Sunday, November 19, 2017

Why I dislike TAG, and why I dislike social media

I saw a tweet a week or two ago about the upcoming TAG ("Theoretical Archaeology Group") conference. I made an offhand negative comment, which set off a series of negative tweets about me. 

"Wow, not a single session I'd want to attend! Am I just out of it, or is "theoretical archaeology" out of it???


I tried to engage with my critics, but it just led to accusations that I am a troll and a bully. Finally I tweeted "I give up." So, I thought I would put down some of the reasons I dislike TAG, and some comments on social media.

Social media first. 

Here are a few things I dislike. Please note that my reference here is social media in relation to professional and scholarly issues.

(1) Ad hominem attacks.  As soon as I made a negative remark about TAG, I was attacked personally. I must be a bad person. I should shut up. This attitude is antithetical to science and scholarship.

It's really unfortunate when senior scholars would rather bully and troll than actually have conversations.

I guess my initial tweet shows that I am a bully and a troll. Huh??

(2) Sensibility is more important than facts. My tone of voice had negative overtones (which shows I am a bad person). Maybe I should be more careful in my phrasing so as not to suggest anything negative about anyone or anything. 

came across snooty, elitist and arrogant. Like othet people's ideas arent good enough for you

This is TWITTER, with short cryptic statements. I don't agonize over proper phrasing. I tend to be a direct person, and I try to express myself clearly. Again, the dominance of sensibility over content is antithetical to science and scholarship.

(3) There are "Like" buttons, but no "Dislike" buttons. This is built into social media today. You can like something, but there is no way to express dislike other than some kind of comment or textual response. Criticism and questioning are of less importance than joining a band-wagon. Again, this attitude is antithetical to science and scholarship.


TAG

To start with, if you care about how I think about theory, science, scholarship, and archaeology, please read my publications. I am a scholar, and what I say in Tweets (and in this blog) is ephemeral. I do discuss real issues here, but what matters is the published record. So, please look at the three papers cited below for my views on theory. These should make it clear why I dislike TAG. But here is a quick version.

First, for me, theory is a tool, something archaeologists use to learn about the past. The domain of "archaeological theory" is pretty small (ideas about formation of the archaeological record, recovery methods, etc.), but the domain of productive theory for archaeologists is huge. It encompasses many disciplines, from political science to ecology, from urban planning to geomorphology, from cultural anthropology to complex systems theory. For many or most people into TAG, archaeology theory is something important on its own, not just a tool to use to explain our findings. Instead of using theory to explain data (the norm in the social sciences), many archaeologists want to use data to "theorize" an issue. My goal is not to create more theory, but to use LESS THEORY (Besbris, Max and Shamus Khan,  2017,  Less Theory. More Description. Sociological Theory 35(2):147-153), or Healy, Kieran,  2017,  F**k Nuance. Sociological Theory 35(2):118-127.

Second, most theory considered at TAG is interpretivist, humanities-based high-level social theory. What is wrong with that? Read my publications. If you want to speculate about the human condition, such theory is great stuff, but if you want to provide rigorous explanations of human behavior and society, it is all but worthless. Please check the citations in my articles about this. My claims may seem outrageous to TAG types, but I am just repeating standard social-science epistemology. 

Here are some comments from my Twitter detractors.

(1) I should engage with TAG, go to a meeting. Here is my reply:

Because most TAG sessions are epistemologically incompatible with my own perspective. Not worth my time to sit through such sessions. If others care about my views, they should read my publications, e.g., ((I provide links to my 2015 and 2017 papers in the tweet)).



(2) I should open myself up to different perspectives and points of view

what's wrong with exposing yourself to new ideas? If you only ever listen to people lile yourself its kinda dull

I have spent a career listening to the postprocessualists, actor-network theory, materiality, and such, and I have rarely found much of use or of interest in this material. Yet given the trandisciplinary turn of my own research trajectory since moving to ASU in 2005, I would guess that I have exposed myself to more new ideas in that period than most archaeologists. Read my publications.

