Sunday, August 4, 2013

Cotton Candy

This essay in today’s New York Times caught my eye:

It’s the latest essay in a series from an anthropologist who writes about religion. As I read, I became increasingly irritated. I posted this comment:

As a writer interested in matters of religion and culture, I’ve read each essay in this series hoping for objective discussion from an informed academic perspective, but time after time the author presents an apologia for religion, with an underlying assumption that religious belief is a rational and constructive condition.

The essays themselves are bits of fluff, without substance. In today's essay, for example, we have an anecdote, which prompts the author to recall another anecdote, followed by speculation and assumption, which is propped up by a comparison to someone else’s tangentially-related research, followed by another assumption. She balances her weighty thesis on two uneven anecdotes.

The title promises a thoughtful essay about addiction. But the concept of “addiction” is mentioned only twice, and anecdotally, at that. In the first case, the author merely observes that “people…engrossed with prayer …seemed almost addicted.” The second instance is from an anecdote, wherein a woman says, “It’s like we’re addicted.” The author does not introduce findings of any research -- by herself or by others -- to show why or how "seems" "almost" and "like" might be representative of a larger trend.

If I subscribed to the print edition of the New York Times rather than the digital edition, I’d be tempted to write a letter to the editor pleading that valuable space not be wasted on this series. Instead, I suggest that the series would benefit from more rigorous editorial review.
Though writers are responsible for their own writing, the editorial staff bears responsibility for what is published. A good editor would have questioned the author: “What’s your point? Can you offer more than two anecdotes and your own assumptions? What will your readers take away from this essay, other than annoyance that they wasted three minutes of their time?”

This essay was like cotton candy: Fluffly, sickly sweet, and without nutrititive value, and sure to leave you feeling regret that you consumed it.

Postscript August 5: I'm glad I cross-posted this comment here, since the NYT chose not to publish it.

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