Writers as ‘Experts’, or Experts as Writers

Anyone who knows what was written on keeping reptiles, amphibians, fish or mammals over the past century will realise that writers copied information—and often misinformation—from earlier authors. The keeping of all forms of livestock is, therefore, confused by perpetuated myths and legends. The views of ‘writers’ of books were often disparaged rightly or wrongly by keepers or self-appointed ‘experts’ who grumbled in the background but who did not or could not write.

To illustrate what was happening, I reproduce below a copy of a letter to the Aquarist in the November 1975 issue:

Clarification Requested

     In the September issue of The Aquarist Mr. Whiteside quotes a letter from a Mr. Bave of Hammersmith in which he states that a friend of his in the publishing business told him “of two ‘experts’ who had written a book on tropical fishes and who at the time of writing the book had not kept a single fish between them.”
     As Mr. Bave goes on to say that he started the hobby some 20 years ago, a number of people have drawn the conclusion that his reference to two experts who had written about tropical fishes without having kept a single fish between them, and had obtained their information from the books of others, is a reference to the undersigned, because during the last 20 years or so they are the only two experts—at all events in this country—who have collaborated in writing books about aquarium fishes.
     The facts are that G.F.H. kept fish before the war, during the war and right up to some 15 years ago when he remarried; and that J.H., except for the war years when he served with the Royal Army Pay Corps, has kept fish ever since he was a boy and still keeps them though he is not far short of retirement age.
    They deprecate what Mr. Bave has written because it is likely to prove damaging to their books that are now on the market, namely: The Goldfish (Faber and Faber) and a Guide to Freshwater Aquarium Fishes (Hamlyn) published in England; the Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Freshwater Fishes published by Doubleday in the U.S.A. and Zoetwater Aquarium-vissen published in Belgium and Holland.
     These being the facts, they think it proper to ask Mr. Bave to make the amende honorable by asking Mr. Whiteside to make it clear that the passage quoted from his article, “What is Your Opinion?”, in the September issue is not a reference to either of them.

George F. Hervey Bagshot, Surrey and
Jack Hems, Leicester.

I am not surprised that Harvey and Hems complained about the What is Your Opinion? article. Such articles based on letters from readers giving their opinion on topics raised by a Mr Billy Whiteside appeared in every issue of the Aquarist. They were an early manifestation of uninformed opinion being taken as seriously as informed opinion; the comments on the BBC News website are a current example of how to debase a source of informed and reliable information. It was lazy populist publishing then and it is lazy populist publishing now.  Thus were Myths, legends and mischief born and perpetuated.

One thought on “Writers as ‘Experts’, or Experts as Writers

  1. There are similar problems with writers being experts in modern herpetoculture literature. At some point back in the 1990s, publishers realized that snake books sell; they went out and recruited anyone who could type to write manuscripts on any species believed to be marketable. The result is a number of books written by totally unqualified people–writers who falsely imply or actually claim significant successful experience. One consequence is that poor or incorrect information from one text gets copied into other manuscripts until it sometimes becomes accepted doctrine.

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