Plagiarism in the internet age

Canadian journalist Margaret Wente has been repeatedly exposed for bad reasoning and poor use of sources by blogger Carol Wainio (also a University of Ottawa visual arts professor and my new hero).  Finally it’s getting some proper media attention. I’ve heard of Wainio’s analysis before as she’s been revealing Wente’s work to be bereft of any decent standard of care for a few years now. Wente has even manufactured facts by mixing together people and events (according to Colby Cosh in Maclean’s).  Some (such as Jesse Brown also in Maclean’s) may make cute comments about how we are all remix artists in the digital age, but there remain standards of fair use.  Borrowing common knowledge is one thing, adopting quotations as your own and the creative construction of facts are a completely different matter.

What does this mean for critical thinking? Any graduate of a second-year class in argumentation could shred most of Wente’s columns without even looking at the sources.  (How she won a National Media Award is beyond me.) The bad source use may be the most serious legal problem but it is a symptom of a much greater flagrant unreasonableness. The Globe and Mail has painted her as “controversial” as if that were enough to make what she says interesting. I confess that as a feminist philosopher I found some of her very earliest columns interesting even when I disagreed, but she quickly descended into reactionary ranting that she’s sustained now for years. Being a contrarian or a sceptic is easy; working with the facts is not. Even a superficial reading of Wente regularly reveals the poverty of both her research and her analysis.  All the more reason to teach critical thinking… it may lead us to unearth deep problems with evidence.

By contrast with Wente’s arrogance consider Wainio’s response to the long-deserved media uptake.  She’s a model of intellectual modesty: “I’m no expert in journalism ethics, crowdsourcing, or how the industry works,” encouraging her audience to look to experts, or at least listen to them.