The “writer effect” is this: The opinions of the most effective writers spread and become conventional wisdom, even if they’re wrong. The reason being that it’s hard to listen to people who don’t get the word out in the first place, or are too hard to understand.
Back when I was starting out in poultry, there wasn’t much information on the Web, and I had to rely on conventional research — buying books and haunting libraries. Back when millions of farmers kept poultry, there were a lot of books in print about poultrykeeping, but by the Nineties the literature had divided into expensive, specialist tomes aimed at graduate students and professors, and popular works written by enthusiastic amateurs.
What was missing were the works for practical farmers — people who expected to sell poultry and eggs from flocks of anywhere between, say, 25 and 5,000 chickens. Such flocks were the mainstay if the industry until the Fifties, but pretty much vanished after that, with the exception of folks who were essentially large-scale hobbyists. No new books were being written by practical farmers, and the old ones all went out of print.
With the rise of the alternative food movement, interest in small-farm poultry and eggs revived, and newcomers turned to the in-print books about poultry, which meant the books by and for backyarders. As I learned from experience, trying to base a business on the advice of hobbyists is a mug’s game, and we had to learn a lot of things the hard way.
The main take-away was, “Find the right experts.” Lots of people want desperately to believe that the world works in a certain way, and that you can risk your retirement account (or what’s left of it) on a picture-postcard farm and come out ahead. What you need is examples and advice from people who’ve really succeeded at what you’re thinking of doing, so that you can figure out (a) if you want to try it yourself, and (b) how you should go about it.
After reading every 20th-century poultry book I could find, my rules of thumb are this:
- Most writing is done by journalists and hobbyists who have never tried running a business.
- Nevertheless, they are free with business advice and can be very convincing.
- For many topics, the audience is not doers, but consumers. Stuff written for consumers is generally useless: dumbed down, moralistic, designed to inspire, titillate, or outrage rather than inform. It can hardly be otherwise, because the writers are rarely experts. Expertise requires immersion into a topic for a long time. It’s rare for someone who has done this to be willing or able to write for a mass audience. That’s the writer effect again.
- Be cautious about advice from anyone who hasn’t been using the same methods for five years. A new farm that’s utterly doomed generally takes three years to fail, and may look enticing right up to the end. This is partly because it’s running on outside money, and it takes a while for this to dry up, and partly because certain problems (such as parasites or over-grazing) don’t build up to crisis levels for a few years. Not all books with an “Our Wonderful Farm” theme make it into print before the foreclosure.
- Look for original sources. This is an important rule in science and scholarship, and it’s good for everyone. It seems like every journalist in the country has written something about Joel Salatin’s farm. This stuff is sort of interesting, but they’re neither are accurate nor as detailed as Joel’s own works.
- Newness is not necessarily goodness. Over time, we develop new technologies and lose old ones. Sometimes the lost technologies are more appropriate to a given task. My dad was an aerospace engineer, and the peculiar requirements of the loading mechanism for the T.O.W. missile baffled him for a while, but his interest in antique firearms came to his rescue. In the mid-nineteenth century, every imaginable loading mechanism was tried, and he adapted the concept used by (if I remember correctly) the Martini-Henry rifle to the needs of the missile launcher. This sort of thing happens in every field.
- Often the experts are not great writers, and their books can have very low production values. The writer effect means that books with good production values, aimed at a large audience, tend to be more visible than the books with the best content. Some of the smartest people in the world can’t spell.
- As with everything else, following chains of recommendations works best. Pull your most useful books off the shelf and see what other books the author recommends, or lists in the bibliography. Follow links from the most helpful Web sites.