Tag Archives: National Science Foundation

Is archaeology a science? 3. Problem solving

John Edward Terrell


This is part 3 of a 3 part commentary


Storytelling

There is nothing inherently bad or wrong about telling stories. In truth, our brains are always telling ourselves stories about all sorts of things. For example, figuring out what you need to buy at the supermarket. Or when it would be OK to cross the street. Or why your boss should give you a promotion at work. In short, stories are not always fictional accounts. They can also be factual.

While the thought may sound strange at first, even scientists tell stories to themselves and others (Terrell 1990). In truth, storytelling can be a creative way for them to develop new ideas and plausible explanations, say, about  badly broken bones dug up at an archaeological site in Kenya—although instead of calling them stories, scientists would probably label them as hypotheses (see: fig. 2).

Figure 2. Science differs from other kinds of storytelling is a critical way. Changing (a) the evidence available, (b) the assumptions made about the world and how things work when interpreting that evidence, or (c) the interpretations made (i.e., the working hypotheses) can also change the other two dimensions of the scientific endeavor.
Darwin’s famous letter

In a famous letter to a colleague in 1861, Charles Darwin reflects on what it means to do science:

About 30 years ago there was much talk that Geologists ought only to observe & not theorise; & I well remember some one saying, that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit & count the pebbles & describe their colours. How odd it is that every one should not see that all observation must be for or against some view, if it is to be of any service.

People writing about how science is done love to quote these words because, as Michael Shermer, a columnist at Scientific American, remarked a number of years ago: “If scientific observations are to be of any use, they must be tested against a theory, hypothesis or model. The facts never just speak for themselves. They must be interpreted through the colored lenses of ideas: percepts need concepts.”

Boiled down to a few words, therefore, what both scientists and lawyers call evidence isn’t evidence until it can be pinned to convincing stories about it. Hence, viewed from Darwin’s perspective, Lahr and her colleagues had been tasked with a research assignment that was a lot like counting pebbles and describing their colors. This kind of Plug & Play task has long been commonplace in archaeology because accidental discoveries and nowadays cultural resource salvage work are routine in this scholarly arena. Being routine, however, does not make a research assignment science. As Darwin said, all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.

The major reason Plug & Play archaeology isn’t science is that stories (hypotheses) about things (evidence) must be for or against stories that are bigger—scientists call them concepts, theories, models, and the like— than the kinds of particular stories that get called hypotheses.[*] Or if you are a trial lawyer, criminal indictments.

Stories, big and small

If hypotheses are stories about particular situations and things, then what makes concepts, models, theories, and so forth bigger stories? Philosophers love to argue about the answer, but I am not a philosopher. I will give you the answer that makes sense to me. Instead of calling them concepts, theories, models, and so forth, just call them assumptions.

The 25 grand challenges to archaeology  noted earlier are grounded on so many assumptions about how the world works and what needs to be better known to do archaeology right in the future that one is left almost speechless. In a more constrained fashion, the stories Lahr and her colleagues tell us about bones from Kenya similarly make allusions to grand assumptions about what life was like during the early Holocene, about the inherent violence or pacifism of human nature, and so forth. In both cases, it seems clear that the persuasive goal in part is to justify doing archaeology by relating particular issues to broad, general assumptions (sometimes called themes) that are compelling and sometimes seemingly quite magnificent in their scope and assumed relevance to the human condition.

“What’s the problem?”

Evidence, hypotheses, assumptions . . .  how do these components of the scientific endeavor fit together (Fig. 2)? Again, philosophers of science love to debate such a question, but here is a hands-on way to resolve it. Ask the “So what?” question that kicked off this commentary in a different way, one that is not just being more polite. It is also a more meaningful way to get to the heart of the issue. Ask instead “What’s the problem here?”

Critics of archaeology, anthropology, and the social sciences generally are likely to fault these fields of scholarly expertise in one or both of two ways. One is methodological, and might be expressed using the old cliché “you can’t get there from here.” In a word, there is doubt about whether the social sciences are rigorous enough in their objectivity, verifiability, and generality to merit being called real science. The other is more elusive and judgmental. Is the problem being tackled by the research work in question really worth doing?

One way of trying to avoid being on the receiving end of this second kind of criticism is to make the purpose of what you are doing elusive. A common way of trying to accomplish this dubious end is to make grand allusions in the opening paragraphs of a research report to work previously published on the same or a comparable theme (concept, hypothesis, model, theory, etc.) and then move swiftly on to discuss methods & materials, analysis, and the like.

