Naomi Wolf’s New Book a Complete Misunderstanding

An author's greatest nightmare unfolded on live radio.

Naomi Wolf is living an author’s greatest nightmare. And doing it as well as possible.

When she went on BBC radio on Thursday, Wolf, the author of Vagina and the forthcoming Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, probably expected to discuss the historical revelations she’d uncovered her book. But during the interview, broadcaster Matthew Sweet read to Wolf the definition of “death recorded,” a 19th-century English legal term. “Death recorded” means that a convict was pardoned for his crimes rather than given the death sentence.

Wolf thought the term meant execution.

There’s a shocking silence on-air after Sweet says he doesn’t think Wolf is right about the executions Outrages delves into. Sweet looks at the case of Thomas Silver, who, Wolf wrote in her book, “was actually executed for committing sodomy. The boy was indicted for unnatural offense, guilty, death recorded.” Silver, as Sweet points out, was not executed.

“What is your understanding of what ‘death recorded’ means?” Wolf asked him on-air, mere moments after he had already explained to her how Old Bailey, London’s main criminal court up until 1913, defined it. Sweet pulled up his own research — news reports and prison records — showing the date that Thomas Silver was discharged.

Death recorded, he says, “was a category that was created in 1823 that allowed judges to abstain from pronouncing a sentence of death on any capital convict whom they considered to be a fit subject for pardon.” And then the blow: “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened.”

Before Sweet delivered the punch, Wolf was audibly ready to speak about the “several dozen” similar executions she noted in her book, many of which rely on her completely wrong understanding of the term “death recorded.” But there is no historical evidence that shows anyone was ever executed for sodomy during the Victorian era, Sweet said on Twitter. Which means … much of the premise of Wolf’s entire book is just false.

Wolf cited on Twitter historical findings from a peer-reviewed article written by A.D. Harvey, a historian who’s been labeled a hoaxer. (He deceived the public into thinking that Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky met once and created several online personas and an entire fake community of academics.)

-Yelena Dzhanova, The Intelligencer, “Here’s an Actual Nightmare: Naomi Wolf Learning On-Air That Her Book Is Wrong

Wow. That’s simply mortifying. It is, I suppose, a peril of being the sort of author that Wolf represents: a talented writer who lights on a topic of interest and then cranks out a book, rather than an expert in a subject that writes within their field.

Her publisher is standing by her in the most bizarre way possible:

The book hits U.S. stands on June 18, according to the Amazon listing. A Houghton Mifflin Harcourt spokesperson offered this statement: “While HMH employs professional editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders for each book project, we rely ultimately on authors for the integrity of their research and fact-checking. Despite this unfortunate error we believe the overall thesis of the book Outrages still holds. We are discussing corrections with the author.”

The entire premise of the book is wrong. Now, it remains true that homosexuals have been treated horribly over a span of centuries, including by the medical community and the legal system. But it’s not true that we were until recently executing people for it in the West.

For her part, though, Wolf is handling it with grace:

To her absolute credit, Wolf is taking this on the chin. On Twitter, Wolf and Sweet appear cordial. There’s a tweet from Sweet that indicates Wolf is going to look into her research and make necessary corrections. And a thread in which Wolf thanks Sweet for correcting her and promises to review “all of the sodomy convictions on Twitter in real time so people can see for themselves what the sentences were and what became of each of these people.”

I’m not sure what else she can do at this point. But it’s far better than doubling down on an embarrassing error.

UPDATE (10:12): It gets worse. It turns out that the book derives from her 2015 Oxford doctoral dissertation. So it’s not just Wolf and her HMH editors that have failed here but her Oxford advisors.

FILED UNDER: Book Reviews
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Given such an egregious factual error the idea that they’re going forward with publication before appropriate changes can be made (assuming there’s anything remaining of Wolf’s argument now that it’s clear that she fundamentally misunderstood the documents she was looking at) is just bizarre.

    As for Wolf, she’s hardly without fault here. This isn’t an innocent mistake, she obviously didn’t do sufficient research to inform her about what she was seeing in the historical documents That strikes me as being lazy scholarship. In any event, I don’t think this can be brushed off with the lightheardedness she seems to be demonstrating on Twitter, and “updating” the book via Twitter hardly seems sufficient.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Ooooff…

    I’m not sure what else she can do at this point. But it’s far better than doubling down on an embarrassing error.

    Imagine the response from a certain individual who would have given it the title of, The Art of the Outrage.

  3. mattbernius says:

    Wolfe definitely earned this. It would also be great to see an interviewer directly confront Jared Diamond about all the historical inaccuracies in his latest work.

    Sadly I am not holding my breath for that.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    Yikes. I feel Ms. Wolf’s pain. This is why I prefer writing fiction: there’s no ‘wrong’ when you’re just making shit up. The only time I’ve had to worry was in my WW2 trilogy, Front Lines, and I still check reviews of that book for errors. So far I’ve only been hit for a throw-away scene where the Duke is walking by and calls someone, ‘Pilgrim.’ Turns out, nope, not in 1942, that signature line came later. What a nightmare for the author and yes, she’s doing the right thing admitting error rather than try to b.s. her way forward.

