If a student of mine handed in an ill-researched opinion piece, quoting various uncorroborated claims read on the internet, I would, perhaps surprisingly, choose not to fail them, despite that being an entirely acceptable reaction to such work. I would instead allow them the chance to correct their essay, hoping that they take the opportunity to learn. This would take more effort, time, and critical thinking. That is the point; good work is never lazy. It may be incorrect, inaccurate, or even a good but poorly executed idea, but the work – the critical analysis of a wide range of sources, comprehension of the topic, and careful, insightful critique – is a long, often boring, frustrating, and exhausting task.
This is not an easily satisfied demand in the age of the internet. Opinions are quick and ill-informed.
As I have been reading through some reactions to the article done by Beth Lewis, Sympathy for the Devil, on my recent publication, it is apparent that most commentators on various internet sites have not actually read the original study – even so-called “journalists” (though, simply having a blog does not make you a journalist). I will not name names, but I came across one particularly unprofessional piece, wherein the author plagiarized half of Beth Lewis’ text, interjecting her own heavily biased opinions on the Church of Satan, and no where citing that this work is, in fact, mostly authored by Beth Lewis. That particular unnamed person lists a BA in Journalism as her education. She has shamelessly discarded the standards of her discipline.
My duty, as I see it, is to first and foremost apply the standards of my discipline in a critical, comprehensive, and insightful way. I am a social scientist of religion, a scholar who still has much to learn and is excited at the prospect of going deeper, approaching my topics as thoroughly as possible. Yesterday I was interviewed by a local news anchor, Mutsumi Takashi, on CTV News. Takahashi had clearly actually read my original study, and, although the interview was very brief and general, she approached my study with curiosity and professionalism. One particular question has provoked part of my text here; she asked me if I liked my topic. Yes, admittedly, I do, and any scholar worth their degree should never cease to pursue topics they enjoy. The challenge is allowing your affinity to inform your work – to pretend that is does not is a lie – but not to be dictated by it. As soon as I am no longer being critical, then I am no longer a scholar, but a sensational pundit engaged in thinly veiled testimonials. Scholars need the challenge of tackling topics that interest them. We should be excited about our topics, as academic laziness is an intellectual death. Getting advanced degrees is hard work, for little pay, at the cost of many other things; I am still wondering if I should have become a carpenter.
Interestingly, sites that have reprinted the Beth Lewis story (verbatim, thankfully) are ones dedicated to scientific research:
One on anthropology :
The Archeology News Network
And one dedicated to science fiction and fantasy:
Perhaps the Beth Lewis piece was reprinted on science news sites because of the Church of Satan’s atheistic stance, combined with their emphasis on critical thinking and separation of church and state. Most commentators to the article are addressing the news release, not the original study. Part of me (only part of me) wants to leave comments on these sites about their lack of research: read the original study, slackers! I can easily address criticism on my work directly, but addressing every second (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.) hand opinion gleaned from unsound sources is a waste of time, and it teaches nothing. It is what I would tell my students, and it is what I offer that vague and amorphous entity called the “Internet”.