This popular avoidance tactic is unlikely to work, however, when the critic is someone like Lamar Smith.

The intersection of independent lies

In 1966 the late biologist Richard Levins published a short paper on the role of model building in population biology that is now a classic in the philosophy and practice of science. One of his observations back then has become famous: “truth is the intersection of independent lies.’’ As he explains, the human mind can only cope with a few variables at one time, and almost any plausible proposed relation among aspects of nature is likely to be true in the sense that it occurs (although rarely and slightly). “Yet all models leave out a lot and are in that sense false, incomplete, inadequate. The validation of a model is not that it is ‘true’ but that it generates good testable hypotheses relevant to important problems” (Levins 1966).

Forty years after this article was published, Levins felt called upon to explain himself anew. Here, in part, is what he wrote:

In the dispute about climate change, a rising temperature in several cities is suggestive. Adding more cities to the list gives a diminishing return. But independent lines of evidence—ocean temperatures, cores from glaciers, decline of coral reefs, spread of species into places that had been too cold for them, accumulation of greenhouse gasses—each may have some separate idiosyncratic explanation or source of error but jointly converge on an unavoidable conclusion. We have to seek lines of evidence as independent as we can in order to support a large scale conclusion. (Levins 2006)

In other words, to do great science, you have to do different things based on different ways of looking at the problem being studied.

As I have said before, there is no disputing taste, and what one person judges to be a problem in need of solving may be seen as less worthy, even trivial, by someone else. The least I can do is offer two examples with the understanding you may not see them as grand, and therefore, may not be impressed that archaeologists are attempting to tackle the problem being addressed.

Two archaeological challenges to conventional wisdom

While perhaps not a universal truth, many people will tell you in one way or another that human beings come in different and enduring kinds that can be labeled variously as communities, races, ethnic groups, populations, societies, or cultures (Terrell 2012). As I have noted elsewhere at SCIENCE DIALOGUES,  such thinking is the bedrock of racism and social conflicts around the world.

My archaeological colleague John P. Hart at the New York State Museum and I have separately looked at this undeniable problem using different archaeological and ethnographic material culture datasets from entirely different regions of the globe—in Hart’s studies, northeastern North America (e.g., Hart et al. 2016), and in my work, the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea (e.g., Terrell 2010). Our goals, however, have been similar. We want to see if material culture studies support the notion—the popular conviction—that people come in discrete social and biological “kinds,” and if they do, how long-lived such fundamental building blocks of humanity may be.

As Hart and his colleagues recently reported, archaeological sequences based on pottery designs have often been used by scholars to identify ethnic ties among prehistoric settlements in eastern North America, and to hypothesize population movements over the landscape through time. Recent work by his research team using ceramic motifs and social network analysis challenges these conventional interpretations of the archaeological record and the principles underlying them. Network analysis of local and regional pottery design sequences, for example, suggests that rather than being ethnic markers, ceramic designs were used to signal inclusion in social and political networks crosscutting supposed ethnic and political boundaries in this part of North America. Moreover:

With a very robust archaeological record that has produced evidence for major shifts in settlement patterns, regional coalescences of village populations, changes in regional strife, and ultimately the development of confederacies, southern Ontario is an excellent area to investigate how signaling networks adapt as a result of socio-political and settlement system changes.

Similarly, work by myself and others on New Guinea’s northern Sepik coast since 1990 suggests that isolation by distance had led to some geographic patterning in cultural variation among communities on this coast prior to World War I. However, the patterning of similarities and differences in their material culture inventories offers little empirical support for the conventional assumption accepted by anthropologists, government officials, missionaries, and others that there is “a strong relation between language and material culture”  (Moore and Romney 1994) among villages communities in this part of the world. When seen in the broader perspectives of geography, human ecology, and time, as the old saying goes, appearances can be deceiving.

Conclusions

Science can be viewed as a continuous conversation among  evidence, hypotheses, and assumptions.  Some scientific conversations however ponderously expressed are trivial, merely chit-chat, so to speak. Other conversations are far more meaningful. If archaeologists want to be seen as substantial scholars and productive scientists, they have the same obligations all other scientists have. They must be clear and forthright about the problems they are addressing, and why those problems deserve the respect—and yes, the financial support—of others.

