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Friday, 11 December 2015

Rhosyfelin and Cargo Cult Science

I'm increasingly intrigued by the non-scientific aspects of the "Rhosyfelin Quarry Affair" (or shall we call it the "Rhosyfelin Quarry Scam"?), and have been doing a some browsing about on the internet.  OK -- at one level this is all about academic reputations, fame and even invited notoreity, and at another level it's all economic (the fight for research funds), at at yet another its political, as one research tribe slugs it out with another.  But there is a very strong psychological component too, as we have discussed in the past with respect to Charles Dawson and HH Thomas.  We can look at what's going on in the minds of the researchers -- what drives them to over-interpret or misinterpret things?  And we can look at what's happening in the minds of the universities and the research support organizations -- increasingly they want IMPACT, and not scholarly reputations.  Then we have the public, which continues to demonstrate an insatiable appetite for Stonehenge stories, no matter how wacky they may be -- an appetite which has to be fed by the media myth-perpetration machine, which will always clam to be just "giving readers what they want."  So now we see that the Guardian report on the latest "Antiquity" article has been looked at 54,000 times -- and across the world's media Google lists around 230 web site / press pieces which essentially regurgitate, without any scrutiny, the UCL and other press releases issued last weekend. Many of those have also featured the video clips sent out with the press releases.  Goodness knows how many TV and radio reports there have also been.

But why do archaeological teams (and other teams of people involved in research) work for years and end up producing elaborate papers that are at best insignificant and at worst filled with pseudo-science?  Well, team spirit is a part of it.  There is a huge cameraderie in an archaeological dig team.  People are living together, drinking and chatting together, and for all I know sleeping together!  Best of luck to them.  But they do tend to exist in a bubble,  and it's all too easy when you are inside a bubble to ignore everything that is going on outside, or to dismiss anything that directly challenges the central thesis which the research is purportedly testing.  Pseudo-science or "bad science" all too easily comes out of such environments.  Where there is a charismatic, self-confident and ebullient leader,  the group can become even tighter, and the sense of "belonging" becomes all-pervasive.  Loyalty is a requirement.  Anybody who does not conform to the central belief system is viewed as an outsider -- anybody who asks questions from within is branded a traitor.  So nobody rocks the boat, and the ruling hypothesis rolls on, with every scrap of "evidence" stuck onto it with sellotape, in the hope that it will at some future date withstand scrutiny.  We have all seen this sort of thing happening, in many different disciplines.  But in physics, chemistry, geophysics, glaciology, or biology if you conduct experiments they can be repeated and tested by others. And if those old experiments are faulty or even fraudulent, that will be exposed.  At Rhosyfelin, you dig a hole, tell the world what amazing discoveries you have made, and then rapidly fill the hole in again so that your "evidence" literally disappears without trace.  Interesting........ and very handy.

I found this on the web.  Really interesting:
On Cargo Cult Science:  "We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it's this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science". (Richard Feynman, 1974)

Definition:  Cargo cult science comprises practices that have the semblance of being scientific, but do not in fact follow the scientific method.

In most of the things I have read about Cargo Cult Science, we see rather "primitive" tribes appropriating modern or technically advanced or incomprehensible things, and building belief systems around them.  You don't see so much emphasis in the literature on the appropriation of "ancient technologies" real or imagined -- but they are used just as much in Cargo Cult Science, and in some ways the Ancient Wisdom cults involved are even more deluded and dangerous.  


Alex Gee said...

Hi Brian

I assume you haven't? But with this post you appear to have fallen into the trap that the worshippers at the altar of Rhosyfelin have fallen for! Namely that Archaeology is a science! LOL. The same trap that makes scholars of Theology and Philosophy continue to believe that they can deduce the nature of our existence through thought alone; Whilst sustaining a continuous attack upon science!

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and yours and all contributors to this blog.

Best Wishes

Alex Gee

BRIAN JOHN said...

Call me naive, Alex, but I do like to think of archaeology as a science, in which evidence is collected and interpreted in a responsible way, following scientific norms. And in spite of my criticisms of certain groups, I have read a great deal of archaeology literature that seems to me to be very scientific -- with carefully collected evidence, cautious and scholarly interpretation, and well-supported conclusions. That work deserves respect. As in all sciences and all subjects, there are nevertheless mavericks and charlatans......

Myris of Alexandria said...

No archaeology is not a science and it is foolish to believe it is. There are scientists working in archaeology, there are sub-disciplines, there is some tremendous science applied to archaeology. Take a glimpse at the two books Metalle der Machte to great science by great scientists. But this is not core archaeology.
Read any listing for any TAG conference for any year to see the heart of (the new) archaeology.
For much archaeology, science is an attractive bauble to be shown off but set aside when the real grinding starts.
This is frustrating but it is in the nature of the beast it is essentially subjectively descriptive. Post processualists would say self-descriptive.
Archaeology is archaeology.

chris johnson said...

I don't think scientists are immune to group dynamics that determine behaviour in many other fields. I recall being told 100% seriously by the scientists who originated Compact Disk (CD) that there was no point researching higher densities and this a few months before Toshiba announced the forerunner for DVD, Somebody smart had said so and nobody had thought to challenge the assumptions of somebody very smart, having written several books, and having budgets to allocate.

In the rhosyfelin case there is an element of ends justifying means. Nobody is actually suppressing facts or inventing data, and many of us believe that there is something very important hidden in the Prescellies - including me. While the story continues so will the digging, albeit in a very slow way. Is is doing any harm? Probably not. Would I do harm to my own career by tilting at this particular windmill? Probably, if I was in the archaeology business. Would I personally want the digging to stop? Absolutely NOT.

Agree with Brian. This is a case study.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Quite agree, Chris. Scientists are just as bad as any other group in society, and just as prone to collective delusion. Also, scientific rigour has slipped so much nowadays that an old friend of mine (working in the toxicology field) is so appalled by modern standards that he calls most of those working in his field "technologists" and reserves the word "scientist" for those very few people who have earned his respect.....

PeteG said...

more from MPP


BRIAN JOHN said...

Dear me -- he is quite incorrigible. Maybe he thinks that if he repeats the quarrying story often enough, it will become true.

chris johnson said...

I see he is on the lookout for a passage grave, not a circle. Logical way to explain his dates I suppose.

Time for Afancs methinks.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Quite so, Chris. And therein lies an even more wonderful story, as we all know. actually, anything will do. If they find three or four stones somewhere, they will say "these are the only ones left after all the others were taken away." If they find no stones at all, after much searching, they will say "Ah yes, we were right. Proto-Stonehenge was taken away lock stock and barrel,leaving nothing behind. That proves that all the stones were deemed to be valuable." And so on, until all the grant money runs out.

chris johnson said...

Having spent 15 years with various start-ups backed by venture capital, this PR campaign has the look and feel of a funding round in prospect. Another reason for people on-board to go with the flow - they probably think it doesn't matter what people on the outside think as long as the people on the inside have integrity, nudge-nudge, wink-wink. We know it is all BS but give us the CASH.

BRIAN JOHN said...

You are probably right, Chris. But after 5 years of funding with nothing to show for it apart from one very dodgy article in "Antiquity", for how long will the research council and the Nat Geog Mag go on throwing in good money after bad?

Hugh Thomas said...

I was informed last visit to the dig that 2015 was the last season and they had to get to thier conclusions quickly.... Looks like Nat Geo may be coughing up some more £moolah then ... :)