Thursday 15 December 2011

Archaeology is Flaccid Science? You've Got a Lot of Damned Gall!

I had a brief, but unsettling, conversation while waiting for the bus home from work today. As I was walking up to the bus stop I noticed someone whom I first mistook for a middle-aged version of someone I knew almost 25 years ago. So, I'll admit that the two of us felt a little awkward at the start. But the interchange soon rankled, and I think you should understand why.
     'Aren't you Mike Love,' I asked. He plainly had no idea who I was talking about.  
     He gave his name and his affiliation, which was said so quickly all I could gather was that he was some kind of microbiologist.  
     Hoping to dispel the awkwardness of the moment, I said, 'Not the Beachboy Mike Love. The Mike Love who's an archaeologist.'
     My counterpart then said something that really frosted me--something like 'No, we're all scientists where I work.' I'm sorry, but I didn't get a Ph.D. in anthropology at UC Berkeley in the late 1980s and early 1990s just so I could stand quietly by while some overly self-important gas-bag of a microbiologist pees in my face. So, without even thinking I looked straight at him and said, 'That's a rather bigoted statement, don't you think?'
     He looked at me like I was speaking Martian. [Shows his ignorance, really, 'cause my Martian is really awful and I never speak it anywhere outside of the shower.] Then he said that I must have misunderstood him, that what he meant was that archaeology wasn't a Natural Science, like microbiology. 'We do controlled experiments, where every variable is controlled. Archaeologists don't do that.'
     So, once again, I caught his gaze and let him know that just because, in large part, archaeology lacks a deductive component in its search for knowledge, our two disciplines were equally scientific, philosophically speaking. Again, I received the blank face of disbelief and had the sense that our two realities were thoroughly incommensurable.
     Finally, I said something like, 'Well, I've probably done enough to ruin your afternoon, so I'll be on my way.' Almost guffawing as I strode away, he said 'Have a good one!'
     And I went across to my bus stop and sat there fuming.

Too many times I've had to listen to the invective and sarcasm aimed at archaeologists and social scientists in general, always from those who consider themselves working in one of the so-called hard sciences. Frankly, I'm fed up being characterized in that way by male exponents of the physical sciences. The slur goes well beyond the Freudian to the downright homophobic. 
     And that's why I feel like having a conversation with you about why so many members of the general public think science uses deduction and produces sure and certain knowledge, and why, especially, physical scientists for the most part agree with them. As I said in an earlier post, early universe physicists employ the identical form of analogical reasoning that archaeologists do, but are treated with a great deal more respect and reap at least 10 times the government funding for doing so. Why?

Help me understand, please. Some. One.


  1. I have learned that those who wrap themselves in the robes of "science" are probably not very good at it. If they were real scientists they would use the name of their science. In your case, the idiot was trying to put you down and instead stirred you up. They are not worth your breath.

    Of course, one of the reasons why some other sciences get more respect (and funding) is that, as you have been so successfully skewering here, there are many bad practitioners of archaeology (I do not know whether it is a higher proportion than other sciences). And many of the good practitioners do not make the headlines in the way that some of the bad practitioners do. Just a thought.

  2. Fencers have a word for the thrust of your words, Iain: 'Touché!' Or, to use a vernacular expression: 'Nailed!'

  3. Big business and governments can exploit "science" for profit or just their own agenda. Sciences like archaeology simply don't give the payback. And let's face it, there's no shortage of "real" scientists who are willing to trade their principles for cash.

  4. That reminds me of one of my favorite UCSC Environmental Studies profs, when I told him I was switching from ES to Art. "Oh, taking it easy?" he asked me. But maybe it was a joke (or not!) because I found out last year while reading his biography that his wife was an artist...

  5. Part of the problem, I suppose is that many of the books, and presumably teachers, in K-university, equate "real science" with the the natural/physical sciences, especially when it comes to covering scientific method. One of the nice things about archaeology is that we can play it both ways....we can be "real scientists" and get funding from NSF and NSRC or we can be social scientists and get funding from NEH, SSHRC, etc. And we can get published in journals of all sorts. Also, for your interest, the rock star Mike Love now co-hosts the morning show on Rock 101 in Vancouver.

  6. Good archaeology (according to my tastes anyway) is interdisciplinary. I think it always has been, and is at it's best when it incorporates all sorts of data from other fields in both the natural and un-natural sciences. But this places a pretty heavy burden on the archaeologist, learning to evaluate other folks' basic assumptions, methods, results and their interpretation. Many other disciplines do not take the effort do the same for their archaeologist colleagues. We're dealing with what we understand to be extremely complex systems - human groups, and we're often less inclined to reduce the model (or experimental design) complexity to isolate just a few variables, which is what makes the hard sciences powerful-looking when it come to identifying causal relationships. This approach often produces unsatisfying results for human societies. But we need to be aware that now with so much new money in coupled human and natural systems grants, climate scientists, ecologists, etc. are trying to get anthropologists on board so they can get a lot of money and appear relevant to societal issues of, e.g., climate change. I think this is good, but archaeologists have to be able to collaborate as equals with other scientists for this to be a good thing for archaeology, and a good thing for the taxpaying public, the world, et al.

    This touches on the aside you make comparing the situation to homophobia. I'll suggest that one of the biggest obstacles to equal collaboration is the equivalent of internalized homophobia ... whatever you would call it -- inductophobia or something -- among archaeologists. If a geochemist says "isotopes", then the average archaeologist will unquestioningly swallow whatever half-baked interpretation the geochemist gives to an archaeological problem. A climate scientist pulls out a squiggly line and points to a dip and says "megadrought" followed by "collapse" and the archaeologist is happy to suddenly become an environmental determinist again, stop thinking about the complexities they've been working out for the last 20 years, and find themselves as 12th author on a paper in Science rewriting culture history. I suggest that many archaeologist believe that we are not scientists, AND FEEL ASHAMED OF THAT. They feel ashamed of our data, our way of producing knowledge, accept that they are second class citizens, and often engage in their own subjugation. Some ghettoize themselves within the sciences. And within our own discipline that self-loathing and insecurity can be projected on the EVEN LESS scientific cultural anthropologists ... or on to CRM practitioners, geographers, or whoever that day's whipping boy might be.

    When we as individuals and as a community refuse to do this to ourselves, accept the nature of our data and methods, and stop apologizing to "hard scientists" for it, then archaeology is shown to be a powerful means of knowledge production. When we knuckle under, we are denigrating ourselves and our discipline. So you are right to speak out against the ersatz-Mike Love.

  7. @Spawn
    I saw your comment only after I published the latest post on Bones are not enough. Scary. Re: your comment. I KNOW you're right about archaeologists being ashamed of what they think is unscientific. My contention is that it's only because they have a limited belief about how scientific knowledge is constructed, which is what I was unsuccessfully trying to convey to not-Mike Love.
    Thanks for your input. It's (like Frosted Flakes) GREAT!

  8. You're right about "it's only because they have a limited belief about how scientific knowledge is constructed". I was going to add that as mentors and educators, we have a responsibility to remedy this situation by teaching students/peers what science is, but the comment was getting pretty long as it was. Your essay "What is Archaeology, Really?" helped my thinking on these problems back in the day.

  9. @Spawn
    I'm happy that I could make it clear. Part of the reason was my chance to learn from Diane and Alison Wylie, and the doctoral requirements at Cal that included three bibliographic essays on three 'fields' that you wanted to claim partial or absolute expertise in. Alison will probably be next Thursday's Touchstone.


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