A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a phenomena I had started seeing that I ended up dubbing premature expostulation. I defined this phenomena as “The act of claiming definitively that a person, group or media outlet has not reported on, responded to or comment on an event or topic, without first establishing whether or not this is true. ” Since writing that post, I have been seeing mention of a related phenomena that I felt was distinct enough to merit its own term. In this version, you actually have checked to see what various sources say, enough that you cite them directly, but you misrepresent what they actually say anyway. More formally, we have:
Misreprecitation: The act of directly citing a piece of work to support your argument, when even a cursory reading of the original work shows it does not actually support your argument.
Now this does not necessarily have to be done with nefarious motives, but it is hard to think of a scenario in which this isn’t incredibly sketchy. Where premature expostulation is mostly due to knee jerk reactions, vagueness and a failure to do basic fact checking, misreprecitation requires a bit more thought and planning. In some cases it appears to be a pretty direct attempt to mislead, in others it may be due to copying someone else’s interpretation without checking it out yourself, but its never good for your argument.
Need some examples? Let’s go!
The example that actually made me think of this was the recent kerfluffle over Nancy MacLean’s book “Democracy in Chains”. Initially met by praise as a leftist take down of right wing economic thought, the book quickly got embroiled in controversy when (as far as I can tell) actual right wing thinkers started reading it. At that point several of them who were familiar with the source material noted that quotes were chopped up in ways that dramatically changed the meaning, and other contextual problems. You can read a pretty comprehensive list of issues here, and overview of the problems and links to all the various responses here, and Vox’s (none to flattering) take here. None of it makes MacLean look particularly good, most specifically because this was supposed to be a scholarly work. When your citations are your strong point, your citations better be correct.
I’ve also seen this happen quite a bit with books that endorse popular diets. Carbsane put together a list of issues in the citations of the low carb book “Big Fat Surprise”, and others have found issues with vegan promoting books. While some of these seem to be differences in interpretation of evidence, some are a little sketchier. Now, as with premature expostulation, some of these issues don’t change the fundamental point….but some do. Overall a citation avalanche is no good if it turns out you had to tweak the truth to get there.
I think there’s three things that cause a particularly fertile breeding ground for misreprecitation: 1) an audience who is sympathetic to your conclusions and 2) an audience who is unlikely to be familiar with the source documents 3) difficulty accessing source documents. That last point may be why books are particularly prone to this error, since you’d have to actually put the book down and go look up a reference. This also may be a case where blogs have the accuracy advantage due to being so public. I know plenty of people who read blogs they don’t agree with, but I know fewer who would buy a whole book dedicated to discrediting their ideas. That increases the chances that no critical person will read your book, they have less recourse once they do read it (notes in the margin aren’t as good as a comments section), and it’s harder for anyone to fact check. Not saying bloggers can’t do it, just thinking they’d be called on it faster.
Overall it’s a pretty ridiculous little trick, as the entire point of citing others work should be to strengthen your argument. In the best case scenario, people could be confused because they misread/failed to understand/copied an interpenetration of the work they read someone else make. In the worst case scenario, they know what they are doing and are counting on their in-group not actually checking their work. Regardless, it needed a name, and now it has one.