Thursday, January 7, 2010

Professional responsibilities to confront awful books

What is our professional responsibility when someone publishes a really awful book—aimed at the public—in our field? Not too many archaeologists seem to have felt the need to counter books like Chariots of the Gods by von Daniken, who argues that ancient astronauts came to earth and built many ancient monuments. The argument seems too silly to bother with. What about crude and inaccurate diffusionist models arguing, for example, that ancient Mesoamericans couldn’t figure out how to build pyramids or establish complex societies without being shown how by advanced visitors from Europe, Africa, or China. That argument, made by Afro-centric writers (van Sertima 1976; van Sertima 1998), was refuted by archaeologists and others in scholarly venues (Haslip-Viera, et al. 1997; Ortiz de Montellano, et al. 1997).

I was attacked for refuting the erroneous views of Jane Jacobs that cities preceded agriculture. I got some incensed comments when I wrote about Jacobs’ ideas in this blog, and when I corrected that error in the Wikipedia article on Cities, it was quickly changed by someone back to the old text. I tried it again, and presto it was changed again. But all this is smaller than a tempest in a teapot in comparison with the current AAA scandal over Patrick Tierney’s book, Darkness in El Dorado (Tierney 2002).

The furor over publication of Tierney’s book is described elsewhere (Borofsky 2005). Here I only want to mention the recent accusation of historian Alice Domurat Dreger that although many anthropologists at the AAA thought Tierney’s book was awful, the association went ahead and launched an ethics investigation of Napoleon Chagnon on the basis of Tierney’s accusations. The AAA symposium at which these issues were debated is described in the journal Science (Dec. 11, 2009, "Chagnon Critics Overstepped Bounds, Critic Says), and Dreger’s blog entry (My “Demonic” Debut at the American Anthropological Association) has more information and links. If she is correct (Dreger promises a journal article to come on the affair), this would suggest that the anthropologists in question did NOT feel the professional responsibility to counter an awful book; instead they fanned the flames.

I agree with Gary Feinman (see his post on this blog) that archaeologists should speak up more frequently and more loudly in public fora, whether it is to criticize an awful book or to make our (generally obscure) data and findings known to a larger audience.

By the way, it is well worth your while to root around in Dreger’s blog - she is a very interesting scholar and person, with lots of gems in her blog and professional publishing.

Borofsky, Robert (editor) (2005) Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Might Learn from itF. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Haslip-Viera, Gabriel, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano and Warren Barbour (1997) Robbing Native American Cultures: Van Sertima's Afrocentricity and the Olmecs. Current Anthropology 38:419-441.

Ortiz de Montellano, Bernard R., Gabriel Haslip-Viera and Warren Barbour (1997) They Were NOT Here Before Columbus: Afrocentric Hyperdiffusionism in the 1990s. Ethnohistory 44:199-234.

Tierney, Patrick (2002) Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. Norton, New York.

van Sertima, Ivan (1976) They Came Before Columbus. Random House, New York.

van Sertima, Ivan (1998) Early America Revisited. Transaction, New York.


Hans said...

Wikipedia has become the go-to source, for better or worse, for a large percentage of undergraduates, high school students, and people outside of academia. It has a great potential to be an educational tool; it also has a lot of community issues which discourage academics from participating. Yet providing an accurate description of the major points of view on a subject (and often refuting discredited ones) falls neatly at the intersection of Wikipedia's goals and the goals in your post.

In my experience as an administrator on Wikipedia, I would say your experience with reverts is not unusual. Many of these reverts are simply errors (a well-meaning user a bit too eager to see any big change as problematic). A few are the result of someone with extremely limited knowledge or a specific agenda. Very occasionally there is an organized group out to keep Wikipedia reflecting a particular viewpoint.

The first two types of people can be fairly easily dealt with, at least with a bit of familiarity with the social and technical systems on Wikipedia. The last can be a painful draw of time and energy (imagine the professional climatologist who, every day, comes up against the same denialist viewpoints).

I'm not sure when you made your edits or why they were reverted (although I saw your comments on the talk page). The text about Jane Jacobs was added first in December, 2007 by a then-new user (not a particularly prolific editor since). It was revised more or less into it's present form in March, 2009 by a user who noted it was a more minor view than was reflected in the article (and actually suggested removing it entirely).

Getting academics more involved in Wikipedia or similar projects, with all the flaws they have (many more than mentioned here), does seem to be one way of communicating with the general public. The ready access and readily-digestible format seems to be the public's preferred method of getting information. Wikipedia might be one of the public fora you mention--if academics can persevere against the many problems that particular forum presents.

Michael E. Smith said...

Hans- I agree that Wikipedia can be an important educational tool, that many people get information from it, and that it is a good thing when Wikipedia entries are written by experts. That said, however, compare Wikipedia to an entry I just wrote ("Ancient Cities") for the Sage Encyclopedia of Urban Studies. Whereas text for Wikipedia has NO VALUE at all in the academic evaluation system used by my university, the encylopedia entry does count for me (not nearly as much as a journal article, but it DOES count). Whereas I get no public recognition for contributions to Wikipedia, my name appears on my Encyclopedia entry. Part of the benefit is for my ego, but part is professional - people that may want to contact the author can do that. Finally, I know that what comes out in the encyclopedia is my own work, and that it has not been changed by someone else (beyond copy-editing). Furthermore, my entries on Wikipedia can be changed by people who have faulty information and/or little expertise about the topic at hand.

So given the relatively small amount of time I have to devote to non-professional writing, which makes more sense for me to pursue? A Wikipedia entry, or an article in an encyclopedia or a popular magazine?

Hans said...

I completely agree, there is no academic career benefit to writing for Wikipedia at present, and probably for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, the impact on public understanding can be tremendous. I re-wrote and expanded an article on a poorly-studied species of shark (Salmon shark) in an afternoon. There were over 2800 page views last month, almost certainly more than the number of people who read the peer-reviewed article I was working on at the same time (although obviously, the intended audience is very different).

The "City" article was viewed more than more than 900,000 times last year. While academic credit for Wikipedia are a long way off--there's resistance from both Wikipedia users and academia--the potential influence of an article on the public understanding of many academic topics is non-trivial.

On the flip side, not only do academic editors not get credit, she or he has to put up with people who edit based on a half-remembered PBS special, or worse, dedicated nutjobs who are intent on some unique flavor of distortion. While structures exist to deal with these problems, it is an ongoing task and generally not a pleasant one.

I don't imagine most people who edit Wikipedia put it on their CV. I wrote a proposal to the Wikimedia foundation last year to institute systems which might encourage academic participation (see below), but it received very little support. For the time being, Wikipedia editing (both writing new content and maintaining existing content) is more akin to charity than proper academic publishing.

Article statistics are from Wikipedia article traffic statistics.

My proposal can be found at Wikimedia strategy.

Michael E. Smith said...

Yes, the concept of "charity" is close to how I have viewed my contributions to Wikipedia. The usage data are impressive, though. Perhaps a good strategy for busy academics like me is to identify entries and topics that are of particular interest and importance, and work on them from time to time. That was my plan for some urban topics, but then I gave up when my text was being changed by someone clueless.