The media are very much in character this week, after publication of Eriksson and Manica's 'Effect of ancient population structure on the degree of polymorphism shared between modern human populations and ancient hominins' in PNAS and that of Leakey et al., in Nature, 'New fossils from Koobi Fora in northern Kenya confirm taxonomic diversity in early Homo.'
It's like a Bizarro world, or the curious story of Henny-Penny [A.K.A. Chicken Little]. The Sky is Falling! And it happens every time someone presumes to erect a new hominid taxon or publishes a contradictory interpretation of an extant archaeological or other dataset. The take-home message of the current headlines is something like
Holy Shit! We Didn't Breed with the Neanderthals After All! Or did we? How are we ever gonna know?
Fossil Hunters Change Their Interpretation of Human Evolution More Often Than I Change My Underwear! Maybe the Crazy Creationist Christian Supremacists are right, after all--there is no irrefutable evidence of evolution.And, as far as I'm concerned, at such times science is the unintended victim of its own success as much as it is of its own failure. But how did it get like this?
I'll be the first to admit that many before me have sputtered on about the media and the public's attitude toward science, especially so-called soft, or social, science [e.g. anthropology & archaeology]. The human palaeontologists manage to escape the worst of the criticisms, but they're not completely out of hot water, 'specially amongst those aforementioned Christianists.
If I may, I'd like to turn the whole problem on its head and give it a subversive spin. A long time ago I wrote a synthetic piece on archaeological science. Brave hearts can find it here. In brief, while no one was watching [least of all the 'hard' scientists] a revolution of sorts has taken place. As Alison Wylie* puts it
...archaeologists can and do use fragmentary data to achieve an understanding of the cultural past in a way that positivist, empiricist theories of science are entirely incapable of comprehending..
* Wylie, M. Alison. 1982. Positivism and the New Archaeology. PhD dissertation, History and Philosophy of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, State University of New York at Binghamton.
I'm fairly certain that I can't be as eloquent or as expansive as one needs to be when engaging in discussions of this sort. Be that as it may. A comment on the above has compelled me to try saying it a different [and far more brief] way than the above. Here goes nothing!
The point to be understood is that "pure" [or "hard"] science was never what it proclaimed itself to be, and that archaeologists and what many call "pure" scientists make knowledge using the same kind of reasoning, by reference to the empirical realm. Moreover, the empiricist "account" of Science was never a "realistic" description of how scientific knowledge is made. A narrow, Empiricist, view of science is, in very "real" terms, incapable of accounting for some of the greatest successes of Science over the centuries [e.g. no one's yet 'seen' gravity, but we know it exists; no one's seen the past, but we know it exists AND that we can make reasonable sense of it--the past does not exist in the empirical world--an idea that was (and still is) anathema to Empiricist accounts of science].
Hence, a 'realist' view of science, which recognizes that we don't make knowledge ONLY by Empiricist 'rules of engagement', and which says that we can create knowledge of the physical world even when we can't put our fingers on the 'sense data', or can't describe our inferences in an IF A, THEN B equation...a realist view of the creation of scientific knowledge is a far more accurate account of how science works than that of the Empiricists.
Ipso facto, forget the dichotomous (and divisive), and specious distinction between "pure" or "hard" science and what we so-called social scientists do. We're all in the same game, epistemologically speaking! And it really doesn't matter if no one else 'believes' what I'm parroting here--you can't change what is, you can only be hampered by what you think "IS" if it leads you to constrain yourself in irrational ways. That's where the New Archaeology fell over--its goals were 'realist' but its methods were 'empiricist' and it couldn't get past that untenable tug-of-war.