Three articles that I read this weekend point out to me that we have framed this issue of errors in NF incorrectly. The Sunday Times ran a marvelous essay on the question of whether cell phone uses causes brain cancer: http://tinyurl.com/3gy3oob The highly readable and thoughtful article shows the many, many ways scientists have gone about trying to determine whether cell phones are in any way responsible for brain cancer. As soon becomes clear, then, the article is as much about the challenges in searching for definitive ways to answer that question as it is about cell phones. We see how difficult it is to trace cause and effect relationships — for one thing, our memory fails us. Women who developed cancer, we read, reported that they ate unusually large amounts of fatty foods — a clear cause and effect in their minds. But when their memories were compared with food logs, it turned out their diets had not been significantly different from women who did not get cancer. So we seek logical explanations, even in memory, even where there may not be any.
By contrast, the Times ran this article on Friday: http://tinyurl.com/3zs8g36 the most fascinating study that strongly suggests we can determine where human language was invented, and how it spread across the planet. It seems that language began were modern humans did: in Southern Africa. The study is based on the idea that language became less complex in its use of phonemes — the basic sounds of language — as it spreads. The languages that have the most complex phonemes are the Khoisan click languages of southern Africa. One may speculate (though the author of the study explicity does not) that the earliest languages immitated the sounds of nature — not as words, such as “tiger” but more as direct identification of the sounds of one particular animal in one particular place — sound serving to emulate nature, then eventually shifting from mimicking to creating categories and thus communicating more general information. The larger point this article raised is how we may be able to trace information lost thousands of years ago at the beginning of human evolution.
The third article is the 60 Minutes expose which raises questions about the Three Cups of Tea story (including the kids book versions). http://tinyurl.com/3h4xxyp The point here is that a story that may be compelling, heart-warming, inspiring, is not necessarily true.
I think these three instances are important because they get to the heart of the problem for a person reviewing a NF book for younger readers. The reviewer is not likely to know the field in the depth of the author of the Cancer-Cell Phone author (a professor at Columbia). So how can she tell whether a book has been as fair to the evidence as the Times piece? How can she know when a new and seemingly too good to be true theory (as the one on the origins of language) is seen as plausible? How can she know when a story we all want to believe, may have been tailored precisely to make us feel that way? The most important thing is for reviewers to recognize that the kind of NF we are writing is likely to extend past what they already know. So how can they judge — and judge for others — when they don’t know the content? I would love to see a reviewers panel at, say, ALA discuss this. We can agree that reviewers can judge language, expression, format, design. They can check for sources, citations, and indications that the book was read by experts (although of course the fact that an expert read a book is no indication of what s/he said about it, or whether the author made use of those comments, or where that expert stands in the galaxy of potential expert readers). But what about the facts, ideas, and interpretations presented in the book? What is the proper filter for those? Myra mentioned Appraisal – but what can the other journals do? Ideas?