Friday, May 27, 2011

More On Intellectual Dishonesty - Mainstream Edition

I read with interest today's Daily Howler. While I wonder why Somerby believes that David Brooks has only recently become a joke, I was particularly interested in his discussion of Sisela Bok's review of a book by James Stewart.

Talk about burying the lede!

Bok notes that Stewart's very first sentence . . . well, I'll just let her tell it.
The book’s very first sentence makes an erroneous claim of vast proportions: “We know how many murders are committed [in the United States] each year — 1,318,398 in 2009.” No source is given for this figure, almost 100 times larger than the number of murders actually reported that year. It turns out to refer, rather, to the totality of violent crimes reported in the United States, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report.
A book that Bok calls "scathing", that Stewart "scrutinizes with equal care" various bits of evidence, that the book is "provocative and hard-hitting". The compliments flow like wine at a wedding reception. All the while, Ms. Bok take a while to note that this carefully scrutinized, provocative, hard-hitting book begins with a false claim. Now, is this just poor analysis on Stewart's part? Is it confusion? Was it, perhaps, poor editorial scrutiny that allowed such a basic, and huge, error to start off a book on honesty?

While I will not, as Somerby does, speculate on reasons why Bok does this bit of prestidigitation, I find it more than a bit amusing that this becomes a side note in an otherwise glowing review. While not necessarily calling in to question the accuracy or veracity of the entire work, it would certainly lead me to question other claims that sound, shall we say, dubious at best. Furthermore, I believe that Somerby's point about Stewart's past publications, and their causal acquaintance with accuracy is highly relevant in any assessment of his writing. In particular, since he is here claiming some kind of moral high-ground in regard to public truth-telling, it might be important to assess his own relationship to factual accuracy in presenting his case.

Quite apart from the farcical nonsense of so much of our public discourse - Obama drank a beer in Ireland, so he is an alcoholic! Obama hates America, Israel, and puppies! - when whole books, alleging both careful factual scrutiny and seriousness of intent as well as topic, turn out to be written by individuals with what could be called a casual relationship to factual accuracy and a blase attitude toward serious matters, and then have these same works assessed favorably with academics bearing a certain reputation for integrity, we are all in trouble.

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