Mainstream: Usually a Hint That What Follows is to be Read Skeptically

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Whenever you hear or read the word “mainstream,” especially right before a branch of science, it would be wise to take in the remainder of what is said with some skepticism.

Pseudoscience proponents make liberal use of this adjective to set themselves apart from what they perceive as scientists or researchers who are closed minded or refuse to “think out of the box.” In nearly every single instance that the word is put in use, it’s by someone who is decidedly not a scientist or even someone who has completed a formal education on the subject they’re speaking about. A classic example is “mainstream medicine.” The implication being that there is somehow a form of medicine that is alternative to the norm, yet still effective. Were this true, it would no doubt simply be called… medicine.
Another common application of mainstream as an adjective is with the term “mainstream media.” Again, here the implication is that there is an alternate media source that is more truthful, reliable, or trustworthy over that of the mainstream. In nearly every application of this term, one can see a clear political bias toward the left, the right, or some anarchical perspective. This is not to imply that news media are inherently without bias; nor is medicine always without flaw. But they have their checks and balances which create generally reliable outcomes. News media give the public at large the types of stories they want information on, which range from the utterly trite to the ridiculously sensational. If one “mainstream” news outlet doesn’t serve your needs, another will. Medicine has the scientific method and evidence-based efficacy. It either works and the benefits outweigh risks or it doesn’t.

The adjective mainstream also finds itself adjacent to the words archaeology and archaeologists with some frequency. While a search of “mainstream medicine” on Google produced 302,000 results, “mainstream archaeology” or “mainstream archaeologists” only resulted in about 9,000 hits each. Clearly medicine has more impact in the daily lives of average people than archaeology, but when compared with other branches science, archaeology scored relatively more Google hits, meaning that while there aren’t as many discussions or perspectives on “mainstream archaeology” as there are with “mainstream medicine,” it is more popular than other branches of academia. With the notable exceptions of history and physics, though I would argue that many of the links Google presented in “mainstream history” also found relevance to archaeology since they concerned long-dead civilizations like the Sumerians, the Maya, or ancient Egyptians.

Search Term                           # of Google hits

  1. mainstream media               9,090,000
  2. mainstream medicine          302,000
  3. mainstream history              50,000
  4. mainstream physics             21,100
  5. mainstream archaeology     9,150
  6. mainstream geology            8,930
  7. mainstream chemistry         7,480
  8. mainstream biology             6,830
  9. mainstream astronomy        2,840

Table 1. Google ranking by # of hits with “mainstream” as an adjective.

The values above were valid in early 2016 but I’d wager they are still relatively similar as you’re reading this unless some major revelation in one of these disciplines has made world news. I think this is a useful sort of exercise that shows just how many people are forming opinions about these disciplines, with archaeology concerning us the most in the context of this blog.

As a term, “mainstream archaeology” is one that implies there is an alternative perspective of archaeology, one that doesn’t follow scientific methods or modern theoretical frameworks familiar to most archaeologists such as processual archaeology (which seeks to answer questions about humans and human society in a way that is deeply anthropological) or even post-processual archaeology (a theory of archaeology that embraces the subjectivity of interpretations). At first blush, the “subjectivity of interpretation” might lead a skeptical reader unfamiliar with archaeological theory to see this a something outside the mainstream, but this would be a gross over-simplification of a growing theory of archaeology that may ultimately serve to compliment or augment processual archaeology—an extremely positivist approach which assumes that with scientific methods, a truth is obtainable. Post-processualists go a bit further and take into consideration the inherent biases of the investigator and often encourage perspectives that carefully consider gender, ethnic, or indigenous viewpoints.

So if these are mainstream notions of archaeology, what, then, are the alternatives? The answer to that question is probably any archaeological claim that is not based on evidence. In many—if not most—cases of pseudoarchaeological claims, the person or group making the claims appear to have started with a conclusion then looked for supporting data. In scientific terms, this is a form of confirmation bias: you have a preconception and find ways to confirm it, avoiding tests or results that show it to be wrong. All scientists are vulnerable to confirmation bias, which is why methods in science are generally strict and designed with falsification of a hypothesis in mind. That is to say, the best way to prove an idea is to first try to disprove it. If the idea withstands rigorous scrutiny and testing, then it is more likely to be a good one. If an archaeologist has an idea that people living in Western Kentucky during archaic times lived in upland regions and hunted in floodplains, then she designs a research plan that surveys upland and lowland regions of the same area. If the data collected shows that upland artifacts are dominated by spear points for hunting, stone tools for skinning or scraping, and assorted flakes; but the lowland regions are dominated by scrapers, awls, middens (trash heaps) of bone and shell, and grinding stones, then her idea–her hypothesis–was falsified. At least with the methods she used for survey. This is because the artifacts in the upland regions appear consistent with hunting stations or overnight camps, whereas the lowland artifacts are more like what would be expected in a domestic context where people are spending more than a few nights. In such places, living spaces can even be discerned where the ground was compacted, and small rocks and pebbles that are uncomfortable to sit or lay on are removed.

