UCL logo

Papers from the Colloquium

Theme 4: Evidence and Context
Dr Jason Davies, UCL

Herodotus, the father of history, tells us that:

Now the Egyptians, before the reign of their king Psammetichus, believed themselves to be the most ancient of mankind. Since Psammetichus, however, made an attempt to discover who were actually the primitive race, they have been of opinion that while they surpass all other nations, the Phrygians surpass them in antiquity. This king, finding it impossible to make out by dint of inquiry what men were the most ancient, contrived the following method of discovery:- He took two children of the common sort, and gave them over to a herdsman to bring up at his folds, strictly charging him to let no one utter a word in their presence, but to keep them in a sequestered cottage, and from time to time introduce goats to their apartment, see that they got their fill of milk, and in all other respects look after them. His object herein was to know, after the indistinct babblings of infancy were over, what word they would first articulate. It happened as he had anticipated. The herdsman obeyed his orders for two years, and at the end of that time, on his one day opening the door of their room and going in, the children both ran up to him with outstretched arms, and distinctly said "Becos." When this first happened the herdsman took no notice; but afterwards when he observed, on coming often to see after them, that the word was constantly in their mouths, he informed his lord, and by his command brought the children into his presence. Psammetichus then himself heard them say the word, upon which he proceeded to make inquiry what people there was who called anything "becos," and hereupon he learnt that "becos" was the Phrygian name for bread. In consideration of this circumstance the Egyptians yielded their claims, and admitted the greater antiquity of the Phrygians. That these were the real facts I learnt at Memphis from the priests of Vulcan. The Greeks, among other foolish tales, relate that Psammetichus had the children brought up by women whose tongues he had previously cut out; but the priests said their bringing up was such as I have stated above. I got much other information also from conversation with these priests while I was at Memphis, and I even went to Heliopolis and to Thebes, expressly to try whether the priests of those places would agree in their accounts with the priests at Memphis.

Nowadays of course no-one would dream of doing this: one would have to use animals in such an experiment.

We could do an awful lot with this example: obviously the experiment appears somewhat naive to us. But, though I confess I used the story to get your attention and possibly a laugh, we can use moments such as these to indicate just how huge the transitions have been in the last 2,500 years or so. It is not just that we would use different methods: the entire enquiry is meaningless to us. Language is not just a question of vocabulary, as every language student discovers to their horror: it is as much about syntax; nor do we consider that it is some primeval given, overridden by obscure cultural forces to produce other languages. Actually, and you could not possibly know this unless you had read Herodotus with some care, it is the importance of language as an index of culture, civilisation and insight that has changed; and the authority of antiquity, chronological pre-eminence, is almost reversed in a world where the real truth is round the corner and 'old' knowledge is almost certainly useless. What would now at best be considered an item of curiosity was then a hugely important social and political factor.

What first appeared to be a scientific transition actually turned out to be an historical transition: what appeared to be a (proto-) scientific concern was what we would call a cultural issue. The kind of questions being asked were determined not by some undefined and normalised human curiosity but were culturally defined.

You can see the beginning of a discussion here about the value of the history of science: studying history gives a far longer perspective than studying contemporary and can throw unexpected light on our assumptions. We generally assume we are more advanced than previous societies by virtue of our technological achievements: the desirability of ever faster, more powerful gadgets is not questioned, except by a few (and there's always a few....). yet when rudimentary - or even sophisticated - technological achievements were pioneered in the ancient world, they were discouraged. Even now, Rome's imperial heritage is an impressive sight. Methods of moving heavy stone around would have been our first priority in such a situation. Yet they were vetoed at the time because they would have taken work away from the poor, who laboured to construct those edifices. If functional durability was our key, then the Romans would win hands-down. So my opening gambit on interdisciplinarity is a simple historical one: history can give a very useful sense of perspective. Everything looks different depending on what context it is placed in. Because Psammetichus was interested in what made a particular people and culture the principal one of the civilised world, a perennial concern. His evidence pointed backwards, into the mysteries of the deep past: our evidence tends to point out and up: his Phrygian-speaking children, our atomic bomb and space flights. The meaning of the evidence is defined to the greatest extent by the context: without that, they are mere curiosities.

