Imagine this. You are the mayor of a small city. You and your tax-paying constituents have just paid $300,000 for an archaeological study, done in advance of a housing development. You did it gladly, in part because when you were a little girl, you always thought archaeology was cool; but also in part because if you didn’t, you weren’t going to get that federal grant that allowed you to build the low-cost housing that your city so badly needs. On your desk is the result of that year’s worth of work: twenty pounds of paper, in three volumes, nicely bound, lots of good pictures, plenty of tables and seven appendices. You thumb through the document and read randomly:

…soils mapped in the project area are Pershing and Mahaska series soils…
…sherd thicknesses range from ca. 4.3 mm to 7.2 mm with a mode of 6.1…
…a bell shaped feature measuring 37.3 cm in diameter and 1.5 m in depth was mapped in Area 14C…
…a discrepancy between faunal remains recovered from feature contexts and those observed in modern contexts…
…a shell gorget inscribed with a weeping eye motif…
…with an MNI of 3 subadult, one male adult and one female adult Bison bison…
…dates returned ranged from 4,300 +/- 45 rcybp to 5225 +/- 45 rcybp…
…6,347 pieces of chert debitage were recovered of which 73.4 percent were heat-treated…
…silica deposits on three of the lithic samples indicated…

According to the State Historic Preservation Officer, the cultural resource firm who produced this book has done an excellent job, in fact, he’s never seen a better excavated and documented archaeological site in his 20 years of reviewing such things. The only thing is, nowhere does in this three-volume, nicely bound, beautifully illustrated $300,000 document does it explain in plain language what the archaeologists learned. As the mayor and taxpayer, you want to ask the archaeologist, so what did you find out? Who lived here? When? What did they do? How long did they live there? What kinds of things did they eat? What did they believe? How did they run their lives? And you stop short of picking up the telephone and calling the archaeologist because, well, you don’t want to look stupid. Clearly, they found out all that stuff, clearly the information is in there, but it isn’t in a language you can understand.

Mind you, I’m just as obfuscating as the next guy. My technical reports read just like this, or at least I would hope they do. Rigorous investigations, faultless technical prose, tables that add up and radiocarbon samples dated and ceramics analyzed and references included in the back. But I don’t, as a rule, include a statement directed to the general public about what it all means.

Why not? Why don’t we as scientists do this? Why don’t we tell the story? I can tell you why. Because it isn’t rigorous enough. Converting our scientific measurements into explanatory prose is, in some respects, fudging the data. Fuzzying things. Making intuitive leaps. Making, you should pardon the expression, guesses about what really went on. If we did that, we might be …wrong. Measuring things, calculating thicknesses, identifying fragments, that’s real science, we say. Interpreting what the numbers mean—that’s dangerous. That’s not in our contract. That’s what got Carl Sagan into trouble.

And yet, don’t we owe it to the public to explain ourselves? Wrong though we may be proven at a later date? I think so, I think we do. For if we don’t explain ourselves, somebody else will. Newspaper reporters who kinda understand what we’re saying. People with agendas of their own will talk about the site excavation as a great loss to humankind or a not very interesting waste of the taxpayers’ money or an invasion of privacy of the ancestors. We shrug our shoulders and try not to think about it, but that’s what happens. Mostly, to be honest, we hope nobody notices.

But science shouldn’t be a matter of choosing rigor vs. accessibility. Science should be both. We have a responsibility to learn something from our investigations and to tell that something to the people who pay for it. Let’s stop hiding behind the numbers.

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