Making stuff up in prehistory

I learn, or relearn, surprising amounts about archaeology and history from books that have nothing to do with either. Viz. this from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow* (this passage starts out discussing The Black Swan, which I haven’t read):

Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative…

The ultimate test of an explanation is whether it would have made the event predictable in advance. No story of Google’s unlikely success will meet that test, because no story can include the myriad of events that would have caused a different outcome. The human mind does not deal well with nonevents. The fact that many of the important events that did occur [in the history of Google’s rise] involve choices further tempts you to exaggerate the role of skill and underestimate the part that luck played in the outcome…

At work here is that powerful WYSIATI [what you see is all there is] rule. You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.

That’s essentially how we approach early Holocene prehistory, isn’t it. The only difference is prehistorians are usually well aware of their ignorance, in fact they need very little prompting to admit that they are making a lot of stuff up. What they mean is that they operate in a field of unknowns and unknown unknowns exceptional even within the historically contingent world of social sciences, and have to work with what they’ve got. If we are not satisfied with saying the limited things that can be said by scientific inductive process, then we have to be at home with more humanistic approaches, to wit handwavy bullshit which is just as rigorous as we can make it, according to standards for rigour that have largely been developed along the same lines.

The only caveat to the above is that all the stuff about individuals doesn’t apply; prehistorians are saved from this error by the fact that they can’t usually identify historically situated individual choices or even, a lot of the time, group choices. Instead, they fret about agency, which might look at first glance like a wistful abstract substitute for identifiable individual choices but seen in the context of the Kahneman passage is actually a far superior approach, because it forces you to reason out to yourself the pitfalls of relying on intentionality to construct a historical explanation.

I say “early Holocene” because my sense is that deep prehistory suffers less from the narrative fallacy problem; the timescales of change are sufficiently large to make contingent historical explanation of the kind that plays tricks on the mind unhelpful. There are by common consent bigger questions to ask about the earlier bits of human story and shinier toolsets from other disciplines to apply to them. It’s only in that moment between the end of the Palaeolithic and the successful outsourcing of human memory into writing, a moment you can easily perceive on human timescales because the material cultures change so fast, that you find yourself pulled towards constructing historic-type explanations that are even less falsifiable than your proper “historical” historic narrative usually is, and that stuff’s bad enough.

It’s all very awkward.

* (I will finish this book soon, honestly, and stop banging on about it, and start reading something else and see the entire world through the prism of throwaway concepts in that for six weeks instead; there is probably a phrase in psychology for the act of doing this and it’s probably derived from the Greek for “bullshitting dilettante”).


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