Thursday, April 9, 2009

Back to Basics

“Observation in the real world and small-scale experiments on the Earth now take second place to expensive and ever-expanding theoretical models” of questionable reliability. “Our tank is near empty of data and we are running on theoretical vapour,” he argues. There is a compelling need for “more tiresome and prosaic confirmation by experiment and observation”.

Those comments could have been made about a variety of disciplines. There is definitely an inordinate interest among certain historians in theoretical matters, to the detriment of actually doing the work of history. Frankly, I blame the literary critics from whom we picked up most of the mumbo-jumbo. Anthropology, sociology, politics and probably every other field in the humanities suffers in the same way. But they were in fact made by James Lovelock in his book The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, and were quoted in Justin Marozzi's manifesto of an article, "Back to Nature," appearing in the Financial Times.

Marozzi, a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society (RGS), is a founding member of the Beagle Campaign, which is pushing the RGS to return to its original mission of mounting its own expeditions. In the last two decades the RGS has shifted its attention towards funding other people's projects or engaging in educational efforts. Both are important, but the net result, the Beagle Campaigners argue, has been a decrease in actual exploration and the hard data it brings.

The Beagle Campaign should probably serve as a warning to scholars of all stripes: at the end of the day, there is no substitute for the nitty gritty work of research. Failing that, we're just building houses of cards or castles in the clouds.
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