Epistemic Spot Check: Children in Colonial America

Introduction

Once upon a time I started fact checking books I read, to see if they were trustworthy. I called this epistemic spot checking because it was not a rigorous or thorough investigation; just following up on things I thought were interesting, likely to be wrong, or easy to check. Eventually I became dissatisfied with this. It placed too much emphasis on a binary decision about a particular book’s trustworthiness, and not enough on building models. So I started working on something better. Something that used multiple sources to build robust models of the world. This book is part of that attempt

Children in Colonial America (affiliate link) is a compilation of chapters from many authors, all centered around what you would guess from the title. This lowers the predictive value of one chapter for assessing the credibility of the whole book, since they’re different authors, but has more than zero value. For purposes of this post, I’m going to look at three chapters. As usual, you can view all my notes in Roam here.

Claims

Chapter 1: Indian Children in Early Mexico

Claim: Mexico was ruled by Spain from 1521-1821, and was known as New Spain during this time (p28).
Verdict: True (source). This is not very impressive to get right, except that I originally recorded it as 1831 and briefly went very down on the chapter. So we know I can catch both embarrassingly obvious factual errors made in books, and my own  embarrassing typos.

 

Claim:  In the 1700s Mexico City had 112,000 people, mostly natives, the largest city in the Americas (p28).
Verdict: Highly defensible but unproven. This is almost exactly what wikipedia reports an inaccessible source reports a primary source recorded in 1793, although 112,926 rounds to 113k, not 112k. It’s not at all clear to me how good this census was, given that even modern censuses have a lot of problems.

Additionally, I’m not thrilled about her using one number to refer to the population throughout an entire century. According to wikipedia the population varied a lot, probably due to competition between disease and immigration, but possibly due to to changes in methodology.

This is still well over the recorded populations of various future-USA cities recorded in the same decade.  However that’s still sensitive to definitions- how do you draw the boundaries between a city and its surrounding farmland?

 

Claim: In the 1700s New Spain had 6m inhabitants.
Verdict: Right order of magnitude. This graph

which is originally from a Spanish-language work I read about here estimates about 1/3 lower than that, but admits that it’s order-of-magnitude at best.

 

Claim: Aztecs buried newborn’s umbilical cord under the hearth (girl) or battlefield (boy) (p29).
Verdict: Well justified (source 1, 2, 3). AFAICT everyone’s ultimate source for this is the Florentine Codex, which has all the problems noted above.

 

Claim:  “Children were the most apt to die in the epidemics because they had no natural immunity” (p36).
Verdict: Close enough. Ignores the fragility of old people and there are flukes like the Spanish Flu, but close enough.

 

Claim: “Probably the happiest moments for boys and girls were the processions, fireworks, and communal meals that took place about eight times a year in the Indian pueblos.” (p37), “another favorite time for Indian youngsters was the feast of the patron saint of their home towns.” (p38)
Verdict: I don’t know how the author could possibly know this with the information they have.

 

Claim: “The Jesuits were expelled by Charles III in 1767 from all of the Spanish territories, resulting in the exile of four hundred priests from New Spain, one-third of whom were teachers.” (p39).
Verdict: Probably wrong (evidence compiled in Roam). There was definitely an expulsion, but the more common number given for number of exiled priests was 678, and that comes from an enumerated census. It’s possible these were referring to different geographic areas, but the book specifically refers to New Spain, not just Mexico. It’s possible it was referring to just a subset of priests- but it specifically names priests and teacher priests. It’s possible they meant some third thing I haven’t thought of, or have a different sources, but in that case they really need to provide it.

Chapter 2: Colonizing Childhood: Religion, Gender, and Indian Children in Southern New England, 1600–1720

Claim: New England colonists used indentured servitude as a way to both extract labor and indoctrinate Native American children (p48).
Verdict: Seems likely but leaves out important facts, such as the fact that women were also forced to provide labor in New England, and native men were sold into slavery in the Bahamas (wikipedia).

It’s a little hard to tell what source the chapter is using for this- there’s a citation 80% of the way through a very long paragraph that lists several sources. The most relevant looking one, Colonizing the Children: Indian Youngsters in Servitude in Early Rhode Island, is focused 50-100 years later than this book, and mentions Christianity once. The Impact of Indentured Servitude on the Society and Culture of Southern New England Indians, 1680-1810 is also set later than this chapter.

