Last month I wrote at some length about the intellectual dishonesty of Noam Chomsky (here, here and here). Since then a couple of useful reviews have appeared in, respectively, The New Criterion and Commentary (second link requires subscription), of a new book that is highly relevant on this subject, The Anti-Chomsky Reader edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz.
Collier and Horowitz are American conservative political activists, and my own politics are substantially to the left of theirs (as are those of at least some their contributors), but I recommend their book for its insights into Chomsky’s methods across a range of subjects: foreign affairs; media criticism; the Jews; the war on Islamist terror; and linguistics. The Commentary reviewer, Arch Puddington – once an aide to the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin – observes, after considering Chomsky’s indulgence of totalitarian regimes and his vitriolic hostility to the United States:
That so much of the Left today takes its stand with him and not with Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, Sharansky or Havel is one of the continuing intellectual and moral scandals of our era.
Of course he's right, but this unfortunately doesn’t get to the crux of the matter. Chomsky is pernicious not only for his allegiances but also for his practices: he is deceitful. Nothing that he says can be taken on trust. It is rare that he cites scholarly sources, as opposed to newspaper reports or references; and whatever source he does cite is proffered with a shocking disregard for accuracy. I gave a number of examples in my earlier posts, which necessarily had to be lengthy because Chomsky’s consistent practice is to strip his reference of context that would make sense of it. One of those I cited – his distortion and outright lying about the former US Ambassador to the UN, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan – has, I believe, not been debunked publicly before. (It would be presumptuous to suppose there's any credit in this, however, and I don't: there are so many instances of deception in Chomsky’s output that it isn’t that difficult to substantiate the charge of the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jnr that Chomsky is an “intellectual crook”.)
By way of further illustration, here’s yet another example, which has been cited in several places other than the sources I quote below, but which deserves to be much better known. On 16 January 2002 the on-line magazine Salon published an interview with Chomsky, in which the following exchange took place:
In your public comments after Sept. 11, you drew comparisons to our bombing of the Sudan following bin Laden's attacks on overseas American targets. Were you implying that we brought this on ourselves?
Of course not. That's idiotic.
That wasn't your intention?
Nobody could possibly interpret it that way. [I said] look, this is a horrendous atrocity but unfortunately the toll is not unusual. And that's just a plain fact. I mentioned the toll from one bombing, a minor footnote to U.S. actions -- what was known to be a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, providing half the supplies of the country. That one bombing, according to the estimates made by the German Embassy in Sudan and Human Rights Watch, probably led to tens of thousands of deaths.
The German Embassy and Human Rights Watch are weighty sources to cite. Unfortunately for Chomsky, the next issue of Salon carried a – from his standpoint – rather unfortunate letter from Carroll Bogert, Communications Director of Human Rights Watch:
Noam Chomsky states in a Jan. 16 interview with Suzy Hansen, "That one bombing [of the al-Shifa plant in Sudan], according to the estimates made by the German Embassy in Sudan and Human Rights Watch, probably led to tens of thousands of deaths." In fact, Human Rights Watch has conducted no research into civilian deaths as the result of U.S. bombing in Sudan and would not make such an assessment without a careful and thorough research mission on the ground. We have conducted research missions and issued such estimates for Iraq and Yugoslavia, after U.S. bombing campaigns there. In our experience, trenchant and effective criticism of U.S. military action requires factual investigation.
To make matters worse for Chomsky, it turned out that his claim about the German Embassy in Khartoum was a fabrication as well. The source in question was not the Embassy but a former German Ambassador called Werner Daum, writing in Harvard International Review. More to the point, as the historian Keith Windschuttle – author of the New Criterion review I link to above – pointed out in earlier piece about Chomsky, Daum had done no more research into the matter than had Human Rights Watch:
Despite his occupation, Daum’s article was anything but diplomatic. It was a largely anti-American tirade criticizing the United States’ international human rights record, blaming America for the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, accusing it of ignoring Iraq’s gassing of the Kurds, and holding it responsible for the purported deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children as a result of post-1991 economic sanctions. Nonetheless, his comments on the death toll from the Khartoum bombing were not as definitive as Chomsky intimated:
"It is difficult to assess how many people in this poor African country died as a consequence of the destruction of the Al-Shifa factory, but several tens of thousands seems a reasonable guess. The factory produced some of the basic medicines on the World Health Organization list, covering 20 to 60 percent of Sudan’s market and 100 percent of the market for intravenous liquids. It took more than three months for these products to be replaced with imports."
Now, it is hard to take seriously Daum’s claim that this “guess” was in any way “reasonable.” He said there was a three-month gap between the destruction of the factory and the time it took to replace its products with imports. This seems an implausibly long interval to ship pharmaceuticals but, even if true, it is fanciful to suggest that “several tens of thousands” of people would have died in such a brief period…The idea that tens of thousands of Sudanese would have died within three months from a shortage of pharmaceuticals is implausible enough in itself. That this could have happened without any of the aid organizations noticing or complaining is simply unbelievable.
I mentioned in my earlier posts that when, early in his career as a political polemicist, Chomsky had been caught out in fabrication he just brazened it out as if nothing untoward had happened. So it proved in the case of the Salon interview. Here was his letter in reply to the exposure of his abuse of elementary standards of probity, let alone scholarship:
I understand that questions have been raised about my reference, in a telephone interview with Suzy Hansen, to estimates of the casualties resulting from the U.S. bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in August 1998. Several observations:
1. Hansen opens by quoting my statement, in an earlier interview, that the bombing is responsible for "killing unknown numbers of people (no one knows because ... no one cares to pursue it)." That is, there have been no serious studies, by Human Rights Watch or anyone else, as I made explicit.
