The year started and ended with pseudo-archaeology, and it has been one of the main themes. I began with a reaction to CBC’s uncritical coverage of the Solutrean Hypothesis on the Nature of Things’ Ice Bridge episode, and ended with an assessment of critical thinking in Curse of Oak Island fan communities. The conclusion of those pieces, taken together, is both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging because fan communities are clearly engaging critically with the material presented to them. Discouraging because television networks, including the venerable CBC and the now completely misnamed History Channel, present sensational material uncritically to the public. What I have found so far is that both the media and academic community underestimate the capacity of the general public to critically assess information.
Incidentally, the Oak Island post, which is my most recent, is also the most widely read in the history of archeothoughts, edging out last December’s Fall of the Public Physical Anthropologist. The Ice Bridge post is the second most read of this year, and now third most read overall.
In between those bookends, I kept up my interest in evaluating claims of surprisingly early archaeological sites in the Americas and elsewhere. Those surprising claims, including the Cerutti Mastodon claim which launched this blog, are after all where archaeology and pseudo-archaeology meet and overlap. So in a sense, examining a claim of 16 000 year old human presence in Texas is not fundamentally different from evaluating a claim of Classical Roman presence in Nova Scotia. The claim that hominins were butchering Mastodon in California 130 000 years ago is a mid-point between those two, and shows that they exist on a continuum.
I continued to blog about the transition to open access in academic publishing. This year, it became clear to me that one of the major challenges of the transition is to avoid letting big commercial publishers define open access as author processing charges (APCs), and for profit APC journals as open access. We can, and many of us do, make our publicly funded scholarship available to the public at minimal cost, with very low barriers to both reader and author.
Academic institutions must support this move financially, and academic communities must support it by changing the way we evaluate contributions. We must systemically evaluate them not for where they appear, but rather for their content, and we must reward authors for making substantial contributions, not for publishing papers in particular journals or venues. We must learn that widely distributed post-publication review is ultimately more helpful than its current narrow, gatekeeping cousin, and that the same technology that allows us open and rapid dissemination also facilitates broader review.
Details and lessons
This is the year that I finally admitted to myself what I have felt now for a while: that I can no longer feign much interest in the details of archaeology. The details must inform a broader understanding that will, hopefully, help us conduct ourselves better in the present. There is plenty of bad behaviour in the world right now, and I suspect there is about to be a lot more. What can we, as archaeologists, do and say that can help make the world a less terrible place, even if only very slightly and very locally?
We are clearly on the cusp of a new eugenics, genetically rather than morphologically driven, just as hopeful, optimistic and morally upright as its predecessor, just as seductive to those already at the top of the social order, and ultimately no doubt, just as tragic in its consequences. I believe very strongly that we must speak out about this.
Looking back at my posts, I realize that I spent the year mostly reflecting on the lessons of complexity theory for archaeology. Those are by no means the most widely read posts, but they are the ones that stand out to me as most important. I am starting to work through the idea that intentions are critical for driving systems, but that there is little to no correlations between those intentions and the behaviour of the system. The intentions of willful agents are the fuel that drives systems through their various states, but the direction of the system is set by its own internal dynamics, not by the intentional behaviour of the agents of which it is composed.
So in a sense, both the traditional “great person” explanations of history and their systematically based critique are correct. This has implications for what we can learn from the past, and how that knowledge can be helpful in the present. It also has implications for how we should design and use archaeological simulations.
I also realize that blogging has sort of made up for the loss of lecturing. It allows me to see my ideas evolve. Oh, and in as much as my current administrative duties allow, I also did a bit of archaeology and a bit of simulation.