Bad Science Proves Demigods Exist!

Scientists prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories! Not. Sometimes scientists can be so clueless, you just want to pat them on the head and go “Aw, that’s so sad.” To get up to speed on this new silliness, check out John Bohannon’s article for Science Now: Is Mythology Like Facebook?, which summarizes this scientific paper: Ralph Kenna and Pádraig Mac Carron, “Universal Properties of Mythological Networks,” Europhysics Letters 99.2 (July 2012) #28002. To be fair, they only claim to have evidence “the societies” and “some of the events” in them are true, not the entire stories as wrote. But really they don’t.

Kenna and Mac Carron mapped out the social networks in three myths (Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Táin, a lesser-known Irish epic) and tested those networks for the properties of real networks. Then they used as “controls” four works of modern fiction (Les Misérables, Shakespeare’s Richard III, The Fellowship of the Ring, and the first book in the Harry Potter series). (If you are noticing a fatal flaw here already, you get ten bonus points. Fifty points if you already notice more than one fatal flaw.)

Facebook is a real network that’s been well-studied this way (hence the title of Bohannon’s article). And real networks have certain properties. As Bohannon explains:

For example, one universal feature of real social networks is that they are highly clustered, with tight clumps of people who all know each other. These groups are linked to each other by highly social people known as “connectors.” Real social networks also have a property called “small world,” which indicates that there is never more than a few degrees of separation between any two people. Such statistical properties have been found in networks of movie actors, jazz musicians, and even scientific collaborators. If the ancient myths were based on real people, Kenna and Mac Carron expected to find the same patterns.

They did. The character social networks of all the stories, including the modern fictions, were “small world” and highly clustered. But the modern fictions differed from the ancient myths, as well as from real social networks, in several ways. For example, in the fictional narratives, most of the minor characters link to the main character. But that wasn’t true for the myths. If the researchers removed the character of Beowulf from the network, they found that the other characters are linked with one another in other ways. “Certainly there are similarities between fiction and real life,” says Kenna, but in fiction “everyone tends to be connected to everyone else, otherwise the story becomes too hard to follow.”

That last sentence sounds like a contradiction, but I think a connecting sentence must have gotten lost. That last sentence refers to a different property of fictional networks, which is “small world without clustering” or what the authors called in the paper “too small world,” in which every character is connected to many other characters, independently of the main character, which is not typical of real networks. Thus we have two measures of artificiality: one in which everyone is connected only or mostly through one or a few key persons, and one in which everyone is connected to everyone else almost regardless.

What’s wrong with this? Lots.

#1: Scientists Need to Learn How Historical Fiction Works

The first problem here should be obvious. Bohannon claims earlier on, of Beowulf and the Iliad, that “historians and archaeologists agree that much of those ancient narratives was based on real people and events.” Even on the most charitable reading, this confuses the difference between history and historical fiction.

Certainly Beowulf is based on real historical persons and contexts (Wikipedia has a nice summary), but Beowulf himself is by all accounts a fictional character inserted among them, to play out a supernatural drama that obviously has no basis in history (no monster was terrorizing the lands that required finding a special young warrior named Beowulf to gather a band of men to hunt it down). This is actually admitted by Kenna and Mac Carron, so I should not take them to task for that (as I did in the original draft of this critique). But the general fact of it illustrates that any character could be similarly inserted, possibly thereby undetected. This tale appears to be a Nordic (and possibly Christian-influenced) adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid. Like the Aeneid, if in Beowulf any ancillary (non-central) character was invented to fill out the story, would Kenna and Mac Carron’s method be able to detect it? I don’t see how. We can only confirm the historicity of its characters by other, more traditional methods; and by that method, we have.

But as much cannot be said of the Iliad, in which none of the characters have any likely basis in history. There was probably indeed a Trojan War, between the Ilians and an alliance of Achaeans (proto-Greek nations that sailed and lay siege in Ilia, probably in defense of their coastal holdings in Turkey). But reality almost certainly ends there. Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Ajax, these are again inventions of religious fiction, inserted into a distant memory of historical events. The war was certainly not fought over Helen. And even if there ever was a king Agamemnon, he lived centuries earlier (and thus was in no way involved in the Trojan War).

Indeed, the Iliad was written over the course of several centuries. For example, the story randomly and inexplicably jumps from bronze-age technology to iron-age technology and back again throughout, indicating that the tale as a whole was freely built up over a very long span of time. Yes, that means a man named Homer did not write the Iliad, at least the Iliad we have, but rather a series of anonymous bards over many centuries did. So it would be absurd to suggest the characters in it are likely to be real, much less its stories about them.

This may even explain the findings of their study: the heroes of the Iliad all derive from local national myths from diverse Greek nations, which may have been added into the story over time, to create an increasingly panhellenic epic as bards traveled the Greek states. Each local myth involved its own artificial family and political social network built around the central hero or heroes (usually mythical royal houses). Then by assembling all these heroes onto one battlefield, they brought their independent networks with them. The result would look very much like Facebook. By accident.

These kinds of possibilities (and I am sure I will have not exhausted them all in this essay) are precisely why the mathematical properties of the networks are meaningless by themselves: you have to ask a Classicist (especially an expert in Homeric studies) to look at the nodes of the network that make it look real and tell you the most likely literary explanation for those connections being in the story. “Not written by a single author,” “artificial panhellenic epic built over centuries,” and so on (more examples below) might turn out to be the better explanation.

#2: Scientists Need to Learn Logic

The methodology in this paper is also illogical. It employs one giant fallacy of affirming the consequent. To illustrate, I’ll adapt a table I used when identifying this same error in the writings of Bart Ehrman:

If p, then q. If it’s a real social network, it has properties [x, y, z]. If a dog ate your homework, then you have no homework to turn in.
q. The social network in story P has properties [x, y, z]. You have no homework to turn in.
Therefore, p. Therefore the social network in story P is a real social network. Therefore, a dog ate your homework.

Really, you can prove anything with logic like this. Which is precisely why you can prove nothing with logic like this.

The study does attempt to avoid this fallacy by using a scientific “control,” but the control they chose is wholly invalid. In effect, they want to argue that “If it’s a fake social network, it will never have properties [x, y, z],” and they try to do that by testing an arbitrary and unscientific selection of modern works of fiction, and used them to represent all fake social networks, even those constructed in ancient literature. This is just error piled on top of error, one for every word I put in bold.

First of all, the study’s authors fail to consider that fake networks can have the same properties as real ones, especially in cultures that create myths to map and mimic social realities, which was often the very purpose of ancient myths. Those social realities included extended families and community-pervading political relations, two things often lacking in modern novels because most people don’t live in those social networks anymore. Hardly anyone is connected to a political figure, and extended families are rare. Yet those kinds of social networks were so common in antiquity they were emulated in their myths, deliberately. Indeed, in a way, myths were training for the tracking of social networks (thus, as discussed in Rafaella Cribiore’s Gymnastics of the Mind, students in ancient schools were often tasked with mapping the social networks in them, for example being forced to memorize the families and genealogies of famous heroes like Ajax, along with lists of their colleagues).

Obviously, such mythical networks will have “properties [x, y, z]” even when fabricated. Because they were designed to be. And even when they weren’t designed to be, they still reflected the social realities familiar to authors and readers, which realities were very “Facebook-like” (in the complexity of political and familial relations binding nations and communities together). Thus ancient myth and modern fiction are simply not sufficiently similar for this study to use one as the control for the other.

Secondly, just arbitrarily picking some works of modern fiction is the height of unscientific claptrappery. Can you imagine doing a scientific control study by arbitrarily picking four people to be the control group? Not only is “four” way too few to be representative, not only is the selection not a random one from among all available works of fiction, and not only are the genres chosen not functionally similar (the author of a play has specific interests in mind as far as plotting characters that can be cast and represented conveniently on a stage, concerns which are not shared by a novelist; likewise, Harry Potter is about the students, faculty, and alumni of a single elite school, whose social network properties are not going to look like Facebook even if it were real), but I’ll bet any literary expert could point them to confuting counter-examples.

