The poop knife was never meant for pigs
October 12, 2019 6:21 PM   Subscribe

When, some weeks ago, I was first contacted by an online scientific publication asking me to review a submission on the subject of “shit knives”, I initially thought it was a hoax or some kind of practical joke. On the face of it, I couldn’t believe that a team of scholars would take on the “shit knife” as a scientific challenge. I meant no disrespect, but at a time when the entire world of the Inuit is literally melting beneath them, I found it hard to accept that any serious scholar, even the most reductionist, would exhaust time and money in such a pursuit.

Still, if true, it is surely ironic that a team of scientists, invoking the rigour of the scientific method, took on this challenge, as if operating in the realm of pure reason, while all the while they remained confined by their own cultural constraints, condemned to conduct an experiment that, by definition, betrayed the principles of objectivity that their science so earnestly proclaims.

In sharing these thoughts, it’s not my intention to challenge the results or belittle the efforts of the team that conducted the experiments reported in Eren et al. But surely if one wants to invoke the scientific method, and publish results as being conclusive, one must begin with a research protocol free of flaws that by definition limit the utility of your results and thus compromise your conclusions. In an experiment designed to test whether a tool forged by the cold from human waste could be used to kill a dog, surely the frozen implements created in the lab ought to have been tested on the skin of a dog.

Previously.
posted by GoblinHoney (32 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is so interesting.

Also, I really thought this was going to be about the practice, as discussed previously on AskMe, of keeping a knife or spatula in the bathroom for toilet use.
posted by limeonaire at 6:49 PM on October 12, 2019 [21 favorites]


Me too, I still believe that to be an urban [online] legend
posted by selfish at 6:51 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


Also, I really thought this was going to be about the practice, as discussed previously on AskMe, of keeping a knife or spatula in the bathroom for toilet use.

I'm sorry what

My attempt to search for this has failed.
posted by inexorably_forward at 6:57 PM on October 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


poop is cheating (`へ´*)ノ

for real knife jadoo, study carefully

cardboard

cooking foil

ice

rice
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:00 PM on October 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


See previously. If you Google the phrase, it turns out not to be a one-off AskMe comment and actually a thing multiple people out there in the world have in their bathrooms!
posted by limeonaire at 7:12 PM on October 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


Thank you, limeonaire!
posted by inexorably_forward at 7:19 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]




Also, I really thought this was going to be about the practice, as discussed previously on AskMe, of keeping a knife or spatula in the bathroom for toilet use.

One of the more idiosyncratic participants in one of my favourite podcasts keeps a knife in his shower, just in case (of violence unanticipated, not poop). Also one under his pillow, I think.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 8:26 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


I honestly cannot tell whether Wade Davis is joking or not.

And that is really taking the piss.
posted by biogeo at 9:16 PM on October 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


And when the shit knife comes out, Randy, that's when the shit wolves start to howl. Can ya hear the shit wolves howl, Randy?
posted by not_on_display at 11:08 PM on October 12, 2019 [9 favorites]


Ditto, biogeo. I've come down on the side of it being basically a meta joke: expressing incredulity that at a time when the entire world of the Inuit is literally melting beneath them scientists would spend time and effort on this secondhand tale related chiefly as a memorable metaphor for Inuit resourcefulness ... but then (tongue-in-cheek-ishly?) descending down the same path by spending time and effort to point out the obvious practical error in scientific method when testing the apocryphal knife.
posted by taz at 12:41 AM on October 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


I thought it was telling and nicely highlighted in this piece also that they (and the press) went hard for the stories of the Inuit who used the poop knife, when there’s a written account by a Norwegian explorer using a poop chisel, knife adjacent, which is clearly a lot easier to duplicate and test. But not as exotic.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 1:13 AM on October 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


