Uncertainties Regarding Historical Facts
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

Uncertainties Regarding Historical Facts

Over on Andrew Gelmans’s blog, there is a discussion about my post writing for the curious.

One thing I did not spell out is that people with training in history, archaeology, or similar rarely make the key decisions about historical documentaries. Old Media documentaries are businesses like any other film or TV show. They are run by business people and drama people who want return on investment and artistic fulfillment. Scholars may be interviewed and provide sound bites, but what they say is scripted or edited to fit a message chosen by those business people and drama people. Because TV and film are big money, they face big pressure. For example, Zahi Hawass features in almost any documentary about ancient Egypt, not because of his expertise, but because he is very well connected and documentaries which don’t give him airtime have problem after problem with the Egyptian government. Often, a documentary is based on one or two popular books or press releases, so its well downstream of original research. Business people and drama people don’t have the skills or inclination to dig too far into “how do we know that?” so they tend to compare experts and pick the one who sounds most convincing or most exciting. Everyone has to do this sometimes, but trained historians are much better equipped to deal with questions like this.

The New Media vlogosphere has projects like Digital Hammurabi or Military History Visualized run with people with history or philology training, but it also has people who want you to know that the ancient aliens built the Bimini Road to give us acne. Anyone can put videos on the Internet, and corporate social media shares what people like to see not what is true.

Because I am not an authoritarian, I do not think that trained historians should be the only people who talk about the past. But if historians don’t get a voice in a project, its not fair to blame them for its flaws! That would be like blaming medical doctors and pharmacists when the herbs a shaman tells you to use have unexpected effects.

If you want to know “how do we know that?” then the best media are either a book with footnotes by an expert or a class with an expert. Audio and video are not good media for letting people skim some things and dive deep into others (and in big-budget audio and video, the funders get to over-rule the experts). Interpreting those pointers to where to learn more can be tricky, because specialized discussion uses specialized language. If you are interested in a topic, there are librarians and researchers who can help you understand these conventions (or help you find more information about a claim in a documentary or podcast).

In my writing I try to avoid abbreviations and other things which are not clear to all readers, but specialized discussion calls for concise specialized language. Plumbers and hockey players use a lot of specialized terms too, and nobody asks them to explain them every time rather than just explain them when someone asks questions.

PS. Jonathan Jarrett talks about his better-than-average experience participating in a documentary here. To fit the documentary’s schedule and his prior commitments (I don’t know if he was paid) he had to hurry through his background research and there was no way to update what he said after he learned more.

Egyptologist Stuart Tyson Smith had a rare positive experience on the 1994 Stargate film which he talks about in a lecture [DigitalHammurabi YouTube] (n.b. he signed a contract with pay before he started working). That counts as science fiction with Egyptian themes!

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(scheduled 20 December 2022)

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