 

Claim: “In a reflection of the importance of religious practice to the major transitions in an individual’s life, Indian parents and kin actively assisted children in cultivating relationships with a range of powerful supernatural entities.” (p49)
Verdict: Dubious and undifferentiated.

This quote is a stand-in for the numerous times the author talks about the importance of religion to Native New England children during colonial times. And I don’t doubt that it was, because it’s important to most if not cultures. It certainly was to the Puritan children that are the most natural comparison group. It’s ambiguous if the chapter means to claim the native children were especially religious, and if so, how we know that.

 

Claim: Edward Winslow reported Wampanoag beliefs about a deity who created life, Keihtan. (p51)
Verdict: True but waaaaaaay to much work to verify (source).

How could this take so long to verify, you might ask yourself? It’s just reporting that a dude said a thing, surely you just need to point to the page where he said it and everyone can go on with their day. Alternately, it’s a pretty distinct word, can’t you just google for it?

Yes, either one of those would be easy, but:

  1. The author continued their delightful pattern of putting all their citations in a single superscript that is almost, but not quite entirely, at the end of a paragraph, rather than where he’s asserting the thing.
  2. He spelled the damn name differently than Winslow.

The misspelling isn’t a big deal, phoneticizing a language that may not even have a written form is not easy, and this deity has lots of names. But the combination of the two meant I lost 45 minutes of my life to tracking down this simple fact that wasn’t even relevant to my interests.

 

Claim: English missionaries established Praying Towns, their version of missionary villages in the mid-1600s
Verdict: Obviously true. After the last one I’m just going to accept a tertiary source. There is some conflict among sources about when they started (notes in Roam), which I think is more about the definition of “start” than about when specific things actually happened.

 

 

Chapter 3: Imperial Ideas, Colonial Realities Enslaved Children in Jamaica, 1775–1834

Claim: Children accounted for a “significant” portion of the slave trade, especially compared to other  (p63).
Verdict: Vague but true (Roam notes). The exact number varies based on time, origin, and destination so it’s not clear how meaningful an average is, but 25% looks roughly correct.

More specifically: Was the Slave Trade Dominated by Men? (Roam notes), a survey of mostly British vessels, reports 12-40% of imported slaves being children, depending on the era, based on a survey of ships that covers 8-10% of all slaves transported to the New World (my guess is this is based on the population that arrived alive, not who was on the boat when they left Africa, but it’s not specified).

Sex Ratio, Age and Ethnicity in the Atlantic Slave Trade: data from French shipping and plantation records (Roam notes) finds an overall average of 26.6% children, varying from 9-43% using the standard definition of child in a slavery context at that time, which is “shorter than 4’4”.

26% or even 12% is not trivial, but it’s especially striking when compared to people arriving in the New World as indentured servants, which really were overwhelmingly adult and male, something like 70-90% (although the numbers aren’t quite comparable; I believe European immigrants use their actual birthdates to determine age, as opposed to height) (source: Was the Slave Trade Dominated by Men? )

 

Claim: Children were historically used as sources of labor, including in Britain, in the 1700s and 1800s
Verdict: True, although very hard to find hard numbers for (Roam synthesis). The best estimate I could find was this summary article which cited multiple papers I could not access. It gives the following numbers for child participation in mining and textiles, which it claims were the most popular industries for children

The demographic distribution of Industrial-Revolution Great Britain is also very hard to find, but the following is implied to be the result of a census (source):

If you assume that 1/3 of children were between 10 and 15, and that all working children were between 10 and 15, that would make their labor force participation in mining and textiles (very) approximately equal to their proportion of population in 1860. Of course this is very rough- God knows what the demographics of children were during the Demographic Transition, and some children started working younger than 10. But this does suggestion that children as a whole were less likely to participate in work – at least, work outside the home; it’s not clear how they’re counting work on the family farm.

 

Claim: “the age and social standing of the enslaved are two factors, among others, that would also influence attitudes and reactions to enslavement in the Americas.”
Verdict: Unverified by I believe it. The original source was inaccessible and verifying it was proving to require a lot of general reading that didn’t bear on my question, so I stopped after 15 minutes of trying.

