The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, February 28, 2011

My Life With the Datura Kill Cult

One of the weird side-effects of studying archaeology is that you soon find that some of your friends think of you as nature's drug dealer. For example, about a month before I finished my Masters degree, a friend of mine approached me and asked if I could identify Jimson Weed (aka Datura stramonium), a highly-toxic plant that , under very, very specific preparation and conditions can produce very strange hallucinations, but outside of those very, very specific conditions will kill you. He had been reading (naturally in culture-porn filled New-Age sources) about North American shamanic practices, and specifically about the use of hallucinogens in these practices, and decided that he wanted to have the experience. I told him about the dangers of the plant, and he claimed that these were over-blown by the DEA in order to discourage use (no, no they're not), even claiming to know someone who had used it and not died. I then pointed out that, even if the Jimson Weed didn't kill him, he was talking about recreating a state that, within it's normal religious context, was watched over by practiced people who had a pretty good idea of how to wrangle the person who had taken the drug in order to prevent them from harming themselves, and he was talking about doing it on his own without any real understanding of what effect it would have on his mind. He declared that he was experienced enough with "altered states of consciousness" that he would be fine.

Unless you were raised and trained by Shamans from a group that uses the plant in its ceremonies, the odds of you poisoning yourself while using it are pretty damn high, and there's a decent chance you'll kill your damn fool self. This isn't marijuana. Hell, it's not even crack. This is fucking datura. People historically have made animal poisons out of this plant for a reason! I would not have shown him the plant to begin with, but as the conversation went on and it became increasingly clear that he wasn't willing to accept just how dangerous the plant really is, nor how it might affect him, I informed him that I would not show him the plant not simply for basic legal reasons, but also because I didn't trust him to be safe and therefore would consider it a moral failing on my part to help him find it.

Given that there was a patch of it growing a five minute walk from his front door, I was particularly averse to showing him how to identify it.

Naturally, if these people are going to ask archaeologists about these plants, they will also ask Native Americans. One of my friends, who is a member of a local Native American tribal organization, tells me of a guy she knows, one of the "I would rather use crystals than chemotherapy should I contract cancer, which I won't because cancer is caused by bad vibes which I don't have because I shop at Whole Foods" sorts of people. He had informed her that he wanted to have a vision quest, and to that end he wanted her to supply him with peyote. Naturally, she refused.

Again, we have somebody without any real knowledge of what he is getting himself into asking someone who knows better to supply him with a dangerous plant. In this case, it is made even more absurd by the fact that the guy, who, like me, is as white as a lily, going to somebody who is from a group that he has some really weird misconceptions about in order to get something that he doesn't know how to use in order to experience a ritual from a culture that he knows next to nothing about. Hell, if he'd known anything about the culture, he would have asked for Jimson Weed instead of peyote - he was talking with a Native Californian and not New Mexican, after all.

Most of the folks I know, when asked to show someone one of these plants for their own use, rolls their eyes and tells the person what they can go do with themselves. But I wonder how often someone, whether out of a misplaced desire to be friendly or out of a sense of morbid curiosity, tells the wanna-be shaman how to identify the plants in question. And I wonder how many of the yearly plant deaths are due to this. Probably very few, but I am still curious.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ethics, Bone, and Native Consultation

I recently was on a site where we found fragments of bone. It was not clear in the field whether they belonged to a human or an animal, and our permits prohibited collection of materials from the site, so I couldn't take them back to the lab for identification. The easiest thing to do would be to take detailed photos of the fragments and to compare those photos to materials that we had at the lab to make a determination. There was a potential problem, though. Many Native American groups and individuals frown on having human remains photographed, and I didn't know how our Native American monitor (or one of my crew members who was Native American) would feel about having the bone photographed. So, I requested permission, which was granted, and I took the photos.

Some of my fellow archaeologists and many of my fellow science-lovers will be upset that I asked permission rather than simply taking the photos. When I have discussed this sort of thing with people in the past, I typically get a "but you were giving in to mysticism! You weren't practicing SCIENCE!" reaction, followed by half-wit accusations of everything from "intellectual dishonesty" to "moral relativism".

Here's the deal. I spend a fair amount of time working with Native Americans. Most of the time this work is rewarding, sometimes it is frustrating. One thing that has occurred through these interactions is that I have learned to respect the individuals with whom I am working, regardless of the different places we may occupy in relation to archaeological sites. This is important for two reasons - the first is that, regardless of the rhetoric that often surrounds these issues, the research done by archaeologists can and does have a very real impact on the lives of the descendants of the people whom we study. This is so because the laws governing how government agencies manage and/or avoid resources important to native peoples are based in large part on what is known about them through the anthropological disciplines, including archaeology and ethnography. In fact, the principle criterion under which archaeological sites are protected under federal law states that they may be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places if they can be shown to possess the potential to yield data important to the study of prehistory or history, which places the fate of these sites in the purview of archaeologists. This being the case, those of us who work with these regulations have to choose to either ignore the Native Americans who may have a legitimate stake in the fate of these sites, or to consider them when we work with these sites in order to find out if we can translate their concerns into something that the regulations can understand*. I believe that we have an ethical duty to do the latter.

