Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Fake news, fake history, & fact-checking

2017.07.11

With so much falsehood being spun and repeated, now more loudly and insistently than ever, it is a joy to find someone who analyzes scientifically, sorting information to find the most plausible and best documented interpretation. Our best journalists do this, and our most conscientious historians, but even they need to be fact-checked. For this I want to celebrate the work of mathematician Michèle Audin in sorting truth from fiction in the Paris Commune.

Audin is not a historian by profession, but a prize-winning mathematician and professor at the Institut de recherche mathématique avancée in Strasbourg, and  the author of several books and articles on mathematics and its history —  including even a novel about a mathematical proposition, the Stokes formula.

It may be the precision-thinking required of mathematics that has saved her from the emotional and rhetorical traps, or  laziness, of many historians who quote one another rather than insisting on the fundamental, original sources.

Why she has chosen the Paris Commune as a problem to investigate I can only conjecture — though I think I see clues in her biography and her memoir of her father, mathematician and Communist Party militant in Algeria, Maurice Audin. I think she must admire, as I do, the enormous courage of ordinary, working-class men and women to create and defend their concept of democracy, liberty and fraternity against their dangerous and merciless enemies, and the ingenuity that enabled them to keep a complex urban system functioning without outside resources for as long as they did.

In sum, I recommend her serious and articulate blog on the Commune (see link below) as an example of uncompromising effort to sort fact from fiction. And to present (as she does, explicitly)  her conclusions as no more, but no less, than strongly evidenced hypotheses. They may be susceptible to rebutting, but only if somebody comes up with better evidence, not mere quotes from tradition. Most especially, I recommend her latest entry, on whether there was in fact a barricade held by women in the last days of the Commune — she has demonstrated pretty convincingly that yes, contrary to current consensus, there must have been, the most reliable and earliest sources attest to it.

La Commune de Paris, blog by Michèle Audin
Michèle Audin, bio (in French)
The Stokes formula (not the novel, but an explanation of the formula itself)
La formule de Stokes novel by Michèle Audin
Maurice Audin (Michèle’s father, killed by French forces in Algeria presumably in 1957, when Michèle was 3)

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Barricade de la Place Blanche defendue par des femmes, mai 1871