50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know

That is the title of this new book, which I picked up while browsing in Harvard Book store in Cambridge. The book is most interesting as someone’s vision of what he thinks might, or ought to, shock other people.

In reality, few of the examples succeed. I suppose not everyone knows that “Black People Served in the Confederate Army” (#20), and surely few people know that “The first CIA agent to die in the Line of Duty was Douglas Mackiernan” (#4). But the author moves pretty quickly to gross exaggerations, such as “The US is Planning to Provoke Terrorist Attacks” (#7), or “World War III Almost Started in 1995” (#10), for a while the Soviets were misreading data and thought we had launched some nukes.

The funniest one, for me, is #27: “Most Scientists Don’t Read All of the Articles They Cite.” Who exactly is supposed to be shocked by this? The authors, however, do offer some data. A particular article was cited 4300 times, 196 times with typographical errors in the citation. Of those 196 errors, 78 times the same mistake appeared, which suggests the author simply copied the reference from another bibliography. In reality, I think this is a gross underestimate of the phenomenon, noting that a common typographical error doesn’t mean the scholar didn’t read the piece, it only means he compiled his bibliography from others.

It was news to me, however, that Pope Pius II, in fifteenth century Europe, had written an erotic book.


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