Monday, January 4, 2010

Science, Archaeology, and Public Debate (by Gary M. Feinman)

This is a post by Gary M. Feinman of the Field Museum of Natural History

On Sunday, January 3, 2010, in the Washington Post, Chris Mooney prods scientists to speak up publicly regarding issues of relevance to science, including evolutionary theory and anthropogenic climate change. While Mooney is no doubt correct in his call, he also rightfully observes that most scientists are not terribly proficient communicators when it comes to public discourse. Mooney also notes that many scientists avoid the press and public debate largely because the language and process of science do not easily translate into the strident and style-over-substance communication so prevalent today in the media. Not surprisingly, the lead for Mooney’s piece is the debate and outcry that ensued the theft of a large cache of emails and documents from the Climatic Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

You may wonder why an archaeologist would wade into this discussion (however see Sabloff 2009). The direct answer is that I both basically agree with Mooney’s principal position and have been engrossed by the media coverage of the East Anglia emails since the issue broke in November. Yet a further rationale is that as an archaeologist, I believe that the cumulative findings of our discipline have a relevant perspective worth hearing in the ongoing arguments that are too often presently glossed under the rubric, ‘climate change.’ My problem with that moniker is that it misdirects the debate. In point of fact no one, not even the most ardent global warming denier, questions the reality of long- and short-term climatic changes. Rather, the crux of the current political acrimony is over the proposed role that humans play and potentially have had over many centuries in environmental and climatic shifts.

In this regard, the record painstakingly documented by archaeologists who study the millennial history of human material presence in environments across the globe is clear and dramatic. The footprint of our species on the earth has been sustained and significant, often, although not always, effecting episodes of degradation, drought, desertification, and extinction. Contextualized with archaeology’s long-term record of human impacts on environments, it would be difficult to deny that recent industrial economies - with coincident demographic growth and pollution - would not also have the potential, even the probability, to alter the earth’s lands, waters, and atmosphere.

But, perhaps, there is a deeper lesson here as well. Science is basically a way of thinking and knowing, whether you practice physics, ecology, or even archaeology. At the core of these intellectual endeavors (science) is skepticism, about what you find, or the proposed linkages between variables, or even your mentor’s favored hypothesis. Skepticism is at the genesis of the scientific bickering that Mooney evidences in public, often misconstrued by the media to cast or create doubt about the products of this endeavor. Yet it is this process, which prompts the repeated testing, modification, refinement of interpretations and ideas often over generations of scientists, that frequently can lead to explanations that have broad acceptance and empirical grounding. Science simply is not the steady constructing of facts, but rather a process of empirical discovery leavened and tempered by questions, ideas, and prior knowledge. No mechanical retrieval of facts or data can ever lead to the ‘right answer.’ In archaeology, greatness is not owed the scholar who recovers a fancy tomb or new fossil, rather proper credit is due the researcher who places those finds in a broader context that stands the test of skepticism and time.

Biologists may argue over the causes or consequences of specific evolutionary events, but few question the core tenets of evolutionary theory. Likewise, my fellow archaeologists and our collaborators in cognate disciplines may debate vociferously the specific nature and timing of causal links that characterize episodes of human behavior and environmental change (e.g., Fisher et al. 2009; Kirch 2005), yet few, if any, archaeologists would question the profound effects that our species has had on diverse environments, from islands to deserts to river valleys, in the past. In other words, we may debate the specific “hows” and “whys,” but the net legacies of human behaviors on the landscapes that we have lived are broadly recognized.

Archaeologists with their deep time and cross-global perspectives have dirt-derived insights to contribute to many contemporary issues beyond anthropogenic environmental/climate change, including the causes and consequences of technological shifts and innovations, the origins and manifestations of inequality, and the dynamics of states and markets over the long-term and cross-culturally. But, with its firm empirical roots and periodic eureka moments, archaeology centrally positions the field’s practitioners to convey a more overarching, perhaps equally significant, message concerning just how science works. At a time when the prestige of scientists in the United States is declining, newspaper science reporters are facing the budget axe, and the public understanding of the scientific process is waning, it might behoove archaeologists when in the public eye to hear Mooney’s call and explain how their eureka moments and their implications fit into multi-generational webs of debates, questions, research designs, and interpretive alternatives that convey the beauty (and occasional warts) of the scientific process at work.

Fisher, C.T., J.B. Hill, and G.M. Feinman (eds) 2009. The archaeology of environmental change: socionatural legacies of degradation and resilience. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Kirch, P.V. 2005. Archaeology and global change: the Holocene record. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 30:409-440.

Sabloff, J.A. 2009 How can archaeologists usefully contribute to public policy considerations? Archaeological Dialogues 16:169-171.

- by Gary M. Feinman, Field Museum of Natural History (, Jan 4, 2010.

1 comment:

Tariacuri said...

We are facing profound environmental change in the next decade. Archaeologists, with our long-term perspective on coupled human/environmental trajectories, are uniquely positioned to make a significant contribution to this debate. I feel that we are obligated to pitch our research towards this goal. Chris Fisher, Colorado State University