Review: Unnatural Selection, Mara Hvistendahl; or, Trusting nonfiction authors

If you don’t care about Unnatural Selection in particular but you are interested in the question of trust/mistrust of nonfiction authors in general, scroll down to here, which is where I stop talking about Unnatural Selection. Because I just figured out how to hyperlink to places in my own post. What what. Technology.

Unnatural Selection is a book about how widespread access to abortion in many developing nations has led to a crisis in sex-selective abortion, where the ratio of boys born to girls born — a necessary constant because nobody wins in a sex-skewed society — shifts well out of what would be the biological norm. What ends up happening if parents overwhelmingly select for male fetuses is, eventually, a whole bunch of men with no women to marry. Again, nobody wins when this is the case. The men do not win and the women really, really, really do not win.

There are parts of the history of this phenomenon that are straightforwardly morally wrong. When the West decided to make foreign aid to developing nations dependent on reducing the birth rate, it should not have pushed abortion above contraception education and supply on its list of priorities. Because duh. But other things are less straightforward. If you believe women should have access to abortion, it’s tricky to say “You can do it for X reason but not for Y reason.” It is a slippery slope to do that. Also that people can lie. On the other hand, even if you believe that any individual woman has the right to an abortion she wants to have, you nevertheless do not want the global crisis of missing girls that results from many, many women making the decision to abort female fetuses.

See how it is tricky? It is so tricky! I do not have a good solution for policy-makers, but I am glad that people are writing books about this thorny human issue. And Mara Hvistendahl is careful not to make grand pronouncements on the morality of the players in this crisis; she delineates the cultural influences behind what is happening (America really, really wanted to reduce the birth rate in Communist countries during the Cold War; parents in many of the countries with this problem are depending on a son to grow up and take care of them in their old age). So that was really good. She doesn’t point fingers, she doesn’t overgeneralize, and she does a good job breaking down complicated issues in a way that’s readable and understandable.

Okay.

BUT.

Whenever I start reading a nonfiction book, I check the references pretty exhaustively at the outset. If the endnotes tend to contain interesting further information, I keep checking the references all the way through. If the endnotes provide citations to sources that seem suspect, I keep checking the references until I finish the book or get fed up with all the shady citations (usually the latter). If the endnotes cite non-shady sources and are boring, I stop after the first chapter or two. Unnatural Selection was a non-extreme example of the second case. There weren’t many citations that I outright distrusted, but a number of citations (the largeness of this number varied wildly from section to section, and in some chapters it was nonexistent) where I thought, “Surely you could have gotten a better source than that.” At one point she cites Malcolm Gladwell to back up a point she wants to make about an international trend. (That being an example of a source I outright distrusted.)

So here are two examples of what I mean:

Sentence: The matchmakers lining the streets of Ruili, along Yunnan’s border with Myanmar, tout Burmese girls as a bargain: half price!
Citation: Keith B. Richburg, “Chinese Border Town Emerges as New Front Line in Fight Against Human Trafficking,” Washington Post, December 26, 2009

Sentence: Donning magenta saris, the women band together into gulabi, or pink, gangs and brandish clubs against offending men.
Citation: Soutik Biswas, “India’s ‘Pink’ Vigilante Women,” BBC News, November 26, 2007

It’s not that I wouldn’t trust these articles if I read them in the wild. I would. I do! I am sure the Washington Post and the BBC did their homework, and that their reports of these occurrences are reliable. It just felt like there must be some better source for Hvistendahl to give. I felt like, if you are going to pick out a horrifying detail (women on sale for half price), it should be your own original horrifying detail, not somebody else’s; and if you are going to talk about an emerging trend (gangs of women going about bashing harassers with clubs), you should cite something that can speak to the long-term existence of this trend.

There was also this thing in the chapter about History where she cited a book about sex selection in history to back up a claim she made about the way the Roman Empire treated women. Again, I don’t not trust her source. I just think that if you are going to cite a book as support of your claims about history, the book should have been written by someone whose entire job it is to know Facts from History. Not someone who has a dog in the fight you’re fighting.

