In Praise of Authority

By Bernard Wood
March 30, 2015
One of the many definitions of “authority” in my American Heritage Dictionary is “an accepted source of information or advice.” In some circles it may be questionable to confer the label of “authority” on an individual, but I have always been willing and grateful to do that if that person evidently is knowledgeable about the topic, and has insights, expertise and wisdom from which we can all benefit.
Let me give you a non-paleoanthropological example. When I lived in the UK I tried to organize my Saturday mornings so I could listen to CD Record Review on BBC Radio 3. What I particularly like about the program is the segment called “Building a Library” in which an “authority” reviews different recorded versions of a piece of music, narrows down the field - always giving the reasons why a performance has been passed over - and eventually recommends and justifies their choice of a single version. Usually the reviewer selects different performances of the same parts of a score to emphasize how musicians make choices about tempo, and whether they follow faithfully, or to what extent they ignore, the composer’s intentions as marked on the score. Unless I am in the UK, I now have to listen to this as a podcast, but somehow it is not the same as listening to it “live” at c.9.30am on a Saturday morning.
Two weekends ago, driving between Exeter and Gloucester, I listened to a review by Flora Willson of different versions of Bizet’s Carmen. It is an opera I should know better than I do, so being guided authoritatively through the available performances was an education and a treat. Of course, the reviewer’s taste does always coincide with mine, but in this case it was good to be told why an authority on opera rejected some classic performances, and why she chose one that I would not have considered a “front runner.”
Last Saturday’s “Building a Library” took the form of a fascinating discussion between Andrew McGregor, the presenter of CD Record Review, and the conductor Jeremy Summerly of performances of Joseph Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (Nelson Mass). I know this music better than Carmen, but Jeremy Summerly’s analysis of the various performances was an education in itself. In the context of a single piece of music he managed to explain many general principles about performance styles and he made a good case that this is one of Haydn’s finest compositions. He also explained that he had listened to the performances “blind,” and he confessed that this had caused him to downgrade performances that he might have been prejudiced to “like” if he had known who the performers were.
The blend of education, scholarship, clear thinking and reasoned analysis that I experienced in these two, and many other, editions of “Building a Library” are the attributes that should be in a scholarly review in the field of paleoanthropology. Reviews should not “cherry-pick” data, nor should they be an excuse to ride “hobby horses,” nor should they end in platitudes. Reviews should inform, synthesize and stimulate the reader to think about the topic being reviewed in a fresh way.
Anyone who is contemplating a written review could do much worse than listen to “Building a Library” for inspiration, education and sheer pleasure.
PS - The notion that anyone has noticed the absence of this blog is a conceit on my part, but there is a reasonably good reason for it. Until the turn of the year my colleagues in CASHP and I were spread over several buildings across the GW campus in accommodations that could not be accused of being commodious. We are all now together on the 6th floor of a fine new Science and Engineering Hall. The proximate excuse for the hiatus in blogging is the time it took, mostly at weekends, sorting through the detritus of an academic career. Each published paper had a manila folder that contained data sheets, hand-written drafts of the paper, typed final copies, and copies of the letter to the editor, the reviewers’ comments, responses, and such. Going through each one, working out what should be kept and what could be discarded, took ages. It also brought back memories, good and otherwise.