Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cultural Relativism and Skepticism

Will at Skepchick has a nice piece on Franz Boas. I liked what he had to say about cultural relativism, especially given that it is a skeptical blog. 
I know "relativism" is often a dirty word among many skeptics, but I find that this is generally based on a conflation of any kind of "relativism" with "moral relativism." Cultural relativism as introduced by Boas is simply a method of anthropological inquiry that says that the best way to understand why a culture is the way it is (or why people within a society do things in a certain way) is to gain an emic (or insider's) understanding. Cultural relativism as a method is the rejection of ethnocentrism when trying to learn about other societies. Cultural relativism should not be conflated with moral relativism, which is the idea that there are no objective or absolute moral or ethical standards such that morals should never be judged as objectively good or bad. Cultural relativism is a method that seeks to suspend value judgments in order to understand a particular phenomenon. Anthropologists also draw on an eitc (outsider's) understanding, not during the process of data collection but during data analysis and writing the ethnography.

Moral relativism has very little to do with Boasian cultural relativism. Boas himself held very strong views about the morality of racism and human rights. For Boas (and for American anthropologists today), an attempt to approach other cultural systems with dispassionate objectivity (i.e., cultural relativism) did not entail moral disengagement from the world (i.e., moral relativism). In this way, Boasian cultural relativism is an attempt to apply scientific objectivity to the study of human culture.
The skeptics and atheist communities do have a "thing" about cultural relativism. I'd add add two more reasons to Will's observation. 

1) These are movements established around being right about the wrongness of certain beliefs--pseudo-science, alternative medicine, god.  Confronting these beliefs is important.  That's not a point I need to stress.  But it isn't something I consider "fun", at least after a certain point. There is pleasure in demolishing someone with a well rehearsed set of arguments, but I have to admit it is a bit of a douchey pleasure. But there are other engagements with difference, where it is not clear who is right and wrong.  These engagements are rewarding, but in another way.

Anthropology is about this second type of engagement, about understanding people who have different beliefs, rather than proving them wrong.  On a practical level, as a basis for action, understanding why people have obviously wrong beliefs is more useful than simply proving those beliefs wrong over and over.  Right there, that makes anthropology an object of suspicion for many skeptics. For these skeptics, difference entails someone being right and someone being wrong.  I wonder if this attitude might be part of the current skeptical/atheist meltdown over the treatment of people who are different (i.e., not white cisgendered males). 

2) Another problem is the charismatic figures of the skeptic/atheist movement, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, are not exactly examplars of cultural understanding.  Part of their appeal is the decisiveness and clarity that comes with moral certainty. 

Finally, as Will says, cultural relativism tends to be a huge straw man, being conflated with an undefined  series of "fings wot I don't like"--things like postmodernism, political correctness, and multiculturalism.  This seems to be true even with relatively thoughtful skeptics. 

Most skeptics' understanding of cultural relativism probably comes from these two paragraphs in Dawkin's 1995 book River out of Eden.
There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds, in its extreme form, that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth: science is just the mythology favored by our modern Western tribe. I once was provoked by an anthropologist colleague into putting the point starkly, as follows: Suppose there is a tribe, I said, who believe that the moon is an old calabash tossed into the sky, hanging only just out of reach above the treetops. Do you really claim that our scientific truth-that the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and a quarter the diameter of the Earth-is no more true than the tribe's calabash? "Yes," the anthropologist said. "We are just brought up in a culture that sees the world in a scientific way. They are brought up to see the world in another way. Neither way is more true than the other."
Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I'll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications, such as the dummy planes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don't.* If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there-the reason you don't plummet into a ploughed field-is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their suns right. Western science, acting on good evidence that the moon orbits the Earth a quarter of a million miles away, using Western-designed computers and rockets, has succeeded in placing people on its surface. Tribal science, believing that the moon is just above the treetops, will never touch it outside of dreams.
[Damn, if nothing else Dawkins is a formidable quotable sound-bite producing machine. Let me tell you, having the basic underpinning of anthropology and archaeology (both fieldwork-oriented disciplines) dismissed as "fashionable salon philosophy," and by Richard Dawkins of all people, is a bracing experience.] 

