Arnold, Martin. "Writers Beware: History is an Art, Not a Toaster," New York Times, 28
February 2002, pp. E1, E3.
The mea culpas being offered lately by two popular historians caught plagiarizing are lame. They
would have it essentially that, oops, mistakes were made because of the marketplace need for
quantity and speed. An excuse? Not at all. An explanation? Well, barely.
Books are the products of artisans and artists, and this doesn't allow for them to be
mass-produced at their creation like toasters that some assembly line puts together out of these
and those parts gathered from here and there. If writers do want to try to run a factory, fine: just
as long as they use their own raw materials.
Recently Stephen E. Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, both best-selling authors of some
admirable books, have been caught lifting material from other people's books, kidnapping the
work of others. So far they have gotten off easy, as nearly as can be determined. There has been
some criticism in print but mostly not too harsh. Booksellers haven't stripped their shelves of
these books, customers aren't demanding their money back, the authors' publisher seems more
annoyed than angry, and no television producers or moviemakers are suggesting blackballing
them. Both have brilliantly practiced the new art of crisis management: admit wrongdoing
immediately, apologize and rectify.
The concept behind writing a history is not very complicated. It is original research and other
carefully reviewed scholarship filtered through one person's mind. Eric Foner, professor of
history at Columbia, put it this way: "Historians don't have to reinvent the wheel every time, but
there's a difference between building on other people's scholarship and simply borrowing their
writing." Perhaps his next book, "Who Owns History?" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), scheduled for
publication in April, will explain the difference to those who don't seem to know.
Maybe there's nothing to explain, and money and celebrity says it all. The public gorges on Mr.
Ambrose's books. The more popular they become, the more they are bought and therefore the
more books he writes, eight since 1997. No one says stop or hits the switch, and so the conveyor
belts keep going. A commercial novelist can do one book a year. A historian, even a popular one,
For Mr. Ambrose, with so much to do, naturally a careless slip occurs. People shrug. But they
shouldn't: a writer of Mr. Ambrose's reputation should read every sentence before he ships a
manuscript to his publisher, and he certainly should be able to recognize his own sentences when
he sees them. His plagiarism was discovered with last year's publication of his best seller "The
Wild Blue" (Simon & Schuster), an account of the men who bombed Germany late in World War
II. Passages were lifted like clouds rising on thermals from Thomas Childers's "Wings of the
Morning" (Addison-Wesley, 1995). The excuses were speedy compilations, editing oversights,
the ability of computers to cut and paste. It was as if the modern techniques of composition were
alive and had run amok, and the author had no control.
For Ms. Goodwin, there was borrowing, from perhaps as many as six other books, of scores of
quotations or close paraphrases for her book "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" (Simon &
Schuster, 1987). For her, somehow, it wasn't technology's fault but its near opposite: taking
notes in longhand. She looked at them and couldn't always distinguish between her words and
thoughts and those from others. Nor did her three full-time and one part-time research assistants
help her. Indeed, they were part of the problem, the hidden workers on her assembly line, so
many that one doesn't know whose history is being read. Everyone knows college history
professors get research help from graduate students, but the students don't write or organize the
works. (Sometimes the student doesn't get enough rightful credit, but that's the stuff of another
David Nasaw, a history professor at the City University Graduate Center and the author of "The
Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst" (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), said, "That's what
drives us nuts, all those full-time assistants working for someone at one time." He added:
"Writing history is not an art but a craft. It requires interpretation and 50 sources and integrating
and assembling this material into a story told by an individual voice."
"I would never imagine in a zillion years having a research assistant take notes for me, and
neither would any historian I know," Professor Nasaw said. "They find material for me to check."
Plagiarism as a mistake in transcription? Very careless. He said: "If I have made a mistake in a
transcription, by the time I've written the seventh paragraph I would have recognized it."
Professor Foner said: "I think there is a problem relying on other people to do your research and
your writing, and some of these people have passed their own work on to researchers." Professor
Foner sees no difference in method between the academic and the popular historian. "It's abiding
by standards that are easily available," he said. "You can't publish a large book every year.
Trying to do too much too fast and sloppiness is a lack of attention to your own methodology,
and researchers and staff can't do it for you."
"No one wants to string together quotations," he said. "Writing is putting things into your own
words. That's what we try to explain to college freshmen."
