Lendering’s Law on Experts and Misconceptions
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Categories: Ancient, Not an expert

Lendering’s Law on Experts and Misconceptions

a red graffito on concrete: I don't care what people think cuz people don't think (nearby are other graffiti in black, white, and yellow)
Graffito from an underpass near Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck

The 2010s were a difficult decade which destroyed our ability to believe in some solutions to problems, but did not provide alternative paths to follow. That decade left many of us in a state of what the Greeks called aporia. At the start of the decade, Jona Lendering had some thoughts about one problem, the spread of misinformation from bad pop books, documentaries, and the Internet. Here is how he saw it in the hopeful time around 2010.

Jona Lendering, “Ancient History and Pseudoscholarship” (2009) https://web.archive.org/web/20111116035805/https://www.livius.org/opinion/opinion0017.html

“Since 1995, I have been writing articles for the general audience on the internet. I have also published a newsletter, guided people through foreign countries, and published several books. Over the years, I have probably answered 3,200-3,600 e-mail messages. Many of these are inquiries or suggestions for improvement, but often, I notice that behind a question lurks a misunderstanding. In 2005, I realized that there was a pattern. People almost never write about pseudoscholarship; errors are nearly always the consequence of outdated information that has been presented by a credible author.

Of the fifty mistakes I have discussed in my little book on common errors, thirty-seven were made by people with a Ph.D. speaking on subjects outside their field of competence.

“Ancient History, Poor Information, and the Internet” (2010) https://rambambashi.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/ancient-history-poor-information-and-the-internet/

Information about Antiquity is divulged through several media.

  1. Living history-projects (like Archeon and the Roman Festival here in Holland) are usually very good.
  2. Specialist magazines (e.g., Ancient Warfare) are also very good, but have a limited reach.
  3. Radio and TV do not really contribute; people look at it as amusement.
  4. The quality of popularizing history books appears to have decreased.
  5. The main source for poor information is the internet.

Items 4 and 5 are in fact the same, as many books are now based on information from the internet. I have in several books seen outdated information from my own website.

As far as I am concerned, I think that at this moment, we must refrain from spreading new insights, and must instead focus on the refutation of errors. It is logical to concentrate on the internet and books first.

“Something seriously rotten” (2010) https://rambambashi.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/something-seriously-rotten/

Every month, I publish a newsletter (in Dutch), in which I summarize that month’s online news about ancient history. One of the discoveries I made, was that of the archaeological press releases, about 40-45% contains serious inaccuracies, mostly exaggerations.

What I am stressing is not that our academicians are corrupt, but that they are rapidly losing credibility. That is sad, because the great majority of them are still trying to find the truth. So, I would have expected that our academicians would do everything to regain our respect.

Lendering also observed Gresham’s Law of Information: on the Internet, free information drives out good (defined but not named in Wiki and Pseudohistory, 2009 compare confusedofcalcutta in 2006 here (backup on archive.is) which has the name but not the definition). At the time, his solution was projects like Encyclopedia Iranica, the Interent Encyclopedia of Philosophy, digitized catalogues of art, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme which place up-to-date information in plain language where anyone with an Internet connection can view it. There are more projects like that today than in 2010, but they do not always find the audience which we hope.

Do any of my gentle readers know of people who are working to build better information systems? Corporate social media, old media, and trade publishing have failed so we need something better for the days of ubiquitous communication.

PS. If you read Dutch, Jona’s main web presence today seems to be a blog with the Mainzer Beobachter (livius.org is still online but not as often updated)

Being honest and factual does not pay the bills, so if you can, please support this site.

(scheduled 25 May 2023, updated 18 June 2023)

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13 thoughts on “Lendering’s Law on Experts and Misconceptions

  1. Andrew Gelman says:

    One sad bit from Lendering’s 2009 article: “Pseudohistory has lost popularity. This is certainly a possible development, because it is matched by the decline of other pseudosciences. Von Däniken has never found a successor who sold half as many books. Ufology is no longer what it used to be either.”

