The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I'd Have Thought You'd Want to Hear From...

Some time back, I wrote a piece for the old Skepchick website (before it became the blog that it is now, it was an on-line magazine that accepted submissions) about popular misconceptions regarding the role of feminist thought in archaeology (it was eventually re-posted here). The point to the article was that many of the views often attributed in the media to feminist scholars in general, and feminist anthropologists in particular, are not actually representative of researchers with a feminist bent, but are rather fringe views that typically don't even come from researchers in the field to which they are attributed.

As an example, I cited The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler.  Eisler is a sociologist and attorney by training, not an archaeologist.  Her book is not based on original research but rather on a combination of previously published research and her own views of history, so even if I found the book persuasive, it would still not qualify as archaeological work - it might qualify as historical work, or even as science journalism (though I would hold it is a poor example of both), but lacking a base in the physical archaeological record (which is what separates archaeology from both ethnography and history) it does not qualify as archaeology.  The book is not generally well regarded in archaeological circles, and some of the most cutting critiques of it come from archaeologists who clearly subscribe to feminist ideologies themselves.

So, when a reporter, pundit, or anyone else points to Eisler or The Chalice and the Blade as prime examples of "feminist archaeology", they are wrong on three counts: Eisler is not an archaeologist, her book does not represent archaeological research, and it is certainly not considered to be "mainstream archaeology" even amongst feminist archaeologists.

One piece of criticism that I received when this article posted was that some readers thought that the entire point to it was to criticize Eisler - which was weird as she was only discussed in one portion, whereas the history of how feminist thought has worked its way into archaeology made up the bulk of the material.  One commenter, however, posted something that struck me as both astoundingly vacous...but also rhetorically really interesting.  They said, and I am paraphrasing (you can follow the link above to find the exact phrasing, but after trying to get a sufficient portion to place here without overly-editing it, I found it easier to just paraphrase), that my criticism of the book was due to me being uncomfortable at having my authority challenged and then stated, essentially, that I should be interested in hearing what a sociologist has to say.

The "you're uncomfortable with having your authority challenged" is a pretty standard way for people to pass off criticism without specifically addressing it.  It's essentially the same as the "don't trust those un-elected elitist scientists!" rhetoric that is being spouted in the current Republican primaries, but is also seen when people claim that medical doctors don't support "alternative medicine" because it would undermine their authority (as opposed to the real reason, which is that it is usually "alternative" because it lacks any evidence to support it) or that "mainstream" historians deny the reality of Atlantis because "it would make them have to re-write the history books." 

The problem, of course, is that there are times when researchers, because they are human just like everyone else, will reject a position because it does make them uncomfortable.  Most of the time, however, this is just a rhetorical smokescreen to get you to not listen to valid criticisms of a fringe idea.

What was more interesting, though, was the suggestion that archaeologists should be interested in the work of sociologists, and the associated claim that pointing out the Eisler was not an archaeologist was a way of just blowing off sociologists (rather than a demonstration that, by definition, her work is not representative of the work of archaeologists).  The reality is that archaeologists are, in fact, very interested in the work of sociologists.  Many of the major archaeologists of the last three decades, including most of those who I admire, have tried to incorporate sociological data and theories into their work.  And this makes perfect sense, as there do seem to be some weird, perhaps not constants, but definitely "recurring themes" in human cultures, studying modern people might help to provide insight into our distant ancestors.

People from all fields - academic or otherwise - have the capacity to make observations that are of value in archaeology and anthropology.  Indeed, my own time spent in the business world has given me the capacity for insight that some of my academic colleagues often seem to lack, while their experience in academia give them a view of humanity that I am likewise lacking.  Truck drivers, accountants, surgeons, and auto mechanics can all be astute observers of humanity, and can all provide valuable insights to anyone seeking to understand or species.

However, when the views of someone deviate from observable reality, and their credentials are demonstrated to not be those of the field to which they claim to be contributing, to state "well, I'd have thought that you'd welcome the input of someone from field X" is not a valid response, unless the fact that they are from that field can somehow show a hidden validity to their claims - perhaps they have access to some information that helps make sense of something that seems confusing from the perspective of the field to which they are trying to contribute.  Most of the time, it's simply a way to try to claim that a particular doubtful conclusions is valid without actually making a good argument in support of it.

And this is true regardless of the field of study, and regardless of the background of the person trying to push a position.  Anthropologists are happy to get input from sociologists, provided that the input corresponds with observable reality and not with an ideologically-motivated fantasy.  Pediatricians are happy to get input from mothers, provided that what the mother is saying makes sense and isn't an absurd claim that "mommy instinct" somehow trumps mountains of medical data.  Biologists are happy to hear from politicians, provided that the politicians don't claim that the work proven by the biologists is false because it conflicts with what a constituency wishes were true.  And so on and so on.

