The Telegraph recently ran a story about a lecturer who allowed students to set their own questions for an open book exam. The lecturer in charge had this to say:
“Some people would suggest that an open-book exam is open to plagiarism. I would counter that by the fact that the students felt a trust and respect from our collaboration.”
What is interesting about this statement is not so much the issue of plagiarism, but the rhetorical trickery involved. First note, that he raised the issue of plagiarism himself so he could rebuff it: this attracts attention away from the real issue -allowing students to set the exam question itself. Once this is done, only self assessment is missing.
Second, note how the impression of a refutation to the self made accusation is created: the possibility of plagiarism is contrasted with students feelings of trust and respect, yet it is easily possible to feel trusted and respected while engaging in plagiarism. The rebuff is dressed up as a refutation by no more than a bit of deceptive grammar. The phrase “I would counter that by the fact …” creates the impression that the accusation and the observed fact are mutually exclusive so the accusation can’t be true. A less than attentive reader might easily fall for that.
Now, if this was just a case of a lecturer misleading some vaguely interested readers, the issue wouldn’t deserve much attention. As it happens, the above quote just gives a clumsy example of the kind of rhetoric which our rulers use in a more polished form. Consider the following statement by Tony Blair:
“We are not living in a police state but we are living in a country that faces a real and serious threat of terrorism.”
As above, the impression of a refutation is created through use of no more than a sentence structure that suggests a case of mutually exclusive possibilities. In reality, both statements are easily reconcilable, i.e. we may well end up living in a police state that faces a real and serious threat of terrorism. Only that in such a state terrorists wouldn’t be the only ones threatening the average citizen.
[Edited: 26 January 2008]