Tuesday 9 December 2014

Is It Science If It's "Just" Criticism?

I'm used to being upbraided for my often-disparaging treatment of archaeological and paleoanthropological inferences that I find unpersuasive [at best] or ludicrous [at worst].

So, this morning it was déjà vu all over again when noted scholar Pat Shipman took me and Scott Cleland to task in a comment thread on "Palaeoanthropologica," the Facebook page originated by Charles T. G. Clarke, which he co-moderates with Michael "Mick" Vernon. It lists 808 members—a great many of whom are academics well-known in our little discipline.

The catalyst for Pat's chastisement was Joordens et al.'s claims for pierced and decorated shell ornaments and tools—said to be about 500,000 years old—from Trinil, the type locality of Homo [Pithecanthropus] erectus, on the island of Java, in Indonesia. The authors have examined Eugene Dubois's collection of freshwater molluscs, gathered from the same depositional context as the original H. erectus discovery. One of the objects is shown below—an ancient specimen of the still-extant species of freshwater mussel, Pseudodon vondembuschianus trinilensis (Dubois 1908).

Putatively decorated Pseudodon shell, from Joordens et al.'s "Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving," Nature (2014) doi:10.1038/nature13962. Published online 03 December 2014. Scale bar in a and c is 1 cm; 1 mm in d.
I believe there are plenty of good reasons to doubt the conclusions that these authors have reached, including their dating of the sediments found within articulated bivalve specimens in the collection. But I'm not here to take on that task—at least not this minute.

Instead, I want to highlight Pat Shipman's assertions regarding the proper route that a scientist should take when what amounts to a failure of the peer-review system results in publication of claims based on patently equivocal evidence presented as faits accomplis.

Have a look at this comment thread at Palaeoanthropologica. Scott Cleland's contribution, in particular, is interesting, because he provides an illustration of naturally pierced bivalves from Korea, and questions the degree of effort of Joordens et al. in ruling out natural processes to explain their observations.

The bottom line, from my perspective—and this should be the bottom line for every serious archaeologist—is that when arguing about taphonomic processes all effort should be made to specify as wide a range of processes that are capable of producing the phenomenon observed, and even then to admit that it may never be possible to rule out natural processes. For that reason, these authors' conclusions, stated almost matter-of-factly, are at best provisional and at worst mythopoeic.

Pat Shipman spent a part of her career publishing on taphonomy. My so-called career was focussed on the taphonomy of Middle Paleolithic purposeful burial, and archaeological site formation processes in general. However, along with the rank and file of paleoanthropology, Pat doesn't see my scholarly contributions as inherently scientific—to say nothing of my efforts here at The Subversive Archaeologist, which I'm almost certain is the target of her reference to "a snide critical paper" in this snippet from one of her back-and-forths with Scott. According to Pat,
[Y]ou DO NOT publish a snide critical paper but instead politely approach [those you would criticize] with your data and invite them to co-author a paper with you discussing the implications of your finding. THAT [is] doing science. It is oh-so-easy to criticize someone elses' work and much more difficult to improve on it and contribute to science.
Perhaps Pat Shipman is right in saying this. I happen to disagree. For various reasons, all of which I've laid out explicitly in these pages over the past 38 months. But just for the record, here is a short list of reasons why "doing science" the Pat Shipman way is a non-starter.

1. Even if one is a tenured academic, there is scant likelihood of finding other scholars amenable to having their earth-shattering conclusions questioned, much less who'd be happy to work together with to undermine the conclusions that garnered them so much praise and attention.
2. Even if one is a tenured academic, there is no perceived value in criticizing the work of others, especially if the background research is unfundable—often the case, just ask Gary Haynes—or if access to the material in question is restricted, or if the conventional wisdom is so heavily against what you have to say that no one would publish it anyway.
3. It's an insidious and anti-intellectual mistake to assert that criticism—by itself—is unscientific, or that it must be accompanied by research that would either help to achieve a better understanding of—or, once and for all—eliminate any ambiguity in explaining the origin of a given phenomenon or nature of a past process. Pat Shipman isn't alone in believing this. This assertion has been my constant companion for going on thirty years, and I just didn't have the intestinal fortitude to withstand it.
4. For those of us who, for whatever reason, work outside the academy, all the bets are off. The currency of academia is fundable research—the greater the funding, the greater the prestige attached to the enterprise. Whether in or out of the academy, research is expensive in both time and treasure. If you're not reporting on the oldest or the best or the biggest in our discipline, you're nowhere. And if you're on the outside, forgeddaboudit.
5. Our discipline cries out for a critical tradition, not just because we're all, presumably, trying to get ever closer to an accurate understanding of the past, but because—from Piltdown to purposeful MP burial—the public deserves better than to pay for research that results in loosely argued, and evidently fantastic, claims for bipedal ape behaviour.

In these pages I've presented hundreds of reasons as to why widely accepted knowledge claims are based on, at best, equivocal evidence. That they haven't been published in reputable scientific outlets has one, simple, explanation—nobody in a position of power wants to hear them.

One of Pat Shipman's early co-authors was Erik Trinkaus. She, of all people, should know that her expectation of a warm and fuzzy collegiality is a pipe-dream. All I ever did to Trinkaus was to take apart his precious criticism of my argument, which I did in a perfectly civil manner, in a refereed publication. For that, I was refused a hand-shake and shown his back when an opportunity arose to meet him in person. Such acts are reprehensible, and in the life of a young academic are crystalline moments that presage only worse in years to come. And the messages that I've received from countless others in senior academic positions have been consistent, and consistently disheartening.

Some of my friends and colleagues think that it's weak of me to speak of such matters—that I should 'suck it up' and 'fight on,' regardless.

All I can say is that it's lonely out here. And a chilly climate that awaits those who would be critics in our discipline.

As many of you know, I am no longer an academic. In 1994 I earned a PhD at the University of California, and I had only a very brief career as a Lecturer in Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology at the University of New England, in Armidale New South Wales, Australia, from mid 1996 through mid 1999. Since that time I had an artificially  truncated career in cultural resources management, and languished in low-level administrative positions.

Since I began The Subversive Archaeologist in 2011, at Iain Davidson's urging, I've experienced the highs of knowing that my message is reaching many more than would ever have been the case if I'd remained in the academy, and the equivalent lows of knowing that the vested interests are still unwilling or unable to abide criticism—whether couched in scholarly language, or shot from the lip.

I very much appreciate the support that I've received from the online community—my Google+ circle-mates, Facebook friends, Twitterites and Academia.edu followers. All up I reckon there have been about 500 who, at one time or another saw fit to tag along. Thanks to all of you! I hope it's been worth it.


  1. Where could I find your reasons to doubt the authors' conclusions?

    Right now I'm just going on gut instinct that labeling a zigzag intentional art is a bit... untenable.

    1. Hi, Katy. I managed to keep the bile in my belly long enough to say a couple of things on the same Facebook thread that I linked in this blurt. I'm off to TAG 2014 in Manchester today, so a more detailed remonstrance of Joordens et al. will have to wait. Thanks for stopping by! Happy Holidays!

  2. You are not alone Rob. When the "shell as H. erectus art' report first came ojut, it was only minutes before I tweeted about it and my skepticism, but it was soon awash in hype from the mainstream media, semi-scholarly publications, and palaeoanthros on socia media. Keep up the good fight. I like social media but do get frustrated with the very quick uncritical acceptance of all things palaeo.

    1. Thanks, Bob. As I mentioned in my reply to Katy Magee, I've specified a couple of gaffes in the Facebook comment thread that I linked to in this blurt. More will have to wait. Happy Holidays!


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