Tuesday, April 13, 2004

You Heard It Here First

Mark Liberman points me towards this New York Times article on the whole Lauren-Slater-liar debate. The Times does a decent job of outlining the untruthfulness charges, ranging from Deborah Skinner Buzan's argument that she is, in fact, neither dead nor psychotic, to Robert Spitzer's complaint that he is not, in fact, pleased that David Rosenhan is dying, to numerous people's complaints that Thomas Szasz's name is, in fact, spelled "Szasz."

They do a less good job of covering the gaps in Slater's intellectual argument, such as her apparent conviction that the important parts of the famous Rosenhan "pseudopatients" study happened in the ER, not on the wards. I suppose that's understandable, given that, for some reason, they haven't felt the need to bring in a psychological scientist to weigh Slater's claims. (The Times review of Opening Skinner's Box was written by philosopher Peter Singer.) And they don't get into the stupidly gratuitous sensationalism, as seen in this complaint from Elizabeth Loftus:
p. 196: Slater makes a point of the fact that "..by the end of the interview, I know not only Loftus's shoe size but her bra size too." The reason Slater knows that is that she explicitly asked me for each of those pieces of information. It makes me wonder what questions she asked of her other interviewees.
Predictably, these complaints are countered by Slater's proponents with annoying psychologese, turning the criticisms into evidence of the shaky mental health of the critics:
To Amy Banks, a psychiatrist who is the medical director for mental health at the Fenway Community Health Center in Boston, the hubbub shows the vulnerability many mental health professionals feel when faced with questions about the subjectivity of mental health diagnosis.
Maybe people do feel "vulnerable" when they're inaccurately described as having been tortured by their father into psychosis and suicide, or when they're misquoted as gloating over the broken, desperately ill bodies of their academic rivals. Maybe I'm pissed off at Lauren Slater myself because I have shaky professional self-esteem, and she's shown that the Otter Emperor Has No Clothes. Or maybe, you know, people get really angry when you lie about things that are important to them, and vulnerability doesn't have a thing to do with it.

But that's just my theory.

(It turns out, incidentally, that Deborah Skinner Buzan is suing Slater for libel - and in a British court (Buzan lives in London), where libel is much easier to prove than it is in the U.S. It will be interesting to see what the courts have to say about the "creative nonfiction" defense.)

Updated to add: Apparently, the Times article did mention Elizabeth Loftus's bra size, and I just missed it. Sorry.