Show Your Work!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Bryn Williams, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, recently wrote an interesting negative review of Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday, which he decries for not including footnotes.

... His examples are evocative and his narration is powerful, but Diamond ultimately fails to substantiate his arguments. By the end of the book, it is impossible to tell if one has finished reading a masterpiece of rigorous analysis or a masterfully written collection of just-so stories.

Each chapter offers a window into a specific cultural practice. These chapters typically follow this script: He posits a difference between traditional and modern society, cherry-picks a few examples from ethnographic or archaeological sources, and provides an evaluation about potential benefits (and/or drawbacks) of the traditional compared with the modern approach. The choice of topics is eclectic...

Diamond has a gift for storytelling. He presents his examples in a seductively readable voice with unflinching confidence, which makes his conclusions about the similarities and differences between traditional and modern society seem like common sense. But as I read the text, I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing. When Diamond was writing about topics that I know in depth, I felt as though he was leaving out important information; when I didn't know what he was writing about, I was thoroughly convinced. [sic] Diamond is a generalist and will always paint with a brush that a specialist finds too broad. The danger lies not in simplifying source material by leaving out extraneous details, but in selectively highlighting only the facts that support one's argument and casting contravening cases aside. [bold added]
I am not an anthropologist and haven't read Diamond's book. I am in no position to tell whether this review is a hatchet job or whether a few other people, learned in  areas complementary to Williams, would have the same general reactions to the book that Williams did. I would also caution that copious footnotes in a book aimed at a general audience do not guarantee rigor, although Williams does not imply that.

At the very least, Diamond's choice not to document his work has left him open to the charge that he has failed to consider or address the strongest counterarguments to the various conclusions he draws.

-- CAV

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