Absence of Evidence

*In the long absence created by my return to school, I thought I’d finish migrating my old posts to this site. So, enjoy!*

“This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” ~ Carl Sagan

The first time I heard this quote was in field school. We’d spent the majority of the summer excavating the residence of Dr. J.H. Ward and found about nothing…though I did learn that a claw hammer will totally own century old cement…When asked what he was going to say about the residence since we’d had such a lean collection of artifacts, Dr. Mullins (go read his awseome bolg on material culture) told me, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This was quickly followed with a rather comical debate over what a particular artifact really was to which I was told, “When you hear hoof beats, think Horses not Zebras.”I took both quotes to heart, often repeating them to myself when faced with questions in the field. I still like both, even though recently I learned that the Carl Sagan quote is actually a misquote. The full quote is listed above and can be found on Wikiquote…or better yet in his book Demon-Haunted WorldTo put it in context, Sagan uses this phrase in his “Baloney Detection Kit”. He uses it as a tool to identify and reject an “appeal to ignorance”. The phrase appears in Chapter 12, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection” in the “The Demon-Haunted World”

“appeal to ignorance – the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist – and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

So, this quote didn’t mean what I thought it meant. What Sagan appears to be doing here is pointing out that absence of evidence IS evidence of absence.

What does this have to do with archaeology you ask? Oh my, so much. Especially when you are dealing with pseudoarchaeology.

I’ve been doing research for a video that will be on Ancient Astronauts building the Pyramids, not a topic I was familiar with, and frankly the more I “learn” the more my brain hurts. What I’ve been finding is that Ancient Astronauts supporters use the appeal to ignorance to support their claims, up to the point of quoting Sagan. This tells me is that not only do they not know anything about ancient Egyptian civilization / building techniques, they also have never read Sagan. This bothers me since in both cases they are speaking as if from positions of authority, and five minutes on the internet can blow their arguments out of the water.

I blame von Daniken for this. The man simply refuses to see fact, even when it’s place right before him. He is also a prolific author on the topic of pseudoarchaeolgoy, claiming that professional archaeologists either don’t know what they are doing, or are purposefully covering up the “truth”. To him I ask, what do we have to gain by hiding the truth?

Daniken likes to point to known artifacts, hieroglyphs, and paintings, claiming that Archaeologists translated them incorrectly, that they are really ancient depictions of aliens, or even parts of a spaceship. He goes as far as to say that everything we know is wrong, and we have something to gain by not telling the lay public the truth. Daniken apparently never had the benefit of someone telling him to think Horses not Zebras.

To all this I say, Ancient Astronauts supporters: you have no evidence, you have no facts, most damningly, you have no practical applied experience. When you misquote Sagan, you show you have no grasp of basic concepts. As in all things, Occam’s Razor comes into play, and since your extraordinary claims cannot be backed with extraordinary evidence, you really should let it go. Have a little faith in your own species, we really are a very clever and capable ape.

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Categories: Concepts and Themes, Rants | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Absence of Evidence

  1. It all comes down to common sense.
    You’re digging a site and find no Roman cultural layer: does this mean there were no Romans? No, just that you haven’t found evidence where you’re digging.
    Now, on a subject that interests you: the archaeology of Jesus Christ and Christianity…I have find no mention of “Jesus Christ” and no Christianity before the medieval (actually, the early 6th century). There is, of course, plenty in earlier times claimed as Christian – such as the Ptolemaic Chi-Rho – but nothing explicitly Christian, and nothing bearing the term “Jesus Christ”.
    This absence of evidence is total, in that my survey covers the region from India to Egypt and north to Britain, the period from the early 1st century CE and onwards, and all types. This is why I feel sufficiently confident to say: there was no Jesus Christ in the 1st century and no Christians in Classical Antiquity.
    But what of the evidences claimed as Christian? Well, that’s another history, one that is studiously ignored by everyone, theologian, historian and archaeologist alike.
    What we have is Chrest/Good and this is panhellenistic, a product of colonising Greek culture, starting in Ptolemaic Egypt and taken outwards from there, across the Hellenistic world, to Greco-India and across the Levant, and eventually throughout the Roman Empire. It eventually becomes gnostic and Manichaean, before being remade as Christian.
    So, although there is an absence of Christ/Christianity for a long while, there is something, just not Christ/Christian in that early period.
    If anyone is interested in digging deeper, I suggest trying to understand the symbols known as “nomina sacra”. Even if we accept – without any good reason – the dating of the earliest texts wrongly described as Christian – you will find no mention of Jesus Christ or Christians in them; codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus make no mention of Jesus Christ: they are Chrestian and use nomina sacra instead of a name and titles. The history of nomina sacra is largely speculative and we do not know for sure the name of the divine man who appears in the texts – it would be interesting to know more.

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    • Sure, but your ‘Chrest’ example would be evidence (even though I don’t agree it’s evidence of Jesus). As to the Roman example, I have evidence of Romans elsewhere, so no evidence of Romans in say, America, doesn’t mean they don’t exist anywhere else. However, never finding any evidence of any aliens anywhere in the world ever, dose kinda mean they don’t exist on Earth, therefore were not responsible for the building of anything on the planet. (I won’t say they don’t exist anywhere in the universe.)

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  2. There have been too many Lies. Lies supported by both the scientific and academic mainstream.
    As they have lied before, it is correct to conclude that they will do so again, whenever they believe that it is necessary to do so.

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