Today, my little book on common errors, Spijkers op laag water, becomes available in the bookshops in the Netherlands and Flanders. I have, over the past couple of months, several times blogged about it; today, I finish this series with an article on the causes of error. It is, essentially, the epilogue of my book. You can read it here.
In this epilogue, I stress that professionalism does matter, and that “amateur historian” is just another word for “unqualified”. I also stress that specialization has disastrous consequences: there is no time to teach the logical foundations of scholarship, which means that quality control is reduced to mutual criticism. That 37 of the 50 errors presented in my book have been made by people with a Ph.D., proves that this type of control fails.
Worse, our specialists are often forced to talk about subjects outside their direct competence; you cannot expect from a classicist to explain ancient history – but in publications for the general audience and teaching to first year-students, scholars are forced to discuss subjects they are unqualified for. As a consequence, our academicians are now a more important source for false knowledge than pseudoscholars like Immanuel Velikovsky or Erich von Däniken.
This may come as a shock, but I can substantiate this claim. Since 1995, I have probably answered 3,200-3,600 e-mail messages from “the general audience”, and I came to realize that there was a pattern behind the many misunderstandings: people are perfectly capable of distinguishing scholarship from pseudoscholarship, but will be fooled when a credible author makes a mistake.
I may be wrong, of course. I even hope so. But I am unaware of other studies to the causes of misunderstanding about Antiquity, and so far, the messages I have received appear to be the only data around. Unless professional scholars can offer better figures – which is certainly possible – I think that efforts to improve scholarship must not be directed against pseudohistorians; instead, we must focus on the universities.