Clichéd, Biased, and Dirty

Today we continue our series of the winning essays submitted to Dean of Freshmen, Fred Siegel.  These freshman were selected from over 300 of their peers to attend a dinner with Dean Siegel and author, Thomas Friedman.

Our featured essay of the day is by freshman, Samantha Rogers.

I will freely admit that my view of Thomas L. Friedman’s book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”, would have been much higher if I had not read Allen Greenspan’s autobiography, “The Age of Turbulence”, directly beforehand.  The two books only converged on one topic, the role of the Federal government in the private sector, but Greenspan set my expectation for how a persuasive book should be written and Friedman’s book failed to live up to that higher standard.  To put it simply, and I will expand on each subject further on, Greenspan has made me insist on two things for every book that wishes to convince me: solemnity and facts.

Let me begin with Solemnity.  The word Solemnity tends to incur visions of old men in robes who send hard stares at anyone who disturbs the formality of their proceedings even by anything as mere as a cough.  This is not what I mean by the word.  When I say a book must have solemnity, I mean they must take others seriously.  They can tell funny stories and rib the audience all they want, but they cannot belittle their opponents with charged language and superior attitudes.  No matter how stupid the author may feel those on the opposite side of the debate are,  they must either ignore the opposing opinion altogether or address it seriously with facts, or logic if there are no facts, on why that particular opinion is not valid.  Ridiculing them, even with facts, is not an option.

Friedman’s book did not possess this solemnity.  Throughout the book he would take the easy way out, calling others fools rather than honestly explaining why he disagreed with them and why you should too.  In chapter 4, page 101, Friedman paints all those who do not consider going green important with a wide brush.  Lumping them in with a single ‘or’ to the former vice president’s, in Friedman’s own words, “sneered” statement that green is a personal value.  This does not confront his opponent’s stand; instead it is a fallacy of guilt by association.  An attempt, to move in the reader’s mind people who don’t want to go green from being a reasonable opposition, to hate worthy enemies attached at the hip with somebody the reader already despises.  I, though, have no problem with the former vice president, Dick Cheney.  I rather like the guy.  Due to this, it could be argued that I’m just objecting to his portrayal of someone I like, and if it had been someone that I disliked everything would have been fine.  This is not true, I am against all his attempts to portray his opponents badly instead of debating them, even when I personally agree with his portrayal of them.  In chapter 4, page 81, Friedman wrote,

“Islam has always been practiced in a variety of forms.  In the modern era, some are more embracing of modernity, reinterpretation of the Koran, and tolerance of other faiths—like Sufi Islam or the urban centered, populist Islam still found in Cairo, Istanbul, Casablanca, Baghdad, and Damascus.  Some strands, like the Salafiyyah movement in Islam—followed by the Wahhabi ruling family of Saudi Arabia and by al-Qaeda—believe Islam should be returned to its purest roots and austere “desert Islam” supposedly practiced in the time of the Prophet Muhammad.  It is a version of Islam than never fully embraced modernity because its roots were premodern and it never aspired to evolve.”

I whole heartedly agree with this assessment of the Salafiyyah.  I can only hope that this particular branch of Islam will die off soon, but that does not forgive Friedman for his portrayal of them in his non-propaganda literature.  He starts out their description by leading the reader straight into another fallacy of guilt by association, linking the Salafiyyah to al-Qaeda, a group the reader already hates.  The common thought process is that it is okay to make them look bad.  We hate the Salafiyyah, their teachings led to 9/11, but this is a fallacy that must be avoided for a reason.  Even though it is true that al-Qaeda does follow Salafiyyah, Friedman provides no proof or even a direct statement saying that al-Qaeda commits its crimes because of one of the Salafiyyah teachings, leaving the audience to make the author’s intended connection by themselves.  If left unchecked this type of fallacy can lead to terrible hate crimes.  Just look at this entirely true statement and consider what would happen if it was inside a book like Friedman’s: “Islam, a religion followed by al-Qaeda, states that the Prophet Muhammad was sent by Allah.”  It would be easy for a Sufi Islamist, or one of the other Muslims labeled modern by Friedman, to end up dead if such a statement came to an easily impressionable mind through a trusted book.  Friedman’s next insult is not nearly as grave but is still out of place in a civilized debate.  Friedman directly calls the Salafiyyah premoderns that do not wish to evolve.  This statement directs the reader to feel superior to the Salafiyyah and to ignore everything they stand for as unevolved without ever giving them a factual reason to do so-an inappropriate tactic at best.

