Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Coming next: The Cancer Survivor's Guide to Summer-Camp Law—a Musical!

Had to laugh today when scanning the morning's Google alerts pertaining to self-help books in the news. Among the alerts was a press release for a book, What Your Mother Never Told You: A Survival Guide for Teenage Girls. Midway in the release I came upon this sentence: "Richard Dudum, 48, is someone who communicates uncommonly well with teens. The father of four children—three of them teenagers, two of them girls—also believes that..."

And I realized in that moment that I'd just read Dudum's qualifications to write this book. That was clear from the way the sentence was structured: its use of dashes, intended to set off the operative thought in a way that makes one pause and reflect on the significance thereof. He has two teenage girls, ergo, he's an expert on the subject. What more authoritative bona fides could there be? And in Dudum's case, there aren't any, as the bionote at the end of the release also makes clear: "Richard Dudum is a San Francisco lawyer, musician, Realtor, summer-camp director, community leader and cancer survivor. He's been married for 25 years." (I have no idea why Realtor is capitalized, but maybe there's something about being a Realtor that's more central to understanding teenage girls than being a Lawyer, a Musician, a Cancer Survivor, or Married for 25 Years.)

Let's look at how that same construction might work in other realms.

"In his latest book on carpentry—Salerno owns two hammers, both of which are in his garage right now, and one of which is still splattered with old blood from the last time he accidentally smashed his thumb—..."

"In her new work on podiatry—Ellen confides that she's been wearing shoes her entire life!—..."

"In taking his rightful place as the world's foremost authority on men and maleness—John has had a penis for as long as he can recall—"

"A self-made expert on addiction—Bill has consumed five pints of Guinness daily for over 20 years now—"

Oh wait, I forgot. That last one's real. It's the premise behind AA.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I too had wondered why the word "Realtor" was always capped, but I once saw an explanation and just Googled it again to confirm. Here's the deal: You're an everyday lower-case real estate agent unless you belong to the 1.3 million-member-strong National Organization of Realtors ("The Voice of Real Estate"(R)), when you're allowed to call yourself a Realtor(R). God help you, I suppose, should you do so otherwise, or forget that all-important (R) at the end. (What was your author thinking, leaving it off like that?!) In fact, the word REALTOR(R) is in all-caps throughout its official listings, which makes me afraid that it's actually a (shudder) acronym. Speaking of a profession for which one needs absolutely NO qualifications except greed or desperation!

Steven Sashen said...

About 20 years ago, I picked up a pamphlet for some new age-y workshop or another where the only qualification listed in the presenter's bio was "an 11 year history of alien abduction."

I always thought of that flyer with a certain fondness. After all, if he could parlay THAT qualification into a successful workshop business, imagine what could be done with something REAL ;-)

Steve Salerno said...

Steven, that's a good one. And thanks for the clarification on Realtor, anon. I'm thinking we should do the same with Writer.

Anonymous said...

SS, perhaps it was Dennis Kucinich in an earlier incarnation! Talk about a classic!

Carl said...

Again this is why I hope you stick with it Steve, this kind of stuff is priceless and there few other places to find it.

Richard Dudum said...

Steve,

If you care at all about helping our teens you should read the book.

Steve Salerno said...

Richard, nothing personal. Just making a comment on what it takes to become a "fully credentialed" expert in advice writing these days. And that isn't much.

Richard Dudum said...

Thank you for the clarification. I do acknowledge your point on the second page of the book:

Prologue, Page vi

"I am not an expert on psychology or child development, but I am very effective."

If you're interested, the real name of the book is "What Your Mother Never Told You - A Survival Guide For Teenage Girls." You can find more information about the book, including excellent reviews written by pediatricians, counselors, parents, and teens at www.whatyourmothernevertoldyou.Net

I wish you well.

Steve Salerno said...

I admit that I'm missing the difference between the title you quote and the title I used--unless you're referring to your use of a dash instead of a colon. I guess that's must it be. We writers do love our dashes. ;)

roger o'keeffe from nyc said...

I think it's hysterical that this guy actually looked you up and is having a dialog about his book on your site. I'm not quite sure why it's hysterical to me, but it is.

Oh, and I LOVE his line: "I am not an expert on psychology or child development, but I am very effective." I wonder if I could get away with that in medicine: "I am not a surgeon and I never even studied medicine, but I consider myself very knowledgeable about your health needs."

mikecane2008 said...

If you must keep track of the SHAM stuff via daily news, take it off your blog. This is what assaulted me this Super Tuesday evening at the right side from this very article:

>>>New Teen Self-Help Book Hits #1 in Amazon Parenting-Teen Category
PR Web (press release)
, USA
- Feb 04, 2008
- Feb 04, 2008
"Richard Dudum's new teen self-help book 'What Your Mother Never Told You - A Survival Guide For Teenage Girls' hit #1 this past weekend in Amazon's ...

==========================

Maybe you should do "What Your Guru Never Told You."