The second reason is more pragmatic. We are required to work with Native Americans. We can choose to try to work with them, we can choose to work against them, or we can choose to capitulate. If we capitulate, abandon our own views and positions, then we give up being archaeologists and become nonentities, losing the respect of those we work with, including the Native Americans. If we work against them then we create unnecessary friction, we will make our own lives miserable, and likely create situations where nobody will wish to work with us. If we work with them, then we can find ways to achieve our goals while not alienating the Native Americans with whom we work. This was a perfect case - we had to determine if the bone was human, and had I simply started snapping photos, I would likely have alienated the monitor who was with me. By asking first, I assured that I wouldn't alienate her, and I signaled that I was willing to work out another solution if that one had been unacceptable. The majority of the time, if you ask first, you will get permission, and if you don't the person with whom you are working will work with you to find a solution that gets the information that you need but with which they feel comfortable.

There is one last reason why I asked before I took photographs. I'm not a dick. In the end, whether or not I feel that there is anything morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong with taking photos of bone, I do think that there is something wrong with unnecessarily upsetting somebody. It doesn't matter whether or not I agree or even understand why taking pictures of human remains (or digging up burials, or mapping rock art, etc.) will upset somebody, what matters is that it does upset them and they have a legitimate stake in how these materials are treated. If I am to be a decent human being, then I need to consider that when I take my actions. I may still have to sometimes do things that they will not like, but there is no reason to do so unnecessarily when simply showing some basic respect will ease their mind.

In the end, once the data is gathered, I will process it in accordance with my training and background. I will produce an archaeological report where the information gathered is put into a context that fits with what science has uncovered about the human past. I often hear people talk about Native American groups as being akin to Christian Young Earth Creationists, but this comparison is both facile and false. Unlike the creationists, most Native Americans don't try to tell archaeologists to hide or falsify data, they don't accuse the archaeologists of being in league with demons and out to corrupt humanity. They generally don't try to force school boards to adopt pseudo-scientific curricula in order to further their own agenda. My experience has been that most of them don't even object to the conclusions that archaeologists reach (though there are some very vocal exceptions). Generally, they simply want to be consulted, to be part of the process, and to be listened to.

Really, it's not much to ask for.

*We are often, perhaps typically, unsuccessful, but I still feel that it is important to try.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Last Neandertal

Ever since I first seriously studied Neandertals (yes, that's the correct spelling) as an undergrad, I have had this rather sad, poignant image in my head:

It's somewhere between 24,000 and 30,000 years ago. It's night time. There's a young man sitting alone by a small camp fire fire. I always imagine him as young but an adult because someone who is old enough to have learned survival skills and yet young enough to be able to fight off disease and starvation is the one who is likely to have survived. I imagine him as male because I am male, and therefore have an easier time putting myself in his position if he is as well. He is the last Neandertal on Earth.

His band is gone, except for him. This band may have included his parents and siblings, and likely included his mate (assuming, and it is an assumption, that they were given to monogamy) and children. He's the last one, though. The others may have died in a violent conflict with the other creatures, the tall and thin ones with the high foreheads who are the ancestors of you and me, or they may have died of starvation due to a changing climate, or they may have simply been pushed away from their normal food sources by the other creatures. It doesn't matter now, because they are gone and only our young man remains, and he is starving to death.

He sits by his fire not knowing that he is the last of his species. Bands as small as his was are fluid, members come and go, and maybe he expects that he will find more of his kind and life will go on, should he survive.

Is this pondering likely to have been true? Of course not. The last Neandertal is just as likely to have been female as male, may have been a child or may have been elderly. They may have met a violent fate at the hands of an anatomically modern human (our species) or a wild animal. There is some evidence to suggest that Neandertals could have interbred with anatomically modern humans and therefore there may not have been a last Neandertal, but rather an elimination of the species as their genes were spread within (or phased out of) the Homo Sapien sapien gene pool.

Stories like this one about the last Neandertal occupy a weird place in archaeology. On the one hand, there is rarely data to support them, and therefore they are on shaky ground from the start. They often create images in our minds that can interfere with our ability to judge data more clearly. At the same time, these sorts of stories are often what keep us interested in our work and prevent us from making the mistake of thinking of past people as little more than statistics.

