Prologue: Simultaneous vision - introduction to the internet version

When T.C. Chamberlin set out the method of multiple working hypotheses in 1890 he described it as the third and highest stage in evolution of intellectual methods, an improvement over both the method of the ruling theory and the method of the working hypothesis. The paper 'Land Snail Extinctions at Kalaeloa, O`ahu', first published in Pacific Science (Dye and Tuggle, 1998), offers an example of how a ruling theory (or a working hypothesis, the distinction between them is not sharp), in this case the theory that Polynesian explorers were responsible for degrading the environments of islands they settled, leads to 'an unconscious selection and magnifying of the phenomena that fall into harmony with the theory and support it, and an unconscious neglect of those that fail of coincidence' (Chamberlin 1965, 755). As the paper shows, time and again collections of land snails were interpreted as supporting the ruling theory despite the fact they contained evidence that contradicted it. The primary goal of the paper was to initiate the method of multiple working hypotheses. The paper provides evidence for a long-term pattern of change, possibly tied to a mid-Holocene fall in local sea level, and for a late timing of land snail extinctions consistent with transformation of the Kalaeloa environment by sugarcane production in the mid-19th century. No evidence could be found to support the idea that Polynesian colonization had an effect on land snail populations.

The paper is republished here in the hope of achieving another goal related to the method of multiple working hypotheses, something Chamberlin called 'the power of simultaneous vision from different standpoints'. He believed one of the benefits of the method of multiple working hypotheses was development of

a habit of thought analogous to the method itself, which may be designated a habit of parallel or complex thought. Instead of a simple succession of thoughts in linear order, the procedure is complex, and the mind appears to become possessed of the power of simultaneous vision from different standpoints (Chamberlin 1965, 756).

But with this benefit comes a problem. This habit of thought

is impossible of verbal expression. We cannot put into words more than a single line of thought at the same time; and even in that the order of expression must be conformed to the idiosyncracies of the language, and the rate must be relatively slow (Chamberlin 1965, 757).

More than 100 years later this problem with the method of multiple working hypotheses is not solved. It shows up in archaeology as a general suspicion of attempts at synthesis. Gaffney and Exon (1999), in an Internet Archaeology article on publication, synthesis and dissemination of data in a digital age, assert

the word synthesis carries an implicit suggestion of control of access to data, partial interpretation of information and a potential for the projection of normative or totalising views

Here, the problem identified by Chamberlin is no longer something with which individuals struggle, but something that the discipline as a whole cannot solve. The crux of the problem in this wider arena, according to Gaffney and Exon, is 'control of access to data'. Without access to data, alternative hypotheses can't be tested and the ability of archaeologists to visualise a phenomenon in the archaeological record 'from different standpoints' is curtailed. Access to data is not the only factor, however. Often, syntheses provide too little information about analyses that purportedly support 'normative or totalising views' for the analyses to be replicated confidently. In other cases, analyses are carried out on proprietary software to which other archaeologists have limited or no access.

This article attempts to solve these problems in the context of a synthesis of paleoenvironmental studies from O`ahu Island in Hawai`i. The reader controls access to data, which are made available in two digital formats and can be freely downloaded. The reader has full information about the analyses reported in the paper because the Lisp-Stat software used to carry out the analysis is freely distributed under the GNU Public License.

Links in the paper make it possible to re-create the complete state of an analysis on the reader's computer. The interested reader can check data and analytic procedures for correctness, replicate an analysis to test the stability of results, or carry out alternative analyses. Links to re-create analytic state can be found on figures that display summaries of land snail data.

The rapid advance of the Internet, creation and growing use of standardized markup languages to store, maintain, and distribute data, and development of open-source programming languages designed for ease of use over networks all augur well for future attempts to solve the problem of simultaneous vision in archaeology. In the foreseeable future archaeological data will be routinely stored in standard archaeological markup languages, similar to those proposed in the fields of astronomy, chemistry, theology, statistics, and many others. These data will be easy to find with XML-aware browsers. The information about data structure captured by the markup languages will enable the reader's software to configure itself so the reader can concentrate on analysing data rather than preparing for the analysis. Barriers to simultaneous vision in archaeology will then be primarily social, not technological. They will finally dissolve as complex data-centred syntheses build upon one another and the method of multiple working hypotheses, practiced collectively by archaeologists rather than individual researchers, accelerates the growth and dissemination of knowledge in the discipline.


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Last updated: Tue May 29 2001