When ego intrudes into the facts of history

Facts are curious things. There are empirical facts that can be independently shown to be true. And there are facts we ‘believe’ to be true, which most of us treat as if empirical.

Wright_Hobbiton4I have to share an experience I had involving the latter.

Soon after my book on New Zealand’s engineering achievements hit the New Zealand best-seller lists in 2009 (I nearly dislodged the cookbooks!) I fielded a long and accusative letter from an engineer.  Apparently I had got everything wrong in his personal territory and, he informed me, it was because I hadn’t had my work peer reviewed. In fact my material had originally been reviewed by his colleagues. But he never checked before leaping to a negative conclusion.

I think what he actually meant was I hadn’t asked him for comment.  This, as far as I could tell, he took as a slight for which he then proceeded to avenge himself by proving that everything I said was wrong, even if it was backed by emprical data. For instance, he told me I was wrong over my figure for the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake casualties. I’d correctly cited the official number of 256.  But this, he insisted, was wrong – which meant I was wrong.

In point of fact, the official figure is dubious – I’ve discussed that in my books on the quake and elsewhere. But there wasn’t room in my engineering book to do that, and the ‘safe’ number, sans about 1000 words of qualifying discussion, remains the official one which was in the government’s formal report on the disaster.

But the uncertainty of that number wasn’t what this guy was about. No! The ‘right’ figure for the quake, he insisted, was a very different figure he had made up. He provided me with a paper he’d written to ‘prove’ how right he was, which hadn’t used the full data set and included casualties from an air crash a week after the quake.

I declined to respond; the letter was accusative, dogmatic, and the guy wasn’t interested in reasonable discussion. All he wanted was to be told that he was right for claiming I was wrong at every turn, including when I was correct to the data. All of which, as far as I could tell, had been triggered by my asking his colleagues, and not him, to comment on my manuscript.

It takes all sorts, I suppose, and I couldn’t help thinking that the act of faith in his own convictions reflected the way he validated himself.

Probably something true of the human condition, one way and another and in various degrees.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016



12 thoughts on “When ego intrudes into the facts of history

    1. They’re everywhere. This guy was an engineer but I’ve met them in pure history too. And philosophy. The guy I studied postgrad under was himself taught by Popper and Wittgenstein and had witnessed their famous ‘poker fight’ in which physical violence was at least implicit over a point of philosophy that – for the real world – was pretty much meaningless.

      1. One must simply deal with it, though I am sure that it gets not only annoying when you are actually doing work and you know that you have done it right.

        1. These ‘corrections’ where no error exists can be easily ignored. Sometimes the aggrieved correspondent does it by public forum, though, which makes it a more obvious attempt at avenging their hurt sense of self worth. One of the morecdisturbing I had was from a university lecturer who had bottled up his abuse for two years and then began blaming me when others began independently writing on the same subject with what he insisted was the same mistake. My fault, apparently.

  1. Your action shows the truth of the statement, “sometimes it is best to be silent… and let the other person be wrong.”
    I suspect it would never have resolved if he was so intent on ‘proving’ his point.

  2. I think that is a common trend with all writing to be honest. I once had a short story that won a competition – all the reviews I had up to that point where glowing. The following day, another writer wrote a review that smashed it to bits (not something I was particularly bothered about because you can’t please everyone – but a little surprising nonetheless) – their point was that I only won because I had a larger following (on Facebook of all things).

    But the thing is, I could understand her point – I do have a larger following on Facebook to anyone casually looking at my profile – but the truth is that I don’t really know most of those people, and not many of them will actively support my writing just because I ask them to anyway.

    But is there any point arguing with them? Not really. Someone who is that anti-your work probably isn’t going to want to hear what you have to say to counter their comments. All you can really do is smile, nod and thank them for taking the time to read it – if that.

    1. I agree. I’ve run into it in several of the fields I write in – all unconnected. Curiously, my sister, who runs a craft business, says it’s the same in that field.

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