Tuesday, March 6, 2018

How archaeology is distorted by Science magazine and the National Geographic Society

The public has a lot of interest in archaeology, and new finds and discoveries are often in the news. Sometimes the press reports outlandish, nonsense claims, and sometimes it reports rigorous and important claims. Many archaeologists ignore such press coverage (good and bad), and many of us engage with it. If there are elements of the press that distort archaeology, we may or may not want to deal with this. I often ask myself if it is worth the time and effort to try to correct some misleading claim going around social media and the internet. In a very real sense, this kind of thing can be viewed as separate and apart from the actual process of scientific research. I can do my archaeology just fine without worrying about whether the latest "news" about an ancient monkey god is a pile of baloney or not.

But there are other distortions of archaeology that are more insidious and more troubling. These come from well-established, serious institutions whose missions include furthering research and knowledge in many fields, including archaeology. I am thinking here of Science magazine and the National Geographic Society. Science publishes archaeology, and thus promotes the scholarly work of archaeologists while showcasing our work to a wider audience beyond archaeology. This is good. But the kinds of archaeology article they publish is a biased and distorted sample of current scientifically-inclined archaeological research. Thus, Science distorts archaeology.  The National Geographic Society funds archaeology, and also publicizes archaeology in its website, TV shows, and magazine. Again, this is good. But, again, the archaeology promoted by NGS is often a distorted view of the past, emphasizing spectacular and mysterious finds, often to the point of severe distortion. This is done for commercial gain.

Science Magazine

The review process for Science is a clear example of scholars and individuals who are not archaeologists making decisions about what archaeology is worthy of publication in Science, and those decisions distort our field. The single most popular post in the 11-year history of this blog -- by far -- is one from 2012 called "Rejected by Science" (over 100,000 hits, when most of the posts get well under 5,000 hits). So, let me quote from that post:

 If you pay attention to the journal, you will know that they tend to favor high-tech methods, archaeometry, fancy quantitative methods, and reports about "the earliest" this or that. While I can only recall one or two papers in Science that I thought were incompetent (a much better record than most archaeology journals, some of which are full of incompetent articles), their selection of archaeology papers is definitely biased in a certain direction. I think one way of expressing this might be that Science publishes archaeology articles that will appeal on methodological grounds to non-archaeological scientists. My guess is that papers that are more synthetic or less methods-heavy don't make it through the initial review (which is done by non-archaeological scientists).

I have been rejected by Science at least four times (and about 3 times by Nature, and a couple of times by PNAS). I've been rejected by some of the finest journals in the world! So, maybe my complaint is just sour grapes. But I have had many colleagues over the years express agreement with my sentiments as quoted above. Papers are first skimmed by a high-level reviewer, none of whom is an archaeologist. If they think it might be interesting, the manuscript is sent out for review. Most papers are dropped at this stage. I must say, Nature does the same thing, but quicker. I think one of my rejections from Nature took only a couple of hours!

The fact that papers are initially screened by someone who is NOT an expert in the subject matter of the paper is a common critique of the Science review process. Indeed, one of the ways that PLOS-One touts their rigor is their claim that all papers will be reviewed by subject-matter experts.

This review process, and its outcomes, clearly distorts the archaeological content published in the journal Science. Paper are not judged by archaeologists, and only a narrow range of types of archaeological papers get published. Check out my older on issues with Science and Nature:

"Rejected by Science!"  (2012), initial post

"Rejected by Science, Yet Again!" (2012)

"Problems with Science and Nature"  (2013)

National Geographic Society

The publicity put out by the National Geographic Society provides another case where the nature of the archaeology that is funded and reported is often distorted. But instead of a bias within science, as in the case above, this is a commercial bias that favors sensationalism, mystery, and click-baiting themes. The NGS website may make sensationalist claims, and these get taken up by the mainstream media. The Guardian often seems to swallow them, hook, line, and sinker. The latest example is the claim that archaeologist Chris Fisher has discovered an ancient city in Mexico, using LiDAR, that "had as many buildings as Manhattan," to quote the Guardian. Some Mexican and French archaeologists objected in the Mexican paper, El Pais. They claimed that a city that big could not possibly have existed, because it was not mentioned in the historical sources! Give me a break, that is just silly. The city (Angamuco) IS large, but much of the LiDAR has not been ground-truthed yet, so this is a speculative claim.

Another recent case was the announcement that a new huge city was found below the jungle in Guatemala by LiDAR! It was accompanied in the press by image of Tikal. See my prior post on this. The National Geographic Society press release is mostly hype and speculation, which then got worse as other media outlets picked up the story. My purpose here is not to question hype or expose silly claims. Rather, I want to emphasize that the nature of the archaeological finds that get promoted are in the hands of an institution outside of archaeology, one that does a lot of good through funding and publicizing. Maybe we should give NGS a break, since they do a lot of good for archaeology. But I am more inclined to question their methods and goals. They are commercializing archaeology, and using our hard work to make a buck. That might be ok, if they were more objective in their reporting. I did get some funds from NGS back around 1990, but I'm not sure I would accept their funding now. Who knows what nonsense they could create from my research.