The Neandertal vanished somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago. We don't know what their last days were actually like, whether they vanished slowly, were victims of violence, or simply integrated into the anatomically modern human population. The last unequivocal evidence we have for them is from southern Spain, and it dates to approximately 25,000 years ago. In the same cave that holds this evidence, there is cave painting associated with anatomically modern humans that dates to approximately 20,000 years ago. Whether we pushed them out or they simply faded away, we ultimately took their niche.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bottomless Lake

So, I have returned from the field, but spent the weekend helping Kaylia get to and from a conference, so I didn't have a chance to write anything. So, here's something a mite bit different - an urban legend from the area where I was working:

Lake Una, located south of the City of Palmdale and immediately east of the reservoir Lake Palmdale, is a small lake or pond. Although the presence of such a body of water is remarkable within the arid desert environment, it appears otherwise uninteresting on first seeing it's placid water and rather typical local vegetation.

But, of course, it has it's stories. It is said that people approaching the lake at night have encountered a dark figure in clothing that appeared to be a fisherman's, telling them in slurred speech to leave the area. People have also reported seeing dark figures climbing into the trees and vanishing at night.

In addition to these ghostly phenomenon, some locals tell of a strange creature - never described - that sometimes emerges from the lake to devour whatever animals it can lay hand (um...teeth?) on. The lake is reputed to be bottomless, and it has been claimed that at least one diver has vanished while looking for the bottom, and that bodies of murder victims have been dumped in the lake never to be seen again. One story even holds that a school buss once ran off of the Sierra Highway (immediately adjacent to the lake) and neither it nor the driver or children in it were ever found.

Do I believe any of this? Of course not, but it's a fun story, and I try to collect these sorts of things when I travel, and this was a good one.

Should you wish to enter the property, it is fenced off and private security has been known to patrol the area. So, this is one that is best viewed from afar.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Love Stones and Slang

It is my impression that every profession, or at least each type of profession, has a certain type of slang that goes with it. This slang can tell you something about the individuals in the profession, or about the leaders (perceived or real) of that profession.

For example, when I worked in the tech industry one would typically hear terms such as "paradigm" horribly mis-used (I once heard somebody talk about information being "stored in a paradigm of databases"), post-project meetings were described as "post-mortems", and we would often hear about how "pro-active" employees "own their jobs." The reason for some of this seemed clear: this was a field where intelligence was prized as was the ability to speak concisely and it was a field where one wanted, quite frankly, to look cool*. Using terms such as "paradigm" seemed to show intelligence, while talking about how someone "owned their job" was seen as wrapping a large, complex concept into a few words. Of course, most people mis-used the "smart terms", the "concision" words usually became essentially empty and meaningless buzz words, and the one's intended to sound cool...well, I always had a hard time taking anyone who used them seriously at all.

Importantly, nobody ever taught you these terms, you learned them by being in the business culture and by seeing how they were used.

When I entered professional archaeology, I learned a new set of terms, and like the ones from business, these reflected the culture of my new profession. Now, understand one thing, I am not discussing professional jargon here, where terms are developed to label specific things or phenomena and have specific technical meanings. I am talking about terms that you won't read in journals, or hear in professional presentations, but which every archaeologist knows before they've gotten too far along. As noted, they tend to reflect how archaeologists, especially field archaeologist, view themselves, and as such they tend to be goofy and crude in measure, and always a bit earthy.

One of the best known of these (and a rare one that you might actually see in a published paper) is krotovina. A krotovina is a rodent burrow that has been filled in with soil from above. "Why not just say 'filled-in rodent burrow'?" you ask, and, in truth, I have no idea why not. Actually, in my reports, I do write "rodent burrow", but krotovina shows up frequently in the archaeological literature. What is the origin of this one? Well, it comes from soil science where it is more of a technical term. I have been told that it comes from two Russian words meaning "rodent" (kroto) and "mine" (vina), though every source I have been able to find indicates that it actually translates into "molehill." I think that archaeologists use it because we can't resist grabbing and bastardizing terms from other fields of study. It's an affliction...we can't help ourselves.

Another term that I rather like is "love stone", which means "a fucking rock" (also called A.F.R. for "another fucking rock"**). You usually hear this term come up in two contexts, the first (and most common) is when someone hands a rock to an archaeologist and asks "what is this?" The answer: "It's a love stone." Which usually inspires the asker, now intrigued, to ask what, exactly, a love stone is, and they are answered with "a fucking rock!" The other occurs when two or more archaeologists are working in the field, and one takes a closer look at something only to dismiss it, announcing to the others that it's "just a love stone."

