The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Kissing Hank's Ass

You know, some things just speak for themselves.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Psychic Archaeologists

Some years back, a former boss of mine, by the name of Travis, worked on a project for the State of Colorado. The project involved the excavation of a prehistoric settlement site, and attracted a good deal of interest from both the news media and the historic preservation community.

On one particular day, a representative from the state government came to view the work, and brought a friend of his. As it turns out, this friend of his claimed to be able to identify archaeological sites and features using his psychic powers (perhaps he phrased it differently, claiming to feel energies or some such thing, Travis could not remember). At any rate, he identified several locations within the site, flagging them, and describing what would be found should Travis excavate at these locations (one was a burial, another was a hearth feature, etc.).

Because this yahoo was a friend of the government official, and that official's agency would have to approve the final report, Travis had little choice but to excavate. So, as demanded, time and money was wasted excavating the spots that the alleged psychic flagged, and - much to everyone's surprise - nothing was found at any of these locations. With this waste of time done, the excavation continued along its correct course, and the work was finished.

A few days later, Travis was reading the newspaper, when he saw an article about the project. The article described the involvement of the "psychic archaeologist" and, quite at odds with reality, stated that the guy had correctly predicted the locations of buried features.

Travis called the newspaper, and, after a bit of run-around, finally was able to speak with the reporter. He explained to the reporter that the "psychic" had failed to locate any features, and that those locations that had been flagged all turned up negative results.

The reporter's response? "Well, we all have an opinion on the matter" followed by hanging up the phone.

Of course.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What's in a Constitution, After All?

As you may have heard, the California Supreme Court determined that Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to prohibit gay marriage, was passed in a manner consistent with the state's constitution. I'm not going to get into my views on the proposition itself - my views on the matter and my dissapointment with my fellow Californians is no secret - rather, I have to say that I am disturbed by the notion that the state constitution can be amended by a simple majority in a public vote.

This disturbs me for a very simple reason - a constitution, whether state or federal, is the basic law for the region of its jurisdiction. All other laws must be subservient to the constitution, requiring that the constitution be a stable document not prone to easy manipulation. In the case of the U.S. constitution, it is necessary for two thirds of the legislature to propose an amendment*, and for three-fourths of the states to ratify the amendment. It's tough, as it should be, but it does allow for flexibility and growth in the law.

Although the dynamics for amending the state's constitution should be different - a state government is a different entity than a federal government after all - it is nonetheless the case that, being the founding law of the state, the constitution should be a tough document to alter. Frankly, I do not think that it should be alterable by popular vote - more on that below - but if it CAN be altered by popular vote, then it SHOULD be a large majority, at least 75%, and not a simple majority. This leaves us open to a wide variety of very bad laws being encoded into our constitution because a well-funded group successfully used scare tactics or other methods to manipulate the populace to vote on a meritless measure.

At any rate, even those who favored Proposition 8's purpose should see that there are some serious problems with a system that allows the foundational law to be changed so easily.

Okay, so as to why I think that amending the constitution should not be left to popular vote...

It's sounds good on the surface. After all, it allows us, collectively, to decide the laws under which we live. But it's really not as simple as that. Take a political issue - immigration, education, science funding, prison policy, and so on - and you will find at least two sides, and usually more, pushing policy positions. If you have the time to really dig in, and you manage to successfully separate propaganda from the actual information, then you will quickly discover that at least one side is full of crap, and often you will find that EVERY side is full of crap. And yet, full of crap or not, voters will flock to the position that best fits with their preconceived notions (and this typically includes even the voters who go with a position that it based in reality - they do so because it fits their previous ideas, not because it makes sense). The reason for this is simple: most of these issues are complex, and none of us, myself included, has the time or energy necessary to investigate every claim.

Which is why we hire (read: vote in) legislators - their job is to investigate these issues, usually with the help of staffers, and make decisions based on the best information available, so that the rest of us can do our own jobs knowing that we have delegated this task to someone. But that's not how it works, of course. Legislators have found that getting re-elected often requires making popular policy decisions, which are often either bad or simply innefective. When there is a tough decision, one that is likely to get a legislator in trouble no matter how they act, well, they can rely on the initiative system to deal with it so that they don't have to take responsibility.

Don't get me wrong, I like the initiative system, in principle. And it has delivered some very good legislation, as well as some very, very bad legislation. But it has become abused, and we, the people of California, have become the micromanagers who do the work of our employees (the legislators - remember, they are not our leaders, they are our employees) and the employees have become lax on their duties as a result.

* Actually, an amendment can also be proposed via a constitutional convention, but this has not been done in U.S. history.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sleep Hallucinations

Early last Monday morning, I woke up to see Kay cuddled up beside me. As I looked at her, she opened her eyes, looked up at me, and intoned a series of strange syllables in an ominous tone of voice. She then closed her eyes and turned away from my face.

Was Kay posessed? Did some malevolent force enter her mind and force her to do it's bidding?

No. I had a very common, if somewhat unnerving, experience.

My body had begun to wake up, but my brain was still slumbering. As a result, I could perceive what was really around me, the room, Kay cuddled up, the light coming in from the window, but I was also still dreaming and my brain was incorporating what was really around me into the dream. In other words, I was halfway asleep and as a result I hallucinated. This is very common, it happens to all of us from time-to-time, and is nothing to be alarmed about.

It is also the source of many false perceptions that are taken to be "proof" of the supernatural.

