How to insult an entire profession.

I’ve never heard of SALON, which is apparently some sort of pseudo-intellectual event agency. This organisation is presenting one of their events in the Banqueting House in London on 24th June with the title 1649. Alone the opening sentence of the description made me cringe an a historian:

1649 was a pivotal year. The English public – having tired of a King who had raised taxes for wars and spent it on art – upped and executed him.

I leave it to my educated and knowledge thirsty readers to read up on the real causes of the English Revolution and the resulting regicide, as this is not the purpose of this brief post. My interest concerns rather more the speaker chosen to present the history of science of the period, the good Dr Stuart Clark, who should be well known to the readers of this blog for his displays of history of science ignorance here and here. Salon presents him thus:

Stuart Clark, described by The Independent as a UK star of astrophysics teaching (alongside Stephen Hawking) will be on hand to explain the scientific world of 1649.  Having undertaken extensive research for his acclaimed historical fiction series based in this period, no one is better qualified to explain where science was at in the mid 17th century, and how new ideas were beginning to remodel the minds and hearts of the people of England. [my emphasis]

I personally regard the statement, “no one is better qualified to explain where science was at in the mid 17th century”, as a crass insult to all professional historians of science and not just the legion of very competent experts for the science of the seventeenth century whom it disqualifies.

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15 responses to “How to insult an entire profession.

  1. Uh. Star of astrophysics teaching, eh? I am starting to question how these journos are chosen. Ever read something on Leonardo da Vinci (small d) by Jonathan Jones? Well worth reading. Professional (and non professional) historians of science are regularly trumped by pop-cult journos who want to write something quick and sensationalist.

  2. Puffery: a legal term refer[ring] to promotional statements and claims that express subjective rather than objective views, which no “reasonable person” would take literally. (Wikipedia, which also cites similar definitions by, e.g., the US Federal Trade Commission.)

    • It goes much deeper than mere puffery. There is a systematic refusal by the British media to use historian of science to comment on history of science. Instead they use physicists, astrophysicists, mathematicians and who knows what. All people who consistently get things horribly wrong but they go on being used for this purpose.

      There are many excellent historians of science in Britain why don’t the media use them?

      • Just speculating, but maybe they want somebody without too many historical scruples?

        Since we’ve just been discussing E.T. Bell, here’s a quote from Men of Mathematics that partly explains both the book’s popularity and its flaws.

        It should be noted that the modern higher criticism which has been so effective in discrediting all the interesting anecdotes in the history of mathematics has shown that the astronomical problem was in no way responsible for the loss of Euler’s eye. … With this caution we shall tell once more the [in]famous story of Euler and the atheistic (or perhaps only pantheistic) French philosopher Denis Diderot…

  3. Baerista

    True dat. And it gets worse: Terry Jones, ex-comedian and peddler of cheap histotainment teeming with lies, distortions, artificial moral outrage, gratuitous sarcasm and the occasional tinge of conspiracy theory will give the 600th anniversary lecture at the University of St Andrews and be awarded honorary degree for his troubles. Huge insult to actual medievalists and classicists, IMHO.

    • To be far Jones does hold a degree in English literature and history from Oxford University and it is usually this territory that he besmirches.

      • Baerista

        Fair enough, but what about this horrific little quote from Jones’s abysmal “Barbarians” series?
        “The Antikythera mechanisim proves that the ancient Greeks were intellectually light years ahead of the Romans, one of their astronomers even came up with the proposition that the Earth might revolve around the sun rather than the other way around but nobody could get their heads around that one. I suppose they might have done if the Greek centers of learning had kept going in places like this (he’s in Rhodes at the time he says that) but they didn’t. What happened? Rome happened. Could you name one famous Roman mathematician? No? well that’s because there weren’t any, the Romans didn’t want new inventions and discoveries, new ideas were a threat to the system….in their paranoid grab for world domination Rome crushed and destroyed other cultures and in destroying them it destroyed knowledge. But there’s a happy ending because Rome failed to crush all the barbarians and knowledge survived in the land that Rome could never obliterate: Persia. If Rome had succeeded the whole world of ancient scientific knowledge might have been stamped out forever but scholars in Persia would translate the works of the Greeks and the Babylonians and keep it safe. Hundreds of years later their knowledge would re-emerge in the west carried by the successors to the great Persian civilization: the Arabs”

        No honorary degrees to idiots of this magnitude!

      • He’s actually parroting an old myth that people like Jones and myself heard while we were still at school. The paragraph that you quote is indeed complete bollocks.

      • Baerista

        Never heard about this myth before, perhaps I was born too late. The closest example from modern scholarship that I can think of is Lucio Rossi’s hyperbolic “Forgotten Revolution”. But Terry Jones, it should be pointed out, simply does not care about the truth. He really is a professional liar. There is no way he did not know that at least some of his claims in “Barbarians” were complete bull. As when he had an expert explain the Coligny Calendar to him, only to have the camera zoom out and the sound fade out as soon as the expert starts talking, being replaced by Jones’s off commentary: “well, the point is, calendars are terribly complicated”, which did not keep him from asserting that the Coligny Calendar proves Celtic scientific superiority over Rome, whilst hiding from his viewers the fact that the feckin Coligny Calendar comes from ROMAN Gaul. Or when he had himself filmed in front of St Peter’s Basilica to underline the ridiculous claim that popes are the direct successor of the Roman emperors and that the “Vatican” is therefore guilty for having systematically manipulated the historical record in Rome’s favor, trusting that his average viewer wouldn’t know that there was no “Vatican” in late antiquity/the early Middle Ages and that virtually all of the “biased” sources Jones refers to in his own “documentary” were either written in Greek or had no demonstrable link to the papacy during the history of their transmission. Seriously, this man is a liar and an asshat and the University of St Andrews did itself no favor by honoring him.

