How to lose credibility

22 May 2011

Rembrandt van Rijn, "The writing on the wall" (detail): weighed and found wanting

The world changes and sometimes the consequences are not as we like them to be. Not everyone at the Oxford Faculty of Theology likes a recent proposal to give the department a new name (“religious studies”). Although I can understand this, I immediately lost sympathy when I read the following claim:

For more than 800 years, the University of Oxford has led the world in the study of the divine.

Academics must not exaggerate. They are paid for two things:

  1. Establish the truth;
  2. Speak the truth.

I am aware that there are all kinds of very reasonable theories about the difficulty to establish the truth, but in this case, they are irrelevant. If you believe that a tradition of scholarship is a guarantee of quality (which seems to be why the age of the university is mentioned) it would have been sufficient to write something like:

The University of Oxford has for several centuries been an important place to study theology.

The exaggerated statement is in fact counterproductive. Anyone who is capable of reading a newspaper, will immediately put the claim that Oxford is the world’s leader in the study of the divine into the same category as political slogans, reassuring messages by bankers, forecasts of future profits of big companies, and so on.

Academics have started to talk like marketeers and people making commercials (example, example). As a result, our universities – which are still fortresses of sound knowledge – are rapidly losing credibility. At the moment, 28% of the citizens in the Western world are sceptical about science and scholarship – a figure that ought to scare the hell out of our academics. If this exaggeration is typical of the quality standards of the Oxford Faculty of Theology, they will be found wanting when weighed.

Death in Roman Mainz

16 May 2011

Death statistics for Roman Mainz

If you visit a museum with Roman inscriptions and read the tombstones, you will notice that old people invariably died at 60, 70, or 80. The ancients didn’t know exactly how old they were (except, of course, for that man mentioned by Pliny the Elder, who said he could prove that he was 130 years old – from his tax records).

I wanted to check this, so I decided to look at the inscriptions from a city where many tombstones have been found. Mainz was a logical candidate: its Landesmuseum has a nice “Steinhalle” (hall of ancient stones). Besides, there were legions over here, which – I assumed – must have kept some kind of administration. I expected a more or less regular pattern with similar results for successive years until the late forties, when the soldiers left the army. After that I expected high peaks at 60, 70, 80, and lower peaks at 55, 65, 75.

Tombstone of Gaius Faltonius Secundus

The Epigraphik-Datenbank of Clauss and Slaby offered 2826 inscriptions, of which 245 contained formulas like “MIL LEG XXII PR AN XLVI STI XXI HSE” (= miles legionis XXII Primigeniae, annorum XLVI, stipendiorum XXI, hic situs est, “soldier of the Twenty-second Legion Primigenia, 46 years old, 19 years of service, is buried here”).

As the picture above shows, it did not work out as I expected, but still there is an interesting result. Between 20 and 50, there’s a peak every 5 year. After that, there is only a minor peak at 70. I deduce that the army kept no administration.

Among the other finds: the tombstone of a soldier who must have entered the army at thirteen (no unit mentioned, but a Roman citizen), the tombstone of an officer who served in four legions and apparently served 45 years, and some odd numerals like VL and XLIIX.

LacusCurtius back up

10 May 2011

Lacus (and Jim Grout’s Encyclopedia Romana, and James Eason’s Sir Thomas Browne site) is back up now. My thoughts on this continuing battle are posted at Roger Pearse’s blog, since he seems to have taken it to heart even more than I did; I can’t say he’s wrong.

LacusCurtius down again

10 May 2011

Lacus has been down since about 2130 GMT. James tells me that the problems are getting worse and worse, constant attack from spoofed servers, usually traceable to China, but also to Russia and Brazil. We try to ban wide chunks of the world from getting to us, allowing access only to the civilized world, but decreasing success.

That also means you can’t reach me by e-mail, except those of you who have my GMail address. The immediate problem should be fixed tomorrow by around 1400 GMT; but it’s only a matter of time before we’ll have to shut down; with any luck, move to a server with more robust security measures. I’m tired of terrorists, cyber and otherwise, whether Arabs or Chinese or whatever. Malevolent fools, who can’t produce anything, but can spoil things for the rest of us, like small puking children.

