The Corner

Nit-Picking

Today’s Sunday New York Times includes a cartoon about Michael Bellesiles and John Lott, accusing them of moral equivalence. It’s a hard claim to make since Bellesiles’s book was a fabrication through and through, as Clayton Cramer has proven. In contrast, the Lott controversy involves only a single sentence in his book, and the rest of the book is supported by a detailed data which Lott has made available to many dozens of researchers. But I think the worst thing about the cartoon is that it shows the continuing decline of quality editing at the Times. The cartoon refers to “knit-picking” scholars who questioned Lott. People who pay attention to small details are not like people who pick at knitted fabric; the proper word is “nit-picking”–a metaphor for picking tiny lice eggs (nits) out of hair. Nit-picking, both literally and figuratively is a very important activity. During my father’s 22-year career in the Colorado legislature, he was known as the body’s chief nit-picker, which meant that he paid careful attention to how proposed statutes were worded, so that sloppy language did not cause unintended problems. (He also worked on scores of bigger projects, authoring many major bills, and serving for a while as House Judiciary Chairman, and as Assistant Minority Leader). Nit-pickers get rid of problems which are tiny now but which will cause serious trouble later if they are not removed. Let’s not confuse much-needed nit-pickers which the pointlessly destructive people who distress knitted clothing.

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