The title is silly, of course, but is meant to refer to a problem with historical accuracy. I have had this blog post in draft for a long time and I am struggling to finish it. I would like to talk about an area in which I appear to have cognitive dissonance. I’m intending to ask a bunch of questions to which I do not have answers. I hope you will help me come to some.
I firmly believe that what is published on the history of mathematics should be correct. The history of mathematics is full of misconceptions and apocryphal stories and to propagate these is a terrible sin. Call this Principle A.
Now, from time to time I see someone who has had a good go at producing something on a historical topic which is mostly correct but repeats a few common errors. This work (or person) is then picked apart by those in the know, or the piece of work is roundly dismissed as entirely without merit. I’ve heard this in the case of very popular books – “it’s written well and tells a good story but it has this fact wrong so nobody should ever read it”.
I’m not talking about someone who copies wholesale from some website nobody has ever heard of without checking any of the facts. Nor am I talking about a serious academic history of mathematics work. Nor silly errors. I’m talking about cases where an enthusiastic amateur has put in the effort; they’ve read fourteen sources for a particular piece of information and when they publish it they are picked up for not having read the fifteenth – a recent research paper in a journal they can’t access – which debunks the fact.
I believe popularisation is good. Mathematicians would do well to know more of the history of their subject. I value the use of history in teaching as a way to engage students with the curriculum. I also believe history can be useful in outreach, the use of engaging stories to bring in more people to study of mathematics or its history. When I see someone having an honest attempt at telling some historical story, and they have done a reasonable level of research, I think it is bad to tear them apart or dismiss their effort. Instead we should encourage their keeness and perhaps gently steer them towards a better understanding (and they, in turn, should be pleased to learn). Sometimes this might mean you overlook a series of small errors to work, for now, on the major one. Pointing out everything that is wrong with a piece of work in minor detail can be very discouraging and, since popularisation and keeness are good, we hope to encourage this person not put them off from trying again. Call this Principle B.
You see the problem? Principle A tells me nothing should be produced with errors, but Principle B suggests work with minor errors should be taken in good faith. Both cannot hold. This is particularly a problem when I might be the person naively committing the sin (as I will be more often than the expert spotting the error). The fear of what might happen makes me feel very uncomfortable and hesitant to publish content on history.
There is another issue running along with this one. Perhaps the minor errors were not through ignorance but by choice, either due to restrictions of the format (word count or time available for a performance) or out of an attempt to keep the momentum of a story without getting sidetracked. This is like a piece of historical fiction where a character’s sister and cousin are amalgamated into one character because it would confuse the main thread to introduce a new minor character for some small interaction with the plot before they disappear. If the main story is basically being told correctly but a few peripheral details are being ignored or muddled to keep the momentum, is that a bad thing? We want an audience for our story, after all; is it possible that too much accuracy (or too many caveats) can make the story uninteresting?
This puts me in mind of a piece of advice I was once given about writing popular mathematics. I was told that nobody should write a popular mathematics book unless they are a researcher in the topic of the book. I don’t agree with this at all. Sometimes the researchers are too close to the topic to explain it well, or to make it interesting, or perhaps there isn’t a talented writer researching a particular area but it should still be popularised. I wonder if people hold the same view – people should steer clear of history unless they are professional historians of mathematics? Won’t this lead to less history being told?
There are also cases where someone learns or remembers something, or builds confidence, as a result of a historical story. I can’t think of a better example right now but say for example I meet a twelve year old who was really struggling with mathematics when they were eight until a teacher told them that Einstein had failed mathematics in school and gone on to be a great physicist. A lot of ability in mathematics comes from perseverance which comes from confidence. Was the person who told the eight year old this story to boost their confidence wrong to do so? (There are surely cases where less decidedly wrong misconceptions apply to more nuanced situations but this will do as a placeholder; please don’t get too hung up on Einstein or my imagined twelve year old.)
I really don’t know the answer to these questions. I am asking them here in the hope that you might share your views. I really am interested to hear arguments either way.