Thursday, January 31, 2008

Jan. 31: 1421, Epistemology, the Scientific Method, and Hoaxes

Along with the lectures in class (see the notes below), we have been watching the PBS program "1421: The Year China Discovered America?" We began watching it last class (Jan. 29), continued today, and will be finishing it next during next Tuesday's class. This program fits in very well with where we are in class, as it proposes a speculative and romantic scenario, typical of what many folks think archaeology is all about. The program discusses the possibility that a Chinese fleet from the Ming Dynasty may have reached the Americas 70 years before the arrival of Columbus. Gavin Menzies, wrote the book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World to propose this idea. It is an exciting idea, and there are some good points made in favor of the idea...but there are some major problems too.

Check out some of the sites on this subject for yourself, pro, con, or undecided (we will weigh the evidence ourselves during the next class):

1421 - The Year China Discovered the World, Menzies' own website
CNN story: "Did the Chinese Discover America?"
Reader reviews about the book from's critical article on the book
"The 1421 Myth Exposed" website

The upshot may have been given by Menzies himself, as he was quoted as saying, ""The more negative the reviews, the more the book sells!"


Jan. 31 Thursday
Readings for Today:
Feder, Chapter 2: “Epistemology: How You Know What You Know,” pp. 17-43
and Chapter 3, “Anatomy of an Archaeological Hoax”, pp. 44-63


We know what we know by collecting information…
1. Directly through their own experiences…but people are notoriously poor observers
2. Indirectly through sources like friends, teachers, parents, friends, TV, books, internet, newspapers, etc

Ask yourself…but how did those sources get the info…
…was it through Revelation-from-Above (scriptures, dreams, visions), myths, tradition, authority (family, elders and experts), intuition, logic, empirical observation…how expert is the source in that specific topic?
(An anthropology teacher in Iowa once told me they had been teaching for over twenty years that my tribe was extinct! And that was one state away from our reservation!)

Also ask what motive, what agenda, what reason does the source have for giving you that information… are they trying to shape your opinion?…is the underlying motive related to religious, philosophical, nationalistic, commercial, financial, entertainment…?

Science provides one way to knowledge about the universe that is dependable. Science is a process…"a series of techniques used to maximize the probability that what we think we know really reflects the way things are, were, or will be. "Science is often wrong, but part of the inherent process is it is self-correcting…"The only claim that we do make in science is that if we honestly, consistently, explicitly, and vigorously pursue knowledge using some basic techniques and principles, the truth will eventually surface…." (Feder 2008:25).

Four Underlying Principles of Science:

1. There is a real and knowable universe.
2. The universe operates according to certain understandable rules or laws.
3. These laws are immutable- they do not change depending on where you are, who you are, or "when" you are.
4. These laws can be studied and understood by people through careful observation, experimentation, testing (and retesting), and research.

Science is unsurpassed in its ability to grasp and explain empirical truths and facts…facts and truths of material reality. Science is about material existence…which is when it comes to that which is not material (theology, religion, philosophy) these cannot be tested, and so are not part of science

Deconstructionism was/is an academic/philosophical movement based on an idea that everything is ultimately subjective..that there is no "truth" and that reality can never really be known.

(Deconstructionism is radical subjectivism--- scientism (the belief that the material world is all that exists) is radical objectivism. )

Induction and deduction
Hypotheses (pl.), hypothesis (s.)

Induction- Observation and formation of hypotheses…when observe nature, you are using induction to go from observations of specifics to come up with generalities…this is only the first part of science, related to the development of hypotheses, and is not sufficient in itself. Hypotheses can really come from almost anywhere…an observation, an intuition, a dream, a legend…but the crucial part is the testing.

Deduction- Constructing a way to test the hypothesis…in the form of "if..then" question…if the hypothesis is true, then the deduced facts will be true…this is the need for testing the hypothesis…it needs to be testable…if it is not testable, it is not science

(Read the text's example of the case of childbed fever in the 1800s)

The methodology of science applied to something that needs to be explained, then:

1. Observe
2. Induce general hypotheses (multiple working hypotheses…you need competing explanations) or possible explanations for what we have observed…the hypothesis MUST be testable…without a testable hypothesis, it is not science
3. Deduce specific things that must be true if our hypothesis is true (just because only one hypothesis is left, it is not necessarily true…it must also be tested)
4. Test the hypothesis by checking out the deduced implications

Occam's Razor- "Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity"…the explanation/hypothesis that explains the observation with the fewest "ifs"/assumptions, is the best explanation…the simplest explanation is the best explanation

While some sciences can test their hypothesis through relicable experiments under laboratory conditions, not all can, at least not entirely…historical science disciplines like historical geology, history and prehistory require hypotheses but experiments are not always possible (but keep in mind there is a branch of archaeology called experimental archaeology, such as when people try to replicate stone tools using different methods)…

In this situation we apply what is called "the convergence of evidence" using multiple sources of evidence that can be used to crosscheck each other. In this case, we do not predict what the results of an experiment must be in order for our hypothesis to be valid, instead we predict what new data we must be able to find if the hypothesis is correct.

The scientific community is not perfect…scientists are known to have falsified data etc….scientists are human too. This is usually because of career or grant pressures, or because someone is just too in love with their own ideas and are not willing to let them go, even in the face of all the opposing evidence.


This chapter discusses the cases of three famous frauds in archaeology:

- Shinichi Fujimura, a Japanese archaeologist who consistently found the oldest sites in Japan…but was later found to have been a fraud, "salting"/planting sites with artifacts

- The Cardiff Giant, a carved stone man promoted as a petrified giant from before the Flood

- Pachaug Forest in Connecticut- planted artifacts

Rules for a Successful Archaeological Hoax:

1. Give the people what they want (feeds into their confirmatory bias)
2. Don't be too successful or too lucky…let others take the credit
3. Learn from your mistakes..when people unmask hoaxes, learn how they found out and don't do the same thing

Reading assignment for next class (Th Jan 31):
Ashmore and Sharer, Chapter 4: “How Archaeology Works,” pp. 61-86.

SPECIAL NOTICE: I will provide a special post tomorrow to clarify some questions I've received about the upcoming Paper #1, due at the beginning of the Feb. 14 class.

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