  5. @michael reynolds:

    Look at it this way at least you didn’t leave a Starbucks cup on a table while shooting a fantasy show set in a land with fire-breathing dragons.

  6. Teve says:

    @mattbernius: it’s a good reminder to get history from actual historians instead of quasi-scholars like Wolf and Diamond.

    Wolf messed up on a phrasing so stupid it seems designed to mislead, but Diamond’s mistakes are apparently all over the place.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    What’s even more egg-on-the-face is that this book is supposedly a spin-off from a thesis Wolf wrote for a Ph.D. degree from Oxford.

    In other words, her thesis advisor has missed it, her thesis committee missed it, and her publisher missed it.

    I have no sympathy for the embarrassment all of them are now feeling. Why in the EFF didn’t Naomi Wolf do the research that the reporter seems to have done, i.e., actually try to track down the death certificates of the individuals involved? It’s not like she’s trying to find corroboratory evidence for what happened to an individual back in Florence in 1390s (which is what I had to do for my master’s thesis and managed to find, thankyouverymuch.) It’s the bloody frickin’ VICTORIAN period of England with records all OVER the place! She doesn’t even have to do any translation!

  8. Teve says:

    It’s not like she’s trying to find corroboratory evidence for what happened to an individual back in Florence in 1390s (which is what I had to do for my master’s thesis and managed to find, thankyouverymuch.)

    now I’m curious, what kind of records from 1390s Florence are available, and how does one access them, and what language or languages are they written in???

  9. Moosebreath says:

    @michael reynolds:

    “This is why I prefer writing fiction: there’s no ‘wrong’ when you’re just making shit up.”

    Not really with historical fiction. Steven Saylor seems to still be beating himself up about mentioning cherries in a novel he wrote nearly 30 years ago set in Rome in 80 BC, when they were unknown there until about 20 years later.

  10. The last time I recall giving much thought to Naomi Wolfe, she was advising Al Gore for his presidential run. I have a vague sense of her beyond that.

    Still, I listened to that clip yesterday and it really was the stuff of nightmares for an author. And while she (and her advisers) deserve the criticism and the consequences, I can’t help but feel for them all.

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  11. Han says:

    (He deceived the public into thinking that Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoyevsky met once and created several online personas and an entire fake community of academics.)

    Can I just say how intrigued I am at the thought of Dickens and Dostoyevsky creating online personas and an entire fake community of academics?

  12. Richard Gardner says:

    Emily Litella, “Nevermind

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And while she (and her advisers) deserve the criticism and the consequences, I can’t help but feel for them all.

    Agreed.

    Oxford is one of the world’s great universities and Wolf is, whatever else one may say of her work, smart and hard-working. Her DPhil is in English Language and Literature/Letters, not Law or History. One presumes her committee was simply out of their depth and didn’t have the competence to steer her in the right direction. I would hope that a comparable American university would have insisted on a period historian and/or legal scholar be part of the committee.

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  14. michael reynolds says:

    @Moosebreath:
    That’s why I’ve only done the one historical. If you’re going to do it right it’s an enormous amount of work. Although the bigger impediment is that YA audiences are so poorly-educated in history they only barely relate to the big marquee events like WW2. Going into adult historicals means coming up to the standards of guys like Patrick O’Brian, Bernard Cornwell, Hilary Mantel and George MacDonald Fraser. I’m not at all sure I have those chops.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @Teve: I was lucky because one of the names mentioned in the consilium triggered a “huh, I’ve seen that before” impression so I started scouring the history books/Ph.D. theses for conspiracies in Florence during the relevant decade and managed to discover a pretty good description of the case involved with names attached. I wasn’t able to find histories of the other four conspiracies but all five were all of the same format: Someone decides to hire a bunch of mercenaries against Florence to overthrow the rulers, gets pants soundly beaten off him and captured, then gets condemned to death for having conspired against Florence (“….condemned to be taken to the place of execution and have his head cut off from his shoulders so that his spirit depart forthwith…”) so the legal background in all the cases was the same.

    Languages involved: Latin, modern Italian, Florentine dialect.

    I do remember we were talking about the possibility of my going to the Vatican Library to check on their copy of Florentine statutes from 1390s (the British Library has copies of the 1356 collection and the early 1400s collection but neither of those matched exactly the statute that I found quoted in the consilium.) We decided that for a Master’s thesis, it wasn’t necessary and we didn’t have the time. If I had been doing a Ph.D. thesis, it probably would have been encouraged.

    (Oh, and if you’re doing any work in Renaissance legal history in Italy, you had better have the following languages under your belt: Latin, Italian, French, a bunch of Italian and French dialects…and German, because so much research was done in Germany.)

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  16. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “The last time I recall giving much thought to Naomi Wolfe, she was advising Al Gore for his presidential run. I have a vague sense of her beyond that.”

    Me, too. Vague in the sense that only now do I realize after all these years that Naomi Wolf is not the same person as Naomi Klein…

  17. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I would hope that a comparable American university would have insisted on a period historian and/or legal scholar be part of the committee.

    Would you also insist that the committee members actually read the dissertation?

    A few years ago, I interviewed a job applicant from a top economics department. After reading the papers and asking probing questions, we determined that this person had done… extremely questionable things with the data, including throwing away most of it as ‘outliers’ (in the dimension of analysis!) prior to performing the statistical analysis. We were horrified, to the extent of actually contacting this person’s committee chairman, a world-famous economist, to ask WTF.

