Category: Historical Expertise

These posts highlight the ways people deny historical expertise and the problems that result.

Flat Earth Belief ≠ Neo-Medievalism

Paula Simons has no patience for people who believe that the earth is flat, and she is particularly upset, it seems, that Edmonton is hosting the first Flat Earth International Conference: “No Getting Around the Absurdity of Edmonton’s Flat Earth Conference.” She dismisses “flat earthers” as delusional conspiracy theorists, reasonably benign if you don’t think too long on the broader consequences that generally accompany conspiracy theories, e.g. dogmatic rejection of evidence as evidence; unassailable, baroque,[1] labyrinthine theories (probably with minotaurs lurking in the center); rejection of expertise as nothing more than some state sponsored system of oppression seeking to silence free thinking and expression. Such conspiracy theories, she rightly worries, are facilitated by the dissemination of information (false and true) on the internet.

We need only to poke a few buttons on our portable phones to find the most reliable, credible scientific data, in real time…. Alongside all the “real” information?[sic] We have an equal mass of junk knowledge. Just as it’s never been easier to find the truth, it’s never been easier to spread a lie. Or a fairy tale.

Her observation is as true for “credible scientific data” as it is for credible historical information. And here is where Simons goes horribly off the rails. Aping uncritically a common “fairy tale” she claims that since 2015 “flat earthers” have been using the internet to promote “neo-medievalism.”

I’ve said this before, a bunch of times, but just to be clear here: the belief in a flat earth is NOT a medieval belief. And so the current beliefs about a flat earth are not “renaissance” or any other sort of revival of earlier beliefs.

People in the middle ages did not believe in a flat earth nor did they subscribe to uncritical, irrational conspiracy theories about the natural world. Moreover, they did not, during the Middle Ages, reject “science,” though their science certainly looked different from ours. I fail to see, then, how the flat earther conspiracy Simons worries about has anything in common with the middle ages. Like so many people before her who have relied on “junk knowledge,” Simons is “spread[ing] a lie” that has the quality of truthiness but not of truth. The flat earth conspiracy is not an example of neo-medievalism except insofar as people ignorant of the Middle Ages invoke the period as a slur to attack opinions they dislike (Simons claim that it’s a neo-medievalism tells us more about her prejudices and ignorance than it does about either the flat earthers or the middle ages).

If you are going to criticize people for not respecting expertise, for ignoring credible and real information, for spreading lies and fairy tales, then you have an obligation to respect expertise, to seek credible and real information, and not to spread lies and fairy tales. To be sure, Simons parroting of the medieval origins of a flat earth is “relatively benign,” but ultimately undermines her efforts to defend expertise and jeopardizes her attack on “flat earthers.” If she can’t get her facts right, why should anybody listen to her?


As a sort of postscript, I’m intrigued by her childhood experiences.

She opens by saying

So. When I was a kid, if you called someone a “flat earther” that meant that they were kind of, you know, deluded, silly. I mean, to call someone a “flat earther” was to suggest that they believe in the most impossible thing imaginable …

She must have grown up in a rough neighborhood, slinging insults like “flat earther” around. I’m imagining roving bands of hooligans with heliocentric tattoos, perhaps the Semmelweis and the Koch gangs embroiled in a biological turf war, while disaffected Mendelians lurked in doorways and alleys armed with peashooters. She probably also called kids Lamarckians and Tychonics and maybe even phlogistonists.

  1. Note, I intentionally did not use the adjective Byzantine, since that wrongly denigrates the Byzantine period/empire.  ↩

Who was Englishman John Digges?

No, really, who was John Digges? Apparently he witnessed the supernova in 1572 and helped “shred” the “hidebound view of the universe” and championed the “skepticism about Bible-infused group-think in the Middle Ages” that was the Ptolemaic system. John Digges also viewed the supernova as proof that the fixed stars weren’t fixed on some “kind of inert cap over the world.”

Oh wait. There was no John Digges. There was a John Dee. There was a Thomas Digges. They both might have witnessed the supernova in 1572. But that supernova had nothing to do with the fixity of the stars or a “Bible-infused group-think” (it certainly raised questions about other issues, e.g., the perfection of the heavens).

I want the author to realize this “photo” is a joke, but I fear he hasn’t.

It’s hard to take this polemic, “Was God Necessary for Creation? Science Says No,” seriously when it shreds history and seems to suffer from some rabid new-aethist-infused group-think. Most of the pseudo-history is totally pointless, adding nothing to the post.

