Monday, June 25, 2007

Smithsonian mag cover: "Why Genealogy is Bunk"

Rick Sayre and others on the APG mailing list have discovered that the July 2007 issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an article (page 90) by Richard Conniff titled "The Family Tree, Pruned: Its lure is powerful - but genealogy is meaningless, relatively."

However, the cover of the magazine screams out "Why Genealogy is Bunk" ... a little editorial license, I think.

Rick Sayre summarizes the article as saying:

"Thru the selected discussion of controversies such as Roots, he attacks the credibility of genealogical research. His thesis seems to be that we are all in pursuit of famous ancestors, and that connection is irrelevant anyway since it only takes a few generations for our genetic linkage to our ancestors to be unidentifiable."

I have not read the article in question yet - and it is not yet available on the Smithsonian Magazine web site.

I recall that there was an article back in November 2006 by a British woman, Zoe Williams, titled "Ancestor worship" that questioned the motives, usefulness and veracity of genealogy research - along the same lines as Mr. Conniff. There are many interesting comments to Ms. Williams post on the newspaper web page. I blogged about this article here and here, and my fellow genea-bloggers had some interesting comments.

I imagine this will be a subject for several months on the APG and other mailing lists, in the genealogy magazines, and on the genealogy blogs. It's going to make wonderful blog fodder. And the letters to the editor of the magazine should be interesting.

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UPDATE 6/26, 9 AM: I had a comment from "Richard," who says he is Richard Conniff (and I believe that it is him), concerning my post. For the benefit of my readers, here it is (between the dashed lines):

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Gee, I guess you don't realize that accusing a writer of plagiarizing someone else's work is deadly serious business in the real world of journalism.

But to do so when you are too cheap to go the bookstore, or too lazy to go the library, and actually read the Smithsonian magazine article you suggest is plagiarized, demonstrates reckless indifference to truth.

You are apparently making this accusation purely out of malice, because you hold a different point of view about genealogy.

So, as the author of the Smithsonian article, let me assure you that I have never read or even heard of the article you accuse me of plagiarizing. So now you are publishing knowingly false information.

And, bingo, the combination of reckless indifference, malice, and knowingly false information meets the Supreme Court definition of libel, for which I am entitled to seek compensation.

But a simple retraction and apology would be a good start.

You should also know that scanning the article for publication on your blog would be a violation of copyright law.
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To address his points:

1) I wrote my blog post on Sunday, and read the article on Monday at the library. I did not comment on the article contents, only the fact that it was published. Hardly "reckless indifference to truth."

2) I have no malice for anyone who obeys the law and doesn't threaten my life or family. I do have an emotional reaction when someone criticizes my vocation and that of respected professional genealogists. I have no malice for Mr. Conniff or even other journalists.

3) The one paragraph in my post that suggested Mr. Conniff might have taken information from another article was speculation on my part. I used the word "if". My bad.

4) After comparing the two articles, I can positively say that Mr. Conniff did not plagiarize or poach Ms. Williams article.

5) Therefore, I do retract my comment about Mr. Conniff's possibly "poaching" from Ms. Williams' article and apologize to him for writing and posting it. I have deleted the lines from the blog post.

6) I am aware of the "fair use" and copyright provisions of the law, and did not and do not post scans on my blog that would violate those laws.
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For those curious about Mr. Conniff's work, there is a good summary at http://leighbureau.com/speaker.asp?id=321. One of his books is "The Ape in the Corner Office." He sounds like an interesting and funny writer and speaker.

When someone makes a mistake, you hope that they learn something from the mistake. Needless to say, I have learned from this experience. Blogging is so "instant" and is usually done without editors (or wiser or cooler heads). I own what I say and write, and all bloggers need to be aware of that ownership. I imagine that is why so few professional genealogists have blogs and express opinions about genealogy issues.

Criticism of journalistic content has a place in blogging and I hope that genea-bloggers will post their reactions to Mr. Conniff's article as time and interest permits.

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UPDATE 6/26, 1 PM: I have deleted the two sentences from my original post that Mr. Conniff thought were libelous. The archived post should not contain the two sentences.

After reading Footnote Maven's comment, it behooves each blogger to understand the legal issues involved. "Malice" of a personal nature apparently does not equal "legal" malice. Another lesson learned! Thanks fM!

7 comments:

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Toby Petzold said...

I look forward to reading Conniff's article. Thanks for posting on it.

Richard said...

Gee, I guess you don't realize that accusing a writer of plagiarizing someone else's work is deadly serious business in the real world of journalism.

But to do so when you are too cheap to go the bookstore, or too lazy to go the library, and actually read the Smithsonian magazine article you suggest is plagiarized, demonstrates reckless indifference to truth.

You are apparently making this accusation purely out of malice, because you hold a different point of view about genealogy.

So, as the author of the Smithsonian article, let me assure you that I have never read or even heard of the article you accuse me of plagiarizing. So now you are publishing knowingly false information.

And, bingo, the combination of reckless indifference, malice, and knowingly false information meets the Supreme Court definition of libel, for which I am entitled to seek compensation.

But a simple retraction and apology would be a good start.

You should also know that scanning the article for publication on your blog would be a violation of copyright law.

The footnoteMaven said...

I enjoy your blog very much and I am sure this has turned out to be a very uncomfortable posting. It does, however, point out important issues for us to understand and remember as bloggers. It is to your credit that you have aired them.

I will offer no opinion as to whether what was posted regarding Mr. Conniff was libelous. It would only be my opinion on what is a legal matter. I do have two observations that as bloggers we need to fully understand.

You and Mr. Conniff are talking about two different forms of malice. The type of malice you are defending is that of ill-will which is not the legal standard used for malice in a libel action. That standard is knowing that the statement was false or acting in reckless disregard of the statement's truth or falsity. A distinction we need to understand.

It should also be noted that publishing a false statement occurs every time it is repeated. Even if you are not the originator of a libelous statement, by repeating it - you are publishing it.

Very thought provoking, Randy. Thank you for allowing us to learn from your lessons. Warts and all.

fM

Dana said...

Wow. You really ticked him off! It's a little sad he had to go ad hominem in order to register his disagreement, however. Kudos to you for not responding in kind and for the apology and retraction.

marion said...

Um, accusing a writer of plagiarism is about as ad hominem as it gets, Dana. I hope Randy has learned that accusations of that nature can't be thrown around lightly -- for example, without even reading the article. No kudos for an apology that basic decency, and Randy's own integrity, demanded.

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