Things That Annoy Pre-Modern Historians
I never cease to be annoyed at the ignorance of people who should really know better. The latest installment comes from this silly piece on MSNBC: “Medieval books hold surprising fossil record.”
The story summarizes the following article: S. Blair Hedges. “Wormholes record species history in space and time.” Biology Letters 9 (2013). An evolutionary biologist used the dimensions and paths of holes in woodcuts to trace the frequency of different species of beetles over time and space. An interesting use of old books, and a good example of how scientists and historians not only ask different questions about the same object, but also how they go about answering them in very different ways.
The original article is interesting, and the news account doesn’t do an awful job of summarizing the results. As an early modern historian, however, that “medieval” in the MSNBC title really sticks in my craw. Admittedly, the examined books dated from 1462-1899, so a few could be said to fall within the Middle Ages. But since we generally know that earlier books are more rare and thus any sample from that date range will likely be weighted towards the later periods, and since Hedges was kind enough to include a summary of his data in the article, it’s pretty clear that “medieval” is probably the worst summary one could choose:
Kudos to the original author of the study, who, from my brief skimming and text search, never actually used the words “medieval” or “Middle Ages” in the study (here). On the other hand, he was precise enough to mention specific centuries and even “Renaissance.”
If this were just a single instance of a historical howler, it wouldn’t merit a post. And yes, periods are fuzzy, but still, shouldn’t a science journalist (or the section editor?) think about how to accurately summarize the study?* (In fact, I just got done drilling this into my students’ heads: a summary of several points needs to be broad enough to incorporate every point in the list, yet not add additional information that isn’t in the original list.) And maybe we could use proper terms that have been around since the 1970s at least, especially in the title of an article, which is the one bit of info that almost everybody will read?
My broader complaint is that, as I’m sure you are all aware, our society is so historically challenged that we just use “medieval” to indicate stuff that’s really old, like from the 1920s or something. But, you’d think that if Wikipedia could get it right, it shouldn’t be that hard for a news site to do some basic research and pay attention to word choice. Of course scientists have been complaining about the inaccuracies of scientific journalism for a few decades, so I guess historians will just have to get in line and take a number.
It is worth noting that the journalist (writing for the Science & Tech section, after all) did bother to pay attention to explain scientific terminology, going out of her way to distinguish “trace fossils” from regular fossilized remains.
Damn you, Two Cultures!
Yet one more factoid to emphasize to my Reformation students next semester I guess.
* Another similar example came from this press release: “ProQuest is participating in a project at Texas A&M that will significantly advance research of the early modern era. In a nutshell, a collective of publishers and software companies are supporting the efforts of scholars and librarians to train OCR technology to read the peculiar fonts of the 14th through 17th centuries. When they’re done, researchers will be able to conduct key word searches of 600-year-old manuscripts, making them as easy to work with as born digital content. Fascinating! Read on to learn more — here http://www.proquest.com/en-US/aboutus/pressroom/12/20121106.shtml or below…”.
Wow! That would change everything. But as was pointed out on the Humanist listserv, they actually meant books, not manuscripts. Still a big breakthrough I hope, but a bit of a letdown after the claim that early modern handwriting could be OCRed.