I always welcome commentary on my posts, but on this one I’m requesting it.

I’m curious how people filter what they read and view in evaluating what information to trust and what to reject. Two recent movies, Selma and American Sniper, have been critiqued harshly for not getting it right. I recently read The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe, which was blasted by multiple reviewers.


Here’s where I’m at.

First, I treat movies (other than documentaries) differently from written material. There’s an entertainment component to movies that can’t be compromised completely, so 100% factually accuracy likely is impossible. If I can learn something in a general sense from a movie, while also being entertained, I’m good. If there are specifics that intrigue me, I’ll try to verify them in print.

I treat books (nonfiction books, that is) differently. I hold books to a higher standard. But I expect books to get things wrong on occasion, and won’t reject them simply because inaccuracies are uncovered. Writing a non-fiction book involves hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours of research and analysis. Nobody can do that without getting something wrong.

I’ve sort of developed a checklist of indicators when I evaluate a book. One is factual specificity and sourcing. If a book is long on specific facts that are well sourced, I take that as a good sign. By contrast, if there is a lot of generalization, not so much.

A second factor is logic. Do the premises underlying the arguments in the book make sense? On this front, I find stereotyping highly suspect. I don’t think Muslims are fundamentally different, as human beings, from the other 80% of the world’s population. As little sense as stereotyping by race makes, stereotyping by religion makes even less sense. Related to this, I consider whether the book is intended to appeal to my sense of logic, or to my emotions, particularly fear, anger and pride.

A third factor is the general credibility of the author, but I try not to let this factor be overly influential. We all have our own agendas.

A fourth factor is the quality of the criticism of a book. I actually find this especially helpful. About a year ago, I read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, which presents a rather scathing picture of life on the ground in Israel today.  The thing that most convinced me that Blumenthal’s work was sound was the abysmal quality of his critics’ reviews. Those reviews contained virtually no uncovering of factual flaws. Instead, Blumenthal was attacked for things like the titles of the chapters, for leaving out other facts, and for being a “self-hating Jew.” When a critic gets deep into the facts or the logic of a book, or points out flawed premises, I’m impressed. When a critic picks at facts that are not central to a book’s thesis, or goes into the character of the author himself, or whines about missing information, I’m unimpressed. Quite often, I can sense the desperation of a critic. That tells me exactly the opposite of what the critic wants me to believe.

Here’s a useful comparison to make, albeit in the context of movies, not books. Check out the critiques of Selma and American Sniper. I found the criticism of Selma barely above the level of nitpicking. The criticism of American Sniper, on the other hand, was far deeper. If the critics of Selma are correct, the movie still has value. If the critics of American Sniper are correct, the movie is worthless.

Thoughts? Comments?