Non-fiction books can have limited fact-checking, no peer review

An example of a significant misinterpretation of survey data in a recent book provides a reminder of about reading “facts”:

There are a few major lessons here. The first is that books are not subject to peer review, and in the typical case not even subject to fact-checking by the publishers — often they put responsibility for fact-checking on the authors, who may vary in how thoroughly they conduct such fact-checks and in whether they have the expertise to notice errors in interpreting studies, like Wolf’s or Dolan’s.

The second, Kimbrough told me, is that in many respects we got lucky in the Dolan case. Dolan was using publicly available data, which meant that when Kimbrough doubted his claims, he could look up the original data himself and check Dolan’s work. “It’s good this work was done using public data,” Kimbrough told me, “so I’m able to go pull the data and look into it and see, ‘Oh, this is clearly wrong.’”…

Book-publishing culture similarly needs to change to address that first problem. Books often go to print with less fact-checking than an average Vox article, and at hundreds of pages long, that almost always means several errors. The recent high-profile cases where these errors have been serious, embarrassing, and highly public might create enough pressure to finally change that.

In the meantime, don’t trust shocking claims with a single source, even if they’re from a well-regarded expert. It’s all too easy to misread a study, and all too easy for those errors to make it all the way to print.

These are good steps, particularly the last paragraph above: shocking or even surprising statistics are worth checking against the data or against other sources to verify. After all, it is not that hard for a mutant statistic to spread.

Unfortunately, correctly interpreting data continues to get pushed down the chain to readers and consumers. When I read articles or books in 2019, I need to be fairly skeptical of what I am reading. This is hard to do with (1) the glut of information we all face (so many sources!) and (2) needing to know how to be skeptical of information. This is why it is easy to fall into filtering sources of information into camps of sources we trust versus ones we do not. At the same time, knowing how statistics and data works goes a long way in questioning information. In the main example in the story above, the interpretation issue came down to how the survey questions were asked. An average consumer of the book may have little idea to question the survey data collection process, let alone the veracity of the claim. It took an academic who works with the same dataset to question the interpretation.

To do this individual fact-checking better (and to do it better at a structural level before books are published), we need to combat innumeracy. Readers need to be able to understand data: how it is collected, how it is interpreted, and how it ends up in print or in the public arena. This usually does not require a deep knowledge of particular methods but it does require some familiarity with how data becomes data. Similarly, being cynical about all data and statistics is not the answer; readers need to know when data is good enough.

Finding humor in the interior design in great literature

Great books often feature interesting homes and places. One English professor set out to have some fun with the interior design of these spaces:

The book started with Jane Eyre. I was watching a film adaptation one night and thinking about the particular house that was used as Thornfield Hall in that movie, and also my love of home design sites, like Apartment Therapy, which had actually done a house tour of my house when I moved into it five years ago. I thought it would be funny to think about Jane Eyre giving a kind of similar tour of Thornfield Hall, and mapping that whole narrative of “what your house means to you” onto this really Gothic, terrible space. I decided to keep going, thinking about which houses in literature are my favorites, and it turned into a regular column, at [now defunct feminist website] the Toast.

There’s something so funny about trying to fit these disturbing literary houses into the cookie-cutter language of interior design, and ending up with, say, “Jay Gatsby’s Desperately Sad McMansion of Unfulfilled Dreams.” But it also reminds us that in literature as in life, people and their homes are so connected.

The satire about decorating is very warm satire. I really loved doing a house tour, and the whole idea of that, people creating these personally significant spaces and sharing them with one another, with an audience. But it’s always fun to have that dual vision, where you can be a part of something but at the same time stand a little bit outside it and think about what might be funny about yourself and your own domestic tendencies. Since I’m an English professor, the idea of thinking about home in books and in life has always been related. A lot of the models of how I think about my house are literary models—hopefully not Thornfield Hall, though…

The column was initially called “Great House Therapy,” and the idea was to explicitly pair the Apartment Therapy-style house tour with the idea of the great house in literature, these big estates owned by landed gentry. But when I developed it into a book, I wanted all sorts of different literary houses, and apartments, and, for instance, King Lear’s hovel. That play is so much about hospitality, how Lear violates the hospitality of his daughters and is cast out into the storm. I wanted some of the interiors to be totally terrible, and to find the humor in that, so I included places like Raskolnikov’s lair in Crime and Punishment, and the room in The Yellow Wallpaper, a place where the narrator is trapped, and I imagined Jane Eyre talking to Becky Sharp, from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, about their dismal governess’s rooms.

