Kuhnian Huns

Back in August I blogged about a manuscript where a scholar appealed to Thomas Kuhn’s old theory of paradigm shifts in order to evade criticism of their work. At the time I couldn’t give the real details as I had received the manuscript in my capacity as journal editor.

I’ve said before that I consider it an editor’s duty to correct muddle in debates, both in the interests of scientific advancement and to help contributors avoid looking silly. So I wrote to the scholar in question and asked her to work some more on her contribution, specifically to address more of her opponent’s substantive arguments. I also suggested that her reference to Kuhnian paradigm shifts was a poor argument.

This author doesn’t share my view on the matter, and I don’t have editorial veto, so the current issue of Fornvännen (2008:4) contains a largely unaltered version of the original manuscript by Lotte Hedeager, Chair of archaeology in Oslo, titled “Paradigm exposed: reply to Ulf Näsman”. The issue at hand is not of course tomatoes in Neolithic Ireland: it’s whether the Huns are likely to have ruled southern Scandinavia in the Migration Period.

‘However, Näsman makes a simple equation between data and historical fact by ruling out theory. A reply to his critique therefore requires an exposition of the two different academic approaches – or paradigms – involved, his and mine.’

‘Such a change of research paradigm took place in Scandinavian archaeology during the 1970s with forerunners in the 1960s, when a new so-called “processual”, theoretical archaeology replaced, or rather supplemented, an empiricist, non-theoretical positivistic research tradition […]. With the addition of a so-called “post-processual” paradigm from the 1980s onwards, we are now in a situation where practitioners of three different research paradigms still work side by side. This situation leads to competing and sometimes incommensurable interpretations of the past, and Ulf Näsman’s critical comments on my article exemplify just that.’

‘Ulf Näsman’s critique of my NAR paper exemplifies this paradigmatic difference of interpretation. This is already evident from the title, where he keeps “Scandinavia and the Huns”, but replaces my subtitle with “A Source-Critical Approach to an Old Problem”. It clearly signals two different paradigms: an objective, positivistic source-criticism is applied in order to deconstruct a theoretical, interdisciplinary interpretation combining history and archaeology. Näsman’s paradigm demands that such bold, theory-based (and thus subjective) interpretations be confronted by restrained, objective source criticism. As a result we now have two completely different interpretations of the same data. One may ask, how wrong is it possible to be? Or is it the very concept of “right or wrong” that should be discussed?’

‘To summarize: all of Näsman’s “neutral” and “objective” interpretations of the empirical evidence are as solidly anchored in a subjective historical research paradigm as are mine. The main difference between us is his lack of theoretical reflection (or consciousness), and consequently his lack of insight into his own theoretical paradigm. While we share a fundamental respect for and knowledge of the empirical data base of the Iron Age, we approach the interpretation of that very same database in a fundamentally different way. In this our discussion highlights and exemplifies basic mechanisms of Kuhn’s concept of research paradigms, not least their incommensurability.’

Repeat after me, please: “Poe. Moe.”.

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23 thoughts on “Kuhnian Huns

  1. It’s Sokal and Bricmont all over again… I have a deep respect for social sciences but sometimes it seems that some specialists of these very domains don’t. They’re always looking to the “hard sciences” for models that, unfortunately, they generally don’t understand very well. I feel sad for Kuhn: I’m sure he never envisioned his notion of paradigm shifts as an excuse for defending “subjective interpretations”. Some people say that post-modernism has some good sides, and that it’s not as bad as usually thought to be. But I’ve yet to see proof of this.


  2. May I quote from Answers in Genesis, a leading young-earth creationist organization in America, Australia, and some other parts of the world?

    Snelling, however, stated that all scientists have certain beliefs that are reflected in their data interpretation. “Every scientist has to make assumptions or has beliefs about how the evidence all fits together,” said Snelling. “If it’s legitimate for [evolutionary biologists] to have their belief system on which they base their science, it’s just as legitimate for a Christian to have the Bible as their belief system for which they base their science.”

    That’s exactly their argument: Christians and secular scientists look at the same evidence, but their presuppositions govern the way the evidence is interpreted. It follows, of course, that evidence doesn’t affect ‘presuppositions’ — after all, they’re primary — and that therefore in essence evidence is irrelevant. That makes it a lot easier to do science.


  3. Actually, that line of argument sound more like Heisenberg than Kuhn: The vegetables grown in Neolithic Ireland are clearly in an undefined quantum state, that’s why they resolve to being tomatoes when looked at in a ‘post-processual’ fashion, but resolve to being turnips when looked at ‘processualy’.

    While nobody’s looking, they’re just a cloud of potential Neolithic Irish vegetable states. (Kinda like Irish stew.)


  4. “paradigm demands that such bold, theory-based (and thus subjective) interpretations be confronted by restrained, objective source criticism.”

    What? I’ve been known as a theory nerd but this is way too far! She actually admits she’s been challenged with objective source criticism and has the nerve to use theory as an excuse!

    I still believe it’s healthy to contemplate our own actions and paradigms from time to time. But that should be the stuff of chats with your friends and colleagues in a pub and perhaps one or two journal-articles a year not what gets you a chair at Oslo university!

