Elements of Dynamic Network Analysis: 3. Connecting the dots


John Terrell

Categorical thinking, which I wrote about in the first two posts in this series, may at times be too pat for our own good, but this pragmatic (although potentially knee-jerk) way of dealing with things, people, and events is rarely based solely on nonsense.

Old-fashioned library card catalog [https://www.flickr.com/photos/mamsy/ [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]
Why not? Because the world is not an entirely unpredictable place. What happens to us, good or bad, is seldom purely random or plain crazy.  Life actually does have patterns that can be real enough, although they can also be far from  clear-cut and hard to see. Even so, patterns can be categorized. Not always successfully (just ask any weather forecaster), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do so.

But this is enough about categorical thinking for now. I want to move on and write instead about what I have previously referred to as relational thinking.

Relational thinking

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics defines this way of thinking as the “mindful application of place value and the properties of number, operations, and equality in solving mathematics problems.” If this confuses you as much as it does me, note this organization adds: “A student with a disposition toward relational thinking has a habit of thinking before acting.”

This seems like an uncommonly low bar. Certainly not the definition I have in mind. Nature‘s online magazine Science of Learning offers an alternative: “At the core of all human learning and  performance  . . .  is the foundational ability to perceive patterns that thread through all of nature, including human nature.”

This isn’t quite it, either. In fact, to me this sounds more like a definition of categorical thinking. So let me give you my own take on what pairing these two words together means:

Categorical thinking assumes that things exist apart from one another, and may then become connected with one another.  

Relational thinking assumes instead that things exist because they are connected.

If my definition sounds too mystical to you, let me offer you several examples of what I mean.

One-sided relationships

It seems likely that no relationship is solely one-sided if looked at closely enough. While granting this likelihood, there is no doubt that relationships can be so out of balance that it is not just a technicality that one side is more influential than the other. Critically, the character and perhaps the very existence of one side in such an imbalanced relationship may depend, maybe entirely, on the relationship it has with the other side.

A classic example of such a one-sided connection is the relationship between the Sun in our solar system and all the other planets (and then some) revolving around it, including Planet Earth.

Even without venturing into the exotic realm of modern cosmological theories about quantum gravity, it is obvious enough nowadays except perhaps to those who believe the Earth truly is flat that if it were not for the gravitational relationship between the planets and our Sun, the Earth would not exist at all and neither would we. Our reliance on the Sun is that one-sided and decisive. There would also be no life at all on our planet without the Sun serving as life’s ultimate source of energy, however otherworldly such a statement may sound.

Technical note: In formal network analysis, a relationship between two things (the two nodes or vertices in the relationship) is said to be dyadic (two-sided). When both are taken together, they are called a dyad. Furthermore, such two-party connections can be either undirected (more or less balanced or symmetrical from the point of view of each), or they can be directed (each party has a different take on the relationship). From this perspective, the relationship between the Earth and the Sun is a directed dyadic relationship, and it is a relationship that is decidedly one-sided.

Photo via Good Free Photos
Two-sided relationshps

It has been said that human beings have an innate sense of fairness and an ingrained willingness to do something for others when they are reasonably confident that a favor, whatever it is, will be returned, if not in kind, at least in some other way having equal value.

This judgment of our willingness to engage with others in two-sided relationships is far too cynical. Available evidence suggests instead that most of us are basically predisposed to be kind, collaborative, and helpful to others. That’s how we have evolved as a social species.

Moreover, humans as a rule are not only ready, willing, and able to forge and maintain relationships with others. We are also remarkably skilled at coming up with playful excuses to do so.

Although jogging, bicycling, and other forms of exercise, for instance, can be done easily enough as solitary tasks, people often find ways of turning even such seemingly self-centered healthy activities into broadly social occasions.

Although a more sedentary activity than a physically healthful one, this observation holds true also for online computer gaming, which is now a major leisure-time social activity for millions around the globe.

Technical note: A racket sport such as tennis is an example of an undirected dyadic relationship (accepting, of course, that only one of the players can win). Yet tennis is also a spectator sport, and as such, creates a directed dyadic relationship between sports fans and players.