Grand challenges are inspirational, but they must be brought down to earth if what archaeologists dig up or study in museums is to add up to something worthwhile.


* As Richard Levins (2009: 744) has written, something is basically nonsense if it does not help us answer any questions other than about itself.


This is part 3 of a 3 part commentary

Acknowledgments

I thank John Hart for his help with this commentary.

References

Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. American Antiquity 28: 217-225.

Hart, John P., Termeh Shafie, Jennifer Birch, Susan Dermarkar, and Ronald F. Williamson. 2016. Nation building and social signaling in southern Ontario: AD 1350–1650. PloS One 11, no. 5: e0156178.

Jones, Sharyn. 2016. Anthropological archaeology in 2015: Entanglements, reflection, reevaluation, and archaeology beyond disciplinary boundaries. American Anthropologist 118: 301-316.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp et al. 2014a. Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 879-880.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder. 2014b. Grand challenges for archaeology. American Antiquity 79: 5-24.

Lahr, M. Mirazón, F. Rivera, R. K. Power, A. Mounier, B. Copsey, F. Crivellaro, J. E. Edung et al. 2016. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 529: 394-398.

Levins, Richard. 1966. The strategy of model building in population biology. American Scientist 54:421–431.

Levins, Richard. 1993. A response to Orzack and Sober: formal analysis and the fluidity of science. Quarterly Review of Biology 68:547–555.

Mizoguchi, Koji. 2015. A future of archaeology. Antiquity 89: 12-22.

Moore, Carmella C., and A. Kimball Romney. 1994. Material culture, geographic propinquity, and linguistic affiliation on the North coast of New Guinea: A reanalysis of Welsch, Terrell, and Nadolski (1992). American Anthropologist 96: 370-396.

Terrell, John. 1990. Storytelling and prehistory. Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 1-29.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2012. Polynesians and the seductive power of common sense. Cultural Geographies 20: 135–152.

Terrell, John, Hunt, Terry L., and Gosden, Chris. 1997. The dimensions of social life in the Pacific: Human diversity and the myth of the primitive isolate. Current Anthropology 37: 155-195.

Yu, Pei-Lin, Matthew Schmader, and James G. Enloe. 2015. “I’m the oldest new archaeologist in town”: The intellectual evolution of Lewis R. Binford. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 38: 2-7.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Is archaeology a science? 2. “Plug & Play” archaeology

John Edward Terrell


This is part 2 of a 3 part commentary


New and improved archaeology?

In 1962 the archaeologist Lewis R. Binford had an article published in the journal American Antiquity titled “Archaeology as anthropology”  that electrified the field of academic research into things ancient and not so ancient (Binford 1962). Many saw this paper as a call to turn away from just counting potsherds and pretending to write history toward doing real science in the realm of historical studies (Yu et al. 2015).

Nancy Stone and Lew Binford on an Acheulean site at Yediyapur in the Hunsgi Valley, South India, June 1986. Source: http://antiquity.ac.uk/tributes/binford.html

Since those halcyon days of the 1960s and what came to be called “processual archaeology,” professionals and amateurs alike have voiced strong doubts about whether archaeology is a science. Some have more or less utterly rejected Binford’s claim that archaeologists could be or should be scientists—an unwillingness to play along with Binford and those who would follow in his footsteps that, needless to say, plays right into the hands of someone like Congressman Lamar Smith (Jones 2016; Mizoguchi 2015).

Lewis Binford died in 2011. Despite his many naysayers, the archaeologist Mark Leone observed in a memorial appreciation of the man and his work published in the British journal Antiquity that Binford had unquestionably shown the rest of us “his astonishing capacity to connect archaeological things to the questions that mattered.”

Which raises an obvious concern. What kinds of questions might these be?

Ask no small questions

In 2012, a number of archaeologists, mostly Americans, decided they needed to come up with a list of questions for archaeologists to tackle in the years ahead. The resulting compendium, billed as “Grand challenges for archaeology,” was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (Kintigh et al. 2014a).

“The challenges had to be, in principle,” they agreed, “susceptible to a solution supported by data.” In all they came up with 25 worthy concerns. Reading through the listing makes it clear they concluded no challenge too big was beyond the scope of archaeology. Borrowing words from their published report:

These challenges focus on understanding the dynamics of cultural processes and the operation of coupled human and natural systems, recognizing that humans—mediated by culture—both affect and are affected by their natural environments. The challenges addressed questions of emergence, complexity, demography, mobility, identity, resilience, and human–environment interactions. There is a notable lack of concern with the earliest, the largest, and the otherwise unique.