    I don’t know about pseudohistory, but the UFO situation seems to have gotten worse since 2009, now that a segment of the elite news media has caught the UFOs-as-space-aliens bug: https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2023/07/26/whats-the-story-with-news-media-insiders-getting-all-excited-about-ufos/

    There’s also the pattern of junk science going upscale: https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2020/03/06/junk-science-then-and-now/ which relates to some of Lendering’s comments about misinformation being spread by misinformed people with Ph.D.’s.

    1. Sean says:

      I think that putting accurate information out there was more effective on the rational, argument culture of the open web. In the emotional, echo culture of corporate social media they will rarely be brought up in the first place. People who post on twitter tell me that it downgrades your posts if you have a link offsite! And talk about controversial research on twitter seems pretty heavy on intimidation and moralism and light on clear and truthful explanations of where this research fits in the state of knowledge.

      The problem of people overstating their conclusions or being shoddy with methods and hurting trust in their field are not limited to history and archaeology.

      The “ancient aliens” kind of pseudoarchaeology (with its undertones that brown and black people could only build things when outsiders told them how) seem to be around, and the kinds of cryptozoology and ufology which want bigfood and flying saucers to be extradimensional beings.

    2. Sean says:

      I’m not an American but I think if you wait for “elite news media” to tell you about every important cultural trend in the USA, you will have some big blind spots. People who follow the ghost hunters and UFO watchers and cryptozoologists say that their very large audience is centered on men over 40 in smaller cities and rural areas without a college degree. Some of them think that these spaces are currently shrinking, it just happens that some of them got organized to put one version of their idea in newspapers and web magazines aimed at college-educated, higher-income readers in large cities (and if you had not been following these spaces, you would not know what the people pushing these ideas probably believe in private, or which names scream “danger Will Robinson!”)

      A 50 year old HVAC technician in a town of 20,000 people in Upstate New York who likes documentary-type videos and the occasional book has reasons to be suspicious that the version of ‘consensus knowledge’ which is presented to him is not as solid as the talking heads and pastors say it is (and to look for a community working towards a common goal). Most of the problem is with the talking heads not the experts they claim to represent, but some is with experts who don’t know as much as they say they do.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    Yes, I realize that lots of Americans are sympathetic to the idea that UFOs are space aliens. It’s not that I first became aware of this theory because it was recently pushed in the elite media.

    What interested me about the recent push in the elite media of the UFOs-as-space-aliens theory is that it represents a change. I’m sure that for decades there have been elite journalists who believe that UFOs are space aliens, just as there are elite journalists who believe in ghosts and all sorts of other things. Here’s the change I’ve seen: until recently, news media discussions of space aliens, ghosts, etc., were required to be kind of tongue-in-cheek. It was ok to write about this as long as it was considered to be an amusing human-interest story, and it’s my impression that even the believers in these stories were constrained to report them in that way. But then a few years ago some people managed to get a foothold in the elite news media for space aliens (although not yet for ghosts), and now the believers are allowed to let their UFO freak flags fly. What’s new is not the general level of belief, it’s that some threshold has been breached in the news media.

    1. Sean says:

      Interesting! People who follow these spaces suspect that a core circle don’t think UFOs are aliens like in Star Trek or ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’, but aliens like in the book of Ezekiel, beings from beyond the world understood by scientific materialism with messages of creation and destruction and judgment. So for some of them, “UFOs as aliens” is the story for outsiders to prepare them to accept the weirder inner version (likewise for bigfoot as a primate versus bigfoot as a Trickster deity that exists outside space and time as we know them)

  3. Ryan says:

    I wonder, though, a lot of history is framed as debunking and seems even more true for the internet, especially pop history. Like, the most commonly known fact about Vikings is that they didn’t wear horned helmets. Some of these debunking articles are on places like Cracked, written by professional writers, not historians. A part of their errors come from how they are written, favouring surprising claims strongly asserted that gather attention (something researchers aren’t immune too). These articles are sometimes debunked by better sources. I suspect a correlation between this constant debunking and the arrogance one often encounters among online history enthusiasts.

