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"Bad books" and how to spot them.
March 23, 2012 7:05 AM   Subscribe


 
I haven't finished the article yet, but I must say that in my impressionable youth, I read both Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Chariots of the Gods? (I think they were lent to me by my conspiracy-loving grandfather. I can't remember ever being taken with them, any more than I remember being taken with the conservative Christian arguments against evolution, but I suppose I must have been.
posted by muddgirl at 7:18 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is fascinating - I really like how he didn't concentrate on the content of bad non-fiction books, but on their shared rhetoric. He provides tools for a reader to use to be wary of bad books.

I have fallen prey to books like these, especially anything about goddess worship - and I think I would have probably have been swayed by 1421 if it had not come out just about the time that I was taking Chinese history in university. That said, I've heard (from experts even) that 1491 is an excellent synthesis of research on native American history.

I'm now highly skeptical of anything about pagan religions, or any European cultural history before c1000 BC in the south, and before c600 ad in the north, because everything I have learned from actual historians has emphasized that we don't know about how people thought before we have written sources. We have just fragments of the pre-Christian religions; our knowledge of pre-Christian Norse beliefs, for example, rests largely on laconic rune stones and sagas and books which were written down by Christians decades or even centuries after the widespread conversion of their society. These are very difficult sources.
posted by jb at 7:25 AM on March 23, 2012 [13 favorites]


One thing is certain that the author and I agree on:

Da Vinci Code was quite possibly one of the worst books I've ever read.
posted by Thistledown at 7:28 AM on March 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


And I always thought you spotted a bad book by looking for the words "James Patterson" splashed across the cover.
posted by MoonOrb at 7:29 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


A few of the most popular, best-selling, most given away, "most important," books of all-time is Bad Book that is chock full of stuff that is insupportable by logic yet taken super seriously by millions and millions and defended to the death (either your or theirs). So, no surprise that other Band Books are wildly popular. In America at least, we have been preconditioned by a couple of centuries of Anti-Intellectualism which has crippled our judgement of what is and is not logical.
posted by holdkris99 at 7:32 AM on March 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


When I was a kid I loved this sort of claptrap. Come on, how can you be a dumb kid and not be utterly taken with the idea of gods from outer space tinkering with the minds and genes of cavemen? It was such a compelling idea that Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick used it in one of their most memorable works. It was the plot of at least half of the original Star Trek episodes.
posted by fleetmouse at 7:33 AM on March 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


I don't know about everyone else, but I was sort of thrown into the world of the paranormal wholesale as a young kid. My grandmother -- like many women from the USSR -- owns tons of books on mysticism, UFOlogy and so on. It runs the gamut from just lists of UFO sightings to David Icke-level nutiness except just that much crazier because it's coming out of a culture of paradoxical cynicism and credulousness. I really got into books about the paranormal just as soon as I could read, even though they scared the crap out of me. Other kids would be afraid of monsters and goblins in the dark; I would be terrified to fall asleep because I had read that many descriptions of alien abduction. I think, somewhere around age 10 or 11, I was sitting around having tea with my grandmother, and told her that I knew more than they (as in, the keepers of the secrets) knew about UFOs and aliens and the paranormal and she told me that I knew exactly as much as they wanted me to know and that just blew my little mind. It also jump-started the skeptic in me where encountering any sort of paranormal claim, I don't immediately default to "bullshit!" but rather, my instinct is to figure out why someone wants me to know or see this. The motivation behind it -- especially when there's something past "people will pay me money to say these things" -- is usually a lot more interesting than whatever half-truths they're peddling, anyway. Plus I never stopped believing that there's a lot of weird, weird shit out there and rather than wasting my time picking the wheat from the chaff, I'm just going to hang around the fields and see what happens. For what it's worth we also had shelves of books of folk tales from around the world, and at least two bibles (New and Old Testament, and we were secular Jews) so all that stuff was treated on roughly the same level. Were Betty and Barney Hill abducted by aliens? I don't know. Was Jesus the Messiah? Was Ilya Muromets given superhuman strength by the breath of the dying giant Svyatogor? Did that mountain really eat that greedy Chinese peasant? Who knows. As a kid, everything makes sense and nothing make sense.

I just hate the idea that all these books are being relegated to a dumpster of badness because of the intent of the author. Some amazing literature throughout the world comes from, at some point, crazy-ass stories from people who believed in what they were talking about. Hell, how much of the tradition of English literature grew organically out of the KJV? Take away the idea that Holy Blood and Chariots are trying to espouse secret fact held from mankind for eons, and you get a completely different sort of book. The badness comes from the assumption that they're about Facts. It's just a little sad to see a genre of literature that's been around since antiquity be derided as just "bad."

Allied to assumption creep is the apparent abolition of Occam's razor.

I've been waiting to bring this up for a while, but a friend of mine refers to the "no, no, it must have been aliens" tendency as "Aykroyd's Razor."
posted by griphus at 7:34 AM on March 23, 2012 [45 favorites]


Hal Lindsey hasn't given up on his "Late Great Planet Earth" hypothesis. (warning: WND.com link)

I find that oddly comforting.
posted by Trurl at 7:34 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was such a compelling idea that Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick used it in one of their most memorable works. It was the plot of at least half of the original Star Trek episodes.

Yeah, exactly. Take all those "bad" books as well "THIS IS FACT" and more "I built this world for you to play in" and suddenly they're not so bad anymore.
posted by griphus at 7:36 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


When I was a kid I loved this sort of claptrap.

Seriously. Suburban Long Island in the 1970s may have had its merits, but it wasn't as interesting as Bigfoot or the Bermuda Triangle.
posted by Trurl at 7:36 AM on March 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


For your reading unpleasure, the complete+ list of "unpickupable" books by scholars of varying degrees of self-and-other loathing:
  • a pile of books I [Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature in the department of English at the University of Warwick] had never been able to finish, all of which had "postmodernism" or "postcolonial" somewhere in the title, because in the 1990s those were fashionable buzzwords.
  • Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, [written] to a computer game formula: solve one level and move on to the next
  • Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, Mantel just wrote and wrote and wrote.
  • Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath's Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (2001).
  • one of Jacques Derrida's essays, Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, but any of his books would do
  • any author who dares to call George Eliot's Middlemarch "an autonomous signifying practice".
  • J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings
  • The real task is not to make ungenerous judgement from a position of critical superiority but rather to find a critical humility that allows for the possibility of reading, for the necessity of re-reading and, above all, to respond to the great call from Rainer Maria Rilke that, when faced with art, "you must change your life". [Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature, University of Warwick]
  • Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (1994).
  • Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002).
  • Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006).
  • the worst book? Surely my own [Roger Luckhurst, professor in modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck, University of London] first attempt, The Angle Between Two Walls: The Fiction of J.G. Ballard (1997).
posted by mistersquid at 7:37 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Previously(ish)
posted by schmod at 7:42 AM on March 23, 2012


I can't take this seriously if it invokes The God Delusion as a "bad book".
posted by LSK at 7:43 AM on March 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


Also, did anyone else own this as a kid? I will never figure out how I convinced my mother to buy me a 26-volume hardcover encyclopedia set about aliens and conspiracy theories.
posted by griphus at 7:43 AM on March 23, 2012


Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath's Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (2001).

Incidentally, my favorite takedown of Victor Davis Hanson comes from The Exile(d).
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:44 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I do not like thee, Barry Fell...."
posted by IndigoJones at 7:45 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, did anyone else own this as a kid? I will never figure out how I convinced my mother to buy me a 26-volume hardcover encyclopedia set about aliens and conspiracy theories.

No, but I had the Time/Life equivalent, if I recall correctly.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:45 AM on March 23, 2012


I have run my Bible Code software over this article and it revealed the following cryptic message: Sorry MetaFilter, there is no spoon.
posted by chavenet at 7:45 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have fallen prey to books like these, especially anything about goddess worship

Oh, God, me too.

