Richard of York gave battle in vain?
Trust me! Just when I have the sympathy of half the nation for being the victim of some vile trolling, I go and throw it away by issuing some curmudgeonly tweets about everybody's favourite skeleton under the car park: namely Richard III. Will I never learn?
Now, actually, the twitter exchange on this one has been good overall, with fierce but polite disagreement. But I still think it might be an idea to explain what I was on about in rather more than 140 characters ...
As it happens, I am in New York and got up early to write the contribution I am to give at a symposium tomorrow. And sure, I was curious to see what the University of Leicester was going to say about their skeleton, so looked on the laptop -- and had quite a lot of qualms about what I saw.
Now there are also loads of good sides to this, as people have been rightly tweeting. If a discovery like this can turn people on to history or archaeology, then that must be a good thing (someone reported the delight of their child at learning that there could be the body of a king under a carpark -- spot on). And I have a frisson, like most people do, at coming face to face with "the real thing/person" (rocking the Roman cradle in "Meet the Romans" was really exciting). Besides, there has obviously been a lot of good archaeology and science going on, which was clearly explained (including the osteology done by someone who had been at my Cambridge college).
So why was I so put off, as well as being intrigued?
Well it wasn't because of Oxbridge sour grapes, as some tweeters alleged, against the University of Leicester .. and I really dont think it was, as someone suggested, a Prof from a Russell Group Uni casting aspersions on a 1994 group university. My first tweet might have made it look like that (if so, I'm sorry), but I honestly dont give a toss what category of uni anyone comes from, and I couldnt even name all the members of the Russell Group anyway. For me, and for most academics I think, it's the work alone that counts -- not what university it's from.
What put me off was a nexus of things to do with funding, university PR, the priority of the media over peer review, and hype... plus the sense that -- intriguing as this was, a nice face to face moment with a dead king -- there wasn't all that much history there, in the sense that I understand it.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I dislike intensely university commercial style marketing -- the posters on campus telling you that the Uni of X is a "global leader"/"in pursuit of excellence"/"making great ideas come true" or whatever. We're universities for heavens sake, not companies -- and we will be judged by our results, not by slogans. The first thing I saw when I looked at my screen was an absolute forest of logos proclaiming "University of Leicester"... getting the brand out there.
Now I am sure that any University would have done the same. We (that's uni's) are so desperate for cash to fund research that we all think that we need to get our name out to attract funding. And there are hundreds of people in uni press offices throughout the land trying to place (and hype) any research story they can to get publicity for the institution. I wouldn't mind if this was really about the dissemination of knowledge, but it's usually not -- it is about column inches. (Indeed I have heard people from uni press offices talk of their success in terms of exactly that, and not minding too much if the account is a bit egged.)
Then I found myself thinking... this is a complicated bit of scientific analysis being given its first outing in a Press Conference, not ever having been through the process of peer review. DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public. OK, I see that there is a tricky dividing line. We want to have us, the public, informed of what's been going on -- and we dont necessarily think it is a great idea that we should all have to wait for that for months or years, until the academic seal of approval has been granted. But the idea of the publication of research by press conference isnt one I feel very comfortable with (as a member of the public, I want not just a story, but a validated story).
Then there is the question of whether media interest starts to set research agendas. This runs through many areas, but especially archaeology. In general, you know that you will get more press attention, and so more funding, if you can link whatever you have found to gladiators or to some glamourous known historical figure (that is why the fine Roman marble head pulled out of the Rhone a few years back was instantly turned into Julius Caesar; there would have been no front page reports otherwise). I'm quite prepared to believe that this skeleton is Richard III (he's where we would have expected him after all) -- but he is part of a climate which pushes people to celebrity history and archaeology, and may even detract from more important work that doesnt have that glitz. (There is an analogue here with medical funding... the sexy areas attract the donations, when what's also really needed is work on dementia, psychiatry and geriatrics).
And then there is the history... Like Neville Morley and Charlotte Higgins, I'm still really wanting to know what history this really adds to our understanding of the period. And like History Matters, I wonder, if it had been the skeleton of some poor peasant whose remains DID overturn a lot of what we though we knew, whether it would have got half the publicity.
This isnt remotely meant to be a plea for going back to the old days when university research stayed in the ivory tower (if I wanted to keep the Romans in the lecture room, I havent been very good at it). It's just plea to "steady on" a bit.