The point is, when "I'd have thought you'd want to hear from X" is accompanied by an explanation as to why the position of someone in that field might interpret data differently than those in another field, there is a fair chance that you will hear something interesting and useful.  If, however, it's simply said without any accompanying statement regarding why a person from field X might have a valid point, it's usually just a way to dodge valid criticism.

Monday, February 27, 2012

American Diggers?

So, Spike TV has decided to put a new show into production: American Diggers.  The show will follow a group as they travel about the country, visiting historic sites and digging up items in order to sell them.

As Spike TV's press release puts it:

"American Digger" follows the American Savage team, led by former professional wrestler-turned-modern- day relic hunter Ric Savage as they scour target-rich areas, such as battlefields and historic sites, in hopes of striking it rich by unearthing and selling rare pieces of American history. In the US, there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit.

This pisses me off.

The problem with this is twofold:  1) It is, essentially, the glorification of looting.  2) It legitimizes the notion that the true value of artifacts is their sale value.

To point 1:  Looting is a problem for archaeology.  A huge problem.  Looting is the unsystematic excavation of sites in order to obtain artifacts for either collection or sale, and it occurs all over the world and has resulted in the destruction of countless archaeological sites.  It results in the destruction of artifacts and features, as items of little to no financial value but of significant research interest are destroyed in an effort to get at the big-money items; it results in the destruction of stratigraphic and horizontal relationships which are of tremendous value to archaeologists trying to make sense of past human behavior, because these relationships are not documented by looters who are interested in collecting or selling the artifacts and not keeping track of where, exactly, they come from in a site; when materials are looted, their provenance is often not sufficiently recorded to allow later assignation to actual places or contexts, largely destroying their research value.

Now, it should be noted that the show seems to be aimed to going onto private land to do this.  This is legal, and I am not accusing the production company of being criminals.  Some would object to me using the term "looting" to describe a legal activity - but as the activity in question is clearly a mercenary destruction of historic information for the generation of profit, I think that calling it looting is perfectly fine.  It is possible that the show, if it is like other "non-scripted television" that I have seen will feature talking heads from the crew discussing how they are "unearthing history."  They are not.  They are destroying history in an extremely cynical way.

And while this crew is behaving in a legal manner, glorifying the activity by making people who engage in this the heroes of a television show is likely to make people who don't have access to materials on private land feel justified (or greedy enough, as the press releases indicates that the show will focus on potential profits) in going onto public lands to engage in this activity.  And on public lands, looting is illegal under the American Antiquities Act.

and before anyone asks what the difference between a looter and an archaeologist is, I will explain: archaeologists do everything in a systematic fashion, keeping track of what we are doing, where we are doing it, and where we find what we find, allowing future researchers to piece together now destroyed parts of sites by looking at our notes and records; archaeologists do not sell the artifacts that we recover, but curate them so that they can be studied or viewed by the public (less common, but it does happen); archaeologists are increasingly inculcated with a preservation ethic - excavate only what you have to, leaving as much intact as possible, which is the polar opposite of the looter's  "dig as much as possible to get the pricey stuff" ethic.  Archaeologists publish our findings or present them in public and professional forums out of a sense of professional and intellectual responsibility, making little to no money off of such activities. 

On to point 2:  The notion that it is better to understand the past than to make money off of it is, admittedly, a philosophical position.  But it's a philosophical position that I certainly hold, as does every archaeologist and historian that I know, and if the recurring polls showing support for historic preservation are any indication, it's one that most of the American public also holds to some extent or another.

Looters, on the other hand, see profit and/or collecting as being more important than historical understanding.  Certainly, there are looters who will claim otherwise, but their activities destroying sites and selling materials found in them indicate otherwise - their actions speak much louder than their words.  The problem is that there are many people who are in favor of protecting historic sites, but seeing looters portrayed as heroes coupled with seeing looting portrayed as a profitable activity, is likely to make looting seem more legitimate than simply seeing the market for looted goods would. 

If you are bothered by this project, try writing to Spike TV.  Also, you can sign an on-line petition here.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ancient Americans, Arguments, and Science

I wrote a while back about the Buttermilk Creek site in Texas, a site that has produced dates that may make it the oldest confirmed in the Americas if they are, in fact confirmed, making it a pre-Clovis site if it is, in fact, as old as the dates show.  The data from this site comes in addition to the debated early dates from Monte Verde in Chile, Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania, Paisley Caves in Oregon, the temporally borderline Arlington Springs remains from California's channel Islands, and a number of other sites with various pre-Clovis claims of various reliability.  And hell, while we're at it, how about this rock art that nobody is claiming is pre-Clovis, but is claimed to be pretty damn old.

