The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, June 29, 2012

Undergrad Solves an Astro-Historical Mystery?

This is cool.  I was clued in to it by my friend Matt DeHayes, who posted a link on Facebook.

Researchers in Japan have found evidence in a spike in the amount of atmospheric Carbon-14 in AD 774 or 775 reflected in tree rings.  Typically, this is the result of a supernova expelling materials into the galaxy, eventually reaching earth.  However, nobody knew of any supernovae the ejecta of which would have reached Earth during that time frame, either through historic reports or astronomical data consistent with supernovae.

Then, some smart-ass undergrad at UC Santa Cruz (go Slugs!) by the name of Jonathon Allen got curious, and decided to do a Google search, finding a link to on-line transcripts of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles.  In it, he found reference to the appearance of a new "red cruciform" star near the horizon.  The placement and color suggest both a dust cloud obscuring some of the light and radiation, and that the "new star" would have been hidden by the sun after its initial appearance, thus explaining why there is little evidence of a supernova, and why the debris hasn't been observed by modern archaeologists.

Now, as always, it should be said that the observations of an 8th century chronicler, while valuable, were never intended to be used as astronomical data.  The chronicler wrote about what he saw, but it would, of course, be filtered through the political, religious, and social attitudes and requirements of the time.  So, there is a danger in taken what was written at face value, much less in concluding that this was definitely any one particular astronomical event.

Nonetheless, if further evidence comes to light, Allen may have set us on the path to solving a real, if small, historical and chemical mystery.  Stuff like this makes me happy.

Allen - you're making this archaeologist happy, and this UC Santa Cruz alumni proud.  Keep on doin' what you're doin'.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sex Positive Harassment Policies?

So, there has been alot of talk in the organized skepticism and organized atheism communities as of late regarding the need for policies at conferences and conventions to prevent sexual harassment.  This is, I'm inclined to think, a good thing.  I, myself, have not attended, and frankly have little interest in attending, most, if any, of these conferences (given my opinions about pseudoscience and religion, this may surprise some readers, but there you have it).  But they are important events for many of those who do attend them, and the adoption of codes of conduct or other policies that allow people to attend them in comfort and safety is a move in the right direction. 

One thing that puzzles me, however, is the insistence by many advocates of the policies that the policies need to be "sex positive." 


Okay, so perhaps some definitions are in order.

When I see the term "sex positive" used, it has, to date, almost always been used to encapsulate the idea that sex is a normal, healthy, and good part of human behavior, and not something that should be shamed or hidden.  I agree with this, and see no problem with having a generally sex positive attitude.

The term "sexual harassment" is a bit slippery, but in most places with a policy, it refers to the creation of an unwelcome or hostile environment by way of unwanted sexual attention or advances, or by actions or speech that denigrates groups or individuals based on gender, sexual orientation, or related aspects. It is usually held to be "in the eye of the harassed" with the caveat that in order to be harassment, it must be something that an impartial observer would be likely to consider harassment*, which means that for something where you are being hit on, you have to have made it clear that you are not interested or the person making advances has to be doing so in a manner so out-of-bounds that it would be absurd to think that their behavior was reasonable.

But there's still more to it.  It's not enough to say "yes means yes, no means no, and maybe means no" (as people are currently summarizing the American Atheist's policy).  Effective sexual harassment policies create an environment in which sex is simply not an issue. Yes, good policies prohibit poor behavior by allowing an avenue for those who feel harassed to have their grievances addressed, and to have their harassers confronted by someone in authority. But they also lead to a significantly less sexualized atmosphere by curtailing many types of behaviors and talk that might provide cover for those wishing to engage in harassment. Case in point - some years back, I had an employee who talked often and openly about her sex life at work, often in detail.  Nobody minded her doing it - in fact, most of the other employees found her stories enjoyable.  I still had to put a stop to it, because regardless of how her stories were viewed by other employees, had she been allowed to continue, it would have provided a rationale for others to start doing the same, and I knew enough about the other employees in that setting to know that this would not have been okay with everyone else.  The employee who I made stop later complained to me that I had a bad effect on her sex life, as talking about these things was one of the ways that she found new partners, and as we were frequently away from home for work, that limited her options.  I didn't care, I had to make sure that we maintained a safe and professionals space.

So, the thing of it is that if someone is making advances, they have to accept that they might be shut down.  If someone is inclined to crack crude or sexist jokes, they may be asked to stop.  If someone is sharing details of their sex life or their desires, they may be asked to stop talking.  And many people will be unwilling to make advances if they are unsure how they will be taken.  This means that, contrary to what most people claiming the need for sex positive harassment policies claim, some people will not make even welcome advances.  An effective policy will have the effect of reducing the amount of sex at a conference.  No matter how much you try to be sex positive, a well-written and properly enforced policy is likely to make finding sex more difficult (especially for those who are socially awkward and don't know how to be more discreet and polite at times), but this is part of the price that you pay for preventing harassment, and if your goal is to bring more women into the fold (as is often said to be the goal in these discussions) it is very much a price worth paying.