    The chairman had no idea that the student had done this. The chairman had not read the thesis, or at best had merely skimmed it.

    The student is now a faculty member at a very prestigious university.

  18. Teve says:

    @grumpy realist: molto interessante!

  19. grumpy realist says:

    @Teve: P.S. there’s a lot of public records from the Italian city-states that have made it down to the modern period and are kept with all the rest of the stuff in the public records vaults. One of my profs from the Warburg had the experience of standing in line at city hall along with people getting their drivers’ licences etc. to put in a request. He sits down and waits. Twenty minutes later he’s noticing a lot of whispering among the staff and some nervous looks at him. Goes back up to the counter: is there a problem? Is the document available? Oh yes, the document is available….oh yes, they can get him a copy…(more nervous looks)…but it’s in LATIN!!

    He nearly bust a gut laughing.

  20. grumpy realist says:

    @DrDaveT: Oh, I’m pretty sure that no one on my Ph.D thesis committee read my thesis before I showed up for my defence….nor did the university printing office check on anything before they printed it, grumble grumble. LaTeX and reference numbers grumble grumble….I didn’t discover the screw-up until several years after getting my doctorate.

    What I found hilarious was this happened in spite of the multitude of threats “oh we won’t accept your thesis unless it’s precisely formatted and everything referenced properly.” Joke’s on them!

  21. Tom Rath says:

    Kinda ambivalent on this one, although I believe the publisher should be practicing tighter diligence.

    On the other hand, it’s not like she went all David Barton and simply made $#@! up.

  22. Kathy says:

    These kind of half-assed, slovenly works are a disservice to the groups they are allegedly trying to help. They are to politics and culture what Velikovskyism is to science, except no one gets hurt because they think Venus was a comet, or oil came from space, or other such nonsense.

    I’m not a scholar or academic or historian, just someone who likes to study history and science . But I did go to school, and I know that one should never write a paper, much less a book, without understanding the subject involved.

    Come on, this is like writing a biography of Robin Hood as though he were a real person(*), and only later with the book about to be published finding out he’s a mythical character.

    (*) This is not the same as serious scholars trying to determine what person or people inspired a mythical character, or what real events are referenced in myths and legends.

  23. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think y’all are being a bit harsh. Or many of y’all. That’s a pretty easy mistake to make, it’s not at all hard to see how it would happen. Who on earth thought writing “death recorded” was a good way to say “we didn’t execute this person at this time”? And yeah, if you’re a history person, you be sure to find the death certificates. But she wasn’t, and her committee wasn’t, either.

    And this highlights the sort of siloing and isolation that is very common in the academic world. I know a CS guy who’s wife is a Statistics professor. She complains that the CS people keep reinventing stuff they’ve already done in Stat. In some sense, I think this is inevitable. There’s just too much to know.

  24. @Jay L Gischer:

    That’s a pretty easy mistake to make, it’s not at all hard to see how it would happen. Who on earth thought writing “death recorded” was a good way to say “we didn’t execute this person at this time”?

    It is the job of the researcher to make sure they understand such terms. This is especially true if one is basing a substantial part of one’s thesis on a given phrase.

    If the interviewer could find out the right definition, Wolfe could have (and should have) as well.

  25. Again: I feel for her insofar as the interview is truly the stuff of nightmares for a writer.

    Still: she made a mistake she should not have made.

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: That type of thing came up in a book I was just reading a while ago. The narrator–a recently returned from the Raj English widow–describing someone as “looking like Mopsey”–a comic strip character created in 1939, IIRC. The only problem is that in the same book the same widow is waiting for delivery of her newly purchased 1905 Rover from the factory. Oops.

    Fortunately, to paraphrase Howard Hughes, she isn’t writing history, she’s writing a cheap pulp novel–99 cents from the Kindle store. Still a good read.

  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Han: Yeah, I read it that way the first time, too.

  28. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    Her DPhil is in English Language and Literature/Letters, not Law or History. One presumes her committee was simply out of their depth and didn’t have the competence to steer her in the right direction. I would hope that a comparable American university would have insisted on a period historian and/or legal scholar be part of the committee.

    If she was a social sciences person, that would have been the case. Honestly with English degrees (and this is perhaps my bias), I don’t necessarily think this is the case.

    But with social sciences, there is an expectation that if you have a historical component to your research you are able to teach that content in a history program (especially if you are at a school like Michigan or Cornell that requires having an additional field of study and a representative from outside your fired on your committee).

  29. Bill says:

    @michael reynolds:

    That’s why I’ve only done the one historical. If you’re going to do it right it’s an enormous amount of work. Although the bigger impediment is that YA audiences are so poorly-educated in history they only barely relate to the big marquee events like WW2. Going into adult historicals means coming up to the standards of guys like Patrick O’Brian, Bernard Cornwell, Hilary Mantel and George MacDonald Fraser. I’m not at all sure I have those chops.

