Thursday, February 28, 2008

Aardvarchaeology : Archaeology and Scientism

Martin Rundkvist makes an excellent argument about archaeology and Scientism in his Aardvardaeology blog. In this argument he argues against interpretive types of products that focus entirely on modern contexts to tell stories about the past. While he makes a good point about interpretive stories and the need to focus on "evidence" in the "real world" he makes a serious mistake. In particular, he implies that somehow we can see the "real evidence" to "study culture." In this part of the argument he misses the point that culture is something we use as a concept to describe and explain what we see. This is vital to the understanding of the process of science. We create meaningful units (for us, "culture" for chemists: "elements") to describe the world so that we can account for it. Cornelius Osgood made this point in 1951 - along with many other folks (e.g., Lewontin 1971).

The importance of this issue is what keeps us from doing the interpretive dance. If we have meaningful units that we explicitly construct, we then can see how our understanding fits the expectations of the world. This avoids the notion that there is a single "answer" out there - but yet allows us to see science as a constructive process.

[From Aardvarchaeology : Archaeology and Scientism]

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Not to Complicate Matters, but ... -

My friend Andy sent me a link to an article in the Chronicle Review today and pointed out that one of puzzling aspects of much of academia is its fear of reductionism and simplification and its love of "complexification." He makes a good point... while stating that things are "complex" may make good fodder for righteous social and political action, the goal of academia (particularly science) is to make explain the impossibly complex by breaking it down into explicitly constructed and explicitly related blocks of understanding. This is "reductionism" in the sense of scientific explanation. Russell Jacoby makes this point in the Chronicle Review article with regards to the common statement made by many academics in their talks or papers:

The author explains that he or she will "complicate" our understanding of some event or phenomenon. "In this article," writes an ethnic-studies professor, "I seek to complicate scholars' understanding of the 'modular' state by examining four forms of indigenous political space." Everyone seems pleased by this approach. Why? The world is complicated, but how did "complication" turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn't scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or — egad! — simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?

[From Not to Complicate Matters, but ... -]

The "complexification" of the social sciences is a fairly awful plague that seems to have swept through the various disciplines. I don't know how many talks I've heard at meetings where earnest and dour scholars pronounce that "up until now previous scholars have treated the problem as X Y and Z when in fact it is so much more 'complicated.'" Here we learn that people "are not always rationale" or "the economic relationships are two-way and self referential" or that "people construct the landscape as much as the landscape constructs them." Or whatever.

The declaration of complexity in any phenomena serves value - it serves an activist role that makes everyone question their inherent biases. Many cultural studies programs at Universities serve these kinds of needs (and in many cases have *served* that need that once existed). Anthropologists serve this role well - it seems that anthropologists can be found in nearly every conceivable Department in the social sciences simply because the offer that "things are complex" role.

But complexification is not explanation. Explanation requires building units of meaning and then specifiying their relations so that one can take the complex and make it comprehensible. Stating that things are complex is just an admission of the need for simplication through theoretically based explanation not an end product in and of itself. Jacoby makes this point well:

Complexity for its own sake is no virtue. More turrets are not necessarily better than fewer. Perhaps it is time to return to Ockham's principle of parsimony, his so-called razor: "Plurality is not to be posited without necessity." Instead we have gone in the opposite direction. The cult of complication has led — to alter a phrase of Hegel's — to a fog in which all cows are gray.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Harrison Bergeron ... Now more than ever

To understand much of the environment one has to face when working in the CSU, one must reflect on the master work of Kurt Vonnegut and his classic short story "Harrison Bergeron." I suspect that this posting might be viewed as criminal behavior at my institution but it certainly represents one perspective of the decisions being made by the administration here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Student Papers

Kristin Safi and Veronica Harper each published a paper in the SAS Bulletin this month that describes their Masters Degree research here at CSULB. You can find these papers here:

Harper, Veronica, Hector Neff and C. Lipo

2008 Elemental Characterization of Basalt Sources and Artifacts on Easter Island. SAS Bulletin 3(1): 10-14.

Safi, Kristin and C. Lipo

2008 Geophysical Surveys at the Anakena Dune of Easter Island. SAS Bulletin 31(1):14-18.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Fluid Dynamics and Beveled Pointed Bifaces

I've been working on doing some airflow modeling for beveled point biface using SolidWorks. Using measurements made from cross sections of archaeological specimens, I have been exploring the parameters of the beveling that give rise to spin, if indeed this happens. Actually, it looks like this is the case. Below is an image of flow trajectories around a model. The colors represent pressure (Pa). Note the high pressure right on the leading edge of the bevel and low pressure below. On the opposite the same (but opposite) is also seen.


Doing calculations of force normal to the beveled surfaces with velocity at 40 meters/second, I get values of -0.00500964 of force in the Y direction (i.e., direction of spin) for one beveled edge, and +0.0049776 for the other side. Thus spin!!

More analyses and experiments to come...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Human Culture Subject To Natural Selection, Study Shows

The quotes in here suggest that no one has ever demonstrated that cultural variants are shaped by natural selection. Odd, considering that many of the folks I know have been doing just that since the late 1970s. I guess our marketing and press releases weren't up to snuff - or we didn't get the right validators to gush over our work. Nonetheless, it sounds interesting - though it won't be out in PNAS until Feb 19th.

[From Human Culture Subject To Natural Selection, Study Shows]

Nicholas Nicastro -- Why I am Not a Cultural Anthropologist

A nice discussion on why one wouldn't want to be a cultural anthropologist these days. This is not to say there couldn't be value in cultural anthropology (and there are many who do excellent work, though they tend to cluster around a few universities) but there is limited value in most of what the discipline has become. Nicholas Nicastro does a nice job of summarizing some of the problems and arguments that many find in department laden with cultural anthropologists.

[From Nicholas Nicastro -- Why I am Not a Cultural Anthropologist]

Friday, February 8, 2008


With MA student Katie Eskew and with the help of Cliff Jenkins at the USDA in Jackson, I have been working to assemble DEM, DLG, orthophotos, satellite imagery, etc. for the Lower Mississippi Valley. This work is derived directly from the chapter I did on LMV settlement patterns with RC Dunnell (in the Time's River book). Yesterday, I got the LiDAR data for Tunica County, courtesy of Cliff. These are monster files - the county takes up 250 gigs - we have to mail hard drives around to share access to the data.

At any rate, the data are spectacular. With LiDAR one can pick up small elevation changes and identify them as potential earthworks. Here are some quick and relatively random examples. In the center of each image are features that appear to be mounds....