Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Misuse of "Research" or Don't Always Trust What You Read

I am always looking for new examples of sloppy research, of reliance on the first three Google hits, of the assumption that if something is in print (or online) it must be true. In Robert Leston's and my Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children, I use the example of Joy Masoff, author of Our Virginia: Past and Present, a history text for elementary-school students. The book claims that large numbers of African-Americans fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Masoff said:
she found the information about black Confederate soldiers primarily through Internet research, which turned up work by members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
 Her defense?
"As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write," she said. "I am a fairly respected writer."
Yesterday, I came across an even better example, though one from pre-internet years. It appears in the Preface to The Lost Life of Horatio Alger, Jr.  by Gary Scharnhorst with Jack Bales. If any incident can teach us the dangers of shoddy research and trust, this one can.

Apparently, Herbert Mayes, later a respected editor, perpetuated a hoax when he was a young man, producing a "biography" of Horatio Alger, Jr. in 1927 that he had made up completely (shades of Stephen Glass). By default (and because nobody bothered to check the research or sources), this became the standard for biographies of Alger, information from it appearing in biographical dictionaries and becoming the basis for later biographies. Mayes hadn't been able to find much out about Alger so, either as a parody or as deliberate fraud, he simply made the man up, attaching the famous name. Scharnhorst and Bales write:
All Alger biographers to date have grappled with the same problem of meager sources that first beset Mayes. At best, they have cursorily sketched a life on the basis of skimpy evidence. Most have cited without question Mayes's fabricated documents. At worst, they have borrowed and embellished those sources with their own fabrications. Writing an authoritative biography of Alger now is a task akin to disproving a conspiracy theory. (xiv)
Fraud is all around us. The only way to be an effective researcher is to also be an effective investigator of fraud. Even corroborating evidence can turn out to be doubtful, as in the Masoff case, as with Alger--as with "Binjamin Wilkomirski" who claimed to have known "Laura Grabowski" in a WWII concentration camp (and she him), only to have it shown that they both, for reasons independent of each other, were lying. Blake Eskin's neat little book on Wilkomirski, A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Binjamin Wilkomirski, is another good object-lesson on the dangers of too generous belief.

Though I've never much liked Ronald Reagan, I still love one of his favorite phrases, "trust, but verify."

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