Look, I have been a manager at various levels for several years.  Knowing and implementing anti-harassment policies is a part of my job, and I have had to enforce sexual harassment policies on more than one occasion.  Never once has my own view of sex, positive, negative, indifferent, or otherwise, come into play.  Moreover, in reading the written policies, it's pretty clear that with the better ones that the views of the author(s) regarding sex weren't relevant.  What was relevant was creating a safe and productive environment for achieving the goals of work (or, in the case of conferences, for providing a space and forum for exchanges of information and ideas).

In my personal life, I am an admittedly boring monogamous heterosexual man.  However, I associate freely with people who are polyamorous, swingers, and of indefinable preferences and lifestyles.  I have no problem with any of them, and have even been known to try to help those who I think would enjoy each other meet each other.  Similarly, I associate freely with people who are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, polysexual, asexual, etc., and again see nothing wrong with them or their desires and orientations.  I simply want people to have the right and ability to have a fulfilling sex life (or, for some people, lack of one) without being bullied, harassed, or put down.  In this sense, I am certainly a sex positive person.

However, when I enter a professional environment - be it my workplace, the field, a conference, or even socializing with colleagues - my views regarding sex become absolutely and utterly irrelevant.  Whatever my personal views, I cannot act effectively as a supervisor and as a professional unless I am neutral - and sometimes even a bit negative - regarding sex when in such a setting.  To do otherwise would result in me being unable to deal with the situations that can and do arise whenever you have several people together, especially when we are in the field (or at a conference) and far from home.  I have to assume that their sex lives are of no concern to me unless they begin to create problems in the professional environment. I do not allow my subordinates or colleagues to cast aspersions on the sex lives of others, but I also don't allow them to pursue their own interests at the cost of a safe and professional environment.  Should my employees decide to engage in sex outside of my supervision, so be it, but if one employee decides to pursue another against the other's wishes, or if two consenting people wish to carry on in a manner that makes matters difficult for the other people present, then I have to be a killjoy or cock-block in order to preserve the professional space, I have no room nor ability to be anything else. 

My purpose is not, and never is, to facilitate nor denigrate my colleague's or subordinates sex lives, it is to produce a healthy work environment, which means making sure that some things are not done or said.  And so, when I hear people talk about the need for "sex positive anti-harassment policies" I immediately want to call bullshit.  You don't need sex positive policies.  You need effective policies.  And you know what, effective policies will likely lead to a reduction in sexual activity at events, and that is fine.  Again, the purpose of conferences and conventions is to provide a forum for presentations and discussions of their organization's topics, not an avenue for sex.  If willing individuals wish to have sex, that is absolutely fine.  But effective policies will have to assume that the attendees are not present for the purpose of sex, and so long as anyone is concerned with being sex positive as much or more than they are concerned with preventing harassment, the harassment is going to continue.  In order to stop bad behavior, sometimes you have to be willing to be the authority that those who wish to engage in bad behavior don't like.

Of course, a conference is less formal than an office, and the policies are going to reflect that.  there will be behaviors that are acceptable at the conference that are not acceptable at the workplace.  However, the overall principles remain the same: provide a method for grievance airing and resolution, make codes of behavior clear, and reduce sexualization of the atmosphere of the venue in order to make the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior clear.  That last point is the one that most will deem prudish or "sex-negative."  It is also a vital point.

If you are going to push for a harassment policy, forget whether it is sex positive or negative, look only at whether it is effective.  You don't have time to worry about whether or not you are being viewed as a prude or a buzzkill, you have to focus on making the environment safe.  And sometimes you are going to prevent people from having sex - as much as pro-policy people on the atheist/skeptic blogs may claim otherwise, this is a very simple truth.  Policies that prevent harassment do have a price, and to claim otherwise is to be either naive or disingenuous.  But if you are serious about having a safe and welcoming environment, then it is a price very much worth paying. 

To take your eyes off the goal (making a safe environment) in order to be able to give yourself some sort of happy or positive label is to make a very fundamental error.

*For example - in a case that came up a few years ago, a woman tried to push a sexual harassment case because she was of a religious order that held that men and women, even married ones, should have limited interaction when in public.  She attempted to push a sexual harassment claim against a co-worker whose husband dropped her off every morning and kissed her when she left the car.  It was decided that this was most definitely not sexual harassment as the first woman's views regarding male/female interactions were so far outside the social norm that it would place an unnecessary and bizarre hardship on everyone else if they were enforced.  In other words, while she felt harassed, her claim failed to meet a common-sense, impartial observer standard of harassment.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Primitive Science?

