Skip

the science^H^H^H^H^H^H^H public understanding of humankind
December 4, 2010 10:10 AM   Subscribe

"The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies public understanding of humankind in all its aspects."
At this year's meeting of the American Anthropological Association, the organization's board adopted a new mission statement whose description of its goals omitted all mention of anthropology as a science. An online debate ensued. Some researchers in the anthropological sciences are upset about the changes, while right-wing culture warriors see it as another salvo in the "science wars" or the takeover of the discipline by "fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing." Other anthropologists think this is an opportunity to broaden the discipline and embrace non-scientific forms of knowledge.

There's a lot of good discussion in the comments on these pieces, particularly on Recycled Minds (linked on "upset about the changes") and Savage Minds (the final link).
posted by RogerB (55 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've always thought that anthropology -- some forms of it, anyway -- is more literary than it is scientific. Perhaps this is an intentional move to contrast the discipline with sociology, which is always eager to overgeneralize its findings?
posted by lumensimus at 10:19 AM on December 4, 2010


From the Recycled Minds piece:

Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science.


(Emphasis added.) If he's serious, and if that view is widely shared, than not only is it a good idea to remove "science" from the mission statement, but anthropology should be defunded by any groups that purport to fund scientific endeavors. I'm all for respecting indigenous "ways of knowing," but to say they're just as valid as "Western science" (as though science had a postal address!) is a bridge too far.
posted by languagehat at 10:28 AM on December 4, 2010 [36 favorites]


I'm on a bunch of educational history list-servs, and the controversy over this is something else to behold.
posted by winna at 10:36 AM on December 4, 2010


Neuroanthropology also did a good summary of this, and Somatosphere (a medical anthropology blog) has had some interesting discussion. Savage minds also posted an interesting idea on how to resolve this.

I tend to disagree with the removal of science from the mission statement of the AAA. The AAA has been transitioning to being more representative of cultural anthropology anyway since the pomo crisis, so its not really a surprise.

I would disagree with lumensimus that anthropology is more literary than scientific. There are some forms of anthropology that may take a textual approach to the study of humankind, but they're in the minority. Anthropology does make significantly fewer claims to generalizability than sociology but I think that's a strength rather than a weakness. And its not something that excludes it from being scientific. Its just contextual science.
posted by anthropophagous at 10:38 AM on December 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


I've always thought there was a hard/soft science distinction between physical (biological) and cultural anthropology, so maybe this doesn't ruffle my feathers as much as it should?
posted by Avenger at 10:39 AM on December 4, 2010


Making distinctions between different subfields of anthropology (including ones about what are 'science' or hard/soft) is somewhat problematic because they're supposed to be complimentary. Unfortunately for the discipline as a whole, anthropology seems to have lost focus on this. Its not really the study of humankind if we're fighting about who's analysis of humankind is more 'real.' Cultural anthropology should be scientific study of things you can't take to the lab. In terms of hard/soft science, there's definitely subjectivity present in the subfields of anthropology that find it beneficial to present themselves as more rigorous than other anthropologists.
posted by anthropophagous at 10:45 AM on December 4, 2010


Thanks for the additional links, anthropophagous! (The summary from Neuroanthropology actually is in the post already.) I was just reading, and regretting not including in the post, that follow-up by Rex of Savage Minds, with its fantastic idea that the professional organization should do an autoethnography, a democratic assessment of what its members think anthropology is, rather than trying to dictate it to them (albeit in fuzzy vague politician-speak).
posted by RogerB at 10:45 AM on December 4, 2010


Hands up, those of you who felt you needed a mission statement to understand what the American Anthropological Association does.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 10:46 AM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


I am an anthropologist (archaeologist). Anthropology, the study of humans, in the US is described as being a four-field approach. This comes from when the whole field was created in the US, back in the early days of the 20th century. Those four fields are:
  • Sociocultural Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Biological Anthropology
  • Linguistics
This is the situation we're in where supposedly we should all play happy together and be in the same organization and go to the same conference.

