Sunday, September 27, 2009

Biased Writing

I thought I would write about our next essay, Matt Lynch's The Homeless Lack a Political Voice, But Not American Ideals, but I'm still annoyed with our previous essay by Joseph Perkins. If Mr. Perkins was writing in my ENGL 1101 class, I would chop up his paper, return it with no grade, and demand that he fix his preposterous claims and provide legitimate support for them. His prose is clean, but his ideas are mangled and shoddy. To my mind, the ideas are much more important than the prose, and Mr. Perkins' ideas fail.

Note first that Mr. Perkins is challenging the idea that much of contemporary homelessness is caused by government economic policy: "I decided to investigate for myself whether economic policies were to blame for the growing legions of street people who seemed to have invaded America's cities" (585). So what does he do to investigate? He spends one night in a train station in one American city: "So I spent a night at New York's Grand Central Station, which was a favorite gathering place for many of the city's homeless" (585). This is serious? Hardly.

To see how ridiculous Perkins' investigation is imagine that one of the students in our ENGL 1101 class—Ms. Stanton, say—wants to learn if the divorce rate among college students is affecting their studies. So she investigates the students in our ENGL 1101 class (we're down to 5 who attend regularly), and she finds out that no one in our class is divorced: 4 have never been married and 1 is happily married (I'm making this up, I don't know what she would find out about divorce in our class, but it doesn't really matter for my point). She then writes her paper and states with a voice of authority that divorce rates among American college students have no impact on their studies.

Really? Can Ms. Stanton look at the 5 college students in our class and make any kind of reliable generalization about all college students in the United States? Of course not, but that's what Perkins does. He looks at one group of homeless people in one place on one night, and then he draws conclusions about all homeless people in the country. This is ridiculous, and it's insulting that Mr. Perkins seems to think that we're gullible enough to accept his argument. Only those people who already accept his conclusions will accept Perkins' investigation as legitimate. However, even if you agree with Perkins, you should still have the integrity and honesty to say to him, "Look, Perkins, I, too, think homelessness is a personal problem, but your evidence lacks any credibility or authority. If you're going to join the conversation, then say something worth listening to."

And what about Perkins' investigation techniques? Did he interview the people in Grand Central in a systematic way? Did he follow up their case histories? I don't think so. As far as I can tell, all he did was look at them and almost reflexively categorize them as either crazies or addicts. He claims that he saw "dozens upon dozens of pitiable men and women who were suffering from some dysfunction or another. Some were afflicted with mental problems. Others were drug or alcohol abusers" (585). I'm not sure, but I don't think that being a newspaper columnist qualifies a person to so quickly and reliably diagnose the problems of dozens and dozens of people milling about in a train station. Rather, it seems more likely that Perkins was simply relying on his own stereotypes about people: "Oh, yeah, there's a crazy bag lady, and there's a pill freak. I can't see the pills, but he fits the type." Really?

And even if Perkins can reliably categorize all these people on sight, how does he know that they are homeless to begin with? Maybe they are just waiting for a train. And even if they are homeless, how does he know that mental illness or drug abuse caused their homelessness? Being mentally ill or addicted does not inevitably lead to homelessness. I know lots, "dozens upon dozens," of people who are mentally ill or addicted or both and who still live in homes. Why aren't they homeless?

Even the conclusions that Perkins draws from his pitifully puny investigation are suspect. For instance, he insists that homelessness results from individual failure, not from the failure of government economic policies: "Clearly their homelessness owned not to economic dislocation, but simply to self-destruction" (585). Really? Mental illness is self-destruction? People choose mental illness? Do people even choose addiction? I don't think so. Perkins observations don't "clearly" show anything about homelessness, which is a much more complicated issue than Perkins insists. Homelessness is not "simply" or "clearly" the result of willful and deliberate self-destruction, at least not based on the data that Perkins presents.

Finally, Perkins' logic is faulty even with the authoritative and valid data that he uses in this essay. He references a 1992 report from the U. S. Conference of Mayors that says "28 percent of the homeless population in the cites were mentally ill and 41 percent substance abusers" (586). So what's his conclusion? "This means that at least seven of ten street people have either a mental or chemical problem" (586). Perkins simply adds 28% and 41% and comes up with "at least seven of ten" (even though it's only 69%). Really? Couldn't even a high school student figure out that some of those mentally ill homeless people are also substance abusers, that they are the same people? Indeed, I'm willing to bet that most of the mentally ill are also substance abusers and vice versa; thus, the total is likely to be far less than 70%. With just a little research, I could find out accurate numbers, and so could Perkins. He was just too lazy and hoping we wouldn't notice his sleight of hand. This is sloppy writing, and it undermines his argument.

If a reader notices that a writer is cheating with his evidence, then the reader is much less likely to believe the writer. You lose faith, and once you lose faith, you just don't want to listen to the person any more. I don't want to listen to Joseph Perkins. I don't trust him anymore. How about you, scholars? What can you do to insure that you maintain the confidence of your readers in your own writing?
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