The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, May 27, 2011

Infrared Archaeology

Not much to say on this one, but it's an interesting story. Infrared cameras have been used to find previously unknown structures in Egypt. You can read about it here.

Actually, I will say this: the article quotes an archaeologist who says that "To excavate a pyramid is the dream of every archaeologist."

Not this archaeologist. I love reading about Mediterranean history, but the archaeology of Greece, Rome, and Egypt puts me to sleep.

Not Buying Religion's Demise

It was probably 1998, I had recently graduated from college, and I found myself in a car with the father of a friend of mine. We were talking history, a subject that we were both interested in, and he stated that science was slowly but surely eradicating religion. I pointed out that this didn't actually seem to be the case. He responded by pointing out that the methods of science (asking questions and testing everything, even things that seem obvious) are in direct opposition to the methods of religion (faith and tradition), and announced that he had "destroyed" my argument.

But, well, he hadn't.

Yes, there is evidence that people who claim no particular religious allegiance are growing in number (this is often referred to as the "rise of the nones"), but if you look more closely, it's not that these people are necessarily giving up supernatural beliefs, it's that they are becoming dissatisfied with the churches. In other words, it's the actions and positions of the churches, mosques, and temples that is pushing people away, not the recognition that belief in gods and spirits is not supported by scientific evidence.

What's more, even those who are loud and proud atheists often adopt belief systems that function in a manner similar to religion - complete with the group think, dogma, and refusal to acknowledge contradictory evidence. I have no problem at all thinking of numerous atheists who were nonetheless ideologically committed to Marxism or it's arch-nemesis libertarianism, and there's a huge number of people who won't admit to a belief in the supernatural and yet engage in all manner of muddied or magical thinking within worldviews based on the appeal to nature fallacy. Even in countries with very high numbers of atheists, these types of supernatural beliefs tend to persist. So, even though religion may formally have been eliminated for these people, essentially religious, dogmatic irrational thinking is still present.

And then we have the fact that a number of prominent scientists are themselves religious. If science were eradicating religion, we would expect that this would be amazingly rare. While the American Academy of Sciences is composed primarily of non-religious people, surveys of the scientific profession more widely have found that religious belief among scientists is more common than generally thought. While the number of non-religious vs. religious scientists certainly suggests that science does have a deleterious effect on religious beliefs, it doesn't seem to actually eradicate them.

His argument made sense in a purely abstract way, which is probably why it is a popular notion amongst many of my fellow atheists. I have often heard, and used to believe myself, that improved knowledge about science would lead to the eventually loss of religion from society as science increasingly supplies better answers to questions that were once the province of religion, such as "How did we come to be here, and what are we, anyway?" Also, religious-type thinking, that is thinking that assumes a wide range of essentially dogmatic and supernatural notions (which includes many political beliefs) can get further away from this by not making overt empirical claims (though such ways of thinking often have many implied empirical claims).

The problem is that religion does more than simply provide answers to questions. It orients how people view themselves within their world, and provides symbolic meaning to the world around a believer. There are, of course, other sources for these things - I make no secret of the fact that I think that there are many sources that both provide better answers than religion and do less harm - but regardless of what other sources exist, religion does do more than simply answer questions. Therefore, while scientific knowledge, which simply does answer questions, has forced modifications to religion (for example, belief in a flat-Earth, which is taught in the Bible in Ezekiel 7:2, is not subscribed to by the vast majority of Christians and Jewish people today) but not eliminated it. By doing more than simply answering questions, religious-type thinking is able to maintain a toe hold even when all of its empirical claims are proven to be nonsense.

But there's another important factor at work here: people's ability to compartmentalize their thoughts. All of us hold beliefs, ideas, and values that are inconsistent with other beliefs, ideas, and values that we hold. Sometimes we may be confronted with this fact, but most of the time we are not, and we are able to continue placing the notions into different mental boxes without ever having to confront the dissonance between them. Many, probably most, of us will even go through bizarre mental gymnastics in order to avoid having to admit that some of our notions clash with each other when we are confronted with the fact. In the end, this ability to compartmentalize allows us to continue believing notions long after they have been conclusively disproven, and more subtly, they allow us to continue to hold values and concepts that clash without ever recognizing that we are doing so.

