Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

The unanswerable

Humans are boundlessly curious, and that's a good thing.  Our drive to understand, to cure our ignorance about the world around us, is the engine that powers science.  In my 32-year career as a science teacher, one of the things I strove the hardest to accomplish was to urge my students never to be content to shrug their shoulders and stop trying to understand.

Like most things, though, this curiosity has a downside, and that is when it turns into a desperation to have an answer, any answer, whether it's supported by the evidence or not.  Saying "I don't know, and may never know" is sometimes so profoundly uncomfortable that we settle into whatever explanation sounds superficially appealing -- and forthwith stop thinking about it.

Taking a scientific, skeptical view of things requires not only that you have the drive to understand, but that you can tolerate -- and know the scope of -- the limits of your own knowledge.  As theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler put it, "We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance.  As the island of our knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance."

What got me thinking about this is a story I ran into on the site Coast to Coast, which specializes in oddball speculation about unexplained phenomena.  The headline was "Mysterious Stone Carving Stumps Archaeologists in England," just the latest in umpteen popular media stories about some new discovery that "has scientists baffled."

To read this stuff, you come away with the impression that scientists do nothing all day but sit around scratching their heads in puzzlement.

In any case, the contents of the story are interesting enough.  A curious stone carving was discovered by some archaeologists investigating a Late Bronze Age site on Nesscliffe Hill, near Shrewsbury.  Without further ado, here's the carving:

Paul Reilly, one of the archaeologists studying the site, said that the carving is "indicative of two different types of technology, grinding and carving...  It appears to depict some kind of figure with the indentation being its head and the various scratches representing two long horns and two small horns, a central body line and two arms, one held up and the other down, the upward one showing a possible hand holding a pipe or a weapon...  Placing it in historical context, however, is another challenge altogether...  The carving has similarities with Late Bronze Age carvings of figures in horned helmets.  The region was once the domain of a Roman tribe known as the Cornovii, a name that has been suggested to reference to the ‘horned ones’.  The figure also could represent a horned deity cult in the Roman army as depicted at several military sites across Britain."

Note how many times Reilly uses words like "appears" and "could be" and "possible" and "suggested."  The fact is -- as he admits up front -- he doesn't know who carved the figure and why.  Dating such finds is a challenge at best, and this one is especially problematic; it was found in loose soil that had been used to backfill a trench from an earlier dig, so it was not in what archaeologists call "a secure context" (i.e., pretty much where it had been placed when its maker set it down millennia ago).

None of this is all that unusual; this kind of thing happens all the time in archaeology, and is in fact way more common than finding an artifact and being able to ascertain exactly when it had been created, by whom, and why.  But what got me thinking about our need to find an answer, any answer, was how Tim Binnall -- who wrote the article about the discovery -- wound up his piece by asking if any of his readers could "solve the mystery of the stone carving," and asked them to submit their answers to him at Coast to Coast.

Now, I know part of this is just an attempt to engage his readers, and there's nothing wrong with that.  I always love it when readers post comments and questions here at Skeptophilia (well, almost always -- I could do without the hate mail).  But immediately I read that, my reaction was, "Why on earth would some random layperson's opinion on the carving have any relevance whatsoever?"  He is, in essence, asking people to form opinions about an artifact for which even the experts have nothing more than speculation.

This is where we cross over into the territory of preferring any answer at all over admitting that we simply don't know, and may never know.

I'm deliberately leaving this in the realm of an obscure archaeological find, because (notwithstanding Binnall's request) few of us are going to get passionately emotional about a carved piece of rock from Bronze Age England.  But I'm sure you can come up with lots of other, more highly charged, examples of this -- questions for which our desire to have answers overrides the fact that we simply don't have enough evidence to conclude anything.  And some of these answers to unanswerable questions are believed with enough fervor that people will die for them -- and there are those who will unhesitatingly kill you if your answer is different from theirs, or worse, if you state outright that you don't know, and in reality, neither do they.

These are not easy issues.  As I said earlier, a lot of it comes from a source that is, at its heart, a positive thing; the drive to know.  But honesty is as important as curiosity, and that includes an honest assessment of what we understand and what we do not.  I'll conclude with a quote from another brilliant physicist, Richard Feynman: "I would far rather have questions that cannot be answered than answers that cannot be questioned."


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