Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Endangered Science

A little learning is a dangerous thing, but a lot of ignorance is just as bad. ~Bob Edwards

I read Archaeology magazine regularly because I: a) enjoy history; b) feel that we can learn much from finding how our ancestors lived; and c) think grubbing around in the dirt is fun. Paleontology has a similar appeal, except you can add mucking with plaster of paris to digging in the dirt.

Oh, all right, I'm really a knowledge freak. I just like to know more about how we got to be how we got to be. Archaeology has the additional charm of showing us that our ancestors, even those of the so-called stone age, were pretty sharp cookies. After all, as one scientist put it, their brains were just as big as ours, so we shouldn't be surprised that they could be as clever as we. In fact, many times they clearly are more clever, because they had to create things without any historical or scientific precedents. This is real discovery.

In the current issue, there was an opinion piece that I found somewhat disturbing. Basically, a veteran archaeologist was explaining how his own area of expertise was becoming a dying science, at least from the perspective of field discoveries. Sites are disappearing, he explains. Of course. As the population expands and companies and governments decide that every patch of ground needs to be paved, burnt or built upon, there are getting to be fewer and fewer places to dig. Much of the digging that does occur is “rescue archaeology”, with the diggers staying inches ahead of the bulldozers.

Most countries have laws that call for construction to halt when artifacts are found, but the stoppage can't continue indefinitely. Where a team might have spent years on a dig at one time, now they might have a few weeks. And I am sure there are instances when artifacts are found and simply not reported by unscrupulous developers.

I am further inclined to think that if one took a poll of average citizens concerning the covering of valuable historical and pre-historical sites, most would say, “Well, that's a shame, but you can't stop progress.” What they really mean is that they just don't care. As long as American Idol is still on the tube tonight, they are unconcerned that people may have settled the New World 30,000 years earlier than previously thought.

This sort of attitude is not new. I recall the panic in this country when the Soviets put Sputnik into orbit. All of a sudden, everyone became concerned that we weren't educating our kids very well. The Soviets recognized the importance of academic excellence, as long as the brainy ones kept their noses clean and their brilliant minds focused on the Communist Party line. If their minds wandered to thoughts of democracy, they could flaunt their academic brilliance in a gulag.

Meanwhile, in the good old US of A, Johnny couldn't read or cipher, we were short of scientists and engineers, yet the merest discussion of properly funding schools always caused howls from the taxpayers. In other ways, it was just like today. Thanks to the Soviets, though, for about 20 years, education was a major priority. Unfortunately, we got over it.

We don't seem to trust well-educated intelligent people. If we did, we certainly wouldn't elect many of the people we elect. You can see it in campaigns; politicians go out of their way to sound like "ordinary folks". Of course, for many of them, they're having to work pretty hard to get up to this level. But many otherwise intelligent and well-versed politicians go to great lengths to avoid sounding intelligent.

It's reverse snobbery. And it's a return to the blissful ignorance of the 1950's.

There was an editorial in that same issue of Archaeology that boded even more ill for the science. It seems that it's difficult to find an archaeology curriculum. Oh, you can find the bits and pieces of the discipline, anthropology or comparative history and the like. But it's getting hard to actually learn to be an archaeologist. Well, I guess that's not so bad, since you won't have anywhere to dig.

What's happening here is the continuing trend toward specialization. This is nothing new either. Just as the medical general practitioner has practically disappeared, so has the generalist in other fields. Yet it's this sort of person who can gather the varied threads from related disciplines to define the great discovery.

So here we are, rapidly turning into a society of poorly educated specialists who only understand their limited scope of operations. The public at large doesn't care as long the Internet works and CSI:Wherever is on TV. Well, here's a little food for thought, assuming you're still dining. Someday the lights are gonna go out, and no one is going to know how to fix them. And some archaeologist thousands of years from now will be trying to piece together what went wrong.

For his or her time's sake, I hope they figure it out.

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