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09 November 2020

What is Ignorance?

As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.
Josh Billings

I am reflecting on a statement I recall from the Reagan years while watching friends and acquaintances broadcast what they "know" about why Donald Trump should or should not concede that Joe Biden will be the next President. 

Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn't so.
Ronald Reagan, "A Time for Choosing

Reagan's words were deployed against him in the presidential debate with Walter Mondale in October 1984.

Well, I guess I'm reminded a little bit of what Will Rogers once said about Hoover. He said, "It's not what he doesn't know that bothers me, it's what he knows for sure that just ain't so."
Walter Mondale, Presidential Debate

The New York Times attempted to source the quote, determining that it did not emanate from Will Rogers.

More often, the quote gets attributed to Mark Twain, such as in the epigraph to The Big Short (2015), a film about the 2008 financial crisis. The Center for Mark Twain Studies has a short article about it, "The Apocryphal Twain: 'Things we Know that Just Ain't So'". They note Al Gore's frequent attribution of the idea to Twain.


It is a remarkable concept that resonates in our age of misinformation. Garson O'Toole, Quote Investigator has chased down the origins at least twice: "It Is Better to Know Nothing than to Know What Ain’t So" (May 2015) and "It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So" (November 2018). In both cases, Josh Billings seems to be the leading candidate for introducing the phrase to American discourse.

In the 2015 article. O'Toole locates the precursor in vol. 11 of An Universal History: From the Earliest Account of Time (1747) by John Swinton and others. He highlights the expression, "it is better to know nothing, than to apprehend we know what we know not." A digital version of the pages of the book is available from the University of Michigan, accessible via HathiTrust.

I offer a screenshot of the relevant paragraph on the right.

How do my friends "know" that Trump should not concede? They do not trust the mass media, which is too liberal. One conservative friend even told me that FOX News is not conservative enough. Where do they get their news, then? 

Certainly there are legal challenges in the courts, some of which were dismissed last week. But, even if they all succeed, will it be enough to turn the election Trump's way? The Wall Street Journal does not appear to think so. See "Election 2020: What are the Trump Legal Claims?" (8 November 2020).

Elections are not final until certified, and the next President is selected when the Electoral College meets in mid-December. In the meantime, every major news outlet has declared former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris the projected President and Vice President. Even after Biden and Harris are inaugurated in January, the divisions in this nation remain deep. Those divisions are fueled by significant disagreement concerning the nature of credible information. How much do we know that is not so?

Most of us can see ignorance in those with whom we disagree, but rarely note it in ourselves. It has been the mission of Patriots and Peoples (clicking on the banner takes you to the home screen--the latest article) from the beginning to look to original sources, to determine their credibility using the methods developed since the nineteenth century for the practice of history. Fact checkers utilize similar methods when evaluating claims by politicians. Mondale and Gore got it wrong when they sourced their quote. 

01 June 2020

Crowd Sourcing vs. Expertise

For so long as opinions are counted, not weighed, the better part had often to be overcome by the greater.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2

A student paper that I was grading about 2007 put me onto a source that was new to me. The student was making a claim that I had seen in dozens of college papers over the previous two decades, and that was discussed and dismissed in several books on my shelf. The student sourced the claim. I went to the source and found it there. I found other errors in the source.

Within the hour, or perhaps five minutes later, or maybe the next day, I discovered that I could correct the error. The "source" was the Wikipedia entry on the Nez Perce. It repeated a common myth that Chief Joseph was a military genius who led Nez Perce warriors in battle. Lucullus V. McWhorter (1860-1944) addressed this myth in two books that were the culmination of decades of interviews with survivors of the Nez Perce War of 1877, but it was still being pushed in documentaries about the war in the 1970s. Wikipedia also asserted that Nez Perce should have an accent mark. I corrected both errors.

Over the next few days or weeks, I repeatedly corrected these errors. I was quickly joined by a librarian at Washington State University,* where McWhorter's papers are housed in the archives. I had to join Wikipedia as a registered user in order to stop bots from automatically reverting my corrections back to the errors that preceded them. But, even as a registered user, it was a battle to remove the accent mark. Through reason, evidence, and persistence, the librarian and I ultimately won the battle and the Nez Perce entry has offered the correct spelling of Nez Perce for 13 years. The Chief Joseph myth, too, has been largely absent from the entry. Other users made other edits, and the article became a credible encyclopedia entry.

