When fake facts go viral: Islamic science, Medieval medicine and the history police
This is an ABC podcast. Hello and welcome to sides friction it is the show exploring sides and culture. With Extra Spice Natasha Mitchell back with you and today we are looking for fakes. It was utterly disgusted of a surprise, I never had actually expected this to happen. And there's an irony here. Because half of my work is about how meaning and nuance, and in history gets MIS translated once it gets on the Internet and circulates in different ways here. It was happening to my very own work. So this story starts with a mixture and you I notice it. On the cover of a textbook, so the book is a sort of medieval encyclopedia, and has been translated recently into English by my colleague Elliot Mehanna. This is Dr Nisha fee as an historian from the University of California San, Diego. His thing is the culture and sites of the Ottoman Empire that vast state, which controlled over six hundred years much of Southeast Europe Western Asia and North Africa up. Until the twentieth century, it was centered around Istanbul and on the cover it of it is two men looking through telescopes. Telescopes one of them is pointing up at the night sky so here you have this traditional vision of men observing the cosmos through telescopes, they looking across a rich landscape from a kind of Belka Ni there on some sort of tower. Yeah, and there's a mood of them, so it's the time. Yeah, and it's drawn in this sort of traditional. Persian miniature style. Knees describing is sane depicting to turbaned astronomers at work sometime in the medieval era of the middle. East Persian miniatures of these small beautiful paintings of historical sayings, famous for their intricate detail and modern reproductions of them are sold in the busy markets of eastern to tourists in those, there seems to be an obsession with science, so some of these scenes are images that might be found in actual manuscripts for instance an image of circulatory system in the human body. People looking through a telescope people treating Toothache, a dentist operating on someone, a surgeon cutting open up a patient. Some of them are sexual, but they're often quite commonly linked to science. which is kind of curious because he's what you find. If you actually look at the historical record, I've looked through thousands of manuscripts myself out of every one thousand, two thousand, I find one with some illustration in it, and of those only a tiny fraction are actually depictions, of science. And there's a controversy or reason for why the story of Islamic Science is being sold to tourists in this way and I'll get back to that, but what about that? Miniature of the to astronomers will knee was about to use the book? It was on the cover of for a university course he teaches called science and Islam and something about it just didn't ring true. One is the telescope itself right? The telescope is something that was developed by Galileo and others in the seventeenth century. We have a lot of evidence of people using telescopes eighteenth century in the Middle East about I've never come across a picture of someone using it. And looking more closely again at the peak show me and noticed something else was odd. The style was a bit off. The colors were to write. The pigments were off. The way that this thing was drawn was not quite correct. So what I look for is the full picture when there wasn't cropped, and then once I saw. Two, more figures emerged in here. You have another man looking through a telescope, and then at the bottom of the picture you have the man with his hand on the globe, and writing a book with a quilt, and that quill set alarm bells off Fanie Ish via this for me with the little moment in which. I realize this is a fake because. People in the middle. East didn't write with quills a used to write with reed pens. Okay, that sounds like a very social day tile, but only and historians. I could pick up all be concerned about, and you might be thinking. But. This was a scholarly text, not the place for five weeks, and it's libel said it was a genuine miniature, asked in the East Ambuhl University Library. What we have here is a modern forgery masquerading as a mediaeval illustration as he describes it and the tourist markets are full of phase. They're very clearly fakes, so you know this isn't something that's fooled all sorts of experts here. But what happens is when they move onto the Internet. And how did they get onto the Internet? They get onto through these stock photo agencies stock foot inside. The one selling pictures to new sites to books all sorts of anytime. We need an image so there was this one particular photographer by the name of Janney Deldot, who is apparently pretty famous I found out for photographing pictures and museums, and he, according to the tag lines in these stock indices had photographed a large number of these fake miniatures and said that they were in the Stumble University library. And the claim prompted Nia to dig even. Now I went to often do research library, and I went there, and I asked the rare books collection if they have any of these pictures, and said no, and not only that they don't take any new. They don't keep collect in new manuscripts, so there's no way that these pieces ever entered their collection. And so that's when I realized that these what essentially we're tourists pieces, and that's I. Hey, but once they're on the Internet. It's actually quite hard to tell exactly if they're real or not. especially if you're