For example, what do you think will happen when they test The Godfather for social network properties? I suspect it will look a lot like Beowulf. Which means, a lot like Facebook. Because the author of The Godfather was aiming to mimic exactly that kind of network. The same might be true of War and Peace. Likewise, The Belgariad, a complete work of fiction (not even historical fiction), also might have those features, because its authors liked to play with complex social networks.The same might be true of Game of Thrones. Even if these don’t fit the analysis mathematically (I am only guessing they could), there still may be plenty of works of fiction that do. You can’t just claim there aren’t, because you picked four books out of a bin.

And again, that’s still modern fiction. That is no parallel to ancient myth, either in cultural context or aims and function. So even if they constructed a proper control (which they didn’t), it still would not be a valid control.

#3: The Result Is Useless in Application

For these reasons we can’t conclude a mythical hero existed because the social network he is inserted into looks real. Not only because real networks are easily mimicked (as is almost certainly the case in the Iliad)–especially by persons aiming to mimick such networks, and persons in cultures that live and breathe such networks and depend on navigating them–but also because fictional persons can easily be inserted into real networks (as is almost certainly the case in Beowulf). Thus their tool is useless.

This kind of social network analysis can’t be used the other way around, either. Because a historian might deliberately focus on a single individual and his connections (e.g. Lucian’s account of Alexander of Abonuteichus), and thus leave out the social network attributes, even though the person in question really existed (as we have effectively confirmed archaeologically). Or he might focus on people who are all connected to each other (and thus not connected through only one or a few central characters). Either way, looking exactly like the works of fiction Kenna and Mac Carron analyzed (which means even their premise “if it’s a real social network, it has properties [x, y, z]” fails to relevantly hold, because the premise “all accounts of real social networks will have properties [x, y, z]” is false, and they are analyzing literary accounts of networks, not the networks themselves). And importantly, not all historical works will operate the same way (some will capture real networks, some will focus on single-characters and who they connect with, some will focus on highly interconnected cabals–and therefore no one set of “network properties” will characterize “histories” as histories).

For both reasons, we cannot use this tool in the myth-or-historicity debate surrounding Jesus, as some have suggested in various places online. Jesus would almost certainly fail the analysis (removing him from the network would leave few connections among the characters in the Gospels, making the network look highly artificial), unless we allowed network connections to be drawn among the historical actors (e.g. Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas) using data outside the Gospels, but that would just confirm the obvious: that some historical persons were used as backdrop for the mythical tales of Jesus. No one doubts that. What we want to know is whether Jesus (the story’s Beowulf or Odysseus) existed. And this tool cannot help us with that.

Thus, if this analysis were turned on the Gospels and showed a seemingly-artificial Jesus-centric social network, that would not mean the Gospels were fiction. Nor would the Gospels showing a more distributed network mean the Gospels were fact.

[Update: those interested in pursuing the Beowulf case will find even more reason to doubt its historicity from the analysis and bibliography provided in Eve Siebert, "Monsters and Dragons and Dinosaurs, Oh My," Skeptical Inquirer 37.1 (January/February 2013): 43-48, albeit there dealing with an entirely different claim.]

 

Comments

  1. Nentuaby says

    I have a fictional Facebook friend. The curator of the fictional account only take friends requests from people who’ve interacted with a conspirator while in character, so his connections appear entirely organic because they are. He’s connected in said fashion throughout at least two distinct circles of acquaintance, since we first created him collectively as a prank in university and then one of his creators took him on to grad school. So, indeed, even a demonstrably real network can have fictional members inserted quite convincingly!

  2. Giuseppe Lettieri says

    I think #2 is a bit uncharitable. Affirming the consequent is such a trivial fallacy that I cannot imagine a physicist committing it. In fact, you say that they don’t, since they use a control, only that the control is inadequate. Indeed, the points you make on the control are valuable, and the badness of the control should be the real #2 title.

    • says

      Except that’s not how they actually argue in the article. They consistently assume that a network with those features is real, and never once ask what other causes there could be of those features besides originating with a real network. Their use of modern fiction as a control is not explicitly articulated the way I did. I was being super-charitable to them by constructing the most logical argument I could from what they do say, which actually isn’t that. They never once actually ask if there could be other causes of those features. They simply assume (but never actually argue, nor ever prove) that fiction cannot cause those features. The way they actually argue is a logical muddle. I gave them the best shot possible with my own reconstruction. Then showed why even that doesn’t hold up.

      So yes, they still really need to learn some logic. Most especially, they need to learn how to ask the question “what else besides p might cause q?” and not the question “do certain kinds of fiction cause q?” which is not the same question.

    • Giuseppe Lettieri says

      So yes, they still really need to learn some logic. Most especially, they need to learn how to ask the question “what else besides p might cause q?” and not the question “do certain kinds of fiction cause q?” which is not the same question.

      Of course it is, but the point is so simple that I cannot believe that that is the error they made. I mean, that p->q is different from q->p is something you learn in the first few ours of any math course, and then you see it over and over again, e.g., whenever you are reading a theorem proof, or writing one. It is really very basic.

      I think that what is happening here is that they likely made an unjustified assumption, very likely the one you pointed out. But saying that they have to learn logic is both harsh and, I think, inappropriate. By the way, the title speaks of all scientists, which is as inappropriate as it can be.

      I just want to add that I am a big fan of yours, so if you read any rudeness in my writing please impute it to my bad english.

    • says

      “Bad Science” speaks of “all” scientists? You have a strange standard of reading comprehension.

      IMO, if these scientists (ditto their peer reviewers) were aware of the fallacy of affirming the consequent (and thus aware of how to properly avoid it), their paper would have been better written and would have come to rather different and more qualified conclusions.

    • Giuseppe Lettieri says

      “Bad Science” speaks of “all” scientists? You have a strange standard of reading comprehension.

      I was only referring to the #2 title, the only one I have talked about in all posts. Sorry if I was not clear, maybe subtitle would have been better. I have no problem with the main title, or with the other two subtitles. Indeed, I think that #1 is accurate and points to the real problem: physicists jumping into a field they do not know and trying to almost blindly apply this kind of network math to it. I have coworkers that do research in computer networks, which should be not very far away from these mathematical models, and still I always hear my coworkers complain about wrong applications of these models made by physicists. But, and this is my point, they complain about wrong assumptions, not trivial mathematical or logical errors.

      By the way, it there any chance you mistake filipposalustri below with me? You refer to some previous complain by him about the main title, but I cannot see any other post by him in this thread. Moreover, the complain you refer to looks similar to the way you interpreted my own complain about the #2 subtitle. If this is really what is going on, I have an explanation for it:

      if

      p: I am the author of a post in this thread

      then

      q: the post contains complains about the reference to all scientists in some title.

      But q, therefore p.

      So I am entitled to say: #2 philosophers need to learn logic.

      Or maybe you only made some wrong assumption. Or maybe I did.

    • SAWells says

      I’m a physicist. I write, I peer-review. I can totally believe any and all logical fallacies getting into papers.

  3. busterggi says

    I just commented there and I’ll say basically the same here -

    By that study’s criteria I do not exist.

    Not everyone is an extrovert and has lots of relationships to study.

    Not everyone fits in a neat little pidgeonholed catagory – the few people I know from work have virtually nothing in common with those I used to socialize with (long story, I’m a loner by choice & circumstance) and certainly no connection with each other.

    BTW, I don’t have a Facebook page nor do I care to.

  4. Koray says

    This didn’t help the probability of A given B
    where B = “publication found in journal named after field totally unrelated to subject” , and A = “publication is bogus”.

