Check Your Assumptions

Because the things “everyone knows” just might be completely wrong – and leave your book or rant or whatever open to ridicule, impromptu flying lessons and other undesirable consequences.

See, it’s a big, complicated world out there with so much to know that nobody can actually grasp all of it, so we all tend to optimize: we’ll take as given something that doesn’t particularly interest us at the time and plan to remember it long enough to pass that exam or whatever, but what happens is these unexamined things tend to hang around and form the basis of a lot of assumptions, especially when they’re things we’ve learned early on.

The result is a whole lot of people believe without question the things that were presented to them as fact by people they trust (who in turn were told these things by people they trusted, and so on ad infinitum) and never sit down to examine them.

After all, everyone knows the Sun and all the planets revolve around the Earth, right?

Well, they did until someone questioned the assumption that the Earth was the center of all things. Then the usual result of having your assumptions questioned happened – it’s not pretty, particularly when someone’s faith or their entire notion of who they are is based on them.

In that light, a lot of the fuss and tantrums we’re seeing lately (coughHugoAwardscough) start to make a lot of sense: up until very recently the assumption of those who actually knew what a Hugo Award was was that it was a prestigious award which almost always went to people whose works deserved the honor. Then along come the Sad Puppy campaigns blithely challenging this perspective and – horror! – suggesting that the Hugos might have become a kind of almost incestuous club (Let’s face it, when you look at the nominee and winner lists, the Best Editor – Long Form was an incestuous club from the start).

What I mean here is that the group of people nominating and voting was sufficiently small that everyone knew everyone – or mostly – and most of the convention SMOFs knew each other so without there being any need to invoke conspiracy, works, creators, and editors who didn’t fit the mental model most of that relatively small club (fewer than 500 people in the first year that the data is publicly available) held simply didn’t get considered.

To use a somewhat less contentious example, I often see rants from my historically knowledgeable friends (and have been known to indulge in similar rants on topics where I’m reasonably knowledgeable my self) about books where the author assumed that their knowledge about say, a man’s “ownership” of his wife in late Victorian England up to the level of being able to kill her, was as accurate as said author assumed it was (It wasn’t, particularly at the middle class and higher social levels). Or the lamentable assumption by any number of writers that the way people thought and acted and clothed themselves in the past was more or less the way we do things – if I had a dime for every draft/slush offering/fanfic I’ve seen where the woman in the fantasy or historical setting wears a bra and panties under the dress, I’d have a lot more money than I do now (corsetry is a historical field all by itself – the technology and creativity dedicated to uplift and control of feminine weapons of mass distraction is really impressive).

Quite simply, it doesn’t matter what it is, or what side of the political fence(s) you fall on, chances are you’ve got an unexamined assumption hidden in there and you should check on it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read something then gone looking a bit deeper and found that what I read was third or fourth-hand, and the primary source was damn close to the exact opposite of the first piece I read.

If you know someone with more expertise in the area, ask them. Send the piece to friends of a different political persuasion (you do have them, right? With the exception of those whose ideology demands that all who believe differently are evil and must die, we’re all capable of maintaining at least a friendly acquaintance with people whose beliefs are very different than ours). Research for yourself – and look for primary sources where possible. Even if this means wading through legislative legalese.

You owe it to yourself to check that your assumptions aren’t a case of “the things you know that ain’t so”.

144 thoughts on “Check Your Assumptions

    1. Why am I not surprised? Swiss investment banks are much more concerned about whether something is a sound investment long term than whether it meets current dogma so they have this tendency to look at things with an open mind (I’ve read some very good reports from similar sources on natural disasters and other interesting topics).

  1. That’s a lot of work in an already busy schedule. I prefer to just throw them out there and take correction with (attempted) good grace. I mean, I look up a lot of stuff, all day long (I love the internet) but it’s impossible to look up everything.

    Of course, it’s crucial to bear in mind that many of your unexamined assumptions are untested and not get cocky. (which is, I think, the actual problem many times.)

  2. You could hear a few minds popping last week when I outlined for students why chattel slavery was not considered immoral by the vast majority of humans, at least not until the late 1600s in Europe. “But it’s wrong!” That’s what we believe now, but in 1500? Different time, different mindset. Some individuals disagreed with the practice for various reasons, but societies in general? Nah, no problems. It was a bit of a shock for some of the young ‘uns.

    1. True… and a good example. And it made me consider this: The reason we ended up with a mess with slavery in North America was because of lack of experience with slaves. If we’d known what we were doing instead of making it up on the spot, we’d likely have had a slavery system more like ancient Rome, and there probably never would have been a War Between the States.

      1. Or they could have gone with ‘compensated emancipation’ like everyone else in the Western hemisphere did (or so I’ve read) and again, no war and no more slavery. I wonder if anyone ever did an alternate history story where that happened?

        1. IIRC “Compensated Emancipation” worked because the slave owners were a small part of the “Powers That Be” so knew that the choice was between “being paid” for losing the slaves and “not being paid” for losing the slaves.

          In the US, the slave owners *were* the “Powers That Be” in the South and *were* a major power within the US Senate.

          So they believed that they were in a position to succeed in keeping their slaves.

          Of course, the “compensation” was (even where it worked) often less than the slaves were seen as being worth and didn’t compensate for lost income.

          To be somewhat fair, there was a vocal part of the anti-slavery movement that saw “compensating” slave owners to be almost as bad as slavery itself.

          Still while acknowledging the existence of the “anti-compensation” group with the anti-slavery movement, the Southern slave owners thought they could indefinitely delay the loss of their slaves.

          So why would they accept such compensation?

          1. With the warning that I am not a great historian of the 19th century — I understand that slave owners in other countries were also part of the ‘powers that be’, and they accepted it. Were slave owners in places like Brazil or Cuba any less powerful than in the US?

            And slavery was dying at the time in the South anyway, or so I recall. There was an increasing number of people in the South that wanted an end to it so they could compete more easily with both the Northern industrialists and the increasingly small set of Southern planters that actually could afford to maintain dozens to hundreds of slaves, and they were starting to develop the political and financial clout to make their wishes known. Again, based on what I’ve been able to read.

