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Saturday, 14 October 2017

Another geology paper -- and a case of scientific misconduct?

Another geology paper on the bluestones, and another case of wilful negligence. That's the very least we can say about it -- and maybe we should be saying something a good deal stronger....

The paper in question is by Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins (2017), a feature article in "Geology Today" called "The Bluestones of Stonehenge." (Vol 33,  No 5, Sept - Oct 2017, pp 184-187.  You can see it (maybe) online here:

It's not a paper intended for archaeologists or the general public, but for people interested in geology.  So we would expect something scientifically accurate, since geology is generally considered to be a science.  It's also a feature article, meant to summarise the state of play in an entertaining way.  And what have we got?

Well, it's nicely laid out and lavishly illustrated, as you would expect.  Most of the text consists of an update from the geologists on the latest bluestone provenancing research -- so we have heard almost all of that before.  The authors say that they consider a bluestone to be "any non-sarsen rock used as an ‘orthostat’ or standing stone" found in the inner circle and horseshoe at Stonehenge.  They mention sarsens very briefly, and say they "may only have been moved dozens of kilometres" from their sources.  On the other hand, they may all have come from the immediate vicinity, and it's careless of Ixer and Bevins not to mention that.   Most of the geological core of the paper is uncontroversial, although they do claim that they corrected the interpretations of the OU team on the origins of the spotted dolerites, moving the likely source from Carn Meini to Carn Goedog and Cerrig Marchogion.  I thought that the OU team said that long ago, and that the Ixer / Bevins work simply confirmed their suspicions?  Then they move on to the 2 dacite and 2 rhyolite orthostats, and "go underground" in referring to the buried stumps which appear to be a mixture of tuffs and sandstones.  After that, the references to rock types are all linked to the debitage, which is "dominated by a very distinctive, strongly foliated rhyolitic tuff and by more variable, well cleaved argillaceous tuffs, as well as with lesser amounts of an indurated Lower Palaeozoic sandstone which shows a poor fracture cleavage."  There is a fundamental illogicality here, since according to the Ixer / Bevins definition anything that does not come from an orthostat should not be counted as a bluestone.  It may be that the debitage is indeed made up of smashed-up standing stones -- but it may also be that the debris has nothing to do with standing stones and has come from smaller and inconvenient erratics found on the site.  This possibility should at least be admitted.

There are a couple of paragraphs on the sandstones -- the Altar Stone and the Lower Palaeozoic (probably Upper Ordovician) sandstone.  Mill Bay is eliminated as a source for the former, with the evidence now pointing to the Senni Beds somewhere or other.  They don't speculate as to where the Lower Palaeozoic rocks might have come from, but the assumption is "somewhere in north Pembrokeshire", as we have seen in earlier publications.  There is a mischievous hint that "Ice Age proponents" are rather careless when it comes to adventitious material at Stonehenge --  but the authors should know full well that Olwen Williams-Thorpe, Geoffrey Kellaway and I have always been very careful, when referring to a "wide range of rock types", to eliminate road stone and other rubbish carried onto the site.  It's a bit silly to hint at our scientific incompetence -- especially in the light of the behaviour of the authors themselves............ Stones and greenhouses come to mind ...... so read on, dear reader.

In review or feature articles of this sort, the authors have to say something significant, so the last part of this one involves a discussion of the human transport routes for the bluestones, accompanied by the usual map which we have all seen a thousand times before.  (Yes, they are assuming, in all of this, the correctness of the human transport hypothesis, and yes, that is bad science, but we have got used to it by now.)  Because the "new" provenances for bluestone orthostats and debitage happen to be on the northern flank of Preseli, Ixer and Bevins say that rules out Milford Haven and sea transport, and so they promote the MPP hypothesis of the overland or A40 route instead.  They throw in a reference to the Steep Holm glacial erratics here as well, which I find quite mystifying, since they have nothing whatsoever to do with the matter in hand, and since nobody, as far as I know, has argued in print that they were "abandoned bluestones" dropped by Neolithic seafarers. They are simply taking pleasure in putting up an Aunt Sally in order to knock it down.

Rhosyfelin -- the rock face, carefully cleaned and presented for public approval.....

