A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Beware Pop-History

Loose Cannons: 101 Military Myths, Mishaps, and Blunders
Graeme Donald

Most of us are aware of the flaws with most works of pop-science, especially by non-academic authors: there is a tendency towards books and articles which are innacurrate, oversimplified, and poorly sourced if you want to actually check the veracity of the claims being made. Pop-history is less fashionable than pop-science, and so attracts rather less attention, but is subject to many of the same failure modes.

Perhaps the worst offender on that front is Terry Deary's Horrible History series of books, subsequently expanded into a TV program and who-knows-what-else. Deary repeatedly claims that other historians are frequently erong and that he alone tells the truth, yet repeatedly makes erroneous, or at least controversial, claims without any attempt to indicate his sources.

But Deary, after all, is writing for kids, so perhaps strict accuracy and sourcing are less important. No such defence can be made of Graeme Donald's Loose Cannons, which focuses entirely upon making controversial claims - correcting common misconceptions, recounting obscure but interesting biographies,etc - and never once provides a shred of evidence for these claims. To be clear, I'm not accusing Donald of dishonesty: just that he gives no particular reason to believe him over any other source. Compared to reading Wikipedia, this has the advantage of being a curated collection of stories. It has the disadvantage of costing money, and not even providing names of sources that one could, in principle,check. Compared to a decent blog on the internet, it's hard to see why one would choose to read this.

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