relax, you’re not the only clueless one

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Sorry, but this isn’t the article I was going to write.

Originally, I’d planned to start by quoting William Goldman’s famous Hollywood adage from Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.” Maybe as a caption over a cat executive at a desk, like so:

nobody knows anything

In coining this oft-quoted, oft-misinterpreted phrase, Goldman meant that Hollywood execs, no matter how smart, successful, and experienced, still cannot predict with any certainty which films will succeed at the box office.

This insight applies equally to the book trade. To paraphrase a former president of a Big Five book publisher, you can’t predict where lightning will strike, so you build as many lightning rods, i.e. publish as many books, as possible.

And everything else in life.

You know what, just get to work building that bunker. Prepare for the worst. Shit of some kind is gonna hit the fan. You don’t know which shit, or which fan, but either way the results won’t be pretty.

Once I’d set the Goldman bit up and established the theme of the essay, I was going to step back to the replication crisis in the social sciences. Over the past decade, an increasing number of well-regarded, widely referenced scientific papers have come under scrutiny when other researchers attempted and failed to replicate their findings.

This rapid dismantling of established scientific “fact” has already been a black eye for business book authors like bestselling Amy Cuddy, whose 2010 paper on the effectiveness of so-called “power poses” was discredited when other researchers failed to replicate her results.

Of course, nothing (especially science) beats a good TED talk when it comes to book sales. And this issue isn’t specific to Cuddy—most practical nonfiction authors writing for a mass audience are standing on shaky scientific foundations pretty much anywhere they put their brain-feet.

From the social science replicability part, I’d planned to segue to certainty from skepticism—how, as an author, you owe it to your readers to write with conviction even if you aren’t absolutely convinced of the facts yourself. Let readers take what they will and trust their intelligence to sort what’s useful in what you say from the chaff.

Look: If someone is desperate for concrete answers, they’re going to take whatever you say as gospel no matter how much doubt you cast on it in your writing.

Meanwhile, hedging saps the life out of your book—at its base, what feels like honesty or authenticity to you is just fear, the fear of being wrong about something.

Try that sentence this way: “Hedging may even make your writing weaker, according to some. Experts suggest that this desire to soften our points or attribute our beliefs to others may stem from a fear of being exposed as mistaken.”

Whether you hedge or not, you’re telling the reader the same things. When you hedge, you’re just yelling fire in a crowded theater and then blaming your friend in case there’s a stampede.

Having made that point, I’d planned to end this essay on a personal note about how uncomfortable it can be to write or speak with conviction about your ideas. Recently, I shared some advice from my own book-in-progress on writing books with a friend struggling with writing his book.

“What a great opportunity to try out some of my great ideas!” was my great idea.

My friend wasn’t very receptive to some of it. What?! Everything had looked so convincing and useful on my screen, alone at my desk. Here, presented to an actual person facing this actual problem, some of my best stuff was looking awfully thin. Even half-baked.

If I’d initially framed my suggestions as the advice of other experts, I could easily have side-stepped his dismissal. Instead, I’d made it clear that these suggestions were my ideas, from my book, which meant that my expertise was on the line. That left me vulnerable, but—moral of the essay—in the end his honest feedback made my work stronger.

So that’s what I’d planned to write until I read this article about physicist Lee Smolin’s crusade for evidence. That derailed my essay because it made clear that the issue of truth goes beyond the “soft” sciences of psychology and behavior.

Smolin believes physicists have fallen for beauty over truth. They “verify” their work in areas like string theory by the beauty of their mathematical models instead of, you know, observations. Elegance over evidence.

So, forget the social sciences—even the science sciences are resting on strawberry Jell-O.

People like to say that we love easy answers, but as Smolin’s case proves, we love beautiful answers. There is nothing easy about string theory, but according to its adherents its equations are simply too lovely not to reflect reality. Except maybe they don’t. Who knows?

As authors, our job is to offer advice that is beautiful even if it may not be true. Fundamentally, there is no alternative because the truth is always changing. You can see this thirst for “beautiful” truth in all the quotes on Facebook misattributed to Mother Theresa, Albert Einstein, and Gandhi.

You can also see it from the very earliest practical nonfiction books of the 20th century, like How to Win Friends and Influence People: “Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.” This is some snappy and memorable advice, and yet it is not true, as many of my most painful networking lunches prove. And yet, I’ll still have my kids read Carnegie’s book. His advice should be true.

As authors we tell people what should be true in the absence of any fixed truth. That’s better than just saying “nobody knows anything.” We make the best bets we can, the bets we’re comfortable making. If your intentions are good, and you want to help people, and you’re speaking from experience and research, accept the fact that you may be proven wrong tomorrow while you write with conviction about what you believe to be true today.

As Keats once read off an old bucket: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”