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Monday, February 27, 2012

Scientists Practicing Bad History

Posted by Darin Hayton on 02/27 at 11:13 PM

A new article in Weather has been getting considerable attention the last few days. In “How useful could Arabic documentary sources be for reconstructing past climate?” Spanish researchers had the novel idea to look at medieval Islamic texts to see if they could find any climate information. According to the summary, Arabic Manuscripts: It Used to Snow in Baghdad over at Surprising Science, one of the Smithsonian Magazine blogs, the researchers found evidence of snowfall in Baghdad. At this point I have to rely on the summary and abstract because I haven’t yet received a copy of the article itself. If those are accurate, this article reveals once again that scientists and journalists often practice bad history of science (I’m tempted to use the term “pseudohistory of science”).

Post over at the Smithsonian Magazine pointing to evidence for snow in Baghdad (Source: Screenshot from Arabic Manuscripts: It Used to Snow in Baghdad)

The title of the post implies that snow was a regular occurrence in medieval Baghdad, but the summary doesn’t quite back up that implication. The researchers looked at 10 texts and found a number of “meteorological citations.” Of these, there were “14 chilly periods” and 2 accounts of snow, a century apart. One example struck the author as noteworthy: “One particularly odd event was in July 920, when it was too cold for people to sleep on their roofs, as they did on most summer nights.”

Without more context, it is difficult to know what to make of these “meteorological citations.” Two examples surely don’t justify the title “It Used to Snow in Baghdad.” And what exactly is a “chilly period?” For some people, particularly those accustomed to hot weather, chilly means something entirely different from those accustomed to cooler climates. Too cold to sleep on the roof? That could mean anything. Despite the authors’ claim that “social and religious content of the documents is probably biased, the historians weren’t likely to fabricate an off-hand mention of a drought, hail storm or solar eclipse,” the term “chilly” is so fraught with subjectivity that a little bias is the least of our worries. And what about a little of that biased social, political, and religious context. It would be nice to know if the “chilly period” corresponded to any significant political, social, or religious events. Maybe these chilly references are metaphorical rather than mimetic.

I fear this article is the meteorological equivalent to retrodiagnosing diseases. A group of modern scientists have treated historical documents as if they conform to our standards, have imposed a conformity on those documents, and then read out of them categories that mean something to us today. The weather, as numerous studies in the history of science have indicated, is not a timeless, natural category. How people observe, record, and understand the weather has varied considerably. Regrettably, they don’t appear to have consulted with a historian of science or any history of science, though I have to reserve any fuller comment until I see the article.

This is precisely what I’ve been worrying about lately. People assume that the history of science (and history in general) has no unique domain of expertise and that anybody with an interest in the past and maybe some grasp on a handful of facts can do history. In fact, often such people do the greatest violence to the past because they enlist it in their present-day agendas.

Tags: medieval weather, meteorology, retrodiagnosis

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