Although, they did serve as one hell of a trigger for me to question received truth; I got better at scholarship and skepticism, but they were big and showy enough to launch me on the path in the first place. Maybe that's what the "bad books" ultimate purpose is -- it's like the "good luck charm" that gives you the courage to question things in the first place (and then eventually you're supposed to figure out that no, the magic necklace wasn't really magic, and you had the talent all along).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:46 AM on March 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


I wasn't going to read the God Delusion, but now I kind of have to. I have to know if this person is deriding Dawkins's knowledge of the history of theology, because it's hard to imagine how you'd take theology as a subject seriously otherwise.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:47 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I just hate the idea that all these books are being relegated to a dumpster of badness because of the intent of the author.

You're free to define 'bad' however you like. The author's stated purpose is not to discourage people from reading bad books, but from relying on them as truthful and accurate accounts:
In discouraging my students from relying on such bad books, I began to wonder why they are popular.
These books are very clearly interesting, but it is problematic when readers rely on them as more than sparks for the imagination.

No one is calling to ban these books, just to look at them critically. Criticality is a good thing.
posted by muddgirl at 7:47 AM on March 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


I had griphus' experience, except it was Christian eschatology instead of UFOs and my dad instead of my grandma. I used to get so scared while I read those books, but at the same time, it was addictive, thinking I Knew the Truth and also that any second, Jesus was going to zap me outta here.

I can't point to one defining moment when I dropped all that, but one year my entire church got swept up in the prophecy of one guy who picked a specific date for Jesus' return (based on some sort of formula of Biblical harvests and festivals). And then of course it didn't happen and I realized I wasn't really disappointed about that.
posted by emjaybee at 7:49 AM on March 23, 2012


Also, the person who suggested that God Delusion is a "bad book" is not Dan Melia, the author of the original article, but rather "Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick."
posted by muddgirl at 7:49 AM on March 23, 2012


The problem with the DaVinci code is that it's a work of fiction based around elements that are strongly insinuated to have some sort of factual basis (and enough actually-factual trivia in the early stages of the novel to make this assumption plausible). The problem is that plenty of the supporting details, which were presented as factual, are based around half-truths and outright fabrications.

Brown would have done well to include an appendix that went something along the lines of "This novel is a work of fiction, although many of its supporting details are based around well-documented historical facts. For the sake of honesty, here are the supporting details that I made up....."

Of course, the novel wouldn't have been nearly as "shocking" without that disclaimer attached, and it's unlikely that it would have achieved such cult status. Personally, I found South Park's deconstruction of the novel/movie to be both entertaining and devastating (even though I'm rarely a fan of South Park).

I wonder if Mike Daisey and Dan Brown are friends....
posted by schmod at 7:50 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


For me, bad books are a subset of science fiction. As the author piles improbable claim on improbable claim, it can be entertaining to imagine a world where the conclusions they reach might be possible. At least until I get tired of the bad writing. Unfortunately, the majority of the reading public isn't able to critically assess bad books for what they are (if it got published in a book, it must be true).
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 7:51 AM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


While I was in college, (at a deeply and scarily conservative great books school which shall remain nameless) one of the college's big donors died, and his estate donated his books to the library. The library had the good sense, (I hope) to give a lot of them away on a big folding table. The guy was seriously bent, and I ended up grabbing some pretty choice works of deeply paranoid (and anti-semetic) cold-war conspiracy just to keep them out of the hands of people who would take them seriously. That's how I ended up with:

William Guy Carr's Pawns in the Game
Joost Meerloo's Rape of the Mind
None Dare Call it Treason
and a number of books about how living inside of pyramid-shaped buildings was better for your health.

I also nabbed a copy of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which I understand to be somewhat more respectable, but which I misplaced somewhere along the way.
posted by gauche at 7:51 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, I've got to wonder if the prominent scholars listed at the bottom had actually read the article before providing their insights.

A few of the "bad books" cited seem to be due to personal vendettas against the authors, or a particular distaste for a certain brand of popular literature. On the contrary, Melia's criticism seems to be almost exclusively targeted against poorly-cited academic works, or literature that loosely conflates fact with fiction. A lot of the books cited by the other scholars have very little to do with that...
posted by schmod at 7:53 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Holy Blood has the additional distinction of having been the inspiration for Dan Brown's best-seller The Da Vinci Code (2003).

Well, 'The Da Vinci Legacy' has the true honor of being Dan Brown's inspiration, seeing as that was the book he plagiarized vigorously before changing a single word in the title to release as his own work. HBHG may have been a progenitor of Legacy in some mythic past, and then it's genes were passed on through secret descendants. Who could say?
posted by FatherDagon at 7:53 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Unfortunately, the majority of the reading public isn't able to critically assess bad books for what they are (if it got published in a book, it must be true).

I don't like this separation between the author's intent and the corresponding message that readers take away. Chariots of the Gods? was not intended as a work of science fiction, and it should not be surprising that readers (such as myself) did not take it as such. Critical analysis of non-fiction is not a subject generally taught in schools, either in the US or in the UK. One picks it up on one's own.
posted by muddgirl at 7:56 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


No one is calling to ban these books, just to look at them critically. Criticality is a good thing.

No, I'm aware of her intent. I'm just not fond of the blanket adjective she chose, to the extent that every other appearance of the word "bad" (in her context) in this thread is in quotation marks.
posted by griphus at 7:57 AM on March 23, 2012


The author's stated purpose is not to discourage people from reading bad books, but from relying on them as truthful and accurate accounts

If this were the case, Lord of the Rings wouldn't be in there.
posted by adamdschneider at 7:58 AM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, 'The Da Vinci Legacy' has the true honor of being Dan Brown's inspiration, seeing as that was the book he plagiarized vigorously before changing a single word in the title to release as his own work.

I always figured he was ripping off Foucault's Pendulum but missed the point of that book by an astronomical distance.

I now see that Eco seems to have come to a similar conclusion. It's got to be kind of funny and strange to have written a masterful rebuttal of a bestselling work of "historical" fiction twenty years before the book you're rebutting comes out. Particularly given the subject matter.
posted by gauche at 7:59 AM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


No, I'm aware of her intent. I'm just not fond of the blanket adjective she chose, to the extent that every other appearance of the word "bad" (in her context) in this thread is in quotation marks.

But as works of non-fiction, they are bad. They may be great works of prose, or great works of fiction, and still be bad works of non-fiction.
posted by muddgirl at 8:02 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


A few of the "bad books" cited seem to be due to personal vendettas against the authors

I got that impression from Melia as well. He ain't Barry Fell's biggest fan.

Not to derail too far, but I find the suggestion that The Da Vinci Code (or any fiction) needed some sort of disclaimer, specifying which parts are based on "facts" and which aren't, pretty amusing. People sure do have strong feelings about that book.
posted by cribcage at 8:02 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


griphus pretty much says it all. I know of some amazingly thought provoking fiction written as a result of reading books like Chariots of the Gods and a host of other "bad books".

Side note: I say this as someone who just came out of five years' straight worth of university culminating in a Masters degree in Literature: I can't help but always be somewhat suspicious when academics make an effort of publicly denouncing books, particularly books that have somehow rooted themselves strongly in the public consciousness. To me, it's far more interesting why these books have become so popular. There is definitely room for them, even in academia.
posted by New England Cultist at 8:02 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


That was great; I was waiting for Gavin Menzies to be demolished, and lo, he was! Excellent article.

> If this were the case, Lord of the Rings wouldn't be in there.

It isn't! For Pete's sake, are people unable to distinguish between an article and the idiot comments underneath it? Protip: Don't read the comments.
posted by languagehat at 8:03 AM on March 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Also, if for some bizarre reason you enjoyed Chariots and aren't watching Ancient Aliens, von Däniken is in like every other episode.
posted by griphus at 8:05 AM on March 23, 2012


In Summery:

"A careful reader, familiar with the conventions of publishing and argument, can learn to spot a bad book without knowing anything about the subject that the book purports to elucidate."

