Sunday, February 24, 2008

Letters to the Editor

I periodically fire off letters to the editor of magazines, typically when they have published a story that contains stupid or misleading information on a subject I know something about. These rarely get published, probably because magazines don’t like to be told they have published bad articles. My most recent rejected letter was submitted last week to Science; here is that letter and a rogues gallery of some of my other rejected letters to the editor:

To the Editor, Science:

In his Perspective “The Size, Scale, and Shape of Cities” (M. Batty, Science, 8 February 2008, p.769) Batty claims that complex systems models produce urban planning results superior to the “idealized geometric plans” of prior approaches. Yet the only such plans he cites date to the Renaissance and the 19th century! It hardly seems appropriate to complain that these old models “are simply too naïve” to describe contemporary cities. Ancient urban planning models (1) produced cities far more successful and sustainable than most modern cities. Given the large number of unanswered questions Batty raises about contemporary urbanization, it seems that the planners of antiquity understood their own cities better than Batty and others understand the cities of today.

References: 1. M. E. Smith, Jr. Plan. Hist. 6, 3-47 (2007).

To the Editor, Newsweek:

David Ansen’s perceptive review of “Apocalypto” (Newsweek, Dec. 11, 2006) points out that the only part of Maya culture that seems to interest Mel Gibson is the practice of violent, grizzly human sacrifice. Gibson’s movie is only the latest in a five-century line of racist interpretations of the Mayas and other Native American groups. The earliest Spanish conquistadors treated the Mayas and Aztecs as sub-human animals who could be enslaved and exploited. Nineteenth-century European and U.S. writers denied that the impressive ruins from the Andes to the American Midwest could have been built by the ancestors of the native inhabitants of these areas (and thus the sites could be attributed to seafaring Egyptians or the Lost Tribes of Israel).

As an archaeologist who specializes in the ancient peoples of Mexico, I have no quarrel with Apocalypto’s numerous errors and bloopers (as pointed out by my colleagues in “Belief Watch,” Dec. 11). It is, after all, Hollywood entertainment, not a PBS documentary. But I do object strongly to the racist cast of Gibson’s portrayal of the ancient Maya people. By creating two extremes—bloodthirsty, violent city-dwellers versus ignorant noble savages of the forest—Mel Gibson not only distorts the truth, he misses an opportunity to educate people about this remarkable civilization.

To the Editor, Newsweek:

The fact that looted artifacts from Iraq are now being sold to the highest bidder on eBay points out a glaring omission in your cover story on the internet auction house last summer ("The eBay Way of Life," Newsweek, June 17, 2003). eBay and other internet auction sites regularly sell looted artifacts — from Sumerian vases stolen from the Baghdad Museum to Mayan sculptures looted from ruins in Mexico to Civil War gravestones robbed from U.S. cemeteries. These sales increase the commercial value of such stolen art, and thus stimulate further looting. This contributes to the ongoing destruction of archaeological sites, graveyards, and other historical properties around the world. eBay claims it is doing nothing illegal because it is difficult to "prove" that these objects were stolen. Nevertheless, the sale of such items promotes vandalism, theft, and destruction of the historical past.

To the Editor, “Publishing Archaeology Blog:”

Perhaps if your letters to the editor were written in a nicer tone, or if they used prose more clever or witty, or perhaps if they focused on a topic more newsworthy than archaeology, you might have greater success.

ADDENDUM, April 21, 2008:

Even though I'm completely unqualified to call myself an expert on letters to the editor, a recent letter sent to Newsweek by the American Anthropological Association seems pretty lame and unlikely to be accepted. Apart from the fact that the letter consists mainly of waffling on the issue at hand, its prose is more appropriate for American Anthropologist than Newsweek.

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