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Home > Article Library > Editorials > Scholarly Books and Lookalikes Search

Scholarly Books
and Lookalikes

by Jonobie Ford


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A common problem in Neopaganism is that many people seem unclear on what constitutes a credible book. A "credible book" is one that makes believable and accurate statements about a particular field (often history, in Neopagan discussions). Typically, a credible book has the following features:

  • A bibliography that references works by other credible scholars (i.e., other people who are considered credible by the appropriate academic community).
  • Quotes, citations or summations of other scholars that correctly convey the original writer's meaning, instead of merely quoting out of context.
  • An implicit understanding of the idea that "exceptional claims require exceptional proof"; that is, any unusual claims are presented with significant support from other credible sources.
  • Acceptance in the academic community; at a minimum, the writer has convinced other academics that the majority of the findings were achieved using methods appropriate to the discipline.
  • A relatively recent publication date; while there are classics in every field, older books must be treated with extra caution and require specific checking with the academic community as to their relevance to the field today.

Recognizing credible books requires that a reader be familiar enough with the subject matter to recognize outrageous claims and have some connection to an academic community that studies the field. People who have this knowledge and connection can usually quickly determine books that are not credible, merely by glancing through them.

The problem is, this "look" is easy to fake by writers outside of the field. Newcomers or dabblers often know very little about the field being studied and aren't connected with any academic community. So a "lookalike" book can be easily produced by starting with a theory that "sounds good" and then writing about it and adding footnotes, references, and a bibliography. These three components give a book the trappings of a scholarly work, but do not, by themselves, mean anything about the book's accuracy.

This becomes a problem when newcomers or dabblers begin discussing a claim from one of these lookalike books. In academically-minded lists and communities, the discussion quickly moves to a comparison of sources, often causing the discussion to become heated. Unfortunately, discussions of these two types of books at a high level (and their ability to support a particular claim) look as if each side is saying the same thing.


  • Each side says their book has approval of others. In case of the lookalike book, this approval is from other dabblers and "lookalike" writers, instead of the academic community that studies that field. For example, while one might be able to find a great deal of support for a book titled Aliens have landed and taken over the President!, serious support for the book won't be found among active scholars in the fields of political science, medicine, or astronomy. Credible books receive peer approval from other members of the appropriate academic community, not only from dabblers or the general public.
  • Each side says that their book has footnotes and references. In the case of the lookalike book, the references merely reference other lookalikes, and following the whole chain of references never puts the reader near a scholarly book. Unfortunately, it can take a significant amount of work to discover this fact and requires more time than most people want to invest. The credible book references other credible books or primary sources.
  • Each side claims that their book is true, because it is well-footnoted and has peer approval. This typically means that it looks, to the reader of the lookalike book, as if each side is saying the same thing, but the other group is magically claiming victory.

The other side isn't magically claiming victory, but it's not worth the time of every enthusiast in the field to explain in detail exactly why every lookalike book that supports a particular flawed theory is really a lookalike book and not a credible book. This is a many-headed hydra, too, because of the high number of lookalike books that repeat information from other lookalike books. And so, the readers of lookalike books may leave, often still convinced that they're right and that people are picking on them. This isn't quickly fixed -- the best we can do is to keep encouraging a culture of scholarship within our community.

An easy litmus test is to decide if a book is possibly credible as an academic source is to check where it's shelved in a bookstore. If it is filed under any of the "New Age" or "Spirituality" categories, chances are that any historical or scientific discussions in the book are seriously flawed. It's not that everything shelved under history or science is credible - one still needs to apply the standards above to check. However, it's usually the case that books in New Age or Spirituality sections are best kept for spiritual inspiration, not factual instruction. In the realms of facts, such books are best used as springboards for finding out what the facts are.

As an analogy, consider a person discussing the truth of the statement "Wiccans worship the Devil." There are several sources of information about Wicca -- Wiccans, scholars writing about Wicca, but who aren't Wiccan themselves, and Chick Tracts. Someone wanting to argue that Wiccans worship the Christian Devil could cite Chick Tracts as support for their belief.

Chick Tracts aren't completely misinformed. For example, they correctly attribute the pentagram as the religious symbol for Wiccans. But using Chick Tracts as a source of information means that unusual claims from that source should be treated with extreme caution, even if supported by other, similar, literature. To be believed, information from Chick Tracts needs to be corroborated with one or more of the other sources (Wiccans, or scholars who study Wiccans). One can possibly use Chick Tracts as a way to learn more about an area ("Chick Tracts say X is true; if I ask the Wiccans and scholars about that, do they agree?"), but they aren't useful for arguing that X is true.

Lookalike books are typically as factually accurate as Chick Tracts are -- it's not that they can't be right, but rather, to determine the accuracy of their statements, the statements have to be evaluated against credible sources. Evaluating them against other lookalike books does no more to bolster the original claim than using one Chick Tract statement to support another Chick Tract statement.

This is a serious issue. One of the problems with Paganism becoming mainstream is alarming number of people in the community who embrace flawed and sometimes laughable ideas about history or science -- ideas not limited to to the myth of an ancient religion of the Great Goddess. To outsiders and newcomers to our religions, this has the effect of us appearing, at best, to be ignorant. The claim that "Pagans are usually better-read and better-educated than the average person," is a common one in our community. Let's not make a lie of this statement by reading and perpetuating ridiculous notions from poorly researched books. Learning and teaching others to recognize credible books from "lookalike" books is a good first step.

The author welcomes feedback at Other writings by Jonobie Ford can be found at the web site
Jonobie's Writings.

Copyright © 2002 Jonobie Ford. All rights reserved.
May be reposted for non-commerical use as long as
the attribution and copyright notice are retained.

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