All of these sites together would seem to imply that humans have been in The Americas alot longer than had previously been thought, and that the Clovis Cultures were likely not the first peoples of the Americas.  In fact, you will sometimes hear people, both archaeologists and members of the lay public alike, claim that the matter is settled, and that those who claim that there weren't pre-Clovis people are being stubborn or stupid.

The people making such charges are, of course, wrong.

Now, don't get me wrong, here.  I do think that there is pretty good evidence for pre-Clovis occupation of the Americas.  Hell, I think that the fact that the Clovis Cultures appear more or less out-of-the-blue without any clear precursors in the Old World is pretty good evidence that they developed in the New World, necessitating pre-Clovis peoples to develop into the Clovis peoples.  While the evidence from the sites listed and linked-to above are a mixed bag (some of the ones in the Wikipedia link are complete fantasy, others are actually pretty good), none of them are, as of yet, clinchers.  None seal the deal, proving the existence of pre-Clovis peoples in the Americas. 

As a result, it is not being stubborn or wrong-headed to point out that no unambiguous evidence of pre-Clovis peoples exists.  To be certain, there are individuals who will take the stance of "we've long known that Clovis was first, therefore you can stuff contrary evidence!"  But most of the people who don't buy into the pre-Clovis arguments do so simply because the evidence for specific pre-Clovis claims isn't as solid as many pre-Clovis proponents, including myself if I am to be honest, would like to think it is. 

One of the problems that we encounter is that, until fairly recently, and especially until the late 90s, most of the evidence that we like to claim in our favor is circumstantial: look at my own reasoning above - it holds together, it's internally consistent, and it seems reasonable...but it lacks anything in the way of actual physical evidence to support it, it's simply a statement of "X makes sense because of Y." 

There are, of course, legitimate explanations as to why there would be little evidence of pre-Clovis peoples even if they were here.  There's the fact that they likely were largely nomadic (though there may have been regional sedentism) and probably travelled in small bands, leaving little impact on the landscape.  There's the natural destructive processes (erosion, for example) that routinely eliminate portions of the  already ephemeral archaeological record.  There's the simple fact that we don't know what the pre-Clovis sites would look like, and without datable materials (organics for radiocarbon, obsidian for hydration measurements, etc.) we might be writing them off (though as new dating methods are developed, this is becoming less of a good reason). 

But all of these are excuses for why physical evidence is hard to come by, not proof of the existence of such evidence.  It is frustrating to see many pre-Clovis proponents fail to grasp this point.

As earlier dates from more sites come to light, the argument gains physical support.  But the support isn't sufficient to move the null hypothesis (that is, the position that is assumed to be true in the face of the lack of supporting evidence otherwise) in favor of the position of myself and my fellow pre-Clovisians just yet.  It looks like it's getting there, but it isn't at the moment.  Some of our favorite sites turned out to be not as old as previously thought, on further examination.  Others may, in fact, be that old, but for various reasons the dates are legitimately being called into question (Monte Verde, I'm looking at you!).

There is also something of a cultural shift.  As much as we like to claim that archaeology is all about the evidence all of the time, the fact of the matter is that personalities, training, and long-held beliefs and concepts do have influence.  And the older generation of archaeologists have long held to the notion that Clovis is the earliest-known culture in the Americas.  Now, many of these people will be overjoyed when something earlier is proven beyond question, but many will still be skeptical of the new data, no matter how solid, because that is human nature. 

Archaeologists in my generation seem to be a little more open to the pre-Clovis hypothesis - many open to the point of gullibility anytime a pre-Clovis claim is made (again, sometimes human nature trumps actual evidence).  Indeed, the generation immediately proceeding mine even developed new hypotheses for the populating of the Americas (the most popular of which is probably the Coastal Migration Hypothesis) that are now often taught to archaeology undergraduates.  This indicates that interest in very early sites is more popular than it has been in at least a few decades, though some would dispute that assertion.

But, nonetheless, pre-Clovis hasn't yet been proven in any meaningful way.  I think that it will be, it's just a matter of time, but when you see reports claiming otherwise, taken them with a grain of salt. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Everyday, Monitoring, Monitoring

 I am in Los Angeles, monitoring work being done in the downtown area.  Monitoring, that is watching construction or other work in order to ensure that no archaeological sites are impacted unnecessarrily.  Most of the time, there is a clear reason for monitoring - the work is in or near an archaeological site, or in an area thought to be sensitive for archaeological sites, but where they have not been found for some reason (areas with a history of flooding and the resulting sediments are good examples). 

