The Four Stone Hearth is up!

Visit Nomadic Thoughts and get five for five! The fifth installment of 4SH has five great posts (well, four and mine). I'm surprised at the low number of submissions, but it is the holidays and between semesters for a lot of folks, so I'm sure its a busy time (it is for me anyway). But the good news is that these are all quality bloggers and well worth reading. Be sure to leave each a comment letting them know you were there and what you thought of their post, even if its to just say you liked it or learned something new.

Have a happy holiday season!

Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism?

Note: this is a repost of one of the very first posts I made on this blog. Since Theo over a Humbug Online has mentioned that the next Skeptic’s Circle (#50) is going to be a tribute to Carl Sagan, whom I’ve always held in high regard, I thought I’d dig this one out again. While he may not have agreed with them, Dr. Sagan was always very fair to religion and sensitive to the beliefs of others. His idea was that it would be far easier to appeal to believers (in religion, UFOs, ESP, etc) and educate them if they were respected and treated fairly than if not. This is why it came to a surprise to me to see that there were those “believers” that attacked Sagan in spite of his sensitivity and found him to be such a threat. Perhaps it was the very nature of his appeal and popularity that some found threatening.

The topic of “scientism” keeps coming up in conversations with both those who criticize the rigorous demands of the scientific method as well as through a short monograph on the internet (Menton 1991) with the title, Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism.

Interestingly enough, the term scientism exists among scholarly references and refers to the notion that science and the scientific method can be used to explain all that can be observed or experienced in the universe. This is consistent with logical positivism, which holds that there is an objectively knowable universe.

However, a different use of scientism has been co-opted, which implies that there are those within science that are to be derided as extremists or, at the very least, alarmists who reject critical thought and reason by denying “both the special revelation of truth and the existence of a sovereign, supernatural and external being (Menton 1991).” The assumption here is that science generally accepts the supernatural and spiritual “revelations” as valid methods of obtaining truths.

More often than not, the sources of these implications and assumptions originate with theistic proponents of creation mythology. Some, however, tactically avoid the direct association with creation and supernaturalism as if to provide plausible deniability if directly called on either to produce evidence or supporting references. It is, after all, difficult to logically prove that which cannot be tested, and the intellectual and educated theist wisely avoids this. The tactic, instead, appears to be to assert that there is a subculture called scientism, which is a moral and extremist faction of real science.

The overall thesis of this assertion seems to suggest that scientism as an extremist faction of science is somehow a danger to society, perhaps with its rampant atheism and certainly with its naturalistic and materialistic views of the universe.

Menton’s paper on the subject made Carl Sagan the focus of the anti-scientism movement (as it were). Menton accused Sagan of being a “prophet” of scientism, which impliesd very clearly that the author believed this to be a new form of religion or was at least willing to argue the notion. Menton’s opening paragraph made the unsupported claim that Sagan’s work consisted of “only a tissue of empirical science covering a great bulk of improvable speculation liberally laced with Sagan’s own philosophical and religious views of life.” Menton then stated, very plainly, “Sagan’s religion […] is ‘scientism.'”

Menton’s article is short and falls even more short in delivering any support for either his claim that Sagan was a representative of a religion or that this religion of “scientism” actually exists. Menton’s derision of Sagan’s work goes little beyond merely stating that it is speculative and supported only be a “tissue of empiricism.” He does, however, criticize Sagan’s position (Cosmos 1996) that evolution is a fact and that it really happened. Menton is unconcerned with the enormous body of evidence that exists to support Sagan’s assertion and seems only interested in attempting to negatively affect Sagan’s credibility in the matters of science. In doing so, Menton invokes the words of Harlow Shapely, an apparent one-time professor of Sagan, who is alleged to have said, “some piously record, ‘In the beginning, God,’ but I say in the beginning hydrogen.” Menton then vastly oversimplifies Shapely’s contention by concluding that Shapely is suggesting hydrogen + time = H. sapiens as if the complex processes and mechanisms between hydrogen and civilization came about in a few days. I’m not sure what specific creationist beliefs Menton has, but it is interesting to note that he rejects the hypothesis that hydrogen, many billions of years, and untold energy can result in the universe as we know it. The irony is that he probably has little difficulty accepting that a mysterious, supernatural entity can speak the world into existence –complete with people in just a few days!

