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.

15 April 2020

Pandemic History: The Bibliography

"[T]here remains the simple fact that the Black Death was, indeed, the greatest and most sustained demographic disaster in the history of the world."
John Aberth 
"Before that worldwide [influenza] pandemic faded away in 1920, it would kill more people than any other outbreak of disease in human history."
John M. Barry 
"[T]he disaster to Amerindian populations assumed a scale that is hard for us to imagine, living as we do in an age when epidemic disease hardly matters. Ratios of 20:1 or even 25:1 between pre-Columbian populations and the bottoming-out point in Amerindian population curves seem more or less correct, despite wide local variations."
William H. McNeill
"Variola was the deadliest killer in a terrible onslaught of alien microorganisms that, by some historical estimates, may have decimated as much as 90 percent of the precontact population of the Americas."
Michael Willrich

As I noted in Pandemic History, the books in this list were not selected by a rigorous criteria of historical relevance. Rather, these are the books that I have have on shelves in my home (or as ebooks on my iPad). I am still reading some of these books, some I finished recently, one I have yet to start, and some were consumed more than thirty years ago. These books vary in quality, cost, and relevance.

Today, the number of people worldwide confirmed to be infected with COVID-19 crossed two million. A minuscule portion of the population has been tested. The number of confirmed deaths is closing in on 130,000. The pandemic still seems to be on a steep upward climb. The most serious global impact, however, will be economic, rather than demographic. Advances in medicine and understanding of the possible consequences of epidemic disease protect us in immeasurable ways even as globalization has sped the process of epidemics becoming pandemics.
Screenshot form the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

The Bibliography

Aberth, John. The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350, A Brief History with Documents, 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2017.

This book is a text designed for college classes. As such, it has limited, but highly focused analysis, a good summary of the state of the research, and consists mostly of extracts from primary sources. Aberth also has authored a scholarly monograph concerned with the Black Death, another general book on plagues throughout history, and several works on the European Middle Ages.

Arnold, Catherine. Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2018.

Technically, this book is not shelved in my house, but rather on my electronic devices as an ebook. I started it in late March, but others keep getting in the way of my progress. It is well-written, but somewhat disappointing. The phrase "eyewitness accounts" in the title led me to expect more in the way of excerpts from primary sources (see "Reflective Thinking, Teaching and Learning" [2009]). The author quotes many sources at length, but the book is her narrative. Arnold offers a compelling account of the lives of people who struggled to survive a devastating pandemic. She draws on some of the best secondary works by historians, such as Alfred Crosby, America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (2003) and John Barry (see below), and she draws from a range of primary sources that include works of fiction written by survivors. Nonetheless, as I am reading the book I am marking a few passages that I intend to return to with more attention because I have a hunch they contain some gross inaccuracies.

Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004.

My bookmark reveals that I had read just over one-third of this book before it gathered dust on my shelf for a decade. I started it anew in early March as COVID-19 could no longer be ignored. I finished it last week. About 20 March 2020, I saw that it had risen to a number one bestseller in several categories tracked by Amazon, including history of medicine. Barry narrates stories of the physicians who battled the pandemic in the context of a history of science. He asserts that the 1918 eruption of influenza "was the first great collision between nature and modern science" (5). The Great Influenza concentrates on the work of Paul Lewis, Simon Flexner, William Crawford Gorgas, William Henry Welch, and a host of others who built medical institutions and who struggled to find both cure and cause of influenza.

Brown, Jeremy. Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Jeremy Brown is a medical doctor with decades of experience in emergency rooms. This book, which I read on my iPad the week I was also finishing Barry's The Great Influenza, does an excellent job of presenting the medical history of influenza. Brown then builds on the medical history to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of how the US government stockpiles medicines and other resources for combating pandemics. He shows how political influence of certain pharmaceutical companies tilt some of these preparations towards medicines of little to no value. Reading this book while under partial-quarantine is a chilling reminder of the failures of political leadership in a nation with a hostile relationship to science and expertise.

Crosby, Alfred. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972.

I have characterized this book as among a small number that every historian of America knows, whether by reading or by the references made to it by others. If Crosby and this book did not introduce the term "Columbian Exchange" into the vocabulary of historians, then he is at least responsible for promoting it. His thesis asserts the significance of disease in facilitating the European conquest of the Americas, but also highlights the role of flora, fauna, and ideologies. The exchange went both directions--Europeans acquired tobacco, tomatoes, and quinine, among many other things. The Columbian Exchange enriched the world, while impoverishing indigenous Americans. The core ideas from this book are expanded to global history in Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Also, Crosby's "Virgin Soil Epidemics as a Factor in the Aboriginal Depopulation in America," William and Mary Quarterly 33 (April 1976): 289-299 was, the last time that I checked, the most cited article in American history writing. Crosby is essential reading.

