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Ancient History and Pseudoscholarschip


Ontwerp Nanja Toebak
This article is based on the epilogue of my book Spijkers op laag water, in which I deal with common errors on ancient history.
Since 1995, I have maintained a website on ancient history. Over the years, I have answered hundreds of e-mails and I think I now know something about the way misunderstandings come into being and continue to circulate. But there are more factors, which I discuss in this article.

Ancient History and Pseudoscholarschip

A spade must be called a spade and rubbish research must be denounced, else dilettantism and falsehood prevail. Every unopposed untruth becomes someone’s truth. Hence, every scholar who knows the facts and allows falsehood to prevail has a part in that falsehood him or herself.
Jim West

1. Professionalism does matter

I would not like to sit in the chair of an amateur dentist. Politicians will not finance investigations by amateur nuclear physicists. But when an amateur historian writes a book, no one objects.

There is a reason for this: historiography has often benefited from outsiders. Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was the founder of art history, although, as a cobbler's son, he lacked la distinction. The main advances in the study of history had been achieved on the European Continent, but it was the English aristocrat Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) who introduced the ideas of the Enlightenment to the study of Antiquity. The German businessman Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) was the first to realize the importance of ceramics for archaeology. These men were not infallible, but they changed the way we look at the past, and have deservedly become famous. There is a dark side to their fame, however. Although 
historiography was professionalized in the course of the nineteenth century and has advanced without amateur geniuses ever since, many people still think that outsiders can contribute.

This is not entirely untrue, but a professional training is useful. Many common errors about ancient history are the result of insufficient command of historical method. Ideally, a professional historian
When a scholar does not know these things, there is a fair chance that he will make mistakes. Professionalism matters. Much false knowledge will become obsolete once people start to realize that "amateur historian" or "self-taught historian" are just other words for "deficiently trained".

2. The Curse of Specialization

Unfortunately, a professional training is not in itself sufficient to prevent errors. Many historians, philologists, and archaeologists have specialized so much that they are no longer in touch with developments outside their own field.

This is inevitable. In the days of Winckelmann and Gibbon, Antiquity started with Homer and continued to the end of the Roman Empire in the West - about fourteen centuries. The only evidence available for study consisted of written sources and art objects. Today, Antiquity is about thirty-six centuries long, and we must also study archaeology and social sciences. To Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were added Babylonian, Syriac, and Egyptian. Worse, all these ages, regions, languages, and disciplines are interconnected. For example, one of the turning points in Spanish archaeology, the arrival of a second wave of Greek migrants from Asia Minor in Emporion, can only be dated by establishing the year in which Lydia was conquered by the Persians, which we can only deduce from a cuneiform source (more). It is self-evident that we cannot expect a student of ancient Spain to read Babylonian texts too. The field has become too wide to understand in its entirety.

Scholars have therefore become specialists, and this has two consequences, which, in combination, produce a disastrous outcome. In the first place, students acquire knowledge of one discipline only. An archaeologist has to devote so much time to learning how to dig and recognize finds, that he has almost no opportunity to acquire the necessary command of the ancient languages. The classicist is not introduced to the big debates about historical method.[1] The ancient historian, often trained as a classicist in the first place, will only rarely be able to operate a "total station" at an excavation. Worse, neither the archaeologist, classicist, or historian will be sufficiently introduced to the theory of science and scholarship. It is mutual criticism, not logic, that guarantees quality.

The second consequence of specialization is that no one is sufficiently trained to teach. For example, it can happen that someone who knows everything about the crisis of the third century, must introduce first-year students to the basic outline of ancient history. Because this teacher cannot know everything about every specialization, it is likely that he will offer an outdated account, say, of the Peloponnesian War. Many books written for the larger audience suffer from the same weakness.

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. In other words, as a guarantee of quality, mutual criticism fails, and the study of Antiquity has become a discipline without quality controls.

3. Pseudoscholarship versus Outdated Information

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.[2] 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;[3] errors are nearly always the consequence of outdated information that has been presented by a credible author.

To be honest, I do not know what this means, but as far as I can see, there are only two options. They are not mutually exclusive.
  1. 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.
  2. People do not write about pseudohistory to me, because they realize that my website is the wrong place to pursue their hobbies.
In both cases, people recognize that pseudoscholarship is different from real scholarship. This is reassuring. However, errors in a credible source are not recognized and therefore more dangerous. One symbol of credibility is a Ph.D. - but as we have seen, our doctores have become too specialized, and make too many errors.