Menton mines several quotes from Sagan’s Cosmos (1996), which he takes from their original contexts and juxtaposes with new a new context –the one of an atheistic scientist attempting to convert the masses to become godless heathens. Menton’s deception isn’t very subtle. He quotes Sagan from a 1980 newspaper article as saying, “I feel in order to survive we someday must be able to give up our allegiance to our nation, our religion, our race and economic group and think of ourselves more as just a temporary form of life under the creation of a power beyond our comprehension.” Menton cites the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as the source but immediately follows the quote with “Sagan concludes that if man is to worship anything greater than man himself, it should be something which amounts to the pagan worship of nature,” to which Menton follows with another Sagan quote mined from Cosmos (p 243): “Our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars?”

Perhaps Menton truly believes that Sagan’s position was that the sun should be worshipped and that a pagan religion was necessary. But a look at page 242 of Cosmos and reading on through 243 reveals the context of Sagan’s words. The chapter these pages reside in is titled The Lives of Stars and Sagan is describing the power of a star on the community of planets from which one is lucky enough to be able to support life. He was noting that the power of the sun did not go unnoticed to man and the footnote that was attached to the quote was this:

“The early Sumerian pictograph for god was an asterisk, the symbol of the stars. The Aztec word for god was Teotl, and its glyph was a representation of the Sun. The heavens were called the Teoatl, the godsea, the cosmic ocean.”

The very next paragraph that follows the quote abbegins with, “The Galaxy is an unexplored continent filled with exotic beings of stellar dimensions.”

Even Menton couldn’t have missed the literary devices of metaphor and hyperbole which Sagan effectively utilized to convey the enormity and power that a star has, even a “mediocre” one such as our Sun.

Menton was again disingenuous with Sagan’s words when he quoted UFO’s: A Scientific Debate (Sagan & Page 1972, p.xiv): “[s]cience has itself become a kind of religion.” Menton inserts the period that follows “religion” as if that is the end of the thought, leaving the reader with the impression that the “prophet of scientism” has spoke and the movement begun. But to add context and truth to the eight words quote-mined by Menton, it is important to note that “religion” is punctuated with a trailing comma and the sentence completes with, “and many pronouncements cloaked in scientific attire are blandly accepted by much of the public.” Clearly Sagan and Paige (the co-editor Menton so conveniently omits to credit) are providing an introduction to the thesis of the collection of articles to which they are the editors of in UFO’s, which is that science must contain skepticism and critical thought in order to balance the pop-culture appeal that it has attained.

What then is the purpose of criticizing notable figures of science with charges of “scientism” and of starting a “religion?”

For the theistic apologetics of creationism and it’s guise under the form of “intelligent” design, this question’s answer lies in an agenda to justify beliefs and promote doubt among believers, obfuscating the truth with appeals to their religious sensibilities. Indeed, the much talked about “wedge strategy” dictates, among it’s goals, to seed doubt among lay persons regarding the validity of the science behind evolutionary processes in order to further the creationist agenda. Interestingly enough, the scientism accusation finds its way into arguments with proponents of other forms of psuedoscience that range from ESP to “alternative medicine.”


Menton, D. N. (1991). Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism (Get the Facts). Retrieved 13106, from Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.:
Sagan, C. (1986). Broca’s Brain. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C. (1996). Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Page, T. (1972). Introduction. In C. Sagan & T. Page (Eds.), Ufo’s: A Scientific Debate (p. xiv). New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.

Stolen & Looted: Grave Robbers in China

In China, looters are robbing graves at a rate that far out-paces the ability for Chinese authorities and archaeologists to keep up.

