Filter My News You Muthas

It’s February 2008. I’ve had access to the WWW for 13 years. Yet I can still not get a news feed filtered to any reasonable approximation of my tastes.

I want very little news: only the important stuff. I think almost all conventional news are a complete waste of time. I want no business, no sports, no reports on individual crimes or house fires, and for Dawkins’ sake, nothing about TV shows or pop singers.

Until recently, I took the front-page feed of Dagens Nyheter, my country’s biggest newspaper. This is the material they deem maximally important, but it’s full of sports and reports on individual crimes. So I chucked out that feed and instead subscribed to four sub-feeds: International, Politics, Science and Stockholm. (Stockholm, though home to only about a million people, is the closest Scandinavia gets to a big city.)

I just chucked out the Stockholm feed after only a few days. It’s almost exclusively reports of individual crimes and such ephemera. But the immediate reason that I got rid of it was the following item:

Dagmammas höna eldades upp. En djurplågare går lös på Värmdö.

Chicken Belonging to Day-Care Lady Was Set On Fire. Animal abuser at large in Värmdö municipality.

Dear daily news journalists. Why are you doing this? We all know that this is absolute crap. You’re wasting your time and that of your readers. Why not just quit?

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Sidewalk Polaroid


When I was in Florida a month ago, right after having lunch with an elder statesman of the skeptical movement, I found the above polaroid photograph on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. The signs above the windows have allowed me to identify the building as a Williams Scotsman “section modular office building”. It’s a moveable house that you rent for temporary needs. Judging from the state of the board ramp to the left, this particular specimen has been sitting there for quite some time. There are some palm fronds in the top right corner, suggesting that the house is somewhere in Florida. I wonder what it’s used for, and why someone photographed it. A tasty little mystery.

Archaeology and Scientism

My involvement in the skeptical movement and science blogging has caused me to think about my professional relationship to the concept of science. Archaeology is a social science in the US and one of the humanities in Europe: in neither case is it seen as a natural science, the kind that gets to call itself “science” without any qualifier. Archaeology is dependent on the methods of natural science, but its object is to learn about culture, not nature, a distinction that many including myself find useful.

In Swedish and many other languages, the word for science doesn’t denote the natural variety in the same way as in English. There’s no terminological distinction between a scientist and a scholar. We’re all doing vetenskap, Wissenschaft, science. Yet among Anglophone archaeologists of an aggressively humanistic stripe, there used to be (and still to some extent is) hostility towards “scientism”, often compounded to “naïve scientism” or “vulgar scientism”.

What does this word mean? People who are into communism are called “communists”. People who are into post-modernism are called “post-modernists”. So someone who commits scientism is most likely a “scientist”. This is not an epithet I would mind having thrown at me.

  • According to the first of three definitions offered by Wikipedia, scientism is “the view that natural science has authority over all other interpretations of life, such as philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, or humanistic explanations, and over other fields of inquiry, such as the social sciences”.
  • According to the Public Broadcasting Service’s website, scientism “claims that science alone can render truth about the world and reality”.
  • According to much-read skeptical author and editor of Skeptic Magazine Michael Shermer, scientism “is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science”.

Neither of these definitions seem to indicate that scientism is something I would want to oppose. In fact, I find it quite attractive. Natural science does have “authority” over my field of study in that it sets the limits of possible interpretations of my source material.

But I was a doctoral student during post-modernism’s heyday in Swedish archaeology, and what many of my colleagues actually wanted to distance themselves from at the time was the modernistic “New Archaeology”. This was a technocratic white-coated faddish movement of the 60s and 70s that cultivated a lot of systems-theory mumbo jumbo and in many cases tended to natural determinism, that is, the idea that people in the past did what they did largely for economic reasons. The post-modernists in my discipline instead went for symbolic determinism, that is, the idea that people in the past did what they did largely for reasons residing in their imaginations. The truth, in my opinion, is that human behaviour is not deterministically constrained from either direction, but is always both economic and symbolic, and often counteradaptive. Cultures are experiments.

So, what did anti-scientism offer instead? Well, usually it had to do with hermeneutics. Explains Wikipedia,

“Hermeneutics may be described as the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts. … It is more broadly used in contemporary philosophy to denote the study of theories and methods of the interpretation of all texts and systems of meaning. The concept of ‘text’ is here extended beyond written documents to any number of objects subject to interpretation, such as experiences. A hermeneutic is also defined as a specific system or method for interpretation, or a specific theory of interpretation.

One influential idea in the usually desperately turgid theoretical writings of post-modernist archaeologists was that material culture is a kind of text, and thus open to hermeneutics, that is, interpretation.

