[Paleopsych] TLS: What is social construction?
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Fri Apr 15 20:28:47 UTC 2005
What is social construction?
The Times Literary Supplement, 1.2.23 (note date)
Paul A Boghossian
Flaws and contradictions in the claim that scientific beliefs are
"merely locally accepted"
Social construction talk is all the rage. But what does it mean and
what is its point? The core idea seems clear enough. To say of
something that it is socially constructed is to emphasize its
dependence on contingent aspects of our social selves. It is to say:
This thing could not have existed, had we not built it; and we need
not have built it at all, at least not in its present form. Had we
been a different kind of society, had we had different needs, values,
or interests, we might well have built a different kind of thing, or
built this one differently. The inevitable contrast is with a
naturally existing object, something that exists independently of us
and which we did not have a hand in shaping.
There are certainly many things, and facts about them, that are
socially constructed in the sense specified by this core idea: money,
citizenship and newspapers, for example. None of these things could
have existed without society; and each of them could have been
constructed differently had we so chosen.
As Ian Hacking rightly observes, however, in his insightful monograph,
The Social Construction of What? (reviewed in the TLS , February 18,
2000), social construction talk is often applied not only to worldly
items - things, kinds and facts - but to our beliefs about them.
Consider The Social Construction of Women Refugees by Helene Moussa
(1992). Clearly, the intent is not to insist on the obvious fact that
certain women come to be refugees as a consequence of social events.
Rather, the idea is to expose the way in which a particular belief has
been shaped by social forces: the belief that there is a particular
kind of person - the woman refugee - deserving of being singled out
for special attention.
Talk of the social construction of belief, however, requires some
elaboration of the core idea. For it is uninterestingly true of almost
any belief that we have that it is not necessary that we should have
had it and that we might not have had it, had we been different from
the way we actually are. Consider our belief that dinosaurs once
roamed the earth. It is obviously not inevitable that we should have
come to this belief. We might never have considered the question.
Having considered it, we might have arrived at a different conclusion,
for a variety of causes: we might not have been interested in the
truth; we might not have been as intelligent at figuring it out; we
might never have stumbled across the relevant evidence (the fossil
These observations supply various boring senses in which any belief
might be considered dependent on contingent facts about us. The
important question concerns the role of the social, once all of these
factors have been taken into account: that is, keeping our skills and
intelligence fixed, and given our interest in the question and our
desire to learn the truth about it, and given our exposure to the
relevant evid ence, do we still need to invoke contingent social
values to explain why we believe that there were dinosaurs? If the
answer is "Yes" - if it is true that another society, differing from
us only in their social values, would have arrived at a different and
incompatible belief - then we could say that our belief in dinosaurs
is socially constructed.
It is crucial, therefore, to distinguish between a constructionist
claim that is directed at things and facts, on the one hand, and one
that is directed at beliefs on the other, for they are distinct sorts
of claim and require distinct forms of vindication. The first amounts
to the metaphysical claim that something is real but of our own
creation; the second to the epistemic claim that the correct
explanation for why we have some particular belief has to do with the
role that that belief plays in our social lives, and not exclusively
with the evidence adduced in its favour. Each type of claim is
interesting in its own way.
If a thing were shown to be socially constructed in the first sense,
it would follow that it would contravene no law of nature to try to
get rid of it (which is not the same as saying that it would be easy
to do so - consider Manhattan). If a belief of ours were shown to be
socially constructed in the second sense, it would follow that we
could abandon it without fear of irrationality: if we have the belief,
not because there is adequate evidence in its favour but because
having it serves some contingent social purpose, then if we happen not
to share the social purpose it subserves, we ought to be free to
Much important work has been done under each of these headings, most
significantly, it seems to me, for the topics of gender and race.
Simone de Beauvoir ( The Second Sex , 1953), and other feminist
scholars since have illuminated the extent to which gender roles are
not inevitable but are rather the product of social forces. Anthony
Appiah ( Color Conscious: The political morality of race , 1996, with
Amy Gutman) has been particularly forceful in de monstrating that
nothing physical or biological corresponds to the racial categories
that play a pervasive role in our social lives, that these categories
owe their existence more to their social function than they do to the
O ther claims are more controversial. Mary Boyle has argued that our
belief in schizophrenia is socially constructed ( Schizophrenia: A
scientific delusio n? , 1990). Her claim is that there is no adequate
reason to believe that the symptoms commonly lumped under this label
are manifestations of a single underlying disease, and, hence, that
the search for its aetiology by neurochemistry is doomed. Perhaps she
is right; our understanding of mental illness is certainly in its
infancy. On the other hand, there appears to be increasing evid ence
that the symptoms associated with schizophrenia are predictable
significantly before their onset and that the condition is highly
heritable. These facts point in the opposite direction.