Still, public officials of the Gansu province report having arrested 1,283 people and seizing 1,959 artifacts and cultural items between 1998 and 2005. Gansu is where some of the earliest known sites of Chinese civilization are evident. And it was in this province that grave robbers recently discovered two important sites:

[O]ne dat[ed] back to the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.) and the other to ancestors of China’s first emperor Qinshihuang. […] The Warring States grave in Zhangjiachuan county was discovered last August when local police caught grave robbers who had unearthed an ancient tomb, that had remained hidden for more than 2,000 years. By mid December, archaeologists had excavated from the grave more than 500 pieces of items of gold, silver, bronze, iron, bone and porcelain
as well as more than 800 other decorated relic pieces.

Read more at Grave robbery keeps Chinese archaeologists bustling around.

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Using GPS in Archaeological Field Work

Obtaining 3D data for excavation units and for artifacts and features within the excavation units is traditionally conducted by use of theodolite or total station to establish a datum point and an intersecting baseline. Locations of in situ artifacts and features are established in relationship to the datum point. During excavations, artifacts and features must be continuously measured from the baseline to establish 3D position and carefully documented prior to removal or destruction -archaeology is, by nature, a destructive process.

In recent years, several studies have been conducted to explore the use of GPS technology in the field of archaeology, which provide both innovation as well as efficiency in data collection.

GPS was used successfully in establishing site location or for creating a baseline for excavation units in several of the studies. Establishing site locations on dry land, however, comprised most of the recent archaeological work that took advantage of GPS technology. Chapman and Van de Noort (2001) used GPS experimentally to determine if the use of differential GPS (DGPS) was a viable method of surveying points in archaeological prospection of wetlands on the British Isles. By noting differential desiccation, that is, the different rates at which the ground dries, in wetland environments, manmade features can be discerned that cannot be observed by normal aerial reconnaissance. Chapman and Van de Noort demonstrated that DGPS allowed for a much quicker and efficient collection of 3D data than with traditional optical methods. Moreover, the DGPS system they used required only a single person rather than two and the data collected were more easily imported into GIS software from which excavation trenches were planned. Once the locations of the trenches were planned, they were positioned using, again, the DGPS equipment. Their conclusion was that GPS used with GIS is now a proven technique in archaeology.

In South West Turkey, Martens (2005) discussed the use of GPS in establishing an excavation grid of a Roman site in which a surface survey, an observation and evaluation of artifacts and ecofacts, was conducted. For the grid, GPS was used to establish the top row’s corners and the remaining units were laid out using triangulation based on the Pythagorean Theorem. Once GPS was used to establish the corners, a compass and tape were all that was required to lay in the remaining grid squares.

In North Kohala, Hawaii, an archaeological team used two Trimble Pathfinder GPS 8-channel Pro XR receivers to create plan maps of at least two sites. Their method was to collect the data and post-process it with correction data downloaded from the National Park Service base station though they did experiment with using one of their receivers as a base and the other as a rover. In doing so, they discovered that the base would need differential correction before the data could be considered accurate enough for their purposes. The team used the GPS to collect data points as they walked around major features such as walls, pits and terraces, creating a map that could be printed out and modified by sketching in additional information. The final result was production of plan maps of a residential structure and a religious temple called a heiau, both of which were completed four times as efficiently as would have been done with traditional methods which include tape and compass or with plane table and alidade. Ladefoged and his team also discussed the problems they encountered in their use of GPS. Among these was the failure of the equipment to obtain a signal if the sky overhead was obstructed by trees with branches more than 12 centimeters in diameter. When a signal was obtained under heavy vegetation, it wasn’t used because of the degradation due to multipath errors.

Multipath errors arise in GPS when the signal from the satellite is bounced off of a building or ground before reaching the receiver. A large tree would interfere with the most direct signal, leaving ones that bounce from the ground or other objects first. The result is a signal that is degraded slightly, skewing results.

