Tag Archives: Doubt

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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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?

Wrong.

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.