The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Up-Side of Criticism

I wrote a few months back about a site that may be the oldest discovered in North America. Of course, scrutiny of the report, of the methods applied to determine the age of the site, and of the meaning of the results has begun. This is as it should be. I am pursuaded by the results, but there nonetheless remains the possibility that the site is not as old as is thought. The published paper is coming in for criticism, and if it withstands the criticism, or if the criticism forces out more information regarding the site that supports the claim of old age, then it will vindicate the researchers claiming that it is a pre-Clovis site. If it doesn't withstand the criticism, then we may avoid a research dead-end without wasting too much time.

And this is how honest research works. The scientists - be they archaeologists, biologists, physicists, or any other - produce work, which is submitted to their peers for criticism via publication. Sometimes the criticism can be heated, and scientists being human, it can often become personal and even vicious. But it is ultimately constructive, it helps to weed out bad ideas and dead ends, while promoting strong ideas and helping to ensure good data. There are often blips where bad ideas or data continue to be propagated for a time due to the, very human tendency to get attached to ideas, but in the end, these get phased out in favor of better information.

This is probably the principal difference between science and pseudo-science. In pseudo-science there is a tendency to hold on to ideas despite evidence, and there is an over-riding tendency to view any criticism as an attack or an attempt to crush a novel idea under dogma. The problem is, of course, that it becomes impossible to actually forward a research agenda based on anything even vaguely like reality. If criticism is rejected out of hand not because of its validity but because it disproves a pet hypothesis, then no research that comes out of those who reject the criticism is likely to be valid - they may occasionally reach correct conclusions, but it is as likely to be due to accident as to actual insight or information.

So, when I read accounts of various pseudo-scientific individuals complaining that "the Establishment" won't accept their claims, it always rings hollow. whether it's fantasists complaining about history and archaeology, crackpots complaining about physicists, creationists complaining about biologists, or naturopaths complaining about medical science. "The Establishment" doesn't easily accept the claims of "the Establishment." Everybody gets scrutinized, it's not dogma pushing brilliant conclusions away, it's researchers keep themselves and others honest.

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