Academic Technology @ Palomar College

Big Blow Up Over A-Bomb Book

As I have said, I love books.  When I can’t read, I listen to audio books.  On my short commute to college, or on other road trips, I can “read” 25-35 more books per year than I could if I actually had to physically read them.  Accordingly, after hassling for a long time with checking audio books out of the library, or downloading public domain audio books from Project Gutenberg or LibriVox, I decided it was worthwhile to try Audible.com.  That was a couple of years ago and I haven’t looked back since.

I subscribe to what is called an  “AudioListener Gold” account, which means that for $14.95 per month I get 1 credit, good for 1 audio book download (in most cases, though there are some priced at 2 credits).  Furthermore,  audible.com runs specials from time-to-time on discounted titles (though I am still not sure what a “clearance” type sales mean in the digital realm),so that major books of over 50 hours length can be purchases for very low prices.  Audible.com is owned by Amazon,and therefore they live or die by customer service, and that is what my tale is about.

Last week it was revealed in the New York Times (and many other news outlets) that Henry Holt & Co., a division of Macmillan, had halted publication of the book by “Dr.” Charles Pellegrino titled The Last Train From Hiroshima.  According to the article Pellegrino ”was not able to answer” questions about the actual existence of two men mentioned in the text.  Furthermore, it was revealed that Pellegrino was duped by one of his informants, who “had falsely claimed to be on one of the planes accompanying the Enola Gay, from which an atom bomb was dropped by the United States on Hiroshima in 1945.”   Worst of all,it was revealed that Pellegrino’s Ph. D.–an honorific he uses to identify himself on his web site and in his author’s bio–is not legitimate.  He was, it turns out, never awarded the Ph. D. from Victoria University of Wellington:

“In an interview earlier this week, Mr. Pellegrino said that he had completed his dissertation and was awarded a Ph.D., only to have it stripped a few years later by an ad hoc tribunal convened by faculty members because of a dispute over evolutionary theory. In an e-mailed statement, Professor Pat Walsh, vice chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington, confirmed that Mr. Pellegrino had been a Ph.D. student in the 1980s.

“He submitted a thesis which in the unanimous opinion of the examiners was not of a sufficient standard for a Ph.D. to be awarded,” Ms. Walsh said. “Following complaints from Pellegrino, an investigation was carried out by the University. In 1986, Pellegrino appealed to Her Majesty the Queen. The case was then considered by the Governor-General who disallowed the appeal. Accordingly, Pellegrino was never awarded a Ph.D. from Victoria and therefore could not have had it stripped from him or reinstated at a later date” (NY Times, “University Rejects Pellegrino Claim in Degree Dispute“).

A glance at the “reviews” on his web site (if you read them completely you will see why I have quoted this word)  might lead one to believe that he is closer to the school of scientific popularizers represented by the likes of Erich von Däniken than Carl Sagan or Brian Greene.  He certainly seems to have courted controversy.  The difference is that von Däniken’s speculations were just that, where Pellegrino has apparently used two “sources” that were no sources at all.  The difference is all in the bona fides the author presents to the prospective reader, the incipient contract, as it were, between information provider and information consumer.

I purchased “Dr.” Pellegrino’s book in audio edition from Audible.com long before this controversy erupted, based in part on a Dwight Garner review in the Times, the audible.com promotional materials, and my own interest in the subject.   Holt & Co., when the facts of the matter came to light, announced that it ”will issue full credit to wholesalers and retailers who wish to return the book. Consumers who seek a refund should return to the retailer from whom they purchased the book.”  When I heard the news, I decided to contact Audible.com to see whether I too, as a consumer of the audible version of the book, was entitled to a refund.  After all, I had already downloaded the file from audible.com.  I might have already listened to it or burned it to CD.  Audible.com had no way of knowing.  Yet again, purchasers of the hard copy of the book might have already read it, but Holt did not seem to be making that a condition of return.  The real question was, would a digital copy of a product be treated exactly as a physical copy with respect to refund?

