Now that Cassidy’s Reign of Error is over, it seems like a good time to examine some of the lessons to be learned from this case.
Cassidy, who had no qualifications at all, was able to hide his fraud in plain sight. While he never gave a clear account of his academic record in public, there is enough evidence on line that he claimed to have a degree from Cornell. Cornell and its Registrar Cassie Dembosky responded to my request for information very quickly and with no hassle. The other universities were less responsive and in spite of a campaign of letter-writing and contacting the press, I have still not received satisfactory answers to my questions. Academic fraud is on the increase and it’s in everybody’s interests to make it easier to expose it. Unfortunately, no one body is responsible for tracking down frauds like Cassidy, so the evidence may have to be sought in different states and different countries. If even one of these individuals or institutions fails to do its duty (such as Columbia and San Francisco State), it may be difficult to prove the fraud conclusively.
People need to be taught to think. Thinking rationally is the most basic skill of all and people should be taught how to distinguish manipulative bullcrap from reality. It is amazing how many people don’t understand that ‘I want this to be true’ is not a valid argument, or simply don’t feel it necessary to check ‘facts’ because they’ve seen them in black and white in a book.
People should be taught a little about linguistics. Everything we do is based on language, yet the scientific study of language is a mystery to many people who consider themselves educated. Many people would rather read the pontifications of grammar mavens who spout nonsense (e.g. food cannot be healthy, it can only be healthful!) rather than read a genuine expert on language like David Crystal. There seems to be a prevailing view among some people that linguists are just a bunch of trendy lefties who are intent on reducing the language of Shakespeare to textspeak.
A common view among people who have never been taught to think (or have they been taught not to think?) is that being reasonable consists of finding a middle point between two competing positions. Let’s just think about this for a minute. If someone is telling me that black people are genetically non-human, should people like me who are not racists go half way on the path of irrational bigotry to meet them? Of course not! It’s not a question of finding compromises between opposing theories, it’s a question of assessing how well the theories correspond to the facts. Not all theories are created equal and not all theories deserve to be treated with equal respect. Some theories, like racism, deserve no respect at all.
The newspapers really should strap on a pair and start to clear up the messes they make. I know their function is to sell copies and get noticed but in the case of Cassidy, they were all very keen to spread the word about his book and his lunatic theories without actually checking whether those theories had any validity at all. (There are a few exceptional journalists like Ed Power, but most of them couldn’t be arsed confirming that Cassidy wasn’t a flake.) But when the dog bites man story comes around, that Cassidy was simply an unqualified fraud masquerading as a professor and that he knew nothing about Irish, none of the papers want to know. None of them are prepared to publish a retraction or set the record straight because there’s no profit in it for them and apparently, informing people of the truth isn’t what they do.
Friends are a wonderful thing. When people use their friendships to gain advantage at the expense of the truth and even at the expense of the people who regarded themselves as their friends, that’s another matter. Cassidy used his friends to support his ignorant posturing, and all of these friends – Joseph Lee, Peter Quinn, Peter Linebaugh, John Rickford and many others – all of them have been diminished as people and as academics by their contact with the Great Fraud. They may not recognise that fact but those of us who recognised Cassidy’s childishness and stupidity the moment we opened his book find their gullibility astounding and their unwillingness to set the record straight a clear indication of the kind of people they really are.
However good somebody is as a party animal, that doesn’t make them a talented researcher or academic. If you want a comedian or musician to make the faculty Christmas party go with a swing, contact a theatrical agent. If you want someone who can do academic research, make sure they actually have a degree or two before you employ them.
Wikipedia can be a wonderful source of information but there are problems with it. The famous case of Philip Roth should stand as a warning. Roth corrected certain claims about his own novel The Human Stain on Wiki but was told by administrators that they needed secondary sources! It seems to me that the original intention of Wikipedia was that subject experts who really understand the issues would contribute their specialist knowledge. However, it appears that much of the activity on Wikipedia is by busybodies who edit so much on such a wide range of matters that they cannot possibly have any expert knowledge of the area in question. Furthermore, the protocols of Wikipedia favour pseudoscience and false claims, just as they did in the case of Philip Roth. If someone publishes a false claim in a book, that is regarded as a valid source, even if it’s a work of pseudoscience like How The Irish Invented Slang and completely valueless. Academics do not routinely publish books or articles debunking nonsense (perhaps they should!) and so the only sources for the correct information are often inadmissible sources by Wikipedia’s criteria, such as privately published blogs like this one.
Lastly, be careful of people playing certain political cards in their own defence. Cassidy played the ethnicity card and the class card in order to protect himself from legitimate criticism. He depicted the world of linguistics and lexicography as an upper-class Anglophile closed shop where men in dinner jackets decide on fake English etymologies to play down the cultural contribution of the Irish. Because of this bizarre fantasy, a large number of idiots who consider themselves Irish were quite happy to rush to his defence, even if that meant trying to shout down people who actually speak Irish.