(3) I am arguing for a single narrow view of archaeology that excludes many, "including a lot of marginalized voices." My response to this has two components: (A) for the kind of empirical social-science research that I favor, I believe strongly that the kind of epistemology and theory I promote is the most productive approach. (B) for other kinds of approaches to archaeology, with other goals, other approaches are fine.

I appreciate a lot of your work, but you draw these boundaries and say that it's the only real or valuable archaeology and it leaves a lot of the discipline out, including a lot of marginalized voices. I think you can dislike something without being dismissive of it.

So, here we are back to sensibilities. If you care at all about these issues, please read my publications, and forget about Twitter (or this blog). You can look at my series of three posts about my view of a scientific archaeology:


The 2017 publication covers these issues in a more compact form (although the blog posts do have much more complete bibliogrphies, given the limitations on the Antiquity paper). and the earlier papers have more on the structure of arguments (2015) and the nature of non-asbtract theory (2011).











Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Science, publishing, and James E. Heath

I started this blog ten years ago with a quote from my father-in-law, James E. Heath: "If it's not published, it's not science." That seemed a good entry into issues of publishing in archaeology, a way to promote my own scientific perspective on archaeology. Dad Heath died this week, so I want to look at aspects of his career and life that have been influential in my own development as a scholar and scientist.
James E. Heath

My wife Cindy can be very traditional about things. When I asked her to marry me, her answer was a tentative yes. I had to ask her father for his blessing. I was nervous of course, Not only was he an imposing figure and her father, but he was also Head of the Physiology Department at the University of Illinois and I was a mere graduate student. I honestly don't recall the details of our little chat, but I guess it worked out well, since Cindy and I are still married after more than 30 years. But I do remember that shortly after our talk, he said to me, "It would have been simpler if I had just asked to see your CV."

One of the lessons I learned from Jim Heath was the importance of rigor and quality of research and publication. He edited a journal for many years (Journal of Thermobiology, I think it was), he got million-dollar grants, and he was a serious and productive scientist (temperature regulation was his field, if you haven't guessed). One of the reasons I get so fed up with much archaeology today is that his values of rigor and quality are too often lacking among my colleagues. Why do journals publish such crap? How do people get grants to do such poorly conceived research? How can an article win a prize when it has NO DATA? I get exercised about these things in part because of Jim Heath's influence on my attitude toward research and science.

He was my academic mentor. I would ask him about issues and quandaries, and I valued his advice. I was once asked to evaluate a colleague (at another university) for promotion to Full Professor. I did not have much respect for this person's work; in fact I had used one of his/her articles in a seminar as a negative example--how NOT to write an article. I was a newly-promoted Professor, so I asked some of my senior colleagues at SUNY-Albany what to do. They all said to duck the task - say I was too busy and avoid writing a critical letter. I asked Dad about this, and he said that I should accept the invitation. They wanted my professional opinion, and I should give them what they asked for.  It was my professional responsibility. But what was I going to say? This person has few grants, few publications, and their work is of low quality? Tact is not a quality I am known for (some of you are probably laughing here, thinking, "That's an understatement!"). I worried about writing a strongly negative letter. He gave me some help with ways of phrasing my remarks that didn't sound so harsh, but made the point clearly. I have recalled his advice usefully at various points in my career.

It was also fun to have a father-in-law who had carried out a famous experiment, known as the "beer-can experiment." Evidently claims had been made that reptiles actually do regulate their temperature (contrary to accepted knowledge) based on some experimental results of measuring their temperature throughout the day in the sun. Dad's paper (Heath 1964) describes an experiment in which he measured the temperature of a beer can in the sun, that found the same results as the reptile studies. So if those results mean that reptiles can thermoregulate, then so can beer cans! What a great experiment. And who says that beer does not contribute to science.