The original photo linked in the article is clearly a joke. Note the description: “This is a vintage photo taken 13,730,8119,213 years ago. It is of course a scan of the original print, since digital photography had not been invented yet.…”

The core bit of the author’s rant is:

today science is able to convincingly demonstrate by peering into the tiniest of realms that in an infinite cosmos something can actually—and naturally—explode into being. Out of—as far as can be divined—absolutely nothing.1

Millennia of claims about spontaneous generation (either from rotting matter or from assumed sterile conditions) suggest that we will likely realize that no, something did not, in fact, come from nothing.2

Even a cursory encounter with history would have helped the author avoid some rather obvious errors. But that would require recognizing that history is a domain of expertise, not something this author apparently acknowledges.

Maybe we can just all agree to leave the history to historians.3

  1. Even John Digges would recognize the flaw in the logic that leads from this “finding” to the conclusion that science has proven that a god was not involved in the original creation of matter.  ↩

  2. For an excellent, readable history of ideas about spontaneous generation, see Daryn Lehoux’s Creatures Born of Mud and Slime: The Wonder and Complexity of Spontaneous Generation (JHU Press, 2017)  ↩

  3. I keep wanting this post to be sarcasm, to be a joke. But if it is, the author is so incredibly deadpan that I can’t detect the sarcasm. The egregiously erroneous history is not, alas, evidence of a joke—too many well educated, accomplished people regularly get history horribly and inexcusably wrong.  ↩

Chauncey Who?

Chauncey E. Sanders is anything but a common household name. However for many Evangelicals Sanders is rather well known for having established three tests that demonstrate the “historical reliability” of the Bible.[1] Sermons, religious websites, and other publications celebrate his three tests, often plagiarizing each other in a sort of intellectual incest.[2]

More surprisingly, perhaps, Sanders and his three tests of “historic reliability” play a significant role in the homeschooling “science” curriculum. Through Apologia’s Exploring Creation with General Science, a textbook[3] for 7th- and 8th-grade students, Sanders’s three tests support treating the Bible as a scientific text and turn up on a number of “general science” online flashcards.

Screenshot of general science flashcards
Chauncey Sanders’s three tests for authenticity have worked their way into the “general science” homeschool curriculum.

Who was this Chauncey Sanders? And how did he become fixture in the Evangelical community and a cornerstone of homeschooling “science” curriculum?

Chauncey Sanders seems to have attended Miami University of Ohio.[4] He graduated in 1921, went on to earn a PhD at the University of Chicago in English in 1926, and then moved to the English department at IU Bloomington. Over the next two decades (he was on leave during World War II) Sanders offered courses on, inter alia, methods in literary research and contributed a number of essays on the history of the university to the Indiana Alumni Magazine.[5] He resigned in 1946 to take a position in Washington DC with the Air Force Historical Division. As one of the many scholars working there at the time, he wrote number of reports for the U.S. Army Air Forces, e.g., 7B, 11, 14, 16B, 22 of the Numbered USAF Historical Studies. Sometime around 1950 when the entire office was transferred to Maxwell Field Air Force Base in Alabama, he became an “Associate Professor of Military History” at the recently established “Air University.” In 1952, while at The Air University, Sanders published his only book, Introduction to Research in English Literary History, an undergraduate and early graduate textbook on basic methodological practices in English literary history. He seems to have remained with the USAF Historical Division for the remainder of his career. He died in 1962 gravestone.

Photo of Chauncey Sanders’s tombstone
Chauncey Sanders’s rather simple tombstone.

A decade after Sanders died, the Evangelical Josh McDowell discovered this literary scholar turned obscure government official and extracted from Sanders’s Introduction to Research in English Literary History one small portion for use in McDowell’s own Christian apologetics.

In 1972 McDowell published his Evidence that Demands a Verdict, in which he tried to show the “reliability” of the New Testament by assembling piles of circumstantial historical facts that, in his presentation, seemed to support claims made in the Bible. Sanders makes his appearance in chapter four, “The Reliability of the Bible,” where McDowell mentioned Sanders and the “three basic principles of historiography…the bibliographic test, the internal test and the external evidence test.” In this early work Sanders and his tests are lost in a multitude of paraphrases of and quotations from other authors. McDowell’s strange, quasi-outline structure masquerades as a coherent and logical list of scholarly authorities that demonstrate the truth of the Bible.