I’ve done a modicum of research on Inuit culture and this is the first I’ve heard of sleds with runners of frozen fish and crossbars of frozen walrus meat. Such a fascinating idea, unless this is Wade Davis taking the piss again!
posted by ejs at 6:30 AM on October 13, 2019


this is the first I’ve heard of sleds with runners of frozen fish

I am not in any way an expert or even particularly attentive, but I distinctly remember this from a documentary in my childhood. I am thinking most Canadians must have seen it and are aware of the "fish can make good sled runners" idea.
posted by Meatbomb at 6:35 AM on October 13, 2019


When I was young we were so poor we couldn't afford a poop knife. We had to use fart knives which were a lot less helpful.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:06 AM on October 13, 2019 [12 favorites]


I’ve done a modicum of research on Inuit culture and this is the first I’ve heard of sleds with runners of frozen fish and crossbars of frozen walrus meat. Such a fascinating idea, unless this is Wade Davis taking the piss again!

It's my favorite thing. Once, with an anthropologist, I wanted to replicate one for an exhibition. Management vetoed our genius idea, exactly because it's one of those stories where you don't know exactly if it is a real thing or an elaborate hoax. (I think there may be a photo in either a Freuchen or a Rasmussen book, but that doesn't prove much). It's funny it comes up now, because I'm planning to go back and try again because they have a new director with the right sense of humor.
posted by mumimor at 7:15 AM on October 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


where you don't know exactly if it is a real thing or an elaborate hoax

I distinctly remember, it was in grade school, so like the mid 70s, and it was an authentic documentary of a real Inuit hunting expedition, probably taking place in the 60s. And they built the sled on film, cutting fish in half and wrapping them in I guess sealskin or similar.

Think about the environment... what else do you make sled runners out of?
posted by Meatbomb at 8:01 AM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


The thing is, it's absolutely possible that they may have made the sled as a joke. The anthropologist I was working with back then had seen it in person, he didn't doubt it's existence. He just couldn't say if it was only made when there was someone to impress or fool.
posted by mumimor at 8:05 AM on October 13, 2019 [6 favorites]


Think about the environment... what else do you make sled runners out of?

Bone, occasionally driftwood. Every culture living that far north has access to either the sea or large terrestrial mammals, it's not really a survivable environment otherwise.
posted by tavella at 9:58 AM on October 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


*dubious* Joking or not--and I confess, I'm oddly sleepy this afternoon, so I might be missing something--

but it seems to me that Davis' response includes an awful lot of defensive "I've used this story and I think it's fine because it communicates important things about Inuit culture", and then "why are you writing about this when the ICE CAPS ARE MELTING," attempts to distract from the point of the writers, which is that anecdotes like this that are very common but poorly documented aren't necessarily good for developing understanding of any given culture. I read the shit-knife paper when it came out, because it was funny and then because it was interesting, and I don't think this is much of a rebuttal. Certainly I don't think Davis comes off well.

The argument that dog-skin is that much more fragile and easy to cut than pig-skin might have merit if the university had been able to make any sort of cut in the pig-skin itself before the knife melted; as it is, they reported that the shit simply melted immediately upon friction with the frozen skin. A recently living dog, still hot with the dog's body heat, would melt the knife that much faster, not to mention the impact of the dog's hot blood on the knife. A dogskin is, of course, harder to source, but dogskins are also not exactly made of tissue paper.

At the end of the day, though, the people I'd want to hear from on both pieces are the Inuit. I don't see their voices anywhere in this argument. I notice that none of the authorities on the topic of Inuit culture and polar use of ice as a tool David cites are Inuit: he mentions Knudsen, a Dane, and Gretel Ehrlich, a Californian, but no Inuit cultural representative or toolmaker, only people who have "lived among them." The only Inuit person whose commentary he discusses is Olayuk Narqitarvik, and Davis himself points out that he had the sense that Narqitarvik might simply have been making a joke at his expense. While Davis complains that the Freuchen story of a fecal knife used as a chisel is easier to test and that Eren et al. chose to test his own more dubious anecdote instead, no one is using Freuchen's shit-chisel story to illustrate central points about the nature of Danish culture. This story is being used to represent the Inuit to anthropology classes. It's more important to test its veracity than the veracity of the chisel, because the knife story matters more to the way that people view the Inuit than the chiel story matters to the way that people view the Danish.