Religious thinking may go away, but I am not hopeful of that. For all that it seems like the advance of science should quash religion, the structure of both religion and our minds would seem to indicate that it won't. Religion will change, and may become more of an equally irrational but individual notion of spirituality, but I don't think it's going away.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Whitewashing the Past

I'm in a strange mood. You have been warned.

There was a really great interview on NPR's Fresh Air earlier this week in which the often violent interactions between white settlers and the Comanche is discussed. It's well worth a listen.

One of the issues discussed early in the interview is the way in which Native American cultures have been "whitewashed" in the last several decades, primarily in response to the earlier tendency to portray all Native American peoples as savages. The impulse is an understandable one, but also, I think, a mistaken one. It tends both to reduce our actual understanding of both history and human behavior, and it also leads to the sort of bizarre history in which the actions of nobody make any sense.

It has also had the weird effect of further separating groups of people. One of the points that is made during the interview is that the violent raids committed by the Comanche were not really any different from violent raids committed by tribally-organized peoples of Europe, Asia, or Africa. I would go a step further and argue that modern warfare is simply an extension of these old raids, and often engaged in for the same reasons (resource procurement, political pressure, ideological differences, etc.). However, the perception of these types of raids has led to people believing that there are more significant differences between groups of people than there really is.

Edit: As a commenter pointed out, it should also be kept in mind that it was not unknown for the settlers to commit similar raids against the native peoples. The reasons were similar: revenge, resource procurement, and wanting to frighten "the enemy."

In the 19th and early 20th century century, when these raids were occurring, they were portrayed as terrifying events, as a violent and beastial people on a rampage. Of course, little mention was generally made of the fact that the settlement of southwestern territories and the great plains impacted the resource base, often making raiding the best way to both push back settlers (and thus restore the resource base) and to make up for losses caused by the settlers. Nonetheless, the brutality of the raids often left the settlers to portray the raiders as something other than, and sometimes less than, fully human. This view continued to inform popular portrayals of Native Americans up through the 1960s and 1970s, and enforced an "us and them" mentality amongst much of the U.S. population, long after armed and violent conflict was decades gone.

Since the 1960s and 70s, the tendency has been to romanticize Native Americans, and the raids are usually justified and played down, if not entirely forgotten. I have met many people, including a number of primary and secondary school teachers, who subscribe to the notion that there was no warfare in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans. So, now it's Europeans who are cast as the bad guys, but it's basically just a pendulum swing over to the reverse "Us vs. Them."

The reality is that the raids were part of a spectrum of human behavior that all of us are capable of. They were brutal, involving killing, torture, gang rape, and kidnapping. And anyone familiar with history will know that the Romans and Greeks documented their own armies engaging in similar, if more organized, behaviors. As did the Vikings. As did the Normans. As did the Celts. As did the people of every region of every populated continent.

The tendency to forget or ignore this type of violence on the part of some groups of people is part of a modern political reworking of history, just as the tendency to play it up and ignore the causes during the 19th century was part of a political reworking of current events. It is understandable, but should, nonetheless, be viewed suspiciously. Associating notions of perfection or nirvana with periods in the past or with specific cultures does little other than put those people or times outside of human experience and provide a false view of our nature. There was no perfect culture or golden age of humanity. We are all both magnificent and frail.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pirate Ships and Artifacts

North Carolina's Office of State Archaeology is currently performing underwater excavations to recover material from a ship thought to be the Queen Anne's revenge, the ship commanded by Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the Pirate. The wreck was originally found in 1996, but excavations are being carried out currently. If the archaeologists have the identity of the ship correct, and I have no access to the materials that they have used to identify it so I can not offer an informed opinion on the matter, then it was wrecked in 1718, and has been submerged for nearly 300 years.

