April 14, 2006

Congratulations to Dan Brown

I hope all Language Log readers have already learned that Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh have failed in their ridiculous plagiarism suit against Dan Brown's publisher (Random House, which is also their own publisher — go figure!). Baigent and Leigh alleged that their Holy Blood, Holy Grail was the source for Brown's megaseller The Da Vinci Code, and they deserved a piece of the action. Don't be too surprised that I was rooting for Dan.

Yes, I know, you're going to point out that I have been utterly beastly about his writing, again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Totally beastly. I know. I hate myself, OK? But the things I said (all of them true) were almost one hundred percent devoted to his unintentionally hilarious phraseological bungling. Not his honesty.

Certainly (if I may break a lifelong rule by understating a little), Dan is not a master of of fine English prose. Nonetheless, his plots barrel along nice and fast (the whole of the action always takes place within a 24-hour span), and though they may range between the mildly implausible and the utterly incredible, he hasn't been ripping his ideas off from second-rate pseudohistorical books about Jesus. He makes his stuff up; he doesn't rip it off. Unreliable as the research underlying his books often is, I have no doubt that it is honestly done by Dan and his wife.

Baigent and Leigh's may be madly jealous that Dan made a multi-hyper-megaseller out of some shreds of speculative history of theirs and others', but that doesn't mean Dan's reading of their sloppy myth-making book amounts to anything like grounds for a plagiarism case.

Let me tell you, I know plagiarism, and I don't approve. My philosopher partner Barbara showed me a truly staggering case: a student in an advanced undergraduate philosophy of science class had been asked to write (after much preparatory classroom discussion) an answer to a very specific question about how philosopher of biology Helen Longino could maintain that science could still be objective despite also claiming that its development was influenced by the scientist's social milieu. The student began the (totally irrelevant) essay thus:

Helen Longino has written a timely book that fills a critical gap in the existing literature between philosophy of science and the social studies of science. Her exposition of scientific inquiry as a context-laden process provides the conceptual tools we need to understand how social expectations shape the development of science while at the same time recognizing the dependence of scientific inquiry on its interactions with natural phenomena. This is an important book precisely because there is none other quite like it.

Yes, it does sound a bit like a blurb, doesn't it? And that's because it is. The student simply copied and pasted the above from the blurb by Evelyn Fox Keller on the Amazon.com web site. I hope that astounds you as much as it does me. I don't ever want to start thinking of this sort of appalling brainless dishonesty by college students as if it were normal.

Yes, there is plagiarism out there. It is occasionally perpetrated by second-rate history authors, but much more of it is done by lazy students with cotton wool for brains who are so out of touch with reality that they don't realize their professor can spot a suspiciously over-professional phrase in one second, and in about 15 seconds more can induce Google to provide a report on where it came from. Dan Brown is not to be accused of this sort of pathetic intellectual shoplifting. Dan writes his own awkward and clunky prose after reading enough books to have the necessary facts to plant the clues that drive the plot, and he has made his millions honestly. My hat's off to him. I have never liked seeing misuses of the civil law (like intimdatory libel suits) that might tend to trammel free linguistic creativity, and I'm glad Baigent and Leigh lost their shirts (they have been ordered to cover an estimated $1.75 million of Random House's costs, I have read). I hope Dan and his wife celebrated with a bottle of champagne so expensive that I will never even see let alone taste it. They have earned their Dom Perignon. Cheers!

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 14, 2006 05:15 PM