I get that Hvistendahl isn’t a researcher; she’s a journalist. She cites like a journalist and not like a researcher. But still I was left with a lingering, pervasive feeling of unease. There was no specific claim Hvistendahl made that I felt sure was factually wrong (leaving out one remark about the demographics of American women who get abortions, but that information is spottily collected so she gets a pass on that, I guess), but altogether I felt that I should take everything with a very large grain of salt. Or several grains of salt.

Wildly skewed gender ratios is an important international issue, and I picked up this book with the final goal — the same final goal I nearly always have when I pick up a nonfiction book! — of being able to speak sensibly about sex-selective abortion and the problems it presents the global community. Which I now can probably do, but maybe not? Even though I think it’s perfectly likely that (most of) Hvistendahl’s claims are reasonable and accurate, because now, I don’t feel confident that I can trust her sources. So if I am ever in a conversation about sex-selective abortions and I’m repeating a claim I learned from this book, I’ll have to make some qualifying remark about reliability.

This has made me think some thoughts about trusting nonfiction authors. When I was in high school, I read two of Malcolm Gladwell’s books and thought they were pretty good; but what I’ve noticed more recently is that his arguments don’t reeeeeally hang together. What he’s good at — and I’ll be the first to say he’s very good at it — is constructing a compelling narrative, and when someone’s good at that it’s easy to cut them a lot of slack in other areas. I’d like to say that I started noticing this about Malcolm Gladwell because I am a clever critical thinker, but the truth is that I started noticing it because I loathed the narrative presented in one of his essays (this one here), and I started picking the argument apart and finding it sorely wanting. And it turns out that once you have done this to any single Malcolm Gladwell piece, you can’t stop doing it to all the Malcolm Gladwell pieces. Because he is not that good at arguments. Just stories.

And here is the thing: Now that I don’t trust Malcolm Gladwell, I will never trust Malcolm Gladwell. Whenever I read any Malcolm Gladwell article ever, even if he’s making a point I agree with, I feel that I’m being sold a bill of goods. And the same will be a little bit true of Mara Hvistendahl. I may still read articles by both of them — though probably not books, because life is short — but if I get interested in what they’re saying, I will seek independent verification of their claims. This is, I think, completely fair in the case of Malcolm Gladwell, and probably not completely fair in the case of Mara Hvistendahl; but my good opinion, once lost, is lost for ever. (Not really. That is a joke. Little Jane Austen humor for ya there.)

Has this happened to you before? What red flags make you think a nonfiction author may not be trustable? Do the red flags differ if you’re reading a book by a journalist versus a researcher? Or a slightly different question: Have you ever discovered external, biographical things about a nonfiction author that made you reconsider how you felt about their trustworthiness in books you had previously enjoyed?

And a question of duration: Once you feel mistrustful of an author, what would it take for you to stop feeling mistrustful of that person? If they got more degrees, would that do it? If all the experts in their field praised them, would that do it? Or is it never ever ever? I think it’s never ever ever for me! and I’m worried that makes me a close-minded jerk.

33 thoughts on “Review: Unnatural Selection, Mara Hvistendahl; or, Trusting nonfiction authors

  1. Totally agree with you about the nonfiction resource issues, including the use of Malcolm Gladwell (WTF?!!!). I might add that I employ similar judgmental scrutiny to historical fiction. But wait! Internal post hyperlinking? I use wordpress.com too! Oh please share the secret!

    • I know, right? Who uses Malcolm Gladwell? That guy’s terrible!

      I’m trying to remember now how to do the internal post hyperlinking. It’s something about adding an html tag. I’m going to try to find the tutorial I used, and then I will link you to it.

      • Internal hyperlinking is easy! And it works on any blogging platform because it’s HTML. I lurve internal links. :D

        Make sure you’re in the HTML editing window, not the visual one. Where you want the link to end up, type [a name="X"] text [/a] (replace the [ ] with and X with whatever you want; text is wherever you want the link to end up, it could also be an image). Then, to make the link, type [a href="#X"] link [/a] (replace [ ] with and X with whatever you used earlier, don’t forget the # sign!).