Not a new idea. One can't know absolutely for sure about Macaulay or Gibbon, but they didn't
have researchers. Parkman traveled the Oregon Trail and didn't just read about it or send
somebody else to make the journey. As for today's popular historians, no one would waste a
moment checking Robert A. Caro, who invests years in researching and writing each of his
Of course, for the very busy and popular writer, if they want, there is a way to do what they do
without changing and without a hint of deception. They can imitate some of the great painting
masters. If we can enjoy a work attributed to the School of Rubens, why can't we be comfortable
with a book by the School of Ambrose or the School of Goodwin?
Questions on Sources
I want to make a few comments on "sources" in the study of science: Sylvia Nasar's book A
Beautiful Mind. (New York: Touchstone, 2001, originally, 1998), which was a winner of the
National Book Critics Circle Award for biography, (and it is certainly a Best Seller now) may be
usefully compared with the movie of the same name (produced by Universal) and now up for an
Oscar as Best Movie with its star, Russell Crowe, nominated for Best Actor. Here is a "winning
book," and a "winning movie." The book, too, identifies itself as the basis for the movie. Are
these "sources" to be usefully compared as "methodologically relevant" for the study of the case
of John F. Nash and his winning of the Nobel Prize? What do we learn of John Nash's life and
work from these sources? Is there something to get out of these comparisons? Can one learn to
evaluate these sources as relevant for understanding science?
The lives of scientists are not the usual stuff of Hollywood productions. While there may have
been dozens of documentaries made concerning the lives of great men and women in science,
Hollywood has, over the years, pretty much ignored Big Science. Face it, Big Science is not the
dramatic stuff of Hollywood. There have been a few times where Hollywood tried to use figures
in the history of science but Hollywood told very distorted tales: 1) The Story of Louis Pasteur
(1936) starring Paul Muni, which was up for, and won, Oscars but, in the light of scholarship was
absurd; 2) Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson (1943) was based on the biography written by
her daughter; 3) Dr. Erhlich's Magic Bullet, starring Edward G. Robinson, (1940) and based on a
book written by an adoring secretary. There were other big movies such as The Alexander
Graham Bell Story starring Don Amiche and there was Edison, The Man, starring Spencer Tracy
and both Americanize science in a silly manner. But Hollywood has pretty much ignored the
story of science and there's been no heroic Isaac Newton, no explanation of the complex life of
Galileo. Here's a possible exception: John F. Nash, Economics Laureate in 1994 for his work on
game theory. One can ask, How well did Hollywood, or Nasar, do?
The cover of my Touchstone paperback suggests that Nasar's book is the basis of the movie. One
might assume that the movie and the book in this sense "tell the same story." But viewing the
movie and reading the book provide very different views of, for example, John Nash's sex life. In
the movie John, and his adoring wife Alicia, are married through all the difficult years of his
troubled life but, in the book, Nash and his wife are divorced 40 years before he wins the prize.
Again, in the book, Nash has several very intense homosexual relationships and, at least one of
these has, by implication anyway, severe consequences for his mental health: one affair was
discovered by government in the early 1950s and, as a result, Nash lost his security clearance and
his position as a consultant to the USAF at RAND. (He was identified as a security risk and this,
in the 1950s: for those old enough to remember, he was a QUEER! And in the 1950s, that label
carried a lot of weight.) And finally, John Nash has a life-long relationship with a mistress by
whom he has a son, a very important person in his life. I do not mean to imply that, a la Freud,
that one's sex life is determining of one's behavior or, worse, is determining of one's "science." I
mean only that Hollywood has turned the John and Alicia story into a typical Hollywood Love
Story and has, thereby, ignored the complicated sex life of John Nash. If they made these changes
with a conventional wisdom still captivated by a Freudian orientation to an understanding of
behavior, what else did Hollywood feel free to change, omit, or modify?
Two important considerations in John Nash's life in both the movie and the book are his
mathematics and his mental health. First, the mathematics. [The reference here is to: Mackenzie,
Dana. "Beautiful Mind's Math Guru Makes Truth = Beauty," Science 295 (1 February 2002), pp.
