Posted by: cjobrien | 20 April 2008

Some Thoughts on Federal Archaeology and Intelligent Design

[I started writing this in the airport yesterday, but then got to experience all the joys of flight cancellation everyone else in the country has had to put up with over the last few months – it was a long trip back to northern California].

Discussions around the bar last night in the aftermath of my paper were all positive. What surprised me the most were the number of archaeologists who expressed the idea that “it was about time” we got involved in this debate. Several said it was long overdue. The current SCA president also attended the symposium, heard my paper, and liked the message.  Unfortunately several agreed that there are probably more intelligent design proponents within the crowd than we realize – I knew of at least one in the audience yesterday, just based on casual conversations I have had with this person over the years.

But the intelligent design community is now on notice that archaeologists are at least becoming aware of the issue and many will be engaging the public on this discussion with greater frequency. I am waiting for the fallout from intelligent design proponents on my call, in my capacity as a federal archaeologist, for the archaeology community to get involved. I am expecting some whining on the potential conflict of interest on my part: a federal employee making an official statement on prominent debate in this country. After all, we know intelligent design activists will take advantage of any opportunity to “expel” any criticism of their position from public debate. Most federal employees are quite sensitive (sometimes I think overly so) to maintaining neutrality on controversial issues – our job is simply to ensure that appropriate laws and regulations are followed, not to advocate a particular position (at least not in an official capacity). Most of us take that charge seriously.

 However, I believe I finally understand why federal archaeologists have largely avoided this issue. Those of us who follow it closely know what intelligent design really is: a religious viewpoint. No one I know who opposes intelligent design gives it even the slightest consideration as a scientific viewpoint – we all treat it as a religious position. The federal government cannot discriminate against religious worldviews.

However, we can (and do, regularly) argue over and advocate methodological approaches all the time. We frequently get very vocal, in public and on the job, when we discuss the best way to implement projects, or which scientific approach to implementation is most valid.

If intelligent design proponents are concerned with a federal archaeologist actively arguing against their position, they are in quite a quandary. The only reason for an objection to federal employees commenting in their official capacity is if the argument is based on ID as a religious position. In discussing it as a potential scientific approach, however, it is falls well within our ability to do so. And we should be doing more of that.

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