Jim Heath studied temperature regulation in all kinds of animals, from insects to polar bears. I remember stories about taking the rectal temperature of hibernating bears. Evidently there were some bears in the Midwest who hibernated in known locations in barns, and the farmers let crazy physiologists come study them. I think hibernation is a big deal for research on temperature regulation. So how do you take the rectal temperature of a hibernating bear? The obvious answer is that you have a graduate student do the task! I recall a story about a graduate student being lowered into the depths of a barn  on a rope, armed with a thermometer for the bear.

Moving from bears to insects, my in-laws spent a lot of time studying cicadas in the U.S. Southwest. My mother-in-law, Maxine Heath, is an entomologist whose specialty is the systematics of North American cicacas (Sanborm and Heath 2012). So the two of them would do a cicada run each year, studying and collecting in a series of locations across the southwest. One question they have worked on is the temperature at which cicadas became active. I've been out with them once or twice, and Cindy has helped out numerous times. And they managed to take all the grandchildren out on a research trip. Here is how the fieldwork goes. They drive around the desert, listening for singing cicadas. When they find some, they note the conditions (species of tree, ambient temperature, sun or shade, etc.) and then collect one or two specimens. These are put in the ice chest, with the beer and sandwiches, to cool them off. The cicadas get cold and inactive (I think torpor is the technical term). At the end of the day, back in a motel room, you take the cold and sluggish bugs out of the cooler and start throwing them up in the air above the bed. At first they just fall back onto the bed. But when they have warmed up enough, they start to fly instead of just falling down. You grab them and take their temperature, which tells you at what temperature they become active. Whenever anyone suggests that archaeological fieldwork is strange, I think of this biological fieldwork. I just hope they keep the curtains closed while the bug-throwing is going on.

While I appreciate these and other stories from my father-in-laws's research career, what I most value is the professional advice he gave me, and the lessons I learned just from talking with him and hearing him talk about science, about publishing, and professional life. I would like to think that some of the ranting and raving I have done in this blog--in the name of quality and rigor in archaeology--derive from what I learned at family gatherings. I still think Jim Heath's statement to me years ago -- "If it't not published, it's not science" -- is valid and relevant to what we do as archaeologists. RIP.

Heath, James E.
1964 Reptile Thermoregulation: Evaluation of Field Studies. Science 145: 748-785.

Sanborn, Alan F., and Maxine S. Heath
2012 The Cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadoidea: Cicadae) of North America North of 
                    Mexico.   Entomological Society of America, Lanham, MD.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Qualitative-quantitative bus joke

A quantitative evaluator, a qualitative evaluator, and a normal person are waiting for a bus. The normal person suddenly shouts, “Watch out, the bus is out of control and heading right for us! We will surely be killed!” Without looking up from his newspaper, the quantitative evaluator calmly responds, “That is an awfully strong causal claim you are making. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that buses can kill people, but the research does not bear this out. People ride buses all the time and they are rarely killed by them. The correlation between riding buses and being killed by them is very nearly zero. I defy you to produce any credible evidence that buses pose a significant danger. It would really be an extraordinary thing if we were killed by a bus. I wouldn’t worry.”
Dismayed, the normal person starts gesticulating and shouting, “But there is a bus! A particular bus! That bus! And it is heading directly toward some particular people! Us! And I am quite certain that it will hit us, and if it hits us it will undoubtedly kill us!”
At this point the qualitative evaluator, who was observing this exchange from a safe distance, interjects, “What exactly do you mean by bus? After all, we all construct our own understanding of that very fluid concept. For some, the bus is a mere machine, for others it is what connects them to their work, their school, the ones they love. I mean, have you ever sat down and really considered the bus-ness of it all? It is quite immense, I assure you. I hope I am not being too forward, but may I be a critical friend for just a moment? I don’t think you’ve really thought this whole bus thing out. It would be a pity to go about pushing the sort of simple linear logic that connects something as conceptually complex as a bus to an outcome as one dimensional as death.”
Very dismayed, the normal person runs away screaming, the bus collides with the quantitative and qualitative evaluators, and it kills both instantly.
Very, very dismayed, the normal person begins pleading with a bystander, “I told them the bus would kill them. The bus did kill them. I feel awful.”