Considering the importance of places for humans, it is little surprise that many creative works – books, films, TV shows – involve places that are important for the characters. Yet, at the same time, it can often feel like the places are simply backgrounds for what is happening in the dialogue between character or in the character development. In other words, if you could easily transport the characters and plot to another similar location and little would change, perhaps the depicted places are not really that meaningful.

And given some of the discussion above, it would be interesting to consider the literary (and additional outlets) depictions of McMansions. How exactly will Gone Girl‘s depiction of lonely suburban McMansions hold up? Or, how about creative works that use McMansions like Gothic homes of the past? The discussions of granite countertops and stainless steel appliances may be perfect for spoofing in the future.

Why do children’s books spend so much time on infrastructure and construction yet there is little formal instruction on these topics later?

Yesterday, I walked to the nearest bank and watched some construction going on. The work appeared to involve digging underneath the side of a street, possibly to deal with a pipe or some kind of wire. I was struck that while many neighbors or drivers would find such a sight a nuisance, many kids would be fascinated.

Plenty of books for children involve infrastructure and construction. These books discuss vehicles, what is underground, and how items get from one place to another. The emphasis on big machines doing physical work and the mobility of it all seems attractive to kids. (I would guess much of this attraction is due to socialization.) But, if I think back to my schooling, we spend little time analyzing and discussing these basic systems that are essential to all of our lives: electricity and electrical lines, plumbing and sewers, Internet cables, roads and highways, pipelines, gas lines, railroads, trucking, waterways, airplanes and airports, and other crucial pieces of infrastructure. Why?

In many ways, it would not be hard to incorporate these topics into multiple subjects. The first example that came to mind would be a unit about railroads. These are essential for moving goods long distances. Various subjects could tackle aspects of the railroad. Plenty of history and geography to note. The natural sciences could discuss steam engines, coal, diesel engines, and how such heavy objects move. The humanities have a wealth of stories, poems, songs, and other works that involve railroads. Math could involve analyzing timetables or schedules. Language arts could involve writing promotional materials for railroads or describing particular historical events involving trains.

Without more formal instruction on infrastructure, American adults may not (1) think often about how we all need to contribute to maintaining and building infrastructure and (2) have a good understanding of how it all works (not just the infrastructure itself but also related industries and aspects of social life). In other words, a lack of attention paid to infrastructure in school and learning may just contribute to a public that does not want to address the infrastructure issues facing the nation today.

Why Google’s plan to scan every book in the world was halted

Google had plans to scan every book but the project hit some legal bumps along the way and now the company has “a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them”:

Google thought that creating a card catalog was protected by “fair use,” the same doctrine of copyright law that lets a scholar excerpt someone’s else’s work in order to talk about it. “A key part of the line between what’s fair use and what’s not is transformation,” Google’s lawyer, David Drummond, has said. “Yes, we’re making a copy when we digitize. But surely the ability to find something because a term appears in a book is not the same thing as reading the book. That’s why Google Books is a different product from the book itself.”…

It’s been estimated that about half the books published between 1923 and 1963 are actually in the public domain—it’s just that no one knows which half. Copyrights back then had to be renewed, and often the rightsholder wouldn’t bother filing the paperwork; if they did, the paperwork could be lost. The cost of figuring out who owns the rights to a given book can end up being greater than the market value of the book itself. “To have people go and research each one of these titles,” Sarnoff said to me, “It’s not just Sisyphean—it’s an impossible task economically.” Most out-of-print books are therefore locked up, if not by copyright then by inconvenience…

What became known as the Google Books Search Amended Settlement Agreement came to 165 pages and more than a dozen appendices. It took two and a half years to hammer out the details. Sarnoff described the negotiations as “four-dimensional chess” between the authors, publishers, libraries, and Google. “Everyone involved,” he said to me, “and I mean everyone—on all sides of this issue—thought that if we were going to get this through, this would be the single most important thing they did in their careers.” Ultimately the deal put Google on the hook for about $125 million, including a one-time $45 million payout to the copyright holders of books it had scanned—something like $60 per book—along with $15.5 million in legal fees to the publishers, $30 million to the authors, and $34.5 million toward creating the Registry….

This objection got the attention of the Justice Department, in particular the Antitrust division, who began investigating the settlement. In a statement filed with the court, the DOJ argued that the settlement would give Google a de facto monopoly on out-of-print books. That’s because for Google’s competitors to get the same rights to those books, they’d basically have to go through the exact same bizarre process: scan them en masse, get sued in a class action, and try to settle. “Even if there were reason to think history could repeat itself in this unlikely fashion,” the DOJ wrote, “it would scarcely be sound policy to encourage deliberate copyright violations and additional litigation.”

