The Llama Axis

A friend of mine recently asked, on a mailing list that a lot of our circle of friends are on, if anyone knew of a good "historical analysis of common factors that have led to or been present during periods of peace." The phrasing of his question suggested to me that it might have been colored by certain books we've all been reading recently.

Using scientific-sounding analysis to justify comfortably tidy answers to extremely broad questions is hip right now.

Justifiably so; applying thought that is at once rigorous and outside-the-box to important questions is how many important advancements in human understanding are accomplished. It's an activity that we, as a civilization, need to be in the habit of doing. I like those books.

I do worry, though, that they're resulting in a popular notion of the nature of scholarship which is incomplete. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the work that needs to be done to increase human knowledge isn't the big-picture stuff. It has to be done by legions of people toiling away in the trenches answering the tedious little questions that are clearly defined by the current paradigm in their field. The volume of knowledge generated this way dwarfs the few gems of big-picture thinking, and you can't do the big-picture thinking without it.

The situation has evolved such that there are two different structures providing the resources to support these two different types of scholarship. The latter type is governed by grant committees, peer review, and the kind of petty politics that pervades academia. This results in titles like, "An econometric analysis of covariance between Croatian military expenditures and llama herd size in non-Spanish-speaking South Andean villages 1992-1996".

The former type is governed by what large publishing houses think will sell well at Barnes and Noble superstores. This results in titles like, "The Llama Axis: Why People Die".

I suspect that the question my friend was looking to answer would fall into the big-picture category. Meaning that sifting through the mountains of academic papers out there might not avail him, and he might have to wait until Malcolm Gladwell or Jared Diamond decides to tackle it.

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