Can A Single Sentence Discredit an Entire Book?

25 02 2012

Debt: the First 5,000 Years is a best-selling book on economic history by David Graeber, an American-born anthropologist who teaches at Goldsmith’s College, which is part of the University of London. Graeber is a self-described left anarchist and his 2011 book appears to be popular with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London movements. He also writes for the Guardian, a left-leaning paper.

Normally, I would be very happy to see any book on economic history (broadly defined) enjoy commercial success, since I think that it is good thing if citizens are paying attention to the economic past and considering radical critiques of the existing order. I was also intrigued by the book’s subject. Until last week, I was considering adding this book to the reading list for my history of globalisation class for the 2012-2013 academic year. I was thinking that this book might at least get students thinking and debating. However, some of the reviews I have read recently have made me rule out the possibility of assigning this book. Normally, the presence of a sentence with a factual error in it would not preclude giving a book to undergraduates to read, but as other bloggers (see here, here,  and here) have pointed out, Graeber’s book contains a sentence with no less than six factual errors in it:

“Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.”

This sentence also caught my attention as it have recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Apple Computers was founded in the 1970s, not the 1980s. None of the founders had worked for IBM. The founders of Apple were products of the 1960s counterculture and most certainly were not Republicans. Apple was notorious hierarchical, not democratic, in its corporate culture. Note: a personality cult isn’t a democracy.  Apple had only a few employees to start with, not enough to have a circle of twenty to forty people. The founders couldn’t possibly have been using laptops in their garages in the 1970s, since laptops simply didn’t exist.

Most non-fiction books that are hundreds of pages long contain a few minor factual errors. Errors aren’t certainly desirable, but it many cases they don’t undermine the basic thesis of a book or the credibility of an author. It is common to read an academic book review that is very positive but which includes, in the final paragraph, a reference to a couple of minor factual errors.

Do the factual errors in Graeber’s book matter that much? Are they important enough to invalidate his claims? I would say that they  do.

First, the factual errors related to a relatively recent period of history greatly undermine one’s confidence in Graeber’s accuracy as a source of information about the 5,000 year of history covered in his book. If he can’t get events in California in the 1970s right, how can we trust him when he talks about debt in ancient Mesopotamia or in relatively exotic cultures.

There is a more fundamental problem with the sentence I have quoted. The author’s assertion that Apple was founded by Republicans really struck a nerve with me– Graeber’s viewpoint is that capitalism is all about extending the power of deeply entrenched Establishments. The rich keep getting richer and richer and the people in the “1%” are basically unchanging.  The reality is quite different: the constant churn associated with the creative destruction destroys old Establishments and creates new elites– Steve Jobs, a hippy who founded what became the world’s most valuable company (at least for a brief period) really seems to illustrate this fundamental point, which does have a direct bearing on the moral legitimacy of capitalism.