After Kay did her little bout o' speakin' in tongues, I blinked, and there were a few subtle differences in the room. The position of the light on the walls was a bit different, Kay's position was a bit different, and the arrangement of the blankets was a bit different. All of it was subtle, and would have been easy to miss if I hadn't thought to look for it, but all of it also clearly showed that what I had just seen hadn't actually happened, and because I knew a little bit about how we sleep and how we wake up, I knew enough to be able to figure out what had, in fact, occurred.

Here's another example: As a teenager, I woke up one night to hear the sound of artillery shells, and saw that my room was occupied by somewhat luminescent and translucent World War I-era soldiers, preparing to leave the trench for the machine-gun fed slaughter that was mistakenly called a "battle" during that war. I knew that I had to go with my comrades, as futile as it was, and so I began to don my backpack, pcik up my rifle, and get ready. I was still in my room, but I knew that once I opened the door, I would be int he trench, and ready to fight. I went to the door, opened it, and saw my this point, I had completely waken, and felt a bit foolish to be standing there in my backpack, holding a dowel that I had been keeping in my room for who-knows-what reason.

Again, I could have viewed this as some sort of weird visitation or out-of-body experience, but instead I reflected on the fact that earlier in the evening I had been watching a television show about WWI-era trench warfare, and that the descriptions of the misery of the soldiers had really disturbed and gotten to me, and I also had been having trouble sleeping lately. Putting the two together, it became obvious that I was experiencing a mundane, if somewhat creepy, event.

The point to all of this is pretty simple. When I collect ghost stories from people, most of them tell me about events that occurred while, or shortly after, they had been resting, usually (but not always) in bed. The descriptions are usuall pretty simple - they see someone standing over them that vanishes, they hear strange sounds that they can't identify, or they perhaps even get out of bed and see/hear/smell something unusual. Invariably, the teller of the tale assures me that they were awake, and I hear those words "I know what I" saw/heard/smelt/etc. However, I have yet to hear one of these stories that is not absolutely compatible with near-sleep hallucinations. I also have never had a conversation with someone about such and experience in which they said that they had bothered to look for dosconfirming evidence before deciding that their experience was a supernatural one.

"I know what I saw!" is always used as if it could somehow settle the matter in the mind of the person hearing the story. I don't doubt that the person honestly perceived what they tell me that they perceieved, just as I perceieved a possessed Kay and a spectral platoon. Nonetheless, these things were, faaaaaaaar more likely than not, simply artifacts of our brains' sleep patterns. Demanding otherwise will not change that fact.

As for "but I wasn't asleep when this happened!"...well, that's a bit like a guy in a bar demanding his keys because "I'm not drunk!"

And, hey, if I tell you that it was probably a hallucination, I'm not saying that you're crazy, though most people seem to think that only the insane have hallucinations. The truth is that we all have these experiences, I have described two of my own right here. You're not crazy, you're human, like the rest of us. Now, come on up to the bar and let me get you a drink.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Last of the Japan Photos

Okay, this is the last of my Japan photos, though I have photos from other trips that I plan on posting.

A Buddhist processional in Kamakura:

Funny story - Kay knew about the processional, I did not, I just saw a pathway that people were heading down and figured that there would be something interesting that way, so onward I went, with Kay in tow. We finally arrived at the shrine, and swept up in a sea of humanity, we ended up marching to the shrine with the pilgrims. So, I took part in a pilgrimage without A) being a believer, or B) knowing I was doing so. How's that for obliviousness? Good thing I'm an archaeologist and not an ethnographer.

The processional - IN COLOR!

Yes, that is a Ku Klux Klan action figure in a vending machine in Tokyo. No, I don't know why the Japanese made a KKK toy, either.

As Chief Quimby might say: "That's some nice English you're using there." As Homer Simpson would say: "Mmmmmmm...Freshness Burger...."

Okay, and now the cutsie photos - if you're diabetic, you may want to skip to the next entry to avoid the sugar content here. Otherwise, you have been warned.

Pat and Stacy (AKA the Pat-Stack-Attack):

Kay and myself:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Transitional Fossils"

I have been reading The Dragon Seekers, a fascinating book about the early fossil hunters of western Europe. One of the things that really interests me in this book is the use of certain pieces of terminology that make sense in the context of the early 19th century understanding.

One such term is "transitional fossil" AKA "the missing link", something that young-Earth creationists (YECs) often claim doesn't exist. A transitional fossil would be a fossil that clearly stands midway between two species, say between a Homo erectus and a Homo sapien sapien (yes, our species is Homo sapien sapien, which differentiates us from Homo sapien neandertalis, sometimes simply called Homo neandertalis, or the Neanderthals). The problem with this notion of transitional fossils is twofold.

First off, it's prone to "moving goalposts." A YEC may say "there is not transitional fossils linking humans to other apes." Then you show them Australopithecus Afarensis, which is a fossil descended from other apes and ancestral to humans. Once you have provided them with this "transitional fossil", they then claim that it is invalid because you can't show a connection between A. afarensis and humans. So, you show them Homo habilis, which is, again, a link between modern humans and Australopithecines, and they will then claim that you can't show a transition between H. habilis and modern humans...and on and on it goes, every time that you show them what they ask for, they find a way to worm their way out of accepting reality. I have even had conversations with YECs where I have shown them every homonid fossil I could think of, clearly linking humans and other orders of apes*, only to have the YEC then shift the goal posts even further and demand that the only suitable evidence for evolution would be blood tests proving that these creatures were ancestral to the humans - and I can only imagine what their excuse would have been for denying that if I had been able to produce such a thing.

