Archaeological Blogging: Beyond Stones-and-Bones and Pseudo-Knowledge
Last week the House Science, Space and Technology Committee convened to debate the existence of alien life. This is perhaps a compelling scientific question (formally the hearing was titled “Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond?”). Nevertheless, the committee’s current membership has normally been reluctant to acknowledge any rigorous scientific insight that might upset their narrow personal visions of the world.
The subject of this month’s Blogging Carnival is the good and the bad of archaeological blogging, and they may both revolve around how blogs represent archaeology as a rigorous and creative science. On the one hand, a popular digital discourse can produce a richer, more compelling, and still-rigorous archaeological scholarship that can shape and interrogate concrete policy-making. On the other hand, the blogosphere admits some observers who are dismissive of scholarly rigor and eager to champion a shallow populist notion of science.
The good—and potentially the bad—dimensions of archaeological blogging in particular and popular scholarship in general seems to revolve around two things. The first is blogging’s potential to cultivate an appreciation for scholarship that pushes beyond shallow pseudo-knowledge. This includes archaeological blogs’ power to assess and share the insights produced by rigorous scholarship while they model the reflective and systematic ways we can evaluate the persuasiveness of scholarship. The second is to creatively expand archaeological scholarship beyond the traditions of stones-and-bones and distant pasts. Rather than advocate simply for an ever-more objective archaeological science, blogs instead hold the potential to expand audiences, reach further into the material world, and demonstrate the relevance of archaeological method and insight beyond conventional archaeological subjects.
The House committee’s picture of science underscores the need to produce reflective, rigorous, public archaeological discourses without turning the blogosphere into a free-for-all that thinly conceals ideological self-interests. Committee Chair Lamar Smith, for example, has dismissed “the idea of human-made global warming.” His repudiation of climate change has nothing to do with a firm and fair review of the data: instead, Smith accuses scientists of conspiring to “to hide contradictory temperature data,” and he issued a subpoena to the Environmental Protection Agency that theatrically accused it of creating air quality guidelines based on “secret science.” Committee Vice Chairman Dana Rohrabacker agrees with Smith that “global warming is a total fraud” (attributable in the past to prosaic realities like “dinosaur flatulence”), and former Chair Ralph Hall rejected human-influenced climate change as well because “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” Committee member Paul Broun champions “young earth” creationism and argues that evolution, “embryology,” and the Big Bang Theory are ”lies straight from the pit of Hell” (he also told a John Birch Society meeting in 2010 that the science on global warming is a plot to “destroy America”). Former member Todd Akin suggested in 2012 that evolution was not “even a matter of science because I don’t know that you can prove one or the other.”
The House Committee members’ personal self-interests and ideological sentiments are a case in point reflecting resistance to reflective thought and critical scientific rigor. We might ask how something as prosaic as archaeological blogs can produce a more reflective discussion of archaeological scholarship in particular and science in general. Some of the oft-celebrated democraticization of scholarly blogs may be over-stated, but bloggers have been consequential advocates for an archaeology that is not the insulated province of small circles of boring academics. Digital archaeologies have expanded archaeological interpretation, shared rich material data, and interrogated heritage narratives, often without forsaking the intellectual rigor of peer-reviewed scholarship.
Yet this expanding archaeological discourse has been rivalled by a host of blogs celebrating unsubstantiated speculations, affirming ideological convictions, and often adroitly mimicking the language of science. These voices occupy the same digital public space as rigorous, systematic archaeological interpretations and risk reducing all to interchangeable storytelling. Anybody can create a blog or web page championing unsubstantiated claims—aliens’ role in the construction of the pyramids, “archaeologies” of ghost landscapes, and archaeologies of Atlantis all share space with scholarly archaeological blogs and web pages. For some scholars and universities this has created an over-reaction against digital scholarship: some universities are intently trying to control digital scholarly content, and some academics seem to be on a crusade against Wikipedia and all that falls outside conventional peer review.
Archaeological blogging has perhaps most creatively taken aim on stale notions of archaeology fixated on old things from lost civilizations. Archaeological blog scholarship is increasingly rich, reaching into contemporary and post-medieval life, embracing a focus on diverse experiences, and rejecting facile notions of what constitutes material culture. Some professional societies and journals are disinterested in this expansion of archaeological traditions, but many more smart people outside and inside the academy are fascinated by scholarship on the likes of modern refuse, indigenous landscapes, gendered experiences, and the ruins of 20th century warfare.
Many archaeological blogs are utterly idiosyncratic and creative reflections of one scholar’s curiosity, and that confirmation of an archaeologist’s personality may be the best thing about thoughtful archaeological blogs. Blog proponents routinely counsel writers to make their blog “publicly accessible,” but the most compelling blogs are rigorous and challenging ideas that do not pare down complex ideas.
Pseudo-knowledge has secured a substantial foothold in digital space, and blogs may be one mechanism to un-do anti-reflective worldviews like those orchestrated by Lamar Smith. Yet like any discourse in digital space or on the printed page, a blog can be a force for creativity and intellectual challenge as easily as it can be a simplistic misrepresentation of scholarship or willingly distort science for ideological ends. Blogs have a foothold in a public space that includes many people beyond the narrow confines of professional archaeologists alone, so we have the chance to interrogate shallow misrepresentations of scholarship and science and advocate for an intellectually rigorous and creative archaeology.
Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson
2013 Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges. Studies in Higher Education 38(8):1105-1119. (open access)
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee page includes the formal statements of Mary Voytek, Sara Seager, and Steven J. Dick from the Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond?” hearing.