I was recently following up references in two different books, trying to track down the text of the Austro–Hungary Japan Treaty of 1869 – I know, some people have funny hobbies. Both referred to a collection published by the Japanese Foreign Ministry in 1899.
But when I tracked this down online, I found that it only dealt with treaties that were then currently in force, and the 1869 treaty, like all the other “unequal treaties”, had just been superseded. Carelessness or dishonesty? Then I checked again and the mistake was mine: while there was some ambiguity in one of the footnotes, I had misread the date in the other.
Failing eyesight, perhaps, but in any case, I have long accepted that even the best scholars make mistakes, most of which are trivial and do not affect the main thrust of their work. Even if I had been right, I would not have dreamed of pursuing the issue publicly.
So why raise the matter? Readers of NK News might be aware of a recent spat in the Korean studies world over a book by Charles Armstrong, a distinguished professor of history at Columbia University. In Tyranny of the Weak, he sets out to explain how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – North Korea) has managed to survive in a hostile world and how it has weathered the many storms that have beset it since it was established in 1948. The subject is important and the book is well written.
For three years after its publication, there was no problem. Like Armstrong’s other works, Tyranny received good reviews and was endorsed by prominent scholars.
But then a posting on a Korean Studies forum drew attention to what were alleged to be serious faults. The posting came, not from the person who had compiled a list of the faults, but from another academic. Others joined in, including Andrei Lankov, who wrote an opinion piece for NK News condemning the book.
What’s not up for debate is the fact there was undoubtedly an issue. It appears that the citations in a number of footnotes did not, in fact, support the information given, and some passages bore a strong resemblance to another author’s work; the latter was listed in the bibliography but not cited in the footnotes.
Some commentators’ high moral indignation was way over the top
Doubts were cast on the author’s ability to use some of the foreign language material that he had said he had consulted. (One should note that he acknowledged the work of research assistants, who, although Armstrong does not say so, may not have been fully conversant with the material on which they were working.)
Armstrong has admitted that there are problems with some references and attributions and has said that they will be corrected. He also pointed out that while mistakes and error were regrettable, nobody had claimed that they had a bearing on the book’s central theme, which none of his attackers has challenged.
THE COMMUNITY REACTS
Some commentators’ high moral indignation was way over the top. If it was not potentially damaging, it might have been laughable. But there was also a savage edge to some posts, more akin to the nastier aspects of social media exchanges than to what one might hope for in scholarly debate.
In these exchanges, the speed with which comments can appear and the usual lack of editorial control means that the checks and balances that operate within a traditional book review – hitherto the place to draw attention to a book’s defects – no longer apply.
I am sure that as much damage has been done by the ill–tempered comments as by their ostensible cause
And it shows. Protests at the tone – I made a low–key one – were met with responses that boiled down to “If we cannot attack Professor Armstrong here, where can we attack him?”, as though ad hominem attacks were a perfectly legitimate scholarly weapon. In the end, the Korean Studies’ convenors ended the exchanges.
Was this, as Andrei Lankov claimed in his opinion column, something that struck a severe blow at the “entire Korean studies; community”?
I am sure that as much damage has been done by the ill–tempered comments as by their ostensible cause. In any case, any idea of the academic world being as pure as the driven snow is scarcely supported by the facts.
Plenty of examples exist of the falsifying of evidence, whether it be to prove the value of intelligence tests or to get the “right” medical results. Historians are notorious for scrapping amongst themselves. One highly regarded British historian was found to be writing anonymous positive reviews of his own books and highly negative ones of other scholars in the field.
Many, to use the words quoted in a recent review of a book about Hugh Trevor–Roper (Regius Professor of History at Oxford, who endorsed the forged Hitler diaries, for those who have forgotten), have favored “historical imagination” over “mere antiquarianism” – I suspect that meant footnotes.
That seems to mean that you make it up if you do not know what happened or cannot, for the moment, find the evidence. According to Trevor–Roper, “…one should try to be right…but we all make mistakes, and they don’t matter much. Time and the normal processes of scholarship will correct them”.
No doubt a somewhat self–serving comment, but nevertheless a valuable one to bear in mind when criticizing others.
Image credit: Korea Society, cropped from Youtube
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