The conjecture I'm hearing about it from colleagues is that the change is not being done to repel archaeologists and biological anthropologists from the AAA, but that the AAA knows that the change will do so and doesn't care. For archaeologists, at least, the AAA hasn't been worth much for a long time. You go to the annual conference if you want to interview for a job, but there are rarely any papers or sessions of any value.
posted by barnacles at 10:47 AM on December 4, 2010


Splintering disciplines? How exciting -- remember that this was all philosophy, once!
posted by lumensimus at 10:52 AM on December 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


I love this stuff:
"has anyone ever successfully read Wittgenstein? :)
I’m joking of course. I’m very intrigued by what I know of him, but his work is pretty intimidating."

posted by ovvl at 10:53 AM on December 4, 2010


Daniel Lende from Neuroanthropology has also made a wiki dedicated to the long range plan
posted by anthropophagous at 10:56 AM on December 4, 2010


I'm all for respecting indigenous "ways of knowing," but to say they're just as valid as "Western science" (as though science had a postal address!) is a bridge too far.

A lot depends, I think, on what you mean by "valid." If you are talking about, say, a framework for developing a moral and ethical code, sure, indigenous ways of knowing are at least as valid as Western science. Similarly, taxonomies are so culturally-oriented that, if you are interacting with indigenous people, you had better acknowledge the (at least potential) validity of their ways of knowing/worldview or you aren't getting very far in understanding how they classify the world. If, on the other hand, you are talking about how the physical world works, generally Western science has a significant edge.

The problem is when people start rolling these different situations up into one big "case ball" that is either all valid or all invalid. Which, sadly, seems to be most of the time.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:00 AM on December 4, 2010 [11 favorites]


Also, is this anything like the situation with Special Libraries Association, which recently made an attempt to purge the word "libraries" from its name, because the corporate librarians feel the term is demeaning (or, at least undervalued) and want to be "knowledge professionals" or something similar? Is there a sub-set of the membership that is embarrassed by the word "science?"
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:06 AM on December 4, 2010


I have a lot of conflicting feelings about this but ultimately think this is a tempest in a teapot. As a working anthropological archaeologist I consider myself to be on the more science-end of the spectrum and I don't want to see that approach abandoned or minimized.

However, for me the real strength and purpose of anthropology is the holistic study of humans, of all aspects of biology and culture, and using the wide variety of techniques and ways of knowing. Anthropology's strength is to bring all of these together to understand humans more fully than could be done with any single method or topic of study.

The original mission statement started with the passage that "The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects." I frankly don't think that is a very good description of what anthropology is or ever has been since I don't think all anthropology could be described as science. Anthropology is holistic meaning that some anthropologists use more science-y methods and others more humanistic ones.

In and of itself I don't object to some of these changes. However, these changes must be understood in a broader social context in which the AAA is increasingly serving only the cultural subfield rather than attempting to serve all anthropologists. Also at the heart of this are disagreements about what "science" means. For some rejecting "science" is seen as rejecting all rigor and empiricism. For others rejecting "science" has nothing to do with rejecting empiricism or rigor but has to do with rejecting a very narrow and culturally and temporally-specific way of knowing. Much of the brouhaha over this has to do with people talking past each other because they use these different definitions.
posted by Tallguy at 11:10 AM on December 4, 2010 [7 favorites]


I want to answer this question like Yoda:

Is or is not science? Not matter. Only do Anthropology, or do not.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:14 AM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


So I see a link to a "right wing culture warrior" bemoaning the fact that the Anthropology Association is rejecting science and I have to ask, "Does your Mr. Spock have a beard?"
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:14 AM on December 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


I'm all for respecting indigenous "ways of knowing," but to say they're just as valid as "Western science" (as though science had a postal address!) is a bridge too far.

I can see the argument that much of anthropology is not about falsifiability and controlled experiments. Some useful things are like that. Science is great, but it's got limits, and there's epistemological work to be done outside of it.