    I am dipping my toe into these waters with my next ebook. A very secret U.S. government agency (They investigate these alien machines that keep being found the world. They can change anything but they demo models that only work for a few days. My story is the one and only time a unused machine was found by the govt) works with the Israeli Mossad to stop an operation that is underway. The story is set in the years 1988-1997 and has cameos in it- President Clinton, Sandy Berger, Yitzak Rabin, Shabtai, Shavit and a few others. Former NSC member Richard Clarke is a important minor character.

    I write in a peculiar subgenre where most of the stories are simple sex fantasies/erotica. Somehow three of my ebooks got to #1 on one of Amazon’s many lists. Two of them very briefly and one of them for most of 6 weeks.

    How will ‘Witchcraft’ do? I have no idea. I do have a small following of readers but my best sellers have always been what I consider lesser works of mine.

  30. Bill says:

    About a decade ago, somebody wrote a book titled ‘The First Sunday in April’. It was about the Masters golf tournament. One problem- Unless there has been in inclement weather or an 18 hole playoff, the Masters has concluded (Since the late 1950s at least) on the Second Sunday in April

    Oops

  31. michael reynolds says:

    @Bill:

    How will ‘Witchcraft’ do? I have no idea. I do have a small following of readers but my best sellers have always been what I consider lesser works of mine.

    I’m right there with you. I tend to value projects that took work, that required me to do something different. BZRK and the Front Lines trilogy are my best work, but those are not the things that sell. I’m not dissing other stuff I’ve done, but I knew how to write all those things before I started in.

    I’ll be in LA in a couple weeks pitching TV and movie projects motivated in large degree by the fact that I don’t know how to do those things yet. I’m going to give that a year, maybe two, and if it doesn’t work out I’ll find a nice bar by a nice beach, write a book a year and wait for the sweet embrace of death.

  32. Raoul says:

    Sorry JJ, Wolf is not handling the situation as well as possible, that would entail withdrawing the book from publication. Something about the phrase “death recorded” seems odd as opposed to “executed” or “hanged”and should have led to more research.

  33. grumpy realist says:

    A blog post from Abovethelaw on the fiasco which gave me a few chuckles.

  34. Sleeping Dog says:

    1. If Tiny is entitled to his own facts, so is Naomi.
    2. This explains a few obscure references to Wolf on a tumblr that I follow.
    3. Not pulling the book, they must have pre-sold many copies.

  35. Gustopher says:

    @Raoul: “Death recorded” seems pretty unambiguous. I don’t think that would have raised any red flags. The fact that we have seen ten thousand medical dramas where someone says “time of death recorded, 3:22am” makes it even harder to see it as anything but his death happened and was recorded.

    Might as well be “killed him good”.

    The fact that she didn’t check for information about the funerals — perhaps looking for a lovely eulogy, or how few people attended, or something — and then discover that it took place thirty years later… that’s kind of shocking. Or how they were killed, and whether there was any outcry at the time.

    There are lots of reasons this should have been caught, but “death recorded” isn’t one of them.

    I do wonder how that term came to be, and whether it was deliberately fraudulent to hide the lack of deaths from someone higher up who reviewed the records. A bit of judicial disobedience.

  36. DrDaveT says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    The narrator–a recently returned from the Raj English widow–describing someone as “looking like Mopsey”

    Any chance she meant (or was confusing Mopsey with) Mopsy, as in “Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter” from The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which was published in 1902?

  37. @Gustopher:

    There are lots of reasons this should have been caught, but “death recorded” isn’t one of them.

    I disagree. She should have done more research on the sentencing process and that would have revealed her error. Just looking to see other types of capital punishment would have helped. She clearly did an inadequate job of research in general.

  38. Kylopod says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Look at it this way at least you didn’t leave a Starbucks cup on a table while shooting a fantasy show set in a land with fire-breathing dragons.

    Even that’s not as simple as it sounds; a Starbucks cup wouldn’t be out of place in Harry Potter, even though there are fire-breathing dragons in it. I suppose what you’re trying to say is that it’s out of place in GoT’s “medieval” setting–except that GoT’s setting isn’t medieval. It’s a fantasy-type setting commonly known as a secondary world, defined as a setting that has no known or obvious connection to our world, that’s essentially an alternate universe. The lands and cultures in GoT are all completely imaginary, there’s no mention of any real countries like England or China or any known historical events, the world even has different physical geography from the Earth we know, including totally different landmasses. Westeros is somewhat like England in the Middle Ages but it isn’t actually the Middle Ages and even blatantly has some things that didn’t exist in the Middle Ages (such as telescopes). So it’s not a simple matter to criticize it for anachronisms, the way you could if it had a known historical setting like England 1162. I guess it comes down to self-consistency: whether it sticks by the rules it sets up. Everyone knows a paper cup doesn’t belong there, but that’s only because it was never established to belong there.

  39. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m not sure you really do disagree with me. In fact, I am willing to go into pedantics to support the following ridiculous claim: I disagree that you disagree with me.

    We’re both saying that had she done more research into how the sentences were carried out, what the reaction was at the time, what happened to the bodies, she would have found the error.

    It’s crappy research that would at best lead to a partial story of what happened (even had “death recorded” meant that the person was executed, I can’t imagine how boring this book is without those answers), and which led to missing the error.

    Or, are you actually saying that she should have researched every phrase that appeared to be plain, straightforward English, just in case something meant the exact opposite?

