MISREADING OR MISLEADING: Wertham’s Words of Wizdumb

There were so many things to cover in BAD FOR YOU concerning Dr. Frederic Wertham’s attack on comics. That’s why, when it came time to discuss his critique of how they damaged a child’s reading ability, we had to be limit it to only one panel in the book.

In honor of the latest excerpt at Tor.com, we thought we’d allow Dr. Wertham the room here to expand on his theory (or, depending on your point of view, knot his own noose):

Among the worst readers is [sic] a very high percentage of comic-book addicts who spend very much time ‘reading’ comic books. They are book worms without books.

 How many children suffering from reading disorders are comic-book readers? The answer is simple. Most of them are. 

Comics reading reinforces the reading disorder, if it has not helped to cause it in the first place… 

The discrepancy between the easy appeal of the pictures and the difficulty of reading the text is too great to encourage anyone to try to follow what the characters are supposed to be saying.

Instead of learning good reading habits they acquire the habit of not reading. They become slow readers, meanwhile continuing to read their comic books.

In questioning hundreds of children I have found that comic-book reading and reading good books for pleasure are for all purposes opposites.

Reading difficulties are of course common in the school classes for children with retarded mental development. We have therefore in our investigation made special studies in these classes. They afford additional conclusive proof that severe reading difficulties and maximum comic-book reading go hand in hand, and that far from being a help to reading, comic books are a causal and reinforcing factor in children’s reading disorders.

– Chapter Five, “Retooling for Illiteracy” from Seduction of the Innocent

In particular, that last quote really has the ring of scientific truth to it. Throwing around terms such as “special studies,” “conclusive proof,” and “causal…factor” make his argument sound so darn convincing. But where is the actual science behind those highfalutin’ words?

One investigator decided to find out and recently published her own “special” study on Dr. Wertham’s research notes. What she found was “conclusive proof” that the good doctor, in fact, had none.

“Lots of people have suspected for years that Wertham fudged his so-called clinical evidence in arguing against comics, but there’s been no proof,” according to an article by Carol Tilley, published in a recent issue of Information and Culture: A Journal of History. At least, there wasn’t any until Tilley started digging through his personal archives (only made public in 2010), where she discovered evidence of how Wertham revised children’s ages, distorted their quotes, omitted other causal factors and, generally, “played fast and loose with the data he gathered on comics.” Read about her research here to discover how Wertham “misrepresented and altered children’s own words about comics.”

Sounds like Wertham suffered from his own special form of research “disorder” – or is that distortion.

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