Following these rules:

1. the bibliography has strange features.
2. overenthusiastic prefaces by autodidacts.
3. their central arguments depend on special definitions or special knowledge peculiar to the author.
4. assumption creep.
5. rejection of the simplest and most logical explanations for observed phenomena.
posted by mfoight at 8:06 AM on March 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Critical analysis of non-fiction is not a subject generally taught in schools, either in the US or in the UK."

Do you mean outside of philosophy classes? Because we sure as hell teach critical analysis of non-fiction in philosophy. At the undergrad level that's actually a primary focus.
posted by oddman at 8:14 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why do they appeal?

Because of the endless appetite for the Inside Dope, the Real Deal, the Stuff They Don't Want You to Know. Clap-trap, ey? Sure, that's what they want to believe.

For Pete's sake, are people unable to distinguish between an article and the idiot comments underneath it? Protip: Don't read the comments.

In fairness, the site itself seems to muddle this distinction. The Tolkien Is Crap snit appears to be part of some Special High Table comments from other academics (e.g. Valerie Sanders, professor of English at the University of Hull) in answer to the secondary question, "What makes a book 'unpickupable?'" Looks like invited addendum to the article itself.

This as opposed to the Readers' Comments, where the undergrads can say whatever they like.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:14 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I just realized you wrote "schools" which I read as mean college and universities.
posted by oddman at 8:15 AM on March 23, 2012


I liked the article; thanks for posting. I know some people who take the conspiracy theories in "The Da Vinci Code" as Truth, so I don't think that the premises of the article can be over-repeated. And sometimes I could use a refresher in detecting "logical" leaps and shoddy scholarship.
posted by Currer Belfry at 8:15 AM on March 23, 2012


Do you mean outside of philosophy classes?

I meant pre-college. I was obsessed with conspiracy theories, UFOs, etc, when I was 12-13, and like religious texts, I had little reason to believe that they were speculative.
posted by muddgirl at 8:24 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Not enough Immanuel Velikovsky! It's been thirty years since I read any of this stuff, but I think, like, a giant comet pops out of Jupiter and swoops by the Earth and causes all the miracles of the Old Testament! And people were really into it!
posted by escabeche at 8:29 AM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also, if for some bizarre reason you enjoyed Chariots and aren't watching Ancient Aliens, von Däniken is in like every other episode.

God, I have such a hard-on for Ancient Aliens. It's my favorite thing in the world when all these dudes are like, "Well, these ancient scriptures say there was a flying light that burned things. What does that sound like? Well, either God, or aliens. And" (extremely derisive chortle) "..we're PRETTY sure it's not God."

Incidentally, I'm reading Cyclonopedia right now, due to the linked ask.me thread, and it's a hell of a wacky time!
posted by Greg Nog at 8:33 AM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Part of me would love to teach a "bad books and how to spot them" course, but I don't know if I could put in the effort to, you know, actually read a bunch of conspiracy theory stuff. It is amusing in small doses, but it can quickly become depressing. But this is really, really important stuff -- most people have very little ability (or desire?) to critically evaluate information, from books, TV, politicians, etc. (I know that I also fall victim to this). I was so annoyed last semester when one of my 18 yr. old freshman students was telling me that he was "convinced" by the "really strong argument" in Anonymous.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:41 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't bring myself to call any fiction a "bad book" by their definition. By its very nature it does not have to be logical or true.
posted by holdkris99 at 8:45 AM on March 23, 2012


The problem with the DaVinci code is that it's a work of fiction based around elements that are strongly insinuated to have some sort of factual basis (and enough actually-factual trivia in the early stages of the novel to make this assumption plausible). The problem is that plenty of the supporting details, which were presented as factual, are based around half-truths and outright fabrications.

Brown would have done well to include an appendix that went something along the lines of "This novel is a work of fiction, although many of its supporting details are based around well-documented historical facts. For the sake of honesty, here are the supporting details that I made up....."

Of course, the novel wouldn't have been nearly as "shocking" without that disclaimer attached, and it's unlikely that it would have achieved such cult status. Personally, I found South Park's deconstruction of the novel/movie to be both entertaining and devastating (even though I'm rarely a fan of South Park).

I wonder if Mike Daisey and Dan Brown are friends....


The problem with that book is that it's badly written. Everything else is painting a turd gold.
posted by Thistledown at 8:50 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


It isn't! For Pete's sake, are people unable to distinguish between an article and the idiot comments underneath it? Protip: Don't read the comments.

It's not in the comments. It's from "Valerie Sanders, professor of English at the University of Hull" below the bit written by Daniel Melia, and there is at least an implied association between the two, although I wonder whose idea it was to include those academic snippets beneath Melia's article, Melia's or the publication's.
posted by adamdschneider at 8:53 AM on March 23, 2012


Greg, that is my absolutely favorite part as well. The utter contempt they all have for magic is hilarious. "A flying carpet? Don't be ridiculous. There's no such things as flying carpets. It was the fusion-powered Ark of the Covenant after having activated stealth mode."
posted by griphus at 8:54 AM on March 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


And I always thought you spotted a bad book by looking for the words "James Patterson" splashed across the cover.

Last week I was stuck in an airport for 5 hours my daughter who has the same taste I do in books was consulted via text... She was in class here is how it went.

Me: Do I like James Patterson"
-70 minutes pass (I have purchased it and I am on Chapter 15 and hating every page)
Daughter: NO!
Me: (puts book in bag sleeps)
posted by mrgroweler at 8:58 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


> It's not in the comments. It's from "Valerie Sanders, professor of English at the University of Hull" below the bit written by Daniel Melia

Eh, I see your point, but "the bit written by Daniel Melia" was, you know, the linked article, and everything below it consists of comments as far as I'm concerned; IndigoJones hilariously and correctly calls them "Special High Table comments from other academics."
posted by languagehat at 9:01 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ah, I guess that's a decent point. It's like the reviewers who were furious about the contradictions of basic physics in Source Code and Another Earth last year. True as that may be, that kind of technical squibbling is completely missing the point, at least for those two movies.

In any event, for what it's worth, I thought that the DaVinci Code was at least an amusing novel to read. If nothing else, Dan Brown's good at pacing. However, it's infuriating to me, because of the number of people who recommended the book because of the "real trivia" in it. Although it's ostensibly a work of fiction, the way that Dan Brown presented and wrote it strongly suggests otherwise.

And, yeech. The article and attached comments sure are dripping with pretentious academic privilege. Surely they could have made the same point a bit more concisely, and with less jargon?
posted by schmod at 9:03 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Saxon Kane: "I was so annoyed last semester when one of my 18 yr. old freshman students was telling me that he was "convinced" by the "really strong argument" in Anonymous."

Ok... so doubt or questioning is to be disowned? You were "annoyed" with a student who questioned your received truth...

Perhaps we all might consider the authorship of Shakespeare as a case in point of debated and contested fact:

Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare

I liken these "bad books" to the unquestioning of both the religious and the atheist points of view. Both are certain of their position and "badness" of the other point of view. The only truly irrefutable logical position seems to me to be the suspended judgement implied in Agnosticism. What if aliens did visit the earth long ago and new evidence shows that the arguments in Chariots was correct after all. The low probability but the possibility of a Black Swan event shows that labeling any non-fiction as wrong or "bad" just manifests as a judgement of the narrow-mindness of the judge.
posted by mfoight at 9:13 AM on March 23, 2012


Yeah, my Lord of the Rings comment was ill-considered. But hey, it got a couple of favorites. I'll use them to get a candy bar from the MeFi Lounge today.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:14 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dude, no, that's how they get you. Save up your favorites and then you can get that knockoff "Merf" gun.
posted by griphus at 9:17 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know some people who take the conspiracy theories in "The Da Vinci Code" as Truth, so I don't think that the premises of the article can be over-repeated.

