Monday, December 05, 2005

Intellectual Fraud

More comments have been made about Stephen Carlson's book here, in particular from a lawyer, Kevin Snapp. Snapp opines that Carlson's distinction between forgeries and hoaxes may be unwarranted in the case of Secret Mark. "Smith defrauded every purchaser [of his two books on Secret Mark] of whatever he or she paid," he says, "regardless of whether Smith received any of it."

Snapp's parting remark (in his second comment) targets my own lingering doubts about hoaxes being somehow less reprehensible than forgeries:

"There's a Jewish saying that intellectual fraud is worse than monetary fraud, and tampering with sacred writings seems particularly despicable -- although that's where much of the Bible comes from, doesn't it?"

From one philosophical angle I can agree with this. Monetary fraud may be more criminal from a legal point of view, but intellectual fraud -- however prankish -- can be arguably as bad from a moral one. There seems to be a serious level of contempt involved in bamboozling people for no other reason than to show them what fools they are. I have to be careful in my judgmentalism, however, because I do think Smith's hoax is hilarious.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

I see the question of forgery vs. hoax, at least in the book, as more of an issue of genre identification than of expressing moral opprobrium.

The Anglo-American approach to law criminalizes certain kinds of immoral acts based on its importance to the economy and to the administration of the government. Thus, a forgery conviction generally requires an intent to "defraud" (e.g. to police its effect on the economy), except for official, governmental forgeries, in which the intent requirement is dispensed with.

Courts usually do not have the expertise to referee disputes of dishonesty among academics, particularly when subject matter is very technical. They assume (and I think quite correctly) that the academy is capable of self-policing these issues -- and I think the fact that Secret Mark was eventually exposed for what it is, shows that the process is actually working. To answer the age old question, "Who will guard the guards themselves?", I think the answer for academia is the next generation of scholars. They can see things that their predecessors missed.

Nevertheless, because of this self-policing aspect, professional ethics and character are much more important in academia than in the much larger marketplace. Hoaxing appropriately raises the question of professional ethics. Yet, unlike most other forms of academic dishonesty (e.g., plagiarism, misrepresentation, falsification of evidence, etc.), hoaxers plant the seeds for their hoaxes' own exposure. That affirmative act of candor--lacking in what most people immediately think of by "forgery"--is what tempers the reprehensibility of an otherwise unalloyed act of deception.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Stephen --

Thanks for this. I agree that deliberately "planting the seeds of their exposures" is what, above all else, separates hoaxers from the other breeds of forgers.


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