Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Oral Tradition and the Scientific Method

I have been wanting to write about oral tradition versus scientific method for some time and had started an essay on the topic which never got finished. Now I have a few other things to say and am too lazy to organize it into good prose, so I am going to cut-and-paste from my essay as well as add a few new comments. Here is what I had to say about a month ago:

"Different people have very different approaches to studying rock piles. At one extreme are those trying to follow the, so called, Scientific Method. At the other extreme are people who rely on the authority of Oral Tradition. Aside from the fundamental differences in these approaches we all have some things in common:
1) a desire to protect the rock piles from destruction
2) a desire to understand rock piles; because understanding increases their value to us and potentially helps spread these ideas to the public or to other people who can help with (1).

Another commonality, which I feel very strongly about, is
3) the need to be sincere and honest in our communicating and, in particular, to honestly report where an idea came from. This should be true whether we are trying to be Scientific or passing along knowledge from Oral Tradition.

Discussions of the scientific method describe the need for observation, hypothesis, test, and conclusion. Often un-mentioned is the community which supports these things and provides a means of communication in addition to an, occasionally burdensome, consensus. The editor of a scientific publication is not supposed to be picking and choosing what is published based on their inner feelings but rather based on the thoughts of the community which they represent. It is this editor's job to ensure that proper credit is given to the source of ideas that are elaborated in publication, whether from observations or from other verbal sources. No-one claims that the ideas by themselves are all important; but their proper sourcing is - at least to me.

I am not a practisioner of Oral Tradition, so I am not sure I understand its conventions but I think the same must be true. You don't just say "this is true". Instead you should say "my grandfather told..." or "according to the tradition of...". In both Science and Oral Tradition the reader or student is presented ideas in context.

Whatever the approach, I am critical of ideas without context and this leads to being dis-respectful at times. It is not the intention of this blog to stifle anyone's thinking or to force certain conclusions or methods down anyone's throats.

I could have continued saying: it is this blog's job to ensure ideas are given with their proper context. So for example we started the W.VA discussion with some of them expressing their certitudes about the nature of rock piles. Pushed, prodded, and poked at, eventually the context emerged that someone had heard something from a farmer. Others never told where they got their information but it certainly did not amount to observation, description, hypothesis, test, and confirmation/ rejection. So I am guessing it actually was more oral than scientific. But it was being presented as if it was a scientific approach and that is basically dishonest.

I keep being reminded of and surprised by how many of the people I interact with are following an oral tradition rather than a scientific one. I start out to have a scientific discussion and discover part way through that I am speaking to someone whose knowledge and beliefs are based on something they heard from someone they consider an authority. Throwing around concept of observation and hypothesis testing in these situations is pretty much a waste of time. So, for example, this exchange between me and Norman on one side, and some people in W. VA (contract and academic archeologists) seemed, in the end to devolve into a dispute of scientific method (me and Norman observing) and oral traditionalists (BJ reporting what he heard from a farmer). It is surprising to discover that it is me and Norman, the amateurs, who are upholding the methods of scientists against professional archeologists who are essentially tied up in what they heard from someone else.

I should not be trying to put down adherents of oral tradition. For example if we were to be able to speak in a straightforward way with Indians, they might be expected to refer to their traditions, what they learned from their elders, and this is something which I respect. I find that if I respect the source of the tradition, the speaker in the oral tradition, then I respect the information they discuss. It gets much more awkward though when I either do not respect the source or else am not expecting Europeans, who ostensibly work in a European context, to actually be working from an oral tradition. It is also very disconcerting to hear discussion of rock piles which appear to be scientific but which actually are being informed by oral tradition. This seems basically not fair. In the context of one recent discussion, research directions were mentioned that would substantiate the claims of rock pile enthusiasts'. But a basis in oral tradition existed for those specific proposals and this was never mentioned.

Pretending to be scientists apparently includes pretending there is no oral tradition. This seem wrong to me, even though I can understand the need to fool some of the people who would prevent the research if they new it was based on oral tradition alone.

Finally, in oral tradition the source of the oral tradition must be respected. I think it is common in this context to attach added weight to the information if it comes from someone with more authority. For me, a knowledgeable Indian is a respected source of ideas but since I practice the scientific method, I have to follow up what is said with my own observations. For example, I heard some ideas about quartz from an Indian, and I have tried to use them to form hypotheses which can be tested. I respect the source of the information but it is not the final word. In oral tradition it appears to be. Whatever is said, if it comes from the right authority, is believed. Within European cultures, and in the periphery of science, the same is true: if you have a Ph.D you carry more weight than a B.A. and, if you went to Harvard, that can make you intellectually invincible - at least among followers of the methods of oral tradition. In real science the credential is irrelevant but contextualizing ideas and saying where they came from is crucial, just as in oral tradition.

So in the end, one reason for mentioning all of this is so we can communicate better with each other. There are a lot of people following oral tradition. I challenge you to say where the ideas came from. In other words, answer the question: "Who told you that?" For those following the scientific tradition I challenge you to say where the ideas came from (whether observation or oral sources) and say what you have done to test those ideas. Either way, oral or scientific, the ideas communicate best in context. That is the trust that we hold onto and share.


JimP said...

What someone said they heard from a farmer is not oral tradition. It is, at best, secondary oral history.

Oral tradition is a method of handing down cultural materials and history from generation to generation. Native American oral tradition is recognized by anthropologists and archaeologists alike as being just as legitimate as primary and secondary source written history. The reasoning centers around the fact that it is their history, their culture, and their ancestors. Science cannot be so presumptuous as to tell Native Americans what their history is or is not.

Those of us who deal with oral tradition are treading a very thin line. We are dealing with extremely sensitive cultural and spiritual information -- information that the carriers of that oral tradition do not want in the public forum. It is priviliged information not intended for anyone outside the tribe.

The best you can hope for is that those, "oral tradition enthusiasts," you mentioned merely cite, "Some Native American oral traditions say . . ." And every one I have ever read that dealt with oral traditions have done exactly that.

pwax said...

Jim that is exactly my point. You have to mention the existence of the oral tradition.

Anonymous said...

Reading the comments above, I was reminded of the story handed down by descendents of Sally Hemmings that her six children were sired by Thomas Jefferson. Historians ignored this oral tradition until the late 1990s, when DNA analysis confirmed that Jefferson was the father of Eston, Sally's youngest child. Thus her other five children were probably Jefferson's too. Oral tradition probably has as sound a basis among Afro-Americans as it does among American Indians.


pwax said...

I am wrong when I say the credential is irrelevant. It is relevant in establishing the credibility of the person. Actual Science, as practiced, requires a community consensus based on trusting people. So as a community the Scientist practice oral tradition extensively. In other words the credential is important in oral tradition and, in so far as Science actually is a body of oral tradition, so also in Science the credential is important.