        I suspect my explanation makes it sound more complicated than it is. So here’s an example from my review directory page, in which I have internal links to the different letters:

        At the top of the page, where I have links to all the letters:
        [a href="#A"]A[/a]
        At the ‘A’ section, where I want link to end up:
        [a name="A"][/a]

        I only used [ ] instead of so you could see the code instead of it getting converted in the comment box. ;)

  2. For me, I prefer it if authors do at least some firsthand research, so consulting primary sources if you’re an academic or going out and talking to people if you’re a journalist. Citing other news articles doesn’t bother me, as long as it’s not where most of the material comes from. Citing authors like Gladwell who tend rely on others’ research would annoy me more.

    And once my trust is lost, it’s mostly lost for good. I might regain some trust if the author lost by trust by writing clumsily about something outside his or her main area of expertise and then returned to his or her real area of expertise. But if I get the sense that an author manipulates facts to make a point or tell a good story, there’s no coming back from that. Even if I read such authors’ work again, I’m on high alert.

    • And Hvistendahl definitely did a lot of firsthand research. I just like things to be, I suppose, a bit more clearly based on firsthand research when the topics are controversial. Does that make sense? Because it seems like a lot of non-first-hand research might have been produced with another agenda.

      I’m reading a book now about scientology, another quite controversial topic, and I’ve been very impressed so far with how well the author cites his sources. I know it’s not the same because he can do interviews with individuals and he doesn’t have to depend on agencies doing large-scale studies of how many people are engaging in an activity throughout various nations. But still, even though the claims he’s making are MUCH CRAZIER than anything Hvistendahl says throughout her entire book, he sources things so clearly that I always know which claims I can feel are very reliably true, and which ones are based on shakier evidence. Does that make sense?

  3. Oh man, now I feel all inadequate. I am not nearly critical enough about sources when I read non-fiction, though I do have my moments. I don’t remember the Gladwell reference but I agree–you can’t use him as a real reference. I understand how you feel.

    I did think Unnatural Selection was a decent book that highlighted a really important issue. And it is tricky! I think one place to start, though, would be with the smaller problem of pregnant women forced into abortions of girls by their husbands or in-laws. Hvistendahl doesn’t really address that, but it is a thing that happens. It’s all a giant confusing swirl of misogynistic habits and practices.

    One detail that bugged me was right at the end where Hvistendahl says on one page that waiting until you’re 35 to have children isn’t a problem because of IVF and so on, and then a few pages later points out the immense costs and difficulties of things like IVF. What did you think of that bit?

    • Mmmm, I’m trying to remember that part. It does sound completely inconsistent. She made a claim about abortions in the US that I’m pretty sure is untrue. I don’t know. I just felt uncertain about the whole thing.

  4. Because I get your blog updates in email form, and it updates at like 6 a.m. or something, I tend to read them while still waking up and then forget all my sleep-addled points later in the day when I can actually comment.

    I mean, with nonfiction, I’m obviously wary of speculation. “People say this may have been the case” means they want you to be left with an impression that it was, but good Lord, WHO says that? Was it you? It was, wasn’t it, Author.

    I tend to be wary of agenda books (as we all should be), so like in high school I was reading a bio of Barbra Streisand, and it was saying things like “Yeah, she cheated on her husband, BUT THEN HE CHEATED ON HER, and it was totes awful of him. What a terrible person he was. Can you blame her for cheating AGAIN with another person?” And I had to put it down, because clearly the author wrote it so that Barbra Streisand would be his BFF.

    • I mean, to be fair, if I wrote a biography of Oscar Wilde, it would be so that he would look down on me from heaven and decide to become my BFF once I get to heaven. Sooooo….that seems reasonable.

  5. My trust is gone forever in cases such as this. Unless… hmmm, unless what, exactly? Nope, I think once it’s shaken, that’s it. Unless I really like the author on a whole different level and am willing to cut him/her some slack. But I won’t necessarily trust them for factual info. I’m thinking creative autobiography & such, where the author is re-telling their own life story with some glossing over and of course from their personal perspective. A research-type non-fiction book, though – no way. And if the author is blatantly supporting one side or another in a debate to the degree of dropping personal comments and anecdotes into a non-fiction examination of a topic, and NOT IDENTIFYING BY A DISCLAIMER that these are personal views and not part of the research – immediate & utter fail.