See also "The Columbian Exchange" (2014).

__________. America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, 2nd. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

This book just arrived. I am looking forward to reading it.

Crosby, Molly Caldwell. The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped our History. New York: Berkley Books, 2006.

The Yellow Fever epidemic that struck Memphis, Tennessee in 1878 was not the first outbreak of the disease in American history. The 1793 epidemic in Philadelphia is better known. A graduate school colleague wrote his dissertation on the topic (Arthur Robinson, "The Third Horseman of the Apocalypse: a Multi-disciplinary Social History of the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia," 1993). Caldwell Crosby starts with a compelling story of Memphis as the disease kills nearly everyone she introduces (some readers have found the narrative difficult on this account), and then follows Yellow Fever to Cuba two decades later. There Walter Reed identified the mosquito that transmits the virus. Caldwell Crosby is a journalist who writes well, but there have been some critical concerns raised with respect to her accuracy.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

I read this book at the end of the twentieth century after it came out in paperback. When I mentioned it as a guest lecturer in spring 2000, the professor and a few students had heard of it. When I mention it in college classes today, a few students have seen the PBS documentary based on the book (2005). Jared Diamond's work synthesizes and popularizes the work of others with his own meta-narrative. His answer to the question of why Eurasia, and more particularly Europe, became dominant in global affairs begins with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. Most of the virulent epidemic diseases that have tilted the balance of world history emerged from human associations with domesticated livestock. Long association with these diseases led to relative immunity for Eurasians that conferred an advantage over virgin populations in the Americas. Central to his argument is the east-west axis of the geography of Eurasia and the north-south axis of the Americas. The east-west axis facilitated the spread of crops, animals, diseases, and technologies. However, his extension of this contrast to Eurasia's advantage over Africa is less convincing. Africa is nearly as wide east to west, as it is long north to south. See the YouTube video, "African History Disproves 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' by Jared Diamond" (2019).

Dobyns, Henry F. Their Numbers Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.

This book is groundbreaking and controversial. Henry Dobyns' research is broad and deep, his inquiry imaginative, and his importance to the historiography of disease in the Americas undeniable. Dobyns has led the way in revising estimates of the pre-Columbian populations of the Americas upward. Few scholars agree with him, but the opposite extreme embraced by American conservatives from Rush Limbaugh to the authors of A Patriot's History of the United States is vastly less credible. Dobyns deserves credit for raising the critical questions, even if his answers are disputable. I recall that his efforts to assess carrying capacity of the land reshaped some of my thinking about history in fundamental ways, but also that several of us in the graduate seminar found his estimates a little too generous, as it seemed that a sense of ecological balance was missing.

Reconsideration of what should now be considered thoroughly discredited estimates begins with Dobyns, “Estimating Aboriginal American Population: An Appraisal of Techniques with a New Hemispheric Estimate,” Current Anthropology 7 (1966): 395-416. See also "Indian Population 1492: John D. Daniels", where I assess some of the flaws of the most comprehensive overview of the topic.

Fenn, Elizabeth A. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Fenn's Pox Americana highlights the significance of smallpox to the American Revolution, controversies over early efforts to inoculate against it, and carries the story into the allegations of biological warfare (the notorious "orders" of Sir Jeffrey Amherst [88-89]), and the long-term impacts as smallpox spread across the continent, devastating native communities. Unfortunately, I can say little about this book. I started it while proctoring a final exam in American History: A Survey--reading that was frequently interrupted by students telling me how much they enjoyed the course (a job hazard). By the time I finished grading those exams, I had moved on to reading several other books (a hazard of my reading habits). I recall that I read the first few chapters with great enthusiasm for the quality of Fenn's research and analysis, and also that the book is well-written.

Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

John Snow was a physician before he became one of the heroes of Game of Thrones. He believed that cholera spread through contaminated water, not through foul air (the miasma theory of disease that was orthodox science at the time). Snow, thus, stands as an important figure in the development of the germ theory disease that would be articulated with solid evidence later in the nineteenth century by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. Snow appears to have understood the germ theory, argued it through the 1850s, and later produced a map of London's epidemic that helps to demonstrate the source of the tainted water and the spread of the disease. Johnson writes well.