It's not so much a matter of whether there are some questions that might be as well served by insights from various cultures as by the scientific method. The important matter is to keep what's science (and what's not) clearly and truthfully marked as such, and I suspect the AAA is more or less trying to do that.
posted by weston at 11:20 AM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Kid Charlemagne: Peter Wood, the linked culture-warrior, is the chairman of the National Association of Scholars, a right-wing self-described academic "watchdog" group.
posted by RogerB at 11:23 AM on December 4, 2010


While I think that science should be the underpinning of all fact-seeking disciplines, the savageminds post makes a good point. If something occurs once in history, can it be considered "science" to study it?

One of the hallmarks of the scientific method is repeatability. If I drop and apple and in accelerates at 9.8m/sec/sec then you should be able to observe the same phenomenon. However, the Battle of Hastings will never occur again. Is it possible to say anything about it that is scientific?

Granted, there is repeatability in some sense, we can all look at the primary sources and see if they concur about certain facts, but in many cases, we don't have primary sources or we may only have partial sources. A report of a war by the winning side may be radically different from one by the losing side, and some of those reports may have disappeared or been destroyed.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:41 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


From the Recycled Minds piece:

Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science.

(Emphasis added.) If he's serious, and if that view is widely shared, than not only is it a good idea to remove "science" from the mission statement, but anthropology should be defunded by any groups that purport to fund scientific endeavors. I'm all for respecting indigenous "ways of knowing," but to say they're just as valid as "Western science" (as though science had a postal address!) is a bridge too far.


Yes, this. I'm also puzzled by the assertion that "right-wing culture warriors" are the (only) ones objecting to epistemological relativism; I'm to the left of Howard Zinn, and I object to the notion that science is essentially (that is, culturally) "Western"; this is insulting, at the very least, to Indian and Chinese scientists, for instance, whose own cultures also had historical antecedents to empirical science, and who probably don't think of themselves as "Western", but simply as scientists. Science is a universal way of thinking about the world; it doesn't belong to the West, even though that's where a lot of it got going once it got out from under the thumb of medieval dogma.

It's much like so-called "alternative" medicine: there's no alternate system, there's only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't. Biology (terrestrial biology, at least) only works one way - a very complex way, with many, many aspects to it, and the occasional very odd outlier (e.g., the substitution of arsenic for phosphorus in bacterial DNA), but still, only one overall system. There's just one physical universe in which we live and one set of laws that govern it. That's the domain of science. To the extent that "indigenous knowledge" reflects the way the world works, it's part of science too. To the extent that it doesn't, it's not, and then it's not "equal" to science. If one feels otherwise, then logically one could revive thoroughly discredited notions from the Western tradition as "equally valid ways of knowing": things like the caloric theory of heat, phlogistons, the four humours, etc., not to mention some of Aristotle's plausible but boneheaded (i.e., experimentally untested for nearly two millennia, until Galileo came along) ideas about the motions of bodies; they'd have to take their place alongside those aspects of "indigenous knowledge" that don't pan out scientifically. Does anyone really want to treat as "an equally valid way of knowing" the Ptolemaic/geocentric model of the cosmos, or the idea that that there are just five elements, with everything within the moon's orbit composed of the first four, and everything else (the rest of the universe) composed of the "quintessential" (lit., the fifth element)? This was mainstream Western knowledge for two thousand years.

Science weeds out crapola from the West just as readily as crapola from anywhere else; if it were really essentially "Western", you'd expect it to go easy on Western bullshit.
posted by Philofacts at 11:56 AM on December 4, 2010 [34 favorites]


languagehat: "'Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science.'

(Emphasis added.) If he's serious, and if that view is widely shared, than not only is it a good idea to remove "science" from the mission statement, but anthropology should be defunded by any groups that purport to fund scientific endeavors. I'm all for respecting indigenous "ways of knowing," but to say they're just as valid as "Western science" (as though science had a postal address!) is a bridge too far."


Well, you have to start somewhere. And starting with the perfect duality of Science vs. All Other Forms of Knowledge seems kind of bad form to me, although I'll admit that it has a long tradition in the West.

