Sunday, July 29, 2012

Science 2.0 Should Be Ashamed to Have Published Wombles

Update: The more I look at that article, the more I realize that even the points that looked good at first were tragically flawed. I've edited my critiques to take into account some more of Wombles' failings at demonstrating good rhetorical technique.

There's an article over at Science2.0 called "Claims Require Evidence, Not Hyperbole" that caught my attention today. It makes a few points about an io9 article that was mostly feel-good fluff, but there are a few major issues with the argument that require me to comment.

I want to start off by emphasizing that I do agree with the some of her points. This writer is doing a good job of pointing out the necessity for real evidence, as well as the potential damage to the community that posts like this can do. If there's one thing that Kim Wombles does right, it's that she calls attention to the way that underscoring the achievements of a small pool of savants can skew the public's perception of those on the spectrum in a way that makes it seem like adult services are less necessary.

Still, as a composition instructor myself, I was disturbed by the way she neglected her own tone, the illogical assumptions she made about Dvorsky's use of Steve Silberman as a source, and her gross distortion of the CNN article she uses as a source. Wombles' post purports to be a textual analysis for composition students as well as a criticism of the way the Dvorsky's post represented the autism community, but despite her emphasis on teaching good writing habits (supporting claims with evidence), the very first example that Wombles offers is a worthless throw-away quote from an article that itself is little more than a series of anecdotes that urges people to draw hasty generalizations from a handful of unrelated cases.

Wombles herself does not expect us to use the evidence from those cases, though. That is to her credit. Instead, she uses a quote from Peter Bell, an executive vice president at Autism Speaks. She represents him as having claimed that 500,000 young people who are on the spectrum will be reaching adulthood within the next decade. Unfortunately, he did not say that. Here's the text from the article:
An estimated 500,000 children with autism will become adults in the next decade, and parents "have every right to be concerned," said Peter Bell, executive vice president at Autism Speaks and father of a 19-year-old with autism. (CNN)
The writer at CNN (Daphne Sashin) only attributes the quoted "have every right to be concerned" to Bell. His words are shown as a reaction to the assertion that "an estimated 500,000 children with autism will become adults in the next decade." At least, the text above is set up so that, grammatically, this is the case.  Peter Bell's quote is only that parents "have every right to be concerned". The estimate of 500,000 children in this article is either the writer's own estimate, or it is an unattributed statistic that we have no way of sourcing. If the sentence was meant to convey that the entire statement was attributed to Bell, then there should have been some kind of bookending of the attribution to show that Bell's reaction was part of the statement of the estimate, and not just a comment on it.

It is possible that Sashin actually meant the statement to read the way that Wombles read it, but that would mean that Sashin's article was written with such a poor eye toward clarity in the language that it would be inappropriate to cite as a source. Either way, Wombles shows an embarrassingly shallow level of support for her own statements by relying on this article in the way she does. Someone who teaches argument to others should not make mistakes like this.

More importantly,Wombles uses this number as a number from Bell that represents Autism Speaks, and then moves into a rather condescending discussion about why it is inappropriate to dismiss Autism Speaks when they are presenting evidence. Nowhere in the article from CNN does Bell claim that he is speaking on behalf of Autism Speaks, though. In fact, the one sentence quote above is the only time the article references him. It's clear Wombles thinks so, though:
For example, you might be an individual in the autism community who immediately cringed when I cited Peter Bell and Autism Speaks as a source, and you may want to dismiss the 500,000 upcoming young adults because you hate Autism Speaks.
This makes it appear as if Wombles decided what she knew to be true and then cherry-picked the first quote she found in an article from a "reliable" news source, which is another lazy writing technique that teachers in her position are supposed to teach students not to do.

More importantly, it's absolutely ridiculous that it is being offered as part of a post that sets out to set a good example of textual analysis. It's lazy, and it commits the dicto simpliciter fallacy in that it carries the claim that if you must either accept the numbers because they are numbers, or you "hate Autistm Speaks." Never mind that you might have problems with Autism Speaks because their purported "evidence" is often the kind of disinformation and woo that this author claims she is speaking against, or for any other perfectly good reason. Her rhetoric implies that there are only two choices here.

