Sunday, June 11, 2006

Challenged by Cornelius

In a comment to my recent entry on plans for a skeptic anthology, my colleague Cornelius Holtorf has issued a couple of challenges on the topic of pseudoscientific archaeology. These are issues close to my heart, so I'll reply with a full blog entry.

Quoth 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!)

Continued he:
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.

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14 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Diskussionen kring meta-arkeologi fick mig osökt att tänka på ett citat ur Isaac Asimovs Stiftelsen. Hardin, Terminus borgmästare, och det kejserliga sändebudet Lord Dorwin diskuterar historia (notera även att översättaren haft så bråttom att han inte ens fått accenten rätt på alla ställen):
---
- Säkevligen kännev ni till, fortsatte kanslern högtidligt, att Lameth gev [sic] ett nytt och synnevligen intvessant bidvag till mina tidigave kunskapev i "uvspvungsfvågan".
- Vilken fråga? sade Hardin
- Uvspvungsfvågan. Den mänskliga vasens uvspvungsplanet. Ni kännev otvivelaktligt till att man ansev att den mänskliga vasen uvspvungligen bebodde endast ett planetsystem.
- Jag känner till det.
- Natvuligtvis vet man inte med någon stövve säkevhet vilket system det vav - den kunskapen äv fövlovad i uvtidens dimmor. Det finns emellevtid fleva teoviev. Sivius sägev en del. Andva hävdav att det måste vava Alfa Centauvi eller Sol ellev 61 Cygni - alla inom Sivius-sektorn.
- Och vad säger Lameth?
- Jo, han gåv på en helt ny linje. Han fövsökev bevisa att avkeologiska lämningav på den tvedje planeten i Avctuvussystemet tydev på att människan fanns däv innan det fanns någva tecken på vymdtvafik.
- Och det betyder alltså att det var människans ursprungsplanet?
- Möjligen. Jag måste läsa hans bok noggvant och väga bevisen föv och emot innan jag kan uttala mig med säkevhet. Man måste undevsöka huv pass tillfövlitiga hans obsevvationev äv.
Hardin var tyst en stund. Sedan frågade han: - När skrev Lameth sin bok?
- Åh - jag skull tvo föv sisådäv åttahundva åv sedan. Natuvligtvis byggde han i stov utstväckning på Gleens tidigave vevk.
- Men varför litar ni då på honom? Varför reser ni inte till Arcturus och studerar lämningarna själv?
Lord Dorwin höjde på ögonbrynen och tog hastigt en pris snus. - Men vavföv, min käve vän?
- För att få förstahandsinformationer, naturligtvis.
- Vad skulle det vava bva föv? Det fövefallev mig att vava en yttevst besvävlig och hopplös omväg om man vill nå ett vesultat. Höv på häv, jag ägev alla de stova mässtavnas [sic] vevk, de stova avkeologevna i det fövflutna. Jag vägev dem mot vavandva, analysevav de motsvidiga uppgiftevna, avgöv vad som tvoligen äv kovvekt - och kommev fvam till en slutsats. Det äv den vetenskapliga metoden. Åtminstone, tillade han nedlåtande, enligt min mening. Huv odvägligt och pvimitivt vove det inte att vesa till Avctuvus ellev Sol till exempel, och sedan stvöva omkving däv, näv de gamla mästavna vedan hav genomsökt mavken mycket gvundligare än vi någonsin kan hoppas på att kunna göva.
- Jag förstår, mumlade Hardin artigt.
---
Akhôrahil

12 June, 2006 13:21  
Blogger Martin said...

Haha, good quotation! But a meta-archaeologist wouldn't be interested in the archaeological question of whether there is evidence of pre-space-travel human settlement in the Arcturus system. The object of meta-archaeology is to study how Gleen, Lameth and the others talk about archaeology.

12 June, 2006 13:55  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I know.

But wouldn't that fit better in what we in Swedish call "Idéhistoria" (or "Idé- och lärdomshistoria" in Uppsala, because they're snotty about it :-) ) -- somewhat translatable as "History of Ideas"?

/A

12 June, 2006 14:05  
Blogger Martin said...

I certainly think so. But then my meta-archaeological colleagues point out that the historians of ideas aren't paying any attention to the history of archaeology. My reply is that if the pros don't care about it, then it probably isn't terribly interesting in the greater scheme of things. Introspective navel-gazing.

12 June, 2006 14:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now, doing archeological expeditions to find out more about earlier archeologists, that would be beautifully meta.

