I bought a copy of Common Errors in History, which someone mentioned recently on LW.  There were no copies on Amazon or other bookselling sites, but I found a copy on Ebay.  No wonder it was hard to get - it's a 24-page pamphlet that was printed once, in 1945, by "The Historical Association," London.

I tried to find some common failures of rationality underlying the "common errors" listed.  This is what I concluded:

English students in the mid-20th century learned a lot of history.

This booklet is full of statements such as, "The facts relating to the Corn Laws [of 1815-1849] are more often than not mis-stated in school examination papers," and, "The blockade of Brest and Toulon [during the Napoleonic wars] is usually misunderstood."  My history lessons consisted primarily of repeatedly learning about the American Revolution and making turkeys or pilgrim hats out of colored cardboard.

The English sincerely apologize for their history.

In other countries, textbook authors try to make their own countries look good.  In England, that would seem gauche.  The entries on "Religion in the New England Colonies", "The Causes of the American War of Independence", "The First Chinese War, 1839-42",  "Gladstone and the Turks", and "The Manchurian Crisis, 1931-32" complain that British textbook accounts place all of the blame on Britain.

History is simplified in order to assign blame and credit.

In numerous of the 20 entries, notably "The Dissolution of the Monasteries and Education", "Religion in the New England Colonies", "The Enclosure Movement", "The Causes of the American War of Independence", "The Great Trek", "The First Chinese War", "The Elementary Education Act", and "The Manchurian Crisis", the tract alleges that standard accounts are simplified; and they appear to be simplified in ways that allow a simple causal summary, preferably with one person, side, or act of legislation to receive credit or blame.

Not always.  "The Great Trek" says that the Boers' depart is usually explained as due to their [blameworthy] indignation that the British had freed their slaves; whereas in fact they had a variety of different, equally blameworthy, reasons for leaving.  And the entry on "Bismarck's Alliances" says that the textbook account is overly-complex in that it introduces a second treaty that did not exist.

This is the only general principle I could extract from the book, so it may just be a statistical accident.

 

If anyone would like a copy of the book, send me an email at gmail. But it's very boring.

 

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Since you asked: for me it was disorganized and disorienting to follow. It starts off like you're looking for common errors in history, and then when you start your list, I can't tell if you're saying:

1) what you think are common errors, or
2) what the book claims are common errors, or
3) what general knowledge you have inferred from others' claim of error

or what.

Along the same lines, it's not clear what your bolded summaries are supposed to mean. What does, "the English are so very English" even mean? That they have English attribute X, where X is politeness, understatement, etc? That they're biased in favor of themselves? It doesn't get clearer by reading the passage.

Also, you give a few long lists in the middle of sentences which make it hard to follow to "get to the point", while not giving any information about the items in the list, as if there's some obvious inference I should be making just from the title of each item.

Finally, it's not clear what the general significance of your findings is, other than a chance for someone to get one specific book. It comes off as aimless and vague.

Sorry if I sound rude, but that's what I think.

He is giving his own summary/interpretation of the pamphlet. The things in the article are the takeway points that Phil came up with after reading "Common Errors in History". If you don't know what that is, please reread the first paragraph of the post.

I would have liked to see a link to the original mention/recommendation, or at least a little more context for the recommendation. "I bought a copy of Common Errors in History, which someone mentioned recently on LW." is not a very effective opening sentence for getting me to care about the ensuing post.

I couldn't find the original mention. It was in a discussion about Christopher Columbus and the common error of believing that people of his time believed the world was flat.

I'm inclined to think that if Google can't turn up the discussion using some searching for 'Columbus' or 'Common Errors in History' (as I've verified it does not appear to) then you may be mis-remembering the original source of the mention.

Yes, I red[1] the first paragraph, and I know the difference between common errors in history and "Common Errors in History". But right before the list, PhilGoetz says,

I tried to find some pattern to the "common errors" listed, but this is the best I could do:

And that's what my first criticism was about: are these the general "takeaways", or are they takeaways about history, or about errors in writing history? And then the passages are too short to disambiguate the meaning, forcing me to re-read until I think I know what his point is.

[1] I'm taking to spelling the past tense of "read" this way so people don't have to re-read every sentence that uses it.

You're hoping this "red" thing catches on, I presume? Because it's not otherwise saving anybody effort.