looking at the image, so my colleagues have been using them unintentionally on in presentations, they've used them on the covers of their conference. Booklets circulate especially through the Internet and through facebook and instagram. They go even further. and. That's when Sykes get represented as truth with potentially nasty consequences as you'll. He but he's another story of an historical image that's sprayed like a virus. Although in this case, it wasn't a virus. Eat was the plague. Clegg is actually caused by a bacteria that is flea-born for the most part might also be transmitted by lice the whole story that we've heard quite a bit about the rat flea. Is True except that those fleas are also carried on about two hundred other different animals as well so it really isn't just the rat. So litz now support our cells back to the fourteenth century, and imagine these sixty percent up to sixty percent of the population across Europe the middle. East and North. Africa was wind Dash. There are images of people carrying coffins, a lot of people carrying a lot of coffins at the same time that's probably one of the most iconic images of the plague. There are images of people lying dead and or dying on the streets. Of images of people praying with perhaps the Virgin Mary, around them are a variety of Saint, so the whole connection to sort of a spiritual salvation, either asking for it or giving thanks for it after the fact for having survived. Laurie giants. She's an international development. Work turned historian at the University of Ottawa, and she's out sick and sleuth on science friction today her passion. It's gory is medieval medicine and the black death was one of the goriest diseases of all and in the Bhubaneshwar. Version of the plague you end up with booze, which are large swellings about the size of an egg under the armpits on the side of the neck or in the groin. which eventually pus could come out of apparently, the stench from the People's bodies were almost rotting from the inside out was quite horrific. Truly awful I of dying. Yes You know sadly the bubonic plague still occurs in parts of the world today. But one picture from the Medieval era has come to be reproduced. Times that's almost become the conic image of the Black Day. It got picked up by publications by scholarly journals by documentaries, museums, tourist pamphlets. You name it. This picture is everywhere. And because most of them then credited back to the British library. Everybody believes that that's what it is. This is an image that is in a encyclopedia that was written around thirteen, sixty, five by a clerk in London named James Palmer, and it's heavily illustrated, and this one image is of a bunch of clerics, so people in the church perhaps monks being instructed by their bishop. The men are all covered in spots. The text around the image talks about the fact that this is a bishop giving instruction to clerics as to what they're supposed to do. Or what rights and benefits they have if they fall ill while they're in their position, and should they be thrown out of the Church or not? Exactly, and whether if they're too sick to work, are they allowed to get the income that they would normally get or do? They need to hire somebody to take their place. Okay sounds pretty reasonable. Dozen at a very likely fourteenth century scenario, but none of that context was being distributed with the image as it sprayed across the Internet, and when historian sort being described as a group of plague infected monks with the priest I smelled a rat, not an plague infected flea on a red jest arete. It didn't quite seem right because people with the plague first of all. Don't have those kind of spots. Spots that we're aware of and also probably wouldn't be standing up. Because once you have the plug. You're quite ill and you'd probably be lying down and dine. There were a whole lot of things that same to be wrong. Once historians like self started Deke. Yes, exactly as so they're certainly not dressed like monks and priests doesn't look like what a priest would have been wearing, either so we have clothing issues you have. Disease dissipation issues that none of it quite lined up. And in fact, spotted skin, a tended to mean something else in medieval iconography. It did it meant leprosy. So. It wasn't the be Banik plague at all. And if you read the original manuscript, it was very clearly that the clerics head leprosy, not the plague. So Laurie and her medieval history colleagues went hunting down the source of the era, and led them to Nautilus than the esteemed British library with the original was held, and then it was given to somebody to create a caption for it on the online version, and that person took the image and called it the plague. And what happened next because what this amy page effectively sprayed like the big, and then it got picked up by Wikipedia in English and every other language that has wikipedia black death pages, and then what happens is people go online and they're looking for images, and they pick up this image either from the British library, or from wikipedia that says here's an image of the black death, and there we go, this now is an image of the plague, and it's from the British Library, so you have to believe it, and that's part of the problem. Is that the people who are doing? The captioning 's for these online sites might not have any direct knowledge of what the image is actually about. And now at least three commercial photo libraries sell it as a definitive historical representation of the