Clash of the Titans: Mature vs New Science


John Hawks takes a paragraph of a new book by William Burroughs, “Climate Change in Prehistory,” and runs with it.   It has to do with the clash between mature sciences and emerging new sciences.  Here’s the paragraph Hawks refers to:

It is often easier to write with confidence on fast-developing and relatively new areas of research, such as climate change and genetic mapping, than to review the implications of such new developments for a mature discipline like archaeology. Because the latter consists of an immensely complicated edifice that has been built up over a long time by the painstaking accumulation of fragmentary evidence from a vast array of sources, it is hard to define those aspects of the subject that are most affected by results obtained in a completely different discipline. Furthermore, when it comes to many aspects of prehistory, the field is full of controversy, into which the new data are not easily introduced. As a consequence, there is an inevitable tendency to gloss over these pitfalls and rely on secondary or even tertiary literature to provide an accessible backdrop against which new developments can be more easily projected (Burroughs 2005:10).

Hawks makes the point that this paragraph’s suggestion that a new science in facing resistance from an entrenched mature science can lead to one of two possible conclusions

1. … and therefore the simple conclusions of the immature sciences may be wrong.


2. … and therefore those wishy-washy archaeologists had better get their act together.

He comes to the defense of (what he calls) the mature science of archaeology.  In this defense he points out …

What marks a "mature" discipline is the emergence of informed critiques focused on the limits of methods of analysis. When archaeology was immature, before the 1950s or so, almost all archaeologists were simple (some say "naive") positivists. They excavated and found the traces of ancient people, just as today’s archaeologists do. And what they found was what there must have been. Find a handaxe, you know people made handaxes; find a temple, you know they worshipped gods of some kind. Dig in a mound, find a grave, you know that the people had rituals associated with death that required substantial non-subsistence directed labor.

Notice his definition of “mature”:  An emergence of informed critiques, focused on the limits of methods of analysis.  This isn’t a horrible definition (I’ll argue for a different one below).  He goes on:

Of course, today’s archaeologists tend to be positivists, too. There’s no sense twiddling around with hypotheses that will never be testable. The religion of Neandertals? Well, it’s one thing to speculate about it, but the fact is that it’s devilishly hard to test hypotheses about religion from the material remains of any pre-monumental culture. In the absence of information, we may as well stick to the facts.

But there’s a deeper sense in which archaeologists have a much more complicated view of their evidence. Archaeology has gone through many periods where different researchers developed and applied distinctive analytical techniques. These techniques have often been incommensurable. Sometimes they settle debates. For example, the systematic study of skeletal element representation and cutmark taphonomy has gone far toward testing (and verifying) the occurrence of hunting in some Early Pleistocene contexts. The hunting versus scavenging debate still goes on, with renewed emphasis on active or confrontational scavenging. But knowledge advanced by means of analytical critique.



What is a “Mature” Science?

Now, I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but I would never call Archeology a mature science.  At least not by my definition (which I’ll outline in a second).  It is an adolescent science, albeit an exciting one on the verge of maturity. 

I define a field to be "mature" if and only if it has a reasonably well developed empirical AND theoretical side.  Without both, you are only half a science.   

(OK, I used the ambiguous word "reasonably" in my definition.  And this opens the door for questions about what we mean by that.  But, that’s the way laws should be written – with room for interpretation.)

I’ve found most people I talk to about this (in the sciences) to be rather hostile to my definition.  I suspect the reason is that if we take it to be strict, there is only ONE mature science – Physics.  (I include engineering in physics as applied-physics, the way that we include medicine in biology as applied-biology.)  The reason is that it is the only science that has serious mathematics and theoretical work being done “in house”.  They don’t rely on Mathematicians to do the hard labor for them.  There IS great work being done on the theoretical side of a lot of other sciences, but nearly all of it is done by Mathematicians and Physicists. 

Let’s go into more detail as to what I mean in my definition:

Empirical Science


The empirical side of science is what everyone thinks of when they think of science.  That is, when YOU think “science”, I’m guessing that you’re thinking of guys in white lab coats pouring boiling blue liquid into a beaker.  This side of science is well developed in nearly every field save for economics (that’s a whole different discussion – and a strange one at that). 

This side of science is all about hypothesis testing, data collection, and statistical and other methods to deal with the vast amount of data that is gathered.  That is, this is the “get your hands dirty” part of science.  It’s why most people who go into science went in to it in the first place.  They loved all that went with it.  Primatologists love to hang out with primates, Chemists love to mix chemicals, Archaeologist love to dig in the dirt. 

