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The Ctesias Scale

Or: How to Measure Poor Journalism?

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
The so-called Bust of Caesar from Arles. Getty Pictures.
If this is "undoubtedly" Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, as is claimed in this article, the dictator undoubtedly lost quite a lot of weight in his last eighteen months: this is what Julius Caesar looked like in 44. (© Getty Pictures)

9 Incorrect facts, incorrect interpretation, by an author employed by a university (e.g., this book)
8
Incorrect facts, incorrect interpretation

7 Incorrect facts, exaggerated claims, by an author employed by a university
6
Incorrect facts, exaggerated claims

5 Incorrect facts, correct interpretation, by an author employed by a university
4
Incorrect facts, correct interpretation (e.g, the so-called Caesar bust)

3 Correct facts, exaggerated claims, by an author employed by a university (e.g, the oldest church is in Jordany)
2
Correct facts, exaggerated claims

1 Angling for funds (e.g, the world's first stock exchange)
   
For about three years, I have been publishing an electronic newsletter, comparable to David Meadows' well-known Explorator. There are two differences: the Livius Nieuwsbrief is in Dutch, and it tries to contextualize the news. If some archaeologist claims to have found something very special, I try to explain why it is so very special, or why his press release must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Pretty soon after I had started, I discovered how much news is, actually, no news at all. No, that Roman bust that was found in Arles is probably not Julius Caesar. No, the Iranian government is not trying to flood Pasargadae - that's a hoax and it has been refuted long time ago. That well-meaning experiment with mirrors to show that Archimedes could have created a heat ray to destroy ships at a great distance is just that: well-meaning. (It's a Byzantine fairy tale, created by Anthemius of Tralles, the architect of the Hagia Sophia.) I know several websites that are -I am not exaggerating- in fact propaganda institutions dressed like newsmedia. And no, I am not going to link to them.

After several months of publishing the Livius Nieuwsbrief, I introduced the "Castle of Amsterdam Prize". Named after an archaeological discovery in my home town that was not what the discoverers claimed it was, this award is given to archaeological press releases that are most obviously published to angle for additional funds. The prestigious prize is often awarded to articles about Biblical archaeology. Believe me, if you can connect your finds to a prophet or an apostle, no matter how far-fetched the connection may be, you can look forward to a miraculous multiplication of money.

I know several good journalists writing about ancient history and archaeology, people who really know what they are doing. However, they are not the chief editors at the newsdesks, and often a non-specialist journalist uses a press release without checking it. As a consequence, too many news articles are unnecessary, or overstated, or plain nonsense. To make debunking a bit easier, I have decided to create the Ctesias Scale for Poor Journalism (after that Münchhausen of ancient Greece, Ctesias of Cnidus).
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2008
Revision: 27 July 2008
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