 

 

Process Notes

I had a really hard time verifying anything interesting in Indian Children in Early Mexico, because all of the primary and deeper secondary sources are in Spanish or Nahuatl, neither of which I read. I say “sources”, but it appears there’s only one real source for any information on pre-Spanish Aztecs, which is one missionary (Bernardino de Sahagún), who wrote a general history of the Aztecs, known in English as either the Florentine Codex or The General/Universal History of the Things of New Spain. At least, that’s what everything I read seemed to be relying on, when they gave a source at all. Parts of the codex are available for free in English, but not the relevant ones. Even assuming I could read it, one dude whose official mission was very much to destroy Aztec culture and replace it with his own probably introduced biases to his reports of their culture.

Sometimes I would luck out and a source would be in English but inaccessible. What I could verify with English sources was pretty limited to names and dates.

Colonizing Childhood… brings up the question: how long should I spend verifying minor claims? There’s a fair number of claims I go into with the attitude of “this ought to be easy to find.” You could argue these are low value because it’s very unlikely the author screwed up a basic name or date- but if that’s true, it would be a very bad sign about the author/work if they did screw it up. And surprisingly often, there’s debate about even very simple facts. E.g., different sources listed different start times for Praying Towns. These sources didn’t differ in their facts, but in what they counted as the start- the first sermon or the first town incorporation. I wouldn’t have learned about those distinctions if I hadn’t looked up an “easy to find” fact.

Overall, I was really not impressed by how little context this chapter gave for the tribes it talked about, primarily the Wampanoag. I never would have guessed that they were only semi-sedentary (which is important context for the missionaries’ efforts to move them into Praying Towns) or matrilineal, if I hadn’t sought out other sources. It could be aimed at a more educated audience than me- but the book covers a really wide geographic and social range, and it seems unfair to expect people to be experts in all of them.

Imperial Ideas… was flat out a better chapter than the other two.

    1. It cited sources such that I could actually find them and match them to claims.
    2. It had a delightful pattern of making a general claim and then backing it up with specific instances. E.g.

      young African children were available for sale on the island. In 1792, in a letter reporting the sale of the slave cargo on the ship Ruby, the Jamaican merchant John Cunningham wrote, “I sold 129 slaves. . . . There were 45 boys and girls . . . many not more than 8 or 9 years of age.”9 Over 30 percent of the captives sold from this ship were children.

I found myself marking more claims as potential epistemic spot checks for Imperial Ideas… than I did for the other two chapters. In fact, notetaking was just easier and more free flowing with this chapter. I’m not sure how to operationalize this: punishing books for taking more effort to read has some obvious failure modes.

Actually this brings up something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a while, which is how Epistemic Spot Checks have changed my definition of easy. Time was a book’s easiness rating was based on how much effort I needed to put into understanding the author. It rewarded spoon feeding me conclusions and punished provoking certain kinds of thought. Now easiness is much more based on how much effort I have to put into verifying the author’s claims.

I originally didn’t record any notes from Was the Slave Trade Dominated by Men? about indentured servitude, because it wasn’t strictly relevant to the question I was asking. Luckily I wrote this up the same night and noticed that it seemed worth including.

Verdict

Indian Children in Early Mexico got most of its basic facts right, or at least defensible, and had one probable error. I couldn’t verify anything interesting because of language barrier.

Colonizing Childhood: Religion, Gender, and Indian Children in Southern New England, 1600–1720 also seems fine, although it was more a jumble of facts than a cohesive thesis, and the closest thing it had to a thesis seemed to indicate a specialness that was not backed up by facts.

Imperial Ideas, Colonial Realities Enslaved Children in Jamaica, 1775–1834 was pretty great. It backed up its claims better than the other two and provoked more thought in me.

 

Many thanks to my Patreon patrons and the Long Term Future Fund for funding this post.

My Favorite Gifts This Year

Preface

This year I upgraded my phone (Thanks Mom and Dad), which necessitated a whole bunch of other purchases. Technology has reached that stage where upgrading is not an unmitigated good, and despite the fact that my new phone is way better, I kept being annoyed by small things.

The phone loads google maps in less than 40 seconds, but doesn’t have a windows button (which I adapted to in a week). The volume buttons are on the correct side, but auto-adjusting brightness wasn’t enabled by default (which took 60 seconds to fix). The new phone was USB-C instead of micro-USB, so all my old chargers were useless for it but still had to be kept around for all my other devices. And my existing bluetooth headphones didn’t work with the phone (and have never worked with my laptop) so I had to buy new ones (and by “I”, I mean “they were also gifts from my parents”).