The Guttenberg Affair: the Real Problem

7 May 2011
Some historians deserve a box on the ear

Some scholars deserve a box on the ear

Some time ago, it was shown that the German minister of Defence, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, had copied parts of his doctoral thesis. Plagiarism. At first, he pretended that it was just an accident. When nobody believed this, the University of Bayreuth revoked his doctorate. Guttenberg resigned as minister. Now, the university has published the results of an investigation; it was not an accident, Guttenberg had “hat absichtlich getäuscht“, cheated willingly.

But wait a second. An academic degree is awarded by someone else. In this case, by a professor named Peter Häberle, who judged that Guttenberg’s thesis deserved a “summa cum laude”. The German article I linked to, tells that the university investigators believe that Häberle was not coresponsible (“Eine Mitverantwortung von Guttenbergs Doktorvater Peter Häberle … erkannte die Universität nicht.”)

I don’t understand this. Either Mr Häberle knew about the plagiarism, or he didn’t. If he knew, he was coresponsible, and measures should be taken. Since the report denies this, we are left with the alternative: he was unaware that there was something wrong. In that case, he is unable to evaluate the originality of claims made in his own field of research, and must give up his doctorate as well.

Interestingly, the English version of the article says that “the full 40-page report on the case … is also expected to also criticize Guttenberg’s doctoral supervisor.” This directly contradicts the German version of the article. I hope that the English version is correct – otherwise, we have additional evidence that our universities are no longer what we expect them to be.

Oppian, Cynegetica

6 May 2011

A pair of opisthuretic Dogs going at it

It’s been a long while since I’ve put up anything new on the Graeco-Roman section of my site, at least anything of any size or consequence. But American history notwithstanding, I’m still committed to providing crumbs of Antiquity to the numberless eager masses starving to feed on them.

Today’s morsel is Oppian’s Cynegetica, in both Greek original and English translation: nominally a manual on hunting, much of it is in fact a textbook on zoology, frequently cribbing from the incredible, towering genius of Aristotle, but also standing on its own as a good snapshot of what the Mediterranean world knew about animals in the early 3c AD, and so written — it’s poetry, or at least it’s in verse — as to make it a natural ancestor of all those wonderful medieval bestiaries. It’s an interesting book, and worth the trouble of putting up.

And transcribing the Cynegetica has indeed proved to be a tremendous chore, mostly because its editor and translator, the Scotsman A. W. Mair, did exemplary work, his voluminous annotations being extraordinarily thorough, as well as relevant and intelligent, which is more than can be said of some other modern editings found in the Loeb Classical Library: at any rate, Prof. Mair’s notes range from the ever seminal Aristotle of course to Sir Walter Scott; from Pliny and Ovid to Schemseddin Mohammed (16c) and Shakespeare; from Plutarch and the Bible to modern zoological works. Those copious notes are in Latin and Greek, German, French and Italian, and thank goodness there’s not very much Hebrew, since that particular language is a pain for me to transcribe. Mmm, I forgot — a smattering of English, too.

Further complicating the transcription is that Oppian — whether he or someone else by the same name, as the old saw goes — also wrote Halieutica, on fishing; and the two works are very tightly related, so that Prof. Mair’s notes constantly link from one to the other, and his 80‑page introduction covers both: this in turn means that, until I also get the Halieutica fully up (only a draft for the moment), some few of the links to it may not work; patience, folks, we’ll slay this monster yet.

Similarly, the many, many, citations of Athenaeus and Strabo and of Plutarch On the Intelligence of Animals — all three also in progress on LacusCurtius (i.e., incomplete and in their bathrobes as it were) — had me detouring thru those writers and making sure at least that they’d brushed their teeth, and fixing the worst rips in their pajamas: links to them are correspondingly incomplete and may occasionally be erratic as well, reader be warned.

Still, when I get done, taking it all together, LacusCurtius will have a solid nucleus on ancient zoology. The next step would be Aristotle; I wonder if I’ll take it.