Agreed. A friend of mine repeatedly (he has a bad memory) tries to get me to read The Da Vinci Code because he knows I enjoy reading history and he thinks I'd be fascinated by all the amazing little known facts Brown reveals about the Templars, the Church, and Rome.

When I remind him that TDVC is fiction, he says "Yeah, but Dan Brown has really done his research."
posted by General Tonic at 9:18 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Perhaps we all might consider the authorship of Shakespeare as a case in point of debated and contested fact

Let's really not. Might as well argue that Dan Brown didn't write the Da Vinci Code.

What if aliens did visit the earth long ago and new evidence shows that the arguments in Chariots was correct after all.

"New evidence" doesn't turn bad rhetoric into good rhetoric.
posted by muddgirl at 9:21 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem with the DaVinci code...

The problem with that book is that it's badly written. Everything else is painting a turd gold.

Permit me to disagree. The book was crafted to please a particular audience and sell copies to them. It succeeded brilliantly. Anything that meets its purpose so well is well-crafted by some standard. It's not "bad" writing any more than a GoDaddy commercial is a bad film -- it's just a different species.
posted by tyllwin at 9:23 AM on March 23, 2012


Two words: Atlas Shrugged.

One of the premiere works of parallel-world fantasy of the 20th century.
posted by tspae at 9:26 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]




The interesting thing, to me, is what switch gets flipped that makes some people simply immune to reasoned argument about these kinds of things. On most issues they'll be perfectly sane and perfectly amenable to reason, but on whatever their pet hobbyhorse is (ancient aliens visiting earth, whoever it is that they've decided "really" wrote Shakespeare, the Truther version of 9/11 etc.) it's just a massive exercise in question-begging. The conclusion is always foregone, the facts will simply be hammered until they fit. Is it just some kind of innate need to have access to "secret" knowledge? Is it some sort of fundamental cognitive deficit? Or do we all have our particular versions of this mode of thinking, but some of us manage to keep them out of the more conspicuously "nutbar" arena?
posted by yoink at 9:28 AM on March 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


"New evidence" doesn't turn bad rhetoric into good rhetoric.

Maybe I should be more explicit: If I say that we will have 6 more weeks of winter because Pusquatanie Phil saw his shadow, and we do indeed have 6 more weeks of cold weather, does that mean that Phil is the best weatherman in the world?
posted by muddgirl at 9:29 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Permit me to disagree. The book was crafted to please a particular audience and sell copies to them. It succeeded brilliantly.

Can't argue with that. But it's also fair to say that by the standards of a large body of people interested in English prose style it's a clear-cut case of catastrophically poor writing. That it does what Brown wanted to do and does it effectively doesn't really impinge on that judgment.
posted by yoink at 9:30 AM on March 23, 2012


I'd rather the Shakespeare theories put forth the Globe Theatre as the true author of the plays.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:32 AM on March 23, 2012


do we all have our particular versions of this mode of thinking, but some of us manage to keep them out of the more conspicuously "nutbar" arena?

Almost certainly this.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:35 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


That it does what Brown wanted to do and does it effectively doesn't really impinge on that judgment.

I suppose I just read "bad writing" as meaning "lack of skill at the craft of writing" vs meaning "low quality literature. "
posted by tyllwin at 9:35 AM on March 23, 2012


But it's also fair to say that by the standards of a large body of people interested in English prose style it's a clear-cut case of catastrophically poor writing.

I don't know if that's fair to say. "Large" isn't a specific term. My impression is that the body of people you're referring to tends to have an inflated view of their own numbers.
posted by cribcage at 9:37 AM on March 23, 2012


Ok... so doubt or questioning is to be disowned? You were "annoyed" with a student who questioned your received truth...

No, I was more annoyed that a student with no knowledge of Renaissance history or Shakespearean scholarship was taking as "factual evidence" the plot of a badly written movie.

Perhaps we all might consider the authorship of Shakespeare as a case in point of debated and contested fact

It's not really a debated or contested fact, you know. All the anti-Stratfordian works are pretty much textbook examples of the rhetorical and logical flaws the author is talking about. They are exercises in begging the question: they assume that Shakespeare was not the author of the plays attributed to him (based largely on classist assumptions) then construct "evidence" made of half-truths, outright fabrications, and illogical interpretations to prove their point.

The only truly irrefutable logical position seems to me to be the suspended judgement implied in Agnosticism. What if aliens did visit the earth long ago and new evidence shows that the arguments in Chariots was correct after all. The low probability but the possibility of a Black Swan event shows that labeling any non-fiction as wrong or "bad" just manifests as a judgement of the narrow-mindness of the judge.

I'm sorry, but that's just fucking ridiculous. "What if...?" is not a sound logical premise that can be used to give any assertion instant legitimacy. "What if aliens visited earth? What if Santa Claus is real? What if Obama is from Kenya?" Just because you can assert something as "possible" within some huge definition of the word does not mean that said assertion is at all valuable or meaningful. Just because someone wrote a book that says that the Earl of Oxford is Shakespeare or that the US Government planned 9/11 or whatever else the fuck someone thinks is "possible" doesn't mean it deserves respect as a valid argument. If someone has EVIDENCE, then sure, evaluate it, judge it, see what it adds to our understanding, but to put forth a random argument based on bullshit intentionally crafted to support the nutty conclusion that the author has already decided is true is just BAD SCHOLARSHIP.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:53 AM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


On postview, yoink has it right:

on whatever their pet hobbyhorse is (ancient aliens visiting earth, whoever it is that they've decided "really" wrote Shakespeare, the Truther version of 9/11 etc.) it's just a massive exercise in question-begging. The conclusion is always foregone, the facts will simply be hammered until they fit.

Sticherbeast says:
I'd rather the Shakespeare theories put forth the Globe Theatre as the true author of the plays.

There's something to be said for this, in the sense that it considers "authorship" to be an expanded notion that involves numerous other participants -- other playwrights, actors, etc. But, the Globe wasn't built until 1599, and Shakespeare was writing before then, and his works were not solely performed at the Globe, personnel changed regularly and went from troupe to troupe, theater to theater, etc. etc. This network graphic is a nice visualization of the collaborative nature of the early modern theatre.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:00 AM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Wikipedia's section on Anonymous' historical accuracy is funny. Richard III needs to have been written for the Essex uprising? Well, we only have Richard II, but the only difference is an "I," right? Let's make it happen. Marlowe needs to be alive a few years after he dies? Let's make it happen, why not. The Rose Theatre needs to burn down, even though it didn't? Enh, we've gone this far, let's make it happen.

Neither facts nor logic shall get in our way - we need to show that it's more believable that a 9-year-old Earl wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream than an adult commoner.

But, the Globe wasn't built until 1599, and Shakespeare was writing before then, and his works were not solely performed at the Globe, personnel changed regularly and went from troupe to troupe, theater to theater, etc. etc. This network graphic is a nice visualization of the collaborative nature of the early modern theatre.

I was kidding, thinking about The Globe writing the plays in a sort of House of Leaves sense, but your network graphic is nifty, so thanks!
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:07 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


And don't forget that said 9-yr old was the secret lovechild of a virgin Queen (how she managed to keep the pregnancies hidden is beyond me), and he later boned said Queen/Mom.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:11 AM on March 23, 2012


I can't take this seriously if it invokes The God Delusion as a "bad book".

Most of the God Delusion is strong, but Dawkins should have avoided discussing the Bible altogether. He is not familiar with the interpretive tradition, and he clearly didn't bother to run his ideas by any of his fellow faculty members who are. He mistakes, for example, the modern conception of penal substitutionary atonement as the core belief of Christianity, when it is just one of several possible ways to interpret the crucifixion event, and holds little currency in the Orthodox tradition or among a host of evangelical scholars who are pushing back against the problems with that doctrine. Dawkins has set up a straw man, treating the most troubled view of Jesus' death as THE Christian view, and then tearing it apart with arguments that are either off-track or widely shared by the Christian intellectuals that he hasn't bothered talking to.