I realise Dawkin's isn't really making a scholarly argument here, merely pandering to his base, but it still an awesomely ignorant argument. He is making the standard mistake of conflating cultural relativism with epistemological relativism and what is no doubt postmodernism. He does try to put a fig leaf over his nonsense by the use of "in its extreme form" and a rather dubious anecdote, but it is nonetheless an outrageous straw man.

At its core cultural relativism is, as Will notes, an attempt to apply scientific objectivity to the study of human culture. There is some element of at least the popular understanding of moral relativism involved, in that a suspension of moral judgment is required (the content of morality being cultural). Think about it.  In what field does one approach one's object with prejudice (i.e pre-judgement) as a valid tool?  Does a biologist judge some animals as "good" and some as "bad" based on ideology?  Would you take your car to a mechanic who reached decisions based on whether he thought the engine was good or evil?  Probably not.

Anthropology is the study of human variation--cultural, linguistic and physical--across and through time.  Humans are the anthropological object of study. Cultural relativism is the appropriate scientific stance for the study of human variation.  If you disagree with this, then what is the appropriate stance? As a basis for action in the world, explanations like "their beliefs suck" and "they are evil and hate our freedoms" have not worked out so well.  If a group has beliefs we find reprehensible, it is still worthwhile, and practically more useful, to find out why they have those beliefs. 

I will be honest, the fact of the object of anthropology is people complicates things no end. It would not surprise me if Dawkin's anecdote is true.  Anthropologists' "objects" are subjects, who study us back, and we are implicated with them through multiple sets of relations, relations that do not play a role in the considerations of, say, physicists or biologists.  Anthropologists have responsibilities and obligations that other fields do not.  There is debate within the field as to what cultural relativism means beyond being an objective perspective. But if you are going to take issue with cultural relativism as something other than a neutral stance for the study of human difference, you then need to be explicit about who you are talking about and what their arguments are.  Cutesy anecdotes about anonymous anthropologists are not useful.
References cited

Dawkins, Richard
1995  A River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.  BasicBooks, New York, NY.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Archaeology and the Holocaust

Sobibór 2008: areas of mass graves in the open field around the
ash mound, as defined by deeper green hues in the vegetation
(courtesy of Paul Bauman, Worley Parsons).
(Gilead et al. 2010: Fig. 16)
 I've been wondering when someone would start doing archaeology on the Nazi death camps.  It seems that time has come.  A team of Israeli archaeologists has been working at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland since 2007.  There has actually been some investigatory work prior to then at Chelmno (1986) and  Belzec and at Sobibor in 19997-1999. Most of the work was prior to the actual camps being converted to memorials, in the process destroying the remains. 

The archaeologists, Yoram Haimi, Isaac Gilead, and Wojciech Mazurek have a more detailed article that is available on line, Excavating Nazi Extermination Centers, which is well worth reading. 

My first thought was the archaeology would be evidence against Holocaust denial, but the authors note that this is unrealistic.  The ephemeral and disturbed remains that archaeology will reveal are unlikely to persuade those who find the substantial remains of Auschwitz and Majdanek unconvincing. Given what we are starting to understand about denialism, I think they are right. 

Archaeology won’t rewrite the Holocaust, and it may not add much to the overall history.  We will certainly learn more about camp layouts and the locations of buildings, such as the gas chambers.  And we will learn something of the things that people took with them on their final journey.  These treasured personal items can tell new stories about the people who went into Sobibor.  To be in presence of items that participated in events like the Holocaust is extremely powerful. The past is no longer an abstraction, but a material reality.   It is not necessarily rational, but it is something we have all experienced, and is a large part of the appeal of archaeology.