/A

12 June, 2006 14:21  
Blogger Martin said...

Been there, done that. My thesis is largely based on documentation that had been completed and then forgotten along with the accompanying finds without having been handed over to the museums and archives responsible for them. I had to dig a lot of the stuff out from attics and cellars in Visby and Stockholm, the papers falling to pieces, the find boxes full of dust and rat droppings.

Archaeologist Birger Nerman was fond of saying that "You always make the best finds in the museum stores".

Also, quite a number of museums were bombed to bits in WW2, and they had to excavate the stores afterwards.

12 June, 2006 14:31  
Anonymous Cornelius said...

Martin, your comment is worth at least four full blog entries, and I do not think I can handle a full reply on a late evening like today.

However, here a few pointers to what I think about what you wrote anyway.

Firstly, although I know that you have read a selection of my writing, I think it would be better for you to describe your own position and leave my position to me. Your comments are not entirely unfair, but I still do not think you do justice to what I really think (or have argued).

Secondly, like many anti-relativists you appear to confuse different kinds of relativism. 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).

Much more problematic is a moral relativism which would state that any claim about reality is morally as good as any other. I would maintain that nobody of the authors you mention (although I do not know them all equally well) has argued that 'any interpretation of the past is as good as any other' thus endorsing moral relativism. Making judgements on the basis of politics and ethics is not anti-intellectual but the duty of every good citizen in a democracy.

As to relativism and fascism please note that "a position which declares itself wholly dependent on following rational scientific procedures may support just about any interpretation; there is little that conscientious scientists can do against clever fascists" (from http://www.assemblage.group.shef.ac.uk/1/holtorf.html).

Thirdly, I doubt very much that we (archaeologists) are paid to seek the truth about what happened in the past. We are much rather paid to educate students, manage heritage and museums, satisfy peoples' curiosity, interpret artefacts, influence collective identities (who "we" are, where "we" are coming from) etc.

For a truly enlightened tax payer there are very few good reasons to care about the truth of how a farmer may have lived thousands of years ago, and those few that do exist would never justify all the different activities archaeologists are currently paid to do.

By the way, as your long blog entry shows nicely, you too are rather keen on meta-archaeology. (And this is meant as a compliment. ;-))

Good night!

12 June, 2006 23:52  
Blogger Alun said...

I think that any university discipline that is unable or unwilling to find scientific truth should be stripped of all public funding. I'd love to agree with that because I need an office and Art History has some nice ones. I'm not sure that it's a sustainable argument though. Philosophy is not a science, but it's hardly valueless.

I think that you could make an argument that any university discipline that is unable or unwilling to advocate its own epistemological method should be stripped of all public funding. If for instance we believe that archaeological epistemology cannot aid interpretation and that acceptability of explanations is a political affair then there's a strong argument to cease teaching people to be bad archaeologists and teach them to be good politicians instead.

I think a good point Cornelius raises in his recent book is that it's the process that is important. If you're seeking a spiritual connection to ancient sites then is an archaeological process useful? From an atheist position I don't think such connections are convincing, but they're no more (and no less) ridiculous than the concept of a "Biblical" archaeology. In this case I'd argue that this is non-scientific archaeology rather than pseudoscience. There is a difference.

The non-scientific people simply don't care about the notion of testability or falsifiability (which is handy position if you want to invade a Middle Eastern country). Therefore scientific arguments are irrelvant, this is a philosophical argument about what makes a satisfying explanation. Why Truth Matters is an interesting take on the importance of rational argument (which is not necessarily the same as science).

In contrast some pseudoscientists accept, in principle, the scientific method but are happy to falsify data or make illogical conclusions. Is this a bad thing? It depends on what your answer to "Why archaeology?" is. But if you accept archaeology is a Good Thing then from an archaeological position pseudoarchaeology is unethical because such practice is not sustainable. If misrepresentation is permitted then we do arrive at the hyper-relativist position where one idea is as good as another.

That's not to say that misrepresentation doesn't happen in mainstream archaeology either, but when it does we challenge it. We say things like "Binford's created a straw man" or "Hodder's contradicting himself." If we are to have equality between orthodox and alternative archaeologies then errors in alternative archaeology should be challenged too. A refusal to engage with alternative, pseudo- or postmodern archaeologies privileges them as being above archaeological discourse. Successful views then become the preserve and the tools of the elite.

Again, social elites occur in academic archaeology too, but acknowleding their existence doesn't mean that you accept this is right.

I think a good sceptical anthology wouldn't be about the right answers to puzzles but rather about what questions we ask and why they matter. I think one attraction of alternative archaeology is a wish to touch the past, and pseudoarchaeology often appeals to feelings. "What did the past feel like?" might be an unanswerable question, but as a question it's more attractive than an archaeologist telling you Site X has been solved, here's what we've found.