I am currently monitoring in an area with a clear reason to suspect archaeological sites - there are many within the general vicinity, and the Los Angeles River used to flow on a meandering course through the area, meaning both that there was a clean source of water to entice settlement, and that there was a source of flood sediments to cover sites.

On the other hand, the work being done involves drilling with an 8" drill bit down to depths of 100 feet.  The drill, by its nature, crushes most of what comes up, meaning that artifacts are reduced to small chunks, less than a centimeter across all dimensions, if they are not reduced entirely to dust. 

So, this is an odd situation.  I would have recommended monitoring had I been the contractor who wrote the EIR for the project.  However, as the guy on the ground, I don't know that it's particularly useful.  However, there is nonetheless also a possibility of hitting burials, and bone fragments would be visible during the drilling, so I suppose the monitoring is worthwhile.  And, really, it's work, which is always welcome.

However, it's still really damn boring.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Argument By Obfuscation

Ahh, political season again...I fucking hate political seasons.  We get to see the worst of popular idiocy and dubious political rhetoric on display, and we get to hear both our elected officials and are want-to-be-elected officials try to mislead us for their own political ends. 

There are many ways in which those involved in politics try to mislead you, but one that seems to be dominant currently is a flavor of deception that I like to call "argument by obfuscation" - that is, trying to dissuade you from checking up on facts by either burying them under thick layer of rhetorical compost, or else getting you riled up and distracted.  This is different from just flat-out lying (although tactics used to achieve this effect include flat-out lying) in one important way - the people propagating the claims are generally less concerned with getting you to believe one particular bit of misinformation than they are with getting you to ignore reality in some way.  If you believe a particular lie, that's fine, but getting you to be confused with the sheer number of lies works pretty well, too.  It also works to simply get you to dislike someone who is telling you the truth, or, even better, to get you to think that they are unreliable, whether you like them or not.

Here's a few particular types of the argument by obfuscation that I have been seeing lately:

Hi-Ho Bronco!

People who spend time watching creationists know the Gish Gallup (named for Duane Gish, a leading nutjob in the creationist movement) - throw arguments, statements, and disingenuous questions at a debate opponent quickly, so that they don't have a chance to respond.  It's easy, someone who is ideologically motivated to argue for a position tends to also be someone who has little-to-no investment in telling the truth.  As a result, such a person (or organization, or movement) has little constraint in what they can make up, and can make crap up faster than a well-informed person can refute the nonsense. 

While this particular gambit is named for Duane Gish, it's popular in a variety of different movements.  People who are opposed to modern medicine (whether out of an admittedly reasonable dislike for the companies and/or system that produces said medicine or out of a delusional belief in new-age bullshit) will routinely either lie or accept lies told to them regarding the alleged evils of actual medications, while simultaneously accepting as legitimate all manner of nonsense regardless of how many laws of physics it violates (homeopathy, anyone?).  Likewise, we routinely hear about how the Obama administration is outlawing prayer, instituting death panels, imposing sharia law, planning to imprison priests, and so on

The basic concept of this approach is to simply drown someone in claims, so that even if they don't believe any of the ones that they have time to think about, they will be left with the impression that there are just so many claims that support a particular position that an opposing position, no matter how well supported, should be viewed with doubt.  Anyone who has dealt with pseudo-science (be it creationism, anti-vaccine nonsense, perpetual motion machines, aliens building pyramids, and so on) has encountered this time and again, but it is increasingly a popular political manuever as well.

Exaggeration as Truthiness

You know how 99% of people are protesting the top-earning 1%?  Oh, wait, that's not actually happening, is it?  No, what is happening is that a not-insignificant number of people (who, nonetheless are not the majority of people, much less the vast majority) are protesting issues surrounding the fact that there is an increasingly large gap between the nation's top-earners, and the rest of the country.  Many of the arguments for why this is a bad thing are sound, and it is a matter that, I think, should be of concern.  However, the protesters don't even necessarily speak for each other (ask five different protestors about their platform for change, you will get five different answers), much less 99% of the country.  Hell, I agree with the problem of the wealth gap, and these protestors don't speak for me.  The protestors and those who support these protests have adopted a rhetorical device (the 99%) that exaggerates the support that they claim to have from the nation at large.