The camps are under threat by looting. This shouldn’t surprise me, but it still does. The locals around the camps  have been working over the areas looking for valuables since the end of the war.  They cite an article from the Gazeta Wyborcza titled “Gold Rush in Treblinka.”  The link they gave no longer works, but this article, “The Treblinka Gold Rush”  (Gross 2012) covers the topic as well.  Metal detectorists had been digging at Sobibor a couple of days before the archaeologists got there. I despise looters, all archaeologists do, but this is something else. The Austrlian has another example of the looting of Nazi-era sites, in this case German graves for the Nazi memorabilia market.

Interestingly, another threat to these sites is heritage tourism and memorialization.  An enormous monument now covers the entire camp at Belzec.  Beautification at Chelmno also destroyed a substantial part of of the camp.
Pawlicka-Nowak (2004a: 15) describes the activities in the early 1960s in the mass graves area of Chełmno in the Rzuchów forest:
Bulldozers, deep plowing with forest plows, making the terrain more beautiful by planting bushes and trees, concrete roads, all this obliterated the traces of the centre’s operation still visible during those years.
On another note, the authors are working on a politically charged topic.  Looking at the comments where this article has been posted, and considering my own conversations about the article highlights the intertwining of present and past.  The conversations and comment threads slide  immediately into the policies of the modern state of Israel and questions of the archaeologists’ motivations in studying the Holocaust, as if studying the Holocaust is an argument for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Holocaust is a “useful history.” All histories are, that’s why we remember them. But we  need to balance what we want from a history with what actually happened—to accept that people, including those in the past, act for their own reasons, not ours. The past did not happen as a result of today’s political interests.  When we forget that, we are no better than David Barton.

There are only hints of controversy in the articles.  Orthodox Jews felt the use of a mechanical auger to identify mass graves was desecratory.  Another aspect is the feeling that the camps should not be interfered with or studied at all.  Commemoration of the Holocaust is fraught with conflicting claims and interpretations, and is a worthy topic of study in its own right (e.g., Dwork and van Pelt 1993; Linenthal 1995; Young 1989, 1993).

I remember being struck by Edward Linenthal’s (1995) account of Holocaust survivors being consulted about the Holocaust Museum being agitated by some of the practices of museum curation, such as assigning accession numbers.  If I remember correctly, the human hair was a particularly difficult topic.  I wonder how well the numbering and gridding and careful tracking of archaeology might be perceived.   I hope at some point it will be possible for the archaeologists to discuss the negotiations around their work. 
References cited
Dwork, Deborah, and Robert Jan van Pelt
1993    Reclaiming Auschwitz. In Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory, Geoffrey H. Hartman, editor, pp. 232–251. Oxford, Blackwell.

Gilead, Isaac, Yoram Haimi, and Wojciech Mazurek
2010     Excavating Nazi Extermination Centres. Present Pasts 1(0). Accessed 2012-08-25 13:15:24

Gross, Jan T.
2012     The Gruesome Story of Polish Peasants Hunting for Riches at Former Nazi Death Camps. Tablet Magazine. May 21.  Accessed 2012-08-22 17:52:17

Linenthal, Edward
1995    Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum. New York, NY, Penguin Books.

Moody, Oliver
2012     Grave Robbers Loot Nazi Memorabilia. The Australian. August 20. Accessed 2012-08-21 17:29:24

Young, James E.
1989    The Biography of a Memorial Icon: Nathan Rapoport’s Warsaw Ghetto Monument. Representations 26:69–106.

1993    The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Niall Ferguson, history, and punditry

It looks as if Niall Ferguson has been caught being a bad boy, lying about his evidence, and for a Newsweek cover story no less!  I never paid much attention to him. It's one thing to have an ideological slant, we all do, but it's another to be a courtier.   Ferguson crossed that line long ago, becoming just another political pundit, but with history as his shtick. He's basically Victor Davis Hanson for the New Yorker set.

Eric Zeusse, an "investigative historian" (I wish I'd known about that job when I was making career choices), discusses the rarefied world of star pundits in relation to Fareed Zakaria.  We've known that some pundits have staffs working for them ever since the revelations about George Will and his "quote boys."  It is reasonable to have staff to do research, but the volume of material that star pundits produce suggests the staff duties often extend to ghost-writing.  Fareed Zakaria may not have actually been the one who plagiarized, although he will certainly never admit this.  