A bit later, in the section titled "Love Thy Neighbour" (I'm looking on my Kindle Cloud Reader, I can't tell you what exact page that would be), Dawkins writes: "Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews....," which is a jaw-droppingly ignorant statement. First, you have to set aside the entire book of Acts, where the first first thing that happens is Jesus sending his disciples to "Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth." The book ends with Paul imprisoned in Rome, saying that the Jewish community has rejected his message, but that "God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen." This isn't Paul's idea, he was commissioned by Jesus to do that.

Okay, so first toss all of the book of Acts. Then you have to get rid of a lot of the gospel of Luke, where Jesus has a habit of reminding Jewish people about times that God has favored Gentiles and saved them (Jesus' willingness to bless outsiders makes a synagogue so angry in Luke chapter 4 that they try to throw him over a cliff.) Better get rid of the gospel of John, too, where one of the most famous passages is Jesus bringing good news to a five-times-divorced Samaritan woman. Speaking of Samaritans, remember the Good Samaritan, whom Jesus commended in his parable? Also not a Jew, although Samaritans shared some ancestry with Jews. There were enormous tensions between the Jewish establishment and Samaria in Jesus' day.

When Dawkins says that "Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews," that is an error so theologically ignorant that the biological equivalent would be something like classifying humans as reptiles and sharks as mammals. It's just mind-bogglingly off base.

Now, I'm not one of the people who thinks you have to be fully conversant in theology--or even know the basics of the story of Jesus in the gospels accounts--in order to be an atheist with intellectual integrity. There are plenty of arguments for rejecting the idea of God without having to deal with a critique of the Biblical message. But Dawkins' problem is that he did decide to critique the Bible and wound up showing just how ignorant he is, in ways that undercut his authority in the rest of the book. "The God Delusion," overall, is not a bad book, but it has a couple of horrible, horrible chapters that should have been left out. I think it's hard for Dawkins to criticize the stupid arguments (some) Christians make about evolution when he is just as off-kilter in some of his assertions about the contents of the Bible and Christian doctrine.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:14 AM on March 23, 2012 [32 favorites]


Stranger in the Vally of the Kings by Ahmed Osman is a fav that fits these definitions, without getting to crackpot about it. Love this premise that a particular mummy is the biblical Joseph, and that his influence as vizier to the pharaoh planted the seeds for Akenaten's monotheism. He makes bigger leaps, and they require reordering accepted Egyptian chronology, but they'd make for a great fictional adaptation.
posted by bendybendy at 10:14 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


"does that mean that Phil is the best weatherman in the world?"

Kindly define "best"... But it also doesn't mean that he isn't either; it doesn't mean anything. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc

But perhaps somewhere along the way, the early end of hibernation of ground dwelling creatures signaled the possibility to observing humans of an early end to winter. Perhaps this was by the process of folk wisdom and oral tradition, converted into Phil "seeing" his shadow.... not the "best" weatherman but an indicator of weather to come.

Or perhaps Phil not only observes the weather but actually controls it. Perhaps Phil is really a minor weather god. Or the big monotheistic God. Or an alien being. Or a shape-shifted weather witch.

Any of these are possible, some much more probable than others, but all possible.

On Dan Brown (authorship of Da Vinci Code) vs. Shakespeare (authorship of historical plays)

Much more evidence - primary source evidence about one than the other. At least the possibility of Shakespeare authorship

Many seem to feel compelled by their inner nature to conform to received truths and to fail to question or to doubt their assumptions, while others like Socrates, are forced to drink hemlock.
posted by mfoight at 10:16 AM on March 23, 2012


Any of these are possible, some much more probable than others, but all possible.

And hence Occam's fucking Razor.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:21 AM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Thanks for that rundown, Pater Aletheias. Maybe I'll skip it after all.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:22 AM on March 23, 2012


> Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare

Ah, another excellent marker of crackpot writing! But I know, the fact that I don't accept the True Authorship of the Plays Said to Be by Shakespeare (and who is the True Author this week?) proves that I'm just another Boot of Smugness stamping on humanity's face and forcing Socrates to drink hemlock.
posted by languagehat at 10:22 AM on March 23, 2012


Any of these are possible, some much more probable than others, but all possible.

The point you're missing is that the fact that they're possible doesn't mean that anybody who currently believes that Phil predicts the winner has a justified belief.

It is certainly possible that Shakespeare's plays were written by someone other than William Shakespeare--but there's just not a shred of evidence currently available to support the claim. So anyone who currently believes that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays holds an unjustified and unsupported belief.

This, too, is the thing people always get wrong about atheism vs. agnosticism. I'm an atheist. I know a lot of other atheists. I know only one or two, however, who believe that the existence of god(s) has been disproven and that it is impossible that a god could exist. I can see no philosophical difference whatsoever between atheism and agnosticism--both are simply making the claim that as yet no good evidence has been brought forward to suggest that any divine being or beings exist.
posted by yoink at 10:23 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


By the way, this is just a wonderful bit of trolling and self-aggrandizement: Many seem to feel compelled by their inner nature to conform to received truths and to fail to question or to doubt their assumptions, while others like Socrates, are forced to drink hemlock. Keep fighting for the truth, crackpots of the world! Timecube guy is truly a modern day Socrates.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:23 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


A Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Poisonousness of Hemlock
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:25 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that Freud meets the criterion established in the linked AskMeFi post. He's a good stylist, if you like that sort of thing. He's a brave inventor of the plausible, quite willing to ignore or contradict his own earlier findings. And through this work of near fiction, he has contributed enormously to level headed scientific understanding, through both contradiction and affirmation of his imaginitive writing. Read as fiction, there's an awful lot to enjoy in his work.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 10:25 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


yoink: I love you.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:25 AM on March 23, 2012


The book ends with Paul imprisoned in Rome, saying that the Jewish community has rejected his message, but that "God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen." This isn't Paul's idea, he was commissioned by Jesus to do that.

Er...what? Only if you cede the idea that Jesus was, in fact, divine. Paul never met the historical Jesus, so the historical Jesus could not have "commissioned" Paul to do anything at all.
posted by yoink at 10:28 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


yoink: I love you.

I love you back.

Oh no, now I've revealed my secret identity. Damn these ingrained responses!
posted by yoink at 10:28 AM on March 23, 2012


I liken these "bad books" to the unquestioning of both the religious and the atheist points of view. Both are certain of their position and "badness" of the other point of view. The only truly irrefutable logical position seems to me to be the suspended judgement implied in Agnosticism.

Statements like "the only truly irrefutable logical position is 'I don't know'" would seem to be equally "certain of their position and 'badness' of the other point of view."

Besides, many religious people and/or atheists are also agnostic. As Russell once said: "As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods."

Most atheists will freely admit that they can't prove there aren't any god(s) for all possible values of god(s) -- they simply don't believe in any. Fortunately, you don't need any proof to justify not believing in something which no one has any evidence for...
posted by vorfeed at 10:29 AM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Okay, but what's the use of Occam's Razor when you're up against Bigfoot's Bazooka? Or the Great Blazing Cannons of the Annunaki?
posted by overglow at 10:41 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've heard (from experts even) that 1491 is an excellent synthesis of research on native American history.

1491 is very good, although suffers from the One Big Idea fallacy, in that everything is explained through this one idea and other more complex reasons are not really looked at, leaving a wrong impression that history is fairly simple. But if the book solidifies that one idea in your mind, it's a useful tool to add to your collection.
posted by stbalbach at 10:49 AM on March 23, 2012


Vorfeed, the Russell quote is new to me. Thank you.