So, shifting goal posts is one problem with the use of the term "transitional fossil", but there is another problem, one that dogs scientific spokesmen and the public alike. That is that species are not fixed types, but are constantly changing due to the forces of evolution (genetic drift, mutation, natural selection, etc. etc.). So, any given species is constantly undergoing subtle modifications which are likely to cause new species to arise, and those that we identify either in the world around us or in the fossil record are merely "snapshots in time" of the process of change. In other words, depending on how you look at it, either there are no transitional fossils or EVERY fossil is a transitional fossil.

Now, given our modern understanding of the mechanisms of reproduction and genetic change, the term "transitional fossil" as a marker of change from one species to another becomes, really, meaningless except as a rhetorical tool, and as a rhetorical tool it's prone to mis-use by those who deny the reality of evolution (such as the YECs). However, as I have been reminded of by The Dragon Seekers, there was a point in time when this term did make sense, within the context of the knowledge of the day.

The early fossilists worked out that the animals that populated the earth had changed over time. However, most of them believed that species were fixed, and did not "transmutate", to use the terminology of the day. The reason for this was partially religious, most of these early fossilists were Christians and a solid foundation for geology and biology had not yet been worked out, making the overall creation story as good an explanation as any for the world they observed**. The reason was also partially cultural but non-religious, these people were part of a movement that sought to explain the world through categorization, and these categories tended to be thought of as both objective and fixed, an error that still creates problems.

At any rate, the thought was that species were fixed (or at least very stable), and therefore a transitional fossil representing a volatile intermediate stage would be expected if one stable species changed into another stable species. Such a fossil would be a "missing link" or transition between two stable classifications.

But, we now understand biology well enough to recognize that terms such as "missing link" and "transitional fossil" aren't very useful, but they still continue to be used, nearly two centuries after the last nails should have been hammered into their coffins. I think that there are two reasons for this. The first is that those who have a stake in viewing species as fixed, primarily the YECs mentioned above, keep trotting the terms out, claiming that they mean something in order to try to persuade others that evolution is not true. As these folks are vocal and have a fairly strong political and media presence***, they have been able to keep these terms, which serve their cause and create grief for scientists, active.

The second, and probably larger, reason is that these terms are, let's face it, catchy. Especially "the missing link." As such, the media likes to use them, and they continue to be in circulation.

As a result, these terms remain in popular culture, despite the fact that we would all be better off if they were just dropped.

And then today, I see this article, thanks to Kay. And, again, the term "missing link" is used to describe the find. However, in this case, it is a bit more appropriate. This fossil provides information about the point when primates deviated from other types of mammals, and so the term isn't complete nonsense.

*"Ape" is a taxonomic designation - in other words, it's a label used to group together animals that share certain common traits. Humans have the ape traits, and as such, we didn't "come from apes" - we are a type of ape, just as a Chihuahua and a German Shepperd, though very different animals, are both dogs.

**Contrary to popular belief, Darwin was not the first person to propose evolution, it was an idea that had been floating about, he was just the first to comprehend the mechanism and to explain it in a way that accounted for the evidence better than any other explanation that had been proposed up to that time. So, prior to Darwin, there were people who saw the evidence for evolution, but they lacked the necessary clues to put it together into a viable scientific theory.

***Think I'm wrong? Think back to the debates between the Republican candidates, and remember how several were willing to deny reality - evolution, that is - when asked? This is one of the major political parties, expected to get a huge chunk of the popular vote, and they represent the views of alot of people. Reality denial and opposition to good science isn't as fringe as many people like to think it is.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Portland, Oregon Photos

Okay, this is the last of the travel photo blog posts for a while, I promise.

Late last year, Kay and I took a trip to Portland. Below are some of the photos I took while there, but I am trying to avoid posting simple travel photos, I actually tried ot take some that had aesthetic merit beyond simply being images from my trip.

So, for starters - Kay looks away from me while in a coffee shop:

Laura does her best to look either dour or very bored while in the same coffee shop:

Okay, so this one isn't particularly aesthetically pleasing:

...but there is a good story behind it. Kay and I went on a "haunted Portland" walking tour (Kay's idea, even though I'm the one who enjoys the ghost stories - she's a damn fien travel companion, I must say), and were led into the basement of one of the buildings downtown. The tour guide insists that the basement is haunted by the spirit of a dead prostitute, and handed us EMF meters and gave us a line that....well, really, that need sto be its own blog entry. Anyway, the scrabble pieces are sitting in a bowl because, the tour guide insisted, the ghost of "Nina" (pronounce Ny-na), the aforementioned dead prostitute, used them to comunicate with the living.

Kay in a mock-up of one of the Mercury Space Capsules - apparently she can retaliate with photos of me trying to fit my bulky mass into the same things, so perhaps I shouldn't have posted this...

In the middle of this huge march, this woman sat in an "island" of calm to tend to a child. I don't know why, but I really like this photo:

I just thought that the scaffolding on the building made for an interestingly symmetrical image:

Looking up at the sky from within the courtyard of an old brick building:

And lastly...Kay and Laura walking away from me pretending as if they do not know me...probably a wise move on their part, really.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Curse of SLC-6

This post is cross-posted at my my ghost story blog, but it is the sort of thing I would also put on this blog, so there ya' go.


