Respectful Insolence

I don’t recall if I ever mentioned this before, but back when I was in college I had quite the interest in a couple of sciences that you might not have expected or guessed at, namely anthropology and archaelogy. Indeed, an archeology class that I took as a senior was one of the most memorable and fascinating classes I took during my entire four years in college. If I have one regret about my college years, it was my laser-like focus on getting into medical school. It was that intense focus that kept me taking far more classes related to chemistry, biology, and other sciences that I thought would both help me get into medical school and then succeed once I was there, at the expense of a broader liberal arts education including sciences less related to medicine, such as anthropology, history, literature, and others.

I realize that anthropology tends to be considered a “softer science,” just as, for instance, psychology is. However, contrary to what you might expect from my being a hard core “science geek,” I don’t denigrate the softer sciences. The reason is that I actually appreciate that doing science like psychology or anthropology. That’s why I was rather disturbed to see a story in Inside Higher Ed entitled Anthropology Without Science. Apparently a new long-range plan for the largest anthropological association, the American Anthropological Association, has systematically removed the word “science.” Even though I haven’t studied anthropology in over 25 years, I couldn’t resist commenting, even at the risk of doing nothing more than revealing my ignorance, because, well, I’m a blogger. It’s what I do, write about whatever strikes my fancy at the moment, and this just so happened to strike my fancy last night. It’s also more closely related to regular topics on this blog than you might imagine. For example, the debate going on within anthropology uncomfortably echoes similar debates that go on in medicine, in particular with respect to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

So this is how the story began:

A new long-range plan for the American Anthropological Association that omits the word “science” from the organization’s vision for its future has exposed fissures in the discipline.

The plan, adopted by the executive board of the association at its annual meeting two weeks ago, includes “significant changes to the American Anthropological Association mission statement — it removes all mention of science,” Peter N. Peregrine, president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences and professor at Lawrence University, wrote in a widely circulated e-mail to members. The changes to the plan, he continued, “undermine American anthropology.”

I suppose it depends upon what anthropology is. Is it a science? Certainly, it’s a discipline where the scientific method can be maddeningly difficult to apply in practice, where there is considerable uncertainty in any data accumulated, and where there is a tension between the more “humanistic” element and those who want to make the discipline as scientific as possible. Indeed, this article highlights just that. However, what I didn’t realize was that there appears to be a growing element in anthropology that is not just uninterested in science, but downright hostile to science:

Still, the change seemed to resonate uncomfortably with some more scientifically oriented anthropologists, who perceived a broader shift in the discipline that they say began decades ago. “It’s become so dominated by, not so much humanistic scholars, but by scholars who are actively hostile” to science, said Raymond Hames, chair of anthropology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and a cultural anthropologist who favors a scientific approach.

As well it should. It would appear that this debate strikes at the very heart of what anthropology is as a discipline. What it reveals is a very disturbing tendency towards a number of characteristics that are anathema to science, including postmodernism and political correctness. As Alice Dreger put it:

While I sat through a discussion of this at the Evolutionary Anthropology Society (a formal “section” of the AAA), I had two competing thoughts: (1) This couldn’t possibly be true. Getting rid of science? (2) This is undoubtedly true. The AAA leadership has finally decided to make concrete their attitude that science is a four-letter word.

In particular, it’s the cultural anthropologists that tend to fall into the trap of postmodernism and political correctness. It didn’t take me long looking over some of the blog posts discussing this change to find all sorts of evidence of this. Science is denigrated as being nothing more than “another way of knowing” or a means for “Western” colonial ideals to be imposed on indigenous peoples. Indeed, one anthropologist blogger was happy that the term “science” was being removed from the AAA’s vision statement, so much so that he argued in defense of it. This wouldn’t have bothered me so much, except that he lays down a whopper that is full of all the buzzwords about science that irritate the hell out of me because they are so often used to justify woo:

These facts alone, however, do not explain the entire picture, and I am leaning toward a quiet applause for the distancing of the discipline from “science” – especially as a cultural anthropologist. This is not to say that we should ignore the rigorous methodologies that we utilized, but instead, to include others not traditionally represented. When we examine the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us. “Science” has become privileged globally, and for many, represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. 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. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.

Yes, it’s the appeal to “other ways of knowing,” which is such a common appeal used to justify CAM. How many times on this blog have you read my rants against the term “Western” applied to science and medicine. My argument, of course, is that not only is referring to “Western” medicine and science not unsubtly racist in that it implies that “Eastern” people prefer fuzzy science lacking in rigor and that indigenous peoples are incapable of science, neither of which is true, but that there is some irreconcilable difference between East and West or “Western” scientists and indigenous peoples in how the world is viewed. It’s every bit as arrogant a view of the world as it accuses science of being, and it’s rooted in postmodernism and postmodernistic attacks on science of exactly the same sort that are used to defend and justify CAM. “Science is just another way of knowing.” “Science has no inherent superiority as a way of knowing than ‘ancient wisdom.’” These things would be less objectionable were they referring to history and literature, where differences in interpretation can be equally valid, but science actually can produce as close to objective knowledge as human beings are capable of. At the very least, it can make falsifiable predictions and provide models and frameworks with predictive power that make them useful.

But, hey, that’s just me and my reductionistic “Western” way of thinking hatin’ on all that indigenous goodness, just like I do when I’m pointing out the pseudoscience in traditional Chinese medicine.

I am interested, however, in a claim being made here. Leaving aside the annoyingly politically correct gobbledy-gook about the “colonization” and “privilege” of science, one thing that is being asserted here is that indigenous knowledge is being understood and accepted in the West as being equally complex and equally valid to “Western science”? These are exactly the same claims made by purveyors of quackery who support various “ancient wisdoms” and “other systems of medicine.” I’d be very curious to know on what evidence this claim is based. Who is accepting these nonscientific methods and on what basis? I certainly know that in medicine, there is a large contingent of CAM advocates who seem to think that traditional Chinese medical beliefs, for example, such as that every organ in the body can map to the tongue, that there are “meridians” through which life energy flows whose flow can be “unblocked” if you stick little needles in them. Many of these same CAM supporters accept ancient Indian concepts in Ayruvedic medicine, such as pranas and chakras. And, yes, some of these CAM advocates accept all sorts of woo from whatever indigenous people strike their fancy. From a cultural standpoint these “other ways of knowing” may well be as “valid” as science. They may well even be as complex. But as an empirical, objective (or at least as objective as possible) way of finding out how nature works? Not so much.

Nonetheless, in anthropology as in parts of medicine, it’s becoming all about this:

The “science-free” mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged “science” over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change. Do anthropologists still use science? Of course, and science may well offer the most appropriate methodology for many. Still, we must also recognize that there are other means to knowing, exploring, and explaining.

It looks to me as though it’s now science that’s being marginalized in anthropology. The intent seems to be to to chuck science in favor of local “indigenous knowledge.” There are, however many problems with this sort of approach:

Hames did not dispute the need for advocacy, but faulted what he saw as an imbalance in the methods used to pursue that aim. Culturally centered interpretations must be subjected to empirical evaluation, even if doing so exposes anthropologists to charges of disrespecting local customs in favor of the “hegemonic” scientific method, he said. He described a hypothetical field study in which children being studied in a community were found to be dying of dysentery or cholera. “Are we to accept the local explanation that children are dying … because someone is breaking a taboo and the gods are angry,” he said, “or do we look to see how fecal matter is being introduced to the water supply?”

Exactly. Either anthropology is a science, or it is not. If it is not, I’ve just lost a lot of interest in it.

I can’t help but see similarities in the tension between the humanistic/advocate side of anthropology and its scientific side and similar tensions that exist in medicine. Indeed, in medicine, just as there has been the rise of a movement to make medicine more evidence- and science-based, during the same period, there has been the equally (or even stronger) rise of a movement dedicated to injecting pseudoscience into medicine under the guise of making medicine more “humanistic” and dedicated to those it both serves and studies; i.e., the patients. The former movement is, of course, the evidence-based medicine movement and later the science-based medicine movement, while the latter movement is CAM or “integrative medicine” (IM) movement.