So he had two truths: one for the club of philosophers and another for the common man. Instead of being like Socrates (labeled in his day and time as being up a balloon and from Cloud-coo-coo-land for expressing unpopular beliefs) he became a sophist with a viewpoint crafted for a "right impression" by an audience.

I will think less of him now.

Statements like "the only truly irrefutable logical position is 'I don't know'" would seem to be equally "certain of their position and 'badness' of the other point of view."


Your analysis of the truly skeptical view shows that even the absolute skeptic still has to be absolutely certain about one thing: their doubt.

Clearly Descartes took this and ran with it, indeed using it to justify god and religion. And setting us up with a mind-body problem...
posted by mfoight at 10:50 AM on March 23, 2012


Wow, that's some grade-A non sequitor!
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:52 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Occam's Razor? I prefer a close shave with Chatton's Anti-Razor.
posted by mfoight at 11:04 AM on March 23, 2012


I prefer to use a tiny crocodile which, when it gazes into the camera, wisecracks "it's a livin'!"
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:20 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


HUMANS AND CROCODILES DID NOT CO-EXIST
posted by griphus at 11:21 AM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002). Pinker argues like a high-school debater who hides a superficially attractive thesis in mounds of data that have been intellectually asset-stripped, so as to hide any theoretical or methodological doubts that might be raised about the thesis.

Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006). This book demonstrates the asymmetry of academic standards. A book by a theologian speaking this ignorantly about biology would never have been published, let alone become a best-seller. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work the other way round.


These are not illuminating critiques.
posted by John Cohen at 11:30 AM on March 23, 2012


Hey, never heard of Barry Fell before. I'm off to learn all about Libyan ogham runic inscriptions in the New World, see ya.
posted by jfuller at 11:37 AM on March 23, 2012


This, too, is the thing people always get wrong about atheism vs. agnosticism. I'm an atheist. I know a lot of other atheists. I know only one or two, however, who believe that the existence of god(s) has been disproven and that it is impossible that a god could exist. I can see no philosophical difference whatsoever between atheism and agnosticism--both are simply making the claim that as yet no good evidence has been brought forward to suggest that any divine being or beings exist.

Huxley/Spencer agnosticism made a lot more sense in the Victorian age when people still held illusions about the ability of analytical philosophy and science to answer all questions. But it's largely an irrelevant distinction now that the debate has shifted to questions of whether faith vs. doubt is reasonable in the wake of the failure of ontological claims about gods. If modern apologetics wishes to claim negative theology and doubt as important parts of mature religious faith, they can't turn around and demonize me for having those doubts myself.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:43 AM on March 23, 2012


So he had two truths: one for the club of philosophers and another for the common man. Instead of being like Socrates (labeled in his day and time as being up a balloon and from Cloud-coo-coo-land for expressing unpopular beliefs) he became a sophist with a viewpoint crafted for a "right impression" by an audience.

You're missing his point. He had one "truth" which he could express slightly more exactly to philosophers than he could to "the common man"--because the "common man" has been badly confused by a pointless proliferation of terms.

"Agnosticism" is just polite atheism in a largely theist society--if it is philosophically coherent then it is not a distinct position and if it is a distinct position then it is not philosophically coherent. The belief in god/gods is the only belief about which we have this ridiculous confusion. If you ask me "do you believe that there are little green men on mars" and I say "no, I don't believe that" you don't immediately follow that up by saying "OMG, what a bigoted, closed-minded person you are! How can you possibly say that it is utterly and completely impossible that we could ever, in any imaginable possible future world discover that little green men really DO live on mars?????" It is only in the case of the belief in god/gods that people make this absurd error of conflating the statement "I do not believe in this--because I have no evidence available that makes the belief seem plausible to me" with the statement "I do not believe in this because it is absolutely impossible that this thing could exist."

And that is Russell's point. He calls himself an atheist because when you say "agnostic" people get confused and think you mean "well, the evidence for god is pretty good, but it's just not quite absolutely conclusive yet." But he happily accepts that as an atheist he is not claiming omniscience, that of course a God-inhabited universe is possible. But that is not a particularly interesting fact. A universe in which the world was created by giant robots from the planet Xarg is also possible, but no one is asking you to be "agnostic" about that particular possibility.
posted by yoink at 11:47 AM on March 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


Pinker pretty much lost credibility with me when he selectively used half of Watson's "twelve-infants" quote early in one chapter. Then he uses the full quote later in the same chapter to put Watson opposed to an evolutionary psychology that didn't exist in 1928 (as opposed to Social Darwinism that did.) In between, he blows just about every anti-communist dog whistle in addressing Skinner, completely ignoring the fact that Skinner did conclusively go on the record about the importance of biology almost a dozen times.

The Blank Slate was arguably good self-promotion, but a pretty lousy critique of the state of psychological research which has always struggled with the interactions between genetics and environment in human behavior.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:52 AM on March 23, 2012


yoink siad: It is certainly possible that Shakespeare's plays were written by someone other than William Shakespeare--but there's just not a shred of evidence currently available to support the claim. So anyone who currently believes that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays holds an unjustified and unsupported belief.

I guess it depends on what you mean by "shred" yoink. Some plays - plays acknowledged by scholarly academics - were indeed likely co-authored. Cardenio was attributed to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher in a Stationers' Register entry of 1653: if that is an accurate document then co-authorship of some of the plays of Shakespeare isn't unjustified and unsupported belief but supported by historical documentation. Thus there is prima facie evidence that yoink is incorrect in his truth claim. An apology or retraction is requested.
posted by mfoight at 12:00 PM on March 23, 2012


Co-authored plays do not support the claim that "Shakespeare's plays were written by someone other than Shakespeare." He still 'wrote' those plays, just as the co-author 'wrote' those plays.
posted by muddgirl at 12:04 PM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Who really wrote yoink's post?
posted by jfuller at 12:09 PM on March 23, 2012


He ain't Barry Fell's biggest fan.

That's because Fell writes unsupported claptrap in which just happens to be his own area of research (early Celtic history). Even if you dislike all litterers, you might dislike the guy dumping garbage in your front yard the most.

I dislike badly-researched Celtic stuff as well - maybe because it's what I read a lot of when I was younger. But I won't cite any of it. Instead I will point out that Ronald Hutton has written some excellent and well-cited material on British folklore and (what little we know) about pre-Christian Britain. His stuff is great (though *The Rise and Fall of Merry England* is apparently out of print).
posted by jb at 12:23 PM on March 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


muddgirl that is not what was said in yoink's statement: "Co-authored plays do not support the claim that "Shakespeare's plays were written by someone other than Shakespeare" but rather that --

anyone who currently believes that someone {Fletcher = other than Shakespeare} other than Shakespeare wrote the plays holds an unjustified and unsupported belief.

So even if Shakespeare wrote the plays, the statement says that Fletcher's authorship is unjustified and unsupported because there is not a shred of evidence. I would like a retraction from you as well!
posted by mfoight at 12:27 PM on March 23, 2012


I can see no philosophical difference whatsoever between atheism and agnosticism--both are simply making the claim that as yet no good evidence has been brought forward to suggest that any divine being or beings exist.

As a matter of how these labels are actually proffered by those who self-identify as such, I think the only "distinction" tends to be that the agnostic affords the alternatives more or less equal weight, whereas the atheist is really pretty sure but of course can't in good conscience make absolute claims.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:28 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've thought about this a lot myself, usually in airport bookshops when it occurs to me that practically the only books available on given topics are also pretty much the worst ones imaginable. So, the only book on Asian history will be 1421, for instance, or the only book on Shakespeare will be arguing that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare.

The appeal of these books, I think, is that they're basically anti-intellectual. They all offer the same promise: "everything you might have vaguely heard about this topic is wrong. And I'll tell you why (in simple, easy-to-understand words). Then you can dismiss it." They're appeals to intellectual insecurity as much as anything else.
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:28 PM on March 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


anyone who currently believes that someone {Fletcher = other than Shakespeare} other than Shakespeare wrote the plays holds an unjustified and unsupported belief.