This is, of course, nothing new.  In the 70s and 80s, we saw the political prominence of Jerry Fallwell's group, named the Moral Majority.  The very name of the group, much like The 99%, was intended to claim that this group spoke for most people, when, in fact, Fallwell and company really only spoke for a particularly delusional slice of the population.  More recently, we have groups such as The Million Moms, who tried (and failed) to get Ellen Degenerous fired from her position as JC Penney's Spokesperson while claiming that their numbers were far greater than they really were.  Stop and think for a few minutes, and you'll come up with many other examples.

This seems to go one of three ways: either there's an attempt at intimidation (such as the Million Moms claiming that they could stage a crippling boycott), an attempt to get a bandwagon going (you're a moral person, well, you should support the Moral Majority!), or an attempt to claim authority regarding the opinions of others (the Moral Majority did this, and the Occupy folks, with their 99% rhetoric are certainly doing this). 

That-There Well is Poisoned

We have all heard someone claim that the media is biased in favor of "liberal politics" and therefore anything that it says about a political and/or "culture war" issue shouldn't be trusted, right?  Of course, you likely have also been told that the media is controlled by the megacorporations that also own the Republican party, and therefore you shouldn't believe any of what they report regarding politics unless you want to be brainwashed by the right-wing Nazi machine.

There are, in fact, problems with media bias.  Large corporations do own most media outlets, and while they sometimes do mis-report news to the advantage of the parent corporation, my experience is that they are far more likely to mis-report it based on sensationalism and on the perceived biases of the audience.  It is good to bear this in mind when watching/listening to/reading the news, but it also has to be kept in mind that the fact that a source is biased in some way does not mean that all information that comes from it is wrong.  In fact, it's not uncommon for media bias to show up not in mis-reporting of information, but in not reporting it at all.  All of this together is the reason why you should have multiple sources from which you get news, not just to balance out the bias of whatever group you don't agree with, but also to make sure that you aren't being fooled by the echo chamber of your own side.

The problem, of course, is that most people don't do this.  They have a small number of sources from which they get their information.  And when an outside source reports facts that are not in concert with the previously held beliefs, our friend the media consumer simply says "well, of course THEY would say that!  they're biased and just want to brain wash the sheep that make up the other side" never once realizing the irony of the fact that to dismiss inconvenient facts as bias and lies without at least some investigation often leads one to becoming the mindless sheep.

Of course, this well-poisoning effect doesn't just apply to news outlets.  Scientists, clergy, university professors, southerners, Californians, major corporations, homosexuals, police officers, non-affiliated individuals, etc., etc., etc. all get labelled as untrustworthy to a person by many people.  The problem is that people will readily dismiss any and all information that they dislike that comes from a distrusted source, and give little reason (to themselves or others) for the dismissal other than that the information came from "them." 

Don't like the fact that global warming is in fact both occurring and anthropogenic?  Well, it's obvious that scientists are involved in a major conspiracy to promote this belief!  Don't like the fact that a person who you admired was convicted of a crime?  Well, clearly the police framed them and the DA and PD's offices went along to cover the asses at city hall! Don't like the fact that nuclear power is either safer or not as safe as you like to claim?  Well, the source that you hear dissenting opinion from is simply either shilling for the nuclear industry or is bowing to political pressure from radical environmentalists.

Again, the point here isn't to get you to believe anything in particular, just to doubt certain positions, and to persuade you that anyone who provides information in support of positions is doing so for ideological, political, or financial reasons, so you can safely ignore anyone who disagrees with you.

In Summary...

These aren't the only forms that this tactic takes, and these forms are not mutually exclusive - pundits and politicians will often use more than one at a time - but what binds them together is that they are less concerned with getting you to believe something in particular, and more concerned with confusing you into submission, and doubting sources that might provide you with legitimate information.  This is not a new tactic, by any means, but it seems to have become more prominent over the last few decades.  While it is currently probably most effectively used in electoral politics by the Republican Party, it is used to varying degrees by both of the two major parties, and you will see it used by groups with both left wing and right wing affiliations to get you good and confused.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Pregnancy, Children, and Pseudo-Knowledge

I promise that I will not be one of those bloggers who, upon finding out about impending parenthood, turns their site over entirely to baby stuff.  However, this ties in with themes that I have often addressed in the past, so it seems appropriate.

I have long been aware of the ubiquitous presence of sloppy thinking that exists as regards pregnancy and child-raising.  It ranges from holier-than-thou attitudes about "eating only organic food from the pygmies of Northern India in order to make it easier to give birth to a clairvoyant baby in a redwood Hot Tub on an ancient Native American holy site" to poorly-thought-out folk wisdom along the lines of "my granny used to dope her babies up on morphine to get them to go to sleep, so it's just fine for babies, good for 'em even, and you can keep your eggheaded book-learnin' science away from me!"  What all of this has in common is just good (or, actually, bad) old-fashioned sloppy thinking and a heaping dollop of credulousness and gullibility. 