Vandenberg Air Force Base is located just north of the California Bight - the point where the California coast turns from a north-south course to an east-west course. The Chumash, the native people of the region, considered Point Conception and the surrounding area to be the gateway to the afterlife*. When Camp Cook was established in the first half of the 20th century, and later expanded as Vandenberg air Force Base, this upset members of the Chumash community still present in Santa Barbara County. To make matters worse, when the Air Force built Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6, AKA "slick" 6) during the 1960s, it is said that the construction disturbed an archaeological site containing human remains. Whether due to the disturbance of the human remains, or the actions of a shaman, the site became cursed (or did sure to read the commentary below).

The project became embroiled in political problems and government blunders. The SLC was originally developed for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, but this project was shut down after construction. The SLC was then to be the site of space shuttle launches, but these were cancelled after the Challenger exploded in 1986 (an event that some people lay at the feet of the curse). Several rocket launches were attempted, and all failed.

The construction of the complex was also not without problems - bad welds, exhaust ducts trapping gases, extremely bad winds (which, in truth, is normal for this area), and cost over-runs all plagued the project.

Finally, the contractor running the facility on behalf of the air force contacted a shaman, who performed a ceremony to lift the curse. Ever since then, the facility has run smoothly.

Commentary: Okay, alot going on here. Let's start with the "dry facts" and then get into the interesting stuff. First off, this is a classic "built on an Indian burial ground" story. In this case, as in most other such stories, there was in fact no archaeological site at the location of SLC-6, and therefore no burials.

Also, the initiation and cancellation of programs related to SLC-6 makes perfect sense in the context of the nature of and changes to military spending throughout the 1960s and 1970s, so you don't really need a curse to explain that. Likewise, the construction problems are rather typical of the sub-rate contractors who sometimes manage to wrangle their way onto military bases, as well as unique elements of the weather and environment on the base that make construction difficult to begin with.

In other words, you don't need a curse to explain what happened.

Which leads to an interesting question - why did the story of the curse arise to begin with, and why does it persist?

In order to understand that, you have to understand when the story originated. And that would be the 1970's.

As Dwayne Day points out, the story began in the 1970's, during a time of social change and ethnic empowerment movements. The Native American movement resulted in the organization of tribes into politically vocal (and eventually effective) groups that began to protest the treatment of Native American archaeological sites as well as the mis-treatment of Native American individuals and groups. In the midst of this, the development of Point Conception became a hotspot for protests, and, to a lesser degree, so did the development of southern Vandenberg.

Day argues that the curse story began as a way to place blame for the problems at the expensive complex. There may be some validity to this argument, but I think that the explanation may be simpler. The stories probably began as jokes, engineers talking about how the place was "cursed". But regardless of how they started, the stories probably spread for two reasons: A) everyone loves a good spook story, and will tend to share it whenever possible, and B) alot of people hold to the, frankly racist, belief that Native American sites are filled with, for lack of a better term "bad mojo" - which is why the old "built on an Indian burial ground" trope gets tossed around whenever weird things happen at a particular location.

Regardless, the story annoys and offends many of the local Chumash (although I have met a few who think that its funny). This is understandable - how would the average baptist feel if they heard that a place was haunted because their church's pastor had cursed it? Also, beliefs such as this reinforce the "mystical red man" stereotype that has, unfortunately, helped to keep many racist beliefs about the native peoples of the Americas alive.

For this reason, when the contractor hired a shaman to "lift" the curse, this upset the locals, and resulted in the Air Force brass having to do some fast work to try to mend the damage to an improving relationship with the Chumash community.

Wackiness: When I was an intern in the environmental conservation office at Vandenberg, we had, in our library, a paper that had been written by a student at the local community college about the curse. The paper, filled with all manner of hokey pseudo-intellectual silliness, demonstrated that the author was overly-reliant on spell check - the paper constantly made reference to "viscous underworld beings."

So, if the site is cursed, it's okay, the underworld beings who haunt it move reeeeeaaaaalllllll slow, so you can make your getaway without breaking a sweat.

Sources: Personal Accounts, Local Folklore, Internet, Internet, Internet

*Or so it is typically believed, the truth is a little messier, and there are alot of different stories concerning the afterlife and how to get there. The Chumash were not a single monolithic group, but were comprised of numerous different autonomous villages who all shared a language family and material culture. There were probably alot of different beliefs concerning the afterlife, and the confusion regarding whether or not Point Conception was important to it probably comes from the conflation of alot of different stories from alot of different groups.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Look of mean...Archaeology

I am attempting to determine whether or not archaeology has an image problem. The public certainly has a skewed view of what an archaeolgoist is, and what we do, but I'm not sure whether that works for us or against us.

Most people, if asked, think that archaeologists look like this:

Or perhaps this:

But, of course, archaeologists look more like this,

tired and fatigued after carying heavy equipment a long distance. Or like this,

freezing our asses off at the campsite after a day of conducting fieldwork in the snow.

And obtaining artifacts looks less like this:

...and more like this:

In other words, the reality of archaeology is considerably less adventerous and sexy than the public perception, and considerably more of a daily grind with hardwork and inconveniences. Certainly, there are exciting moments - finding a cool artifact, having the data "click" in your mind and working out a puzzle, or debating with your colleagues and uncovering interesting facts and ideas. But, rather than run from booby traps, we stand around fires to ward off frostbite. Rather than fight Nazis, we contend with bedbugs at cut-rate motels. Rather than find idols of gold in long-forgotten temples, we carefully dig square holes and sift the dirt through 1/8" wire mesh looking for flakes of stone, pieces of bone, or the occassional bead. We don't find lost cities and civilizations, but rather we piece together an ever-more complete tapestry of facts to try to reveal what of the past that we can. We don't look for treasure, we sift the garbage of bygone eras looking for a sign of the people who left these remnants behind.