You can't separate the second sentence from the first to twist the meaning. The contention is that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were not written by Shakespeare, but rather by someone other than (ie, excluding) Shakespeare.

Fletcher wrote that play in addition to Shakespeare, not exclusive of him.
posted by muddgirl at 12:39 PM on March 23, 2012


I've thought about this a lot myself, usually in airport bookshops when it occurs to me that practically the only books available on given topics are also pretty much the worst ones imaginable.

"The airport bookstore did not sell books, only bestsellers, which Sita Dulip cannot read without risking a severe systemic reaction." – Ursula K. Le Guin, Changing Planes.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:50 PM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


An apology or retraction is requested

Wow!
posted by yoink at 12:58 PM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Methinks mfoight has no clue what s/he is talking about. First s/he posts a link to an anti-Stratfordian organization -- one that argues that Shakespeare was NOT a playwright and did NOT have any hand in the plays attributed to him, instead putting forth various candidates like the Early of Oxford, Francis Bacon, and Christopher Marlowe. Then in response to yoink's rebuttal, s/he says, "Well, Shakespeare co-authored some plays with other people." Note that these are two VERY DIFFERENT CLAIMS.

Shakespeare co-authored Cardenio (and Henry VIII, incidentally) with John Fletcher =! Shakespeare is not the author of Shakespeare's plays.
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:01 PM on March 23, 2012


On the review of God Delusion: A book by a theologian speaking this ignorantly about biology would never have been published, let alone become a best-seller.

Actually, the Bible is quite popular.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:19 PM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Good? Bad? We are taught to worship a lot of bad books called 'history' that are largely fiction. People often quote the current theories of science, political attitudes, belief structures, etc. etc. many of which will be superceded in time, as if they are the utter truth and therefore "good".

"Good" and "bad" take a LOT of experience, evidential sorting, seeing inside author's hearts, and even then just plain skepticism to sort out. More than we are likely to accumulate in a lifetime, no matter how diligent. Why trust a well-intended "expert" opinion expressed as a flimsy moral prescription?

In the end, we're all on our own. And might as well get good at it.
posted by Twang at 1:20 PM on March 23, 2012


Saxon Kane: clearly you need to look at the evidence listed on the linked site before you run your profanity spewing mouth off again.

The site and organization merely asks that: "the identity of William Shakespeare should, henceforth, be regarded in academia as a legitimate issue for research and publication, and an appropriate topic for instruction and discussion in classrooms." That is it. Nothing more. Many educated folks agree with this "radical" view including Derek Jacobi, Michael York, and many Ph.D's.

And I can indeed make two distinctly different points in relationship to two different posts. If you cannot follow, perhaps rereading and reflection, will bring some clarity. I admit that my points may have pricked your inflated ego and sense of worth particularly my calling out of your elitist - almost gleeful - criticism of one of your own students for having a less developed opinion.

Frankly, there is a reason that I rarely don't engage in online discourse even in safe fora like Metafiler. It is the Trolls. The academic Trolls. The Trolls who shout down others. The Trolls who when they cannot make a point resort to verbal violence; Trolls like Saxon:

Saxon Kane: that's just fucking ridiculous.

Saxon Kane: And hence Occam's fucking Razor.

Saxon Kane: whatever else the fuck someone thinks is "possible" doesn't mean it deserves respect as a valid argument.

All of my postings today - perhaps badly constructed as they were - were just to say that the rules given in the initial article are not good criteria for evaluation of non-fiction and the having a broader sense of questioning established truths and doubting the self-important are important virtues - especially in areas with an entrenched cadre of experts.

So enough for the day. Enough SHOUTING. Enough with the vested interests. And I'll share my bed and my bread with the common man over the aristocrat any day.
posted by mfoight at 1:36 PM on March 23, 2012


So enough for the day. Enough SHOUTING. Enough with the vested interests. And I'll share my bed and my bread with the common man over the aristocrat any day.

This is ironic on so many levels but my favorite is that the whole "Shakespeare isn't Shakespeare" nonsense is founded in the belief that Shakespeare is too "common" to have written his plays. It just had to be an Earl or some other peer of the realm, not that oick from Avon.
posted by yoink at 1:42 PM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Many educated folks agree with this "radical" view including Derek Jacobi, Michael York, and many Ph.D's

But not a single respected scholar of English Renaissance Literature. Derek Jacobi is an actor--and a fine one--but he really has little to no training at all in the relevant area. His opinions as to the authorship of the plays are roughly as meaningful as my knowledge about what is going on inside a computer. I mean, hey, I work at a computer every damn day, right? It's essential to my job to know how to use a computer and to use it adeptly. That doesn't mean, however, that I know anything about how the damn thing works, though, does it? Derek Jacobi's opinions about the best way to deliver any given speech in any of Shakespeare's plays deserve immense respect--his whackjob theories about who wrote the plays are uninteresting, except insofar as they reflect sadly upon his critical thinking skills.
posted by yoink at 2:06 PM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Many educated folks agree with this "radical" view including Derek Jacobi, Michael York, and many Ph.D's.

For a question of historicity, that list of "notables" has exactly one historian.
posted by griphus at 2:06 PM on March 23, 2012


Meanwhile, here's what everyone else on that list does:

TV producer
Music professor
Playwright
Landed gentry
Arts critic
Puzzlist
Newspaper association president
Actor/playwright
Film producer/director/writer
College president
Theater dept. head
Sociology professor
Historian
Acting teacher
President of NGO
Actor
Actor
Political science professor
Political philosophy professor
Student
Actor
Festival director
Supreme Court justice
Editor/Theater dept. head
Actor/Director
English professor
Psychology professor
Supreme Court justice
Actor/author

Point out five people on that list who have a scholarly opinion on the subject of the historical Shakespeare.
posted by griphus at 2:12 PM on March 23, 2012


mfoight: I've actually read quite a bit on the authorship "controversy," including a number of "alternate theories." I've also studied English Renaissance drama for the better part of the last 10 years. I wouldn't claim to know everything about the subject, but I would bet that I'm significantly more educated on the subject than, oh, everyone on that list of signatories. When it comes down to it, the reasons for supporting "teaching the controversy" about authorship are about as valid as calling for the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes, the theory that the world is 6000 years old in geology classes, the theory that Obama is from Kenya in political theory classes, the theory that the US government planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks in history classes, the theory that the earth is the center of the solar system and that the universe is a series of concentric circles in astronomy class, and the theory that your computer is operated by little magical gnomes in computer science class. More so, the idea that we should be trying to find out the "real" author of the plays obscures so much more interesting and valuable scholarship on collaboration and the nature of poetic composition.

And I can indeed make two distinctly different points in relationship to two different posts.

So... you're saying you have two truths? Just like Bertrand Russell?

I admit that my points may have pricked your inflated ego and sense of worth particularly my calling out of your elitist - almost gleeful - criticism of one of your own students for having a less developed opinion.

Actually, as a professor, part of my job is to critique my students for having less developed opinions. You know, so they can learn to develop better opinions? I don't get paid to coddle their egos and make them feel special. If you MUST know, this particular student bothered me because his insistence on the historical accuracy of the fictional movie Anonymous was because it was in the context of a continued attempt to derail class discussion on a completely unrelated subject. Had we world enough and time, I would have been happy to discuss the subject, but we didn't, and despite my offer to the student to talk about the issue outside of class, he kept bringing it up. Sorry I'm not the perfect prof able to make everything a teaching moment, but we were pressed for time that day and he was being a douche.