Okay, let's start with the "my granny says that cocaine is fine for a collicky baby!" crowd first.  Every now and again, I meet someone who informs me that all manner of things that are frowned upon by the medical community are fine for pregnant women and infants, because some relative (usually, though not always, the parent or grandparent of the person telling me this) continued to smoke/drink/shoot heroine/etc. when they were pregnant or nursing, and that person's kids turned out fine.  When you point out to the person that a range of long-term, well-controlled and documented studies show that, actually, these things result in significantly higher odds of problems for the child and/or mother, they quickly respond by referring back to said relative who did this thing and their kid who allegedly turned out "just fine."

The basic problem here is a lack of grasp of statistics.  An anecdote, assuming that the person even grasped the example upon which their anecdote is based, is a single data point.  There are always anomalous data points.  It doesn't matter what data set you are looking at.  And when you deal with biological entities, such as humans, where there are a number of weird confounding variables, you should expect the number of anomalous data points to increase.  That does not, in any way, change the fact that there will be clear trends within a larger data pool that will point to underlying causal relationships.

So, I don't care that your grandmother had a beer every day while pregnant with your dad and he came out okay.  Your dad's one data point.  When you look at a larger picture and take into account a large number of pregnancies, the fact still remains that consuming alcohol while pregnant increases the odds of problems.  Note the way that I phrased it there:  it doesn't guarantee that something will go wrong, but the chances of something going wrong are much higher.  Given our growing understand of fetal and early childhood development, this makes perfect sense.

To make matters more confounding, the emerging understanding of the biology of a developing human is demonstrating that problems related to consumption of substances such as alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy or early childhood (which largely comes from parents using doses of alcohol to get their young children to go to sleep) may be subtle and may not be apparent until the child is older.  Problems with coordination, brain development, behavior (related to brain development), etc. may become apparent long enough after the use of the alcohol that nobody without an advanced knowledge of developmental neurology is likely to link the two.  Nonetheless, such problems have begun to become apparent in the scientific data, which gives further reason to question much of the folk wisdom regarding the use of various substances while pregnant or nursing, or during early childhood.

Now, flip that around to the "my womb is a temple to my child's purity" group, and you see the flipside of this misapprehension of basic mathematical and scientific concepts.  Recently, Kaylia was having a hard time eating.  She suddenly had a craving for chicken McNuggets, and she indulged.  She has, by and large, been eating well (plenty of fruits and vegetables, good protein sources, etc.), but this one day she had a single thing from a fast food place (which she supplemented with a green salad and some milk).  When she mentioned this on Facebook, she received a bizarrely negative reaction from a couple of people who insisted that she was somehow "poisoning her baby!" by eating the deep-fried chicken gloop.  Every mother or expectant mother that I know has had a similar experience.

Part of this comes from people who fail to grasp reality just as badly as the people who think that drinking while pregnant is a fine idea.  There are studies that show problems resulting from poor nutrition during pregnancy.  However, what people who think that "Chicken McNuggets are poison!" fail to grasp is that it isn't some magical substance in the food that causes the problem (well, not usually*), but rather the problems result from chronic malnutrition resulting in women relying heavily on fast food or other nutrient-poor diets through a substantial portion of their pregnancy.  Having Chicken McNuggets every now and again is not going to do you or your fetus any harm.  In fact, much of the alarmist thinking regarding these sorts of things seems to derive from some of our deep-rooted mechanisms for avoiding contagion and pollution (the same mechanisms that, weirdly, also likely form at least part of our tendency towards bigotries), where we have a notion of "one drop pollution" built into our brains (and conversely, the real issue of dose size corresponding to response is counter-intuitive and therefore often ignored, even though it is actually true), which gets applied even when it is plainly, obviously wrong. 

Another part of this seems to comes from the fact that people have a difficult time separating what seems gross to them from what is actually bad for them.  This is probably related to our weird, and wrong, built-in cognition regarding pollution, but it seems to go wider.  If you know the process by which Chicken McNuggets are made, it sounds pretty disgusting.  However, the process does not result in anything that is dangerous (provided it is eaten in moderation).  Indeed, during the Facebook thread, the majority of the comments attempting to take Kay to task focused not on any actual data regarding the content of the food, but instead on the perceived "grossness" of how it was made.  The fact that these people were having such problems distinguishing food safety reality from their culturally-inculcated ideas regarding disgust made their holier-than-thou attitude about the matter even more annoying than they otherwise would have been.