About now, I hope any natural scientists reading this are starting to get a creeping suspicion. Could it be that the anti-scientism archaeologists believed that their work was fundamentally different from natural science because it involved interpretation? Well, in fact, yes. They tended to hint that natural scientists just read their conclusions off of their source material using fancy instruments, and that this would never work with cultural source material. The truth, as anybody who’s ever done real scientific research knows, is that all data must be interpreted in order to be understood and generate knowledge. Hundreds of gigabytes of observational data on quasars from a radio telescope is not astronomical knowledge. It is the necessary raw material of such knowledge. And the first interpretation of such a dataset that is published will not be accepted as knowledge until it has been thoroughly discussed and perhaps repeatedly (though ultimately unsuccessfully) challenged.

So I don’t accept the post-modernist claim of a deep qualitative divide between natural science and other fields. (Nor do I of course accept the even more extreme hyper-relativistic idea that all knowledge is socially determined.) In my opinion, there is only one kind of science, Wissenschaft, vetenskap, that is, the one that aims at finding out the truth about what the world is or has been like. From a fundamental philosophical perspective, archaeology and physics work just the same: not because I think physics are so great and archaeology is too, but because I think the road to solid scientific knowledge in physics is open but precarious, and that it is in archaeology too. As Michael Shermer pointed out, empiricism and reason is what allows us to find out about the real world. Ask clearly phrased questions, look at the evidence (quasars, amber bead hoards, census data, Victorian novels), draw clearly phrased rational conclusions, present your work to your peers for scrutiny, see who salutes.

Unfortunately, I find that this proudly scientistic attitude to my discipline does alienate me from some scholars in the humanities. Particularly the aesthetics people, who by long academic tradition are happy to just comment on art, but others as well. The wordier and more theoretically minded they are, the less they tend to like me, and I them.

I was recently invited to critique the manuscript of a PhD thesis in a neighbouring discipline. I found to my dismay that the author had been given the task to apply an “interpretive framework” in the form of certain historical texts to an archaeological source material. When offering my verbal comments, I suggested that what this really meant was that she was asking the rather vague real-world scientific question whether the selected texts fit the selected finds or not. She denied this, indicating that she wasn’t trying to test any hypothesis at all, but just applying the framework to the data as a worthwhile exercise in its own right. I of course believe that all neighbouring humanistic disciplines of archaeology exist solely to find out what life was like for people long ago. And in this particular case, I found that we are not helped in understanding the finds in question by the selected texts — nor indeed by any surviving texts.

In my opinion, the basic setup of this project was flawed as it didn’t really involve any question about the real world. Here, the interpretive framework that the student was told to apply happened to be a collection of historical matter, which was sort of a saving grace. But I’ve seen many cases where the task has been to apply the writings of e.g. Lévi-Strauss, Bourdieu, Foucault, Marx or simply the thesis advisor to a sample of data. This is not science, it is a glass bead game, or, shall we say, academic masturbation. And it’s something I hope my field, no, the entire faculty of the humanities, will rid itself of in my lifetime. Even if it means that a number of current university disciplines will be relegated to the criticism pages of newspapers and magazines.

Jeff over at Blue Collar Scientist offers a heroic tale from optical astronomy about just how much interpretation is involved in hard science.

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7 Months Left: Get the Rundkvist While He’s Hot!

Dear potential academic employers,

I know you are all secretely competing for who will have the pleasure of giving me a forskarassistent assistant professor’s position, to see me fire the imaginations of a new generation of students, to see me produce awesome research in great quantities and present a charming face for your department toward the media and the public.

I know you’ve just been joking with me for the past four years, receiving my job applications and saying, with a merry twinkle in your little eyes, “Oh no, the loveable little rascal may have 115 published pieces of work and the world’s biggest archaeology blog, but let’s make him wait just a few months more!”.

Haha! I’ve got you all sussed out, you pranksters!

But let me just amicably point one thing out to make things easier for you guys. Today’s date marks seven months before my PhD diploma turns five years old. On 27th September I move out of the post-doctoral five-year window within which I may apply for forskarassistent positions. After that date, you will have to employ me as an associate professor. I know you all want to do that, but it will be a little harder for you to explain why you’re giving that kind of job to me instead of to one of the fifteen highly qualified 45-year-olds who are also lining up for it.

I look forward to hearing from you when this humorous little game of yours comes to an end. Preferably before September.

Yours very truly,

Martin Rundkvist, PhD

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Early Neolithic Amber Hoard CT Scanned


The Skalk article I mentioned the other day (with the rubber goat) tells the story of an unusual find made in northernmost Jutland in the summer of 2005. Peter Jensen was stripping some land of topsoil for gravel extraction when, from the vantage point of his machine, he spotted something interesting on the ground. Jensen happens to have much experience of machine operation at archaeological digs. It turned out that he had managed to identify a pit in the subsoil filled with thousands of amber beads: an Early Neolithic votive deposit datable around 3500 cal BC.