Artifacts, as well as non-artifacts, come in for abuse too. There is a type of crude ceramic found in the Great Basin and parts of eastern California which is usually referred to in the field as "shitware." And this refers to a specific subset of pottery - if someone in the field or lab tells you that they have found "shitware", then you know exactly what they are looking at.

I could spend volumes providing other examples, but I think these suffice. I am just fascinated by the contrast between the nature of archaeology slang vs. business slang.

*Bear in mind when reading this that I was on the business side of the tech industry. The technical side was a different story altogether, and I have to say that I think the engineers had a hell of a lot more fun than us "suits" did.

**Which is a play on words of sorts. A common artifact type is F.A.R. or "fire affected rock" which is found in hearths and sub-surface ovens.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Is CRM Archaeology?

So, as you know if you have followed this blog for long, I work in the environmental review industry, doing what is called Cultural Resources Management (AKA CRM, AKA Heritage Management, AKA contract archaeology). While we all refer to ourselves as archaeologists, and are usually referred to by everyone else as archaeologists, I occasionally meet another person working in CRM who will insist that CRM is not archaeology and we are, by extension, not archaeologists*.

The basic argument** given in support of this position is that the aim of CRM is to manage resources - that is, to ensure that archaeological sites are treated appropriately under the relevant regulations - rather than produce new information based on the study of the archaeological record, which is unambiguously archaeology. The person to holds to this position might point out that a medical doctor makes use of methods and information from biology to manage health care, but doctors are not themselves biologists.

The argument has merit. I don't agree with it, but I can certainly understand it. The aims of CRM ar certainly different from the aims of academic archaeology, and this does mean that we serve different functions.

But, as I said, I don't agree that CRM is not archaeology. Rather, I would argue that CRM is an increasingly important part of archaeology.

For one thing, by and large, CRM archaeologists are trained alongside academic archaeologists***, learning the same methods for both research and fieldwork and this training influences our approach to both fieldwork and management of sites (most archaeological sites are protected under Criterion D for the National Register of Historic Places, which requires that their potential to yield information to researchers by assessed). There are CRM folks who lose touch with this background, and my experience is that they are not only poor archaeologists, but equally poor resource managers, as our rason d'etre stems from the research background.

In addition, we don't simply manage sites, we also generate new data that can be directly applied to (or generate new) research questions. Now, this data is often not distributed effectively (we generate reports that are usually stored in a manner that makes them difficult to access), but when it is used by researchers, it can fill in gaps in knowledge as well as provide the necessary exploratory information to come up with new hypotheses to test. To go back to the analogy with the medical doctor, unless they are engaged in medical research (which is arguably a branch of biology) they are not usually producing new data that can be used by researchers. In this sense, CRM archaeologists are more than simply technicians generating just the necessary information for management, we also contribute to the overall knowledge base of archaeology, in fact we contribute more to it than academic archaeologists. the problem of distributing this information must be addressed, but this part of our roles should not be ignored.

One final point - although we are not generally required by our jobs to generate either published papers or presentations at professional conferences, many of us do. This method of contributing to the archaeological discourse is very much a part of CRM as well as academic archaeology.

So, yes, CRM is archaeology (as well as history and often ethnography). While I understand the desire to mark us out as separate, I think that it is ultimately misguided, and primarily serves to remove our contributions from discussions.

*I have a group of friends who go a step further and have declared me an "unarchaeologist" because I work for people who want me to not find things. Not entirely true, but funny enough that I have repeated it on more than a few occasions.

**This is not to be confused with the arguments against CRM being considered "proper" archaeology by those within academia, as I have found that this arguments are typically based on an ignorance of what CRM actually is, rather than a fair criticism of CRM.

***Though there are an increasing number of programs which train only CRM personnel without getting into the research methods of academic archaeologists.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Where are the Republican Scientists?

A recent article in Slate describes the relative dearth of Republicans and relative abundance of Democrats amongst scientists within the United States. The basic thrust of the article is that this has resulted in scientific data being skewed in favor "Democrat issues" and Republicans being accused of scientific illiteracy when they express healthy skepticism.

The criticism that the political leanings of scientists may color their interpretations of data is a valid and important one. It is worth asking why there are relatively few Republicans working in science, as that question will tell us some important things about both politics and the place of science within society (and I am not pretending to know that the results of such an investigation would be) However, this article is an example of what happens when a writer attempts to tackle an issue without any understanding or comprehension of the issue's history. Just as one can not ignore the real, but often over-stated, role of the 60s radicals in shaping university life, one should also not ignore the history of the Republican party in figuring out the political life of academics.