    • says

      (After laughing a bit…)

      To be fair, their analysis is nevertheless interesting. So I don’t consider it wholly bogus. All it really did was show that the Iliad exhibits features similar to real social networks (it fallaciously assumed it knew what caused that feature, but demonstrating it has that feature is at least a real discovery worth publishing) and four specific works of fiction do not–of which only Harry Potter I found surprising, given its large cast of characters and extensive focus on family genealogies, like that of Sirius Black and his family (although notably they only tested the first book and not the whole series, yet the whole series would be a closer analog to the genre of epic, and thus doing only one book is like doing only the first chapter of the Iliad; I’d be curious to know how the results come out if the whole series were treated as one account of a social network).

      I found it illuminating to see how modern fiction writers can constrict social networks artificially, what motivates this, and what it explains about our culture and the state of the art itself. But alas, that wasn’t what their paper was “about.”

    • says

      The Belgariad is what Lord of the Rings would have been if its author had a sense of humor and a more developed grasp of women (and human beings in general), and wasn’t a total Christian nutcase and one of the dullest writers on earth.

      (Yes, I just outed myself as someone who can’t stand Lord of the Rings. Well, okay, many already knew that about me already.)

    • says

      Huh. I’d never thought of it that way. Maybe because I’m not a big LOTR fan, either. I just know that I read the entire series aloud to my dad on a long road trip when I was about 15. I wanted to be Polgara when I grew up. Or maybe Ce’Nedra. I never could make up my mind. It may be time for a reread since I have another 20 years of life under my belt. :-)

    • greg says

      We may not have met, but I read the series back in the 80s and then reread them several times. Now my daughter has done the same and is also a big fan.

  5. hoary puccoon says

    Actually, the Iliad could well have been *written* at one time.

    The Greek alphabet wasn’t invented until about four or five hundred years after the Trojan War, though; for a long time the story was passed down as a spoken performance, recited by bards. Would smart bards have added the local heroes of whatever audience they were facing? If they didn’t, how would the audience react?

    (And remember, they were often speaking on threshing floors, with an audience equipped with flails!)

    • says

      That’s a good point: composed and written are not the same thing.

      Homer may have been the first bard to write the epic down and thus “crystallize” a form of it. Maybe a form very similar to the one we now have, although we know it was highly variable and still being altered even in the Hellenistic period, especially in the so-called “vulgar” or “popular” edition, in contrast to the scholar’s edition whose text was increasingly stabilized by scientific principles of philology that had been invented by the scholars of Alexandria shortly after Aristotle. (Although as I understand it, Greek city-states were still inserting themselves into their copies of Homer even then, and Alexandrian scholars were striving to catch and purge those alterations.)

  6. TheVirginian says

    I don’t have time to read the whole article, which I will as I have a long-standing interest in the Bronze Age cultures. Several items:

    1) The Iliad is almost certainly a composite drawn from various older works and possibly reflecting some real situations from different times and places that are fictionally conjoined. Hector and Achilles have Greek names and might have been Greek princes who had a legendary feud. Other characters come from places that likely had little if any connection to a historical Troy, so again they might reflect real people in real conflicts reimagined in a fictional setting.

    2) Priam and Paris have western Anatolian names (Pariyamus and Paraziti). Paris also has a Greek name, so it’s possible that the real Trojans were partially Hellenized, with both Anatolian and Greek names. According to one scholar, Alexander (Paris’ alter name)includes the word for man (Andros) which is the same as the (Pari/a) in Anatolian (I’m doing this from memory, so please don’t beat me too hard if my memory is faulty).

    3) The significance of 2 is that the Hittites have a record of a war in western Anatolia on behalf of Alexadush (Alexander) of Wilusa (almost certainly Ilium) against an enemy who likely were Greeks. So Alexander/Paris might reflect a real person given a fictional history. (Imagine if there was a real King Arthur and some other real people in the historical version of Camelot. We can’t trust the Arthurian stories, but they would then have some real basis in history.) There’s a lot more fascinating historical info and speculation here. Barring discovery of Troy’s lost archives, we’ll probably never know. But The Iliad might include a distant memory of real people.

    No “social networking” was involved. Rather, poets earned their keep by singing stories that appealed to royal hosts (The Iliad treats the Greek characters mostly in a heroic fashion, which would have pleased the descendants of the Achaeans, but it also treats the Trojans heroically, a rarity – if not unique – in Bronze Age and much Iron Age literature, so the poets were playing for both Greek and Anatolian audiences and tried to make sure no one got too ticked off so as to kick the poet out of a royal banquet, or even into a royal dungeon.)

  7. Donovan says

    My sister is trying to do grad work on the genealogy of King Arthur’s legends. I’ll be sure to send her a link to the article and your criticism. As you say, the method is unique and interesting.

  8. Iain Walker says

    Another oddity about choosing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as a control is how it seems to neglect how portrayals of social networks can be skewed by narrative techniques and character viewpoints. With few exceptions, Rowling uses a restricted third-person narrative style so that most of what the reader sees is filtered through Harry – a somewhat introverted character who is not the greatest observer of social interactions. So, for example, we get a strong focus on inter-House rivalries (especially in sport), but we see nothing of the presumably less adversarial interactions based on non-House-based school clubs and societies (we’re told they exist, but that’s it). So it’s not just that the setting of an old fashioned British boarding school is unlikely to resemble Facebook in its social network properties – it’s also that even if it did, this wouldn’t necessarily be obvious given the limited viewpoint through which the reader experiences it.

  9. jakc says

    I think you’re right Richard that this could have been an interesting study had they stuck to the connections and similarities they did find, but instead they reach one of those Emily Litello moments (what’s all this I hear about endangered feces?)

  10. Jeffrey Kramer says

    …the tale [of the Iliad] as a whole was freely built up over a very long span of time. Yes, that means a man named Homer did not write the Iliad, at least the Iliad we have, but rather a series of anonymous bards over many centuries did.

    The word “write” here is somewhat ambiguous. Even if one man did not invent all the plot elements, one man might still have composed all of the text as we have it. Charles Perrault didn’t invent any of the famous folk tales, but he did (so far as we know) write every word of the Tales of Mother Goose.

    • says

      That’s a valid point (writer and composer are not the same thing), although the analogy is not entirely apt, as the Homeric works are sung in meter (and thus there is much less room for innovation when the lines have been perfected over centuries of performance, and will be already familiar to any audience) and clearly not composed by one person (e.g. the bronze age and iron age material). Moreover, we can already see Homer change continually in the manuscript evidence (mostly papyri fragments) between the Hellenistic and Roman eras, particularly the “vulgar” Homer (the versions most commonly sung among the public and not maintained by professional antiquarians)–but even in the scholastic Homer we have evidence that people were still changing the text all across the centuries after Homer supposedly composed it.

      Nevertheless, our Homer may be very close to a particular 9th century text written down by one bard in a centuries old tradition, who may have been named Homer. But as the text he wrote down had already mostly been composed for him over many centuries, the fact of his writing it down wouldn’t be relevant to this social network study.

  11. lpetrich says

    When I cam across that paper, I was more sympathetic to it than what our host may think appropriate. But I also had questions about it.

    However, there is a lot of comparison work that was left undone. What happens when one removes the central characters in the fictional works that they analyzed? What are the statistics of detailed biographies of well-documented people? Of detailed histories of well-documented events? What happens when one removes the central characters from those?

    Like a history of the US Civil War or World War II, and biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Hideki Tojo, etc.

    Or a history of the discovery of quantum mechanics, something that took place over several years, and that had no central figure.

    This work can be extended to the more reliable ancient histories, like Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, and the later parts of Livy’s History of Rome. The earlier parts of Livy’s history would be an interesting comparison.

    As to mythological works, one could look at some from the Middle Ages that were based on real people and events. The Song of Roland was based on the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778, and its oldest manuscript dates back to 1140 – 1170. Likewise, Theodoric the Great ruled Italy around 500 CE, and legendary mentions as Dietrich von Bern start around 800 CE.