I don't think that Davis gets to be the final arbiter of whether an anecdote of dubious truthfulness is worth sharing, regardless of whether he has attempted to couch its veracity in the language of metaphor. It seems to me that he disagrees. I'm a little disappointed in the Nautilus for giving him such a platform to insist that he's right, without also doing the journalistic work to reach out and speak to an Inuit researcher or community representative on their thoughts. If I was running the editorial section, I'd probably reach out to either Kat Milligan-Myhre (who happens to be an Inupiaq biologist in my own field) if I was looking for an academic's perspective, or for a more general "is there harm in this?" perspective I would reach out to a group like Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami or ICC Alaska.

It took me something like fifteen minutes to identify reasonable people to ask. It seems very irresponsible to me of Nautilus not to pair this commentary from Davis and his argument that the anecdote doesn't hurt the Inuit alongside a commentary from an Inuit representative on how this anecdote lands in practice.
posted by sciatrix at 11:59 AM on October 13, 2019 [11 favorites]


Am I wrong to think this whole line of anecdotes is based on Netsilik history, and maybe also the forced displacement of some peoples from Eastern Canada to the polar region of the Netsilik which I don't know enough about??

The role of Danish explorers in the description of and interaction with Arctic peoples is complex. Knud Rasmussen was of Inuit heritage, Peter Freuchen married an Inuit woman, Denmark has several prominent scholars and artists who have Inuit heritage. Obviously, Denmark was a colonial power, but the relation with Greenland was never the same as the relation with other Danish colonies. There was racism, but Rasmussen could be celebrated, Freuchen's wife and their kids were fine, and several other Inuit became professors or otherwise famous. You wouldn't see people from the American, African or Indian colonies celebrated in the same way. I don't don't know exactly how it worked, but it seems there was a strong feeling that Greenland was an underdeveloped part of Denmark, just like Iceland and the Færøes. (It's not like these people love the Danish or their colonialism. It's just like another type of colonialism, like the relation between the English and the Scots).

I think everyone who engages with Greenland falls in love with the country. I could write a whole essay about how it already starts in the plane going there. From that love of Greenland, the support of the big expeditions all across the Inuit culture grew. I don't think its a big thing today, but for my parents and grandparents, Inuit culture was a big thing, and they supported Inuit independence whole-heartedly. No-one in Denmark understands the US and Canadian attitude. There is a strong independence movement in Greenland and most Danes support it, but the practical implementation is difficult.

The geo-political issues on the Arctic right now are very, very difficult. And it is absolutely clear that the tiny nation that is Greenland cannot handle the reality of a superpower struggle. TBH, Denmark itself is stressed to its limits dealing with this.

Davis only hints at all this, but as it is, most of our knowledge of Inuit culture before modernity comes from a handful of explorers who were all dependent on Greenlanders or Danes with Greenlandic connections. There are exceptions, but there weren't even university departments in the Americas for the first half of the 20th century.

(Norwegians did some research and it is interesting, but I won't go there for many reasons, and maybe a Norwegian MeFite will add in here)
posted by mumimor at 12:54 PM on October 13, 2019 [6 favorites]


One of the more idiosyncratic participants in one of my favourite podcasts keeps a knife in his shower, just in case (of violence unanticipated, not poop). Also one under his pillow, I think.

Git 'Em Steve-Dave?
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 2:38 PM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


I read the shit-knife paper when it came out, because it was funny and then because it was interesting, and I don't think this is much of a rebuttal. Certainly I don't think Davis comes off well.

