoning that makes her vulnerable to all sorts of unproven ideas (including many varieties of prejudice).

Based on her Chronicle columns, Ms. Riley appears to lack the ability to reason.  Indeed, should she happen to come across this blog post, I humbly suggest that she might begin her reeducation at the Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies website.  There, she will learn about the fallacies of relying on anecdotal evidence (say, relying upon five dissertation descriptions to represent an entire field), personal incredulity (because Ms. Riley cannot understand the field, it therefore must not be true), and false cause (assuming, for instance, that having a black president means that racism has been solved).  Her response to the criticism is classic tu quoque: instead of engaging with the criticism, she just turns it back on those who accuse her.

Ms. Riley’s inability to sustain reasoned argument is troubling, but the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s decision to employ her is baffling.  Plenty of bloggers play fast and loose with facts or succumb to logical fallacies.  But why would a publication that covers higher education wish to grant a platform to a person who seems to have learned so little?

Update, 7 May 2012:

4 Comments »

  1. Richard Flynn Said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 8:17 am

    That Riley fails to sustain reasoned argument doesn’t preclude her racism. Racism, as you note, rests on the bigot’s false assumptions. Riley is both irrational and racist.

  2. Philip Nel Said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 8:29 am

    Thanks for your comment, Richard. And, yes, I agree. A failure to sustained reasoned argument may indeed underwrite racism. My point was simply that this apparent inability to reason would make Ms. Riley susceptible to a wide range of (to put it politely) beliefs that without basis in fact: racism, creationism, denial of climate change, prejudice against gays, etc. (It would be quite a long list!) So, that’s why I began by saying that her main problem isn’t racism. It isn’t. It’s a way of thinking than enables a variety of prejudices (including but not limited to racism). What’s baffling to me is how the Chronicle wants to justify publishing the piece because it’s “opinion,” and therefore should not be held to journalistic standards.

  3. Julia Mickenberg Said,

    May 4, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

    Well put!

  4. Elfinn Said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 12:41 am

    Naomi’s firing from CHE has hit the NY POST:

    http://www.nypost.com/p/blogs/capitol/academics_response_to_criticism_hQdzEqGvH8a0QRFxQcNgMI

    The post is perpetuating the lie that Naomi actually read the dissertations:

    ” Riley wrote about the failure of black studies at American universities, citing PhD dissertations as evidence of the weakness of the discipline .”

    And they are trashing the petition:

    “But personal attacks and false accusations of prejudice are the only things academics can offer in the face of legitimate criticism, it seems. Perhaps Riley should take it as a compliment that not a single one of her critics has managed to defend black studies or the dissertations the field produces on their own merits. That 6,000 lost souls (who’ve signed the online petition) should support the effort to separate her from her job and on the basis of a racism charge with no foundation in reality, is nothing short of a tragedy.”

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