Monday, June 18, 2012


One thing that defines a field of research is a certain range of topics in which one may be legitimately interested. Serious historians don't wonder "Who killed Kennedy?" Serious biologists don't look for evidence of Intelligent Design. Serious psychologists don't study clairvoyance. Serious engineers don't look for evidence of the controlled demolition of the World Trade Center. The intellectual ethos of these subjects is such that in most cases you are not even able to arrive at mainstream conclusions (Lee Harvey Oswald worked alone, there is no evidence for ID, there is no extra-sensory mode of perception, fire alone brought down the towers). You are "beyond the pale" if you look at the question as though there even could be evidence. It shows poor professional judgment to do anything but write a popular essay disparaging such interests.

Interestingly, even among so-called "cranks", there is an acceptable range of opinion. It is one thing to think there must have been a "second gunman" and quite another to think that gunman was part of the UFO cover-up. It is one thing to argue that the flagellum is irreducibly complex and another to claim that our designers took you to their planet and explained the whole thing to you. It is one thing to design controlled experiments with Zener cards and another to demonstrate your powers alongside other abilities like bending spoons with your mind. It is one thing to adduce evidence of the use of nano-thermite in the destruction of the World Trade Center, and quite another to propose the use of high-energy "space beams".

For every subject there seems to be a community of peers. You choose the company you'll have to keep in part by your choice of subject matter. You may as well do that consciously.


Andrew Shields said...

Serious historians can make each of these topics into objects of legitimate interest by studying them as historical discourses. One can address "who killed Kennedy?" by looking at the history of the theories. The "meta" level makes it into a topic.

Psychologists could do the same by looking at the psychology of belief in clairvoyance. But when a biologist looks at the belief in ID, that's no longer biology, and when an engineer looks at WTC conspiracy, that's no longer engineering.

Thomas said...

Yes, the idea is not to talk about objects that are beyond the pale.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between an engineer expressing doubt about how fire could possibly bring down the WTC towers, on the one hand, and speculating about how explosives were planted and why someone would do that, on the other. The first is technically an engineering question but it is still not (last I checked) a suitable one to raise in the literature. It is seen as just an oblique way to promote "conspiracy theories".

Jonathan said...

What about Oxfordians? Are they beyond the pale? I think so, but this raises some interesting issues of who gets to decide.

Thomas said...

Yes, last I checked all questions about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays are out of bounds. That's a really good example, actually, and I should have put it in the post.

It's "the discourse" that decides, an emergent consensus. The consensus can change, of course, but that amounts to a "paradigm shift".

As all scholars on the fringe are quick to remind you: in Galileo's day it was beyond the pale to suggest that the Earth moves. But as Feyerabend and others have countered: Galileo may ultimately have been right, but his evidence wasn't really very good.

Andrew Shields said...

Galileo: Here's a fascinating book about his time: The Sun in the Church, by J. L. Heilbron. It turns out that some of the best astronomy at the time was being sponsored by the Catholic Church itself, because of the need for everyone to determine the date of Easter precisely without having to communicate with Rome every year about it. It may have been beyond the pale for Galileo to insist that the earth *really* moved, but it was acceptable to use the mathematics that suggested that it was.

Thomas said...

I think there's an important distinction here between the allowable range of belief and the allowable range of expression. It's probably okay to be a scholar of Elizabethan drama and personally believe that Hamlet and Macbeth were written by the Earl of Oxford. You can even entertain your dinner guests (including your department head and dean) with your crazy theories. But if you try to publish those ideas, you begin to marginalize yourself.

That's very much what happened to Galileo. He insisted on going public with his views, rather than (as he was explicitly allowed to) work quietly within the establishment with the "theoretical" assumption that the Earth moves.

Galileo was simply impatient with orthodoxy. That's really the mark of a kook. (I want to make it clear that I love kooks, by the way. I think we need them more than they need us.)