Out-of-print books with uncertain copyright status scuttle what could be one of the great treasure troves of information? This suggests we still have a ways to go until we have legal structures that can deal with the information-rich and easily accessible online realm. If a deal could eventually be worked out for books, what about older music, art, and other cultural works?

A related thought: having all those books available might indeed change the academic enterprise in several ways. First, we could easily access more sources of data. Second, we could potentially cite many more sources.

Books that influenced sociologists to pursue sociology

Sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle discusses some of the books that most influenced her:

BOOKS: Which books had the biggest effect on you?

TURKLE: Jean Piaget’s “The Child’s Conception of the World,” Freud’s “The Uncanny,” Claude Levi-Strauss’s “The Savage Mind.” Getting into those books got me into this notion that we love the objects we think with, and we think with the objects we love. That became my life’s work.

BOOKS: Any other pivotal book?

TURKLE: I think the most influential book for me was “The Lonely Crowd” by David Riesman. I read that in high school. I said to myself I want to be the sort of person who could write a book like that. So I decided to study sociology and psychology. In fact, he became my mentor.

Given that Turkle was trained as a sociologist and psychologist (she did both together: “Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.”), these books don’t look so surprising. But, would we have known this when Turkle was in college or younger? Or were these the books that she found at an academic level that then influenced her later research and writing? It would be interesting to see: (1) what books a number of other sociologists would cite as influential and (2) whether these texts line up with the books and articles cited the most in the discipline.

Additionally, The Lonely Crowd has had an outsized effect on studying the American suburbs. I admit that I have not read the whole thing though it sits on the shelf in my office. Its claims about conformity have been widely echoed by critics of the suburbs – while cities are often presented as the bastions of individuality and authenticity – even as the data behind the claims was somewhat thin.

My public library is also a free video store

I recently saw my public library’s latest annual report with these figures on items borrowed:

WarrenvilleLibraryBorrowing2015

While books are still the largest category, it isn’t much of a drop to the next category of DVDs. One interpretation of this data? The DVDs are nearly as important to the library’s patrons as DVDs. This makes the library one of the best video stores around with free prices and a decent selection.

Here is the stated mission of the library:

It is the mission of the Warrenville Public Library District to collect, organize and make available the representative records of humanity’s actions, concerns and aspirations. It exists for the common good to support a literate and informed citizenry.

I know this trend has been underway for a while now as the DVDs might help keep people coming to the library and we certainly live in a visual culture. But, it would be interesting to think about how all those DVDs contribute to supporting a “literate and informed citizenry.” Of course, some could argue not all or even many books meet this guideline.

Selling Bibles is big business

The market for the Bible is still strong:

No official sales projections are publicly available, but if history provides a guide, the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible” could easily sell 100,000 copies by the end of the year — probably a lot more. The new study Bible by Zondervan, a Christian publishing house in Grand Rapids, Mich., owned by HarperCollins, could follow earlier blockbuster sales. The last NIV study Bible, published by Zondervan in 1985, sold more than 9 million copies.

The Bible business is booming. There are annual sales of 40 million Bibles — from study Bibles to family Bibles to pocket Bibles. That’s not even counting foreign markets. As journalist Daniel Radosh observed, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”…

The “ESV Study Bible” is actually only one of 19 Bibles that have sold more 1 million copies in the past decade. The editors behind Zondervan’s new offering are undoubtedly looking for the same sort of sales, and there’s reason to believe they will get them…

The anxiety over kinds of Bibles — aggravated by the market — creates a demand for new, more authoritative works. Some of the most popular study Bibles are designed to reassure readers of the text’s accuracy and authority, while at the same time promising to be easy to read.

I worked for two summers in the warehouse of Tyndale House Publishers where we shipped a good number of Bibles (among other items, such as plenty of Left Behind books). We had all sorts of Bibles: different translations, ones for different people groups (teenagers, women, seekers, those with the education to make use of the original language and the translation side by side), and in all sorts of packaging from software to metal cases to real leather. I remember noting the two forces at work: the impulse to make the Bible available alongside the motivation to make money.

This is an area where Christianity and materialism come head to head and yet I’m not sure it gets discussed much. How useful are all those Bibles? How much do people need new and improved versions? Where does all that money go? Americans love to consume things…are the sales of Bible more of an indication of consumption than of religious fervor?