Why you shouldn't trust information on web sites (including this one)

I've previously ranted about the disaster that is Wikipedia for anything more complex than pop culture. Disaster if you want correct information, that is. It's terrific if you'll be happy with something that merely sounds right.

Today I'd like to point out something from an entirely different site. I noticed this as I was doing some book research for the fourth in my series. I won't embarrass the site by naming it. I'll merely repeat the embarrassing bit.

Our subject is a short biography of Callias, who if you've read The Pericles Commission you'll know appears as a character. He was the richest man in Athens and their chief diplomat. Here's what the rather authoritative-looking web site says:
Callias was a diplomat and a notable member of one of the wealthiest families of ancient Athens, as well as an Athenian leader.
Correct!
He was a general of the Peloponnesian War.
Er...no. There was a Callias who was a strategos (General), but it was a different Callias. It was a relatively common name. The wealthy diplomat was Callias son of Hipponicus. The military leader was Callias son of Calliades.
He distinguished himself at the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.)
Very true! (Note the date in parentheses)
In his old age Callias was one of the ambassadors sent to Sparta with Callistratus to negotiate a peace treaty in 371 BC.
In his old age indeed. He must have been at least 137 years old by this date, considering he fought at Marathon. The Callias here is the grandson of the one they started with. I mentioned in a previous post that the Greeks almost always named the firstborn son after the paternal grandfather. That's a trap for new players, for anyone writing about ancient Greece.

One short bio has confused three different men. What's probably happened here is whoever wrote this wrong bio did a Google search across "Callias" and "Athens" and just assumed it was the same Callias every time. Then they repeated it all as fact for hapless schoolchildren to copy and paste into their essays. I hope the teachers catch it.

My advice for anyone researching ancient Greeks:
  1. When you find a reference, always ask yourself, "Is this the guy I want? Could it be his grandson? Could it be his grandfather?"

  2. Always check the "son of" value! It's like a surname.

17 comments:

Meg said...

I'm writing about mythological Greek characters and I ran into that same problem at one point a few months back.

While trying to dig up any extra information on Phineus (uncle and suitor to Andromeda), I found sites that kept saying he was a blind soothsayer -- which made me momentarily wonder how on earth he had been turned to stone by Medusa's gaze if he was blind.
I finally realized I had the wrong guy.

I decided to stick to books borrowed from my local university library for the majority of my informational needs on ancient Greece (and their myths).

The grandson tip is very helpful. I'll certainly keep that in mind!

Meghan said...

I JUST bought a new book on Marathon and was dismayed to find the author seemed to get a couple of things confused in the very first paragraph. It caused me to read the rest of the book with a skeptical eye. Also, where did copy editors go? I swear this book needed one!

Nancy Kelley said...

3. Check the dates. If the person would have to be impossibly old, you're probably looking at more than one Greek.

Good points, Gary. I know of a Regency history that consistently confuses the Marquis of Queensbury with the Duke of Queensbury, among other mistakes. As writers of historical fiction, we want to research our facts... but first we need to research our sources

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Ah, we now have to research our research sources, as Nancy says. And as long as we do that, we can still thank god for the web--it has never been easier to dig through the layers.

Bron said...

Good advice. I think of Wikipedia as a jumping-off point for any research. It can tell you bits of information, but you then have have to go and verify it yourself using more reliable sources.

And the beauty of search engines is we can discover which site has embarrassed itself for ourselves!

Renee said...

I write historical fiction set in 5th century Roman Britain, Scotland, and Ireland. There isn't a tremendous amount of material available for that time period. Sometimes that's a problem and sometimes I'm glad there isn't!

Gary Corby said...

Nancy, yep, check the dates. Good point. And as Vicky says, the net makes it super-duper easy. My vote for best general resource is Google Books. Sometimes it sends me heading to the nearest big library, but at least I go straight to the right book.

Bron, wikipedia can indeed be good for references, though I find even that can go wrong. I once checked the origin of apples, and I traced some dodgy looking information back to a random web page by a random guy. I'm sure he was just writing stuff off the top of his head; he had no idea he was about to be quoted as a world authority! When wiki goes back to a primary source, there's some level of comfort though.

Renee, I imagine 5th century Britain would be tricky! That's getting into the Dark Ages. Do you know the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne? They're about 200 yeas later, but I'd guess the sources would be similar? Or am I wrong?

L. T. Host said...

This is precisely why my current novel is rather frustrating to research, haha. I wound up buying a couple of college texts because they are by an expert in the matter that I know I can trust! But yes, the internet is full of misinformation, and it gets easier and easier to find it every day.

Doesn't help that the culture and period I'm writing about are hardly known or mentioned in texts at all. Of the two texts I bought, which are each about 300-400 pages, there are MAYBE three total pages referencing the info I actually need.

But it's better than nothing, or not knowing what's true on the internet.

Rebecca Kiel said...

Seems to me, when searching for info online, that cross-referencing is key. And don't forget your local research librarians - they are treasure hunters!

Gary Corby said...

Librarians are indeed unbelievably helpful. I do most of my more obscure research at Fisher Library, at Sydney University (which unfortunately, in passing, has decided to dump 500,000 books). The librarians are terrific for decoding which of the zillion shelves I need.

LT, if you need only 3 pages, maybe try the local university library? (as per previous para, I guess) I don't really know US libraries, but I was very impressed with the one at UCLA.

Suze said...

Eep. I rely on Wikipedia with far too little discretion ...

Gary Corby said...

Suze, wikipedia is fine for common pop culture stuff, such as who appeared in what movie. (At least, I assume that's true.) It's probably more or less right for technology subjects.

Where wikipedia collapses, in my view, is when it comes to less popular subjects where precision is achievable, but hard work to do. I've seen some amazing rubbish while researching, but perhaps more dangerously, quite a lot of stuff that looks like it should be true, but which if you're familiar with the subject you'll realize is false, or sometimes tinged with modern ideology.

L. T. Host said...

Gary-- Already did that! That's actually where I found one of the books I just bought. But I needed to be able to look at the info for months at a time, no matter what crazy time of day I was writing, and I found it used on Amazon for a decent price. So rather than renewing it for months, I just bought it :) Still hard to find info. VERY hard.

Gary Corby said...

Fair enough, LT. And yeah, research can be really hard. If it's three pages for research, you know you can take a photo of the pages and it counts as fair use? I've done that with a couple of books at the library to get maps. Cameras in phones have their uses after all.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Nice to read this, Gary. I've ranted against Wikipedia, though mostly because of smaller errors than the ones you cite. As it happens, the errors I've found on Wikipedia include misquotations and misremembrances of movies. If I were a university professor, relying on Wikipedia as a source would be grounds for a failing grade. Using a source to which Wikipedia directs you is fine, of course.
======================
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Gary Corby said...

Yes, references can often work out well. At my children's school they do indeed lose marks for using Wikipedia, which doesn't stop the kids from using it, because that's where most links lead. Sigh.

dipylon said...

Indeed, Greeks name the firstborn son after the paternal grandfather. I was named after mine.