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Michael Chwe Responds to Miss Austen

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The following is written by Michael Chwe, associate professor of political science at the University of California Los Angeles and author of the recent book Jane Austen, Game Theorist

Dear Miss Austen,

It is an immense honor to be addressed by you.  However, I worry that the letter addressed to me was written not by one of the greatest writers in the English language but by an impersonator, because the Austen that the world knows and loves is a great reader.  The letter recommends reading your novels before reading books about your novels, and of course I agree.  But the person who wrote the letter shows little evidence of either.

For example, the letter states that in Persuasion, Anne Elliot breaks her engagement with Captain Wentworth because of the wishes of “her relatives.”  It is true that Anne’s father, Sir Walter, is against the marriage, but you make quite clear that the decisive opinion is that of Lady Russell: “Young and gentle as she was, it might yet have been possible to withstand her father’s ill-will . . . but Lady Russell, whom she had always loved and relied on, could not, with such steadiness of opinion, and such tenderness of manner, be continually advising her in vain.”  Unfortunately, Lady Russell is not a relative.

The letter thus makes a factual error unworthy of anyone who claims close knowledge of your novels.

The error of not reading my book is not at all comparable to the error of not reading yours, and I apologize for burdening you with this discussion.  The letter quotes from my book, but only from the first chapter; thus I am in the position of a chef who has been judged by her menus, not her food.

If the person who wrote the letter had read past the first chapter of my book, he would understand, for example, that when I write that a person chooses according to her preferences, those preferences can take into account many things, including her financial situation.  I cover this in the second chapter; this is the standard usage of the term “preferences” in game theory.  Saying that Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr. Collins’s proposal because of her need for financial security and not because of her personal preferences, as the letter does, relies on a quite narrow conception of preferences.  A person who does not read my book and holds this narrower conception would misunderstand my meaning.

To take another example, the letter states that “reducing autism to a few habits or character traits and conflating autism with cluelessness seems insulting and ignorant.”  A person who reads beyond the first chapter of my book can find that I quite clearly criticize people who have used the term “autistic” as a kind of disparagement.  I argue that mathematical social science should embrace its “autisticness,” which gives it a distinctive perspective.  A person who reads my book would discover that Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer, in her book So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in Pride and Prejudice, used the perspective of autism to look at Austen’s novels well before I did.  Of course my book does not attempt to reduce autism to anything.  The introductory chapter of a book does reduce the book’s arguments, by definition, but that is why the rest of the book comes soon afterward.

The problem of not reading, both your books and my own, is easily remedied by reading them.  Any problem which can be fixed by reading is a good problem to have.  It is an honor to be able to write to you, especially under the auspices of Scientific American.  Reading Scientific American as a child was my first introduction to the norms of scholarly communication.  Martin Gardner and C. L. Stong were childhood heroes of mine, and it is an honor to speak their names.

Respectfully yours,
Michael Chwe

About the Author: Ferris Jabr is an associate editor focusing on neuroscience and psychology. Follow on Twitter @ferrisjabr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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