Blinded by Science

South-facing Caves 1–4 of Mughr el-Hamamah. Cave 5 (right) is located approximately 30 m to the east. Only Cave 2—the main cave—has substantial in situ prehistoric deposits, and test excavations focused on the front chamber of this cave (courtesy Mughr el-Hamamah Project).

Sometimes multitasking gets the best of us. I’ve been working intensively on a research article, preparing figures and tables especially, for journal submission. This is part of my collaborative project with Liv Nilsson Stutz and a wonderful team of twelve more collaborators; the project focuses on the Mughr el-Hamamah site in Jordan, and this will be our first substantial publication on the site’s Early Upper Paleolithic archaeology. The view of the caves in the Ajlun Governate, Jordan, comes from our brief American Journal of Archaeology report on the 2010 National Science Foundation-funded test excavations. While I look forward to sharing our results on this blog soon, I now have a chance to breathe and reflect over what’s been keeping me from blogging this past two weeks. The thought that really sticks with me is the ambiguous nature of science. Although thinking about this thought also makes me pause about the ambiguous nature of my own thought process, the reason is this:

Well, just as I thought we were finally ready to send in our completed, fully formatted manuscript to the peer-review journal all fourteen co-authors agreed on, I received e-mail notification just this past Monday that was one of those good-news/bad-news moments. The e-mail was sent to all users of a leading technical program (i.e. OxCal–courtesy of Christopher Ramsey) that functions to calculate and analyze more precise ages using results from radiocarbon dating. The e-mail announced that a–no, THE–new international consensus radiocarbon calibration dataset was now available. Since our team’s current work emphasizes presentation and analysis of radiocarbon dating results, it hardly made sense to go ahead and submit for publication all of this quantative data based on a calibration reference database that has just become out of date. I duly downloaded the new calibration reference data this past Monday. I spent much of this past week recalculating, rechecking, and reformatting the dates for our site. Since radiocarbon dating is actually hardly romantic, I won’t dwell on this topic–one in which I maintain an otherwise difficult-to-comprehend interest. But you can check out the new open-access calibration issue of the journal Radiocarbon here: The data for the new curve is available here: Anyhoo … Although I was quite concentrated–as only a scientist/professional nerd can be–on radiocarbon calibration throughout this past week, a particular line of thought occasionally managed to intrude into my nerd bubble, creating an overly serious philosophizing bubble inside. To gratuitously extend the blogger-in-the-bubble metaphor, as the urgency of the radiocarbon analysis subsided, the philosophizing bubble just seemed to expand. And a serious point crystallized. There are enormous stakes in using scientific knowledge. After all, hugely consequential public policy and legal decisions hinge on arguments and judgments based on knowledge claimed as scientific. And this is (usually implicitly) considered acceptable because science is supposed to reveal truth. But this really isn’t at all what working scientists experience. Scientific knowledge always has a certain amount of ambiguity.

In general, knowledge about the world is–and should be–conditional and contingent. And scientific inquiry distills the fundamentally conditional aspect of knowledge, reminding professional scientists–our moments of most arrogant certainty notwithstanding–that our models and theories about how the universe works … has worked … will work in the future … well, that these models and theories are going to fail to explain, predict, illuminate in some way. Perhaps in some really critical way. And we’ll have to revise our understanding, come up with new models, new relevant questions, and new, logically derived methods. Now, this past week, we found out that the new, more comprehensive, validated reference database shifts our particular radiocarbon date estimates for the Early Upper Paleolithic site at Mughr el-Hamamah by about 0.5% from our initial estimate. This is not a huge deal. In fact, it is rather reassuring that one part of our scientific framework for understanding what humans were doing and when they were doing it tens of thousands of years ago seems to be at the tweaking stage. But there are sure to be more revisions to the radiocarbon calibration data, hopefully minor, in the future. Such revisions may still be consequential enough to alter interpretations about, say, whether a particular archaeologically documented change in human behavior or technology occurred as a consequence of a brief period of climatic change. Where such revisions come from–new samples and new technologies for measurement and analysis–draws our attention to another dimension of knowledge as contingent. How we understand the world depends simultaneously on (1) the technologies we use to probe, prod, and store and analyze and represent information about the world … and (2) the practices we engage in that are structured by and structure our use of those technologies. That we can even argue about what people–who may or may not have been our ancestors–were doing at various points during the last Ice Age depends on a complex tapestry of extraordinary machinery (including accelerator mass spectrometers and number-crunching computer software), symbols that help us to think and communicate efficiently (I’m certainly not taking the time to explain details about the Early Upper Paleolithic now, but my specialist colleagues will immediately fill in a lot of background in their minds, just from that phrase alone), and symbolic systems that help us represent and think through the large numerical values and vast amounts of quantitative information that our technologies allow us to explore. Basically, scientists practice and work really hard so that they can simply see or feel–get a clear or intuitive sense of–whether the technological instruments and materials … and the interrelated symbolic systems of representation yield observations that confirm their existing models and predictions, or whether they require tweaking … or perhaps major revision. Scientists see and feel the world through a joint technological and symbolic special body suit that they constantly have to train at and think about and maintain–and modify, if deemed necessary–if they want to use it well.

And this brings me to the really important philosophical thought. Of course, we all live life through a joint technological and symbolic equivalent of a brain-linked body suit that we constantly have to train at and think about and maintain–and modify, if deemed necessary–if we want to use it well over our long, intensely social lives. It’s just that scientific knowledge production and engagement in the world is symbolically marked in many contemporary cultural contexts. It’s marked relative to everyday engagement in and knowledge about the world, as we develop and act on our identities and interests. The problem is that when scientists finally put together a set of conclusions that supports or reinforces a particular model or theory, the resulting story seems to gain its distinctive scientific authority from extraordinary, impenetrably difficult-to-relate, almost magical process of joint technologically and symbolically dependent inquiry and representation. This is an example of the marked category experienced as qualitatively different from the unmarked everyday one. Yet, the work scientists do is very much like the work we all do in our everyday lives to understand the world … only more (and sometimes alot more) so. We don’t even have to go into the lingering tendency in Western culture to see the product of the mind (that is, what reason allows us to discern from our technologically aided observations and analyses) as independent of and superior to–rather than interdependent with–bodily interaction with technological aids through which we poke and prod, see and hear, sometimes ingest, sometimes act on and change the world around us. Scientists need to be more aware of the similarities that scientific inquiry shares with everyday inquiry … and non-scientists need to be aware of how they use technology AND symbolic systems in culturally structured ways–providing everyday knowledge, with that knowledge contingent on the very technologies and symbolic systems driving and supporting the inquiry–resembling scientific inquiry. And we all need to go with the flow a bit more, understanding that knowledge about the world is not fixed. It is conditional and contingent, for scientists and non-scientists alike.