What sorts of challenges are among the 25 listed? They are grouped into five separate categories labeled A–D. Here is a selection of five, one drawn from each category. Keep in mind as you read through them that these five are alike said to be within the reasonable pursue of archaeologists working as archaeologists.

A.7:  What is the role of conflict—both internal factional violence and external warfare—in the evolution of complex cultural formations?

B. 4:  How does ideology structure economic, political, and ritual systems?

C.1:  What processes led to, and resulted from, the global dispersal of modern humans?

D.2:  How do people form identities, and what are the aggregate long-term and large-scale effects of these processes?

E.7:  How do humans perceive and react to changes in climate and the natural environment over short- and long-terms?

What seems most astonishing about these five and the remaining 20 others is that none of these identified challenges said to be of global significance is accompanied by clear statements—specific research hypotheses—that might be taken to be unambiguously testable using archaeologically recovered empirical data. Not one. Yet the claim is made, nonetheless, that

the facts of the past provide the evidence that is essential to confront all of these questions. We harbor no illusions about the difficulties of addressing these classes of problems. Rather, we share a conviction that these are the domains in which the most important problems reside.

These scholars note at the end of their PNAS commentary that they have made a longer version of their collective statement available in American Antiquity (Kintigh et al. 2014b). However, whether what they outline there in more detail would satisfy Congressman Smith is questionable. With regard to challenge A.7, for example, they say:

Exploring the dialectical relationship between conflict and complex cultural formations will undoubtedly foster new approaches to the archaeological record. Conflict is notoriously difficult to identify and quantify through archaeological remains. Though some methods have been developed, more systematic and large-scale analyses are certainly necessary before this question can be thoroughly explored. These methods will involve innovations in osteology and molecular anthropology, as well as advances in comparative studies of material culture and technology.

Plug & Play archaeology

You don’t need to be as skeptical nor as dismissive as Lamar Smith to wonder what these experts have in mind to do in the years ahead to give substance to their 25 grand challenges. Being neither clairvoyant nor a mind-reader, the best anyone else can do is suggest what might or might not fit the bill—if not for Lamar Smith, at least for others.

First, therefore, what wouldn’t meet these challenges? There are many possible ways to answer such a provocative  question. Here is one. Archaeologists should avoid doing Plug & Play archaeology (fig. 1). What does my pairing of these two words refer to? Here is an example.

Figure 1. Source: the author

In January 2016 Marta Lahr at Cambridge University and her colleagues made the cover of the prestigious science journal Nature with a detailed report on human remains dating back about 10,000 years to the early Holocene that had been excavated at Nataruk in northern Kenya (Lahr et al. 2016). Some of the skeletons recovered have traumatic lesions suggesting the probable cause of death (see: fig. 1, left). Not surprisingly perhaps, given this seemingly gruesome physical testimony, Lahr and her co-authors inferred that they had in hand evidence of inter-group violence against people who, given the antiquity of the remains, were probably wandering hunter-gatherers rather than settled agriculturalists.

Now if you were Lamar Smith you might be asking yourself right now “So what?” At the close of their Nature report, Lahr and her colleagues acknowledge directly that the apparent violence attested at Nataruk might be an “ephemeral, but perhaps not unusual, event in the life of prehistoric foraging societies.” Before then in their report, however, and certainly in the press coverage around the world that this report quickly received, what is featured are possible stories about interpersonal violence that could be told given such ancient cold-case injuries.

Both in their report in Nature and in subsequent popular accounts, the central claim made is that these scholars have caught humanity red-handed doing something fundamental—and nasty—long ago strongly hinting that violence is, as many still popularly assume, one of the defining characteristics of our species.

Here is where plug & play come into operation. All that it takes to reach this kind of conclusion about ourselves as human beings is evidence such as these fossil bones (fig. 1, left), a few seemingly reasonable assumptions about human nature (fig. 1, center), and before you know it, you have a story to tell (fig. 1, right).

In fairness, it must be said that at the end their report, Lahr and her co-authors do comment that Nataruk may be showing us little more than “a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups.” But then why write about these bones, and why feature them on the cover of Nature?