Poor Pakistan, again (Abbottabad)

2 May 2011

Inyatullah and two daughters

Apparently, Bin Laden has been killed in the city of Abbottabad. It took some time until I realized that I’ve been there. On May 29, 2004, to be precise. Coming from the Aornus, we were returning to Islamabad and Taxila, where we still wanted to see the Jandial sanctuary. So we passed through Abbottabad, where our driver, Inyatullah, invited us to his home, in a small village, just 5 kilometers east of the city. We met his wife, his second son, his young daughters, his veiled daughter-in-law, and we enjoyed a very lovely meal.

Although I have on another occasion blogged about poor Pakistan, I would not have written about this if not for something that I haven’t seen in any of the news reports of the past hours. This is the area that was destroyed by the 2005 earthquake. The family that entertained us so courteously, is probably dead, because the epicenter was just 19 kilometers from Abbottabad, and 15 kilometers from their home. Bin Laden could hide over there, I guess, because the entire area had to be redeveloped.

More Nonsense about Sodom and Gomorrah

1 May 2011

The destruction of Sodom (Doré)

I already blogged about Sodom and Gomorah: people are looking for it at the bottom of the Dead Sea, although the Bible is quite explicit that the remains were visible on the land (Zephaniah 2.9). When you write about Antiquity, the sources are the thing you can ignore, of course.

Or, if you have actually read the sources and haven’t found what you need, you just invent it: Archimedes’ Heat Ray, Herodotus’ visit to Babylon, or Octavian calling himself Octavian – just three examples of things not mentioned in our sources, reproduced by professional historians, employed by universities. Sources are only there to be either ignored or expanded with the stuff you need.

Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell of Bristol University are exceptional, because they are capable of making both mistakes simultaneously, if I am to believe this article. They have written a book called A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels’ Impact Event, in which they argue that a cuneiform tablet now in the British Museum contains a description of a Sumerian observation of a very large meteor – actually an asteroid over a kilometre in diameter – that impacted a place in Austria called Köfels. They can date it to June 29, 3123 BCE.

So far, so good. I wonder if there were Sumerian astronomical records that long ago, but for argument’s sake, I assume they are right. Now if the article I linked to refers to their own words, they also assume that a piece of this meteor destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, the Bible refers to a terrible shower, and does not mention anything similar to a meteor:

Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven (Genesis 19.24).

In other words, Bond and Hempsell are adding something to their source that simply isn’t there. It’s the same approach of texts that I discussed here: if an ancient text says that the Nile has converted into blood, you think “blood is red”, and because algae can be red too, you read the Biblical account as a description of algae. A meteor is destructive and falls out of heaven; the rain of the Lord is destructive and falls out of heaven; hence, a meteor is the rain of the lord. Textbook examples of the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

But even when we accept that Genesis describes a meteor impact, there remains another problem. Bond and Hempsell have decided to accept the story in Genesis as sufficiently trustworthy to be studied. So, why don’t they accept the chronology of Genesis as well? Even if we accept the longlevity of the Biblical patriarchs, there is no way to date the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah prior to the twenty-first century BCE.

Bond and Hempsell want to have it both ways: they want to accept the Biblical story about the destruction of the cities, but don’t want to accept the dates implied in the Bible. That is possible. Historical criticism is intended to help you establish why you can use which parts of the same text, and why some parts are more reliable than others. And fortunately, historians have been looking at the stories of the Abraham cycle. Although the consensus is not uncontested, many scholars will date Abraham to the Middle Bronze Age, let’s say in the seventeenth century. Again, this cannot be combined with a meteor impact in late fourth millennium. (I won’t discuss the theory – very likely, in my view – that the Abraham cycle is not historical at all.)

Bond and Hempsell ought to have stuck to reading the tablet itself. Their proposal is sufficiently interesting. As it now stands, they are adding a meteor to the Bible that is not mentioned and ignore a chronology that is. I hope that the journalist of the article I linked to, messed up things, but I am not sure.


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