Saturday, December 14, 2019

Incoherent Catastrophism?

skepticink |  It happens now and then a perfectly good scientist takes hold of a crank idea and plunges headlong into pseudoscience. Olaus Rudbeck discovered the lymphatic system and wrote hefty tomes arguing that Plato’s Atlantis was located in Uppsala, Sweden. Velikovsky was an accredited psychiatrist. Several Young Earth Creationists have genuine scientific degrees from respected institutions. Anatoly Fomenko, creator of the lunatic New Chronology, is an eminent mathematician at Moscow University. Etc.

Martin Sweatman, a chemical engineer at Edinburgh University, is earning a place on that list with his “decoding” of ancient art as a form of astronomical notation. In a couple of peer-reviewed papers co-authored with Dimitrios Tsikritsis and Alistair Coombs, plus a number of blog posts and now a book, Sweatman claims statistical validation of his claims so powerful that no other interpretation has any chance of being correct. Any of us who quibble, according to him, simply don’t understand science.

Now, I have quibbled quite a bit already: an initial critique of his Gobekli Tepe paper, a response to his rebuttal, a parody paper applying his analytical method to a different database (Looney Tunes characters) with similarly dazzling success, and some lively discussion in the comments of both our blogs. At the risk of seeming obsessive, I’m taking up Sweatman’s challenge to critique his second paper, which extends his grand hypothesis forward to Catal Huyuk and backward to Paleolithic art, as far back as 40,000 years ago. As his second paper builds on the results from the first, however, it is necessary to cover some old ground.

Recap: Pillar 43 at Gobekli Tepe is the cornerstone of the analysis. Sweatman interprets some of its engravings as a constellation-map and some as solstice and equinox constellations, the two combining to form a “date-stamp” for 10,950 BC, the presumed date of the (highly controversial) Younger Dryas Impact. Applying a basic probability calculation, he concludes that his assumptions have been verified, and no other interpretation is possible.

What he actually demonstrates is how thoroughly a competent scientist can be seduced by wishful thinking. The paper is a dense pudding of circular reasoning, data taken out of context, and speculations that are subsequently treated as fact, all of which are clear markers of pseudoscience; errors and inconsistencies that Sweatman dismisses as irrelevant; and an overall amateurism with regard to the archaeology and iconography that is honestly beyond a joke. I’ve pointed some of these out in previous critiques, but there are points to add, and some that bear repeating.