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Saturday, 7 July 2018

Assumptive research




This is called (by the archaeologists) a ruined revetment or dry stone wall, used for loading bluestone monoliths onto sledges or rafts before they were shipped off along a “hollow way.”  That is the assumption.  Geomorphologists, on the other hand, see clear evidence of glacial and fluvioglacial processes that have been at work in a chaotic dead-ice environment.  What is the truth?


This is a quote from a recent letter received from Brian Roberts, one of my old colleagues in the Durham University Geography Department.  He says: “Assumptive research’ is more common than one might expect … and embedded assumptions create vast barriers, dams, holding up research … YET flexibility is unwelcome.....”

This is what somebody at the University of Louisville says about assumptions in research: “An assumption is an unexamined belief: what we think without realizing we think it. Our inferences (also called conclusions) are often based on assumptions that we haven't thought about critically. A critical thinker, however, is attentive to these assumptions because they are sometimes incorrect or misguided. Just because we assume something is true doesn't mean it is.”

This is advice to research students:  “Think carefully about your assumptions when finding and analyzing information but also think carefully about the assumptions of others. Whether you're looking at a website or a scholarly article, you should always consider the author's assumptions. Are the author's conclusions based on assumptions that she or he hasn't thought about logically?”

Another quote:

A good hypothesis statement should conjecture the direction of the relationship between two or more variables, be stated clearly and unambiguously in the form of a declarative sentence, and
be testable; that is, it should allow restatement in an operational form that can then be evaluated 
based on data.  Generally, an assumption refers to a belief. An assumption does not require any evidence to support it. It is commonly based on feelings or a hunch. 

Could it be that the profound differences of opinion and “research behaviour” which come out of my spat with the archaeologists over “the bluestone quarries” are explained by the different research cultures that exist in the sciences and the social sciences?  In science there is the presumption that everything is observable and/or testable, and that hypotheses must be used because (although you hope that they are true) they are falsifiable.  Karl Popper has always been the hero for many of us with science backgrounds.  On the other hand, in the social sciences there is the little matter of human behaviour to be taken into account — and human behaviour, as we know, is sometimes logical and sometimes not.  People do the strangest of things for the strangest of reasons.  The being the case,  we can assume quirky or illogical behaviour, and if something is apparently inexplicable we can always try to explain it as having “an unknown ritual purpose.”  This releases the social scientist from the constraints of science, and allows him or her to get away with much more profound or extensive
assumptions than would be permitted in geology or physics or chemistry.

So what we have in the case of Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog is a “quarrying assumption” rather than a “quarrying hypothesis.”  From the very beginning of the research at both sites, the archaeologists have assumed that they have been looking at Neolithic bluestone quarries because this is what was (in their view) pointed at by the research by geologists Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer.  It was not considered necessary to test a hypothesis — but simply to assemble evidence in order to confirm the correctness of the assumption.  This explains the unscientific methods used by the digging team, making it obvious to all independent observers that they were not interested in testing a working hypothesis, but were intent upon confirming a ruling hypothesis or assumption.

When archaeologists are fixed in this mind-set, they can ignore scientific methods even though they use “scientific” tools in their research. They can claim, as MPP has done, that archaeology is not a science and that it is therefore freed from scientific constraints. So assumptions rule, and evidence and arguments from other disciplines (such as geology, geomorphology or pedology) can be ignored if they are inconvenient.

It is of course deeply worrying when this style of thinking becomes prevalent, and when papers which are deeply flawed scientifically are published in “reputable” journals.  It is even more worrying when people say to me (as they have done) that we should not apply scrutiny to the papers published by archaeologists, because they are always dealing with the erratic obsessions and belief systems of human beings — so if something makes no sense whatsoever, that’s perfectly all right........







28 comments:

PeteG said...

I recently read your book and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Over the last 2 weeks I have met a lot of people involved in archaeology in one way or another and asked them about your latest book.
Three of them said they would not be reading it and one even said "I don't need to read it, I already know it's wrong."
HoHum,
PeteG

BRIAN JOHN said...

Thanks Pete — glad you enjoyed the book. Yes, there are a lot of archaeologists out there (a lot? Maybe fewer than we thought) who live in a state of denial. Maybe your friends who refuse to read the book belong to the same little group of researchers who write articles about Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog without citing the two most relevant papers in the peer-reviewed literature, presumably because they just know that the articles are “rubbish”...... Sad, isn’t it?

Alex Gee said...

The original source of this problem is that the Social "Sciences" aren't sciences! Look at the mess that's been caused since Economics and its practitioners began to regard itself as a science? Economists are incapable of predicting a single thing that's going to happen to the national or world economy, yet economic policy is made under the delusion that they can!

These Social Sciences like to use the big words and methodology of science, but as you've said they apply them wrongly and in wholly inappropriate situations! It's nothing but pseudo science!!

Alex Gee said...

The late, great Richard Feynman on "Social Science"

https://vimeo.com/118188988

TonyH said...

