Batman vs. Spiderman: Scholarship in Model Building

I have to admit that the title “Scholarship in Model Building” sounds weird to me. Putting the two idea together seems a bit peculiar, in some way. Of course, that is the essence of the problem that I’m going to write about today. In addition to the many, many peculiar qualities shared by we few, we geeky few– failing to understand even the rudiments of academic rigor has to rank right near the top of the list of “things that make model builders look childish.”

Ever have an argument with another kid about what super hero would beat up another super hero? Like, “Who would win in a fight– Batman or Spiderman?” That’s an argument that could go on until the end of time because the characters being discussed are fictional. Very fictional. Spiderman and Batman are as fictional as you can get. But that doesn’t keep the fans from having a fun discussion about who would win the fight, because it’s fun to argue about things like that. It’s an exercise in both intellect and creativity. But let’s face it. It’s a bit juvenile. After all, ultimately, no one in this reality can determine something like that, since the fictional characters can do anything their authors determine that they should do, for some reason. They aren’t restrained by the laws of science or any other law. Not really.

But it’s fun to argue about it.

But it’s not so fun, and it’s rather pathetic, when adults argue over the color of the paint of a Japanese Zero fighter plane in 1941, or the particular shade of green on a Soviet Yak Fighter in 1942 (or whether it was even green or not). Adults (supposed adults) fight about this sort of thing on internet forums all the time. It reminds me of the Batman/Spiderman argument. You can’t determine certain historical “facts” when the evidence just doesn’t exist. We do not have the material, in some cases, to make those kinds of judgments.

There is a method, by the way, for dealing with these “mysterious” questions from the past. It was developed in the academic world in order to keep the number of hateful conflicts from escalating beyond all reason. (I’m not saying that hateful conflicts between rival archaeologists don’t exist, because they surely do, but the idea is to minimize this sort of thing).

In the academic world, a great deal of emphasis is placed on what is called “rigor” and this generally means that one should not only communicate what you think, but how you arrived at that conclusion– and I don’t mean a vague reference to “common sense” or “the majority opinion.” You should, if you’re going to be taken seriously, explain why you believe that the ruler of Egypt in 2104 B.C. was Polynesian. You shouldn’t have to “prove” your claim, just set it out clearly and let others make their decision in agreement with you or not.

Unfortunately, this system also tends to become a way to build castles in the air by citing resources that cite other resources that eventually all circle back to the one same, questionable source. In other words, there can be a tendency to appeal to the authority of the “weight of opinion” or the dropping of “expert names.” The idea that one should explain where one got one’s ideas is a notion that can be “gamed” in order to make an untrue statement appear to be true. That’s a simple fact. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the true purpose of the system.

Even the discouragement of plagiarism is not the single and most important part of citing your sources and keeping track of where you get your ideas. It’s a wonderful by-product of rigorous scholarship, but it’s not the real reason.

The real reason you keep track of your sources and list them carefully is so that you can’t just use pure sophistry to sell your claim. You can’t depend upon charisma and style to lend you credibility, and, ultimately, you can’t just make stuff up. The whole point of academic rigor is to keep the material at hand somewhere in the realm of truth. It is a bona-fide fact of life that people tend to lie. Not always big lies and not always meant to harm, but if money is involved and the risk is low, lies tend to push out the truth every time.

Right now I’m feeling a sense of embarrassment and loss. I’m actually grieving for all the “reference” books on my shelf, very few of which actually deserve to be used as references. As a model builder, I started out as a child with a child’s view of the world. I believed what I was told by adults. I tended to believe anything that was packaged in a “professional” way and contained “serious” language. Much of the “reference” material in the 1960’s, when I started building models, had only recently been translated from the news media. World War II news gradually became “history” at this time. What had been published in the paper was taken from the news media and reworked into books. Popular magazines, never exactly noted for academic rigor, became the sources for a whole library of books, published to meet the demand of war veterans, eager to read “the truth” about the campaigns they fought in but knew little about, from a strategic point of view. It says a lot about the plastic model hobby that a “serious” reference like Profile Publications was produced in the form of inexpensive booklets that could be purchased by a child with pocket money. While some kids were buying comics, other, more serious little chaps were buying the Profiles, convinced that the information contained in them was nothing but the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