I suppose that, to some extent, in disciplines dedicated to the study of human beings there will always be this tension between humanistic and scientific aspects. I don’t know enough about anthropology to know why the AAA apparently feels that these two imperatives can’t be reconciled, but in medicine I see no real reason why they should be unreconcilable. There is no reason why being more humanistic, being an advocate for your patients, should mean abandoning science and embracing postmodernism and “other ways of knowing.” Yet, such seems to be what CAM advocates are doing. I suppose that the difference between medicine and anthropology in this respect is that, the CAM movement notwithstanding, the vast majority of physicians still believe in principle that medicine should be rooted in science and in general are fairly ignorant about the unscientific practices of CAM, and that is a good thing. Indeed, virtually all of the, the CAM-promoters included, at least pay lip service. One wonders how long that will continue.

ADDENDUM: Egads! Another defender of removing the term “science” arises. This one provides a whole heapin’ helpin’ of straw men arguments and the truly irritating “science is a religion” canard:

At times I feel like the real distinction here is between thoughtful people who are aware of the complexities of knowledge production, and those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists and everyone else as blasphemers. This approach is, of course, not very scientific and verges on being the close-minded inversion of the fundamentalist Christianity that thinkers of this ilk so love to oppose.

Ugh. Apparently people like me who see cultural anthropologists going on about science as a “Western” way of thinking that is “colonial” in nature are not “thoughtful” people because we just don’t get it maaaaaan. We’re “fundamentalist” scientists. Double ugh.

I hadn’t planned on blogging this topic again, but this might make me change my mind. It all depends on what sort of mood I’m in tonight when I sit down with my laptop to blog.

Comments

  1. #1 daedalus2u
    December 1, 2010

    If “indigenous knowledge” is another way of knowing, then the fruits of indigenous knowledge should map directly onto results of the scientific method.

    Mapping indigenous knowledge onto a scientific framework is the best way to understand it. Maybe there are people who want to study indigenous knowledge and who can’t do that. They should not try to inhibit those who want to and who can.

  2. #2 Quietmarc
    December 1, 2010

    I think this comes down to what Anthropology is for: do we want to know what really happened in our history, or do we want to tell each other pretty stories about what might or could or should have happened?

    I’m personally interested in both: what happened, and what we tell ourselves has happened, but I think we need some form of science in both of those.

    I suspect that part of the fuel in this fire is coming from the debate going on about whether or not Jesus was a real person (and other parts of the Bible), and not so much about respecting the beliefs of indiginous peoples.

  3. #3 Methodissed
    December 1, 2010

    My daughter is a Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology. She understands the folly of post-modernism and acknowledges that the discipline is immersed in it. I read the papers she writes and see the crap requirements and writing expectations imposed by some of her professors.

    This is truly sad. Anthropology provides vital insights. Consider, for example, the anthropology of religion, and the value of examining religious belief from a 30,000 foot view. The lyrics of Marilyn Manson sum it up: “You can’t see the forest through the trees.”

    Fortunately post-modernism hasn’t corrupted everyone in the field, and they’re still turning out graduates who know better.

  4. #4 Jason Dick
    December 1, 2010

    Just as a slight aside, as a physicist, I am very often disturbed when my colleagues express the opinion that the social sciences are not sciences at all. I think that’s complete and utter bullcrap. The sciences that study humans and human society are inherently difficult because it is far more difficult to remove bias when we have so many preconceptions about ourselves. This does not mean they fail to be sciences. It just makes them hard.

    Not respecting people in another field because they chose a field that is harder than yours is complete bullshit.

  5. #5 Methodissed
    December 1, 2010

    The sciences that study humans and human society are inherently difficult … This does not mean they fail to be sciences. It just makes them hard.

    Massimo Pigliucci (a philosopher of science) does a nice job of articulating this point in his book, Nonsense on Stilts.

    Thanks for your comment. It’s nice to hear a defense of the social sciences coming from a physicist.

  6. #6 CIV
    December 1, 2010

    I think another problem with removing ‘science’ is that it panders to that very particular group of cultural anthropologists. Most archaeologists and most (if not all) physical anthropologists, along with many cultural anthropologists, are scientists and work within the scientific method. It’s not just that the AAA has drifted over into this postmodernist fluff, but in so doing it has ignored large segments of its members. Evidently, they didn’t consult the members at all in making this decision, and I wonder, if they had, how many would have supported this change and how many would not have.

    It’s silly also, that they would look down on science. Anthropology is itself a European-invented form of knowledge, and if you’re going to hate on science you should probably be hating on anthropology itself too… though in that case, I guess you’d be out of a job.

  7. #7 Janet Camp
    December 1, 2010

    I’m an anthropologist. This was NOT going on when I went to college (late 70′s, early 80′s), although I saw glimmerings of it in a course called ” Myth, Magic, and Ritual”. The course was taught by a nice man who had only a BA from Berkeley and was quite the “hippie professor”. We understood that we were trained to be “culturally relative” and to be wary of ethnocentrism in all its forms, but we were also hit hard with Human Biology and the History of Science, which I always credit for giving me a good grounding in critical thinking. I may not be able to read every study in detail, but I can recognize scientific method or the lack thereof. I did archaeology as my emphasis and the scientific method was rigorously imposed. Anyway, the aforementioned Professor introduced a lot of stuff that was not very science-oriented and implied that cultural relativity and taking belief systems at face value were the same thing! I just ignored it as it was one of the last classes I took and I figured he was just a bit of a flake. Thinking back, however, I recall that some of the students were fascinated by the idea that shamans really were “visiting other realms” and such. When I challenged one student who belonged to a rather fundamentalist sect about how he could reconcile his religious beliefs with the science he was studying, I was severely reprimanded by several classmates for “disrespecting someone’s religion”! It was just a question, for goodness sake!

    I think this whole question (and its parallels to CAM) reflects the “hard wiring” idea of religious/magical thinking. So many people my age dumped organized religion, but not the basic need to “believe”–they just picked up something else–New Age, some kind of Shamanism, or whatever struck their fancy.

    It is SHOCKING, however, that my beloved discipline would stoop to the actions you report. I am stricken by this development, but not really so surprised, given what is going on in the field of medicine. It is rare in the last ten years, that I go to a doctor (especially gyn’s) who do not end up recommending some kind of woo to me (with a bit of a wink and a not, sometimes–sometimes NOT). I also had an orthopedist recommend acupuncture and I personally know an anesthesiologist who has abandoned a very successful practice to do Ayurvedic “medicine” exclusively!

    This tendency (infection) seems to be everywhere and we need an antidote!

    P.S. I’m very happy to know that you liked your Anthropology courses, Orac. I’m sure that exposure has helped make you a well-rounded person. Thanks for reporting on this, no matter how painful I find it.

  8. #8 christophe-thill.myopenid.com
    December 1, 2010

    “other means to … exploring” : is that a codeword for “psychedelic drugs” ?

  9. #9 andrew
    December 1, 2010

    Wow, you’re good.

  10. #10 Old Rockin' Dave
    December 1, 2010

    Whenever I see mention of “other ways of knowing” or similar phrases, I am put in mind of Carlos Castaneda and his series of books about Don Juan, a Yaqui sorcerer, and his amazing, and sometimes drug-fueled feats (don’t fret, they were organic, indigenous, locally-grown drugs). I avidly bought and read those books before I became disenchanted with the illogic and weak thought that went into accepting all those “alternative knowledges.” Sadly, Castaneda was using that “other form of knowing” that is also known as “making it all up,” one that is all too common.

  11. #11 KBHC
    December 1, 2010

    I’m a biological anthropologist. I was really pleased to read this post. Thank you Orac for putting it better than I could. It is exactly the ways in which this has echoes of woo and pseudoscience with respecting all “ways of knowing” that has me nervous. I do respect all ways of knowing. But I still want to generate falsifiable hypotheses about them rather than accept them. I think there is a difference.

  12. #12 Mu
    December 1, 2010

    We see a lot of this conflict out here in the Southwest in regards to the Anazasi. A lot of pueblo cultures claim them as ancestors “based on oral tradition”, which science has a hard time to verify. On the other hand, science has shown that the Anazasi cultured ended with a massive decline, including cannibalism. Those results are vehemently fought by the local tribes as “taboo violation, so it cannot have happened”.
    Denying facts based on political correctness should be a taboo in itself, lets hope that the anthropologists will get their act together.