In a flourishing research programme, we find the expected mixture of
important and debatable work. However, while some particular social-
construction claims may be empirically controversial, the templates of
which they are instances are in no way philosophically controversial.
Both the abstract thought that some things are created by societies,
and the thought that some beliefs owe more to social values than they
do to the evidence in their favour, are as old as reason itself.
Whence, then, the widespread impression that social constructionists
are anti-rationalist, anti-realist and anti-objectivist?
The answer is that it stems not from the forms of the claims
themselves, and not from their application to this or that empirically
debatable subject matter. It stems, rather, from the desire of some
prominent theorists in this tradition to extend social-construction
talk to absolutely everything and, in particular, to every fact
studied by, and every knowledge claim emanating from, the natural
sciences. If we are to find our way through the muddy battleground on
which these now famous science wars are being waged, it will help to
observe certain distinctions.
To begin with the worldly things, money, citizenship and newspapers
are transparent social constructions, because they obviously could not
have existed without societies. Just as obviously, it would seem,
anything that could have - or that did - exist independently of
societies could not have been socially constructed: dinosaurs, for
example, or giraffes, or the elementary particles that are supposed to
be the building blocks of all matter and that physicists call
"quarks". How could they have been socially constructed, if they
existed before societies did?
Yet when we turn to some of the most pro minent texts in the
social-construction literature, we find an avalanche of claims to the
effect that it is precisely such seemingly mind- and society
independent items that are socially constructed. Take Andrew
Pickering's book Constructing Quarks (1984). As his title suggests,
Pickering's view seems to be that quarks were socially constructed by
scientists in the 1970s, when the so-called "Standard Model" was first
developed. And the language of the text itself does not disappoint: ".
. . the reality of quarks was the upshot of particle physicists'
practice . . . ." But how can this be? If quarks exist - and we are
assuming for present purposes that they do - they would have had to
have existed before there were any societies. So how could they have
been constructed by societies?
Perhaps Pickering does not mean what he says; perhaps he intends only
to be making a claim about our belief in quarks rather than about the
quarks themselves. Whether or not Pickering intended the worldly
claim, however, claims like that seem to be all around us. Take, as
another example, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar on the subject of the
facts studied by natural science ( Laboratory Life: The social
construction of scientific facts , 1979): "We do not wish to say that
facts do not exist nor that there is no such thing as reality . . . .
Our point is that "out there ness" is a consequence of scientific work
rather than its cause."
But it is not easy to make sense of the thought that facts about
elementary particles or dinosaurs are a consequence of scientific
theorizing. How could scientific theorizing have caused it to be true
that there were dinosaurs or that there are quarks? Of course, science
made it true that we came to believe that dinosaurs and quarks exist.
Since we believe it, we act as though dinosaurs and quarks exist. If
we allow ourselves some slightly florid language, we could say that in
our world dinosaurs and quarks exist, in much the way we could say
that in the world of Shakespeare's Hamlet , Ophelia drowns. So, still
speaking in this vein, we could say that science made it true that in
our world there are dinosaurs and quarks. But all we could coherently
mean by this is that science made it true that we came to believe that
dinosaurs and quarks exist. And this no one disputes. Despite all the
evidence in their favour, these beliefs may still be false, and the
only thing that will make them true is whether, out there, there
really were dinosaurs and there really are quarks. Surely, science
cannot construct those things; at best, it can discover them.
The views apparently on offer here hark back to the discredited
"transcendental idealism" of Immanuel Kant. On Kant's picture (or at
least on one influential way of reading it), there is a world that
exists independently of human minds, so we do not have to go so far as
to say that we created the world. But, in and of itself, this world is
structureless; it is not broken up into things, kinds of things, or
facts. We impose structure on the world by thinking of it in a certain
way, by having one set of beliefs about it rather than another.
