Concepts and Themes

The Importance of Myth and Oral Traditions

Lady in the rain

Episode 30 has dropped ( a while ago now) and it’s chocked full of Ken and I ranting about how important Myth, Oral Traditions, and even local lore can be to archaeologists and archaeology as a field. 

I know that I harp a lot about the misunderstood and misused records of Native American mythology, but there’s a good reason for it. Too often the fringe likes to turn to the myths and oral traditions of a random tribe in order to try and support a story they are trying to sell. The problem they inadvertently run into is taking a myth or oral tradition out of context.

Context, as we know, is Queen, much like the GPS is God. When you chose to ignore context, you can make up anything you want and probably find something out there to support it. That doesn’t make it true or correct, and the refusal to see that is just insulting at best. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen or read some fringe theorists spouting off about how they know more about what a Native tradition “really meant” than the living decedents of that tradition. What’s more is by trying to force traditions that aren’t yours to fit your favorite story, you’re missing out on actual information that is being conveyed via these rich and varied traditions.

So give the episode a listen, or a second listen, and let us know what you think!

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The Importance of Myth and Oral Traditions
Categories: Concepts and Themes, Podcast | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

What is Convergence in Archaeology?



The concept of convergence isn’t a new one to the multiple fields of science. In it’s most basic definition it describes the tendency of unrelated species to evolve superficially similar characteristics to deal with similar environmental issues. One of the best examples of this are wings.

Bats have wings, as do birds, some lizards, and even some squirrels, not to count all flying insects in the world. These different types of wings are all understood as being wings despite their uses. Some are true fliers, some glide, some are purely for show. However, they are all wings that were evolved by each individual species independently of any other.

The concept of convergence can be applied easily to other field of science unrelated to biology. It’s even apt to say that an idea like convergence was developed or observed in nearly every field of science, and we’ve just grouped all those ideas under the umbrella term “Convergence” making this all very meta.

How does all this apply to Archaeology?

Well, in archaeology we also recognize the phenomenon of convergence in cultures both prehistoric and modern. Perhaps one of the most recognizable example of this is pottery.

The invention of pottery is a step most prehistoric cultures made in their cultural and social development. I say most because there a a few that skipped this step and found inventive ways of using baskets and animal skins to serve the same purpose as pottery. That said, many prehistoric American cultures can be identified simply by the manufacture and decorative practices of their pottery. It is reliable enough that rough dating can be done based on the type of pottery found.

The same can be said about stone tools. Most prehistoric cultures figured out a way to shape stone into useful objects. Again I say most because there are some that used bone, bamboo, and other perishable materials instead. However, a majority of cultures moved through a stone age in reliable enough ways that the tools they left behind can be roughly dated by type and production technology

The development of these essential skills occurred at different times in different places by different people. Their development and use is so ubiquitous, that it is obvious that they were developed independently by different cultures. No one in archaeology argues that these skills were created by one supreme uber group and then disseminated through the ranks of humanity. Even the fringe groups tend to leave stone tools and pottery alone.

This trend doesn’t hold when it comes to more seemingly “advanced” skills or objects like written language, art, and megaliths.

I say seemingly here because the fringe tends to give more weight to these aspects of culture over what might be considered “everyday” aspects like tools and pottery. The fringe tends to focus on things that stand out, and that tends to be art, giant structures, and written symbols. This is folly, as the development and mastery of skills like tool making and pottery is hardly simple and is always a marker of culture. That said, let’s delve into the convergence of written language, art, and megaliths.

Written Language and Symbolism:

One of the things I see the fringe try to do is focus on prehistoric symbols, especially those used in pro-writing. Things like spirals, crossed circles, and other universal symbols. They try to use the appearance of these symbols in developing cultures all over the world as evidence of contact between them or of the presence of an uber culture. There is no reason to ever assume this, and trying to do so ignores the cultural implications of said symbols. What a spiral means in proto-Chinese is not what it means in proto-Navajo for example.

But there are always exceptions to the rule. So what happens when two symbols share a similar meaning?

This is still not a reason to assume anything other than convergence. It isn’t difficult to understand that two cultures, trying to describe the same thing, might come up with a like symbol to do so. Take for example, times when a supper nova was observed in the prehistoric past. Many (most?) cultures saw it and recorded it. Many of them used similar symbols to represent a bright, sun-like, light burst at night. Is that because aliens ran all over the world and taught the various cultures how to draw a super nova? No. It means the various cultures exposed to a similar event used similar imagery to record it.