I would like to be charitable and assume that, like Fareed Zakaria, Ferguson probably got caught up in the punditry machine.  I imagine the pressure of producing reams of politically submissive opinion and analysis, often on areas outside one's expertise, on deadline will wear anyone down.   However, he is accused of lying about and manipulating the evidence.  This has no potential to be explained away by lack of research, carelessness, or sloppy note-taking under pressure.

If the allegations are justified (and they are about matters of fact), The Daily Beast and Newsweek should sack him...and invest in fact-checking departments. However, it is unrealistic to expect Harvard to do the same. It is possible Ferguson's alleged behaviour as a pundit does not extend to his scholarly work, although this work would have to now be treated with caution.  Whether Harvard wants faculty that have been rejected by The Daily Beast is up to them.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Scienciness and History: Cliodynamics

There seems to be an uptick in historical studies by scientists (henceforth Scientists-Doing-History or SDH). I guess everyone wants to be the next Jared Diamond.  As a recent example, a couple of physicists (Mac Carron and Kenna 2012) have published a study comparing networks in myths (Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Táin Bó Cuailnge) and fiction (Les Misérables, Richard III, The Fellowship of the  Ring, and Harry Potter). It got worked over in detail by Richard Carrier at Freethought Blogs (Bad Science Proves Demigods Exist!) and more generally by Maria Konnikova at Scientific American (Humanities aren’t a science. Stop treating them like one). I feel a little bad for the authors.  It was a small study in a physics journal and could have stayed buried there, but it may have become a lightning rod for irate humanities researchers. 

There have also been some higher profile efforts to bring scienciness to bear on world history. Jared Diamond and Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) is obviously the success story here. Now Steven Pinker (2011) has published a large trade press book on violence and human nature, The Better Angels of our Nature, my encounter with which has left me with a nervous twitch. I’m trying to write up something on that one, but it is hard to know where to begin. Another aspirant is Peter Turchin, another evolutionary biologist who has decided to apply himself to history, even coining a neologism, “cliodynamics.”  I’m a little disappointed he didn’t call it clionomics  (although we do, thank god, have “culturomics,” which, if nothing else, gave us the fun Google N-gram Viewer).

Turchin has been plugging cliodynamics for a while, but he just published a study in the Journal of Peace Research on “The dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780-2010” (Turchin 2012). Nature had a piece on it by Laura Spinney, and it also broke through into the mass media  with a piece at MSNBC, probably because Turchin excitingly predicts a violent upheaval in 2020.  Maria Konnikova at Literally psyched criticised it also in the aforementioned post, and Rebekah Higgitt at the Guardian and Paul Lay at History Today have also weighed in.  Rebekah Higgitt had the best subtitle, one that perfectly sums up the exasperation of many historians at the Scientists-Doing History” genre--”At least one historical prediction holds true: the regular appearance of claims to have the key to 'scientific history'.”

To be clear, when I refer to history and historians here, I am referring to the disciplines that study the human past, whether they do so from an anthropological or historical perspective, so I am scandalously folding archaeology into history.  I couldn’t keep writing “historical disciplines” and I wasn’t going to write “historical disciplinarians.”

I am not quite sure what cliodynamics is.  At its most general it seems to be synomous with quantitative approaches to “big history” and at its most specific it is Turchin’s particular approach.  Making the assumption that cliodynamics is more than a rebranding exercise, I use the term to refer to Turchin’s particular approach— a combo of using quantitiative methods to empirically identify historical cycles, and explaining those cycles in terms of “structural-demographic theory.”

The big contribution of SDH is the idea one can solve history simply by slapping down the correct method on the nearest datasets. I don't think this works. You can’t just shovel numbers into your statistical/ideological hobbyhorse and hope for something worthwhile to come out the other end.  You need to understand the data you are using. Minimally you need to understand how the numbers were created. If any data is “socially constructed” it is historical data. I imagine understanding one’s data is good practice in science as well as history. It is this point that Richard Carrier emphasized in his critique of Mac Carron and Kenna. This attitude apparently led to at least one howler in Turchin’s book Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall (Tainter 2004). He used two peaks in archaeological settlement data from Roman Gaul as population oscillations, not realising that the first corresponded to Romanization and the establishment of colonia, and the second to changes in taxation under Diocletian.

