Monthly Archives: November 2011

Evaluating a Website…

Pleasant Surprise turns to Ire (I’m sure there’s a word in German for this).

WordPress has a fun little feature which tells you when some other site has offered a link to your own. Usually this Endeavour finds itself attached to atheist, religious, or history blogs and sites, which is to be expected. I was quite pleased to discover that a Community College in Hawai’i, an official educational institution, offered a link to my rantings (mahalo, bra). Sure, it was hidden under ‘Questionable’ in a panel discussing sources of information (bottom of the page), but I laughed, and admitted that, as an academic source, some of my opinions, my telescoping of history into fun bite-sized entries, may indeed be questionable. I thought to myself, ‘Fair enough’, and was quite pleased that I had even been mentioned. Until…

“The company of fools may first make us smile, but in the end we always feel melancholy.”

I was curious as to what this College deemed a ‘Good’ resource in comparison to me. They offer a link to New Advent (I want you to pause for a moment and think of something that really annoys you – chalk on a blackboard, cutlery on a plate, the high-pitched hollow laugh of a vacant mind – something that is pretty much the exact opposite of what you define as ‘good’ – vegan food, burgundy (red is the colour of sex, not burgundy!), Creationism, homeopathy). So. Yeah. New Advent… Oh dear. This website is based on the Catholic Encyclopedia, which, on the one hand, is not a terrible idea because such an organisation would have a lot information that could be usefully organised in such fashion. Sadly the edition used is from 1913. It’s nearly a hundred years old, it’s from a biased source, and somehow this is considered a better source than this Frivolous Endeavour, which at least does refer to recent research and attempts to be (relatively) unbiased.

Bridget (given name)

Just because there's a picture doesn't mean it's real (Image via Wikipedia)

Just For Example.

An except from the New Advent entry for Saint Brigid:

“Born in 451 or 452 of princely ancestors at Faughart, near Dundalk, County Louth; d. 1 February, 525, at Kildare. Refusing many good offers of marriage, she became a nun and received the veil from St. Macaille. With seven other virgins she settled for a time at the foot of Croghan Hill, but removed thence to Druin Criadh, in the plains of Magh Life, where under a large oak tree she erected her subsequently famous Convent of Cill-Dara, that is, “the church of the oak” (now Kildare), in the present county of that name. It is exceedingly difficult to reconcile the statements of St. Brigid’s biographers, but the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Lives of the saint are at one in assigning her a slave mother in the court of her father Dubhthach, and Irish chieftain of Leinster. ”

Well, the first major issue with this is simple. There probably was no Saint Brigid. It isn’t known when she was born or died, and the stories about her are just that, stories. Everything quoted above is a fiction. New Advent almost redeems itself by stating “Viewing the biography of St. Brigid from a critical standpoint we must allow a large margin for the vivid Celtic imagination and the glosses of medieval writers”, which is a fairly reasonable statement, but it is immediately followed by  “still the personality of the founder of Kildare stands out clearly, and we can with tolerable accuracy trace the leading events in her life”. I’m sorry, but no we can’t. But it doesn’t stop there.

Icon of Saint Patrick

Let’s take a quick look at the entry on Saint Patrick;  actually take my word for it that it’s mostly nonsense and let’s skip to the end of it, to the section entitled “Writings of Saint Patrick”. They present us with series of seven writings attributed to Patrick, which the editors reckon are genuine. Sadly all but two of these works have been dismissed as genuine writings of Patrick, leaving only the “Confessio” and the “Epistola ad Coroticum”. And that’s about it. Unless it comes from these two short works, any story or theory on Patrick is based on his Lives, which are not factual accounts of his life but the literary invention of two Irish monks for political purposes. It’s propaganda from a long forgotten conflict.

Where the problem lies…

The thing is, New Advent is based on an outdated source, a book that is a hundred years old for crying out loud. The editors accepted hagiography as factual accounts of the lives of saints. They also accepted religious documents without critical analysis. It was written by and for the Catholic Church, and contains substantial bias: “The sources of Mohammed’s biography are numerous, but on the whole untrustworthy, being crowded with fictitious details, legends, and stories. None of his biographies were compiled during his lifetime, and the earliest was written a century and a half after his death”, yeah, and the accounts of Jesus are stellar pieces of biographical research. This is not a ‘Good’ source, it’s not even a half decent one. The standards of research and the manners in which manuscript evidence is examined have radically changed, for the better, since 1913, rendering such a source as New Advent redundant. There’s a reason the Britannica Encyclopedia from 1911 isn’t still in circulation, the world has moved on. And while I may write brief accounts of historical events, hoping to elucidate and reveal where myth ends and fact begins, in a humorous (at least I think they are) and egregious fashion, at least they are based on recent research, and I am open to change.

5-0: Five Questions, and they score Zero.

Following the scheme laid out by the Hawai’ian college, I would strongly recommend that they do better research on what they offer for research.

1.What is the credibility and background of the Author or Organization?

The Catholic Church of the turn of the 20th century, need we say more.

2.Has the website been updated recently? Does it have up to date/current information?

No, it hasn’t, it’s a copy of a text written in 1913. And the uploader hasn’t offered any critical analysis of the work.

3.What is the purpose or objective of the writing

Reinforcing Catholic education and values. So, in a nutshell, lies (in fairness, I may be being a little harsh here. Then again, I may not).

4.Who is the author writting [sic.] to?

God? The world? Someone who probably died in one of the two World Wars that happened soon after the book was written? The immediate audience of the book is dead by now…

5.Is there a bias or slant?

It’s the Catholic Encyclopedia, I’m confident that no bias would ever enter into such a venerable organisation. And it’s from the time where the European Empires ruled over the vast majority of the Earth’s peoples, when racial theory was a popular notion, and most people didn’t have the right to vote. Slant? Bias? Nay, I say! Perish the thought!

I like what they are trying to do – attempting to teach students how discern between sources, what’s good, what isn’t – but, wow, really? New Advent? Really?

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