Using Others’ Bias

Tom Lee recently posted an apologia for Malcolm Gladwell’s alleged plagiarism. He’s moved by a sense of unfairness about the allegations:

There are good reasons to consider plagiarism bad. Enforcing rules of fair play within the writing professions makes sense as an economic necessity. But proof of copying is not proof of deprivation. Adding a moral dimension to the prosecution of victimless crimes requires an unpleasant meanness of spirit.

Maybe. I agree that plagiarism isn’t a capital crime, and doesn’t forever doom the plagiarist. But Tom claims plagiarism (or sloppy attribution or negligent annotation, as you like) is a victimless crime, which just isn’t true.

Tom claims that facts belong to everyone, not a specific person, and so attributing them to individuals is problematic. He also mounts an argument for a statute of limitations on attribution; once the original author can no longer profit from their work, there’s no reason to provide them credit.

These arguments make sense if you squint, and attend only to a sense of fair play between authors. He’s right that I don’t particularly care if some long-dead author is credited for some bundle of facts, and the author’s estate probably doesn’t, either. The problem is that the experience of the reader is missing from the calculation completely.

When the process is complete–when the tunnel is done, its specifics related, its chronicler dead–we can drop the pretense.

But facts aren’t fixed, even after the chronicler dies. They’re subject to bias and bad intent. They can be revised over time. Because of this, the provenance of a particular bundle of facts – no matter how trivial – can matter a great deal. That’s not pretense. Tom’s claim that facts don’t belong to individuals is, in this sense, completely wrong. Facts belong only to individuals, and the source of a set of facts is just as important as the facts themselves.

This is why attribution is important. This is goes double when the work is analytic or critical, as we could generously claim in Gladwell’s case. If we’re to make inference or reach conclusions based on data, attribution isn’t just professional courtesy, it’s essential to our understanding of the material. Without that provenance, the data isn’t falsifiable, and that has dire consequences.

So we can and should open our hearts to a plagiarist Gladwell, overlooking his vanity and sloth, but shouldn’t kid ourselves about the importance of proper attribution. Even with a project complete, even with an author dead, we do readers a disservice when we pretend that facts are immutable communal property. They belong to someone, and we deserve to know who they are.