These contrasting explanations (a spike in archaeological site frequencies as a result of secular cycles vs. as a result of conquest and settlement) bring us to the “D” word—determinism. If you are a SDH, you’ve got a fever, and the only prescription is deterministic monocausal explanations. Why? The argument seems to be because superficially similar phenomena must have identical explanations.  Maybe only humanities majors worry about things like affirming the consequent, equifinality, and contingency. Logical problems aside, the key divide seems to be one of determinism vs. contingency. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond defined contingency away by arguing that the “proximate” contingent causes were themselves caused by “ultimate” deterministic causes (since he is a biogeographer, his “ultimate causes are geographical ones). The contingent causes exist, but they aren’t important. 

I am not sure if Turchin ever explictly addressed critiques of his work and thus how he deals with historically-specific alternative explanations for his historical cycles, but I would suspect a similar tactic. For example, in the Peace Studies article he sees immigration in to the US as the fundamental cause of political instability during that period (by driving up labor oversupply). Personally, I think you need to not know an awful lot about US history and the dynamics of migration to make an argument like that. But for Turchin, the concrete arguments (boom and bust economic cycles, the growth of industrial capitalism, etc.) are probably just "proximate" causes.  The ultimate cause?  Population growth through immigration.  As an aside, given the current nativist climate, this is probably an argument that will, unfortunately, garner a great deal of attention—science proves the need for immigration crackdowns. 

Turchin’s current article is better than many of this genre in one regard, possibly because he may taking some of the criticism of his previous work seriously, if not addressing it explicitly. Here he deserves credit for using his cliodynamical hammer on a single case, using a relatively consistent data set, and one that he gathered himself. He does seem to be a more aware that there are methodological issues in gathering and classifying data as well as just analysing it.  This stands in contrast to Steven Pinker’s credulous reliance on dimly understood secondary sources in Better Angels. The problems may still be there with Turchin’s work, but but by focusing on a single case with a good dataset he at least allows one to get a handle on the problems, rather than having to ramble backwards and forwards over multiple areas, periods, and specialties.  When the evidence is cherry-picked from the entirety of world history, it is a little harder to engage in substantive critique. At the very worst, Turchin has reduced the problems to a manageable scale.

By taking this more focused approach Turchin may be able to kick his cliodynamical research program out of first gear, which is where it seems to be stuck. I am not sure though. Cliodynamics still seems to have a tight citation circle, which is not a sign of a particularly healthy research program. And by "tight", I mean really tight. The degree to which Turchin cites himself in this article is positively embarrassing, especially given how well-worked his historical ground is.  It does indicate a disturbing insularity and lack of engagement with the relevant historical literature.

Another danger signal is that Turchin’s approach just seems to be to do the same study over and over repeatedly with different datasets (i.e., cultures).  I suppose the ultimate idea is accumulate a big pile of cases where cliodynamics does work, and let everybody generalize from that. Of course, he might still be in the exploratory phase, seeing if it works, rather than trying to confirm it systematically. But in the mean time it does leave us with the problem of trying to assess a deterministic hypothesis using only judgmentally-selected evidence. At some point the much-touted science needs to kick in, and we need to see some systematic testing.

Which brings us to the big question, the one all archaeologists and historians dread about their research—”why should I care?” Does cliodynamics tell us something interesting? What exactly does Turchin (or any other SDH) bring to the table? In Turchin’s case, it really doesn’t look like much— (1) quantification, which identifies (2) cycles, which are explained by (3) “structural-demographic theory.” 

