Saturday, 28 January 2012

If It Looks Like It and Smells Like It, There's No Need To Eat It Just To Make Sure

My sincere apologies for the scatological allusion in the title of this post. In the present circumstances, I'm referring to the consequences of going to the trouble of consuming a lump of rock merely to confirm its lithological reality, having first suspected its nature by looking at it, and then by smelling it. I'll state, categorically, that, in choosing this title, I'm NOT referring to the consequences of consuming the ideas about which I am on the precipice of writing. In fact, I'll gladly give you, gentle Reader, the task of deciding which meaning ought to be assigned to the title based on what you're about to read and read about. [D'ya think that'll get me off the 'slander' hook?]
     Moreover, I want to assure the Subversive Archaeologist's readers that I offer this piece as an examination of a classical pitfall of archaeological inference-making: that of 'begging the question,' or petitio principii, which Aristotle tells us is different from circular argument, and which in use here doesn't carry the meaning so often given to it in contemporary speech, in which begging the question is used to link an issue with a consequent question (e.g. The sky is blue, which begs the question, 'How on Earth did it get that way?').
The fallacy of petitio principii, or "begging the question", is committed "when a proposition which requires proof is assumed without proof", or more generally denotes when an assumption is used, "in some form of the very proposition to be proved, as a premise from which to deduce it". Thus, insofar as petitio principii refers to arguing for a conclusion that has already been assumed in the premise, this fallacy consists of "begging" the listener to accept the "question" (proposition) before the labor of logic is undertaken (from Wikipedia).
Forgive me for getting all 'philosophical' before turning to the 'meat' of this post. I'm trying to put what follows in context so as to be inclusive, despite the topical focus of the recently published article in question. Alas, I'll be dealing with, once again, the so-called Levallois technique. [A great virtual rumbling is heard as all of the specialists NOT specializing in the Middle Palaeolithic, lithic technology, or the origins of modern humans stampede from the virtual room.]
     Earlier this week came news of yet another questionable thesis published on PLoS ONE, the motto of which is: 'accelerating the publication of peer-reviewed science.' Methinks there might be a little too-much accelerating going on at PLoS ONE, as so very little in the way of rigorous vetting seems to be getting in the way of rapid publication. [And, just between you and me...I can see the need for some kind of 'rapid' publication outlet in those sciences in which rapidity can mean the difference either between the scientists becoming very rich on the back of a new medical discovery or hi-tech innovation, or losing the chance to cure one more sufferer of malady X. But Archaeology? You're kidding, right? Do these people think that they'll be scooped and thus screwed out of the opportunity to claim bragging rights in the ongoing reification of the Levallois technique?]
     So, hang in there friend, and watch as the Subversive Archaeologist attempts to subvert yet another effort to extend the life of the art form formerly known as the Levallois technique. 
     Not again! 
     I'm afraid so.
     Metin I. Eren and Stephen J. Lycett's 'Why Levallois? A Morphometric Comparison of Experimental ‘Preferential’ Levallois Flakes versus Debitage Flakes' takes us down a rabbit-hole to argue, in a novel fashion, for the veracity of the Levallois concept. If I hear them properly, their study aimed to investigate whether or not the so-called preferential Levallois flakes (PLFs) are indeed the desired end goal of the intensive (and for some  wasteful) activity that's the stock-in-trade of Neanderthals and contemporaneous skeletally modern hominids.
     Getting back to the proposition--that this is an example of begging the question. Remember that, as such, it's a logical fallacy, and thus not to be accepted by reasonable members of the audience. Eren and Lycett propose the following 
...if so-called ‘preferential’ Levallois flakes ... produced on classic ‘tortoise’ cores were genuinely a ‘preferred’ product with common properties uniting them as a coherent entity or ‘category’ of flake, then they should possess a series of particular attributes that identify them as a group more consistently than the debitage flakes produced during their manufacture.
[I won't quibble with their assertion that the final flake should look different than any that came before. That would be pedantic. Clearly there's a difference between the 'preparation' removals and the final removal. Otherwise, how would they have anything to investigate? And besides. This part of their argument is circular, and I wanted to talk about where they're begging the question!]
     So, assuming that the final flake removal is 'preferential' or 'predetermined,' and therefore evidence of its nature as distinct from the other flakes removed in the sequence leading up to the final removal, the authors then replicate a bunch of cores after the fashion of the Levallois technique, punch off a few PLFs, and compare them. Voila! Systematic differences exist! Therefore, the process is indeed one of 'engineering' the final flake by preparing the core for the final flake removal.
     Is it just me? Or, are these authors in fact committing a classic philosophical faux pas--that of assuming without proof a proposition which requires proof? They set out to replicate a bunch of things they think are PLFs and--Lo and behold!--they end up with a whole heap of them. Problem solved!
     'Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out o' my hat!'
     'Not again!'  
     Yep. Again. The authors have simply proven the existence of their own, reified, category--the Levallois technique. When will they learn? And when will PLoS ONE start seriously vetting their submissions? Rapid publication, indeed! More, to my thinking, vapid publication. 
     I'm done here.
     See you next time. Penny in a mug, remember. Thanks!!!!!

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