    Can a researcher ever do that with 100% accuracy? How would they know when to stop? Or do they spiral down into pondering what the meaning of the word “is” is?

    The number of domain experts who read her original thesis (at the very least her thesis advisor at Oxford) and didn’t bat an eye at it makes me think that she had reached some normal limit.

    The interviewer found this either by a quirk of knowing 1800s sentencing standards (we all have hobbies), or by trying to look up how people reacted at the time (or one of the other questions she didn’t bother to answer) — probably the latter.

    ——
    I pity the researchers a hundred years from now, looking at documents from the post-Thriller 1980s, and debating whether “bad” means bad or good.

  40. Mike says:

    The more I read about her, the more it seems the publisher should have done more due diligence on anything she writes. Plenty of prior red flags w her writings and claims. Opportunist not an academic

  41. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: Considering that the author was talking about a curly headed female, my guess would be no. Also, does anybody know what Mopsy Rabbit looked like?

  42. @Gustopher:

    Or, are you actually saying that she should have researched every phrase that appeared to be plain, straightforward English, just in case something meant the exact opposite?

    I actually am. I know from my own research that one can encounter phrases in the law and in constitutional texts that appear to have a plain meaning (and often one that confirms what I, the research, wanted it to mean), but that due to various factors may not actually mean what I thought it meant. (This is especially true for phrases in Spanish, but that is a different level problem).

    So, yes, I am saying that she should have researched that phrase in terms of its legal significance at the time before basing huge chunks of her argument around it.

    So, perhaps not every single phrase, but something as pivotal as the exact nature of a a key legal phrase? Yes, she should have researched it more. Not, by the way, because there was a chance that it meant the direct opposite of the plain English it seemed to be conveying, but because if she was going to base much of her argument on that finding, she should have made sure she fully understood it.

    Such research would have led to a realization that it had an opposite meaning than she thought it did.

    She found want she wanted to find and didn’t do the further work she should have.

  43. @Gustopher:

    The number of domain experts who read her original thesis (at the very least her thesis advisor at Oxford) and didn’t bat an eye at it makes me think that she had reached some normal limit.

    Either they failed to do their jobs, or because the committee did not have the appropriate experts on it. I don’t know enough about that part of the problem to know for sure.

  44. And, again: I sincerely feel for her as a human being. What happened to her was literally the stuff of nightmares.

    Still, she was sloppy with her work. Period.

  45. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Wolfe’s thesis advisor/reader, Dr Stefano Evangelista, wasn’t a domain expert in history full stop (he is an English Lit PhD). He is an expert on Victorian lit, with some historical contextualization (with a focus on sexuality (, but that is not the same thing.

    I haven’t found the makeup of Wolfe’s committee online, but I suspect there were no historians on it. My understanding is that isn’t uncommon in the UK/Oxbridge system.

    I would like to think that it would actually be less common in the US – at least for committees in the Social Sciences.

    Like you said, I feel awful for her, but the fact remains that if she or anyone is stalking a claim then they need to do the research into it (I just wish that more people than Wolfe were held to account about this… Again I am currently looking at you, Jared Diamond).

  46. @mattbernius: The committee was, therefore, clearly out of its depth and is a major part of the problem.

    Somehow I have managed not to be aware of Jared Diamond.

  47. mattbernius says:

    Side note, Matthew Sweet (PhD – not rocker), who caught the error, is a great and smart interviewer and writer (including doing a few wonderfully smart historial Dr Who audio dramas).

    I highly recommend his work.

  48. @mattbernius: Now that I know he wrote a number of Big Finish productions, I am especially impressed!

  49. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Here’s one account on Diamond. Honestly historians have been complaining about the wires of his works for years but no one picks up on them.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/17/books/review/upheaval-jared-diamond.html

    Yeah, based on my experiences with English and Comp-Lit, I tend to think that there are often domain knowledge issues with those committees that you don’t see in other disciplines.

  50. @mattbernius: Thanks for the Diamond lesson. Uf.

  51. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: He writes for Colin Baker really well. “Year of the Pig” is a batshit crazy salute to Proust.

    But as an American, my favorite is “Voyage to the New World” (with Jago and Lightfoot as companions). It’s Doctor Who does the lost Roanoke colony and it’s brilliant. Definitely worth renting/buying if you get the chance.

  52. @mattbernius: Good to know.

    I have to say, Big Finish has given me a much deeper appreciation of Six (and has confirmed that Seven wasn’t that great).

  53. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Agreed. Six is fully rehabilitated by the audios (apparently that was closer to the way Baker had wanted to play/evolve the character). It also helps that Baker honestly is actually a smart guy. So when they began to pair him with smarter writers, who could write to his strengths, a lot more nuance comes through. As someone who spent part of my graduate career done socio-cultutal linguistics “Ish…” is an absolute hoot to listen too.

  54. grumpy realist says:

    @Gustopher: Well, the very least Wolf should have done is gone to a specialist in Victorian law and said “hey, what does this phrase mean?”

    But noooo…..she found something that immediately slotted in with her prejudices and jumped to conclusions.

    (It’s not the original jumping to conclusions that gets me–it’s that she didn’t do anything to check her assumptions.)

  55. @mattbernius: “Ish…” was quite good.

