Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Friday 6 March 2020

On consensus and mavericks

I was talking to a journalist earlier today, and picked up on the fact that I am portrayed (by certain academics who should know better) as somebody who is uninformed about modern scientific research, underqualified to express views on glaciology and geomorphology, and way adrift from the "consensus" on the glacial transport of the bluestones.  In other words, I am accused of being a maverick whose views should not be trusted or taken seriously.  OK -- I'm fairly old too, and it helps to suggest that I am off with the fairies........

So how do you define a consensus, and how do you recognize a maverick?    How many opinions do you need in print before you can claim that a consensus exists on something or other, and at what point does a serious researcher transform into somebody who is deemed to be a danger to the academic establishment?  Come to think of it, how do you define things like "research", "academic" and "establishment"?  Research can be brilliant, and it can be lousy; people can fall far short on academic ethics and still call themselves academics; and to be a member of the establishment you do not have to be clever, but you do need to have powerful and influential friends.  Mavericks may sometimes be off up the creek with their mad theories, but if the evidence is eventually shown to be against them, they will be shown up to be fools or charlatans.  Such is life.  But mavericks are of course sometimes right, and the establishment completely wrong -- and in situations like that there tends to be big trouble.  Powerful academics do not like to see their pet theories disproved, because reputations and egos are involved.  That's sad, because science is all about falsification, as Karl Popper pointed out many years ago.

Mavericks are of course very convenient, from the point of view of those whose theories are dodgy enough to deserve ongoing scrutiny.  Discrediting or questioning the skills and motivations of your enemy is far easier than confronting the issues head-on.

I'm not going to get into the business of demonstrating that I know the literature and that I know what I am talking about.   Others can do that on my behalf.

There have been many posts on this blog site around this theme of reliability and integrity.  See, for example:
So let's look at this consensus issue.

This extract from the big chapter by Darvill and Wainwright in the Pembrokeshire County History can be taken as representative of the "archaeology establishment" view:

"Although it still has vocal supporters, eminent geologists and glaciologists have dismissed the glacial theory (Bowen 2005; Green 1997; Scourse 1997) and concur with Thomas's original suggestion that the stones "were transported by human agency, in all probability by an overland route (Thomas, 1923, 259)."

There are four names in there -- Bowen, Green, Scourse and Thomas. These are the villains of the piece who have committed to print in books and learned journals.  Others may have expressed their views off the record, claiming to represent "the consensus", but with all due respect to them, they do not count.

No doubt the 4 academics mentioned above are very eminent, but not one of them is an eminent glaciologist. And only Thomas was an eminent geologist, who was busy, one hundred years ago, in formulating his famous ideas about the bluestones while ignoring the opinions of his colleagues who were specialists in the effects of glaciation. Thomas knew neither Preseli nor Salisbury Plain particularly well. Bowen, Green and Scourse are geomorphologists like myself, but as far as I know only Chris Green has actually done fieldwork on Salisbury Plain, and he would not refer to himself as a glacial geomorphologist. His thesis was on the long-term evolution of the landscape, and his "relevant studies" (ie relevant to the glacial transport debate) relate to pebble counts in river terraces in the Salisbury area -- some distance from Stonehenge. He has drawn certain conclusions on the basis of these studies, as mentioned in posts like this one:

My point is that no systematic research has ever been conducted on Salisbury Plain by a glacial geomorphologist looking at erratics, landforms or sediments. That is rather an important point!

Consensus?  And as for "the weight of expert opinion", let's remind ourselves that even in Thomas's time, in the first decades of the twentieth century, senior geologists (and archaeologists) were perfectly happy with the idea of glacial transport. Judd, Jehu, Gowland, Geikie, and many others had no problem with the thought that a great glacier might have carried assorted erratics from West Wales to Salisbury Plain -- but their voices were drowned out in all the noise surrounding the "exciting discoveries" of HH Thomas. It would be interesting to know what discussions went on behind the scenes -- but for better or for worse, Thomas argued his case for the human transport of the bluestones with great vigour, and the others backed off, presumably mindful of the fact that there was very little evidence that could be cited one way or the other.

