Darwin-L Message Log 3:3 (November 1993)

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.

<3:3>From LANGDON@GANDLF.UINDY.EDU  Mon Nov  1 09:43:07 1993

Date: Mon, 1 Nov 1993 09:43:07 -0600
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: scientific and popular explanations / human evolution

hantuo@utu.fi wrote:

> Morgan writes in a style that is easy to read and understand, i.e. her
> books are "popular". Because "popular" is the opposite of "scientific", the
> theory she advocates must be wrong.
> I'm adding this as number 8 to my list of possible non-scientific reasons
> why people reject AAT.

I wouldn't be quite so hasty with this. I like to use popular accounts of the
standard theories in my teaching. I don't believe that the reviewer who wrote
of "Popular explanations" was referring to the genre of literature. I hesitate
to say exactly what the reviewer did mean, but I believe it referred to the
thought and publication process rather than to the genre.

Serious scientists who do get heavily involved in popular writing sometimes
lose credibility. Carl Sagan is a good example. I think he brought that upon
himself when he strayed outside his expertise (astronomy) into poorly
formulated evolution (Dragons of Eden and others). I have heard disparaging
remarks of Stephen Jay Gould for the same reason (although I do not share
them). Someone coined the term "saganization" to describe this phenomenon.

There is another distinction between "popular" and "scientific" explanation
that applies here. Books such as those of Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson
emerged from the scientific literature where the ideas had been presented
formally and critiqued before they were placed before the public. Popular
explanations, including Morgan's, were placed before the public without a
formal critique or discussion in the scientific literature. The appearance is
that the author attempted to bypass peer review and appeal over the heads of
scientists to the uninformed public. That practice is sneered at by scientists.
Perhaps justifiably, since the author does not seek peer review, the
establishment is not likely to give such works serious consideration. Add that
as your number 8 reason.

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