Most votive amber deposits have been found in wetlands where the amber is often very well preserved. In this case, however, the pit was dug into gravel, and the amber was in very poor shape: in fact, falling to pieces. After Jensen called in the archaeological cavalry, the deposit was wrapped in plaster and taken indoors. What were my Danish colleagues supposed to do with a six-litre volume of crumbling amber? Taking it apart and trying to stabilise every individual bead would take ages and cost an enormous amount of money. And in its corroded state, the find still wouldn’t be much fun to see for the museum visitors. Still, archaeologists wanted to now what kind of beads were in the deposit.

The conservators at the National Museum then had a bright idea. They took the soil block to a forensics lab, where the whole thing was run through a CT scanner with a 0.5 mm slice distance. Presto: they now have an exact 3D model of the deposit showing every individual bead, and they have abandoned all thoughts of taking the block apart. Notably, the find contains several bead spacers, bar-shaped gadgets with six or seven holes intended to collect the separate bead strings of a large amber pectoral.

And guess whom we have to thank for all this? Messrs Lennon & McCartney! Explains Wikipedia: “The CT scanner was ‘the greatest legacy’ of The Beatles, with the massive profits resulting from their record sales enabling EMI to fund scientific research, including into computerised tomography.”

The National Museum in Copenhagen has put a lot of information on the find on-line, including video clips where the viewer travels horizontally or vertically through the deposit, a few CT slices at a time from one end to the other. Cool stuff!

Bech, Jens-Henrik. 2008. Ravfangst. Skalk 2008:1. Højbjerg.

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Danish Rubber Goat


I’m a big fan of Danish archaeology. In my opinion it is the best in Scandinavia, both regarding the sites they have and what they write about them. This love of Danish archaeology has been a strong incentive for me to learn to read Danish easily, though I still have a very hard time understanding it when spoken. (Rumour has it that Danish babies learn to speak on average several months later than other European ones, simply because it’s so hard to discern any words in their parents’ fond gurglings.)

Swedish and Danish aren’t really separate languages in the sense that e.g. French and German are separate. It’s more of a dialect thing. But they are different enough that many similar words have quite different meanings. Famously, the Danish word for crossfire is almost identical to the Swedish word for spice-pickled herring.

Reading the new issue of great Danish pop-sci archaeology journal Skalk, I came across a new word that simply blew my little mind: gummiged. Etymologically speaking, it means “rubber goat”. Skalk rarely if ever to my knowledge features articles about latex sex toys. From context, I gather that a Danish rubber goat is instead a tractor excavator with a wide front-mounted scoop.

So, if the next time you decide to shop for inflatable latex animals you find yourself in Copenhagen, make sure you ask for a sheep, not a goat.

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How is US Archaeology Organised?

Here’s a really good primer on the institutional landscape of US archaeology by Michael Dietler. Some of the perspectives he offers are just mind-boggling.

“There are at least 450 colleges and universities in the United States that offer a B.A degree in anthropology … . Of those institutions, 98 universities offer PhD programs in Anthropology” [which includes archaeology].

Imagine a country where an archaeology PhD has hundreds of potential academic employers, all of them speaking the same language… If I looked at the nearest 450 undergrad programs measured radially from my home, I’d find them being taught in about 20 different languages all over northern Europe, of which I understand six and speak only two reasonably well.

In the US, there are about 1.5 undergrad programs and 0.3 PhD programs in archaeology for every one million inhabitants. In Sweden there are eight undergrad programs and five PhD programs, translating to 0.9 and 0.6 per one million inhabitants. The US and Swedish figures aren’t necessarily commensurable, since we don’t know if an average US archaeology subdepartment has a similar level of student throughput and teacher involvment per student as an average Swedish one. But we can probably assume that the Swedish figures are very high seen in the global perspective. Thus it looks like the US has a strangely high output per capita of anthropology BAs. What on Earth can they be using them all for!?

Sweden, meanwhile, seems to have twice the US output per capita of archaeology PhDs. Here, we know what they are used for: they’re re-trained as archivists and librarians or sent back to their old digger jobs on the highway projects.

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Gonna Flash My Stuff

i-de58047502047ac5e121d471a7150f5d-skepchick.jpegI’ve just agreed to a flattering request from real.girl at Skepchick. This means that chances are you will find a skeptical archaeologist in partial deshabillé in the 2009 edition of the Skepchick skin calendar. And I’m train blogging again. And I’m on my way to Lund where historians of religion have invited me to comment on a PhD thesis manuscript about the Migration Period. Life is good!