Keep in mind that when we talk about ‘similar symbols’ we mean they have strong like characteristics. It doesn’t mean they are identical. Even when it comes to simple shapes like spirals and quartered circles, there is always variance in the form. Which only further supports the idea of convergence, as they are similar but not exactly the same, serving the same purpose, in slightly different ways.

Art and Imagery:

Most of the explanation in the Written Language and Symbolism section serves here as well. Humans, for the most part, try to replicate what they saw in nature. So for nearly every culture to have objects and images that represented recognizable animals, items, and people, is simply common sense.

Things get interesting when artistic style and interpretation comes into play. Here we begin to see stylized representations of nature, and this is where the Fringe begins to have issues. Stylized figures of birds, insects, and humans that archaeologists recognize due to the study of the related culture, get turned into fanciful jet planes, space ships, and alien men (always men) by the Fringe.

The problem the Fringe runs into is they are attempting to validate a biased idea and interpret stylized objects without understating the culture that they came from. In a void of information any conclusion can be drawn, and often is. This isn’t how archaeology works though.

Archaeologists can spend years, sometimes decades, familiarizing themselves with a culture and using that knowledge to decipher the art they find. This often includes speaking with the living decedents of a culture to understand something about how their ancestors perceived things. This way, we can form the best ideas about the art and imagery, using the best information available.

Now, all that said, there are often overlaps in imagery and art from one culture to the next. Again, it’s best to consider convergence as an explanation first, since many times it’s an attempt to recreate what is being observed in nature. Even in the instance of stylized art, it is best to consider convergence before trying to create an elaborate explanation to tie two unrelated cultures together based on one image or art object.

The other pitfall to avoid here is one the Fringe often fall into, and that is to rely on your own personal interpretation of aspects or characteristics of an object or image. Just because you personally see something that makes a figure look “Asian” or “Caucasian” doesn’t mean those characteristics are actually there. Such observations are completely subjective and often times driven by reasoning that has no place in archaeology.

Structures and Megaliths:

All of the arguments in the previous two sections hold here, and here is where we most often see the Fringe arguing for dissemination when what we’re actually seeing in convergence in a larger scale.

The most popular example of this is pyramid. The Fringe seems to love pyramids. The problem here is that what is structurally and archaeologically called a pyramid may not line up with how the Fringe wants to think of a pyramid.

A pyramid is a description of a type of structure that is cone shaped or often shaped with four sides and a flat bottom.  It is probably one of the most basic and structurally sound shapes you can build.

This is why we see this shape all over the world with a huge range of variation. From stepped pyramids, to truncated pyramids, to earth mounds, to the ‘true’ pyramids in Egypt, the term pyramid covers a variety of structures. As the shape, style, and purpose of these structures vary depending on the culture who built them, this is clearly a case of convergence. They are all similar in shape, hence the use of the term ‘pyramid’ to describe them, but their overall construction is different enough for even the untrained eye to see.

There are Always Exceptions.

Said exceptions only help prove the rule however. When we do see clear evidence of the sharing of or development of cultural traits, it helps us understand the cultures better.

Let’s look back at the basics, pottery and stone tools. We can, and do, find evidence of the development of techniques that lead to a new and different form of a tool or new and different shape of a vessel. We also see all the transitional forms moving from the ‘original’ form to the ‘new’ form. This means we can see the development of the technique in the culture that is developing it.

We also often see a jump in forms or decoration, especially but not exclusively in pottery. This sudden jump often indicates a marriage into a culture from an outside one, or direct trade between the two. In the case of marriage the tool or vessel maker often brings their own cultural techniques with them and in the case of trade the better item is often favored over another.

Both cases often serve the same purpose. We humans are practical creatures and we tend to change production habits in favor of easier and more durable techniques. We are also visual creatures, and we tend to pick the prettiest techniques as well. Hybrid forms are often observed and show how one culture is assimilating the techniques of another in over of their own.

The point here is, when one culture influence another, we usually see it in the archaeological record. When this evidence is missing and the traits being compared are different enough to be noticeable, we should always error on the side of convergence. As Dr. Mullins says, think Horses not Zebras (unless maybe you’re in the plains of southern Africa, then it’s probably ok to think the opposite).