As a graduate student, I read numerous papers and articles which discussed the ability of hunter gatherers and early farmers to gather information and make sense of the resources available within their world.  Most of these provided useful information or perspectives, and I am glad to have read them.  However, nearly all of them made the same assertion - that the observations of these people are science. 

The basic assertion is that the people who are reliant on their environment to get by are extremely observant of it, and capable of making predictions regarding plants and animals, as they need to in order to survive.  This ability is typically referred to as "their science", asserting that it is the equal of "western" science. 

Now, don't misunderstand me.  If you spend much time studying hunter-gatherers and early farmers, you will be struck by just how well honed their observational skills are.  They tend to be keen observers of the behavior/tendencies of plants and animals, and they have to be in order to survive.  And while observation and prediction are vital parts of science, and in these peoples we can see how the raw materials for science are present in the human brain, science itself is another thing altogether.  Science makes use of observation, prediction, and the sharing of ideas amongst peers, and shares these traits with the people discussed in the documents to which I refer, but it also makes use of numerous methods intended to root out observational bias, including structured studies, peer review, regular discussion and review of findings, and vigorous debate among a huge audience regarding findings. If it lacks these elements, then it really isn't science.  But that doesn't make it somehow inferior, as it serves a somewhat different purpose and therefore should be expected to be different.

When part of a scientific exercise, observation of nature carries a certain amount of baggage and intention which is different from the baggage and intention of someone who is observing for the purposes of survival.  Hunter gatherers are generally not concerned with how their observations fit into broader theoretical models, such as evolution, any more than a field biologist is concerned with starving should they fail to catch their quarry.  A different set of needs, assumptions, and purpose are carried by the two different types of observers, and these influence what they observe and how they observe, making their activities different, even though they share many similarities and may be in many ways complimentary.

This assertion that the activities of hunter-gatherers and early farmers is a type of science (or, as it is often formulated, "their science") appears to come from a desire to make the people being studies or described seem more intelligent or noble than is often assumed, and to put their activities on intellectual par with "western" institutions.  This came, at least in part, in reaction to centuries of Europeans and their descendants viewing all non-Europeans as somehow primitive.  This assertion that the activities of hunters and gatherers was intended to show that these people are not primitives, but are, rather, quite sophisticated in their interactions with their environments.

The problem is that this is essentially the imposition of a "western" model onto people who live and think in very different ways.  To assert that their activities qualify as science is to impose a particular frame of reference onto them which they would not recognize as part of their activity, and is, ultimately, just as condescending as to insist that their activities are "primitive".  Just because observations are sophisticated, well-made, and intelligently considered, does not automatically make them science, as science requires another rather specific set of accompanying features.  Moreover, to refer to them as science is to ignore the context in which they occur, to ignore the way that the people engaged in the activities view them, and, in short, to be a poor anthropologist.  Moreover, the desire to "bring them up to our level", however well intentioned, is still steeped in the notion that we as western observers must ennoble the pursuits of other people in order to make them worthwhile (or at least show them to be worthwhile), which is about as condescending an attitude as one can take.

Hunter-gatherers are not generally engaged in science, not even "their science", and that's fine.  They are engaged in the necessary observation and predictive activities for their circumstances.  Recognizing that they are using well-honed intellectual abilities to pursue a goal is sufficient, and it shows them to be sophisticated, intelligent, and anything but primitive.  There is no need to impose an outside way of viewing the world onto them in order to accept that they are showing the very traits of intelligence that make us all human.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Revenge of HAZWOPER!

These last couple of months have not been kind to my ability to write on this blog.  I have had a series of involving projects at work, I have had to help Kaylia with various medical issues, baby prep is keeping us occupied at home, and I have been sent out of town somewhat frequently. 

So, as much as I like writing this blog, it's been relatively low on the priority list.  Which is unfortunate, as I do really enjoy writing for it.

Anyway, with any luck I will be back on track with writing at some point before the end of the year.

For now, though, I am spending the day at work doing a HAZWOPER refresher course.  HAZWOPER, for those new or who don't remember earlier posts, is the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response certification.  As we frequently end up having to dig through old industrial waste and monitor construction and remediation work in places with industrial waste, it's not uncommon for archaeologists to be HAZWOPER certified.  I did the full 40-hour course last year (two of my more popular posts describe it and the various imbeciles also taking the class, and they can be found here and here).

Thankfully, the refresher course is only 8 hours, and I can do it on-line (though this is only recommended every other year, as it is a good idea to be in the classroom regularly as well).  This means that I don't have to deal with the twits I dealt with last time: the prison preacher, the pretty-boy oil field worker, the comic-book-guy-like fellow who wanted me to hire him as an "archaeologist's assistant, etc.  On the downside, I don't get any more amusing stories about those twits. 