Lapham, Lewis H., ed. "Medicine". Lapham's Quarterly, vol. II, no. 4, Fall 2009.

Lewis Lapham compiled and organized into this issue of his quarterly an astounding range of excerpts from ancient times to the present. All excerpts concern the quest for health amid sickness, the arts of healing, the nature of medicine across ages and cultures. Writers range from Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, and Ken Kesey to Hippocrates, Plato, Oliver Sacks, Louis Pasteur, and the unknown writer of The Plum in the Golden Vase from the late Ming Dynasty. The issue is absorbing, surprising, and insightful. Lapham's sequencing is well considered. The issue was published against the backdrop of Barack Obama's presidency and the promise of what became the Affordable Care Act.

McNeill, William H. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor Books, [1976] 1998.

This book was vital in the process of bringing disease epidemiology into the consciousness of members of the history profession. William McNeill is concerned with the whole of human history from the evolutionary success of homo sapiens to global dominance by a few large bureaucratic states in the modern world. Diseases spread by invisible microparasites affect human societies in much the same way as macroparasites--humans preying upon other humans. Parasites survive by reaching equilibrium with their host populations just as governments built upon exploitation of subject peoples must protect them from more virulent threats (72). In the astounding success of European expansion in the wake of Columbus that largely set the structure of the modern world, "bacteriology was at least as important as technology" (235). This book sat on my shelf nearly untouched for more than a decade. Then I started examining it with the expectation that it would offer a quick and broad overview of the state of disease history half a century ago. Instead, I found a provocative approach to the subject as fresh as it was when first published. See also "Only a Quote" 2020.

Parker, Samuel. Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains. Ithaca, N.Y.: Self-Published, 1838.

This book is a primary source with minimal information useful to the study of disease. Nonetheless, it is a text that I often refer to it while lecturing on the topic of disease. Samuel Parker was a missionary with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions--the American West was foreign territory when he traveled there 1835-1837. Prior to his journey, he acquainted himself with the writings of explorers and fur traders who had been in the region. During his travels, he learned what he could from observation and through conversations with others. He observed the population of Native villages along the lower Columbia, noted that the number of people was substantially below what had been reported by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and discussed the matter with John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company. Parker reports his estimate that 7/8 of the Chinook had perished, and mentions McLoughlin's estimate of 9/10. Many scholars have suggested that the epidemic that ravished the Chinook 1829-1832 was malaria. Others are less certain of the identity of the disease. Parker, and others of his time uses the term, "fever and ague" (178). Whatever the disease, the Chinook had controlled trade between the Pacific Coast and the interior before the epidemic, and effectively ceased as viable communities after.

Rosen, William. Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe. New York: Penguin Viking, 2007.

William Rosen seeks connections between and among microbiology, ecology, geography, military history, architecture, and other areas. His concern is for the large questions, such as whether the fall of the Roman Empire was a consequence of a flea-borne plague. The answer is nuanced. He asserts that the pandemic changed history, but labors to avoid overstating the case. Rosen seems to spurn a linear narrative. Those who grow frustrated with an author's extensive pursuit of what seems tangential to the central narrative should look elsewhere.

The author has a website with excerpts from the book, reviews (including a negative one), maps, errata.

Welch, James. Fools Crow. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Fools Crow was Blackfeet writer James Welch's third novel. It is a coming of age novel focused on a year in the life of a Piegan teenager. Welch makes him part of the Lone Eaters Band, a fictional group grounded in history. The fiction is set against the backdrop of a smallpox epidemic and the Marias River Massacre. As Welch noted in several interviews, after the massacre, the Blackfeet never lifted arms against the United States again. Welch stated that he read what historians wrote about this era, and also drew from Blackfeet oral tradition. My dissertation, "Spring Wind Rising: The American Indian Novel and the Problem of History", has a chapter that examines the interplay of Welch's first four novels with history. I suggested that this novel inscribes history that is more accurate than government sources, but was insufficiently clear that it contains fewer errors than the most popular secondary histories on the topic as well.

Willrich, Michael. Pox: An American History. New York: Penguin, 2011.

The smallpox epidemic that struck parts of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century was notable for its lack of severity. Even so, it came on the heels of a transformation of medicine, was met with widespread efforts to vaccinate large populations, and had a tremendous impact. I'm 10% into the Kindle version of this text and may revise this annotation at a later date.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP