A Painful Lesson to Learn

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It’s one of a writer’s worst nightmares: a serious error in a published text. All writers make mistakes—an occasional typo, a transposed date, the conflation of two similar individuals or events. This is part of the reason for outside readers and editors—to alert the author to the presence of accidental errors that would tarnish an otherwise cogent argument or a compelling story. Editors are often in the shadows but should not be overlooked, for they have saved many a writer from needless embarrassment.

What about a published work that is filled with factual errors? To be sure, some works are by their very nature prone to more errors than others. Works of an encyclopedic nature, especially if only one author does the writing, are bound to contain some factual infelicities. Works of history are especially susceptible. Dates can be tricky to keep straight, particularly when the author is recounting multiple story lines that intersect or overlap. The facts may be vague or may (and often do) vary from one primary source to another. Attention to detail may make the difference between a first-rate history and a mediocre presentation; even then, factual errors may slip through the editorial process. I recently wrote an essay about Squire Boone, brother to the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone. Squire has long been considered the first Baptist preacher in the state of Kentucky. I am convinced that not only was Squire not a preacher—he wasn’t even a Baptist! Yet I can point to literally dozens of sources that list him as a Baptist minister. The error seems to have crept into the Boone history because Squire Jr. (Daniel’s father was also named Squire) has been confused in the historical record with his nephew, a third Boone named Squire who was, in fact, a Baptist minister in Kentucky. A whole historical tradition has been perpetuated for 150 years that Squire Boone, Jr. was a Baptist minister, but this seems highly unlikely. Because it is easy to perpetuate error in the writing of history, it is incumbent upon the writer to work tirelessly to ensure accuracy of factual detail. Failure to do so may result in disgrace and even pecuniary loss.

All of this has been brought sharply to the evangelical world’s attention in recent days by a review of an InterVarsity Press book entitled The Roots of Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture by Gillian R. Evans. Carl Trueman hoped to add this title to his textbook selection for his Reformation classes at Westminster. He discovered, however, that the book had some serious defects—a grocery list of them. To be sure, some of the errors may simply have been typos that a sleepy editor missed, but other errors Trueman identified were more substantial. Trueman reviewed the book and concluded that the sheer number and kinds of errors he had identified from an initial reading of one half of the text (the first 250 pages of text Trueman felt unqualified to evaluate, as it covered material outside his area of academic expertise) made the book a liability as a class textbook. He published his review in May and the net effect was that IVP chose last week to pull the book from distribution, promising a corrected second edition by August in time for use as a textbook. Anyone who had already purchased the first edition would be given a complimentary, corrected edition by the publisher.

Carl Trueman is to be thanked for his careful work in reviewing the book, although it has proven to be an embarrassment to both the author and the publisher. IVP has also done the right thing in withdrawing the book from publication—right up to a point. In issuing its statement of withdrawal, IVP chose to stand by the value of the book despite its weak initial presentation. Here’s the problem with what has happened, from my perspective as a history professor and writer—why I think IVP may not have gone far enough.

First, the initial publication casts serious doubt on the author as a historian, no matter what others may say. Not being a medievalist, I am unacquainted with Evans’s other work, but given the seriousness of the errors that would cause the book to be withdrawn from publication, how can I, as a professor, be sure that the next edition will be any better? The author is at the end of a long career. One would not expect these kinds of errors from a seasoned veteran of the academic world. Moreover, when I choose a book outside my own discipline (Baptist history), I look for authors with a proven track record of publication. This is bound to tarnish Evans’s reputation, as she alone is ultimately responsible for the content of the book that bears her name. Unless the editors changed the text to introduce the errors, which doesn’t seem plausible, at least some of the errors identified by Trueman cannot possibly be considered merely typographic. So what should they be called?