    There’s also the problem that the authors’ approach is rather subjective and labor-intensive. They resorted to that after discovering that different encyclopedias of mythology give different relationships, meaning that that sort of shortcut is not very useful.

  12. timwidowfield says

    Unsettled Joel seems convinced that the study’s authors are “real scientists” who know “how it’s done.” Apparently, he thinks the study “points to some known facts about Peter, Andrew, James, and John . . . and Jesus.”

    Bless his heart.

    • says

      Wait. Is this really all he said:

      I haven’t read the article yet – but I will. From the summation, I think it points to some known facts about Peter, Andrew, James, and John… and Jesus.

      By the way – the paper is based on complexity, along the lines of Game Theory. I’ll focus on that a bit later.

      !?

      “I haven’t read the article yet, but…” has to be one of the stupidest things he could possibly have prefaced that sentence with.

      I am also a little perplexed how he thinks social network theory is Game Theory, or whether he means “complexity” as in the study was complex or studied complex networks (an inane thing to say), or “complexity” as in chaos theory (a completely bonkers thing to say).

      I can only speculate that he thinks the fact that Peter and Andrew are socially connected (as brothers) and James and John are socially connected (as brothers) makes the Gospels into a realistic Facebook-style network. He will be sadly disappointed when he actually reads the article and finds out that that simply isn’t anywhere near enough to cut it. Not least because the Gospels have them all know each other, thus producing a “too small world” effect (without clustering, as Jesus is clustered with all of them), which the papers’ authors declare evidence of fiction. (Although as I explain in my article, that is still a fallacious conclusion.)

    • F says

      Richard:

      Maybe he is using complexity in that magical manner such as we have in the creationist term specified complexity. Or maybe it is all complete word salad without any particular meaning assigned to complexity at all. But Bible-believing engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists like to concoct gibberish that looks like it might be real (and could probably be run through some sort of scientific textual analysis itself, for laughs), and that they may even believe, for purposes of propaganda.

  13. filipposalustri says

    Richard,
    You pick one rather nasty paper full of holes and then generalize the heck out of it.
    “Scientists need to…” do this and that and the other thing. The generalization implied there is, I think, fallacious.

    No. Only some scientists need to do that, just like some philosophers (not you of course) need to get a clue about science.

    In my mind, the real distinction is not between scientists and philosophers, but rather between good (scientists & philosophers) and bad (scientists & philosophers).

    • says

      You said the title accused all scientists of being bad (it doesn’t). Now you are moving the goal posts and saying the article makes some false generalizations.

      Apparently you want to brush under the rug the fact that your original claim was false and silly. That’s fine. Let’s now talk about your entirely new claim:

      The very first generalization in my paper states “Sometimes scientists can be so clueless…”

      Hmmm. Your claims of false generalization are starting to seriously collapse already.

      Now let’s see if any of my other generalizations are false:

      “Scientists Need to Learn How Historical Fiction Works”

      Is that a false statement? No. It’s true.

      Maybe many scientists have satisfied the proposition. But they still need to have done so. That would be why any did (if in fact they have). And when scientists fail to do that (as these scientists did), what we get is bad science.

      Likewise:

      “Scientists Need to Learn Logic”

      Do I ever claim no scientists do this? Nope. I only show that these scientists didn’t. Thus they violated what should be a basic principle in science: the requirement to learn logic. Failing to do so will risk leading scientists to make boner mistakes like this one, reducing the quality of science produced. Science can only be consistently good if it is consistently informed by a sound understanding of logic.

      That is a true generalization. And any scientist foolish enough to gainsay it will get intellectual pie all over hir face.

      Note that my very second sentence affirms what you are: that some scientists, not all, do these things. At no point do I generalize to say all scientists do these things or all scientists produce bad science. Moreover, the very title of the piece identifies the subject as bad science. Not all science. But how to identify and define bad science. Thus, my article already entails an assumption of a difference between good science and bad, and even spells out what that difference is (in studies like this one).

      So you really aren’t gainsaying anything in my article.

    • filipposalustri says

      It seems to me that the tone of the whole article is based on reaching out to non-philosophers. As such, I can don my engineer’s hat and look at statements prominently displayed in the headings as indictments of the entire group, “scientists.”

      If, on the other hand, you want to address only philosophers, who have their own technical language (and that’s just fine), then perhaps that should be made clear in the preamble.

      I look to people like you, who know about fields about which I know very little, for guidance. I don’t mind you correcting my errors at all, but I would also appreciate it if you could put yourself in your audience’s shoes. We’re not all philosophers. We’re not all historians. But many of us do value your work.

    • F says

      You are claiming something that didn’t happen.

      What part of Scientists need to learn logic do you disagree with? If none, then how do we address those scientists which have failed to do so?

      I imagine you are reading an accusation into this where there is none. All scientists need a refresher course in remedial logic because none show any sign that they understand it. This is not what was said.

      If you are stuck on the road with some dangerous or inconsiderate jerks, and make the comment, People need to learn how to drive, is that an indictment against all people, or all motorists? I should think not.

  14. says

    Tru-Facts: Beowulf proves the Earth is young because Beowulf ripped Grendel’s arm off, which means that Grendel had wimpy T-rex arms, which means that Grendle was a theropod. /Tru-Facts

    I wish I could say I invented Beowulf apologetics, but I actually stumbled upon that argument 5 years ago when I was first getting interested in the God debate. Regarding this paper, even if Beowulf was based on a historic person, that wouldn’t mean Grendel or his mom were real. That wouldn’t mean the sea monsters were real, nor the dragon who killed him. Likewise, even if this network analysis could support the historicity of the Jesus figure, that wouldn’t give any credence to the claim of the virgin birth, the resurrection, or any other part of the Christian dogma. Or if it does, then I have a 105 min documentary proving that our 16th President was a slayer of the undead.

  15. Jeffrey Kramer says

    (I don’t know how to attach this to your reply to my comment, so…)

    Say we place the text of the Iliad as we more-or-less have it around the 8th century B.C. And say that we have good reason to believe that one episode is based on events from the 10th century B.C., and would have originally been sung in meter by some local bard of that period. That doesn’t mean that Homer necessarily adopted the 10th century bard’s song in its original form. He might have thought the original bard was an incompetent amateur who didn’t know how to sling an epithet, and thus recast the episode entirely in his own words.

    Somewhat analogously, the fact that Shakespeare grabbed bits of the main plot of King Lear from earlier plays and earlier history books, took the subplot from a prose romance by Philip Sidney, and got some of the devils’ names from a contemporary anti-Catholic pamphlet doesn’t make us hesitate to say “Shakespeare wrote King Lear“: we say he wrote it, because he put it all into his words. Obviously it would be quite different if he had just stitched together big chunks of text from those sources.

    My very unexpert sense of the scholarly consensus is that the Iliad is considered “of a piece” in poetic style, and so is the work of one author in much the same sense that King Lear is. Or maybe the Kalevala might be a closer analogy: Lonnrot collected and consulted and studied dozens or maybe hundreds of oral and written tales, and got the storylines and characters’ names from them, but he wrote all the verses of the finished work (no pun intended) in his own words and his own style.

    • says

      Jeffrey Kramer:

      (I don’t know how to attach this to your reply to my comment, so…)

      Just FYI, you would do that by replying to the comment that leads the sub-thread (the first comment before the “1.” comment, which is the first comment in that subthread that will have a “reply” hyperlink on it). The server will then sort the comments by time submitted, and thus in order. Although I have seen it screw this up from time to time (and post comments out of order).

      He might have thought the original bard was an incompetent amateur who didn’t know how to sling an epithet, and thus recast the episode entirely in his own words.