  56. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Six was not well served by the writing of the series at the time, or the production, and I really struggle to find any episodes of his that aren’t a complete chore to sit through.

    I have a fondness for Seven, despite everything. Seven got a few decent stories towards the end, but production had somehow fallen to amateur levels and the acting was uniformly abysmal from every single actor (I assume they were recruited from a bus stop, and the director simply said “just read the lines and we can all go home”). He was pretty ok at the start of the Fox TV movie though.

    @mattbernius: I’ll have to hunt down Ish… — Colin Baker usually managed a few good moments in each of his stories.

  57. @Gustopher: Six was clearly not served well by TV at the time, nor was Seven, really.

    While I don’t dislike any of them, I do find that Big Finish has substantially increased my esteem for Six and really didn’t help Seven out all that much. Likewise, Five has gone down a little in my relative rankings.

  58. MarkedMan says:

    @mattbernius:

    Here’s one account on Diamond.

    I thought the link you posted reflected more negatively on the author than on Diamond, although I have to admit that the first couple of paragraphs struck me as so pompous I was looking to disagree with him. A lot of his examples really boiled down to the same thing: Diamond used hyperbole. “The whole nation accepted X” instead of a careful enunciation about the various people and groups that weren’t onboard with the national consensus. Sure, fault him for being hyperbolic and maybe even question whether the national consensus will actually hold, but don’t twitter-snark about how pathetically wrong is a comment that obviously wasn’t meant to be take as literal. And yes, the text should have been updated to mention that Singapore’s Yew had died in 2015, but since the era that Diamond appears to be discussing occurred decades before his death it wouldn’t seem to affect his point.

    Bottom line, the reviewer tries to make the case that Diamond is a shallow researcher and writer by writing a shallow and snarky review.

  59. mattbernius says:

    @Gustopher:
    In terms of TV, “Revelations of the Daleks” is considered to be the classic for 6 (and still one of the best of the series). Unfortunately some of the best scripts for him were jettisoned due to the revamp and the “Trial of a Timelord” story. “Vengeance on Varos” is also quite good (though marred by one of the worst examples of the Doctor intentionally and directly killing a baddie in the early series).

    In terms of Big Finish. if you haven’t listened to any, here are my personal suggestions for Six episodes (I’d listen to the first few before “ish…” as I think they’re more accessible):

    – “The Marian Conspiracy” — Probably the best example of a modern historical. It introduces one of the best Big Finish Companions — Professor Madeline Smythe. The chemistry between the two is just amazing and she brings out the best possible in Baker.

    – “Journey to the New World” — Mentioned above, Six is paired with Jago and Lightfoot from “The Talons of Weng Chiang.” Honestly, the Jago and Lightfoot spin-off is also an absolute delight (at least as far as I’ve gone through — it’s so fun to see the two journeymen actors play off each other and you can just tell that everyone is having fun… if that series interested you after listening to this immediately try “The Mahogany Murderers” which kicks it off).

    – “The Apocalypse Element” — One of the best Dalek stories recorded in my opinion. They are incredibly threatening and actually scary again. Plus it returns a key character from TOS.

    – “Davros” — Beyond being a legitimately good Davros story (which are honestly few and far between), it’s an amazing Davros story that doesn’t have the Daleks in it.

    – “Breaking Bubbles and Other Stories” – It’s 4, 1/2 hour stand alone episodes. The are just a lot of fun. There are two other collections of Six Doctor shorts (“100 and Other Stories” that has a really amazing meta salute to number 6 and a batshit crazy story involving an immortal Mozart, and “Recorded Time and Other Stories” which has a batshit crazy story involving a Jane Austin VR game gone wrong) are both great too.

    After that most of my recommendations for him start to look at the more… well… kind batshit crazy stories involving him (“The Holy Terror” — Six meets Monty Python with a whole lot of murder is
    a favorite of mine but a really acquired taste, “Year of the Pig” mentioned above, “The One Doctor” which you need to like British Pantomime to enjoy at all).

    Well this discussion really took a turn didn’t it?

  60. @mattbernius:

    Well this discussion really took a turn didn’t it?

    Indeed.

    It should be noted that a lot of the older Big Finish catalog is available on Spotify.

  61. mattbernius says:

    @MarkedMan:
    It was the first article that I had to hand. There have been numerous more rigorous past critiques of Diamond’s work. Here’s a good synopsis from the Inside of Higher Ed around Anthropology’s reaction to his earlier work:
    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2005/08/03/guns-germs-and-steel-reconsidered

    There have been a number of historical critiques about his work as well. Here’s an example of one: https://mises.org/library/diamond-fallacy

    Again, these might not be as immediately bad as Wolfe’s. But again it demonstrates what happens when supposed “polymaths” start doing scholarship in areas that are not where their primary training is.

  62. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It should be noted that a lot of the older Big Finish catalog is available on Spotify.

    YES! I totally forgot to mention that. Of the ones I recommended:

    – The Marian Conspiracy
    – Apocalypse Element
    – Davros
    – ish…
    &
    – Holy Terror

    Are all on Spotify (also “Whispers of Terror” which is quite good as well). The better 5th Doctor stuff unfortunately mostly comes after the Spotify material stops… I’m in general agreement about the 7th Doctor — however “Colditz” is worth a listen and on Spotify – especially since it’s a chance to hear a young David Tennent in Doctor Who years before getting cast as the 10th doctor).