It is always rather dangerous to make assumptions. Unless, of course, you tend to rely on historically - made assumptions to make your living, like quite a cadre of folks associated with the Money Spinner that is Stonehenge, for example. Sad, but all too true.

Despite all the dynamic and high - profile archaeological activity associated with Stonehenge and quite a large area around it, since, say, the start of the 21st Century, it is nevertheless a cause for much grief that 'The Experts' prefer to keep their blinkers on with regard to this so serious and profound question that they refuse to even countenance: "What Happened During the Anglian Ice Age a million years ago between what was to become South West Wales and the site of Stonehenge?"

BRIAN JOHN said...

Let’s call it half a million years, Tony. But what’s half a million years between friends? Yes, I agree — any academic who refuses to cite or even consider evidence that is deemed “too inconvenient” deserves the contempt of anybody who has any respect for scientific method.

TonyH said...

Perhaps we should be generous and acknowledge the strong likelihood that the human transport theorists are just so frightened and surprised by the persistence of the glacial transport protagonists that they are simply mesmerised: like a rabbit or a deer caught in the headlights.

All they can do is, ironically enough, FREEZE!

They are unable to e.g. formulate any proper answer to the geomorphologists who've written Papers with alternative answers to those who worship the Quarrymen of Rhosyfelin & Carn Goedog. Neither can they make any meaningful effort to consult with up - to - date Glaciologists, preferring instead to dismiss the glacial evidence in South West England as far east as e.g. Bath, Box and Corsham.

Jon Morris said...

It's something I've been thinking about. Should an expert who has published assumptive research, especially based on a ritual assumption, be deliberately excluded from further works? If an expert has published a piece of research which contains a reasonable assumption taken as fact, then the 'baggage' of that past publication might prevent them from taking an objective view on new evidence.

If that expert should be deliberately excluded, what about the associates (especially underlings) of that expert.

Alex Gee said...

The other problem with the Human Transport hypothesis is that prior to falsifying the original assumptions, successive generations of Archaeologists have added more layers of assumptions based solely on the original flawed findings. Creating nothing more than a tottering "house of cards"!

Jon Morris said...

Just wanted to say what a marvelous resource this blog/website is Brian.

PeteG said...

reminds me of the Devil's Dictionary

LOGIC, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding. The basic of logic is the syllogism, consisting of a major and a minor premise and a conclusion – thus:

Major Premise: Sixty men can do a piece of work sixty times as quickly as one man.

Minor Premise: One man can dig a posthole in sixty seconds; therefore –

Conclusion: Sixty men can dig a posthole in one second.

This may be called the syllogism arithmetical, in which, by combining logic and mathematics, we obtain a double certainty and are twice blessed.

BRIAN JOHN said...

Interesting points, folks, for which many thanks. Ah yes, the ritual assumption - I saw somebody referring to that as ‘the last retreat of the charlatan” — call it a ritual feature if you can’t think of any other explanation of it. Should people be taken to task if their research simply turns into an exercise in conforming assumptions or ruling hypotheses? Probably they should, but in archaeology, if “assumptive research” is now the norm, and is accepted as such by the editors of learned journals, then the scientific method has already been abandoned. Just try complaining to the journals editors about the quality of all this “bluestone quarrying” research and see how far you get! I have, and they think it’s all perfectly fine, and that no responsibility rests upon learned professors and their underlings to read or cite research from other disciplines, no matter how relevant you or I might think it to be. They all exist in a bubble, effectively protected from learned scrutiny.

Now here’s a thought — if it had not been for the fact that I live within a couple of miles of both Carn Goedog and Rhosyfelin, would there have been ANY scrutiny of the work done by MPP and his colleagues? The holes would have been filled in, and the world would have no option but to beleieve every word contained in all those publications in the “learned” and “popular” journals. Seriously scary........

As for the underlings, that’s another matter again. But it’s very handy to be able to produce an article with 14 or more co-authors, even if the text is written by just the lead author and the contributions of half of the others have been on a very small (and maybe technical) scale. But corporate responsibility applies, and nobodty will break ranks and disagree with the central assumptions of the research. I have raised this with respect to Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins in my book, since they (as real scientists) are now stuck with the same set of assumptions as their archaeological colleagues. I did make the point that if you are a geologist, you should never get into bed with an archaeologist unless you are in charge of what happens next.....

BRIAN JOHN said...

oops — that should be: “..........simply turns into an exercise in confirming assumptions or ruling hypotheses? “ ...............

Alex Gee said...

Quite: Brian! Without your scrutiny,The tottering house of cards would have continued to rise above the landscape. To reach unimaginable heights comparable to that of the "Tower of Babel!". One hope's that the card you've removed from it's base, will soon result in its total collapse!

BRIAN JOHN said...

