Friday, March 25, 2016

Fact-Checking the Torah -- is it science?

Now for the theoretical portion of our program.  Archaeology is a science.  It is often lumped under “soft sciences” but make no mistake.  It deals with physical remains and it does so using scientific principles.
Misunderstandings of archaeological results sometimes come from not understanding how science works.
Modern science got its philosophical start with Rene Descartes’ Discours sur la Methode.  In it, Rene said that languages are indeed the gateway to knowledge, but they are applied to knowledge of classical authors.  The classical authors have some problems.  One is that they never solve anything.  There is no practical outcome of their works.  People in Descartes’ time, almost 20 centuries after Plato, were still rehashing the same problems Plato did in the same terms.
The second problem with classical authors is that they propagate urban legends.  This includes Pliny’s report of people with their heads in the middle of their chests, as well as Herodotus’ claim that in his time, the 400s BCE, the only people who practiced circumcision were Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Colchians.  Those are my examples; Descartes didn’t give any.
Descartes lived in a time when mathematics was making great leaps forward under a new way of doing math which agreed on symbols and definitions for mathematical terms, putting all mathematicians on the same page and letting them achieve provable results.  Descartes himself created analytical geometry which incorporates algebra, the first sign of things to come, and leading directly to Wiles’s use of geometrical concepts to solve Fermat’s theorem in algebra.
The most important of Descartes’ scientific principles is to document the details of work as completely as possible.  The way science uses this principle is to insist that multiple tests based on those details all give the same results.  Otherwise the original worker might have made mistakes either in method, or by changing the data, or by coming to a mistaken conclusion.  Or we have just learned something new, as Richard Feynman pointed out in his 1963 lectures.
Ron Wyatt’s work fails because he did not provide complete details.  He also failed to provide his physical samples for testing by other workers.  Without examination by people with no vested interest in proving any specific result, we can suspect that Wyatt did not have enough information to back up his claims.  Or he had the information but he had a vested interest in making claims the data doesn’t support.
This same issue discredits the “Bible Codes”.
It will also discredit another field I will talk about much later, which has been described as wissenschaft but really amounts to authoritarian studies and is not an authoritative science.
Next week I’ll discuss another basic principle of science which undercuts some archaeological claims, and it’s one you probably already know about.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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