      • It used to be fairly standard historical fare that the Romans were anti-intellectual barbarians who rejected/neglected Greek learning. This of course ignoring the fact that a lot of Greek science was created in Romano-Hellenistic times.
        I must admit that I’ve never come across such a warped version of Roman history as you describe.

    • guthrie

      Some of us who went to St Andrews at the end of the last century and have seen how it has changed reckon that it is not the place it used to be. Therefore such an award is not surprising in the least, since like many universities, it is now more concerned with style and publicity over substance.

  4. Jeb

    I find it difficult to balance insulting a highly assertive and very authoritative professional discipline with insulting the rest of the population of the world and suggesting their identity does not exist and that this is an indication of stupidity and ignorance.

    All you end up with is a never ending bun fight between modernist historians and wider population groups. Empirically drawn history plays no role in the way groups construct identity.

    Jones seems to be going for the Europe as a clearly defined civilization theme. The foundation legend for this is Greece as the font of commerce, democracy, science, mums apple pie, cute cuddle dogs and all things good proper and European in contrast to the Evil dark empires of the east (appears to be at least some movement in Jones since the Renaissance in regard to the east at least, as middle east bashing is still a popular past time in this type of genre). Not excusing Jones his take on Roman identity and the manner it incorporated differing ethnic groups into the fold in a very non-modern way is a car crash.

    One of the criticisms thrown at this type of historical criticism is that the concern is with authority and the authority of one particular group, modernist historians. I don’t endorse that argument in full but at times the language comes close to providing ammunition for that particular perspective.

    When I was an undergrad a seriously excellent Frankish historian attempted to humiliate me and assert his authority in a class by stating that one of the most distinguished members of the department thought that the study of identity was the last bastion of the historical rogue. He did not expect me to respond but I did by stating that I had heard many stupid remarks coming from lecturers in my two years at university but so far this one was the worst.

    Insult and loss of temper was a definite teaching strategy I found to keep you on the straight and narrow and way from subjects departments did not like. History does not belong to you but to the bad tempered authoritative individual going red in the face and looking like he is just about to have a heart attack as you respond to his insults and extremely poor teaching methods in the classroom.

    The issues are as much internal to history and the manner in which is taught as anything else I think.

    • Baerista

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I still think that Jones’ feet deserve to be held to fire here and that there’s nothing innocuous about his historical “films”, not least because they are clearly politically motivated. As a matter of fact, the entire “Barbarians” documentary series was predicated, quite expressly, on the idea that the “true” heritage of the modern-day “white” Europeans is “barbaric” (Celtic, principally) and to contrast this with the “Romans” as a “foreign” power, whose politics and ideology were contrary to the highly advanced and humanitarian “spirit” of the “indigenous” people. In fact, he very overtly modeled his Romans after the USA, the “evil empire” of today in Jones’ world view (and that of his target audience), comparing Roman wars with the Iraq invasion etc., equating Roman and US-American cultural imperialism, ignorance, chauvinism etc. All of this relied on rampant anti-Americanism as much as it did on a borderline racist understanding of culture as being naturally ingrained in ethnic groups. Jones’ argument also presupposes a complete dismissal of chronology, as he shamelessly mixes episodes that happened centuries apart as if they had been contemporaneous and does not allow himself to make any distinction whatsoever between Republican and imperial Rome, between Latin West and Greek East, between pagans and Christians, or between “original” and “Romanized” “barbarians” (or between the Parthian and the Sassanian Empires). One of this series’ accomplishments is that it manages to write “history” without doing any historical thinking (in terms of change over time) at all. That’s why Jones can literally state that, after the Sack of Rome in 410, “slaves became slaves again, women became the property of men again and unwanted children could be dumped upon the town rubbish heap again- which was the tradition in ancient Rome. In the arena wild animals were once again slaughtered to the delight of the crowd and prisoners were once again torn to pieces by the wild animals” — as if such practiced were unheard of in Carthage, Sparta, or Athens and as if late antiquity or Christianity had never happened (save perhaps for the “Vatican conspiracy” that brought us Roman historiography).

      • Jeb

        Thanks Baerista I don’t go out of my way to watch T.V history.
        “Europeans is “barbaric” (Celtic, principally).” Makes my hair stand on end just as much as yours and I have no answers on how to deal with these issues.

        I trained partly in Celtic studies and in a history department, huge antipathy to Celtic studies by historians as some viewed it as too problematic given its contemporary political and ‘identity issues.’ I could imagine the same remarks being used to dismiss H.O.S. its identity issue is major; modernist agenda undermined by a wider secular culture that shares the same values and principles with regard to truth and reason. Deeply held principles that go straight out the window when it comes to social cultural politics it would seem.

        Levels of ignorance with regard to identity issues and the nature of ethnicity or playing political or social cultural moves with material are not confined to the world outside of history departments unfortunately.

        After reading Thornie’s last piece when he brought up the subject of identity I was chewing through a paper on Greek identity and its move back into the European fold in the 17th century. The author digressed into a range of academic perspectives regarding the explosion of ethnic politics that has been such a feature of the 20th century. One academics perspective in the 80’s was that these ‘false’ identities would be held in check by the growth of secularism and presumable his own modern value system with its emphasis on empiricism yet secular culture is no different from any other culture group in how it maintains its identity.

        It strikes me as a monumental issue for H.O.S. although it does help to highlight that the problem is not related to simply outside ethnic groups who are not educated or empirical.

        “I still think that Jones’ feet deserve to be held to fire.”

        I don’t disagree. I would love to read you’re criticism somewhere more fully, its a fascinating insight into how the past is used for contemporary cultural reasons of a non-historic nature.

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