    1. Sean says:

      Yes, I think most web videos and the web magazines would fall into the “entertainment” category. They give the pleasure of knowing that Someone is Wrong, the fear that you might be wrong, and the distraction of watching people argue. There are a few projects like Drachinifel or ACOUP with a broader educational goal but funding them is hard (often they focus on things that people are interested in that don’t have much of an academic home like arms and armour).

      Internet debunking can definitely slip into the arrogance of “ahaha, I read three Wikipedia articles or skimmed a book so I know what is wrong with something I never heard of yesterday.” I remember a debunking of the Lars Andersen archery video where the debunkers really didn’t know much about ancient archery.

      OTOH, I can remember one video which debunked a story about latrines at Versailles which I had seen in a blog post by a tenured historian.

      And there is a good argument that if you want a criticism to be listened to, it should come within, like when Digital Hammurabi criticize American Protestant ideas about the Bible which they grew up with. It would be harder for a Vietnamese person who grew up vaguely Buddhist to make the same books and videos and get listened to.

      1. Ryan says:

        That’s true a good point. I think especially with things that have to do with religion and worldview, it is hard to understand from the outside, so even if you ignore the tribal aspect of it.

        It seems obvious to me that making sure experts get their facts straight is more important than debunking secret history theories. However, it seems to be a monumental task. I don’t get the impression that academics are open to correction, even from their peers and lean too much on their qualifications when making arguments. Really, I think the best approach is to try and reach high school history teachers, but also to teach students that just because someone has a PhD, it doesn’t mean that they know everything, or that everything they know is right. Academics are people too and learn a lot of what they know through the same popular channels as normal people. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if academics were more likely to be on Twitter, and consume more pop history than normal people.

        1. Sean says:

          A structural problem is that the rewards for an academic writing a good peer-review or book review are not very high compared to writing something under your own name. That helps create networks like the networks of psychologists using poorly designed studies and half-understood statistics to claim ‘discoveries.’ As long as the reviewers are as careless or ignorant as the authors, they won’t point out that the emperor has no clothes. People who are less skeptical or careful can even get ahead by seeming to publish very fast.

          I am concerned by the people in the statistical sciences pushing meta-analyses or skimming AI summaries of articles. That seems like it would just make the problem of lack of criticism worse. If you just trust anything in an academic journal, people will find the journal with the least standards and publish things with weak or fraudulent arguments there (just like fraudsters shop around for the accountant or auditor with the lowest standards). Garbage In, Garbage Out.

          On the other hand, the idea that a textbook or a mass-market book deserves less careful review than a study for other academic reviews is just an idea, and its questionable. What often happens is that someone gets to the edge of their specialty, pulls out one of the anecdotes they use in lectures or something they read in a glossy magazine or a book from the airport, and does not double-check.

          1. Ryan says:

            Yeah, there is no easy solution. The people writing things have to take the responsibility to check everything they write. Even Lendering makes a mistake. In a post about Gnostics she cites the myth about the Christmas tree being derived from the yule tree. The practice of Christians christianizing pagan practices did happen, but it is overstated and was controversial at the time. I would say as a general, origin stories of things are false.

          2. Sean says:

            Fact checkers and debunkers sometimes slip from checking facts with a yes/no answer (“was Apple Corporation founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers from IBM in the 1980s who set up laptops in their friends’ garages?” or “did the barbarians cross the frozen Rhine and invade the Roman empire?” “does this archival document actually exist and say what the authors say it says?”) to big interpretative issues that don’t work like that. The ‘big ideas’ are interesting to more people but harder to sort into that binary or trinary “true/false/in between” system.

          3. Sean says:

            Anton Howes has written about how painful it is for anyone self-critical to be wrong in front of a large audience. I wonder if this is one of the selective pressures that mean that so many people with a mass audience have no self-criticism and no ability to admit mistakes. Its not uncommon that someone publishes one novel or stars in one documentary and says “that was fun but never again thanks.”

  4. Where do Misconceptions About Medieval Swords Come From? – Book and Sword says:

    […] Edit 2024-05-28: I now have a blog post on Lendering’s Law […]

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