Although McDowell’s early book was apparently popular,[6] his 1977 book, More Than a Carpenter, catapulted Sanders and his three tests into the vernacular of Evangelical Christian apologists. Particularly concerned to reply to skeptical or hostile readers (e.g., history professors) who dismiss the truth of the New Testament, McDowell spends more time and effort explaining Sanders[7] three tests that can be “appl[ied] to any piece of literature of history to determine if it’s accurate or reliable:”

  • Bibliographic test—“an examination of the textual transmission by which documents reach us.” For McDowell, this reduces to how many copies of a text survive and how long is the gap between when the text was first written and our earliest copies. For the New Testament, he claims there more than 20,000.[8]
  • Internal evidence test—“determine[s] whether [a] written record is credible and to what extent.” Here McDowell claims that because the New Testament was written by men who witnessed the events and because their accounts circulated during Christ’s lifetime, the New Testament’s account must be accurate (by which he means “true”). Otherwise contemporaries would have pointed out the errors.[9]
  • External evidence test—“whether other historical material confirms or denies the internal testimony of the documents themselves.” McDowell gestures first textual evidence from contemporary bishops (not unproblematic sources) and then to archaeological evidence, which has confirmed certain aspects of the New Testament.

McDowell’s assertions raise a number of problems, but those issues are really just details that accept the validity of his version of Sanders’s three tests. More problematically, he and all the Evangelical apologists following him have misunderstood Sanders’s tests.

Sanders was not interested in demonstrating the truth or falsity of any given document. Sanders didn’t seek to demonstrate the “reliability,” historical or otherwise, of the content of any given historical text. He was, rather, interested in finding a way to demonstrate that a particular document is or is not from the period it purports to be from and, to a lesser extent, was or was not written by the person who purportedly wrote it:

[A]uthenticity demands an affirmative answer to three questions: “Was this work written by the person who is purported to have written it? Was it written at the time alleged to be the date of composition? Was it written under the circumstances and for the purposes alleged?”

Sanders devotes the chapter to explaining his three tests and showing how they can be used to argue that a document is or is not from the period generally ascribed to it. Sanders does not wonder if the content of the document is true or corresponds to historical events. In fact, many of his examples are fiction—stories, plays, etc.—that aren’t true or false in any simple way and are often not true at all, e.g., Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

McDowell and his followers have consistently and fundamentally misunderstood (misread ?) Sanders’s text.[10] Seems somehow ironic that book written to teach people historical methods and techniques for analyzing texts is so consistently misread.

Screenshot of an Amazon review.
Apologists give Sanders’s book good reviews, even if they don’t understand it.

  1. By “historical reliability” they typically mean something like the veracity or accuracy or truth of the text in the Bible (and by “Bible” they most commonly mean the New Testament).  ↩

  2. For example:

    This search will give you more, if you’re interested, but I can’t really recommend that you waste your time.  ↩

  3. I spent a summer reading this textbook in an effort to understand and take seriously the arguments in it. In a series of posts I recounted my engagement with those arguments, which were superficial and repetitive. See these posts. In the end, I concluded that there was little benefit from posting about each of the modules, which added no nuance or sophistication to Wile’s position.  ↩

  4. He distinguished himself as part of the “intellectual aristocracy” by earning all A’s and B’s in his first year. Grade inflation does not yet appear to have been a problem at Miami University of Ohio in 1917, where grades of B or better granted you admission to “one of the most exclusive parties of the year.” Five students had received all A’s. Another 14 had A’s and B’s. See the report in The Miami Student (Jan. 11, 1917). You can find more of his articles and articles about him from the Miami University archive.  ↩

  5. On Sanders’s time at IU Bloomington, see The Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, 1868–1970. 87–102.  ↩

  6. At least according to the Josh McDowell Wikipedia page, his Evidence that Demands a Verdict is his best-known book. I am skeptical.  ↩

  7. For McDowell and other Evangelical apologists, Sanders’s identity is of the utmost importance. They never fail to mention that Sanders is a “Military historian.” A “military historian,” they tell us, he has no vested interest in or desire to defend the Scriptures. A military historian is, they imply, free from the taint of Evangelical, apologist zeal. Sanders does identify himself on the title page of his book as “Associate Professor of Military History” at “The Air University.” But given his graduate training in English literature, it seems as valid to call him an English literary scholar. But I doubt McDowell and the other apologists have bothered to find out anything about Sanders and his scholarly training.  ↩

  8. I am not interested in checking McDowell’s numbers or analyzing them or distinguishing between the authority of different copies of the New Testament. We might wonder, for example, how many of 20,000 are early copies, how many copies are derivative, how many variations there are between them, and how we decide which of those variations are valid. What value, in other words, do each of these manuscripts have?  ↩

  9. The assumptions that undergird this logic and the logic itself are labyrinths of confusion and obfuscation. I’ll just move on.  ↩

  10. I doubt that (m)any of the Evangelical apologists have read Sanders’s Introduction to Research in English Literary History, given the cite only page 143 (at least McDowell cited p. 143 ff.) and their insistence on misconstruing his tests.  ↩

Newton Relics

In an editorial taking Kyrie Irving to task for his comments about the shape of the earth, “Between Kyrie Irving’s flat Earth and Isaac Newton’s apple tree, science remains a process of understanding,” Glenn Starkman and Patricia Princehouse remark:

We have an apple tree on the Case Western Reserve University campus grown from a twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity 350 years ago.
We’d love for Mr. Irving to come see our tree and look at what we’re doing. Decide for himself if we’re deluded.