It actually costs effort for me, it interrupts my reading flow when I see an obvious spelling or grammatical error.

The theory that the read/read confusion is a major problem is based on an overly simplistic model of the way people read as well. Experiments have shown that people are capable of interpreting words based on contextual cues from later in the sentence - the brain is receiving visual information from words that come positionally later and uses it to resolve ambiguities while parsing text.

The theory that the read/read confusion is a major problem is based on an overly simplistic model of the way people read as well.

To add to what I said above, I know that it works for me, because when re-reading a post, I always find myself having to check back if there isn't much context. So I'm not sure I'm making a mistake about how people read, just reporting what goes on when I myself read.

The mistake is assuming that because it works for you it will work for others.

I think I'm unusually disrupted by spelling/grammatical errors. I find it extremely hard to read the occasional posts here that use e/em/eir or other gender neutral pronouns instead of he/him/his for example but I assume this is unusual as I haven't seen anyone else mention it. I find it sufficiently distracting that I will usually give up reading a post that does that.

[-][anonymous]11y 2

I had no idea what was going on with e/em/eir. I have never seen them used anywhere else and thought there was some kind of inside joke on lesswrong, something like a play on the word atheist as a'th'ist, as in someone who doesn't believe in the letter combination 'th', or maybe a bad HTML parser trying to insert a th tag, because they seem to be used where the/them/their would be used. It was bugging me enough that I searched for [space]eir[space] and your comment was the first result to directly address it.

Spivak Pronouns if you have not yet been enlightened.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

I get how it works now, anks.

The mistake is assuming that because it works for you it will work for others.

Yes, I erred in thinking that others perceived writing the same way I do. I should point out, though, that you erred in thinking that my claim was based on a simplistic model of reading, rather than what has actually been proven to work, albeit in my limited "data set".

Sorry, didn't realize I was unique in this regard. Obviously, I can infer the meaning from context too, but sometimes -- like at the beginning of the sentence, it takes a second to adjust. And sometimes context can't even disambiguate.

In contrast, if you see "red", you immediately think of the sound of the word "red", which jumps you straight into thinking of past tense. (Again, for me at least.) That's why every other verb like this works the same way (lead-led, breed-bred, etc.).

How about "readed"?

How about "have read"?

"Have read" is already a separate grammatical tense.

How about "did read", which is the same tense, but with excessive emphasis on the act?

You're the judge here; you tell me! Although FWIW, I don't see the point of merely reshuffling the ambiguity to a phrase or variation in emphasis that already exists.

Thank you for replying, but I was quite clear at every point on whether I was reporting things that are in the book, or my interpretation of them.

Finally, it's not clear what the general significance of your findings is, other than a chance for someone to get one specific book. It comes off as aimless and vague.

I disagree with the notion taught in English composition that every composition must have a "general significance". I find essays are often ruined, or at least needlessly lengthened, by the author trying to tie them up neatly, when what is usually of value to me is the separate pieces of data. I think what you object to is actually the un-vague way that it spends all its time listing specifics, rather than vaguely unifying and summarizing.

I disagree with the notion taught in English composition that every composition must have a "general significance".

That's a Less Wrong rule, not one from English composition. And it doesn't mean you have to force-fit each point into supporting a central thesis, just that you should make clear what the signficance of your post is in the context of this site.

think what you object to is actually the un-vague way that it spends all its time listing specifics, rather than vaguely unifying and summarizing.

If each part were clear, I wouldn't have to rely on later passages to disambiguate meaning. See my example here.

(Okay, no the meta-talk has exceede the post length ... bad sign.)

Example:

I tried to find some pattern to the "common errors" listed, but this is the best I could do:

English students in the mid-20th century learned a lot of history.

This booklet is full of statements such as, "The frequent use of the title of Prince of Wales for the native princes before Llywelyn the Last is incorrect... The title of Prince of Wales was adopted only... about 1258,"

This can be red as, "It is an error that English students learned a lot of history, because they mistakenly believe that pre-Llywelyn princes had the title Prince of Wales."

Is that what you meant?

If not, then you can understand why I would have to read further to get your meaning, but by then the post says: "The English are so very English. [Textbooks are biased in favor of the home country. That wouldn't be tolerated in England. In LLLLLL LLLLLLLLLLL LLLLLOOOOOO OOOOOOOOO OOOONNNN NNNNNNNG LIST, the book claims the English are unfairly blamed.]"