Facts are more complicated than solemnity, as the author must meet multiple requirements in order to the meet the standard of a well written persuasive book. This starts with the need to provide facts for all statements outside of common knowledge.  Like a psychology research paper any assertion made by the author of a persuasive book is in question by those in the audience who do not already agree with the book’s premise, the ones the book seeks to convince, and until some evidence is provided to back up the author’s claim they will remain so.  The only exceptions are those statements which are common knowledge to the author’s targeted audience.  For example, a book targeted towards Americans saying George Washington was the first president of the U.S.A. and Texas is one of its fifty states, such statements are unquestionable and can be reasonably assumed to already be known by the audience.  Saying how much corn is produced in Iowa every year to the same target audience, however, must be sourced, as the answer can change depending on how it is measured and the reader has no reason to know this fact already.  The next requirement is that the author provides credible sources for their facts.  The first rule taught in debate is that one’s sources must be from an unbiased source or you must review the collecting process yourself to ascertain fairness, preferably the former, if the facts gleaned from these sources are to be taken as truth.  This applies to the persuasive book as well.  Quoting People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on how many animals are abused every year without first reviewing their evidence collecting process does not make a reliable fact.  The same applies for those who seek to prove homeschooling the superior form of education by quoting the Homeschool Defense League without first checking what they consider a ‘good education’.  If an author wishes to use either one as a source, they must first check the method used to retrieve and calculate the data and then inform the reader of the method.  The final requirement is for the author to use the facts honestly.  This is simply an ethical issue.  It is wrong to mislead readers by juggling facts and definitions to give a false impression to the reader of what the facts are saying.  An example would be using the lowest possible oil pumping rate when quoting how long it will take to retrieve oil from ANWR, then using the highest possible oil pumping rate when calculating how long it will be until the reserve runs dry.  Both numbers are possibilities and technically correct in how they predict oil production from ANWR, but the use of two different numbers for the calculations, followed by placing them side by side in a paper gives a false impression to the reader of the facts surrounding ANWR.

Sadly Friedman does not follow these three rules in his work.  In chapter 3, page 54 Friedman skips over the first rule when he speaks about two newly emerging cities in China, Doha and Dalian,

“I’m glad that many people in the United States and Europe have switched from incandescent lightbulbs to long-lasting compact fluorescent lightbulbs in their homes.  That has saved a lot of kilowatts of energy.  But the recent growth in Doha and Dalian just ate all those energy savings for breakfast.  I’m glad that many people are buying hybrid cars.  But Doha and Dalian devoured all those gasoline savings before noon.  I’m glad that the U.S. Congress decided to boost U.S. mileage-per-gallon requirements up to European levels by 2020.  But Doha and Dalian will have those energy savings for lunch—maybe just as the first course.  I’m glad that solar and wind power are “soaring” toward 2 percent of U.S. energy generation, but Doha and Dalian will guzzle all those clean electrons for dinner.  I am thrilled that people are now doing the “twenty green things” to save energy suggested by their favorite American magazine.  But Doha and Dalian will snack on all those good intentions like popcorn before bedtime.”

