Is it ok for Archaeologist to Blame their Tools?

24 Jul

I was listening to episode 206 of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe recently and guest Dr. Richard Prum who was interviewed in that episodes said this:

…I discovered a fantastic quote by Thomas Kuhn from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and kuhn was trying to define science in a modern and also cultural context; how does science progres, how are hypotheses tested by groups of real flesh and blood people arguing over ideas, and in that he has this fantastic quote where he says, “The man who rejects one hypothesis without simultaneously proposing an alternative is rejecting science itself.” The quote goes on, “He will be known to his colleagues as the carpenter who blames his tools”…

He was speaking about the evolution of birds and the scientists who claim that the evolution of birds can’t be determined (listen to the interview if you want to understand better). Dr. Prum was saying that these scientist rejected the evidence that birds evolved from theropods (dinosaurs) without any other alternative possibility for how they evolved and thus had no evidence that the hypothesis was wrong. This got me thinking about archaeology.

It seems that I have at least on occasion rejected hypotheses and not had a hypothesis of my own to propose. though I’m not sure if I can name any particular time. The thing that comes to mind is from a discussion I had on the last day of excavation at Angle Mounds this summer. A few of us were sitting around a table discussing the feature we had been excavating. I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation, but we were discussing some peculiarity of the feature and throwing around ideas for why it was this way. One person suggested that perhaps the occupants of the structure (though as far as I know there is no evidence that it was a house) were high class and that is why there is this oddity. My immediate response was “then why didn’t they live on a mound?” I almost instantly rejected her hypothesis because I did not believe that the evidence corroborated with it. But did I present an alternative? I suppose it is a given if I think they were not high class then they must have been low or middle class, but this did not explain the anomaly. So I am not sure that I did give an alternative hypothesis, but I do feel that I was correct in rejecting her hypothesis. I think this may be a bad example, but it is the one I have.

Can Archaeologist blame their tools? Can we there is no way for Archaeology to provide the answers to this question? I am quite interested in archaeological theory and I love to think about these kind of questions. What do you think of this?

I meant to include a bit more, but forgot about it half way threw so I’m going to write it here now. This kind of questions interests me because I feel that archaeology is a science and should be treated as one. Archaeologist should try to adhere to the scientific method as much as possible and any stray from it increases the odds of producing bad archaeology. Of course due to the nature of archaeology it is hard to follow it exactly If only disciplines which stricktly ahdered to the scientific method could be called science then only the ‘hard’ sciences of physics, and chemistry, (and some would suggest biology). I think it is ok to bend the rules to fit what you are studying as long as you do it with the knowledge that you are bending and you try to keep the same mind set. . But how much is too much? where can we draw the line? how do we decide what is an acceptable stray from the normal scientific method and what brings archaeology to be a pseudo-science?

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Posted by on July 24, 2009 in Archaeology


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