Interdisciplinarity and peer-review


Texas State University research­ers fol­low­ing the soggy foot­steps of Caesar.

Tony Keen has been cast­ing a crit­ical eye over the recent ancient astro­nomy stor­ies which have been mak­ing the head­lines recently. I half dis­agree with him, but I think he asks ser­i­ous ques­tions and his con­clu­sions cer­tainly aren’t unfair.

First off he raises ques­tions about the recent ‘dat­ing the Odyssey by an eclipse’ story. I think he’s right about this, it’s really not a viable piece of work. The thing that both­ers me is that while the authors say there are some major assump­tions, the one they seem to have ignored is the exist­ence of a sin­gu­lar Homer. If the Odyssey is a patch­work of tales then dat­ing is futile any­way. The return of the Odysseus could be from an earlier tale. For instance it’s been noticed that the Iliad bor­rows some meta­phors from Gilgamesh. We only know that because we have both texts, which means even if some­thing only appears in “Homer’s” work, we can’t be sure the ori­ginal author was Homer.

The other thing is that it loses some of the mean­ing of an eclipse. The Sun and Moon are not isol­ated astro­nom­ical bod­ies in this period. They’re divine but also entwined with activ­ity on Earth. An eclipse of the Sun is a a sign that some­thing is anom­al­ous with the cos­mos. This could explain how Odysseus gets to slaughter a lot of people and remain a hero. The nor­mal rules of the uni­verse were suspended.

It’s points to a wider prob­lem, in that PNAS is not a minor pub­lic­a­tion, but I’d be sur­prised if it had passed peer-review from a clas­si­cist. If it has that’s, mar­vel­lous news for me. I’ve got plenty of ideas which really wouldn’t stand rig­or­ous scru­tiny which I’d like to shift into pub­lic­a­tion. If it hasn’t then in what sense is the journal mean­ing­fully peer-reviewed? This is not just a prob­lem spe­cific to PNAS. You can flip this back to Classics/Archaeology journ­als too.

Now if I write this up as an art­icle should I give a couple of examples? I have one from archae­ology which says indi­vidu­als are fractals without explain­ing how you’d cal­cu­late the Minkowski-Bouligand dimen­sion of an indi­vidual. I’ve another clas­sics art­icle which says that Chaos Theory says noth­ing about the exist­ence or non-existence of God. This is 100% true. Neither does Delia Smith’s “How to Cook” for exactly the same reason. Neither are theo­lo­gical works.*

So what how do you eval­u­ate inter­dis­cip­lin­ary work? I think inter­dis­cip­lin­ary peer-review is a start. I also think you have to ser­i­ously get to grips with David Whitley’s argu­ments for post-positivism. This is why I have a lot more time for Donald Olson’s work on re-dating Caesar’s land­ing in Britain.

First off it would help to have a bit of con­text. This work fits in with the kind of thing thing Donald Olson’s been doing for Sky and Telescope for a few years. He looks at the vera­city of astro­nom­ical records of his­tor­ical events and how well they fit with mod­ern cal­cu­la­tions. Now, I’d agree with Tony that the cal­en­dar is a mess in this period. I think there’s reason to give it some con­sid­er­a­tion though because of how Olson is con­nect­ing the loose dat­ing with the astro­nomy and the tides.

In the case of the tides, the equi­no­cital tides are unusu­ally high, which is his start­ing point. It has to be before the equi­nox because it’s in the last days of sum­mer, and the phases of the moon allow you to point more at some dates than oth­ers. If that was it I wouldn’t be impressed, but Olson always goes that extra step. For many people doing ‘inter­dis­cip­lin­ary’ work it’s enough if they haven’t found some­thing in the field out­side their expert­ise that con­tra­dicts them. Olson in con­trast act­ively reads round the work of his­tor­i­ans to see if there’s inde­pend­ent cor­rob­or­a­tion for his work, rather than just pulling facts from the stars. That’s a big step up from “I haven’t found any­thing which con­tra­dicts my claims”.

I can also sym­path­ise with Tony’s lack of aston­ish­ment at the minor shift in date. Ancient Historians are so used to not even know­ing what month events occurred in that a shift of a few days is not going to uproot many long-held beliefs. In Olson’s defence I’d say that con­text is import­ant here. The work is appear­ing in Sky and Telescope. It’s a good magazine, but it’s a hobbyist’s magazine, and that hobby is astro­nomy. That’s who Olson is pitch­ing his work at. However there could be a use. Olson’s work would sug­gest that Collingwood’s read­ing of the Gallic Wars is bet­ter in this case than the read­ing of oth­ers. That means we have some more reason to favour Collingwood over other inter­pret­ers when look­ing at other Latin texts.

In the longer term I think Olson’s work can show how dicey some accep­ted ancient dates are. That is a prob­lem for me, because life would be so much easier if I could pin down dates for the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis. More use­fully it shows that mul­tiple routes of inter­rog­a­tion are neces­sary if you’re ser­i­ous about inter­dis­cip­lin­ary work, rather than a simple hypothesis-test post­iv­ist approach.

*If we’re mov­ing to cita­tion indices in the Humanities then I can cite any non-theological piece of work. Should I cite the highest bid­der? Do I hear a packet of chocol­ate buttons?