Department of Unverifiable Information
The New Yorker is deservedly famous for its fact-checking department, which strains every sentence for errors and inadvertent ambiguities. Mistakes do get by, but not many; unverified assertions that are in theory verifiable usually get cut. John McPhee, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, wrote a fascinating piece about the whole process a few years ago. According to McPhee, assertions that aren’t in theory verifiable — or are, for whatever reason, allowed to go unverified — are put “on author.”
I thought of this phrase the other day when I came across the following passage in Larissa MacFarquhar’s generally excellent profile of the British philosopher Derek Parfit:
There is something not-there about him, an unphysical, slightly androgynous quality. He lacks the normal anti-social emotions — envy, malice, dominance, desire for revenge…. Parfit is less aware than most of the boundaries of his self — less conscious of them and less protective. He is helplessly, sometimes unwillingly, empathetic: he will find himself overcome by the mood of the person he is with, especially if that person is unhappy.
One doesn’t have to be a philosopher to be struck by the epistemological grandiosity of this description. Did Parfit tell MacFarquhar that he lacked the normal anti-social emotions, or did she reach this conclusion on her own? Either way, it’s an extraordinary claim to be making about anyone — that he’s innocent not of anti-social behavior (though that, too, would be extraordinary) but of “normal anti-social emotions.” This sentence implies that the author is privy not only to the way Parfit feels, but also to the way most people feel. So, for that matter, does the sentence comparing his “awareness of the boundaries of his self” to that of others. This is a voice of perfect omniscience, the kind one might expect to find in a novel, not a piece of journalism. Coming across such a passage, one can only respond, “If you say so.”
As it happens, Parfit himself once worked at the New Yorker as a researcher for The Talk of the Town, a section of the magazine that has perfected the art of sizing people up without pretending to step inside their heads. If someone tells you he’s never felt anger, there’s your story: let the reader consider what sort of person tells you that. Put it on the reader, or on the subject, but not on author.