Several weeks ago, a number of news sites reported on a study undertaken at the University of Reading, which examined the dating of Homer’s Iliad. Some of the headlines included:
Upon seeing these headlines, a couple of thoughts popped into my head. First of all, it was rather surprising this study had apparently been able to assign such a definite date to a piece of literature that had previously caused so many headaches among scholars. Nevertheless, with lines such as “Homer’s great masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey, have been dated to around 762 BCE by new research…” it seemed as though a major breakthrough had been achieved.
Closer inspection of the study itself, however, revealed this to be an over-eager misrepresentation of the results (a link to the published article discussing the results can be found at the bottom of this piece). In an industry that requires attention-grabbing headlines in order to attract readership and drive website traffic, it comes as little surprise when media eschew more appropriate headlines; by comparison, “Homer’s Iliad may have been written at some point between 1157 and 376 BCE” is a rather lacklustre lead. Examples of similarly-definite (although ultimately misleading) headlines are common, with the claim from 2011 that faster-than-light particles had been discovered being a particularly troubling case (it turned out the scientists had made a mistake).
The second thought has stuck with me a bit longer, namely: why is this being reported at all? Leaving aside questions regarding whether ‘Homer’ was a historical figure and ‘his’ personal dating, the general consensus among Classicists and literary scholars has been for many years that the Iliad was first written down around the 8th century BCE. As in any scholarly debate, there are those who disagree with this view, but it is what is being taught to undergraduates – and what I learned in my intro to Classical literature course oh-so-long ago – and it can be considered a generally-accepted fact at this point.
Why, then, is a study that only supports existing concepts being reported so widely? I doubt, for instance, if the causes of polio were re-examined, and the conclusions were essentially “Yep, it’s exactly what we thought a hundred years ago”, that such a study would receive any attention whatsoever. It is certainly helpful to have supporting evidence, but it isn’t a ground-breaking revelation requiring international attention.
Accordingly, the reason for all of the attention surrounding the Reading study is almost certainly related to their methodology, as opposed to the actual results; statistical analysis is a ‘hard’ discipline – in contrast with the ‘softer’ Classics – and therefore the results of such an analysis may be viewed as more scientific and more reliable. But this is a profoundly problematic attitude as it ignores (or at least significantly diminishes) the efforts of countless scholars who have studied Homer and the Iliad for their entire professional careers. These researchers have often operated within the humanities, but that does not mean their results should be viewed with any less validity than their scientific counterparts. The humanities are a rigorous discipline as well, with similar long periods of study, emphasis on peer-reviewed work, and attention to detail. We just don’t work in labs…usually.
In other words, ‘scientific’ does not automatically equal definitive, and the work of Classical scholars should not be brushed aside so quickly. There are professionals in the humanities too!
The full study can be found here: Altschuer, E. L., Calude, A. S., Meade, A. and Pagel, M. (2013), “Linguistic evidence supports date for Homeric epic.” BioEssays. DOI: 10.1002/bies.201200165
It should be accessible to all, considering I am in middle-of-nowhere Canada and I can access it.