It seems like I have been making a lot of long, wordy, academic posts in the past few months. This week, I would like to focus on pictures of one of the artifacts I have seen in my travels, a Japanese armour imported into Europe at the end of the 19th century. The museum estimates that it was made between 1820 and 1840.
There is a style of argument which people trained in the classics often use. In this approach, one goes through the evidence piece by piece, artfully arranging it and discussing how to interpret the difficult points, then sums up by drawing it into a grand conclusion. This evidence is mostly widely available, great pains having been taken to publish Greek and Roman literature, the more important inscriptions and vases, and other remains of the ancient world in cheap editions and translations. Anyone with access to a library and the willingness to search should be able to find the main sources which lie behind a book on ancient history, and a growing number are available on the Internet. This style of argument can be great fun to read, with impressive learning and elegant transition from author to tombstone to vase. But eventually the lover of the ancient world discovers that learned and literate scholars can use this approach to write completely contradictory studies of the same topic. By selecting which passages to cite, by glossing the complicated ones, and by leaving out the inconvenient ones or sticking them in a dim corner of one’s scholarly edifice, its possible to present a case for whatever one wishes to argue. And the custom of going through the evidence piece by piece can make a lot of weak, hard to interpret pieces of evidence look solid (or many weak pieces of evidence which all lean in the same direction seem feeble). Just organizing a long list of pieces of evidence and commenting on them does not necessarily lead to the truth.
The promotion of Ada Lovelace Day and the publication of Sydney Padua’s steampunk graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage has kindled the coals of the debate about whether Ada Lovelace was a capable mathematician or an enthusiast who needed her hand held. I do not care very much about 19th century mathematicians, but I do care about the truth, so I have been following this from a distance. And one thing which I notice is that people on both sides don’t really quote their sources at all.