Cred — Authorship and Authenticity

November 25, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Marjoe Gortner was a child prodigy Evangelical preacher. The 1972 documentary “Marjoe” includes home movies of him preaching at age four. The film, made when he was in his late twenties, shows him still at it, preaching to large crowds.  The spiritual and religious uplift he gives is palpable. But the film also shows Marjoe offstage saying to the filmmakers, “I can’t remember a time when I actually believed in God.” 

If a man does not practice what he preaches, must we ignore the content of the sermon? It might be a very good sermon. It might do what a sermon is supposed to do — cause many in the congregation to become more religious and more virtuous. Should we tell them to instead cover their ears?

Yesterday, I saw this tweet.

I recently peer reviewed a feminist article that cited Michael Kimmel’s work on how to be a “good man.” To state the obvious, this man has lost all credibility as an expert on this topic. Stop citing him. #MeToo  #MeTooPhD #MeTooSociology #AcademicChatter #AcademicTwitter
Advice on how to be a good man, much like a sermon, is prescriptive. Once we learn that the preacher is an atheist, we probably won’t go to the next revival meeting. But what about works that are descriptive rather than prescriptive? Does the author’s behavior invalidate his expertise and  accuracy?

Not that long ago, Jack-Alain Léger, a White Frenchman, wrote books under the Arab-sounding name Paul Smaïl.

The first Smaïl novel, “Vivre Me Tue” (“Living Kills Me”), was published in 1997, and its author was received as a genuine voice of the Beur community. [Beur is a slang term for North Africans living in France.] North Africa specialists were as fooled as anyone else. Sales were strong; a successful movie adaptation was produced; subsequent Smaïl novels were published; and people wrote dissertations on the work of Paul Smaïl. [Christopher L. Miller, Impostors: Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity]

When the hoax was revealed, many people were outraged. The book was derided as inauthentic, incompetent, and racist. But as Miller says, “Léger was delighted to point out that until he emerged as the real author the books had seemed Beur enough to everybody.” In the same way, until the accusations against Kimmel became public, his writings seemed feminist enough to everybody.

But Kimmel is a social scientist. Smaïl’s novels were fiction. Are the rules stricter for social science? Should we require a higher level of authenticity, of congruence between the qualities and character of the writer and the content of the publications?
In a recent blog post (here) Andrew Gelman asks this question, putting it the same way we might ask it of fiction: “Does authorship matter at all?”*

Gelman blogs frequently about seriously flawed research, including outright fraud, and I expected that his answer would be “No. The data and analysis speak for themselves.” I was wrong.

Information about the authors can give a paper some street-cred. For example, remember that paper claiming that single women were 20 percentage points more likely to support Barack Obama during certain times of the month? That paper had both male and female authors. If all the authors were male, I wonder if it would’ve been considered too silly or too offensive to publish or to promote. [emphasis added]

Gelman writes mostly about quantitative research, so he is concerned with “any misrepresentation of data and metadata, which includes authorship as well as details of how an experiment was carried out, what steps were done in data processing and analysis, and so on.” So if we learn that the authors were not who they claimed to be, we should look very carefully at the details.

The accusations against Kimmel have cost him whatever street cred he might have had as a feminist and perhaps as a sociologist. I imagine he is now having a hard time getting his work published.

But read “Raise Your Son to Be a Good Man, Not a ‘Real’ Man” (here) published just a few months before the accusations became public, and see if you think that its advice should be cancelled.


* It was Gelman’s post that led me to Léger/Smaïl. Gelman had been reading Louis Menand’s New Yorker article, which was based largely on Miller’s Impostors: Literary Hoaxes and Cultural Authenticity.

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