There are two different ways to understand the Kantian claim that we
impose structure on the world. In the first, we literally make it the
case that there are certain kinds of things in the world - mountains -
by thinking of the world in terms of the concept "mountain", by
believing there to be mountains. In the second, the structure remains
entirely on our side of the divide: the claim that there are mountains
is just a way of talking about what is true according to our
conceptual scheme or language game. It is not even to try to make a
claim about how things are in some mind-independent reality.
The first alternative, the one that Pickering's and Latour's language
most closely suggests, is hopelessly bizarre. How could the mind carve
the world out there into kinds? How could it create things and give
them properties? And what happens when the world is carved up in two
incompatible ways by two different societies? Some of us believe in
immaterial souls, and others of us do not. Does the world out there
then both contain and not contain immaterial souls?
However, Richard Rorty has suggested that talk of the social
construction of facts and kinds is perfectly cogent, provided it is
understood along the lines of the second alternative: One reason the
question of mind-independent reality is so vexed and confusing is an
ambi guity in the notion of "independence". \ QJ0 sometimes \ as if
philosophers who, like myself, do not believe in "mind- independent
reality" must deny that there were mountains before people had the
idea of "mountain" in their minds or the word "mountain" in their
language. But nobody denies that. Nobody thinks there is a chain of
causes that makes mountains an effect of thoughts or words . . . .
Given that it pays to talk about mountains, as it certainly does, one
of the obvious truths about mountains is that they were here before we
talked about them. If you do not believe that, you probably do not
know how to play the language games that employ the word "mountain".
But the utility of those language games has nothing to do with the
question of whether Reality as It Is In Itself, apart from the way in
which it is handy for human beings to describe it, has mountains in
No way of talking could be said to be more faithful to the way things
are in and of themselves than any other, because there is no way
things are in and of themselves. There is just how we talk about how
things are and the fact that some of those ways are better for our
purposes than others. It is, therefore, correct to say that we do not
make the mountains; that is a claim that is licensed by a way of
talking that it pays for us to adopt. However, that does not mean that
it is just plain true that there are mountains independently of
humans; it never makes sense to say that anything is just plain true.
All we can intelligibly talk about is what is true according to this
or that way of talking, some of which it pays for us to adopt.
This, however, is an impossible view, as many critics have pointed out
(see especially The Last Word by Thomas Nagel, 1997, and Bernard
Williams's review of it in the New York Review of Books , 1998).
First, even Rorty doesn't succeed in distancing himself from any
commitment to the idea that some claims are just plain true, and not
just true relative to this or that way of talking; he simply commits
himself to the implausible view that the only kinds of claim that are
just plain true are claims about which ways of talking it pays for us
to adopt, rather than claims directly about mountains. Otherwise, he
could not simply assert, as he does, that it pays for us to talk about
mountains, but only that it pays for us to talk about its paying for
us to talk about mountains, and so on without end.
Second, if we accept his view that there is no higher authority
concerning what's true than how it pays for us to talk, and if, as
Rorty admits, it pays for us to say that science dis covers a
ready-made world, replete with mountains and giraffes, then there is
simply no perspective from which he can also say, as he must if he is
to express his distinctive view, that there is n't a ready-made world
for science to discover, replete with mountains and giraffes. He can't
have it both ways; but having it both ways is what his view requires.
I f the preceding considerations are correct, social-construction talk
does not cogently apply to the facts studied by the natural sciences;
does it fare any better when applied to the beliefs about those facts
produced by those sciences? The issue is not whether science is a
social enterprise. Of course, it is. Science is conducted collectively
by human beings who come equipped with values, needs, interests and
pre judices. And these may influence their behaviour in a variety of
potentially profound ways: they may determine what questions they show
an interest in, what research strategy they place their bets on, what
they are willing to fund, and so forth.
The usual view, however, is that none of this matters to the
believability of a particular claim produced by science, if that claim
is adequately supported by the factual evidence. Kepler may have
become interested in planetary motion as a result of his religious and
occult preoccupations, and, for all I know, he may have been anxious
to obtain a certain outcome. But so long as his eventual claim that
the planets move in elliptical orbits could be justified by the
evidence he presented for it, it does not matter how he came to be
interested in the question, nor what prior aim he may have had. The
view is now there, with a claim on our attention, and the only way to
reject it is to refute the evidence adduced in its favour.