The question I have is: is this public mis-perception bad for archaeology?

Certainly, it's annoying to have to explain to people that I am more interested in examining collections of old shellfish than in seeking out holy relics. But, at the same time, the notion that archaeologists are dashing heroic adventurers no doubt does play into the fact that we generally do receive public support when Congress is threatening to gut the National Historic Preservation Act or limit archaeology funding via the National Science Foundation. So, is that a bad thing?

My knee-jerk reaction is to say "yes." After all, if we are benefiting from a lie, then it seems to me that we should not be benefiting at all. Of course, it's easy for me to say that when I am benefiting, and I suspect that I might change my tune were the situation to change.

At the same time, if I feel that this work is important, and obviously I do otherwise I would not have expended the time and energy necessary to get to where I am, then is it justifiable to take advantage of public misperception to continue doing said work? On the other hand, if he public misconceptions cause the public to expect something from us other than what we are doing, then might we simply be building up for a dissapointed backlash by taking advantage of this? Also, when we don't deliver on the expectations of palaces of silver and idols of gold, doesn't that just open up the doors to hoaxsters and charlatans such as Erich Von Daniken and Graham Hancock who are more than happy to just make shit up?

I don't know. But I have been wondering.

The reality is, of course, that real archaeologists do try to fight the misconceptions, indeed I have even tried to do so in this post. But I wonder if we are acting in our own interest when doing so - perhaps we are, perhaps we aren't, I don't know. And I also wonder if it would be ethical to change our tact and more actively take advantage of the image of Indiana Jones than we do, I am inclined to say that it would be unethical, but I can see compelling arguments to the contrary.

Regardless, I suspect that, for the near future anyway, things will continue as they have been, with hollywood pumping out nonsense, and archaeologists contradicting it and still benefiting from it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Anti-Vaccine Movement Lives on

Discover Magazine's website currently is hosting an article on why the anti-vaccine movement continues to grow despite the fact that all scientific evidence is mounted against them.

The anti-vaccine movement arguably began in 1999 when Andrew Wakefield published an article claiming a link between thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines, and autism. The "study" used a very small sample size, insufficient for clinical purposes, and it was later revealed that Wakefield had multiple financial interests in both decreasing the use of existing vaccines (because he had patented new ones) and in tying thimerosal and autism (he was being paid by attorneys representing families who wished to prove such a connection in order to claim a large financial settlement). The Lancet, the journal that published the paper, has since backed away from it after it came under fire by non-biased researchers, and Wakefield's co-authors have repudiated the paper, describing both flaws in the study method and stating that Wakefield never disclosed his financial interest in the matter to them.

But it was too late. With the publication of the paper, many people became understandably scared, and as these people began to merge with a larger group that likes to blame all manner of evils on the pharmaceutical industry*, and as such, a movement thoroughly sealed into an echo chamber rose, and no amount of strong, damning evidence proving them wrong will stop their march.

The Discover article discusses the current state of this movement, and there area few excerpts very much worth noting. For example, Wakefield's article pinned thimerosal as the culprit, and the alleged dangers of timerosal was long the rallying cry of the anti-vaxxer movement, but the preservative has long since been removed from vaccines, and so, rather than accept that the vaccines weren't the problem to begin with, they've simply changed their specific target:

In 2005 David Kirby stated that if autism rates didn’t begin to decline by 2007, “that would deal a severe blow to the autism-thimerosal hypothesis.” But as McCormick notes, despite the absence of thimerosal in vaccines, reports of autism cases have not fallen. In a 2008 study published in Archives of General Psychiatry, two researchers studying a California Department of Developmental Services database found that the prevalence of autism had actually continued increasing among the young. Kirby concedes that these findings about the California database represent a “pretty serious blow to the thimerosal-causes-autism hypothesis,” the face of powerful evidence against two of its strongest initial hypotheses—concerning MMR and thimerosal—the vaccine skeptic movement is morphing before our eyes. Advocates have begun moving the goalposts, now claiming, for instance, that the childhood vaccination schedule hits kids with too many vaccines at once, overwhelming their immune systems. Jenny McCarthy wants to “green our vaccines,” pointing to many other alleged toxins that they contain. “I think it’s definitely a response to the science, which has consistently shown no correlation,” says David Gorski, a cancer surgeon funded by the National Institutes of Health who in his spare time blogs at Respectful Insolence, a top medical blog known for its provaccine stance. A hardening of antivaccine attitudes, mixed with the despair experienced by families living under the strain of autism, has heightened the debate—sometimes leading to blowback against scientific researchers.

In addition, the focus on vaccines, against all evidence to the contrary, has resulted in both threats (including death threats) to researchers working on the real sources of autism, and in the re-appearance of often deadly disease long thought defeated:

But in 2006 Shattuck came under fire after he published an article in the journal Pediatrics questioning the existence of an autism epidemic. No one doubts that since the early 1990s the number of children diagnosed with autism has dramatically increased, a trend reflected in U.S. special education programs, where children enrolled as autistic grew from 22,445 in 1994–1995 to 140,254 in 2003–2004. Yet Shattuck’s study found reasons to doubt that these numbers were proof of an epidemic. Instead, he suggested that “diagnostic substitution”—in which children who previously would have been classified as mentally retarded or learning disabled were now being classified on the autism spectrum—played a significant role in the apparent increase.

