Wednesday, July 23, 2003

(Ante)penultimate(?) Words on Windschuttle

Once again, I've been beaten to the punch. I was thinking over another post on the Windschuttle Kerfuffle this morning (for purely personal reasons, I want to get The Popular Front for the Liberation of East Dorset off the top of my Technorati Links Cosmos List), but Christopher Shiel at Troppo Armadillo got in first today with "History, Giant Ants and Flying Snakes". In it, Chris manages to combine his studied indifference to the Windschuttle kerfuffle with a gloomy prognostication for those who want the whole thing settled one way or the otter, damn it. Still, as experience shows that a good Windschuttle post is likely to generate at least one link, it's worth a try. It has to be better than a cheap shot at Kylie Minogue's battle with cellulite: we all know where that could lead.

I've been reading Lyndall Ryan's The Aboriginal Tasmanians over the past 4 weeks (I'm now 3 days into my one week period of grace before the overdue fines kick in) and I have the nagging feeling that maybe I've been reading the wrong book, or perhaps the wrong edition.

This is not a new experience: having heard that Roland Barthes wrote a book called The Fashion System, in which he analyses the meaning of clothing, I went out and bought a copy. I'ver long had a soft spot for Barthes. But instead of an extended analysis of how the three-piece suit expresses a deontological theory of ethics, or some such nonsense, I got an extended semiological analysis of fashion writing. In fact, in hisa introduction, Barthes specifically rules out the possibility of sitting down with a bunch of fashion photos (or even the latest Balenciaga collection) and analysing them for the signs and signifiers beloved of semiologists. On the other hand, a critical analysis of fashion writing and journalism is eminently possible, and that's what The Fashion System is. Sort of.

I've decided to put aside some time this weekend to get my mitts on a copy of Windschuttle's book - either at the State Library or Border's. Frankly, I'm losing track of what Keith's main point is, although I'm starting to wonder if he has one. Norman maintains that the academy refuses to deal with Keith's central argument, preferring instead to focus either on trivia such as footnotes and minor details of Keith's case or dismiss the whole enterprise on vague historiographic grounds. So far, the impression I get from the secondary debate is that Keith's case is built up precisely on trivial detail and vague historiography, so maybe a look at the book is in order to get at the meat of things. Certainly, Keith's own entries in the "secondary debate" haven't been helpful, such as his speech at the University of New South Wales, which begins:

In her book The Aboriginal Tasmanians Lyndall Ryan claims that British colonists killed 100 Aborigines in Van Diemen's Land between 1804 and 1808.

So far I've read 10 chapters of the book, and I still haven't come across this figure. There is a table in the appendix, listing total aboriginal deaths over a thirty year period, so right now I'd like some chapter and verse. Where exactly does Ryan make this claim? Maybe Windschuttle's book will help answer this question. It might also clear up another issue that bothers me about Windschuttle's speech: his concluding remarks on the need for a new "paradigm" for aboriginal history:

For the past thirty years, the left-wing historians who have dominated Aboriginal history have created a paradigm they all have shared. The concept of a paradigm, as I'm sure everyone here knows, derives from the history of science and from Thomas Kuhn's notion that, for most of the time, scientific inquiry remains confined within a common set of assumptions about how to investigate a field and what the researcher expects to find. The NSW Premier, Bob Carr, recently said some unkind words about the use of the term "paradigm" by academic media analysts. He said those who used the term, were speaking "contentious ideological claptrap". In media and communication studies, I am sure he is absolutely right.

But in real academic disciplines like science and history, a paradigm remains a useful concept. Kuhn observed that the history of inquiry is often punctuated by "paradigm shifts", which occur because researchers eventually produce too many anomalies and inconsistencies that question the dominant perspective. If there are enough of these findings, they produce a crisis in the field. Some researchers then abandon the dominant paradigm for a better one, but others, usually older investigators, cling doggedly to the now, outworn stereotype.

I've written previously about Windschuttle's concerted (and botched) intellecual assault on Karl Popper, Thoma Kuhn and others in The Killing of History. It seems to me that Windschuttle is showing more front than Myers in recruiting ideas he has so thoroughly bagged to support his case now. It would be interesting what, beyond the immediate convenience of the occasion, created his newfound belief that Kuhn's ideas about paradigms and paradigm shifts are useful. Perhaps I'll find the answer in the historiographic portions of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.

Finally a few words for those commenters who have expressed concern over the fact that "the academy" remains silent on Windschuttle's fabrication charges.

Firstly, as Christopher Shiel points out, next month brings not one, but two academic responses, both in book form. This might not be as prompt as, say, the scientific community's response to Fleischmann and Pons' claim to have discovered cold fusion, but history isn't physical chemistry. The principle reason that cold fusion got debunked so quickly is that other scientists were able to reproduce Fleischmann And Pons' experiment very easily, with standard laboratory equipment. Try doing that with original archival sources, and you might begin to see the problem with claims that "the academy" is dragging the chain on this issue.

Secondly, it may be true that "the academy's" apparent indifference to Windschuttle's claims reflects a widespread orthodoxy or mindset. It doesn't follow that this orthodoxy or mindset is wrong, any more than the generally dismissive attitude to Fleischmann and Pons claims was wrong. Nor is the academy's failure to confirm Windschuttle's evidence an indication that the truth is still being suppressed. A lot of people who wanted cold fusion to exist made the similar accusations against the experimenters who failed to reproduce Fleischmann and Pons' results: they weren't trying hard enough. It wasn't until someone accidentally mishandled his laboratory equipment in the same manner as Fleischmann or Pons had that the results were reproduced.

On a personal note, if the best you can do is, purely on the basis of reading The Fabrication of Aboriginal History and only that book, complain that you have lost faith in history and historians, don't bother. Unless you enjoy looking like a lazy fool. A useful corrective might be to read the works that Windschuttle has slagged and decide for yourself if he has described them accurately. It's one thing to believe your own bullshit - it's something else entirely to accept someone else's purely because you're too precious to step up and take a quick sniff.

Curse: Bloody Blugger!

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