Eavesdropping can be fun

My formal study of the Voynich manuscript having ended almost a year ago, I feel less obligation to keep to the sort of thing which might aid the linguists, so the odd philosophical post appeals more during these rare days back in the city when I have leisure for this sort of thing.

A throwaway line one often hears in Voynich studies is that it never progresses much because everyone builds their thesis first, then hunts for some supporting evidence, so the wheels keep turning but the train never arrives at a station.  Another such line is that “there is nothing unusual about two or more people making the same observation”.

What is most unusual (I’ve encountered it no-where else) is that in Voynich studies, the normal practice is abandoned of either accepting or rejecting the results of another scholars’ labour OPENLY.

What one finds instead, in far too many cases, is that the results are taken, and then parcelled about to be ‘noticed’ in a systematic way, re-written and re-formulated so that another scholar and his or her mates can ignore the original body of work, and so avoid sharing the credits.  By definition, an inefficient and improper mode of action.

It is rather like the difference between

1) acknowledging that Darwin was not the first to think, generally, in terms of an evolution of species and

2) getting hold of all Darwin’s notes and diagrams, together with a copy of his published work, and then parcelling out the material between a group of ‘me-and-my-mates’ while instructing some to prepare ‘new’ academic papers, others to publish anonymous broadsheets (i.e. wiki articles), and others again to engage in international correspondence which presented the work as if it had been the writers’ own inspiration.  Then each to quote the other to create an impression that nothing in Darwin’s work was original, or other than ‘general knowledge’.

Some professions, such as archaeology or architecture, require a person to work across both the critical and the pragmatic sciences, and to write in either mode as appropriate.

The difference, as I’ve experienced it, is that within the critical sciences one has not only to demonstrate that an opinion is based on solid research, but that it fits within the endless Olympic relay which forms the continuum of historical and other studies. In other words, acknowledging your instructors, not only acquiring their instruction.

The pragmatic sciences, however, are not bound by any code of ethics – save only the physician’s – and emphasis is more on showing that your mechanical logic and processes conform to the requirements of the discipline.  Standard Operating Procedures, Standard Methods, scientific formulae and that sort of thing.  Quoting another scientific paper is less an acknowledgement of your own learning-path than it is a short-cut to proving your facts and methods are not unprecedented.

That, of course, is a simplification, but this is not a philosophy paper.  You get my drift.

Problems begin, sometimes, when people without any training in the discipline of history, but trained only to push for personal kudos, ignore or obscure the sources on which they have depended for one, some or even all the original observations and conclusions which they decide may serve their personal agenda.

I do understand how difficult it is to develop an ‘original’ understanding of the Voynich manuscript.  I would not attempt to count the number of occasions during the first couple of years – or more – when I spent days or weeks exploring one possibility or another, only to find some time later that this work had been done – sometimes years before – by members of the old Mailing list.

Having been told categorically that members of the ‘new’ list positively discouraged efforts to credit the source for this, or that, widely-accepted piece of information, and that they refused to assist if one tried in advance to determine whether this or that possibility had been explored before, I fell on Nick Pelling’s site as a castaway falls on the palm filled isle.  His was the only site I encountered where information was given, and acknowledged properly, regardless of whether the matter agreed or disagreed with Pelling’s own ideas and opinions.  To see how Pelling invariably cites his sources reassured me that the customs of the northern hemisphere are not uniformly different from our own, even though (to my repeated chagrin) I too often thought too late to check past posts to find whether he had already covered some research avenue I’d just researched and posted about. That kept happening for perhaps four years!

The point for lime-light loving newbies to keep in mind is that honest scholarship (and honest scholars) will no more steal another’s credit than his car or his library.  Scholarship is aimed at resolving unanswered questions by interacting with other minds whose problem-solving skills in some area are as good as or better than one’s own.

To acknowledge one’s sources is, therefore,  a hallmark of integrity and proof that the writer isn’t writing fiction.   Learning is not a ‘trade secret’.  And where acknowledging one’s sources actually enhances the standing of a scholar, the opposite practice reduces his standing in the eyes of those who matter.

So, to take up our hypothetical Darwin example – for a person to acknowledge Darwin’s worth adds to the value of a writer’s own, but to nick his papers, then engineer an impression of ‘peer-review’ consensus under the delusion that if enough people think so, blue will become orange, is only to create a growing sense of revulsion among those whose work has proven valuable enough to steal.

I hope, next time you find yourself caught in a traffic-jam, or on a train which seems as if it will never reach the next station, that you will return to these ideas, and mull them over.

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One thought on “Eavesdropping can be fun

  1. Correction:
    where I wrote “[Pelling’s] was the only site where … where information was given, and acknowledged properly”
    I SHOULD have written
    [Pelling’s] was the only site … where detailed information was given about other Voynich researchers’ observations and ideas, and acknowledged properly”.

    Other sites (Philip Neal’s for example) are perfectly meticulous in their apparatus. Neal, however, does not report the constant tide of Voynich offerings. For years, Pelling kindly did.

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