To which the bystander replies, “Tut tut, my good man. I am a statistician and I can tell you for a fact that with a sample size of 2 and no proper control group, how could we possibly conclude that it was the bus that did them in?”

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Social media attack to blog post to journal article

figure from my paper
My paper, "Social Science and Archaeological Enquiry", was just released, online, by the journal Antiquity (last week, I think). It is volume 91 (356), pp. 520 - 528. You can find a copy here.   This is without a doubt the strangest journey to publication of any of my papers, so maybe it is worth telling. I have the Grateful Dead on in the background, which helps. The story begins with my attendance at a talk on the "new materiality" by Rosemary Joyce at the University of Colorado Department of Anthropology in late January or early February, 2016. I did not like the lecture, and I made some snide remarks about it in this blog, here.

The new materiality: Vacuous or just incomprehensible?

Looking back, I was perhaps a bit harsh in my tone, bordering on rudeness. Some students from UCB posted some critical remarks about my post on their departmental Facebook page.

You can see some of the posts from the Boulder group here.

I fired back and posted some more remarks on my blog. I was taken to task by the department chairman, in a rather rude ad hominen post, for shooting my mouth off without restraint, rather like a small child. You can find all this pretty easily if you are interested (note: it is not very interesting...). Nearly all of the criticisms from Boulder suggested that my speech was not valued. I was insulting; I was trying to spoil their special lecture; I should not say such nasty things about their distinguished visitor. Many people came along and liked their critical posts. I became a pariah to UCB Anthropology-Facebook. But not a word about the intellectual content of the lecture or my reaction to it.

I was dismayed, insulted, and demoralized by my first social-media hazing event. The comments to some of my blog posts discuss some of these issues. But to me, the key issues were--and are--scientific and intellectual. I found the whole approach of Rosemary Joyce's talk to be anti-scientific and thus detrimental to the advance of the kind of archaeology I advocate in this blog. I was particularly incensed at her argument that fields like archaeology had to choose between the humanities and the natural sciences. She claimed that, given the inadequacies of natural science, we should choose to follow the humanities. This is so wrong-headed, it drove me nuts.

My reactions led to me create a series of posts that clarified my views of science, social science, and the place of archaeology. Writing these helped me clarify my own views of the topic, and try to put them into a framework that would be clear to other archaeologists (ever wonder why i blog? This is a primary reason - it helps me clarify my thoughts).

Science, Social science, and archaeology: Where do we stand?

Pascal Boyer's view of science, social science, and the humanities

Why is it important to strive for a more scientific archaeology?

Why is a scientific archaeology so hard to achieve?

((you can get to the later posts from the first one))

After this whole event had died down, it occurred to me that I should present these ideas in a larger venue, in a streamlined and more efficient context. Why had no one called the postprocessualists to task for their outdated and inaccurate views of positivism and science? Why haven't scientifically-minded archaeologists shot back at the epistemological hogwash? So I sent off a short piece to Antiquity, and they accepted it. I was a bit nervous, wondering if it was entirely proper to put ideas from a blog post into a journal article. But this was not at all a literal re-doing of the blog. The basic message was the same, though. I came across the paper on archaeological theory by Julian Thomas, and found that none of the work I do - theoretical or empirical - would fit under his definition of "archaeological theory." So I contrasted it with the list of different approaches to archaeological theory given by Jarvie and  Zamora-Bomilla. I also continued some of the themes from my paper on archaeological arguments.

So the path of this article was:

- attended a talk I did not like
- wrote a snarky blog post about it
- was attacked on social media
- sharpened my thinking in a series of blog posts
- condensed and sharpened the ideas further for a journal paper

So, I figured that it was time for another blog post (this one). Perhaps I should give a bad lecture on the whole affair and complete the circle. Or maybe I should shut up and concentrate my efforts on publications, not blogs.