It is surprising that professional scholars often express how concerned they are about pseudoscholarship, yet never appear to realize that these worries are just directed at the most visible examples of false knowledge, not at the most frequent cases. They confuse the extreme with the typical - an error they are supposed to recognize.

Of course, I may be wrong. I even hope so. But I am unaware of any investigation of the relative frequency of the various types of error: extreme pseudoscholarship, outdated knowledge, or types I am as yet not aware of. For the time being, therefore, I believe that my correspondence is the only available set of data to find out which types of false knowledge are really frequent.
Until I see better figures, I must inevitably conclude is that the universities are now one of the main sources of incorrect information about Antiquity.

4. Incorrect Information: Dissemination and Refutation

Classicists, archaeologists, and historians live in the modern world and are facing the problems that any scholar or scientist faces. One of these is the internet. The idea that the Cyrus Cylinder was a human rights charter was refuted in the 1970s; that Alexander aimed at the unity of humankind was refuted in the 1950s; and by the early 1990s, both ideas had vanished from the public discourse. Since the creation of the worldwide web, they have made an inglorious return.

This is easy to explain. On the web, you need almost no money to make information available; one man or woman can give a second life to outdated information. On the other hand, reliable information is often stored in pay sites (e.g., JSTOR). As long as this is the case, political activists and other people who are not interested in truth can refer to online sources and look credible, while bona fide scholars and scientists cannot offer links to publications. On the battlefield between good and bad knowledge that is called Wikipedia, real scholars and scientists are forced to fight with their hands tied, and bad knowledge inevitably drives out good.[4]

It is understandable that many scholars and scientists refuse to take Wikipedia seriously, but the real issue is not whether it is good or bad. As long as Wiki is the world's main source of information about science and scholarship, and as long as the universities refuse to put good information online, Wiki is a fact of life. The main question is how we create conditions that allow Wikipedians (and the people working on similar projects) to improve their sites. Here are some proposals, two for Wikipedians and two for academics:
  1. Abandon anonymity on Wikipedia. There is more wisdom in the Wiki slogan that "anyone can contribute" than some scholars are willing to admit, but it is ridiculous that anyone can contribute anonymously. The main point of professional science and scholarship is that the results can be checked, and this means that the writer must be known. As a rule of the thumb, we may say that information for which no one takes responsibility, is no information at all.
  2. If you quote a historian, quote someone trained in historical method. Wikipedians (and their colleagues) must realize that classicists and amateurs are usually not trained in historical method, and often make mistakes when they discuss, for example, causality.
  3. Allow open access to all scientific and scholarly publications. It is reasonable that we pay taxes to allow people to investigate things, but it is inexplicable that we must pay a second time if we are interested to read the results.[5] Fortunately, open access is on the political agenda in both the USA and the EU. Most French journals are already available online.
  4. Universities must create more websites with good information. Websites like Ancient Olympics (by the University of Leuven) prove that it is possible to explain ancient history to a large audience without unnecessary simplification. I see no reason why this example cannot be emulated.
Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine


Of course, these measures constitute no magic trick. There will always be political activists and careless journalists. Nothing can be done against lazy or vain scholars who refuse to rectify their own mistakes. Archaeologists will continue to exaggerate the importance of their finds. But we can create the conditions under which, on the one hand, publications are accessible where they are needed, and, on the other hand, people presenting outdated information will more swiftly be challenged with better information.

Notes

Note 1:
A surprisingly large number of classicists maintain opinions about the significance of the Persian Wars that have been refuted on logical grounds more than a century ago.

Note 2:

This figure is an estimate.

Note 3:
I am refering to theories about Atlantis, pyramidiocy, and books by authors like Immanuel Velikovsky or Erich von Däniken.

Note 4:
An interesting example is the Van der Hoeven Affair in Dutch politics. In 2005, minister of education Maria van der Hoeven made some remarks about creationism, which proved that she did not understand what "incompleteness" means in the theory of science. It is easy to find online articles about this affair from a creationist point of view, but the contributions by professional scientists are to be found on pay sites.

Note 5:
The counterargument that everything is already available in the public libraries is of course a fallacy of qualification: we're not discussing just availability, but availability where it matters.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2009
Revision: 29 Oct. 2009
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