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Categories: Archaeology, Concepts and Themes | 11 Comments

What is Archaeoastronomy?

moon in the trees

This is a topic that’s been bothering me since I started watching America Unearthed. Though to be fair, it’s not the first time I’ve seen the term misused, it’s just the point that drove the issue home for me. What I want to do here is give people a working idea of what the concept of Archaeoastronomy is. Probably this post is going to be updated occasionally as new and creative fringe uses of the term pop up.

Archaeoastronomy is a word that gets abused by everyone in the pseudoarchaeology fringe. I’m not really sure if it’s that the word just sounds cool, or if those in the fringe get a basic definition of a word and then run with it. The reality of the word is that it describes a collection of techniques used by most ancient peoples and it describes a field of study in the archaeology community.

How is archaeoastronomy describe by archaeologists  vs. what is commonly touted as archaeoastronomy in the fringe community?

Scott Wolter likes to describe archaeoastronomy in incredibly simplistic and misleading ways in his show America Unearthed. He also likes to change his definition from show to show using things like “The ancient practice of aligning buildings with celestial bodies.” or “Archaeoastronomy: ancient use of the sun, moon, stars, and planets in architecture and design.” This is simplistic to the point of being incorrect.

A correct explanation of archaeoastronomy is as described by the Center for Archaeoastronomy (CfA N.d);

The study of the astronomical practices, celestial lore, mythologies, religions, and the world-views of ancient cultures.

It is the anthropology of astronomy. It is observing how ancient peoples interacted with astronomy and not just how they aligned buildings to the “celestial bodies”.

I hope the difference in these two definitions can be easily seen. America Unearthed and similar fringe groups are only concerned with a single trait of the overall practice of archaeoastronomy. They only see one type of the many different expressions of archaeoastronomy in the world and from this they draw some pretty narrow, and very misleading, conclusions.

As can be seen in the archaeologist’s definition, we can see that this field is firstly concerned with the culture of the people practicing archaeoastronomy. What are their beliefs, how did they express them, how did they relate to the world, how did they translate that into their experience of space, and so on. We try to answer these questions through the clues left behind by ancient peoples in their surviving mythology, the ceremonial artifacts and religious spaces left behind, and yes, through the megaliths and structures that still stand today.

Archaeoastronomy is observable in most ancient cultures around the world, most notably in the cardinal orientation of the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt, the alignments of some of the Ohio Mounds, the Venus alignment of the Maya Palace of the Governor at Uxmal in Yucatan, as well as the most famous Stonehenge. The effort put forth in the planning, building and use of these buildings and structures is of great importance not only to the people who built them, but to modern archaeologists who study them. We can learn a great deal from these structures, about the cultures of their peoples, and most interestingly about the development of science and cosmological thought from the ancient astronomies and surviving indigenous traditions around the world (CfA N.d).

Obviously, archaeology plays a huge role in this study, but it’s not the only part. Living peoples, descendants of the cultures being studied, are hugely important to this field. These same living peoples are often, if not always, discounted by fringe groups when the concept of archaeoastronomy is brought up. This is a major flaw. Aside from completely ignoring indigenous peoples and native cultures still alive today, it also disregards actual ancient cultures and their life-ways and accomplishments.

Also importantly, and aside from ancient cultures, the way Wolter and the fringe use their idea of archaeoastronomy elevates it to some kind of mystical mumbojumbo. It strips it of any actual meaning  and allows the fringe to apply it to whatever they want, whenever they want. Doing this allows them to make far-out claims that have no evidence or support, but now they simply apply a scientific sounding word and give a half-assed definition and voila! Instant cult science!

Wolter and the fringe try to muddle the idea of archaeoastronomy so as to make it appear that the use of it among ancient people is rare and mystical. That the mere presence of something that might align with the sun or moon is truly unusual and sticks out. The reality of ancient peoples use of archaeoastronomy is actually quite mundane. This is not to say the set-up for this is easy or simplistic. It merely means that it was a lot more commonplace than the fringe wants to believe.

Archaeoastronomy was a necessity for survival for many people. Especially, people who were dependent on seasonal changes for their prosperity. At its most basic core, archaeoastronomy created calendars and seasonal planners for the peoples that used them. Certain alignments and astrological occurrences were essential to knowing when to harvest, winnow, and gather in order to have successful food supplies and social interactions. It is completely understandable that nearly every culture shares markers for major seasonal events like the equinoxes and solstices as well as regular monthly occurrences like full and new moons. These are easily observable and simply common sense to keep track of. To find buildings and megaliths that aligning or track these events is not surprising, though still important.

