The Null Device

How to spot a bad book

Common characteristics of bad books, in this case popular pseudohistory/woo (think The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Chariots Of The Gods, and anything else conjuring up a sweepingly epic, hitherto hidden and irresistibly compelling secret history of the world out of fragments of anecdote, conjecture and hand-waving:
The Second Characteristic of Bad Books: overenthusiastic prefaces by autodidacts. The front matter in bad books usually includes a preface with the following characteristics: the author has had his eyes suddenly opened to the existence of a mystery in a field in which he is not an expert (although he may be an expert in other fields) and the author has discovered the key to unravelling this mystery, a key that has been overlooked, disregarded or suppressed by experts. The introduction to Gavin Menzies' 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2002) opens with the sentence, "Over ten years ago I stumbled upon an incredible discovery, a clue hidden in an ancient map which, though it did not lead to buried treasure, suggested that the history of the world as it has been known and handed down for centuries would have to be radically revised." Menzies, by the way, is a retired naval officer.
A persistent rhetorical sequence in bad books is "assumption creep". Things described in early chapters as speculation or conjecture soon become likely, and are then taken as established facts. The question "Could the Cathar 'treasure' like the 'treasure' Sauniere discovered, have consisted primarily of a secret? Could that secret have been related in some unimaginable way to something that became known as the Holy Grail?" in chapter two has become by chapter nine "For if the Templars are indeed guardians of the Grail...the Grail existed not only in Arthurian times, but also during the Crusades."
But why do people seem to prefer books peddling snake oil to books peddling antibiotics? My guess is that it is exactly those rhetorical features signalling the books' "badness" that account for their popularity. Copious bibliographies and footnotes provide credentials for the author's gravitas. Breathlessly enthusiastic prefaces and claims of unveiling secrets make the reader look for further exciting revelations; and "outsider" status, somewhat paradoxically, can be taken as evidence of the writer's lack of bias. Assumption creep seems to be understood as the writer's growing confidence in his conclusions rather than as the definitional sleight of hand it actually is. Unfulfilled promises of information-to-come in later chapters move the narrative forward while obscuring weaknesses in data, although half-comparisons and the failure to apply Occam's razor probably ought to be red flags to almost anybody.

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