At this point, she is:
  • Urging us to accept her numbers just because they are numbers
  • Misrepresenting her source material
  • Conflating the official position of Autism Speaks with the statements of one of its members
  • Cherry-picking references without context or an eye to their credibility
  • Using fallacious appeals that manipulate the reader by attempting to force a false neutrality on statistics
This is intellectual laziness, and it deserves to be condemned. It's useless for a teacher to put forward a discussion about the importance of evidence and logical support for claims if that same teacher will not refrain from abusing the evidence and committing logical fallacies that are designed to bully the reader. It's uncalled for, and worse, it teaches students to be bad writers and worse thinkers. It excuses the same kind of laziness it decries, and turns the entire takedown into a screed against Dvorsky's writing style instead of a logical discussion about the failings of his rhetoric.

Her last sentence in the paragraph I quoted above is the most disturbing:
But you have to remember--it's not the person making a claim--Peter Bell is making a claim there--it's the evidence for the claim. 
What evidence? The CNN article offers no actual attribution for the 500,000 number, and Peter Bell's quite is a six word nugget that simply emphasizes the reasonable concerns of parents. So, there's no evidence. The estimate of 500,000 children IS A CLAIM, since it is not attributed, and an unsupported one at that. Worse than that, though, is the fact that even if it was Peter Bell making the claim, his credibility as a spokesperson for Autism Speaks would undermine the credibility of the claimed estimate, because it would still be an off-the-cuff estimate without attribution to a properly conducted survey or study.

Worse, even if these numbers ARE the Autism Speaks estimates, they are used here without proper attribution. I disagree with much of what Autism Speaks stands for, but one thing I will give them is that they attribute their claims about prevalence and support on their own website. This kind of claim about the numbers does not even adhere to their own basic standards for evidence, and so it is unfair to Autism Speaks to attribute these numbers to them in the way that Wombles does. It undermines their credibility, and it makes people who are already skeptical of them (like me) more skeptical.

While Wombles does go out of her way to say
You can go dig deeper and see if those numbers hold
which seems to suggest that she knows they don't. This is insufficient to excuse the thoughtlessness of the rest of this post. It places the burden of proof on the reader, and it makes the unstated claim that if you are not willing to research the topic for yourself, that you should just trust Wombles' (and by her implication, Bell's) numbers, or you must hate Autism Speaks. This serves not to point out the necessity of critical thinking, but instead to extend the fallacy she committed earlier and to further bully the reader into submission.

It doesn't get any better as you move further in. While Wombles is quick to insist that we can not trust "fuzzy" generalizations and to decry false authority when she criticizes the work of Silberman, she expects us to take "fuzzy" estimates that she says come from Autism Speaks when she can't even muster up a good citation for them that actually comes from Autism Speaks. Moreover, she claims that Dvorsky's intention in the article is to:
redefine what it means to be autistic--to confine it to those who are less impacted or who have savant skills by listing a number of prominent individuals he says are autistic.
Oddly enough, for all of her insistence on evidence and hard facts in the first few paragraphs, she's more than happy to put these words into Dvorsky's mouth without providing any direct quotes from his piece that actually show that his intention is to confine the definition of autism to those who are less impacted or who have savant skills. This is dangerous and it is dishonest, and it is shameful that a person who represents herself in a teaching role would move to such a grand, sweeping generalization of the intentions of another person without providing evidence. It's true that her statement is interpretive, but in an article that claims to be treating only with evidence and fact, and that is categorized as "debunking woo", this kind of maneuver is cheap and lazy. She's broken her own rules, and she has no credibility any more to discuss the implicit or unstated claims of others.

After committing to showing us why everyone else should have to use evidence without being willing to use it herself, she then has the nerve to leave us with a pedantic closing that sounds an awful lot like "do as I say, not as I do":
Hyperbole and fluff-filled sentences might sound nice, but they do not replace evidence to back up claims. Bold claims require strong evidence, an evidence that can only be found in a careful, scientific examination. Why should we care what one writer on a website has to say if it's not backed with real evidence.
Indeed, why should we?