I wouldn’t claim that they are completely wrong and that I’m completely right. Things are seldom that simple. But I do believe in the scrutiny of research by peers — without it, there would be a license for charlatans and pseudo-scientists to say what they like, invent “evidence” and come up with mad theories that simply become accepted as the truth. These people are not necessarily wicked, but they may be deluded and utterly convinced of the correctness of their theories or assumptions — because these assumptions have never been tested or challenged within their own disciplines. In the cases of Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog, peer review and editorial scrutiny are clearly non-existent. That’s why I find it so deeply worrying that the editors of archaeological journals seem to think that the only “inconvenient evidence” worth considering is that which comes from within the archaeological community — and that evidence from geomorphology (such as that in the two papers by Dyfed E-G, John D and myself) is none of their business.....

TonyH said...

It may well turn out to be worthwhile us taking a good look at on what basis the JOURNAL OF ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH chooses its subject areas and researchers, etc etc.

I haven't done as yet, it is just a publication to me:-

1SSN 1059 0161 [PRINT]

1573 7756 [ONLINE]

Incidentally, academic Brian Roberts (whom Brian mentions) became a Professor at the University of Durham's Geography Department. Whilst there, he was a particular specialist in Historical Geography, and taught me that.

TonyH said...

Oh!.... and I have just noticed again that Brian's recent Post on the Easter Island Quarried Heads owes its ultimate origins to an article in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

BRIAN JOHN said...

BKR was a good friend at Durham. Because of the field he was (and is!) working in, he has had many contacts with archaeologists, and he knows what he is talking about. I respect his opinions greatly.

TonyH said...

That's great to hear, having lost any personal contact with him when I graduated (just after a Group called The Beatles split up, for those who like a time context).

MD said...

It's a bit like Global Warming; falsify the statistics to fit the assumption - but perhaps we'd better not get into that !

Alex Gee said...

What's really worrying is that this Pseudo-Scince infection has reached as far as the publications of the Society of Antiquaries! What next "Nature" The journals of the Royal Society?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Alex — re the decline of standards in the high-rated journals and the apparent demise of proper independent peer reviewing processes, the only way to improve standards is to object forcefully to what is going on. It’s is open to any reader of a “learned” article to object to the contents and even to ask for a retraction, if there is evidence of serious scientific malpractice. I have occasionally asked for retractions of published papers, in various disciplines, and while editors tend to resist such requests (because they are the ones who have published the papers, who should have been more careful, and who will look stupid if papers really are retracted) it does help to stir the pot in that the members of editorial boards get to hear about public disquiet and the reputations of “guilty authors” cleary take a knock........... And a consequence might just be that next time those charlatans submit a paper for publication, somebody might just scrutinize it rather more carefully.......

Alex Gee said...

Brian: Have the editors of the journals that this Rhosyfelin nonsense been published in, been sufficiently shamed by your QRA papers to retract the quarrying articles, or have you found them to be similarly corrupted by this malignancy?

Alex Gee said...

Perhaps you should publish a list of the publications this Rhosyfelin nonsense has appeared in,along with their contact details, so that those of your blog readers who agree with you can have a word?

Alex Gee said...

MD: Why not go into that? its evidence of the same corruption in science! There are similarities. Whilst there is no evidence for human transport of bluestones to Stonehenge and this can still be considered the subject of scientific debate. The case against man made Global warming was a scientific fraud, wholly manufactured by corrupt financiers, ex-chancellors of the Exchequer and directors of oil companies.

Apparently 97% of scientists now accept the evidence for man made global warming. What is worrying is that there are still 3% of scientists within the scientific community whose interpretation of scientific data is available for hire!

Namely the oil companies had some data and found scientists who if the price was right, were willing to give whatever interpretation of the data that the oil companies, financiers required!

Which is fine if you just think well ok they lost the argument, but not fine when you consider that these corrupt, grasping, vermin, cost the human race 20 to 30 years in its fight to prevent catastrophic climate change, and quite possibly the extinction of the Human race!

The same has happened with Fracking in the Mendips; with more embarrassing consequences. My fellow cavers amassed considerable evidence to show that fracking in the Bath/Mendip area posed a very high risk to water resources, this evidence was solid enough to persuade Somerset County Council to not grant licenses for fracking. Pseudo-scientists from the British Geological Survey, acting on orders of the government, then said Fracking in the Bath/Mendip area posed a very low risk; they had done no research to justify this statement!. What was embarrassing was that the fracking companies own geologists then said that Fracking in the Bath/Mendip area was very high risk, and withdrew their applications. leaving the Pseudo scientists from the BGS high and dry!



MD said...

Alex, I think your comment is the reason we shouldn't go into it further - subject closed !
MD

BRIAN JOHN said...

Agree — let’s leave discussions on climate change to other blogs sites........

Always be suspicious of scientists from government agencies — when their research is “neutral” in the sense that it doesn’t matter what their findings are, they can be very good, but if they are providing background papers to government policy issues, beware. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Seen this in other fields than geology.....

MD said...

Spot on Brian!