One of the obnoxious issues that we have encountered is that it is very common for people in one of these two groups to not grasp that you are not from the opposing lunatic group when you disagree with them.  Suggesting that someone might want to reconsider using whiskey to put their child to sleep (yes, I know people who have done this) is not the same as saying that you should only be feeding your child shaman-blessed dehydrated organic carrots from the Mongolian Plain.  Likewise, being willing to feed your kid formula on occasion rather than a diet of all breast milk all of the time** doesn't mean that you are an unfit parent who would willingly let their kid shoot up heroine by the age of one. 

Ultimately, we have made it as a species as long as we have because we are resilient, and we do alright in the long run.  We don't need to have a moral panic over whether or not a pregnant woman has a hamburger.  However, we now have tools, thanks to science, that allow us to find flaws in the folk knowledge that we have long relied upon, and to do better as a result, and those who choose to ignore them for the sake of tradition are being foolish.

*There are, of course, foods that pregnant women should avoid, and an even wider range that pregnant women should only have in moderation.  These are well known, though you should check with a real doctor (the kind you'll find at a real hospital) and not the local naturopath, herb seller, etc.  The research backing pregnancy diets is fairly good, but most people outside of medicine rely overly-much of "folk wisdom" that should more accurately be referred to as "folk misinformation." 

**Oh, and the weird nations that people have about the magical nature of breast milk are pretty obnoxious, too.  Yes, I grasp that the data does support the claim that breast feeding is best for an infant.  That doesn't mean that breast feeding is the only, or even the primary, factor influencing success in life, and if you want to rant at me otherwise, then save us both the trouble and go stick your head in a pig.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Early Avocational Archaeologists

I am working on a project right now where I have to deal with an archaeological site that was first recorded by a man named Oscar Noren. 

Noren was a rancher and farmer who lived in the San Joaquin Valley during the early 20th century, and who became interested in the native peoples of the area.  He began to travel throughout the region, looking for archaeological sites, but also, importantly, getting to know the people of the area.  He collected a huge amount of anthropological and archaeological data, organized it in a usable fashion, and left behind some excellent notes that are still used by archaeologists in the region, all without the benefit of any formal training in anthropology or archaeology.  Noren's ties to the native community are solid, and he is still remembered fondly by the members of the community who interacted with him in their youths.

Most parts of California have someone like this - the avocational anthropologist who, out of sheer curiosity, was able to provide a base from which regional archaeologists, ethnographers, and ethnohistorians have since worked.  Their reputations have fared differently depending on their methods and their approaches - those who tended to go digging without consultation with the Native communities have generally been though poorly of by both the Native peoples of their regions as well as by modern anthropologists; those who simply collected folklore and language information uncritically have provided a useful record, but one that can be very difficult to use as it often contains contradictory and confusing information; many were engaged in other ideological work that colored their view of what they were doing - I have read a few entries by itinerant preachers who also did amateur archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th century, and while they can provide very useful information, their disdain of the people whose remains they examined often shines through in not only the tone of their writings but also the information that they deem worth recording.

But, faults, and all, this work oftne provides information about both archaeology and ethnography which is not at all available today due to the effects of erosion, as well as cultural change.  These accounts are greatly valuable.

Noren's work, which I have only recently become acquainted with, is particularly fascinating.  From what I have seen so far, he seems more interested in observation and interaction with people than in deep interpretation, which makes his work very usable for a modern anthropologist.  Moreover, because he made an effort to build and maintain ties with the Native San Joaquin community, I encounter people regularly who knew him and can fill in the occasional gaps in his information.  It's really a fascinating exercise.

The modern equivalent of these folks is found in local archaeological societies and archaeological clubs - groups of people actually interested in the real past, who have a desire to read, study, record, and discuss their work in a solid, defensible way.  While I know of nobody who currently has the ability to record the volume of information as these early avocationalists, mostly because of changes in land ownership to social norms, the spirit is still there, and it's something that I think needs to be nurtured. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

I Hate Regulatory-ese

One of the big problems that I have in writing reports is the often confused language that one sees within the laws and regulations.  For example, any archaeological site, historic building, or place of strong community importance is a "cultural resource."  Under California's environmental law, any cultural resource that is eligible for listing on the California Register of Historic Resources is a "Historical Resource" which includes prehistoric sites.  However, archaeologists have long (as in well pre-dating the origin of these laws) made a distinction between historic and prehistoric sites (historic sites were occupied by people who came from a culture that produced written records, prehistoric sites were left by people who did not leave written records).  But the term "prehistoric resource" doesn't mean anything in a regulatory sense, while "historical resource" means an important site/building/whatever that might be prehistoric, but might also be historic, and it sounds alot like "cultural resource" which is a generic term that says nothing about the status of the resource regarding the California Register. 

