I’m on a “non-fiction writer’s” list where the participants help each other critique WIPs and share experiences in the business. It’s a working list, and to stay on, one has to do a combination of five submissions and critiques a month. I’ve mostly been on the critiquing side because I’m not quite ready to start posting my own work. There are a lot of talented people on the list, and I’ve learned a lot by critiquing works outside of my areas of expertise.
Last week, an author posted a chapter on his book refuting Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. I had some reservations about reviewing this person’s work because he has chronic difficulty using his mail program. (For some reason, that, and his lack of corrective action, just ratcheted down my opinion.) Still, Science topics are a refreshing change from the memoirs and ecclesiastes. I was eager to help…
…until I hit the second paragraph, titled “Who Should Not Read This Book.” I think it’s fair to say this is bad technique. It might possibly be okay if you’re writing comedy. This author was not obviously doing so, so it flew like a lead zeppelin.
His prose went Hindenburg when he launched into berating Einstein, but without ever having established his own credentials or constructing a logical argument. This reminded me of the anonymous rant at the end of The Double Helix, only my author’s abundant use of “stupid” came across as the ramblings a crank who has miraculously “connected” the Special Theory of Relativity to Lee Harvey Oswald,
Cattle Mutilation, UPC codes, and the Butterfly Ballot.
Every once in a while, he wrote something that suggested a glimmer of humorous intent. For example, he referred to “Basic Einstein Equations of Relativity” as “BEER” — (Insert jokes here) — but immediately flipped back into bizarro-rant mode, describing the theory as having “three basic frauds” based on a “misuse of scientific rulers and yardsticks.” Buttefly Ballots. Butterfly Ballots. Butterfly Ballots.
It didn’t occur to me until after I mailed the review that I should google the guy. He is apparently a frequent contributor of, um, unsolicited input on this subject area. While it’s generally acknowledged that there are flaws in the theory, not that many people really give a shit. I also read the other reviews written to see how many “standard deviations from the mean” my comments were. This time, they were pretty close.
Even in questionable writing, there is something one can learn:
- If you’re on a mailing list, please learn to use your [bad word] mail reader.
- Beginning a book with “Who Should Not Read This Book,” in a condescending (and unfunny) tone does not work. (See first quote)
- If you’re going lambaste a Nobel prize-winning physicist’s theory as “fradulent,” it helps your case if you have already polished your own Nobel medals. Or at least mention you have a Ph.D. and twenty years of published work in this area. Or an MBA. Or you read a really good book on the subject, written by someone with a nobel prize, Ph.D. or an MBA. Give the reader something to work with here.
“Jim Carson is a random guy off the street who has apparently read a book whose pictures haven’t already been colored. When not working, he occasionally experiments with combinatorial sequencing of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.”
this guy sounds familiar. trying to read Has Man a Future? by Bertrand Russell, for thesis. This guy sounds similar, altho as u said, i would imagine bertrand has the obvious advantage of letters after his name, and some litereary credit. interesting read, tho , i recommend it.
There’s something you don’t hear often: “You know who’s stupid? Albert Einstein!”
Yeah, I can see where that might come off badly.
Do you think the rising numbers of people who feel qualified to critique great thinkers when not having any qualifications of their own in the thinkers’ fields is in any way related to the trend in society where people will continue to hold on to a belief even when presented with irrefutable facts that prove what they believe is, indeed, false?
I would say, though, that the other place “Who should not read this book” is pertinent is technical learning manuals: It’s incredibly frustrating to get a chapter into a book and realized it’s the advanced course when you were looking for beginner instruction.
> Do you think … hold onto a belief even when presented with irrefutable facts…
Oh, definitely. Maybe I’m getting cycnical in my old age, but after two or three paragraphs, I found myself wondering what his agenda was. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an ‘Intelligent Design’-type conclusion. It’s certainly possible he’s being exceptionally clever. Or, the guy could just be a crank.
There is a “debate” on another blog about HIV causing AIDS, started by some researcher noting some inconsistencies in the research. Afer being ignored by his peers, he is publicly “demanding” other scientists address those in this popular blog.
Presumably, the doctor is more qualified than my Special Relativist. However, the tone on both sides has at times become incendiary, rendering the discussion into a flame war. The doctor doesn’t seem to advocate any better theories, nor does the discussion seem intent on getting any closer to preventing people from dying.
> “Who should not read this book” is pertinent is technical learning manuals:
I’d agree with that. However, I’d word it in the positive, e.g., “This book is for people who already proficient in Relativity Theory. If you’re not, we’d recommend Visual TimeWasting for Dummies.”
Well, the Special Relativist has posted another chapter of his book. I need to do four more reviews/submissions by the end of the month, but I think I’ll have to pass on this unless something better comes up.
Should I be surprised he didn’t even say “Uh… thanks” for my review? Don’t answer that.
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