The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Trying to Do Something New With It?

It seems that, whenever I encounter someone who is an advocate of some form of pseudo-archaeology, after I have exhaustively pointed out the flaws, inconsistencies, and made-up-shit that goes into their pet hypothesis, I am told something along the lines of "well, at least I (or the person who they are quoting) am trying to do something different with this information!  THAT has value!"

If you are genuinely trying to do something new and innovative with old information, and trying to do it in such a way that you are not engaging in fabricating information, using special pleading to make your case, or in some other way being a dishonest bastard, then yes, trying to do something new has value.

The people who use this as the last-line defense for their pet hypothesis, though?  Well, A) they are almost always just trying to maintain an older, stupid idea ("ancient astronauts," Biblical literalism, etc.) and aren't actually trying anything new, and B) they are pretty much always conflating "trying something new" with playing fast-and-loose with evidence and ignoring anything even vaguely approaching logic or honesty.

If you think I'm being overly harsh, then let's consider the fact that this explanation is pretty much only used in pseudo-science, and is not present in any other realm where people try to arrive at some sort of coherent explanation of events.

For example, in criminal investigations, you would rightfully dismiss someone as a nut if they insisted that a theft was committed by aliens, and then proceeded to "prove" this by making references to out-of-context information from unrelated crimes, pulling bits and pieces of conspiracy beliefs from pop culture, making up "facts", and ignoring relevant information from the actual crime scene.  They would certainly be "doing something new" with the information...but that something new would not only not get you anywhere closer to solving the crime, it would, in fact, move you farther and farther away from the real solution.  A person doing this would be immediately drummed out of the investigation and replaced with someone who was, you know, actually mentally competent.

And yet this same basic procedure - pulling out-of-context information from unrelated sites, pulling "facts" out of pop culture rather than data, making false claims about relevant sites, and often just making shit up - is the norm in pseudo-archaeology, and even people who are not directly involved in it often defend these practices by claiming that the pseudo-scholar is "trying to do something new" with the information.

Often, perhaps typically, implied under all of this is the notion that real archaeologists (or, as the pseudo-archaeologists often label us "establishment archaeologists - booo, hisssss, bad establishment!") aren't trying to find anything new.  Sometimes it is flat out stated - there are many claims from the pseudo scholars that actual scholars are just trying to maintain some sort of "status quo", which reveals the true depth of the ignorance of the pseudo scholars - but at least as often it's just sort of implied, clearly there as an accusation, but covered up enough that the accuser can deny it if called on it.

The truth, however, is that we are working far harder than any of these twits.  We are routinely trying to test and verify our methods and our results (see here for a summarized history of how archaeology has changed, or read this for a more thorough discussion).  I have opened myself up to criticism by my professional colleagues for presenting papers that were not in-line with established models of past cultures, I have also found and publicized artifacts that are out-of-keeping with established cultural chronologies, and I have long supported archaeologists who work on the frontiers of what we think we know (for example, those working on pre-Clovis archaeology in North America).  And I am not alone, some solitary warrior fighting against the "establishment" - every archaeologist that I know who presents papers or publishes their findings does similar things.  Trying to "do something new" is what archaeologists do.

Now, it could be said that we should be better at communicating this to the general public.  That is a valid criticism, and certainly one that I, and others try to address by keeping blogs, giving public lectures, appearing on podcasts, and so on.  Some of us are lucky enough to be able to participate in radio and television, which is where most people get their information.

However, while we might do a better job of communicating our work and our findings, that in no way absolves the pseudo-archaeologists who distort, lie, and obfuscate.  And, if you are someone who is going to  claim that real archaeologists aren't "doing something new" then I offer you a challenge:  When is the last time that you read an issue of National Geographic?  Smithsonian Magazine?  Or looked at professional journals such as American Antiquity?  If you haven't done so lately, then you don't know what archaeologists are up to, and you sound as ignorant as you truly are when you imply that we aren't doing anything, or are simply supporting the "status quo."

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