I tread a fine line, some days. Yes, I consider myself a scientist; as such, I try to keep an open mind where the data are concerned, without allowing what I want to be true to cloud what I perceive. But I am also an anthropologist, a writer, a poet. That means I’m going to come into contact with a lot of people who play it fast and loose where reality and factual, empirical data are concerned. I imagine physicists must face some similar issues with the uninformed, metaphysical crowd who take the very surface aspect of a complex concept and run like hell.
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” ~Isaac Asimov
The thing is, folks–your ignorance isn’t anywhere nearly as good as my knowledge. Because I’m not omniscient, I have to accept that my ignorance must also bow to those who have expertise and education in the fields that are a mystery to me–like market analysis, quantum physics, or any type of engineering.
What Science Isn’t
Science isn’t about being absolutely sure and brooking no contradictions. I’ll leave certainty to the theologians and spiritualists. What spurred all of this? Well, I’ll get to specifics in a minute, because the more generalized appearance of this philosophy has caused no end of trouble lately. This is the idea behind anti-vaccination factions, unsubstantiated holistic remedies, and general objections to things which may be bad, but not for the reasons many seem to believe. There is a general intellectual malaise that I see–an unwillingness to source ideas, substantiate claims, or really do any sort of thinking beyond that of a rat with a choice between an electric shock and a food lever.
What Science is, in fact, is the use of the best possible intellectual and empirical tools at our disposal to test and retest observations and ideas. Will there be mistakes? That sort of goes without saying. Will there be future discoveries that cast doubt or completely disprove what we hold as fact to the best of our knowledge in the present? One only has to look at the history of any scientific discipline to know that that’s also almost a certainty.
Archaeology, the field of study with which I have the most first-hand experience, has progressed from a game played by spoilt, rich Europeans digging for buried treasures into something quite a bit more serious and rigorous in just a little over a century. Gross errors of social justice were perpetrated in the name of the discipline. After I spent several years studying ethics, working with unprovenienced but obviously pillaged ceramic funerary vessels, and legislation such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) I’m pretty sure that many museums that will not be named here acted to conceal their human remains and grave goods collections from the scrutiny of the authorities.
Room For Error
The fact that there’s room for refinement of technologies, future discoveries, and evolving understandings does not, however, mean people can reinvent the fossil record as they please. This is, in my very biased opinion, a dangerous habit of humans–especially in this particular Western culture. Why do I mention this? Well, the other night, I was browsing my Facebook news feed. I belong to a women’s writers group, and we provide support by following each other’s author pages. I should have known that eventually, this was bound to come up. One of the ladies in the group posts a lot of codswallop in the vein of New Age human origin ideas.
I’d seen a couple of these in the past few weeks, but exercised my own advice–
“If you don’t like it, don’t fucking look.”
Well, I looked, and finally couldn’t restrain myself from leaving a moderate but still rather scathing comment in response. The article dealt with geological formations, which are admittedly somewhat mysterious to non-scientific readers. These spheres are incised with fine, straight lines. Now, the article was peppered with legitimate scientific information, such as where the spheres were located, what they were made of, several legitimate possible sources of formation, and even probable dating for the possible manuports. I certainly have no problem accepting that a later human group found and used these formations, marking them in a way that was significant to them. Further investigation turned up some interesting contradictions to any so-called scientific claims made. That, however, is where the pretense of science ended. It asserted that the bracket date for the spheres–2.8 Billion Years Ago–suggested the presence of a tool-bearing, sophisticated human culture at that time. Read the full concatenation for yourselves.
I have news for you. The oldest known hominin–the branch of primates to which humans belong–fossil jaw bones were just found and dated reliably, with a strong degree of confidence. They push the threshold of our knowledge back to 2.75 million years ago. Now, before you run off and shout, “I knew it!” These fossil jaw bones belonged to an animal without a large brain, much less a developed frontal lobe or pre-frontal cortex. They may have had upright, bipedal stature, and even explored tool making, but they were little different from the Pan relatives–Chimpanzees–from which we’d just diverged around 6 mya.
Don’t Feed the Animals
The article went on in this elaborate and frankly wrong vein for some time. At one point, it admonished scientists that they should be “more open-minded” about this matter. I’m sorry, we’re very open-minded. We’re just not gullible, and we like to be able to lay hands on the what and the when and the where of our ideas–not just spin them whole cloth and salt them with a few sciency-sounding words. The fact that some practicing archaeologists have done just that has earned them terrible condemnation from their peers, and an ignominy that will never be forgotten as long as there are printed words.