  13. #13 AndrewR
    December 1, 2010

    Taken to the extreme doesn’t this new philosophy actually mean that a study of any given culture can only be reported on in the language of the culture? Would not using another language, such as English, enforce the cultural paradigm of the other language onto the report and distort the results resulting in them not being an accurate cultural representation?

    Also, without science, how does one critique or peer review a study? Doesn’t this push anthropology purely into being one or both of (a) history and (b) political studies (note the lack of the use of “political science”) where all results are possible and acceptable as long as you don’t contradict the department heads world view?

  14. #14 qetzal
    December 1, 2010

    I really dislike the use of the word “valid” in these discussions, as in the claim that indigenous counterparts to Western science are “equally valid.” It strikes me as a deliberate attempt to conflate different meanings of ‘valid.’

    If someone wants to argue that indigenous belief systems generally deserve respect as integral parts of their culture, fine. In that sense, I agree that they’re valid. That doesn’t mean that they’re equally accurate or reliable descriptions of the objective world. In that sense, they are not equally valid at all.

    IMO, the phrase “equally valid” is an intentionally ambiguous bit of jargon that people use when they are trying to fool either themselves or others.

  15. #15 Michael
    December 1, 2010

    #2, as far as I can tell, most of the “fuel in the fire” comes from leftists who believe in respecting the beliefs of non-European peoples. (So Europeans can have mistaken beliefs but non-Europeans can’t?)
    Incidentally, a majority of historians will tell you that Jesus probably existed (it seems that Josephus wrote something about him but whatever Josephus wrote differs from our current copies of Josephus’s writings.) What is causing a controversy in Biblical archeology is that the traditional view of the Exodus is extremely difficult to reconcile with the historical record, at least in the numbers described in the Bible.

  16. #16 The Science Pundit
    December 1, 2010

    Orac,

    Have you ever been to the UPenn Museum of Anthropology and Archeology? It’s well worth the visit!

  17. #17 WIll
    December 1, 2010

    If you interpret the wonderful word “science” literally, it makes no requirement of empiricism. If there are indigenous ways of knowing that are just as valuable as Western ways of knowing, it’s because the truth is out there and all that matters is coming to terms with it. If anything, the bent of western empiricism has us sidetracked by mechanical potentials. But there is an all-inclusive power which is the true scientist’s aim, and whether you call it God, or yourself, or the world, or the universe, it can be just as mysterious as it is obvious, and can require of our inquisitive minds an alternate approach from time to time.

  18. #18 iamnothouse.com
    December 1, 2010

    “This does not mean they fail to be sciences. It just makes them hard.”

    Very well said. Because I went through a liberal arts program before I went to med school, people always assume two things about me:

    1) I want to do psychiatry (“Well, you’re better at psychosocial stuff, right?”)
    2) I must know more about feelings and junk than they, the purveryors of “true” science.

    Anthropology, and other “soft” sciences, do themselves a disservice when they pull shit like this. As has been stated ad nauseum here, scientific method is not ‘a privileged way of thinking’; it’s the basic way to approach ANYTHING in the world. By discounting this, you’re ultimately saying you don’t care to test your hypotheses, and would rather just come up with whatever suits your fancy without trying to tie it to any empirical evidence.

    Kind of reminds me of this Bingo sheet I saw for evolutionary psychiatry

  19. #19 Denice Walter
    December 1, 2010

    Like the Science Pundit, I highly recommend the UPenn Museum of Anthropology and Archeoplogy, Philadelphia – I was just there ( repeat visit) in October.

    About the “soft(er) sciences”- there’s been a long history in psych about what is the subject matter and how to study it since Wundt/ James ( at least- in the Victorian era) and I imagine the divide goes back a long time in anthropology as well. I can’t fathom how becoming “humanistic” somehow means divorcing science. Before I go off on cross-cultural studies in cognitive development……

  20. #20 qetzal
    December 1, 2010

    WIll (#17):

    Can you give a clear example where inquisitive minds required an alternate approach to accurately understand the universe?

  21. #21 novalox
    December 1, 2010

    I actually have a minor in anthropology so this raises some interesting points up for me. Most of my classes for my minor was in evolutionary anthropology, although I did take a few classes in cultural anthropology.

    I do respect the work that my professors did in their respective fields, and I had respect for most of them as people.

    It may be because I tended more towards evolutionary and biological anthropology, but I feel that the field would do itself a great disservice by disassociating itself from science.

  22. Those in favor of eliminating science from anthropology seem to be equating what they are studying with how they study it. The science of anthropology is not the same thing as the focus of that science.

  23. #23 Daniel J. Andrews
    December 1, 2010

    Can we put these folks in Dara O’Briain’s sack too–specifically the sci-buzzword commenter Orac quoted?

  24. #24 Greg Fish
    December 1, 2010

    However, contrary to what you might expect from my being a hard core “science geek,” I don’t denigrate the softer sciences.

    I’ve taken both “soft” sciences (psychology), and am currently in a “hard” science (computer science, i.e. applied mathematics). From my experience, I can say that they’re both sciences with one being much, much harder to quantify and express as a list of answers and solutions than the other due to all the unknowns involved in the research and experimentation. But the whole notion of saying that something is a “soft science” as a pejorative is just ridiculous and I don’t know why there are people who do it.

    As for your post in general, I find the comments you quoted to be rather… well… inapropriate and expressing less of an appreciation for other cultures than parentalism. I’ll definitely have something about this on my blog tomorrow.

  25. #25 WIll
    December 1, 2010

    Qetzal, empiricism always demands proof by example but I think the only real proof comes through personal experience. I won’t appall you with my own anecdotal encounters with the unknown but I will attempt to answer your question. Many if not all indigenous cultures took an “alternate” approach to the understanding of reality, insofar as each approach was unique to its people. Proof of their understanding lies in the fact that these different peoples, by different practices, arrived at many of the same conclusions. But instead of recognizing that the goal of knowledge is inescapable, Western methods endeavor to make the process inescapable. And in doing so exclude much of the obvious. Namely, that everything is alive, everything is connected, and we interact with forces that may be perceived but not observed.

  26. #26 Michael
    December 1, 2010

    I’m not sure if history should be qualified as a “soft” science. On the one hand, INTERPRETATIONS of history are subjective. OTOH, we can say that, for example, Fomenko’s theory that all of history prior to the year 1500 was made up makes homeopathy look plausible in comparison.

  27. #27 Vicki, Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chief
    December 1, 2010

    A cynical thought: this “it’s not a science” idea throws physical anthropology out of the subject area altogether.

    No physical anthro, and they can stop talking about evolution or our non-human relatives.

  28. #28 Whiskeyjack
    December 1, 2010

    I’d just like to thank you. This is not the first time I’ve seen you mention the arts — in particular, literature — in a positive light. I’m an arts graduate and I take my discipline seriously. I’m also an intelligent, rational person who did really well in her science and math courses at university, but who chose to pursue the arts instead. Sometimes, to put it delicately, I get the feeling that science-folks don’t respect the arts overmuch.

    At any rate, there’s an arts equivalent of “woo,” a sort of homeopathic poetry if you will, where the “other ways of knowing” is analogous to “personal expression” without regard to the mere technicalities a lot of the time. It’s pretty much beggared the discipline. I wonder why we seem to think that soulless art and lunatic science can stand with the best our human culture can achieve. A democracy of ideas — where everything is mysteriously as valid as anything else — is not such a grand place.

  29. #29 Scientizzle
    December 1, 2010

    The other ways of knowing claim has always bothered me. I think it is mistaken on multiple levels.

    “Ways of knowing” seems to be used interchangeably to mean “sources of information” and “methods of evaluating information”.

    The former (“sources of information”) can refer to valid, useful information that is created and stored outside of academic scholarship. Examples abound of scientists probing disparate sources of cultural knowledge to make exceedingly valuable advances within academic discourse (e.g., the entire field of pharmacognosy). To claim that science broadly ignores information that isn’t derived at the lab bench (commonly argued, implicitly and explicitly, in even these comment sections) is bluntly false. One might argue that they are insufficiently or incorrectly utilized, but that’s a wholly different discussion.

    The latter (“methods of evaluating information”) is a decidedly fuzzy concept, perhaps purposely so. Science is merely a process of evaluating claims using inductive and deductive logic; experimental and observational evidence is used to establish premises and choose between competing, logically valid explanations. These “other methods” must then do something different, eschewing the fundamentals of logic and/or experimental/observational evidence, right?

