Archaeology and Pseudoscience: Possibilities VS. Probabilities

Posted on January 3, 2013


Possibilities is what fiction and history is made of…. Probabilities is what science is made of.Donald H Smith, NMAC listserv

The last couple weeks has seen an increased attention to pseudoscience relating to archaeology and a whole range of theories, mostly because of the whole Mayan 2012 “end of the world” stuff. It is always pretty bad with lots of people coming with … interesting ideas about the past (see Bad Archaeology website). I always find it hard to have a discussion about such ideas and explain to those that hold such beliefs that archaeology does not support their conclusions .

However, a few weeks ago I came across the above statement and it solidified what I had been doing wrong when trying to talk to such people. Specifically, we are not after the same things. Most people involved with fringe ideas are not looking to prove that an idea is probable but that they are possible. I on the other hand am looking at if the theory is probable. As such our conversations usually go something like this:

Them: “The Mayan’s predicted the end of the world for Dec. 21st 2012” (actually, its Dec. 23rd but that is besides the point).

Me: “No, they did not. The world is not going to end on the 21st”

Them: “How do you know? It could, it’s possible

Blah, Blah, Blah….

They do have a point, the world could have ended on the 21st. It could happen any day, however the odds of it happening was probably 1 in 10^10000000000000000000


However, those interested in possibilities do not care if the odds are 1 in 10 or 1 in a trillion as long as there is a 1 in x chance of it occurring as opposed to no chance. Unfortunately, I have been very bad at communicating that I am after the 1 in 10 chance, not the 1 in a trillion chance. This is because I equate 1 in  trillion as never going to happen and say as such. I really should be doing is acknowledging that whatever theory they may have is possible (within reason- some are just not even possible) but that is not what I am after.  I am after how probable the scenario is as such will probably not believe what they believe. At which point, we can either discuss probability (which may be fraught with problems of its own) or simple realize we are after different things and part ways.

At least that is what I plan to do in the future, we will see how it goes.




Posted in: Wildcard