Challenged by Cornelius
Regarding hyper-relativism. Give me at least one example for archaeologists who actually consistently argued that 'any interpretation is as good as any other'. I know of none. To me, it is fraudulent pseudo-science to state the opposite.Not having read everything these people have written, I can't really tell whether they are consistent or not. But I know that Fredrik Andersson, Pia Andersson (no relation), Björnar Olsen and Åsa Wall have all argued at least once that any interpretation of the archaeological record is as good as another -- with the ugly anti-intellectual exception that they only wish to accept politically attractive or beneficial interpretations. See my 2005 paper in META for references.
[Update 12 June: Oh, I forgot Håkan Karlsson. And of course Mike Shanks & Chris Tilley in Re-constructing Archaeology. I should also add that Cornelius acted as an extremely supportive "opponent" at Fredrik Andersson's viva/disputation, where he had the opportunity to voice his dissent if he had any problem with hyper-relativism.]
(Oh Cornelius, would you really accuse me of fraudulent pseudo-science? The horror!)
Regarding the ills of pseudoscience. Give me a few good reasons why it is so bad if people 'dream' about the past rather than follow more scientific procedures. In what circumstances does it actually matter to get it 'right'? And in what circumstances does it perhaps not matter so much? Usually historians and archaeologists emphasise 'human curiosity' and 'collective identity' as two important reasons for knowing the past. But none of those require (or benefit from) knowledge about the past to be actually true.As for why we should bother, the main reason is that we are paid to be scientists, not poets. The tax payers expect archaeologists to do the same kind of work as physicists, biologists and historians. Not just comment on the source material in a learned and entertaining way, but seek the truth.
My opinion is that anyone in academe who is cynical about the concept of scientific truth does the handiwork of fascists, willingly or not. We have to be able, for instance, to give certain and truthful answers as to who has been oppressed or exterminated in the past.
I'm both a scientist and a tax payer. I think that any university discipline that is unable or unwilling to find scientific truth should be stripped of all public funding.
But what Cornelius means by "people" is probably non-scholars. Why should we bother if they have unscientific ideas about the past? Why, because we hark back to the Enlightenment! We know some truth, so it's our job to spread it. The public doesn't pay scholars to sit around in their ivory towers: we should be on prime-time television and tell them what we've come up with. We know better about the past than the von Däniken fans. It's our duty to correct their errors. It's a disgrace if we let them dominate the media and the public's ideas about the past. If it doesn't matter what the public believes about the distant past, then why should the public fund scientific archaeology?
To readers outside Scandinavian archaeology, I should perhaps explain that Cornelius and I don't really work with the same things despite having PhDs in the same academic subject. While I study how people lived in the past, Cornelius's plentiful work is mainly meta-archaeology. That is, he's a level above me in abstraction: he studies how people have studied how people have lived in the past. Cornelius looks at me looking at them. But not just inside academe: he looks at how laymen through the ages perceive the distant past and use its remains and imagery in architecture and art. (Cornelius, you should have a look at the faux Ankor Vat plaster ruin and African shanty town in Parken Zoo, Eskilstuna!). So if the public got in line and accepted the scientific view of the past, Cornelius would have to come up with something new to do.
Incidentally, this places us on different sides in the so-called science wars: Cornelius works in the tradition of science studies in sociology where some very prominent authors have wished to deconstruct the concept of scientific truth. I can't say whether Cornelius buys this idea,
[Update 13 June: OMG, I can! He does! "Epistemic relativism means that nobody's knowledge is more accurate to an assumed single reality than any other (in other words, there is no single, knowable reality) - and this is a respectable academic position that is shared by some archaeologists (including myself)."]
but in the 90s the science studies people contended that the findings of, say, archaeology, were simply the fruits of the social situation in which the scholars worked. So if someone made a statement about the Stone Age, the science studies people would reply that "he just says that because he's a white bourgeois male funded by so-and-so" (like Cornelius and myself). Knowledge wasn't really about truth, it was "socially constructed". This is known as "post-modern hyper-relativism", and I loathe it to the core of my little furry being.
I, on the other hand, am a rationalist. To me there is only only one kind of truth, the kind I teach my kids to tell; be it about the contents of one's refrigerator, about distant stars, or about life in the Stone Age. I ackowledge the detrimental effect that a scholar's social situation may have on his scientific detachment and judgement, but I see this only as an obstacle on the way to truth, not as the entire basis of knowledge. There's one world out there regardless of people's beliefs, and our job is to find out bits of truth about it.
[More blog entries about archaeology, science, sciencewars, relativism, skepticism, Sweden; postmodernism, relativism, arkeologi, vetenskap, skepticism.]