If the archaeologist was not unafraid to falsify her hypothesis, she may very well have only noticed those few artifacts that support her idea—the scrapers, perhaps the occasional awl used for a quick repair of an item of clothing ripped while hunting, a small midden of bones, etc. She might also have ignored data that ran contrary to her expectations of lowland regions, perhaps by not doing a thorough search of previous literature on the subject, or by using flawed methods of choosing survey locations. Shovel tests probes can be rushed, artifacts overlooked or missed. It’s likely that she would have still collected real data, but the results can easily skew with bias that is not acknowledged or compensated for. Methods like consistency in shovel probe depth, hole diameter, and spacing help. The expectation of bias is also why most archaeologists prefer to start with research questions rather than hypotheses to test. The difference is subtle but important. A question is just that: did archaic people live primarily in upland or lowland regions? An hypothesis is a statement: archaic people lived primarily in upland regions. Hypotheses are generally born from research questions. If enough upland sites are surveyed to find hunting stations or camps but no living spaces, eventually the archaeologist will form an hypothesis that archaic people did not prefer to live in the upland regions but did hunt there.

A researcher in any discipline should not begin with a conclusion to which he or she then fits data. This is just bad science. In 1996, a German aeronautic engineer, Peter Belting, produced scaled up versions of at two of the Quimbaya artifacts discussed in an earlier post. They took some liberties with the designs, curvature appeared added to wings where the actual artifacts are very flat—that sort of thing, but overall the resemblance of the modern models to the original artifacts were true. And they could fly! Belting and his assistants added motors and propellers and remotely operated them as drones. This was proof positive among proponents of the ancient aliens idea that these artifacts were made by someone who had knowledge of airplanes.

I would have no way of knowing if Belting began with a conclusion that at least some of the Quimbaya artifacts were models of ancient airplanes without speaking to him. I’ve found no interviews or writings he’s done which mention them, only third party attributes of him as the lead engineer in creating scaled up models. But certainly it seems likely that his motivation for creating them was related to someone‘s conclusion that they were indeed models of ancient aircraft and not insects, birds, or fish. I find the experiment fascinating and it truly must have been a fun experience to create these modern, flyable replicas. But it seems unlikely to me, that their creation began with a research question like, are these artifacts replicas of insects, birds, or fish that can actually fly?

To paraphrase the ancient aliens proponents in general, “if mainstream archaeologists aren’t happy with the results, then it is up to them to propose their own hypotheses or tests.” This sentiment regarding the modern, up-scaled models that actually flew was repeated several times on webpages, on the “Ancient Aliens” television show, and in articles or books that cater to their audience. The implication is clear: “we’re doing science, and we have results.”

While I genuinely liked the experiment, the only results that can be confidently agreed on by anyone who wants to remain unbiased is that the Quimbaya people accurately enough captured in their art those qualities that allowed insects, birds, and fish to fly. And fish do fly, both in a manner of speaking and literally in the case of flying fish. Fish are streamlined and designed to use fluid dynamics much in the same way birds use aerodynamics to get lift and momentum, with fins that behave very much like wings on many species. When, however, one begins with a conclusion and only seeks data that are supportive of that conclusion, details like this are easily missed.

There are also those that fling the label of “mainstream” at archaeologists, but their real accusation is that we archaeologists have conspired together to withhold the truth (whatever that truth might be) from the rest of the world for reasons that are varied. Some have implied that it’s outright suppression of aliens, others have said we simply want to protect our jobs. Nearly all seem to agree that the archaeologist sits on some high seat in academia atop an imagined ivory tower, in agreement with all other archaeologists in some grand conspiracy to oppress those that are open-minded enough to speak out in opposition. But anyone who holds these notions of archaeologists to be true clearly has not sat in on the right panels at a Society for American Archaeology conference!

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About Carl Feagans 341 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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