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.Read more
Over on birdsite John F. Sullivan noticed something which readers of ancient tactical manuals or surveyor’s manuals or medieval painters’ handbooks and fencing books have also noticed.
Whenever I pick up a new Sun Tzu translation, the very first thing I compare is two verses found in chapters 7 & 11 of the text. Why? It turns out they are exactly identical verses, should be rendered identically, but only rarely are. It gives us an indication of how careful and thorough a translator is. The verse itself is not one of Sun Tzu’s most memorable. It is basically composed of three thoughts—understand your neighboring rulers’ intentions, conduct a detailed assessment of the enemy’s terrain, and employ local guides to assist you in traversing enemy land. It does, though, reinforce two main themes of Sun Tzu’s military thinking—detailed assessments of the enemy situation (primarily terrain) and a preference for deep offensive invasions as the ideal military strategy.John F. Sullivan @JohnF_Sullivan@twitter.com on15 June 2022 https://nitter.it/JohnF_Sullivan/status/1536928990879182848#m
I have said before that many people seem to misunderstand what historians do, even if they are interested in history. Over on Andrew Gelman’s blog, I found people saying things like:
Whenever I see theories about ancient stuff I always feel it is very speculative. “This artifact is a stone ax from a hominid from c. 800,000 BP”. “The Samson story in the book of Judges is based on folk legends about a Hercules-like half-man, half-god figure, but edited to make it conform to a monotheistic worldview”. To the extent that these conclusions really represent the best understanding of experts, they sound to me like a maximum likelihood estimator when the likelihood function is very flat.
I mean, what is the actual evidence Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon? If you look it up there is very little concern for such issues.
If you are active in any of the historical science, you know that discussions between experts are full of questions, alternative explanations, and debates. It is press releases, documentaries, and trade books which usually focus on one interpretation and promote it as hard as possible. Most ancient historians are unsure if they can know anything about the moment when Caesar crossed from his province into Italy or whether the ‘bad emperors’ did the things that salacious stories have them do. But a belief that questions are not being asked or that sinister forces are shutting them down lies behind many conspiratorial and anti-expert movements today. So how are we failing to communicate what we do and what we value?Read more
In my first post on Iron Age bows, I showed that there is a lot of evidence that archers in England, the Ottoman Empire, and the Manchu Empire used bows with very heavy draw weights (over 100 pounds / 45 kg at the intended draw length) around the 15th-17th centuries CE. People who are keen on early modern archery often project these heavy draw weights onto all war bows in all cultures. But we have reconstructions of ancient bows from the area from Egypt to India by people who examined the remains of bows and arrows from that place and time. What kind of draw weights did those bows have?Read more
“‘How can you say, “We are wise,Jeremiah 8:8 New International Version
for we have the law of the Lord,”
when actually the lying pen of the scribes
has handled it falsely?
The ancient world was a long time ago, but even in antiquity it was often hard to know what happened in the ancient world. With no trusted neutral institutions to establish facts, and no way of making many identical copies of a text or a speech, the curious had no reliable way to decide between competing claims by different interested parties. Already in antiquity, clever people turned to old writing painted on wood or carved on stone. But dishonest people realized that they could destroy or alter awkward inscriptions and forge new ones. Greeks, Romans, and Babylonians show us how this worked.Read more
In two earlier posts I showed that science is verified trust, but that the verification is not always well done. What happens when the verification is not done at all? We can see the horrid results in many different areas of life.Read more
At the moment, many archery enthusiasts are telling anyone who will listen that soldiers’ bows usually had draw weights of 100 lbs and more (Deer hunters today usually use bows with a draw weight on the order of 50 lbs, casual or target archers often use bows about half as heavy, and even hunters of larger game rarely use a bow with a draw weight of 100 lbs or more). In other words, you could draw the bow to its full draw length by hanging it string-down and suspending 100 lbs or more from the middle of the string. If this idea is correct, many men in the ancient world did something which is much more physically demanding than is commonly thought. This week, I would like to post some of the evidence which I know which might be relevant to the strength of bows used in the eastern Mediterranean around the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. I hope that some of my readers can suggest more sources.Read more
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 https://www.renaissanceswordclub.com/2017/09/27/hemaresearch/
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?Read more
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) https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/apr/01/vladimir-putin-ukraine-truth-deniers-bad-decisions
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.Read more
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.Read more