Too bad poor Peter McWilliams died. I think he'd be joining you in your campaign.

Hmmm... then again, maybe not. Just found this on wikipedia:

>>>All the books for which he holds copyright are available for reading at no charge at his web site. A notable exception is Life 102: What to Do When Your Guru Sues You. McWilliams agreed to abandon the copyright to John-Roger to settle libel litigation over the contents of the book, and later asked that the book be removed from circulation in a notarized letter[1], stating "the content of the book is no longer one with which I would like to have my name associated"

=====================

Luckily, I *have* read Life 102.

He's dead. You're alive. Keep going.

mikecane2008 said...

Just noticed the Dudum posts. He has a blog. Well, some would call it that.

http://richarddudum.blogspot.com/

mikecane2008 said...

And he posts to YouTube as well:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4gM3JpMUUtU

Blair Warren said...

Steve,

I realize the point you are making in this post, but I think there are at least two big differences between what this author is doing versus what so many other self-help authors are doing.

First, this guy seems to be clearly representing his background. Whether or not it is appropriate, relevant, or sufficient is up to each reader to decide. But at least it sounds like he is upfront with the information.

And second, he openly says he's not an expert on psychology or child development. For me, this admission doesn't necessarily disqualify him from having something of value to say on the subject. I'm sure I wouldn't give it the same weight I would if it was coming from an "expert" but it might be worth considering.

I'm not disagreeing with your larger point, but I do believe if people think they have something of value to offer the world, they should be able to offer it - as long as they're clear about their qualifications, background, and experience. And in this case, it seems the author is.

Heck, I even think a "non-expert" could write one hell of a book on vanity's role in American life. In fact, I'd be among the first to buy a copy. :-)

P.S. I just want to put in my vote that I hope you continue this blog. It is one of my favorites.

Steve Salerno said...

Blair, it may surprise you to know that I agree with you in an important way--that this guy, Dudum, isn't really out to mislead anyone (at least not as much as other self-helpers, who blatantly fudge their credentials), plus it's America, and we have freedom of speech and all that (provided you can get a book deal, or have enough funds to self-publish). Anyone is entitled to promote a book on just about anything. A few years ago when many social forces were coming down on Paladin Press for publishing its book on "how to be a hit man," I was a vocal advocate in their defense.

This post is more a comment on the fact that today's cultural climate allows these people to become not just authors, but best-selling authors, in not a few cases, on the strength of minimal (if not nonexistent) credentials. In other words, why do people BUY IN? And why do so many of us seem automatically to assume that "if it got published, it must be valuable." Well, no.

Thanks for the kind words about the blog.

mikecane2008 said...

>>>In other words, why do people BUY IN?

Having looked at his two YouTube vids, I don't think he's the kind of snake-oil salesman you focus on. He thinks he has something of true value to share and it seems he's hit a nerve. I think word of mouth on "parenting" (I hate that term!) sites have probably created sales for his book.

>>>And why do so many of us seem automatically to assume that "if it got published, it must be valuable." Well, no.

When it comes to poorly-educated people -- which is my childhood background! -- this is the answer: "Well, they couldn't print it if it wasn't true." (Not *wouldn't* -- *couldn't*, as if there is some Big Authority over everything to mediate truth from untruth.)

There is also laziness. Hey, why eat proper food when you can just get a pill for what ails you? Tums still thrives.

There is also inability. "I can't talk to this child, maybe this book can help."

I'm speaking here specifically of this book.

For broader things such as Anthony Robbins, et al, other things come into play -- as you well know.

Steven Sashen said...

Blair's comment inspired this one:

Robert Cialdini, I think, coined the phrase "social proof"... we see the approval of others as important and influential. Testimonials are the familiar form of social proof.

In a way, credentials are another form of social proof. If some institution granted you a degree, you must know what you're talking about.

But are credentials, in fact, valuable? Do they actually confer authority?

As my father likes to say, 50% of the people in my graduating dental school class were in the lower 1/2 of the class.

We can joke that someone has a degree from a paper mill, or that his only credential is life experience. And we can criticize people who comment on psychology for not having a PhD in that same field.

But are those relevant comments? Or are they just a shortcut to jumping to a conclusion that supports an existing belief we hold?

In certain domains, being non-credentialed does not automatically discount the validity of an argument.

Nor does being credentialed guarantee that what's being presented is meaningful, let alone true.

Many smart people, with dozens of letters following their names (and sometimes with Nobel Laureate as as title), have endorsed some really stupid and incorrect ideas.

If one has no credentials other than life experience, perhaps it's best to NOT include things that are clearly irrelevant since, at the very least, they become targets for attack.

What if, for the sake of experiment at least, one were to IGNORE the by-line and the social proof entirely and simply look at the merit of the material. If one found the information useful (let alone well-conceived), would any degree of credential (or lack thereof) really matter?

Would finding out that the delicious chocolate cake you just enjoyed came from a Sarah Lee box ruin your experience? (Of course, in this example it's ironic that we know it shouldn't, yet experiments show that it can.)

