Kind reader, I come to you with unfortunate news. There is a fallacy of thought that has gained momentum in recent times. Those of us who recognize it face an ugly and exhausting battle. Those of us who don’t are in danger of slipping into alternate realities full of spiders and flimsy sentiments. Let this be a warning to all: good writing is not synonymous with good ideas.
Every now and then, I will come across an article that is crisp and well-written. The author has command of the language and uses the right words in the right context. The grammar is immaculate and the conjugations work. There’s only one problem: the ideas are shit. Big steaming piles of nonsensical bullshit. The data is wonky, the links are weak, and the conclusions are stupid at best. But, the prose is beautiful. And unfortunately, the ideas gain merit with readers because they are given the sense of intellectual capacity. This is an expert, not some yahoo typing furiously in all-caps word vomit.
It reminds me of one of my favorite jokes. What do you call a med school graduate with a D average? A doctor. (rimshot, belly laugh, sudden sadness)
The same applies to writing. Writers can be competent at their craft, yet fail miserably at the subjects they write about. But in the eyes of the non-writing masses, they come across as subject matter experts because they took the time to present it in a polished manner.
Look no further than the anti-vaccine movement. The entire debacle started with a published article (now wholly debunked) by a former physician named Andrew Wakefield (former for a reason). The guy is a pariah in the medical field because, well, he’s a terrible physician. His research was flawed, his data was manipulated, and his conclusions had multiple conflicts of interest. As a result, he lost his licence. What should have stopped there has become a rallying cry for purveyors of junk science. His ideas persisted because they came from a well-crafted article in a well-respected journal. Nevermind the fact that the ideas were total shit.
In literature, I can think of no greater example than Starship Troopers, a military sci-fi novel by legendary author Robert Heinlein. It is one of the most influential genre novels ever written, and for good reason. Heinlein was a master of prose and knew how to compel his readers. However, the novel goes above and beyond to promote fascism, a governing system wholly debunked as destructive and inhumane (cough cough Hitler). After a first read, you may very well wonder if fascism wasn’t the best form of rule, which is a testament to Heinlein’s enduring brilliance. But then your critical thinking skills kick in and you start to dissect the assertion.
And therein lies the problem.
These days, critical thinking has diminished in favor of emotional resonance. People are finding vile ideas that are well-presented and assimilate them as objective truths. With a simple web search, I can find numerous pieces of carefully constructed prose that argue in favor of ethnic nationalism. But, no amount of slick writing is going to convince me that the idea has merit. It would be like crafting a thesis on how smoking is healthy. The composition does not matter because the conclusion is objectively false.
And so, kind reader, I implore you to polish your critical thinking skills. Recognize bad ideas for what they are: bad. If a talking head in a snazzy suit tells you something is true, it doesn’t make it so. Unfortunately, we live in strange times where truth is wielded by the loudest person. But, all is not lost. You can fight back with critical thought. Always remember that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Do your research, seek evidence, and form reasonable conclusions. Leave the realms of truth to the deniers of reality.