Taking the science out of anthropology

Like the exaggerated accounts of the death of Mark Twain, it’s a mistake to put too much credence in reports of the passing of the anti-rational ideologies of postmodernism.

An article in Friday’s New York Times reports the triumph of postmodernist political correctness over empirical reason at the recent annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA):

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision … to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-term plan.

The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

Since when has being an “advocate” had anything to do with academics? Advocacy is for lawyers and priests, not for researchers. Unless, that is, you already know the “truth,” in which case you don’t need to be a scientist anyway, so why not delete the word?

For those of us who have long been critical of the hijacking of  “soft” or “human” studies by relativist theory, this latest coup comes as no surprise; but there are sure to be some readers who have not fully realized the sway that emotionalism and dogma hold over many academic fields.

“Science” is a very dirty word to some social researchers (remember, we can’t call them “social scientists” anymore). It smacks of Enlightenment rationalism, which they associate with racism, colonialism, and the other evils of Eurocentric imperialism. In their view, science is not a methodology but an ideology. They’re wrong, but that doesn’t stop them from being widely influential.

The New York Times summary is a disconcerting report in its own right, but to appreciate the full flavour of the victory of relativism over reason one needs to look more closely at just what changes were made to the AAA’s long-term plan — not only what was taken out, but also what was added.

Here’s the text of the statements, old and new, so that the full scope of the changes will be easy to see. We’ll look at each of the three sections in turn. (Emphasis added for clarity.)

OLD Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research, and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including
the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, and its use to solve human problems.

NEW Section 1. The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and  linguistic anthropological  research. The Association also commits itself and to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

There’s a lot more going on here than just taking out the word “science.” The purpose of anthropology will now be to advance “public understanding.” Of what? If there’s no science, what’s to be understood? Why, the accepted truths, of course. What evidence led to those ideas being accepted as “truths”? Why, only a heretical hierarch would use such a word as “evidence”! Sorry, but presumptive knowledge is just fancied-up belief, and it’s no wonder that the real researchers, including the President of the affiliated Society for Anthropological Sciences (SAS), are so up in arms.

Notice also that “ethnological” has been excised. There is among postmodernists a fierce dogmatic opposition to the investigation of human variation, one of the historical concerns of ethnology. Thus, ethnology is a subject inappropriate for study by the followers of cultural relativism. In the tainted word’s place, a long list of relativisms has been added. These interpretive and ideology-based research areas are just fine with relativists.

Worst of all, “knowledge,” which the postmodernist views as merely another subjective cultural artifact, has been joined by “expertise” — the point of view of the relativist, whether empirically tested or not — and “interpretation” — anything from the best guess of the armchair expert to the revealed dogma of the true believer.

OLD Section 2. To advance the science of anthropology, the Association shall: Foster and support the development of special anthropological societies organized on a regional or functional basis; Publish and promote the publication of anthropological monographs and journals; Encourage anthropological research; act to coordinate activities of members of the Association with those of other organizations concerned with anthropology, and maintain effective liaison with related sciences and their organizations.

NEW Section 2. To advance the public understanding of humankind, the Association shall: Publish and promote the publication of anthropological monographs and journals; Encourage anthropological teaching, research, and practice; and maintain effective liaison with related knowledge disciplines and their organizations.

Once again, science — an empirical method of discovery, an epistemology — has been replaced by understanding — a formal inculcation of truth, an ontology. It seems clear that it is more important to impart the accepted creed than to explore the nature of reality.

What the revisers have against “special anthropological societies” or “other organizations concerned with anthropology” is obvious from the negative reaction of people like the President of the SAS. If they won’t agree, stop listening to them.

“Teaching” and “practice” have been added to the primary functions of anthropology, with “teaching” — again, spreading the dogma — given priority over “research” — finding the truth. It doesn’t take much of a cynic to note that this change elevates being a learned professor to the primary position, relegating actual investigation of the world outside the theory to second place. That the word “practice” brings to mind terms like “practicing Catholic” is no accident. Discovery activities are downplayed; the accepted creed is emphasized.

Finally, “sciences” becomes “knowledge disciplines” — enlarging the tent to value the ideological, the theoretical, and the suppositional while discarding the requirement for evidentiary confirmation. I apologize if this seems a bit repetitive, but the point is too important to understate.

OLD Section 3. To further the professional interests of anthropologists, the Association shall, in addition to those activities described under Section 2: Take action on behalf of the entire profession and integrate the professional activities of anthropologists in the special aspects of the science; and promote the widespread recognition and constant improvement of professional standards in anthropology.

NEW Section 3. To further the professional interests of anthropologists, the Association shall promote the widespread recognition and constant improvement of professional standards in anthropology.

The change here may look like mere housekeeping for consistency, but there is one noteworthy point. The revisionists have removed any authority of the AAA to represent anthropology as a whole, since the idea that there is a single discipline or a single set of standards runs entirely counter to the core principles of relativism. In other words, whatever the criteria are that make me call myself an “anthropologist,” they are just as valid as any other qualifications. No oppressive, neo-colonial set of universal standards, please — that’s so passé, so Enlightenment.

The New York Times article concludes with a clear delineation of the battle lines in the fight over the future of anthropology:

[SAS President Peter Peregrine] attributed what he viewed as an attack on science to two influences within anthropology. One is that of so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with. The other is the postmodernist critique of the authority of science. “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought,” he said.