To quote my favorite rock band, "What a long strange trip its been....."

References:

Jarvie, Ian and Jesús Zamora-Bomilla (editors)
2011 Sage Handbook of the Philosophy of the Social Sciences. Sage, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2015 How Can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments? The SAA Archaeological Record 15 (4): 18-23.

2017 Social Science and Archaeological Inquiry. Antiquity 91: 520-528.

Thomas, Julian
2015 The Future of Archaeological Theory. Antiquity 89: 1287-1296.






Thursday, January 26, 2017

The speculation scale (the inverse of empirical adequacy)

ASU student Lisa Gallagher in our lab
I am posting this from the ASU lab at Teotihuacan in Mexico. I will be attending a conference on Teo sponsored by UNAM and Penn State over the next few days. On the trip down I read one of the worst articles I've read in a long time. I was surprised that the paper was accepted by a journal. It was published in a new journal, Economic Anthropology, whose standards have perhaps not risen to a level the editors would like. Did anyone review this paper?

This bad article got me thinking about the ratio between the scope or breadth of the claims made in a study, and the amount of data used. Works with a low ratio are often called "descriptive" studies. Works with a high ratio, on the other hand, contain little data, but make sweeping claims that go far beyond the data at hand. These are speculative studies, work that is poorly grounded. The paper I just read had a very high ratio, which is why I disliked it so much. Satisfying research in archaeology (and the social and historical sciences generally) usually falls in the mid-range of this scale.

I decided to create a graphic to illustrate this speculation scale. First I created nine data-to-interpretation schemes. These are combinations of three categories: low medium, and high amounts of data (blue circles), and low, medium and high levels of interpretation (red squares). I label these schemes from one  to nine, and arrange them on the speculation scale (see graphic).

Scheme 1 occupies the low, or descriptive, end of the scale. Those enamored of theory often dismiss such studies as "merely descriptive." But those of us who like to analyze data often find these studies useful as a source of data (that is, IF the data are adequately described and derive from rigorous methods, etc.). Schemes 2 and 3 are also descriptive in nature: the amount of data exceeds the amount of interpretation.

At the top of the scale, scheme 9 pertains to what I consider to be useless works. Who needs a bunch of speculation with little or no data? Unless the work is an editorial or opinion essay, or a work of pure theory, papers illustrating scheme 9 that purport to be empirical advances in fact contribute little to scholarship. How do these things get past reviewers and editors? But they do. Schemes 7 and 8 are also speculative in nature, although less flagrant than scheme 9. Quite a few studies in archaeology fit here. Most work in postprocessual and "social" archaeology probably correspond to schemes 7 and 8.

The schemes that fall in the middle of the speculation scale--schemes 4, 5, and 6--are those that seem most satisfying to most archaeologists. They are empirical studies based on real data that employ concepts and theories for explanation or interpretation. The amount of data is balanced by the amount of interpretation; the level of interpretation matches the amount of data.

*** ADDITION, Jan 30:  This graphic is probably a simpler way of showing the relationship:

*********

Obviously, this is a simplistic device for looking at the quality of publications. It says little about the quality of the data, or about the fit between interpretation and data. If you apply inappropriate models, your results will be suspect, even if the data and models are both of good quality on their own. But schemes like this can help us think about the adequacy of our models, interpretations, and explanations. If you have only a limited amount of data, then you should probably bypass big elaborate explanations and try to find something on a smaller scale. I know the postprocessualists and postmodernists will think I am being regressive here, but if archaeology is to be a science and generate reliable knowledge about the past, then we need to be able to match up our data with our interpretations/explanations. For more along these lines, see my series on archaeology as a science, starting with this post, or see my forthcoming paper:

Smith, Michael E.
2017?   Social Science and Archaeological Inquiry. Antiquity  (in press).

