Friday, 4 May 2012

Donna Yates on the Things we are Asked to Believe

Donna Yates ("a heritage-ish archaeology person with a masters in illicit antiquities research" as in "Property of an Anonymous Swiss Collector/Grotesque Stone Idols" Donna Yates, ) has a new post on her blog: "Believability, the burden of proof and Occam's Razor [...]" April 29, 2012 talking about pseudoscience. It starts off by talking about a course she did at university which she found very useful; she learnt that "not everyone naturally approached information with a healthy dose of skepticism". To learn that "it wasn't automatic for people to weigh evidence based on some sort of internal believability scale went a long way towards explaining the weirdness of the world for me". She says that as a result of doing this course she "stopped blaming people for being uninformed or ignorant". Because they just are? Because they cannot think analytically? My cat can think analytically and he never had the benefit of many years in a state-funded school. Yates mentions the use of Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit (from his book The Demon-Haunted World). At the end of the post she gives some examples of the failure to apply Occam's Razor  in certain market situations:
Basically, multiplied hypotheses are allowable in this area and to invoke Occam's Razor often does little good. To come up with a "what if", no matter how complex, allows for a dismissal of the most simple, uncomplicated explanation. It just seems to be the theme of the week: complicated, multiplied hypotheses being treated like they are of any merit or value.
Complicated Explanation: The argument that if a law is not in the UNESCO heritage law database, than the law is obscure or obsolete and should be ignored by courts. Uncomplicated Explanation: The UNESCO heritage law database is totally voluntary and some dude just didn't upload every law.

Complicated Explanation: There is no REAL way to tell which Moche site this object came from, even if it looks exactly like a Sipán object because maybe the Moche traded stuff around or maybe the same artist made stuff for different sites, and thus there is no way to tell if this REALLY came from the famous looting of Sipán, even if it did appear on the market around that time, being sold by people who admit to have been involved in all of that. Uncomplicated Explanation: That thing came from Sipán.

Complicated Explanation: I possess this Maya codex because some mysterious person called me and I agreed to get in a small aircraft with them and fly to the middle of nowhere to some airstrip in México where some peasants with guns showed me the piece and then let me take it back with me, without paying for it yet, to get it authenticated, but I don't know who any of those people are or where they found it. (Seriously, this is constantly repeated in the literature). Uncomplicated Explanation: (A) It is fake and I am making up a sexy story to help sell it; or (B) I know right where it came from but I don't want archaeologists to know.

I could go on and on and on, of course, but I keep stumbling back to the idea of believability. I tend to think that no one, NO ONE believes any of that crap, that it is entirely fabricated so that greedy terrible people get what they want. That idea is infuriating (and oddly motivating). Yet, thinking about it, I wonder if there are people who truly believe this stuff, who don't have a solid skepticism foundation, who frankly are not as smart as you and I and can't really get there on their own.
She reckons that she feels that she needs to not simply look at the claims of dealers and collectors "as a thin veneer over total deceit, but as points that someone, somewhere thinks are "fair"...". She reckons that might help her to approach them "not with an explosion of accusatory anger, but in a more productive way". She's apparently angling for a job in the PAS after her upcoming stint in Glasgow. They make a living understanding and partnering such people.

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