            1. IIRC lot of the “compensating slave owners” was dictated in places like London and Paris and only secondarily by “local interests”.

              As for “Slavery dying in the American South” and “Southerns wanting to end Slavery”, I want to see primary documented evidence of that prior to the ACW.

              Everything I’ve read about attitudes in the South, prior to the ACW and during the ACW, shows that the Southern Powers-That-Be were not interested in ending Slavery.

              Note, discussions of the American Civil War can be very heated here and IMO post-ACW there was a large degree of White-Washing the Southern Leadership.

              1. IIRC, slavery was dying out UNTIL the invention of the cotton gin, which made a labor-intensive crop suddenly marketable. And I don’t quite remember how, but H.W. Brands explained in his book The Age of Gold how California’s Gold Rush delayed the Civil War while probably deepening the effects. (It had to do with the economics of infusing gold into an economy in a manner more controlled than the Spanish conquistadors did. I should re-read that book; it’s been a while.)

                1. Nod, I’ve heard that about the cotton gin. I’ve just never heard that anybody (of that time) believed that Slavery was dying just prior to the ACW.

                  1. I’m not sure if they believed slavery was dying out, but prior to the cotton gin the numbers were in a death spiral. Whether it would have died out on its own is basically academic. (Cherie Priest’s steampunk zombie novels set around the time of a vastly extended ACW has the Confederacy freeing the slaves not because of morality but because of simple economic need—I don’t know how good her reasoning is, but when you’re talking steampunk zombie novels, you have a lot of leeway when imagining counterfactuals.)

          2. This is so complicated and so contentious it might be best to leave it laying here. There is the issue of economics. To get a good handle on this aspect, look at probated wills. There is also the issue of emotion. What would fly in 1850 wasn’t about to be considered in 1860 as this had become a hot button issue. There are also local morals. The problem comes when we begin to say “They would have done this and they would have done that” based on our own understanding. It’s the same thing as that wall slammer book I mentioned.

            Now, such speculation may be close or it may be right or it may be woefully wrong. That’s the problem with speculation. All we can do is go by what was actually recorded and actually written and what everyone actually said in order to avoid cherry picking.

                  1. Had the American Revolution gone differently, you might have called it the “War of American Stupidity,” and gone on about what were the colonists thinking, fighting a war against a world power.

                1. War of Democrat Treason.

                  The open reason they wrote down at the time was the protection of slavery. The subtext was that they lost the election, and wanted to take their marbles and go home.

                  There are to this day deeply divided sentiments of whether our system is a deal we have agreed to or whatever we want most right now. These can be called republicanism and democracy, and more or less correlate with the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.

                  The Confederates supposed that they could make what they wished proper in the heat of the mob.

                  The Lincolnist-Shermanist interpretation of the Constitution allowed and required the Union to do what they did. (I would note that if the Confederacy could so easily opt out of the deal, they would then be a rival military power to the United States. Without the deal in the way, there would have been no reason to treat for the side with overwhelming military power to treat the other any more nicely than the Indians were. If the end of the war could be foreseen and the Confederates had an actual legal case, the Union would still have had a compelling incentive to smother the Confederacy in its crib.)

                  Two Union Democrats, George McClellan and Andrew Johnson, could be understood as saboteurs picking party over country.

        2. I suspect that would have failed in a rather undignified way absent the first flush of mechanization. As it was, (assuming my memory isn’t misleading me) a fair number of the plantation owners were running up debt to grow their crops, and the harvest paid them off for the year.

          Without the more-or-less “free” (in the sense that they weren’t paying directly although there’s no question the costs were a lot higher than the balance books might have suggested) labor, they’d have gone bankrupt.

          I suspect this is why some of the bigger cotton markets supported the Confederacy.

          1. You might be interested in what a freed slave told one of my grandfathers: He said that he had been better treated as a slave than a sharecropper, but said it (freedom and not being considered as property) was worth it. I mention this as it gives insight into economic cost.

            BTW, going to debt in the spring and pay back in the winter is standard farming. My tenant farmer grandfather was proud that he managed to pay off his loan the year the cotton failed when the man he rented land from didn’t. And he was particularly proud when the the banker noted it as well.

            Might as well mention something else: The greatest mechanized advances in farming took place in the 20th Century. Even now, an incredible amount of farm work is still done my bhand.

            1. “He said that he had been better treated as a slave than a sharecropper, but said it (freedom and not being considered as property) was worth it.”

              THAT. Can somebody bring this up any time somebody talks about people “voting against their own best interests” (where they assume that more government handouts = best interests.) Some folk want the freedom more than the goods.

              1. P.S. For those reading along, I don’t mean that government = slavery. Just that some of us would rather have the option to fail and the freedom to thrive, rather than a comfortable middle that has neither the highs nor the lows.

        3. Wasn’t indentured slavery the original form of slavery brought in to the US (and that a slave could earn his or her freedom) and that the owner, on the earning of the slave’s release, was supposed to pay him or her in goods, wages and items to allow the person to start a livelihood?

          The form of slavery so derided too was brought about by a former indentured slave, himself a black man, who pushed for it in law.

          (I may have details wrong, feel free to correct me)

      2. As I recall the US did start with one that was more like the Roman version – indentured servitude. Chattel slavery became more popular in the southern states – which was largely due to economics: the big cash crops (cotton and tobacco) were hugely in-demand, highly labor-intensive, and because of that needed a large, cheap work force, preferably one accustomed to the brutal heat of the summers (something European migrants did not handle well).

        I think the intenturees were mostly from Europe selling themselves for a period to cover the costs of migration. The chattels…weren’t.

    2. Heh. I can see that: that timeframe was well before any of the currently popular notions (at least popular in these circles) about the inherent worth of the individual were a glimmer in anyone’s eye. As I recall, most places operated on a view that more or less came down to the good of the community overriding any individual, often with a hefty dose of some form of predestination.

      1. Or the view that the life and freedom of an “outsider” was less important than the life and freedom of “your kind”.

        Slaves were very often from a “different tribe” than the slave-master.