I cannot understand how this comment about Newton’s apple tree adds anything to their op-ed. Their comment, however, takes scientific relics to a new level.

The Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University celebrates its Newtonian apple tree.

There is no shortage of Newtonian apple trees. Numerous colleges and universities claim to have an apple tree descended from the “original apple tree grown in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor:” Cambridge University Botanic Garden; University of Nebraska; William & Mary; The University of York; MIT; etc.[1] Most of these trees are growing in courtyards or gardens associated with physics and astronomy departments, not history departments. Why, I wonder, do so many science departments want to have and want to celebrate their Newtonian apple trees? I can’t help but see these trees as quasi-secular relics, i.e., as markers of prestige and physical ties to saint-like figures, as means of tapping into archetypal geniuses. As physical artifacts, these relics seem to reinforce hagiographic discovery narratives.[2]

The claim to have “an apple tree … from a twig of the actual apple orchard” seems, however, to take the quasi-secular relic a step further. Somehow the spatial proximity is sufficient and important—their tree descends from a tree in the “actual orchard.” Did some occult force emanate from “the original tree” and permeate the entire orchard? How far does the influence from Newton’s original apple tree extend? To all of Woolsthorpe? To all of England? And why emphasize the “actual apple orchard”? As opposed to what, the virtual apple orchard? I just don’t get it.

In this case, the twig underscores the myth that Newton was a genius who, in a flash of brilliance, understood the theory of gravity. In this case, the twig is a metonym for a discovery narrative. Although the basic contours of that narrative are familiar, less well known is the process by which that story was established.

Around 1727 a handful of sources refer to Newton and his experience with an apple. Robert Greene reported a version in his The Principles of the Philosophy of the Expansive and Contractive Forces…, claiming to have heard it from Martin Folkes. John Conduitt recorded a version in his draft of a “Memoir of Newton:”

…in the year 1665 when he retired to his own estate on account of the Plague he first discovered first thought of his system of gravity wch he fell into hit upon by observing an apple fall from a tree a heavy body fall to the ground…[3]

Conduitt repeated this claim in other drafts of his work.

About the same time we find the earliest printed version of the story, which seems to be in Voltaire’s An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (London, 1727). He claims: “And thus in our days Sir Isaak Newton walkign in his Gardens had the first Thought of his System of Gravitation, upon seeing an Apple falling from a Tree.” Six years later Voltaire published his Letters Concerning the English Nation (London, 1733), where he gives us more context for the story:

But being retir’d in 1666, upon Account of the Plague, to a Solitude near Cambridge: as he [Newton] was walking one Day in his Garden, as saw some Fruits fall from a Tree, he fell into a profound Meditation on that Gravity….”

Voltaire claims to have heard the story from Catherine Barton, John Conduitt’s wife. And Henry Pemberton gestured to the anecdote in his A View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (London, 1728), though he omits any reference to the apple, mentioning only that Newton “sat alone in his garden.”

It is unclear how many independent sources there are for these early accounts. Greene refers to Martin Folkes. Conduitt doesn’t cite any source, though he might have heard it directly from Newton—the Conduitts were living with Newton at the end of his life. Pemberton doesn’t cite any source. Voltaire refers to Barton, who probably learned it from Conduitt. So maybe two independent sources, Folkes and Conduitt.

William Stukeley claimed to have heard the story of the apple tree directly from Newton.

Apparently around the same time William Stukeley heard the story directly from Newton, or so he claims. In his manuscript notes “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life” (1752) Stukeley claims that Newton had related the incident to him after dinner one evening in 1726:[4]

After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he [Newton], & myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. “Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,” thought he to him self: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood: “Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earths centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. Therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. If matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.” That there is a power like that we here call gravity which extends its self thro’ the universe….[5]

We might pause and wonder about this story. There is no record of the story for six decades and then, just before Newton dies, it appears in manuscript and print from people who could have heard it from Newton. Newton was at this time an 83- or 84-year-old man recalling events that happened perhaps as many as 60 years earlier. We certainly have reason to be skeptical of his account. 83-year-old men tend not to recall events accurately, and their narratives tend to toward exaggeration and teleology. Perhaps Newton was the exception—perfect, infallible memory and absolute fidelity to events—though given his experiments with mercury and other chemicals, we would be forgiven for questioning his memory. But we don’t and can’t know that he was. While we can’t confirm the story, its veracity is not its most important aspect.