And that doesn't help much.

Your very long "LONG" is ugly and will likely screw up some people's rendering of the page.

I put some spaces in. Is it okay now? (It's supposed to be ugly to give the effect of having to skip across a long list to get to the sentence's predicate, but I don't want it messing up rendering.)

Yeah, it's good now.

This can be red as, "It is an error that English students learned a lot of history, because they mistakenly believe that pre-Llywelyn princes had the title Prince of Wales."

That's a misinterpretation that hadn't occurred to me. Fixed.

I don't really know how to describe why I down voted it. There just isn't anything here to talk about or learn. I have no idea why anyone mentioned "Common Errors in History" and you didn't provide a link, so I have no reason to care about it.

Even if I wanted to care, your points don't hold much informative value:

English students in the mid-20th century learned a lot of history.

The examples you give mean nothing to me. I have no idea how important they are in English culture. And, anyway, if I read a pamphlet highlighting common errors in American textbooks I would not assume that every child would have remembered those facts.

The English are so very English.

I can replace this header with any nationality and it is still as valid. The point is interesting, but it isn't given enough treatment that I can actually insert it into my beliefs about English history textbooks. This is the best of the three points.

History is simplified in order to assign blame and credit.

You spend two paragraphs on this point and each paragraph you argue against the point with the first sentence. So I read this as, "X may be true! But it may not. But it may! But it may not."

All in all, the post seems to say, "I found a book because someone somewhere mentioned it for some reason and it wasn't interesting." It makes me wonder why it wasn't a comment in response to the original mention.

It didn't tell me anything useful. I pretty much only found out that there is a pamphlet called "Common Errors in History", which apparently isn't very good. You did make the "history is often oversimplified" point, which is a valuable one to remember, but that's the only useful point in the post. I'd rather have made the whole post be about that point.

I'd save reviews for works that are either good, or mediocre but have good sides that make them valuable for LW readers. I'm not sure why I should need to be told about a bad pamphlet, especially not one that has been out of print since 1945!

It's a fine pamphlet, for what it's supposed to do.

You did make the "history is often oversimplified" point, which is a valuable one to remember, but that's the only useful point in the post. I'd rather have made the whole post be about that point.

The other two points are mainly there for humor. (Though I do find it interesting how much more English students learned about history.)

To PhilGoetz: I've been looking for this pamphlet for two full days now, it's nowhere to be found online (I always surprise myself with just how shocking i find realising there are still things out there NOT on the internet..) and you mention here that we can send you our gmail if we were interested in the book, so YES please - i'm interested! (lindasharif@gmail.com) thank you!!!

History is simplified in order to assign blame and credit.

This looks like a common special case of "History is simplified to form a more coherent narrative", which I'm guessing has a lot to do with hindsight bias. Actually "learning from history" is probably a lot harder than it's made out to be.

If you do like this post and modded it up, please leave a comment explaining why. (It's already back to +1 ... apparently I'm missing out on a treasure trove of karma because of some not-quite-finished articles that should easily get me at least 10 in their present state...)

I thought it was short and interesting, and at any rate not worthy of negative karma.

You might be able to expand the second point as an indication of signaling by the authors. If you want to appear sorry when you were aggressor you may take more blame than is necessary in order to appease those you harmed.


I was momentarily puzzled by your use of the phrase "English students". Mainly because it is also used for people studying English.

Pedantically it should probably be English and Welsh (or whoever the pamphlet covered, I doubt it is just England). In the media the more wordy "students in England" is used to avoid confusion.

Did not downvote.

Could you make the connection to rationality more explicit? (I don't mean in the post necessarily; a reply here in the comments would satisfy me.)

I wanted to see if reading a list of common errors could reveal common ways of making errors.

I'm frankly peeved that I went to the trouble of finding this difficult-to-obtain book that sounded relevant to LW, reading it, and summarizing it, just to get instantly karma-slammed for my troubles.

Ahh! That makes much more sense. The best version of this in the post is:

I tried to find some pattern to the "common errors" listed, but this is the best I could do:

Which I took to mean that the focus was only on the pamphlet and not that this was part of some bigger project/test/idea or whatever.