The field of economic anthropology has generally been relatively empirical in orientation, with good epistemology. I would think that a journal with that title would know better than to publish a paper whose score on the speculation scale (scheme 9) is so high. Ugh.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Is Academia.edu really such a bad thing?

Academia.edu has been getting a lot of negative press in the scholarly community. I see some of this on Twitter, and I've been sent some articles and links. I just read Sarah Bond's article in Forbes, "Dear Scholars, Delete your Account at Academia.edu.:" She has three objections to Academia. I don't find any of them compelling, although one of them is troubling. First, "It is not a 'real' .edu" The domain is an old one and a commercial operation seems to be disguising itself as an educational institution. Wow, I was really fooled by that. Stupid and unsophisticated users might get confused. Give me a break, this is trivial.

Second, Academia is trying to get money for enhanced features. I guess I'm not sure how that is a bad thing. Perhaps if the basic fact that they are commercializing scholarship (my point 3) is abhorrent to you, then the enhanced features might be especially abhorrent. Again, this seems trivial to me.

Third, Academia is commercializing scholarship. They are trying to make money on the backs of scholars who do the work pretty much for free. This I see as troubling, but not a killer problem. Compare this to Elsevier and other commercial publishers. They commercialize scholarship, making money off my hard work, while inhibiting access to it. They harm my career by making money restricting access to my works. I find that practice morally abhorrent. By contrast, Academia.edu is commercializing scholarship while promoting and improving my career and professional goals. They are making my papers more widely available. I am not at all outraged by this fact, but I am somewhat disturbed by it.

What are the alternatives? I also have a page on Selected Works. I started that on a trial basis (as I did with Academia), but Academia.edu quickly turned out to be an easier process for uploading and gave my papers more readers. Selected Works does have a few features lacking at Academia (e.g., you can file a paper under more than one category). I initially posted papers on my own funky html website (now seriously out of date). Elsevier threatened my university and we got an order from an administrator to remove published papers without explicit permission to post (which I ignored). Now, the university is going to eliminate funky faculty sites and promote a more standardized (properly branded) faculty website, which I may or may not use to post my papers. My university does have an online archive, but it is not set up properly as a paper repository, and this would bury my papers even deeper than they are in my own site. I have considered posting papers there, and using links (not papers) on Academia edu. I am sure not going to start using an NEH website for important professional works, given uncertainties of the Trump presidency.

The professional society in my discipline, the Society for American Archaeology, is hopeless for help with archiving papers. I have considered using the new sociology version of ArXiv, and perhaps replacing papers on Academia.edu with links. It is called SocArXiv. It is mainly inertia that keeps me from making any changes right now.

For me, the  advancement of scholarship and promotion of wide access to my work are among my strongest professional values. Sometimes this requires me to do unpleasant things--talk to uninformed reporters, collaborate with individuals I'd rather avoid, deal with clueless journal editors, write grant proposals, go to faculty meetings. Putting up with Academia.edu trying to make money on my scholarship is just another of those unpleasant things I have to do. Yes, I would be more comfortable with a good archive, widely used and convenient, that was not a commercial enterprise. But until I find that (and have the time for a massive conversion), I will continue to put up with Academia.edu.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Have we gotten out of the crisis in Latin American book reviews?

I have always been a big fan of book reviews. When I get a new journal, I may scan the article titles first, but I almost always read the book reviews before the articles. Book reviews are an important part of quality control in scholarly disciplines where books are prominent (as in archaeology). In the past I have blogged about the book review crisis in Latin American archaeology: See my posts in:

2008,  2009,  2011

For a decade, very few books were being reviewed in the main journal, Latin American Antiquity. The major Mesoamerican journal, Ancient Mesoamerica, doesn't published book reviews at all! But now, book reviews are trending up in quantity. I thought there were more reviews in LAA over the past year, so I counted them up. Here are the data, starting in 1997.


These figures paint a bleak picture of the decline of quality control in Latin American archaeology starting around 2004. But after six years of almost no reviews (average of one--count, 'em--1 per issue!), things are trending up in 2016.

