Darwin-L Message Log 5:3 (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.

<5:3>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Sat Jan  1 21:55:25 1994

Date: Sat, 01 Jan 1994 22:59:11 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Popular historical linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Just a few stray thoughts and subjective impressions relating to the
interesting discussion of historical linguistics in _Scientific American_
and similar venues.

I wonder if the audience for such popular treatments is being overestimated in
one respect and underestimated in another, and that the situation could be
improved by addressing this imbalance.  In the first case, I think it is easy
for specialists in any area to overestimate the non-specialist audience's
grasp of (and even interest in) particular disciplinary disputes.  Thus while
many historical linguists may, in reading Greenberg's articles in _Scientific
American_, see errors of fact or method, the non-specialist reader may only
see a piece of writing on an interesting topic, the history of language.  It
is certainly valuable to challenge such work in the technical literature, but
I wonder if challenging it directly in the popular literature has any
measurable effect.  Non-specialists often don't get the point of the internal
debates we all engage in within our disciplines because, by their very nature,
such debates often turn on arcane details.  I am reminded of the Star Trek
episode wherein the Enterprise crew encounters a unusual alien who is black on
one side of his body and white on the other.  They take him to be "a mutant"
and unique, until they find another alien who is also half black and half
white, and who is in fact being hunted by the first alien.  No one can
understand why these two aliens are locked in mortal combat, since they appear
to be the only ones of their kind left in the galaxy.  Alien number one
recoils at the suggestion that they are both of the same kind: "Can't you
see that he is black on the left side, whereas I am black on the right side?"

I do _not_ want to suggest that one should cede the non-specialist audience to
work that is poorly thought out, though; quite the contrary.  It's just that I
wonder if another strategy might be more successful.  I think in this case one
should not underestimate the _extent_ of popular interest in subjects like
historical linguistics and the historical sciences generally.  This interest
may not be deep enough to grasp details of technical dispute (see above), but
I wonder if it isn't broad enough to allow a different strategy: "just start
painting the fence" (Eli Gerson's nice phrase).  In other words, if some
particular view seems to be getting too much popular attention, don't actually
challenge it directly, but rather just start getting your view out in front of
the public yourself.  Now it may be that _Scientific American_ is a closed
shop, but there are many other vehicles that could be used, and other media as
well (think about the PBS series "The Story of English"; a similar series on
Indo-European might be really something).  I'm not really convinced that the
problem is "the facts are boring", because so much depends upon their
rhetorical presentation.  Stephen Jay Gould, for example, has taken a great
many ideas that are commonplaces in evolutionary biology, and has been very
successful at drawing popular attention to them.  So much so in fact, that he
is sometimes credited for having invented them, much to the consternation of
his less-rhetorically-skilled colleagues.  (I once read a reference to
"Gould's proposal" of a particular new idea, an idea that had in fact been
proposed in the 1870s.)  Language is an everyday phenomenon, and in my
experience lots of non-linguists are interested in dialects, word origins, and
all sorts of issues in historical linguistics, interested enough to read a
magazine article about them or to watch a tv special at least.

There is of course one pragmatic obstacle that would confront someone trying
to follow this latter strategy, namely that writing non-specialist literature
doesn't always help one's specialist career.  As someone who may well be
bagging groceries next year for want of other employment I am quite conscious
of this as a genuine concern.  Then again, there have been a couple of
articles recently in the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ about "the rebirth of
the public intellectual", so maybe there is hope for this strategy after all.

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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