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Author has a word or two in response to review’s critiques

Associated Press

In her review of my book “The Exceptions: Nancy Hopkins, MIT, and the Fight for Women in Science” (“No exceptions,” Books, March 12), Ellen Ruppel Shell writes that I relied heavily on Hopkins’s “notes, diaries, and memories in this account, and it shows. One longs to hear the responses from her alleged detractors (not all of them scientists).” In fact, as I detailed in the note on sources in the book, I also spent four years interviewing others involved in the story, which of course included Hopkins’s “alleged detractors.” I listed those I interviewed in the acknowledgments, and — as any journalist would do — I considered their responses and versions in writing the book. In some cases, those contradicted Hopkins’s account, and in others, they corroborated it, but in either case, the book reflects that. In the limited number of cases where one of these people declined to speak with me, I noted it in the footnotes.

Shell also counts as a “misstep” that I wrote that the MIT philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson “developed” the thought experiment known as the trolley problem. “Technically,” Shell tells us, “that distinction belongs to British philosopher Philippa Ruth Foot.” Shell is correct that Foot first conceived of the problem. But Thomson did, in fact, expand the idea, flesh it out, and broaden the question and is widely known for that work. I did not say she conceived, created, or first raised it. In a book that spends quite a bit of time discussing the attribution and misattribution of credit, “developed” was not a “misstep”; it was a careful word choice.


Kate Zernike

Montclair, N.J.