From a 2008 article on the on-going excavations:

At Topsail (now called Beaufort) Inlet, Queen Anne's Revenge and a captured sloop, Adventure, ran aground on a submerged sandbar. Some said Blackbeard grounded the ships to clean their hulls, while others, including pirates under his command, suspected he wanted to split the crew and make off in a sloop with most of their plunder. Blackbeard then went into semi-retirement, until Royal Navy soldiers sent by Governor Spotswood of Virginia caught up with him off Okracoke Island in November 1718. Blackbeard was killed in the battle, but he went down in style; he fought on as blood spurted from a wound to his neck, and it took five pistol shots and 20 sword cuts to stop him. Queen Anne's Revenge settled into the sandbar by Beaufort Inlet, buffeted by currents and scoured by sands.

The article notes that the excavations were expected to be done in 2010, but here we are in mid-2011, and a news story over the weekend reported that the archaeologists are still working to recover the anchor. A number of factors have led to the delays in completion, one of the big ones being weather delays.

Archaeology can be difficult at the best of times, but underwater archaeology provides its own special problems. There's the obvious issue of working in an environment where one must have specialized equipment in order to not, ya' know, drown. And then there's the problem of cleaning the artifacts, as described in a Smithsonian Magazine article:

The heavily corroded cannons—some eight feet long and meant to spit six-pound cannonballs—were soaking in various chemical baths to restore them, a process that takes roughly five years. Some cannons that hadn’t undergone chemical treatment were barely recognizable. When a metal artifact corrodes underwater, sand, seashells and other objects adhere to its sides—which then provide attachment points for marine life, such as barnacles. These outer layers, which grow thicker over time, are known as “concretions.” Before breaking them apart, lab workers try to identify what lies beneath with X-rays, but some objects are undetectable. If technicians aren’t careful while cleaning the concretions with air scribes—a type of mini-jackhammer—valuable pieces can be destroyed, especially small ones.

“Once you touch a glass bead, it shatters, and you’re done,” Welsh says.

“Same thing happens with emeralds,” Daniel says.

What interested me about this story is two things - one is the sorts of artifacts being recovered and what that tells us about the life of these sailors, and the other is what the way in which the story was reported over the weekend tells us about a difference in how the public views archaeology and how archaeologists view archaeology.

The artifacts include a wide variety of basic equipment for sailors, medical supplies (my favorite of which is a urethral syringe - used for injecting materials into the urethra - with traces of mercury indicating that it was used in a primitive attempt to treat syphilis), and trade goods (such as glass beads from Africa). These types of artifacts are interesting because they shed some light onto the lives of pirates, a group that, due to it's illegal nature, didn't leave behind the same sort of written record that the more legitimate navies of the time left, and who we consequently know substantially less about.

Again, from the Smithsonian article:

a huge pile of cannons and anchors still on the seafloor. They hope the mound is big enough to contain preserved material for micro-organic analysis. Bits of food, sediment or insect parts could tie the ship to the Caribbean or Africa. Or perhaps they’ll just discover “some hooks and wooden legs,” jokes Mark Wilde-Ramsing, a state archaeologist working on the project. “Parrot bones, maybe.”

The way that the recovery of the anchors and cannons was reported on the radio was as if it were the recovery of the anchors and cannons themselves were the prize. And in the eyes of much of the general public, the recovery of such large items as anchors and cannons would seem more important than the recovery of "Bits of food, sediment or insect parts". This is understandable, as most of us have a tendency to see physical objects from the past, especially those which are clearly identifiable and the purpose of which we can easily understand, as being ties to the people and events from history. Even when little information can be gained from them, they seem important because of the way in which people tend to think about history. This is understandable, and perfectly human.

Archaeologists, however, tend to be data junkies. We want information. We can appreciate just how cool it is to see the anchor from Blackbeard's ship, and we're just as susceptible to wanting to see and touch such objects as anyone else, but we're going to obsess over the little bits of stuff, the bones, broken pottery, shards of metal, and other materials that comprise the detritus of the site. Those objects, while much less beautiful, and not as easily comprehensible, are what tend to hold the most information and therefore are of the most value to us.

