Selective Quotation in the Sydnor Paper

by on April 30, 2008 · 34 comments

Julian didn’t like Tom Sydnor’s paper on Lessig either. In particular, he went back and looked up the sections in Code in which Lessig ostensibly expressed sympathy for Communism. Here’s the rest of the story:

We learn that Lessig wrote, in the first edition of his book Code, of his “impulse to sympathize” with those on the left who are “radically skeptical” about using property rights in personal information to protect privacy. We do not learn that the long quotation that follows is Lessig’s summary of an anti-market view of which he declares himself “not convinced.” (Lessig originally endorsed a property right in personal data; he has since altered his view, and now supports treating Web sites’ privacy policies as binding contracts.)

Sydnor similarly presents selective quotations from a passage in Code where Lessig describes his impression of life in communist Vietnam as surprisingly free and unregulated in certain respects. Lessig’s point is that despite a formal ideology of state omnipotence, the lack of an effective architecture of control leaves many ordinary Vietnamese relatively unfettered in their day-to-day interactions; institutional structure often determines reality more powerfully than official philosophy. Possibly Lessig is mistaken about modern Vietnamese life, but Sydnor, in what seems like a willful misreading, deploys the anecdote to depict Lessig as a disciple of Ho Chi Minh.

And of course yesterday Mike pointed out that Lessig’s point about property rights and DDT wasn’t as outrageous as Tom seemed to think. These examples strikes me as a serious problem. One of the basic obligations of any scholar is to present one’s opponents’ quotes fairly and in context. If a scholar writes “I’m sympathetic to view X, but ultimately I find the arguments for it unconvincing,” it’s extremely misleading for someone to quote the first half of the sentence without mentioning the second half.

Likewise, Julian suggests that Tom’s summary of Fisher’s proposal leaves something to be desired:

Fisher’s proposal entails determining the appropriate level of compensation for creators whose works are pirated by using digital watermarks to assess the prevalence of different songs and movies on file-sharing networks. This, Sydnor writes, would introduce a “literally Orwellian” system of surveillance, allowing the government to “monitor everything that you watch, hear, read or do.” But Lessig says the only “monitoring” he has in mind is a form of statistical sampling, which would no more require tracking of each individual’s consumption than “Nielsen requires you to monitor everyone’s viewing.”

The reader of any scholarly paper is to some extent at the author’s mercy concerning the accuracy of the other work that paper discusses and criticizes. The reader will rarely have the time, and should not be expected, to read the source material to make sure it’s being characterized accurately. So it’s extremely troubling that Julian was able to find multiple examples of blatant misrepresentations of Lessig’s work within 48 hours of the paper’s release. Future readers could be forgiven for wondering how many other cases of selective and misleading quotation might be lurking in the paper, and whether it’s worth reading a paper whose every quotation has to be taken with an enormous lump of salt.

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