The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Sunday, July 03, 2005
 

Beware the hoax double-cross!


Bob Somerby (next door piece) has castigated Kevin Drum for naivety in the fact of VRWC hoaxing on ethnomathematics.

A WSJ op-ed (reprinted - from the nut-job hemisphere of the bicephalic rag) quoted an anecdote from a pair called Williamson Evers and Paul Clopton [1] that supposedly is false. According to a mystery emailer to Drum, that is.

It's all about comparing the indexes of a 1973 and a 1998 maths textbook: the first is full of hard, mathy words, the second majors on social worker stuff.

Except that the 1998 book has two indexes one for the subject examples used, and another for the mathematical concepts. Evers and Clopton had used the first index for their comparison.

The black holes in this little shock horror exposé that immediately spring to mind are:

  1. No details of the book in which E&C make the comparison.

  2. No references to the titles and authors of the two books used for that comparison.

  3. No provenance or any detail at all about that oh so helpful email that Drum got.

Take a look at that op-ed again and the weirdness only magnifies.

The author is not some Ann Coulter rentamouth but
a historian of education at New York University, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a member of the Koret Task Force at the Hoover Institution.

The Koret Task Force - it says on its site -
is a top-rate team of education experts brought together by the Hoover Institution, with the support of the Koret Foundation, to work on education reform.

And who, inter alios, is on this task force?

Williamson M. Evers and Diane Ravitch!

Have they, I wonder, talked on the matter? Or ever?

It gets worse.

In Ravitch's email to Drum, she says
I have never seen a book with two indexes, but I suppose it is possible.

If this woman is what passes in the US for
a top-rate...education expert[]
then American education truly is in dire straits!

I happen to have to hand a copy of HL Mencken's The American Language - a book of which Ravitch may conceivably have heard. As well as a general index, it has a list of words and phrases discussed. Quite usual, I believe, for such a work.

A collection of poetry will typically have an index of first lines, as well as of the titles of the poems and of the poets who wrote them, if it contains work from more than one.

Need I go on?

However, the wood for the trees point is: the fact that the index trick is a hoax doesn't invalidate the claim it purports to support.

Just as the fact that the Killian memos used by 60 Minutes are likely to have been fakes [2] doesn't affect the question whether Bush failed to comply with his military service obligations.

The substantive complaint about ethnocentric math is no less valid if a charlatan works a cheap piece of legerdemain with an index.

  1. Who are these jokers? According to a piece of theirs from 2003,
    Williamson M. Evers is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Paul Clopton is a biomedical research statistician with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
  2. Their genuineness was never proved or disproved.


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