I Said What?

Now that I'm back home, I've had a chance to look for the quote that reviewer Jennie Erin Smith took to express the "ultimate conclusion" of Animalkind, in a recent Times Literary Supplement review
(Q) Other species do great things for us. For one, they teach us lessons and give us food for thought.
Citing Q, she says my view is that "we owe animals because they do us favours." I was mystified, because Q doesn't sound much like me, let alone like the ultimate thesis of my book.

(I'm also mystified by her assertion that I arrive at Q from "cobbled together anecdotes from Marc Bekoff and others."  In fact, the book contains not even one anecdote from Marc Bekoff--not one!  And it does contain many chapters filled with philosophical argumentation. But never mind...let's talk about Q.)

I've now found the passage.  It's on p. 163 of chapter 9.  The topic of the chapter is endangered species--a secondary topic (that's why I postponed it until the next to last chapter).  The passage is in a section about the view that other species are valuable because of what they do for us--a view I call Protagorean (after the Greek philosopher who claimed that man is the measure of all things).  Q is a sentence within indirect quotation. As in: according to the Protagorean view, it's important to preserve endangered species because _______.  There are two pages of explanation, including Q.

Not only is Q in indirect quotation, so not to be attributed to me as my own view, but I explicitly express misgivings about the Protagorean account of why species matter. 
Try as we may to give depth to the Protagorean view of species, it is inevitably a view with limits. By definition it can’t say that tigers matter because tigers matter: they are intrinsically good, and add to the good of the world. This thought gives everyone a reason to care about endangered species, and gives the activist the strongest inspiration. But we do well to pay attention to the Protagorean reasons as well. In our most hard-headed moments, we may find ourselves not quite sure a varied world is really the best world, or just the one we like best. 
Let's think this through slowly and carefully.  Would it make sense for a reviewer to use Q to capture the ultimate conclusion of my book?  Um, no, it wouldn't. Let us count the ways.  (1) Chapter 9 doesn't deal with the main issue of the book--what we owe to individual animals.  (2) Q is within indirect quotation--it states another view, not my own.  (3) I outright distance myself from that view, instead of endorsing it.

And now for the kicker. (4)  The book contains many "summing up" paragraphs, none of which sound remotely like Q.  In fact, here's one three pages before Q--
If we want to do right by individual animals, I’ve argued, it’s important for us to pay close attention to the sort of capacities that mark their kind. These capacities garner admiration and esteem, and ultimately respect. We must see what makes a chimpanzee different from a squirrel, before we can know our respect must be greater for the chimpanzee. We must see the difference between dolphins and tuna to see that there’s a problem with killing tuna by any method, but a special problem with methods that accidentally kill dolphins as bycatch. A decision whether to use mice or dogs in an experiment (if the experiment is to be done at all) can’t be made well unless we grasp the differences between mice and dog.
No, Animalkind doesn't say "we owe animals because they do us favours."  And that's just problem #1. There are numerous other outright errors in her description of my book, all explained in a letter I've sent to TLS.  I'm frankly shocked by the carelessness of this review.


s. wallerstein said...

I'm not shocked by the carelessness of the review.

There are basically two types of book reviews.

The first type is when a general book reviewer has to review a book on, say, the fall of the Roman Empire. The general book reviewer knows what the average educated reader knows about the end of the Roman Empire, that is, very little, and reviews the book from the standpoint of the average educated reader.

She notes that the book is well written or not, that the author's explanations are clear or not, that the book has a handy index and charts or not, etc. She does not criticize the book's arguments, because that is not her function. Given her function, as described above, she can skim a little, since she is not concerned with the details of the book's argument.

In the second type of review, an expert on the history of the Roman Empire criticizes the book's arguments and situates it among the literature on the theme. In this case, the reviewer needs to read the book with great care.

It seems that the TLS choose as a reviewer someone who has scarce knowledge of the theme of animal rights and thus, could only do a book review of the first type, but choose to do a book review of the second type with the methods of a book review of the first type, that is, skimming.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't agree that she even did the sort of skimming you'd have to do for your "first type of review." She didn't just overlook details, she had no understanding of the book's main claims and arguments. I'm certainly shocked to read something so careless in the TLS.

s. wallerstein said...

People who work in big corporations or in any bureaucracy, for instance, the military, have developed a whole series of laws and principles, Murphy's Law, the Peter Principle, etc., basically with the idea if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. Maybe the academic world needs to develop its own set of laws and principles, based on the prevalence of stupidity and bad will. I see no reason why the TLS should be any less careless incompetent than British Petroleum and that does not mean that I have a higher opinion of non-British organizations. Quite the contrary.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think book reviews are the nefarious, money-driven things that big corporations are. Most book reviewers are conscientious about it, partly because they know their own reputations are on the line. I just don't often see hatchet jobs in places like the NYT book review, and I figure the TLS is the UK equivalent.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't necessarily associate incompetence and ill will with the profit motive. If they were merely the product of the profit motive, the history of the Soviet Union would have been very different.

As Adam says, it's easy to dump on what is perceived as a fringe issue. From observing the Mooney wars, I've learned that people with many years of higher education are not exempt from the evil of taking their frustrations out on someone whom they perceive cannot hit back.

I'm not sufficiently expert on any subject to question the standards of the New York Times Book Reviews, although I have seen them questioned by Brian Leiter. However, at times NYT articles on Chilean politics appear to come from the pen of a journalist whose knowledge of Chile is limited to the hotel bar.

Jean Kazez said...

Don't know what happened to Adam's comment--it was good.

Amos, My point is that it really is reasonable to expect fairness from book reviewers. It is not too much to ask for and not unrealistic. There is no connection to what we can expect from a major oil company. I read book reviews all the time, and write them myself (for TPM), so I do have a sense of what the normal standards are.

Anonymous said...

You would have been even more outraged if it had been Noam Chomsky doing the review; he was rather famous for strawmanning his opponents.