All of this is charming when considered as a children’s pastime. But for adults, many decades after the end of the war, it would naturally be expected that they would demand something like academic rigor in the materials they use to determine the truth about the past. However, model builders as a group do not seem to care at all about rigor or scholarship. We buy books that “seem” to be true, and then we simply insist that they are. We use the argument (with ourselves more than anyone) that nobody would go to such lengths to invent such elaborate lies, and so evade the real need to remain skeptical– that the devil is in the details. No one would invent the existence of The Second World War, and you can be pretty sure that the Japanese Navy actually flew Zeroes over Pearl Harbor. It would seem a bit silly to list the sources to support that contention (but it wouldn’t be silly in a serious academic paper). But it’s not the existence of Japan or the war that is in question. It’s the appearance–the precise appearance–of those Zeroes that is open to debate. So anyone bringing a knife, gun or howitzer to this knife fight is well advised to explain, precisely, where they got it.

Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that the author of a new book on Zeroes is required to PROVE his contention that those airplanes were purple. I’m merely asking that said author explain why, in exact terms, he believes that they were. Usually, this means that the honorable author of a fine looking book should list where he came by that information. Sources should be listed, and that doesn’t mean that a bibliography is required. We don’t need to know about every related book, suggested for further reading, since such lists are often ways to appear scholarly without actually being scholarly at all. What I want is the chain of reasoning.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that no color image, or description of color, exists for a particular insignia worn on uniforms and painted on airplanes from a certain squadron back in the high rollin’ days before everybody had a camera that could render color images. Now let’s assume that the author of a new book claims that this insignia, so often represented in art and on models as having a blue dragon in front of a green mountain, actually had a red dragon in front of a brown mountain. What I would like to read from this author could take any form, even a little note right in the text, not a footnote or anything, and it should say that he found a color photo belonging to the grandson of one of the pilots in this squadron, and color photo showed a cigarette case belonging to his father, and on it was the insignia, with the red dragon and the brown mountain. From this, and nowhere else, the author concludes that the aircraft insignia were the same as the cigarette case insignia.

Now I, as a reader, am free to decide if the author is correct or jumping to false conclusions. It would be particularly nice if the author admitting that it’s a bit of a stretch to assume that all similar images should be colored the same, and it would help me to know that he doesn’t have a color image of the aircraft hidden away in a drawer somewhere, and is, in fact, relying on that color photo of the cigarette case. Then I can draw my own conclusion. I may not agree with the author, I can always state that the cigarette case proves nothing, and go on my merry way. But there’s no hard feelings and nothing, really, to argue about. We have the same facts, and we arrive at different conclusions.

But what happens when said author is strangely mysterious and refuses to provide the source? Well, since we model builders are not used to holding anybody to any kind of standard, he’s going to get away with it. Also, nobody, ten years from now, will be able to explain why we now hold that the insignia was red and brown and not blue and green. But the greatest hazard is not that the author just made it up. It’s that we allowed him to treat us like children, and assume that we wouldn’t be interested in where he got his information.

The plastic model kit business, and the publishing industry that has grown up around it, should grow up a little more. We simply need to raise our eyebrows at anything that’s presented in a “take my word for it” manner. When enough eyebrows are raised high enough, we’ll see some change. Either building scale models is an adult hobby or it isn’t. If it is, then all the adults involved should treat each other with respect and consideration enough to explain just where they got their information. If we can’t do that then we’ll remain children in several important ways until we shape up.

2 Replies to “Batman vs. Spiderman: Scholarship in Model Building”

  1. Just a book to mention

    “Mustang Designer”.
    Edgar Schmued and the P-51.

    This is a Smithsonian book of 244 pages. It’s an easy read, I did almost in one day.
    So Schmued never worked g
    for Messerschmitt. This covers a lot of history, insights into the folks at NAA, the USAAF, and how airplanes got done effectively before the globby weight of the new military industrial guys made life difficult. There is the besides the P-51, succinct stories about other craft like the Navion, the Northrop F5, and some other ideas to by Edgar.

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