789, 791.] The math consultant, Dave Bayer, did not use math developed or used by John Nash
while he was teaching at MIT (the scene in the movie where John meets Alicia). The math
consultant made up a problem which he thought was "realistic" rather than "real." The scene
"plays to the cognoscenti," i.e., the mathematicians who may see the movie. As Boyer puts it, he
wanted to make the math "credible" but not necessary Nash's. Face it, the problem has nothing to
do with Nash. Nonetheless, as one critic puts it, "‘He (Bayer) did a fantastic job, given the
constraints.' Indeed, although some critics grumble that A Beautiful Mind exaggerates the
competitive atmosphere of postwar Princeton and leaves out important parts of Nash's life and
work, the mathematics in the film has come through peer review with flying colors." (p. 791) To
this, one can add the judgment of John Nash himself: "...he appreciated the ‘bona fide
sophistication' of the math in the movie..." The consultant wanted to make the math in the movie
"good" and he apparently did a creditable job but what any of it has to do with Nash is ignored. It
is probably best to say that the spirit of the math is correct even if the "history" earns an F.
(Interesting that Bayer did not want to make the same mistake that was made in another movie,
Good Will Hunting, where the supposed "difficult problem" was easily solvable by
mathematicians - so Bayer dreamed up an unrelated but really difficult problem. Again, this has
nothing to do with Nash.).
The second point concerns John Nash's mental illness. The movie's display of schizophrenia has
been praised in the New York Times [see,Goode, Erica. "A Rare Day: The Movies Get Mental
Illness Right," New York Times, 5 February 2002, p. F6). And again, one must note that the
evaluation that A Beautiful Mind got mental illness right but that is not to say that this movie got
John Nash's mental illness (or his treatment) right. It got the "image" of schizophrenia correctly,
it told the professional story correctly, as psychiatrists and psychologists want it told. This
success in A Beautiful Mind is to be compared to the failures in other movies. As Dr. Glen
Gabbard, psychoanalyst, and co-author of Psychiatry and the Cinema, puts it: "A Beautiful
Mind...is as accurate a portrayal of the illness as Hollywood has ever produced." One should note
that Gabbard is not saying that the portrait is of John Nash but, rather, of schizophrenia. Thus,
Gabbard goes on to say that when the patient takes his medication, he gets better... And to the
question, "Doesn't the film romanticize mental illness...?" Gabbard suggests, "Of course it
romanticizes mental illness... The job of the a filmmaker is to fill the seats at the theater. So the
entire arc of John Nash's life and marriage is all romanticized." So one can fill up the theater
seats as best one can and that is not "wrong" or "improper." It's just, well, Hollywood and what
the form of this art demands.
One could sit through the movie attentively and yet never learn just what it was that John Nash
did that won him the Nobel Prize in economics. Of course, if one knows what to look for and
knows enough about Nash's work to appreciate game theory in its original limited zero-sum
game form, then the contribution of John Nash is there in the movie, it does get mentioned and,
in a limited way, it does get explained. But clearly, the Ron Howard drama did not depend on the
mathematical contributions of John Nash. Quite the contrary, part of the fancy of the movie was
the impenetrable nature of Genius and Mathematics which is not explained in any sense but very
clearly left "mysterious." The mystery is a major part of the drama.
So the award-winning book and the award-winner-to-be move get their kudos not by providing
descriptions of what happened, but by successfully satisfying the various artists who work in
their own forms and do their own things. The film maker fills his theater and the author sells her
book. And the sociologist of science who wishes to understand the construction of the economic
model by a mathematician is out-in-the-cold. One could say the same thing about the processes
that led the Central Bank of Sweden to honor the dissertation written by John Nash at the age of
22: we know very little about that process except, perhaps, to say that econometric models have
so far failed to produce the sorts of breakthroughs predicted for such models. In honoring Nash
and the others, the Academy may have been making a statement about the Economy Prize. John
Nash, as well as his co-Laureates, could be considered recipients of a vote of confidence that
someday these complex models in economics may be worth something.
It is so much easier to describe, as the dust jacket does, John Nash as a Mathematics Genius who
suffered from Schizophrenia and let it go at that. These are two mysteries, mental illness and
genius, and artists can ramble on and on. It's Gee Whiz Art using Gee Whiz Science! Why even
try to tell of the complexities? Can one tell the complexities? By all means, make it a Love Story,
keep it a mystery, and keep the crowds coming in and book buying. Explain nothing! There's an
early photograph of Nash in the book and he even looks like Russell Crowe; ain't that enough?
Besides, what "explanation" does anyone have?
These and similar distortions are present in any story. There's very little that the historiographer
can do. One is stuck with making interpretations, with trying to understand. How does one learn
to interpret when the distortions are to be expected and dramatic in the name of sales? Can these
tales/sales be data?
Each in its own way, this movie and this book are illustrative of the problems of interpreting any
account of science.