Once again the internet is all excited by some scientists’ findings that solve a historical mystery. In this case, “UTA scientists use Planetarium’s advanced astronomical software to accurately date 2500 year-old lyric poem” (as the University of Texas at Arlington press announcement puts it). Unsurprisingly, UTA’s “press release” (by which I mean “propaganda”) misrepresents the article. Despite the link to the article in the “press release,” nobody at UTA—either in media relations or in the planetarium—apparently could be bothered to read the article. I shouldn’t, therefore, be surprised that most other people trafficking in this story have likewise ignored the article. While not surprised, I am disheartened to see that even purportedly reputable, pro-science sites that typically demand “evidence” and “data” expend no effort to read the original article, i.e., to base their posts on evidence. We read over and over again some variation on “astronomers date 2,500-year-old Sappho poem,” when, in fact, article does not determine nor does it claim to determine a date for Sappho’s poem (though the authors assume a particular year). This episode raises three issues:
- UTA’s propaganda about the article and the subsequent coverage of it expose the naïve assumptions people make about a universal applicability of scientific expertise.
- The original article reveals the problems that plague scientists’ efforts to work in areas outside their own domains of expertise.
- Pretending that such work is interdisciplinary—that “[t]his research helps to break down the traditional silos between science and the liberal arts, by using high-precision technology to accurately date ancient poetry,” as the dean of UTA’s College of Science put it—confuses dilettantism for expertise and rigor.
Finally, in this particular instance, the article suffers from serious problems that should have stood in the way of its publication, at least in its current form.
The Rogue Classicist has a nice post on UTA’s initial propaganda as well as the general contours of subsequent coverage, see: “Problems with the ‘Scientific’ Dating of Sappho’s Midnight Poem.” His critique revolves around the twin poles of critical thinking and source criticism. While neither is, in principle, unique to any discipline, different disciplines view different problems as worthy of critical thinking and different sources as open to criticism.
I want to emphasize how the UTA “press release” as well as the reposts and other summaries are possible because they assume that scientific expertise is somehow universal, or at least extends unproblematically into non-scientific fields and supersedes whatever expertise is unique to that field. Scientific expertise, it seems, gets at universal truths—in this case, the Pleiades are a constellation that obey certain, known equations that describe how the universe has always worked. If you assume the superiority of some ambiguous, ill defined but all pervasive scientific methodology that uncovers to timeless laws of nature, then there is little reason to check the original article or to ask questions about it. It’s science.
If we turn to the original article, “Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited,” we see immediately how the questions that scientists tend to ask and the answers they identify are not valid for historical work. Here we come back to the issue of source criticism. Scientists will often read certain aspects of historical sources (typically documents) as unproblematic reflections of reality, usually a reality they have expertise in studying today. In this case, the astronomers, Cuntz et al., assume:
- that Sappho’s poem unproblematically reflects a reality that Sappho experienced;
- that the constellation we know as the Pleiades is the same thing as the πληΐαδες in the fragment and that we can reduce the πληΐαδες to Alcyone, the bright star “near the geometrical center of the most prominent part of the cluster;”
- that μέσαι δε νύκτες is the exact same thing as our midnight, i.e., 12:00 AM, a precise moment Sappho certainly knew and meant, they claim, because she checked a clepsydra;
- that Sappho wrote the poem when Sappho saw the stars in Pleiades set before midnight, i.e., 12:00 AM. They double down on this assumption in note 9, where they assert on no evidence whatsoever: “…it is more reasonable to assume that she [Sappho] made her astronomical observations and wrote the poem at about the same time.” What? Why is that a reasonable assumption? Reasonable on what grounds? Reasonable to whom? Reasonable to you because that’s what you would do if you wrote poetry?
- that Sappho died around 570 so it is therefore valid to use 570 as a date for their analysis and, then, for people to conclude that Sappho was writing in 570. So powerful is 570, that Cuntz et al. offer precise dates in that year: the poem had to be composed between January 25 and March 31.
With each of these assumptions they have reduced historical possibilities and poetic language to quantifiable and quantified data. They have reduced Sappho to an astronomer and the poem to a research report.
These assumptions, which go largely unexamined, then support a project that uses purported celestial phenomena to establish when (during the year) Sappho wrote the poem. While these assumptions might be defensible, they remain assumptions that no classicist or historian could have made without flagging them. A more interesting and defensible article would admit these assumptions and then conclude something like: if the Pleiades in this fragment refers to the constellation and if midnight is taken to be sometime halfway through the night, then this fragment seems to describe a late winter scene. But that conclusion is not new, and that article has already been written.
In 1990 two scholars from Delft University of Technology, Herschberg and Mebius, published a more careful reading of the same fragment (they seem to have completed their research a year earlier, as reported in the annual reports for 1989). Based, it seems, on astronomical calculations, they conclude
For the Pleiads to have been visible after dark and to have set before midnight, the time of year is necessarily between mid-January and late March in the modern calendar.
