Monday, February 11, 2013

The Science Is Settled (Until It Isn't)

From the February 2013 issue of Smithsonian:
The idea that the Clovis people, as they came to be known, were the first Americans quickly won over the research community. “The evidence was unequivocal,” said Ted Goebel, a colleague of Waters at the Center for the Study of the First Americans. Clovis sites, it turned out, were spread all over the continent, and “there was a clear association of the fauna with hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts,” Goebel said. “Again and again it was the full picture"...

The Clovis theory, over time, acquired the force of dogma. “We all learned it as undergraduates,” Waters recalled. Any artifacts that scholars said came before Clovis, or competing theories that cast doubt on the Clovis-first idea, were ridiculed by the archaeological establishment, discredited as bad science or ignored.

Take South America. In the late 1970s, the U.S. archaeologist Tom D. Dillehay and his Chilean colleagues began excavating what appeared to be an ancient settlement on a creek bank at Monte Verde, in southern Chile. Radiocarbon readings on organic material collected from the ruins of a large tent-like structure showed that the site was 14,800 years old, predating Clovis finds by more than 1,000 years. The 50-foot-long main structure, made of wood with a hide roof, was divided into what appeared to be individual spaces, each with a separate hearth. Outside was a second, wishbone-shaped structure that apparently contained medicinal plants. Mastodons were butchered nearby. The excavators found cordage, stone choppers and augers and wooden planks preserved in the bog, along with plant remains, edible seeds and traces of wild potatoes. Significantly, though, the researchers found no Clovis points. That posed a challenge: either Clovis hunters went to South America without their trademark weapons (highly unlikely) or people settled in South America even before the Clovis people arrived.

There must have been “people somewhere in the Americas 15,000 or 16,000 years ago, or perhaps as long as 18,000 years ago,” said Dillehay, now at Vanderbilt University.

Of the researchers working sites that seemed to precede Clovis people, Dillehay was singled out for special criticism. He was all but ostracized by Clovis advocates for years. When he was invited to meetings, speakers stood up to denounce Monte Verde. “It’s not fun when people write to your dean and try to get you fired,” he recalled. “And then your grad students try to get jobs and they can’t get jobs.”
The applicability of this cautionary tale to the Church of Global Warming is self-apparent.


allen (in Michigan) said...

Yeah, you're right.

The phrase "settled science" is, just as much as the phrase "settled law", and indication that the intention is to shut down debate rather then illuminate the subject.

In fact, the phrase "settled science" is oxymoronic. Among real scientists, as opposed to ideologues and the two aren't mutually exclusive since human adaptability allows some folks to be ideologues in the morning and scientists at lunch, nothing is ever settled.

Einstein's work, as iconic as any in science, is constantly being tested and evaluated and the shortcomings of special and general relativity don't result in hysterical denunciations. They just are. What's lacking is a theoretical framework that encompasses Einstein's insights and explains what his ideas don't.

What's sweetly delightful about the scientific method is that it's inherently damaging to the ideologues who seek to suppress new ideas.

If the data's there the ideologues are forced to ever more drastic, and difficult to hide, efforts to suppress the data that overturns their views. Evidence Climategate.

Once it's clear that the ideologues are trying to suppress knowledge rather then acquire it the political battle's lost because they're revealed for what they are, ideologues trying masquerade as scientists.

Ellen K said...

Anthropologists have been known to get in knock down drag out fights over ancient history. Just the mystery of the Anasazi proves we don't know what we don't know. Most people assume that these "native Americans" came across the Bering Land Bridge during the last great ice age. But there's just as much evidence that they are descendents of ancient South Americans as well. I read a book about mitochondrial DNA that can be analyzed from bone tissue which is going on in Europe. "Seven Daughters of Eve" is fascinating. Also, while digging for a highway northwest of Dallas one of the most ancient permanent seasonal campsites in north America was found. Just the history of the Mississippian people is cloaked in layers of history that we may never know because it's being destroyed.