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Thursday, 21 September 2017

MPP, The National Geographic and the encouragement of pseudo-science

I was interested to see this little phrase in the Antiquity article by Mike Parker Pearson et al in December 2015:

"The theory that the stones were carried by glaciers, transported during an Ice Age to Salisbury Plain or its margins (Kellaway 1971; Thorpe et al. 1991; Williams-Thorpe et al. 1997, 2006), has not been refuted until now..........."

The implication is that the  Rhosyfelin research work, and the assumed identification of that infamous "quarry" has somehow put an end to all this stuff about glaciers.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, not least because the evidence for quarrying does not withstand scrutiny.  As we have seen on this blog, the presence of the "quarry" was decided upon even before the archaeologists descended on the site to dig their rather large hole, and all they were actually doing was seeking confirmation of a ruling hypothesis.  Pseudo-science was writ large across the face of the project from day one.  The geologists -- Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer -- were complicit in this, even though they started out by simply referring, in their papers pre-2011, to a rather interesting piece of provenancing which linked Stonehenge to the Pont Saeson - Rhosyfelin area, without expressing any opinion as to how the monoliths and the bits of broken rock might have travelled from here to there. By 2015, of course, they were fully signed up to the quarrying hypothesis, as we can see from a string of statements in their publications.  Like MPP and his archaeologist colleagues, they had clearly decided to go with the flow. The glacial transport of bluestones was impossible, because the following had apparently told them so: 

(Thomas 1923; Green 1973; McMillan et al. 2005; Gibbard & Clark 2011; Clark et al. 2012)

 We don't want to go over all that again, but we might as well remind ourselves that Kellaway, Richard Thorpe, Olwen Williams-Thorpe and their colleagues were by no means isolated or out on a limb as far as extensive glaciation was concerned. MPP et al could have cited my apparently unmentionable little book (2008) as well, on the basis that I actually do have reasonable credentials, and that I know more about the glaciation of western Britain than some of those on their list of sceptics. They could have mentioned Judd from the good old days and Alun Hubbard, Tom Bradwell, Nicholas Golledge, Adrian Hall, Henry Patton, David Sugden, Rhys Cooper, and Martyn Stoker (2009) from the days of high-tech glaciology and glacier modelling.  These guys know what they are talking about, and they all signed up to a statement in a big and much-cited paper to the effect that glacier ice as far east as Salibury Plain was perfectly possible.

I don't want to get into silly numbers games, but I'm confident that of all the earth scientists who have expressed views on glaciers and Salisbury Plain, there are at least as many who say that glaciation was possible as there are on the other side. And of course, if we apply a little logic, even if there is a Neolithic quarry at Rhosyfelin, it tells us nothing whatsoever about how 43 or so bluestones travelled from A to B.

The thing that worries me more than anything about the pseudo-science swirling around the Rhosyfelin debate is the lack of peer-review and scientific scrutiny of the things the archaeologists have been writing and saying.  Let's remind ourselves that over a period of 7 years there is just ONE peer-reviewed paper (in Antiquity in 2015) which presents evidence, discusses its interpretation, and suggests conclusions.  That relates just to Rhosyfelin.  It's a deeply flawed paper, and I remain amazed that it ever found its way into print.  If I had refereed it, it would have been rejected out of hand, with a request for a complete rewrite and resubmission.  Apart from that, nothing.  There has been no peer-reviewed paper on Carn Goedog.  That's incredible, given the huge significance being attached to the site by MPP and his team. We don't count articles in British Archaeology or Current Archaeology, conference papers or "state of play" reports, or even books, because they are not designed for scientific scrutiny and simply repeat assertions and speculations which readers cannot question because they have no evidence to assess.  Over seven years MPP and his team have placed no excavation diaries or annual field reports into the public domain, where they can be examined by their peers.  They may have submitted annual reports to the funding organizations, as required by the terms and conditions, but if they are not made public these documents might as well not exist.  (In contrast, Profs Darvill and Wainwright HAVE followed academic norms by presenting their field evidence in seven annual SPACES reports, all published -- and available for scrutiny -- in Archaeology in Wales.)

I have made a fuss about this on my blog, and am probably therefore viewed as "the enemy" by MPP and his team. But there are big issues here regarding the use of public funds, scientific ethics and university education.  Why is the archaeological community not raising hell about an ongoing and high-profile research project which is apparently not overseen or scrutinised by anybody?

I have been pondering on the whys and the wherefores of this miserable state of affairs.  Could the blanket of secrecy over the Stones of Stonehenge project be down to some mysterious contract which MPP has signed with one of the project funding partners?  I cannot imagine the Society of Antiquaries or the Royal Archaeological Institute insisting on "no unauthorised publication" or "first use of information" clauses in funding contracts, since they want material out there in the public domain, preferably as quickly as possible.  So the culprit has to be the National Geographic -- either the magazine or the TV Channels.  If you look at the Society's web-site, it offers grant aid to exciting projects, and purports to encourage publication everywhere and anywhere -- but Mike has admitted at various times to constraints placed upon him and his team by the National Geographic.  I will speculate, therefore, that Mike has signed an incredibly restrictive contract which gives the National Geographic a "first use" option on anything coming out of the digs in Pembrokeshire.  This is, I think, supported by the manner in which the National Geographic has issued press releases and publicised  spectacular events associated with the digs (you know the sort of stuff) before the rest of the media swings into action.  Is there a very large TV contract also lurking in the background?  Does MPP have to deliver a TV documentary spectacular the like of which the world has never seen before?  Does he have to deliver before he gets paid? To hell with science -- all that matters is IMPACT.

Best Neolithic quarry ever discovered, anywhere in the world.  Heroic ancestors quarrying chunks of rock in a Welsh wilderness and then carrying the monoliths all the way to Stonehenge just because they embody the spirits of the ancestors?  An amazing Proto-Stonehenge in Wales, used and then dismantled  -- yes indeed -- that'll do nicely! Assemble the cast of thousands -- filming starts on Thursday week........


TonyH said...

By putting MICHAEL PARKER PEARSON TELEVISION SHOWS FILMS into my Search Engine a lot of interesting items were brought up, including, notably:-

This lists a lot of his contributions to the visual media, with details.

TonyH said...

All your comments on this Post seem perfectly plausible to me. We seem to be faced by evidence of a 'Fox News' approach to scientific scrutiny and peer - reviewed research when it comes to the marketing of recent Preseli dig interpretations.

Had University of Durham Department of Geography based its Undergraduate lectures on that type of approach, I shudder to think what calibre of knowledge its Graduating students would have possessed!

BRIAN JOHN said...

Yes, Mike has been a very busy fellow. but not so much TV over the last 3 or 4 years. Working up towards the big one, with the National Geographic? There has been a lot of Skycam work at the dig sites, but I don't know how much other filming there has been of the digs as well. Maybe somebody will tell us, if the shroud of secrecy isn't too stifling.......

BRIAN JOHN said...

Somebody out there has wondered whether my use of the term "pseudo-science" isn't just a little harsh, when applied to the quarrying archaeologists. I thought that I had better check up on the meaning of the term, just to make sure I had not misunderstood it. So here we are:
Pseudoscience - Wikipedia
Pseudoscience consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that are claimed to be scientific and factual in the absence of evidence gathered and constrained by appropriate scientific methods.

Well well. Fancy that. Spot on.