Shattuck did not reject the idea that rising autism levels might be in part due to environmental causes; he merely showed the increase was largely an artifact of changing diagnostic practices, which themselves had been enabled by rising levels of attention to autism and its listing as a diagnostic category in special education. Yet simply by questioning autism epidemic claims in a prominent journal, he became a target. “People were obviously Googling me and tracking me down,” he recalls. Shattuck emphasizes that most e-mails and calls merely delivered “heartfelt pleas from people with very sick kids who’ve been led to believe a particular theory of etiology.” The bulk weren’t menacing, but a few certainly were.


“If there has been a more harmful urban legend circulating in our society than the vaccine-autism link,” University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “it’s hard to know what it might be.” One type of harm, as Shattuck’s story shows, is to individual scientists and the scientific process. There is a real risk that necessary research is being held back as scientists fear working in such a contested field. Shattuck’s experience is not unique. Offit cannot go on a book tour to promote Autism’s False Prophets because of the risk involved in making public appearances. He has received too many threats.


Given enough vaccine exemptions and localized outbreaks, it is possible that largely vanquished diseases could become endemic again. (That is precisely what happened with measles in 2008 in the U.K., following the retreat from the MMR vaccine in the wake of the 1998 scare.) The public-health costs of such a development would be enormous—and they would not impact everyone equally. “If vaccine rates start to drop, who’s going to get affected?” Peter Hotez asks. “It’s going to be people who live in poor, crowded conditions. So it’s going to affect the poorest people in our country.”

In addition, the alternative medicine industry has capitalized on the fear of vaccines, and has produced many treatments alleged to cure autism (in each case, unproven) that pose very serious health threats in and of themselves:

Yet another cost comes in the rush toward unproven, and potentially dangerous, alternative therapies to treat autism. It is easy to sympathize with parents of autistic children who desperately want to find a cure, but this has led to various pseudoremedies whose efficacy and safety have been challenged by science. These include facilitated communication, secretin infusion, chelation therapy (which involves pumping chemicals into the blood to bind with heavy metals such as mercury), and hormonal suppression. It is estimated that more than half of all children with autism are now using “complementary and alternative” treatments.

And it is noted that in the end, the fact that 20th century vaccination programs have been so successful may be the reason why the anti-vaccine movement has gotten traction.

Paradoxically, the great success of vaccines is a crucial reason why antivaccination sentiment has thrived, some scientists say. Most of the diseases that vaccines protect against have largely been licked. As a consequence, few people personally remember the devastation they can cause. So with less apparently on the line, it is easier to indulge in the seeming luxury of vaccine skepticism and avoidance.

After I initially wrote this, but before it dropped into the blog feed, I heard this podcast, which covers much of the same ground. It's an interview between a research scientist and a television producer who produced a television show on the anti-vaccine movement in Australia. It's worth a listen.

One of the ironies of the anti-vaccine movement is that, unlike other anti-science movement such as creationism, it is more common amongst the well-educated and affluent. Although I can claim no expertise, I would suspect that there are three basic reasons for this:

A) As a well-educated and relatively affluent person, I know that it is often difficult for us to concede when we don't know something, and as a result we are often taken in by people who want to sell us a bill of goods and who have a good story with which to do so. We know we're smart, so we forget that there are matters on which we are not as knowledgeable as we like to think, and medicine and biology are often part of this.

B) The alternative medicine industry has long catered to the affluent and well-educated, and this industry has been a hotbed of anti-vaccine rhetoric.

C) These communities are the ones in which we are least likely to be exposed to these diseases, and where we are most likely to have access to good medical care to deal with them if we are exposed. In other words, because we are relatively privileged from a medical standpoint, we are able to weather the storm of illness better than other communities, and as such we don't think much of destroying the herd immunity that keeps both our children and, especially, those of our less affluent neighbors from contracting diseases.

This last point really bothers me. Every time I hear a self-described liberal announce that they will not have their kids vaccinated, and announce that they believe in social justice, I want to grab them by the lapels and scream "those are two mutually exclusive viewpoints, you fucking idiot!"

*The irony to all of this is that the pharma industry is certainly not without its own very serious faults. However, by focusing on something as well-proven as the standard childhood vaccines, the anti-vax crowd is unintentionally helping the industry in two ways: 1) they are drawing attention away from the industry's real wrongdoings, and 2) by focusing on something where the science is so clearly and obviously against them, they allow the industry to paint all of its critics as crackpots.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Lucky Number 14

As I sit here writing this, which is over a week before I post it because I'm loading the blog so that it will update even when I am too busy with fieldwork to write new updates (because I'm clever), I am sitting and having dinner in King City waiting for the work truck to cool down so that I can check the oil and determine the exact meaning of the rental vehicles "low oil" indicator.

This oil issue is ironic, as I am the lead archaeologist on a 3-D seismic oil exploration project*.

The way that this works is that a survey crew places source points across the landscape. At the source points, a vibration will be generated, either by a vibrating plate from a special truck or by a small explosive charge, and it will be measured at receiver points, where recording equipment measures the nature of the vibrations to generate a 3-D "sonar"-type map of the subsurface constituents, identifying mineral deposits including oil.

Currently, there are two survey crews, and each crew has a biologist and an archaeologist acompanying it to prevent damage to historic sites and to threatened/endangered specieis habitat. Another set of archaeologists, one that I overseee personally, works behind the surveyors, identifying and recording archaeological sites to ensure that nothing is damaged. It's a fairly good system, one that saves time and money on everyone's part, and effectively protects biological and cultural resources from damage.