    • Yeah, I think it’s the same with me too. I’m probably more forgiving of authors who put clear disclaimers saying “This is reputable!” “This is less reputable!” on different parts of the book. That way at least I know they know some parts of their argument are weaker than others? And I feel able to hang on to trusting those authors.

  6. I think your point about how you revealed Malcolm Gladwell’s shakiness is well taken. It’s a good way to uncover the truth about arguments, actually: ask yourself, how would I feel about this argument if I disagreed with it? Where would I pick the holes, in the sources or elsewhere? If nothing else, it’s a nice mental exercise, and it can be helpful.

    Interestingly, I don’t seem to have the Thing a lot of people have, where biographical information about an author makes me dislike or distrust their work. I seem to be able to separate those things. Of course, if an author is nice in real life, that’s gravy. But it doesn’t seem necessary.

    • Oh, Proper Jenny, it makes me feel good that you think my discovery of Malcolm Gladwell’s wobbly writing is legitimate. I always feel guilty that I didn’t notice until a belief of mine was challenged. Darn it.

      I…have that thing. A lot. I want everyone to be good and decent people of upstanding morals who want only the best for their loved ones. Like Gregory Peck.

  7. For me, once an author’s lost my trust its hard to regain it (though I’m speaking in extremes – for example if an author writes some books biased and others objectively it’s different). It’s useful to have their opinions if you want to debate or write an essay, but otherwise learning their opinions is dodgy because you could end up looking silly over bad sources. Red flags for me are over the top suggestions of knowledge or lots of time spent talking about the people the author interviewed. That sort of thing. It’s not a definite flag, but if it happens I’ll check online or in other books in regards to reliability.

    • Weeeeeelll, I think sometimes there are cases when you have to rely on interviews, right? I’m reading Lawrence Wright’s book about scientology, Going Clear, right now, and it draws heavily from interviews he conducted. Because there really aren’t a lot of other sources to draw on! He has to depend on the testimony of people who used to belong in the church. However, he doesn’t talk a lot about his interviews. Or do you mean if the author spends a lot of time being like, “And [interview subject] laughed a warm chocolatey laugh as he remembered his childhood in Wyoming”?

  8. I once read a nonfiction book that was written by Phillipa Gregory called The Women of the Cousin’s War, and each of the three authors who wrote about a different woman cited sources, but speculated so very much, that I eventually couldn’t take the book seriously. There were a lot of statements like ” so and so felt and thought that…” when there was no way that any of them could know this information. And it was thoroughly peppered throughout the text. I know this is a different kind of thing, but it smacks of the same types of issues about credibly. All that aside, I think this book sounds interesting, but very scary. In a society that only values males, and goes so far as to abort female fetuses, you can bet there are going to be problems down the line!,

  9. I have thought about this a lot since the last time we discussed it, and I realized this: I don’t like citing news articles as a source, and the reason is that in my personal experience (that is, reading articles about things I happen to know a lot about firsthand), I have found journalists to be sloppy and shallow. Like, they will take a quote from a person and without verifying that person’s bona fides or credibility, will make a whole theory around it. I am thinking of four distinct times I have seen this happen – pretty much all of the times that I knew stuff the public didn’t know – so I am going to generalize and say, I cannot trust journalism to be well-researched or even factual. Often it is, I am sure. But often it clearly is not. Perhaps it is because people who are working against a deadline simply can’t or don’t take the time to verify, verify, verify.

    That said, after reading Delusions of Gender, I feel way less trust in academic research either. Dear me, I am becoming awfully skeptical.

    Also, once an author has lost my trust, I don’t think it can be regained. Wait, UNLESS this author has a very public metanoia and then proves his/her conversion by penning meticulously researched pieces than win praise FOR the meticulousness of the research. Then maybe. Has that ever happened?

    • Hahahaha, I LOVE a public metanoia and conversion story! That is my very fave! I don’t know if that has ever actually happened but I would love it if it did. The most celebrated are the rehabilitaaaaated….

    • Except that just now, as a thought exercise, I imagined how I would feel if Jonah Lehrer had a big metanoia and came back into journalism and was really meticulous about his sources. And I am not sure I would ever trust him again. I might eventually stop refusing to click on links to articles he wrote, but I don’t think I’d ever be like, Oh yeah, Jonah Lehrer, that guy knows what’s going down. I’d always want to check his facts elsewhere. Wouldn’t you?

