Be Skeptical of Good Writers
One time I was defending atheism to some friends over dinner. Some of
the more spiritual members of the conversation were complaing that
science was always changing, so you never really knew anything with
absolute certainty. I acknowledged this point, saying that most of
scientific knowledge today might be, strictly speaking, false, but
science provides what is most rational to believe at any given
point. Jen said "So you'd rather have a scientific falsehood than a
Rachel said "Ooooo! Good point!"
Actually it's a terrible point, but damn, it sounded good. Looking at
that argument as a war, I lost some ground there, not because she was
right, but because I'd been bested, momentarily, by her rhetorical
It's wrong because we have even fewer reasons to believe spiritual
dogma than scientific facts. At least science has a built-in
It sounds good, though, for the following reasons:
- It aligns science with falsehood and spirituality with
truth. I'd just admitted that most science facts were probably
false, and that was enough to make Rachel swallow the whole point.
- It sounds like it's forcing the audience to make a choice
between truth and falsehood, rather than between science and
spirituality. I could have just as easily asked "So you'd rather
have a spiritual falsehood than a scientific truth?", and, in the
right conversational context, this would have sounded just fine, and
Rachel would probably have said "Ooooo! Good point!"
If anyone can think of other reasons why it sounded so good I'd love
to hear them.
We all know of smooth talkers who can feed you a lot of crap and make
it sound like gold, but people don't use the same thinking as often
with writers. Well I do.
I was talking with my friend Guen Davies (no relation)about author
Milan Kundera, who wrote The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. She
said something like "He's such a good writer that you're convinced of
what he's saying, and only on later reflection realize he's completely
wrong." Now, I'm not supporting this view of Milan Kundera, but I do
support this argument for Malcolm Gladwell.
Malcolm Gladwell is a New Yorker writer, and a damn good one. I
read all his articles, because they tend to be fascinating,
science-related, and, above all, extraordinarily well-written. I've
already complained about one of his articles in my blog entry about
fact checking, and this essay continues along similar lines.
When he's writing for The New Yorker he's kept in check, more
or less, by the fact checkers. It's when he writes his own books he
goes off the deep end. I'm mainly talking about The Tipping
Point, which is an excellent read and contains a lot of really
When I notice that the writing is really good, I make sure I'm a
little more skeptical, because I know good writing can get your