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Saturday 6 May 2017

Hitchens's Razor and a century of scientific fraud

Today I came across a rather interesting piece in Wikipedia, about Hitchens's Razor:

Hitchens's razor is an epistemological razor asserting that the burden of proof regarding the truthfulness of a claim lies with the one who makes the claim; if this burden is not met, the claim is unfounded and its opponents need not argue further in order to dismiss it. It is named, echoing Occam's razor, for the journalist and writer Christopher Hitchens, who, in a 2003 Slate article, formulated it thus: "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."

This is rather timely, since it is exactly 100 years since HH Thomas invented one of the great British myths -- namely the human transport of bluestones from Preseli to Stonehenge.  (I reckon he formulated his idea during the First World War, prior to publication in 1923.)

If you put "Herbert Thomas" into the search box you will find a string of previous posts on HHT and his theory,  which was essentially an assertion without evidence.  Evidence concerning the Preseli sources of "bluestones" found at Stonehenge is simply evidence of provenance -- it has nothing whatsoever to do with mode of transport.

I'm still rather convinced that Thomas was involved in a hoax which has fooled the archaeology establishment (and the British public) for the last century.  Because his mad theory is now treated as orthodoxy, the people who are currently treated as heretics are Geoffrey Kellaway, Olwen Williams-Thorpe and others (including me) who have dared to argue the case for glacial transport and who have questioned some of the assumptions underpinning the human transport hypothesis.

But hang on a moment.  Isn't this a grotesque distortion of something that should be amenable to scientific testing and debate? 

What do we know?  There are many different rock types represented in the "foreign stone assemblage" at Stonehenge.  Many of the rhyolites, and maybe all of the spotted dolerites, come from the eastern end of the Preseli Hills and from the outcrops of Fishguard Volcanics between there and the north Pembrokeshire coast. The stones are heavily abraded and weathered, and they come in all shapes and sizes.  Most of them are boulders and slabs -- not pillars.   From abundant evidence from many different disciplines, we know that during the Ice Age the great Irish Sea Glacier flowed across Pembrokeshire approximately from NW towards SE, and that on at least one occasion the ice pressed all the way up the Bristol Channel to the coasts of Devon and Cornwall and into the low-lying depression of the Somerset Levels.  The bluestone assemblage at Stonehenge seems to have come for the most part (probably including the Altar Stone) from a very narrow band of countryside, where glaciological theory tells us that entrainment of erratics should have occurred, maybe between parallel-flowing streams of Irish Sea and Welsh ice, as argued by Lionel Jackson and myself in an article in EARTH magazine.

The inevitable conclusion from all of this must be that the Stonehenge bluestone assemblage is an assemblage of glacial erratics, maybe deposited in conjunction with other glacial deposits, and maybe not.  If one uses the principle of Occam's Razor, there is simply no need for any other theory, and geologists, glaciologists and geomorphologists simply need to concentrate on finding the solutions to two crucial questions: exactly when did this event occur?  and exactly where was the ice edge located when the erratics were dumped? (There are other questions as well, relating to glacial dynamics and sedimentation processes, but don't let's complicate the issue.....)

Seen in this context, and given the recent geological findings by Rob Ixer, Richard Bevins and their colleagues, if anybody was to come along today and suggest, out of the blue, what HH Thomas suggested in 1923, he or she would simply be laughed out of court.

Back to the Bluestone Heresy.  The real heretics are not Geoffrey Kellaway and Olwen Williams-Thorpe, but Herbert Thomas, Richard Atkinson, Tim Darvill, Geoffrey Wainwright, Mike Parker Pearson, Richard Bevins, Rob Ixer and a myriad of others who have led the world off on a wild goose chase, based upon the entirely false premise that glacial transport of the bluestones was and is impossible.  This heresy has even been perpetrated by geomorphologists including James Scourse, Chris Green and David Bowen, who should have known better.

The real heresy is the story of the human transport of the bluestones, as a result of which the scientific community has wasted many years of research effort and dressed up a crazy myth as an article of faith.  Much of the recent effort has to do with the search for non-existent bluestone quarries.

Back to Hitchens's Razor.  The HH Thomas human transport myth was asserted without evidence.  It can therefore be dismissed without evidence.  The burden of proof regarding the claim rested initially with HH Thomas.  It was not met, and it should therefore have been dismissed in 1923.  After a century of naive acceptance and elaboration by several generations of myth-makers, the claim is STILL unfounded and its opponents (people like Olwen Williams-Thorpe, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and I) are under no obligation whatsoever to argue further in order to dismiss it.


