25 Interviews for the FNP’s 25th Anniversary: Tomasz Szwelnik, author of an innovative speech recognition technology, talks to Aleksandra Stanisławska

Dodano: :: Kategorie: 25 years Foundation for Polish Science
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The Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, we have invited 25 beneficiaries of our programmes to tell us about how they “practise” science. What fascinates them? What is so exciting, compelling and important in their particular field that they have decided to devote a major part of their lives to it? How does one achieve success?

The interviewees are researchers representing many very different fields, at different stages of their scientific careers, with diverse experience. But they have one thing in common: they practise science of the highest world standard, they have impressive achievements to their credit and different kinds of FNP support in their extensive CVs. We are launching the publication of our cycle; successive interviews will appear regularly on the FNP website.

Pleasant reading!

History as Science

Assoc. Prof. Łukasz Niesiołowski-Spanò, a historian of antiquity, talks to Anna Mateja.


Pictured: dr hab. Łukasz Niesiołowski-Spanò. Photo by Leszek Zych © POLITYKA 2016.

ANNA MATEJA: What obligations towards society can a scholar like you have, someone who – like you in the book Goliath’s Legacy – looks into who the Philistines were and questions the information about them found in the Bible? Do you have any such obligations?

ŁUKASZ NIESIOŁOWSKI-SPANÒ: I think I do – two: towards Polish readers, who pay for research in Poland as taxpayers, and towards my fellow scholars, historians of antiquity, with whom I am in discussion. The former group is Polish-speaking, the latter is English-speaking, which is why I publish in both languages. My books…

Above all Goliath’s Legacy, your postdoctoral dissertation, and your doctoral dissertation Origin Myths and Holy Places in the Old Testament

…are packed with information and therefore not easy reading. At popular lectures for the general public or meetings promoting Goliath’s Legacy I usually get lots of questions about facts: when the Bible was written, whether certain people were historical figures, like David or Solomon, the role of Jerusalem as a place of worship. It’s clear that readers are interested in these issues and that there is demand for them, but there is a shortage of interesting approaches and new texts of a historical and not necessarily religious nature. And that’s my role: to describe facts about the past that I am studying.

Writing in Polish also means working on the development of academic Polish in my field, so that it remains an autonomous language of humanities learning. If this doesn’t happen, academic descriptions will use expressions that are more archaic than those of colloquial language.

Another thing: stimulating the domestic scholarly community, e.g. through the conferences on ancient Palestine that have been held for ten years, bringing together archaeologists, philologists, Catholic and Protestant biblical scholars. Each one includes 15 to 25 papers, which isn’t much, but few people in Poland study this subject matter, probably around a hundred. By comparison, these academic communities in Italy, Germany or the United Kingdom are much larger and much more active. In Poland I keep wondering if the periodical Scripta Biblica et Orientalia, published in Polish, will manage to survive as an annual. That’s how few papers eligible for publication we receive.

Therefore translations are a sine qua non for the development of your field and yourself as a scholar. Thanks to funding from the Foundation for Polish Science both your books have been translated into English. The second one, also with support from the FNP, was published in 2016 by the prestigious Harrassowitz Verlag publishing house which specializes in publications on antiquity and the Orient. What did you gain from these translations?

The translation of Goliath’s Legacy forced me to make corrections that shortened it, making it easier to read. I’ve already received several letters with words of appreciation, people seem to enjoy the book. Of course reviews are the most important, but you have to wait for over a year after publication for those. If they are positive and are published in leading journals, the book will gain a firmer place in academic circulation, which is what every writer wants. I have to admit, though, that I want people to read me more than I want everyone to agree with me.

If you tell me you like criticism, I won’t believe you.

What testifies to a book’s quality, at least in the Western academic community, is the number of reviews and where they are published. The prestige of the journal whose editors chose a book out of the hundreds that are published and decided to write about it, is even more important than what the book is about. The assessment doesn’t have to be enthusiastic, all the more since there are no perfect books. I repeat: it isn’t about everyone agreeing with me. After all, dissent and academic debates are the essence of progress in research. But if a book is chosen for review, that means it’s noteworthy.

This way of thinking doesn’t come all at once. As a new PhD holder, I presented a paper at a conference abroad; it wasn’t an oral address, the text was sent out in advance to the participants. One of them, a scholar I highly respect, wrote a sharp polemic against my ideas. I was devastated by his comments, walling myself up feeling hurt and unappreciated, when Professor Thomas L. Thompson, an Old Testament scholar from Copenhagen, set me straight: “You should be glad! The fact that he responded to your text means he liked it. If he’d thought the paper was worthless, he wouldn’t have written anything. Serious people only start polemics when they see the point”. It worked. I wrote a response and again received a reply. Though not all my arguments were found to be convincing, the polemicist withdrew some of his reservations. And that’s how I learned that criticism of a book, paper or idea should never be taken personally.

I doubt it works like that in Poland.

No, unfortunately; here, for different reasons, academics think they shouldn’t write negative reviews. If there’s nothing to praise someone for, they think it’s better to ignore the publication of a book than criticize it. It’s true that it requires nonconformism, because a negative review creates enemies, sometimes throughout the community that the criticized book’s writer is from. One could rather naively point out that…

…it’s all for the good of research!

