New thinking in scholarship

A look at how new ideas and 'heretical articles' are often met with resistance.

I’ve occasionally made the mistake of submitting heretical articles to the journals of well-known ‘learned’ societies. On one occasion, a theoretical article was rejected on the basis that I should have written an excavation report. On another – though the feedback was less than transparent – I got the impression that the editor and peer reviewers simply disagreed with the argument.

How common is this? Many years ago, someone did a study of submissions to the top medical journal, The Lancet. It was discovered that, while routine papers usually got published, seminal/path-breaking papers were just as likely to be rejected as obviously bad papers.

I’m not remotely surprised by this. A paper is not necessarily of value because it is heretical, of course; it may just be wrong. But who is to judge this?

Well, the way the system works is that it tends to be the more eminent figures within any particular subdiscipline who decide, since they are the ones most likely to be either editors or peer reviewers. And they, almost by definition, are the ones most committed to conventional wisdom.

Interpretation takes place within the framework of approved academic paradigms. The guardians of these paradigms tend to be leading scholars in their respective fields. They often have a lifetime of lectures, papers, and publications invested in the paradigm and therefore a reputation at stake. The Old Guard never likes Young Turks.

New ideas are often met with some resistance, as proven by a study of submissions to The Lancet and by the reception of The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.
New ideas are often met with some resistance, as proven by a study of submissions to The Lancet (LEFT) and by the reception of The Interpretation of

What has inspired this little rant are a couple of things I stumbled across while doing some research on the Greek myths.

Myth-work is similar in structure to dream-work, so I decided to reread Freud’s masterpiece The Interpretation of Dreams. It has a fair claim to being the greatest work of psychology ever written, and is one of the foundation-blocks of modern rational thought, comparable with, say, Darwin’s Origin of Species or Marx’s Capital.

The first edition had been published in 1900. A second edition came out in 1908. For this, Freud wrote a new preface – explaining, however, that the new edition was ‘not due to the interest taken in it by professional circles’.

He continued: ‘My psychiatric colleagues seem to have taken no trouble to overcome the initial bewilderment created by my new approach to dreams… The attitude adopted by reviewers in the scientific periodicals could only lead one to suppose that my work was doomed to be sunk into complete silence…’

In parallel, I have been reading Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, a book I have previously used only for reference. I am stunned by the scholarship. He appears to have hoovered up every scrap of a story to be found anywhere in the corpus of Graeco-Roman literature, and to have organised this whole knotted skein of material into a clear, comprehensive, highly accessible encyclopaedia. But listen to what he says in the introduction.

‘Not for the first time, I will find scholarly specialists combining to criticise me on points of detail which they have made their own, though not combining to suggest an alternative general hypothesis, and each disclaiming acquaintance with the other’s small department of knowledge, even where it is necessary for a better understanding of his own. What seems to be lacking today is centripetal, rather than centrifugal, scholarship.’

Wheeler once commented that archaeology can be ‘the driest dust that blows’. The Old Guard defending ‘learned’ journals against new thinking – or, indeed, any thinking at all – can certainly help make it so.

Images: Wellcome Images; Max Halberstadt, Christie's