        1. The first time any group applied their rules to outsiders more or less impartially was a big jump away from base human nature.

          Slaves were a mix – debtors sold into slavery were as likely to be their owners less-fortunate neighbor as not. Slaves captured in a war, not so much.

  3. This is why I write in modern times or alternate universes. So I don’t have to figure out if the ladies of pre-revolutionary France wore undies or not (they didn’t).

    1. Yup. I tend to do the same.

      It’s going to get difficult, though, in one series. I have a long list of things to research for a period of regression – and it’s going to be bear when people remember what they used to be able to do, and try to find substitutes that let them go on doing it…

      1. a” bear. Struggling with a straight keyboard, while a natural one is coming in… (Durn thing cross-connected the “x” and “c” yesterday, and I thought I had a backup.)

    2. Nit: There are extant examples of bra-like clothing items (coverage, little support) from (IIRC) 13th-14th c time period…I’ve seen photos. Linen doesn’t preserve well, so it’s hard to tell from the few examples we have just how common they were, but I suspect not very.

        1. I know – they weren’t called bras, though. The notion of the halter top or the band of clothing wrapped around the upper body is sufficiently obvious (and helped reduce bounce) to have been independently invented in more than one place.

      1. Heh. Take a moment and think of what your life, or that of your spouse/SO, would be like without elastic.

        Then realize that all of the truly practical substances for same are entirely dependent on a sophisticated chemical industry…

        1. I play in the SCA (around the A&S nerds, more often than not), so don’t have to imagine as much; it’s not as bad as you’d think.
          – Modern elastic is about the degree of elasticity rather than presence/absence in, e.g., the clothing/body interface – some fibers (wool) have some natural elasticity, fabrics cut on the bias can do some of what having elastic fibers woven in can do for fit, knitting and its Norse equivalent, nall-binding, are period. And of course, most human bodies are somewhat compressible so provide elasticity of fit.
          – Biggest disappointment to modern sensibilities is that lightweight clothing is apt to be wrinkly by comparison to what we expect.
          – Of course, you can DO things with highly-stretchable elastic – another proof of quantity having a quality all its own.

          1. Can’t find the link, but there was a Swedish reenactor (who was on the well-endowed and well-fed side) who posted on her blog about how she recreated and wore one of those medieval bra-garments based on the scraps found in that particular castle. Basically, it was a long-line (to the waist) garment with inserts accommodating the breasts and laced up the side, to which she attached a petticoat skirt. She found it to be quite comfortable, and at least as flattering as a modern bra.
            As for Victorian ladies — information about their undergarments are so freely available, I cannot imagine a writer of historicals set in that period being unaware of them.

            1. I have a friend who is a costumer and her personal annoyance is costumers who don’t bother with appropriate undergarments for a period. The clothing just doesn’t look right if you’re wearing modern underwear. (And yes, you can sing opera in a corset. If it’s properly fitted, it even helps.)

              1. The clothing doesn’t look right if the actor doesn’t _move_ right, either. There’s a book on the subject — hard to convince a lot of actors, though.

          2. It wasn’t *that* long ago that socks were held up with garters and underwear tied with a drawstring. I’m pretty sure you could still buy both after WWII.

    3. Undies as we understand them, no. Layers of petticoats and some really impressive corsetry, yes 🙂

      1. Some days I wonder if structural engineering go its start with corsetry and then moved to steel-truss bridges and so on. 😉

  4. I have some expertise in a particular branch of engineering. When I noticed that not all of the Usual Sources and textbooks agreed about some rather basic things, I started tracking down primary sources; technical papers written by rhe “test to destruction” pioneers in the 1920s and 1930s. And quite often, those primary sources said the exact opposite of what a modern college textbook implied when they referenced them.

    The old books were written by engineers for other engineers; people who had walked the walk and were writing for others who were expected to do the same. The newest books were written by professors for students, that is, by people who had never actually practiced in the field, for the use of students who would likely never do so either.

    I call it the “Professor Effect.” Rack up the cites; it makes you look knowlegeable and nobody will chase them down anyway. And if you’re ever called on any of the howling mistakes in your work, blame it on the grad students who actually wrote the book anyway.

    1. Well that’s disconcerting. I like to believe engineers know what they’re doing. I thought it was just the legal field where the academics never practice the profession–and thus get not just details wrong, but a whole mindset.

      1. There are really only two valid reasons for a professor of engineering to have ever actually practiced the profession. One, that they were very successful at it, became wealthy, and now want to pass their expertise along to the next generation of young engineering minds. Two, they really sucked at the nuts and bolts of the profession and needed a steady job.
        Those that can do, those that can’t teach is true across many a skill set.

        1. Meh… several of the better profs in Univ of Washington EE Dept did some outside consulting, when I was there in the 60’s. Made ’em better teachers, which may have been the motivation as much as the money.

          1. There are engineering professors who run businesses on the side. There are engineering professors who maintain a PE certificate, which is neither the highest nor the lowest measure of professional capacity. There are engineering professors who can research, but can’t teach. There are engineering professors who can teach, but could not manage undergraduates on a multidisciplinary project that has to work in the real world.

            1. Sounds like you have stories to tell about some of those varieties of engineering professors… 🙂

            2. The problem is, as a student you don’t know much if anything about what you’re taking a course in, so you have no practical way of identifying any errors, or of the limits of what you have been taught.

      2. There’s a difference between book learning and practical application. Our engineer likes to tell of when he was on his first job and paired with an old lineman. The lineman asked him “Is that a Delta or Wye bank?” and he looked at it and couldn’t tell. Then the lineman said “What use are you?” This is why some utilities, including ours, have green EEs ride with grizzled linemen so that they can learn how to apply what they know.

        1. First story I got in electronics class (a long time ago) was from my instructor’s apprentice days – and his old-timer coworker dropped a heavy wrench into a high voltage piece of radio equipment. He asked the old-timer why he just watched it go down, and down, and down, to the tune of very expensive tubes shattering as it went.