[https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Thomaz_Bellucci_perde_para_o_espanhol_Rafael_Nadal_(28655795630).jpg]
Many-sided relationships

It is obvious enough that spectator sports such as tennis or baseball involve more than just simple dyadic relationships between players and spectators. The social complexity of team sports is even more apparent for sports such as soccer and football that call for the coordination of players both within and between the two opposing teams on the field.

A friend in need, 1903 [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons].

Side note: There seem to be few team sports that call for more than two teams on the playing field at the same time—maybe they should be called “dyadic sports”—although a few examples do come to mind if you are willing to bend the definition of what is a sport: many kinds of card games, many types of board games, some varieties of billiards, some forms of bicycle racing, etc. 

But the many-sided complexity of most human relationships isn’t just obvious while watching  players interact with one another on a playing field. The general complexity of human relationships is more than apparent also among the fans watching the game being played right there before their eyes. Indeed, in the case of some sports, it could  be argued that “most of the action” is actually in the bleachers, not down on field. (You may be able to tell I don’t like baseball, and I am not too fond of football, either.)

Tim Beckham, catcher John Hicks, umpire Roberto Ortiz in a 2017 game [Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA (Tim Beckham) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
How can we tackle the complexity of human relationships?

Classic definitions of social network analysis as a way of coming to grips with the complexity of human social relationships commonly read like this one from John Scott’s highly successful book Social Network Analysis: A Handbook: “social network analysis is an orientation towards the social world that inheres in a particular set of methods. It is not a specific body of formal or substantive theory” (page 37, 2nd ed., Sage Publications, 2000).

I find such a view naive, however well-intentioned. It is quite impossible to isolate methods from theories and then claim to be doing good science. This is an observation I will explore further in the next posting in this series.

This is Part 3 of a continuing series of posts on dynamic network analysis. Next up: 4. Exploring the 5th dimension.

 

© 2018 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.

Elements of Dynamic Network Analysis: 2. Relativity


John Terrell

In the inaugural posting in this series, I made note of the fact that history shows us time and again that as a species we have decided strengths and obvious weaknesses.

Why it’s good to be human

On the plus side, our kind of animal is outstanding at reshaping and rebuilding the world around us to make the challenges we face as individuals and as a species as humdrum, predictable, and hence as manageable as possible.

Poets, playwrights, philosophers, and scientists may debate the particulars of human motives and intentions, but there is no denying one of the reasons we spend so much time and effort at redoing the conditions under which we live out our days on earth. The more predictable a situation or event is, the easier it is for our brain to cope with it. And if need be, respond more or less appropriately.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul [personal photograph]
I also argued in the previous post that to avoid becoming overwhelmed by what our body’s senses—classically said to be five in number—are telling us about the state of things and events both inside and outside our skin, our brain ignores much of what it is being told. Instead it mostly relies on the pragmatic strategy of simplifying what it is hearing, both literally and figuratively, by mentally putting things, people, and experiences into separate and seemingly distinct mind boxes—into different categories.

[https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=194409&picture=the-three-bears]
However, there is a fine line between paying too much attention to what our senses are telling us, and too little. (I like to call this the Goldilocks Line after the 19th century children’s story). Failing to pay sufficient attention to what’s happening inside or outside our body can be disastrous, as anyone who has survived the experience can tell us about why they shouldn’t have been texting while driving.

Why it’s bad to be human

As my mother so often liked to say, things can be both good and bad at the same time. However pragmatic and unintentionally self-centered we are as individuals for understandable evolutionary and psychological reasons, the dark side of our human ways cannot be denied.

I wasn’t being cynical in the previous post, therefore, when I remarked that truth may not be as appealing and important—that is, as useful—to us as human beings as the immediate and pragmatic benefits of things and events (and people, too) that are easy, convenient, and predictable.

