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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

For Example

Always Nice When Our Discussions are Echoed in the Press

We’ve been talking here about music in history and about historical interpretation. Well what should my morning Times bring me but an article about a NOVA show tonight that features Dr. Oliver Sacks and his case studies of music and the brain, and this Science Times piece about Dr. Steve Lekson
Dr. Lekson has a theory about why the predecessors of the Hopi and the Navaho moved from one site to another in the southwest. He believes the leaders of the communities were moving along a single north-south meridian. The focus of the article, though, is not about that theory, but rather his entire approach — and that perfectly matches our discussions.

Dr. Lekson claims that: “Unless you understand the broad outlines of the story — the history,” he says, — the questions you are asking could be pointless. “You may be answering them very, very nicely and staying close to the data and doing good conservative science, but you could be asking the wrong questions and wasting a lot of money and time doing it.”

His critics, such as Dr. David Phillips, think that entire approach is wrong: “Anyone can take any position and find evidence. Done properly, science means that you stop yourself and figure out what the opposite is — the null hypothesis — and you prove the null hypothesis couldn’t possibly be true. By process of elimination, your desired outcome becomes more plausible. This gets back to Karl Popper. You can only falsify.”

See the debate — make a theory and look for evidence; begin with evidence and try out theories. We need to realize that these are in fact debates, serious and important disagreements among bright, educated people. Thus there is room for different approaches to evidence and interpretation. Or, rather, there is an ebb and flow. Dr. Lekson insists that “The Southwest is one of the most heavily studied archaeological regions in the world, bar none except maybe downtown Athens. Per square mile, probably more money and time and energy and thought have been invested than anywhere else. If we can’t take a stab now and try to put everything together, we should probably just hang up our trowels and say, ‘Let’s quit. We’re not learning anything. We’re just spinning our wheels.”

There is a time for the careful harvesting and evaluation of evidence and a time for leaps into theory — which then gets modified or even overturned by the test of the evidence. We need to offer young people both, the precision of sifting and the thrill of leaping — and be honest about the points of friction where they clash. That rubbing edge is where knowledge is formed.