          Old-timer of course told the young guy that he could grab for the next wrench he dropped. He could always start breaking in another idiot…

          (No, I don’t know why the tool wasn’t lanyarded – instructor didn’t say. Assuming the story wasn’t just a parable to hopefully avoid anyone bouncing across the room in the lab portion of the class…)

          1. We once had a green EE riding with a service man when they got a call about a customer having problem with his pole-mounted breaker box. In those days we sold breakers and such, and here they went. The EE expressed his confidence with “I know all about this,” and the service man took him at his word.

            They arrive at the site to find the panel off, exposing the buswork. That’s dangerous from the get-go, but some do it. The service man went to the other side of his truck to get his gear, and the EE went to the breaker box and grabbed a live busbar with his bare hand.

            Fortunately it knocked him on his keister, and the service man rushed around the truck to hear the EE say “There’s something wrong here.”

            “[Beep] right something’s wrong here,” he said, “the [beep] thing’s hot!”

            When they got in, the service man went to see the big boss, and they had a very long conversation.

            1. The circuit is ALWAYS live – until I have personally pulled the master breaker (this is always my house, so I don’t have to worry about some random idiot coming along…).

              It’s the same principle as the gun is ALWAYS loaded – until I have personally pulled the magazine and worked the slide.

              1. Even as a tyro EE, I knew that. But skepticism about the safe state of things was taught me in a shop where we did a little forge work – a piece of iron that’s hot enough to burn you badly can look exactly the same as one that’s cold.

        2. My brother had a couple of years of job experience before going back for his masters in aerospace engineering. He said that the graduate program all but leaped at him, and when he encountered the graduate students who had come straight from undergrad, he knew why. My brother knew what was important from his experience, whereas they had a tendency to prioritize things oddly or to treat it all as equally important, a guaranteed path to stress.

          Now my brother is a rocket scientist. He worked on the New Horizons probe. And to give you an idea of the age range of rocket scientists, he was nominated for a “young scientist” award last year… and this year, he turned forty. (But he’s only 28 in hexadecimal.)

      3. Engineers are human. Neither engineering school, a PE or ten years of engineering experience gives an oracular ability to pull truth from nothing. Engineers need the same tools everyone else needs, aren’t handed them on a silver platter, and would need to learn how far to trust them anyway if they were. Honesty and humility also add much to the practice of engineering. If society is forced to accept a falsehood, that will spill over onto the engineers. (I knew a guy that pointed out that very many VW engineers had to know. Not one of them was a whistle-blower. Many lying about emissions had a negligible effect on human safety. There are other technical variables in cars, other things where the greens would meddle, that would have an impact on human safety.)

        Of course, engineers see the most engineering incompetence, because they are close to it, and they are looking for it.

        1. One of the things about software like this (VW fraud) is it can be buried in the code, in a source file nobody ever opens again, and it’s possible only the people involved in the original writing ever knew. Large projects with thousands of source files are like that. People only open source files when they have a reason. It’s possible for one coder to put something like this in the code and nobody else ever knows.
          I know of one coder that encrypted his source files because he thought that gave him job security, since nobody else could maintain them. He got away with it until a co-worker tracking down a bug tried to read a file of his. His sensible manager fired him, because the longer he was kept the more code would need to be re-written from scratch.
          There are occasional rumors of programmers leaving back doors in code they wanted to get into later, such as bank software. Or writing sw to round up (to the penny) an interest payment from the payer, round it down to the payee, and put the penny in the coder’s account. Such applications now require procedures that try to catch such actions, such as source code reviews and sw that tries to detect such actions, but I don’t know what all they do plug the holes.
          Even now, the company I work at doesn’t have source code reviews, the previous company did. Bad code of this sort could cause an industrial accident killing multiple people. Shamefully loose software practice.
          The point of all of this is that we don’t really know how many people at VW were involved or even guessed of the fraud. It could have been very few, or very many, we just don’t know.

          1. You are right that I may have been too accepting of the analysis a guy I knew did. I should probably talk to him about that, because my background isn’t enough to answer that.

            Two things come to mind. One, they should be using some form of version control and change logging. Which may have access logs. The forensic analysis of that may say something. Two, the engineering management of VW needs to do testing of the vehicle to make sure that it is safe. This would include examining parts of the electronics, to see how their behavior can vary and influence the handling of the vehicle. An examination of their testing records might show whether results were falsified, or if the testing were structured to avoid discovery. Either of those would be concerning.

            Sadly, I don’t speak German, and I don’t think I know anyone in a position to take part in that investigation. Just as well, because I’ve already mouthed off about it in public,

            1. The failure to catch it in testing would bother me the most – it’s such an obvious primary specified function that even a badly compressed test cycle should catch it.

              1. I can imagine emissions testing being trimmed down if they were having budget problems. Bugaboo of the left aside, testing mechanical integrity and making sure the electronics fail safe would seem to be a higher priority.

                They are finding other European, Japanese, and I think Korean manufacturers doing the same thing. So it definitely reflects on a lot of engineers.

              2. My concern about testing is that a vehicle manufacturing company would need an ongoing testing program to make sure the vehicle is safe over the whole of its life-cycle. That would need flexibility to track down emerging issues, which means that a fraud conspiracy would need to make allowances for that.

                1. Boeing has a building out back where they currently have a 787 fuselage being continually pressurized and depressurized to simulate the lifecycle stresses of a commercial aircraft. Only it goes through the stresses in an hour that takes a day for a plane in service. This way they can make sure it lasts as long as it’s supposed to. It’s still going strong.

        2. Now consider this sort of thing and how it applies to self-driving cars, which some people appear to seriously want.

          The very first question – far more important than any engineering aspects – is the legal one; “in case of error, who is at fault?” And then “when the driver tries to override the autopilot, who gets to win?”

          Also, putting guidance into each separate vehicle is stupid. If you want automatic control, you drive into a control zone and hand control over to the City of Riverside or whatever, who then guides your car. They have the traffic cams, road sensors, communication and control over other autpiloted cars, and the ability to route vehicles for maximum efficiency and safety. It’s one of the few types of problems where centralized control is the correct answer.

    2. I am currently a student in Engineering Technology. Is there any way you can be more specific on what you found where?