    I’ve never heard or read a clear explanation of an alternative method of evaluating knowledge by any of these “other ways of knowing” people…or at least one they would admit to. It almost always seems like “other ways of knowing” is squishy code for “I want to be able to assert a preferred interpretation of a given set of information without doing the hard work of developing a contextual framework that supports my conclusions over competing explanations.”

    By combining these two meanings into the single statement of “other ways of knowing,” I think these people prop up a self-serving philosophical stance by alluding to a (strawman construction of) science’s perceived disinterest in less rigorous data sets, such as oral cultural histories.

    Bottom line for me: if you can’t describe your preferred “other way of knowing,” or are unwilling to disclose it, then it’s intellectually bankrupt to assert its superiority! At least creationists are honest when they state their desire for a literal biblical interpretation…

  30. #30 Eric Lund
    December 1, 2010

    As Alan Sokal wrote in announcing that his paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was a hoax:

    [A]nyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)

    The faction of anthropologists who are pushing for taking science out of anthropology seem to have learned nothing from the Sokal affair. It’s one thing to take note of folk beliefs and see whether there is any scientific basis to them (although many such beliefs turn out to be baseless, many are valid, and several medicines have been discovered as a result). It’s quite another to say that these beliefs are just as valid as scientifically demonstrated relationships. Even if the initial push in this direction comes from the academic left, the end result invariably favors the right. Think creationism, global warning denialism, or any of several other trends in the war on science. That was one reason why Sokal wrote “Transgressing the Boundaries”; Sokal, who identifies himself with the political left, even included the true biographical detail that he had taught mathematics in Nicaragua during the Sandinista years, which helped establish his political bona fides with the academic crowd he was parodying.

  31. #31 Greg Fish
    December 1, 2010

    @Will, #25

    Western methods endeavor to make the process inescapable. And in doing so exclude much of the obvious. Namely, that everything is alive, everything is connected, and we interact with forces that may be perceived but not observed.

    Everything is not alive. Rocks are not alive. Neither are plastics or metals. But other than that, yes, everything has some chemical or physical connection and interaction with the environment and objects around it. And that’s what “Western” science and methods quantify. The problem with this is what again?

    Far from exclusing the obvious, science goes beyond it and explains why it’s obvious and how it works. It’s a lot more interesting than the vague New Agey fluff you’ve presented so far.

  32. #32 Douglas Watts
    December 1, 2010

    I generally sympathize with Orac’s take with the caveat that even ‘hard scientists’ rely upon such non-scientific principles as argument by authority, by consensus, by evidence preponderance with sufficient regularity as to muddy their waters as to what is, and is not, an evidentiary bar that it is truly ‘scientific’ in the Karl Popper sense.

    In the field I work in, conservation fisheries biology, ‘science’ takes on a decidedly loose connotation because it is so deeply infused with non-scientific pressures and biases that it devolves into nothing more than argument by authority or even worse, argument by personal incredulity or personal ignorance.

    A quick example. We all know that the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) was accidentally introduced to the Great Lakes by construction of the Welland Canal around Niagara Falls and has had a disastrous effect on the native biota of the Lakes. Yet, until about five years ago, this manmade introduction of a non-native species to a non-indigenous habitat was used for the past 40 years by fisheries biologists in the New England states as justification for extirpating the sea lamprey from its native habitat in New England coastal rivers. The scientific argument? “If it’s bad in the Great Lakes, it has to be bad here.”

    Today, this paradigm is rapidly collapsing under its own falsity, but it did rule the roost for most of the 20th century as ‘accepted and valid science’ even though it was just as false (and just as easily falsified) in 1960 as it is today.

  33. #33 rnb
    December 1, 2010

    What do they do when they have two conflicting sets of beliefs?
    Like about who originally held the Black Hills in the Dakotas?

  34. #34 rnb
    December 1, 2010

    What do they do when they have two conflicting sets of beliefs?
    Like about who originally held the Black Hills in the Dakotas?

  35. #35 Travis
    December 1, 2010

    I only have a minute so I cannot write much, but I want to second what Jason Dick said. I am now working in bioinformatics in a comp sci department but my background before this was in physics. Sadly, in my experience, there are a large number of physicists that do dump on the totality of the social sciences and “softer” sciences. But I for one always found aspects of them to be interesting. But if the science was taken out I would probably shy away, the interest would be gone.

  36. #36 bomoore
    December 1, 2010

    Anthro and Archaeo have been going this way for a long time; they don’t belong in science. Let them go! Maybe Religious Studies will take them in.

  37. #37 Michael
    December 1, 2010

    bonmoore, archaeology SHOULD be scientific, for the simple reason that historians often have to rely upon it, and history is supposed to be scientific.

  38. #38 qetzal
    December 1, 2010

    WIll,

    Your original claim was not that it’s possible to reach correct conclusions about the universe without using Western science. Your claim was that alternate approaches are sometimes required. Nothing in your reply supports that claim.

    As Greg Fish points out, not everything is alive, at least if we stick to the conventional definition of ‘alive.’ All material things are obviously connected in certain ways and interact through forces, but nothing in Western science excludes any of that.

    As for things that can be perceived but not observed, I’ll have to ask you again to provide an example.

  39. #39 ebohlman
    December 1, 2010

    What may have to happen is a split similar to the one that happened in psychology, where the American Psychological Society (now the Association for Psychological Science) split off from the American Psychological Association because, in the former’s view, the latter was serving neither clincians nor researchers well by trying to serve both even when there were conflicting goals. Particularly, the APS considered the APA too willing to compromise science in support of clinicians’ beliefs.

    Oftentimes, “indigenous ways of knowing” turn out to be nothing more than the claims of charlatans or fundamentalists and don’t actually represent beliefs held by most of the members of the culture in question. Sometimes they’re completely made up by Westerners based on romantic idealization, what Bill Benetta of the Textbook League calls “the wisdom of Chief Thunderbottom.”

    The oppression of a people usually involves the heavy-handed enforcement of ignorance upon them, and when people are kept ignorant, it’s their natural human tendency to make shit up. Thus the “knowledge” of a people that have been kept ignorant really shouldn’t be treated with reverence.

    Most “other ways of knowing” nearly always come down to the notion that you can make something happen just by fantasizing about it, i.e. The Secret.

  40. #40 Scott Cunningham
    December 1, 2010

    @Bomore @ 36:

    No, no, absolutely no! Historic events happened only once, one way, and so there must be some objective right answers. Let’s not open up anything new to fuzzy cotton-candy thinking. The last thing I want is to see another field become left-wing “The Aztecs sailed to the moon on magic hot air baloons!” versus right wing “Hail Britania, let’s go enslave someone new!” rubbish. Politics itself already gives me enough headaches.

    As Will @17 demonstrates perfectly, “Other Ways of Knowing” means believing whatever you want to believe. That’s not knowledge. And it ends in rosy myth-making and angry sandwich-throwing truly worthy of a class of fourth graders. Again, that’s what we have electoral politics for, people. Please keep it quarantined there.

    Post-modernism treats truth as a political right to be shared equally with all on threat of bullying and lawsuits. I hate it. But it’s an easy target, and I think I’d better stop before I get sidetracked.

  41. #41 Prometheus
    December 1, 2010

    “Other ways of knowing” is synonymous with “making stuff up”.

    I don’t claim to be an expert on post-modern philosophy (can anybody make that claim, or would it be self-contradictory?), but it seems to me that the clash between post-modernists and the sciences comes down to their respective beliefs about reality.

    Science (and most modern people) believes that there is a single objective reality. We may not always be able to see this reality directly (or at all), but it exists.

    Post-modernism believes that there is no such thing as objective reality or – and this may effectively be the same thing – that every person has their own, equally valid reality.

    Since there would be little point in doing science if there weren’t a single objective reality, it should come as no surprise that scientists believe the way they (we) do. The reason for the post-modernists’ view of reality continues to evade me, however. All I can come up with is that it’s a lot easier to make up stories than it is to try and find the truth. Obviously, I’m missing something. Perhaps someone could help me out.

