Learning how to think critically and to use the scientific method is not as easy as it sounds. It’s even tougher to teach. It takes practice and someone to show you how to do it.
Fortunately, there are good examples out there that demonstrate how it’s done. One of my recent discoveries is the Time Team series from the BBC. The basic premise of the show is this: there are archeological sites all over the British Isles dating to the neolithic to WWII. A team of archeologists and geophysicists pick a site and in three days come up with a preliminary hypothesis on what happened there in the past. I call it preliminary because in three days, it’s impossible to uncover everything there is to know. The team can open only a few trenches.
What I’ve learned about Time Team is that they seem to have some of the most sophisticated geophysical and dating tools available. When they do side by side excavations with other teams, they are able to test their hypotheses on the spot in a way that the locally employed archaeologists aren’t. That’s another interesting thing about Britain. The government employs a lot of archaeologists to be at the sites of major construction and at scheduled monuments. But I get the feeling that unless the locally employed archaeologist turns up something unusual during a dig, they’re stuck with some rudimentary tools and have to send out their evidence for testing. That’s where Time Team can do some fancy work.
So, Time Team comes to the site and throws every trick in their arsenal at the problem for three days. They map out the site with geophysical data (magnetic resonance, radar, etc), scour the archives for any known history, employ carbon dating and pottery dating, which can give you instant results based on a kinetic signature of the rate of water absorption of ceramics after kilning, knowledge of flint knapping and early construction techniques.
What I find fascinating is that the team keeps changing its mind based on the evidence it finds during the dig. It’s medieval. No, it’s Roman, look at this coin I found. No, it’s bronze age. See all the crappy flint knapping? And there is a lot of collaboration, tossing around ideas, and changing direction when more evidence is needed. And while it would be silly to suggest that Time Team has found out all of the answers in the three day period, you do get a better picture, complete with computer aided modeling, of what all of the evidence points to.
This is the way science is done. Most of the time, there is no final answer but with evidence and analysis and asking the right questions, you can get a clearer picture of what is going on. It’s hard work but it can also be fun and exciting. Here’s an example of Time Team’s excavation of a site in County Antrim, Northern Ireland where the answers literally come out of the fog:
Now, imagine how things would work if you had to negotiate a contract with every member of that team and sign non-disclosure agreements where you couldn’t share information and that there was some purchasing department limiting the number of excavators you could have (contractors of course) and amount of money you could spend on carbon dating to three samples and some lean six sigma black belt running around the site telling you that everyone has to use the same Acme R107 spade and move dirt from left to right in piles no higher than 10 cm high.
That’s science in America these days.