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Darwin-L Message Log 5:7 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<5:7>From LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU  Tue Jan  4 08:32:22 1994

Date: Tue, 4 Jan 1994 08:32:22 -0600
From: "JOHN LANGDON"  <LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU>
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Linguistics controversy

This discussion on historical linguistics sounds a lot like discussions in my
field of paleoanthropology (among others): mainline researchers plagued by a
nonsensical theory that won't go away because "proof" and "disproof" are
impossible, if not meaningless. I spent much of last semester in an extended
email discussion of the aquatic ape hypothesis, for example. The archaeology
list has been lamenting the airing on network television of a theory that the
Sphinx was made in Atlantis.

Is this a parallel case? I am only an interested spectator on the topic. I have
read the SA articles, but not closely; I have read recent books by Mallory and
Renfrew on Indo-European origins (and found them fascinating as I did
discussions of the attempt to recreate the Mother Tongue); and I have read
something of the Greenberg controversy in CA and Science. But I do not feel in
a position to draw my own conclusions on these topics. Are Renfrew's ideas so
clearly off the wall in the perspective of other linguists as those of Elaine
Morgan are for anthropologists? If so, why is it so difficult for
linguists/paleoanthropologists to communicate this to outsiders, even to
scholars trained in critical analysis in other fields? I can be swayed when I
sense the weight of the discipline leaning heavily to one paradigm or another,
but that is very difficult for an outsider to perceive based on a few SA or
secondary articles and books. Note that the authors of such articles, _on both
sides of the argument_, are writing with similar styles and convictions--
asking the reader to have informed faith, not an independent critique.

How can we expect the general public, who is still unable to separate science
from mysticism, to evaluate such controversies? Usually we don't. We tell them
what to believe. That is the sense in these recent comments on Renfrew and in
my own messages about aquatic apes. There is a smooth continuum from good
theory and practice to bad theory to poppycock to uninformed faith (the worst
of all, from my perspective as an academic). We struggle with difficulty to
guide our colleagues along this landscape, usually without knowing exactly
where we are ourselves.

What do we tell the general public? This appears to be a problem common to all
the sciences for any internal debate. I no longer am convinced that education
is the answer, short of turning them all into professional academic linguists
or paleoanthropologists (God forbid). I really do not want to get into the
question "How do we know what we know?", but I am afraid that is what we are
facing.

Any thoughts or optimism on this?

JOHN H. LANGDON                email   LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU
DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGY          FAX  (317) 788-3569
UNIVERSITY OF INDIANAPOLIS     PHONE (317) 788-3447
INDIANAPOLIS, IN 46227

(Henry, Duke of Gloucester, upon receiving The Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire:) "Another damn, thick, square book. It's always scribble, scribble,
scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?"

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