    I cannot see how anthropology or archeology can continue without a belief in a single reality. If the end of the Anasazi culture depends on your “way of knowing”, then why bother to do excavations or examine artifacts or anything apart from sitting in an overstuffed chair sipping sherry? Why bother examining other cultures if anyone can make up an equally valid “narrative” without any data at all?

    Clearly, the appeal of post-modernism escapes me. So does the rationale for removing “science” from a scientific discipline.

    Prometheus

  42. #42 Mark Crislip
    December 1, 2010

    “Like about who originally held the Black Hills in the Dakotas?”
    a young man named Rocky Raccoon.

    Until another way of knowing comes up with a safe airplane, I’ll stick with the “western’ science.

  43. #43 Orac
    December 1, 2010

    I cannot see how anthropology or archeology can continue without a belief in a single reality. If the end of the Anasazi culture depends on your “way of knowing”, then why bother to do excavations or examine artifacts or anything apart from sitting in an overstuffed chair sipping sherry? Why bother examining other cultures if anyone can make up an equally valid “narrative” without any data at all?

    Clearly, the appeal of post-modernism escapes me

    Yet you just stated the appeal. The appeal is the ability to come up with any narrative you want that fits your beliefs and prejudices without having to–oh, you know–produce any actual objective evidence to support it. :-)

  44. #44 rob
    December 1, 2010

    seems like we ought to file anthropology under “stamp collecting” now.

    sad.

    p.s. post-modernists sound like asshats.

  45. #45 Jim Thomerson
    December 1, 2010

    Perhaps universities should do a better job of educating premeds in the broader sense, not allowing them (or anyone else) just to qualify for entrance to a trade school.

    I took introductory courses in both cultural and physical anthropology, which were not a degree requirement. This was in 1955. My cultural anthropology professor made the argument that a tribal shaman has as much knowledge as an MD. It was a quantatiative claim, not a qualitative claim, as I recall.

    At the time, I understood anthropologist as an observers and reporters, not agents of change. I can see where that would be very difficult when the anthropologist knows that cultural beliefs are wrong and harmful. I don’t think it bothers missionaries whose goal is to convert the culture to harmony with their particular religious world view.

  46. #46 V. infernalis
    December 1, 2010

    Sigh. I thought the “Science Wars” were over a decade ago.

    I guess we’ll have to wait for Empiricism Strikes Back.

  47. #47 WIll
    December 1, 2010

    Greg & Qetzal, I think science is wonderful, because it discovers the workings of a wonderful universe; I also think science in the empirical fashion is self-limiting, and will only ever reach a limited understanding of reality. What bothers me is not science per se but the cocksure attitude of some of its practitioners. For the seeker of knowledge, certainty is a mistake; an open mind is much more powerful. So why don’t we just wait and see if science can tell us more about the ultimate nature of reality than an indigenous shaman? I advise anyone to eat a handful of mushrooms after fasting for a day and simply pay attention to what is going on. Matter is energy, and energy is aware. As biological life-forms we are capable of much more than simple awareness but it is still the bedrock of our being, and something we share with all plants, animals, yes rocks, the whole universe. As for what may be perceived but not observed, it appeared to me once in ethereal fashion, and I called it Quetzalcoatl. Angels and demons are everywhere, pulling our organic strings.

  48. #48 smartin
    December 1, 2010

    Why is it that the world is constantly dumbing things down, when it should be doing the opposite? Your post has once again illustrated my personal frustration in education as it seems that any time something is “hard” it needs to be done away with, rather than learned.

  49. #49 Scott Cunningham
    December 1, 2010

    Orac, that’s spot on!

    I’m in Ontario, where a few years ago some Toronto politicians were proposing introducing “Afrocentric schools” to address the higher drop-out rates of black teens. Some local politicians said they’d follow suit if Toronto did it. These schools were all private sector, and the curriculum often included a truly execrable “history” book full of rosy myths about African kings discovering America in hot air baloons… The woo was strong.

    The post-modern nonsense in this case priveledged charlatans who’d provide the terrible private “educations” and city politicians who could neatly wipe their hands of responsibility for letting down black students, and marginalised students, their problems no longer gov’t business, their education (depending on the private school) very likely being woefully substandard in the guise of “respecting” them, all at parental expense. It eventually fell off the media’s radar so I imagine they never went through with it.

    Post-Modernism priveledges charlatans at the expense of everyone else. Some people use it as the snooze button of reason, some to cynically escape their responsibilities.

    (This is the point where my fellow young lefty students usually brand me a micro-fascist and kick me out of the discussion.)

  50. #50 LarryS
    December 1, 2010

    Perhaps what is being proposed for anthropology is a shift to phenomenology where what is found to be “true” by one researcher is not necessarily considered “true” outside the study; generalization is considered hubris. The result is no useful knowledge being produced by anyone, only pernicious solipsism devouring scarce resources.

    If such is not the case, I would add to Orac’s musings the following twin considerations: How do proponents of “other [non-scientific] ways of knowing” reconcile contradictory conclusions from the internal logic of their particular way? What do they do with evidence that something contravenes what they assert to be true about the world?

    The epistemology of science resolves both very satisfactorily. That’s why it is so remarkably successful in its reliable explanatory power about the real world. (To which I include the parts populated by “indigenous peoples”.)

    I could even add a third (epistemological) consideration: Without science, how do said proponents use their singular ways of knowing even to reliably recognize, then decry, the existence of scientific hegemony or Western imperialism?

    I think I know the answers to all of three. I suspect Orac and his readers know them, too. But I await conclusive evidence, one way or the other.

  51. #51 Scott Cunningham
    December 1, 2010

    I feel like I’m hogging the posts, but…

    Will said:

    For the seeker of knowledge, certainty is a mistake; an open mind is much more powerful. So why don’t we just wait and see if science can tell us more about the ultimate nature of reality than an indigenous shaman?

    Why do New Agers love Shaman so? Shaman are another culture’s conservative religious pundit. They tune out when they prescribe gender roles or go on homophobic rants and just quotemine the metaphysical stuff.

    I advise anyone to eat a handful of mushrooms after fasting for a day and simply pay attention to what is going on.

    You mean, um, portabello mushrooms, right?

    Matter is energy, and energy is aware.

    The energy in my laptop battery tells me it respectfully disagrees with you on that front.

    Angels and demons are everywhere, pulling our organic strings.

    It sound awful at first, but eventually they figure out how to tune a guitar…

    Will, this is the problem with Post-Modernism. I can say anything I like, too. Except you won’t like it, and neither of us will have anything but emotions with which to justify ourselves. Sometimes that’s okay, but it’s a step in the wrong direction for an academic discipline.

  52. #52 Luna_the_cat
    December 1, 2010

    Will,

    I had a friend in high school who was very much in touch with “what may be perceived but not observed.” As it turned out, this was because he was schizophrenic, and he had a sad and difficult life because of it.

    Perhaps you could explain to us how one can actually tell the difference between that and your experience of Quetzalcoatl, short of waiting to see who dies first and how; how we can distinguish between some “deeper truth” and the kind of internal noise/hallucination that a brain generates when disordered communication from parts of the brain to other parts of the brain overrides external signals.

  53. #53 Chris
    December 1, 2010

    Will: “energy is aware”

    Not even wrong. This is the same lame thinking that came up with the idiotic idea that the Carib Indians could not see Columbus’ ships because the idea was foreign to them. These were people living on islands in sea going canoes!

  54. #54 Dave
    December 1, 2010

    I’m not an anthropologist, but I do have a graduate degree in another social science so…

    Here’s the irony. You’re looking at it in terms of medical quackery, which is fine, but for the most part this is academic navel-gazing that harms no one (except, of course, for people who might benefit from real anthropological research). The grandest irony to me is that, for the most part, the anthropologists in question can’t make their point about “other ways of knowing” understood in a way comprehensible to someone without a Western academic background. Like, for instance, the anthropologist blogger you quoted on “indigenous knowledge systems” and “positionality.”

  55. #55 Zach Miller
    December 1, 2010

    As somebody who had a similarly exciting bout with anthropology in college, I’m sad to see the discipline develop Stockholm Syndrome. Science provides the rubrick by which anthropological studies of all kinds can be done impartially. The whole thing stinks of political correctness and cowardice, honestly.