Regardless, this is a pretty cool site.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How the System Works

A friend of mine recently forwarded me a newspaper article about a land developer that was doing work on lands held by the Bureau of Land Management, and the BLM had bowed to political pressure and this developer had been "allowed" to hire their own company to do the environmental impact report. She was livid that the BLM was making an exception for this company and allowing it to hire the people who would determine whether or not the company's activities would have negative environmental impacts.

You can only imagine her reaction when I informed her that the BLM was not bowing to political pressure, that project proponents (that is, the people or organizations wanting to do a land development project) typically hire their own consultants to to the environmental impact statements (in fact, that's a primary reason why companies such as mine exist), and that this was not a case of a large company getting something special because of political ties, but rather was simply the normal mechanics of how a land development project proceeds.

This does, admittedly, sound pretty bad. Even when nothing nefarious is going on (and after many years experience in this field, I have learned that things are usually on the up and up), the fact that the people performing the environmental analysis for a project were hired by the people who want the project to go through does look pretty...well, strange. There are three things that one should know about this, however.

The first is that those of us who do the environmental work are consultants to, and not employees of, the proponents. This may seem like a fine distinction, but it is actually quite important. We are expected to understand the relevant laws and regulations, and to explain to our clients how they have to behave to keep in compliance with them. If the regulations say that "activity X must be proceeded by precaution Y" then we explain this to our clients. Our environmental review documents are just as much prescriptive ("in order to avoid impacts, the project proponent must take these precautions...") as descriptive (simply describing the environmental impacts of a project). Now, that's not to say that there isn't room for corruption in the system, there certainly is (and I know of a few archaeologists who I suspect are on the take, based on some of the results that they have put into reports), but it does mean that we don't have the same pressures on us that a direct employee of the company would. So, yes, there is room for corruption, and the fact that a project proponent is paying for the environmental review does look rather off, but it should be understood that the purpose of the environmental review process is to document potential problems, relevant regulations, and define the terms under which problems will be avoided or mitigated, not simply to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to the potential for a project to have environmental impacts.

The second thing is that these reviews are not done in a vacuum. As part of the review process, stakeholders must be identified - community groups, Native American organizations, individuals whose homes or property might be impacted by the project, historic societies, recreation groups that make use of an area, etc. The outreach to these groups can be done poorly, and often has been, but it is something that is part of the environmental review process. When you hear about how a project was halted because of environmental concerns, it's usually because one of these stakeholders (or somebody who should have been identified as a stakeholder) has terminated consultation and is seeking legal action. Identified stakeholders are given the ability to review documents, to ask questions, and to provide comments that can (and often do) result in further review or mitigation work being done. In other words, just because a large company hires the consultant to do the environmental review doesn't mean that the documents stay between the consultant and their client, they are reviewed by stakeholders, and often put out for broad public review, in order to allow for comments to be received regarding the level of effort, and anything that might have been missed (or excluded) by the consultant who prepared the document.

The third thing that should be kept in mind is that this review process is not unsupervised. All documents must be received and reviewed by the government agency that is providing the permits/money/donkey rides/whatever that the project proponent needs. Normally the documents are reviewed by a specialist at the agency (so, an archaeologist who works at the agency will review all archaeology materials, a biologist all biology reports, etc.), and the agency must sign off on the report before it is finalized. In some cases, the agency may hire a consultant of their own to help with this oversight, which often results in a rival company overseeing the work of the other - having been on both sides of this, I can tell you from experience that it does lead to a heightened sense of responsibility on the part of the proponent's contractor. Consultants who have a tendency towards corruption tend to draw the attention of the federal agencies, and there have been cases of people being pushed out because of this (probably not as many cases as there should be, but still), so most consultants feel a stronger need to keep on the good side of the federal regulators than to keep on the good side of any one client.