I am a bit torn on these courses.  On the one hand, I am happy to be able to do them, and they do add to my employability and my skill base, which is quite good in my opinion.  On the other hand, it means that I am one of the few people around these parts likely to be sent off to deal with hazardous waste, and even with the training and safe work practices, this does put me at a slightly elevated risk for problems.  Still, with a kid on the way and a desire to continue advancing career-wise, I suppose that doing this sort of thing is a net good.

Anyway, I hope that my readers are having more relaxing summers.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Arrogant Atheists?

Every now and again, I find myself talking to a religious person who declares that "you have to be pretty damn arrogant to be an atheist!"

To be clear on what they are saying, I always try to follow this up by asking whether it's that they have met arrogant atheists, or whether there's something about atheism that they believe leads people to be arrogant, etc.  With very rare occasions, they come back with "it's arrogant to think that there isn't a god!"

Arrogant? Really?

Certainly, it's arrogant to say "I know that there is no god!"  Humans aren't capable of knowing anything with absolute certainty, there's always the possibility of us being wrong.  However, it's no more arrogant to say "I know that there is no god!" than to say "I know that there is a god!"  And depending on the line of thought that resulted in this conclusion, there are more and less arrogant paths leading to either of those conclusions.

What's more, the admittedly arrogant statement "I know there is no god"  is significantly less arrogant than "I know there's a god, AND I know that he wants X, Y, Z,and requires humans to do A,B, C."  The more that is added on to what one claims to know with certainty, the more that the claimant is asserting that their own beliefs are supreme over anything that anyone else might state.

So, at worst, a "strong" atheist (one who claims to know that there is no god) is not inherently any more arrogant in their beliefs than most believers in a god or gods, and in many cases may be less so.

What's more, most atheists are "soft" atheists, like myself.  I do not claim to know that there is no god, but I look at the world around me, and I see no compelling reason to believe that there is a god.  Some people, people who are not me, will assert that I am an agnostic.  That is only kind-of true, though. I don't claim to know whether or not a supernatural entity that might be called a god exists, true, but I do think that the existence of such a being is extremely unlikely.  I am open to evidence that I am wrong, certainly, but after spending many years searching for such evidence, I have finally stopped pursuing threads that all lead to dead ends.  The question of the existence or non-existence of gods occupies my thoughts only in so far as those who believe in the existence of such entities try to force me or others to accept their own (consistently unsubstantiated) claims*. 

Is it still arrogant for me to say that "I don't think there's a god"?  I don't believe that it is, but perhaps I am wrong.  The reality is that every one of us thinks that we are right and correct in our beliefs, otherwise we wouldn't hold those beliefs.  But the notion that my conclusion that it is unlikely that there is a god is somehow more arrogant than someone else's conclusion that there is?  Well, that's an astoundingly stupid (and, let's face it, arrogant) notion that exists not because it has any merit, but because it allows people to focus on the alleged faults of others rather than turning inward and examining their own beliefs.

*A very common question from religious believers is "why don't you atheists leave religious people alone in their beliefs" to which my own response is "the majority of us would be happy to do so, if religious believers weren't busy trying to use the force of law (int he form of things like Proposition 8, DOMA, "blue laws" etc.) to force us to conform to their beliefs." 

In other words, we'll stop bothering the religious if they'll stop bothering us.  And yes, I am aware that many religious people do have a "live and let live" attitude, which is excellent, but: A) enough don't that these laws stay on the books or get voted into law, and B) the refusal of many of the moderate folks to speak up against the zealous and militant means that you allow the militants and zealouts to claim your name and speak for you, so I don't want to hear you complain when you get lumped in with them - if you don't stop them from claiming the name of your religion, then it's your own fault if you are considered to be like them.  It may not be fair, but it is the way that society works.  And, hey, I get lumped with with assholes like Christopher Hitchens, so it goes both ways.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Testing the Hypothesis

Some time back, I was working on a report with a coworker.  One of the sites that we had to discuss in the report was located on an athletic field.  The site was a simple flake scatter, a site consisting of the pieces of obsidian left over after a flaked stone artifact is manufactured.  Unsurprisingly, the flakes were almost all broken.

Now, there are two ways that one tends to get a broken flake:  1) it is broken when the tool is being manufactured, and often such broken flakes indicate either a flaw in the material, or an error made by the person  making the tool; 2) the flakes are broken after it is created, usually by being trampled or having some heavy object fall on it.  A well-trained lithic analyst may be able to tell these types of borken flakes apart...but most of us working int he field cannot.

However, this seemed pretty simple - a site with an abnormally large number of broken flakes is located on an athletic field.  One thing that will happen for certain is that the flakes will be trampled, which means that the most likely cause of the broken flakes is tramapling.