For what it's worth, I'm a believer in Science as a way of understanding anything you want to aim it at, but not that it is a priori the only lens through which to view the world. You don't have to look farther than the Climate Change "debate" to see a version of Science being used to mislead and confuse the public by well-funded denialists. One of the reasons they're able to do this so successfully is that they're able to hold up Science as a scarily deterministic and unchanging body of knowledge that will not tolerate any outside viewpoints. Often, one of their first desires is to DEFUND those institutions that dare to disagree their version of scientific wisdom.

On preview, this is supposed to complement what Philofacts says above.
posted by sneebler at 12:14 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you are talking about, say, a framework for developing a moral and ethical code, sure, indigenous ways of knowing are at least as valid as Western science.

Science provides no framework for developing a moral or ethical code. But that's not what it's for.
posted by me & my monkey at 12:18 PM on December 4, 2010 [7 favorites]


The AAA has been transitioning to being more representative of cultural anthropology anyway since the pomo crisis, so its not really a surprise.

I know what you mean by this, but "Pomo Crisis" makes me think of some multiverse-spanning Crisis in Infinite Humanities Departments where all the academic superstars have to team up to save their chances for tenure or something.
posted by Rangeboy at 12:20 PM on December 4, 2010 [19 favorites]


> If you are talking about, say, a framework for developing a moral and ethical code, sure, indigenous ways of knowing are at least as valid as Western science.

Huh? My wife is better at knitting than "Western science," too. What does that have to do with it? Nothing is as good as science at doing what science is designed to do, and that's all that matters here.

> You don't have to look farther than the Climate Change "debate" to see a version of Science being used to mislead and confuse the public by well-funded denialists. One of the reasons they're able to do this so successfully is that they're able to hold up Science as a scarily deterministic and unchanging body of knowledge that will not tolerate any outside viewpoints.

Again, irrelevant. Using lies about what science is to discredit it is as unfair as using lies about religion to discredit that. Whether anthropology is or is not a science has nothing to do with the ravings of denialists.
posted by languagehat at 12:42 PM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Science provides no framework for developing a moral or ethical code. But that's not what it's for.

Indeed. Not that people haven't tried, of course (Social Darwinism comes to mind), nor scrupulously avoided using (mostly bad) science to support all sorts of agendas.

And since anthropology deals, at least in part, with the stories people tell about themselves and their societies, being prepared to grapple with that on its own terms must, at least occasionally, be part of the process. In contrast with, say, the geosciences, where a rock formation's opinions are rarely of any interest.

Also (to jump gears in a way that is emblematic of the problem with this discussion) there is an enormous gulf between the idea of "the pure scientific method" which exists only as a concept, and science as it is practiced, which, since it is done by people, is influenced by "ways of knowing." Science has a better track record for self-correction than other human systems, but at any given moment, experiments, data, theories, etc are being contaminated by unobjective (i.e. human) scientists. And tracking which science (the Scientific Method vs people doing science) is a headache, since people tend to slide back and forth between whichever definitions(s) fit their argument best (as I am doing here).
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:50 PM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


One of the hallmarks of the scientific method is repeatability. If I drop and apple and in accelerates at 9.8m/sec/sec then you should be able to observe the same phenomenon. However, the Battle of Hastings will never occur again. Is it possible to say anything about it that is scientific?

For what it's worth, anthropology has virtually nothing to do with the study of history*. However, your analogy is pretty good, because anthropology is the study of humans. Since A) humans are complicated, and B) it's unethical to do scientifically "pure" repeatable experiments on humans in a lot of situations, you run into that very issue. This is where the techniques of cultural anthropology can be really valuable.

*History as in "the study of the human past via literacy and record-keeping", not history as "anything that happened in the past". Of course. Though there are historical archaeologists, hence the word "virtually" in that sentence.
posted by Sara C. at 12:51 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Science provides no framework for developing a moral or ethical code. But that's not what it's for.