However, taking the easy way out, the easy answer, the easy job, and so forth can be costly down the road—sometimes sooner rather than later. Doing so can make it difficult for us to notice and pay enough attention to how things, people, and experiences are linked, intertwined, and interrelated. Said more formally, what I called previously “categorical thinking” can lead to “categorical mistakes.”

The power of words

According to more than just a few of us, life’s big question is Why am I here? Others instead see How come I am here? as the mystery to be solved. Conventionally, people turn to theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and their best friends when they are seeking answers to the first question. The second one falls more in the thoughtful arena of pediatricians, scientists, cosmologists, mystics, and priests.

This division of labor, however, is not absolute, and is certainly not as categorical as such a divide implies.  One common thread crossing between these two realms of expertise is the belief or assumption—sometimes up front, sometimes only lurking in the background—that words are both powerful and are usually grounded in reality except, of course, when someone is “making things up” that they know are untrue.

The belief that words can be both truthful and powerful—that by naming things we are not just “putting into words” something already “out there” in the world, but can create something new as if “out of nothing”—is deeply rooted in the antiquity of our species. A classic example would be invoking the word abracadabra during a magic show to lend apparent substance to some clever illusion. But the roots of seeing words as powerfully creative run deeper than this trivial example.

The Almighty. Genesis cap 1 v 16. De Vos [By Phillip Medhurst [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons]
For instance, consider the opening words of the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament:

IN THE BEGINNING God created the heaven and the earth.
2  And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4  And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5  And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Relational thinking

In my first post I said that I am writing this series about dynamic network analysis because I want to explore with you how a different way of thinking about the world and our place in it can make it easier for us to see and make something out of how widely and how often critically things, people, and events are not separate and distinct in neat categorical ways, but instead are interwoven into relationships that make the whole totality of them, as the saying goes, bigger than the sum of the parts. Since what I want to write about, however, is complicated, I need to proceed step by step.

The next step in this second post is a brief quiz I’d like you to take before we move on to take a closer look in Post #3 at what is called network analysis.

Quiz: How good are you at thinking outside the category?

Please take a piece of printer paper and draw a line down the middle from top to bottom. Near the top of the left-hand column, write the word categorical. Do the same for the right column, except make the word relational. Then write in items under these two headings matching those shown here. Note that the last two rows are blank. In a moment I will be asking what you would add in these two bottom rows resonating with the rows above them.

Here’s the question I want to ask: What makes the items in the right-hand column different from those in the left-hand column? Yes, it is OK to use Google if some of the items seem obscure. And yes, this is a categorical question for sure.

The answers I am looking for

There are many ways to talk about the items in the left-hand column.  #1-2 are often viewed nowadays as wasteful single-use items that pollute the environment; #3 is a famous writer who rejected the virtues of altruism, praised individual rights, and is seen by many as a prophet of selfishness; #4 is an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of individual gun owners; #5 is the day each year when a given individual was born; #6 refers to the belief that all things can be boiled down to singular, individual particles called atoms.

In contrast, paper bags and paper straws are being promoted today as more environmentally friendly than their counterparts in the left column. #3 could be described as the high priest of the relativity rather than the individuality of things in the universe. Without trying to pin them down, the remaining three items are similarly all about things, events, and species that are enmeshed with one another.

Now here’s your job. What would you write in the blank rows at the end of this table? For instance, I myself would be tempted to write in one of these rows the card game solitaire vs. the team sport of boat racing.

By National Library of Ireland on The Commons (Waterford Boat Club) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waterford_Boat_Club_(8401799848).jpg]
What’s the point I am trying to make?

In the first post in this series, I observed that for entirely understandable reasons each of us is by nature self-centered. Saying this, however, does not have to mean we are also inherently selfish despite the fact that jumping to such a conclusion is unfortunately fairly commonplace even in scholarly circles.  

As we will be exploring in this series, Ayn Rand and others both before and since have been misguided to believe otherwise. The continuing popularity of Rand’s ideas only shows that words can be powerful at least in the limited yet dangerous sense that they can be used to persuade us about what’s real and what’s unreal in the world of yesterday, today, and tomorrow without actual proof.