    3. This is true. I’ve never tried to be dishonest (mistaken, yes, dishonest, no), but from experience if you cite things out the wazoo, you tend to be questioned less. No one seems to ask about the validity of your cites. Primary sources are the best, when you can get your hands on them, and is a much easier these days than when I had to spend quality time pouring over records or microfiche. Without going into details, I’m in sharp disagreement with someone over a certain point of history, and noticed he didn’t cite primary sources. He’s not dishonest, in that he firmly believes what certain histories claim, just that primary sources don’t agree with those histories.

      Something I learned in college was to chase down footnotes, consulting the records the author claimed to have read. It was rather disconcerting to find a footnote et passim in regards to a historic site, but couldn’t find mention of it when I looked at the cited records.

      1. Ohhhh, yes! I’ve written two historical novels, and one of the first things I learned was not to trust a paragraph with a single citation at the end. All too often that citation supported only the last sentence of the paragraph (if that) and the rest of the statements were, well, fiction.

        Funniest example of historians’ depravity: in an early book on Eleanor of Aquitaine there was a typo in a citation to Pat. Lat. giving the right page reference but the wrong volume. I spent a couple of hours in a university library finding the right volume for the citation. Funny part: every subsequent book I read used that same erroneous citation. So I know that a lot of historians don’t even look at the material they’re citing.

        1. Oh, yes. Cite the secondary or tertiary source, along with all the sources said secondary or tertiary source cited. Bumps up the citation list immensely with minimal effort.

          1. Heh. I have been translating Beatus of Liebana, and there are so many quotes that everybody cites just the source on the page, not the quotes. So I had to chase down the quotes. Every single one. It was enlightening, and sometimes the scholars were wrong about the sources.

            Also, searchable Patrologia Latina by way of Google is awesome.

            1. Yup. A lot of research must be easier to do now – wish I’d had searchable Pat. Lat. instead of hauling big dusty books off the shelves. And a lot of material that I had to read off microfilm in the library basement is probably available online too. Had I known I could’ve saved all that work by simply waiting fifteen years the book might still be only a collection of notes.

      2. I’ve also encountered a few cites that don’t appear to be findable. Your buddy’s unpublished monograph isn’t a valid cite no matter how tight you are.

        I’ve also run into cites from internal technical papers at Boeing and General Motors. Really big companies often do research and print papers for internal use, which are sometimes cited in outside papers. I’ve written the librarians at those companies, who say they can’t find the papers that are listed. They don’t even have index cards listing those papers. So… even when the author of the successor paper seems to have his ducks in a row, the inability to verify his cites reduces his credibility.

        I’ve paid a fair amount of money for technical papers over the years. The older the are, the most likely they are to have useful information. The newer they are, and the more authors they list, the less likely they are to be useful. Things that would have been one paper in 1945 are half a dozen papers in 2015, almost-but-not-quite the same. And, of course, the trick of putting out the *same* paper under half a dozen different titles…

    4. I went to one of the top engineering schools in the world. Most of my instructors were either famous or well known (in their field) one even worked on the Manhattan project (another discovered the laser).
      They used to tell us about the politics and fraud that went on in science all the time. About professional speakers from the college circuit, who would be invited (and paid) to come speak at the college who were complete frauds and confidence men, who would spew all sorts of nonsense, and were only there to get the speaking fees.
      They were surprised that these charlatans could get away with it, but the truth was, the school admins were mostly liberal arts graduates and knew NOTHING at all about science or engineering. These profs, being well known experts however had no problems at all with tearing these people apart on stage, (these days you’d probably be accused of a hate crime for exposing a charlatan!).

      And again, ever wonder why text books change every couple of years? Because politics. I have a relative who writes math text books, and makes the kind of money that Steven King makes. It’s not that math has changed, its just a scam. But it’s a scam that academia embraces. Learning and colleges, and textbooks have all become very politicized. It’s about making money, not about facts.

      1. Wish I could remember his name, and the details better, but there was an article a few years back about a bright guy whose interest is in math and forensic design-of-experiments investigation — looked at a number of well-known published scientific experimental studies, and a rather small percentage actually were designed, run, and results analyzed with anything like enough rigor to come to the conclusions that were published. And the peer-review process wasn’t catching that.
        Of course, the way grants are given and managed, there’s not much demand for someone like him, to rain on everyone’s parade.
        We’d do better science if there were, though.

        1. A ways back there were some bloggers in medicinal chemistry who set up group blog to replicate published results. Second or so experiment in, and they started having some trouble. Some very hostile comments poured in, but the actual original investigators were publicly very supportive. Turned out that one of the original reagents had water in it, this wasn’t noted, and that was critical to the process. I hadn’t heard if they continued trying to replicate published results.

          1. Great idea! Now if only they could sell it to “Big Pharma” as a fairly cost-effective risk-reduction continuous-improvement process. Even randomly selected replications, and occasional failures, could change the culture toward not going too small/stopping too soon.

        2. The peer review process has a bad case of the kind of problem that generated the Sad Puppies.

          The “peers” tend to be a closely associated group, and the “review” process is… um… you wouldn’t want to hurt an associate’s publication count, would you?

          *As it is often run now* the peer review process is seriously broken. Practical fixes involve time and effort, so I figure it’ll stay broken.

          1. Yep – until/unless someone who cares can figure out a financial or personal-power reason to fix it.

  5. Assumptions are more dangerous in a world that doesn’t want to deal in facts or ask questions. Assume that the media is actually reporting the truth, assume that the government is there to help you, assume that a persons identity/belief falls into easy stereotyped bins and see how far often you are wrong.

    I think the most prophetic movie line is from “A Few Good Men”… “You can’t handle the truth!” And once you pull away the curtains and start digging into the back side history of any event, you find more than most people care to deal with. Nobody wants to change or know what the sausage is made of, they just want to eat it guilt free.

    But most people, (in the US), seem to live in the “box” as John Barnes would say in his Thousand Cultures series. As long as they have beer and football, not much is going to change. Eventually they will get caught in the “interesting times” flood of history that coming down the mountain.