My coworker was not pleased with my conclusion.  He entered my office with the site record, and said "you can't say that the broken flakes were caused by the athletic field!"

I looked up and said "uh, yeah, I can."

He got an annoyed look on his face and responded "there's alot of ways that a flake can be broken."

"Yes.  Yes there is.  One of those ways is being stepped on by a soccer player.  Alot of soccer players will break alot of flakes."

He thought for a moment, and said "I have an alternative hypothesis.  You could end up with all of these broken flakes is you have one person who is really bad at flaking stone."

This was, of course, technically true.  But there's some deep flaws in the hypothesis, which I proceeded to point out.

"Okay, so let's say that you have this one lousy flintknapper*, like you suggest.  Why would he be making tools only in this area, which he'd have to have been to account for all of the broken flakes."

He gave this a moment's thought, and replied "well, maybe they put all of the bad, or learning, flintknappers in this one spot."

"Right, okay," I responded, "here's the thing with that - knapping obsidian produces alot of sharp edges, obsidian is glass, after all, so it's in your best interest to limit the number of places where little pieces of it are just lying around.  So, assuming that you had a number of learning flintknappers who keep producing broken flakes, why would you segregate them to spread out the area where the broken glass is lying around?"

To which he said "Well, obsidian flakes are in alot of sites, they're not usually alone"

"True, and a fair point."  I responded "there are sites with clear obsidian flaking task areas, but often it's not in a designated area.  Still, you're assuming that the people of this area segregated bad and/or learning flintknappers.  We have no evidence of that: no ethnographic records, no archaeological sites showing only poorly formed tools and broken flakes, nothing to give us the 'bad knappers' that your hypothesis requires.  You are having to make some odd assumptions for your hypothesis to make sense."

"Well," he looked at me smugly, "you're making alot of assumptions, too."

"No, I'm not.  We know that the people in the area flaked obsidian.  We know that obsidian flakes often break if trampled upon.  We know that alot of running feet on an athletic field would trample on flakes.  Those are all knowns, not assumptions.  All the record does is conclude that a bunch of broken flakes found on an active ethletic field probably indicates that the flakes were broken by trampling, which makes no real assumptions and just connects a few observations with known facts."

He shook his head and walked away.  I got the record, and the report to which it was appended, to say what I wanted.  But for the life of me, I have never been able to figure out why this guy was so sold on a bizarre notion, and why he wanted to argue with me about it.

*Flintknapping is the generic term used for making stone tools

Monday, June 11, 2012

Native American Ancestry, or Lack Thereof

First off - I will be away in the field for the next week, and therefore I probably won't have any site updates unless I am able to scare up an internet connection, I may not post any updates this week other than this one.

In the meantime. here's something to consider...

Last week, NPR's show Talk of the Nation had a segment on the issues surrounding individuals declaring that they are of Native American ancestry (to hear it, listen here or go here for a transcript).  There's a number of issues surrounding this, but there are two that I find particularly interesting.

The first issue is that of the interests that different federally recognized Native American groups have to accept or reject individuals as members of their tribe and/or organization.  This is often an issue with tribes that own casinos, as people come out of the woodwork claiming to be members in order to secure a share of the casino's money.  Depending on where you are, the more prevalent issue may be individuals who are legitimately part of the tribe being rejected or dropped from the membership roles, or people who are not part of the tribe trying to be listed as such (some of whom really believe themselves to be, and others of whom simply think that it is a good way to get money).  For a variety of reasons, I'll not say too much on the topic, except to note that I know of people who were dropped from the register who were, legitimately, of the appropriate ancestry...but that I have also known a large number of people who have tried to be accepted as tribal members who had no more a claim to Native American ancestry than the British exchange student who lived upstairs from me in college.  There is a tendency for people to see the behavior of whatever group they are most familiar with as the norm as far as accepting or rejecting members goes, but there is actually alot of variation, for both good and ill, in how these matters are handled.

The second issue is the matter of people claiming Native American ancestry when such claims are dubious at best.  One thing that a guest on the show brings up is that there seems to be a pattern of these claims that a great-grandmother specifically on the mother's side is a member of a Native American group (usually, though not always, Cherokee).  While there are many, many people in the U.S. with Native American ancestry, there seem to be many, many more that simply want to be.  I don't know what to make of the claim that it is usually a great-grandmother on the mother's side (well, the great-grandmother makes it essentially an unverifiable claim as the individual is usually dead, and claims of poor record keeping can be made, but why on the mother's side?), but my own experience has been that people often claim Native American ancestry because they want to be seen as somehow magical, or special, and figure that associating themselves with a group that they have insultingly simplified and/or romanticized.