As for offending your sensibilities with my cursing, I apologize that you found that offensive. I like to curse, I do it all the time, including in class when I'm teaching. I find it effective, and it is just part of my voice. "Shakespeare" (or whoever?!?!?!) also did it, so I'm in decent company at least.
posted by Saxon Kane at 2:32 PM on March 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


One last point re the 'Stratford' nontroversy: the biggest misconception in ALL of these conspiracy theories is that there is some cabal within the profession that is suppressing The Truth. I'm an English Professor. If I could find solid scholarly evidence that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays usually attributed to him I would be a god within the profession. There's a paper no journal in the world would reject, a book no scholarly press would turn down, a surefire ticket to giving invited talks at every professional conference you can think of. It would be the coup to end all coups. The notion that the's some Shakespeare mafia out there who would slip poison into the coffee machine in the faculty lounge to protect the precious bard's reputation is just risible. The only reason scholars laugh at this nonsense is that they know it's based on ridiculously tendentious misreadings of the available evidence--there's no 'Big Shakespeare' paying them off behind the scenes.
posted by yoink at 2:42 PM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays. Case closed, or rather, never opened, not credibly.

But never mind; what I want to know is, who wrote the entire shelf of books on "Mayan Prophecy" and "The Real Truth About 2012" and all the rest of that claptrap that my dear mother mysteriously acquired in the past five years? Which is especially frustrating to me, as it started at just about the time I was getting interested in Mayan culture, both ancient and modern, and the deciphering of the inscriptions, which work was viewed with great suspicion, or maybe just perpexity, when I would mention Michael Coe or Linda Schele, and she'd be all like "well, I've never heard of THEM, but check out this excellent book about awakening the World Mind" or some frigging Terence McKenna rubbish.

There's been a bit of a 2012 backlash more recently as people who know what they're talking about have come forward, but there's still plenty of kookery out there for the gullible. Erich Von Daniken is back in action on this topic, which is really all one needs to know.
posted by Fnarf at 2:50 PM on March 23, 2012


Metafilter: It is the Trolls
posted by zeptoweasel at 2:58 PM on March 23, 2012


Whether a book is well or poorly written, factual or imaginary, one must ask, what can I make of this? Alan Moore made _From Hell_ from Steven Knight's _Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution_ (also consulting many other books on the subject).
posted by wobh at 3:08 PM on March 23, 2012


On the other hand, writers and Hollywood have built entire industries around taking liberties in history. Speculation about Jack the Ripper isn't that much far-fetched than Shakespeare's Richard or Dumas's Abbe Faria.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:18 PM on March 23, 2012


I suspect the Ripper is attractive as a blank canvas for projecting lurid criticism of Victorian life because of his relative anonymity. This is in contrast to his contemporary, Mudgett/Holmes, who turned out to be a petty middle-class fraud from New Hampshire who got away with at least 27 murders until the Pinkertons took an interest in him.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:47 PM on March 23, 2012


Believe me, there is no cabal. When academics can barely collaborate long enough to produce a collective work (collected articles, reference work, etc.) (which usually means that the work takes forever to publish), they can't be expected to collaborate in the lockstep needed for a cabal. The herding cats phrase applies.
posted by bad grammar at 5:12 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's actually kind of fascinating to watch mfoight demonstrate pretty much the precise opposite of the point he wishes to make.

If I am interpreting him correctly, he is saying: This is a poor basis on which to judge a book as bad, because the definition would in fact encompass [completely baseless rubbish].
posted by kyrademon at 6:16 PM on March 23, 2012


@Pater

"The basics of the story of Jesus in the gospels account" is not what Dawkins is discussing when he writes about Jesus' limited ingroup.

While Dawkins might be unfamiliar with the interpretive tradition, you seem to be unfamiliar with the critical tradition.

I think you are confusing and conflating the Theological Jesus with the Historical Jesus. Dawkins' assertions about the Historical Jesus' friend group has many biblical scholars on his side. While Dawkins might be making a theological error, it is not necessarily a historical one.

"Dawkins writes: "Jesus limited his in-group of the saved strictly to Jews....," which is a jaw-droppingly ignorant statement. First, you have to set aside the entire book of Acts...Then you have to get rid of a lot of the gospel of Luke."

Yes that is exactly what critical scholars interested in the history of Christianity have to do. Based on textual analysis many find that Luke and Acts are two halves of one document, written between 75 AD/CE and 100 AD/CE, and thus written at least 30 and up to 70 years after the death of Jesus. They also find John to have been written between 90 and 100 AD/CE. To get back to the Historical Jesus you can not use an interpretive tradition, you need to use a critical one. With a critical eye, the letters of Paul (written 50 to 60 CE), and the gospels, many biblical scholars have concluded, as it says even on wikipedia:

"the Gentile mission was, at most, peripheral to Jesus' ministry.[74][75] He made no statements about gentiles (non-Jews).[76]"

Dawkins' point about Jesus' in-group is regularly accepted by many biblical scholars and it seems disingenuous or ignorant to accuse him of ignorance on the subject.
posted by GregorWill at 7:37 PM on March 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


The Derrida quotation was hilarious. Great article except for:

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick

These three books - popular in their day - each exemplify how academics are all too willing and able to play the "ignorance is strength" card
blah blah blah (slams Gross/Levitt, Pinker, Dawkins).

Seriously, since he's just fanning the flames with sloppy and sophistic illogic and has nothing of actual intellectual substance to offer, he needs to fuck off.
posted by polymodus at 8:22 PM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: the endless appetite for the Inside Dope, the Real Deal, the Stuff They Don't Want You to Know.
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:48 PM on March 23, 2012


Attacking "The God Delusion" on account of its fully-acknowledged refusal to dirty its hands by grappling with theology is a tired old red herring which has been explained and satirised so well, so often and for so long that I now simply assume anyone who still trots it out is either ignorant or disingenuous.
posted by Decani at 2:22 AM on March 24, 2012


Huh. There should have been this link on the word "satirised" above.
posted by Decani at 2:23 AM on March 24, 2012


I went mental for UFO (and by extension, weird conspiracy) books as a teen during the Australian run of The X-Files (which we are coincidentally rewatching and enjoying) and ended up with a shelf full of shit by people like Timothy Good (Above Top Secret was actually a pretty exciting read, though) and still sometimes kick myself over the literal months and months of my reading life that I wasted on them.
posted by tumid dahlia at 6:25 AM on March 24, 2012


That was fun. I think if you'e a snob like me you get a pretty earlry sixth sense about Bad Books of this ilk - no index or bibliography checking necessary.

That person who dissed Wolf Hall at the end though - what the hell?! I loved that book.
posted by latkes at 7:34 AM on March 24, 2012


I loved "Chariots" as a kid. I got that same tingle along my spine as before, just from seeing those red letters against a while background, in that font. I remember there was a copy-cat book that used the same graphics, but with a yellow background. It's like Proust's madeline to me, and I remember being a kid and reading about a race of 12 inch tall people who lived underground.

While it's fun to identify these as bad books, I think we really miss something by stopping at "these do not tell the truth". Clearly, many people want to read what they have to say, and want to believe them. I want to know why people want this.

The example that impresses me the most is the 'mythology' of alien abduction. In less than fifty years, we've gone from having not having the concept to having a shared set of tropes and a complicated taxonomy of the aliens. Some like to point to the similarities of abduction stories as evidence that people are actually experiencing the same real event. I take as pointing to the many ways that people communicate outside 'official channels'.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:06 PM on March 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


In addition to UFOs and stuff like that, the topic that I eagerly read crazy books about as a kid was Spontaneous Human Combustion. Whatever happened to Spontaneous Human Combustion?
posted by straight at 3:08 PM on March 26, 2012


The example that impresses me the most is the 'mythology' of alien abduction. In less than fifty years, we've gone from having not having the concept to having a shared set of tropes and a complicated taxonomy of the aliens. Some like to point to the similarities of abduction stories as evidence that people are actually experiencing the same real event. I take as pointing to the many ways that people communicate outside 'official channels'

How much do alien abductions look like fairy abductions?

also, there has been some cool research on sleep paralysis which could be one cause of the shared experience.
posted by jb at 12:33 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


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