But this is a view shared by a small circle of the best scholars. The majority probably think otherwise, because how else can you explain the negligible presence of frank reviews in academic journals, in which the authors have the courage to write that they think differently. The rule is to ignore publications which, for example, question the views of the majority. Or, in the case of doctoral or postdoctoral dissertations, how do you explain the fact that despite a work’s flaws being recited, the conclusion is positive anyway: the person gets their degree. Let anyone who hasn’t seen such practices among Polish humanities scholars cast the first stone… Keeping quiet about plagiarism is equally widespread. If a case is exposed, it’s not the writer who stole the text who is ostracized but the person making the disclosure (because now there’ll be trouble and the blame will tarnish the whole community…).

In every field there is a group of outstanding academics and they make sure to maintain the highest standards. After them come masses of hard-working scholars who are not necessarily brilliant. But it is they, the average-class researchers – not the best ones, because you have those everywhere – who reflect the overall standard of how research is conducted in a given country or a given field. You also need to always remember – returning to the question of the importance of my books being translated into English – that research knows no boundaries. It is one. An ambitious scholar must have an open-minded attitude towards the world and talk with it.

Research also requires nonconformism, but how do you go on if everyone or most of those who think differently are against you?

Prof. Giovanni Garbini, a well-known Semitist from La Sapienza University of Rome with whom I studied, said upon being presented with a jubilee book that when he was a student he was advised that it was better to be wrong with your professors than to be right on your own. “Of course I did exactly the opposite”, he concluded his story. I was never told outright that research didn’t accept conformism and even if we were the only ones supporting a given academic view, we should try to convince others to accept our arguments. It was somehow obvious at the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw, the character of which was defined by professors such as Aleksander Gieysztor, Tadeusz Manteuffel and Antoni Mączak. It is also the way of thinking in our antiquity scholar community under the patronage of Prof. Ewa Wipszycka, a leading researcher who has gathered a group of people with unconventional outlooks around her.

I discovered what it was like to stick to your views against a majority when I started arguing (together with a group of scholars who share this view) that the Old Testament wasn’t written at the turn of the 9th and 8th centuries BC, as many biblical scholars claim, but much later. There is no physical confirmation of the existence of the text of the Old Testament from the times of the Monarchy of Israel and Judah, only from the so-called Second Temple period. It’s hard to imagine many biblical texts being produced in the pre-Exodus period, especially since no neighbour of the Israelites of the time produced such literature in this period. Would the Hebrews have been the only ones to do so? I don’t believe in such uniqueness. I try to see the world in a certain context: the culture of the people of Judah during captivity and afterwards was affected by Babylonian, Persian and Greek influences. This later led to the Torah being produced, the psalms and the prophetic books being written down. Before then, I cannot see the conditions for this to happen, neither is there any proof.

And what do other scholars think of this?

So far most of them disagree with me. For some researchers, the text’s hypothetical age is a value – the older it is, the more reliable it is. Meanwhile, historians have known for a long time that eyewitnesses or participants in events are a deceptive source. Older isn’t always better. But I’m not giving up. If we always believed everything a majority was attached to, we’d still think the Sun revolved around the Earth. New findings are only accepted at the cost of negating what the majority has accepted. Only then is it possible to offer a new hypothesis.

The driving force of my research is intellectual curiosity. I treat the Bible like an ordinary text that to some biblical scholars is inspired and holy. Of course the Bible is the most important source of knowledge on the history of ancient Palestine but, like all accounts from the past, it is not a photographic representation. The account of events is often just a decoration for the presentation of other content that is more important than the actual chronological recounting of history. In the case of the Bible, that purpose is theological truth – the reader’s belief that God is one and expects faith and obedience from believers. It’s natural that its pages include quite a lot of propaganda and fabrications.

Religious thinking doesn’t necessarily hinder but it certainly doesn’t help rational research, especially in this case. Actually, I think history often shows greater affinity with the exact sciences than theology, for example, if only because historians reconstructing the past have to apply the rules of logic and rational discourse supported by proof.

Why does society need such knowledge when it concerns events in Palestine from many centuries ago? For example, there’s the information that the Philistines were not barbarians, as the authors of the Bible claim. We look at them through the story of Goliath the conceited giant who was defeated by the teenage David, but the facts say something else. The Philistines developed an excellently organized state, with a sophisticated material culture, which in civilization terms surpassed small and weak Israel.

But it was the Hebrews, not the Philistines, who produced literature and imposed their own point of view. Why do we need to know this? I have two answers. Palestine is one of the roots of European culture. Knowledge about the barbarian world (described so well by Prof. Karol Modzelewski in the book Barbarian Europe) and the Greco-Roman and biblical worlds enables us to understand Europe better.

