More particle physics – the ergo-on (or How one finding can provide ‘proof’ for diametrically opposing sides)

Posted: February 6, 2013 in Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

Let’s call them Team Villain and Team Saint, the two polar extremes in the Richard III debate. If we drew a venn diagram, there’d be no intersection between these two sets. They have nothing in common. Except dogged persistence; absolute faith in the rightness of their position, an inability to move an inch and a talent for making everything in the record support their point of view. On reflection, they have a lot in common. Which is a little worrying.

We see evidence of it everywhere, not just in arguments about Richard III. How many battles have been fought over the centuries by forces who both knew that God was on their side? I’ve thought long and hard about this (for at least as long as it took the water to boil for the cup of tea that’s sitting on my desk) and have come to a startling conclusion. There is a sub-atomic particle that causes two or more sets of people with mutually exclusive points of view to both (or all) claim a single fact as proof positive that they are right and everyone else is wrong. I call this particle the ergo-on.

The ergo-on doesn’t change facts depending on who’s looking at them. What it does is link two unrelated facts to form a causal relationship. It doesn’t care what those facts are, and can link any two, possibly more. Ergo-ons are particularly fond of children, though they’re happy to hang around adults. Here’s a small example of an ergo-on at work, from the life of my sister. (Whose permission I haven’t sought to tell this story, but hey! she’s my sister.)

She startled our mother once by saying she didn’t want to go on a particular train journey because “the waiters drop chips in your tea”. On further interrogation, our mother discovered that, on her first and (so far) only train journey, a waiter had indeed dropped a chip in my sister’s cup of tea. “Trains” and “Chip dropping waiters” were linked by the ergo-on to form the conclusion: Waiters on trains always drop chips in cups of tea. I don’t want chip flavoured tea, or tea flavoured chips. Ergo, I should avoid trains.

Ergo-ons can link a single idea with two other competing ideas to form two quite separate, and mutually exclusive, conclusions from the same fact. It’s the only way to explain why Richard III’s scoliosis can prove both Team Villain and Team Saint absolutely right. It works like this.

Team Villian: Richard had scoliosis. Sir Thomas More said he had severe spinal deformity and he was right. Ergo: More was right about everything he said concerning Richard.

Team Saint: Richard had scoliosis. Sir Thomas More said he was a hunchback and he was wrong. Ergo: More was wrong about everything he said concerning Richard.

Being a moderate and a member neither of Team Villain or Team Saint (I’m toying with Team Let-Him-Be-What-He-Was, but I’m not sure it’ll catch on), I have no patience with ergo-ons and swat them with rolled up newspapers when they come buzzing around.

This is how I think the scoliosis/what More said should be dealt with.

Team Let-Him-Be-What-He-Was: Richard had scoliosis. Sir Thomas More said he was a hunchback. Now, a hunchback and scoliosis are two different things, so either More’s information was garbled; ‘hunchback’ was less specific than it is now; or the story was deliberately changed to make Richard seem worse. However, it was clearly not (as has been strenuously argued in the past) made up from the whole cloth. Whether it’s garbled, a misunderstanding or deliberate distortion, there is a kernel of truth in it. Richard did have a misshapen spine. (I’m sorry about words like ‘deformed’ and ‘misshapen’ but there really aren’t any other concise alternatives.)

Team LHBWHW goes on: So, clearly we can’t disregard everything More has to say, because some of it does seem to have a nub of historical truth in it. But nor can we accept everything he has to say, because at least this story, nub of historical truth or not, is some distance away from what we now know to be the truth. So maybe what we need to do is approach More with caution, but not be dismissive, examine each thing he says, triangulating it (where possible) with things other people have said and try to work out, on the balance of probabilities and the preponderance of evidence, which bits of More are truth-nubby and which aren’t.

I’ve used More and the scoliosis as an example because the two opposing ergo-on influenced conclusions mentioned above have actually been uttered over the last day or so.

Both Teams might need to give a little ground in order to bring them a little closer to the actual Richard. The as actual as we can hope for Richard, at any rate. Ergo-ons don’t belong in the discussion. Therefore-ons might, but they’re much more circumspect and sensible. They care which facts they link and are agitated by the prospect of linking unrelated facts to form embarrassingly conflicting conclusions. It sets up a cognitive dissonance wave that breaks all the therefore-ons’ bonds, yet leaves the ergo-ons’ bonds intact.

Team LHBWHW is feeling a little squeezed by both sides at the moment, but we’re holding ground. With any luck, and a dedicated ergo-on eradication campaign, we might just push the boundaries back and give the newly unearthed Richard the ‘coming home’ gift he deserves – the chance for him to be who he was, not what those on either extreme want him to be.

  1. Sue says:

    Approaching a historical record with caution, and remembering that is was influenced by multiple variables and agendas when it was created that should raise questions but not leave it wholly discounted? What a novel idea! In all seriousness, such caution seems like a no-brainer but our modern-day agendas so often result in tossing the historical baby out with the well-used bathwater if something doesn’t suit our theories. I like to think that the Ricardian extremities of reaction that are waging battle on all sides have a bonus: leaving those of us on Team LHBWHW cozy and warm in the middle. It cuts down on our heating bills, at any rate. Thanks again for another wonderfully reflective post and for being a voice of reason again.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Sue! I hadn’t quite looked at it that way – being nice and cozy in the middle. I spend quite a bit of my time dodging flak! I shall try to see the silver lining from now on.

  2. Kathy Hestand says:

    You nailed it! This is one of the most frustrating happenings in any kind of debate on Richard III. History ends up the loser, as does the real Richard.

  3. Esther says:

    Great post. I think the problems involving Richard are similar to those involving other “historical mysteries” (Mary of Scotland, whether Edward II was murdered, etc.)

  4. 1karla says:

    Absolutely right again Karen, it is always best to stay somewhere inentte middle. It’s the extremes and extremists that always cause trouble
    As a historian I’d like to point out that More was not contemporary, so would always have to be used as a source of second choice. But that is no news to you ofcourse

    • anevillfeast says:

      Karla. Yes, More is problematic for a number of reasons, but there are some events that aren’t covered by any other source.

      • Kathy Hestand says:

        It’s also important to remember that critical methods of historical narration were not yet developed in More’s time. They often didn’t distinguish between rumor, fact, and whether testimony was first or second hand. As communication was slow, people had to rely more on word of mouth. To be fair to More, he narrated what was currently being said and did at times indicate he didn’t know the exact truth of the matter.

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