So -- inevitably -- we come to Rhosyfelin and the source of some of the rhyolite debitage.  This is where the science goes seriously cockeyed.  The authors refer to "a north-west facing planar face".  It is nothing of the sort, as I have frequently shown on this blog.  The rock face reveals multiple planar surfaces, not just one.  It is broken up by multiple fractures, and some bits of the rock face project more than 1.5 m out beyond other bits.  They say the face "does not look natural" -- that's a highly subjective judgment with which I and many other visitors to the site disagree.  One small blessing is that the authors do not say in this article that they have provenanced foliated rhyolite fragments to "within a few square metres."

But Ixer and Bevins say this: "Subsequent archaeological excavations have shown features consistent with ancient quarrying."  That's for Rhosyfelin.   A little earlier in the paper, with reference to Carn Goedog, they say this: "......very recent excavations at Carn Goedog have revealed evidence for Neolithic working of the outcrop (Parker Pearson and others, in press)".  The implication is that a new paper is on the way, which will enumerate the evidence.  But there is no such reference in the "suggestions for further reading", and from what I can gather the only paper to which we can all look forward is another general one from MPP which might not even be peer reviewed.  Perhaps Ixer and Bevins will enlighten us as to the nature of this paper, and tell us when and where it will be published.  Until then, we will treat this as a false citation.

Now let's get serious.  Ixer and Bevins have told the readers that there are "features" and "evidence" pointing to Neolithic quarrying or working, at Rhosyfelin and Carn Goedog.  That, as we all know, is just part of the story, and the authors have known, ever since 2015, that there are two peer-reviewed papers in the literature which have analysed all of the cited "evidence" and have concluded that the described features are entirely natural.  Not only that, but the papers both suggest that some of the evidence cited by the MPP team (including Ixer and Bevins as senior authors) may actually be best described as artifices created by the diggers themselves during their ongoing excavations.  Just in case anybody has failed to encounter them, here are the papers:

Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes (2015). "Quaternary Events at Craig Rhosyfelin, Pembrokeshire." Quaternary Newsletter, October 2015 (No 137), pp 16-32.

Brian John, Dyfed Elis-Gruffydd and John Downes (2015). "Observations on the supposed "Neolithic bluestone quarry" at Craig Rhosyfelin, Pembrokeshire".  Archaeology in Wales 54, pp 139-148. (Publication 14th December 2015)

 To the best of our knowledge, not one of the 14 authors in the MPP team has cited these easily available and much-read papers in any of the "bluestone" papers published over the past two years.  So are they terrible papers?  Well, they are quite short, but they are also detailed, and they were submitted through the normal channels to two journal editors, peer-reviewed blind, revised appropriately, and then published under strict editorial control.  People might not like them, but they are there, on the record.  Not one of our pieces of evidence has been challenged, and not one of our deductions or conclusions has been disputed in print or even off the record.  So have 14 authors simply chosen to ignore them, in the hope that they will go away?  So it would appear.  I can understand why archaeologists might not want to cite the two papers, since they are not scientists, and our papers are seriously "inconvenient" -- but for two senior earth scientists to do the same is unforgivable.  They have read the papers in detail.  They understand exactly what we are presenting in the way of evidence, and they know the full implications of our conclusions.  And yet they have chosen to live in a state of denial, refusing to cite and refusing to engage.  Why?  Maybe because there are no bluestone erratics scattered around on Salisbury Plain?  I just cannot understand the twisted logic that leads senior scientists from that particular issue to a refusal to analyse so-called "quarrying" evidence at two rocky outcrops in west Wales.  Or maybe this has to do with "corporate responsibility", with Ixer and Bevins, having been involved in that infamous paper on Rhosyfelin, now refusing to break ranks because it would be unsporting or disloyal to do so?  I have looked at that issue in a previous post:

Now let's get even more serious.  The most serious crime that can be committed by a scientist is to falsify evidence, with a view to promoting a particular conclusion that might be at fault. Scientific misconduct or malpractice comes in many different forms, but here are two definitions cited by COPE:

Danish definition: "Intention or gross negligence leading to fabrication of the scientific message or a false credit or emphasis given to a scientist"
Swedish definition: "Intentional distortion of the research process by fabrication of data, text, hypothesis, or methods from another researcher's manuscript form or publication; or distortion of the research process in other ways."

