Sunday, March 05, 2006

“SHAM” is a shame

Enthusiastic overstatement of banalities seems* to often be a trait of conservative writers. Like this by Steve Salerno on page 2 of SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless:

          Pet lovers read endlessly about pets.

People don't read “endlessly” about anything. No pet owner/lover I know reads pet books except rarely. Salerno's dumb hyperbole makes the reader work so much harder, discounting and re-evaluating mild ideas for which a better writer could get unreserved assent.

I wanted to write a review of SHAM, a book intended as a send-up of what Salerno calls the “self-help and actualization movement”, but the book was so bad that it would take another book twice as long as it to explain and correct it. I couldn't find a toehold for organizing a review. Anyone who could be persuaded by Salerno's unreferenced assertions and hyperbolic writing would not be persuaded by the calm presentation of referenced fact and supported, deliberative, nuanced conclusions. Anyone with half a brain would dismiss most of the book on their own.

Nevertheless, I recommend the one-star review by Susan Wise Bauer (among several good bad ones) at Amazon for the best brief broadside against it.

For myself, I'll just look at a few quotes from the last full page of text in the book, page 262. Talking about the process of researching the book, Salerno says,
“In one or two cases, I've watched as sources were effectively conscripted in to the movement and became unwitting gurus, of a sort, in their own right. They shall remain nameless, though the alert reader can probably take a stab at who's who.” (pg 262)
What the hell? What sort of information did these sources give Salerno that they must remain nameless? And does he mean these authors wrote self-help books without realizing it — or what do unwitting gurus do? If they are public figures, why not name them and tell what you know? If they are not public figures, how could a reader figure out who they are? And which is it, one or two?

Steve Salerno
Addressing readers who may disagree with his conclusions, Salerno says at the end of the book,
If we seem to have arrived at different endpoints, so be it. That is, after all, what the pursuit of  “self” is really about, or should be—isn't it? (pg 262)
Does Salerno think the self-understanding or personal identity is essentially or fundamentally “about” having different conclusions after exposure to the same factual evidence and rational arguments? Scholarship, even pop-scholarship like this book, is about  persuasion and agreement resulting from the compilation of substantive factual evidence and its analysis through commonly-held rational methods. The pursuit of personal preferences and bias is something you try to set aside  in the pursuit of understanding the world. It's people who simply like having strident opinions who defend them with the sort of factual relativism Salerno is invoking.
But if this book achieves nothing else, my most fervent hope is that it provokes some thought about the things you always took as “givens”.... (pg 262)
How can an author whose most fervent hope is instilling skepticism of other sources go on to write a book wholly without references or bibliography?
Are we predestined, or at least predisposed, to do what we do? If we don't know the truth about such matters, we cannot know the absolute answers to the questions put forth in this book. (pg 262)
I don't know what “the questions put forth in this book” are. It seemed to be assertions from the get-go. If he means a question like, “Which self-help techniques are more effective?” then that, just like, “Which car gets better mileage?” can be answered without solving the whole determinism / free will thing. A fair amount of research has been done on the former question, and various cognitive techniques seem to have the edge, with others gradually appearing and in development. (Watch this blog for more information.)
*I’m open to counterexamples.


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