However I have been working with a small crew. The reason for this is simple - the usual steady flow of field technicians has been slowed to a trickle by the introduction of a large number of projects throughout the state, and neighboring states. As a result, we have a few techs who've worked with us before, good folks all of them, and alot of new people (who, thankfully, have worked out pretty well so far).

The problem is that we need a large crew. Larger than the current one, which is already of quite a respectable size. So, you can imagine my surprise when I received a call from my boss asking me where I had gotten 14 field technicians for the project.

I did not have 14 field technicians (edited from the future: I have more than that now), and I stated as much.

"Oh, I just got off the phone with the lead biologist, and he said that you were bringing fourteen archaeologists out."

"Ummmm" I wittily replied.

"So, you don't have fourteen people?"

"Well...not as such..."

"Okay, good. I didn't remember you saying that you were bringing that many people." he said, sounding relieved.

"Where did this rumor come from?"

"Well," the boss began, I could hear him scratching his whiskers through his tone of voice "it's a seismic project. Gossip is gonna' be worse than in a small town full ofold ladies."


Yeah, it's going to be a long few months.

*And before any of my friends or readers start commenting or complaining about me working with oil exploration teams, let me point out that these companies have enough political sway that they woud be doing this with or without environmental workers on the scene. At least as long as the environmental team, of which I lead the archaeology/cultural resources portion, is present, the damage to the environment is minimized from what it would otherwise be. It's for this reason that I will work with oil companies, the military, land developers, and just about every other entity that is usually the "bad guy" in political/environmental morality plays.

The fact of the matter is this: it's all fine and good to march, go to rallies, and circulate petitions - these activities have their place and use, but the organizations that have to clean up their act aren't going to police themselves, we all know that, and unless someone like me is willing to roll up their sleeves and actually do the work of environmental compliance, all of the various environmental laws that the rest of you are so proud of would never actually be enforced. For all the flack that I get, I am one of the few environmentalists that I know who can actually point to resources protected and laws complied with, and the others that I know who can make the same claim also work with the "bad guy" organizations - we have to, it's the only way that anything actually gets protected.

In other words, if all you do is talk, then get off of my back. I have work to do.

Why yes, I have had some very irritating conversations with self-proclaimed environmentalists. Why do you ask?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Opponents or Enemies?

A few years back I worked for a large engineering and environmental consulting firm at their office in Santa Barbara. In this office was one of the company's main attorneys, a man who I eventually learned had been active in the Republican Party from the 1970s through the 1990s, and who had very strong opinions about political figures. While he was often (in fact typically) very critical of the Democrats in Congress, when asked he could always explain his objections, and when those objections came down to simple differences in basic political philosophy, he was open about this and didn't try to dress it up as "I'm right, they're wrong" but rather would put forward that he operated from a set of assumptions about humanity in general and politics in particular that was different from those with whom he disagreed.

In other words, he often objected to policies, but he always retained a reasonable attitude and could discuss his views in a calm and fair manner.

After decades of talk radio and the recent advent of political blogs, I was surprised to see someone capable of this. After all, one need only turn on the radio or television to hear Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh accusing all "liberals" of being baby-eating satanist traitors, and a trip to the local cineplex will yield loads of joyful misdirection and emotional manipulation with Michael Moore* or Ben Stein.

And yet here was someone who politically was on the "other side" from me, and we were quite capable of not only finding the occasional common ground, but, much more importantly, of being able to actuallu understand what the other was talking about and, if not agreeing, at least seeing merit where it existed.

After a few months of working there, I asked him why he had left Washington D.C. and politics. His response rather surprised me.

"Well, I grew to hate what politics had become. You see, it used to be the case that people would disagree on policy, and they'd have heated debates in the Congress, and as soon as it was over, they could go to a bar together and talk about each other's hobbies and families."

I had always heard that politics had always been as overheated as it was now, and had said as much to him.

"No. The arguments in public were often vicious, and people would claim, and sometimes the people claiming this really believed it, that the policy of their opponents would have disasterous consequences - think of the Goldwater-era 'girl picking flowers' advertisement. But they never thought that their opponents were evil, they may have thought they were wrong or even misguided, but not evil. That's changed. Limbaugh changed it, Gingrich changed it, a whole lot of voters and radio listeners changed it. Now, it's not enough for the opposition to be wrong, they also have to be evil. You can't just be opposed to their policy, they have to be traitors. It's wrong, it's destructive, and it's dangerous."

Since then, I have looked into matters more, and while I am no expert, I think he's probably right. The problem isn't that public discourse has become "uncivil", as so many people complain, it's that it's become bat-shit insane.

To that end, I was happy to read this and discover that I am not alone. Check it out, and perhaps think about your own views of your political and/or social opponents. Do you see them as opponents, people who you disagree with but who are nonetheless still your fellow citizens, or do you see them as enemies who must be destroyed? And be honest when you answer this question for yourself, I suspect that we all fall prey to this impulse, especially given that there is a ready-made media machine that is more than happy to cater to it.

*Yes, I put Michael Moore in the same category as Limbaugh and Hannity. While Moore is more sophisticated and less directly partisan, his methods are nonetheless very similar - mis-direction, knocking down strawmen, taking matters out of context, and emotional manipulation. You can try to defend him all you want, but any positive label that you may try to give him - for example, I oftne hear people try to defend him by calling him a polemicist - can just as justifiably by attributed to Rush Limbaugh. Personally, I have no use for either of them.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A few more travel photos...

These are from Japan, again. I also need to post some from other places to which I have travelled.