During my first months as a registered user of Wikipedia, I made many contributions. Another battle with other users ensued when I attempted to correct agreement with Ronald Reagan's faulty memory (or lies) about his student days. I did not then have access to the not yet published The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014) by Rick Perlstein, but offered some of the work of Lou Cannon refuting Reagan's claims. The battle between Reagan partisans, on the one hand, and partisans for accurate history, on the other, grew so fierce that eventually the entire section was removed from the article. Then, a few years later, Reagan's lie reappeared in the article in another briefer section with a footnote to Cannon's book that refutes the claim.

When students ask about Wikipedia as a source for the past few years, I have told them about the Nez Perce spelling war and the dangers of correcting the memory of a President who died of Alzheimer's. Sometimes they would ask whether I might try to correct the error in the Reagan article again. It should not be too difficult to recover my password, or create a new one. In December 2019, I restored Reagan's "leadership" of student protests his freshman year to his "participation". My previous Wikipedia edits had been in 2014. The truth about Reagan's participation still stands today. How long before a mob tears it down again?

My own memory could be faulty, however, or at least short on details.** A search through my own Wikipedia edits this morning confirms that I added Lou Cannon, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (2003) on 12 March 2007, but the context appears to be the narrative about him making up facts during his broadcasts of baseball games, not his false claims about student leadership. I also added Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home (1987) that day, and many other small edits.

For a few months in spring 2007, I made many edits to articles about US history and literature, and to chess, as well as a few other topics. At least once, I was corrected for adding what appeared to be original research. The insights of experts on a topic are welcome only insofar as they accord with general knowledge. Sometimes that will favor error when truth is elusive.

Wikipedia editing proved to be a form of social media with its own network of personal relationships and friendships with people I have never met. In spring 2007, a new chess website came online and I joined that fall. It had active forums that helped pull me away from Wikipedia. For a time, at least, the truth of checkmate offered better grounding for arguments than the evidence of primary sources that counter the memories of a dead president. If I am not mistaken, I also joined Facebook about that time. In fall 2007, I started Patriots and Peoples.


*The Nez Perce talk page shows that she had made edits two years before I joined.
**I may have made a lot of edits while not logged in, and then logged in to try to protect these edits from bots and well-meaning fools.

18 May 2020

May 18, 1980

An Historic Day

My memory.

I returned to the dorm after church and was headed to the Rotunda for brunch (there were only two meals on Sundays), pausing to watch the darkest storm clouds I had ever seen rolling in. Then, I learned that they were not storm clouds, but volcanic ash. I ate quickly (I suspect) and then bicycled to Dissmore's IGA to buy some film for my camera. That afternoon, my 35mm Minolta was my ticket atop the Physical Science Building, along with a friend ("my assistant"), Vic Mulzac. I took photos of the marvelous "sunset" to the east as the clouds of ash darkened the skies.

Later that afternoon, perhaps 4:00 pm., the ash began to fall. By morning, we had perhaps 1/2 inch of very fine powder--the consistency of concrete mix. Monday morning, 8:00 am classes were held, but the dust clouds grew so bad that the university cancelled classes for the day. A similar routine followed on Tuesday. Then, Wednesday, classes were cancelled for the rest of the week.

There was a lot of drinking in the dorms, but I was trying to study for the last few weeks of the semester. I was only then, at the end of freshman year, beginning to acquire the study habits that were vital to surviving college. But, as the champ at caps (a drinking game involving throwing bottle caps into a glass of beer--I threw only Coors caps, as they were heavier), I was pressured a lot to join the games. I resisted successfully.


