Beard vs Taleb: Scientism and the Nature of Historical Inquiry

Massimo Pigliucci at the Institute of Art and Ideas:

SetWidth592-pigliucciarticleBefore reading this essay, you may want to watch this short BBC cartoon, aimed at an audience of children, and explaining basic facts about Ancient Roman life in Britain. Done? Okay, what did you think of it?

This 5’30” video sparked a really nasty Twitter war (okay, “nasty” and “Twitter” may be slightly redundant, but still) involving two high caliber academics: historian Mary Beard (author of the highly readable and engaging SPQR) and statistician Nassim Taleb (author of the best selling and controversial The Black Swan). We’ll take a look at the exchange in a moment, but first — if you can stomach it — check out this “commentary” (I’m using the word very generously) by alt-right celebrity Alex Jones, who rails against the BBC for having succumbed to political correctness, on the grounds that one of the characters in the video is a young boy with a darker-than-white skin.

The kerfuffle began in earnest when Beard tweeted that the video was “indeed pretty accurate, there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain.” Which I would have imagined is uncontroversially the case, since it is well known that the Roman Empire as a whole was highly diverse, and we have direct historical record of, for instance, one Governor of Britannia — Quintus Lollius Urbicus — who likely was a Berber from North Africa (specifically, modern Algeria). And Urbicus, based again on historical documents, was not an isolated case.

(As a side note, I did find the BBC video just slightly too informed by modern sensibilities, as for instance in the scene, at 1'50", where a Patrician girl expresses the desire to one day become a military commander, only to be rebuked by her mother who explains that women are not allowed in the Roman military. Then again, it is a video meant to teach an audience of modern children. And if one wishes to be picky then one would also have to point out that the Ancient Romans did not speak modern English with a British accent either…)

More here.