Again, this is not dismissing the use of archaeoastronomy among ancient peoples. It was and is an important part of their cultures. It is no coincidence that buildings and structures dedicated to tracking important astronomical events are almost always sacred or important municipal places in ancient societies. It should not be a surprise that cultures that were so closely tied to nature and the elements would likewise make such places important to them. We as archaeologists recognize this and take this into account when such places are uncovered or shared with us. This is not the case with the fringe.

Not only do pseudo-researches like Wolter assign meaning where there is none, due to their misunderstanding or misuse of the idea of archaeoastronomy, they create connections that make no sense within archaeology. They use the idea of archaeoastronomy as evidence for their conclusions, and often times as the only form of evidence. Calling things like early American cider presses, “sacrificial tables,” and then linking them to Stonehenge via arbitrary lines on a map is not archaeoastronomy. It’s fanciful thinking, especially in the absence of any other form of evidence.

Using the concept of archaeoastronomy as the fringe often does, one could go out into any field and find any large stone and then claim that said stone is linked to some type of astronomical alignment. This is all that is required in the cult science of the fringe to prove authenticity. Fortunately in actual archaeology, much stronger requirements for evidence exist. There must be other things associated with said stone, evidence of human use, artifacts, evidence of habitation or long periods of camping, evidence of other structural alignments, ethnographic evidence among the surviving peoples associated with said rock, ethnoastronomy (the study of contemporary native astronomies), surviving myths or oral histories of said rock. In archaeology one can’t simply say a rock is a marker without proving it.

Though archaeoastronomy is one of the most misused and misunderstood concepts in archaeology, it need not be. It is not evidence of supper advanced uber-races or aliens, it not evidence of diffusionism, it’s not a rare occurrence among the ancients. It’s also not evidence of a conspiracy of roving Europeans in the New World or of Atlantans disseminating knowledge. It is not the random connection of lines on maps stretching continents and oceans. It is not the abused am misused idea that the fringe wish it to be.

It is a concept encompassing not only cultural practices of ancient peoples but also the study of said peoples. It includes the study of ancient mythologies, oral histories of surviving peoples, cultural traditions, artifacts, structures, and megaliths. It recognizes the work of ancient peoples and understands their connection to their land and nature.

Let us understand archaeoastronomy for what it is, and not be fooled when used otherwise.

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Johnston, Grahame
2012    Archaeology And The Study Of Archaeoastronomy. 12 Dec 2012. Accessed 2/8/2016

Ruggles, Clive
2007    Course AR3015: An Introduction to Archaeoastronomy. . Accessed 2/8/2016

Center for Archaeoastronomy. (CfA).

Accessed 2/8/2016
Accessed 2/8/2016
Accessed 2/8/2016

Categories: Archaeology, Concepts and Themes | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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

Cult Science

This is another term I assume people know and understand. I’m not talking about the study of Cults and how they work, I’m talking about those that mimic the process of science. Very much like a Cargo Cult, Cult Science goes through all the motions without knowing what they all mean.

Things like the Discovery Institute, with its fancy academic sounding name, and it’s staff of pseudo-scientists, who probably all have a string of letters after their names, their publications with their almost coherent jargon etc. It’s mimicry, They are attempting to create the facade of science in hopes of being seen as scientists, without really understanding what they are doing, or why real scientists do it.

We see the same things with Ancient Alien folks. They hold conventions, present papers, have notable speakers, and even have their own journals. They go through the motions of scientific presentation, without understanding the steps that should have gotten them there.

Again, we see this with the New Agers/Quantum folks. Big words, confusing manuscripts, people with perceived authority and no clue how the process works. Just like the John Furm Cult they seem to think if they pantomime bits of the process they will magically conjure the whole, ignoring that years of research, study, and often experimentation go into science.

I want to be clear that I am not grouping Citizen Scientists into this, so don’t do it yourself. Citizen Scientists work in tandem with trained professionals to aid them in their pursuits. This is completely different from what Cult Science folks do.

Lets take an example from life…

I have a confession, I used to belong to two different ghost Hunting groups when I was younger. I met the assistant organizer for the first group through work when I worked for the county clerk in college. She was a nice person, very no-nonsense, with just the right amount of quirk. I noticed the ghost garland she had on her desk long after Halloween and asked her about it. She told me, in a slightly embarrassed way, that she belonged to a Paranormal investigation team, and I got all excited. Ever since I was little I wanted to see a ghost and be a GhoustBuster like in the movies. The TV shows like TASPS weren’t big yet, so this was as close as I could get.