Exactly. It's such a weak argument it's hard to imagine it's meant seriously, but he's really playing it straight. Which is exactly like the poop knife story, which is so obviously a humorous tall tale played straight. If he's serious, then his argument, ironically, makes him seem really thin-skinned.
posted by biogeo at 4:13 PM on October 13, 2019 [4 favorites]


If he's serious, then his argument, ironically, makes him seem really thin-skinned.

Makes sense since he’s shown he’s easy prey for the poop knife.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:32 PM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Yeaaaaah, I think he's dead serious about his argument. I would be incredibly surprised to find out this was a joke.

I mean, I'd think better of him if that was the case, and I can see him back-pedaling and claiming it's a joke if it irritates too many people, but I am very certain Davis is 100% serious here. Sarcasm ain't always my forte, but he's clearly been telling this guy's joke and implying it might be true, or at least might have a grain of truth to it, for thirty years. It has to be pretty damn embarrassing to have another group test the story, find that there's zero chance it could be an accurate retelling, and then have that manuscript go viral. If this was a joke, I'd expect to see his tongue a little more in cheek.

Nah. I think he's just embarrassed.
posted by sciatrix at 5:50 PM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


I didn't read the paper, though I saw the reporting when it came out. I wonder if it occurred to them that what the donor ate would have a terrific effect on the durability and efficacy of the resulting tool? For instance, one of those guys in the side show that eats light bulbs and razor blades and stuff would probably be able to squat out a real Damascus-shit blade.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:11 PM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


Yeah, they were actually very carefully controlled about what the donor(s) ate. (There was one main donor who ate a diet "consistent with an Arctic diet" for the duration of sample production, and a second donor who ate a diet more consistent with a usual Western diet who was included to see if diet changed anything about the efficacy of the knives.)

Davis is also a little bit unfair in the criticism of the use of temperature in the researchers' room: while the experiments were conducted at 10 C (~50 F), all tissues were cooled to 4 C before cutting and the knives were plunged into dry ice (~-78.5 C) after being sharpened for a period of several minutes immediately before any attempted cuts. They also tried cutting a bit of the subcutaneous fat under the hide itself when they couldn't cut the hide:
For curiosity's sake, we tried to cut the subcutaneous fat on the underside of the hide. With some difficulty, only the shallowest of slices could be produced, and the knife-edge still quickly melted and deteriorated (Fig. S9).
But somehow a steaming dog hide cut off a recently-living animal would have been way more easy to cut than a layer of subcutaneous fat. Sure, man. Sure.
posted by sciatrix at 6:24 PM on October 13, 2019 [2 favorites]


typical bloody scientist bringing a poop knife to a poop gun fight
posted by um at 7:00 PM on October 13, 2019 [1 favorite]


Yeaaaaah, I think he's dead serious about his argument.

I'm afraid I think you're probably right.
posted by biogeo at 7:10 PM on October 13, 2019


squat out a real Damascus-shit blade

Magnificent, I applaud you.
posted by biogeo at 7:11 PM on October 13, 2019 [3 favorites]


While I think the odds are that it was a tall tale, there's going to be a considerable difference in working in an environment where everything is -50, except for the rapidly cooling skin which could go anywhere down to that temperature, and 'oh, I chilled it down and then brought it into a what is a relative temperature of 100 degrees compared to the original environment.' It's really not a great replication.
posted by tavella at 10:10 AM on October 14, 2019 [2 favorites]


I was looking to find the sled image online, and couldn't, but I did learn that Freuchen's nickname was Peter Liar. He was the guy with the poop chisel, and that most certainly never happened even though it is true that he snowed in during an expedition. His foot was amputated after that, and once at a dinner party, he told a lady he had cut it off himself because he was starving, and eaten it. I mean, these guys just loved a good story. My feeling is that the people who chose to be Arctic explorers back then both enjoyed the heroism and also the Inuit culture and humor.
posted by mumimor at 11:13 AM on October 14, 2019 [3 favorites]


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