There's another, interesting and bothersome, issue also brought up in the interview: the tendency for some to claim Native American ancestry, and to sell "spiritual" services based on these claims.  This may include people running for-profit "sweat lodges" at a heavy fee, or selling magical items allegedly of "Native American Origin!"  Generally, these individuals may actually be Native Americans, or they may simply be claiming to, but either way they are cashing in on the racist notions that most people have about alleged Native American mysticism.

Anyway, give it a listen, it's an interesting show.

Friday, June 8, 2012

When is Absence of Evidence Evidence of Absence?

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

So it has been said.  Again...and again...and again...

Like most wise sayings that are actually wise (which, I would note, is a very small minority of allegedly wise sayings), this one is true only to a limited extent. 

I used to think that this was an absolute.  You could never hold a lack of evidence for a claim as evidence that the claim wasn't true.  It was, instead, necessary to build up evidence that countered the claim. 

However, about 15 years ago, as I was finishing my bachelors degree in anthropology, one friend of mine who had been raise Mormon began to get more involved with his church, and another two converted to Mormonism, and all three routinely wanted to talk with me about their church's alternative history of the Americas*.  I would point out that the archaeological data did not support their church's claims, they would counter with data that FARMS (an apologetics group masquerading as a historical and archaeological research organization associated with BYU) had taken out of context to support the churches claims.  The FARMS data was invariably poor, and when I would point this out, and direct them back to there being no actual evidence to support the church's conclusions, all would then repeat back to me a phrase that, in another context, I had taught them: The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

At first, this stopped me cold.  It was a sentiment with which I agreed, how could I argue against it.  And yet, I knew that there was something wrong with its use here.

This line is a favorite of people who hold to a dubious position unsopported by evidence - whether you are talking about religious beliefs, political ideals, positions on social issues, belief in paranormal claims, etc.  If you press someone hard enough regarding the lack of supporting evidence for their belief, you are likely to be told that the lack of evidence doesn't provide evidence that the belief is false.

But if you give the matter some momentary thought, it becomes clear that there are, in fact, cases where a lack of evidence for a proposition does serve to forward an argument that a proposition is false. 

Let's compare and contrast, shall we...

I have written before that I am a supporter of the pre-Clovis hypothesis, that is, the idea that people were in North American prior to the appearance of Clovis tools ca. 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.  Although some evidence to support this view (all of it interesting, none of it overwhelming) has been trickling in in recent years, I supported this hypothesis prior to that based on some fairly basic arguments (follow the link if you want more information).  Now, the early peoples of North America of whom we are aware were, generally, highly mobile hunter-gatherers who left what are typically referred to as ephemeral traces of their activities and movements.  So, their sites are few and far between, and often we know them more by isolated artifact finds than full sites.  There is every reason to believe that their predecessors would have had a similar settlement and land use pattern, meaning that there sites would be rare, would often be in difficult to find places (buried under alluvium, or drowned in the since-risen coastal waters), and might be ambiguous as to age or constituents (many tools aren't time diagnostic, and datable materials has to be found in order to figure out the age of a site, so there are many sites that we encounter that simply can not be dated).  Given these circumstances, it is likely that pre-Clovis sites would be few and far between and might not be recognized for what they are when found.  In this sort of situation, the fact that we had no known pre-Clovis sites meant that there was no material support for the pre-Clovis hypothesis, but it in no way precluded the existence of such sites.

Contrast this with the various claims of vast Old World-derived empires being established int he Americas.  These types of claims are not limited to the Mormon church, there is no shortage of people who believe that the Egyptians, Sumerians, Celts, Knights Templar, etc. etc. established a strong presence in the Americas**. In such cases, the remains of the various cities, plantations, etc. that have been suggested would be pretty damn hard to miss, and would bear features that would make them easy to distinguish from indigenous settlements (in other words, if you think Cahokia or Mesa Verde or any other Native American site is evidence of Old World influence, you have demonstrated a definite ignorance of Native American culture technology AND Old World practices and material culture).  Moreover, given the way that the native economies of the Americas functioned, it is beyond unreasonable to expect that artifacts associated with these Old Worlders would not be spread far and wide in Native American sites, and be especially common in the sites nearest to the Old World outposts.  In other words, not only should the Old World-derived sites be obvious on the landscape, but even if, for some reason, they weren't, like being able to detect a planet by it's gravitational pull on other objects, we should be able to see evidence of a major Old World incursion by its effects on the Native Populations***.

So, in this latter case, the fact that we have no evidence of Old World empires being established in the Americas is, in fact, pretty strong evidence that they never existed.  Any attempt to explain how they could have existed without having the huge impacts that they would invariably have had always results in either misconstrued claims about the actual archaeological record, or else special pleading

*For the record, I usually didn't start these conversations.  That I didn't buy their church's teachings didn't change the fact that these three were all really good people, and that I was happy to have them as friends.  Even when we had these conversations, they were usually good-humored and friendly.