The headphones themselves not Pareto improvements over the old ones. Their lowest minimum volume is not too loud, but the sound quality isn’t as good (which I stopped noticing after a week). The controls are better, but at first I misread the instructions and thought they were worse.

My aunt got me Hamilton tickets for Christmas, which was incredibly generous and thoughtful, but the new Aaron Burr wasn’t as good as Leslie Odom, Jr. in ways that weakened his performance of my favorite song.

My point is, I am surrounded by generous people giving me expensive, useful things, but none of them gave me that feeling of sheer delight gifts gave me when I was a child. The small flaws loomed too large.

There were four exceptions, which I believe escaped this trap by only being expected to do at most two things.

Gifts That Succeeded At One Thing

Links are affiliate links when possible

Sleep-compatible headphones ($20)

I sometimes like to fall asleep to podcasts. Despite being critical to my process, my boyfriend objected to playing Welcome to Night Vale loud enough for me to hear over the fan and ear plugs I also consider critical.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I solved this with a pair of headphones designed to be worn during sleep. You do have to fiddle with them sometimes and I wouldn’t want to sleep in the exact same position for hours with them in the wrong spot, but they get the job done, and the audio is astonishingly high quality for $20. You get exactly what you paid for with the mic, to the point I wish they hadn’t included it, but that is fine because I didn’t get these to take phone calls on. The top volume is pretty quiet, as I discovered when I tried to use them on an airplane, but again, $20. These have succeeded far beyond what I thought was possible at letting me fall asleep to podcasts while sharing a bed.

I’ve had this since August and am still delighted with it.

Dual Charger/Battery  ($35)

As mentioned above I now need to keep both micro-USB and USB-C charger on hand. I also managed to lose my two tiny portable chargers, not that they would have helped because they only had micro-USB and iPhone out.

Enter the Dual PowerCore Fusion 5000, which:

  1. Has USB ports instead of built in cords, so I can change the output
  2. Has multiple ports, so I can charge multiple thing at once.
  3. Can charge itself and devices at the same time, removing the need to juggle.
  4. By combining two devices gives me one less thing to lose track of.

I’ve only had this one for a month, so it’s still possible it will catch fire or otherwise turn out to be inadequate, but I’m very pleased right now.

Bombas Classic Marl Socks ($12)

To be fair, I am made unusually happy by well thick, fitting socks. My previous favorite was Smartwool Saturnsphere, on which I have spent low-hundreds of dollars, but after two years my old ones can no longer meet my standards and the model is no longer produced in acceptable colors. I got a pair of these Bombas socks for Christmas and was delighted: they’re incredibly…what’s a word that means “tight” but has only positive connotation? Like having your feet hugged all day, without being restrictive. I’m only waiting to see how they age before ordering a dozen and tossing my old socks.

Super Comfy Sweater ($40)

This had two jobs: be comfy, and don’t show cat hair. It succeeds at both admirably, except that sometimes it is so comfy I can’t take it off when I leave the house and thus leave the house covered in cat hair, when the whole point of having indoor sweaters is to not do that.

I suspect this level softness won’t survive the first washing, but I’m enjoying the hell out of it right now.

 

Cassette Tape Thoughts

“The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements-all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics-to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.”

Excerpt From: Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren. “How To Read A Book- A Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading.” (affiliate link).

This really stuck with me. More properly, it stuck with me the second time I read it. This turns out to be really important, and meta.

The difference between the first time I read it and the second was that I had four more months of reading books while specifically thinking about how to get the most out of them. My attitude towards How to Read a Book when I first read it was kind of like a cassette tape.* It would teach me Good Reading and then I could do it and Read Better. I didn’t have an idea of what problems I wanted it to solve- neither what axes I wanted to improve on, nor what my blocks were. If I’d succeeded at reading the book at this time, it would have given me the ability to parrot its ideas, but not actually apply them.

[*I fear a cassette tape really is a better metaphor than modern music playing equipment, which is pretty defined by its flexibility and adaptation to the user. Younger readers: imagine something heavily DRMed so you have to sit through all the commercials and can’t skip around within it]

Four months later, I know what my biggest problem is: how to identify what information to record and what to let go of. I am really excited for any insights HTRAB has into that.  And because I know that, whatever I learn from HTRAB won’t be something I parrot back on a test, it will be incorporated into my own models, and I’ll be able to explain every part of them, adjust plans and outputs to accommodate changes in inputs, etc.