More hype than archaeology
If you want an extended example of NGS nonsense and hype, check out the story of the "Lost city of the Monkey God." NGS-funded "explorers" tramped around the Honduran jungle and came out with outrageous claims about finding a lost city. Never mind that the site in question was well known to archaeologists and had been studied earlier. A whole story of intrepid explorers and fantastic discoveries was generated. The resulting book has become a best-seller. Please check out these sources for some objective, archaeologically-appropriate writing about this episode:

blog post by Rosemary Joyce from 2012

another post by Joyce, 2015

article in Smithsonian magazine about the episode (2015)

An open letter to NGS signed by a bunch of archaeologists that lists all the problems with the activities and their reporting.

These archaeologists are so discouraged that they feel that any additional harping will only increase sales of the book by Preston. I hope I am not contributing to the hype here.

Apart from the scientific and scholarly nonsense of the Monkey God episode, I find it discouraging for the same reason as the reviewing procedures used by Science: archaeology is being distorted by non-archaeological institutions that purportedly exist, in part, to promote and improve archaeology.


Chris Fisher said...

Hello Mike
I don't usually comment on blog posts because they are regulated by the author. I'm traveling, typing this on a phone, and so will make it brief. In terms of Angamuco I've been saying this for the last couple of years and the new size of the site was published last year.


We have mapped over 7,000 structures and landscape features from Angamuco which represents roughly 17% of the total foundations at the site. We have a pretty good idea how to interpret the LiDAR results, what a cultural feature looks like, etc. If you want to have a conversation about LiDAR survey and sampling buy me a beer in DC - it's an interesting topic.

I use the Manhattan comparison with the goal of getting people to think about urban variation, population density, and to compare past cities to modern examples. There is no consensus on the total number of buildings in Manhattan but it's around 40,000 - the same as Angamuco. But . . . and this is covered in the original Guardian news article - there are over 16 million people living in Manhattan while for Angamuco the potential maximum was 100,000 if all the buildings were occupied at once which of course they weren't. These kinds of comparisons are necessary to better apply what we have learned from the past for future solutions - which for me is the goal of archaeology.

And as a point of fact all of the Angamuco coverage is the result of a single interview. All of the subsequent articles, posts, etc are all based on that original piece in the Guardian. None of the Mexican papers - including El Pais - contacted me.

In terms of the Honduras work this has been covered ad nauseam in the popular press, academic literature, and in Preston's Monkey God book. The Mosquitia region is certainly poorly known archaeologically and sites identified in the LiDAR survey had never been documented before, and no archaeologists had visited them/worked there. We cover some of this in a peer-reviewed PlosOne article


Nat Geo did not fund any of the LiDAR scan or 2015 field verification. They did partially fund the salvage excavation from 2016 of objects from the cache which we are in the process of publishing and will be presenting at the upcoming SAA.

Preston's book is written for a public audience but it covers much of the above and is accurate. He also demonstrates conclusively that the whole idea of a 'City of the Monkey God' was a massive scientific fraud. It's a good book, you should read it, I'll send you a copy.

Chris Fisher

Anonymous said...

If the "City of the Monkey God" was a massive scientific fraud, then why Preston's book is entitled "The City of the Monkey God"? The scientific team emphasized that this city was a myth, but National Geographic seemed to be eager on associating the archaeological research with this legendary city. So many misleading and confusing narratives.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Chris - Yes, you have published a couple of papers about the LiDAR at Angamuco, but they are very preliminary, without the data needed to discuss the number of structures, the population, etc. This was the point of my prior post about LiDAR - that initial results are not very useful until they are analyzed with specific research questions in mind. I guess it is useful to be able to say, "Oh, look, there are more archaeological features in this area than people had thought previously." But that in itself is not much of a scientific advance.

As for the Honduran case, I should probably leave comments on that to the experts on Honduras, which does not include me. Regardless of the extent to which NGS did or did not fund work in Honduras, I think my basic point about NGS being more interested in sensationalism, clicks, and commerce is valid. Perhaps that wasn't the best example to show that, though.

Chris Fisher said...

Hey Mike, we've published more then a couple but that's OK, more will be forthcoming, probably for the rest of my career. I'm sure everyone can be accused of not publishing enough - well - maybe not Gary and Linda. The work at Angamuco was part of a full-coverage survey and so falls into a more traditional theoretical path IMO - the Mosquitia work is a bit different.

Archaeology - 21st Century media - and how to best project out discipline - this is an important question that needs a long considered meeting somewhere.

A more important point centers on why we should actually do LiDAR scans. Massive earth system change is placing unprecedented pressure on cultural and ecological patrimony. We are racing the clock in terms of being able to document known and unknown archaeological resources. LiDAR, and what will follow, record at a very high resolution in 3 dimensions creating indelible data sets that do not degrade. It is my hope that researchers will be analyzing these data for decades to come using increasingly sophisticated technologies with new sets of questions.

Let's face it - we are fighting a war - and archaeologists are lovers not fighters. I'm a field archaeologist and so it pains me to say this but it's time to put our boots in the closet for the next decade or so and scan, scan, scan before it's to late. This is the responsibility that we have to the people of the past that are represented in the archaeological record.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Chris - Excellent points.

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Anonymous said...

Aldous Huxley reminded everyone that the ends can't justify the means because the nature of the means determines the nature of the ends.

Rob said...

As a history nerd my comment is one word regarding putting the boots away and Scan,scan, scan....YES!!!