Why you fool, it's the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they're all propaganda and skips the leading articles....He's our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don't need reconditioning. They're all right already. They'll believe anything. That Hideous Strength, C S LewisThat quote - a favorite of mine, and on my bulletin board at work - is not just about others. It's about me. I have a problem - too easily believing what I read.
It's a pattern. Any book I pick up these days has some sort of recommendation behind it, however indirect. It is referenced in an article I read, or less often, recommended by someone whose judgment I trust. Jacket blurbs are usually a neutral, but a particular signature might bias me for or against a volume. If I am biased for, I can get swept away by the author's premise over the first quarter or third of a book. I am far less critical than I should be. If an author can get me over the first hurdle of why his unorthodox or counterintuitive idea is correct, with some plausible explanation why the conventional wisdom in the field overlooks important counterevidence, I can run with that author quite a ways.
Because the conventional wisdom in all fields turns out to miss something.
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.And Planck has pretty good cred in the matter, right? If you follow a topic long enough, you will witness the received wisdom being overturned. It is not a complete chaos, that nothing is learned over time. The overturnings are usually partial. Yet they are there.
— Max Planck
Thus, when I read a purported new solution that cherished established belief in a field, I very readily admit the possibility. This can shut down instantly if the author missteps right out of the box, or rests most of his case on the mere fact that other experts have been wrong in the past. You have to show me something. But once past that obstacle, I am too easily swayed.
The breaking of the spell eventually comes, however, because if people go on long enough they come to a subject where I actually know something. They reach too far, demonstrating that they have not done their homework in at least one area, and I begin to regard all their claims with more suspicion. It might be a secular person making some claim about what Christians, or Catholics, or Fundamentalists are like, or what the Early Church* taught; it might be something in historical linguistics, or colonial history, or psychology, or a half-dozen other fields where I actually happen to know something - not that I have been bamboozled by the conventional wisdom, but that I know enough to make an initiate's mistakes more often than an amateur's.
I had that experience reading Gregory Clark's A Farewell To Alms, which I will review soon. I kept saying to my wife this is very troubling. I should have been suspicious when he spoke so positively of Jared Diamond's fascinating but flawed Guns, Germs, and Steel. Yeah, I always look back and say "In retrospect, I shoulda..." Too late now.
Clark's book is excellent, and I'm giving it four stars if you skim it, though only 2.5 or 3 if you read closely. But troubling part is only half so troubling now. He ventured into territory about the doctrines of the Medieval Church, and then Australian Aboriginal culture which weren't wrong, exactly, but revealed that he had just picked up an idea he had read somewhere and brought it into service to give evidence for his point without looking too closely. I then wondered if much of his other evidence outside his field of specialisation was of similar quality. After that, the second half of his book was good, but not profound and earth-shattering anymore.
As my commenters here seem to have both similarities and differences from me in how they read and understand things, I am curious what your experiences are in reading books which seek to prove a point.
*And BTW, when I read an evangelical or fundamentalist who thinks that what was taught 200 years ago is "traditional" Christianity rather than some new, potentially heretical idea, I write them off immediately. Your grandfather's Christianity is not the standard for time-honored tradition.