(1) Quantification
There is nothing new here.  The historical disciplines had their big quantitative/scientific awakening back in the70s and early 80s. The polemics, the scientism, the pie-eyed enthusiasm…it’s all there in Turchin. Reading Turchin on quantifying history is like having a mullet again.  Let's get one thing straight--historians use quantitative methods.  The idea that they don’t is sheer nonsense.  Admittedly they are cautious about it, but that is the result of hard-learned lessons. Researchers soon ran headlong into the complexity of the datasets and their subjects (humans and societies). I covered this earlier. You really need to be sure that the numbers you are using refer to the same historical entity or process and are comparable.

(2) Cycles
The observation that there is are cyclical components to human history is certainly true, but I am not sure the observation is that interesting, in the sense of being particularly novel. For example in her book Time and the Shape of History, Penelope Corfield (2207) devotes a chapter (”Shaping History—Time Cycles”) to this topic. We take for granted that there are there are economic cycles for one (Turchin’s 50-year secular cycles brought to mind Kondratieff cycles—I wonder if there is a tradition of cyclical history in the Russian academy).  States are unstable, and have cycles of  expansion and collapse. Environments have cycles.  These things lead to cyclicality in other domains. There nothing new there. The novelty of cliodynamics is that Turchin argues that the cyclical nature of states is chronologically regular and therefore has a unitary explanation.   Which brings us to...

(3) Structual-demographic theory
Structural-demographic theory “postulates that labor oversupply leads to falling living standards and elite overproduction, and those, in turn, cause a wave of prolonged and intense sociopolitical instability." (Turchin 2012:578)” Yes, population pressure.  The distinctive feature here is that instability is driven only by competition between elite factions, rather than by factors such as economic cycles, class struggle, or external military pressures.  The emphasis on population is unsurprising from someone whose previous work was in population ecology.  Before moving into history, Jared Diamond was a biogeographer. Go figure. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. 

I am not sure what it is Turchin is actually pushing—quantitative methods, cycles, or structural demographic theory.  My sense is he has seized on structural-demographic theory as the theory he needs to justify his cycles. It is awkwardly tacked on the end and the logic is questionable.  It boils down to the idea that
(1) the empirical regularity of cyclicality necessitates a single deterministic explanation.
(2) Structural-demographic theory predicts cycles (as, unfortunately do many other theories),
(3) therefore structural-demographic theory.

Not satisfying. 

Right now, the high profile “big history” is being done by people outside the historical disciplines, all of them claiming the mantle of science, all of them with simplistic deterministic explanations, and all of them reaching wildly different conclusions. Peter Turchin proves the ultimate cause is population, Jared Diamond proves it is geography, Steven Pinker proves it is Reason and the Enlightenment.  And all of it is Science.

The relationship between science and history is not simple. I do agree we have reached the stage where we can really start looking at large-scale and global processes, and careful quantification is part of that. The datasets are improving and we are developing the technology and understanding to make this possible.  But it is going to be a long difficult job, and it won’t result in the simplistic, easily digested narratives of the current crop of “scientific history”.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
Corfield, Penelope J.
2007    Time and the Shape of History. Cambridge, MA, Yale University Press.

Diamond, Jared
1997    Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York , NY, W. W. Norton & Company.

Mac Carron, Pádraig, and Ralph Kenna
2012 Universal properties of mythological networks. EPL (Europhysics Letters) 99 28002

Pinker, Steven
2011     The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York , NY, Viking.

Tainter, Joseph A.
2004    "Review of Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall. By Peter Turchin, Princeton University Press, Princeton 2003". Nature (247). February:488–489.

Turchin, Peter
2012     Dynamics of Political Instability in the United States, 1780–2010. Journal of Peace Research 49(4). July 1:577–591.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Some archaeology in the news

  • A project in California to document the impact of sea-level rise on coastal archaeological sites--Rising Seas Threaten California’s Coastal Past
    “We are in the process of losing all of our maritime sites as a species. Every place that we’ve launched off to go explore the world through the ocean is now at risk.”

