Flowers in my office
(Since 1995, I have maintained a website on ancient history. I have also written a couple of books. In 2010, the Dutch national research school of classicists, Oikos, awarded its annual popularization prize to me. The 14½ remarks below were my acceptance speech; the original Dutch text is here.)
Ancient history is no longer what it used to be. I am not talking about its decreasing popularity, which is regrettable but inevitable, but about incorrect information. Over the past fifteen years, I have answered about 3,400 questions, and I can discern a rising number of incorrect assumptions about the past. Although the trend is not uniform, it is real, and several other authors have recognized a similar pattern.
Information about Antiquity is divulged through several media.
- Living history-projects (like Archeon and the Roman Festival here in Holland) are usually very good.
- Specialist magazines (e.g., Ancient Warfare) are also very good, but have a limited reach.
- Radio and TV do not really contribute; people look at it as amusement.
- The quality of popularizing history books appears to have decreased.
- The main source for poor information is the internet.
Items 4 en 5 are in fact the same, as many books are now based on information from the internet. I have in several books seen outdated information from my own website.
The reason why the internet can have a bad influence, is the absence of the universities. At this very moment, we seem to witness a change for the better, and there are some very good projects online already (e.g., the Olympic Games website of the University of Leuven), but the damage has already been done.
The classics are not the only discipline to suffer. Distrust against science and scholarship is more general. Just think of Climategate; the hysteria surrounding the outbreak of swine flu; the Lucia de Berk affair here in Holland; and the rapidly decreasing reputation of economists. Think also about the press releases of our colleagues, the archaeologists, which often contain exaggerated claims (examples). I am not claiming that scientists and scholars are failing – most of the people involved are pretty honest – but they have a serious image problem, which is partly caused by their dedication to their good work. However, they ignore how this is perceived (example).
Under these circumstances, we must consider how we explain scholarship and science; we must ask ourselves how we really achieve results.
As far as I am concerned, I think that at this moment, we must refrain from spreading new insights, and must instead focus on the refutation of errors. It is logical to concentrate on the internet and books first.
It seems obvious that the universities must increase their presence on the internet. We can learn from earlier failures, like Livius.org, which offers insufficient references.
My greatest blunder is that I once agreed to a request by four American universities, which asked me to refrain from putting online annotated articles, because students might copy them in their assignments. I ought to have ignored this request, and very much regret my decision.
Academic pay sites ought to disappear. In debates between scholars and activists, the latter can often link to websites on which their claims appear to be confirmed; but real scholarly publications are inaccessible at pay sites like JSTOR. On the internet, which is a battlefield between good and bad information, real scholars fight with their arms tied.
So far, I have discussed the spread of poor and inaccurate information. I will now focus on it cause.
No classicist, no historian, no orientalist, no archaeologist is capable of understanding the entire field. Yet, classicists, historians, orientalists, and archaeologists are often forced to talk about subjects outside their direct field of competence. Imagine someone who knows everything about Greek literature of the Antonine Age who explains the Peloponnesian War during an introductory course for first-year students. Think of someone writing a popularizing history of the Roman Empire.
This type of disinformation – academics who have to talk about subjects outside their direct specialism – is a more important cause of misunderstanding than the more outrageous examples of pseudoscholarship. It is also harder to refute, because an academician has titles like doctor or professor, which give some weight to their mistakes. This is comparable to the “Stephen Hawking Effect”: if a famous professor writes a mediocre book, it will be praised more highly than a good book by a science journalist.
Those who believe that science and scholarship are increasingly distrusted because of a rise of pseudoscience, confuse the conspicuous with the representative (the Everest Fallacy). Pseudosciences and pseudoscholarship are only important as strawmen, used by scientists and scholars who do not want to look at their own mistakes.
A solution to the problem of the specialist talking outside his direct sphere of competence, is the creation of new handbooks for ancient history, written by large teams, as is common in the sciences. Handbooks cannot be written by one or two people. Reprints ought to be checked meticulously. I am also hoping that popular accounts are read, prior to publication, by large groups of scholars. What’s the use of colleagues if we ignore their knowledge?
Popular science and scholarship are a serious matter and need serious reflection. I invite the Dutch classicists and ancient historians to write down ideas about it – must we focus on spreading new insights or must we refute old errors? How do we check the quality of our books? What goals can we achieve? If our friends, the archaeologists, can think about this systematically, we can do the same.
I am very grateful for the prize that has been awarded to me. My website is not perfect, but I will do my best to match the standards set in Leuven. To the jury, I say “thank you”, and to the others, I say “thank you for your attention”.
A more specific article is here.