Inference from Absence: The case of Archaeology

Palgrave Communications 5 (94):1-10 (2019)
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Inferences from the absence of evidence to something are common in ordinary speech, but when used in scientific argumentations are usually considered deficient or outright false. Yet, as demonstrated here with the help of various examples, archaeologists frequently use inferences and reasoning from absence, often allowing it a status on par with inferences from tangible evidence. This discrepancy has not been examined so far. The article analyses it drawing on philosophical discussions concerning the validity of inference from absence, using probabilistic models that were originally developed to show that such inferences are weak and inconclusive. The analysis reveals that inference from absence can indeed be justified in many important situations of archaeological research, such as excavations carried out to explore the past existence and time-span of sedentary human habitation. The justification is closely related to the fact that archaeology explores the human past via its material remains. The same analysis points to instances where inference from absence can have comparable validity in other historical sciences, and to research questions in which archaeological inference from absence will be problematic or totally unwarranted.

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