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Archaeology-Mormonism smackdown

When I was an undergrad I think I read everything Michael Coe wrote about the Maya.  I didn’t realise until now that he had an engagement with Mormon archaeology (as in archaeology driven by Mormon beliefs).  I don't know very much about Mormonism, no more than your average person.  I have of course been plagued by Mormon missionaries, spent a few days in Salt Lake City, and have a sketchy comprehension of their history and, through various second-hand sources, the historical claims of the Book of Mormon.  I know there is Mormon archaeology, but since I don’t work in Mesoamerica, I have never encountered it. 

John Sorenson, a Mormon anthropologist and emeritus professor at Brigham Young University, has written an open letter to Michael Coe, chastising him for statements in an interview in the Mormon Stories Podcast.  The interview (Dr. Michael Coe—An Outsider’s View of Book of Mormon Archaeology) seemed surprising to me given that it was on something called Mormon Stories.  It’s over three hours and I have only listened to the first one so far, but what I heard was friendly and reasonable.  The preamble to Sorenson’s letter notes that Mormon Stories “has a bias that is ultimately hostile to the truth of the Book of Mormon,” which may explain the host tolerance of critique. I enjoyed the hour I heard and will listen to the rest as time permits.  I especially liked that The Golden Bough was the catalyst for Coe’s loss of religious faith.  I remember poring through The Golden Bough in my high school library.

As an side, when I checked there were 201 comments on Coe's interview, and all of them, as far as I could tell, civil and literate, with not one in all caps. It was if I had left the internet. Can you imagine the reaction if a similar piece was done on the Bible?

The central arguments in the podcast and Sorenson's response are over items mentioned in the Book of Mormon that are not found archaeologically.  These include iron and steel weapons, chariots, animals such as horses, pigs, and  elephants, and crops, such as wheat and barley. There is also the broader issue of identifying who among the known archaeological and historical cultures are the Jaredites and Nephites, and why there are no indications of Western Asian origin Middle East among the likely suspects.   

Sorenson's rebuttals take four main forms.

1) Arguing there is in fact archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon where Coe said there was none.  The evidence is usually from hopelessly outdated sources or Mormon apologetics.  As an example, no anthropologist would take a 1950s radiocarbon date on bone seriously, but Sorenson argues for the possible survival of mastodons (as the "elephants" in the Book of Mormon") using just such evidence, and, to all appearances, does so quite seriously. 

2) Arguing that the mention of these things in the Book of Mormon actually refers to the nearest American thing (e.g. "pig" means peccary, "horse" means "deer" etc.).  So the literal reading of the Book of Mormon is safe whether there is archaeological evdidence or not.

3) Arguing that the mention of these things in the Book of Mormon does NOT actually refer to American things.  In this argument Sorenson does not want groups mentioned in the Book of Mormon to be identified with known groups such as the Maya.  Again the purpose here is to insulate the book of Mormon from negative physical evidence.  

4) Arguing that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  He does this in the case of the lack of evidence for iron and steel manufacture in Precolumbian America.  By his own count "no more than 200 Mesoamerican sites have been seriously excavated.” without evidence of iron- and steel-working.  Bear in mind we’d be seeing more than just "chemical traces," especially if we are talking about steel. We'd be seeing mines, charcoal burning, furnaces, etc.  This is a substantial amount of work that hasn’t found any evidence, so the probabilities are dropping. While we need to be open to the possibility that solid evidence may show up,in the mean time there is no evidence nor any reason to consider a serious probability of future evidence.

In sum the letter was disappointing.  I don’t know Dr. Sorenson’s work, but he does have  a Ph.D., he is an anthropologist, and he was a professor in an anthropology department (at BYU which is an actual university).  I guess I was expecting a response that would reflect that. If anyone could give a really good archaeological defence of a literal reading of the Book of Mormon, it would be this guy.  But what we got was something any Creationist or ancient alien proponent could pull together--outdated sources, anomaly hunting in the grey literature, explaining away the lack of evidence, and insulating one's claims from evidence. It looks as if it doesn’t matter how educated you are, when it comes to certain topics there is just a ceiling of dumb you can’t break through.  Using archaeology to defend a literal reading of religious texts is one of those topics.