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Bad Scholarship: The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet's Surprising Future by Fred Pearce

I found numerous serious scholarship problems in the first 3 pages.
It led him [Malthus] to oppose the English Poor Laws, which had for two hundred years offered the destitute meager protection inside workhouses.
That's not a good statement of how the English Poor Laws worked. Workhouses became a larger part of the English Poor Laws later in 1834.
Their daughter [of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft] had eloped at sixteen with the poet shelley and wrote the far-from-utopian gothic horror novel Frankenstein.
The implication here is that her book disagree with her father's, which Pearce called utopian, and Pearce offers this in the context of Godwin's life getting "off track". Godwin wrote a utopian book, his daughter wrote a far-from-utopian book, says Pearce. This picture of father and daughter in conflict is completely wrong. Well, they did have some conflict but not about this. Frankenstein is very much in line with Godwin's views and advocates a lot of his important ideas. Focussing on the setting/genre of Frankenstein is superficial and misses the point. It also ignores the mood of William Godwin's own novels, which wasn't necessarily positive. In both Caleb Williams and St. Leon, Godwin tells a pretty grim and sad story, while still advocating his principles. Frankenstein does the same and has a lot in common with her father's novels.
Just as Godwin had earlier caught the wave of revolutionary optimism [during the early days of the French Revolution], so Malthus now rode the backlash [when the French Revolution was unpopular].
This is hard to comment on because "caught the wave" is a vague metaphor. I first read it as meaning that Godwin was a revolutionary who said and believe pro-French-Revolution things and was caught up in the cause at the time. But it could merely mean that his popularity was due to other people doing that, even though he didn't. Either is false, though the second much less false. There was something that could be called French Revolutionary optimism, and while Godwin himself refused to take part, it may have helped provide a portion of Godwin's popularity. Not very much though because Godwin's book did attack the principles of the French Revolution, and he himself alienated many French Revolution supports by disagreeing with them. (During the French Revolution, people complained that Godwin wasn't favorable enough to reason and reform. Later, after many of them had changed their minds, they complained he was too favorable to that kind of thing. Godwin's position stayed constant while other people flip-flopped. Overall Godwin -- not to mention the whole world -- would have been much better off with no French Revolution, but maybe one could credit a little of Godwin's early popularity to revolutionary optimism.)
... the world-famous Norfolk revolutionary Thomas Paine had published his liberation manifesto, The Rights of Man. Freedom was in the air.
Actually Thomas Paine was an enemy of freedom and friend of violence. His book was more of a libel against Edmund Burke (who was, somewhat alone, doing his utmost to save the world from violent destruction -- and he succeeded!) than a liberation manifesto. It was irresponsible and dangerous. Worse, the statement "Freedom was in the air" implies the French Revolution itself -- which had already started and was in the air -- has a connection to freedom (other than the destruction of freedom...)

You might call this one a political disagreement rather than a scholarship issue but I don't think it does nearly enough to openly present itself as mere political opinion. If you want to advocate your politics, go ahead, but don't disguise it as factual-historical statements.

The other things I criticize in this post are worse, but I wanted to include this one too because Pearce is basically pretending to quickly catch us up on some history, but actually he's providing a heavily biased version that is more propaganda than history. He's disguising his agenda as historical summary.

Also, as far as historical summary goes, considering the book focussed so much on attacking Burke, to pretend the topic was liberation, without mentioning Burke anywhere in the discussion, is pretty wrong. And also, the way this is presented basically puts Paine and Godwin in the same category which is totally wrong. Just to take one example, Paine was very anti-Burke and Godwin very pro-Burke.

I think when I say Burke was trying to save the world from violent destruction, everyone knows I am taking sides (I think correctly and objectively, but you may disagree). But when Pearce speaks about Paine, it looks more like mere historical description, even though it isn't.
... English journalist William Godwin, who in 1793 published a popular manifesto for an anarchist utopia called Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

Malthus ... was having none of this libertarian babble.
Godwin was not a journalist. He was primarily an author of serious books.

Political Justice was not a manifesto. It was, as the title says, an enquiry into the truth.

Godwin was not a utopian.

Godwin was not a libertarian. Political Justice says a lot of things which libertarians would disagree with. We can see this just within what Pearce quotes Godwin saying, "Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all." That is not a libertarian sentiment.

Godwin is misquoted with no footnote. There is no mention of edition but 1793 is mentioned so we might assume the first edition. But the quote given does not match the first or third edition (the third is the last and most common).

Pearce quotes Godwin:
"a people of men and not children. Generation will not succeed generation. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, and no government. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all."
This is simply wrong. Godwin never wrote it. Here's what he actually wrote, first (1793) edition:

http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=236&layout=html
The men therefore who exist when the earth shall refuse itself to a more extended population, will cease to propagate, for they will no longer have any motive, either of error or duty, to induce them. In addition to this they will perhaps be immortal. The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have in a certain degree to recommence her career at the end of every thirty years. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice as it is called, and no government. These latter articles are at no great distance; and it is not impossible that some of the present race of men may live to see them in part accomplished. But beside this, there will be no disease, no anguish, no melancholy and no resentment. Every man will seek with ineffable ardour the good of all.
That's misquoted. Now here's the third edition from 1798 which is most common.

http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/het/godwin/pj8.htm

(And I also checked my paper copy and another online version. No help for Pearce there.)
The men therefore whom we are supposing to exist, when the earth shall refuse itself to a more extended population, will probably cease to propagate. The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have, in a certain degree, to recommence her career every thirty years. Other improvements may be expected to keep pace with those of health and longevity. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Beside this, there will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all.
That's still misquoted. Pearce just plain edited the text without any indication that he was changing it, and stuck it in quote marks anyway.

What is wrong with people to just doctor quotes and publish them as quotes? That's totally unacceptable.

Elliot Temple on May 6, 2012

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