**Note, this is different from claims that people from outside of the Americas may have occasionally visited the Americas or established a weak presence (such as the Viking settlement known in Canada).  Small and/or brief presences might leave little physical evidence, and there is always the possibility that such will be found (though it is unlikely).  I'm talking here about the various common claims that various European, Asian, or African powers established cities, large colonies, or other large and long-lasting settlements in the Americas.

***For example, the Spanish missions in the American Southwest and Florida are much smaller-scale than anything proposed by the Mormon church, and no smaller than those things proposed by proponents of the notion that the Knights Templar ended up here, and they had huge impacts on the native populations of their surroundings, impacts that, 250 years later, we are still strugglign to comprehend the enormity of.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Preconceptions and the Past

I recently gave a talk at the Fresno County Archaeological Society's monthly meeting, and while it required a good deal of prep work and stress, I am very glad that I did it - it was a good audience, and alot of fun to give the talk. 

After the formal presentation, there was a Q&A period, as is common at these types of events, and I was asked a range of questions, most of which got into the information that I had left out of the presentation (when you are giving a 1-hour talk for the lay public, you have to leave out alot of interesting and important details, unfortunately.  It's a matter of making sure that the audience has enough information for your main points to make sense, while hopefully whetting their appetite to look further into the topic on their own - hopefully stoking their curiosity rather than "dumbing down" the subject matter).   However, there was one question that struck me as interesting, but not for the reason that the person asking it intended.

After I had answered several questions, I called on a well-dressed, middle-aged man near the back of the room.  He stood and asked "so, you say that these people were hunter-gatherers, but they had to have grown some crops, so what did they do to fertilize them?"  He then rattled off a description of Native American crop fertilization that could have been taken verbatim from one of my elementary school Social Studies books.  He followed this up with some additional comments about how "every society must have agriculture."

Had he stopped before giving his example of Native American agriculture, I would have assumed that he was asking a slightly different, and very interesting question.  But his insistence (even after I answered his question to the best of my ability) that the Chumash (the Native Californian group about which I had been speaking) engaged in some form of agriculture, complete with the intentional fertilization of planted crops, was just the most recent example of something that I have noticed among the lay public ever since I first became interested in both history and archaeology.

Most of us have preconceptions regarding the past based in part on half-remembered snippets of our educations, in part on our conception of the present, and in part on our basic assumptions about how humans behave.  This fellow was unable to accept that there are human populations who do not engage in agriculture, even after I explained the full spectrum that runs from highly mobile hunter/gatherers to farmers*.  Similarly, the people that I encounter very often seem to have difficulty grasping that there are, indeed, societies that don't really recognize the concept of private property, or lack clearly defined social strata (no, not every society has a leader, at least not a permanent one).  Both of these ideas (private property is a natural part of human psychology, all humans follow leaders and all human society are stratified for this reason) are based on assumptions that we make which aren't actually backed up by field data.  Or, to de-nerdify the way that I phrased that, we like to think that these things are true because they either justify our current society.

Similarly, we have certain notions regarding the human past based on pop culture.  The very notion of "back in caveman times" is ludicrous and informed more by Warner Brothers cartoons than archaeology.  Some past humans lived in caves...but, you know, some modern humans live in caves.  When you think of the "caveman days", though, you are thinking of a point when humans were anatomically modern (or at least nearly so), but somehow not quite human...primitive, savage, lacking language and culture.

This was never the case.  Nobody knows for sure when language began, but it was likely before we became anatomically modern humans.  Likewise, culture pre-dated modern humans - the presence of stone tools and artwork associated with our ancestors demonstrate that.  By the time we evolved into our currently physical form, we had everything that makes us human.  When you think of the ways that the mobile hunter-gatherers of the American Great Basin lived, you are also thinking of something very close to how our common ancestors in Africa lived 50,000 years ago.  All of us are, and were, human, not "cavemen."

Our prehistoric ancestors began as highly mobile hunter gatherers, spread throughout the world, and adapted to mobile conditions (and quickly changing conditions with the end of the Pleistocene, ca. 12,000 years ago).  Some groups began agriculture, became sedentary, and began to form towns and eventually cities, while other remained mobile and nomadic, some adopting animal husbandry and some retaining hunter/gatherer lifeways...and there were many steps in between all of these points that various human societies adopted.  In each case, though, the form of culture developed in response to local environment.

And this seemed to be where the fellow asking the question was having a problem.  He seemed to think, based on how he phrased his question, as well as the follow-up comments that he made, that a lack of farming was a "caveman" trait.  That I was talking about Native Americans 250 years ago, not early people on the African savannah 50,000 years ago...and therefore the people about whom I was speaking clearly must have been engaged in cultivating crops, and he was unwilling to accept the word of myself or anyone else who had actually studied the matter to the contrary. 

