Why Is It Better For An Interpretation To Be New Than To Be Correct?

In my career (such as it is), I keep running into a hurdle having to do with the great value placed in the arts/humanities on the novelty of interpretations. Time and again, reviewers will say that my work tackles interesting questions in a methodologically competent manner using solid data – but that my interpretations (humanities people aren't comfortable with calling them “results”) aren't novel enough.

This makes no sense to me. I don't aim to produce a new interpretation. Nor do I wish to retain an old one. I just want to find the most-likely-to-be-correct answer to the question, given the data at hand.

If a physicist runs a complicated new experiment and concludes that the results support the Theory of General Relativity, she will not be called backward-looking and traditional. It will be seen as yet another piece of important support for an already robust theory. But to many colleagues in the humanities, “cutting edge” means “in line with trendy theoretical works”. I don't care about trendy theory. My work is designed to still be useful 100 years from now. There's a reason that novelties are called novelties.

I will readily criticise colleagues for asking old boring questions. But if they argue their interpretations cogently, I will never criticise them for supporting an existing opinion with new data.

I think any academic subject that can't establish solid consensus and move on to new questions should be defunded. That's not science / Wissenschaft / vetenskap, that's art criticism, aesthetics. It belongs on a newspaper's culture pages, not at a university.

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Interpretations as fashion? So it won't do to have last year's fashion in science. OK, this year we will postulate the world is cube-formed instead of round.
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(OT) "Shipwreck find could be legendary 'sunstone' " http://phys.org/news/2013-03-shipwreck-legendary-sunstone.html -Röde Orm, here we come!

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 06 Mar 2013 #permalink

My feeling is that in the natural sciences, what's fashionable is materials and methods, not prescribed results.

Whay are they going on about those sunstones now? My Scandy colleagues have known that since the 60s!

It sounds to me as if your reviewers are playing the impact factor game. If your interpretation is novel (and you are not an obvious crackpot), your paper will attract more attention than a similar paper which interprets the results conventionally. More importantly, anybody who comes along later with the correct interpretation has to cite your paper in the process of refuting your novel interpretation. That's better for the journal, but not necessarily for the field.

Some years ago, a senior scientist admitted to me that the reason his most-cited paper had that distinction was because his rival would cite it in his papers on the topic in the process of claiming that the original reference was wrong. (I don't know whether these claims were correct.) I suspect his experience is a common one.

It's not as different in physics as you think. The reason physicists dream up these novel ways of testing general relativity is because, if they should happen to find an experimental test that disproves general relativity (and the result holds, i.e., no loose cables, etc.), there is a Nobel Prize in it for them.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Mar 2013 #permalink

It's not comparable to physics. These people don't think they can prove or disprove anything. They believe that additional interpretations "enrich the source material", in the sense that a lit scholar may write a Freudian analysis of Shakespeare despite the fact that Freud post-dated Shakespeare. I am working in a diametrically opposite direction. I believe that new interpretations (or as I call them, "working hypotheses") are cheap and need to be weeded out.

Just add "and was presumably painted purple" to your next description. Any reviewer will tell you you don't have evidence for it, but be happy that you're willing to accept his input and let the rest of the paper pass.

These people don’t think they can prove or disprove anything.

These people need to become acquainted with Alan Sokal. If they really believe this, then they think it is impossible to distinguish a serious idea from a crackpot notion. But there is such a thing as objective reality; as Sokal said, "Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)" It may not be possible to prove an interpretation of an archaeological site in the sense that a physicist would use the word "prove", we can rule out certain interpretations. For instance, to take Shakespeare as an example, many anti-Stratfordian arguments (this is the camp that refuses to believe the contemporary evidence that Shakespeare was well-known in his time as a playwright) contradict known facts.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Mar 2013 #permalink

Eric, I think Sokal's idea was great. In fact, let post-structuralists take the plunge from the window. Let global warming skeptics make a walk from the arctic pack ice to terra firma, using a map of ice distribution from the seventies!

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 07 Mar 2013 #permalink

As an interested non-academic reader I don't have much to offer, but will just observe that in your picture-stone paper it's the image you painted of late pagans being buried with stone pieces to tie them to their past that will stick with me longer than the facts of your survey. This isn't to diminish the data collection -- it wouldn't be interesting if just speculation. But in reading scholarly papers the moments in which the author after pages of slogging through evidence allows himself an imaginative flight are like the raisins in the pudding.

I'm often left with the impression that for fear of subjectivity or premature conclusions some authors are holding themselves back, that after a few drinks some real interesting theories might come out -- what were those skull fragments doing on that burnt floor near the hall your friend found? And I'm sorry that in academia there isn't a mechanism for publishing speculation just as entertainment, not by kooks but by people like you whose opinions, even the ones without tables and footnotes, are worth reading.

Kevin, I don't see that as an imaginative flight but as the most reasonable interpretation of the evidence for the questions I asked. If someone comes up with a better-argued and more data-consistent interpretation then I will abandon mine.

Don't the French have a saying that "Novelty is as old as the hills"?

I have often wondered how many notes and other data from a dig-report remain unpublished because the evidence found leads to no conclusion. I have also wondered if too much "compatible" (which is to say from the same period and in a local geographic area) evidence can confuse or out-right contradict previous conclusions. That no conclusion, based upon evidence, is possible seems to be unacceptable.

By Steven Blowney (not verified) on 11 Mar 2013 #permalink

Swedish excavation reports are usually published, at least in contract archaeology. Could you please rephrase what you said? I don't quite understand.

...and apparently not being enlighted about it, either. Since when should the evidence lead to any sort of conclusion? Is it entirely possible that the evidence leads no conclusion? More importantly, is anyone willing to say that? This is not to say that the finds dated to a period about discovered in single geographic area should not presented and discussed, but I ask you who is more honest, someone who states that no conclusion is possible, or someone who makes a guess?

By Steven Blowney (not verified) on 11 Mar 2013 #permalink

Conclusions don't spring spontaneously from finds or observations. In order to draw a conclusion you must first ask a question. These days questions are put into every fieldwork project plan. But sometimes you find stuff that has no bearing on the questions you asked. And some finds seem to have no potential to answer any interesting questions.

It is always a balance, keeping enough finds and recording enough observations that future research will be able to ask new questions of your fieldwork -- but not so much that you throw funding away pointlessly.