Experts that send us their reckons

I’ve been fascinated by the discussion on several blogs in recent weeks about the plagiarism and journalistic misconduct of science writer Jonah Lehrer (hereherehere). This morning I noticed a similar story about the well-known international affairs expert Fareed Zakaria. What piqued my interest, however, was not his plagiarism. In addition to plagiarizing a New Yorker article, apparently he also failed to cite a comment he used in one of his books by “the former Intel Corp. chief executive Andy Grove” that “America is in danger of following Europe down the tubes, and the worst part is that nobody knows it.”

The controversy is about who quoted Andy Grove first, and where. But assuming the issue of who quoted him first is cleared up, why does anyone care what Andy Grove says? And why did Zakaria think that what Grove said was so important that he risked this kind of career catastrophe to keep the quotation in the book (or keep it un-cited) when apparently his error was brought to his attention a long time ago?

I think it’s because (besides survey data and general references to macro-level general statistics from data that are usually publicly available) quotations from people with important-sounding titles form a substantial and main portion of Zakaria’s writing and commentary. They’re what come before and after an author’s own opinions about international affairs and social phenomena that make his or her own opinions sound like more than just opinions.

Zakaria isn’t alone in mastering this style of expertise. The error that brought Jonah Lehrer’s downfall was misquoting Bob Dylan. Lehrer’s book was supposed to be a sparkling and revelatory look at the new science of creativity”. Yet it’s not quite surprising that it was an anecdotal quotation that caused his book to be withdrawn by the publisher, because despite the patina of science, he built a huge part of his credibility on his quotations. In this kind of expertise, the biggest experts are the ones who know and talk to the largest number of other experts, whether ones with a formally impressive title like a former CEO of Intel Corp., or “a senior member of the Israeli government” or ones with an impressively authentic and on-the-ground-sounding title like “a young Chinese executive in an Internet café in Shanghai“, or a “a young Papua New Guinean“.

That last reference was to a young man whose quotations Jared Diamond used to answer the question “What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?” in an article for the New Yorker in 2008. That article was subsequently revealed to be full of fabricated quotations. In a great post at the Language Log, Mark Liberman comes to some very sensible conclusions about the value of quotations you see in the New Yorker.

Yet the interesting problem here is not so much un-credited quotations or even fraudulent quotations (as bad as those are), but that quotations are relied on so heavily by the kind of experts we have to hear and see in the news, on the radio, and in most popular publications. It turns out that these particular experts made up their quotations or used other experts’ without citing them. But the experience and awkwardness of it all also makes me stop and ask – why do these experts use so very many quotations anyway? Is an argument really more persuasive because some person somewhere else said the same thing? It seems like the standard route to expertise is getting enough (depending on your topic) regular people (e.g Egypt) or famous people (eg creativity or US geopolitical influence) to tell you what they reckon.

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One thought on “Experts that send us their reckons

  1. Pingback: Experts-shmexperts. Where’s the data? « House of Stones

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