Argument and the Dangers of Certainty

As some of you know, I’ve been reading a bit about the New England witchcraft crisis of the late 17th Century, and recently recommended Mary Beth Norton’s work in general. So it was serendipidous that Andrew Sullivan linked to this essay by Ben Shattuck (student at the University of Iowa’s Writing Workshop). Shattuck addresses the theory that the girls at the center of the crisis had taken some sort of hallucinogen, and talks to Suzy Witten, who is aggressively pushing this theory. I recommend it as an example of how being so certain of your own beliefs that you dismiss competing views can hurt your credibility. A key passage from Shattuck:

It may seem unproblematic to speculate, to flesh out the unrecorded 99 percent when selling your book as fiction, but by tacking on a claim to have “solved” a real mystery complicates credibility. Couching nonfiction in speculative fiction is not the way to present whatever kernels of truth you might have dug up. This is why there’s only one citation for Witten’s theory on Wikipedia, and why it comes from her own book.

I started noticing weaknesses her argument that are absent from academic theories. She did most of her research with books written about Salem instead of going to the primary sources. She wouldn’t admit that any of the other theories might be at least in part right. She was defensive about criticism of her book. She made at least one claim that wasn’t true: “Jimsonweed is actually considered the most toxic plant on the planet,” she said early in our conversation.

I highly recommend the whole thing.

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2 Responses to Argument and the Dangers of Certainty

  1. Suzy Witten says:

    For the record, Ben Shattuck deliberately misquoted me to sensationalize his article and diminish my opinions. Not only did I not discount other theories of the afflictions, but I also explained how I had considered them in detail while researching the Salem witch hunt; but that then I realized how and why they were in error (which I also explained to him). In fact, I’m not the first proponent of Jimson Weed as the cause of the Salem afflictions. Seminal Salem historian and author Marion L. Starkey (well-known to all Salem enthusiasts, including Mary Beth Norton) made this discovery in the 1960s. She also believed Jimson Weed was the cause. (Her books include: The Tall Man from Boston, The Visionary Girls: Witchcraft in Salem Village, Cherokee Nation, The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials, among others.)

    So maybe your argument against certainty should really be about inferring certainty from shlock journalism.

    Suzy Witten, Author
    THE AFFLICTED GIRLS A Novel of Salem (ISBN: 978-0-615-32313-8)
    Winner of the 2010 IPPY Silver Medal for Historical Fiction

  2. Mr. Ayers says:

    Thanks for your response, Ms. Witten. I won’t get into the specifics of the quoting/misquoting business, as there’s no way for me to have any idea one way or the other, and you’re both strangers to me (I have a question, but I’ll get to that). I’m happy to leave your comment here, of course, so that readers can note your critique of Shattuck’s original piece.

    I would say that my original point, however, still stands. Being attached to an argument to the exclusion of all counterarguments remains liable to raise questions in the reader’s mind about the author’s/speaker’s credibility. Indeed, you seem to agree that this would be a problem if you had actually said such a thing. Whether or not you actually said this is a minor point for the purposes of teaching my class, though naturally I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it very important indeed.

    I might further note that Dr. Norton’s critique seemed more important than the question of which hallucinogenic theory was correct (if any of them): that is, why would it even matter to us whether hallucinogens were the cause, when the interesting facets of the case were (a) that the content of the girls’ “fits” were about witches, and (b) that such accusations would be taken seriously by any of the adults in authority. I find Norton’s exhaustive, primary-document research to be very convincing about both points.

    I also wonder, since you’ve prompted me to re-read the original piece: you’re quoted extensively in Shattuck’s essay, but the criticism in your reply was narrowed to the question of whether you discounted other theories. Were you accurately quoted elsewhere in the essay?

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