Thursday, May 21, 2015

Myth Busters

I know I have a tendency to complain about "internet myths", such as Roman hopscotch and many supposed "quotes" that have no obvious source.  However, there is an opposite trend which drives me almost as crazy, and that is internet videos purporting to tell "falsehoods you learned in school" or "shocking facts about ancient Greeks." My young son has a fascination with these, and so I often get to hear them, and it amazed me how contentious, or even wrong, they can be.

Many are, of course, unobjectionable.  For example, that there is gravity in Earth orbit, that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves, or that there were those who knew the Earth was round prior to Columbus. But then many others are either the result of picking a single viewpoint and pretending it is "the truth", or taking an area where there is some doubt and over emphasizing it, or, in the most extreme cases, simply presenting something as wrong as what was originally proposed.

For example, historically, no one knows what the thumb gestures in the Roman gladiatorial games meant. We know there was a gesture, it involved thumbs, but that's it. There have been serious arguments made for and against thumbs up being survival, thumbs down being survival, or covering the thumb with the hand being survival. However, all are simply theories, there is no evidence for any of them. Yet I have seen several of these videos which pick one (of course never thumbs up) and use it to argue "you believe the wrong thing", but making an equally wrong-headed case for what is but one of many possibilities.

Similarly, very contentious positions are treated as certain, from Hitler's single testicle to Napoleon's height, they will adopt a report or the theory of a group of historians that provide the most shocking evidence and state it as apoditic truth, ignoring that similar revisions have often been overturned in the past, usually by the next crop of revisionists.

It is the worst sort of pop history mixed with USA Today "History in a Box". Inevitably couched in lists that are multiples of 5 or 10*, they make a certain sort of person feel he has discovered something shocking, and may make a few others delve deeper into a topic and learn the actual complexities of the issue, but for the most part, they create new internet myths, every bit as misleading as the ones they are supposedly debunking, which, thanks to the imitative nature of the internet, tend to be even more widespread and harder to debunk.


* I know 10 is a multiple of 5, so I could have just said multiple of 5, but since 10, 20, 20 and so on seem to be exceptionally popular, I mentioned 10 separately to emphasize the "ends in a zero" aspect of the lists.



In some ways, these remind me a little of those thin little books you used to buy from Troll Books, or other catalogs that circulated in elementary schools in the 1970s (I don't know if they still do, I just recall them from my youth). Along with "Ghost Tales of the Sea" and the current Guiness Book of World Records, you would always end up with a few books of "startling facts". A lot of the ones I bought were either historical, or about foreign lands, and both had the same type of facts, which I always saw as falling into two categories. First, there were the "all times and places are the same", where they would try to show something very Modern existed in the distant past (the Romans played Hopscotch! Ancient Greeks played volleyball!) or something very American and showed how it was part of a foreign culture. Then, there was the opposite, the "the past is a strange land" category, where they would find the most peculiar behaviors they could, often rituals performed very rarely, and acted as if they were regular behaviors in the past, trying to make us glad we were alive today. The new internet mythbusters seem to revel in these two categories, but add in a third, their "what you know is wrong", as described above. But, if we remove that third group, they could very easily pass for those silly little books I bough at Gibson Island Country School back in 1976. In fact, I think a few claims I have seen on youtube were ones I first heard in that long ago time.


I forgot the example that actually inspired this essay, another claim about "mistaken information you learned in school", claiming that VanGogh did not cut off his own ear, but rather it was Paul Gaugin who cut it off in an argument. Well, yes, there is such a claim, put forward by two German historians. However, the basis of their claim is not exactly uncontroversial, nor is the foundation so rock solid it brooks no argument. The fact is, it is one thesis among many, and not even the mainstream theory. Granted, being both shocking and contrary to mainstream history, it got a lot of press briefly, but that hardly means it is true, only that it is popular. After all, isn't the very thesis of such an on-line presentation that the popular belief is not always true? Yet they fall back on a single popular theory and assume it is true, mainly because it gained a lot of press attention? Or maybe they believe it themselves and so simply ignore that there are equally, or even more widely, accepted theories that argue for contrary propositions. In either case, there is a great difference between "it is true" and "we think" or "the current pop theory in the press is", yet somehow these online writers seem to forget this with amazing frequency.

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