Cosmic Horror
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

Cosmic Horror

A rectangular block carved into a creature with the body of a bull, the wings of a bird, and the head of a man with a square beard
Before speaking of something inauspicious, its always wise to invoke the protection of a lamassu. This one has accepted the change from guarding a palace to guarding a museum, so I’m sure he won’t mind guarding a blogger. (British Museum, ME 118872, photo used with permission)

As a layman it often seems that authoritative statements by official-sounding people represent what experts think. The sort of people who appear on television, write columns for newspapers, and sell books in every airport stand in for a larger group whose works one lacks the time and training to understand. As one studies a field one realizes that the most visible experts are often more knowledgeable about how to win a large audience than the subject itself, so one should look for literature which makes certain social signals to understand what the experts think. If the Oxford Classical Dictionary or the Reallexikon der Assyriologie tells you to read something, that something is probably widely respected by experts in its field; if a book was published by Harvard University Press or in the series Achaemenid History, it at least has its nihil obstat.

As one spends time chatting with scholars from different universities, however, one realizes something else. A view can be commonly held for years before it appears in print if the holders are reluctant to cause trouble or lack standing in the right sub-field. If one thinks that most of the scholars in a particular field are starting from shaky assumptions or not thinking clearly, it can be difficult to get one of them to sign off on your article telling them so. In other words, scholarly literature does not necessarily tell you what the experts think either; it just tells you what those with the determination and resources to publish are willing to proclaim in public. To quote Danforth, that great man of science, “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!”

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