When it comes to the weight of modern opinion among specialists, we know that Hubbard, Patton and other modelling specialists working on the BRITICE-CHRONO project have shown that glacier ice -- even in the smaller Devensian glaciation -- could have extended as far east as Wiltshire:

"The experiments presented also indicate significant excursions of wet-based ice into areas of southern England, where little evidence of recent glaciation has been found. This may not present such a major problem given that our model indicates ice was at this extended limit for less than 1 ka. The experiments also provide support for a possible glacial mechanism for the movement of Preseli erratics as a transport trajectory which overrides parts of northern Pembrokeshire and was subsequently deflected south-eastwards across the Bristol Channel into SW England, cannot be completely discounted."

'Dynamic cycles, ice streams and their impact on the extent, chronology and deglaciation of the British–Irish ice sheet.'
Alun Hubbard, Tom Bradwell, Nicholas Golledge, Adrian Hall, Henry Patton, David Sugden, Rhys Cooper, Martyn Stoker
Quaternary Science Reviews 28 (2009) 759–777

All of those authors have lent their names to the statement above.  Since 2009 other independent and increasingly sophisticated  glaciological modelling work has shown repeatedly that glacier ice, on at least one occasion, COULD have reached Salisbury Plain.  Probable, or just possible?  On that, there is more discussion.........

Let's not forget too that the OU team which researched the bluestones in the late 1980's -- including Richard Thorpe, Olwen Williams-Thorpe, Richard Thomas and even Rob Ixer, actually did some work on Salisbury Plain and came down strongly in favour of the glacial transport hypothesis. Then we can mention Geoffrey Kellaway, Prof Danny McCarroll, myself, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd, John Downes -- all quite eminent people who presumably know what they are talking about --arguing for glacial transport as not only possible but probable.  We could also mention the earth scientists who have been to examine the so-called "bluestone quarries" in Pembrokeshire in my company over the last few years.  They will not go on the record, because this is not "their topic", but with hand on heart I will say that every one of them agrees that the so-called "quarrying features" are entirely natural and unexceptional. 

Quarry? I see no quarry......

This point has been made in two peer-reviewed papers by Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd, John Downes and myself, in 2015.  Almost five years later, those papers have still not been acknowledged or cited by Mike Parker Pearson and his colleagues, presumably because they are incapable of accepting the evidence presented or answering the points made therein.  

Even Prof Richard Atkinson, towards the end of his life, accepted that the human transport of the bluestones would have been vanishingly improbable, and that glacial transport had to be the favoured option.

No matter what spin might have been given to the issue by a handful of senior archaeologists (and one or two earth scientists) with powerful vested interests, there is no doubt at all that the weight of expert opinion is, and always was, that the bluestones were probably transported by glacier ice. 

So where is the consensus here, in the written literature?  At a rough count, at last 30 researchers have pointed to conditions suitable for long-distance monolith transport in the right direction, on at least one occasion. Without a doubt opinions are VERY heavily in favour of the glacial transport thesis.

As for me being  a maverick or a nut case, I rest my case.


ag said...

Hi Brian, Looks like patrician snobbery s still alive and well then. You're quite right to be proud of this. Rather than wear your outdoor gear for interviews, you should also follow Kellaway's example and wear the suit you reserve for weddings, christenings and funerals?

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ha! Yes, maybe I should consult an image consultant, and try and dress up like Sir Mortimer Wheeler or dress down like our beloved MPP. In that famous TV interview in which poor Kellaway was done over by the establishment, he did look extremely uncomfortable in his posh suit and tie. He may have been better off if he had been dressed in his anorak, muddy jeans and climbing boots......

I never did like those stiff collars and awkward cuffs....... so down is the way to go. Maybe I could learn something from Alice Roberts, whose image was done a world of good when she did that TV series on skinny dipping in remote lakes. But maybe that's faulty thinking. I am the wrong sex, the wrong age and the wrong shape.

It's rather fun that those to whom you refer as patrician snobs are a good deal younger than I am! Perhaps we should find another label for them?