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Defense by escalation

Basbøll has another post regarding some copying-without-attribution by the somewhat-famous academic entertainer Slavoj Zizek. In his post, Basbøll links to theologian and professor Adam Kotsko (cool: who knew there were still theologians out and about in academia?) who defends Zizek, in part on the grounds that Zizek’s critics were being too harsh. Kotsko writes of “another set of trumped-up complaints about [Zizek’s] supposed ‘self-plagiarism.’ Apparently he needs to write things fresh every single time he publishes, or else he’s doing something akin to the most serious ethical violation in academia.”

Now, my goal here is not to pick a fight with Kotsko, someone whom I’ve only heard of through Basbøll’s blog. But I do want to disagree with that above-quoted statement, because I see it as symptomatic of a more general problem in how people sometimes respond to criticism.

Here’s what I wrote on Basbøll’s blog:

I followed the link, and Kotsko characterizes plagiarism as “the most serious ethical violation in academia.”

I disagree. I think that making shit up or falsifying data is a more serious ethical violation. The two violations can go together, for example Karl Weick, by plagiarizing the Alps story, was then free to make shit up, in a way that he couldn’t have done so easily had he cited his source.

Beyond this, Kotsko seems to me to be doing something that I find very annoying: when someone defends himself, or a friend, from some criticism by first exaggerating the criticism (and perhaps characterizing it as an “accusation”) and then denying the larger claim.

Kotsko did this by taking concerns about Zizek’s misleading lack of attribution of quotes, and interpreting this as the position, “Apparently he needs to write things fresh every single time he publishes, or else he’s doing something akin to the most serious ethical violation in academia.” Nobody’s saying this (or, at least, you’re not saying this!) but now Kotsko can argue against it. (Remember, with plagiarism, it’s not about the copying, it’s about the attribution.)

I felt a similar feeling of frustration after Eric Loken and I raised methodological problems with that fecundity-and-clothing-color study, the authors of that study (Alec Beall and Jessica Tracy) responded that we “imply that [they] likely analyzed our results in all kinds of different ways before selecting the one analysis that confirmed [their] hypothesis.” They then defend themselves against this claim, or implication, that we never made.

Beall and Tracy’s response was more understandable to me than Kotsko’s—after all, Eric and I were criticizing their research and saying (correctly, I believe) that their experiments are dead on arrival, essentially too noisy for them to ever learn anything interesting about the research questions they’re studying, so that’s bad news even though we were not accusing them of ethical violations. In contrast, Kotsko is a third party so it seems particularly ridiculous to see him first exaggerating the criticisms of Zizek, and then shooting down the exaggeration.

But in any case, perhaps it would be useful to give a name to this sort of behavior (or maybe it already has a name)?

P.S. Before we slam these postmodernists too much, let me remind you of this excellent quote from Frederic Jameson. He speaks truth.


  1. P says:

    This technique of defending oneself against criticisms by exaggerating the critic’s argument seems like a reversed version of what has been called the motte-and-bailey fallacy. The motte-and-bailey fallacy refers to the tactic where you defend an outrageous claim of yours against critics by equating it with a watered-down, uncontroversial version of the same claim. Perhaps what Andrew describes should be called the bailey-and-motte fallacy, unless it already has a name.

    • jrkrideau says:

      Not sure but it sounds like the “strawman” argument to me, or at least similar. Any philosphers in the house?

      • P says:

        As pointed out by Basbøll in the comments over there, it is a type of strawman argument, but it might be useful to have a specific term for it.

      • Andrew says:

        Yes, it’s a strawman, but of a particular kind, it seems to me: an escalation, in particular escalating the ethical implications. In the first case, Kotsko is taking Basbøll’s claim that Zizek was engaging in an inappropriate academic practice, and escalating into a claim that Z was “doing something akin to the most serious ethical violation in academia.” In the second case, Tracy and Beall took my claim that they were doing an incorrect statistical analysis (in particular, computing a p-value without appropriately considering the reference distribution) and escalating into a claim “that [they] likely analyzed our results in all kinds of different ways before selecting the one analysis that confirmed [their] hypothesis.”

        As with all escalation, this mode of argument is risky, as it’s a raising of the stakes. And in some settings it can lead to a real blow-up. Basbøll and I have a habit of trying to lower the stakes back down, to move the conversation to a more technical level. I don’t want the escalation.

        Also, as I wrote in that comment thread on Basbøll’s blog, one aspect of what might be Kotsko move is that in generally seems to be done in complete sincerity. Kotsko presumably really does think that you were accusing Zizek of “the most serious ethical violation in academia” (even though Basbøll never said that), Tracy presumably really does think that I was accusing her of fishing through the data (even in the context of an article where I explicitly stated that this was not my implication), etc.

