Dr. X, False UIO Rumors and “A Cautionary Tale for Scholars in the Age of Rapid Information Flow”

The Business Week debate between Robert Scoble and Scott Dorsey over the future of email reminded me of an article from the September issue of the SAA Archaeological Record, Email X and the Qutio Airport Archaeology Controversy: A Cautionary Tale for Scholars in the Age of Rapid Information Flow. (Thanks, Lee.) The author, Douglas C. Comer of Cultural Site Research and Management. starts his story on March 2006, when “many archaeologists and preservationists around the world received a flurry of troubling emails” from a man he tags Dr. X. X claimed that “Quito’s new airport is beginning to take shape over hundreds of tomb, structures and villages. It is being plowed under, the whole lost civilization.” After a while, Comer “began to wonder if by the simple act of forwarding I had lent credence to a charge that might well be unfounded” and reached out to Dr. X. “I found that he was neither a Ph.D nor an archaeologist.” Comer attributes the email’s effect on the archaeological community in part to “an unfortunate coincidence: X and an established archaeologist have the same name.”

In refuting X’s claims, Comer sites the case as a cautionary tale about the dangers that accompany unfettered, non-vetted public communications:

Email has provided the archaeological and preservation communities with a way to quickly consult and collaborate about research and preservation projects and issues, and to rally support for endangered resources in time to take constructive action. Indeed, the speed of the medium is perhaps it greatest appeal. This being so, email messages are typically composed and sent quickly. Because the initial recipients are often well-known to the sender, the tone is often informal. Messages sent by email are not formulated with the care that is typical when matters of consequence are presented in overtly public forums, such as meetings, conferences, journals or other juried publications….Further, those emails that most perturb the orderly flow of information are those most likely to be propagated through the medium, often with off-the-cuff remarks that can tacitly support the disruptive comment…when email deals with matters of real consequence to research or preservation, it should adhere to same rules of verifiability, authoirty, and logic that are expected in scholarly work.

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