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Good Research Does Not Always Produce a Good Book
on January 14, 2006
Watts' book is a series of related essays about the social construction of 6 major diseases. He has poured years of research into this work. The thesis of each chapter is fascinating, and most may well be correct. For example, he posits that biblical leprosy was not Hansen's Disease, and further that medieval leprosy was a social category, and that the "lepers" of that time did not have the disease. There could be something to this.
But this book cannot do better than raise the questions. There are both scientific and historical aspects to this book, but the editing did not bring the writing close to scientific standards. Many generalizations are based on a single piece of evidence. Primary sources are cited without considering that the author's comments may have been self-serving.
Epidemics and History loses its way badly when it tries to intuit the intentions of groups of people, rather than letting their actions speak for themselves. A word count would reveal unusually high frequencies for "desire," "intention," "understanding," "perception," and so forth. I wonder to what extent groups of people through history have been aware of themselves as groups, as the book assumes throughout. Further, it tries to inflame with unnecessary emotive language. Pity.
Academic anti-imperialism was the wrong voice for this work. Watts' research is interesting, theses provocative. But the writing is all wrong. Where were the editors?
If you are interested in the history of disease, you do want to know what Watts says. But the flawed writing makes this a frustrating read.