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The Quality of the Archaeological Record$
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Charles Perreault

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780226630823

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226631011.001.0001

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The Search for Smoking Guns

The Search for Smoking Guns

(p.1) 1 The Search for Smoking Guns
The Quality of the Archaeological Record

Charles Perreault

University of Chicago Press

The way archaeologists test their hypotheses undermines their capacity to make valid inferences about the human past. Historical sciences seek to explain contemporary traces in terms of past causes. Archaeologists settle on explanations when they are consistent with their data, irrespective of whether or not there are alternative explanations that are also consistent with the data at hand. The test of consistency leads to a confirmatory bias and leads to underdetermination and wrong results. In contrast, successful historical sciences work by formulating multiple mutually exclusive hypotheses and finding a smoking gun that will discriminate between them. Smoking guns must be found in nature: computer simulations, mathematical models, ethnographic analogies and experiments are not sources of smoking guns. Unlike experimental scientists, historical scientists such as archaeologists cannot use laboratory methods to manufacture new empirical evidences or to shield themselves from false positive or false negative results. This dependence on the quality of the archaeological record is not trivial. It means that the archaeological record dictates what can be learned about the past. Because of the quality of the archaeological record, there are research questions that we will never be able to answer beyond any reasonable doubts.

Keywords:   Equifinality, Underdetermination, Hypothesis testing, Experimental sciences, Historical sciences, Simulations, Ethnographic analogies, Epistemology, Laboratory methods, False results

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