Commentary Magazine


Topic: Comics

Pop Culture, Violence, and Shoddy Social Science

One of the signal figures of the early 1950s was a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham, who wrote a bestselling book called The Seduction of the Innocent—a book that had the kind of impact beyond the fantasies of most writers. By supposedly demonstrating that comic books were warping the minds of young boys and making them violent and comfortable with violence, Wertham and his work became the focus of some of the first publicity-bait Congressional hearings and led the comics industry to censor itself to prevent official censorship.

Does this all sound familiar, in the wake of Sandy Hook? Well, here’s the cautionary note: Wertham made it up. A site called bleedingcool.com has uncovered an academic paper by Carol Tilley detailing Wertham’s unethical conduct in collecting data points and research, which involves wholesale distortions of the information he did have and clear invention in other cases.

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One of the signal figures of the early 1950s was a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham, who wrote a bestselling book called The Seduction of the Innocent—a book that had the kind of impact beyond the fantasies of most writers. By supposedly demonstrating that comic books were warping the minds of young boys and making them violent and comfortable with violence, Wertham and his work became the focus of some of the first publicity-bait Congressional hearings and led the comics industry to censor itself to prevent official censorship.

Does this all sound familiar, in the wake of Sandy Hook? Well, here’s the cautionary note: Wertham made it up. A site called bleedingcool.com has uncovered an academic paper by Carol Tilley detailing Wertham’s unethical conduct in collecting data points and research, which involves wholesale distortions of the information he did have and clear invention in other cases.

I haven’t read the paper, for a journal called Information and Culture, but here’s the precis: 

Although there have been persistent concerns about the clinical evidence Wertham used as the basis for Seduction, his sources were made widely available only in 2010. This paper documents specific examples of how Wertham manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence—especially that evidence he attributed to personal clinical research with young people—for rhetorical gain.

This kind of thing happens all the time when social scientists attempt to show links between consumption of popular culture and human behavior, though it’s often skewed by means such as ridiculously small sample sizes for studies or questions so outrageously tilted they can only be answered as the researcher would wish them to be.

This is no way to make public policy, but here we are, yet again, following inexplicable massacres, looking to video games or shoot-em-ups or some other supposedly causative factor when the simple fact is that when 99.9 percent of those who consume the offending material do not harm others because of it, it cannot be a determinant.

This also allows me to link to one of the greatest essays ever published in COMMENTARY, by the peerless Robert Warshow, who died tragically at the age of 37 in 1955 and whose posthumous collection, The Immediate Experience, remains the best example of how to write well and seriously about popular culture in a way that does not overrate its artistic value nor underrate its emotional power. The essay, “Paul, the Horror Comics, and Dr. Wertham,” is an examination of Warshow’s uneasiness both with Wertham’s approach and his young son’s love of the comic books Wertham was gunning for. It’s a masterpiece. Read it here.

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