Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Science, pseudoscience, fraud and poetry

A reply to a thoughtful comment by Sharon Howard, an Early Modern period historian based in Wales, keeper of the Early Modern Notes blog.

What Sharon calls pseudo-science, I call scientific fraud. Most pseudoscientific authors are not fraudulent. Through lack of skill or self-delusion, they offer the reader unsubstantiated claims dressed up in scientific apparel. Think of it as wannabe science. Some of it is fraud.

Unsubstantiated claims, dreams and speculation are the lifeblood of fiction. They are the business of poets and novelists. An academic who puts out such speculation under a university imprint does not, however, become a poet. He's far too boring for that. He just becomes a pretentious pseudoscientist.

I write scholarly studies, aesthetic essays, a bit of fiction and poetry. The line between science and fictional genres is important and should not be blurred. Anyone can tell a story. But finding out scientific truth takes skill and hard work.

Sharon says, "The past is a strange kind of entity. I don't tend to think of it as a 'reality' at all; the only reality is the surviving evidence of its existence, and all historians or archaeologists can do is interpret its remains." I have a feeling that this only applies to the past she has not experienced herself. Yesterday, last year, the 90s, they are all part of Sharon’s current makeup. But still she’d probably have to resort to the methods of historical scholarship to find out the forgotten details about her 90s. What did Sharon do on 14 June 1996? Only the diaries of herself and her friends can tell.

As for situations where several competing interpretations carry equal weight, well, that’s where a scholar should drop the issue or go off in search for new source material. We’ll never know what bedtime songs Stone Age children heard. Better to look at more fruitful areas of inquiry.

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