    I wonder if this shift is in response to an conscious movement away from science by the community at large or an influx of “new agey” people into the field? This certainly didn’t seem like a concern back when I was in college (late 90′s).

  56. #56 Douglas Watts
    December 1, 2010

    Anthropology and archaeology (to name two disciplines) often attempt to apply reductionist principles of analysis to extremely complex, irrational and temporally unique human phenomena. Both disciplines, when applied to say, King Philip’s War in New England in 1676, cannot be reduced to examining how perfect spheres react to a Newtonian force by f=ma. But we can do that regarding the sand grains on Cape Cod that all the folks involved stepped on in 1617. But this doesn’t mean ‘hard’ science has no role to play; or that its role can be capriciously excluded. Instead, it is the one solid evidentiary tool that is not based in semantic quicksand. For example, when a 1790s map of Maine says a cove on the Sheepscot River is called “Cod Cove” it is likely indicative of Atlantic cod having once gathered there.

  57. #57 qetzal
    December 1, 2010

    WIll,

    Energy is aware? Quetzalcoatl appeared to you? Dude, I’d tell you to lay off the mushrooms, but I think it’s too late for that.

    This is what “other ways of knowing” gets you. People who can’t distinguish drug-induced hallucinations and dorm room new age mumbo jumbo from reality.

  58. #58 Sastra
    December 1, 2010

    Yet you just stated the appeal. The appeal is the ability to come up with any narrative you want that fits your beliefs and prejudices without having to–oh, you know–produce any actual objective evidence to support it.

    I think it might be more insidious than that. A good part of the appeal may be the ability to graciously grant permission for any “marginalized” people to come up with their own narratives in order to combat a perceived prejudice against them. A lot of the language used by the anti-science crowd (of whatever faction) seems to mimic the sorts of arguments a kindly person would use against bullying. The concept of a united search for truth and justification has been equated with picking on the weak.

    The anthropologists here seem to want to trade in colonial paternalism for some sort of well-intentioned Mommy-ism, keeping peace among different tribes by shutting down arguments.

  59. #59 Composer99
    December 2, 2010

    I can’t speak for most of the other arts, but music/sound art has definitely experienced a net benefit from post-modernism.

    Musicology, on the other hand, would be in the same boat as anthropology if it went too far into post-modernism/woo-land – as I experienced when taking musicology classes taught by post-modernists back in the day.

  60. #60 A. Noyd
    December 2, 2010

    “Still, we must also recognize that there are other means to knowing, exploring, and explaining.”

    This is the sort of inanity that crops up when one tries to apply cultural relativity as a value system, and it’s been happening since at least fifteen years ago when I thought I was going to major in cultural anthropology. It’s a small step, I suppose, to go from a) observing that different cultures have different indigenous epistemologies and analyzing beliefs and cultural practices and languages in the context of those epistemologies, to b) insisting that those epistemologies work to produce true knowledge about the world.

    The Recycled Minds blogger’s mistake is thinking science is privileged because it somehow embodies and reflects the values of Western cultures when the opposite is true: Western cultures (more and more) are what they are because science works. Science derives its privilege from its success as a way of knowing, and that success has, in large part, enabled Western cultures to go on to dominate the world through colonialism and trade. Yet, that very success cuts backwards and wreaks havoc on pre-scientific Western traditions and ineffectual Western epistemologies, too–hence the continued secularization of Europe and why Western traditionalists abhor science.

    Science can be, and has been, incorporated just as effectively into non-Western cultures without destroying those traditions and beliefs to any greater extent than what the West has experienced. Massive change is inevitable when one replaces traditional epistemologies with science; but it’s ridiculous to compare that level of change to the amount of change Western cultures make currently to accomodate the knowledge produced by science.

    Instead of saying “oh yes, your way of knowing is just as good as this science stuff, why don’t you stick with that,” anthropologists (of all cultures) should be looking for ways help to minimize the alienation and loss of cultural identity that can accompany the rapid change brought on by accepting the effectiveness of science. Right now, if they’re doing anything, they’re helping increasing that sense of conflict and loss by insisting that all aspects of a given culture are inseparable from its native epistemologies. But then, anthropology feeds itself on cultural variation, so it’s not particularly surprising that some anthropologists might wish to preserve that variety even at the cost of human well-being.

    ~*~*~*~*~*~

    Quietmarc (#2)

    I suspect that part of the fuel in this fire is coming from the debate going on about whether or not Jesus was a real person (and other parts of the Bible), and not so much about respecting the beliefs of indigenous peoples.

    Actually, this is the irrationality of the “other end of the spectrum,” so to speak. This is what religious fundamentalists are referring to when they accuse academics and liberals of moral relativism. And they’re not entirely wrong in that accusation, though they tend to ignore both their own moral relativism and the vast number of academics who think postmodernism is so much idiotic wankery.

    ~*~*~*~*~*~

    Methodissed (#5)

    It’s nice to hear a defense of the social sciences coming from a physicist.

    If you haven’t read them, I would highly recommend Alan Sokal’s essays on social science, then.

  61. #61 Militant Agnostic
    December 2, 2010

    As oldrockindave pointed out @10 when you open the door wide to other ways of knowing, you include just making things up a la Carlos Castaneda among these ways of knowing. Apparently some of the natural substances Castaneda took gave him the capability of being in two places at once. Castaneda could be taking hallucinogens with Don Juan in the desert and simultaneously be in the university library.

    I had a friend in high school who was very much in touch with “what may be perceived but not observed.” As it turned out, this was because he was schizophrenic, and he had a sad and difficult life because of it.

    I wonder how many shamans are schizophrenic.

  62. #62 Douglas Watts
    December 2, 2010

    “Still, we must also recognize that there are other means to knowing, exploring, and explaining.”

    Not if you expect it to be reliably reproducible or if you are driving your car over it when it is 10 below zero.

    Child, please.

  63. #63 yogi-one
    December 2, 2010

    For me, if the scientific method is compromised, it ain’t science. Callitwhatchawanna, but if you aren’t carefully formulating questions and hypotheses, checking and testing against biases, rigorously analyzing the results, checking again for any flaws in setup or methods, making the comparisons to known baselines or past theories, doing the math where needed, then it ain’t science.

    Ayurveda may have value. People swear it’s cured them of cancer. If that’s true, it must also be scientifically verifiable. In science it can’t be both unverifiable, and true. Maybe things can be unverifiable and true in mysticism (although, actually I even doubt that), but not in science.

    My BA was in anthropology, and it was the “hard-science” side I liked best – archeology, digs, bones, potsherds, flintknapped tools.

    I also was fascinated by the soft side – what were these ancient people thinking? What stories did they tell? How did they define and conduct their relationships in their family groups, tribes, and clans? Those are fascinating questions, but you quickly veer away from the scientific method when you go exploring something as ephemeral as what someone was thinking 12,000 years ago.

    It’s fascinating, and yes, you can gain insights from that kind of exploration, maybe even wisdom, but let’s face it – it isn’t the scientific method.

    Maybe they just finally decided to get real about that.

    Maybe it’s psychology, maybe it’s comparative mythology, maybe it’s – hey, fill in the blank! -

    But maybe, in spite of themselves, they are right – it ain’t science.

    And if that is so, it’s probably better that they stop calling themselves a science community.

  64. #64 Douglas Watts
    December 2, 2010

    “When we examine the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us. “Science” has become privileged globally, and for many, represents the pinnacle of human achievement. Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. 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. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.”

    There’s a lot of cross-talk here.

  65. #65 GSo
    December 2, 2010

    People are searching for security and hope. A large part of the resources we pour into health care have no function other than creating a sense of security. It is a parallell to the security theatre played at every air port by the TSA. The point is that every culture has its own formula for what they will be assured by. Most of those who comment here will, as I, only be calmed down if the ritual performed is peer reviewed. Other people will be calmed down by rituals that are shaman reviewed. The effect is mostly the same, people are walking away happier but with unaltered life expectancy.

    The fact that science based methods on average will produce a statistical significant higher life expectancy, with some reduction of perceived pain is in this context a minor issue.

    The value of medical theatre is underrated. We who comment here have a disadvantage, like a person attending a stand up show without understanding the concept of a joke. We will only be pleased by Faulkner or Ibsen. I envy those who can rest assured after 30 min with a shaman.