Okay, first off, the author reports that only 6% of scientists polled are Republican, while 55% are Democrats. A big disparity, to be certain. However, there is no indication in the article as to whether or not this is a new thing. My own experience with older scientists is that, as the age goes up, there is more of a political mix, and the balance of Republican/Democrat/Neither tends to balance out - again, though, this is based on my experience and not on hard numbers, so take it with a grain of salt. What's more, when I speak with these folks, it is often brought up that many who are not Republicans currently were members of that party at an earlier point in their lives and careers. This is, of course, anecdotal, but it does suggest that the matter may be more complicated than some sort of left-wing grab for science, as the author of the article seems to imply. It suggests that maybe something has happened to the political parties that has led to a shift in the political affiliations of scientists, rather than the scientists themselves being a bunch of ideological liberals.

First off, let's get at a false dichotomy and some false labeling in which the author of the article is engaged. The author seems to believe that if someone is registered as a Democrat, that they are ideologically liberal, and that someone being registered as a Republican makes them ideologically conservative. This is not necessarily the case. The terms "liberal" and "conservative" have become synonymous in our current political discourse with "Democrat" and "Republican" despite the fact that the positions staked out by the party often have little to do with either a liberal or conservative philosophy and much to do with securing votes from particular sectors of society.

If one actually brushes aside the rhetoric and looks at the parties themselves, there are certainly differences, but the differences are not of the "hard right wing vs. hard left wing" variety, but rather are differences of rhetoric (usually overblown on both sides) and practical approach to problems (and this is fluid, the "socialist Obamacare Plan" is actually nearly identical to a health care plan offered by Republicans under Newt Gingrich) - most people identify with the more fiery rhetoric of their party with little attention to what the party actually does. Contrary to the frequent claims that the Democrats are "lefty loonie socialists" the reality is that most of the positions held by the modern Democratic Party would be considered conservative by the standards of most nations on the planet. While the Republican party has, in recent years, been drifting more and more to a "Christian conservative" party, it has largely been a moderate right party as compared with the conservative parties in most other countries.

Also, as the podcaster Bruce Carlson often points out, the platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties, and their constituents, haven't changed all that much in the last century (until the last few decades, more on that below), and yet they have gone back and forth as to which is considered conservative and which is considered liberal. So, I would argue that the conservative/liberal labels are largely meaningless when applied to the two major political parties.

This is relevant because I have known many scientists who are politically conservative. Most of them don't adhere to what is typically called "social conservative" ideologies (these are often, though not always, based on tradition rather than clear evaluation of evidence, and scientists by nature tend not to go for that), but many are economically conservative, or may see value in gradual rather than drastic social change (making them social conservatives by policy for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons). But none of the scientists that I know who meet this description are Republicans. Some are Libertarians, some belong to even smaller parties, some are even registered as Democrats (further eroding the Democrat/Liberal vs. Republican/Conservative notion), and some eschew political parties altogether. When I have spoken with them about why they aren't Republicans, I tend to hear the same thing - they are uncomfortable in the Republican party because of it's insistence in recent years on ideological adherence, the notion that one can not be a good Republican if one is not also a Christian, if one does not believe in an unregulated market, and so on. I have even spoken with many former Republicans who still believe in much of the party's platform (and, let's face it, there are some good ideas in there), but who have felt alienated by the way that the party has been developing over the last 15 to 20 years.

What has alienated scientists further, as well as professionals in the humanities, is the increasing identification between the Republican Party and the Religious Right. This began in the 60s, but could have switched sides in the 70s with Jimmy Carter (an openly Evangelical Christian) in office - if only it hadn't been for some issues that Oral Robert had with the I.R.S. - and began to accelerate in the 80s, with Reagan openly mouthing many of the Religious Right's views on science (making counter-scientific statements about evolution and environmental science, for example). And the increased compression of the Republican Party and the Religious Right has continued to the point that, as you may recall, during the previous presidential primaries it was asked in the Republican debates if the candidates were willing to deny evolution, a basic scientific principle.

A further issue for many scientists comes from one of the factors that makes the Republican party an effective political party: it's relative ideological adherence (in other words, were the Democrats more competent, they might be pushing away scientists). Now, don't misunderstand me, there are many Republicans who disagree with the party line on many issues (hell, nearly a third accept global warming), but the Republican party has been better than the Democrats at pushing a narrative and getting their membership to buy into it. Many people who disagree with the party's positions will stay with the party out of a desire to change it from within, or a desire to be part of a party even if the disagree with some of its points, or out of personal inertia or family tradition. Scientists, by the nature of people who become scientists, tend generally to not to fit these categories. They tend to be the sorts of people who question ideas and assumptions, and go where the data leads, because of they weren't they'd not have become scientists. The Republican party of old could easily accommodate such people, and the Democratic party does today (which, ironically, is one of the reasons that the Democrats have such a hard time doing targeted messages and winning elections). This increasing push for adherence (to the point that it is not uncommon to hear the official and de-facto Spokesmen for the Republican party demand that elected officials adhere to party positions on issue regardless of the data) alienates the sorts of people who are drawn to science.

