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      Back in June 2019, the New Yorker wrote an article lambasting the Espionage Act. The George W. Bush Administration pursued several government insiders for leaking classified information, but it was the Obama Administration that normalized the use of the Espionage Act against journalists’ sources. Among its targets were Jeffrey Sterling, a former C.I.A. offic […]
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How to think critically

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.

Roman Silver and Stolen Culture

I’ve been catching up on the BBC Time Team episodes and came across this one about a hoard of Roman silver that was stolen from Hungary and sold to an English aristocrat.  The silver is in a vault owned by an art dealer and may never see the light of day again.  The man who discovered the treasure in Hungary was murdered.  So far, no one has been prosecuted for the stolen antiquities.

And that reminded me of the robbery of the Baghdad museum in the first stages of the Iraq War in 2003.  It’s been 10 years since Donald Rumsfield had the nerve to tell us that all vases look alike.  This Time Team episode has video of the theft in Baghdad as it happened.  Whoever did it knew exactly what they were looking for.  They probably had a shopping list.  The video shows one of the curators in tears, grieving over the loss of the Iraq’s priceless treasures.  Here’s the whole video.  It’s 49 minutes but worth the time.  It’s a story of theft, murder and privilege.  I have to say that the American legal system doesn’t come off too well here.

I can remember conversations I had with die-hard Christians over the looting of the Baghdad museum.  They didn’t think it was such a big deal because we were liberating the Iraqi people. {{rolling eyes}}  I found that attitude shocking and it permanently ruined my estimation of the person’s intelligence. It’s hard to take anyone seriously who could write off the theft of 10s of thousands of years of human history as no big deal because, you know, WMDs and stuff. All I could think of were thousands of cuneiform tablets that were smashed during the theft.  Those tablets could have contained histories of biblical figures or at least the literature and mythology of the eastern spur of the fertile crescent.  Maybe there was a “Abraham and Sarai: the early years” just waiting to be translated or a more explicit reference from Babylonian legal code to Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Weren’t they at least concerned with the accuracy of the bible?  I guess not.  A clay tablet is just like any other clay tablet apparently.

I wonder how many people in Davos own a piece of Iraq?  How many Americans own a piece?  Has anyone ever been prosecuted for the Rape of Baghdad?

We should be ashamed that it ever happened.