Getting it Wrong in Public

Getting it Wrong in Public

The Central Criminal Court in London,
a.k.a. the Old Bailey

The most recent Collective Twitter Gasp Event has been focused on Naomi Wolf and her book about men executed in England for the crime of sodomy throughout the nineteenth century. Wolf read decades of Old Bailey records, and built the premise of her book on the phrase, “death recorded”–which did not mean what she presumed it meant. The gasp is not so much that she misread her evidence, but that she came to understand this fact during a live BBC interview. No men were so executed, interviewer Matthew Sweet persuasively explained in the course of the conversation.*

For most academics, it is mortifying to imagine oneself in the situation of being publicly called out for inaccurate conclusions after they are already in print. Academic imposter syndrome–that fear that makes us write a thing for months or years, then start all over with the reading and research in case we have missed anything–can be paralyzing. We all know the impulse to keep revising rather than to release ideas for which we may be mocked out into the world.

This impulse is not wholly misguided.

Outcry has been swift, in some cases merciless. Wolf has had the temerity to be a woman with a PhD, which by itself is enough to draw unwelcome attention online. Get something actually wrong? In print? Then add the drama of a live gotcha! venue. The online world absolutely cannot resist conflating these things and pointing out that aspiring ladybrains will inevitably get facts wrong. The formula includes hideous personal insults, followed by smug, “that’s what you get when you don’t do your homework, honey,” comments. In many quarters, a woman daring to have a brain in public is such an affront that its predictable failure must be celebrated.

But here’s the thing: even excellent researchers make mistakes. And so, I am not interested in Monday morning quarterbacking her book. I think it’s safe to presume that Wolf herself would have preferred NOT to have made a very large mistake on which a major portion of her book turned. And having made that mistake, she also presumably would have liked to figure out the error and correct it NOT via a live radio broadcast and follow-up pillorying by a bunch of people online. So pronouncing on what she should have done seems both pointless and cruel.

Instead, I’d like to point out that academics are hardly unaware that such pillorying is predictable, which makes it doubly distressing that they are so eager to participate in piling on. We know that women in the news face serious harassment online far more often than are men, particularly through social media, that they are often forced to come up with coping strategies on their own, and that managing these threats can have the effect of reducing the impact of their work by reducing their online presence altogether.

And yet, far too many academics seem thrilled to excoriate Wolf, as if locating a legitimate Target Who Got It Wrong would somehow create a talisman for themselves never to be so cursed.

Their arguments are less ad hominem than others (though a shocking number are inclined to deride her as not a “real” academic), and go something like this:

  • she ought to have done better research, at the very least to have looked up the legal meaning of the term on which her conclusions were based;
  • this is proof of how much more difficult interdisciplinary work is than other kinds of work, when you have to be an expert in more than one field;
  • her PhD supervisor should have made her look up legal concepts like this before passing a dissertation based on a blatant misunderstanding;
  • this is is why peer review matters;
  • peer review isn’t fact-checking, and it’s up to a researcher to know the details;
  • this is why trade publishers should all have thorough fact-checkers;
  • fact-checking is way too expensive for trade publishers to be reasonably expected to undertake for every book, so it’s up to the author to do the research in the first place;
  • ah, back in the good old days, trade publishers had fact-checkers;
  • this is what happens when you let an English PhD do history research (along with the corollary: Don’t blame us! We’re real historians, and we would have gotten this one right!).

All but the last of those are at least partially correct, as far as I’m concerned. By which I mean, this is her fault, her supervisor’s fault, the publisher’s fault, and the fault of all the systems of research and publication that favor a titillating conclusion over asking the hard questions about how we know that conclusion is accurate.

But they are also problems of how expertise works: by the time a heavily researched book is ready to be published, the author is arguably one of the foremost experts on the topic. And that person is also perhaps hoping not to be scooped on any particularly exciting conclusion by the few other foremost experts whose work overlaps with theirs. All of this makes it possible to imagine how even a peer-reviewed and fact-check manuscript could still contain a mistake. (Probably not a mistake as glaring as this one, I will admit, since if any 19th-century legal scholar had read it, the error in interpretation would have been quickly brought to Wolf’s attention.)

What happened next is especially telling.

First, there was a productive public conversation, which continued with some Twitter threads, in which Sweet laid out the entire counter-argument clearly, and Wolf thanked him for the information and said that she would look into revising her book because it’s deeply important to get history right. She is already working with her publishers on how to correct the book. She also claims that this doesn’t change her larger argument, which she says focuses on the circulating threat of execution for sodomy and its effect on John Addington Symonds.

Next, the news media jumped on the story, while Twitter and myriad Comments sections jumped on Wolf and gloried in rubbing her face in her error.

It is hardly remarkable that Wolf would want to stand by many of her conclusions, even as she admits she has gotten something wrong. What is remarkable, however, is her admirable composure throughout this process. Ditto Sweet’s general care to keep this a serious, academic conversation rather than an attack match, radio-revelation venue notwithstanding.

Here we have witnessed, in real time, a serious academic disagreement, one that necessitates published conclusions being revised, and in which, nonetheless, everyone immediately involved in the conversation remained thoughtful, actually listened to each other, and avoided personal attacks. In short, despite the dramatic and cringe-worthy way in which this error was revealed publicly at the very moment that the author was first learning of it, the process has been a remarkably collegial and productive insofar as Wolf and Sweet’s roles.

Given that, we would do well as an academic community to model our own responses on Wolf’s. Yet, academic Twitter has largely found the need to weigh in on Who Was Most Wrong, to critique her methods, to critique Sweet’s choice of venue, to explore the efficacy of fact-checking, to defend university presses as more rigorous with their non-fiction publications than trade presses, and so on.

Perhaps we subconsciously feel that if we can accurately identify the root cause of this research-based horror, we will inoculate ourselves against committing a similar egregious mistake.

And if we are really working to diagnose some gap or problem that we could avoid repeating, fine. But the fact is that I have seen too many academics merely jumping gleefully on the attack train (e.g. the distinction between a Phd in English and one in History as somehow obviously providing a different ability to do research). That smacks to me of a kind of ill will akin to calling another sixth-grader’s outfit ugly as a way of publicly implying that one’s own outfit obviously must not be.

The fact is that no amount of belittling others’ work makes ours better. And there is no academic good luck charm that can prevent misreading or misguided conclusions. Sure, rigorous research and fact-checking will help. But human beings get things wrong. And another academic researcher will inevitably make what seems to many to be a glaring error. So it would be prudent to spend at least as much time paying attention to how researchers handle such realizations and work through the consequences of their mistakes. And, dare I say, it would also be the kind and generous thing to do.


* For more background, see this article in The Guardian, which summarizes the issue succinctly as follows:

According to Sweet, who first challenged Wolf on Radio 3’s Arts and Ideas, her error concerning Silver stems from a misunderstanding of “the very precise historical legal term, ‘death recorded’, as evidence of execution, when in fact it indicates the opposite”.

The historian Richard Ward agreed, adding that the term was a legal device first introduced in 1823. “It empowered the trial judge to abstain from formally pronouncing a sentence of death upon a capital convict in cases where the judge intended to recommend the offender for a pardon from the death sentence. In the vast majority (almost certainly all) of the cases marked ‘death recorded’, the offender would not have been executed.”

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