The simple fact of the matter is that while there are few specifically Republican scientists, it is not all that uncommon to find scientists who do hold to the stated conservative ideals of smaller government, less intervention in peoples lives, and individual responsibility. It is probably true, because of the history of academics in the latter half of the 20th Century, that many academics are more likely to be truly left-leaning - though my own experience indicates that this is far more common in the humanities than in the sciences. But it is also true that saying "hmmm, few scientists are Republicans, therefore it must be the scientists, and not the political party, that is biased" makes little sense. It is worth noting that the author of the article never addresses actual scientific controversy, except in the most oblique way possible, and never addresses data. He focuses solely on the stated political affiliations of scientists in a poll, and hell, he doesn't even state anything about the methodology or margin of error in the poll! If one looks at the history of the Republican party over the last 30 years, it seems less likely that there has been a vast left-wing conspiracy to take over science than there has been a tendency for this political party to abandon scientists who would once have fit in.

Hell, it is telling that the Republican Party went from an organization that once respected science and scientists to one where prominent members in elected office can publicly call for the use of criminal prosecution in an attempt to bully scientists into silence. I have heard many attempts to justify this, but all of them fail when you actually examine the case. This was a simple case of someone in power trying to silence someone who doesn't fall into line.

The question isn't "why aren't more scientists Republicans?", but rather "why is the Republican party alienating scientists?"

The author of the article is right about one thing - there are political consequences to the perception of liberal bias in the sciences. He is wrong about something else, though - an increased awareness of scientific methods and principles amongst the general public would benefit the public, as people on the political right and left, Democrats and Republicans, would be better equipped to see when someone with an agenda is trying to pull the wool over their eyes, and would probably result in the Republican Party becoming a better party. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to get people who would deny science to support education in science.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Traveling Again

So, after two weeks away from home for the first time since I moved to Fresno, I am now headed home. I last traveled for work back in October, and had become so accustomed to being away from home that, while I didn't sleep well (I never sleep well in hotels), I didn't sleep terribly either, and I developed routines to help me keep my sanity while away from home.

Now, I'm sleeping terribly again, and my routines are gone, so it's been an interesting couple of weeks. Still, I got to see some cool sites (including a 19th century train tunnel headed through a mountain, and a Native Californian campsite on top of a mesa), and meet some interesting people (my favorite being an 88 year-old man who had come from Mexico in his youth and done quite well for himself here, the guy was both charming and hilarious). And I have wandered through the desert, explored canyons, and climbed mountains. So, it was good to be in the field again after an absence.

I'll provide a lengthier entry later this week - I was busy this evening and couldn't write more - but as tired as I am, it is still good to be paid to head outdoors.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tactless Tactics

One of the more frustrating aspects of working in environmental consulting is watching your work become a part of the political football game that surrounds many major projects. For example, several years back, I worked on a transmission line project in California's San Joaquin Valley.

The purpose of the project was to upgrade the existing electrical grid to account for population growth (and hence increased power construction) in the county. There were several potential routes, and the environmental crews were performing review activities to determine which route was the most environmentally feasible. As I performed the archaeological surveys for the project, I routinely encountered land owners (including home owners, farmers, and ranchers) who made it clear that they felt the project was necessary and even a boon to the community, but who routinely informed me that they would fight tooth and nail to make sure that the project crossed somebody else's land.

The fighting involved professional attacks against my work. A group of land owners denied access to my crew, preventing us from surveying these locations for archaeological sites. So, with no other recourse, we used a combination of older archaeological reports and records, historic photos and maps, and current topographic maps, as well as observations made from public roads, to gain a rough idea of the likelihood of finding archaeological sites in these areas. The report that was finally produced stated clearly that the estimate was rough, and that it was no substitute for a careful archaeological survey, and that such a survey must be performed before anything could be built.

Well, the landowners who had denied us access got hold of a copy of the report, saw this, and then contacted members of the local Native American tribal organization and the head of the local historical society, claiming that the project crossed through a known native village site (not true, the village site was several miles to the north of the proposed project area) and that my crew and I didn't perform any analysis of the area in question and claimed that a "windshield survey" (where you drive through the area and look at stuff from the road, which we did admittedly do as a part of the larger analysis) was sufficient (which we very definitely did not claim, the exact opposite was stated in the report, in fact). A letter containing these, well...let's call them dubious statements*, was sent to the tribal organization and the historical society, who then complained to the state agency in charge of licensing the project. The next thing I know, the agency's environmental office is demanding an explanation for my alleged malfeasance, which is odd as had they bothered to actually read the document in question (and which was sent to them before it was sent to anyone else) they would have found that the claims being made about the report were completely untrue.

