marycatelli (marycatelli) wrote,
marycatelli
marycatelli

the statistics of primary source

You know how things tend to happen around the full moon?  Murders, assaults, trouble at the psychiatric ward, activity at the ER?

Well, they don't.

Whenever people go through the records and count stuff up, they don't happen near the full moon more than at any other time.  It's an artifact of how memory works -- two things that coincide are more likely to be remembered than each on its own.  Indeed, as a rule, people's statistical impressions are frequently wildly inaccurate.

It's not something that gets better as you go back in time.  Preachers fumed about the May festivities and the young men and women, but a researcher went and tallied up the baptisms of illegitimate babies, and found that there wasn't a bump nine months after -- though there was one nine month after August.  Perhaps the harvest was more convenient for frolics -- or perhaps it was the warmer weather.

Similarly, there was a culture in Africa that would assure the anthropologists that virtually all accidents were caused by witchcraft, and virtually all witches were women.  He tallied up the accusations and found that about half of the actual accident prompted charges, and men were in fact more likely to be accused.

Which means that, if you go and read some primary source, and find that  someone asserts that this, that or the other is more common than another -- you might be wise to be very wary indeed about it.

You get a nice example of that in Christian polemic in the Roman Empire.  Some Christians wrote as if virtually all the babies abandoned died, but others, as if they were all taken up by brothel owners.  This was probably not a regional difference in the babies' fates, because it turned on the issue.  If the writer was refuting charges that their secret rites involved sacrificing a baby, they would indignantly point out the way the pagans killed their own; for charges of sexual immorality, the way that pagans exposed their babies and then frequented brothels where unknown incest must be frequent.  But that they found both ways plausible shows that they didn't know which was true.
Tags: primary source
Subscribe

  • 'tis the voice of a child

    One complication of using a child as the point of view character is keeping not just the observations within the child's power to make, but the…

  • tale of a child

    There are fairy tales with child protagonists, of course. If you read up on them, there are even tales that start with child protagonists who are…

  • ages of history

    So, once upon a time, there were evil wizards making everyone miserable. Some of the more minor wizards banded together and took over and made…

  • Post a new comment

    Error

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

  • 2 comments