April 13, 2004

Philosophical due diligence?

The NYT has noticed the fuss about Lauren Slater's veracity, after Princeton philosopher Peter Singer totally missed it in his 3/28/2004 review of her new book Opening Skinner's Box. Singer's failure is a curious one. He himself notices in his review that "Slater makes some errors that made me wonder about her accuracy in areas with which I am not familiar."

Information about many of the serious allegations about Slater's content was easy to find on the web a month ago; I added some links in passing in my 3/30/2004 note. Essentially all of this information was available well before Singer's review appeared. He may have written the review before Deborah Skinner's 3/12/2004 Guardian piece was published, or this 3/16/2004 story about her lawsuit against Slater, but was it before Ian Pitchford's 3/2/2004 posting on psychiatry-research, or the late-February weblog posts by folks like Rivka? Even if the review was written months before, couldn't Singer have contacted the Times to arrange to add a note about the serious charges against Slater, which had been public for several weeks when the review appeared?

As a professor at Princeton, Singer doubtless knows how to research a subject; since he's a best-selling author, I suppose that he has assistants who can do it for him; this is supposed to be an area of special expertise for him, so we might have expected him to have some background knowledge even before reading the book; I found the serious charges I cited just by idly googling "Lauren Slater". Was this really "due diligence"?

Singer is famous for his controversial positions on the ethics of euthanasia, animal liberation and inter-species sex. This whole thing makes me suspicious of his ability to get the facts straight, or at least of his degree of interest in doing so. And surely in making ethical judgments, the facts should matter.

[Update: there is a fascinating, no, hair-raising series of posts on Slater at Ron Hogan's Beatrice.

And new thoughts and links from Rivka at Respectful of Otters.

Michael Miller has pdfs of letters from various involved parties, and links to relevant newspaper and journal articles. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 13, 2004 06:37 AM