Now, there has been talk of ways of reforming this system, such as the proponent paying a fee to the agency and the government agency hiring the consultant who does the review, to remove the appearance of subservience to the proponent. These sorts of solutions all have problems of their own, but I appreciate the notion behind them. Regardless, the system, as it exists, is not simply a matter of "proponent hires consultant to say what proponent wishes" - the system is more complicated. Not to say that there isn't room for vast improvement, but it's not the horrific mess that many people seem to feel.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Big Pharma Boogeyman

Yesterday I saw an article claiming that Canadian researchers had found a cure for cancer (I will post this link to an article in the New Scientist that actually explains what really happened), and the article implied (without outright stating) that this information was being either ignored or suppressed. In short order, I saw two responses by researchers (one of whom I know personally, the other of whom is a friend of one of my closest friends) who pointed out that the author of the article completely and utterly misunderstood the research, and comitted such rookie errors as claiming that normal metabolic processes are freakish and unhealthy. The actual research found that a particular generic drug did show positive effects when used against a particular form of brain cancer. Cancers are all different, and even this drug did not cure this particular form of cancer (let alone all cancers) so much as show effectiveness at either stopping progression or reducing the tumors. Also, the study was small, and therefore not statistically significant, but it wasn't intended to be, it was intended to test whether or not the underlying concept was valid, which it appears to be, in order to pave the way for a larger, more robust study (this is how good science works, small studies don't give the final word on anything, but do point to avenues for further investigation). This is very cool, but not the miracle that it is being promoted as by the author of the article, or by many people who have been duped by the article.

In other words, it was unfortunately typical crap science reporting, but because it was on a topic that scares the hell out of so many people (that is, cancer), and it had a popular subtext ("those big pharma bastards are suppressing research...apparently by not stopping it from being published in a widely-read journal or funded by the Canadian government")it has been getting passed around like herpes at an orgy.

Naturally, in the comments, and on social networking sites where the article is being passed around, the running theme has been that "Big Pharma*" is using it's octopus-like reach to suppress all information that might threaten it's ability to make money.

Here's the thing: the pharmaceutical industry has done some pretty crappy and abhorrent things throughout history, and recently it has suppressed inconvenient information that comes from pharmaceutical company researchers (look at the failure to publish some of the more dubious results for Prozac, for example). But it is not, I repeat NOT some sort of quasi-national superpower with the ability to stifle results from all scientists everywhere, or even many scientists in alot of places. To look at the response that people are having to this article, or the sorts of responses that people (especially people in the alt-med community) have to stories about pharmaceutical companies in general, it becomes clear that the pharmaceutical companies (always referred to by the scarier name of "Big Pharma") are viewed as a massive boogeyman with the ability to reach out and shut down any and all research and any and all avenues for publication that goes against it's wishes, no matter where it's published. Folks, the Chinese government has discovered that it doesn't even have that ability, and the Chinese government has far more power than the pharmaceutical industry or their lobbyists do anywhere (owning a big chunk of the U.S. National Debt, and having many Washington lobbysts...just sayin'). It's the funny thing about information, it tends to leak out and get expressed even when a dictatorial power is trying to suppress it. It's also the funny thing about scientists, they tend to talk and publish even when powerful interests would prefer that they wouldn't. A particular researcher working for Pfizer, or receiving Pfizer funding, might sit on results, but that's not going to stop someone who isn't associated with Pfizer who is pursuing similar research - and there are plenty of researchers who aren't in a company's pocket.

In order to exercise the amount of power that is often attributed to the pharmaceutical companies, they would have to be able to dictate the research program of almost every researcher on the planet and have veto power over what is published in nearly every journal and be able to dictate where every research funding agency directs their funds. This is absurd. If you honestly believe that anyone, pharmaceutical companies, any one government, the United Nations, or the Reptoid Aliens, has that degree of power and influence, you are suffering from a paranoid delusion. And it is telling that many (probably less than half, but likely not much less than half) of the outlets for the "Big Pharma is trying to suppress information" meme often also make claims about how they are waiting for some action from the pharmaceutical industry that will shut them down...and action that will likely never come.

Don't get me wrong, the fact that these companies have prevented publication of information is bad. I am not exonerating them, I have a good deal of contempt for these sorts of activities**. However, no government on the planet, no matter how brutal, has the amount of power that is often attributed to these companies. It is absurd to think that these companies do. Any powerful organization needs to be watched and criticized, but make sure that you are criticizing it for something real rather than simply falling for paranoid fantasies.