Dr. Dominguez [President of the AAA] denied that critical anthropologists or postmodernist thinking had influenced the new statement. She said in an e-mail that she was aware that science-oriented anthropologists had from time to time expressed worry about and disapproval of their nonscientific colleagues. “Marginalization is never a welcome experience,” she said.

Indeed, Dr. Dominquez, indeed.

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8 thoughts on “Taking the science out of anthropology

  1. When Douglas Todd (our local religious columnist) spent a year in residence at SFU he reported that academics feared public discussion of religion. There was a lot of interest but only private conversations were possible. The magic thinking of religious extremes has driven the stridency of the defenders of the purity of science. Are scientists self-censoring to the point that they fear the taint of non-scientific thoughts?
    Here is an example of a group of scientists failing in their attempt to defend their pure image. Science should be robust enough to survive.

    • Your comment brings to mind two related facts. The first is that many “hard” scientists (including one with whom we are both quite familiar) don’t see this as much of an issue, since they never considered anthropology a “science” in the first place. Popperian notions of testability and falsifiability may be unfashionable in some circles, but not in the physical sciences.

      The second is that many “soft” researchers, apparently including the majority of delegates to the AAA convention, no longer want to be associated with the word “science” either. To many of them, the word represents a discipline and a methodology that are an archaic remnant of the bygone age of rationalism. In effect, they’re happy to define themselves as interpreters instead of learners. I find that more than a little disturbing.

      I can almost hear the triumph in the voice of Anthony Zerbe’s Matthias, gloating to Charlton Heston’s Dr. Neville that the time of the scientist is over, in the 1971 movie The Omega Man.

  2. //Since when has being an “advocate” had anything to do with academics? Advocacy is for lawyers and priests, not for researchers.//

    You have GOT to be kidding. Everyone has beliefs they bring with them to what they do. It is extremely dishonest not to acknowledge this. I am no different and if you say you are, you’re a hypocrite.

    Science is a technique, not an end in and of itself. Knowledge without purpose, like anything else without purpose, is… purposeless – dare I say useless, as refuse. So then, in the realm of the “scientific community” science is used as a means (not an end) to advocate beliefs – exactly as with religious and legal communities. Even the great atheists scientists Gould, Berthold, Hawking, Dawkins and Myers have said substantially as much.

    • Of course we all have beliefs, and of course science is a methodology. We have no disagreement there.

      But your assertion that “science is used … to advocate beliefs” (my emphasis) is just the kind of statement with which I do disagree, and strongly.

      Science is a technique by which we attempt to ascertain the physical realities of the world outside our own heads. It may generate beliefs, but in its proper usage — as a methodology — it does not advocate them in the sense of existing for the purpose of spreading accepted truths. This sense of “advocate” — the one my article laments — is what I mean when, as the NYT reports, researchers “see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.” (My emphasis)

      The claim that science is just another narrative (postmodernists) or just another religion (theists) may bring some comfort, but it’s just wrong. It’s lamentable that the methodology of science is under attack from both “ends” — the pre-modern and post-modern — as an indirect way of trying to invalidate the unacceptable results of science.

      P.S. – For a full account of Dawkins’s views re: science and belief, see his “Tanner Lectures on Human Values.”

      • I think we agree on much more than we disagree on. Yes, science is a method. That said, much is claimed as science which is really philosophy. The very word “science” has been hijacked by philosophers to justify not only great heresy, but great atrocity. Consider eugenics as an example. It is in this sense I see science used to advocate. Perhaps it is more accurate to say philosophy of science, but that’s not how its purveyors say it. They claim science supports philosophies that range from erroneous to evil. That’s advocacy. How am I wrong about this?

      • One should be careful with the word “science,” indeed. There’s a great difference between “the scientific method,” and “the science,” which is typically shorthand for “the results of the systematic application of the scientific method.”

        As for “much is claimed as science which is really philosophy,” I fear you may be right — at least in this case the AAA is being honest, removing the word, in both of the above senses, from its LTP.

        My general dislike of substituting dogma for investigation applies to the social sciences, fields where certain attitudes and core principles of social and moral origin too often hold sway and may not be challenged by mere facts.

        I am a Canadian social democrat (well left of the typical American “liberal”) of long standing, and like to think of myself as an “advocate” for “native peoples and human rights.” Even so, I am disturbed whenever the rational exploration of the actual world is held hostage by the presumptive truth, as I believe it to be the case with the AAA.

        “… science supports philosophies that range from erroneous to evil” — bad science (method) or pseudoscience (results) can lead to error, true, but if you intend this statement as an indictment of the scientific method, I can’t agree. Eugenics is “bad science,” but that’s not because “science is bad.” I’ve recently written about a related notion at a little more length, in the post Conquistadors, communists and the blame for atrocity.

      • Ron, I certainly do not indict the scientific method. I believe in cause and effect. It is completely scriptural and it stands up to every form of common sense. My complaint is not with scientific method, but with philosophers pretending their craft is science. I’m of the opinion that “hard” observational empirical science generally supports scripture quite well and shoots holes in evolutionary theory (of the molecules to man sort) at every turn.

      • “I’m of the opinion that ‘hard’ observational empirical science generally supports scripture quite well” — in that case, I fear that you’re not going to like Thursday morning’s posting very much!

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