Monday, August 17, 2009

An example thereof

In my last post I explained why it was a good thing to be skeptical before passing ideas on.

Now, I've just come across a great reference to "the world's oldest apocalypse prediction":

"Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."
- Assyrian clay tablet, circa 2800BC

This reference is sourced to Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts. The problem is, I can't substantiate it. I don't have a copy of the Book of Facts handy and, even if I did, I would need to know more about the clay tablet in question before I could trust Mr Asimov's word on this.

So if I were to use this quote in any sort of serious discussion, I would need to accompany it with a shot of skeptical "penicillin". I would have to make my friends aware that I could not stake my life on the it being accurate. This would be boring and long-winded.

The only alternative is to try to track down the tablet in question online. This is not proving easy: googling for the translated text just finds thousands of people who have quite clearly copied it straight out of the Book of Facts. This is not corroboration.

So I need to dig deeper. With a bit of effort, I'll be able to figure out how the Assyrian research community organises its information, which should give me some idea of where to find this particular tablet. So far I've come across the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (not so helpful as it doesn't give translations) and the Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project (which appears to be defunct).

Beyond that, I may have to gatecrash the local university library. Watch this space.

It may take a while to learn the truth here. Heck, I might actually need to learn Assyrian to track down the tablet (or to demonstrate that it probably doesn't exist). I am unlikely to go that far. But the time I do spend on this exercise will be time well used - a tithe spent on improving the information available to the community as a whole.


Dunc said...

Even if you were to find a translation of the tablet in question, you'd probably need to learn Assyrian to high level to have any idea of whether the translation is accurate, and what alternative interpretations there may be. And to really get to the bottom of it, you'd need to back up through all the sources which our understanding of Assyrian is based on. Eventually you'll probably find yourself wondering just how accurate Champollion's translation of the heiroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone was...

Translation is a very tricky business, especially when you haven't got a native speaker of the language in question around to ask.

Lifewish said...

This is true. What I'd probably end up with was a statement that if this is a real tablet and if academic X got the translation right, then Asimov was justified.

That at least allows anyone with more free time to follow up on the loose ends. Heck, maybe I'd do it myself, turn it into a hobby.

As skeptics, we can never be absolutely sure that our claims are accurate. Our first duty is to not piss in the pool - to ensure that we reflect our sources accurately. Our second duty is to make sure that other skeptics can verify our good behaviour, for example by linking to our sources.

Our third duty, and the only one that takes much effort, is to occasionally improve matters. Read that article that someone blogged about, to make sure they quoted it right. Look up that paper they referenced. Hell, maybe even make an observation or repeat an experiment, to confirm that the skeptical audit trail leads all the way back to Reality.

Anything I can do on that front - even if I can't trace my information all the way back - is time well spent. And if enough people make this tithe to reality, amazing things can happen.