Friedman’s high concentration of euphemisms instead of facts puts his claim of Doha and Dalian’s future energy consumption on shaky ground.  When will the two cities overcome all the mentioned American energy savings?  Are the overcome energy savings just for this year’s or will it be an ongoing thing?  How much energy are we actually talking about?  What does Friedman have to hide?  These are all valid questions raised by Friedman’s lack of evidence.  I am not calling Friedman a liar.  Doha and Dalian may overcome all of America’s energy savings for the next two years tomorrow for all that I know.  But that’s just it, I don’t know, and I have no way of judging.  Unless Friedman lets me know what he is working with when he made his allegory, I cannot tell whether there is any truth to what he says without relying on blind trust or outside research-neither of which should be required from a reader of a persuasive book.  It must be understood, I am not saying that Friedman should have to throw out this paragraph to satisfy me.  All he really needs to do is put a little footnote after the passage that corresponds to the relevant information in the back of the book, just enough to let me know that he is not making this up or basing it on anecdotal evidence.

Even when he does provide the facts and their sources, problems arise.  In attempts to get the best sounding evidence for his case, Friedman sometimes forgets that your facts must also be from a nonbiased source if they are to be taken as truth.  In chapter 13, page 315, Friedman quotes the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in stating that, “Biologic, health, and economic data indicate that children who connect with nature perform better in school, have higher SAT scores, exhibit fewer behavioral challenges, and experience fewer attention deficit disorders”.  I’ll ignore the lack of a definition for the word ‘connection’  and that the results probably have more to do with correlative instead of causative evidence, in favor of pointing out that the ESA finding that there are scholastic benefits to sending your children outside should have sounded warning bells when Friedman was researching.  I have no experience with the ESA, but a general rule of thumb is that any organization dedicated to a cause cannot be trusted to provide evidence for their field.  If for no other reason than their willingness to believe all that advances the cause they have dedicated their lives to.  This is not a slight but part of human nature, as aptly demonstrated in the recent presidential election, where many Hillary/McCain supporters, entirely reasonable people, were willing to believe Obama was a Muslim terrorist based on nothing more than a middle name.

Finally, and worst of all, Friedman did not play fairly with all the facts in his book.  In chapter 6, page 152, Friedman reminds the reader that no animal in “nature” relies on humankind for their survival, but we rely on animals in nature for ours, so we better protect the natural world.  This is playing fast and loose with the correct definition of natural in order to summon a completely false view of the world into the reader’s mind.  It is correct that no animal in nature relies solely upon humankind, though there would be a lot of hungry squirrels if we were to die, but this is due to the definition of animals in nature, not humankind’s uselessness in the food chain.  Any animal that relies solely on humankind is removed from the category of natural and put into the category of unnatural or domesticated.   A domesticated sheep and a natural wolf only differ as animals in what they must rely upon to survive.  The sheep depends upon man to feed it and defend it while the wolf must depend on herbivores for food and other wolves for defense.  This is why there is such a problem with Friedman saying that no animal ‘in nature’ relies upon humankind, because the second an animal must take food from a human to continue living it is no longer an animal ‘in nature’ but a domesticated animal.  It is a catch twenty two, where humans can by definition never be important to animals ‘in nature’.  Making it wrong for Friedman to use these words to justify going green, as it only works on those readers who do not realize the implications of his choice in wording.  In essence, he is taking advantage of the reader’s ignorance to further his goal.  This is unethical and never ever should appear in a book of Friedman’s standing.

With all that said, some have told me that I am misjudging Friedman’s book, that it is meant to convince people, and people are more easily convinced by the charged writing style of Friedman than the fact intensive work of Greenspan.  This is unacceptable.  Friedman’s work distributes throughout America as a factual work on how a highly successful author addresses global warming.  This college even set his book as an example of how its incoming freshman should persuade others of their opinions in written format.  To give my approval for such a book, even if it does complete the goal of convincing its readers, is something I just cannot do.  Therefore, because complaining without offering a solution is looked down upon in our society, I instead offer “The Age of Turbulence”, by Allen Greenspan, as an alternative reading option for persuasive writing without the use of guilt by association, name calling, left out facts, biased sources, or misrepresentations of facts.

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