Under federal law and regulation, the term "historical resource" means a cultural resource that dates to after European contact with the Americas.  It doesn't mean anything regarding the eligibility for a cultural resource to the National Register of Historic Places (the federal equivalent of the California Register of Historic Resources).  So, if you are writing a report for a federal agency, you can describe a site as a "historical resource" without worrying about triggering any alarms regarding register eligibility.  If you are writing a report that will be reviewed by both a state and a federal agency (which is pretty common), then you simply have to avoid using the term altogether in order ot not be making claims about the eligibility of a resource for either register. 

The problem is made more annoying when you consider that we often have to talk about historic-era resources, historic-era sites, cultural layers, and cultural deposits when we are discussing archaeological sites.  So the terms "historic" and "cultural" are in very heavy use, and it takes frequent checking and care to ensure that we are not mis-stating things and using a regulatory term like "historical resource" (a site, whether prehistoric or historic, that IS eligible for the California Register) when discussing a "historic site" (which is a site with historic-era, but not prehistoric, materials that may or may not be eligible for the California Register).  the presence of the words "cultural" and "historic/historical" become meaningless until you see what word immediately follows it, and there is a high likelihood that it will be a word that gives the sentence in which is appears a substantially different meaning, while looking very similar.

It gets rather confusing.  Adding to the mess is that all of us have our own ways of keeping the different terms straight, but that each consultant and each regulator does so in subtly different ways, so the review process often contains far too much confusion regarding what, precisely, is meant by any given sentence, and a level of scrutiny is sometimes applied to each word choice that veers away from bordering on the silly and sails through loopy harbor out into the open waters of the sea of absurdity.

And yet you have to engage in this level of scrutiny in order to present accurate information that does not incorrectly make claims as to the legal status of a particular site. 

The language seems to be a classic case of decision by committee, where the wording was eventually agreed upon in order to not piss anyone off, and everyone was at that point too tired to actually give much thought as to whether the regulatory language might not cause further confusion. 


Friday, February 3, 2012

The Politics of Ethnicity Names

Growing up in the late 70s and the 80s, I was fed a diet of media in which the native peoples of the United States were referred to as "Indians", while simultaneously being told in school that the proper, respectful term was "Native American."  The term "Indian" of course comes from mistakes that early European settlers had made regarding where they thought they had landed.  They believed that they had found the islands then known as the Indies, hence the people living on them were Indians.  Even after they realized that this was incorrect, the term "Indian" stuck for quite a long time.

Still, as a kid, I was informed that the proper term was "Native American", and any use of the term "Indian" in school was corrected.  My grandmother, the one Native American person with whom I had regular contact, never voiced an opinion one way or another on the matter, so I went with it and used "Native American", feeling a bit uncomfortable when someone, usually someone older than I, used the term "Indian."  Throughout college this continued to be the primary term used to describe the peoples of the Americas, and even into graduate school.

Then I began working with Native Americans on a regular basis.  You can imagine my shock when they referred to themselves, consistently and with few, if any, exceptions, as "Indians."  How they reacted to me calling them "Native Americans" varied greatly - most don't react one way or another, a few react negatively (I have been told on a few occasions "no, we are INDIANS!"), and a few react positively (feeling that the use of the term "Indian" is fine for themselves and their fellows, but those of us who they do not recognize as being part of their community should use the term "Native American" or, where I work, "Native Californian").  It's probably little surprise that I took to using more specific terms (referring to people as Chumash, Yokut, Miwok, Ohlone, and so on, terms which never seem to elicit a negative reaction). 

What accounts for the continued use of the word within Native American circles?  Well, ask ten different members of the community,a nd you'll likely get ten different answers as to why they still use the term, but there are a few common reasons that I have come across.  One is that the term was long something of a term of abuse (hence the reason why Native American became the more polite term), but through using it and claiming it, many people feel that they have taken the sting out of it.  Another related reason that I have encountered is that many people within the native communities feel that they have earned the term through centuries of being saddled with it and having to deal with European views of all native peoples being pretty much the same, and always treated as inferiors.  Another reason that I have heard is that each group had their own term for themselves, and that they consider the term "Indian" and the term "Native American" to be equally arbitrary, and are simply a bit annoyed at the desire of non-natives to switch terms.

Regardless, watching this play out has been rather interesting, and has provided a valuable lesson in how different individuals and groups place often wildly different values on the ethics and politics of how ethnic terminology develops.

I have also learned that few people, if anyone, minds when you refer to their particular group by its proper name.  So, that's probably the biggest practical lesson here.