    Just search “Doctor Who” (Spotify’s audiobook interface absolutely sucks).

    BTW, the first few seasons of Jago and Lightfoot are on Spotify Steven if you haven’t tried them (sadly not “The New World” but there are a couple of the Matthew Sweet written episodes online).

    And the “Lost Episodes” in particular “The Nightmare Faire” are great as well if you want the TV vibe but better.

  63. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It should be noted that a lot of the older Big Finish catalog is available on Spotify.

    That is great to know!

  64. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    In terms of TV, “Revelations of the Daleks” is considered to be the classic for 6 (and still one of the best of the series).

    With the DJ to the dead? I’ll grant that it is Six’s best story on TV, but… I don’t love it.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    While I don’t dislike any of them, I do find that Big Finish has substantially increased my esteem for Six and really didn’t help Seven out all that much. Likewise, Five has gone down a little in my relative rankings.

    Seven had a bit of slapstick going on, that might be helped by an audio drama. 😉 But the rolling of the “r”s might be worse.

    I’ve always been a huge fan of Five — I may be the only person who counts Black Orchid as a favorite episode, but I like that he can (and often does) fail.

  65. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius: Similar to the Diamond book, Sapiens by Yuval Noah made me feel like I was getting stupider reading it.

    All the things that I knew a lot about, I could see where he was getting all of the details and nuance wrong, and it made me very wary of all the wrong things I was learning about the things I didn’t know a lot about.

  66. mattbernius says:

    @Gustopher: it is the one with the DJ for the dead (played by one of the Young Ones ensamble).

    And wow Black Orchid… So much makes sense right now. Then the Big Finish “Circular Time and other stories” (short 5th Dr stories) is made for you (at least one of the stories). Sadly that one isn’t on Spotify.

  67. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius: What? Do you want your hero to win all the time? Or even be remotely effective?

    I honk it’s much more heroic to try to help people, fail sometimes, get discouraged, and keep trying despite being discouraged. That’s Five in a nutshell — his entire time as the Doctor is defined by all the people he didn’t save.

  68. @Gustopher: I don’t dislike any of them, because, after all, they are all the Doctor.

    Still, the BF work has elevated Six and not redeemed Seven as much as I would have expected. In other words, a lot of Six on TV can be totally blamed on bad writing and other factors. BF elevates him. A lot of McCoy’s deficiencies on TV (or, perhaps more accurately, limitations) are evidence in audio as well. I just find him limited.

    Five was a bit plain vanilla on TV and is such in audio. I like him, but he just isn’t a favorite.

    Four was “my Doctor” and I think his audios brilliantly recapture his era.

    The real revelation for me on audio has been Eight.

  69. mattbernius says:

    @Gustopher: Lol, I was just sassing. And if we are talking the fifth doctor, and losing, then I gotta think you have a soft spot for Earthshock.

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Without a doubt McGann’s audios are great and gives him a chance to really flesh out the character (as he only had the movie). It helps that he is probably the best actor out of all of them (Davison being the other). However the two Bakers are the better hams (which helps) — and I say that with both of them as my favorite Doctors.

    McCoy is to some degree hamstrung by the direction they took the character as the master manipulator and planner. That never worked with me and honestly based on what I know of the plans that the BBC team had for him and the character it was better that those stories never happened.

    On a different note, did either of you see “The five(ish) doctors?” It was a special produced around the fiftieth anniversary celebration about all of the previous doctor actors attempting to sneak into the filming of the 50th anniversary episode. Just great particular and pantomime and all of them having fun.

  70. @mattbernius: Earthshock is one of my favorite Five stories.

    Seven definitely suffered onscreen from the plans you allude to. I just was hopeful on audio he would excel as did Six.

    The Fivish Doctors was fantastic.

  71. DrDaveT says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Considering that the author was talking about a curly headed female, my guess would be no.

    Seems like a reasonable conclusion.

    Also, does anybody know what Mopsy Rabbit looked like?

    In fact we do, since Beatrix Potter was an illustrator as well. That said, all of the rabbits looked pretty much alike.

  72. DrDaveT says:

    @mattbernius:

    But again it demonstrates what happens when supposed “polymaths” start doing scholarship in areas that are not where their primary training is.

    So, I read the article you linked to at InsideHigherEd.com, and it just doesn’t support what you’re saying about Diamond. For one thing, it doesn’t assert that he got any facts wrong. The entire article is about people who wish he had answered a different question, or had focused on their preferred causal mechanisms instead of the ones he was looking at. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those arguments. (Despite the fact that Guns, Germs, and Steel was perhaps the worst-edited nonfiction book I’ve ever read; it should have been about 1/3 the length it was.)

  73. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius: Earthshock is there, but Warriors of the Deep is the one that always comes to mind — a victory, but one he is very uneasy with because there should have been a better way.

    I grew up with Four and Five on my local PBS, and even as a
    twelve year old, I liked that Five thought about the people he didn’t save. Four just wandered through, saved about the same percentage, and just never thought about it. I may have been an odd kid.

    Going back and watching now, the earlier Four episodes were just way better done, despite him being so aloof.

