Previously (see Nadia Abu El Haj versus written history and the scientific method - I
), I discussed the absurdity of the explicit or implicit claim of Nadia Abu El Haj and others that Israel
i archaeology had the purpose of demonstrating Jewish rights to the land, as if those rights had not been amply established and accepted before the establishment of the state of Israel. El-Haj's approach tends to discard a huge body of evidence in favor of tenuous "alternative narratives." It produces the sort of theories beloved of conspiracy theorists. It could only be considered seriously in the intellectual framework of post-structuralist approaches, that have more or less abandoned the scientific approach, which they deride as "positivist facticity."
The following reasoning, from Elia Zureik's favorable review
of El Haj's work, illustrates both the method and the degree to which surrealistic logic such as that of El Haj has gained prominence and acceptance in some academic circles:
Abu El-Haj questions the inference that the Roman Legion burnt the city in 70 C.E. "How does one determine that a specific historical event is causally linked to physical remnants of fire?" The story of the Roman destruction is "much more in keeping with nationalist historiography" (p. 145). Other "equally plausible accounts," for which there is ample evidence could be that the fire "was evidence of class or sectarian conflict within Jewish society" which erupted prior to the Roman entry.
The "equally plausible" accounts are not equally plausible. The inference that the charred remains are due to the Roman fire is due to the description of that fire in contemporary Roman documents and inscriptions. These have nothing to do with any Zionist historiography. On the contrary, the alternative arguments are mostly figments of El-Haj's imagination, invented ad-hoc to fit a narrative suitable to Arab nationalist historiogrpahy. By the accepted criterion of Occam's razor, Roman destruction of Jerusalem is the simplest explanation, and therefore the one that scientists would adopt. There is no need to multiply "entities" such as "class struggles" to explain the fire. The fire could have been caused by Mrs. O'Leary's cow, like the Chicago fire, or the landing of a space craft. Anything is possible, but not all explanations are "equally plausible." It is conceivable that the charred remains were due to a different event, but the finding of such remains, dated to a specific time, in conjunction with independent evidence from written sources, tends to support the theory that the remains were due to the Roman fire, and it is the simplest explanation.
This sort of inference is no better or worse than archaeological inferences made by Woolley in Iraq or by archaeologists studying any other ancient civilization. Their errors and "leaps of faith," like those of Israeli archaeologists, are often corrected by subsequent scientific developments. Schliemann very much wanted to believe he had discovered the Troy of Homer, and Woolley very much wanted to believe perhaps, that he had discovered evidence of the biblical flood. Their errors were not due to any settler colonialist agenda, but to the natural inclination of scientists to use one set of known facts as evidence in support of another, and the inclination of archaeologists to rely on written records, because experience has shown that these records are very often correct. The errors are not fatal to scientific progress, because as long as science sticks to the empirical method, errors will eventually be corrected. Their theories were scientific theories in that they were falsifiable: they could be proven probably incorrect by a different set of findings that didn't fit the theory or by a more elegant theory that explained the facts in a better way. The "theories" of Nadia Abu El Haj and others of her school are not falsifiable. There can always be an alternative explanation for any event. They are accepted because their adherents like them, not because they are objectively the best explanations of the data.
The reasons why a scientist believes in a theory or tries to amass evidence in its favor are totally irrelevant as long as the theory provides a good framework for further research and as long as its findings can be verified or falsified by further accumulation of data and experimentation. Early astronomers gathered astronomical data to support their theologies, and the heliocentric theory was advanced to support irrelevant notions about the "music of the spheres." Newtonian physics was "incorrect," but it was useful in furthering understanding of the physical universe.
El Haj and her followers belong to a different school of thought. The bizarre proposals of El Haj, and their eager reception by Elia Zureik and others, can be explained by two circumstances. The first is an obvious pro-Palestinian bias. The second is an utter contempt for what used to be called the scientific method, and a thorough reliance on post-structuralist theory. Zureik tells us:
Abu El-Haj draws upon the sociology of science, in particular actor-network theory...