17 May 2020

Feudalism, Christianity, America


I present an excerpt from a scholarly article published more than fifty years ago. Who writes like this today?
Despite the fact that Christ redeemed man and revealed to him the central democratic truth that all men have equal value on earth as well as in heaven, the medieval Church developed a hierarchical, authoritarian priesthood and encouraged feudalism, a totally undemocratic and hence anti-Christian system. During the Reformation, however, men like Luther and Calvin reasserted true Christianity by proclaiming religious equality and by insisting that the Bible contained all knowledge requisite to salvation and that every man could know God directly and personally, without the mediation of an authoritarian Church. Although they had thus forever destroyed the religious foundations of feudalism, the institution itself staggered on, even to Bancroft's own day. Because of her separation from Rome in the sixteenth century and the moral superiority of her Teutonic, freedom-loving people, England had realized greater progress towards liberty and equality than priest-ridden, despotic nations like Spain and France; yet in the seventeenth century England herself was so feudalistic as to have forced large numbers of her most morally advanced citizens to flee to North America, where they planted imperishable seeds of religious and political liberty. In the eighteenth century these colonists became convinced that if they were to realize their democratic visions they would have to separate from the mother country, and in the Revolutionary War they won for themselves and all mankind the independence which it was their destiny to translate into the finest and purest democracy the world had ever known. Now they bore the lamp of freedom that would light the world, leading it toward an inevitable democratic paradise, the final Kingdom of God on earth. Before the example of America all forms of tyranny would evaporate, and the mission of Christ and the will of Providence would be fulfilled.
Richard C. Vitzthum, "Theme and Method in Bancroft's History of the United States," New England Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1968), 368-369.
Is Vitzthum writing in the voice of his subjects, employing historical ventriloquism to present seventeenth century ideologies? Does he embrace these ideologies?

On his blog, Vitzthum asserts his atheism. That would favor ventriloquism. Efforts to articulate the views held by people in the past can get one in trouble these days.

18 April 2020

Bad History

Bad history is common, especially in a world that favors crowd sourcing over the views of experts. Even experts, however, are not infallible. Bad history grows from ignorance, laziness, lies, ideology. It has been a theme of Patriots and Peoples that ideology often cultivates error.

I wrote the comment below on a YouTube video three months ago. The video was put up by Political Juice, a popular channel with over 125 thousand subscribers. I have not watched other videos on this channel, but it is clear to me from this one that the creator is not a historian.

The video purports to present the history of the Second Amendment. It gets a few things correct, especially a small portion of Justice Scalia's argument in D.C. v. Heller (2008). It gets a whole lot wrong. I need to finish my review of Adam Winkler, Gun Fight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America (2011). That book presents a clear and accurate history of the Second Amendment that shows how extremists who are both pro- and anti-gun have been misguided in their understanding.
Patent Application for Puckle Gun (1718)

My comment (there are typos in the original that remain here):

The issues in this video start at the beginning. In the first eight minutes or so, PolJuice offers a short history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its changing relationship with England over half a century. About 80% of the facts are accurate (a couple of websites offer thin research), but the narrative itself is far from accurate in its interpretation. For instance, you mentions how the Puritans in the early years admitted people to church membership and full citizenship. However, this dramatically changed in 1662 with the Halfway Covenant (not mentioned in the video), due to internal pressures from growing secularization of the colony. Instead of seeking to understand the complexities of 1660s Massachusetts, the video blames all the conflicts on Charles II and James II. That's simply wrong. 
Then, the next eight to ten minutes race through a host of actions of Parliament from the 1660s to the 1770s with minimal context. Such facile generalizations are always grounded in shortcuts that distort. 
This video only becomes tolerable when PJ summarizes Justice Scalia's grammatical analysis of the Second Amendment in the Heller decision. This portion is well-done and accurate until he addresses the counter arguments in the dissenting opinions. There mockery reigns, even using a comic voice to undermine the credibility of the arguments. 
The final ten minutes or so is a mixed bag. The Puckle gun gets too much credit, as it does so often by people who don't delve into the history with any real effort. The Puckle gun was almost completely forgotten by the time Jefferson was born. Its deployment in any argument about the Second Amendment is anachronistic. It is also unnecessary. As the video points out, the First Amendment protects the sort of speech one finds on YouTube. Likewise, the Second Amendment has the flexibility to cover modern firearms. Using bad arguments to counter bad arguments does not strengthen your argument; it weakens it.

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