Pet Hate

Don’t worry, I don’t hate pets. A more honest title for this blog would be relativism in archaeology and medicine, but who then would ever read even the first sentence? I like to see comments made by my family and friends on Facebook, or to look at their wonderful photographs, especially butterflies. Posting a link to an item of general interest is also worthwhile; how else would I have known yesterday that the first Roman toilet seat ever found in Britain has just been excavated at Vindolanda? What I really hate is the uncritical re-posting of someone else’s item; sometimes I receive the same re-post from several Facebook friends on the same day. What I get are often images and are usually, in the most general terms, political, anti-religious, or unbearably sentimental testimonies to the value of friends, parents or pussy cats. Such posts have seemingly moved from poster to poster without ever passing through anyone’s brain. I don’t suppose that there is any way in which I can block them while leaving other material intact. The absence of such a blocker means that one day I shall be found stiff and cold in my work room surrounded by the smoking ruins of my laptop, but in the meantime, if you have greater intellectual pretensions than a gerbil, please don’t succumb to the temptation more than once each week.

Of all such re-posts the type that irritates me beyond all others are those claiming a therapeutic function for some natural or quasi-natural food item. For example recently I was told that cashew nuts have an anti-depressant effect about the equivalent of Prozac. Could it be true? It could. Alternatively might it be true that the nuts had no useful effect at all? It might well. Is it even possible that the nuts contain substances that are positively harmful to people suffering from depression? It is certainly possible. So, how can we tell? Obviously we have to review any published evidence that touches on these important points. Did the re-post suggest where this might be found? Absolutely not.

But let’s take a break here and consider archaeological theory. The fact that no accounts of the past are completely accurate doesn’t prevent some accounts being less accurate than others. A plausible interpretation may be unsatisfactory when compared with the truth but, surely, it is preferable to arbitrary speculation. Many archaeological theorists would insist that any possibility of truly ‘objective’ knowledge is illusory. But if objective rational knowledge were completely impossible we could never assess competing knowledge claims concerning any interpretation about the past. The risk is called relativism, in other words my well-informed views on post-Roman Britain would be in every way equivalent to an unresearched account that attributes British Dark Age culture to refugees from King Arthur’s court. However, without going quite so far, it would be hard to deny that archaeologists have often made assumptions based on the society in which they live and the education which they have received. Like everyone else they are prone ‘to see the world not as it is, but as they are’. The American philosopher Alison Wylie believes that both ideas and observations structure our views about the nature of the past, and has called this situation ‘mitigated objectivity’.

When I read a well argued case for a particular archaeological explanation what are my expectations? I like to see publication in a journal, preferably one subject to peer-review, and I am not happy if authors excuse themselves from this discipline on the basis of a hostile archaeological or scientific establishment. The authors’ personal testimony, however deeply felt, is no replacement for the availability of the raw data on which the testimony is built. Finally any honest authors should draw attention to those portions of the evidence that do not fit the proposed theory, as well as those that do. The non-archaeologists among you may not care tuppence if others believe that Neolithic stone carvings were inspired by ancient space travellers; safe in the past your carefree attitude to plausibility can do little harm. Serious illnesses are a totally different matter.

I have very good reasons for knowing that physicians are not always correct in their diagnoses and that yesterday’s received wisdom is tomorrow’s justifiably neglected hypothesis. But do not be too ready to discard opinions based on the accumulated knowledge of years of university training and further years of experience. At least don’t discard them without some serious contrary evidence. If caution is justified even when considering remedies for hay-fever or obesity, then it is doubly true if you are providing advice that may cause delay in the treatment of a major life-threatening illness such as depression or cancer. Now, as evidence of my own even handedness, may I also draw your attention to an excellent recent Radio 4 broadcast (26 August 2014) called ‘Everything You Know Is Wrong’. It described how few scientific findings are ever re-tested, and how few of those re-tested findings in fact prove to be reproducible. As time goes by many scientific facts become less true than we once thought, this is called the ‘decline effect’, and the plausibility of some findings even dwindle away to zero. There was no suggestion that the scientific results were fraudulent in any way, indeed one of the practical problems was that individual scientists were rather defensive and firmly convinced of the correctness of their original research. The main problems seem to be that it is impossible to build a scientific career on checking the work of others, moreover journals seem strangely reluctant to publish entirely negative results. Yet I am certain everyone can see the value of both these activities. This situation is not unique to science. A ‘silent’ foreign correspondent was once emailed by his editor with the words: ‘why no news?’. The correspondent reasonably replied: ‘no news; good news’. Unfortunately the editor had the clinching argument with: ‘no news; no job’. Undeniably subjects like archaeology and medicine, which purport to be science based if not actually sciences themselves, may be on shakier foundations that we like to believe. At least they have foundations; to believe without evidence is building on sand.

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