Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In defence of 'intellectual snobbery'

Am I an intellectual snob?

I am sometimes accused of it, and it makes me uncomfortable. I don't like criticism, especially justified criticism (although, of course, I hardly ever receive that).

I like to absolve myself of the charge on the basis that 'snobbery' is an ostentatious, pretentious assumption of superiority on a misconceived basis (i.e. the supposed superiority is either absent or resides in a quality that is of utterly trivial import).

Intellect is not a trivial thing. I have one. I think that gives me a certain licence to look down on others who don't - so long as I don't let myself get too smug or objectionable about it.

Let me be more specific: I think it is a trivial matter that my mental powers may far outstrip those of people who are not blessed with the genetic or environmental advantages that I have enjoyed; and I would not dream of deriding them for shortcomings in their intellectual development which are no fault of their own. People, however, who appear to have enjoyed the same benefits of education as me, and perhaps more so, and who purport to be men of intellect, men of high academic standing, but are in fact numbskulls - well, such people are thoroughly deserving of scorn and ridicule. It might even do them some good.

I was exposed to a prime example of this last week. One of my regular editing jobs, which throws me mostly scientific papers on IT and economics, this time gave me an extended article on early modern history. Oh, good: a nice change of pace, and more my own field (I studied history as a specialist topic in my last two years of high school, and ancient history at University).

Not so good, it turned out. This was the worst paper I have ever dealt with. And I make allowances for the author's possible difficulties with the language (this is a Japanese 'scholar', attempting to write in English); I'm quite experienced in dealing with the sort of problems that this throws up. No, this was atrocious in its structure, its argumentation, its use of evidence. This guy seems to think that he has a chance of getting published in overseas journals just because he is one of the few Japanese academics capable of reading contemporary historians in English (and in Dutch, it would appear). I think that is very unlikely.

I mean, really - the guy repeatedly made meaninglessly woolly generalisations like "the population doubled" and "the silver reserves were mined out" and "trade began to recover again" without any reference to the timeframe he was thinking of. History without dates?? Whatever next?! After the 15th or 20th instance of this, I was really getting tired of having to insert 'comments' in his text to draw the omission to his attention. This isn't just a 'language problem', it's sloppy writing, inept 'scholarship'. Heck, even when he did include dates, they were often inconsistent or inaccurate. He even located Marco Polo in the wrong century, for heaven's sake!

His bibliography was about 100 books long, but he only appeared to have actually read 3 or 4 of them, and those with a severely imperfect understanding of them, I would say. For example, he would refer again and again to a technical term coined by a famous British historian, but offered no definition or illustration of his own understanding of the phrase, and it did appear to be almost completely irrelevant to the vast majority of his slapdash content. Numerous unanswered questions, numerous unsupported assertions (I think fully one quarter of the 160-odd 'comments' I wrote for him were "Citation?") - just abysmal stuff. I might have given it a C+ (if only for the breadth of reading) - if it had been written by a 16-yr-old in high school, and I were in a particularly generous mood. As a piece of serious academic writing it was completely worthless. (Oh yes, did I mention that it included no original research whatsoever? NONE. It was purely a literature review. Unbelievable.)

My favourite factless assertion was his claim that Japan, by the end of the 16th Century, was "the largest gun-making country in the world". Now this may be true, although it seems intrinsically a little unlikely to me. After all, they had only discovered firearms technology some 50 years earlier, as a result of a Portuguese shipwreck. But our man really made no attempt to support the statement. Well, he did offer a solitary fact in support: one warlord was said to have put 3,000 artillery pieces into the field in a battle at the end of the century. He admitted that more mature estimates put that total at probably only 1,000. No reference made to whether the opposition had any artillery at all. No reference made to whether the other warlords in Japan were making widespread use of artillery. And these were presumably small to middling-sized field guns; no consideration given to larger siege guns, or to small arms. No attempt made to draw comparisons with the amount of guns being manufactured or used in the major European nations at the same period. (It's not an era I have ever studied in detail, but I immediately thought of the example of the Spanish Armada, a few years prior to this Japanese battle. Clearly, for Spain and England (and, I would guess, for most of the other great powers of Europe), their naval arsenals alone far exceeded the number of guns our author had cited in his lone example from Japan.)

There is a danger - god help me! - that this joker will persist in his deluded dreams of winning academic acclaim and will return his ludicrous manuscript to me for further edits. I don't think I could bear it.

"Brain the size of a planet, and they give me this to do."

1 comment:

Froog said...

My buddy Big Frank, an expert on military history, particularly in the 17th Century (at least in Europe), though he does not deign to comment on this blog himself, has offered the opinion that it is "inconceivable" that a single army at that time could have even 1,000 field guns. He does, however, feel it is plausible that Japan might have rivalled or exceeded the individual European nations in arms manufacture if you include small arms.

It's a very difficult comparison to make. And you'd have to look at A LOT of original evidence before you could even begin to do so - which hadn't been attempted in this case.

In fact, my Japanese "doctor" didn't even attempt any definition of his terms in making this nebulous claim, so it's quite impossible to know exactly what he meant by it.