    Seven as plotter was … well, the toned down part of it we got was pretty good. Manipulative, and a touch deceptive. I think the full plan would have been terrible.

    @Steven L. Taylor: I do love Seven, despite the rolling “r” and the slapstick. His stories were uneven, and McCoy was not the best actor, and everything around him was a disaster, so he didn’t get a chance to live up to his potential. Or maybe his potential wasn’t that great. Ghostlight was fun.

    The only Doctor I actually don’t like is Thirteen. And I really want to like her, and hope they retool things a bit for her second series. She has sporadic good moments, but lots of meh. Lots of Doctors had weak periods, and a good story might make it all click for me. And if not, Fourteen will happen eventually. Hopefully not too soon, though, as I know she has her fans, and they deserve their Doctor.

    (Peter Capaldi was amazing, at least for me, but got relatively poor ratings. I’m happy to accept a few years of Jodi Witicker in trade)

  74. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius: I wish they had included Colin Baker in the fiftieth anniversary — yes, he’s old and fat and wouldn’t fit in the suit, but he also played a random security guard on Gallifrey in Five’s run… have him replay that role.

    Or a weird time bubble technobabble that lets all the remaining Doctors play their Doctors. Sure it would have been dumb, but it would have been dumb and fun.

  75. MarkedMan says:

    @mattbernius: In my view the Mises institute article gets the basic thrust of “guns, Germs, and Steel” 180 degrees wrong and then argues against that. They say

    Any attempt to explain the human past by reference to general laws or broad patterns is, in this view, a distinctly separate way of comprehending the past from that offered by history. Furthermore, any effort to discover such “laws of history” faces inherent obstacles that prevent it from achieving the sort of success that, for instance, physics has in describing universal laws of matter and energy.

    In fact Diamond’s work is not about general laws but rather the very specific geographical circumstances that lead to these outcomes. For example, the fact that very, very few species can be successfully domesticated and where they lived made a huge impact on the success of farming.

    And when they said the following:

    Thus it is geography, claims Diamond, and not greater inventiveness, a superior culture, or racial differences that is the “ultimate explanation” of why, for instance, Europeans came to rule the Americas rather than American Indians ruling Europe.

    It seems to me that the writer’s bias is that Europeans were superior to browner people and any work that challenges that must be wrong. Although he discusses Diamond’s point about domesticatable species, he just dismisses it out of hand.

  76. DrDaveT says:

    @MarkedMan:

    In fact Diamond’s work is not about general laws but rather the very specific geographical circumstances that lead to these outcomes.

    While I agree with you about the von Mises Institute’s objections being a long-winded version of “but this disagrees with our conclusions, and so must be wrong”, they do have a point about Diamond and general laws. Diamond says, for example:
    1. East-West expansion is easier than North-South expansion
    2. Having self-domesticating plants in your ecosystem helps enormously
    3. Having domesticable animals large enough to be beasts of burden in your ecosystem […]
    Etc.

    Those are, in fact, asserted general laws. However, any argument against them really ought to be on the evidence for whether they are true or not, not a bald assertion that “there are no general laws”, or that thinking in terms of general laws is not a proper way to understand history.

  77. MarkedMan says:

    @DrDaveT: Well said.

    For some reason one of the things that really stuck in my mind from GG&S was the story of the Zebra Domestication Project. Zebras resemble horses in so many ways it seems obvious they can be domesticated. In the Victorian era the British government funded a research institute to make the attempt. For a century they bred and trained and changed diet and tried everything they could think of to no avail. I have this mental image of these Victorian British scientists with massive muttonchop sideburns and pith helmets standing around puzzling over the zebras, and it just seems wonderfully bizarre.

    FWIW, Diamond speculates that what makes an animal domesticatable is that it lives it’s entire life as part of a group, and that group has a single alpha male or female that a human can take the place of.

  78. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: How does he explain cats, then? Of course, it may be that we’ve been interacting with them for so many years that we’ve ended up totally mucking with their original natural instincts to form a pack?

    However, considering that feral dogs (which we’ve been interacting with for far longer than cats) form packs but feral cats don’t seem to…..

  79. MarkedMan says:

    @grumpy realist: From a Smithsonian Magazine article

    Scientists say there is little that separates the average house cat (Felis Catus) from its wild brethren (Felis silvestris). There’s some debate over whether cats fit the definition of domesticated as it is commonly used, says Wes Warren, PhD, associate professor of genetics at The Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis.

    “We don’t think they are truly domesticated,” says Warren, who prefers to refer to cats as “semi-domesticated.”

    And, although there is a debate, Diamond is referring to animals that do useful work for people or will hang around docilely until we eat them. By this definition cats are more symbiotic. We feed them and they like to eat or kill the small pests that eat our crops.

  80. Gustopher says:

    @MarkedMan:

    And, although there is a debate, Diamond is referring to animals that do useful work for people or will hang around docilely until we eat them. By this definition cats are more symbiotic.

    By that definition, I think cats have domesticated humans.

    Further, I think all of the greatest accomplishments in human civilization came after cats domesticated us. Adaptations so we can serve them better.

  81. DrDaveT says:

    @Gustopher:

    By that definition, I think cats have domesticated humans.

    You beat me to it.