Open Science is not all the same: What archaeology can teach us

There’s no simple dot point way to adopt Open Science and improve the trustworthiness of science. A fascinating story from archaeology illustrates that reality nicely. First, the story.

Archaeologists have long studied when the out-of-Africa spreading of modern humans first reached Australia. About 47,000 years ago has been the recent conclusion. But now stunning new finds and very fancy dating analyses have pushed that date back to a mind-boggling 65,000 years, long before modern humans are believed to have entered Europe about 45,000 years ago.

It’s worth reading about the painstaking digging under the tropical sun, then the also-painstaking lab work, in this brief article in The Conversation. Dating thousands of sand grains individually! Among other startling claims, the researchers say they found the world’s oldest know edge-ground hatchets. The research was announced in Nature.

Now for Open Science. In a brief companion article in The Conversation, the archaeologists write that:

“Reproducibility is not just a minor technicality for specialists; it’s a pressing issue that affects the role of modern science in society.” (Yay! Indeed!) and that “It might come as a surprise that archaeologists are at the forefront of finding ways to improve the situation.”

The researchers described their three-pronged strategy for improving the trustworthiness of their conclusions:

1. Replication in archaeology is of course not simply a matter of running a study again with a new group of participants. The researchers did something analogous by going back to a site that had previously yielded very old artifacts, and dug deeper and wider. They used modern precise methods to document more than 10,000 stone artefacts.

2. Dating the samples. Duplicate samples were sent, blind, to an independent laboratory. That lab found results that closely matched the researchers’ own dating analyses. (Phew!)

3. Data analysis. Instead of using standard packages (hello SPSS) and reporting only the results, the researchers wrote their own scripts in R, then published the scripts, along with the data and full analyses. This is a fine example of best Open Science practice–take note Psychology!

I hope those two articles made for an enjoyable little interlude in your day.

P.S. On a personal note, I’ve been off-air for a while as my wife and I have moved house–from suburban Melbourne within bike distance of La Trobe University, to Woodend, a very friendly town of about 4,000, about an hour up the railway line (or the freeway) from central Melbourne. Early days, but so far, so very good. (And 3 of our 7 grandchildren live just around the corner.)

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