Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Stuff that I like, people whom I don't. And vice versa.

I have never made my antipathy towards statistics private. I wear it on my sleeve. I think statistics are vile in the best case, and downright dangerous at any point beyond that. They can be used to prove any point that one idiot wants to make, and they generally are. Somehow every show is the highest one rated, every disease is least likely to kill you and the percentage of people who lose between 3 and 400 pounds is either 1 or 97. It isn't enough that statistics requires us to look at numbers but it does so in a way which encourages misunderstandings and enables a huge number of lies. By my quick count, not only are more than half of all statistics made up, but over 95% of all uses of statistics are intentionally misleading either by masking sample size or selection or by mispresenting variables or context. Statistics are horrible because they present as some vision of truth what is, in some form, invariably a lie.

But, and I mean this sincerely, I have no quarrel with statisticians. They are probably well meaning people who like to count stuff. They generally aren't the ones using their statistics for evil. They are about presenting possibilities and they let people decide meaning. That might be a touch irresponsible, sort of like laying down a loaded gun and saying "whatever you want..." but they aren't shooting anyone.

I feel quite the opposite about another field -- a field in which the study itself and even the findings are completely acceptable but those in the area of study are the ones I can't stand. If you are in this discipline, I apologize in advance; you might be a fine person but in your official capacity I don't like you. The subject in question is archaeology and the practitioners, those archaeologists, are the problem.

Unlike statistics, archaeology is a field inherently honest. People crouch in the hot sun with brooms and shovels and stuff and look in the ground for neat things like bottle caps and civilizations. Eventually, after a whole lot of diet soda and boredom, someone unearths a fragment of a bone, or an arrowhead shaped like a cookie, or an old cookie shaped like an arrowhead and jumps for joy. The precise location is charted, graphed, mapped, catalogued and tweeted along with the depth, orientation and taste of the artifact. The item itself is photographed, sketched and interviewed (or so I've heard) so that everyone all over the world will rest assured that we have yet another piece of old lamp or a stella. A what? a STELLA. This process produces no lies. It produces things that can be looked at and admired, especially if one wishes to pay the suggested donation. The context in which each was found is clear and findable on a map. There is no uncertainty about the existence of the thing qua thing.

Archaeologists are another matter. They make their living getting tourists and volunteers to do their digging for them while they sit back and scribble in their notebooks about the air temperature and the stupidity of the volunteers. Then, they look at the little piece of nothing that some schlub found after 6 hours and a mild touch of heat stroke and they make up stories about all that the existence of that old gum wrapper proves. Proves, they say, as if finding a broken pot in the middle of the desert can prove anything other than "someone, at some point, dropped this pot and it made its way into the desert." For all anyone knows, it was dropped in a bustling metropolis and a passing sheep got it stuck on his head. He worked it off while he was in the desert and voila! Instant proof.

A few years ago, while on a rare vacation, my family collected some sea shells. Small ones. Pretty ones. We brought them home and then realized that we don't particularly care for sea shells, so we put them in a little basket which we put on the front steps. Along came a rain storm and the basket tipped over and the skells landed in the patch of dirt and pachysandras in the front of the house which we call the garden. I decided to leave them there. And in 10, 100 or 1000 years, when some future archaeologist digs up those shells, he will dream up some scenario about the ocean's level having been up to my front door. It will be a lie. The fact that the shells are found there will be the truth but the archaeologist will invent an explanation. He is the liar.

Archaeology cannot prove or disprove anything. it can provide tantalizing clues that need to be connected and established in relationship with other clues but all that is done by drawing conclusions and making guesses. And even then, the scope of the concept proven has to be local to the precise nature of the find. If I find a skeleton with an arrowhead inside it and matching scoring on the rib cage, I can conclude that this arrowhead passed through this one person's ribs. I cannot conclude a cause of death or a motive. I cannot do anything more than speculate. And I certainly can't come to any conclusion about this person's family, society, culture or values. All of that is bunk. And yet archaeologists do that, everyday. An archaeologist's primary job is to invent lies. Now, I'm not talking about an English teacher's interpretation of symbolism in a text. That's also invention, substantiated by textual evidence. But the end result is the creation of a larger set of possible understandings. Archaeology's end result is the presentation of a single truth, a knowledge of the machinations of the past and the particular path of history.

You are probably wondering why I am writing this -- that's a fair question. I am in the midst of an online argument with an archaeology student who insists that literary authorship can be established or refuted through archaeology. Now, he isn't talking about finding an inscription which reads "Joe did NOT write that book" which still would prove nothing if I lack knowledge of the provenance and authority of the one who inscribed it. He is talking about archaeology "proving" that the text is not true and that the author didn't exist. The text in question is the bible and the author is Moses.

Now I'm not here, or even there, to get into a discussion about whether archaeology has proven or disproven the accuracy of the bible -- that has been done thousands of times. The fact that there are myriad books, articles and websites which take contradictory sides, all using the same "finds" should show the inadequacy of archaeology to prove anything definitively. But this guy injected his belief in the primacy of archaeological 'proof' into a discussion of the literary analysis of a text. This is just further proof that archaeologists are jerks, making up stuff when they are in their own field, and elevating themselves over other fields which are unrelated to their process or findings.

So, in summary: statistics, bad. Statisticians, good. Archaeology, good. Archaeologists, bad.

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