Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Caveat lector!

"Let the reader beware!"

Jonathon Jarrett over at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe critiques a supposed breakthrough in our knowledge of the Pictish language. This excerpt explains why such a critique should be of interest to people who don't care much about Pictish, but might care about some other obscure, pre-modern historical problem:

Okay, here’s another thing I wanted to write up before I went to Kalamazoo. You may have seen, if you are following Archaeology in Europe as you all should be, that there was a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society A that apparently decodes the Pictish language or something similar. I confess to initial scepticism, not least because they inexplicably persist in using the term `Iron Age’ for a people only attested under the name ‘Picts’ from the Roman period onwards, and whose glory days are most definitely early medieval, but I am interested in the Picts, I am in favour of Science! in history and so I thought I’d better have a look. After all, I am developing a blog-tradition of critiquing scientific papers on matters historical, and I’d hate to pass up another opportunity. Now, if those instances have taught me anything, it is these things:

1. articles based on the press release usually massively exaggerate the impact, and indeed the intent, of the actual research;
2. the actual research is usually more interested in proving a method than in its applications, otherwise it would have been published in a historical forum not a scientific one; and,
3. it is unfortunately rare for the authors of that research to have read enough in the field to which they’re supposedly contributing to have an accurate sense of whether or not they really are.

And this particular case ticks all three boxes, which is to say it’s interesting, appears scientifically rigorous at first glance, but sadly isn’t going to add much to the historical or linguistic debates, even though the news coverage would have you believe it’s a revolution in the field.

Like I said, let the reader beware.

One of the problems with work done by "scientists" in historical fields is that they tend to think that one simple procedure or test will cut through all the problems that have puzzled scholars for decades or centuries. But scientific evidence is usually as incomplete as any other kind.

Image: The Pictish symbols.


  1. I one read an attempt to redo historical linguistics with the help of sophisticated mathematical tools, and it came up with some surprising results which might have been interesting, except that the method also missed some of the most obvious and unquestionable relationships, for example, the relationship between Portuguese and Spanish.

  2. One of the key giveaways that should set the "I smell a Bozo" meter swinging is: There is a press release. Press releases sell novelty. When will the next one, linking Pictish and Mayan symbology and determining that both groups were linked to the Templars and the Masons, come out?

  3. The press release, in this instance, wasn't really a fair reflection of the paper, which was a lot less ambitious and more careful (because after all, the Royal Society does have a fairly well-policed cachet). But its lack of ambition was one of its problems, from a historical point of view. If it proves anything, that thing is not very interesting... Thankyou for the link as ever, Steve!