“Don’t believe everything you see on TV.”

This was a refrain of my generation, a generation glued to the television, a generation that many would say was backing away from reading.  In reality, all of the available literacy statistics suggest that kids today read as well or better than ever before.  There has been some research carried out on literacy levels in 25-36 year old university students.  Apparently they have been growing less and less literate since the 70s. (read more on that here)  I’ve had no opportunity to look at the methodology of this study, but it doesn’t surprise me.  Whether it’s true or not, we live in a world where books are praised as the best place to get good information.

Unfortunately, that’s bollocks.

There’s a very good reason not to trust what you see on television.  Television exists because TV networks make money from commercials.  They make more money when more people watch.  Their goal is not to create informative television but television that the maximum number of people will want to watch.  The bias in TV is towards entertainment.

Magazines have a slightly different bias.  They get some money from advertisers and some from sales.  Thus they have a bias both towards articles and pictures that appeal to lots of people in order to charge more for ads, but also toward stories that look great at a glance.  That’s why so many magazine articles have amazing headlines and cover photos while the content is mediocre.

Now we come to books.  Books are created by authors who get rich if lots of books sell and sold by publishing houses that get really rich if lots of books sell.  That’s two levels of bias.  If a book is brilliant and insightful but no publisher can make money, it’ll never see the light of day.  There is only one redeeming bias in the book business: books are only marketed to people who can read.  Publishing houses don’t market to the illiterate or those who don’t read books.  Nonetheless, they are products designed to appeal to the masses based on title, cover-art and word of mouth.

If you look at the New York TImes bestsellers list you’ll find two books by BIll O’reilly.  BIll O’reilly is not an historian.  That doesn’t mean his books are not historically accurate.  Neither does the fact that they’re bestsellers.  But the fact that a conservative broadcasting personality can get two historical monographs into the bestsellers list while historians have none suggests that success is not predicated on quality but on something else.

Or take Eben Alexander’s phenomenal book Proof of Heaven.  He’s the neurosurgeon who spent years hearing about patients’ near death experiences, understanding that they were a product of the brain, but when he fell into a coma and had his own, suddenly there’s evidence for the afterlife.  His whole premise was pretty handily dismantled by a couple of neurobiologist experts in this article published shortly after Alexander’s Newsweek article was published.  Again, this is not to say that any of Alexander’s claims are untrue.  It’s simply to say that books are not a way to go about testing medical evidence.  Faith claims still require faith.

But where could we test medical and historical evidence to see if these authors claims are true?  Where is there a place where ideas are tested against each other and reviewed by experts?  What medium of publishing avoids the bias of popularity?  Answer: journals.  The world is full of journals filled with articles about history, medicine, science, and any other academic field.  They are published by universities typically and publication is determined by peer review based on the quality of evidence.  As a result, nobody really reads them.  But if what you’re looking for is truth, not entertainment, journals are where to look.  If Billo wanted to make a point about history, he would have published an historical paper.  If Alexander had real proof of heaven he would have published in a medical journal.  What they both had were stories that the public would enjoy more than the experts.

I still read lots of books though!  And everyone should.  It’s just that when you’re in Chapters and you see your history book right next to the 150-pager validating alien abduction stories, you have to understand what league you’re in.  There is a market for books that are academic.  Readers demand it.  But when you consider the layers of bias your books are filtered through before they reach the shelf, it becomes painfully obvious that all claims made in academic books have to be fact-checked in journals.  And then even journals have to be evaluated for bias.

Just don’t assume that because it’s on paper it’s true.

My question for you?  Have you ever read a book that seemed great but betrayed you in the end?

Advertisements