We can confirm, however, that whatever brilliant insight the falling apple produced in 1666, it had no immediate discernible impact on his work. Two decades elapsed between the apple’s fall and Newton’s Principia mathematica, during which time he devoted considerable attention to alchemy and optics, as well as astronomy. Perhaps he fiddled with the mathematics for two decades. Perhaps he slowly through trial and error worked out the details, struggling to solve new difficulties as he worked to assemble the entire work, slowly working his way toward the system we encounter today in the Principia mathematica. Perhaps, though it seems unlikely, he sat down in some philosopher’s-stone fueled rampage and wrote down the entire Principia mathematica in one frenetic weekend of brilliance and productivity, and then sat on it for two decades. We don’t really know.

But highlighting the apple tree story—especially when the best you can say is that your tree descends from a “twig of the actual apple orchard Isaac Newton was looking at when he developed his theory of gravity”—effaces the arduous work, the mistakes and dead ends, the inchoate solutions, the revisions, and the tangible and intangible contributions other people made to bring the Principia mathematica to fruition.

While I’m not in Cleveland, I invite Glenn Starkman and Patricia Princehouse to talk to me. I’d be happy to explain historical expertise and history to them. I think we can find a great deal of common ground—and not just because we all struggle to refute the flat earth myth.

  1. A piece of the original was sent into space, Newton’s apple tree bound for zero gravity.  ↩

  2. On hagiographies and discovery narratives, see Who Really Needs Scientific Discoveries and Science Heroes?  ↩

  3. The text is available at The Newton Project—Fair copy of the Memoir of Newton. Search for “apple” to find the passage.  ↩

  4. Images of the manuscript can be seen at The Royal Society’s Turning the Pages, “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life.”  ↩

  5. You can find a normalized version of the text at Revised Memoir of Newton. Search for “apple” if you want to find the passage.  ↩

Astronomers do not Date Sappho’s ‘Midnight’ Poem

Once again the internet is all excited by some scientists’ findings that solve a historical mystery. In this case, “UTA scientists use Planetarium’s advanced astronomical software to accurately date 2500 year-old lyric poem” (as the University of Texas at Arlington press announcement puts it). Unsurprisingly, UTA’s “press release” (by which I mean “propaganda”) misrepresents the article. Despite the link to the article in the “press release,” nobody at UTA—either in media relations or in the planetarium—apparently could be bothered to read the article. I shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised that most other people trafficking in this story have likewise ignored the article. While not surprised, I am disheartened to see that even purportedly reputable, pro-science sites that typically demand “evidence” and “data” expend no effort to read the original article, i.e., to base their posts on evidence. We read over and over again some variation on “astronomers date 2,500-year-old Sappho poem,” when, in fact, article does not determine nor does it claim to determine a date for Sappho’s poem (though the authors assume a particular year).[1] This episode raises three issues:

  1. UTA’s propaganda about the article and the subsequent coverage of it expose the naïve assumptions people make about a universal applicability of scientific expertise.
  2. The original article reveals the problems that plague scientists’ efforts to work in areas outside their own domains of expertise.
  3. Pretending that such work is interdisciplinary—that “[t]his research helps to break down the traditional silos between science and the liberal arts, by using high-precision technology to accurately date ancient poetry,” as the dean of UTA’s College of Science put it—confuses dilettantism for expertise and rigor.

Finally, in this particular instance, the article suffers from serious problems that should have stood in the way of its publication, at least in its current form.

Using the latest, advanced software, astronomers add nothing to our understanding of Sappho’s ‘Midnight’ poem, despite UTA’s propaganda.
Using the latest, advanced software, astronomers add nothing to our understanding of Sappho’s ‘Midnight’ poem, despite UTA’s propaganda.

The Rogue Classicist has a nice post on UTA’s initial propaganda as well as the general contours of subsequent coverage, see: “Problems with the ‘Scientific’ Dating of Sappho’s Midnight Poem.” His critique revolves around the twin poles of critical thinking and source criticism. While neither is, in principle, unique to any discipline, different disciplines view different problems as worthy of critical thinking and different sources as open to criticism.