Luckily, my boss knew the historian, so I was able to call her. Once I had her on the phone, we had a very strange conversation in which she started by telling me how terrible a job I had done and how poor my professional ethics were, but as I walked her through the report and the information contained therein (and pointed out the page numbers where it was shown that we were unable to perform a pedestrian survey because the very same landowners who had gotten her worked up had denied our crew access to the land), she began to change her views and take my side. When all was said and done, she asked for a few changes to make it clear that any route selected would be subject to pedestrian survey (which was already stated clearly and prominently multiple times in the report, but I was willing to play politics enough to include it yet one more time), but was otherwise satisfied that we had done the best that we could, and that there may be more to the situation than she had been led to believe.

The weird irony is that the other possible routes were riddled with archaeological sites and weird biology issues. The route where the landowners had denied us access was an unknown, but our preliminary analysis indicated that it was likely to be the worst of the all possible routes. The problem is that, lacking data, there is a possibility that the powers that be at the utilities company might eventually decide to take a gamble on the route for which little is known rather than sink money into mitigation for the other routes, and the stunt with the lying about the studies hurt the credibility of the opponents of the route. The effects of the attempt to prevent construction of the route by denying access and lying about the contents of the report are still unknown, but there is a possibility that it may result in these people losing land in an eminent domain grab and essentially backfire. Time will tell.

*A polite way of saying "slanderous bullshit told by liars with no sense of morality and a desire to get their way even if it means screwing other people over." Not that I have an opinion, or anything.

Friday, February 4, 2011

How Not to Object to Archaeologists

When I was in graduate school, I was treated to numerous tirades about how archaeology was "simply a continuation of colonialism" and "the Chumash* don't want archaeologists working here!" I heard these tirades not from one of the Native Californians with whom I was routinely working by that point, but from one of the ethnography grad students, herself from Hawaii and not California. There were a number of weird ironies involved in these sessions, all due to the identity of the person trying to tell us archaeologists off - she had (by her own admission) not bothered to actually ask any Chumash people what they felt about archaeologists, and she was a Mormon.

Okay, the last point, her religion, first. Whether you agree, disagree, or are indifferent towards the Mormon church, the fact remains that missionary activities are one of the clear remnants of pre-20th century European colonialism, and the Mormon church is dedicated to such missionary activities. So, the fact that she felt inclined to lecture us about our "colonial attitudes" while maintaining membership in a group which was unquestionably engaged in clear colonial activities often left me feeling as if I was a kettle being ranted at by a pot.

As to the matter of how the Chumash (and anyone else whose ancestors we dirty archaeologists were studying) felt, her rationale seemed to be that she was speaking for those whose voices could not be heard, which sounds noble until you consider that there were several Chumash organizations which had varying degrees of social and political influence within the community (all of them louder and more influential than the voice of a graduate student), so she wasn't actually giving them a voice, they already had a voice louder than hers.

On occasion, the matter would be framed differently, and she would point out that archaeologists were studying the pasts of people whose descendants would have to live with the consequences of the archaeologists' findings. The point got overstated somewhat, but it is essentially valid, and is something that archaeologists need to be aware of and need to consider as part of our professional ethics. However, I only ever saw her point this out regarding archaeologists, when ethnographers, such as herself, face a similar issue. So, again, pot, kettle, you get it. However, perhaps I am being unfair here - I wasn't in the ethnography seminar classes, and maybe she brought it up there. Also, again, the whole Mormon thing...when you are a member of a group that makes shit up about other people's pasts and then you lecture archaeologists about their "stealing" of other people's pasts, well, you just lack credibility.

And then there's the matter of not actually bothering to ask any Chumash people about their opinions of archaeologists before speaking for them. Talk about hubris. Now, to be certain, there are Chumash people who dislike archaeologists because of past (and some ongoing) wrongdoings on the part of research archaeologists and a small number of corrupt CRM archaeologists. Their objections to us tend to be more specific and detailed than the grad student seemed to grasp, but there are those who dislike us. There are those who dislike specific archaeologists, but have no problem with the rest of us. There are those who dislike research archaeologists (which they view of meddlesome or demeaning) but like CRM archaeologists because we tend to focus on protecting sites, only doing large-scale excavation when a site is likely to be destroyed. There are also those who actually like us, and who have themselves gotten involved in archaeology. Then, of course, there are many who are indifferent to archaeologists. The point is that the Chumash are a large group, and as with any large group they are not a monolithic whole, but many individuals with many different opinions.