Second, this story also presents a serious integrity issue for the world of evangelical scholarship. When a scholar endorses a book, it is reasonable to expect that he has at least handled the book and read major portions of it before putting his or her name on it, although Tim Challies has suggested that “the dirty little secret” is that this is often not the case. It seems to me that Drs. Packer and George, et al., bear some of the embarrassment for this situation. Had they given the book a careful perusal, they might have spared Evans and themselves (and ultimately IVP) the substantial embarrassment that its publication has produced. Apparently, attention to the text was not given by any of those who endorsed it. Would the endorsers knowingly approve a book filled with errors? The conclusion seems to be that either they did not take the time to read the text or they are ultimately not qualified to render judgment on the text. So if the endorsement came simply because of Evans’s alleged credibility, I wonder if that endorsement was justified. The book was said to be “erudite yet accessible,” “a superb book,” and “the best of its kind currently available.” It boggles the mind to wonder how these accolades could have been possible for a book that has been subsequently withdrawn from publication. The reviews were still up on the IVP website at the time of this writing, nearly one week after the book had been withdrawn from publication, so it seems that IVP is standing by both the reviewers’ work and Evans’s scholarship.

Of course, it is possible to conclude that these errors are really minor and that Carl Trueman overreacted. IVP apparently doesn’t think so, as they have withdrawn the book from publication, doubtless a very expensive response. This is a very important story and lesson for our Christian academic world: credibility is all we have. Carl Trueman has, by his honest and forthright review, challenged us all to be more diligent about accuracy in our work and credibility in our reviews. The irony of this whole discussion may actually arise from one of the comments a reviewer made. The reviewer spoke of the “pedagogic” value the book would have. No matter what else may be said, there is a great lesson to be learned from this book. I doubt if this lesson was the one which either the author or the publisher envisioned.

Psalm 121
John Barnard (1681-1770)

1. If to the Hills I lift mine Eyes,
From whence should come mine Aid?
2. My Help doth from Jehovah come;
Who Heav’n, and Earth, hath made.
3. He’ll keep thy Feet from dang’rous Falls;
Thy Guardian never sleeps.
4. Nor Sleep, nor Slumber, touch the Eyes,
Of him that Isr’el keeps.

5. The Lord’s thy Keeper, he, thy Shade,
Stands by thee on thy Right;
6. Lest scorching Sun offend by Day;
Or Moon’s cold Damps by Night.
7. The Lord shall keep thee from all Harms;
Preserve thy Soul from Ill.
8. Thy going out; and coming in,
Keeps now, and ever will.

[node:bio/jeff-straub body]

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There are 3 Comments

CPHurst's picture

I do a lot of book reviews myself (though my opinion matters little) and the ethics of book reviewing is something that has been on my mind a lot. If I wanted to I could get a book, peruse through it for basic content and then write a review. Some people are very good at skimming and writing a review that make it look like they read the whole thing page for page and word for word.

I am the kind of person who feels obligated to read page for page at minimum even if I do skim over some sentences or paragraphs because I am already familiar with the content or the authors view at that point. Not all books have to be read the same in order to know the content but one must be careful when reviewing the book if they know their opinion carries weight.

It seems to me that one could review a book without reading word for word and retain their integrity as long as they state it up front. "Hey, I just perused through this book or I only ready select chapters." I have done this before.

Endorsements seem to carry more weight than reviews unless we are talking about a popular reviewer like Tim Challies or Carl Trueman whose opinion will sway the masses and is equal to an endorsement that just didn't make it to the back of the book cover.

DavidO's picture

If I think I should attribute something, but don't want to take the time, I usually just say, "Like my old friend Joe Biden used to say . . ."

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

IMO, we should be very careful about transferring trust from one person to another. And that is the purpose of endorsements- "You can trust Dr. Snodgrass because Dr. Wheezer trusts Dr. Snodgrass." Well, how do I know what process or situation caused Dr. Wheezer to trust Dr. Snodgrass? Maybe Dr. Wheezer trusts Dr. Snodgrass because Dr. Doright trusts Dr. Snodgrass, and Dr. Wheezer trusts Dr. Doright.

A transfer of trust is also somewhat of a transfer of responsibility. I don't have to do my own studying, because a 'professional' did it for me. That can be dangerous. Job 32:9 Great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment.

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