    I think we know the inside of our navels well enough now, maybe it’s time we did some actual science, or stuff…


  5. Ew, it turns out that she is Danish and regularly writes for my favourite newspaper, Weekend-avisen.

    I don’t recall reading anything remotely so idiotic there regarding history/archeology, so maybe the pomo nonsense is just for internal use inside academia?


  6. I’m faintly horrified by this; I know Hedeager’s name, not least because she’s written a lot in English, and for example, edited volume 1 of the New Cambridge Medieval History. Given the which, I’d expect her firstly to be more old-fashioned and secondly to respond with reference to the evidence. Has she just been caught on the hop with a foolish supposition?


  7. “…theory-based (and thus subjective)…”


    I don’t think theory-based means what she thinks it means. Theory is the final phase of scientific research – a result that has started as a hypothesis, and has been refined until it passes rigorous testing. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, &c – all theory-based. Theory is at the end of the research pipeline, not at the beginning.

    Using “theory” as a synonym for “ideology” is political newspeak.
    Attaching “subjective” to “theory” is a spoiler in the same way as attaching “socialist” to “realism”.


  8. In archaeology, the word “theory” is usually taken to mean approximately “conceptual framework and initial assumptions”. There is indeed in the po-mo humanities a field somewhere in the intersection of lit-crit and Continental philosophy that calls itself simply “theory”. I’m not a fan.


  9. So they use the word in its vulgar sense (“it’s only a theory”), just like creationists. They should go all the way and replace theory-based with faith-based.

    Other scientists use “hypothesis” for their initial assumptions.


  10. No, in archaeology, “theory” is more like the framework that delimits a scholar’s repertoire of possible hypotheses.

    And “hypothesis” is not a universally accepted term in academic archaeology. It smacks of deductive reasoning, and thus of the natural sciences, which a fair number of humanities scholars feel a great need to distance themselves from.


  11. [“Hypothesis”] smacks of deductive reasoning, and thus of the natural sciences, which a fair number of humanities scholars feel a great need to distance themselves from.

    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

    I could see how perhaps “hypothesis” might not be a universally accepted term in archeology because (perhaps for historical reasons) that field prefers a different name for it. The stated reason is not a good reason for rejecting the term. Honest practitioners–a set which does not include pomo flakes like the author of the article you’re blogging about–understand that there are times when you think that something which may or may not be borne out by data (in this case, digging for artifacts) is true, or at least likely enough to be true that you work from the assumption that it is. They can call it what they want, but it’s still what most scientists would call a hypothesis.


  12. I’m pleased to hear that this author’s work didn’t make it into the journal you’re associated with. This style of argumentation reminds me of Erich von Daniken’s in “Chariots of the Gods,” you know — oh, those dreadful, mean, awful scientists, they’re so prejudiced against poor, little me! If they’d just open their minds and look at things MY way, they’d see ancient astronutty jobs everywhere, just like I do! Yes, yes, there’s one right over there! Don’t you see him? That’s my theory anyway…er, uh, my hypothesis, I mean, my thought, my idea…whatever!

    I break out in hives whenever I see the word “deconstruct” anyway. I have the same reaction when I see “intelligent” and “design” stuck together. Sorry, I went to UC Berkeley when the first came trotting down the primrose path, and it was mainly used by hysterical ladies who didn’t get tenure.


  13. They can call it what they want, but it’s still what most scientists would call a hypothesis.

    Yes. Did I mention that I have absolutely no respect for po-mo humanities, indeed, that I think they should have their funding stripped?

    I’m pleased to hear that this author’s work didn’t make it into the journal you’re associated with

    Alas, it did. I don’t have veto power.


  14. Oh dear. So the evidence doesn’t matter, because none of us can be completely objective and rational anyways? I see why you find people like that so frustrating. I’ve been able to avoid people like that during my bachelor’s degree in history, but I’m afraid I’ll start to run into them in graduate school.


  15. If you don’t mind my asking, what was Ms. Hedeager’s evidence of those Huns in your neck of the woods, anyway? Did she dig up some warriors buried in square, log-lined tombs with their horses, under tumuli? Did they have iron stirrups? Were they tattooed with little sun-signs on their temples like those mummies in Xinjiang? Were they covered with lovely, felt rugs adorned with pictures of bald ladies with pointy hats and even pointier shoes? As I recall, that’s what the Huns on the other side of Eurasia gave evidence of. Was that what they looked like on your side, too?


  16. Her main archaeological argument is a group of simply designed ear rings in the National Museum of Denmark, all without find contexts. They are similar to rings certain nomadic tribes wore in the Migration Period. However, as Näsman pointed out in his rebuttal, the Danish rings are markedly larger than the Nomadic ones. And there are many such larger rings in 11th century coin hoards from southern Scandinavia. So we’re dealing with two different classes of rings from the 5th and 11th century respectively, and only the former may have something to do with the Huns.


  17. I’m not impressed by earrings, small or large, I must say. Huns didn’t go anywhere in boats. They rode little horses and preferred to do so across steppes or plains. Usually they went east, west, and south of Central Asia (where they started out). Were there any bodies attached to those large earrings? I mean, people from northern Europe are generally fairly tall, while people from Central Asia are pretty short, Huns included.


  18. No, AFAIK there are no graves where such an ear ring has been found on a body. However, there are plenty of hoard finds, all dating from half a millennium or more after the Huns’ heyday.


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