The other answer is really an escape from the question: sometimes scholars study a topic regardless of how useful it might be. Most of my work starts like that: I see a question mark, I’m curious about an unknown, so I want to find an answer and then – in a book, paper, research project or text for the general public – I try to tell others about it, about a world from which so few sources survive that known facts are like isolated dots in empty spaces. Nevertheless historians, with the help of tools from other fields and knowledge about other periods or civilizations, try to reconstruct that world and understand the mechanisms that governed it. To me antiquity – specifically Palestine in the 2nd and 1st millennium BC – is the most interesting intellectually precisely because it involves the greatest number of unknowns. Biologists, chemists or physicists probably think the same way: you have to direct your research at areas with a lot of question marks, because that’s where things get the most interesting.

What about risks? For example the risk of provoking people who will feel offended by the claim that the facts described in the First Book of Kings are a product of the imagination and not the account of a historian?

It’s not my intention to offend anyone – neither those Polish biblical scholars to whom something is “iconoclastic”, nor that group of conservative Israelis who believe, for example, in the real existence of King Solomon even though archaeological excavations have failed to confirm the existence of a powerful state in the times that coincided with this monarch’s alleged reign. But when challenging the historical nature of an event described in the Bible, I say nothing about contemporary Israel, its identity, much less its right to land. It’s just like a scholar studying the history of ancient Greece doesn’t undermine the identity of contemporary Greeks by assuming that King Agamemnon is a fictional figure. I always point this out in order to avoid such conflicts.

Fear of hurting someone’s feelings cannot block academic freedom, though there is no shortage of emotions. A group of researchers known as “minimalists” – mainly from the universities in Copenhagen, Sheffield but also Tel Aviv – have been called, in scientific journals to boot, anti-Semites and enemies of the State of Israel because they questioned the historical credibility of some biblical narratives and proposed a late date of the Old Testament’s authorship!

A Pact for Science was published in 2015. As a founder of the Citizens of Academia movement, you were one of its authors. This document enumerates the flaws of Polish research and higher education and proposes systemic solutions. On over 80 pages, the document argues that well-organized science that rewards the best is simply a great social investment. You put this meticulously written document on the table and…

Nothing came of it. However, the aim of the Pact for Science, written by a few dozen people from several nongovernmental organizations, was to bring to the attention of the public, including politicians, that good science was needed. Scientists and university teachers are not a social group that will loudly voice its demands. On the contrary, we believe that simply increasing budget outlays on science to 1 % of GDP (we suggest this should happen by 2020), without systemic changes, will not eliminate pathologies. It is our role to show ourselves and others what role science can play in society.

Poles don’t really know what scholars are for. We want to convince them that research – even seemingly dispensable studies like those on the history of the Philistines – is necessary and can be understood. Until we achieve this, politicians will be able to continue to disregard science. Which they actually do, irrespective of their party colours. They simply feel that Polish research brings the country no benefits, so what’s the point of spending extra money on it. And, additionally, if we develop industry without planning to move beyond, let’s say, gluing uppers to soles, we can do it without science. The notion that you can set up an innovation department and do the same things more efficiently is treated like a costly whim.

Let’s leave aside the example of an innovative sole, because the authors of the Pact for Science are not concerned only with the development of applied sciences. What did writing this document accomplish?

We were under no illusion that we’d convince parliamentarians to take any actual action, or that we would get through to all scholars in Poland. We’re not naive… But we planted a seed, because the Pact drew a response from scientists, for example discussions began on the dangers of plagiarism and the rules of evaluating scientific work. Prof. Stefan Dziembowski, an IT specialist from the University of Warsaw, pointed out that one major scientific paper should be counted the same as climbing K2. By comparison, contributory texts would be like a hike up Mount Gubałówka. Right now three hikes up Gubałówka are treated the same as reaching the top of K2, though it’s not the same thing. Diligent adding up of points obtained for publishing non-innovative texts is not good for science. We need to put forward important and risky questions, and not keep repeating the obvious. Being used to improperly understood egalitarianism (because “everyone deserves something”, or “you shouldn’t hurt a colleague”), we ultimately fail to appreciate those who have the courage to go beyond correctness. The discussion that developed around this issue even included opinions that it’s actually better not to show off your successes too much because for some Polish scientists, resentment or even envy is stronger than admiration…

I’m guessing from the extent of interest shown in the Pact that we diagnosed the problems correctly. Many of them, for instance those related to following research standards, have to be solved by universities and scientists themselves, and not the state authorities. We also reminded some of our colleagues who set themselves high standards but often felt isolated in their communities that they were not alone in the conflict with the majority who think differently.

You are not short of research topics, you have no trouble obtaining grants, so actually…

What’s the point? Because it needs to be done. I learned this attitude that you cannot focus only on your own affairs in my school and student years. The Institute of History, including Prof. Ewa Wipszycka who supervised my master’s thesis, also instilled such behaviour in us: that the institute, the university, the academic community is also my business, and being an academic means being in public service. And that’s why I’m concerned about what science is like in Poland.

Associate Professor ŁUKASZ NIESIOŁOWSKI-SPANÒ, (born 1971 in Padua) works at the Institute of History of the University of Warsaw; since 2016 as its director. A beneficiary of FNP programmes: conference grants (2003), FNP MONOGRAPHS (2012), TRANSLATIONS (2004 and 2013).