Book reviews are important for many reasons. First, they get out the news about new publications. Second, a good book review is a gem of a short essay on the topic of the book. Because I try to keep up with urban research at some level in many different disciplines, I use book reviews to help guide my reading. And third, book reviews give an indication of the quality of the book. Bad books are called out, and good books are praised. I recently had to give a quick judgment on the quality and influence of a book in a field far from my own (NOT Latin American archaeology!). I was able to find four book reviews easily, and they gave me the information I needed.

Let's hope this trend at Latin American Antiquity continues! Perhaps Ancient Mesoamerican might be persuaded to begin reviewing books. When I have suggested this at the board meetings, the response has been, "Fine, if you want to organize it, go ahead," hardly an enthusiastic promise of support.

If you are asked to review a book, please do it. If you would like to see more book reviews, contact the relevant journal editors and let them know. Our field has need of all the quality control we can get, and book reviews should be a major part of our collective strategy of disciplinary improvement.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Carl Sagan's Toolkit for Skeptical Thinking (or call it Smith's epistemology)

I just read a nice blog post by A.P. Van Arsdale, "Size, Science, and Scientific Truth on bias in scientific thinking. I differ from Van Arsdale somewhat in my view that science is not about "Truth," but about reducing error. As Professor Indiana Jones once said,  "Archeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it's truth you're interested in, Dr. Tyree's Philosophy class is right down the hall.'   Archaeology, like all science, is about facts and patterns and explanations, not about truth. But I do understand that many people use the word "truth" informally to refer to facts, patterns, and explanations.

In his post Van Arsdale lists nine principles from Carl Sagan that comprise a "Toolkit for sceptical thinking." These are from Sagan's book, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." These are great precepts, and they neatly describe my own epistemology.

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”  
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight – “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.  
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.”
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  6. Quantify.  If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there is a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work–not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis proposed can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle – an electron, say – in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? 
If you have read any of my ranting and raving in this blog about science, scholarship, and the deleterious effects that postmodernism, postprocessualism, and social archaeology have had on the advancement of archaeology, these points are no surprise. For more formal statements of some of my epistemology, see Smith (2015; n.d.). Or see many of my prior posts, especially my series on science in archaeology, starting with "Science, Social Science, and Archaeology: Where do we Stand?"

Smith, Michael E.
2015 How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments? The SAA Archaeological Record 15 (4):                 18-23.

n.d. Social Science and Archaeological Inquiry. Antiquity  (in press).

And if you want to see Carl Sagan in some wild and wonderful videos, check out the mash-ups by Melody Sheep. I especially like this one.  Whoop  Whoop......


Friday, December 16, 2016

Why I Find Foucault Useless



People periodically try to convince me that I should pay attention to the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, because it will enrich archaeological interpretations of the past. Maybe. But here is why I remain dubious, after reading various books and articles by and about Foucault.

Highly abstract theories and concepts—such as Foucault’s governmentality, power and discipline (things archaeologists have mentioned)—describe the operation of the world on a very general level. This kind of approach, termed “grand theory” by C. Wright Mills, is “so general that its practitioners cannot logically get down to observation. They never, as grand theorists, get down from the higher generalities to problems in their historical and structural contexts” (Mills 1959:33). This is pretty basic stuff in social science epistemology: grand theory is so abstract that it cannot explain individual cases or variation among cases (Abbott 2004:218; Ellen 2010; Mjøset 2001; Smith 2011). My post. "What is wrong with abstract social theory" has links to other posts and resources.  Foucaultian power and governmentality simply exist—presumably for all societies—so how can they explain change and variation?

