“[T]he major American publishers were reluctant to support a skeptical book,” Wiseman wrote on his blog last week, “with some suggesting that I re-write it to suggest that ghosts were real and psychic powers actually existed! We didn’t get any serious offers and so it looked like the American public (around 75% of whom believe in the paranormal) wouldn’t get the opportunity to read about skepticism.”
Publishers, of course, are in the business of selling books first and foremost, so to a certain degree it is understandable that they would want to appeal to a broad audience. However, to ask an author to reverse his own position and argue the opposite of his convictions is outrageous and more than a little depressing. I cannot imagine a publisher asking a purveyor of supernatural and paranormal claims to include a chapter on scientific explanations, nor requesting the myriad of books on religion and spirituality to offer an atheist rebuttal.
Instead, what we seem to see is a pair of calculated moves from some publishers: First, books need to appeal to the largest audience, even at the expense of seriousness or truth, by playing to the perceived prejudices of the assumed audience (which, of course, becomes a downward feedback spiral as potential new readers are turned off and current audiences dwindle). Second, nonfiction, except for political polemics, must studiously avoid ideas or opinions lest they offend someone and therefore affect the size of the potential audience.
The second point is one that has tripped me up in the past, since I have been criticized repeatedly for taking positions on issues and writing history by making judgments about the past. How dare you, some have written to me, express opinions? Don’t you know nonfiction is supposed to be neutral and objective?
No less a luminary than Charles Darwin understood the folly of research without a hypothesis to confirm or refute. He was writing (in a letter to Henry Fawcett) of science, but the same applies to most nonfiction writing:
“About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (18 Sept. 1861)
When I think back at the most interesting, compelling, and memorable nonfiction I’ve read, I am hard pressed to think of a single book lacking a clear thesis or point of view that retains any hold on my mind. Instead, it is those with clear views—even views I disagree with strenuously—and the will to defend them vigorously and rigorously (thus disqualifying polemics and most books by political pundits) that are the most interesting and stimulating.
It would be a terrible shame if opinions and ideas were restricted only to the academic press, with popular history and science writing little more than collections of facts, arranged chronologically. Isn’t that what Wikipedia is for?