Some Questions Only Seem Reasonable Because You Don’t Know The Answer

As scholars and/or scientists, we believe that no question is out of bounds. Is the bible a literal description of the creation of the universe? Does owning guns make people safer? Scientists think these questions can and should be investigated by anyone who feels like doing so. We disagree, then, with the people who think that some questions should be off limits. There are many reasons why: they seem so unintuitive they couldn’t possibly be true; they challenge existing authorities; the truth is not in the interests of the powerful, and so forth.

But scholars also believe that certain questions are not worth asking. Sometimes, its for the same reasons that I’ve listed above — after all, academics are people too. But there is another reason that scholars and scientists roll their eyes when certain questions get asked, or certain answers are proposed: history.

People have been asking questions for a long time, and have been coming up with good answers for just as long. Specialists in a field remember this history: we were taught it as students, and we make it as researchers. We’ve seen answers to questions come and go — often after the real answers are more or less established.

Consider, for instance, the settlement of Polynesia. How did all of those islands in the Pacific get populated when they were in the middle of the ocean? Polynesian voyaging is one of the great triumphs of our species, and the prehistory of the Pacific is now relatively well understood. But that doesn’t stop people from asking the question afresh. A few years ago I was talking to someone about their recent trip to Morocco, where they noted that Berber languages sounded suspiciously like Hawai‘ian. Could Polynesians have migrated from the old world?

Sure they could have. Or they could have migrated from the Americas — Thor Heyerdahl proved that the voyage was possible. In fact, it was once a going theory that they migrated from Egypt. So if you are a non-academic and google for Polynesian origins in the Middle East, you will in fact find books on this subject.

It’s just that those books are out of date and wrong. Polynesians could have come from Egypt or Morocco. However, they did not. And as for similarities in language, well, with a little ingenuity, and given languages with reasonably compatible phonologies, you can find a ‘cognate’ between two unrelated languages about once out of every two words you try.

Isn’t the earth obviously flat? Couldn’t vaccines be dangerous? Why do people ignore the clear evidence the Bible gives us about the creation of the world? People ask these questions all the time, and feel slighted when professors respond by rolling their eyes and assigning remedial reading rather than taking them seriously.

Sure, we could be wrong. Our explanations could be mistaken, and it takes people being mavericky to shake us up from time to time. But — let’s face it — most of the time when people start demanding new answers to settled questions, this demand only seem reasonable to them because they don’t know how good our established answer is. When we dismiss new answers to old questions, we are not abandoning the fundamental tenet of open inquiry. We just want to get back to doing research on problems without good answers. Is complacence and self-certainty a danger? Yes. Is reinventing the wheel in the name of open mindedness a scientific virtue? No.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

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