This is precisely why we need ways of getting outside our heads and dealing directly with the world that force us to “think outside the category.” Why? Because we need ways to confront our hasty impressions, deep-seated desires, wishes, and wants so that we can avoid errors in judgment, however innocent, that tragically can result in the desecration of the world we live in—and if we are not careful, our own extinction as a species.   

[sea-fog-plastic-sad-geology-waste-1115089-pxhere.com_-1.jpg]
This is Part 2 of a continuing series of posts on dynamic network analysis. Next up: 3. Connecting the dots.

 

© 2018 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.

Elements of Dynamic Network Analysis: 1. human nature


JOhn Terrell

Human beings are by nature highly social animals. Despite claims both popular and scientific, we also are not inherently selfish creatures. Yet we often seem self-centered. Why? Short answer: because we are looking out at the world from inside our skulls.

As my mother used to say, this is both good and bad. Let me explain briefly by offering you a few elementary observations about being human.

Your pragmatic brain

A fully functioning human brain is a remarkable compromise. Your senses are constantly feeding you input—lots of it—about what’s happening in the world around you, and also about what’s going on inside your body. If your brain were to pay close attention to all the details it is receiving about the state of things within and beyond you, it would rapidly become overloaded. That, of course, would make it useless to you as an organ dedicated to helping you in an admittedly self-serving fashion navigate your way more or less successfully from the cradle to the grave.

It is perfectly understandable, therefore, why your brain perpetually walks a fine line between paying too much attention to what it is being told by its senses, and too little.

Figure 1. “I swear they came out the box this way | by frankieleon” [https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/3576170595]
One way the brain accomplishes this delicate balancing act is to put things, people, or events striking it as more or less like one another into the same mind box—that is, into the same mental category. By this I mean what a dictionary says this word means:  “a class or division of people or things regarded as having particular shared characteristics.”

well-known rule of thumb illustrates the point I am trying to make: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. A more colorful example is shown in Fig. 1.

But here’s the rub. What if your brain draws the line between too much and too little in the wrong place? What if it doesn’t pay enough attention to what it is being told by your senses about the animal your brain has concluded must be a duck? More to the point, what if making such a categorical mistake leads to serious consequences? Say, mistaking a friend coming into a darkened room for an intruder. And impulsively you shoot your friend dead?

Clearly having a pragmatic brain lodged inside that bony vault up there on your shoulders can be both good and bad, just as my mother would observe.

A world of our own making

Here’s another observation about how humans deal with the world. If novelty is the spice of life, then from your brain’s pragmatic point of view, predictability is life’s bread & butter.

Put simply, the more predictable a situation or event is, the easier it is for your brain to categorize it. And then, if need be, respond appropriately (or not).

Figure 2. By Crusier [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
It is again understandable, therefore, why as a species we humans invest so much of our time and effort (and money) into dumbing down the world around us to make the challenges we face as humdrum, predictable, and therefore categorical as possible.

By “dumbing down” I mean our species is remarkably skilled at remaking the world we live in to be less risky and uncertain than it otherwise would be for us. Said another way, we love to make what’s out there in the world fit into simple, convenient, widely applicable mind boxes, i.e., categories.

Humans are not the only creatures on earth who are predisposed to make the things and events they have to deal with as humdrum as they can make them. Many of the earth’s countless species are similarly committed in their own more limited ways—biochemical, physical, or behavioral—to enhancing their surroundings and creating favorable opportunities for themselves (we are not the only self-centered creatures on earth) by making things more suitable, more accommodating, more predictable. And for them, as well, more categorical.

This last remark is important, as I will be explaining in a later posting in this series. The brain's mind boxes called "categories" may or may not have actual words associated with them that we can use to talk about them. This is often why we may find it hard to put our ideas into words. But with this remark I am getting ahead of what I want to say in this first post. 