To put this point another way, we commonly distinguish between what
philosophers of science call the "context of discovery" and what they
call the "context of justification". And while it's plausible that
social values play a role in the context of discovery, it's not
plausible that they play a role in the context of justification.
Social constructionists about knowledge deny this; for them, it is
naive to suppose that while social values may enter into the one
context, they need not enter into the other.
Well, how could social values enter into the context of justification?
There are four distinct ways of articulating the thought a
constructionist may have in mind here.
To begin with, a constructionist may hold that it is not the factual
evidence that does the justifying, but precisely the background social
values. It may seem incredible that anyone could have seriously
thought anything like this, but there are certainly assertions out
there that seem to demand just such a reading. Here is one (Kenneth
Gergen, "Feminist critiques of science and the challenge of social
epistemo logy", in Feminist Thought and the Structure of Knowledge ,
edited by Mary Gergen, 1989): "The validity of theoretical
propositions in the sciences is in no way affected by factual
However, anyone who really thought that, say, Maxwell's equations
could be justified by appeal to Maxwell's, or anyone else's, social or
political beliefs would betray a complete incomprehension of the
notion of justification. An item of information justifies a given
belief by raising the likelihood that it is true.
If one were absolutely determined to pursue something along these
lines, a slightly better avenue, and the second of our four options,
would be to argue that, although social values do not justify our
beliefs, we are not actually moved to belief by things that justify;
we are only moved by our social interests.
This view, which is practically orthodoxy among practitioners of what
has come to be known as "science studies", has the advantage of not
saying something absurd about justification; but it is scarcely any
more plausible. On the most charitable reading, it stems from an
innocent confusion about what is required by the enterprise of
treating scientific knowledge sociologically.
The view in question derives from one of the founding texts of science
studies, David Bloor's Knowledge and Social Imagery (1977). Bloor's
reasoning went something like this: If we wish to explain why certain
beliefs come to be accepted as knowledge at a given time, we must not
bring to bear our views about which of those beliefs are true and
which false. If we are trying to explain why they came to hold that
some belief is true, it cannot be relevant that we know it not to be
true. This is one of the so-called "Sym metry Principles" of the
sociology of knowledge: treat true and false propositions
symmetrically in explaining why they came to be believed.
It is possible to debate the merits of this principle, but on the
whole it seems to me sound. As Hacking rightly emphasizes, however, it
is one thing to say that true and false beliefs should be treated
symmetrically and quite another to say that justified and unjustified
ones should be so treated. While it may be plausible to ignore the
truth or falsity of what I believe in explaining why I came to believe
it, it is not plausible to ignore whether I had any evidence for
believing it. For some reason that is never explained, however, Bloor
and his colleagues seem to think that the two principles are on a par
and are both equally required by the enterprise of treating scientific
belief sociologically. Bloor builds both into the very foundation of
the subject: would be im partial with respect to truth and falsity,
rationality or irrationality, success or failure.
However, in the absence of an argument for being sceptical about the
very idea of a good reason for a belief - and how could there be such
an argument that did not immediately undermine itself? - one of the
possible causes for my believing what I do is that I have good
evidence for it. Any explanatory framework that insisted on treating
not only true and false beliefs symmetrically, but justified and
unjustified ones as well, would owe us an explanation for why evidence
for belief is being excluded as one of its potential causes. And it
would have to do so without undermining its own standing as a view
that is being put forward because justified.
This is not, of course, to say that scientific belief must always be
explained in terms of the compelling evidence assembled for it; the
hist ory of science is replete with examples of views - phrenology,
for example - for which there never was any good evidence. It is
simply to insist that scientific belief is sometimes to be explained
in terms of compelling evidence, and that the history and sociology of
science, properly conceived, need have no stake in denying that.