Altai Mountains of Western Siberia
GPS has also been used successfully with satellite imagery in mapping and planning archaeological sites. In an experimental study conducted in the Altai Mountains of Western Siberia, Goossens et al (2006) tested three different GPS systems, comparing their implementation and results. The first system tested was a duel-frequency DGPS made by NavCom Technologies which used a real-time correction network transmitted to the receiver by satellite. This allowed correction of both ionospheric and tropospheric delays, giving horizontal accuracy of about a half a meter with accurate elevations to just under a meter. The other two systems Goossens et al tested were off the shelf handhelds, the 12 channel Garmin GPS 12XL and the 8 channel Motorola Oncore, which they post-processed with computer software and correction data obtained from nearby reference stations. The handheld models provided accuracy at 1-2 meters after correction, making the DGPS the most reliable and efficient of the three since corrections were real-time.

Neogene period clays
GPS has also found its way into archaeological research through necessity. Hein et al (2004) discuss the research of Neogene period clays in order to understand the geochemical makeup of these clay deposits in Crete, where Greeks of antiquity obtained their raw materials to produce ceramics. Knowing the geochemical makeup of these clays can aid in determining the provenance of ceramic artifacts. Determining which deposits pottery originated from can allow inferences to be made with regard to trade patterns in antiquity. Hein and his team obtained 61 samples from 28 different Neogene clay deposits in Crete, using a Magellan GPS-3000 XL, which offered uncertainty up to 100 meters. However, the authors chose the GPS to provide reproducibility of their results, and precise location may not have been an important consideration for sampling a clay deposit since the individual deposits were kilometers apart.

The advantages of GPS over traditional methods as variously indicated to various extents by the authors of the studies cited above include that traditional optical methods (theodolite or total station) require two people and must maintain line of sight between the instrument and the prism. With a GPS, a single operator can collect data points very quickly and the data can be transferred relatively easily to GIS software or a database for later analysis and processing. However, GPS has limitations that must be taken into consideration. For instance, a clear view of the sky is needed to conduct a quality survey and dense forest, tall buildings, or even occasional large trees can affect results. In such cases, combinations of GPS and optical methods may still yield efficient results. A datum point can be established in a location of the site where accurate GPS data can be collected and then optical methods or tape and compass used to lay out the baseline and remaining excavation grid.

The future of GPS in archaeological applications will certainly include data collection, particularly as equipment becomes readily available to excavation teams. The ease of use, increased rate of data collection, the quality of data, and the ability for a single surveyor to collect data will be appealing to archaeologists seeking to maximize their time. In addition, the ability to transfer data from the GPS to a laptop in the field for processing and rendering to a map further simplify the survey process and, perhaps, eliminate errors in calculation that can occur with optical methods.


Chapman, H., & Van de Noort. (2001, April). High-resolution wetland prospection, using GPS and GIS: Landscape Studies at Sutton Common (South Yorkshire), and Meare Village East (Somerset). Journal of Archaeological Science, 28(4), 365-375.

Goossens, R., De Wulf. (2006, June). Satellite imagery and archaeology: The example of CORONA in the Altai Mountains. Journal of Archaeological Science, 33(6), 745-755.

Hein, A., Day. (2004, August). The geochemical diversity of Neogene clay deposits in Crete and its implications for provenance studies of Minoan pottery. Archaeometry, 46(3), 357-384.

Ladefoged, T. L., Graves, M. W., O’Connor, B. V., & and Chapin, R. (1998). Integration of Global Positioning Systems into Archaeological Field Research: A Case Study from North Kohala, Hawai’i Island. Society for American Archaeology, 16(1).

Martens, F. (2005, August). The archaeological urban survey of Sagalassos (South-West Turkey): The possibilities and limitations of surveying a ‘non-typical’ classical site. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 24(3), 229-254.

Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival

Be sure to visit the Four Stone Hearth, a blog carnival for anthropology bloggers. This is the fourth edition and is hosted this time at Yann Klimentidis’ Weblog.