Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Finding What We Want Whether It's There Or Not

There is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer science. ~Anton Chekhov

When I was an innocent little kid in school, I was under the illusion that science was a pure endeavor, with dedicated experimentalists and brilliant theorists, all of whom worked diligently to understand the world about us and the events that led to that world. It didn't take long to get disabused of that attitude.

Newton and Leibnitz fought over who invented the calculus; in fact, both of them did, one inventing the integral calculus while the other came up with the differential calculus. Newton fought with Robert Hooke who claimed some of Newton's ideas. All of this came about because Isaac Newton was never in a rush to publish.

Scientists hide information from one another. The story of the discovery of the structure of DNA will make one slightly ill, as Watson and Crick toasted Linus Pauling's mathematical error that led him to mistakenly identify the structure as a triple helix. When it isn't rivalries that interfere, it's governments, as the Soviet Bloc and the Western nations kept researchers from one another. One can only imagine what could have been accomplished had there been cooperation between those scientific communities.

Then again, given the jealousies about credit for discovery and the possibilities of winning a Nobel with its attendant fame and fortune, perhaps we wouldn't have done so much better.

What is more disturbing is when science develops an agenda based on some political, religious, or even economic pressure. The Nazis of Hitler's Germany distorted archaological and biological researches to justify the idea of Aryan supremacy. The Soviet Union rewrote history to try to claim many important discoveries, which was bad enough, but they also attempted to inculcate science with a Marxist dialectical imperative that limited lines of research because they would be somehow damaging to the state.

Certainly those examples are extreme, and to some extent genuine science did survive, especially when it could be used for weapons development or covert activities. But, at some time or another, prejudices creep into what should be purely intellectual domains. Take, for example, Piltdown Man.

Found over a period of four years from 1908 to 1912, pieces of a jaw, teeth, and a skull were assembled to show that England had been home to the “missing link”, a creature with a jaw and teeth like an ape, but with a brain case like that of a modern human. This fraud, the perpetrator of which has never been clearly identified, was in the textbooks for years and wasn't exposed until 1953. Ironically, it was easily determined to be a fake; it was just that no one ever looked all that closely.

But why didn't they? One reason is that it fit well with the "big brain" theory that said that increase in brain size was the driving force in human evolution. Another reason is that it well suited the English to think that modern man could have sprung up in the British Isles. The sun, after all, never set on the empire built by Englishmen. It would only be appropriate to think that the first proto-human would be an Englishman. It is interesting to think that it wasn't until the empire started coming apart that anyone examined Piltdown closely.

These days we have something called Biblical Archaeology, using archaeological evidence to support the events of the Bible. There is nothing wrong with finding evidence that people or events in the Bible may have actually existed. There is something wrong, though, with twisting findings to fit a Biblical context, just as it was wrong for German archaeologists trying to twist paleolithic and neolithic finds into some sort of Aryan framework. The issues have become so emotional that Palestinians have gone to lengths to avoid letting Israeli scholars investigate areas that could conceivably back up some Biblical claims to the land they both inhabit. Essentially, we have Hebrew and Palestinian archaeology fighting the same political fight that their leaders are fighting.

Jumping into this fray are the artifact fakers, seeing an opportunity to make serious money by creating artifacts that seem to “prove” elements of the Bible. The two most notorious of these in recent times have been the James ossuary and the Solomon tablet. The ossuary was inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”, apparently providing strong evidence that box held the bones of Jesus' brother James, one of the founders of the early Church. By inference, of course, it was also a proof of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The Solomon tablet had inscription from a later king claiming that this king had made “repairs” to Solomon's temple.

The latter artifact was the more important, because James' existence, to my knowledge, is not in significant doubt and Jesus' existence is referenced by the Jewish historian Josephus (if you actually need an independent acknowledgement), while there is no mention of a King Solomon or his temple outside of the Bible. Unfortunately, it was found that these were remarkable forgeries. The forgers had actually created a patina containing carbon granules dating to the right periods and, in the case of the Solomon tablet, had added microscopic gold nodules of the type one might expect had the tablet been in the fire that destroyed Solomon's temple.

I'm not even going to get into all those Noah's arks people keep finding.

Now, there is nothing wrong with conducting archaeological investigations that could turn up Old-Testament-era evidence. But, it isn't necessary to prove or disprove the Bible. As a work of faith and instruction, the Bible has proved to be durable and profound for generation after generation. It isn't important if these are actual events or allegorical stories. The teachings are still important and meaningful to millions. Forcing archaeological evidence to fit a Biblical narrative does an injustice to the book and demeans the scientific process. Not finding the Ark of the Covenant or the remnants of the burning bush does no harm to the Bible. But, finding a pile of rocks and claiming it's the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down can do harm to our understanding of ancient times.

We need to follow the facts, not push them where we want them.

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