      That’s very improbable. But you’d have to know something about Homeric studies to understand why. For example, Homer was still being sung and thus widely familiar across at least two continents before it was written down. If Homer wrote something substantially different down, then someone else would have written down the version that was actually far more popular, and we would have two versions. We don’t. Likewise, Homer composed by using repeatable units of sentence that shared the same meter, which is a practice indicative of bardic improvisation and not unique authorship, i.e. the text shows signs of being sung out of order and with improvisation of the placement of lines. That means the text was designed to be easily memorized, and probably went through many redactions. Which is a property you would expect of a centuries-in-the-making bardic composition, but less so of an author trying to “do it better” or be unique. Similarly, a single author aiming to improve on an original would smooth out the discrepancies (there would not be random switching between bronze and iron age), not preserve them–preserving them suggests preserving the original words and meter, which is the opposite of trying to be original. And so on. (This does not exhaust all the reasons Homeric scholars suspect the composition was many centuries in the making.)

    • Jeffrey Kramer says

      If Homer wrote something substantially different down, then someone else would have written down the version that was actually far more popular, and we would have two versions. We don’t.

      I don’t understand why this would be the default assumption. The Arcadian Iron Age song of Episode A could have been popular when first composed, but why wouldn’t it be plausible for a later version of that episode, embedded in a grander narrative, to have become so much more popular on first hearing that it drove the old song to extinction before it had a chance to be written down? (And so with the Mycenaean song of Episode M and the Theban song of Episode T and so forth.)

      Similarly, a single author aiming to improve on an original would smooth out the discrepancies (there would not be random switching between bronze and iron age), not preserve them.

      Authors and readers/listeners aren’t always as conscious of these kinds of discrepancies as are modern scholars, or maybe are just not as concerned about them. According to one sketch we have, the costumes worn by “Roman” characters in the drama of Shakespeare’s time were apparently togas wrapped around medievalish armor topped by a fashionable Elizabethan hat. The characters of King Lear swear by the classical deities like Apollo and Hecate, but carry very unclassical ranks like Duke and Earl.

    • says

      Possible does not equal probable. It’s not likely that Homer could eclipse hundreds of years of widespread tradition across hundreds of city states. That it’s “possible” is irrelevant to that conclusion.

      And the costume and prop directions in Shakespeare are internally consistent. In Homer they are not. That’s the point.

    • Jeffrey Kramer says

      But local variations of all sorts of things do get eclipsed all the time. If it hadn’t been for the particular efforts of anthropologists and folklorists, for example, pretty much the only version of Cinderella we’d have now would be the Disney version.

      Unless you are saying that all the hundreds of local tales about all the hundreds of local heroes are preserved in the Iliad, as the local bards sang them, then it is indisputable that many such tales — one would imagine the great majority of them — were lost before they could be written down. Plenty of “characters” in the Iliad who might have been major figures in their original locales are just a name and a brief eulogy in the epic. Why then assume that such tales are routinely preserved in their place of origin for hundreds of years out of local pride, with all foreign variants rejected?

      I don’t know which discrepancies you have in mind. If it’s something like a hero driving a bronze age chariot in one episode, but later describing himself ruling a kingdom with iron age customs, what would this show? How would this be different from a character who is addressed with the post-Norman title “earl” but later swears by the classical deity Apollo?

    • says

      Plenty of “characters” in the Iliad who might have been major figures in their original locales are just a name and a brief eulogy in the epic. Why then assume that such tales are routinely preserved in their place of origin for hundreds of years out of local pride, with all foreign variants rejected?

      That isn’t what I meant. I mean the Iliad and Odyssey as a whole were being regularly sung over hundreds of city-states across two continents. Homer cannot have been the first to compose those epics if they show signs of accumulation over centuries. Therefore they were well-known everywhere. His version of them cannot have deviated greatly from the popular versions and expected to eclipse them. Like the QWERTY keyboard, thousands of bards had already memorized the popular version, and audiences already craved its repetition. His would just lose.

      I don’t know which discrepancies you have in mind. If it’s something like a hero driving a bronze age chariot in one episode, but later describing himself ruling a kingdom with iron age customs, what would this show? How would this be different from a character who is addressed with the post-Norman title “earl” but later swears by the classical deity Apollo?

      Because the latter can be internally consistent (it’s just a mashup). The former is not, it varies by pericope. So a correct analogy would be a character addressed as “earl” in one section, but then addressed as “legate” in another, as if the author forgot which he was. Homer has characters fighting with bronze tools, weapons, and armor at one point, and iron at another. That indicates his material predates him, and was not composed by one author, or even in one century.

      And again, the way lines and cliched phrases are used, assembled, and repeated throughout Homer demonstrates it was a bardic performance that was often subject to innovation in arrangement of familiar lines and phrases and designed to be easily memorized. A single author is much less likely to have anticipated this need and so successfully planned for it (by contrast, the Aeneid largely lacks this feature, being written by a single author, Virgil, it shows more variety of phrasing and attention to the written structure). Whereas a composition evolved over centuries by practicing bards would look just like it. Thus it’s more likely Homer was writing down a well-established performance piece, than recomposing it anew.

  16. Jeffrey Kramer says

    (P.S. I wasn’t arguing at all against your criticism of the assumption that social networking implies historicity.)

    (P.P. S. as long as I’m here, at 11:23 you meant “principles of philology” [not "philanthropy"], right?)

  17. Roo Bookaroo says

    I hope it is not prying if I venture to ask you what was the subject of your Ph.D. thesis?
    I gathered it must have been in history of Ancient philosophy, as I vaguely recall having read that directly in one of your posts about female philosophers.

    But I have not been able to trace the subject of your thesis.
    I can only thank you in advance for enlightening me (us?)

    • says

      If you went to my website and clicked on the About page you would notice a prominent CV link. In scholarspeak that’s “curriculum vitae,” lit. “course of life,” meaning one’s academic history. Reading that would have answered your question.

      But in short:

      For my Ph.D. I completed four graduate majors to receive the M.Phil. (which is above an M.A., equivalent to ABD), involving coursework, papers, and interviews, and culminating in a four-hour long oral exam by a committee of professors. Those majors were Greco-Roman Philosophy (including science), Religion (pagan, Jewish, and Christian), Historiography (historical methods, ancient and modern), and Fall of the Roman Empire (I don’t include that on my CV because I find it terribly dull and don’t ever want to teach it). My dissertation subject was “Attitudes Toward the Natural Philosopher in the Early Roman Empire (100 B.C. to 313 A.D.)” [which included separate chapters on technology and on Christianity which were both cut after the last committee meeting, for exceeding the desired word count and being unnecessary to the overall thesis].

      Of course in getting to that point I racked up a lot of formal experience in other subfields (like papyrology, paleography, classical languages and literature, Roman economics and social history, etc.).

  18. SM says

    Does anyone else notice the problem with treating -Richard III- as pure fiction? Its a story based on real history but altered for various reasons, like they try to argue the -Iliad- and -Beowulf- are. I still can’t believe that their reviewers didn’t notice that they needed a control group of historical narratives so they could say whether a given work’s social networks looked more like those in fictional or historical narratives.

    • says

      This is the text in question (Zechariah 6:11-13):

      Then take silver and gold, and make crowns, and set them upon the head of Joshua [that's the name Jesus in modern English] the son of Josedech [which meams "Jehovah the Righteous," hence "Jesus the son of Jehovah the Righteous," though this was originally an actual historical man, clearly Philo thinks not], the high priest, and speak unto him, saying, “Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, ‘Behold the man whose name is The BRANCH [LXX: "Rising"]; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD: even he shall build the temple of the LORD; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both’.”

      Clearly, when Philo says the being who is here named “Rising” (in a coronation ceremony) is the firstborn son of God, high priest of the cosmic temple, the Logos, agent of creation, and so on, he is talking about the man here named Jesus (in fact, “Jesus son of Jehovah the Righteous,” thus explaining why Philo identifies him with the firstborn son of God; and in fact Jesus “the high priest,” thus explaining why Philo identifies him with the cosmic high priest). Because that is what the passage says: this man called Jesus shall be named “Rising” (in the LXX), as he is in this very coronation ceremony.