FWIW, this reminds me of another phenomenon... commenting on the appearance of the messenger as if that has some relevance to the message.

For example, SS, you and many others have commented on Tolle's elfin appearance. But why? What does his appearance have to do with anything? The criticism flavors the rest of the commentary, but it's really a non sequitur ("He's funny looking, so he can't be for real...).

I've seen similar criticism where people deemed too GOOD looking are discounted because of their appearance (whether it's genetic or retail).

All that said, I think raising the issue of credentials is important, and perhaps warrants an even bigger conversation for which this is just the beginning.

Steve Salerno said...

As usual, Steven, you raise any number of provocative points, which I can't address in depth today but I should get back to at some point. For now, though, I do want to comment on this passage:

"What if, for the sake of experiment at least, one were to IGNORE the by-line and the social proof entirely and simply look at the merit of the material. If one found the information useful (let alone well-conceived), would any degree of credential (or lack thereof) really matter?"

But see, this--to my mind--leads us inevitably to a tautological problem. In this society, as in most first-world nations, we don't have the time (or, frankly, the inclination) to sort through all of the data ourselves, so we use other people's credentials as a kind of shorthand for "this is where you get the real deal." We acknowledge that there are certain places in society that function as clearinghouses for state-of-the-art, "certified" info. And we like to think that if we need advice that's been battle-tested in some way, we can simply go to one of those places and we can know (i.e. not just hope) that we're getting valid, reliable information. Sure, it's possible that on any given day, any given person can come up with some brainstorm that just blows all of the conventional thinking out of the water. It's like that wonderful movie I watch anew every time it's on: "Something the Lord Made," I think it's called, about the once-lowly medical-office assistant whose phenomenal insights basically lead a world-class surgeon to one of the great breakthroughs in the history of cardiac surgery up to then. Eventually they make the guy an honorary doctor at Johns Hopkins. It's just a terrific, heartwarming and thought-provoking story, all the more so because it's true (or as true as any biopic is apt to be).

But how often is that gonna happen?

And getting back to the tautology, the funny thing is, saying "we should just evaluate the material on its merits" almost implies that we laypeople already know what has merit and what doesn't...in which case, what do we need the advice for?

Steven Sashen said...

As usual, SS, I agree with your counter arguments to my provocative points ;-)

Perhaps, rather than trying to judge everything on it's merits (as if that were possible), we instead endorsed being critical or suspicious of ad hominem and non-sequitur attacks... and, equally suspicious of assigning merit to an argument simply because it comes from someone lettered (e.g. just because James Watson, of double-helix fame, thinks that DNA came to earth on a space ship, does that REALLY make it more meaningful?).

Interestingly, this is similar ("similar" being the operative word) to your other points about how we judge/comment on political candidates and voters based on invalid or inaccurate criteria.di

roger o'keeffe from nyc said...

You shouldn't have backtracked so quickly, Steve Sashen, because I was getting all worked up to agree with you!

I think many credentials in today's society are of no more inherent value than the armchair credentials we casually dismiss when we talk about topics like this book. Once you get away from credentials that are rooted in the hard sciences, e.g. medical degrees, then I think it's anybody's ball game. Salerno makes this point even in his book where he talks about psychiatric testimony in court cases, and how two respected shrinks can look at the same exact symptomology and come to entirely different conclusions. In a lot of these so-called specialties there's "no there there." Though I don't want to encourage snake oil salesmen and con artists, I think we should listen to what people have to say and give all of it a fair hearing. Intelligent people can be trusted to make their own decisions.

Steven Sashen said...

Agree away, Roger! ;-)

Sadly, I know too many people with degrees in hard sciences and while MANY are smart, many are... well, let's be polite and repeat, "50% of them graduated in the lower half of their class."

Even more, people with science degrees are still likely to suffer from the same cognitive biases to which we all succumb, and make logical leaps, bad arguments, and support irrational ideas... with the added "bonus" that because they're smart their arguments SOUND better to the uneducated, and because people respect the degrees, their arguments are taken as true without as much investigation.

James Watson, of double-helix fame, says that the most logical explanation for the appearance of DNA on this planet is... wait for it... that it was sent here by extra-terrestrials.

Ignoring the recursive problem ("Oh, then how did it develop on the extra-terrestrial planet, Jim?"), people think this is a meaningful explanation BECAUSE it came from Watson.

Steve Salerno said...

This might be a good place to repeat a (cleaned-up) version of George Carlin's classic line about "the average American":

"Just think about how stupid the average person is. And then realize that half the people are stupider than that..."

Steven Sashen said...

And they vote.

Anonymous said...

Good one, Steven!!!

Anonymous said...

So if you reproduce you can write a book? His family background sounds like 75% of Americans. You have kids Steve so where's your book on parenting? Sounds like another guy trying to make a buck and knew someone in the publishing industry. Self-help books are big in publishing right now.