plague. So science information that is misuse. You probably come across a lot on your own shows it's. Somebody will do a scientific study, and it will be misinterpreted and used to promote something else entirely. It's the same with historical textual information that if you're misreading it, you're misrepresenting what people at the time were talking about? But is that really an issue? This is a fourteenth century image. So what if it's leprosy? Not Plague? So what if the main man was a bishop not appraised? So what if the clerics went monks? So what what's the problem here for historians? The problem is that people are misrepresenting the past when I teach history of disease courses. I try and tell the students that you wouldn't take an image of somebody with chicken pox to explain to somebody what the flu is like. There is some speculation that the plague in the fourteenth century. Maybe even during the fifteenth century might have looked more like this spotted disease, and I have seen some historians pickup on descriptions about all these bodily spots, and then say well. We don't have those spots today so clearly something else was going on, and these are mostly by historians who tend not to have believed the plague was the same disease that it is today, so even though now you know, we have the scientific DNA evidence that it was then they can point to these images and say well. These images show that it was not the same, and it's constantly having to correct, but these are not images of the plague. Now Laurie and her colleagues could have just left it there, but now these intrepid historians. They wanted to fix the niche. You approached up woods fifty one websites. How response I able her and that's really committed. It is it is and I mean certainly didn't even bother going to the pinterest and flicker sites because that would take us down a rabbit hole that I thought we would never get out of so we focused really on academic websites. Science websites media websites ones that were specifically met for patient for other people to you. I mean even the Australian curriculum. Had It on their website at one point. About half I would say rollback the rest of them either did not respond at all, and still have the images up, or their websites are no longer active or did have a few. That wrote back and said that they were aware and they were using it as a teaching moment, so actually having it labeled wrong, and then teaching their students what that meant interesting stock photo websites entirely ignored you. They did totally ignore me and morning. Actually I went and checked, and they all still have it mislabelled for sale so I don't seem to be paying much attention to fact. They do not. Will ease. We all know it's full of fake news and misinformation rot for missing taper Tyson. We understand that way, but it's still easy to get swept up by means on facebook, appearing to tell the truth, but the thing is as we've heard from Laurie when site historical images start doing the rounds history itself gets rewritten. Autumn scholar again Dr Neha Schiff via. The people now in. The market when I go and ask them they won't say that they're real. But when I went to the whipple museum in Cambridge. and asked to see. Their collection of nutrient depicting science. They turned out to be fake. In you could tell that, yeah, it was quite clear when you. Take a look at the documents. Quite a few were painted on nineteenth century. Bond notices, or things like that, so this is Cambridge University's whipple Museum of the history of science, and this is just one example of esteemed museums in the west of history of Science Museum the Wellcome Library the British library. Any number of institutions have these miniatures in them. When you went to the whipple. Museum what was revealed to you about halfpipe acuity, those images. One of the things I've found out is that museums want to show images of Islamic science to the public. To educate the public. There's not that many images going around and so when someone comes and wants to sell them these images they jump on it. They were sold to them by dealer in Istanbul. In the late ninety s quite a few of these were quite high quality, so they thought it was. Back then worthwhile investment. Let's explore why you think these fakes exist. Witnesses desire come from to make up. Fake scenes from the history of Islamic Science is it? Is it about more than simply artistic license and making a blackout of tourists? Yeah, this isn't a story about necessarily the forgers, but about why we want to believe in these forgeries. So since the late nineteenth century, there has been this narrative about science as a measure of civilization about science as a way to say whether these people are part of the human race or human political community, and even in eighteen, eighty three and. The famous scholar of Islam was arguing that Islam. Because of its religiosity had turned against science and rationality, and of course there was a response to this by number of scholars at the time. So this is a long standing debate. What people want to do is essentially. Quickly and easily use images of science, especially the ones we recognize modern people using instruments, people looking at the night sky through telescopes to demonstrate that Muslims had signs to. And, of course they do. There's actually amazing and longstanding. Of Islamic science everything from say medical books from Medieval Baghdad to calendars that people were using for astrological astronomical calculations in seventeenth