I am supposed to be fact checking for the state history encyclopedia. I like the idea of fact checking. It appeals not only to my fondness for research (my motto could be that of the mongoose, “Go and find out”) but also to my skepticism about historical reporting. I think many things are presented to us as history which are not factual.
It happens, however, that the topic of the article I have been sent for checking — the 18th governor — is one about which I have no books. Hard to believe, isn’t it? So I will have to get out to the university library to check the facts. Not a terrible hardship, but it will certainly have to wait for the weekend. (Of course I can look online, but the web is not the place to look for accuracy.)
Josephine Tey’s novel called The Daughter of Time is an excellent read on the subject of historical accuracy. If that is a topic that catches your imagination. It is about Richard III. The controversy about him and whether he had the princes in the tower killed and all is a popular one among those who like to check facts and argue about stuff that is past. But for me the best part of the book is the description of the process of discovery. My copy has disappeared; I think I shall have to get another.
One example — a very small example — of folk history that makes me suspicious is the often-heard claim that drop cookies became popular during WWII because the old cookie cutters were used for scrap metal. You may never have heard this claim, because you may not be interested in the history of food. But I have seen it written and heard people say it, and every time I think — no way. First, because I know old ladies who have always used the top of a glass to cut their biscuits and cookies into circles. Second, because old recipes (and even some new ones) recommend cutting cookies out by using a paper pattern and a knife. I think it more likely that drop cookies became popular because people felt too busy to fuss with cutting the cookies out.
And I think it was Stephen Jay Gould who pointed out that a certain dinosaur was always described as being “about the size of a fox terrier,” apparently because the first description used the fox terrier. Everyone else just copied the first guy, notwithstanding the fact that most of us haven’t seen any fox terriers and don’t really know what size that would make the dinosaur.
Wesley recommended that we make decisions based on scripture (which has, as far as I know, nothing to say on either cookies or the eighteenth governor), tradition, reason, and experience. This seems like a good suggestion. This evening, as Partygirl and I join the creationists for class, I shall keep this in mind. And, I hope, keep quiet.
#1 daughter enjoys disputation. I was reminded of this word by the Golem in Pratchett’s Feet of Clay. This Golem delighted the heart of Constable Visits the Heathen with Informative Pamphlets (I may have the details of the name wrong — #2 son is now reading the book so I can’t check) by offering to spend time in religious disputation, when everyone else just tries to get rid of him and his pamphlets. I enjoy a good theoretical discussion, but #1 daughter likes an outright quarrel, with shouting even, as long as no one takes it personally. She would probably speak right up among the creationists, and in so doing might give other non-literalists the courage to express their views. I plan to keep my eyes on my paper and my thoughts to myself.
I am quite willing to argue over Richard III, though. Or cookie cutters. Or even fox terriers. As long as no one takes it personally.