Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Don't Believe Everything You Read

Because he knew I studied the history of the Old West as well as some American Indian history, a man sitting next to me at lunch asked if I’d heard this: that the Mandan tribe of the Plains was partially descended from Welsh explorers in the 12th century.

“No, I haven’t heard that one,” PAUSE. “And I’m extremely leery of such a story.”

“It’s very interesting and there’s evidence. There’s a book about it.”

He proceeded to lay out a ludicrous tale of blue-eyed, fair-skinned Mandans who owned, according to a 17th or 18th century source, artifacts proving their Welsh heritage. Sadly, these artifacts were stolen when other tribes enslaved the Mandans. . . . and there’s a book about it. The man reiterated this point several times.

None of this is credible. I’m not going to talk about Mandan history, don’t worry. Google “Mandan” and “Welsh” and you’ll find many websites debunking this groundless legend.

No, my point is to wonder why otherwise intelligent people believe ridiculous tales just because they read them in a book. Holocaust denials, blue-eyed Indians, lost tribes of Israel, ancient astronauts, Jesus’ wife. . . .

Anyone with the money to spare can self-publish. That’s the first thing to beware of when you’re eyeing a book title that strains credulity.

The second? Most history or pseudo-history books are not peer-reviewed. No one sits atop the ivory tower and says, “Ah, yes, this speaks truth. Therefore it may be distributed by Amazon the Bountiful.” Nope.

In bookstores, real or virtual, the rule is “buyer beware.” If you want to know whether you can trust the so-called facts you find in a book, you can do the following:

1. Rate the publisher. A university press is tops. They have a rep to protect, and tend to publish well-researched books that get academic praise. Commercial publishers, especially in the post-Frey era, are pretty careful about what their books claim, too. Vanity presses and self-publishers rank lowest, not because they’re bad. Some excellent books are self-published for various reasons. But there’s no oversight, and anyone can publish anything.

2. What are the author’s credentials? A degree backs up their expertise. Sure, a degreed professor can be a kook, but the initials lend gravitas.

3. Best bet: Look for reviews. Who wrote the blurbs on the back cover? Are they experts in the field? Professors? Professional reviewers? Relatives?

Go further, if you’re in doubt. Amazon.com posts book reviews. I’m not talking about the customer reviews, though those can be enlightening. Scroll to the “Editorial Reviews” and read what they have to say. Google the book title or author, and look for published reviews.
If reviews knock the research or cast doubts on the book, you can still read it--but now you're less likely to be fooled.

We've all been fooled. I used to read Eric von Daniken. . . when I was 13. And that's all I'll admit to, here.

1 comment:

Kelly Boyer Sagert said...

Amazon the Bountiful . . . that's funny.

Thoughtful and thought provoking post!