Figure 3. Termite mound, Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory, Australia [By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA (Cathedral Termite Mound) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]
Classic examples of what other species do to dumb down the world for themselves would be beavers constructing dams to create ponds that help protect them against predators; termites building earthen mounds in Africa, South America, and Australia to live in; birds building nests; and earthworms improving the quality of the soil they move through by eating it and passing it through their bodies, over and over again, generation after generation, thereby making life easier and more fulfilling for the earthworms that take their place in the great circle of life.

Clearly, therefore, we are not alone as a species in being both able and crafty enough to improve our lives and living circumstances by making the world a safer and more predictable place to live in.

Even so, we humans are certifiably the Earth’s champions at the fine and skillful art of redoing the world to suit our needs as well as our fancies, however odd the latter may be (let’s all admit, shall we, that the artificial islands of the exotic tourist resort shown in Fig. 4 are an extreme example of our willingness to redesign the world to suit our fancies and our credit cards).

Figure 4. Palm Island Resort, Dubai, United Arab Emirates [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dubai_-_The_Palm_Jumeirah_-_panoramio.jpg]
Confronting our pragmatic and often self-centered ways

We have reason, therefore, to be proud of the fact that our species excels all others at creatively dumbing down the world we live in to make the challenges we face humdrum and predictable. But there are genuine risks involved. Why so? Because we are not truly god-like in our powers. We are not all-seeing and wise. We are not always as good as we may think we are at drawing the line between knowing too much about the world and knowing too little.

And furthermore let’s be honest. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, truth (spelled with or without a capital “T”) may not actually be as appealing and important—that is, as useful—to us during our journey from the nursery to the grave as the pragmatic benefits and virtues of things and events (and people, too) that are easy, convenient, and predictable.

Here then is what this series of posts at SCIENCE DIALOGUES will be about:

  • Millions of years of evolution have done a skillful job of making us clever, inventive, and remarkably successful beings.
  • As history shows us again and again, however, our reliance as a species on the pragmatic (and generally self-serving) strategy of mentally putting things, people, and experiences into separate and seemingly distinct mind boxes—into different categories—often makes it hard for us to notice and pay sufficient attention instead to how things, people, and experiences are almost always linked and interrelated rather than separate and distinct. 
  • In this series, I will be calling the first brain strategy categorical thinking, and the second one relational thinking.
  • My goal in writing these posts will be to survey for you how the second way of thinking about the world and our place in it makes it easier for us to see and understand how widely and often critically things, people, and events impact one another—sometimes in unexpected and even disastrous ways (for example, see: Fig. 5).

Moral of the story so far: while understandable from an evolutionary and psychological point of view, being self-centered creatures is a handicap we humans need ways to confront and overcome.

Dynamic network analysis is one such way. I hope to convince you it is a good one, too.

Figure 5. The beach at Kanapou Bay collects debris from throughout the Pacific Ocean. [https://www.flickr.com/photos/noaaphotolib/19778606375]
This is Part 1 of a continuing series of posts on dynamic network analysis. Next up: 2. Relativity.
© 2018 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.

Racism, science, and common sense

John Edward Terrell


Five ways to stop sounding like a racist if you aren’t one.

If you think racism isprejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior,” science has something surprising to tell you.


WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DECADE CAN MAKE. Back in 2006, Angela Davis remarked during a keynote address at the University of Wyoming honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday: “We have been basically persuaded that we should not talk about racism.”  Following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in 2013, the activist movement Black Lives Matter was born. Since then the issue of racism has been front and center in American politics. What remains elusive, however, is why racism however motivated finds such fertile ground in the human psyche.

The Earth is flat

Kyrie Irving, who plays basketball brilliantly for the Cleveland Cavaliers, made headlines in February 2017 for declaring boldly that the Earth is flat. He was perhaps pulling our collective leg.  His stated rationale, however, has more than a little bit of good old common sense to back it up:

“For what I’ve known for as many years and what I’ve come to believe, what I’ve been taught, is that the Earth is round,” he continued. “But if you really think about it from a landscape of the way we travel, the way we move, and the fact that—can you really think of us rotating around the sun and all planets aligned, rotating in specific dates, being perpendicular with what’s going on with these planets?”