We can't accuse the two geologists here of "gross negligence", since we know that they know all about the two "ignored" papers and that they have discussed them in detail.  They have simply chosen not to cite them, with the object of promoting the quarrying hypothesis.  But if we were to be sitting on a university ethics committee I think we might see clear signs of an intention to fabricate a message or to give a false emphasis through the selective citation of sources.  We might also see a distortion of the research process or a misrepresentation of the work of other scientists.

According to the US National Science Foundation, "falsification" is a very serious matter.  They give one of the definitions as follows:  ".....omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record."  That could not be clearer.  If you fail to cite "inconvenient" material you are in trouble, and your reputation is on the line.  In another study, this is called "suppression" -- a failure to publish significant findings due to the results being adverse to the interests and prior claims of the researcher.

Then we have things called "bare assertions".  It is generally not a good idea to make entirely unsubstantiated claims.  The archaeologists do this all the time, since they are seriously into storytelling, but geologists need to be more careful, especially when promoting a quarrying thesis after being told -- in two peer-reviewed papers -- that the claim is unsubstantiated.

So Ixer and Bevins have used selective citation and carefully selected evidence (which they know is disputed) in a paper designed for a knowledgeable geological readership.  At the same time they have wilfully ignored peer-reviewed material that happens to be relevant but inconvenient.

Disrespectful, biased and careless, or something much more serious?  I leave it to the reader to judge.

Postscript 1

There is rather bizarre postscript to this sorry tale.  As all readers of this blog will know, ever since 2011 and the sudden rise to prominence of Rhosyfelin, we have been discussing with Rob in one post after another how the features at the site should be interpreted.  It is to his great credit that he has been prepared to engage in the process of debate.  But over and again he said: "Don't just argue on this blog.  Get your material written up, and get in published in the peer-reviewed literature!"  He even, if I recall correctly, suggested Archaeology in Wales as a reputable journal worth approaching.  So we gratefully followed his advice, wrote up our material, and submitted it to two journals -- one specialising in Quaternary stratigraphy etc, and the other in the field of archaeology.  In due course, in November and December 2015, the two articles were published, to the accompaniment of much excitement in the media.  From that point on, the articles have been systematically ignored by the two geologists.  Really most peculiar.

Postscript 2 

 This is not the first time that Bevins and Ixer have knowingly promoted the quarrying hypothesis, in the process ignoring "inconvenient" peer-reviewed material already on the academic record. The following article was submitted in April 2016, ie 4 months after publication of one the two papers by BJ, DEG and JD, and 6 months after the other.  No excuses.

Richard Bevins, Nicola Atkinson, Rob Ixer & Jane Evans (2016) "U– Pb zircon age constraints for the Ordovician Fishguard Volcanic Group and further evidence for the provenance of the Stonehenge bluestones”, Jnl Geol Soc 174, 14-17, 3 November 2016,

Quote: “……….the age obtained in this study supports the findings on the basis of petrography and geochemistry that its source is not Craig Rhos-y-felin. Nevertheless, this region provides an obvious target to search for further Neolithic quarry sites to add to those identified most recently by Parker Pearson et al. (2015)." 

And here is another short paper published by the same authors in February 2016:

Rob Ixer and Richard Bevins (2016) “Go West: the search for the bluestone quarries”. Current Archaeology 311 (Feb 2016), pp 23-24.

Quote: "There is clearly still much to learn here, but as work on the Preseli quarries continues, we hope that our detailed petrology will help to resolve the ongoing debate about how the bluestones arrived at Stonehenge and from exactly where."

This was published three months after our QN paper, and if the authors had chosen to adapt their text and recognize the existence of a "quarrying dispute" they could have done so, even at proof stage. They chose instead to ignore our peer-reviewed article and to maintain the pretence that the existence of the Neolithic quarries was established fact.



AG said...

Afraid the articles behind a paywall!

It would appear that these days the shoulders of giants are accessible only to the well heeled!

Since Newton's day the giants have become " Thatcherites".

BRIAN JOHN said...

Ah -- I thought it was just me. If you keep an eye on Rob's Academia page it will probably appear there soon, for free!