The door of the hotel room that we shared:

A photo of a father and daughter sitting together in the Meiji Gardens:

A writhing mass of carp, also in the Meiji Garden. One member of our party was feeding them muffin bits despite adminisions from the rest of us, which caused the fish to gather together.

Kay and Patrick attempt to get their bearings:

The shrine with the giant bronze buddha at Kamakura:

The Shrine of the 47 Samurai:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Beetle Bugs Me

My friends Dave and Eva are searching for a new car. They have decided that they would like to buy one of the classic VW Beetles - an honorable enough choice by any measure. They located such a car for sale in Aptos, but they live in San Francisco and did not want to make a 4-hour round trip for a car that might be a dud. I happen to live in Scotts Valley, a short drive from Aptos, and so they requested that I take a look at the car and report back to them.

These two have been very good friends to me, and I was (and remain) more than happy to assist them with this, and it was very simple for me to do. To that end, Kay and I set out for Aptos yesterday afternoon to have a look at a 1970 VW Beetle.

I call the car's owner, and he explains where to find the car - it's not at his home, but rather parked on a street near his home. This seems kinda' odd, but, well, if you know Santa Cruz, then this isn't quite enough to suggest a real problem, or even all that odd. When I arrive, the owner, who I will call Gonzo to protect the innocent, is waiting for us. The car is beaten up, the paint oxidized, and it generally looks like the 39-year-old car that it is. While Gonzo prattled on about the quality of the vehicle, I was busy doing things like opening up the hood (or the trunk - as these cars have the engine in the rear) to look at the engine, checking for signs of rust on the chassis, and trying to see if there is anything clearly wrong with any part of the vehicle. To all of this, Gonzo seems oblivious.

We finally move on to the interior, and it's thrashed. The seats have been patched with electrical tape, some of the wire connecting the ignition are no longer contained within the dashboard, and the seat springs have completey deflated. In short, it's clearly a vehicle that has seen 4 decades of use with little repair to the interior.

Finally, as per Eva's request, I ask to take the car for a test drive. Gonzo hands me the keys and says "yeah, that's fine, but if you crash it, you've bought it, because I don't have insurance on this vehicle."

Somewhat against my better judgement*, I take the car out for a test drive anyway. I get it started, the engine is louder than Hell, and I move down the street. I get to the corner, and brake in order to slow down for the turn...and the brakes don't work at first - I have to push all the way down to get it to brake, and the ride down is squishy, the braqke cylinder is clearly on its way out. I never bring the car above 15 miles per hour, navigate around the block ot the stopping point, turn off the car and get out.

Gonzo looks up at me and asks "So, what do you think?"

"The brakes are bad" I say, waiting for his response.

He quickly replies "yeah, they could use a little attention," turning a bit so as not to be looking directly at me when he says this.

A little attention? How about a complete fucking overhaul?

Here's the thing. When Eva asked about the car, she specifically asked if it would be safe to drive from Aptos to San Francisco should she purchase it. Gonzo said that it would be. This is bullshit. The engine would probably make it, but the brakes would do exactly nothing to stop the vehicle were it moving at freeway speeds - they barely worked when it was going 15 miles per hour! One spot of bad traffic, and Eva and Dave would have been in a world of hurt, or worse.

As I was handing bac the keys and walking to my car, Gonzo began to talk about how this was "one of the few un-restored VW Bettles from its era" - said as if to imply that the fact that it was a run-down deathtrap that appeared to have not had proper maintenance was something to be proud of.

So, this guy lied to my friends to sell them something that would endanger them had they bought it. I really wanted to smack him around a bit, but luckily I have enough self control (and sufficent fear of incarceration - I'll admit it, I'm a wimp) to simply hand him the keys back and walk away. In retrospect, I should have at least pointed out the fact that what he was trying to pull with this vehcile and the brakes could easily land him in a courtroom, but I wasn't thinking clearly enough at that time.

I drove about a block away, stopped the car, pulled out my phone, and dialed Eva's number.


"Hey, Eva, it's Matt."

"Oh, hi. So, what do you think of the car?"

"Well, Eva, how desperate are you for a car?"

*I say only somewhat because, frankly, I think he'd have a hard time legally forcing me to pay for a car that I was test driving because he, as the owner, hadn't bothered to insure it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Some things you might find interesting...

A couple of links that may be of interest.

A few years back, the BBC broadcast a documentary on the history of people questioning religion. Whether you are a believer or not, it does a good deal to explain the historical and social settings in qhich people questioned the existence of a spiritual component to the universe. The Documentary, titled A Rough History of Disbelief is available on Google video. Click the link to see it. Unfortunately, those who might most benefit from actually comprehending what non-believers think (such as one individual who used to post comments here claiming all sorts of non-existent moral failings on the part of non-believers) are the ones least likely to actually bother watching. So it goes.

On a related note, Greta Christina has a post up that well articulates what I have often seen as the problemw ith claiming to be "spiritual but not religious." It's a good read, check it out.

On the subject of archaeology, the Mythbusters have a two articles up on their site discussing myths and public misconceptions about archaeology. They're both informative and fun to read. Check them out, if you have the opportunity. My favorite quote from them is one in which they actually discuss my own industry:

Actually, there are far more qualified archaeologists than there are academic positions. In the 1970s and 1980s, archaeology students were advised to go to grad school so they'd be ready to replace their profs as said profs retired. This turned out to be one of the biggest archaeology myths ever.

Why? Because many academic departments just phased out those positions instead of restaffing them. Fortunately, legislation enacted in the mid 1970s to protect cultural resources on federal property provided thousands of new jobs for field archaeologists, in both private industry and the government.