In Abend’s (2008) classification of types of theory in sociology, Foucault’s concepts are examples of theory type 3 (a statement about the meaning of social phenomena, an interpretation, a reading, or a way of making sense) or type 5 (a weltanschauung, an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world). What this means is that Foucault’s concepts are of limited utility in explaining specific social phenomena, and their empirical adequacy cannot be tested. In the words of Kevin Fisher (2009:440), for archaeoloigsts, abstract theory like this “does not offer the tools needed to analyze the material remains on the ground.” I discuss this notion further in Smith (2015, n.d.). See my previous post on Abend's scheme of theory.

Pierre Bourdieu recognized this problem with Foucault’s work. As reported by Callewaert (2006:92), Bourdieu complained that “the philosophical method was used [by Foucault] for answering questions that are basically empirical sociological questions.” Foucault’s methods were faulty from the perspectives of both historiography and social science methodology (Garland 1987). In fact, his method of social analysis has been called “politically engaged journalism” (Vallois 2015). If one is interested in abstract, philosophical notions about the human condition, then the work of Foucault may be full of insights. But if one is interested in a social-scientific explanation of the dynamics of past cities and human societies, one has to look elsewhere for concepts and models.


In the social sciences, theory that is more grounded and testable is termed “middle-range theory” (Hedström and Udéhn 2009; Merton 1968:39-72; Sampson 2010). In Abend’s (2008) scheme, this corresponds to theory type 1 (a general proposition about the relationship between two variables) and type 2 (an explanation of a particular social phenomenon). In this approach explanation consists of identifying the causal mechanisms responsible for observed changes: “to explain a fact is to exhibit the mechanism that makes the system tick” (Bunge 2004:182). This is part of a basic scientific approach to archaeological knowledge. See my post, "Why is it important to strive for a more scientific archaeology?"

So, if you don’t care about explanation and causality, or about being able to tell when your interpretation is wrong, then the work of Michel Foucault may be fine for you. But for me, I cannot find anything interesting or useful in his work. 

(And, of course, I am really bugged by Foucault using the term "archaeology" to refer to the past history of any old thing. It is insulting that Google searches for archaeology plus something else turn up Foucault instead of turning up archaeology!)


Abbott, Andrew
2004 Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. Norton, New York.

Abend, Gabriel
2008 The Meaning of "Theory". Sociological Theory 26: 173-199.

Bunge, Mario
2004 How Does It Work?: The Search for Explanatory Mechanisms. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34 (2): 182-210.

Callewaert, Staf
2006 Bourdieu, Critic of Foucault: The Case of Empirical Social Science Against Double-Game-Philosophy. Theory, Culture and Society 23 (6): 73-98.

Ellen, Roy
2010 Theories in Anthropology and "Anthropological Theory". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 16: 387-404.

Fisher, Kevin D.
2009 Placing Social Interaction: An Integrative Approach to Analyzing Past Built Environments. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28: 439-457.

Garland, David
1987 Foucault's Discipline and Punish: An Explosition and Critique. Law and Social Inquiry 11 (4): 847-880.

Hedström, Peter and Lars Udéhn
2009 Analytical Sociology and Theories of the Middle Range. In The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology, edited by Peter Hedström and Peter Bearman, pp. 25-49. Oxford University Press, New York.

Merton, Robert K.
1968 Social Theory and Social Structure. 3rd ed. Free Press, New York.

Mills, C. Wright
1959 The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, New York.

Mjøset, Lars
2001 Theory: Conceptions in the Social Sciences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 15641-15647. Elsevier, New York.

Sampson, Robert J.
2010 Eliding the Theory/Research and Basic/Applied Divides: Implications of Merton's 'Middle Range'. In Robert K. Merton: Sociology of Science and Sociology as Science, edited by Craig Calhoun, pp. 63-78. Columbia University Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2011 Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18: 167-192.

2015 How can Archaeologists Make Better Arguments? The SAA Archaeological Record 15 (4): 18-23.

n.d.   Archaeology and Social Science Inquiry. Antiquity  (accepted for publication).

Vallois, Nicolas
2015 Michel Foucault and the History of Economic Thought. Œconomia: History, Methodology, Philosophy 5 (4): 461-490.