*Not to be confused with the Big Farmer.

**Suppression of research results isn't even their big issue. It's actually the fact that they have often dedicated money to "lifestyle drugs", deciding to cure "restless leg syndrome" amongst wealthy people in Europe and the U.S. rather than find more effective medications for, say, malaria in third-world countries. But this is a natural result of them being for-profit companies - the nature of the beast dictates that they may chase the profitable route rather than the responsible one. And in case you start feeling to proud of your alt-med style, keep in mind that many an herb, vitamin, and other alt-med company sells and falsely markets primarily placebos because they make money, while doing the research to only sell things that actually are effective would be more expensive for them. In other words, both the pharmaceutical companies and your local naturopath are chasing the easier money at the expense of people's health.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogger Weirdness

For the past few days, every attempt that I have made to post here has been met with a "Blogger Not Available" message. Hence my relative silence this week. Of course, now that the matter is fixed, I am preparing to go out of town for the weekend. As I have received input from people indicating that there are folks out there that do read this on a semi-regular basis, I figured I'd let all y'all know. I'll be back to posting next week.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Field Notes

My field notes used to be rather limited, and organized in a way that only really made sense to me. They consisted of sheets of notepad paper that described the field conditions and noted what was found, and recording conversations with others directly relevant to the project; print-outs of documents describing the crew; and project maps that were marked up to indicate field conditions and problems encountered. The reason for this was simple: I was going to write the reports, I was the one who needed to make sense of the notes, and I could do so from what I had.

A while back, this began to change. The first reason was that there came to be occasions - rare, but nonetheless real - when someone else would need to write a report based on my field work. Sometimes it was because I was assigned to another field project when the report came due (or the client finally agreed to pay for the report to be done), but on two very specific occasions it was because I had left a company. While most of the companies had forms that could be used to record the basic information for a report, the field notes could supplement or color the information on the forms. This led to me re-considering my note keeping and attempting to keep notes in a manner that would better benefit another who might have to write up my work.

The second reason, and a further revision of my notes, comes from experiences that I had when I left my previous employer. Our primary client was in the midst of building a huge project, one of the largest construction projects they had ever undertaken, and our client contacts were under considerable pressure. In addition, a need on the part of our client as well as ourselves to produce a large number of workers, administrators, and managers quickly resulted in quite a few people being hired with dubious qualifications and questionable abilities, and our client's corporate structure and the nature of the project were such that these new people were quickly set to attempting to make themselves look good by making everyone else look bad. So, it became a matter of self preservation to take very detailed, careful notes of everything that occurred, everything that anyone said, and everything that you anticipated might occur for the very simple reason that you might be put into a situation where your ability to provide a more accurate and/or comprehensive account of a situation might be the thing that saved your butt when someone with more politically-oriented ambitions decided to take aim at you.

One final reason is that I have started using the field notes as more of a personal diary of sorts. I don't record things that are going on in my personal life, nor anything not work-related. However, I do keep notes on tendencies that my crew has, or that I myself have, which may indicate promise or problems. I keep track of strange happenings in the field that I wish to remember, either because they may be useful things to learn from or because they will make for good stories (more often than not, they are both). And, of course, as I now keep this blog, I sometimes write down things that occur in the field that may make for interesting essays or blog entries.

Regardless fo the causes, some of my older co-workers would likely be surprised at the volume of what I now produce. Whereas a 4-day field project would previously have resulted in up to 15 pages of text notes as well as marked-up maps, fieldwork forms, and print-outs of crew information, it now results in 40-50 pages of notes, all but the most basic field information scrawled during my break time, including everything from detailed text notes to hand-drawn maps and illustrations (crude because my drawing skills are crude) detailing aspects of life in the field.

For the first time, I'm actually proud of my notes.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Work and Life

I am back in the field again, this time walking transmission lines in the San Joaquin Valley, looking for archaeological sites, hence my non-posting this week. Not that I suspect many people notice, but I can have my delusions...