The reason that I bring this mess from graduate school up is because, while this grad student seemed to hold these dubious attitudes in a particularly concentrated form, I run into them time and again. While I have to deal with creationism social/political right, amongst portions of the political left there is a tendency to accuse archaeologists of malfeasance towards Native Americans, all of it couched in a stereotype of what Native Americans want, almost never informed by any actual discussion with Native Americans themselves. There is this weird tendency for people to accuse those who do my type of work of racism, all the while using arguments grown out of the racist assumption that all members of an ethnic group share a particular view.

I suppose, what I am getting at, is that if you hold a particular view of archaeology on the part of a group to which you don't belong, it is both hypocritical and presumptuous to not actually bother to find out how widespread the view is amongst that group, and why that view is held. There are valid criticisms regarding how archaeologists have treated (and in many quarters, continue to treat) Native Americans. But, if you are going to object to us, at least do so based on information and not assumption,

*My research focus was Chumash archaeology in the Santa Barbara County area.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Archaeology and the Flood of Irrationality

The astronomer Dr. Phil Plait, a former CSU Sonoma professor who runs the Bad Astronomy blog, is behind a new televisions how called Bad Universe, and wrote the excellent Death From the Skies, once was interviewed regarding people who believe that the Moon landing was a hoax. He stated that it was difficult to debate such people because they are not constrained by evidence, and therefore can make up a nearly infinite number of explanations or rationalizations supporting their position, and if you are to go at them one-by-one (as they try to get you to do) you will never have time to present the actual evidence. Plus, given that they can produce such a huge number of fallacious claims, one can quickly become bogged down trying to deal with the claims themselves even if you don't try to present the actual evidence.

This point seems to hold true for pretty much every form of psuedo-science and psuedo-history, whether it be moon-landing hoaxers, "Obama Birthers" (the people who believe that he's not a US citizen), vaccine denialists, young-Earth creationists, 9-11 "truthers", and the list goes on and on. Unconstrained by reality, and motivated by emotional factors and/or ideology, these folks can create an endless series of justifications for their positions, all without ever saying anything that actually stands up to scrutiny.

The same is also true for people with pseudo-scientific understandings of the human past. About once a month, I receive an email from someone or else am asked by an acquaintance about some alleged mystery or inconsistency regarding the human past. The vast majority of the time, these questions are asked honestly, the person asking them really wants to know if there is any backing to the strange claim that they've heard. But every now and again, I get one where the person is trying to convince me of the truth of a spurious claim, or on even rarer occasions they try to get me to "fess up" to the role that I have played as a member of the "establishment" in "hiding the truth." It's the members of this latter group that almost always produce the flood o' nonsense that comes so quickly that there's not enough time to fill up the sandbags of reality.

The flavors of crazy are varied. Some people are convinced of Biblical literalism and will come up with an increasingly desperate string of rationalizations for why the Bible is true in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary; others want to see a past that in some way reflects their view of what the political and/or social order should be - both Israelis and Palestinians jump on anything that sounds like archaeologists providing information supporting their side in the conflict; the "Ancient Astronauts" fans routinely make shit up about ancient societies (or deny things known about them) in order to support their position; I have heard those committed to naturopathy make false claims about the lifespan and healing knowledge of hunter-gatherers; people wanting to "elevate" their particular ethnic group may claim the works of another group as theirs; and the list goes on.

Regardless of the exact claims made, the same basic type of discussion plays out when you talk with such people: They will make a claim, challenge you to refute it then and there, and if you can they will offer another claim that must be refuted then and there, and so on, and so on, and so on...

While most archaeologists simply brush these people off as kooks, that doesn't seem a particularly useful approach. Some of these people are genuinely interested in the human past, and would love it if actual archaeologists were more communicative. Others buy into this stuff because only the proponents of nonsense have reached out to them, but might be open to hearing a more evidence-based take on things. However, in order to get these people to look into the actual archaeology, you are likely to have to disprove a very, very long list of false claims and honest misunderstandings. Some folks will catch on pretty quickly that much of what they have learned is false, but others will continue to push claims that you can't refute not because they make sense, but simply because you have never heard them before and therefore while you may see all of the red flags of pseudo-science, being able to respond to them in a specific way becomes difficult. The problem is rather a confounding one.

I don't know what the answer is, exactly. But I do know that the approach I usually see taken (blowing people off) reinforces the beliefs. Likewise, responding that you don't know the answer to a question but will get back to them when you have researched it is the most honest and reasonable response, but is also likely to reinforce the belief because they "stumped an expert." Even if you come back to them with a refutation later, they are likely to stick to the original false belief.

It's a weird aspect of human psychology that both encourages people to believe the absurd (especially when it coincides with their existing beliefs), and which reinforces the belief when someone knowledgeable about the subject doesn't wish to discuss it.