  19. Scott says

    I think the biggest clue that there might be a problem in that line of reasoning is that if they applied the same logic to the recent slew of superhero movies I think they’d get the same result for the “Marvel Universe”. Or maybe my high-school textbooks just forgot to mention Captain America when we studied WWII.

    • says

      The Marvel Universe has actually been done (they reference previous work on mathematical social network models of it). It was found to be unrealistic. Those previous studies found (these authors assert):

      Analysis showed that, while it mimicked other social networks to an extent, it was unable to hide its artificial nature.

      The reasoning appears to be that there was a “too small world” effect of some kind (the bigwigs are too numerous and meet each other too often).

    • busterggi says

      I wonder what they would would conclude about the old west of the 1870′s through ’90′s where all the seemingly legendary but very real prominent figures like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and dozens of others all knew one another – would they conclude it is too coincedental even though its true?

  20. Roger says

    ‘Bohannon claims earlier on, of Beowulf and the Iliad, that “historians and archaeologists agree that much of those ancient narratives was based on real people and events.”’
    …only the facts have been changed to make them more exciting.

  21. Apxeo says

    There seems to have been a surge of activity in the hobby of sciencing-up history. I wonder why.

    The technique in the article is kind of fun and has uses, but the article itself is definitely irritating. The obvious problem is that scientists (or, in some cases, self-identified scientists) who engage in this pastime usually see history simply as a source of interchangeable numbers that can be harvested and fed into their pet quantitative/theoretical hobby-horse. Whatever comes out is good. They don’t worry about what historical or scholarly processes might have gone into creating a particular number, just as long as it’s a number. I just took a stab at reading Steven Pinker’s latest doorstop, so that is a sore spot.

    To add insult, it is plain that historical evidence has historical context and is social constructed. But many history-as-science hobbyists believe this rather obvious fact smacks of relativism or even postmodernism. So thinking critically about the evidence becomes, not only unnecessary, but undesirable.

    I am sure you have seen this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, but here it is anyway.

  22. kenna says

    BAD BLOGGING PROVES YOU DIDN’T READ THE PAPER

    Richard,

    Your article is riddled with mistakes – you attribute statements to us which we do not make in our paper and one wonders whether you bothered to read the original paper at all. Or have you based your entire commentary on second-hand accounts of our work?

    Your article opens with a statement “Scientists prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories”.
    This is irresponsible of you – at no point do we make such claims.

    About the Iliad, you state “So it would be absurd to suggest the characters in it are likely to be real”. Again, make no such claims or suggestions and it is irresponsible of you to misrepresent us.

    You missed entirely the point of our research, which was to evaluate the artificiality of the Táin in particular, a culturally significant Irish text. Mainstream academic opinion claims it is wholly artificial. To investigate this, we compare the society in the Táin to the societies in Beowulf and the Iliad. This is the main thrust of our article.
    The fact that you have not mentioned the Táin in your entire criticism indicates that you have completely missed the point of our paper.

    Allow me to summarise:
    Mainstream opinion – as you admit – is that the Beowulf myth may be based upon a real society. This is why we compare the network structure of the Táin to that of Beowulf. We find similarities except for anomalies associated with the connectivities of a small group of characters. This small group has similar properties to networks in intentionally fictitious narratives. This suggests the artificiality of the Táin network may lie with that small group. To investigate the Táin further, we need to compare it to a larger network.

    The obvious choice is to compare to the Iliad. At first sight the Táin and Iliad networks look quite different. We ask what it would take to render the Táin network more realistic. The comparison to the Iliad guides us in tweaking the Táin to achieve this. The point is that this tweaking involves only 6 of the 404 characters.

    Furthermore, in our paper, we do not claim that individual characters exist. We only remove the character Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxon network because of the established opinion that you mention in your article. We do not remove the top 6 characters in the Táin because there is no guiding basis in the literature to do so. Instead we only adjust the links of these characters.

    On the basis of this manipulation, we speculate (certainly not “prove”) that the plausibility of the Irish text is comparable to the others from a network-theoretic point of view. Note that we carefully qualify the speculation by stating it is only “from a network-theoretic point of view”. Obviously there are other considerations, but we leave those to antiquarians, mythologists, archaeologists and other experts.

    Thus we do not claim to “prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories”, as you claim we do. Instead we suggest that, if you believe that the societies in Beowulf and the Iliad are based on reality, then “from a network-theoretic point of view” the adjusted Táin network looks similar to them.

    I would like to finish by addressing a few more points raised.

    - The comparison to obviously fictitious networks (which you focus on) is designed to contextualise the other networks – to gain an inkling into what obvious, intentional fiction might look like. (We explicitly use the words “definitely fictional” and “intentionally fictional”.) The fictional narratives we chose are not meant to represent the entire corpus of fictional literature in the World. (Thus your point #2 is irrelevant.) Instead it allows us to speculate that the top 6 characters of the Táin have properties similar to obvious fiction. They make the Táin look like an “iron age comic”.

    - Other imagined narratives could appear more real than fictional, but that is not the point: the point is that the adjusted Táin network appears as realistic as the Beowulf/Iliad networks.

    - Koray objects that it is published in a physics journal. We felt it important that our technique be first peer reviewed by experts from the physics community – by experts in network theory – before we bring it to a humanities community which may be less proficient in the mathematical tools we employ. The journal itself evidently agreed.

    - The paper is the first application of network theory to comparative mythology. As such it is an initial foray into the topic. This is why it is published as a Letter rather than as a more extensive, regular article.

    - You suggest studying a number of other texts. Indeed we have a number of other texts under scrutiny. But (and in contrast to your own article) we do not intend to comment upon them until the results have been peer reviewed in the standard manner.

    Finally, your own agenda appears to be revealed at the end of your blog. We have no interest in, and do not comment on, religious texts. Nor do we have any interest in, or intention to, being party to a debate on religion.

    To summarise, we do not “conclude a mythical hero existed because the social network he is inserted into looks real” or make other remarks you attribute to us. Instead the aim of our paper is to compare the social network underlying the Irish Táin to two other iconic myths, a point completely missed in your article.

    Ralph Kenna

    • says

      Dr. Ralph Kenna:


      Your article opens with a statement “Scientists prove Beowulf and the Iliad are true stories”. This is irresponsible of you – at no point do we make such claims.

      That’s true, I was being facetious in my opening line. And I misrepresented you on the matter of the Beowulf character. I have emended the first paragraph to make that clear, and in a later paragraph discussing Beowulf I now state your position correctly. I apologize if the opening line misled anyone, and for the error on Beowulf.

      What the rest of the article takes to task was not that, of course, but attempting to prove the historicity of any characters in myths by this method. As you wrote:

      the societies in the Iliad and Beowulf (without the eponymous protagonist) may be based on reality (p4)

      and

      In an attempt to place the three mythological networks on the spectrum from the real to the fictitious, we compared their properties to actual and imaginary social networks. … Of the three myths, the network of characters in the Iliad has properties most similar to those of real social networks. It has a power-law degree distribution (with an exponential cut-off), is small world, assortative, vulnerable to targeted attack and is structurally balanced. This similarity perhaps reflects the archaeological evidence supporting the historicity of some of the events of the Iliad. (p5)

      Which of course only makes sense if you are saying your analysis supports the historicity of the characters in the Iliad (since that is the only data you analyzed, not separate data for the “events” without the characters). So when you now claim…


      About the Iliad, you state “So it would be absurd to suggest the characters in it are likely to be real”. Again, make no such claims or suggestions and it is irresponsible of you to misrepresent us.