An historical account of these factors is perhaps the easiest option: not so easy to place these matters in a scientific context, and not just because we are dealing with the past. We *could* recreate those 'experiments' with children, and we might even get the same result. The same evidence would not support the same hypothesis, nor would have it a comparable significance. Psammetichus' science has now become history, or possibly anthropology: it has moved irremediably from one discipline to another.

These disciplines, or perhaps they are fields, of history and science have very different methods for dealing with evidence. For a start, historians have to take evidence where they can find it; scientists can almost literally will it into existence for the most part (or show that it is near-impossible to produce). For the historian, there is so much that has fallen below the threshold of visibility that we must constantly remind ourselves of the partiality of our material. Possibly the most dramatic transition that science has made in recent centuries (and as a classicist, I have a longer perspective than most) has been precisely the reduction of that threshold: visibility has proved to be negotiable, beginning with the microscope or its forerunners. Simple glass allowed for a revolution in knowledge.

So the circumstances of these fields are almost inverted: science expanding exponentially, at least potentially; history, while accumulating a larger field as every day passes, at the mercy of entropy as ancient and medieval material in particular literally crumbles, not least thanks to the petrochemical revolution in science. Given the recent rise in sheer historical material as more and more information is recorded - to the point of overwhelm - , we can probably say that we know less and less about more and more.

Given these, and the manifold other differences between these two areas of knowledge, can we find any common ground; can we really talk of interdisciplinary understanding of how evidence is handled or contextualised? The historian has responded to the lack of evidence by becoming expert in interpretative flexibility: the antithesis of the scientist, who seeks one answer within a multitude of possibilities. Scientists, at least to my perception, like to focus on the correct answer. So the Guardian has a weekly column called 'bad science' where undisciplined claims are displayed in all their errors: a similar approach to history is pretty unthinkable, at least by most. What on earth can these two learn from one another? Or, to put it in a more historical way, where can we stand such that a useful perspective can be had?

One thing that I think worth stressing is the extent to which a discipline is bound by its material: they are typically named after the type of evidence that they touch on. So from the bottom up, we have the interesting material, whether it be old, chemical, biological, literary, social and so on. This is often assumed to shape the various hypotheses that mysteriously arise from that material: a chemist is interested in what chemical can do, for instance. The only hindrance to this pure innocence could do is the dreaded phrase of academia: grants and funding. In other words, the questions that we put to the evidence come preformed to a large extent. Thus, for instance, there is much medical research in this country, almost purely because the Wellcome Trust can fund relatively vast numbers of projects. Similarly, in history, the history of medicine would not, most likely, support entire departments or units without their money to make it possible (and I speak as a recent beneficiary). In other areas money is virtually non-existent and questions are therefore not asked or properly answered.

The area which I am circling with some hesitation is that of hypotheses. There is no evidence without a hypothesis, just random facts, often waiting to be discovered. The first context, then, of evidence is that of the hypothesis. I often told my students to make up their minds about the subject they were about to research, to pick an arbitrary conclusion before they had done any reading: because a clearly formulated hypothesis soon becomes unworkable in the light of the material, or, if they made a lucky guess, far more refined. Those who took the advice formulated better arguments because they could see their evidence much more clearly than those who simply went off and read lots of books.

But if a hypothesis bestows meaning upon evidence, where does it in turn gain its own validity and relevance? This, I think, is where the questions become more compelling. Hypothesis is not an unconnected fragment of truth or falsity; it only makes sense in an argument. But I wish to put a different spin on it by referring not to arguments, but to narratives.

Why refer to narrative? Apart from the bonus of irritating many by its evocation by the spectre of post-modernism (and an irritated seminar is always more lively than one lulled by familiar platitudes) it refers to a particular function of an argument, whether historical, scientific, literary, mathematical and so on. I would suggest that narrative is the whole point. As every good English school teacher will have mentioned, a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The sequential progress of a series with some kind of closure has long been an obsession of humanity - back to the earliest writings. You could call it the search for closure, the desire to know either what happened, what is happening, or what will happen. Depending on your needs, you might be an anti-narrativist, like a defence lawyer, who wishes to create enough holes in her opponent's narrative to render it unfit for use.