They point out that the poem contains “implicit astronomical information, which must have contributed to the poem’s expressiveness to contemporary audiences,” and highlight how the poem conveyed a particular setting. They don’t assume that Sappho made any observations, which she then reported in her poem. They also don’t pretend to determine when the poem was written. It is difficult to see how the Cuntz et al. article advances our knowledge of Sappho.
Unfortunately, Cuntz et al. and their article reinforces a facile (and asymmetrical) notion of interdisciplinarity that confuses dilettantism for expertise. The tools and methods of science are brought to bear on a set of non-scientific questions, with no regard to the possible misfit between the purposes for which those tools were developed and the valid ways to investigate those non-scientific sources. Here Cuntz et al. are dilettantes in the domains of history and classics, but the trappings of science and quantification give them the patina of expertise and rigor. To be sure, there is often a misfit when a set of tools and methods developed for one domain of knowledge is uncritically applied to a different domain—Cuntz et al. are just examples of a broader problem that plagues so-called interdisciplinary work. We justifiably recognize domains of expertise, even in closely related fields (e.g., physicists generally don’t do chemistry, and I’d rather not have an OBGYN give me a root canal). When scholars venture into new fields they should draw on and work with experts in those fields. In this case, however, you have astronomers running roughshod over history and classics with no apparent awareness of their own ignorance. Far from breaking down traditional silos between the sciences and the liberal arts, this article and the cavalier approach of its authors reminds us that those disciplinary silos exist for reasons and that moving between them requires considerable effort. When done well, when drawing on experts in those silos, interdisciplinary scholarship is probably worth the effort. But it does require considerable work as well as humility. When done poorly, interdisciplinary work invites mockery and derision.
Finally, there are problems with this article’s scholarly integrity. On the one hand, a cursory review of the text reveals too many passages that are only lightly filtered lines from various Wikipedia entries. In many cases, Cuntz et al. cite the same sources for the same passages that the Wikipedia entry cites, suggesting further that they relied primarily on Wikipedia (in one instance they cite Wikipedia but not the page they borrow from). For example, nearly half the discussion of Sappho comes from the Wikipedia page on Sappho (with an additional sentence from the Poetry Foundation entry on Sappho)
On the other hand, the authors cite sources they either don’t understand or haven’t read. So, for example, they cite James Evans’s The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy when mentioning the Pleiades in Babylonian culture. Cuntz et al. say:
The Pleiades also have been epitomized by the Babylonians, as conveyed by the astrolabe and a fragment of a circular star list (Evans, 1998) [my emphasis].
But the Babylonians didn’t have astrolabes. Astrolabes weren’t invented for centuries, many centuries. Even our earliest texts describing astrolabes don’t appear for more than a millennium after the Babylonians. A quick look in Evans shows that he does use the term “astrolabe” but uses it to refer to circular fragments of star lists. He qualifies his use:
This [the circular fragment] is usually called a circular astrolabe. However this name is not especially apt, for the word astrolabe is also used for two kinds of astronomical instruments that were developed in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Circular star list therefore might be more suitable.
So, contrary to what Cuntz et al. say, the Babylonians did not have astrolabes and circular star lists. They had circular star lists, of which fragments still exist, lists that some people refer to as “astrolabes.” Cuntz et al. could insist on using the term astrolabe—if they wanted to confuse or mislead readers—but then they don’t get to say “astrolabe and a fragment of a circular star list” [my emphasis]. One or the other, but not both. And as Evans points out, circular star list would be the better choice.
Other, similar examples include: Cuntz et al.’s citation of Renée Raphael’s review of a recent translation of Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius suggests they didn’t read Raphael’s review. Although Raphael says nothing about Galileo’s sketch of the Pleiades, by citing her review as they do, Cuntz et al. imply that her review supports their claim. There is no reason to cite Raphael’s review, particularly since this paragraph comes, almost verbatim, from the Wikipedia page on the Pleiades. In another example, in their conclusion they attribute a claim to Joan Schmelz, although the particular blog post they refer to in the notes is clearly marked as a guest post written by Stuart Dean, a former attorney who now self identifies as an “independent researcher and writer.”
In the best case, Cuntz et al.’s “Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited” would simply confirm what Herschberg and Mebius concluded two decades ago (and did so better and more efficiently). There is nothing new here—their newer methods do not justify more than a paragraph. We do not, however, have a best case scenario. We have a poorly constructed article that makes strong claims about the past. Because the authors all lack expertise in the field, they don’t realize that their methods and understanding of the past are, as a colleague put it, “risible.” Their conclusions border on indefensible. The writing and style is, well, Wikipedian, especially in the historical sections. We also have an article that risks violating scholarly norms and practices with respect to citations and intellectual integrity. Yet, regrettably, countless sites and so-called news outlets repeat the article’s problematic conclusions without ever bothering to look at the original article, without holding up their end of the implicit contract, i.e., checking and confirming their sources and consulting with relevant experts. Such sites have an obligation to evaluate their own sources, especially when they are a simple click away.
