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.