I attended a few training sessions, where we learned how to use out cameras and tape recorders, and how to identify different types of paranormal markers; you know, the room is cold, the lights flicker, things move without a perceptible brease. Then I went on my first, and last, hunt with them.

I must say it was rather disappointing. We went to a small graveyard, not even an old one, and after being smudged with sage so the spirits couldn’t get us, we spent the rest of the night looking at tombstones with flashlights and Psychics. The only notable thing that happened while we were there was that everyone gathered around a tree and a single leaf was waving by itself. No one bothered to figure out why, they just all assumed the tree was “Haunted” and that if they asked it questions it would answer them.

The “evidence” collected that day was nothing more than rolls of film with out of focus images and lots of flash-illuminated bugs and dust, and muddy, hard to understand voices and white noise turned up way to loud on the tape recorders. Honestly, I wouldn’t have recognized anyone’s voice on those recorders.

There was no explaining to these people what they were really seeing, or what was really going on in the graveyard. They had gone in with their minds made up, and nothing could persuade them otherwise. It irritated me, but keep in mind, I still believed in the supernatural at this point, so I just thought this group wasn’t critical or scientific enough. Which led me to my second attempt at ghost hunting.

The second group I joined, I actually had to interview to get into. TAPS had been on television for a few seasons now and everyone was bulking up their ghost hunting equipment. This group had digital recorders and cameras, they had infrared night vision cameras, and several homemade but impressive looking devices. They had a set up that included software that recorded four cameras at a time and walkie-talkie. Most impressively, they didn’t belive that every speck of dust was a ghost (or Orb in the lingo of the field), and they threw around words like Scientific, Data, Skeptical, and Hard Evidence.

I felt good about this group, we set up our equipment with precision, we spent hours analyzing the video footage, pictures, and voice recordings. Much to my disappointment, I was really bad at it. I never saw or heard what the other team members did, even after the team lead pointed them out to me. I frequently argued that glitches were not evidence, and other such explainable phenomena didn’t prove ghosts. The final straw centered around a bit of footage that the team lead swore was a full-body apparition, and I quickly explained that it wasn’t, it was merely the center of the camera and the way light worked. To my knowledge they still have the clip up on their website as “evidence”.

After that argument, I found myself less inclined to go on hunts. I couldn’t reconcile the obvious misuse of the words Science and Evidence with how I knew the scientific method worked. I also realized that my inability to see things wasn’t because I wasn’t ‘sensitive’ enough, but because there wasn’t anything there, there never was, and all the fancy equipment in the world didn’t make what we did “scientific”.

This is how Cult Science works, both groups thought they were being scientific because they had equipment and they spent time analyzing their ‘data’ afterwards. They shared it with each other via their websites, where they helpfully told you what you should be seeing or hearing.  They held seminars at libraries where they explained their efforts, they even held training sessions so their teams would know how to conduct themselves. They envisioned themselves as being a cross between the scholarly aspects of the Ghoustbusters and the technological aspects of the guys on TAPS. All of this made them Scientific right?


They lacked one important aspect essential to science, Doubt.

Richard Feynman made mention of this in his commencemtn speach at CalTech in 1974. It’s a great speech and you all need to go read it. Feynman was surprisingly entertaining and informative . The nitty-gritty of his point was that if you don’t doubt, you can’t do science. We see this in the Hypothesis portion of the Scientific Method.

You might know that the second step in the scientific method is to form a Hypothesis based on your observations. So, after you’ve noticed something, you form a question to help explain why the thing you noticed is occurring. The key aspect of a Hypothesis is that it has to be able to be falsified. If you can’t be proven wrong, you haven’t created a Hypothesis. This is why the scientific method can’t be used to verify claims about God or philosophy. (I know there are people who are trying, and it makes for fun reading, but I stand by my statement.)

To do science you need to doubt. Fancy equipment, long lecture sessions, and glossy publications don’t make science. Experiments based on falsifiable hypothesis do, constantly repeating those experiments does, adapting and changing your hypothesis based on the results does. Also, science can really only explain the natural world not the supernatural, and as soon as science can explain it, it’s no longer supernatural.

So next time you hear someone flinging the word scientific around, look at what they are doing, and ask them what could prove their hypothesis wrong. If they can’t answer you, it’s not science.

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