Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Two Phrases that Should be Banned from Scholarship

I have returned to working on a book review that I have been dreading--partly because I am now receiving some pressure from the journal to do it. And in the same chapter the author uses two phrases that I find jarring.

Phrase 1: "The burden of proof lies with those who..."

This phrase always pertains to the position one opposes. It assumes that the consensus lies with you and that others must argue against it. It also indicates that you are not going to provide an argument yourself. To say that the "burden of proof lies" with whoever opposes your assumptions is just scholarly laziness, saying you will not (or perhaps cannot) effectively demonstrate your assumption. The burden of proof lies with whoever is making an argument, meaning, it lies with all of us.

Phrase 2: "The exception that proves the rule."

No, it is just a plain old exception. That it might stand out among a great deal of evidence, making it striking by comparison can be duly noted. But, especially for those of us who study antiquity in which we have very little surviving evidence and the evidence that survives most often reflects the concerns of later individuals and communities who transmitted them, omitting documents or even destroying documents or just failing to copy documents that did not fit their own perspective, it is not surprising to find large scale agreements on some issues in the ancient evidence with occasional exceptions that broke through. This, however, is not evidence that what we have is an exception that proves the rule. It is a surviving scrap that barely made it that might reflect a much broader perspective that was later forgotten or suppressed as its supporting similar evidence was lost.

Both phrases should be thrown out of serious scholarship. Neither is a form of careful argumentation; both are rhetorical ways to dismiss alternative viewpoints or dismiss inconvenient evidence.

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