Sunday, September 30, 2007


Digging Science

Misery loves company. But it is getting too damned crowded in here!

Archeologists have long suffered from ideologues looking to make religious points in the area of so-called "Biblical archeology." Now they are learning the joys of amateur enthusiasts, who make up for their lack of proper training with the output of vanity presses, television, and the Internet. Eric H. Cline, chair of the department of classical and Semitic languages and literature at the George Washington University and author of From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible, has an interesting article on the situation in the Boston Globe entitled "Raiders of the faux ark."

We are living in a time of exciting discoveries in biblical archeology. We are also living in a time of widespread biblical fraud, dubious science, and crackpot theorizing. ...

[A]mateurs are taking in the public's money to support ventures that offer little chance of furthering the cause of knowledge. With their grand claims, and all the ensuing attention, they divert the public's attention from the scientific study of the Holy Land -- and bring confusion, and even discredit, to biblical archeology.
There's no great surprise here. No one who has followed the creationist assault on science could possible be surprised by or unaware of similar deprecations on archeology. But the important part of Cline's story is the need for the scientific community to wake up to the danger:

Unfortunately, when fantastic claims are made, they largely go unchallenged by academics. There have been some obvious exceptions, such as the recent film "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which inspired an outcry from scholars by claiming that archeologists had found, but not recognized, the tomb of Jesus more than 20 years ago. But much more common is a vast and echoing silence reminiscent of the early days of the debate over "intelligent design," when biologists were reluctant to respond to the neocreationist challenge. Archeologists, too, are often reluctant to be seen as challenging deeply held religious beliefs. And so the professionals are allowing a PR disaster to slowly unfold: yielding a field of tremendous importance to pseudoscientists, amateur enthusiasts, and irresponsible documentary filmmakers.
As Cline relates the history of archeolgy in this area, investigation in the Middle East's "Holy Land" was first conducted in the 19th century by theologians rather than professional archeologists, a field that didn't really exist at the time. By the mid-20th century, on the other hand, professionalism was firmly in charge and today, strict standards concerning excavations in all Middle Eastern countries are in force, with requirements for peer review, detailed research plans, sufficient funding, and strategies for conservation of the site once excavation is complete.

Despite that, there has arisen a shadow culture of self-described "scholars" like Bob Cornuke, who has claimed to have found boat-shaped rocks at an altitude of 13,000 feet on Mount Suleiman in Iran's Elburz mountain range; Michael Sanders, who claims to have used NASA satellite photos to help locate Sodom and Gomorrah, the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel; and filmmaker/journalist Simcha Jacobovici, who calls himself "The Naked Archeologist" in a television series on the History Channel, but who is perhaps most famous for his involvement in the sensationalistic "Lost Tomb of Jesus." As Cline says:

In short, the amateur arena is full of deeply flawed junk science. Important issues are cloaked in legitimate-sounding terminology, little attention is paid to the investigative process, and contrary evidence is ignored.

Biblical archeologists are suddenly finding themselves in a position similar to the evolutionary biologists fighting intelligent design -- an entire parallel version of their field is being driven by religious belief, not research principles. The biologists' situation makes the risk clear -- they did not deign to mount a public refutation of the "science" of intelligent design for years, until it was almost too late, and thus anti-evolutionary science began making its way into the public schools.
Of course, any archeology in the Holy Land is going to be pregnant with religious connotations:

Religious archeologists and secular archeologists frequently work side by side in the Holy Land. Among the top ranks of researchers, there are evangelical Christians, orthodox Jews, and people of many denominations. It is not religious views that are the issue here; it is whether good science is being done. Biblical archeology is a field in which people of good will, and all religions, can join under the banner of the scientific process.
But Cline puts it all in proper perspective:

The data and opinions that we provide may not end any debates, but they will introduce genuine archeological and historical data and considerations into the mix. We owe it to the ancient world, and to the people who inhabited it, to do no less.

John: did you change something in your blog settings about two weeks ago? I just realized my RSS feed (Google Reader) has not received any new posts from Haystack in about that long. And when I try resubscribing, Firefox complains about something being wrong with the redirect.

(Now you get to pick whether to be insulted that it took me two weeks to notice there were no new posts from you, or flattered that I did eventually notice and complained)
Yeah. I hooked up to FeedBurner. I haven't a clue about these things and wasn't sure I was on a RSS feed to begin with (Google seemed to say not.) I'll see if I can figure it out.

And I hardly feel insulted that out of what, 10 million blogs?, it took you a few days to get around to mine.
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