I previously talked about how both detail-focused and detail-entwined books were harder to extract value from. Over on LessWrong, John Wentworth suggested this was a gears based problem: books that were just lists of details were like describing gears without detailing how they worked together. Books that entwined their details too much were mashing multiple gears together without disambiguating them. The latter corresponds to what  Adler and Van Doren describe as cassette tapes.

What epistemic spot checks were previously doing could be described as “determining if the cassette tape is good”, and what I am aiming for now (more after conceiving of it this way) is understanding and investigating a book’s gears. This involves both seeing how the gears fit together, and verifying that the gears are “real”, meaning they reflect actual reality.

Call for Volunteers

3.5 years ago I started semi-methodically checking the claims of books I read, to assess truthiness. A few months ago I identified flaws in the system and started working to find/create solutions. This should be old hat to regular readers.

What I haven’t talked about yet is how the project has grown: I’m now trying to create a research method that enables you to bootstrap from zero knowledge in a field to competence, without trusted experts. I’m further trying to teach this method to others. I’m fortunate enough to have received funding for this from the Long Term Future Fund that will cover most although probably not all of my expenses, so many thanks to them.

Finding a research method that dramatically improved on my old one went much faster than I thought- within a week of starting to use Roam, certain obfuscated problems became obvious and then solved. That’s great for me, but the lack of struggle actually makes it harder to identify flaws in the method or teach it to others, because I don’t know what needs explaining.

What I am looking for now is test subjects to teach this research method to, with the understanding that early subjects will be helping me more than I am helping them, as they teach me where my research or teaching methods fall flat. If this calls to you, please fill out this form.

What’s in it for you? Some combination of:

  1. Contributing to the creation of a method that lets people learn more with less time and effort
  2. Learning that method for yourself.

Early students will get more of 1, late students more of 2. You can indicate your preference on the form.

The most useful test subjects will be those who already have research projects (including their own epistemic spot checks) ready to go or in progress. It is something of a time commitment to actually use these methods and introspect on the experience, so I’d be surprised if people were willing to put in the time purely as a favor to me. But I also expect a fairly high drop out rate and especially early on, time teaching is valuable even if it doesn’t get used. So if you’re not sure what kind of commitment you can make, please just be honest on the form and I’ll prioritize as I can.

Criticism as Entertainment

Media Reviews

There is a popular genre of video that consist of shitting on other people’s work without any generative content. Let me provide some examples.

First, Cinema Sins. This is the first video I selected when looking for a movie I’d seen with a Cinema Sins I hadn’t (i.e. it’s not random, but it wasn’t selected for being particularly good or bad).

The first ten sins are:

  1. Use of a consistent brand for props in the movie they’d have to have anyway, unobtrusively enough that I never noticed until Cinema Sins pointed it out.
  2. A character being mildly unreasonable to provoke exposition.
  3. The logo
  4. Exposition that wasn’t perfectly justified in-story
  5. A convenience about what was shown on screen
  6. A font choice (from an entity that in-universe would plausibly make bad font choices)
  7. An omission that will nag at you if you think about it long enough or expect the MCU to be a completely different thing, with some information about why it happened.
  8. In-character choices that would be concerning in the real world and I would argue are treated appropriately by the movie, although reasonable people could disagree
  9. Error by character that was extremely obviously intentional on the part of the film makers. There is no reasonable disagreement on this point.
  10. An error perfectly in keeping with what we know about the character.

Of those, three to four could even plausibly be called sins of the movie- and if those bother you, maybe the MCU is not for you. The rest are deliberate choices by filmmakers to have characters do imperfect things. Everyone gets to draw their own line on characters being dumb- mine is after this movie but before 90s sitcoms running on miscommunication- but that’s irrelevant to this post because Cinema Sins is not helping you determine where a particular movie is relative to your line. Every video makes the movie sound exactly as bad as the last, regardless of the quality of the underlying movie. It’s like they analyze the dialogue sentence by sentence and look to see if there’s anything that could be criticized about it.