  66. #66 GSo
    December 2, 2010

    People are searching for security and hope. A large part of the resources we pour into health care have no function other than creating a sense of security. It is a parallell to the security theatre played at every air port by the TSA. The point is that every culture has its own formula for what they will be assured by. Most of those who comment here will, as I, only be calmed down if the ritual performed is peer reviewed. Other people will be calmed down by rituals that are shaman reviewed. The effect is mostly the same, people are walking away happier but with unaltered life expectancy.

    The fact that science based methods on average will produce a statistical significant higher life expectancy, with some reduction of perceived pain is in this context a minor issue.

    The value of medical theatre is underrated. We who comment here have a disadvantage, like a person attending a stand up show without understanding the concept of a joke. We will only be pleased by Faulkner or Ibsen. I envy those who can rest assured after 30 min with a shaman.

  67. #67 GSo
    December 2, 2010

    People are searching for security and hope. A large part of the resources we pour into health care have no function other than creating a sense of security. It is a parallell to the security theatre played at every air port by the TSA. The point is that every culture has its own formula for what they will be assured by. Most of those who comment here will, as I, only be calmed down if the ritual performed is peer reviewed. Other people will be calmed down by rituals that are shaman reviewed. The effect is mostly the same, people are walking away happier but with unaltered life expectancy.

    The fact that science based methods on average will produce a statistical significant higher life expectancy, with some reduction of perceived pain is in this context a minor issue.

    The value of medical theatre is underrated. We who comment here have a disadvantage, like a person attending a stand up show without understanding the concept of a joke. We will only be pleased by Faulkner or Ibsen. I envy those who can rest assured after 30 min with a shaman.

  68. #68 GSo
    December 2, 2010

    I am so sorry for the triple posting. Please delete at least two (and this one)

  69. #69 Christophe Thill
    December 2, 2010

    #30: the reference to Sokal is very pertinent. Sokal, and Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont with whom he co-wrote his book, stated very clearly that they don’t want to ridicule, to downplay or to harm philosophy and social sciences, for which they have the utmost respect and in which they are very much interested. They think that post-modernism is the thing that harms them, and also contributes to a loss of respect for them, because it implies that they should be held to inferior intellectual standards (namely, “anything goes”).

    Which is really a shame, as social sciences are supposed to teach us things, and some of those things are liberating.

    As Sokal says, I think there really is an “intellectual imposture” going on. The word “science” is used in a very confusing way, covered in all possible negative connotations : Western bias, destructive technologies, racist and sexist science from the past, and so on. The fact that working “scientifically” mainly means taking precautions against fooling yourself (a positive thing if there is one) is kept hidden. And science becomes a scarecrow for some.

    On a slightly different topic, I was trying to remember the name of a modern day Carlos Castaneda, a man who used many “different ways of exploring” in order to discover the universal meaning of the “cosmic snake” that is, he says, a deified fugure of the DNA double helix. Sorry, I didn’t make this up, he did. I just found his name. It’s Jeremy Narby. Truly priceless.

  70. #70 christophe-thill.myopenid.com
    December 2, 2010

    This is the same lame thinking that came up with the idiotic idea that the Carib Indians could not see Columbus’ ships because the idea was foreign to them.

    Oh, I know this one! It’s from this silly mess of a movie, What the *** do we know?. But we shouldn’t be too hard on this idea. I guess it comes from Ramtha, and we know how they had powerful mushrooms in Atlantis back then.

  71. #71 WLU
    December 2, 2010

    The whole point of science is that it can be done anywhere, by anyone, and come to something like the same results. It’s no more “Western” than capitalism or wearing shoes. Anyone can be capitalist, anyone can wear shoes. It is an approach with a goal of empirical truth, not a culture-bound epistemology. You can take a !Kung bushman and teach him the methods and thought processes of science and he would be just as able to apply it to a problem as any other human on the planet.

    Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry (Widdowson & Howard, 2008, ISBN 0773534202) talks about the intellectual bankruptcy of “indigenous knowledge” and how “cultural preservation” has become a means of insulating specific cultures from the changes of the modern world – only possible through the massive transfer of wealth from the Canadian government to Aboriginal groups often with minimal or no accountability. Though much of the book is very specifically about Canadian issues, the first couple chapters are a very interesting review of epistemology, ideas of progress and culture, and how postmodernism is really, really not helping the huge number of people who live on reservations in third-world conditions. Good book, particularly for Canadians. Turns out injecting billions of dollars into unsustainable economies with no attempt to ensure it is used properly doesn’t help most people, but does enrich the political leaders. Huh, how about that!

    …and cue cries of racism along with the utter unwillingness to engage with the content of the arguments.

  72. #72 Terrie
    December 2, 2010

    As an anthro major who focused on cultural anthro, I suspect that this is mainly a reactionary response to the field’s rather spotty history of racism and imperialism. “We went this far in that direction, so now we have to go EQUALLY far in the other direction.”

  73. #73 Prometheus
    December 2, 2010

    Will (#47) comments:

    ” I also think science in the empirical fashion is self-limiting, and will only ever reach a limited understanding of reality.”

    Of course science is “self-limited” – it is “self-limited” by definition. The process of the scientific method – observation, hypothesis formation, testing the mypothesis, refining the hypothesis, re-testing the refined hypothesis, etc. – is designed to discover reality. The first iterations of the process may not uncover the “ultimate reality”, but the process, as it is repeated over and over again, will eventually result in the hypothesis converging on reality.

    Science is “self-limited” in the mathematical sense that as the number of process iterations goes to infinity, the result converges on (is limited to) reality. The “limitation” is reality; if the process is done correctly, the false and spurious are winnowed out and all that remains is the reality.

    “So why don’t we just wait and see if science can tell us more about the ultimate nature of reality than an indigenous shaman?”

    Why wait? We have the predictions and statements of reality from thousands (if not millions) of shamans – why not examine them to see how well they correspond to the “ultimate nature of reality”?

    [1] “The world is supported on the back of a turtle.” No.

    [2] “All living organisms were formed as they are today in a single act of creation.” No.

    [3] “The stars are lights hung on a painted canopy.” No.

    [4] “The stars are the the spirits of our dead ancestors.” No.

    [5] “Mental illness is the result of posession by spirits of aliens who were murdered on Earth millions of years ago.” No.

    I could go on, but I think that I’ve made my point. Unless we abandon the concept of a single reality, the “wisdom” of shamans has already been shown to be false.

    As appealing as it might be to simply make up a “narrative” of how we want reality to be, the problem with that approach is that it doesn’t help you make informed choices. It’s like trying to drive through Colorado with a road map of California.

    Prometheus

  74. #74 Moriah C
    December 2, 2010

    Speaking as a student of Anthropology, I have an explanation which may better explain the reason for removing science from the mission statement. Though I, and many anthropologists believe that science is a large part of many anthropological studies, however there was and always will be a humanistic aspect to the science. It’s a social science, and being a study of CULTURE cannot be completely embedded in science. While science is a great way to further prove many studies, the idea is to integrate oneself in a culture as much as possible to understand what it means to be a part of that culture.
    Experiments as done in hard sciences cannot be usefully applied to understanding certain aspects of a culture. Now, while I don’t necessarily believe in “other ways of knowing” and share a fundamental belief in science, to truly understand many cultures, one must also understand their “other ways of knowing.” For an easily understandable example, there is Greek and/or Roman mythology. Now, the Greeks gave us Pythagorean Theorem, and many other accurate scientific/mathematical discoveries, however Greek mythology is still continuously studied. No one accepts these myths as facts, but, to understand the Greeks’ way of life at that point in time, understanding the myths is necessary.
    While the fundamental beliefs behind non-Western traditional medical practices may not be congruent with scientific fact, a shocking amount of traditional treatments such as cupping, symptom treatment etc. are surprisingly similar (though more primitive) than methods used today.

