Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Emperor's New Clothes: the heritage cult ― 4. Critical thinking and theory

The most famous optical illusion on the web.
squares A & B are the same shade of gray.
©1995, Edward H. Adelson
" is not possible in a positive framework to judge between competing theories or statements, because different observers cannot agree on what they actually see as a result of the theory-laden nature of observational statements."
Michael Shanks, Positivism and the 'new archaeology' (PDF download)
Anyone who has read even a little on the philosophy of archaeology will have encountered the term "theory-ladenness", so it is of little surprise to me that Critical Theory gets far more mentions in the philosophy of archaeology than Critical Thinking. I see the latter as the "lite" version of the former ― it contains all of the satisfaction, but half the calories. Quite often, I look for suitable references for my next blog post before I go to bed as I write these posts in the morning after I have got ready, taken the dog for his early morning walk and have eaten my muffin (or whatever). I was not very happy with yesterday's link to Critical Theory as it would appeal more to philosophy aficionados than to the general reader, so I found that the discussion of the subject on (the brilliant) Changing Minds website will allow you to investigate the topic to your chosen degree of brevity. I particularly like "Postmodernism: Things are not as simple as they seem".  For Critical Thinking, I remembered reading Bertrand Russell's "brown table" discussion when I was sixteen and reasoned that if it had lasted for nearly fifty years in my memory, then it would probably serve as a good example. I was very happy to find The Ambiguous Existence of Colors, review by Jeffrey P. Bigham which discusses Russell's essay and it inspired me to include the optical illusion graphic above. Bigham, in his conclusion, says, "In his arguments, Russell presented some interesting ideas that were, for the most part, valid, but some of the assumptions that he made were quite questionable and others really didn't hold up when scrutinized closely.", and I think this statement approximates the differences between Critical Thinking and Critical Theory. In the "postmodern world", things can get a little extreme and much postmodernist academic writing (but not of the source authors) is wonderfully mocked by the Postmodernism Generator which will spew different machine generated and nonsense "academic papers" each time the page is refreshed. Read about the hoax at the bottom of each page.

Because so much archaeological writing has an ideological basis, but is rarely labelled as such, and because of its pretensions of being scientific  ― especially the "New Archaeology" which started in the seventies, but which was more scientism than scientific and placed far too much faith in the exclusive use of inductive reasoning, the public is fooled into thinking they are getting "the facts". Again, we must question whether such writing is misinformation or disinformation.

While I advocate the use of (appropriate) scientific testing in archaeology, I cannot possibly agree with some people's view that archaeology is a science. I find such claims to be utterly pretentious. People will then argue about "hard" vs "soft" science, but this does us no good at all. When my wife received her terminal cancer diagnosis, we went to a cancer centre where we were processed by an an oncologist who started quoting statistics to us. As we both knew that statistics is applied to numbers and not to individual occurrences, and that such usage can have a negative effect on treatment, we were not very happy at all. Fortunately, the oncological nurse who was assigned to explain the chemotherapy to us was also the assistant to the head of the cancer centre who was a cancer research scientist  who had been "drafted" to take over the position after the death of the last director. She arranged for my wife's case to be taken over by her boss. This scientist was Dr. Stefan Gluck, who now works in the U.S. As a fellow researcher, and as he had an interest in archaeology, we hit it it off at once. Quite often, patients outside of the examination room must have wondered about the laughter that was coming from within, but Dr. Gluck mixed considerable scientific knowledge with an ability to communicate well and put his patients at ease without lessening the gravity of the situation. He sided with the patient unless he encountered any misunderstanding and was not the sort of person who would gloss over the mistakes of other doctors. We had many delightful conversations and his attention was an important part of why my wife survived for the long period that another doctor called "off the charts, statistically". I could not imagine getting a better doctor. Once, he said to me "I don't believe that medicine is a science ― it is an art". Another telling measure of his considerable intellect was when my wife mentioned that she had just had a dream in which the chemotherapy drug was having an opposite effect to what it was supposed to do. His immediate response was to say "The dream is your body's way of telling us that the drug is not being very effective, I will shift your treatment to another drug right away" Statistics "said" that my wife would die in about three months, she lived (mostly very comfortably) for three years and with virtually no pain right up to the end. She worked on the Celtic Coin Index database for most of that remaining time, and did many other things as well, more for fun, such as attending an animation festival in Ottawa.

Archaeology is doomed unless it mends its wicked ways. The n-gram I mentioned in part two is symptomatic of this. It has failed, to a very great measure, to be as understandable to the public as the process of cancer and its treatment is when placed in the hands of a very talented oncologist. Currently, it has two public functions: to provide entertainment and to further political and academic ideologies that are not revealed to its public readers. Recent downturns in economies are hastening this demise.

I will expand on this, and some of the other things I have mentioned in the next episode, but that will have to wait until Monday. Tomorrow, as I have a long meeting planned, I will either not be posting at all, or will present something trivial.

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