Pitch Meeting is roughly as useful, but instead of reacting to sentences, it’s reading the plot summary in a sarcastic tone of voice.

Pitch Meeting is at least bringing up actual problems with Game of Thrones season 8. But I dare you to tell if early Game of Thrones was better or worse than season 8, based on the Pitch Meeting.

I keep harping on “You can’t judge movie quality by the review”, but I don’t actually think that’s the biggest problem. Or rather, it’s a subset of the problem, which is you don’t learn anything from the review: not whether the reviewer considered the movie “good” or not, and not what could be changed to do make it better. Contrast with Zero Punctuation, a video game review series notorious for being criticism-as-entertainment, that nonetheless occasionally likes things, and at least once per episode displays a deep understanding of the problems of a game and what might be done to fix it.

Why Are You Talking About This?

It’s really, really easy to make something look bad, and the short-term rewards to doing so are high. You never risk looking stupid or having to issue a correction. It’s easier to make criticism funny. You get to feel superior. Not to mention the sheer joy in punishing bad things. But it’s corrosive. I’ve already covered (harped on) how useless shitting-on videos are for learning or improvement, but it goes deeper than that. Going in with those intentions changes how you watch the movie. It makes flaws more salient and good parts less so. You become literally less able to enjoy or learn from the original work.

Maybe this isn’t universal, but for me there is definitely a trade off between “groking the author’s concepts” and “interrogating the author’s concepts and evidence”. Groking is a good word here: it mostly means understand, but includes playing with the idea and applying it what I know.  That’s very difficult to do while simultaneously looking for flaws.

Should it be, though? Generating testable hypotheses should lead to greater understanding and trust or less trust, depending on the correctness of the book. So at least one of my investigation or groking procedures are wrong.

 

What we Know vs. How we Know it?

Two weeks ago I said:

The other concept I’m playing with is that “what we know” is inextricable from “how we know it”. This is dangerously close to logical positivism, which I disagree with my limited understanding of. And yet it’s really improved my thinking when doing historical research.

I have some more clarify on what I meant now. Let’s say you’re considering my ex-roommate, person P, as a roommate, and ask me for information. I have a couple of options.

Scenario 1: I turn over chat logs and video recordings of my interactions with the P. 

E.g., recordings of P playing music loudly and chat logs showing I’d asked them to stop.

Trust required: that the evidence is representative and not an elaborate deep fake.

Scenario 2: I report representative examples of my interactions with P.

E.g., “On these dates P played music really loudly even when I asked them to stop.”

Trust required: that from scenario 1, plus that I’m not making up the examples.

Scenario 3: I report summaries of patterns with P

E.g., “P often played loud music, even when I asked them to stop”

Trust required: that from scenario 2, plus my ability to accurately infer and report patterns from data.

Scenario 4: I report what a third party told me

E.g. “Mark told me they played loud music a lot”

Trust required: that from scenario 3, plus my ability to evaluate other people’s evidence

Scenario 5: I give a flat “yes good” or “no bad” answer.

E.g., “P was a bad roommate.”

Trust required: that from scenario 3 and perhaps 4, plus that I have the same heuristics for roommate goodness that you do.

 

 

The earlier the scenario, the more you can draw your own conclusions and the less trust you need to have in me. Maybe you don’t care about loud music, and a flat yes/no would drive you away from a roommate that would be fine for you. Maybe I thought I was clear about asking for music to stop but my chat logs reveal I was merely hinting, and you are confident you’ll be able to ask more directly. The more specifics I give you, the better an assessment you’ll be able to make.

Here’s what this looks like applied to recent reading:

Scenario 5: Rome fell in the 500s AD.

Even if I trust your judgement, I have no idea why you think this or what it means to you.

Scenario 4: In Rome: The Book, Bob Loblaw says Rome Fell in the 500s AD.

At least I can look up why Bob thinks this.

Scenario 3: Pottery says Rome fell between 300 and 500 AD.

Useful to experts who already know the power of pottery, but leaves newbies lost.

Scenario 2: Here are 20 dig sites in England. Those dated before 323 (via METHOD) contain pottery made in Greece (which we can identify by METHOD), those after 500 AD show cruder pottery made locally.

Great. Now my questions are “Can pottery evidence give that much precision?” and “Are you interpreting it correctly?”

Scenario 1: Please enjoy this pile of 3 million pottery shards.

