Every kind of source must be interpreted

Sarah Zhang at the Atlantic takes off from Taleb’s rudeness to Mary Beard to talk about what we don’t know about genetics.

In December, the BBC released on YouTube an old animated video about life in Roman Britain, which featured a family with a dark-skinned father. This depiction recently caught the ire of an Infowars editor, who tweeted, “Thank God the BBC is portraying Roman Britain as ethnically diverse. I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?”

To which Mary Beard—best known as a classicist at Cambridge, and more recently known for taking on internet trolls—replied, “this is indeed pretty accurate, there’s plenty of firm evidence for ethnic diversity in Roman Britain.” To which Nassim Nicholas Taleb—best-known for railing about epistemic arrogance in The Black Swan, and recently known for arguing on Twitter—replied:

Oh how quickly the conversation jumped from children’s cartoon to Infowars rant to genetics. Having completed a close reading of the entire thread—you’re welcome—I think the most charitable interpretation is a classic Twitter case of arguing past one another. Beard is saying there were indeed dark-skinned people in Roman Britain. Taleb cries BS: A mixed family was not typical of the time. Those positions are not inconsistent. We each have hills to die on, I suppose.

That genetics even came up at all in a debate about ancient Roman history is indicative of science’s stature in these fractious times. Genetics gets invoked as neutral, as having none of the squishiness of historical interpretation.

Or the bullshit, as Taleb so politely puts it.

But that is simply not true—as applied to Roman Britain or any other time or place in the ancient world. Geneticists, anthropologists, and historians who rely on DNA to study human migrations are well aware of the limitations of DNA analysis. At the same time, ancestry DNA tests are becoming ever cheaper and more popular, and misconceptions abound.

“We have written sources. We have archaeological sources. Now we have genetic sources, but no source speaks for itself.” says Patrick Geary, a historian at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, who is using DNA to track barbarian invasions during the fall of the Roman empire. “Every kind of source must be interpreted. We are only at the beginning of how to properly interpret the genetic data.”

Interpreted? But that’s that humanistic bullshit that Taleb is so scornful of.

But seriously, what she goes on to say about how historians use genetics is interesting.

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