In an absolutely amazing story, Carol Tilley, a professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, went through the research notes that anti-comics crusader Fredric Wertham took on his interviews with research subjects for Seduction of the Innocent, his book on the social and psychological impacts of comics — and discovered that he was faking the data. As a report on her work explains:
Wertham’s personal archives, however, show that the doctor revised children’s ages, distorted their quotes, omitted other causal factors and in general “played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics,” according to an article by Carol Tilley, published in a recent issue of Information and Culture: A Journal of History….
As she pored over his files, she began to recognize the case notes of children referred to in “Seduction,” and typing their quotes into her laptop computer. But when she returned to her hotel room and compared her notes to Wertham’s book, she found numerous inconsistencies. “I thought well maybe I’ve missed something, maybe I typed incorrectly,” Tilley said. So she began photocopying portions of Wertham’s files and comparing them closely to his book. “That’s when I realized the extent of the changes.”
For example, in “Seduction,” Wertham links “Batman” comic books to the case of a 13-year-old boy on probation and receiving counseling for sexual abuse of another boy: “Like many other homo-erotically inclined children, he was a special devotee of Batman: ‘Sometimes I read them over and over again. … It could be that Batman did something with Robin like I did with the younger boy.’ ”
What Tilley found in Wertham’s notes, however, was that the boy preferred “Superman,” “Crime Does Not Pay” and “war comics” over “Batman,” and that he had previously been sexually assaulted by the other boy — all information that Wertham left out.
The whole thing is a wonderful reminder not to trust an argument just because it has an academic imprimatur — or because the people who advance it get an opportunity to present their ideas to Congress. And if our discussion of gun control continues to include calls to investigate a theoretical link between popular culture and gun violence — Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) is the latest legislator to get on that particular bandwagon — Tilley’s findings should be a cautionary tale for the researchers tasked with the study. I’d hope it’s harder to commit academic fraud today than it was in Wertham’s time.
But given that we live in a moment when 67 percent of Republicans think that violent video games present a “bigger safety threat” than guns according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey, the same kind of incentives to find video games guilty exist today that existed when Wertham went after comics. And even if a rigorous study does emerge from our current debate over guns policy, I’d be amazed if it was publicly accepted. The public doesn’t blame comics or video games for crime and violence because they have strong evidence and day-to-day demonstrations of the impact of that media. They blame comics and video games because they have relatively low levels of cultural capital relative to mediums like film and television, and because it’s easier to think about regulating culture than it is to go after other, more systematic elements of American life.