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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15 thoughts on “Archaeology and Scientism

  1. Martin said: “…Natural science does have ‘authority’ over my field of study in that it sets the limits of possible interpretations of my source material…”

    Our field of study involves plenty of scientific evidence, but our interpretations of the data need not — and should not — be limited by natural science. We interpret some portion of our observations to reconstruct, for example, ancient climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall), environment and agriculture (pollen, phytoliths), settlement patterns (based on remote surveying techniques), and other data more closely linked to the natural sciences.

    But we’re interested in the people ultimately, so we can interpret the data in ways not related to natural science: political structures, economic systems, religious beliefs, family organization, conceptions of community or the world, etc. These topics aren’t explicitly linked to the natural sciences.

    This is where the canon of anthropological theory comes into play. It provides various frameworks to interpret our “scientific” observations using social theories (not quite the same as scientific theories, of course) from the other social sciences — there’s our link to the social sciences because that’s our end goal.

    That is why archaeology can have scientific observations, data, and techniques, but it cannot be scientism because we’re investigating humans who have differing economics, politics, religions, etc. not based on science (or at least our modern conceptions of it).

    Or did you mean that we must assume that, for instance, where artifacts and features are found within stratigraphic layers reflect the actions of humans and geologic processes (and Syrian golden hamsters or Minnesota gophers), not fairies or other magical critters?

    In that sense, yes, we can constrained to interpreted our initial observations according to the natural sciences.


  2. I said: “In that sense, yes, we can constrained to interpreted…”

    Yikes, I must’ve spaced out when proofreading that sentence. I meant:

    In that sense, yes, we are constrained to interpret our initial observations according to the natural sciences.

    And by “initial observations” I mean those observations that we make in the field about stratigraphy, spatial relationships, etc. and in the laboratory about composition, etc. I identified these as “initial observations” not to imply that they are preliminary per se but to identify them as data before we reach any of the “middle range” anthropological theories.


  3. “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.”

    Not all scientific work needs to have an explicit hypothesis. This is true even in the “hard” sciences. The scientific method is a multi-step process that involves not just testing hypotheses, but gathering general information to form and perfect hypotheses. It’s not uncommon for entire scientific studies to only work on the latter.


  4. This was an interesting post. And I, coming from the other side of the non-divide, agree with you that there should not be any principal qualitative differences between the ways that social and natural sciences are conducted (although I can feel some nervous twitches when I read “interpretive framwork” – but this is just because of my lack in social skills).

    However, I have one worry: -how do you pronounciate ‘hermeneutics’? Is it with a German “eu”-sound (i.e. sv. h�r-m�-n�j-ticks)? And what are the people dealing with hermeneutics called? ‘hermeneuticsists’? We microbiologists seldom get to play around with text analysis you know…


  5. This was one of the more interesting discussions of late. I was around for the early “New Archaeology” period (UNiv. of New Mexico, 1975; an old, Binford, student.) Before it morphed into odd directions, the idea was to move the disipline out of the ponderings of the humanities, and apply scientific deductive reasoning to our theory. This was new stuff back in the late sixties. It would be ten years before E.O. Wilson would write, On Human Nature, and launch the field of evolutionary biology, and thirty years before he would write, Consilience, and argue that we needn’t have competing theoretical perspectives.
    In those thirty years, evolutionary biology has provided archaeology with enormous amounts of data with which to consider the material culture that we think about. Apply the overarching concepts of punctuated equilibrium, to your next problem of culture change. To be critical of science, and try to reinvent the field with a new ‘ism’, is no longer necessary. As noted above, the natural sciences can give us a theorectical model, but it is up to us to interpret our data with an anthropological explaination.


  6. Ellery, you are right, the natural sciences forbid us to hypothesise magical critters and the world being made in 4004 BC, while offering no objections per se to studies of political structures, economic systems, religious beliefs etc. Nor do natural sciences study such cultural things as an end unto itself.

    Miller, I agree, not all science needs a hypothesis, but it does need a question about the real world.

    Harald, say after me please, “her-muh-NEW-ticks”. People who have such ticks appear to be named only very rarely in English — no entry in Merriam-Webster, for instance — but the word “hermeneuticist” has 2,600 Google hits.


  7. Martin!

    I thought about the following remark, and while I thought about it your blog was filled with a lot of other remarks, which I have not had time to read. Nevertheless I decided to write my initial thoughts and then go back to read the other comments:

    Be a little carefull in your use of Wissenschaft/Vetenskap vs. Science. There is in dictionnaries and in practice a distinction between the two, The German use of the word Wissenschaft denotes “any organised body of knowledge” (Schaefer 1953) or as in the German Wikipedia “der Erwerb von neuem Wissen durch Forschung, seine Weitergabe durch Lehre, der gesellschaftliche, historische und institutionelle Rahmen, in dem dies organisiert betrieben wird, sowie die Gesamtheit des so erworbenen menschlichen Wissens”.

    On the other hand science is defined as “any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. In general, a science involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws.” (Encykopledia Brittanica). This distinction is important and useful. For example: In geography, when Fred Schaefer in 1953 urged geography to become a science rather than just a Wissenschaft it was the beginning of a period of a narrowminded view of geography as a “spatial science”, when lots of important searches for knowledge in geography was branded as unscientific.

    (Note: this remark does not place me in the relativist camp. I do believe in broad generalisations based on unbiased empirical studies and but at the same time I defend a humanistic or rather humancentred approach to the strive for knowledge, and I like many others believe that data are theory-dependent.)


  8. Mats, good to know you read the blog!

    For those who don’t know Mats, he’s a chaired professor of human geography in Stockholm. A member of the Academy of Letters, he’s also indirectly my employer as the Academy publishes the academic journal I edit.

    Both archaeology and human geography are of course systems of knowledge concerned with the physical world. But we study the physical source material in order to understand people’s lives. As for general truths and the operations of fundamental laws, I definitely don’t buy into that sort of thing for our disciplines. We study specific historical situations. Knowledge of 1st Millennium Östergötland cannot be generalised to tell us anything about Japan. But some research output, such as typologies and chronologies of small finds and building plans, are interregionally useful over Norhern Europe.

    As for data being theory-dependent, I agree to the extent that all data collection covers only a theory-determined subset of all possible observations. If I believe that the width of widgets is important to the question I am trying to answer, then this will not (and should not) automatically lead me to measure the length too — unless I am preparing a general widget catalogue and trying to make it as useful as possible to future scholars.

    I am sure, however, that you would agree that once we have decided that the width of a widget is important, then we can measure the width in an objective way within a reasonable margin of error. Thus data is objective within its selection framework.


  9. What was it Bruce Trigger said about scientific aids not making archaeology into a science any more than a wooden leg makes a man into a tree?
    Some (nasty) people have made the observation that archaeology is a science run by piss-artists. How very dare they!


  10. I know this is out of nowhere, but I googled “scientism” and found this a few pages in. It was a pleasure to read this, not least because it helped me to gather some of my own scattered thoughts on the subject. Well said.


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