Category: Literature & Scholarship

Forgeries, Lies, and Deception in History

Lies loom large over the historian’s craft. Historians devote considerable time to parsing the tensions among words, intentions, and behaviours. Reconstructing the inner lives of those who lived in the past is a notoriously difficult task. It is doubly so when you know your informants are deliberately leading you astray. And yet deception hasn’t really figured as a category of historical analysis. My recent book asks, to what extent do our conceptions of lying, fraud, and deception have a history? What would such a history entail?

Michael Pettit’s How the Lie Was Told offers an enticing glimpse into his latest book The Science of Deception: Psychology and Commerce in America, a sort of history of lies and deception in modern America.

Deception has attracted attention before. Recently, the Piltdown man hoax has received renewed attention. See Rebekah Higgit’s The Piltdown Man and Other Phantom Species or Joanna Cordon’s Piltdown Man or the Natural History Museum’s Piltdown Man—Greatest Hoax in History of Science?. Whereas it took 40 years to determine that the Piltdown Man was a hoax, the Moon Hoax was more quickly revealed a clever deception yet continues to attract attention. See Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and the Moon.

Scholars have looked more generally at hoaxes. For example, a century ago Daniel Hering devoted considerable attention to hoaxes in his Foibles and Fallacies of Science: An Account of Celebrated Scientific Vagaries. Anthony Grafton’s Forgers and Critics explores the ways modern criticism has grown out of earlier scholarly efforts to detect forgeries, forgeries such as those detailed in Ingrid Roland’s The Scarith of Scornello. The tools have evolved, but scholars are still revealing forgeries and hoaxes as detailed in the two volume Galileo’s O and summarized in Nick Wilding’s upcoming lecture at International Antiquarian Book Fair.

What interests me about Pettit’s book is how it promises to move the study of forgery beyond the easy for-profit motivations that we typically assume explain a forger’s actions and connects deception more broadly to developments in modern psychology. I look forward to reading his book.

Long Form Historical Writing

Long form narrative is not object oriented, to butcher a phrase associated with philosophy and computer programming. While historical writing is certainly evidentiary, it’s not a sequential presentation of evidential objects.

Lots of great stuff in Chad Black’s A Long Form Historical Narrative Framework. Chad Black’s post should be read alongside Craig Mod’s posts: Platforming Books and Subcompact Publishing.

(It’s nice to see Markdown, John Gruber’s useful “text-to-HTML conversion tool,” attracting attention amongst academics, though it would be nicer to see a link, both to give proper credit and to point readers to it.)

Roman Science?

The standard story about science in the Roman world condemns it to the realm of engineering and the application of Greek science to practical problems. To the extent that Romans acquired scientific knowledge, it was through popularizations and translations, often with commentary, of Greek works. Roman science conjures up images of Macrobius’ Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Martianus Capella’s The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things or, perhaps most damningly, Pliny’s encyclopedic Natural History. As David Lindberg put it, “Such science or natural philosophy as Romans knew, then, tended to be a limited popularized version of the Greek achievement” (Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago, 136)).

Pierre Henri de Valenciennes’s Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1787) (screen shot from Pesic’s review).
Pierre Henri de Valenciennes’s Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1787) (screen shot from Pesic’s review).

According to Peter Pesic, a new book by Daryn Lehoux challenges this standard story: “What the Romans Really Knew” reviews Lehoux’s latest book, What Did the Romans Know? (full review and the pdf are behind a paywall). Apparently, Lehoux begins by “correcting a long-standing view that the concept of ‘laws of nature’ only originated in the 16th century” (Pesic, 273) by focusing not on the words Romans used to describe their ideas but the content of those ideas: “consider whether the Pluto Platter really changed its essence in 1957, when its manufacturer renamed it ‘Frisbee’” (Pesic, 273).

Such an argument is grounded in a particular historiographic assumption that identifies the essence of ideas and distinguishes them from the words thought to express those ideas. There is considerable philosophical and historiographical support for such an assumption and as much philosophical and historiographical opposition to it. I admit I am skeptical of being able to identify the essence of an idea distinct from the particular words used to articulate that idea.

But given that Lehoux’s earlier book, Astronomy, Weather, and Calendars in the Ancient World is very good, I look forward to reading his new one.

Pseudoscience and orthodoxy

The term ‘pseudoscientist’ is a bit like ‘heretic’. To be a pseudoscientist is to be accused; you don’t describe yourself as a pseudoscientist. … So there was a lot of pseudoscience about in the Cold War decades, but the category – not the content – was manufactured by orthodox scientists concerned about maintaining the boundaries of legitimacy but unable to find a stable and coherent way of defining what the category consisted of, other than its violation of valued structures of plausibility.

From Steven Shapin’s excellent review of Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe. Go read the whole review. Then go read the book.

John Dee in Rudolfine Prague

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s evocative account of his walk from Rotterdam to Hungary.

In his A Time of Gifts Patrick Leigh Fermor conjures up a melancholic image of Rudolfine Prague and its fascination with the occult. Emperor Rudolf II: “Moody and unbalanced, he lived in an atmosphere of neo-platonic magic, astrology and alchemy. His addiction to arcane practices certainly darkened his scientific bent.”

Johannes Kepler nourished Rudolf’s and later Wallenstein’s interest in astrology “with an ironic shrug.”

John Dee, charlatan, mathematician, and wizard, fled to the city where he basked in the attention and support of a credulous emperor and aristocracy:

As well as astrology, an addiction to alchemy had sprung up, and an interest in the Kabala. The town became a magnet for charlatans. The flowing robes and long white beard of John Dee, the English mathematician and wizard, created a great impression in Central Europe. He made the rounds of credulous Bohemian and Polish noblemen and raised spirits by incantation in castle after castle. He arrived in Central Europe after being stripped of his fellowship at Cambridge.*

*The cause of his downfall was a public demonstration of the device by which Trygaeus, the hero of The Peace of Aristophanes, flew to the crest of Olympus to beg the Gods to end the Peloponnesian War. As this vehicle was a giant dung-beetle from Mount Etna which the protagonist refuelled with his own droppings on the long ascent, the exhibition may well have caused a stir. I would like to have seen it.