Caution and Certainty in Archaeology and Pseudoarchaeology.

Caution and Certainty in Archaeology and Pseudoarchaeology.

Well, I finished reading America Before by Graham Hancock.

I know there’s already been several reviews about this book, and I’ll be getting around to a much more in-depth one. (Because as I keep telling people, this is part of my thesis, and I may as well kill two birds with one stone). But if you followed along with my tweets as I’ve been reading this book, you’re probably aware of most of my thoughts at this point.

And yes I did finally get to the part about the psychic technology.

As stated earlier, my biggest issue with America Before and other books like it isn’t the idea about psychic lost civilizations that somehow could harness the ability to control the weather and predict space phenomenon but couldn’t somehow survive the Younger Dryas. My biggest issue about them is the subtle and inherent racism of the theories.

What’s most disconcerting though is that explaining why these ideas are racist, tends to be almost as difficult as bailing water with a sieve.  The major reason for this seems to be that people don’t understand what is racism is. I’m pretty sure that is well outside the scope of this blog, but I refuse to let that stop me from pointing this crap out when I see it. Maybe it’ll stick and dawn on someone eventually. 

I had a recent comment about my opinions on these issues with alternative history and alternative archaeology. It’s clear from the comment that for this person simply stating “I-am-not-a-racist” is enough to negate all inherent racism in the ides of Hancock’s major idea of a lost civilization that predates all Native Americans, and then cultivated “primitive” peoples to create the cultures and tribes in the Americas.

Which is not what I want to focus on here, really. That’s for my Thesis and is probably a whole chapter on its own. 

What I really wanted to talk about is Uncertainty in Archaeology and how it’s different from the Certainty of PseudoArchaeology  

Interestingly, Hancock is paying attention to some of the developing discoveries in archaeology. 

He cites some fairly recent papers and attempts to follow the conversations that are going on around them. The problem is, he doesn’t have the context or the training in archaeological theory to understand the conversation that’s occurring. So all of these assumptions that he’s making are happening without the benefit of that knowledge. 

Archaeology can take some small portion of the blame for this.  Archaeology as a field is notorious about keeping things to itself, especially when it comes to developing theories and things we’re not 100% sure about yet. Archaeology as a field is incredibly cautious, we don’t like to put things out to the public that we are not completely sure are defendable or accurate. 

It’s good science because we’re trying not to confuse people with too many ‘what-ifs’ and ‘maybes’. The problem here is is that being cautious is somehow seen as being wishy-washy, and too many people in today’s day and age want definitive answers, and they want them now. 

This is where presenters and writers like Hancock come into play. 

Throughout his book, Hancock constantly speculates about what he thinks his lost civilization would be like and they would look like culturally and scientifically. There are several places in the book where he straight says he will not try to defend these ideas of his or try to provide evidence. Then a few chapters later, the things that he speculated about in earlier chapters, he lays out in words that show that he has now moved these statements from speculation into solid facts without the benefit of defending them or trying to validate them with facts and evidence. 

But because Hancock uses definitive language, and emotionally charged language at that, it feeds that need in a lot of people to have solid answers to questions. Solid answers that science is not willing to provide because we are taught to be cautious, we are taught to doubt, we are taught to follow the evidence when evidence is provided, and if there isn’t enough evidence we are taught to wait.

The contrast between this certainty and uncertainty is really where the conflict occurs.

Pseudoarchaeology is confident that it is correct, it is confident that it’s evidence points where it needs it to, it is confident that it has solved the mystery. Archaeology, by contrast, isn’t so confident, even when we know we have the evidence and it points one way or the other. We are still cautious about our language. We are unwilling to put definitive words down, because we know that with the presentation of new evidence that even our most solid theory can change. It’s why we put so much weight on evidence, and why we are so picky about what we will accept as evidence and why we argue with ourselves over what is the correct interpretation of the evidence. 

We are cautious by nature because we have been taught to doubt, something pseudoarchaeology does not teach. Pseudoarchaeology tells you that if you see something and it looks a certain way to you, then that must be the Truth, and that all you have to do to prove the truth is find evidence that agrees with you. Pseudoarchaeology teaches you to ignore anything that is counter to the evidence that you need. This is not how science works.

You can call your ‘assumption’ a ‘hypothesis’ all you wish, it does not make it a hypothesis. If you are not applying the scientific method you are not working with a hypothesis, if your hypothesis cannot possibly be proven false, it is not a hypothesis. 

Too often pseudoarchaeology presents an idea and call it a hypothesis. Then, as Hancock does several times in his own book, states that they are not going to attempt to provide evidence. 

This is not science, this is not a hypothesis, this is not how the scientific method works.

It is unfortunate that this statement will upset a few people. It’s unfortunate that this statement makes people think I’m being exclusive. But we have standards in science.  We have doubts at every step. We test everything, evaluate everything, and yes, we argue. 

If all we were really doing is forming our own opinions based on our own observations, whether or not they are true or accurate, and then arguing with each other about who’s fantasy is better, we would not be doing science. 

We would be doing Pseudoscience.

 


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