There is no disputing taste, and these authors have clearly done a good job of coming up with what might be said about these prehistoric finds. But “plugging” them into an interpretation—into a story—however appealing is not what STEM education is all about, and surely not what someone like Lamar Smith would take to be real science. It may be true, as these authors conclude at the very end of their report in Nature, that “the deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war.” So what?

But if not Plug & Play archaeology, then what?

Part 3: Problem solving 

References

Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. American Antiquity 28: 217-225.

Hart, John P., Termeh Shafie, Jennifer Birch, Susan Dermarkar, and Ronald F. Williamson. 2016. Nation building and social signaling in southern Ontario: AD 1350–1650. PloS One 11, no. 5: e0156178.

Jones, Sharyn. 2016. Anthropological archaeology in 2015: Entanglements, reflection, reevaluation, and archaeology beyond disciplinary boundaries. American Anthropologist 118: 301-316.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp et al. 2014a. Grand challenges for archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111: 879-880.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Fredrick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder. 2014b. Grand challenges for archaeology. American Antiquity 79: 5-24.

Lahr, M. Mirazón, F. Rivera, R. K. Power, A. Mounier, B. Copsey, F. Crivellaro, J. E. Edung et al. 2016. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 529: 394-398.

Levins, Richard. 1966. The strategy of model building in population biology. American Scientist 54:421–431.

Levins, Richard. 1993. A response to Orzack and Sober: formal analysis and the fluidity of science. Quarterly Review of Biology 68:547–555.

Mizoguchi, Koji. 2015. A future of archaeology. Antiquity 89: 12-22.

Moore, Carmella C., and A. Kimball Romney. 1994. Material culture, geographic propinquity, and linguistic affiliation on the North coast of New Guinea: A reanalysis of Welsch, Terrell, and Nadolski (1992). American Anthropologist 96: 370-396.

Terrell, John. 1990. Storytelling and prehistory. Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 1-29.

Terrell, John Edward. 2010. Language and material culture on the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea: Using social network analysis to simulate, graph, identify, and analyze social and cultural boundaries between communities. Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 5: 3-32.

Terrell, John Edward. 2012. Polynesians and the seductive
power of common sense. Cultural Geographies 20: 135–152.

Terrell, John, Hunt, Terry L., and Gosden, Chris. 1997. The dimensions of social life in the Pacific: Human diversity and the myth of the primitive isolate. Current Anthropology 37: 155-195.

Yu, Pei-Lin, Matthew Schmader, and James G. Enloe. 2015. “I’m the oldest new archaeologist in town”: The intellectual evolution of Lewis R. Binford. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 38: 2-7.

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Is archaeology a science? 1: The “So what?” question

John Edward Terrell


           Is archaeology more than storytelling with the help of            visual aids and esoteric props?

This is part 1 of a 3 part commentary


The brahmin sport?

Back in the early 1960s when I was an undergraduate, I was asked by a graduate student in my department what I wanted to be when I grew up. That may not have been the phrasing of the question, but that was the spirit of his inquiry. This individual was the self-identified son of an academically famous father. When I told him I wanted to be an archaeologist, his response didn’t surprise me, although I will leave it to you to decide why I wasn’t taken aback by his retort. With an air of seeming good humor, he quipped: “Ah, the brahmin sport.”

I have no idea who were the particular brahmins he had in mind. Perhaps he was thinking of Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan, or maybe Lord Carnarvon of King Tutankhamun fame. In any case, by the 1960s such a quip was off target.

Agatha Christie (2nd from the left), Max Mallowan (center, with cigarette), and others at the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur in southern Iraq. Source: https://www.penn.museum/blog/collection/archival-practice/mystery-in-the-stacks-a-discovery-is-made-in-the-museum-archives/.
A waste of the taxpayer’s money?

The National Science Foundation was established by an Act of Congress in 1950 to “promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” All well and good perhaps, but whether social sciences such as anthropology and archaeology should be viewed as rigorous enough in their objectivity, verifiability, and generality to be included under the umbrella of the NSF was a matter of great and continuing contention even before the establishment of this government agency. Nevertheless, by 1958 an office for the social sciences had been established at the NSF despite the fact, as one board member commented in 1958, “we have to face up to the fact that the social sciences—except for a few extremely limited areas—are a source of trouble beyond anything released by Pandora.”