    The Hugo Award shit-storm made me reconsider many of the authors that I thought were above the high school clique-cool games. BLM made me realize that somebody(s) in power really want a race war to deflect interest elsewhere. GamerGate just increased my distrust in media and SJWs. Current national and world events proved that there isn’t any global leadership, just various flavors of corrupt power seekers playing dice with human lives while filling their bank accounts.

    In recent events, the young man arrested for building a “clock” doesn’t appear to be the innocent nerd/geek that he was portrayed as, but a prankster that has been suspended before for pranks and hoaxes. And everyone wants to forget the mass murderers name now that it turns out that he wasn’t lily white, was loosely associated with BLM and may have been targeting people of a certain unpopular religion. Who knows what to believe with all the spin, crap, propaganda and emotional “feels” being thrown at the public?

    1. Well, I personally want to forget the shooter’s name because I’m of the opinion that they’re all Asshole #[whatever] as per the protocol that if a murderer wants eternal fame, we should deny it to him.

      1. That would conceal the fact of his alignment with the #BlackLivesMatter white supremacist terrorist movement.

  6. A few cautions here:
    1) even among experts, disagreement can exist. Example: whether or not Admiral Boorda was permitted to wear the V device on one of his Vietnam awards. He ended up taking his life because of the controversy and scandal, and the military community was divided 50-50 on whether or not he had been wrong at all. And that *should* have been clear cut. Turns out it wasn’t.

    B) The perfect is the enemy of the good. By the time you have done all your research on a topic, it has changed. I was contacted by a delightful gentleman who introduced himself as that true rarity among the flying community, a test pilot *examiner*. Only a handful exist. I had, it turned out, gotten test pilots wrong in my Sequoyah books since I had based my efforts on Chuck Yeager and his colleagues. He was kind enough to say he still enjoyed the books but thought I would like to know. 😀 (Still, SQEEE! A test pilot examiner liked my books!!)

    iii) Beware research paralysis. Research is not writing. We are professional liars here! We should be able to pull off some whoppers as long as we make it entertaining. Just make sure it is internally consistent whopperage, s’il vous plait.

    1. “Don’t be Fredrick Jackson Turrner” is the mantra in history. He wrote one speech/essay that turned into one book. And then spent so much time researching (and haggling over the title of the unwritten book) that that’s all he wrote (literally.)

      1. Yes, indeed. It’s rather more important to get it close and out, and be nice to the person you WISH you’d met before you published because that person knows the stuff you couldn’t find.

    2. Conversely, you need to be right when you’re talking about things that a nontrivial portion of your readership might know about. I might not know anything about medieval ladies’ undergarments, but if you start talking about revolvers with safeties, “the reek of Cordite”, or motorcycles with clutch pedals, I expect you to account for exotic antiquery in your story…

  7. Although you can go somewhat astray going back to original sources, contemporary accounts and things like personal letters written in the period one is writing about, I don’t believe you can go very far wrong. Another author and I were discussing the institute of chattel slavery in Texas, before the Civil War. A lot of conventional contemporary assumptions about it vary quite widely from how slaves and slavery were viewed at the time.

      1. Quite – they also give an idea of the sorts of things that were valued during that time frame: something that can be quite startling to us pampered moderns (the second-best bed, anyone?)

        1. There are a number of Civil War pictures over on One of them shows a soldier’s family in front of their tent, and they’re displaying a collection of metal pots and pans.

          It took me a while to realize that they were showing what they thought of was a sign of affluence; pots were useful for more than just cooking.

  8. sabrinachase:
    “Beware research paralysis. Research is not writing. We are professional liars here! We should be able to pull off some whoppers as long as we make it entertaining.”

    But don’t bullshit the reader on accuracy if you can easily find out the details. I don’t mind hand-wavy explanations of future and fantasy, but if you have a story set in the past or present, it’s relatively easy to get most of the technology right. Just get a few of us nerds to review it. 😛

    1. That said, I insist on having chimneys in my 14th Century yarns. First, they weren’t unknown, and second, the geology of this fictional place has plenty of rocks that would be used for something. There are so many rocks in some places that it’s more cost effective to raise sheep.

    2. I got an “orbital mechanic” to check one of my books. But I think I need a civil engineer for the work in progress.

  9. I think it’s almost harder to deal if you realize this is a problem. It’s not easy to question everything, but in today’s world, you really need to. It’s gotten to the point with me that I will ignore a breaking news story for a few days just to wait for the facts to come in. Maybe I end up behind the ball, but I also don’t spread rumors and false information.

    1. That can be an issue. I’ve irritated a few people with “There isn’t enough information to make a call.”

    2. I do that too. I get worn out AND embarrassed if I take in all the excitement of the reporters and on-scene bystanders.

    3. That’s the “72 hour Rule”.

      A certain editor could have avoided some serious headaches if she’d heeded that during the Antonelli affair.

    4. Case in point: the bin Laden raid

      In the first few hours, major news media reported:

      A) the compound had been blown to bits by a rocket attack

      B) a joint Pakistani/American army force had taken it over

      C) Osama bin Laden had been captured

      D) Osama bin Laden had escaped

      E) tanks had surrounded the compound

      …and so forth. That was BBC, CBS, NBC, al-Jazeera, just making up anything at all to fill new slots. As the hours passed the stories all changed and converged into a common narrative as the web pages were updated and the old stories vanished.

      It was fairly creepy watching it all in real time. Unless some spider cached a link at, all the put-anything-at-all-out-there links are gone forever.

      I didn’t trust the mass media before, but that was a stout reminder not to become complacent.

  10. Fact check your OWN assumptions constantly; I had Fur Elise credited to SHUBERT on my very first page (it’s Beethoven) for years – nobody mentioned it (it’s a ringtone for the phone of an agent named Elise). Sheesh. I would have looked like a total idiot – I’m about to publish, and it would have appeared in the Look Inside sample.

    I hope I don’t have too many other howlers, but find myself checking anything factual with MANY different sources before I let them go.

    1. and, like a software tester, constantly check WHETHER your statements are based on assumptions… which is not quite the same as verifying the things you already know are assumptions.