I want to emphasize how the UTA “press release” as well as the reposts and other summaries are possible because they assume that scientific expertise is somehow universal, or at least extends unproblematically into non-scientific fields and supersedes whatever expertise is unique to that field. Scientific expertise, it seems, gets at universal truths—in this case, the Pleiades are a constellation that obey certain, known equations that describe how the universe has always worked. If you assume the superiority of some ambiguous, ill defined but all pervasive scientific methodology that uncovers to timeless laws of nature, then there is little reason to check the original article or to ask questions about it. It’s science.[2]

If we turn to the original article, “‎Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited” by Manfred Cuntz, Levent Gurdemir, and Martin George, we see immediately how the questions that scientists tend to ask and the answers they identify are not valid for historical work.[3] Here we come back to the issue of source criticism. Scientists will often read certain aspects of historical sources (typically documents) as unproblematic reflections of reality, usually a reality they have expertise in studying today.[4] In this case, the astronomers, Cuntz et al., assume:

  • that Sappho’s poem unproblematically reflects a reality that Sappho experienced;
  • that the constellation we know as the Pleiades is the same thing as the πληΐαδες in the fragment and that we can reduce the πληΐαδες to Alcyone, the bright star “near the geometrical center of the most prominent part of the cluster;”
  • that μέσαι δε νύκτες is the exact same thing as our midnight, i.e., 12:00 AM, a precise moment Sappho certainly knew and meant, they claim, because she checked a clepsydra;[5]
  • that Sappho wrote the poem when Sappho saw the stars in Pleiades set before midnight, i.e., 12:00 AM.[6] They double down on this assumption in note 9, where they assert on no evidence whatsoever: “…it is more reasonable to assume that she [Sappho] made her astronomical observations and wrote the poem at about the same time.” What? Why is that a reasonable assumption? Reasonable on what grounds? Reasonable to whom? Reasonable to you because that’s what you would do if you wrote poetry?
  • that Sappho died around 570 so it is therefore valid to use 570 as a date for their analysis and, then, for people to conclude that Sappho was writing in 570. So powerful is 570, that Cuntz et al. offer precise dates in that year: the poem had to be composed between January 25 and March 31.[7]

With each of these assumptions they have reduced historical possibilities and poetic language to quantifiable and quantified data. They have reduced Sappho to an astronomer and the poem to a research report.

These assumptions, which go largely unexamined, then support a project that uses purported celestial phenomena to establish when (during the year) Sappho wrote the poem. While these assumptions might be defensible, they remain assumptions that no classicist or historian could have made without flagging them.[8] A more interesting and defensible article would admit these assumptions and then conclude something like: if the Pleiades in this fragment refers to the constellation and if midnight is taken to be sometime halfway through the night, then this fragment seems to describe a late winter scene. But that conclusion is not new, and that article has already been written.

In 1990 two scholars from Delft University of Technology, Herschberg and Mebius, published a more careful reading of the same fragment (they seem to have completed their research a year earlier, as reported in the annual reports for 1989). Based, it seems, on astronomical calculations, they conclude

For the Pleiads to have been visible after dark and to have set before midnight, the time of year is necessarily between mid-January and late March in the modern calendar.

They point out that the poem contains “implicit astronomical information, which must have contributed to the poem’s expressiveness to contemporary audiences,” and highlight how the poem conveyed a particular setting. They don’t assume that Sappho made any observations, which she then reported in her poem. They also don’t pretend to determine when the poem was written.[9] It is difficult to see how the Cuntz et al. article advances our knowledge of Sappho.

Unfortunately, Cuntz et al. and their article reinforces a facile (and asymmetrical) notion of interdisciplinarity that confuses dilettantism for expertise. The tools and methods of science are brought to bear on a set of non-scientific questions, with no regard to the possible misfit between the purposes for which those tools were developed and the valid ways to investigate those non-scientific sources. Here Cuntz et al. are dilettantes in the domains of history and classics, but the trappings of science and quantification give them the patina of expertise and rigor. To be sure, there is often a misfit when a set of tools and methods developed for one domain of knowledge is uncritically applied to a different domain—Cuntz et al. are just examples of a broader problem that plagues so-called interdisciplinary work. We justifiably recognize domains of expertise, even in closely related fields (e.g., physicists generally don’t do chemistry, and I’d rather not have an OBGYN give me a root canal). When scholars venture into new fields they should draw on and work with experts in those fields. In this case, however, you have astronomers running roughshod over history and classics with no apparent awareness of their own ignorance. Far from breaking down traditional silos between the sciences and the liberal arts, this article and the cavalier approach of its authors reminds us that those disciplinary silos exist for reasons and that moving between them requires considerable effort. When done well, when drawing on experts in those silos, interdisciplinary scholarship is probably worth the effort. But it does require considerable work as well as humility. When done poorly, interdisciplinary work invites mockery and derision.

