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The Bluestocking, vol 285
the icy hand of death
It’s autumn now, so I’m feeling reflective. I brought this newsletter to Substack in May 2020, after TinyLetter told me that someone had signed up with a “spam trap” email address, so I was being flagged as junk mail, and the only solution was to manually delete several dozen recent subscribers to get rid of the annoying trapper. I did that, and then moved to Substack. Back then I had 2,000 subscribers. Now it’s 15,500, making this one of the bigger Substacks in Britain—which is funny, because it still feels like a secret.
Growth has been steady but slow, because this type of email—a digest rather than a standalone polemic or piece of criticism—is unsuitable for virality. But that’s exactly why running the Bluestocking is a pleasant experience, and even the comments section (which has become more lively recently) is fundamentally a pleasant place to be. If you agree, do share this newsletter. You can forward it to a friend, post on social media, or hit the button below:
This is also a long-winded way of saying that service may be intermittent over September but I have a special post in the pipeline for all the politics nerds out there.
Does History Have A Replication Crisis? (Age of Innovation, Substack)
Take the oft-repeated idea that more troops were sent to quash the Luddites in 1812 than to fight Napoleon in the Peninsular War in 1808. Utter nonsense, as I set out in 2017, though it has been cited again and again and again as fact ever since Eric Hobsbawm first misled everyone back in 1964. Before me, only a handful of niche military history experts seem to have noticed and were largely ignored. Despite being busted, it continues to spread. Terry Deary (of Horrible Histories fame), to give just one of many recent examples, repeated the myth in a 2020 book. Historical myths are especially zombie-like. Even when disproven, they just. won’t. die.
The persistence of historical falsehoods is easy to explain. Just as in science, there is simply no time to check absolutely every detail in the things you cite. And even if you do, you may have to follow a citation chain that is dozens or hundreds of links long. They will often end up with archival sources that would be too time-consuming to be worth going to the trouble of accessing. History, like any other field, very often relies on trust.
But it’s hard to trust when you are exposed to one of the most frightening of revelations: that hardly anyone ever bothers to check.
Anton Howes is here proposing a version of “Open Science” for history—academics and popular writers should make more effort to make their sources accessible to others, for example.
When writing about genius, I have been staggered by how much guff there is floating about in the “great lives” genre: Gauss and the school additions story, Newton and the apple, Galileo’s “Eppur si muove.” Basically every catchy story about a genius you’ve ever read is probably bollocks. I honestly don’t know how you avoid perpetuating the problem, either, because no one can hunt down every reference to its origin, particularly under time pressure and other constraints such as not speaking the source’s language. But being more transparent seems like a good start.
Chaser: Ian Leslie further discusses the flawed paper which prompted Anton Howes’s post—about iron production in the Industrial Revolution—in his Substack here. The academic being criticised has responded on Twitter, comparing her critics to the tobacco industry.
My Presidential Platform (Astral Codex Ten, Substack)
The British experience suggests that the role of a constitutional monarch is to flaunt how rich they are, get 24-7 news coverage regardless of whether or not they do anything interesting, and have scandals. Donald Trump is the best person in the world at all three of these things. Trump wants to be on top, but is not that interested in governing. Meanwhile, American liberals (by revealed preference) want to continue thinking about him every hour of every day forever, but also don’t want him to govern. Constitutional monarchy would satisfy everyone’s preferences.
Scott Alexander’s presidential platform. Every one of these is a banger, from cleaning the Statue of Liberty to bringing back castrati.
From the postbag: Thanks to Bluestocking commenter Neil, who posted this under last week’s newsletter in response to my piece on book blurbs. Source sadly unknown.
BOOK BLURBS GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Enchanting = there’s a dog in it
Heart-warming = a dog and a child
Moving = child dies
Heart-rending = dog dies
Thoughtful = mind-numbingly tedious
Haunting = set in the past
Exotic = set abroad
Audacious = set in the future
Award-winning = set in India
Perceptive = set in north London
Provocative = infuriating
Epic = editor cowed by author’s reputation
From the pen of a master = same old same old
In the tradition of = shamelessly derivative
Spare and taut = under researched
Richly detailed = over-researched
Disturbing author = bonkers
Stellar author = young and photogenic
Classic author = hanging in there
Vintage author = past it
PS. Incidentally, I have given in and am watching And Just Like That. There’s an episode in the second season where Carrie’s former editor at Vogue—who always came off as a vague, posh idiot to me—has launched a newsletter. She agrees to puff Carrie’s book in the newsletter in exchange for a big cheque to help found a new magazine called Vivant. And by big, I mean “a hundred grand.” The show does not seem to find this startlingly corrupt.
In other news, doing my Atlantic piece on book blurbs prompted some of my friends who are writers (which is, apparently, all of them?) to email me with further blurb horrors. One person sent in a blurb only for the author to suggest punching it up a little. Sacre bleu! Another confessed that they had given thirty blurbs in the last year alone.
“But Young believes that the only thing that will truly end Trumpism is what ends everything, eventually: the icy hand of death.” I enjoyed this piece on what we can learn about MAGA from cult psychology. Also, I am putting a reference to “what ends everything, eventually: the icy hand of death” in every future piece I write. What a line. (The Atlantic)
The 6 kinds of Republican voters (New York Times).
“New Atheism didn't fail because Christians proved they were wrong about God’s existence. It failed because a hipper generation of young people accepted all their premises but declared them uncool for caring about it too much.” Just revisited this 2021 Slate Star Codex piece about online discursive trends (Astral Codex Ten)
“In its early days, a typical Shakesville comment thread was a freewheeling affair full of jokes and wordplay and cringey (but, I assure you, very cool at the time) snark. We expressed frustration at homophobes by typing “OH NO TEH GAY!!!1eleven!!!” and came up with dozens of ways to call George W. Bush an illiterate child.” Related: long read on the decline of Shakesville, an early feminist blog (The Outline).
Stephen King played one song so much that his wife threatened to leave him. You will not guess what it was (Variety).
See you next time, unless this newsletter has been ended by what ends everything, eventually, the icy hand of death!