“I fact checked Alice Goffman with her subjects”

That’s not the actual title of Jesse Singal’s latest article, but it is the URL, and I like it better.

Singal (the same journalist who tenaciously went after Lacour) summarizes the backstory extremely well, but here is my even shorter version: Goffman is a young sociologist who wrote one of the most interesting books last year on one of the most important subjects in America: the police state that black men live in. She was applauded, at least until the critics came out questioning her credibility and her field work.

Here’s Singal’s account of his fairly light fact-checking of the Goffman book:

There’s no delicate way to put this: I’d been wandering around the neighborhood I was pretty sure was “6th Street,” handing out photos of Goffman, asking anyone willing to talk to me if they remembered this small white girl who used to hang out with Chuck. (Also, I may or may not have been carrying a box of Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins that I offered to people in an attempt to appear more friendly.)

I hadn’t even known Goffman was in town at the time. And now, after an hour-long chat with “Miss Linda,” Chuck’s mom, in her home near 6th Street, and several beers with “Josh,” one of Chuck’s best friends and another character from the book, in an Irish sports bar in a different part of Philly, I was sitting across from Goffman herself, convinced that the basics of her book were legitimate, but plagued by remaining questions. These loose ends never got resolved, and over the next few days they led to further calls and texts and emails with Goffman, which in turn led me to two conclusions:

Alice Goffman conducted some amazing ethnographic research, and her book is almost entirely true, not to mention quite important.

Alice Goffman is going to have a really hard time defending herself from her fiercest critics.

Hat tip to Suresh Naidu.

My read, after an incomplete investigation of reading the book as well as the online attacks and defenses, plus talking to sociologist friends and colleagues, is pretty simple: this is a very good but flawed book, and in my mind the insights far outweigh the flaws in methodology and literary license. I hope a chastened and more experienced Goffman continues to punch out important work. I will read it with enthusiasm.

The attacks, meanwhile, were poorly researched, sometimes naive, and almost always unprofessional. I’ve been surprised by the carelessness and viciousness of the critiques of the book. No one owes Goffman anything, but I like a profession that holds its members to a higher standard, especially when going after a junior colleague.

I would be interested to hear sociologist colleagues react.

I suspect the book has one thing in common with most statistical papers I know: it massages the data a little to fit a cute story, and the result is more or less true. The main difference is that the more people read your book or paper, the more likely you get caught.

Thank goodness no one reads my papers…