Wednesday 30 November 2011

The importance of being tenacious

In the past I have written a few blog posts about my frustration with lazy research. I've written about bad research involving RMS Titanic, the urban myth of HMS Friday and the use of 'the size of a fox terrier' to describe a prehistoric ancestor of the horse. I've even had my Wikipedia page vandalised because I corrected some spurious urban myth on the page about Harold Shipman. I'm a stickler for the facts and will always try to trace the original source if I can. I'm not perfect - I make mistakes the same as everyone does - but at least do my damnedest to get it right. Sadly, I seem to be a dying breed.

Just this week on TV I've seen a whole bunch of inaccurate stuff being given out as fact, presumably because all the programmes' researchers did was a quick internet search. For example, the otherwise great little ITV show Ade in Britain - in which comic Ade Edmondson visits a different county every day in search of local recipes and old customs - regularly regurgitates spurious facts. Last week he was in Cheshire and gave us that old chestnut about it being legal to shoot a Welsh person with a bow and arrow inside Chester city walls after midnight. It is simply not true. That particular statute relates to a bloody uprising by Welsh forces (led by Glyndwr) that was suppressed in the early 1400s. To ensure it didn't happen again, Henry IV wrote to the Mayor, Sheriffs and Aldermen of the City of Chester, commanding that 'All manner of Welsh persons or Welsh sympathies should be expelled from the City; that no Welshman should enter the City before sunrise or tarry in it after sunset, under pain of decapitation'. The King specified that these new laws should be 'proclaimed publicly in your bailiwick for the informing of the people.' (Source: Chester City Council). No mention of bows and arrows you'll note. Also, although this royal order may not have been repealed or recinded, it has been superceded by every Act of Parliament since that deals with the subject of murder, specifically the Homicide Act 1957, Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Human Rights Act 1998.  As Joshua Rozenberg, legal editor of the Daily Telegraph, points out: ‘The main safeguard is the Human Rights Act and other legislation usually has to be read in light of it, unless there's a conflict between the two and that's resolved by Parliament. The only reason these laws have survived the statute law revision team is that they've not been causing any harm.’

Okay, so it's a charming little story and no harm done, not even to Welsh people, but it's indicative of a greater malaise in the media where sloppy research is leading the the proliferation and prolongation of incorrect information.

Just today I've been researching a quite well known story that relates to the biologist Georges Cuvier. I've heard it on TV and radio shows for years and wanted to use it in my new book. So I started with Wikipedia and, lifted verbatim, it says this:

'When the French Academy was preparing its first dictionary, it defined 'crab' as 'A small red fish which walks backwards.' This definition was sent with a number of others to the naturalist Cuvier for his approval. The scientist wrote back, 'Your definition, gentlemen, would be perfect, only for three exceptions. The crab is not a fish, it is not red and it does not walk backwards'.

It then states 'Source unknown, but probably Times Literary Supplement (UK).'

That's pretty much the same story I've been hearing; it's a great little anecdote. But just how true is it? Warning bells start to sound for me as soon as I saw the words 'first dictionary'. And I was right to listen. The Academy's first complete edition was published in 1694 and Cuvier wasn't born until 1769. So, if the story is true at all, it would have been most likely the 5th edition (1798) or more probably the 6th (1835) even though Cuvier died in 1832. Let me explain ...

Having got the bit between my teeth, I started to dig a little deeper. In no time at all I was discovering variants of the story. In the Wikipedia version it states that Cuvier was sent the entry to comment upon it. However, older sources actually have him at the Academy and him being asked his opinion. This is possible as Cuvier was made one of the Academy's Immortels in 1818 and remained so until his death. He was not, however, on the dictionary committee. This supports the idea that the 'crab' entry was for the upcoming 6th edition eventually published in 1835 as Cuvier would not have been staff at the Academy in 1798 (when he was just 29) when the 5th edition was being prepared. Then there's the whole 'crab' issue. That may be wrong too. According to researcher Thora van Male, who teaches at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Grenoble, the disputed definition related to the word ecrevisse which is normally used for crayfish and not crab (crabe).

These are the kinds of problems you encounter in research. The answer is to always go for the earliest reliable source that you can find. In this case, the oldest I've found so far appears in Volume 2 of Charles F Horne’s four volume Great Men and Great Women: Statesmen and Sages (Selmar Hess 1894) in which the story goes:

'A curious anecdote is recorded of the ignorance of natural objects which continued even after the opening of the present century. When the committee of the French Academy were employed in preparing the well-known Academy dictionary, Cuvier came one day into the room where they were holding a session. 'Glad to see you, M. Cuvier,' said one of the forty; 'we have just finished a definition which we think quite satisfactory, but on which we should like to have your opinion. We have been defining the word 'crab,' and explained it thus: 'Crab, a small red fish, which walks backward'.' 'Perfect, gentlemen,' said Cuvier; 'only, if you will give me leave, I will make one small observation in natural history. The crab is not a fish, it is not red, and it does not walk backward. With these exceptions your definition is excellent'.'

Sadly, Horne does not provide me with his source for the story so, for the moment anyway, this is the oldest I have. And it is within the possible lifetime of someone who knew the story first-hand. It was published in 1894, just 64 years after Cuvier's death. And I have an actual quote I can re-print. So that's what I will use until I find something better. It's likely to be more accurate than the Wikipedia version at least. I have not been able to find the Times Literary Supplement that it cites as 'unknown but probable' but, even if it is a viable source, the majority of the TLS's content is reviews of books so, chances are, the TLS isn't the actual source anyway. This research took me no longer than an hour. And yet, sadly, I have today noted that on a Google search of 'Cuvier red fish backwards', almost all of the entries cite the source as Wikipedia or the Times Literary Supplement.

Don't misunderstnd me - I have nothing against Wikipedia. It's a wonderful thing and a great deal of it is completely accurate. I use it all of the time and I love how easy and accessible it makes everything. However, that's also why our kids (and TV researchers) love using it too - it's easy! They often don't bother researching any further. 'If it's on the internet it must be true'. Incidentally, that's something called False Authority Syndrome and merits a blog post of its own (here's one I wrote earlier). The fact is that Wikipedia, and many websites like it, are written and edited by non-experts much of the time and therefore should only ever be used as the starting point on a longer journey. I will always check their sources and, wherever possible, ensure that what I write is correct. In doing so, I'll be doing my my small and relatively insignificant bit to ensure that accurate information remains available to future researchers.

I just hope that they can be bothered to look.

Footnote: Since writing this - and in a perfect example of why it's so important to check your facts - an even older example has turned up and it seems to support Thora Van Male's version. The reference is in the original French and says:

'A quoi les habitants de Pointrieux, Plancoët et Saint-Brieuc pourraient lui répondre comme le fit Cuvier à l’un des rédacteurs du nouveau dictionnaire de l’Academie française, qui soumettait à son approbation l’article Ecrevisse, ainsi conçu:
‘L’écrevisse est un poisson rouge, qui marche à reculons.’
‘L’écrevisse n’est pas un poisson; L’écrevisse n’est pas rouge; L’écrevisse ne marche pas à reculons; du reste, l’article est fort bien.’

Roughly translated, it says:

'The people of Pointrieux, Plancoët and Saint-Brieuc could answer him like Cuvier did to one of the drafters of the new dictionary of the French Academy, who submitted the Article crayfish for approval as follows:

'Crayfish are red fish that walk backwards.'

'The crayfish is not a fish; the Crayfish is not red; the crayfish does not walk backwards; however, the article is good.'

The source is the Annual of the Archaeological and Historical Society of Côtes-du-Nord, published in 1844.

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