It's also not what cultural anthropology is for. Which is why this debate is so interesting to think about.
posted by Sara C. at 12:53 PM on December 4, 2010


> Science provides no framework for developing a moral or ethical code. But that's not what it's for.

It's also not what cultural anthropology is for. Which is why this debate is so interesting to think about.


Either I'm not understanding you or you're making a basic logical error. Try it this way:

Science provides no framework for knitting. But that's not what it's for.

It's also not what cultural anthropology is for. Which is why this debate is so interesting to think about.


?
posted by languagehat at 1:01 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


this is insulting, at the very least, to Indian and Chinese scientists, for instance, whose own cultures also had historical antecedents to empirical science, and who probably don't think of themselves as "Western", but simply as scientists.

This.

One of the biggest problems is that the history of science far too often is clipped to simply European & American discoveries. I started listening to the History of Mathematics podcasts the other day, and saw that all it covered was European mathematicians.

Which is... uh, like making a book on The History of the World and only covering the last 20 years.
posted by yeloson at 1:04 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


embrace non-scientific forms of knowledge

I am going to take this as a suggestion for a new form of personal anthropology where we get to know more people in the biblical sense.
posted by Babblesort at 1:10 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm an undergrad linguistics major and there seems to be a similar split between the old-school X-bar theorists and the newer sociolinguistics crew. I had an easier time with the sociolinguistics class because there was little first-order logic involved, i.e., I could mimic the lingo and bullshit a sociolinguistic research paper on code-switching, but I cannot similarly bullshit diagramming the predicate-argument structure of NP-adjunct formation in English--my native tongue, nonetheless! My old-school linguistics professor is seen as out-of-touch with the times for teaching old-school x-bar theory. I'm just upset that it ignores punctuation and my ethnicity entirely.

It seems the trouble with cultural/biological anthropology is similar to that of sociolinguistics of belonging to the set you're trying to study: how can there be any true objectivity? How do you determine the value of one human cultural norm without weighing it against the the value of a different, albeit still-human, norm? And if you can't agree on the value/meaning of your terms, how is it "science"?

It's all approaching Tower of Babel relativist hell as far as I can see. I do hope we all enjoy it.
posted by eegphalanges at 1:31 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Biology (terrestrial biology, at least) only works one way - a very complex way, with many, many aspects to it...

I am generally very skeptical of "alternative medicine" but there has consistently been a problem in the medical field of making assertions and then reversing them, or simply ignoring that psychological processes often times come into play with "physical illnesses" or that individuals can react differently to the exact same treatments, or even cases of out-an-out unethical behaviors. Yes, biology as-a-whole works in one way, but figuring out how it works on a case by case basis is no picnic, and sometimes getting the profession as a whole to recognize their weaknesses is like slamming your fingers in a car door... forever.

And the causes mistrust and a desire to try things outside the prescribed treatments. We don't have a complete handle on human biology, let alone all biology.
posted by edgeways at 1:34 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Languagehat, I assure you that I and most other anthropologists I know would not agree with Dooglas Carl that "indigenous knowledge" is "equally valid" to "Western science." No need to defund us just yet.

I do think Carl's statement reflects some important anthropological insights--some of them about indigenous knowledge systems actually outperforming "scientific" inquiry (cf Lansing on Balinese water temples, any number of critiques of scientific agriculture, and so forth), and some of them entirely entirely reasonable critiques of the political uses of development, economic, and environmental sciences--but to me the statement itself doesn't make sense. It suggests that "Western science" is some monolithic thing with a measurable truth value that can somehow be weighed against the validity of some other clearly bounded knowledge system ("indigenous knowledge"). Unpicking these kinds of simplistic assumptions about social and cultural systems is, or should be, one of anthropology's stocks in trade.

