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Darwin-L Message Log 5:13 (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.


<5:13>From ronald@uhunix.uhcc.Hawaii.Edu  Tue Jan  4 20:45:11 1994

Date: Tue, 4 Jan 94 16:48:29 HST
From: Ron Amundson <ronald@uhunix.uhcc.Hawaii.Edu>
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: Linguistics controversy

A couple of comments on Bayla Singer's interesting observations on why
it's hard to convince non-specialists of the flakiness of some fringe
theories.  While I generally like the approach, the cases are
extremely shaky.

> Those outside a given field are more likely to root for the perceived
> maverick, out of sheer irrational "They laughed at Columbus" sympathy.
> The kicker in the situation is that every once in a while, Columbus is
> right after all; or Wegner (?sp) with his plate tectonics; or <fill in the
> blank>.

Wegner was interesting and didn't deserve the scorn he got.  But he
did not invent plate tectonics -- he actually seems to have believed
that continents plowed through ocean floors.  Plate tectonics is a
very different notion.  Wegner was vindicated in _some_ of his views,
but not by any means was he essentially correct.  Similar points could
be made about Columbus -- I hope Bayla is not basing her comments on
that old chestnut about how people used to believe the world was flat
before Columbus!  (Turns out Washington Irving invented that myth.)

> In the sociology of the professions, it's almost a given that advances
> will come from those on the margin, rather than those identifiable as "the
> establishment" of a particular field.  Charles Darwin, with his provincial
> background and non-U (though well-to-do) status, is a paradigmatic instance.

I suspect that readers of this list will be aware that Darwin had made
a _very_ good name for himself doing mainstream geology and
biogeography long before he published his evolutionary views.  He was
by no means a fringe figure in British science.

Actually, I think that the popular myth that's behind the difficulty
Bayla is discussing is expressed in Bayla's own "given" -- that
advances come from the fringe.  In fact (I suspect) we build heroic
stories about intellectual high-achievers which _depict_ them as
underappreciated fringe geniuses.  These myths are so appealing that
the public then coopts them and applies them to the next flaky theory
that comes along.

Frank Sulloway (in discussion, I don't know if he's published on the
topic) talks about the mythic structures of our tales of intellectual
heroes.  Very Homeric.  Everyone begins with a journey of trial and
discovery, whether it's Darwin and the Beagle or Freud and his
"lonely" psychoanalytic self-explorations.

So I agree that myths about scientists is what motivates public
acceptance of fringe theories.  But I disagree with Bayla that there
is a kernel of truth inside the myth.  It's nonsense through and
through.

Cheers,

Ron Amundson
ronald@uhunix.bitnet

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