Experts, Sources, Peer Review, Bad Poetry and Flint, Michigan.

Red faces at National Archive after Baldrick poem published with WW1 soldiers’ diaries.

From the post:

Officials behind the launch of a major initiative detailing lives of ordinary soldiers during the First World War were embarrassed by the discovery that they had mistakenly included the work of Blackadder character, Baldrick, in the achieve release.

The work, entitled ‘The German Guns’ and attributed to Private S.O. Baldrick, was actually written by the sitcom’s writers Richard Curtis and Ben Elton some 70 years after the end of the conflict. Elton was reported to be “delighted at the news” and friends said he was already checking to see if royalty payments may be due.

Although the archive release was scrutinised by experts, it is understood that the Baldrick poem was approved after a clerk recalled hearing Education Secretary Michael Gove referring to Baldrick in relation to the Great War, and assumed that he was of contemporary cultural significance.

Another illustration that experts and peer review aren’t the gold standards of correctness.

Or to put it differently: Mistakes happen, especially without sources.

If the only surviving information was Education Secretary Michael Gove referring to Baldrick, not only would the mistake be perpetuated but it would be immune to correction.

Citing and/or pointing to a digital resource that was the origin of the poem, would be more likely to trip warnings (by date of publication) or contain a currently recognizable reference, such as Blackadder.

The same lesson should be applied to reports such as Michael Moore’s claim:

1. While the Children in Flint Were Given Poisoned Water to Drink, General Motors Was Given a Special Hookup to the Clean Water. A few months after Gov. Snyder removed Flint from the clean fresh water we had been drinking for decades, the brass from General Motors went to him and complained that the Flint River water was causing their car parts to corrode when being washed on the assembly line. The governor was appalled to hear that GM property was being damaged, so he jumped through a number of hoops and quietly spent $440,000 to hook GM back up to the Lake Huron water, while keeping the rest of Flint on the Flint River water. Which means that while the children in Flint were drinking lead-filled water, there was one—and only one—address in Flint that got clean water: the GM factory.

Verification is especially important for me because I think Michael Moore is right and that predisposes me to accept his statements, without evidence.

In no particular order:

  • What “brass” from GM? Names, addresses, contact details. Links to statements?
  • What evidence did the “brass” present? Documents? Minutes of the meeting? Date?
  • What hoops did the Governor jump through? Who else in state government was aware of the request?
  • Where is the disbursement order for the $400,000 and related work orders?
  • Who was aware of any or all of these steps, in and out of government?

Those are some of the questions to ask to verify Michael Moore’s claim and, just as importantly, to lay a trail of knowledge and responsibility for the damage to the citizens of Flint.

Just because it was your job to hook GM back up to clean water, knowing that the citizens of Flint would be drinking water that corrodes auto parts, doesn’t make it right.

There are obligations that transcend personal interests or those of government.

Not poisoning innocents is one of those.

If there were sources for Michael’s account, people could start to be brought to justice. (See, sources really are important.)

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