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Physician, heal thyself: an open challenge to PZ Myers


PZ Myers has written a post in which he reprimands Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson for failing to acknowledge that he falsely quoted former President George Bush in some talks he gave. I wonder if Professor Myers will publicly apologize for attributing a false quote to equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers in a recent post he wrote on September 16, 2014, in which he accused Dr. Sommers (pictured above), who is currently employed by the American Enterprise Institute, of being “a professional selective quote-miner and anecdote-citer who is on a mission from AEI to discredit all of feminism” and “a contrarian beloved by anti-feminists … with a reputation for dishonesty and twisting the facts.” For good measure, he added that “she’s simply not a trustworthy source, any more than [creationist] Kent Hovind is a good source of information about evolution.” To clinch his case, Myers concluded:

For future tweets, I recommend this statement by Sommers as a useful guideline: just accuse anyone who disagrees with you of being ugly and hating sex.

There are a lot of homely women in women’s studies. Preaching these anti-male, anti-sex sermons is a way for them to compensate for various heartaches–they’re just mad at the beautiful girls.

(Emphasis mine – VJT.)

On the very day that PZ Myers wrote his post (September 16, 2014), a commenter named Kesara wrote in to point out that Sommers had repeatedly denied ever making that statement, which was originally reported in Esquire magazine in February 1994:

According to her wikipedia page, she denies having made that statement:
“In a 1994 interview with Esquire magazine, Sommers was quoted as saying, “There are a lot of homely women in women’s studies. Preaching these anti-male, anti-sex sermons is a way for them to compensate for various heartaches– they’re just mad at the beautiful girls.”[22] Many times since 1994, Sommers has denied making such a statement: “I never said any such thing. Fifteen years ago, an Esquire magazine writer misquoted me, made it up or confused me with someone else. When Washington Post writer Meg Rosenfeld did a profile of me in 1994, she asked the writer about the quote. He said his notes had gone missing (Washington Post, 7/7/1994.) The fact is: they never existed. No matter how many letters I write correcting the fabrication, it seems never to go away.”[33]”

Kesara then linked a specific paragraph in the Wikipedia page’s biography of Christina Hoff Sommers. The link Kesara cited was as follows: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christina_Hoff_Sommers#1994_Esquire_interview_quote_controversy

Curiously, the current Wikipedia biography of Christina Hoff Sommers contains no reference to Sommers’ interview with Esquire in 1994: it has been excised. (The excision was made at 16:44 on October 2, 2014 – see here.) However, by searching the Wayback Internet archive for September 21, 2014, I was able to retrieve the paragraph in question: see here.

Wikipedia had good reason to exercise caution in excising the quote that Dr. Sommers was alleged (by an Esquire reporter) to have made. Its own guidelines on biographies of living persons state:

We must get the article right. Be very firm about the use of high-quality sources. All quotations and any material challenged or likely to be challenged must be explicitly attributed to a reliable, published source, which is usually done with an inline citation. Contentious material about living persons (or, in some cases, recently deceased) that is unsourced or poorly sourced – whether the material is negative, positive, neutral, or just questionable – should be removed immediately and without waiting for discussion.[2] Users who persistently or egregiously violate this policy may be blocked from editing. (Emphases and italics in the original – VJT.)

And here’s what Dr. Sommers herself wrote about the quote on March 15, 1995, in a letter to FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) editor Jim Naureckas, in response to a hit piece written by journalist Laura Flanders, titled “The ‘Stolen Feminism’ Hoax” (September 1, 1994):

In an effort to present me as an anti-feminist, Flanders repeats the falsehood that I told an Esquire reporter that “There are a lot of homely women in Women’s Studies….” I said nothing of the kind. I have publicly disavowed this in several newspapers. When a reporter for the Washington Post questioned the Esquire reporter about this quotation, he stuck to his recollection, but when she asked for his notes he said he had lost them. (See “The Feminist Mistake” Washington Post, July 7, 1994.) I teach in the Women’s Studies program at Clark University, so any unflattering generalization would be self-referential. Had Ms. Flanders read Who Stole Feminism? with anything but an eye to finding fault, she would have noted my sardonic observation (p.34) that from the very beginning of the American feminist movement back in 1848, feminist leaders were unfairly subjected to vulgar descriptions of their appearance. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

I have to say that Dr. Sommers’ denial sounds pretty convincing to me.

Let’s recap. The quote which PZ Myers attributed to Christina Hoff Sommers is based on the recollections of a journalist back in 1994, who was unable to supply any notes to back up his recollection. Christina Hoff Sommers (who, by the way, is a former philosophy professor in Ethics at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts), has repeatedly denied ever making the quote, from 1995 up to the present. Until a few days ago, her Wikipedia biography (which PZ Myers could have easily accessed himself before writing his September 16 post) carried a forthright denial by Dr. Sommers that she had ever uttered the words in question. And finally, one of PZ Myers’ own readers alerted him to the error, adding in a follow-up comment that “unless we had evidence that trumps her denial of that statement, we shouldn’t repeat the accusation that she said it…” And what was the response by PZ Myers? A deafening silence. There was no admission of wrongdoing whatsoever, and the offensive quote which he falsely attributes to Dr. Sommers remains uncorrected on his post.

A lesson in the art of apology, from PZ Myers himself

So, how should one publicly apologize for a misquote? Here’s the advice that PZ Myers gave to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in a recent post (October 2, 2014):

Allow me to help out, Dr Tyson. Here’s how it should go:

Appreciate the assistance with improving your accuracy.

Thank you for pointing that out to me.

A brief explanation is appropriate.

Human memory is fallible, and I clearly confabulated and misattributed the quote.

Admit and apologize.

I was wrong, and retract that comment.

Promise to correct the behavior (this is important, and note, if you continue to do the same thing in the future, you’ve really screwed over your reputation.* Sincerely change).

I won’t use that quote in the future.

See? Not hard. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it clear. Move on. Critic is either satisfied, or looks petty if they keep harping on it. But jeez, you were wrong, as all of us mere humans are now and then, acknowledge it and do better.

See, Professor Myers? It’s not so hard, is it? Except that in your case, it was not memory that led you astray, but a 20-year-old bogus quote which has been widely circulated, and which Dr. Sommers has denied ever uttering for the past two decades. But you know that already, don’t you? One of your own readers warned you about it, on the very day you wrote your post criticizing Dr. Sommers (September 16, 2014).

So here’s my challenge to Professor Myers: will you or won’t you publicly apologize for misquoting Dr. Sommers, before the end of the week (11:59:59 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time on Saturday, October 11, 2014)?

Over to you.

I think Myers gives Myers too much importance. Mung
I think we give Myers way too much importance. Mapou

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