century. Istanbul, but it's often does not visually depicted in the way we want it to today. And this has become even more pressing in the past ten to twenty years in the face of increasing Slama Phobia, which has essentially argued that Muslims are in parts of whatever western civilization part of our culture part of our political community and shouldn't be part of it. And, so in response to that kind of discourse Slama phobic discourse, there has been an increasingly well intentioned misplaced desire to show that no know Muslims also had science and that we can create a sort of global political. Human community by showing the past history of Islamic scientific production. Now, incur taking these forgeries. These fake representations of the history of Islamic science seen these miniatures. You walk a very fine line, don't you? Because on the other hand, you also wanted to investigate and celebrate what you safe to be a rich history of Islamic science, and yet what you might be putting out. There is the message that it's all. Fake right. and. He's like you've had a very interesting response, haven't you? One of the things I found out is a few weeks after this article was released that it was actually picked up by Islamophobic right wing commentators, who essentially took the introduction of the article added a few lines of their own, and basically said that look Muslims never had science everything out. Everything in these collections is fake, and in reality as thumbs irrational once again, science and things like that, and it's this big liberal conspiracy to pretend that we have to live in this multicultural world. How does it make you feel your argument? BEING CO opted buys. Lennox was disgusted. Surprise, you know I never had expected this to happen, and there's an irony here, because and half of my work is about how meaning and nuance and history gets mistranslated once it gets on the Internet and circulates in different ways in here. It was happening to my very own work. Just like how these fake miniatures! Jump around as truest Curios to stock photos to be in on the Internet and then end up on scholarly books. For the wrong purposes you know my work was now being used by these Islamophobic people to basically denounce Muslim. The incredible unintended consequences an all-star had with a fake miniature mischief. The wants a more nuanced approach to how we explore the history of science one that doesn't just focus on the boys with toys type imagined scenes of main building telescopes and other scientific instruments. We're moving away from thinking about science as happening just in the minds of great men. Traditional example Newton Indianapo-. Tree in the NAPA falls in Germany. Anything of this theory of gravity. To Science being created in the work of artisans of of daily people. Let's say mom trying to calculate prayer, time, musk, or an alchemist, trying to figure out how to turn lead into gold, and it's in these daily experimentation in the world, also trade and things like that that we find science being created, and that's I think what a lot of us myself and my colleagues are trying to do today. You'll sense is that science was infect everywhere possibly in the Ottoman Empire. Not In the kind of places that we recognize as being scientific now, right? Let's say this is something that a lot of us in the history of science and arguing about this finding signs and the everyday in everyday practices. and. It's the problem is that is often quite difficult to recognize this sort of science. Everyday science is not as spectacular. It's not depicted visually in the same way that we that we need for for image of society today. It's not going to change the Internet because the pictures are still there, but I've had quite a few people right to me separately saying. I I have a book in in publication right now I have this image in it and I'm going to write to my publisher right now and get taken out so. And I do get some pleasure when I met conferences and I see people with the imaging I'm going that is not the plague. The history police. Yeah, I know I know I have to be careful not to go down that road. In fact, some websites have replaced the image bit I. think There was one that actually replaced with another incorrect image representation. Dave did yes, yes, and when I wrote to correct them, they were actually. Quite rude to me. What's your cautionary would? You'll cautionary instruction to all of us. After this experience. I think the best answer to that came from one of the students that I had in a course that I taught the summer about the plug, and the very last class we talked about. So, what have you learned? What would you do differently? Now that you know more about the plague, and one of the students actually said to me what I've learned is that I cannot take for granted anything that I read, or that I see I need to go back to the original sources much as possible because somebody might have misinterpreted. Sage advice from Professor Laurie, giants from the University of our and thanks also to assistant history Professor Nisha fee from the University of California San. Diego popular shy there from L. Archive and don't forget the ease a wealth of science friction. In, carve podcast to catch with. No, you're probably already subscribe of at. Tell you frenzy th by art. Thanks to Co, producer, John Les I'm on twitter at Natasha Mitchell, come say hi. Bye. You've been listening to an ABC podcast. Discover more great ABC. podcasts live radio and exclusives on the ABC listen APP.