Crazy thinking?  Maybe, but then what about this? A poll published two years ago by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that 26% of Americans don’t know that despite appearances to the contrary, the Sun does not go around the Earth.   Perhaps more astonishing, when asked, 52% of Americans evidently don’t agree with the statement that humans evolved from earlier animal species.

You don’t have to be Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson to see that all these instances of scientific ignorance make perfect sense from a common sense point of view despite being wrong. Furthermore, it wasn’t all that long ago most people on Earth in point of fact were misinformed in precisely these ways: yes, of course, the Earth is flat; yes, it is obvious that the Sun goes around the Earth; and haven’t you heard? Humans were created in their present form by a special act of Divine Will.

. . . and races are real

There are no polls I know of to back up the claim. Even so, it seems likely many people today—maybe even most—would also say they can’t possibly be at all racist because, don’t you know?, they don’t look down upon people in other races (see the dictionary definition reprinted above).

Editorial cartoon showing a Chinese man, surrounded by luggage labeled “Industry”, “Order”, “Sobriety”, and “Peace”, being excluded from entry to the “Golden Gate of Liberty”. The sign next to the iron door reads, “Notice—Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen.” At the bottom, the caption reads, “THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman—’We must draw the line somewhere, you know.'” 1882. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_only_one_barred_out_cph.3b48680.jpg. . . and races are real

This argument may be socially honorable, but if this is what many truly believe, then there are people who need to hear that just like the idea that the Earth is flat, so too, the notion that  human beings come in different kinds that can be labeled as “races” is just plain scientifically wrong.

As the anthropologist Jonathan Marks at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte and many others, too, have been saying for years, human genetic variation around the globe is real. But the same cannot be said for the commonsense claim that the Earth is peopled by separate and distinct human races.

As Marks has observed on numerous occasions, when we try to divide people up into different races, it’s not that we’re reading natural patterns of variation and simply extracting this idea from nature. Instead,

what we’re doing is we’re deciding that certain patterns of variation are less important than others, and certain patterns of variation are more important than others. We decide that the difference between a Norwegian and an Italian is not significant and so we’ll place them in the same category. And we decide that the difference between a Persian and a Somali is important; and so we’ll place them in different categories.

Sinner heal thyself

It is probably true that most human geneticists nowadays recognize that human beings don’t come in kinds—that is, races aren’t real. It is more than unfortunate, therefore, that geneticists today generally still don’t seem to know how to talk about human biological variation from place to place and down through time without using words—the term “population,” for example—that all too easily can mislead others less knowledgeable into believing science still endorses the old commonsense idea that human races exist in the real world to be embraced or savaged depending on one’s personal and moral proclivities.

No wonder, therefore, that dictionary definitions of racism (such as the one at the top of this commentary) can still make it sound like there is nothing wrong with the idea of race provided we don’t use this notion as an excuse for prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism.

The way forward

Most of us don’t believe the Earth is flat. Yet most of us live and act as if it were because this commonsense idea is a seemingly trivial lie that mostly works just fine in everyday life. Similarly, most of us may feel comfortable using the word race for the same reason. Truth be told, however, most of us also know the consequences of doing so can be deadly. Is there a way forward?

Here are 5 recommendations. They have been written specifically with geneticists in mind. But you don’t have to be a professional geneticist to add them to your own personal stock of “best practices.”

  1. Avoid whenever possible using facile concepts and terms such as ancestry, migration, and admixture when writing about human diversity.
  2. Abandon using the outdated concept of a “population,” and replace it with the statistician’s term “sample.”
  3. Stop writing about the “population structure” of this or that species, and instead report on their “genetic structure” as a species.
  4. Develop comparative databases documenting the genetic structure of other species to demonstrate publicly and repeatedly until the truth finally sinks in that geographic variation doesn’t have to be “racial” to be real.
  5. Create mathematical tools and network algorithms to use when mapping, analyzing, and reporting on the genetic structure of a species that unlike current methods (e.g., the popular computer program Structure) are non-categorical.

 

© 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? 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.

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.

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