        So, yes, it’s a straw man argument, but of a particular type, where the straw man is constructed by imputing an accusation.

        Straw-man escalation” would be one way to put it. But maybe there’s something a bit grabbier? It would be good to have something here that’s lexicon-worthy!

  2. Keith O'Rourke says:

    My sense of this could be put as

    “You claimed I did not think as carefully as I could have BUT you did not evaluate me (and my work) as graciously as you should have, and lack of (should have) grace trumps lack of (could have) careful thinking!”

    Statisticians/methodologists have a duty to point out when/where folks could have thought more carefully (especially about uncertainty) but they are always at risk of being labeled as lacking of grace (arrogant, snotty-nosed statistician, etc.) and hence dismissible.

    Tact has somewhat of a protective effect – but with side effects including everyone misses the point.

    Ungraceful dismissal?

    • Andrew says:


      I do think that’s part of the story, but let me emphasize that I did not actually say the things that Tracy and Beall were saying I was saying; in fact, I said the exact opposite!

      This does not invalidate your point; if what I wrote was misperceived, this does suggest that I did not write as clearly as I’d like.

      Finally, I think that people sometimes have a strong motivation to misconstrue an argument on the other side. It’s easier to hold your original position if you feel the people on the other side are unreasonable, than if you feel they are offering sincere suggestions. Here I think we’ve entered the realm of the “sunk cost fallacy,” especially for Zizek’s defender but also for those young psychology researchers. If you’ve committed a lot of yourself to a worldview, it’s natural to not want to leave it.

  3. James says:

    Why should we consider arguing the implications of a statement (escalation) any more inflammatory than wrapping ‘ethics’ around methodological differences and correct inference (also a form of escalation)?

    • Andrew says:


      I don’t recall anyone talking about inflammatory. I just don’t think it makes a lot of sense to argue against something that somebody never said. Basbøll neither said that Zizek needs to write things fresh every single time he publishes, nor did he say that Z was doing something akin to the most serious ethical violation in academia. I have no real take on whether it is “inflammatory” for Kotsko to argue against these positions that Basbøll never took; it just seems sort of pointless.

  4. Adam Kotsko says:

    It’s amazing how much text can be generated discussing my point without even beginning to understand it.

    • Andrew says:


      Indeed, I respect that you are interested in Zizek’s work for various reasons, philosophical and otherwise, that go far beyond questions of plagiarism. I’m not into Zizek myself but I can certainly respect that other people are, and it also seems completely reasonable to value Zizek’s work irrespective of any plagiarism. Whatever Zizek did in these articles in question, they represent only part of his work, and let me emphasize that I’m not trying to pass judgment on Zizek’s work, which, again, I don’t know much about.

      I’m using that post of yours as an entree into the interesting (to me) phenomenon of what we might be calling the inadvertent-strawman-escalation argument. But, again, this is not to imply anything about the rest of what you’d written on the topic of Zizek.

      • Martin says:

        Well, the “somewhat-famous academic entertainer” in the very first sentence does, IMO, not further the impression that you retain judgment on Zizek’s work. This might be a misunderstanding on my part, but perhaps that phrase is prone to being misunderstood (or it’s really just me) as a judgment on the person and, by implication, on his work.

        • Andrew says:


          I don’t really care one way or another about Zizek. What happened is that I read Basbøll’s blog and noticed this story and it seemed like an interesting example of the general phenomenon of inadvertent-strawman-escalation. But I agree that my above post could be interpreted to be about Zizek, which it’s not, hence my comment.

          • Martin says:

            Yes, I understand what you mean in the post, and for what it’s worth, I agree completely.

            But inasmuch as you explicitly emphasize that you are “not trying to pass judgment on Zizek’s work”, that “entertainer”-phrase might not be very helpful. The neutral label would be something like a “philosopher,” I think, but certainly not a “somewhat-famous academic entertainer” (again: except I don’t “get it”, e.g. if Zizek refers to himself as such?) – which, at least to me, seems to convey a somewhat negative appraisal. It’s like someone who disagrees with you calling you the “quite notorious academic entertainer Gelman,” instead of simply a “statistician,” then emphasizing that she does not mean to pass any sort of judgment on your work, which she does not know. Well, then why this seemingly deprecating phrase?

  5. Sifu Tweety says:

    I have no idea how far this nomenclature has traveled, but in the blog-argument circles in which I have run (in which Kotsko has also run, from time to time) the (minor) rhetorical misstep in question (which may or may not have happened here) has typically fallen under “moving the goalposts”. So, “I do not believe, in cautiously asserting X, that you are on solid footing w/r/t Y and Z.” begets “how can you claim that I assert X without qualification? I was very clear to hedge things! Here is why your blanket condemnation fails” begets “don’t move the goalposts, broseph”. I hardly recommend you use the term “broseph”, but you get the gist.

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