What I would hope Carl meant--had he had the time to expand--is that indigenous knowledge (or perhaps any knowledge produced outside what we think of as scientific contexts) always deserves careful consideration, especially when some powerful body--the World Bank, a government, a corporation--is deploying some sort of science that purports to know better. This would be less in line with an anti-scientific relativism that claims that every truth claim is just as valid as any other, and more in line with what Clifford Geertz called "Anti Anti-Relativism"--a judicious skepticism of claims to universally valid knowledge, especially in science and policy that directly affects people's lives.

But anyway, this whole discussion is a bit of a derail, and unfortunately is starting to give this thread a whiff of the "Come Defend Science Against Those Who Would Destroy It" ("Tower of Babel relativist hell," anyone") scent that makes this this whole #AAAfail debate so tiresome and that must have made the 1980s-1990s science wars absolutely unbearable to people doing serious work on social studies of science.
posted by col_pogo at 1:35 PM on December 4, 2010 [19 favorites]


> Languagehat, I assure you that I and most other anthropologists I know would not agree with Dooglas Carl that "indigenous knowledge" is "equally valid" to "Western science." No need to defund us just yet.

Well, that's a relief! I enjoyed the anthro I took in college, even if the teacher was not the sharpest pencil in the box.

> What I would hope Carl meant--had he had the time to expand--is that indigenous knowledge (or perhaps any knowledge produced outside what we think of as scientific contexts) always deserves careful consideration, especially when some powerful body--the World Bank, a government, a corporation--is deploying some sort of science that purports to know better. This would be less in line with an anti-scientific relativism that claims that every truth claim is just as valid as any other, and more in line with what Clifford Geertz called "Anti Anti-Relativism"--a judicious skepticism of claims to universally valid knowledge, especially in science and policy that directly affects people's lives.

That I can certainly go along with. I hope you're right that that's what he meant.
posted by languagehat at 1:49 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


you know, from an anti-racist and anti-colonialist point of view, the history of anthropological research is extremely problematic.
posted by liza at 1:56 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


embrace non-scientific forms of knowledge

You mean like faith? Religion? Creationism?

"Tonight it is my privilege to celebrate this president, ‘cause we're not so different, he and I. We both get it. Guys like us, we're not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We're not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir?

"That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, "I did look it up, and that's not true." That's 'cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:02 PM on December 4, 2010


Liza, in my role today of providing assurances for my discipline, I can also assure you that anthropologists are painfully, intimately aware of that history.

That said, anthropologists have also been involved in anti-racist and anti-colonial efforts for over a century, now, so it's not all bad.
posted by col_pogo at 2:05 PM on December 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: No. Like humanistic forms of knowledge and inquiry that still pursue "truth" but not in some narrowly "scientific" vein. Read the link you're quoting there. You won't see anything in it about anthropology embracing mysticism or Creationism.
posted by col_pogo at 2:09 PM on December 4, 2010


>>embrace non-scientific forms of knowledge

>You mean like faith? Religion? Creationism?


There was a really interesting article recently (I think it was in the New York Times, but a quick search there didn't turn it up) on the increasing openness by hospitals to bringing in traditional indigenous priests/shamans/etc in a complementary role to modern western medicine.

My point being (and I think that this is the point that the anthropologist was making) that there isn't necessarily a unidirectional hierarchy, with science being good and right, and indigenous knowledge being wrong and bad. Knowledge is culturally-bound, and we interact with "science" (eg medicine) in culturally-bound ways, as well. Treating them as oppositional means you miss out on a lot of things -- should we not use acupuncture because it wasn't grown in a lab?
posted by Forktine at 2:52 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


In and of itself I don't object to some of these changes. However, these changes must be understood in a broader social context in which the AAA is increasingly serving only the cultural subfield rather than attempting to serve all anthropologists.

I thought it was pretty telling that the AAA's move was not to make the statement more inclusive or add language clarifying that nonscientific inquiry was also valued. It was just to delete science.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:09 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Like humanistic forms of knowledge and inquiry that still pursue "truth" but not in some narrowly "scientific" vein.

If it can't be expressed mathematically, it's an opinion.

should we not use acupuncture because it wasn't grown in a lab?