Finally, there are problems with this article’s scholarly integrity. On the one hand, a cursory review of the text reveals too many passages that are only lightly filtered lines from various Wikipedia entries. In many cases, Cuntz et al. cite the same sources for the same passages that the Wikipedia entry cites, suggesting further that they relied primarily on Wikipedia (in one instance they cite Wikipedia but not the page they borrow from). For example, nearly half the discussion of Sappho comes from the Wikipedia page on Sappho (with an additional sentence from the Poetry Foundation entry on Sappho)[10]

Cuntz et al. on the left—Wikipedia on the right. The sections in yellow seem to owe a considerable debt to Wikipedia. The section in pink comes from the Poetry Foundation.
Cuntz et al. on the left—Wikipedia on the right.
The sections in yellow seem to owe a considerable debt to Wikipedia. The section in pink comes from the Poetry Foundation.

The historical discussion of the Pleiades is also compiled in lightly or unedited form from Wikipedia pages on the Pleiades and on the Pleiades in Folklore.

Cuntz et al. on the left—Wikipedia on the right. The sections in green seem to owe a debt to Wikipedia. The sections in purple are just misunderstandings or gratuitous citations. The blue seems to come from a different Wikipedia page.
Cuntz et al. on the left—Wikipedia on the right.
The sections in green seem to owe a debt to Wikipedia. The sections in purple are just misunderstandings or gratuitous citations. The blue seems to come from a different Wikipedia page.

On the other hand, the authors cite sources they either don’t understand or haven’t read. So, for example, they cite James Evans’s The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy when mentioning the Pleiades in Babylonian culture. Cuntz et al. say:

The Pleiades also have been epitomized by the Babylonians, as conveyed by the astrolabe and a fragment of a circular star list (Evans, 1998) [my emphasis].

But the Babylonians didn’t have astrolabes. Astrolabes weren’t invented for centuries, many centuries. Even our earliest texts describing astrolabes don’t appear for more than a millennium after the Babylonians. A quick look in Evans shows that he does use the term “astrolabe” but uses it to refer to circular fragments of star lists. He qualifies his use:

This [the circular fragment] is usually called a circular astrolabe. However this name is not especially apt, for the word astrolabe is also used for two kinds of astronomical instruments that were developed in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Circular star list therefore might be more suitable.[11]

So, contrary to what Cuntz et al. say, the Babylonians did not have astrolabes and circular star lists. They had circular star lists, of which fragments still exist, lists that some people refer to as “astrolabes.” Cuntz et al. could insist on using the term astrolabe—if they wanted to confuse or mislead readers—but then they don’t get to say “astrolabe and a fragment of a circular star list” [my emphasis]. One or the other, but not both. And as Evans points out, circular star list would be the better choice.

Other, similar examples include: Cuntz et al.’s citation of Renée Raphael’s review of a recent translation of Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius suggests they didn’t read Raphael’s review. Although Raphael says nothing about Galileo’s sketch of the Pleiades, by citing her review as they do, Cuntz et al. imply that her review supports their claim. There is no reason to cite Raphael’s review, particularly since this paragraph comes, almost verbatim, from the Wikipedia page on the Pleiades. In another example, in their conclusion they attribute a claim to Joan Schmelz, although the particular blog post they refer to in the notes is clearly marked as a guest post written by Stuart Dean, a former attorney who now self identifies as an “independent researcher and writer.”

Stuart Dean’s guest post is misidentified as a post by Joan Schmelz. See Sappho and the Origins of Greek Astronomy.
Stuart Dean’s guest post is misidentified as a post by Joan Schmelz. See Sappho and the Origins of Greek Astronomy.

In the best case, Cuntz et al.’s “‎Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited” would simply confirm what Herschberg and Mebius concluded two decades ago (and did so better and more efficiently). There is nothing new here—their newer methods do not justify more than a paragraph. We do not, however, have a best case scenario. We have a poorly constructed article that makes strong claims about the past. Because the authors all lack expertise in the field, they don’t realize that their methods and understanding of the past are, as a colleague put it, “risible.” Their conclusions border on indefensible. The writing and style is, well, Wikipedian, especially in the historical sections. We also have an article that risks violating scholarly norms and practices with respect to citations and intellectual integrity. Yet, regrettably, countless sites and so-called news outlets repeat the article’s problematic conclusions without ever bothering to look at the original article, without holding up their end of the implicit contract, i.e., checking and confirming their sources and consulting with relevant experts. Such sites have an obligation to evaluate their own sources, especially when they are a simple click away.

Alas. We seem to be trapped in an echo chamber of dilettantism where the value of shoddy “scholarship” is validated by slapdash “reporting” which, in turn, reinforces both the “scholarship” and the “reporting” on it. In our dystopian future its going to be dilettantes all the way down.