      So maybe it has to be that the person has a metanoia without having been caught. So that I wouldn’t have to worry they were just having a pretend metanoia in order to get jobs again.

  10. The whole book kind of sounds like a long newspaper article… the problem with so much non-ficiton is that once you pick at one thread and there’s unravelling, it’s so often so easy to keep going….

    Just my ten cents– I think it’s not fair to say “many, many women making the decision to abort female fetuses” when they might not actually be in a position to make the choice themselves.

    • Oh yes. Hvistendahl does talk about that. But she also says that this phenomenon is largely taking place amongst middle-class, less conservative families where the women do have a higher level of control of their own lives. She doesn’t suggest this is because lower-class families wouldn’t select for boys, it’s just because the middle- and upper-class families are the ones that have easy access to that technology right now.

  11. Well, now I’m in the same boat. I’m reading a popular science book about DNA (The Violinist’s Thumb), and enjoying it pretty well–or at least I WAS. I came across a footnote that happened to address a topic I actually know something about–LDS theology. The footnote crammed an amazing number of mistakes into its single paragraph. Heck, one PHRASE contained 3 errors. I’m sure the author considered it to be a side issue, and I sure hope he did better research into his actual topic of how DNA works. But my trust in him is now utterly crushed.

    This sort of thing makes me quote Kermit the Frog: “You know, it’s amazing. You are 100% wrong. I mean, nothing you’ve said has been right.”

    • Oh what a shame! I think it makes a big difference to me when an author bothers to do proper research into a side issue. That shows that they aren’t JUST interested in the main topic of their book, but that it’s important to them to get all the things right. You know?

      • Yes, I agree. A writer *should* get the details right. Nobody’s perfect, but all he had to do in this case was do some very basic fact-checking. It reads like he had a vague memory of some stuff that he half-learned once and he just wrote it down anyhow.

  12. 1) Citing Malcolm Gladwell is the kiss of doom for me. Right up there with quoting ‘Tom Friedman’ (as a book I recently read kept doing).

    2) “I get that Hvistendahl isn’t a researcher; she’s a journalist. She cites like a journalist and not like a researcher. But still I was left with a lingering, pervasive feeling of unease.” –> I have such an instinctive preference for researcher-style nonfiction. Even knowing the flaws/biases of academia, I find it so much more solid and convincing than journalist stuff. I want peer reviewed nonfiction! But then, I also want perspectives from outside The Establishment. It’s tricky.

    3) Has this happened to you before? What red flags make you think a nonfiction author may not be trustable? Do the red flags differ if you’re reading a book by a journalist versus a researcher?

    Red flags for me include: direct dialogue w/o any explanation for how the author recorded/remembers it, nonfiction written with other fiction conventions, like present tense, a person’s inner dialogue, etc. (I’m in the middle of the Warmth of Other Suns right now and have to keep reminding myself the point is that it’s an oral history project and thus should be seen as more third person memoir than nonfiction), massive generalisations that just happen to match current widespread stereotypes, a subtitle with the word ‘rogue’ in it (do not get me started on the nonsense that is Freakonomics), lack of any end notes, bibliography, etc., when I keep checking the citations and they’re all from the same two or three sources, authors who keep committing logical fallacies (I was a debater in high school, so we had to memorise all of them & list/detect examples; it’s engrained in me now), and academics who clearly subscribe to the dominant paradigm (see: neoliberal economics) and never address that, just taking it for granted that it’s right.

    Um, that’s a short list and already this comment is out of control! I think I might have to write a blog post in response.

    • 1. Malcolm Gladwell is the worst.

      2. Yes! I have that same dilemma! And also because if I’m unfamiliar with the topic, I sometimes am not ready for a researcher’s take on it. I need something slightly more introductory that isn’t assuming any knowledge on my part. It’s a dilemma. I have yet to resolve it.

      3. You are awesome. Please write an entire post. I love all your red flags. I agree with you like crazy. When a nonfiction book doesn’t have a bibliography I just can’t even. Unless it’s, like, collected essays in which case FINE (but I’d still rather have a bibliography and a bunch of notes).

  13. Pingback: Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright | Jenny's Books

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