      1. I constantly check my calendar – and I will still do one more check to make sure 1) the date and time and day of the week in the metadata in Scrivener for a particular scene, 2) the HEADER for the scene in the finished Master file from which the ebook and pdf will be created (by Scrivener – no manual error introductions), and 3) the actual calendar entries, have the exact same data – and this data 4) appears in the ebook, and 5) appears in the pdf.

        Most people won’t notice, but I will.

        The part about making sure the scenes which are based on this data accurately reflect when and where they are supposed to happen (to make the story ‘true’) – I just spent a month on that, and hope I got them all.

        The proofreaders and beta readers may also turn something up.

  11. The subject of Medieval woman’s underwear seems surprisingly contentious. There were those Medieval examples discovered in Germany that caused a stir because they weren’t supposed to exist. But what went on in that part of Europe may or may not have went on elsewhere. Benjamin Franklin, somewhat an expert on contemporary apparel, was surprised at what he found in France, and that surprise tells us much about 18th Century Britain and the colonies.

    The reaction to the discovery of German Medieval underwear is interesting. One book, that ended up a wall slammer, dismissed it and Franklin’s observation entirely, relying first on assumptions of why women in that time period wouldn’t have worn them, and second on applying French habit to the entire continent.

    1. Medieval women’s underwear varies a lot by time period, culture, climate, and nationality. A northern German sample would be VERY different than a Venetian piece, just to give two possible options (not least because the northern Germanic regions were considered kind of backward and primitive by the oh so sophisticated Venetians who considered themselves the hub of civilization at the time – and were certainly fashion leaders for a good chunk of the late medieval and early renaissance years)

  12. Try dealing with the law.
    Once upon a time, the law was mostly as written. These days? Judges re-interpret the law as they see fit all the time. They’re more priests divining religious beliefs. There is nothing more ‘enlightening’ than going to court with the law firmly on your side, and having the judge decide that hundred year old laws now mean something different than they used to.
    And there isn’t a thing you can do about it, unless you’re rich.

    1. It shouldn’t be that way, of course. One of my pet phrases is “but that’s not what it says.” This is often said rather plaintively.

    2. …or just having the judge ignore the law completely and rule on whim, knowing the defendant doesn’t have the resources to do anything about it.

      Even the small amount of time I’ve spent in court has been startling. Though it mostly seems to be mumbles and nods, it’s more like “Night Court” than Perry Mason.”

      I once saw an entire trial and 5-year conviction dispensed in under 15 seconds…

      Lawyer and defendant walk up in front of the judge.

      Judge: “You again?”

      Lawyer: “Yes.”

      Judge: [looks at paperwork] “Posession with intent.” [looks at prosecutor]

      Prosecutor: “Seven years.”

      First lawyer: “Three years.”

      Judge: “Five years. Next.”

      Lonoke County Court, Lonoke County, Arkansas, circa 1985-ish. There were about a dozen of those, with minor variations, at that session. I’m all for speedy justice, but I wasn’t expecting to see justice operating that speedily… (I negotiated a license revocation and massive fines down to three points and $125, so I walked out a reasonably happy man.)

      1. Apparently, Night Court got rated “most accurate court show” by a bunch of lawyers.

  13. Speaking as a layish-man, wouldn’t it be a lot more significant to make certain your plot points are correct while allowing some more mundane items to be in error. A 1400 scholar believing the world is flat may be inaccurate but for a throwaway line or punchline it means something vastly different than using that to impugn people of that time or where the protagonist has to fight against the ‘common knowledge’

    1. I’d say that’s up to you as an author. If you are writing any kind of historical fiction, I can see where you’d want people to have ‘historical’ beliefs, it would only make sense.

      1. I can suspend a lot more disbelief over trivial points vs major plot segments. Just a matter of prioritizing research.

        1. You certainly want your major plot points solid – but getting some of those trivial points right can make the rest feel more real. Artistic verisimilitude is a very important part of the author’s toolbox

  14. For example, the belief that any significant minority of people in history believed that the world is flat or that the sun orbits the Earth is widely held, yet not actually true.

    1. Nod, Columbus had problems getting funding because he thought the distance to Asia was less than what was commonly believed by scholars *NOT* because educated people believed the world was flat.

      Note, the scholars were correct and Columbus was wrong. [Evil Grin]

    2. Is that true?

      I know that *educated* people in medieval Europe knew better, but I always assumed that ordinary people didn’t.

      Just like “we” know why it’s warmer in the summer than the winter, but still most people on the street would tell you that its because the sun is closer in the summer. (Those of them who live in the Southern Hemisphere can take partial credit.)

      1. The Babylonian Talmud refers to the Earth as a sphere that is unsupported in space and orbits the sun and is negligible in size compared to the distance to the sun. It refers to the visible planets as being similar to the Earth and the fixed stars as being similar to the sun. It also makes clear that all that was considered common knowledge and not in dispute. That’s about the oldest writings that refer to astronomy that we have.

        What gets left of the famous Galileo story is that geocentrism wasn’t an old superstition, it was the latest scientific theory and that Galileo got into trouble not for breaking with tradition but for rejecting a new idea that he thought (rightly as it turned out) to be wrong. It wasn’t heresy that he was tried for, it was for disobedience to his boss at the university, who embraced the new theory and insisted that his underlings do likewise.

        1. I believe also for being rather less than respectful or polite about his disagreement

          1. Granted, he could have handled the academic disagreement more politically. But the narrative is usually spun in such a way that gives a very wrong impression of what happened.

        2. It didn’t help that Galileo publicly called his patron, the Pope, a fool.

        3. Yeah, but didn’t the Chinese think the Earth was a big cube? Weren’t the bulk of settled populations during history peasants, who may not have cared about the fancy theories, or anything beyond trading and warring distance? I dunno.

          1. For day to day purposes, it doesn’t matter what shape the Earth is. It’s how far (in real travel distance) point B is from point A, and how it goes up and down between them. There are not all that many places that “as the crow flies” applies.