      …I am really at a loss for how your paper’s conclusion can logically follow from its premises at all. If the characters aren’t real, why would their social network looking real support the historicity of anything in the story? By not even attempting to answer that question, your paper’s only identifiable argument is that the only way their social network looking real would support the historicity of anything in the story is by supporting the historicity of the characters. If that is not the paper’s argument, then what is it? How do you get real historical events from non-existent characters, and do that by proving that those non-existent characters have realistic relationships?


      You missed entirely the point of our research, which was to evaluate the artificiality of the Táin in particular, a culturally significant Irish text.

      Your paper does not single that out any more than the other two. It was just one example of three. Which I didn’t mention because you could not find a realistic network in it and so concluded it was ahistorical (although as I point out in my article, that does not actually follow either). And even in this case you tried to suggest historicity could be supported by your method (emphasis mine):

      We speculate that these characters may in fact be based on amalgams of a number of entities and proxies. … We therefore suggest that if the society in the Tain is to be believed, each of the top six characters is likely an amalgam that became fused as the narrative. (p6)

      This is indeed pure speculation. Which in history is good for little. It is just as likely, if not more likely, that those characters are complete fabrications. Thus your method cannot support your speculation over the alternative. It is therefore of no use to historians.


      we compare the society in the Táin to the societies in Beowulf and the Iliad. This is the main thrust of our article.

      No it isn’t. At no point in the article or its abstract is the Tain singled out as the focus of the article. The main thrust of the article is the comparison of those three myths with four works of modern fiction. If that isn’t the article you intended to write, then you should have written a different article.

      Much of the rest of your reply, indeed, looks like that imaginary article you didn’t write: here you make an argument that isn’t in the published paper. Indeed, the argument you now present is better than the published paper. But it still doesn’t work, for all the reasons I enumerated in my critique.


      The fictional narratives we chose are not meant to represent the entire corpus of fictional literature in the World. (Thus your point #2 is irrelevant.) Instead it allows us to speculate that the top 6 characters of the Táin have properties similar to obvious fiction. They make the Táin look like an “iron age comic”.

      This is nonsense historically. You evidently missed my point. The cultural context and aims and even economic and productive context of modern comic books does not resemble at all that of ancient and medieval myths. It’s a false comparison. Actual histories of actual people can also look the same, for the reasons I illustrated (thus the features of fiction are not indicative of fictional networks, when real networks can be described the same way by a historian selectively choosing which characters to discuss, and by ancient elite society being a smaller and more interconnected world than, for example, Facebook communities). Comic book “universes” are deliberately collusive for economic reasons and for reasons of collaborative play. Whereas myths are designed to allegorize social institutions and values and its characters are created and merged for specific reasons very unlike the reasons comic book characters are. These two genres therefore do not have enough causal similarity to be measured by your technique as if they were comparable.

      Moreover, what you are now claiming above is false. Your paper says:

      To facilitate comparison between our mythological networks and other real and imaginary networks, we also look here at four works of fiction. With these at our disposal, we seek to compare mythological narratives to other networks, ranging from the real to the imaginary. (p2)

      First of all, your paper doesn’t do this. It doesn’t analyze any real historical narratives to establish the properties of how they describe networks (and just picking a few wouldn’t do it, since there are so many diverse ways a historical account can be written, as I explain). So it doesn’t compare “our mythological networks” with “other real” networks in the relevant way (by looking at written accounts of real networks, rather than the actual networks themselves).

      But more importantly, your paper sets up a spectrum of “real” to “fictional” (your words, repeated throughout the paper) using just four works of fiction to establish what “fictional” networks look like (you use them to assign the “fictional” end of the spectrum). That is precisely the fallacy I call out. It’s simply bad science. And you don’t even do the same for the other end of the spectrum. Instead, you define the other end with actual data (real networks), and not with written accounts (thus the spectrum doesn’t even properly represent a spectrum of literature from true to fictional at all).

      Thus when you say you “turn our attention to networks which are definitely fictional” (p4) you miss the point that works that are definitely factual could have exactly the same appearance, i.e. describe networks in ways that look just as artificial, even for the same reasons you speculate those modern works of fiction do. You also fail to suggest that works that are definitely fictional might also emulate real networks, for reasons other than being derived from real networks (a rather crucial point when questioning the historicity of texts that depict realistic networks). In other words, at no point in your paper do you ask what other causes there may be for that outcome. You simply assume “real networks” are the only things that can cause realistic networks in literature.

      This is what your paper actually argues (emphasis mine):

      The question arises whether these characteristics are properties of non-comic fictional literature in general or whether this may truly signal a degree of historicity underlying the three mythological narratives. To investigate this, we applied our network tools to four narratives from fictional literature. (p4)

      That’s what your paper does. So you are not giving a correct account of your own paper here.

      Your paper, as quoted, says that to answer the question of whether “historicity” (I repeat: historicity) underlies the “three mythological narratives” (so, again, your paper is talking about all three together, not Tain specifically) you need to determine the network properties of “four narratives from [modern] fictional literature.” That is bad science, on multiple levels, as my critique explains. This comparison cannot answer the question of historicity, four works of fiction is not sufficient to establish a baseline for what is “normal” for fiction, and modern fiction is too unlike ancient myth to be a relevant comparison point in the first place.

      Koray objects that it is published in a physics journal.

      For the record, I have no problem with where it was published. As long as the research was conducted in close consultation with historical experts on the materials tested (modern fiction, ancient myth, Homeric studies, etc.).

      And I concur with your worry that the humanities community might have been too scared of the mathematical technique to publish it. I have met with the same fear in promoting Bayesian reasoning in the humanities.


      Finally, your own agenda appears to be revealed at the end of your blog. We have no interest in, and do not comment on, religious texts. Nor do we have any interest in, or intention to, being party to a debate on religion.

      I never suggested you would. It is others on the internet who have been touting your paper as a path to proving the historicity of Jesus, and my last paragraph makes that clear (that this is not your agenda, but theirs). I only mention it because this is the thing I study, and people want to know what my opinion is of the suggestion (made by others, not you) that this technique could be adapted to the question of Jesus.

      (Although, BTW, the Iliad is a religious text. So you have indeed commented on a religious text. Just not a religion anyone follows anymore–unless you count neopagans. And I don’t think you should be any more averse to analyzing the texts of living religions.)

  23. Koray says

    That “the physics community” are “the” experts in network theory would be news to mathematicians & computer scientists.

    • Mark Erickson says

      Kenna’s research speciality is statistical physics, so that would explain why he went to a physics journal. Not a defense from me, just FYI.

  24. says

    The paper/letter would have been at least interesting if it had used a few real networks as a “controls” along with the fictional ones.

    Facebook doesn’t strike me as a “real” network, though. Sure, it exists, but only for advertising and data mining purposes, and its structure is dictated by the limits of the technology and the wishes of its directors. It is constantly pushing and prodding for new members and new connections, in a sea of fake and doubled accounts, in a way that is no more “real” than the Marvel universe.

  25. Ralph Kenna says

    Richard,

    You are using disingenuous tactics to pursue your own agenda. Having exposed your opening sentence as rubbish, you respond by saying it was meant facetiously. You then take a few sentences out of context, highlight a few words here and there to alter meaning and use this to try to justify your initial critique, which, as you are forced to admit, is misrepresentative and misleading.

    You quote
    “the societies in the Iliad and Beowulf (without the eponymous protagonist) may be based on reality (p4)”.

    In fact the full sentence reads
    “This corroborates antiquarians’ interpretations of the historicity of these myths (obviously fabulous entities and interactions notwithstanding) – the societies in the Iliad and Beowulf (without the eponymous protagonist) may be based on reality while that of the Táin appears fictional.”

