Review: Unnatural Selection, Mara Hvistendahl; or, Trusting nonfiction authors

If you don’t care about Unnatural Selection in particular but you are interested in the question of trust/mistrust of nonfiction authors in general, scroll down to here, which is where I stop talking about Unnatural Selection. Because I just figured out how to hyperlink to places in my own post. What what. Technology.

Unnatural Selection is a book about how widespread access to abortion in many developing nations has led to a crisis in sex-selective abortion, where the ratio of boys born to girls born — a necessary constant because nobody wins in a sex-skewed society — shifts well out of what would be the biological norm. What ends up happening if parents overwhelmingly select for male fetuses is, eventually, a whole bunch of men with no women to marry. Again, nobody wins when this is the case. The men do not win and the women really, really, really do not win.

There are parts of the history of this phenomenon that are straightforwardly morally wrong. When the West decided to make foreign aid to developing nations dependent on reducing the birth rate, it should not have pushed abortion above contraception education and supply on its list of priorities. Because duh. But other things are less straightforward. If you believe women should have access to abortion, it’s tricky to say “You can do it for X reason but not for Y reason.” It is a slippery slope to do that. Also that people can lie. On the other hand, even if you believe that any individual woman has the right to an abortion she wants to have, you nevertheless do not want the global crisis of missing girls that results from many, many women making the decision to abort female fetuses.

See how it is tricky? It is so tricky! I do not have a good solution for policy-makers, but I am glad that people are writing books about this thorny human issue. And Mara Hvistendahl is careful not to make grand pronouncements on the morality of the players in this crisis; she delineates the cultural influences behind what is happening (America really, really wanted to reduce the birth rate in Communist countries during the Cold War; parents in many of the countries with this problem are depending on a son to grow up and take care of them in their old age). So that was really good. She doesn’t point fingers, she doesn’t overgeneralize, and she does a good job breaking down complicated issues in a way that’s readable and understandable.



Whenever I start reading a nonfiction book, I check the references pretty exhaustively at the outset. If the endnotes tend to contain interesting further information, I keep checking the references all the way through. If the endnotes provide citations to sources that seem suspect, I keep checking the references until I finish the book or get fed up with all the shady citations (usually the latter). If the endnotes cite non-shady sources and are boring, I stop after the first chapter or two. Unnatural Selection was a non-extreme example of the second case. There weren’t many citations that I outright distrusted, but a number of citations (the largeness of this number varied wildly from section to section, and in some chapters it was nonexistent) where I thought, “Surely you could have gotten a better source than that.” At one point she cites Malcolm Gladwell to back up a point she wants to make about an international trend. (That being an example of a source I outright distrusted.)

So here are two examples of what I mean:

Sentence: The matchmakers lining the streets of Ruili, along Yunnan’s border with Myanmar, tout Burmese girls as a bargain: half price!
Citation: Keith B. Richburg, “Chinese Border Town Emerges as New Front Line in Fight Against Human Trafficking,” Washington Post, December 26, 2009

Sentence: Donning magenta saris, the women band together into gulabi, or pink, gangs and brandish clubs against offending men.
Citation: Soutik Biswas, “India’s ‘Pink’ Vigilante Women,” BBC News, November 26, 2007

It’s not that I wouldn’t trust these articles if I read them in the wild. I would. I do! I am sure the Washington Post and the BBC did their homework, and that their reports of these occurrences are reliable. It just felt like there must be some better source for Hvistendahl to give. I felt like, if you are going to pick out a horrifying detail (women on sale for half price), it should be your own original horrifying detail, not somebody else’s; and if you are going to talk about an emerging trend (gangs of women going about bashing harassers with clubs), you should cite something that can speak to the long-term existence of this trend.

There was also this thing in the chapter about History where she cited a book about sex selection in history to back up a claim she made about the way the Roman Empire treated women. Again, I don’t not trust her source. I just think that if you are going to cite a book as support of your claims about history, the book should have been written by someone whose entire job it is to know Facts from History. Not someone who has a dog in the fight you’re fighting.

I get that Hvistendahl isn’t a researcher; she’s a journalist. She cites like a journalist and not like a researcher. But still I was left with a lingering, pervasive feeling of unease. There was no specific claim Hvistendahl made that I felt sure was factually wrong (leaving out one remark about the demographics of American women who get abortions, but that information is spottily collected so she gets a pass on that, I guess), but altogether I felt that I should take everything with a very large grain of salt. Or several grains of salt.

Wildly skewed gender ratios is an important international issue, and I picked up this book with the final goal — the same final goal I nearly always have when I pick up a nonfiction book! — of being able to speak sensibly about sex-selective abortion and the problems it presents the global community. Which I now can probably do, but maybe not? Even though I think it’s perfectly likely that (most of) Hvistendahl’s claims are reasonable and accurate, because now, I don’t feel confident that I can trust her sources. So if I am ever in a conversation about sex-selective abortions and I’m repeating a claim I learned from this book, I’ll have to make some qualifying remark about reliability.

This has made me think some thoughts about trusting nonfiction authors. When I was in high school, I read two of Malcolm Gladwell’s books and thought they were pretty good; but what I’ve noticed more recently is that his arguments don’t reeeeeally hang together. What he’s good at — and I’ll be the first to say he’s very good at it — is constructing a compelling narrative, and when someone’s good at that it’s easy to cut them a lot of slack in other areas. I’d like to say that I started noticing this about Malcolm Gladwell because I am a clever critical thinker, but the truth is that I started noticing it because I loathed the narrative presented in one of his essays (this one here), and I started picking the argument apart and finding it sorely wanting. And it turns out that once you have done this to any single Malcolm Gladwell piece, you can’t stop doing it to all the Malcolm Gladwell pieces. Because he is not that good at arguments. Just stories.

And here is the thing: Now that I don’t trust Malcolm Gladwell, I will never trust Malcolm Gladwell. Whenever I read any Malcolm Gladwell article ever, even if he’s making a point I agree with, I feel that I’m being sold a bill of goods. And the same will be a little bit true of Mara Hvistendahl. I may still read articles by both of them — though probably not books, because life is short — but if I get interested in what they’re saying, I will seek independent verification of their claims. This is, I think, completely fair in the case of Malcolm Gladwell, and probably not completely fair in the case of Mara Hvistendahl; but my good opinion, once lost, is lost for ever. (Not really. That is a joke. Little Jane Austen humor for ya there.)

Has this happened to you before? What red flags make you think a nonfiction author may not be trustable? Do the red flags differ if you’re reading a book by a journalist versus a researcher? Or a slightly different question: Have you ever discovered external, biographical things about a nonfiction author that made you reconsider how you felt about their trustworthiness in books you had previously enjoyed?

And a question of duration: Once you feel mistrustful of an author, what would it take for you to stop feeling mistrustful of that person? If they got more degrees, would that do it? If all the experts in their field praised them, would that do it? Or is it never ever ever? I think it’s never ever ever for me! and I’m worried that makes me a close-minded jerk.