When Trust is Verified Badly

Now, we can observe many flaws in just this one passage, but it should be noted that Low has done her reading and cites widely. The problem is that the analyses on which she is working are themselves flawed and, without detailed study outside of her discipline, she and other academics are unlikely to realise this. This is a hard warning for those of us who wish to research that assumptions are pervasive and insidious.

Rob Runacres, “HEMA Research: false truths and wishful thinking,” Western Martial Arts Workshop, Racine WI,September 2017

In an earlier post, I argued that science advances human knowledge through a network that tests claims before they become premises in bigger arguments, and then tests the structure of those arguments to make sure they can hold the weight placed upon them. Past the early days of a field of knowledge, understanding advances because of systems and communities not lone geniuses who do everything themselves. Communities can ask more and harder questions than any one person can. But anyone who follows science news knows that this does not always happen. How can this system of verified trust fail?

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Science as Verified Trust

“Ad faciendas cartas de pellibus caprinis more bononiense”: In this case I don’t have to trust: Reed’s Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers (1972) p. 74 cites a chapter by “Theophilius” on making parchment in British Library MS. Harley 3915 fol. 128r, but the text cited is actually an anonymous text on fol. 148r of the same manuscript as Theophilius (British Library database, see them for image rights)

The higher you rise in any hierarchy, the harder it is to get accurate feedback about your decisions because people are afraid to tell you the truth. I’ve worked with several (US) presidents. All have made big blunders. I’ve also known and written about CEOs of big corporations who have made terrible mistakes. In every case, they had flawed systems for getting useful, accurate and reliable feedback.

Robert Reich (some kind of former political appointee from the USA)

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the role of trust in science or scholarship. Engineers such as Bill Nye and political propagandists throw around the phrase “trust the science”! On the other hand, the rationalists whom I mentioned last year brandish the Royal Society’s motto nullius in verba “Take nobody’s word for it” like a sword. I think both sides are working from some misconceptions about how science or scholarship work.

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Why Monster Talk is Important

As the emergency sirens howl, a handful of greasy people in shabby clothes are crawling around and assessing the damage. These people never got paid much for their work, and they were often opposed by institutions and ignored as they cried the alarm. These are people who look into weird stuff and the intersections between pop culture and pseudoscience such as Monster Talk podcast.

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How Long a Sword is Too Long?

three male peacocks and a female peacock on a concrete staircase next to a Baroque castle garden
Just before the plague hit, I took this photo. Schloss Ambras, February 2020.

Experience making and using low-tech kit is very valuable, but our experience is usually limited. Most of us have experience either using our weapons on foot or on horseback, but rarely equal experience with both. Most of us have experience in friendly or competitive play, but not in murdering or defending our lives. And Rory Miller and Marc MacYoung (not to mention Alexander Pope) teach us that someone who has survived one assault or won one championship tends to proclaim themself an expert and pronounce that everyone should do what worked for them. So we always have to question what of our experience does not apply as widely as we think it does. I like to fill in the gaps of my own experience by listening to others, such as the grandfather of all English blowhards, Sir John Smythe of Little Badow.

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Longsword Fencing in a Manuscript in Fulda

People who are interested in martial arts from the 14th century onwards can work from books meant to describe those arts. But that does not mean that other types of evidence suddenly become irrelevant. A fundamental principle of historical research is that claims should be backed by multiple kinds of evidence. We can study arms and armour, the culture of violence, and poems about people training. And we can also study pictures of people fighting. The painter of a book of Old Testament stories in Fulda (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda, manuscript Aa 88) shows many things which resemble fencing manuals painted a few decades later. The library in Fulda estimates that it dates around 1350-1375 and that seems about right to me.

a late 14th century painting of two groups of soldiers.  The leader on either side has crossed swords
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The Scale Armour from Yanghai

a leather scale armour from an archaeological excavation, and a pattern drawing
The Yanghai armour. Figure 6 from

Some comments on Patrick Wertmann et al., “No borders for innovations: A ca. 2700-year-old Assyrian-style leather scale armour in Northwest China.” Quaternary International, It has been discussed on Sci Newswww.spektrum.de DailyHeritagedaily among others.

The cemetery at Yanghai in Uighur territory continues to give. This week, an article about hide scale armour in a grave there has been circulating on the Internet and corporate social media. The grave had other cool things, like a wooden bedstead and a wooden fire drill, but most of the attention has focused on the authors’ claims that the armour was made within the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Unfortunately, that claim is the weakest part of a strong article.

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Debunkers Beware, All Publicity is Good Publicity

if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you. The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business. [When I announced my plans to build a huge new real estate development to the press], not all of them liked the idea of the world’s tallest building. But the point is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value.

Tony Schwartz (under the name of a failed businessman with a gift for self-promotion), The Art of the Deal (1987) c/o

As my gentle readers have probably noticed, I like factual, cautious things. So its frustrating to read or hear things which spend more time rebutting some hurting wrong opinion than presenting facts. I never heard this opinion, and I am reading this book or listening to this talk because I want to see what the author thinks about the topic. They only have so much time to reach me, so why do they waste most of it telling me not to think something I don’t think?

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Asteroids, Tall el-Hamman, and Multidisciplinary Research

a pewter brooch of a comet with a faceted glass stone
Shiny! This is a medieval comet not an ancient comet but close enough! Copy of a pewter brooch from Salisbury by Billy and Charlie.

In late September, the world was excited by a Nature Science Reports article arguing that Tall el-Hamman, a city on the Jordan River, was destroyed by an interstellar body bursting overhead around 3650 years ago. This paper was published by a team of natural scientists based in the USA, particularly geologists, remote sensor scientists, and earth scientists. Because it is multidisciplinary, very few people are qualified to assess the argument as a whole. There seems to be some pushback from archaeologists on corporate social media. Those threads are far less useful than a footnoted essay would be, and some of the ones by highly educated posters make claims which anyone who reads the article can see are false. One of the better threads is by a Dr. Megan A. Perry, a bioarchaeologist at East Carolina University in the USA:

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Rationalists, Empiricists, Rhetoricians

since I am cranky on the Internet this week, how about this picture of a cat in an excavation? Just look at those eyes and that curly tail! Photo by Sean Manning, 19 August 2021.

natural-science types and engineers have completely different intellectual worldviews: the first are empiricists while the second are rationalists. As a biochemist, reading Less Wrong or Slate Star Codex has me screaming at my laptop; not a pretty sight.

rms, comment on “Lawyers Guns and Money” blog, 8 July 2020

C.P. Snow’s two cultures are very English and a bit old-fashioned. I come from a country where most people learn physics and chemistry for 10 to 12 years, and I know both calculus and Latin. This is not so unusual in North America, L. Sprague de Camp was an amateur classicist, a poet, and an aeronatical engineer. So this week, I would like to describe three intellectual cultures which I see.

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Where do Misconceptions About Medieval Swords Come From?

Most misconceptions about ancient Greek and Near Eastern swords come from peer-reviewed books by professional researchers who never opened a site report or spent time really seeing what was behind glass in museums. But the people who really like medieval swords are worried about misinformation too, and they blame some different culprits. Recently, several of them have given talks or written essays where they blame the same three sources. Because their comments are mixed up with other things or scattered across different places, this week I have gathered them together.

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