But, of course, the fact of the matter is that humans will do what their environment** demands.  For some, this means that agriculture becomes necessary.  For others, it does not.

*This is definitely a spectrum, too.  It is common for us to think that there is some sort of clear line where a culture "becomes" agricultural.  But where does that line fall?  Clearly, people who plant annual crops and engage in irrigation and fertilization are farmers.  But what about people who scatter plant seeds but don't prepare fields or irrigate them?  What about people who don't intentionally plant seeds, but prune or otherwise tend to plants to promote the growth of some over others?  What about those who burn areas of field or forest to promote the growth of disturbance vegetation?  There are many steps on the way from forager to farmer, and it's not necessarily clear where one ends and the other begins.

**This includes both the natural environment and the social environment.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The difference Between Irrational and Supernatural

Over the weekend, I listened to a friend describe a conversation she had had with an acquaintance of her own.  Her acquaintance would not accept that my friend did not believe in anything supernatural.  Apparently, he ran down a long list of supernatural things, insisting that she must believe in at least one of them, and became increasingly frustrated as she refused to concede to believing in any of them.

I have noticed this many times before, and I have always found it either interesting or irritating, depending on my mood at the time.

First off, it should be said that everybody believes in something that is irrational.  You, me, everyone.  We are simply not physically capable of checking each and every one of our beliefs as they develop over time to ensure that all remain internally consistent and consistent with external information.  Some people own up to this belief (for example, my sisters are very clear that they are aware that there is no evidence to support their religious beliefs, but they believe nonetheless), but more often people are either unaware of the irrationality of their particular odd belief, or they maintain some sort of intellectual fig-leaf that allows them to convince themselves that their belief is rational when even the merest pressure applied to their justifaction would reveal just how hollow it is.  But, regardless, we all hold an irrational belief.

However, that does not mean that we all hold a supernatural belief.  I certainly do not believe in anything supernatural - no gods, no spirits, no "mystical energies", no ESP, no ghosts, etc. etc. etc.  I am a materialist - I hold to the provisional belief (that is, I'm open to disconfirming evidence, should any be made available) that the universe is governed by basic knowable (though not all currently known) laws and forces, that we live in a world of matter and energy - and not the Reiki/chi mystical energy, but the basic energy of physics.  So, I can say that I hold no supernatural beliefs.

As to irrational beliefs - I am certain that I have some, but I don't know what they are.  And this, in my experience, is common.  I know that I had previously held irrational beliefs, since abandoned, regarding politics, basic impulses of humans (humans are basically good/selfish/seeking sex/likely to break into the Macarena/etc.), relationships, regional stereotypes, etc. etc. etc.  Some of these beliefs were irrational over-extensions of initially valid observations, others were little more than wishful thinking, and some were based on prejudices.  Regardless, I have held many irrational beliefs over the years that I didn't realize were irrational until confronted with strong evidence demonstrating that this was, in fact, the case. 

Supernatural beliefs, though, are a specific sub-set of irrational beliefs.  They are the beliefs that require that the believer hold the notion that there is some sort of force, being, or power that is not bound by the constraints that bind everything else in the universe.  This may be a belief in gods or spirits that act by their own rules, or in "energies" that are somehow not tied to the physical world in the ay that real energy actually is, or it may simply be a belief in some thing that is so different from all other things in the universe that any attempt to test it is doomed to failure.  It is entirely possible for someone to not believe in any of these things. 

What I suspect sits at the base of the assertion that my friend encountered is something that is common amongst most people.  Most, perhaps all, of us seem to have a hard time grasping that the broad assumptions that we make about the world are not shared by others.  This is the reason why you will meet religious people who insist that there is no such thing as a true atheist (after all, everyone believes in some sort of divine force, right?  Well, no.), or many a hard-nosed rationalist will have difficulty accepting that a strongly religious person is unlikely to be moved by evidence showing their beliefs to be mistaken (this leads to many of them making comments about how religious believers "know that their religions are bullshit" when the believers rather manifestly do not "know" any such thing), or why a fire-and-brimstone sort thinks that they can scare non-believers with threats of Hellfire and Damnation (sorry buddy, but I really not only think that these things don't exist, but also think that your acceptance of them as coming from a  supposedly "good" authority means that you are a terrible person), or even people who believe in ghosts no being willing to accept that someone such as myself definitely believes that death is it, the end, fino, done. 

The person with whom my friend was speaking is religious, though he follows a non-mainstream religion and might therefore buck against the statement that he is religious (though it remains true), and he believes in a number of supernatural claims - though he is not stupid and does weed out many claims based on simple observation and common sense. 

Still, it is a curious thing.  Many, perhaps most, people seem to be astoundingly stubborn in their failure ot recognize that the way that they view the world is not necessarily shared by all, or even necessarilly most, people.