Perhaps by now you’re wondering why I even care. I do, because, at some point, this kind of laziness and credulity becomes dangerous. Think of it in terms of Measles and antibiotics-resistant Tuberculosis, Polio, or Pertussis. Dangerous not only to the individual, but to everyone around them not vaccinated with the ability to engage in critical analysis of information with which they are bombarded. Nor am I asserting that science of any sort should be immune to the thorough inquiry of its findings.
That, I feel, is the basis of sound practice for any field of science–to be open to critique, new angles from which to approach data, and a periodic reassessment of those findings as new technology and finer foci are developed. What is not okay is this willful ignorance, this pseudo-scientific fabrication that is fed, in digestible, highly appealing format, to the masses who may lack the field-specific tools to judge it soundly.
Reality Is a Source of Wonder
Stop with your Ancient Aliens crap, people. Advanced mathematics and rational experimentation were well-known to ancient civilizations. Moreover, their findings were documented. Things like the burning of Alexandria by the Romans and cultural upheaval caused by upstart religions like Christianity all but guaranteed the loss of these documents. You can thank the practitioners of Islam and the bellicose Moorish peoples for preserving many classical texts from Greek and Greco-Egyptian (Ptolemaic) sources. Of course, this doesn’t begin to address the loss of such literature when explorers from Europe burned the birch bark codices of the dominant, advanced cultures they interacted with once they’d “discovered” the Americas.
Stop trying to say that people who study what is are not “open minded.’ Without us, you’d still be quoting the Bishop of Ussher’s Biblical Marginalia–that the world is only 6,000 years old. Oh, wait, some of you still are, and you actually have the same issue that I started out complaining about. Those of you who say it’s a Biblical assertion lack the understanding that it was simply a bit of arithmetical doodling done by a bored Irish clergyman in the 19th century. Nothing more. Not even a divine revelation, at that. Jesus did not ride a dinosaur.
The ancient cultures whose remains are found in excellent context with easily dated sediments are thumbing their noses at you. Right now. That’s the point. Two hundred years ago, most scientists were hampered by this type of thinking, either directly or indirectly. Consider that Plate Tectonics is an idea that is less than 100 years old. Before that, we had little concept of the composition of our own planet or how earthquakes occurred. Science is based on a very particular type of open mind, without which we might still be going to barbers to be bled, might never have made good use of the infinitely refined minds of the “infidels” in the lands to the east during the Medieval period. Here’s a brief taste of what that means.
Everything we call science today, everything you take for granted and yet seek to tear down, has its basis on the fact that Europe sought to free itself from the mindset of the Dark Ages. The Enlightenment would never have happened if ideas had not percolated west into the disorganized, non-centralized cultures of what remained of the Western Roman Empire. That’s right. The Islamic world of the time is the source of many concepts we now see as the basis of scientific thought. Universities, hospitals, castles.
Do you really think any of the Crusades were about religion? That period of time is redolent with the trappings of the religion of Resources, whose god is power and social influence over human capital. Things change. Science must bend to the will of What Is, because verified discoveries that things are not at all as we thought they were do happen. The world of man is a fluid thing, built of myriad ways in which we experience and engage with our physical environment. That does not mean you can make up whatever ideas fit your secret yearnings. That is not an open mind. It is delusion. Perhaps if you had paid better attention in Science class, you would know the difference.
Update: I made some substantive corrections and additions to the first draft of this post. First off, my brain read 2.8 billion as million when human cultures were referenced. My bad…some people are crazier than I thought. The “spheres” are not spherical in shape, really, as the article I was ranting about mentions. I’ve linked to both that bit and also a nicely researched and cited article that goes so far as to conduct tests and report data on several of the concretion specimens.
The lady who originally posted the silly hoodiddle article about the “spheres” replied to my fit of archaeological pique. She was a little snarky, but that’s understandable. What I find distressing is that she was interested in the geological formations, not in the claims her post was actually making. I replied and offered her the better article I sourced in less than 5 seconds using Google. (Yes, I read it first.) But her response is part of what bothers me–she posted it because she thought it was offering legitimate data.
She lacks even the most basic tools to tell when someone is pulling a fast one on her as long as they sound sciency enough. It’s not even new bullshit. It’s been making the rounds in one form or another for longer than I’ve been alive, apparently. That’s something I didn’t know, because I would have taken one look at the opening paragraph and been like, “Yeah, that’s crap. Not wasting my time.”
WTF, People? Was it not a major flag that the second paragraph of the story you were reading cited a known Hindu Creationist, Cremo, and talked about the origin of humans being way earlier than history admits, by two billion years or so?? This is why I should list beating my head against a brick wall in my hobbies. “Oh, so you thought this wackadoodle, un-cited, completely fallacious horseshit was legitimate science, did you? Excuse me while I go brain myself against that wall so we can continue this conversation.”