    You miss again the concept of society as a social network. This means the collection of nodes together with the collection of links. It does not mean the collection of characters alone or the collection of events. The unique and pioneering feature of our work – which distinguishes it from previous analyses of mythology – is that we look at the collection of links between characters in a quantitative manner. This collection of links and nodes has similar features to many collections of links and nodes of real social networks.
    You ask “If the characters aren’t real, why would their social network looking real support the historicity of anything in the story?” You also ask “How do you get real historical events from non-existent characters, and do that by proving that those non-existent characters have realistic relationships?” Our answer is that it is possible that groups of mythological characters – each of whom are not real – may actually be based on groups of sets of real characters and antecedents. Each of these sets may have become amalgamated into exaggerated, apparent individuals throughout the retelling of the tales. This would mean that the narrative contains traces of a real social network (real society) but that characters themselves have become exaggerated and distorted – are not real.

    You say our paper does not single out the Táin any more than the other two. You also state “At no point in the article or its abstract is the Táin singled out as the focus of the article“. With these statements, you continue to misrepresent our work.

    In the text, the Táin referred to over 25% more frequently than Beowulf and over 50% more than the Iliad. Over 30% of the abstract concerns the Táin alone, with the remainder concerning all three. The abstract states “This suggests that the perceived artificiality of the Irish narrative can be traced back to anomalous features associated with six characters. Speculating that these are amalgams of several entities or proxies, renders the plausibility of the Irish text comparable to the others from a network-theoretic point of view.”

    You criticise that “your paper sets up a spectrum of real to fictional”. In fact we state that we attempt to place mythological networks on a spectrum from the real to the imaginary. Obviously we cannot give a precise coordinate on a one-dimensional line segment connecting some numerical representation of the entire corpus of world fiction to another numerical representation of the entire corpus of world fact. What we attempt to do is (i) show that (as others have done before us), some obvious fictional networks have strikingly dissimilar properties to some obviously real social networks (ii) the three myths we examine are more nebulous and lie somewhere in between the two extremes we have purposefully chosen (iii) in this framework, the Táin looks more like obvious fiction than either the Iliad or Beowulf (that is what we mean by its position on the spectrum) and (iv) we can tweak the Táin to make it more realistic (v) this tweaking underpins a speculation that we make at the end of the paper.
    Regarding point (ii), obviously some works of fiction will be located at various points along a simplified spectrum and obviously a similar statement holds for some real social networks. Obviously also, it is rather a multi-dimensional construct (hence the various elements or dimensions in Table 2). Obviously ours serves as a simplified, highly approximate, first attempt to contextualise a pioneering concept – an attempt to introduce quantitative tools to a hitherto completely qualitative realm. But we are not interested in real social networks or fictitious ones per se (besides for this purpose of contextualisation). We are interested in universal properties of mythological networks. That is the reason for the title of our paper – I suggest you read that title.

    We do not claim to have proved the historicity of individual characters or demi-gods as you continue to insist we do in the silly headline of your own article.

    You repeat “The main thrust of the article is the comparison of those three myths with four works of modern fiction.” This is, again, _your_ misinterpretation of our paper. To summarise (again) the point of our paper (see again the last part of the abstract and the last sentence of the main text):

    IF there is archaeological evidence for aspects of the Iliad AND the social network looks realistic from a network theoretic point of view, AND IF there is archaeological evidence for some aspects of Beowulf AND the social networks look realistic THEN, as the social network for the Táin looks similarly realistic (after a small degree of manipulation), it is reasonable to SPECULATE (not to claim to prove) that PERHAPS the Irish text has a level of plausibility similar to the other two which has been missed through other approaches.

    Through reading into our paper statements which are not there, through omitting other statements which are there, you distort our message to suit your own agenda. In this, you do your readers a disservice and your article, with its crass, attention-seeking headline, is of a base level, worthy of gutter-press journalism. If you are not willing to read the paper properly, I suggest you to at least read the title and abstract.

    Ralph Kenna

    • says


      This means the collection of nodes together with the collection of links. It does not mean the collection of characters alone or the collection of events. The unique and pioneering feature of our work – which distinguishes it from previous analyses of mythology – is that we look at the collection of links between characters in a quantitative manner. This collection of links and nodes has similar features to many collections of links and nodes of real social networks.

      Which you then claim is evidence the networks are real. Which is impossible if the characters residing at the nodes of the network didn’t exist. No characters, no nodes. No nodes, no network.

      If your paper actually explored ways this could happen (fictional nodes wired up like real networks), then it would not have committed the fallacy of affirming the consequent that I document. That, indeed, would have been a much better paper.


      Our answer is that it is possible that groups of mythological characters – each of whom are not real – may actually be based on groups of sets of real characters and antecedents.

      And where exactly is that answer in your paper? Quote please.

      (And not the paragraphs about possible amalgamation in the Tain; I’m asking for where you discuss this amalgamation theory for the Iliad, or Beowulf)

      This of course would still be useless (“possible” does not get us to “probable”), and ignores the other ways a realistic network could be produced (some of which I discuss). But at least your paper would have been better, again, if it actually said the things you apparently wish it had said.


      You say our paper does not single out the Táin any more than the other two. You also state “At no point in the article or its abstract is the Táin singled out as the focus of the article.” With these statements, you continue to misrepresent our work. [But] in the text, the Táin [is] referred to over 25% more frequently than Beowulf and over 50% more than the Iliad. Over 30% of the abstract concerns the Táin alone, with the remainder concerning all three. The abstract states “This suggests that the perceived artificiality of the Irish narrative can be traced back to anomalous features associated with six characters. Speculating that these are amalgams of several entities or proxies, renders the plausibility of the Irish text comparable to the others from a network-theoretic point of view.”

      None of those facts contradicts what I said, or supports what you said. That you discuss the Tain’s peculiar traits does not make it the paper’s focus, nor does the paper ever say the other two epics were being explored only for the purpose of explaining the oddities of the Tain. At no point is that ever said to be the point of the paper. All three epics are treated as a unit, and compared with the four works of fiction as a unit. That the Tain was more complicated and had to be discussed a little more to cover its weirdness is presented as a consequence of your results, not your objectives.


      the three myths we examine are more nebulous and lie somewhere in between the two extremes we have purposefully chosen

      Where in your paper is this stated of the Iliad or Beowulf? Quotes please.


      we can tweak the Táin to make it more realistic (v) this tweaking underpins a speculation that we make at the end of the paper.

      A speculation that ignores other causes of the same phenomena. As I explain in my critique.


      But we are not interested in real social networks or fictitious ones per se (besides for this purpose of contextualisation). We are interested in universal properties of mythological networks. That is the reason for the title of our paper – I suggest you read that title.

      I did. That’s indeed one of the embarrassing things about it. Only three epics, none from the same culture, language, or historical period, are used to indicate “the universal properties of mythological networks.” That in and of itself is bad science. Imagine determining the universal properties of all mammals by looking at only three furry things.

      And the “universal properties” you find for myth are that “myths” have realistic networks and that this is most likely explained by the characters in them being, at root, historical (you offer no other explanation).

      That is what your paper actually argues. Maybe it’s not what you wish it had argued.


      IF there is archaeological evidence for aspects of the Iliad AND the social network looks realistic from a network theoretic point of view, AND IF there is archaeological evidence for some aspects of Beowulf AND the social networks look realistic THEN, as the social network for the Táin looks similarly realistic (after a small degree of manipulation), it is reasonable to SPECULATE (not to claim to prove) that PERHAPS the Irish text has a level of plausibility similar to the other two which has been missed through other approaches.

      This is not science. Speculating what perhaps might be true is a non-conclusion.

      Moreover, even the reasoning supporting the speculation is illogical. Archaeological evidence for a Trojan-Greek war combined with a realistic network of demigods in the Iliad written centuries later do not combine to equal “it is reasonable” to conclude those networks were as real as the war. For the very reasons I explain.

      And by your own admission the realism in the Tain can only be restored by changing the data, which is a classic example of a retrofitting fallacy: any myth could be made realistic if we get to manipulate the network data in it however we need to make it fit a real pattern.

      In short, you are only making your case worse here, by highlighting even more ways your paper is just bad science, and even worse history.

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