Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Can you plagiarize folklore?

[the following is a follow-up of sorts to this earlier post on plagiarism.]

You can certainly steal the wording, perhaps the narrative structure, but does it make any sense to talk about plagiarizing something that has neither distinct authors or authorship dates? That's a question raised by by this
kerfuffle over the following paragraph lifted by Karl Weick:
The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wilderness. It began to snow immediately, snowed for two days, and the unit did not return. The lieutenant suffered, fearing that he had dispatched his own people to death. But the third day the unit came back. Where had they been? How had they made their way? Yes, they said, we considered ourselves lost and waited for the end. And then one of us found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down. We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm, and then with the map we discovered our bearings. And here we are. The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map and had a good look at it. He discovered to his astonishment that it was not a map of the Alps but of the Pyrenees.
It's possible that this story really happened (I have reason to doubt it but I'll get into that later), but that's not really important. Some times the events in folk tales and urban myths do happen but that doesn't stop the tales and myths from functioning, culturally and aesthetically, as folklore.

The genre of worthless items proving valuable stretches at least from Stone Soup (which merits its own type in the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification system) to Mamma's Bank Account. Add to that the related genre of false or misunderstood instructions and you can find literally thousands of antecedents.

Now check out the "original" version (again from Gelman):

1916: Albert Szent-Györgyi, a medical student in Budapest, serves in World War 1.
1930: Working in Szeged, Hungary, Szent-Györgyi and his colleagues discover vitamin C. In the next several decades, he continues to make research contributions and becomes a prominent scientist, eventually moving to the U.S. after World War 2. He dies in 1986.
1972: Medical researcher Oscar Hechter reports the following in the proceedings of a “an international conference on cell membrane structure,” published in 1972:
Let me close by sharing with you a story told me by Albert Szent-Györgyi. A small group of Hungarian troops were camped in the Alps during the First World War. Their commander, a young lieutenant, decided to send out a small group of men on a scouting mission. Shortly after the scouting group left it began to snow, and it snowed steadily for two days. The scouting squad did not return, and the young officer, something of an intellectual and an idealist, suffered a paroxysm of guilt over having sent his men to their death. In his torment he questioned not only his decision to send out the scouting mission, but also the war itself and his own role in it. He was a man tormented.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, on the third day the long-overdue scouting squad returned. There was great joy, great relief in the camp, and the young commander questioned his men eagerly. “Where were you?” he asked. “How did you survive, how did you find your way back?” The sergeant who had led the scouts replied, “We were lost in the snow and we had given up hope, had resigned ourselves to die. Then one of the men found a map in his pocket. With its help we knew we could find our way back. We made camp, waited for the snow to stop, and then as soon as we could travel we returned here.” The young commander asked to see this wonderful map. It was a map not of the Alps but of the Pyrenees!
The moral of the story, as given by Hechter and by Bernard Pullman at another symposium a year later, is that the map gave the soldiers the confidence to make good decisions
1977: Immunologist Miroslav Holub publishes a poem (of the prosy, non-rhyming sort) telling the lost-soldiers story (again, crediting Szent-Györgyi) in the Times Literary Supplement, translated from the Czech. Holub may have actually attended the meeting reported on by Hechter.
Take a good look at the format here. The narrator says a person he knows told him a story which he then repeats. The source is specific and reliable. The story is improbable, involves unnamed protagonists and a fairly non-specific setting, and has folkloristic aspects. This puts us squarely into urban myth territory and a map of that territory is useful when you try to what's happening here.

Much of the pernicious staying power of urban myths is the tendency to attribute the credibility of the source to the story itself. Of course, with an urban myth, the source is simply another link in the chain just as we are when we repeat the story.

With that in mind, when Gelman emphasizes the importance of crediting Szent-Györgyi, it begs the question, what should we credit him with? What is Szent-Györgyi's role here? Though we can't say for certain, it seems unlikely that he came up with the story (and if so, he certainly misrepresented it). Likewise, it doesn't seem like these events happened to him or that he witnessed them. Instead, based on the evidence that we have in front of us, it seems obvious that Szent-Györgyi's role here was the same as Hechter's and Holub's and Weick's; he heard a story and he repeated it.

Weick certainly owes Holub an apology and an acknowledgement, but as for not mentioning Szent-Györgyi, I think he made the right call. Naming Szent-Györgyi implies that we know the source and can trust the story's veracity (I doubt that we do or can). Saying nothing about where the story came from is possibly more honest; it doesn't imply anything we have reason to believe is untrue. Instead it presents this as an apocryphal tale, a bit of folklore. As such, it has to stand on its own merits: is it interesting and thought provoking?; does it make a valid point?

Weick unquestionably stole the words he used to tell this story, but I suspect the story itself has been told and retold since soldiers started carrying maps. Arguing about plagiarism at this point seems rather silly.


  1. Or maybe the map let the person in charge keep panic from occurring. Sometimes just not panicking can make all of the difference. It could still have worked out badly, but calmness might have worked out in this case.

  2. Mark:

    Did I really "emphasizes the importance of crediting Szent-Györgyi"? I don't recall that, although I suppose that is possible. What I recall is emphasizing that Weick didn't credit Holub. By obscuring the source of the story, Weick killed much of his (and the reader's) ability to learn from the anecdote. The source of a story provides valuable metadata; removing the source is like removing the return address from a letter.

    1. Andrew,

      "Emphasizes" was bad writing on my part. I should have said "explicitly points out."

      As for the metadata, one of the main points of the post was that the metadata omitted was of no real value and was more likely to obscure than inform.

      Based on the story itself and on Hechler's I'm prepared to argue that this is almost certainly a piece of folklore that apparently was making the rounds in WWII. That is, not coincidentally, the same conclusion I reached reading Weick's version.

    2. WWI is, of course right. I wasn't paying attention. The mistake's ironic because I'm getting ready to argue that the apparent illiteracy of the soldiers makes it more likely that the story predates WWI -- WWII would be far less likely.

    3. Mark:

      The value of the metadata in this case is that it reveals that the story is likely to never have actually happened.

      In contrast, Weick describes it as an "incident that happened during military maneuvers in Switzerland.” This is false metadtata, or disinformation: spurious claims that give the story an air of being true. Had Weick accurately presented the metadata that he had available (that he was copying a poem that had appeared in the TLS that was itself describing a story at best at second hand), I think the chance of the confusion would have been reduced.

    4. Andrew,

      I took the opposite interpretation. By associating the highly respected Szent-Györgyi with the story (even though he seemed to have made no claim for its veracity), the metadata made people more likely to assume that the story. Furthermore, if I just saw Holub's account, I could easily assume that he had made the details more vague and mythic because he was writing a poem and that the original was more specific and believable.

      One of my points was that this kind of transfer of authority is a fundamental part of the formation of urban myths.

    5. On a related point, I think it's important to distinguish between the different aspects of the metadata, particularly the question of citing Szent-Györgyi (which I believe would have been optional since Szent-Györgyi was very probably not the originator and which might actually have been misleading).

      For me, the ideal framing would have been something like the following: "This is an old story that I learned of through a fine poem by Miroslav Holub." It credits Holub but emphasizes the likely apocryphal nature of the tale.