Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Ian Hodder says archaeology is bullshit. My reply: “Bullshit!”

In a remarkably bad short paper in the current SAA Archaeological Record, Ian Hodder makes a number of statements that equate to the claim that archaeology is bullshit (Hodder 2018). “Bullshit” is a term that refers to speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. Liars care about the truth and try to hide it; bullshitters don’t care whether their speech is true or false. Harry Frankfurt (1986, 2005) published the major works on bullshit, although antecedents can be found back to Plato and Orwell (1946 (1968)); see also Cohen (2002).

Hodder’s first dubious claim is that “the most important public value and function of archaeology is its role in place- and history-making” (p. 43). That is, archaeology is primarily about heritage, identity, and cultural achievement. It is about the present, not the past. Most archaeologists disagree with this. Archaeology is about the past. That is why we carry out excavations, surveys, artifact analyses and dating—to reconstruct and learn about human society in the past. Hodder’s first claim may be wrong and regressive, but it does not qualify as bullshit.

Hodder then gets to his main point: “much of archaeology uses the past to play out the contemporary preoccupations of dominant groups and to regurgitate the present in their interests … I have become tired of archaeologists just mirroring present concerns and theories” (p.43). The bad guys here are people like me, who study inequality, sustainability, or some of the other “grand challenges” we have identified for the discipline (Kintigh et al. 2014a; Kintigh et al. 2014b). Archaeologists go for headlines and not for local context, we are told; “This is what I mean by a post-truth archaeology or fake history.” (p. 44).

The concepts post-truth and fake news are typically applied to current affairs to refer to the kind of disregard for the truth captured in Frankfurt’s concept of bullshit. As Kathleen Higgins (2016) noted in Nature, “post-truth refers to blatant lies being routine across society, and it means that politicians can lie without condemnation … scientists and philosophers should be shocked by the idea of post-truth” (p. 9). So, Hodder is suggesting that people like me and my co-authors (Kohler et al. 2017), or the grand challenges crowd (Kintigh et al. 2014a; Kintigh et al. 2014b) are blatantly lying about the past. We are (knowingly, I guess) just projecting the concerns of the present—the “preoccupations of dominant groups”—back to the distant past.

I am not surprised that someone like Ian Hodder would characterize research by someone like me as post-truth and fake news. To make such an accusation, however, one must have workable concepts of science and truth in order to know that they have been violated. But, Hodder shows in this article (and elsewhere) that he has a faulty understanding of science. Like other post-processual archaeologists, Hodder thinks that science consists of discovering “universals that are singular in their unique law-like characteristics” (p. 43). In a recent paper in Antiquity (Smith 2017), I note how Hodder's post-processualist colleagues like Matthew Johnson (2010) criticize the concept of science in archaeology by employing a 50-year-old (outdated) definition of science and explanation. Science is not necessarily about universals and it is not necessarily about laws. It is about a rigorous search for evidence and explanation by constantly testing claims and hypotheses.

Contrary to Hodder’s assertion, those of us who use archaeological data to study phenomena such as sustainability, inequality, or political systems in the past do not adhere to the post-processualist caricature of science. Instead, we employ current concepts and epistemologies. These are aptly summarized by philosopher of science Daniel Little’s list of three epistemic features of science:

1. empirical testability
2. logical coherence
3. an institutional commitment to intersubjective processes of belief evaluation and criticism (Little 1995)

For additional statements of the nature of science in relation to archaeology and the other social sciences, see (Smith 2017), (Wylie 2000), (Gerring 2012:11), (Bunge 2011), (Little 2009). Or see some of my prior posts on this topic, including:

Because Hodder has a faulty understanding of science, he has little basis for criticizing the scientific claims of other archaeologists. A look at the journals that my colleagues and I publish in (Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, PLOS-One, etc.) shows that the “big question, big data approach” that Hodder dislikes (p.44) does indeed conform to contemporary scientific standards. So, just what standards are we violating that would warrant the labels post-truth and fake news? Hodder has none to offer.

I turn the tables here and characterize Hodder’s article as bullshit. He evidently does not know the nature of science, and thus his critique shows a disregard for the truthfulness or rigor of our work. His paper is post-truth, fake news, bullshit.

Bunge, Mario
2011 Knowledge: Genuine and Bogus. Science and Education 20: 411-438.

Cohen, G. A.
2002 Deeper into Bullshit. In Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt, edited by Sarah Buss and Lee Overton, pp. 321-339. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

Frankfurt, Harry
1986 On Bullshit. Raritan 6 (2): 81-100.

2005 On Bullshit. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Gerring, John
2012 Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Higgins, Kathleen
2016 Post-truth: a guide for the perplexed. Nature 540 (7631): 9.

Hodder, Ian
2018 Big History and a Post-Truth Archaeology? The SAA Archaeological Record 18 (5): 43-45.

Johnson, Matthew
2010 Archaeological Theory: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Blackwell, Oxford.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey Altschul, Mary Beaudry, Robert Drennan, Ann Kinzig, Timothy Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert Maschner, William Michener, Timothy Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy Sabloff, Tony Wilkinson, Henry Wright, and Melinda Zeder
2014a        Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity 79 (1): 5-24.  http://dx.doi.org/10.7183/0002-7316.79.1.5.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright, and Melinda A. Zeder
2014b        Grand Challenges for Archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 122: 879-880.

Kohler, Timothy A., Michael E. Smith, Amy Bogaard, Gary M. Feinman, Christina E. Peterson, Aleen Betzenhauser, Matthew C. Pailes, Elizabeth C. Stone, Anna Marie Prentiss, Timothy Dennehy, Laura Ellyson, Linda M. Nicholas, Ronald K. Faulseit, Amy Styring, Jade Whitlam, Mattia Fochesato, Thomas A. Foor, and Samuel Bowles
2017 Greater Post-Neolithic Wealth Disparities in Eurasia than in North and Mesoamerica. Nature 551: 619-622.

Little, Daniel
1995 Objectivity, Truth, and Method. Anthropology Newsletter, American Anthropological Association Nov. 1995: 42.

2009 The Heterogeneous Social: New Thinking About the Foundations of the Social Sciences. In Philosophy of the Social Sciences: Philosophical Theory and Scientific Practice, edited by Mantzavinos Chrysostomos, pp. 154-178. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Orwell, George
1946 (1968)        Politics and the English language. In The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell, pp. 127-140, vol. 4. Harcourt, Brace, Javanovich, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2017 Social Science and Archaeological Inquiry. Antiquity 91 (356): 520-528.

Wylie, Alison
2000 Questions of Evidence, Legitimacy, and the (Dis)unity of Science. American Antiquity 65: 227-237.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Professor Smith.

As an MA student in Archaeology I find myself driven mad by Hodder and those who hold views similar to his' caracturization of science and by extention archaeology.

Anonymous said...

Me thinks you doth protest too much. Archaeology is pseudoscience because archaeologists tend to fall in love with the civilizations they study. They lack scientific methodology, and mostly lack a dispassionate disconnect from the subject matter.