Too far, too far.

 

In this particular example (from The Fall of Rome), 2-3 was the sweet spot. It allowed me to learn as much as possible with a minimum of trust. But there’s definitely room in life for 4; you can’t prove everything in every paper and sometimes it’s more efficient to offload it.

I don’t view 5 as acceptable for anything that’s trying to claim to be evidenced based, or at least, any basis besides “Try this and see if it helps you.” (which is a perfectly fine basis if it’s cheap).

 

ESC Process Notes: Detail-Focused Books

When I started doing epistemic spot checks, I would pick focal claims and work to verify them. That meant finding other sources and skimming them as quickly as possible to get their judgement on the particular claim. This was not great for my overall learning, but it’s not even really good for claim evaluation: it flattens complexity and focuses me on claims with obvious binary answers that can be evaluated without context. It also privileges the hypothesis by focusing on “is this claim right?” rather than “what is the truth?”.

So I moved towards reading all of my sources deeply, even if my selection was inspired by a particular book’s particular claim. But this has its own problems.

In both The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Ancient World and Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, my notes sometimes degenerate into “and then a bunch of specifics”. “Specifics” might mean a bunch of individual art pieces, or a list of books that subtly changed a field’s framing.  This happens because I’m not sure what’s important and get overwhelmed.

Knowledge of importance comes from having a model I’m trying to test. The model can be external to the focal book (either from me, or another book), or from it. E.g. I didn’t have a a particular frame on the evolution of states before starting Against the Grain, but James C. Scott is very clear on what he believes, so I can assess how relevant various facts he presents are to evaluating that claim.

[I’m not perfect at this- e.g., in The Unbound Prometheus, the author claims that Europeans were more rational than Asians, and that their lower birth rate was evidence of this. I went along with that at the time because of the frame I was in, but looking back, I think that even assuming Europe did have a lower birth rate, it wouldn’t have proved Europeans were more rational or scientifically minded. This is a post in itself.]

If I’d come into The Oxford Handbook of Children and Childhood Education in the Ancient World or Children and Childhood in Roman Italy with a hypothesis to test, it would have been obvious information was relevant and what wasn’t. But I didn’t, so it wasn’t, and that was very tiring.

The obvious answer is “just write down everything”, and I think that would work with certain books. In particular, it would work with books that could be rewritten in Workflowy: those with crisp points that can be encapsulated in a sentence or two and stored linearly or hierarchically. There’s a particular thing both books did that necessitated copying entire paragraphs because I couldn’t break it down into individual points.

Here’s an example from Oxford Handbook…

“Pietas was the term that encompassed the dutiful respect shown by the Romans towards their gods, the state, and members of their family (Cicero Nat. Deor. 1.116; Rep. 6.16; O . 2.46; Saller 1991: 146–51; 1998). is was a concept that children would have been socialized to understand and respect from a young age. Between parent and child pietas functioned as a form of reciprocal dutiful affection (Saller 1994: 102–53; Bradley 2000: 297–8; Evans Grubbs 2011), and this combination of “duty” and “affection” helps us to understand how the Roman elite viewed and expressed their relationship with their children.”

And from Children and Childhood…

“No doubt families often welcomed new babies and cherished their children, but Roman society was still struggling to establish itself even in the second century and many military, political, and economic problems preoccupied the thoughts and activities of adult Romans”

I summarized that second one as “Families were distracted by war and such up through 0000 BC”, which is losing a lot of nuance. It’s not impossible to break these paragraphs down into constituent thoughts, but it’s ugly and messy and would involve a lot of repetition. The first mixing up what pietas is with how and who it was expressed to. The second is combining a claim about the state of Rome with the state’s effects.

This reveals that calling the two books “lists of facts” was incomplete. Lists of facts would be easier to take notes on.  These authors clearly have some concepts they are trying to convey, but because they’re not cleanly encapsulated in the author’s own mind it’s hard for me to encapsulate them. It’s like trying to lay the threads of a gordian knot in an organized fashion.

So we have two problems: books which have laid out all their facts in a row but not connected them, and books which have entwined their facts too roughly for them to be disentangled. These feel very similar to me but when I write it out the descriptions sure sound like two completely different problems.

Let me know how much sense this makes, I can’t tell if I’ve written something terribly unpolished-but-deep or screamingly shallow.