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.
A good place to start is to try to understand the originator’s purpose in putting the work into circulation. Was it to profit, to educate, to deceive, to entertain, to advocate, to disrupt, to upset, …..?
A second place is to ask yourself why am I viewing, reading, listening, smelling, tasting, or touching this work?
If you can figure these things out you probably have a pretty good idea whether to trust or distrust the work.
They are movies, not great works of art. The criticism they received was exactly what could have been predicted.
One of the movies was about a revered icon of American history. The criticism HAD to remain muted and no more than nitpicking. To do otherwise would have been unthinkable.
The other was a graphic war movie that made no apologies for itself. It could even be said it was a bit jingoistic. That is always a favorite target of critics, most of whom find it very difficult to like war movies.
But, again, they are just movies and they should be enjoyed, or disliked, for what they are. In the case of “American Sniper”, dragging in the book and discussions about contributions and whether or not the book was accurate make it appear to me that many of the critics were looking for ANYTHING they could find to demean the movie. I guess I was blessed because I didn’t read the book or research the people. I just watched the movie and enjoyed it. (sigh!) I guess DR. SUCHINDRAN CHATTERJEE is correct and I am not as smart as I think I are.
While reading through your discourse on evaluating media, typically my next thought while reading was the next point you would bring up. This could be a useful post to introduce critical evaluation of media to students.
When it comes to evaluating sources, what would you recommend when one is reviewing a book in an area where one has little knowledge? If I’m reading a book about medicine, I don’t really have the knowledge to evaluate the quality of sources on much more than a very basic level. I could probably figure out if a citation is from a peer-reviewed journal or if it’s from Billy Bob’s Blog of Sciency Stuff, but I don’t really have any technical knowledge of medicine. Ultimately, I’m forced to rely on authorities whose knowledge of the subject is much greater than my own. Then I wonder about cases such as the whole debunked autism-vaccines link investigated by Wakefield, whose knowledge is surely much greater than my own. In the end it turns out he’s a charlatan and vaccines are vital for the greater good of society. How would I ever have known that there were flaws in this investigation?
Being a pro-choice activist has endowed me with a finely tuned detector for bullshit and bad faith arguments. I agree that in addition to identifying the bad logic and immorality of some positions, you may also have to cut through the layers of insincerity, smarminess, and emotional manipulation the bad ideas are so often swathed in. Anti-choicers – the glib professional ones like Cathi Herrod, that is – are the fucking masters at pretending to be anything but the raging authoritarian haters they really are. But you see the same thing with warmongers and other types of crusaders.
Not that you should discount all emotional appeals, though. I reject the logic/emotion duality. We have our emotions for a reason, most of us anyway. They are what prevent us from harming others and allowing ourselves to be harmed. An argument being internally logically consistent doesn’t make it ethical. You just have to learn to examine people’s motives and sincerity in addition to their logic.
You get at the truth by hagels dialectic thesis anti thesis synthesis example thesis the world is flat. anti thesis the world is not flat. synthesis the world is round. that is why I watch fox not new so I know what the enemy is thinking! By the way speaking of movies I have written a screenplay about homeless illegal alien children in arizona who’s mothers were arrested for picking lettuce trying to feed them. The movie is about how the children get their mommys back. I am trying to put up a website so people can read the screenplay and give me feedback.
I hope yor succeed in formulating a website. Good luck to you, captain*arizona!
BTW, I can’t stomach FOX news. I can barely tackle what my Tea Party/Republican (family & friends) post on FB, as well as the varied news coverage that is everywhere!
What do you mean by “Your comment is awaiting moderation”? Is it too long or what?
Thank you! Your parameters make sense and are reasonable.
I realized that I share your views, although I hadn’t ever critiqued my own before!
While Selma definitely altered history a bit to make a better story line, it did so under the guise of fiction. American Sniper is based on a book that puports to be a true story but contains several fictional accounts and unconfirmed data. The author said book sales profits from the latter were supposed to go to vet support, etc., but very little has left the family’s hands.
Selma reminds us of an important part of history – a cause to honor and continue moving forward. American Sniper is a fictional account glorifying all-out killing of “savages” (author’s term) by Americans. While I admire and am thankful for our troops, my money won’t be spent honoring a movie based on lies, hate, and violence.
I use the old cold war saying, ‘Trust, but Verify”. I use multiple sources on the internet for my news and financial data gather. I usually hold off commenting on a ‘hot’ topic until I have some more information – the Bowe Bergdahl thing from yesterday comes to mind.
Like you, for books I’m looking for good background and foundational logic to bolster the premise of the book. For critics (of books, movies, whatever) I too look at their argument and, sometimes more importantly, the source – does the critic have an ongoing agenda or a feud with the subject, author, or audience?