Is there anybody out there?

I’m coming over a bit Mark Witton here with a Pink Floyd reference in the title, but this will come round to palaeontology, honest. To stick with the Floyd years ago my brother gave me a book on them where a professor of music was analysing the music and discussing what he felt was the motivation and message behind the music. This struck me as utterly unnecessary and indeed likely to be confusing and incorrect. The author doubtless had a lot of experience and information and understanding of music and its creation – certainly far more than I do. But then, the musicians themselves were still alive.

Why bother to try and interpret their words and music when you could just ask them? They must know exactly what they were thinking, or at least can make sure you are going down the right path to your interpreted solution if you are going for the subconscious or what they might have forgotten.

This related to palaeo and science in general with something that does seem to crop up from time to time and I was reminded of this by a recent comment on the Musings. A discussion had blown up over what was intended by a rather cryptic sentence in a paper of mine. Did it mean one thing, or another, and was this intentional or a typo? To which the obvious answer is, why the discussion? Ask. The authors are all around and available and their contact details are on the paper which you obviously have access to. Ask them what they meant to say (here it was a typo), don’t waste hot air and start trying to interpret things when there is absolutely no need and the undeniably correct, and indeed only solution is available. To do otherwise is to waste your time and energy and not even necessarily get the right answer, or not know if you have it right when you do.

12 Responses to “Is there anybody out there?”


  1. 1 Jerry D. Harris 07/11/2010 at 3:10 pm

    o which the obvious answer is, why the discussion? Ask. The authors are all around and available and their contact details are on the paper

    There’s a bizarre culture a-brewin’ in paleo lately — notice, for example, how the dinosaur and vertpaleo listservers are bombarded with requests for papers, many of which are by living authors. Why not just contact the authors directly and ask for copies of PDFs? I do not understand this “We must not contact the authors!” attitude that seems so pervasive these days…!

    • 2 David Hone 07/11/2010 at 6:31 pm

      I’ve already complained about that one before, so didn’t bother to mention it here, but that one drives me bonkers!

    • 3 Richard 07/11/2010 at 7:20 pm

      As someone who occasionally uses the vrtpaleo list for requesting PDFs, I would note that you can request PDFs from authors but perhaps 20% of the time they do not reply or they do not have a PDF available (particularly for older papers). This is where the vrtpaleo list works wonders, because someone, somewhere, probably has a PDF of the paper that you are after. I do always try asking the authors first though…

      • 4 David Hone 07/11/2010 at 7:45 pm

        I’m surprised. I don’t think I have ever sent off a request to an author and not got the paper back. Even so, there is a trend for mass requests for papers on there, and of course the inevitable second wave where a bunch of people then add in requests for the same paper. Why they can’t send a private e-mail to the first person to ask is beyond me.

  2. 5 intercostal 08/11/2010 at 1:00 pm

    Well – in the arts, the answer is the ‘death of the author’ attitude, which suggests that literary/art/whatever critics can know the meaning of a piece better than the artist. So that explains your music example.

    In science, though???? No idea – that is odd.

    • 6 David Hone 08/11/2010 at 1:23 pm

      Well I do appreciate in music that this is often the only thing available. If Mozart didn’t write down exactly what he meant when he wrote a piece then you have to interpret, but the Floyd? Even without asking them, there are enough interviews and documentaries out there. Part of what I found amusing / frustrating in the book were cases where the author flat contradicted things said by the band at various times or provided hugely detailed explanations for pieces that could not have related to them if you knew a bit about the works’ creation.

      • 7 intercostal 08/11/2010 at 2:12 pm

        I didn’t say it wasn’t ridiculous — just that it is indeedc an idea out there among some arts (in the broad sense including literature, music, etc.) people. The idea is just because the author directly says “no I didn’t intend that” it doesn’t necessarily mean reading that into it isn’t valid because suggesting that truth exists is ideological tyranny. Or something, I never understood those people anyway.

      • 8 David Hone 08/11/2010 at 2:15 pm

        “Or something, I never understood those people anyway.”

        Entirely reasonable and that probably resonates with more than just me on here.

      • 9 intercostal 08/11/2010 at 2:37 pm

        This isn’t in fact the first time I’ve seen it applied to science — ‘Orac’ on scienceblogs posted about an application of this post-modernist there-is-no-truth stuff to medicine at: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2006/08/damn_those_microfascists_demanding_evide_1.php

        The upshot being that evidence – based approaches to medical care are “outrageously exclusionary”. Oh, and “microfascism” – whatever *that* means.

        (Getting back to the original post) I’m not sure the case you mention is an explicit example, it doesn’t sound nearly so extreme, but there may be a cultural continuity (in that the argue-over-it-rather-than-find-the-truth attitude is an influence on both.)

      • 10 David Hone 08/11/2010 at 2:43 pm

        Yes, I’m intrigued as to if this is a sub-culture of thing. Debate for the sake of it perhaps, or even people trying to argue just to show they spotted the point, or that they can come up with more ideas about what it could mean to show off their knowledge and make a statement and that the original ‘point’ is there only as a platform for something else. Looking at it from the outside though, it does just strike me as pointless.

  3. 11 chris y 29/11/2010 at 6:07 pm

    Do you think Syd Barrett would have been able to tell you what he was thinking, if he were still alive? Do you feel confident he even knew at the time? I love Pink Floyd, especially their early stuff, but I feel that very likely the degree of self-consciousness involved in creating a psychedelic rock album is rather different from that you might bring to bear on writing a scientific paper.

    • 12 David Hone 29/11/2010 at 6:42 pm

      Well not him no, but the specific example in the book was about ‘Any Colour You Like’ and the comments I have read about it were from Dave Gilmour and I don’t think there’s too much controversy there. There was also a lot of stuff about the Waters era stuff (and his solo works) and he has all kinds of notes and so on about his plans for his albums (and wrote long and extensive liner notes for Radio K.A.O.S for example). He knew exactly what he was trying to say and how so second guessing him is, I think, both pointless and silly.

      The point is really just one of analogy, why guess, or try to calculate intention when you can just ask?


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