The answer, I am happy to say to audible.com’s credit, is Yes.  Within 24-hours of my email to audible.com I was contacted by their representative via email and told that a refund had been issued to my account, and that the book had been removed from my audible.com library.  (A library of downloads is maintained in case you want to stream them or download them again).  I still had the audio file within my iTunes library and on my iPod.  It was, in fact, a return without returning anything.  Three days later I actually saw the credit returned to my charge card, which is why I waited until now to write this piece.  I was refunded the full price I paid.

Now, if I wished, I could still listen to the book or burn it to CD.  I do not want to, of course.  The book received a generally positive review from the NY Times’ Dwight Garner, who called it “sober and authoritative,” and it probably recounts the stories of many of the Hiroshima survivors accurately, but with the knowledge that the author cannot answer queries about the existence of some of the people he describes (in contrast to the wonderful update of Hiroshima by John Hersey), and is not what he claims to be, I don’t want to have anything to do with it.

(One has to wonder what Pellegrino was thinking if he has simply invented characters for the sake of the story, which seems to be what Holt is implying.  There has been no dearth of research on Hiroshima and its aftermath.  It is a well worn road.  Surely, if two important, previously unknown witnesses had been unearthed the author would have known how important it would be to verify their existence. )

We hear a lot from certain quarters about inaccurate information on the Internet and within Wikipedia specifically, but we should not forget that the traditional publishing industry, with editors,  fact-checking staffs, and after-market reviewers sometimes produce fallacious information in the guise of authority.  It is not a matter of the technology used to present ideas and information.  It is about the level of trust we have built into the process.  The Wikipedia model is a good one in that facts are checked by multitudes, and if they are inaccurate, they are corrected.  Certainly the Internet model of every man becoming a publisher is open to more potential abuses, but on the other hand, ideas are consumed more widely and are subject to correction by a greater number of reviewers.  In the end, it matters that we get down to the truth, where that is possible.

I am very pleased with audible.com’s response to this issue.  As I said, they are an Amazon company, and a recent survey of world wide brands showed that Amazon is the most trusted brand in the United States.  To earn a reputation like that, customer service has to be your primary product, and in every dealing I have had with Amazon that has proven to be the case.  Interestingly, while not a word about the book Last Train From Hiroshima can be found when performing a search on the Henry Holt & Co. web site, it is still listed for sale at Amazon in hard copy accompanied by this note:

“It is with deep regret that Henry Holt and Company announces that we will no longer print, correct or ship copies of Charles Pellegrino’s The Last Train from Hiroshima due to the discovery of a dishonest sources of information for the book.

“It is easy to understand how even the most diligent author could be duped by a source, but we also understand that opens that book to very detailed scrutiny. The author of any work of non-fiction must stand behind its content. We must rely on our authors to answer questions that may arise as to the accuracy of their work and reliability of their sources. Unfortunately, Mr. Pellegrino was not able to answer the additional questions that have arisen about his book to our satisfaction.

“Mr. Pellegrino has a long history in the publishing world, and we were very proud and honored to publish his history of such an important historical event. But without the confidence that we can stand behind the work in its entirety, we cannot continue to sell this product to our customers.”

The audio version is also still for sale at audible.com, accompanied by the same publisher’s note and this additional note from audible:

“Recently, there have been questions about the accuracy of some parts of this book. At this time, Audible will continue to make it available to our customers, but we wanted to make you aware of the issues.”

It looks as if audible.com is leaving it up to customers to decide whether they want to apply for a refund or not, since there are no directives on how to go about it or whether it is even possible.  I would urge audible.com, however, at the least, to re-word the roll-over description of the book on their web site which states that:

“Charles Pellegrino’s scientific authority and close relationship with the A-bomb’s survivors make his account the most gripping and authoritative ever written.”

Not so much.

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