Talking about book reviews is a tricky business. I very rarely respond to reviews of my books (I’ve done it twice), realizing that there is no way to please everyone when writing about a controversial topic. Sometimes an off-the-wall comment offends someone and a nasty review follows. Sometimes it is the conclusion with which they disagree, which is, of course, one of the purposes of the review. It is the opinion of the reviewer and he or she has the right to say whatever he or she wants. All I can do is hope that it is a fair review, even if negative.
This, however, is not about me. This is about a review written by Robert Sheaffer that appeared in Skeptical Inquirer about Tom Carey’s and Don Schmitt’s Inside the Real Area 51. No, I’m not going to quarrel with his analysis of the book because that is opinion and he is entitled to his. That he didn’t find the evidence in the book to be persuasive is a matter of how high you wish to set the bar, and how important some of the testimony is to understanding the UFO phenomenon. Robert sets the bar quite high and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
No, what bothers me is his use of events that are about two decades old and might have little relevance in discussing this book. He publishes excerpts from a letter that I wrote in the mid-1990s about a situation that developed as Don talked about what he did for a living. Is this important in understanding this book? I don’t know. People change and people grow and sometimes events from that long ago are not that important (but sometimes they do provide a yardstick for understanding what is being said today). In other words, Robert’s use of these events does go to the credibility of the book and it is for each reader to decide the importance of that information. Had Robert contacted me about this, I might have provided him with a different perspective (but, of course, a reviewer is not obligated to contact someone who didn’t write the book and whose letter is an unfortunate artifact from another set of circumstances and another time).
The real problem I have here is the use of a private communication that wasn’t sent to Robert, and one that should not have seen the light of day without my permission. The law, I believe, says that I’m the copyright holder on that letter, which was sent, in confidence to a third party who had agreed to the confidentiality. (And before we slide off into another arena, let me say that Robert’s quote from the letter probably falls under “fair use,” another legal term that I might be misapplying here.)
Is it relevant to the review?… well, sort of, but that overlooks the role that Tom played in the creation of the book, and I know that Tom did most of the writing. That fact is relevant as well but one that wasn’t available to Robert.
But my real objection is the use of that private communication, which is not used in context. I know in trials evidence that has not been properly or legally gathered is excluded, even when that evidence is relevant. In that artificial world of legal theory, such evidence does not exist. But we’re not in a court and all evidence applies. I just object to the use of a private communication written in confidence.
To me it seems unfair to use that in a review of a book. Shouldn’t the review be about the information in the book rather than opinions about events outside the scope of that book? Shouldn’t the book be judged by its contents? Should a letter written about other circumstances be included in the review?
This is a difficult call, made more so by the violation of a confidence. Robert Sheaffer should not have known about the letter… but since the information was out in a more or less public arena, should he have ignored it?
Here’s my take on it. I would have preferred not to be mentioned in a review of a book that I had no hand in creating. I was not involved and some of the events mentioned in the review should not have been mentioned. But, I fear, I think like this only because I don’t wish to be dragged into this.
But then, thinking about it, the credibility of the book lies in the hands of the writers of that book and if there is information that speaks directly to that credibility, should it be ignored given these specific circumstances? That is the call to be made by the reviewer and it is up to him or her to decide what is relevant and what is not.
What it boils down to here is that I object to the confidential information being used. There was other information, other evidence, that could make the same point without the continued violation of a confidence and please don’t think that Robert violated my confidence… he used information that was now publicly available… I simply wish he had avoided it. He could have made his case as strongly without it. But, as I say, that was his call and this is my opinion. I just wish he had gone in a different direction.