So this is my first suggestion: that one point at which all the disciplines meet, the campfire around which they all sit, is the appropriate completion of their narrative, the contented fulfillment of the explanation, the conversion of the unknown to the known. Hypothesis is the sentence not the chapter in a narrative. Psammetichus' children proved the hypothesis that the Phrygian tongue was the oldest, older even than the Egyptians'. That fed into a narrative about the various nations, which could now begin accurately: the end of the beginning as it were. The biologist who cures a little-known cancer closes another narrative with the *right* ending: the patient recovers. One potential field of interest is the distinguishing in different disciplines of what constitutes closure: how tolerant are different areas in adjusting to theories that work from the bottom up (ie they fit with the available evidence but clash with other, pre-existing narratives). Paul Feyerabend spent many books and many years arguing that science had never lived up its claims as objective. I have found in my own research that the most closely argued position, fitting absolutely with the available evidence like a glove, can encounter fierce resistance if it does not accord with other narratives that intersect, like a crossword puzzle whose answers refuse to interact. What do different disciplines do when their narratives fail to accord?

So far then I have suggested a necessary context for evidence - hypothesis - and a useful context for hypothesis - narrative. There is an awful lot more that could be said about that, and hopefully a small fraction of it will arise in the discussion. Now I want to test your patience a little and introduce yet another contextual level, for which I have another unsatisfactory term.

If our interest in evidence leads to hypothesis, which must then necessarily form a relationship with a greater argument, a wider narrative, then the same question can be put to our narrative: at which point does it attain some kind of completion? To put it another way, what informs the narrative, underlies its validity? Whereas a narrative has sequence and completion, the domain upon which it draws does not necessarily have to. Whereas a hypothesis, a statement, makes sense in the context of the narrative (and sometimes only the narrative, not any wider context), the narrative itself has to conform to a wider and altogether more diffuse set of understandings - which I will call discourse, or cultural discourse.

So even though an argument, or an experiment, might make reasonable sense on its own terms, it may not survive within the broader discourse: there was good evidence that the earth went round the sun long before the broader cultural discourse permitted the idea to take hold. The evidence led to the hypothesis, the hypothesis gave rise to a narrative that both reflected and strengthened it, but the story did not fit with broader expectations. Once again, we have a check and influence on the handling of evidence, another set of tensions and checks.

As will be obvious, this Venn diagram-type of approach to evidence is not one-way, though many will find that they are working from the bottom up, so to speak. Evidence will stimulate changes in understanding that will alter discourse. This of course is the ideal, though it is not clear to me that it is always what happens. Different aspects of discourse will often act as a disincentive to new ideas. For something to find its way anew into cultural discourse it must often overcome far more serious barriers than a minor modification. To cite an example that seems to keep cropping up in the Leverhulme Evidence project, if one wanted to prove that homeopathy worked, it would not be a simple question of a few studies that indicated promising results: monumentally impressive results would be needed, because homeopathy violates several fundamental tenets of the cultural discourse, including the preference of materialistic, recordable and straightforward correlations. If one wanted to argue that vaccinations were not as useful or potent as they are claimed to be, then one would need a similarly overwhelming amount of evidence.

I do not make these claims here, but I know of their existence and cite them only as examples of tensions within the broader discourse. It is those kinds of tensions that I suggest will be fruitful areas for interdisciplinary comparison: moments where unity and seamlessness conspicuously breaks down. I suggest that rich beginnings can be made where the stakes are high, where much remains to be proven and all the appropriate and inappropriate factors are in plainer view.

It is not the evidence that can be compared, nor the methods used to reach a hypothesis: there we will find hopelessly irreconcilable differences. If we are to take an interdisciplinary approach to evidence, some kind of unity and comparison can only be made at the level where a narrative, or some conclusions, are constructed. What are the different types of narrative? How do they draw on broader assumptions within cultural discourse? To what extent are they 'bottom-up' (based 'purely' on evidence) or 'top-down' (inductive treatments of the evidence, which is moulded to fit expectations). Every narrative has to find its place within the society that constructed it so that the world can be represented coherently. One might reasonably say that is the point of the exercise.



Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Higher Education - cishe@ucl.ac.uk - UCL - Gower Street - London - WC1E 6BT - Telephone: +44 (0)20 7679 2000 - Copyright © 1999-2006 UCL

Search by Google