As I discussed in my article on Karl Popper, a science must have a robust empirical side in order to test hypothesis.  Without it, we have no way to know if we’re just blowing smoke or not.

What most sciences don’t have (and some refuse to take seriously) is a serious theoretical side of their field. 

Theoretical Science


Theoretical Science is all about hypothesis generating.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection is an example of a work of theoretical science.  Einstein was a theoretical physicist, and the theory of relativity is a work of theoretical science also. 

As a field gets more developed, theoretical science converges more and more toward mathematical and computational work.  That is, the models become so complicated that only the tools of mathematics and computer science are able to deal with them.

Don’t get this confused with statistics.  We need complex statistical models to deal with the data collected by empirical scientists.  But, theoretical scientists don’t deal with data – at all.  Sure, they may be inspired by data.  But, the point is that they are developing theories about how the world works that are then able to be tested.    They follow lines of implication – if this is true, then this other thing MUST be true.  It is logical philosophy, mathematics, theorem-proof. 

No science is totally devoid of theory.  Obviously.  Paleoanthropologist gave us the “out of Africa” theory which has proven to be rather robust.  But, no science other than physics has a dedicated “in house” world of theoreticians who’s ONLY job is to follow lines of implications and thereby generate new and diverse hypothesis. 

Theoretical physics predicted Black holes before they were seen on a telescope.  They predict things like an expanding universe.  They predict dark matter, super strings, etc.  All of this is done by physicists who are not passed off by their empirical counterparts as “just” mathematicians, or “arm chair” physicists. 

They do their job with very complex mathematics.  Some times the experimental physicists will prove them right … sometimes wrong.   But, the important point is that they are full fledged members of the physics community. 

In most other sciences, theoretical (and especially mathematical) work is met with skepticism and sometimes outright disdain.  If you do ONLY theoretical work, then you are not really a member of this science at all … you’re a mathematician.  A real scientist DOES something.  They do field or lab work.  They get their hands dirty.  Blah, blah, blah …

Why Are Most Sciences So Hostile to Mathematics, and What Can We do About It?

I suspect the reason why most sciences have been traditionally so hostile to treating mathematical modeling as a serious part of their field is simply because most of the members of that science haven’t ever taken any serious math.  Oh, they may have taken a calculus class or two, but let’s get real.  Calculus is a FRESHMAN level class for math, physics, and engineering students.  There is an entire world of mathematics that comes after that that is hard to describe to people who haven’t seen it (imagine explaining what “red” means to a blind man).

Of course, this is changing.  Chemistry has always been in second place to Physics as the most mathematical of sciences.  They had to be.  Now Biology is catching up.  Theoretical Biology is (in my opinion), hands down, the most exciting emerging field (it’s been emerging for about 25 years).  But, still most of the work is done by math people, not biologists. 

What’s wrong with that?  Why not just let mathematicians do the work, and leave scientists alone to do the dirty stuff?

There are 2 reasons. 

  1. Mathematicians have their own work to do.
  2. Scientists and Mathematicians can’t communicate properly with one another.

First, contrary to popular belief amongst many scientists, Mathematicians are not here to serve you.  Yes, oftentimes they come up with highly useful tools that scientists find they can’t live without.  But, mathematicians generally get into math for its own sake … not because they care so much about furthering some particular science. 

Second, even amongst those mathematicians who DO get in on the action of a particular science, it’s often impossible for them to communicate with the members of said science.  This goes both ways.

Mathematicians are frustrated by the total lack of knowledge of even basic mathematical skill by scientists, and scientists are shocked at how little mathematicians know about the basics of their field. 

What physicists have figured out is that if you train your own theoreticians, then you can train them from the get-go to be able to communicate with the experimenters. They’ll know the big problems in the field, they’ll know the history, the language, the nuts and bolts.  Similarly, they train ALL physicists up to a threshold level of mathematical maturity, even the ones who become experimenters.  This way, everyone can talk to everyone else. 

So far, no other field has ever gotten this right.  They only train empirical scientists.  The only math required is what any advanced high school kid can do.  And as such, the theoretical side of their field is grossly underdeveloped. 

Again, this IS changing.  Most of the hard sciences are making strides fast, but it will take a lot more time. But, because of the reasons outlined above, I can’t call Archaeology a “mature” science. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s