2. A phrase in a telephone interview does not have quotes, details or footnotes; that is self-evident. As everyone understands, to determine the accuracy of such informal comments one turns to what is in print, which in this case is particularly clear: the collection of interviews that Hansen cites at the outset as the basis for this interview, "9-11" (Seven Stories press), easily available in print and electronically for two months prior to the Salon interview.
3. In "9-11," the facts are stated accurately and precisely. With regard to HRW, the relevant paragraph reads:
"Human Rights Watch immediately reported that as an immediate consequence of the bombing, "all U.N. agencies based in Khartoum have evacuated their American staff, as have many other relief organizations," so that "many relief efforts have been postponed indefinitely, including a crucial one run by the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee [in a government town] where more than fifty southerners are dying daily"; these are regions in "southern Sudan, where the U.N. estimates that 2.4 million people are at risk of starvation," and the "disruption in assistance" for the "devastated population" may produce a "terrible crisis." "
The source for the other allusion in the Salon phone interview is also given accurately and precisely: Germany's ambassador to Sudan writes that "It is difficult to assess how many people in this poor African country died as a consequence of the destruction of the Al-Shifa factory, but several tens of thousands seems a reasonable guess" (Harvard International Review, Summer 2001).
4. Conclusion: The few words about the matter in the telephone interview published by Salon were quite appropriate in that format, as easily determined.
I have quoted this in full for it gives in just a few sentences a concentrated essence of Chomsky’s technique. It is pure sophistry and dissembling. Point 1 is, in particular a gem. Having first claimed that his sources provided “estimates” – and an estimate is not the same as a guess – he now claims that all along he was denying that there were any serious studies of the matter. In the case of “Germany’s ambassador to the Sudan” he passes over his misrepresentation of both the source and the nature of the argument provided by that source, and then declares that he was right all along: the wish is father to the fabrication.
Windschuttle’s review of The Anti-Chomsky Reader in the current New Criterion does more justice to a valuable book than does the Commentary review, for he devotes more than just the single sentence that appears in Commentary about what for me is the most illuminating essay:
Robert E. Levine and Paul M. Postal, in an essay appropriately entitled “A Corrupted Linguistics,” are equally critical of Chomsky’s puffed-up promises. They write:
"Much of the lavish praise heaped on his work is, we believe, driven by uncritical acceptance (often by nonlinguists) of claims and promises made during the early years of his academic activity; the claims have by now largely proved to be wrong or without real content, and the promises have gone unfulfilled. Commentators who are not linguists often discern a fundamental contrast between Chomsky’s academic work on linguistics and his non-academic writings about politics. They take the former to be brilliant, revolutionary, and widely accepted, but recognize the latter as radical and controversial."
Levine and Postal, however, both academic linguists, don’t see it this way. Rather than a great divide between his scholarly and popular writings, they find both share the same key properties: “a deep disregard and contempt for the truth, a monumental disdain for standards of enquiry, a relentless strain of self-promotion, remarkable descents into incoherence, and a penchant for verbally abusing those who disagree with him.”
I should declare an interest, in that I am among those “commentators who are not linguists” whom Professors Levine and Postal fault for assuming that there is a contrast between Chomsky’s political writings and his linguistics rather than an essential similarity. The authors quote this post of mine in which I compare the international economist Paul Krugman to Chomsky for being authoritative in one field and incorrigibly silly when he ventures outside it. And of course they are right to pick me up on this: I have a great regard for Krugman’s academic work, in a field that I know, and I ought not to have drawn an analogy that uncritically assumed Chomsky’s scholarly standing in his own discipline.
I was more careful in my phrasing when, in my posts last month about Chomsky, I referred to a book expounding Chomsky’s ideas by Neil Smith, Professor of Linguistics at London University, entitled Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals. I said that I assumed the four chapters dealing with linguistics were reliable but was not competent to judge them, whereas the chapter devoted to Chomsky’s politics was stupid and disgusting. Professor Postal (who is Research Professor of Linguistics at New York University) then wrote to me, commenting that in fact the sections on linguistics in Smith’s book are comparable to the chapter on politics: on both subjects, Smith uncritically retails Chomsky’s irresponsible statements. I am grateful for this advice.
On the question of Professor Smith’s observations in defence of Chomsky’s reprehensible political assertions – specifically those relating to the disturbing phenomenon of Holocaust denial – I shall have more to say in a separate post. My conclusion to this one is that Chomsky – contrary to his credulous and often very youthful (see here for a strikingly foolish example) following – is an untrustworthy, unreliable and unscrupulous source. The nearest equivalent to Chomsky’s technique that I can think of is the movement inaccurately termed ‘Creation Science’, which is not science at all but biblical literalism. Its advocates typically scour the work of orthodox and serious scientists who deal with some of the questions raised in evolutionary biology, and wrench gobbets of that work out of context in order to insinuate that there are scientific objections to evolution. It’s dishonest but has a superficial plausibility for those unversed in the subject. Much the same could be said of the dogmatic, ignorant and irrationalist writings of Professor Noam Chomsky.