This brings us to a third, milder conception of how social values
might be indispensable for the justification of scientific belief. On
this view, although evidence can enter into the explanation for why a
particular view is believed, it can never be enough to explain it. Any
evidence we might possess always underdetermines the specific belief
that we arrive at on its basis. Something else must close the gap
between what we have evidence for and what we actually believe, and
that something else is provided by the thinker's background values and
This idea, that the evidence in science always underdetermines the
theories that we believe on its basis, has exerted considerable
influence in the philosophy of science, even in non- constructionist
circles. In its modern form, it originated in the thought of the
French physicist and philosopher, Pierre Duhem (1861-1916). Suppose
that an experimental observation is inconsistent with a theory that
you believe: the theory predicts that the needle will read "10" and
the needle does not budge from zero. What Duhem pointed out is that
this does not necessarily refute the theory. For the observational
prediction is generated not merely on the basis of the theory, but, in
addition, through the use of auxiliary hypotheses about the
functioning of the experimental apparatus. In light of the
recalcitrant observational result, something has to be revised, but so
far we do not yet know exactly what: perhaps it is the theory, perhaps
it is the auxiliary hypotheses. Perhaps, indeed, it is the very claim
that we recorded a genuinely recalcitrant result, as opposed to merely
suffering some visual illusion.
D uhem argued that reason alone could never decide which revisions are
called for, and, hence, that belief revision in science could not be a
purely rational matter; something else had to be at work as well. What
the social constructionist adds is that this extra element is
something social. This is a clever argument that does not long conceal
its difficulties. Consider Duhem's example of an astro nomer peering
through his telescope at the heavens and being surprised at what he
finds there, perhaps a hitherto undetected star in a galaxy he has
been charting. Upon this dis covery, according to Duhem, the
astronomer may revise his theory of the heavens, or he may revise his
theory of how the telescope works. And rational principles of belief
fixation do not tell him which to do.
The idea, however, that in peering at the heavens through a telescope,
we are testing our theory of the telescope just as much as we are
testing our astronomical views is absurd. The theory of the telescope
has been established by numerous terrestrial experiments and fits in
with an enormous number of other things that we know about lenses,
light and mirrors. The point is not that we might never have occasion
to revise our theory of telescopes: one can certainly imagine
circumstances under which that is precisely what would be called for.
The point is that not every circumstance in which something about
telescopes is presupposed is a circumstance in which our theory of
telescopes is being tested, and so the conclusion that rational
considerations alone cannot decide how to respond to recalcitrant
experience is blocked.
Perhaps, however - to come to the fourth and final way in which belief
and social values might be intertwined - the correct thought is not
that the social must be brought in to fill a gap left by the rational,
but simply that the rational itself is constitutively social. A good
reason for believing something, according to this line of thought,
only has that status relative to variable social factors; a sharp
separation between the rational and the social is illusory.
This is currently one of the most influential construals of the
relation between the rational and the social in constructionist
circles. What it amounts to is a relativization of good reasons to
variable social circumstance, so that the same item of information may
correctly be said to justify a given belief under some social
circumstances, in some cultures, but not in others. It is nicely
expressed in the following passage (Barry Barnes and David Bloor,
"Relativism, rationalism and the sociology of knowledge", 1981): . . .
there is no sense to the idea that some standards or beliefs are
really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such.
But this is an impossible construal of reasons for belief, as Plato
understood some time ago (see his Theaetetus ). We cannot coherently
think of ourselves as believing and asserting anything , if all
reasons for belief and assertion are held to be inexorably tied to
variable background perspective in the manner being proposed. There
are many ways to show this, but perhaps the most telling is this: not
even the relativist would be able to adopt such an attitude towards
his own view. For, surely, the relativist does not think that a
relativism about reasons is justified only relative to his own
perspective? If he did, why is he recommending it to us who do not
share his perspective?
When we believe something, we believe it because we think there are
reasons to think it is true, reasons that we think are general enough
to get a grip even on people who do not share our perspective. That is
why we feel entitled to recommend it to them.
Neither a generalized constructionism about the objects and facts
investigated by the natural sciences, nor one about the reasons for
belief provided by those sciences carries much plausibility. To what
does this matter? Here are two contrasting views. Rorty ("Phony
Science Wars", Atlantic Monthly , 1999): The science wars are in part
a product of deep and long lasting clashes of intuition, but mostly
they are just media hype - journalists inciting intellectuals to
diabolize one another. Diabolization may be helpful in keeping
intellectuals aroused and active, but it need not be taken very
By way of contrast, we have Dorothy Nelkin: Current theories about
science do seem to call into question the image of selfless scientific
objectivity and to undermine scientific authority, at a time when
scientists want to claim their lost innocence, to be perceived as pure
unsullied seekers after truth. That is what the science wars are
I th ink that Nelkin is closer to being right. As social
constructionists realize only too well, we would not attach the same
importance to science if we came to be convinced by constructionist
conceptions of it.