Alas. We seem to be trapped in an echo chamber of dilettantism where the value of shoddy “scholarship” is validated by slapdash “reporting” which, in turn, reinforces both the “scholarship” and the “reporting” on it. In our dystopian future its going to be dilettantes all the way down.
If you’re bored, a search for “astronomers date sappho” vomits up countless posts with mind numbingly similar and misleading titles that you can spend hours reading (though I have no idea why anybody would). Many posts merely reproduce all of or select passages from the UTA propaganda, but as many masquerade as something new when they are little more than superficial reworkings produced by an army of “science writers.” And no, astronomers did not “crack the secret of this gorgeous poem by Sappho,” as Clive Thompson put it on his blog and later, regrettably, on Medium (which would benefit from some editorial oversight). ↩
I think another factor that discouraged people from looking up the original article is the mistaken belief that published articles have been reviewed and vetted and are, therefore, accurate and valid (This is not the place to wallow in the problems of peer review, and I’m not the expert to do so. But smart people who have spent countless hours studying peer review have raised some tough questions. I think it’s safe to say, peer review doesn’t live up to its hype). The Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage seems to be a professional journal complete with an editor, associate editors, and an editorial board. It’s easy and comfortable to assume that articles appearing in its pages have been reviewed, in the process errors and missteps have been identified and corrected. Heck, the article even thanks “an anonymous referee for helpful comments” and the journal’s own editor, Prof. Orchiston, “for assisting with the revision of this paper.” At least in this particular case, such assumptions seem to be problematic. ↩
As a historian, I like archives and sources, and like access to them. So, in the interest of preserving access to a source, here’s a link to a locally cached copy of the original article, in case the original version at the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage site goes missing. ↩
Efforts to retrodiagnose the plague or reconstruct past climate through uncritically cherrypicking passages out of historical documents provide examples of such problematic readings. See my critique, for example, of claims of snow in Baghdad: “Good Science Often Makes Bad History” and the longer “Scientists and Bad History.” ↩
I love the image of Sappho pulling out her pocket clepsydra to check the time. Or perhaps she had a wrist-clepsydra. Or was there a large water clock in the town square where Sappho set up to watch the Pleiades set as she composed her poem? At least they corrected for the absence of time zones in antiquity. ↩
In both instances, midnight and pleiades are ambiguous terms, one temporally and one spatially. In brief: they need to show that “midnight” was more than a general term for really late at night and that Pleiades identified with some precision the constellation in the sky. ↩
The Rogue Classicist does a nice job pointing out how 570 has become a meaningful date for the authors and the people reposting this story. ↩
Not all these assumptions are universally held. For example, Reiner and Kovacs have on linguistic grounds questioned Sappho’s authorship. See, P. Reiner and D. Kovacs, “ΔΕΔΥKΕ μεν α ΣΕΛΑΝΝΑ: The Pleiades in Mid-Heaven” in Mnemosyne 46 (1993): 145–159 [Behind JSTOR Paywall]. While Reiner and Kovacs might be mistaken, the authors of the current article don’t have the expertise to judge the issue and they didn’t apparently seek out anybody with such expertise. But that doesn’t stop them from dismissing Reiner and Kovacs. And for the record, our access to the fragment does not date from the archaic period but from eight centuries later, when Hephaestion the grammarian wrote a book on meter. So the attribution to Sappho is not necessarily unproblematic. ↩
Herschberg and Mebius were scholars at Delft University of Technology. They offer to provide “complete astronomical reasoning and computations” to anyone who requests them, though 25 years later it might be difficult to locate them. So Cuntz et al.’s characterization of their analysis as “a descriptive approximate approach” seems a bit odd. See I.S. Herschberg and J.E. Mebius, “ΔΕΔΥKΕ μεν α ΣΕΛΑΝΝΑ” Mnemosyne 43 (1990): 150–151 [Behind JSTOR Paywall]. If the comment “historians had estimated” the date in “Scientists Used the Stars to Confirm When a Famous Sapphic Poem Was Written” refers to Herschberg and Mebius, it seems like it was probably based on Cuntz et al.’s dismissal of the earlier work as “descriptive.” Other posts, e.g., the Ars Technica version, have unhelpfully described the earlier findings as mere guesses by “humanities types.” While I have not been able to confirm that Herschberg and Mebius weren’t “humanities types” or “historians,” it seems improbable—other sources indicate that they were in the computer science department. Their original article was recorded in the annual reports of the “Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics” and the “Faculty of Technical Mathematics and Informatics” at Delft University of Technology, which doesn’t appear to employ historians or, in fact, “humanities types” of any sort. ↩
Plagiarism is a strong charge, and I don’t know if it applies here, but there are real problems. If a student turned in a paper with borrowings and wordings that so closely resembled Wikipedia, I would at the very least have a discussion about plagiarism and require the student to rewrite/rework the offending passages. And while the Wikipedia entries might not be the source Cuntz et al. used, they indicate that Cuntz et al. borrowed closely from somewhere for some sections of their article. They should acknowledge their debts and work a little harder to use their own words. ↩
James Evans, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, 9. ↩