Given the availability of federal funding for research in the social sciences, anthropology and archaeology by the 1960s were no longer beholden to the whims or the fanatical ideas of the rich and socially privileged. Provided, of course, the research proposals getting funded could convince not only peer reviewers in these disciplines, but Congress, too, that the work lucky enough to be funded was worthy of being labeled as “scientific” not just in name but also in deed.

As the saying goes, that was then, this is now. Over the course of the last half century or so has archaeology lived up to the prospect that it is a science? Or have archaeologists been pulling the wool over the eyes of congressmen and everyday civilians alike as often as some critics of archaeology—and anthropology—then and now contend?

Science—The Endless Frontier

Here’s a bit more history to ponder. World War II had brought the federal government into the arena of basic science research as never before in the history of the United States. Interest in Washington in supporting whatever could be done to win the war was clear and pressing.  Ignorance about what the world was like beyond our borders was no longer excusable and could be deadly. Even anthropologists and other scholars of the esoteric who had lived and worked in the Near East, Asia, and the Pacific found themselves being sought out for their advice and guidance in advancing the war effort (Terrell et al. 1997).

In 1945 Vannevar Bush, the engineer who had led the government’s wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development, wrote a report for President Roosevelt outlining the future for science in the nation cleverly titled Science—The Endless Frontier. He argued persuasively that government support for scientific research and education would prove beneficial to both the peacetime economy and national security. Arguing in graphic terms that scientific progress is essential, his report makes the stakes involved as down to earth as anyone can get: “Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”

The newly found sense of relevance to solving the world’s problems carried over after the war in many of the academic disciplines that had hitherto defined themselves as being more about history and diversity than about pattern and process.  Notably geography, ecology, and natural history all experienced what soon came to be called the “quantitative revolution” marked by deliberate and carefully mastered efforts to make such previously descriptive studies more mathematical, more generalizing, and hence more “scientific.” And as I have already noted, eventually even the social sciences were able to convince federal decision makers that these so-called soft sciences were worthy of financial support.

But to repeat: that was then, this is now. And despite claims to the contrary, history can repeat itself.

The “So what?” question and STEM education

Lamar Smith, a Republican, has represented the 21st congressional district in Texas since 1987. He currently serves as the Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology which has jurisdiction over programs at NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He supports Donald Drumpf on border security, not using federal tax dollars to fund abortions under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), and reigning in the “costly, overly burdensome regulations” of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is also strongly opposed to wasting taxpayer’s dollars funding frivolous or low-priority projects, particularly in the social sciences. In 2016, for example, Democrats in Congress viewed his actions as Committee Chair as “a political litmus test that would allow Smith and other Republicans to trim research by social scientists and those studying climate change.”

Lamar Smith evidently likes to take the social sciences head on. Currently, however, there are also less direct ways of challenging whether they are wasteful and frivolous. Take STEM, the acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics educational programs and curricula. In the words of one prominent advocacy group:

The STEM Education Coalition works aggressively to raise awareness in Congress, the Administration, and other organizations about the critical role that STEM education plays in enabling the U.S. to remain the economic and technological leader of the global marketplace of the 21st century. Members of the STEM Coalition believe that our nation must improve the way our students learn science, mathematics, technology and engineering and that the business, education, and STEM communities must work together to achieve this goal.

In November 2016 the Coalition sent a memorandum to President-elect Donald Trump titled “STEM Education, Good Jobs and American Prosperity.” Nowhere in this statement do the words “social science” or “humanities” occur. Furthermore, the memorandum notes, for instance, that the “top 10 bachelor-degree majors with the highest median earnings are all in STEM fields.”

Is archaeology science?
Koster Site, Kampsville, Illinois in the 1970s. Source: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/koster.html

Few would question that archaeology can be fun, fascinating, entertaining, and an entirely worthwhile summer camping experience. How would cable channels such as Discovery and National Geographic keep the viewing audiences they have without the mysteries and thrilling excitement of archaeological discoveries in places near and far?

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stonehenge_(sun).jpg

Granting archaeology’s genuine entertainment value and emotional appeal may not, however, be good enough to position such work as worthwhile enough to merit taxpayer’s dollars. At least not in the eyes of someone like Lamar Smith.

Therefore, the question cannot be artfully avoided. Is archaeology more than storytelling? Is it also a science? An honest answer would have to be maybe yes, maybe sometimes.


Part 2: Plug & Play archaeology


References

Binford, Lewis R. 1962. Archaeology as anthropology. American  Antiquity 28: 217-225.

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