It's part of the weird ebb and flow of doing any sort of environmental consulting work. One week you are scratching around, looking for anything to alleviate the boredom, and the next week you feel as if you have been asked to do the work equivalent of taking a sip of water from a fire hose. Still, I'd rather have this than long-term unemployment, so there you go.

It does make one's life hard to plan, though. While I typically have an idea of what's going on a few weeks in advance, but it's not uncommon for me to be notified on a Monday that I will be required to be somewhere for several weeks starting Tuesday (though this is less common at my current job). It makes it difficult to maintain a life outside of work.

Luckily, my current project is close to home, so I get to be in my own bed every night. Even when I am not, though, I have had to learn to find ways to maintain some of my normal habits when away - I take walks at night, go to coffee shops to read, listen to podcasts as I prepare for bed, etc.

It's funny, when I tell people that I do fieldwork, they often assume that I use it as a vacation of sorts - time away from home and out on my own. The truth of the matter is, though, that I have learned that it is easier ot enjoy the work if my evenings are as close to normal as possible.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rejected Atheist Student? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I recently learned that a student applying to be a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara's Religious Studies department was rejected. He claims that his rejection is a case of religious discrimination, and that he was rejected essentially for being an atheist.

I'm not buying it.

The problem is that he says that the reason that he was rejected is that he is perceived as applying to the department because he, as the school official that informed him of his rejection put it, he's an "atheist activist with an axe to grind." He took this to mean that he was rejected because he is an atheist and an outspoken one at that. Having been a graduate student at the institution to which he applied, and having had a fair amount of interaction with the graduate students and faculty at the department to which he applied (which was directly above my own office - down the hall and up a flight of stairs), I think that it was the "axe to grind" rather than the "atheist" part that is causing him grief.

Keep in mind, we are only getting the rejected student's description of events, and what he describes, while he clearly thinks it's discrimination, is actually vague enough that, even if he is reporting it with complete accuracy, it could mean something very different than what he thinks it does.

First off, he wasn't told that he was being rejected because he was an atheist, or because he was an atheist activist, but because he was both of these things and, specifically, "has an axe to grind." Look at this guy's blog. Look at the self-published book that he's selling via the sidebar. He is clearly intelligent, clearly articulate, and clearly has an axe to grind.

I don't necessarily disagree with alot of what he has to say. In fact, I think he and I are on the same page on many, likely most, issues regarding religion. But being a scholar of religion (religion in the generic sense, not specifically Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) requires more than simply having one's facts straight. It requires that you be able to comprehend that the people whom you are studying are doing things that make sense to them, regardless of how they look to an outside observer, and it requires being able to show enough respect to the believers (even if you do not respect their beliefs) to be able to try to make some sort of social or psychological sense of what they're doing even if you don't believe a word of it. The blog and the self-published book rather strongly suggest that Mr. McAfee is not currently capable of this. And given that this is amongst the material that he included with his application, he seems to show little enough self-awareness that it should come as no surprise that he was rejected.

Of course, I could be reading this all wrong. Maybe his application was stronger than it sounds. The problem is that, based on his own description of the matter, while he may sound like a victim to someone not familiar with the process of admitting students into a graduate studies program, to someone who is familiar with that process, it sounds like he's just whining.

Let me re-frame the matter by describing how such things play out in my own field. If someone entered a graduate program in archaeology, and expressed an interest in studying how archaeologists have failed to include the interests and ideas of the descendants of the people we study, that would be a perfectly legitimate approach. It's a valid area for research, and one that should be considered more carefully by archaeologists.

If this same person included material written by them describing archaeologists as nothing but grave-robbers and thieves...well, then that implies that rather than wanting to make legitimate criticisms from within, they are wanting in to the program for some other, less academically rigorous, purpose.

So, there is no reason why an atheist, and even an atheist activist, could not be a perfectly responsible religious studies scholar. In fact, I happen to know that many are. But when someone produces documentation to support their application that appears to be more directed towards making a statement about the subject than seriously studying it, well, it's understandable that this prospective student would be turned away.

Was he rejected for being an atheist activist? Perhaps. But based on the material that he presents, it seems more likely that he was turned away because he had made it clear that he couldn't separate his emotional reaction from his research.