If I ever got to produce an archaeology or history series I think I'd have two opposites (processualist v. post-processualist or orthodox v. alternative) tackle a different issue each week and simply film them trying to convince an intellectual lightweight of their case. It seems a way of trying to get the viewer to think critically about the problems rather than dictate answers, which can only be good for analytical thinking.

Next week on Great Debates: Ed Krupp and Robert Bauval both try and explain the astronomy of the Egyptian pyramids to Paris Hilton.

It'd be a ratings winner.

13 June, 2006 00:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm complete amateur when it comes to the contents of the debate you're having here (but why let that stop me?)

Someone asks, "Were people at Auschwitz executed by gassing, or by hungry fire-breathing dragons?"

Now, do you answer:
A) Gassing. Pieces of evidence X, Y and Z provide overwhelming proof of it,

or

B) We don't know, and can't possibly ever know. Given that, let's see which theory works best for our favoured political system and go with that,

or

C) [Your answer here]?

/Akhôrahil

13 June, 2006 14:21  
Blogger Martin said...

Akkie, we would never give you a straight answer to that. We'd ask you to define "to be", "people", "Auschwitz", "executed", "gassing", "hungry" and "dragons". Then we'd ask you to define "to define".

13 June, 2006 23:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What, 'fire-breathing' is suddenly unproblematical here?

/A

14 June, 2006 01:19  
Anonymous Sharon said...

To say that "there is no single knowable reality" is not the same as saying that "any interpretation is as good as any other interpretation". The past is a strange kind of entity. I don't tend to think of it as a 'reality' at all; the only reality is the surviving evidence of its existence, and all historians or archaeologists can do is interpret its remains. Those are mere fragments of much richer lived existences, ambiguous and inadequate because they're stripped of most of their original context, and therefore open to multiple interpretations, but they really do exist and they really do constrain us. ('Multiple' is not the same as 'infinite', and nor does it mean 'all are equal'.)

Similarly, is there such an inevitable contradiction between 'following scientific procedures' and 'dreaming' about the past? The scientific procedures will only take you so far. They give you a shaping framework, foundations, the outer limits of the possible. Within those limits, we dream, wonder, speculate, assess and theorise. Everyone does it to some extent; the scientific method involves doing it in particular, systematic, tested ways. What I'm talking about is the interplay between the knowable but often inscrutable reality of the evidence and the creative mind of the scholar, using the practical and theoretical tools that we learn as students - and we hope we'll wind up with some reliable knowledge about the past of which we speak. We know (don't we?) that most of what we say is half-right at best. But half-right is better than nothing and it's worth striving for.

And yet, for some, whether their knowledge is reliable is less important than whether it's useful, or comforting, or entertaining, or it supports their beliefs about other things. Does getting it right matter? It certainly matters when getting it wrong - intentionally or otherwise - leads to death or war, or simply bad politics and conflict (but 'the truth' can equally have bad consequences). It matters when there is deceit: when unreliable knowledge is presented as though it were in fact reliable, and when people use falsehoods to make money out of other people. That is what defines pseudo-science and why it's a bad thing; that's why genuine scholars have a duty to speak and present what we know, to challenge the frauds wherever we get the chance. But we also have an obligation to be aware of the limitations of what we know.

14 June, 2006 11:35  
Blogger Boelf said...

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).

This is just silly.

A thousand years ago today is just as real as now. Abundance or scarcity of information doesn't change this.

Its a mistake to confuse our speculations based on evidence with the objective reality we are (hopefully) trying to ferret out. In that light knowledge that is closer to this reality "is more accurate".

Thirdly, I doubt very much that we (archaeologists) are paid to seek the truth about what happened in the past. We are much rather paid to educate students, manage heritage and museums, satisfy peoples' curiosity, interpret artefacts, influence collective identities (who "we" are, where "we" are coming from) etc.

With no commitment to the truth what is the point of any of this? “interpret artifacts”, “satisfy peoples' curiosity”. Isn’t some commitment to an objective reality implied.

I’m afraid my post is a little incoherent but I’m shocked anyone, let alone an academic would be given to such sloppy thinking.

25 June, 2006 09:14  
Blogger Martin said...

I hear you, brother! I've been living with these people since 1990, and I still find it hard to believe that they're actually saying what they're saying. But as all forms of post-modernism have been hip for a number of years, very few of my colleagues have spoken out against the nonsense. I've published critical papers in 1995 and 2005, though.

25 June, 2006 09:50  

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