  1. If you’re bored, a search for “astronomers date sappho” vomits up countless posts with mind numbingly similar and misleading titles that you can spend hours reading (though I have no idea why anybody would). Many posts merely reproduce all of or select passages from the UTA propaganda, but as many masquerade as something new when they are little more than superficial reworkings produced by an army of “science writers.” And no, astronomers did not “crack the secret of this gorgeous poem by Sappho,” as Clive Thompson put it on his blog and later, regrettably, on Medium (which would benefit from some editorial oversight).  ↩

  2. I think another factor that discouraged people from looking up the original article is the mistaken belief that published articles have been reviewed and vetted and are, therefore, accurate and valid (This is not the place to wallow in the problems of peer review, and I’m not the expert to do so. But smart people who have spent countless hours studying peer review have raised some tough questions. I think it’s safe to say, peer review doesn’t live up to its hype). The Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage seems to be a professional journal complete with an editor, associate editors, and an editorial board. It’s easy and comfortable to assume that articles appearing in its pages have been reviewed, in the process errors and missteps have been identified and corrected. Heck, the article even thanks “an anonymous referee for helpful comments” and the journal’s own editor, Prof. Orchiston, “for assisting with the revision of this paper.” At least in this particular case, such assumptions seem to be problematic.  ↩

  3. As a historian, I like archives and sources, and like access to them. So, in the interest of preserving access to a source, here’s a link to a locally cached copy of the original article, in case the original version at the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage site goes missing.  ↩

  4. Efforts to retrodiagnose the plague or reconstruct past climate through uncritically cherrypicking passages out of historical documents provide examples of such problematic readings. See my critique, for example, of claims of snow in Baghdad: “Good Science Often Makes Bad History” and the longer “Scientists and Bad History.”  ↩

  5. I love the image of Sappho pulling out her pocket clepsydra to check the time. Or perhaps she had a wrist-clepsydra. Or was there a large water clock in the town square where Sappho set up to watch the Pleiades set as she composed her poem? At least they corrected for the absence of time zones in antiquity.  ↩

  6. In both instances, midnight and pleiades are ambiguous terms, one temporally and one spatially. In brief: they need to show that “midnight” was more than a general term for really late at night and that Pleiades identified with some precision the constellation in the sky. ↩

  7. The Rogue Classicist does a nice job pointing out how 570 has become a meaningful date for the authors and the people reposting this story.  ↩

  8. Not all these assumptions are universally held. For example, Reiner and Kovacs have on linguistic grounds questioned Sappho’s authorship. See, P. Reiner and D. Kovacs, “ΔΕΔΥKΕ μεν α ΣΕΛΑΝΝΑ: The Pleiades in Mid-Heaven” in Mnemosyne 46 (1993): 145–159 [Behind JSTOR Paywall]. While Reiner and Kovacs might be mistaken, the authors of the current article don’t have the expertise to judge the issue and they didn’t apparently seek out anybody with such expertise. But that doesn’t stop them from dismissing Reiner and Kovacs. And for the record, our access to the fragment does not date from the archaic period but from eight centuries later, when Hephaestion the grammarian wrote a book on meter. So the attribution to Sappho is not necessarily unproblematic.  ↩

  9. Herschberg and Mebius were scholars at Delft University of Technology. They offer to provide “complete astronomical reasoning and computations” to anyone who requests them, though 25 years later it might be difficult to locate them. So Cuntz et al.’s characterization of their analysis as “a descriptive approximate approach” seems a bit odd. See I.S. Herschberg and J.E. Mebius, “ΔΕΔΥKΕ μεν α ΣΕΛΑΝΝΑ” Mnemosyne 43 (1990): 150–151 [Behind JSTOR Paywall]. If the comment “historians had estimated” the date in “Scientists Used the Stars to Confirm When a Famous Sapphic Poem Was Written” refers to Herschberg and Mebius, it seems like it was probably based on Cuntz et al.’s dismissal of the earlier work as “descriptive.” Other posts, e.g., the Ars Technica version, have unhelpfully described the earlier findings as mere guesses by “humanities types.” While I have not been able to confirm that Herschberg and Mebius weren’t “humanities types” or “historians,” it seems improbable—other sources indicate that they were in the computer science department. Their original article was recorded in the annual reports of the “Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics” and the “Faculty of Technical Mathematics and Informatics” at Delft University of Technology, which doesn’t appear to employ historians or, in fact, “humanities types” of any sort.  ↩

  10. Plagiarism is a strong charge, and I don’t know if it applies here, but there are real problems. If a student turned in a paper with borrowings and wordings that so closely resembled Wikipedia, I would at the very least have a discussion about plagiarism and require the student to rewrite/rework the offending passages. And while the Wikipedia entries might not be the source Cuntz et al. used, they indicate that Cuntz et al. borrowed closely from somewhere for some sections of their article. They should acknowledge their debts and work a little harder to use their own words.  ↩

  11. James Evans, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, 9.  ↩