I would recommend studying it so we know how it works, because it might tell us something else that would be useful.

There is current evidence that dogs can actually smell cancer, which opens up all kinds of possibilities for early diagnosis and treatment of melanoma, just as a for example.

So, do we assume there is some kind of "canine-istic dog knowledge and inquiry?" Should we raise a sniffing army of Schnauzers and send them forth across the land?

Or should we, you know, attempt to isolate the chemical the dogs can smell and create a $1 test kit and make it available in every drugstore?

There is science. And there is not-science. And that's it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:44 PM on December 4, 2010


Here is the article I was remembering.
posted by Forktine at 3:57 PM on December 4, 2010


I agree there is science and not-science. As a sort-of art historian I get super itchy when people start talking about our discipline as a science. It's not. But we do use the findings of science, and even some of the methodological principles, some of the time. Science needs to reduce variables, to isolate discrete processes for study under controlled conditions. We need to do that some of the time, but we also need to consider changing, contextual, subjective, cultural variables. And our own subjectivity as researchers simply cannot be bracketed out, otherwise we'd be doing bad Art History. One thing good science teaches us is to be honest and transparent about our methodology so other people can follow what we're up to. I think it's a good idea to state clearly, "we are not doing science." I take it as a sign of disciplinary self-respect and a sign of respect for science. Doesn't mean we don't use science.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 4:10 PM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think that the AAA's point is that there are multiple ways to investigate human beings, many of which have nothing to do with science or the scientific method, in terms of the "observation of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment." The redefinition of anthropology in their mission statement, if still imperfect, is more inclusive and more reflective of the work that anthropologists do.

I am an archaeologist and I do not consider myself a scientist, even though my work occasionally entails using the scientific method to investigate the past. I employ social theory, historical method, and a host of other "ways of knowing" at least as often as "science." These are not mutually exclusive, which is exactly what the AAA is acknowledging. The reworking of the mission statement is not a rejection of science itself; it is a rejection of the idea of science as the only way of doing anthropological work. There is no reason for this to alienate those doing scientific research within anthropology. The fear that postmodern theory will somehow invade and delegitimize science- rather than just encouraging self-reflection and self-critique within the discipline- is inflammatory and silly.
posted by subterraneanblue at 4:34 PM on December 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


If it can't be expressed mathematically, it's an opinion.

Well, yes, inasmuch as it can't be proven. But some opinions are more convincing than others, partly because they marshal more or better evidence than others. See the examples in the Savage Minds link at the end of the OP for questions that can be pursued non-scientifically, but still answered in ways that aren't entirely about uninformed opinion.

There is science. And there is not-science. And that's it.

A couple of hundred years of philosophy of science--and a wealth of more recent empirical and theoretical research in historical and sociocultural studies of science--suggest that things are not so clear cut. The boundaries of science are fraught and a subject of constant rhetorical (and sometimes political or even violent) struggle, as this debate and your contributions to it suggest. I'm sure there are some things that are clearly science and some things that are clearly not, but there is a fairly large grey area in-between.

subterraneanblue has it exactly right, I think, with regard to the AAA question at hand (although I'd prefer that they hadn't changed the mission statement anyway--they should have seen this controversy coming).
posted by col_pogo at 4:54 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Until one states clearly what one means by "valid," the phrase "equally valid" doesn't mean anything. It has a pleasantly egalitarian and nonjudgemental sound to it but actually makes no claim, and hence cannot be either true or false. If all it turns out to mean when applied to ways of knowing is that, say, the empirical-scientific and the primitive-magical are, equally, ways of knowing, then that's a truism--clearly true, but no more insightful than saying the goat-cart and the 787 are, equally, modes of transport. Like, duh! Also meh!

But if it means more than that (if for instance it is taken to assert that those two ways of knowing are equally valid in the sense of being equally well grounded in objective fact and equally useful for explaining and making predictions about physical reality) then we've made an actual, substantive claim! But one that is obviously wrong.