I n what does the cultural importance of science consist? This is, of
course, a vast subject, but there are, it seems to me, two central
elements. First, and most importantly, in matters of belief we defer
to science. It would be hard to overestimate the significance of this
practice, reflected as it is in what we are prepared to teach our
children at school, to accept as evidence in courts of law and to base
our social policies on. Second, we spend vast sums of money on basic
scientific research, research that does not look as though it will
have any immediate practical pay-off.
Rorty's laid-back attitude depends on the thought that neither of
these practices has any interesting philosophical presuppositions, and
so cannot be vulnerable to constructionist critique. But this seems
wrong. For deference to make sense, it has to be plausible that
science delivers the sort of knowledge that everyone has reason to
believe, regardless of their political or more broadly ideological
commitments. But this would be directly challenged by a
constructionist thesis about reasons for belief, on any of its
If we look at the practice of spending vast sums on basic science, it
is arguable that an even greater amount of philosophy is pre supposed,
that we have to hold not only that science delivers knowledge that
everyone has reason to believe, but that it delivers true or
approximately true knowledge of the structure of an independently
existing reality. For if we ask why, given the many pressing social
problems we face, we should spend tens of billions of dollars to build
a super-collider that will smash ever smaller particles into each
other in the hope of releasing ones that we have never seen but which
our theories predict, what could possibly be a compelling answer if
not that doing so will help us to understand the fundamental, hidden
constitution of the universe, and that this is worth doing? If it
doesn't make sense to think that there is such a hidden constitution
to probe, or even if there is, if it doesn't make sense to think that
science is capable of probing it, what rationale could there be for
spending such vast sums, when that money could equally be spent on
AIDS or on poverty? ( To be clear: I am not saying that a search for
the fundamental truths automatically trumps all other considerations,
only that its coherence as a goal is required to make sense of the
import ance we attach to basic science.) At its best - as in the work
of de Beauvoir and Appiah - social-constructionist thought exposes the
contingency of those of our social practices that we had wrongly come
to regard as inevitable. It does so by relying on the standard canons
of good scientific reasoning. It goes astray when it aspires to become
either a general metaphysics or a general theory of know ledge. As the
former, it quickly degenerates into an impossible form of idealism. As
the latter, it assumes its place in a long history of problematic
attempts to relativize the notion of rationality. It has nothing new
to add to these historically discredited views; if anything,
social-constructionist versions tend to be murkier and more confused
than their traditional counterparts. The difficulty lies in
understanding why such generalized applications of social construction
have come to tempt so many.
One source of their appeal is, no doubt, their efficiency. If we can
be said to know upfront that any item of knowledge only has that
status because it gets a nod from contingent social values, then any
claim to knowledge can be dispatched if we happen not to share the
values on which it allegedly depends. There is no need to get into the
details, which are often complex.
But that only postpones the real question. Why this fear of knowledge?
Whence the need to protect against its deliverances? Hacking writes of
certain feminists who . . . see objectivity and abstract truth as
tools that have been used against them. They remind us of the old
refrain: women are subjective, men are objective. They argue that
those very values, and the word objectivity, are a gigantic confidence
trick. If any kind of objectivity is to be preserved, some argue, it
must be one that strives for a multitude of standpoints.
Ian Hacking professes not to know whether to side with this thought.
But he should know. Whatever legitimate worry may be at work here, it
cannot be expressed by saying that objectivity and abstract truth are
tools of oppression. At most, what these observations entitle us to
say is that there have been occasions when those concepts have been
used as tools of oppression; and no one will want to dispute that. But
the fact that a concept can be, and has been, abused can hardly be a
basis for indicting the concept itself. Are we to be suspicious of the
value of freedom because the Nazis inscribed "Arbeit Macht Frei" on
the gate at Auschwitz?
The intuitive view is that there is a way things are that is
independent of human opinion, and that we are capable of arriving at
belief about how things are that is objectively reasonable, binding on
anyone capable of appreciating the relevant evidence, regardless of
their ideological perspective. Difficult as these notions may be, it
is a mistake to think that recent philosophy has disclosed any good
reasons for rejecting them.
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