Archaeology, interpretation and science

Posted March 29th, 2010 by Andrea Vianello

The ongoing debate between editors and publisher of the journal Medical Hypotheses is making the news. In short, the publisher would like to impose peer review on the journal to assure that its name is firmly associated to “scholarly” publications while the editors state that the aim of the journal is to explore the domain of controversial or non-mainstream thinking that must have a place in science and feel that open peer review is better suited for sound, testable science rather than for ideas and hypotheses that might be sound in the logic and useful to produce critical thinking but hardly a finished study. The debate is therefore touching issues related to peer review and freedom of speech, especially in the case of non-mainstream, alternative theories. Should a commercial publisher be allowed to interfere with scientific publications because it wants to publish only certain type of science? Should the editors trust or at least try peer review, making clear to the referees that they would be reviewing hypotheses to explore further (and therefore the methodology) rather than finished research (i.e. the results)? And what all this means for archaeologists?

The root of the issue is in the general perception that science provides clear-cut answers to questions, I dare to say in a mathematical sense (i.e. 1+1 will always equal to 2). Whenever datasets are analysed through different methods that result in alternative results, there has to be only one valid result and that will be the result accepted by the majority of scholars, usually adopting the mainstream method. Of course there are competing theories in science (e.g. about dark matter), but the perception (I am using this term deliberately) remains that the bulk of the science is fairly definitive in its results. Indeed, one needs to go to the very limits of current astrophysics to find alternative theories openly debated. In the case of humanities and social sciences instead, a definitive result on most questions is highly unlikely as the human mind hardly follows a predictable path. To some degree this issue can be overcome, for example, if you deal with something certain like a text, whether it is a poem or a treaty. But in archaeology, where everything is fragmentary and data loss is the most evident issue, interpretations (please note the plural) are usually the end result.

That open interpretations can be the final outcome of a scientific enquiry is a hotly contested argument. In a very recent volume edited by Jared Diamond and entitled Natural Experiments of History, a message is delivered to archaeologists and other social scientists: please embrace scientific methods. There is also message for natural scientists: please consider studying historical phenomena scientifically. In other words, there has to be some middle ground where archaeologists reach some solid, albeit partial conclusions and scientists can help answer some human-originated questions. It is an invitation to dialogue and harmonisation between natural and social scientists, certainly not the first one, but definitely a high-profile one. In fact, the hostility towards Medical Hypotheses and the invitation for archaeologists to embrace scientific thought are facets of the same issue, as much the concerns of the editors of the journal towards peer review and the invitation to natural scientists not to give up on historical matters are very close issues. If it is true that natural scientists are put off by anything unfamiliar as historical processes, then the editors would be right in avoiding peer review, not because of flaws in peer review (which has some, but might not be the point here), but because of partiality of the referees towards some methodologies as opposed to openness to any scientifically sound methodology.

Such current inadequacy in debating openly scientific matters and instead charge scientists with an aura of infallibility is counter-producing. Consider climate scientists, who are openly quarrelling about what is what, ending up with a hypothesis such as that suggesting that the Gulf Stream may be slowing down becomes a public measure of the validity of science following the well known issue on leaked emails on the subject. Whilst it is true that archaeologists must use scientific thought more, they might be actually advantaged when it comes on how to handle alternative hypotheses: multiple results are acceptable in archaeology provided the methodology is sound and there is not enough scientific/archaeological evidence to prefer one scenario over the other. Archaeologists are in a position where they might teach something to their natural sciences colleagues.

To conclude, if Medical Hypotheses will have to close down or be affected, it is likely that the theory of “infallible science” will have prevailed; loose ends or competing theories will be considered bad for science and a majority vote cast on any issue, often through peer review, will ensure that there is only one acceptable view at any time. Any revolutionary idea will have to stay underground, as often happened in the past. Social scientists and archaeologists will remain a different “type” of scientists, a sub-class possibly, and their incapacity to come to one firm conclusion on their questions will damage them. Attempts to import the scientific thought will also be damaging, especially for archaeologists who may have to decide even if bother at all attempting to answer some questions where evidence is too scanty. Science altogether would be damaged. If instead hypotheses can stay in public view, and science accepts that its aim is to pursue the truth, and not arbitrarily decide what is or is not scientific truth, then science will be able reconnect with the public and there might be a better balance between natural and social sciences, because in the end there is only one science. For a trained archaeologist like me, sometimes it is hard to understand what all the fuss about competing theories, partial data and hypotheses is, but for the public such quarrelling undermines confidence in science, and it might have serious consequences on future generations of scientists. I therefore subscribe to Diamond’s double invitation, suggesting that such a move would cure many illnesses of current scientific practice as presented in the media, far more than the blind application or rejection of peer review to gain respectability might do.