Test case: the Daniel Dennett way of knowing and the Sarah Palin way of knowing--in the anthropological sense, equally valid.
posted by jfuller at 4:54 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


That said, anthropologists have also been involved in anti-racist and anti-colonial efforts for over a century, now, so it's not all bad.
posted by col_pogo at 5:05 PM on December 4


but isn't this branch of anthropology the exception, not the rule? when you have anthropologists saying unironically that western science cannot be anything but superior to anything else, how can "mainstream" anthropology not be problematic?

the fact that we even have to use the word "indigenous" is colonialist in and of itself.
posted by liza at 5:02 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm on a bunch of educational history list-servs, and the controversy over this is something else to behold.

Same with folklore and museum listservs...
posted by Miko at 5:04 PM on December 4, 2010


liza, what anthropologist said that? Not anyone in this thread that I can see. And yes, "indigenous" is a problematic term. And yes, anthropology itself can be ethically suspect, but certainly no more than any other form of inquiry. And you'd be more likely to find a friendly (and interested) audience for the sorts of critiques you're making in an anthropology department than anywhere else. Believe me, anthropologists spend a lot of time thinking about the politics and ethics of anthropological knowledge production. Hence this whole noisy debate...
posted by col_pogo at 5:18 PM on December 4, 2010


I understand. It's not like I believe there is anything about traditional conservativism that demands one embrace woowoo handwavy crap in lieu of data analysis, but since the mainstream right is far more likely to be vocally at odds with the conclusions of the scientific community than the mainstream left, I can't help but feel a little "physician, heal thyself" about the whole thing.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:59 PM on December 4, 2010


there isn't necessarily a unidirectional hierarchy, with science being good and right, and indigenous knowledge being wrong and bad. Knowledge is culturally-bound

Yeah. I went looking for a link to Renee Fossett's work on historical Inuit maps and why, judged according to standard cartographic standards, they were "wrong" but were reliably "right" when used as the Inuit used them. I found instead an article that cites Fossett's work in its discussion of scientific vs Local Ecological Knowledge (LEK). The authors observe:
Emphasis on adjectives such as “traditional” or “indigenous” simply diverts attention from the central question: can this knowledge be trusted? . . . [we speculate that] where LEK is held as a mental map, this map will be highly accurate when the following conditions are present: (1) a relatively homogeneous community, (2) local use or exploitation of a natural resource, (3) generation-to-generation transmission of knowledge, (4) economic dependence on the resource, and (5) sufficient time for the self-correcting process to produce accuracy. . . . The process by which mental maps of a resource are generated may not be “scientific” in the usual sense, but it has an inherent rigor and quality control at least equal in efficiency to those associated with technology.
They're describing a kind of Hive Mind process.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:53 PM on December 4, 2010


If it can't be expressed mathematically, it's an opinion.

You got an equation for that claim?
posted by Marty Marx at 11:48 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


> saying unironically that western science cannot be anything but superior to anything else

"Western science" (and again, the qualifier is not only unnecessary but plain wrong) is not "superior to anything else" without qualification, and nobody has ever said it is. As I pointed out above, my wife knits better than "Western science" and no scientist would dispute that. Science (which knows no borders) is superior to anything else in explaining the material world. If it finds that acupuncture or Inuit maps or cancer-sniffing dogs seem to have better-than-chance success at something, it will investigate and find out what exactly is producing that success. If the success turns out to be an illusion, the response "You can't understand it because you're an imperialist hegemonic colonialist Western bourgeois" is not an alternate "way of knowing," it's just know-nothingism, willed ignorance.
posted by languagehat at 6:42 AM on December 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm all for respecting indigenous "ways of knowing," but to say they're just as valid as "Western science" (as though science had a postal address!) is a bridge too far.

Indeed, languagehat. In Science there is no East nor West... But seriously: there's no such thing as Eastern science. There's only science, via the scientific method. All else is folly.
posted by IAmBroom at 4:41 PM on December 5, 2010


« Older Happy December! Happy Reading!   |   In the face of contradictory evidence Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post