Actor-network theory is typical of post-structuralist thinking. As we learn here, actor network theory
is a constructivist approach in that it avoids essentialist explanations of events or innovations (e.g. explaining a successful theory by saying it is 'true' and the others are 'false').
Being translated from jargon, that means that the acceptability of the theory, like other post-structuralist theories, does not depend on empirical validation. Thus, the post-structuralist approach has moved us back before the scientific era, when statements that were supposedly about the real world did not have to have any real world referents, and all opinions were equally acceptable regardless of their relation to actual facts. It is therefore not surprising that Zureik and El-Haj deride "Zionist" archaeology in these terms:
For the Zionists, it was archaeological "facticity" in the positivist tradition that counted in the struggle (with the British) over the naming of places...
According to the post-structuralist approach, what matters in history are "discourse" and "narratives" rather than facts. The horrible monstrous and sneaky Zionists had the effrontery to rely on facts and empirical method rather than post-structuralist "discourse." Clearly, if a place was called Yavneh in the ancient Zionist texts, and a place called "Yibne" by the Arab locals was located exactly in the spot described for ancient Yavneh, it might be because Muhamad named it so when he came to Palestine on his flying horse, and not because of any empirical positivistic bourgeois settler colonialist explanation.
At least, the flying horse "narrative" must be given equal weight with the empirical one. That is because there are no hierarchies in narratives according to post-structuralist doctrine, a point claimed by El-Haj, and since post-structuralists apparently exclude Occam's Razor: for them, the simplest explanation is no better than any others. Since empirical data don't matter, there is no need to investigate the question of whether or not horses can fly, or to dig up Palestine or Arabia to find the remains of the horse. What matters is only that sufficient numbers of people believe the claim.
Likewise, the similarity of the name "Beisan" to "Beth Shean" and "Birsaba" to "Beersheba" could be explained away as coincidences rather than relying on "positivist facticity." Or, they could be explained as implementing the wish of pious Muslims to name their cities after biblical cities, without reference to the location of the original city, just as there is a Bethel New York, for example. By the same logic, perhaps the pyramids were created by Goualds from outer space, or perhaps ancient Egypt was really located in modern India, and the modern country of that name is just a namesake. According to El-Haj's approach, that explanation would be as good as any other.
More important and ominous than El Haj's claims themselves, is the fact that they have won academic acceptance. The approach to scientific explanation in the social science that El-Haj and others represent is apparently now normative, at least in anthropology departments. El Haj was rewarded with a coveted prize, the Hourani prize, given the post of Director of Graduate Studies, and granted tenure.
It is regrettably true, and post-structuralists will probably agree, that in any period and location, what constitutes good science is all too often whatever the people in charge consider to be good science. This is especially true when methods of empirical proof are unavailable, imperfect or ignored, and in fields where no decisive proof is often possible. Functionalist sociology, phrenology, phlogiston theory, inheritance of acquired characteristics, creationism and racial inferiority of Africans and Jews have all, at one time or another, been considered valid scientific practice in different parts of the world, either because people don't know any better, or because a particular theory is convenient for a given political or religious dogma. The Marxist roots of post-structuralism, after all, hearken back to the validation by Joseph Stalin of the quack theories of Trofim D. Lysenko regarding inheritance of acquired characteristics. They constituted a good socialist "narrative" as opposed to the alternative theories of inheritance proposed by bourgeois science, and therefore they were declared to be "true."
Apparently the Barnard Anthropology Department, and others, are enamored of the new academic religion of post-structuralist discourse, because it permits them to support their pet political theories without reference to inconvenient facts presented by "positivist facticity."
Accordingly, it was indeed out of place to petition Barnard to deny tenure to Professor El Haj, since her work is an egregious example of their discipline. But it is certainly in place to protest that the entire discipline as practiced by El Haj and her colleagues may be quack science on a par with phrenology and functionalist sociology.
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Replies: 3 Comments
Indeed, Daniel Jackson.
Ami Isseroff, Friday, November 9th
The fact that you mentioned the Gouald made my day.
Ariel, Friday, November 9th
Thanks, Ami, for presenting a readable and (pardon the expression) facts-based critique of another pseudo-scientific fallacy!
Misha SHAULI, Thursday, November 8th
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