Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sometimes It's Better to Remain Uninformed than Misinformed

A couple of weeks ago, I checked out the book Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life by Neil Strauss. It is one writer's tale about how he decided to learn to cope with all sorts of emergencies. He learned how to shoot effectively, escape from a country, slip out of bonds, survive in the wilderness, fly an airplane, and many other survival skills.

I really looked forward to reading it. But about three chapters in, I stopped.

Strauss' story seemed suspicious. It's not really an instruction manual, but his story about how he came to adopt a survivalist attitude and equip himself appropriately. It was a gripping and often funny story. And that's what made me suspicious. It was written like a novel, and real life doesn't look like a novel plotline, nor people like novel characters.

Or rather, Strauss' book is such a seamless narrative and filled with such rich characters as too be unlikely to be factual. The story was just too good to be true.

Which made me wonder if any of the practical information that he provided was accurate. Probably some of it was. But it was also likely that he made up a lot of his experiences because it would make a good story.

How could I tell the difference? I couldn't, and I wouldn't want to incorporate faulty survival knowledge into my own mind, especially when I couldn't tell Strauss' fiction apart from his non-fiction.

It was similar to Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris. This 1999 book was something of a biography, and something of a novel, or sometimes called a "fictionalized biography". It was controversial at the time because it was unclear exactly which elements were intended to be factual and which were imaginative.

But at least Morris was forthright about the fuzzyness of the truth of his book. Not so Strauss.

Of course, I could be wrong, and maybe everything in Emergency really did happen as the author describes it. But I'm skeptical.

So I stopped reading the book. Because sometimes it's better to not know -- and to know that you don't know something -- than to know what isn't so. It's like the old proverb "It's not what people know that causes problems; it's what they know that isn't so." And I'd rather know that I don't know, than know what isn't so.

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