            Now, there are many things in which the precise shape of the Earth is vital. In which cases, we are not talking about a sphere…

        4. The Talmud is not at all consistent in its discussion of astronomy. Calculating the length of the solar & lunar cycles, yes; the actual paths of the planets, not so much. From Tractate Pesachim 94b:

          The Sages of Israel maintain: The sun travels beneath the sky by day and above the sky at night; while the Sages of the nations of the world maintain: It travels beneath the sky by day and below the earth at night. Rebbi said: And their view is more plausible than ours, for the wells are cold by day but warm at night.

          (Exercise for the reader: what additional wrong assumption lies behind Rebbi’s ( concession to gentile scholarship?)

  15. “(Let’s face it, when you look at the nominee and winner lists, the Best Editor – Long Form was an incestuous club from the start)”

    That’s only because its was carrying on a tradition best editor started right back from the very first best editor in 73. If anything the split in best editor opened both the new awards up a little bit.

    Between 73 and 06 you only have 9 editors winning the award. Gardner Dozois won 16 of them all on his own. Ben Bova takes another 6, including the first 5. The nominees are also very similar year from year.

    Contrast that to the long form that in between 07 and 14 had 5 individual winners. Short form works out the same as well.

    Long form has had 15 individuals receive a nomination. Take the equivalent period at the start of the editor and you only have 8 individuals receiving a nomination.

    The assumption that long form editor is some kind of issue is one that I do not think holds up when you look at the history of the award. Sure it has its issues but they are inherited issues that started back in the 70s, and the split to long/short seems to actually be doing something to fix those issues and not to make them worse.

    1. Look at the publisher lists. Tor dominates to a level that’s ridiculous – this year was the first time since the award started that Tor did not have a nominee where there are usually two or three Tor nominees. Ace, the other dominant house, has been absent from the nomination list twice, but never had more than one nominee at a time. Until the last 2 years, Lou Anders and PNH were nominated damn near every year.

      That is not a sign of a healthy field. And yes, Short Form is just as unhealthy.

      1. But editor has never been a healthy field. But it’s getting healthy. Sure long form nominations are more limited than before the split. I mean before the split only one editor from a magazine was getting a nomination. And Tor has dominated the nominations for long form, that might have something to do with Tor being the only publisher to be both nominated in the old editor category and the new long form. It’s a holdover from the old days.

        But despite that domination of the nominations, the voters have open the award up. More individual editors (and companies) are winning the award, than any time previously. I mean the winning streak that people like to mention in regards to Tor and the editor categories, the ‘5 wins’ in a row (the last best editor and the first 4 long) was how the editor category started. Except it Bova from Analog won all 5 awards himself.

        The Short Form has not changed much in terms of nominations from how the editor has always been. Its still got the same names, like Analog, Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction appearing every year. And no publisher appearing twice a year.

        The only change to short from for best editor is that no individual is winning it more than twice back to back, there are no 5 year+ back to back wins for individuals like the best editor frequently saw.

        I am not saying best editor is not a category without its issues. It’s just not the category to use to show recent issues with the Hugos. Unless by recent you mean the early 70s. Nor is it the best evidence for some malicious Tor takeover of the Hugos. Unless you are also going to argue that Analog and then Asimov’s controlled the Hugos first.

        Because any case that can be made to show Tor controlling the Hugos now (using win and nomination records), has to stand up to a comparison of Asimov’s records in the 90s (things like regularly receiving 3+ of the nominations in the short fiction categories, including two years with the Novella where they took all the nominations, and Gardner Dozois 7 year editor winning streak). Well unless the argument is that Asimov was also doing whatever it is Tor is doing to the Hugos in the 2000’s. But I have never seen anyone make that argument.

  16. Here’s two more assumptions …

    When researchers began investigating the causes of Alzheimer’s, they had two theories: brain plaque, and something else. Funding followed the brain plaque theory (not the other one, which is why I can’t remember it), which became the dominant one. But, where are the Alzheimer cures? Have we spent all of this time and money following the wrong theory?

    We all know that ulcers are caused by stress, right? Barry Marshall disagreed, but couldn’t get anyone to listen to his theory that ulcers were cause by an H. pylori infection. So, he drank infected broth, and gave himself an ulcer, which was cured by antibiotics. His choice of beverage ultimately paid off, as “The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2005 was awarded jointly to Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren ‘for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease’,” Not bad for a guy whose theories were dismissed as ridiculous because everyone knew better …

    1. “Jumping on the bandwagon syndrome” – there are a lot of things (I’m thinking engineering development projects) that would be lower risk if two or more likely paths were simultaneously pursued, at least until one was clearly proven better. The short term expense, and effect on quarterly earnings reports, keeps that from happening.

  17. “After all, everyone knows the Sun and all the planets revolve around the Earth, right?”

    Well, duh. If the Earth were moving — hurtling about space at a great speed — we would feel it.

    Also, we would be much closer to given stars in different parts of the year, which would make them look different — but they always look the same. If you say they are far, far, far off, you should also note that they are small but finite size. Do you know how enormous they would have to be as far off as would be required, to look the same at all times? Many, many, many times larger than the sun. How plausible is it that there is one small light source (the sun) and then all these giants?

    None of the arguments Galileo advanced for heliocentrism are now considered evidence. It wasn’t until they actually measured the impact of the Earth moving, and found stellar parallax (and explained how inertia can keep us from feeling motion, and the atmosphere is what the stars appear to be of finite size), that they had reason to believe it.

    The assumption that they believed in geocentrism only because no one questioned is one of those assumptions in need of questionign.

  18. There is a series of kids’ historical fictions written as though they were diaries from the time period. When I was working at a bookstore, I took a quick look to see if they were something I could recommend.

    Had to put them down pretty quickly. Why? The first one I picked up was the WWII one, and it started with Pearl Harbor. I should mention at this point that my Nana was in Honolulu when they bombed Pearl Harbor—and we have her diary entry from the day. So one page in to this supposed diary entry and I could tell how badly the feel was off. I had few doubts that the rest of the series is just as modern, and to someone who likes actual old novels and primary sources, that just will not do.

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