I have been thinking further about the "other" part of the quote from Hitchens featured at the top of the post:  "... extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence...."....... on the basis that this is an elementary rule of logic.  Well, from every possible angle, Thomas's idea about the human transport of the bluestones was "extraordinary", since there was and is no evidence from Wales that the bluestones (of many different types) were considered special in any way; since there are no other records of the long-distance transport of megaliths for use in ritual or other settings anywhere in the British Isles; since there are no radiocarbon or other dates which can verify the haulage of the stones at the time required by the archaeologists; and since no ropes, sledges or rafts have ever been found which might demonstrate that the haulage project was technically feasible.

From the very beginning, this has been a hoax or a scientific fraud, and it is truly amazing that the archaeological establishment and even a section of the science community has gone along with it for so many years.  We don't even have any "ordinary"evidence in support of it, let alone the "extraordinary" evidence demanded by logic.


Myris of Alexandria said...

Now let us get this clear. Your truth is that Neolithic people found a pile of suitable sized rocks in on the Somerset coast or within the marshes or even on the slopes of Ziderland and decided to take them the 50 miles to SH.
Why take a pile of random stones from nowhere with no visible cultural associations, they are not even the nearest hard stones to SH.
That is even less real than Neolithic man quarrying stone from a known religiously active area and moving them the 120 miles.
No you are saddled with a stinking albatross around your neck.

As Dr Ixer said 30 years ago find the quarries find the answer. It is Not in some random chilled pile of dumped stones.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Never mind what my assertion may be or may not be. I am talking about the assertion of HTT and successive generations -- an extraordinary assertion devoid of any evidence at all, let alone extraordinary evidence.

CysgodyCastell said...

Why would there need to be cultural affiliations connected to the stones, they are looking for certain building material are they not. Is there actual evidence that the peoples living on Salisbury plain or therabouts had any cultural connection to West Wales?

Could the stones have been collected from the Somerset fringes, used and then generations later moved and used again by some fortunate soul who came across some ancient and ruinous settlement site.

Where is the evidence that the Preseli region was a religiously active area? Surely speculative guess work.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Agree with that, Cysgodycastell -- Myris says West Wales was "a known religiously active area". That's all very fine, but so was every other part of Britain. Trying to pretend that West Wales was a "special area" just doesn't wash. And as Myris himself has admitted, virtually all of the area's "cultural" links in prehistoric times were with the west, not with the east.

TonyH said...

HHT Thomas, that is, Herbert H Thomas: hmmm ..... does the middle Christian name stand for "Hiraeth"? That might explain a great deal about H.H. Thomas' reasons, subconscious or otherwise, to put forward his Human Transport of Bluestones idea. More to follow. Do others agree? You may always look up Hiraeth via Google, in the meantime.

TonyH said...

Brian, I haven't got time right now to submit my promised extra piece about the Welsh word "Hiraeth", its meaning and its connotations with 20th Century notions by HH Thomas and all and sundry after him, about human transport of bluestones. Have you given it any thought yourself, Brian?........ We know you are a Welshman and a Welsh speaker..... Val Bethell has a very quotable piece on it, written in March 2003, where she says it SPEAKS OF THE ROCKS.


BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah yes, hiraeth. I have a pretty good idea what it means, having devoted 8 novels to an explanation of it! The concept featured quite strongly in the Battle of Preseli after WW2:

HHT certainly exploited hiraeth in proposing his idea of human bluestone transport,as did others including Richard Atkinson. It was all quite handy for those who wanted to show that there was a sort of Neolithic Enchanted land or Garden of Eden around Preseli with a great flowering of culture etc etc......

There are of course abundant cultural features in the landscape, as I keep on showing, but none of them seems particularly sophisticated or "advanced".

TonyH said...

Perhaps our dear highly imaginative friend MPP feels a perceptible, almost magnetic" pull" affecting his also archaeology - trained wife, and thus, emotionally and indirectly also himself. I believe Brian has told us on the Blog that MPP's wife comes from Preseli/ N Pembrokeshire, isn't that so?

TonyH said...


"I know the meaning of the Welsh word 'Hiraeth'. This word has pulled at me all my life. I would happily travel West, but N, S or East was so difficult. I lived in a beautiful home on the edge of Wales, looking West. The mountains shouted hiraeth! hiraeth! Silently and patiently.
Hiraeth - the link with the long - forgotten past, the language of the soul, the call from the inner self. Half forgotten - fraction remembered. It SPEAKS OF THE ROCKS, from the eart, from the trees, and in the waves, It's always there.
".......It's the call of my spiritual home, it's where ancient peoples made their home. We're high on a hill, where Saints bathed sore feet IN A HEALING SPRING AND HAD A CURE"


Quoted by Ceri J. M. Davies

TonyH said...

Perhaps Timothy Darvill should at last acknowledge that his, and the late Geoffrey Wainwright's, notion of Healing springs and Healing stones has a lot more to do with heart - string pulling 'Hiraeth' and a lot less to do with the complete absence of any solid geographical or historical evidence.