    Archaeology is one of four disciplines which makes up American Anthropology, and also uses the most amount of hard science in its studies, but much hard sciences can not be applied as smoothly to all anthropological studies. The idea is to understand every aspect of a culture, whether with a scientific base or not, which sometimes means attempting to understand things which make no sense to our modern scientific sense of reality

  75. #75 Moriah C
    December 2, 2010

    Speaking as a student of Anthropology, I have an explanation which may better explain the reason for removing science from the mission statement. Though I, and many anthropologists believe that science is a large part of many anthropological studies, however there was and always will be a humanistic aspect to the science. It’s a social science, and being a study of CULTURE cannot be completely embedded in science. While science is a great way to further prove many studies, the idea is to integrate oneself in a culture as much as possible to understand what it means to be a part of that culture.
    Experiments as done in hard sciences cannot be usefully applied to understanding certain aspects of a culture. Now, while I don’t necessarily believe in “other ways of knowing” and share a fundamental belief in science, to truly understand many cultures, one must also understand their “other ways of knowing.” For an easily understandable example, there is Greek and/or Roman mythology. Now, the Greeks gave us Pythagorean Theorem, and many other accurate scientific/mathematical discoveries, however Greek mythology is still continuously studied. No one accepts these myths as facts, but, to understand the Greeks’ way of life at that point in time, understanding the myths is necessary.
    While the fundamental beliefs behind non-Western traditional medical practices may not be congruent with scientific fact, a shocking amount of traditional treatments such as cupping, symptom treatment etc. are surprisingly similar (though more primitive) than methods used today.

    Archaeology is one of four disciplines which makes up American Anthropology, and also uses the most amount of hard science in its studies, but much hard sciences can not be applied as smoothly to all anthropological studies. The idea is to understand every aspect of a culture, whether with a scientific base or not, which sometimes means attempting to understand things which make no sense to our modern scientific sense of reality

  76. #76 madder
    December 2, 2010

    For what it’s worth, this divide isn’t new; the balkanization within anthropology is well-established. Very few physical/biological anthropologists (essentially all of whom use science) bother being members of AAA any more, largely for the reasons described in Orac’s post and the comments above. As a member of one of the more science-accepting subfields in anthropology, the vitriol seems to me to be almost totally unilateral in nature, with a vocal group of antiscience cultural anthropologists doing most of the shouting (though that could be my bias speaking). Several university anthropology departments have split in two because of this problem. Rather than having the problem resolved any time soon, it seems that the antiscience faction has won the day in the AAA. The rest of us will carry on doing science as we have been for a while now, in the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and its broad collection of associated organizations. So don’t write us all off– we’re just a little ahead of you, and left the AAA long ago.

  77. #77 Clare
    December 2, 2010

    I’m sorry that Orac didn’t read further into the comments on the Inside Higher Ed article, where one can begin to read more informed (and informative) responses as opposed to the kind of demented straw-man arguments cultural anthropologists like myself have become all to used to hearing. I do not believe that the intention of the executive board was to purge science from anthropology, but instead to recognize that a substantial part of the field has shifted towards methods and explanatory models that are more akin to history (and yes, comparative literature too, but even cultural anthropologists are divided about this. Not *everyone* in cultural anthropology is an avowed post-modernist). My personal view is that it would have been wiser to draw attention to all the approaches anthropology takes rather than the ditch the “science” part, for several reasons, among them the lesson that comes from Facebook that if you remove something or someone from your profile, it appears that you “unlike” it. Of course there are anthropologists who have bizarre beliefs about science (and received inadequate training in biological anthropology). Equally, it seems there are plenty of archaeologists and biological anthropologists whose claims to rigor and discipline in their thinking sound pretty hollow when they start blasting their cultural colleagues for “making stuff up,” or being mindless moral relativists. Seriously, I wonder if they’ve even read any cultural anthropology recently. I’m not surprised that there are cultural anthropologists who, upon reading such breathtaking distortions of their field, conclude that scientists aren’t as honest or as rigorous as they make themselves out to be. And so the fight goes on… I was at the AAA meetings, and most of us didn’t even know this whole debate was going on, and I’m not sure even how many of us care. I respect the scientific work of my biological anthro and archaeologist colleagues, I read their work, I attend their talks and ask questions relevant to their research. I expect the same respect in return from them with regard to my work, which is more historical in nature. If the public face of anthropology, and the health of the discipline as a whole is to be improved, it would be nice if the yelling from the peanut gallery on both sides would stop.

  78. #78 Marilyn Mann
    December 2, 2010

    I thought you might be interested in this post on the Somatosphere blog:

    http://www.somatosphere.net/2010/12/science-of-anthropology.html

  79. #79 Marilyn Mann
    December 2, 2010

    I thought you might be interested in this post on the Somatosphere blog:

    http://www.somatosphere.net/2010/12/science-of-anthropology.html

  80. #80 Andreas Johansson
    December 3, 2010

    rnb wrote:

    What do they do when they have two conflicting sets of beliefs?
    Like about who originally held the Black Hills in the Dakotas?

    There are no contradictions, merely alternate pasts.

  81. #81 Andreas Johansson
    December 3, 2010

    Militant Agnostic wrote:

    I wonder how many shamans are schizophrenic.

    It has been suggested that shamanistic cultures are kinder to schizophrenic people than we are because they give them something productive to do instead of labeling them as sick or broken.

    Anyone know if any research has been about whether shamans indeed often are schizophrenics?

  82. #82 christophe-thill.myopenid.com
    December 3, 2010

    Moriah C:
    Interesting! But:

    While science is a great way to further prove many studies, the idea is to integrate oneself in a culture as much as possible to understand what it means to be a part of that culture.

    I have no problem with that idea, except for the suggestion that “science” and “understanding” should somehow be at odds.

    There was a German philosopher of science, Wilhelm Dilthey, who in my opinion did much harm when he said: “We explain nature; we understand mental life” (meaning a clear opposition). Here, “understand” means a sort of fuzzy feeling of resonance, of recognition; but it seems to me that no knowledge can come from it and that, if it were true, then no human or social sciences would be possible.

    But “understand” can have a solid, scientific and useable meaning. I tend to understand (!) it as: to reconstruct the big picture, to build a model, to hypothesize the inner workings of something in a way that gives outcomes as close to reality as possible.

    Experiments as done in hard sciences cannot be usefully applied to understanding certain aspects of a culture.

    Fortunately, there’s much more to science than experimenting. Ask Stephen Jay Gould about it.

    No one accepts these myths as facts, but, to understand the Greeks’ way of life at that point in time, understanding the myths is necessary.

    Quite true! This might even be what “indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West” can really mean. Well, yes, anthropologists nowadays don’t just dismiss indigenous knowledge (in the sense of “all the cognitive elements that people have in their mind, no matter true or false”) as childish nonsense. They see it as cultural items which are integral in the way traditional societies work. Exept, of course, that they’ve been doing so since the end of 19th century. Call that “recently” if you wish…

    While the fundamental beliefs behind non-Western traditional medical practices may not be congruent with scientific fact, a shocking amount of traditional treatments such as cupping, symptom treatment etc. are surprisingly similar (though more primitive) than methods used today.

    The similarity might be of interest for modern medicine (“what might be the active principle in this traditionnally used infusion of leaves?”). But for anthropologists, it’s just an aside, and only the meaning given to it can be interesting. Durkheim noted that many rituals are not only irrational from the point of view of modern hygiene, they go directly against it (anointing yourself with the fluids oozing from the decomposing corpse of a great warrior, or eating his brain, with the risk of getting kuru…). Which means that the mythical rationale must be especially strong.

  83. #83 Anthony McCarthy
    December 3, 2010

    Two cheers for anthropology for partially coming clean.

    That’s why I was rather disturbed to see a story in Inside Higher Ed entitled Anthropology Without Science. Apparently a new long-range plan for the largest anthropological association, the American Anthropological Association, has systematically removed the word “science.” Orac

    It’s honest, not disappointing.

    Pretending that really really complex, indefinable and ineffable phenomena like cultures can be studied scientifically is a fraud. If anthropology is being honest in recognizing that it’s to be praised. Pretending you can do science about culture is pretending to find materialism in the gaps. Which are more like chasms.

    History, the humanities are the best models and tools for studying culture.

  84. #84 Antaeus Feldspar
    December 3, 2010

    Pretending that really really complex, indefinable and ineffable phenomena like cultures can be studied scientifically is a fraud.

    Things like treating “science” and “history” as non-overlapping makes me suspect you’re using a different definition of “science” than everyone else here.

  85. #85 WIll
    December 3, 2010

    Prometheus, we are part of a single reality that can nonetheless be assembled in multiple ways. Carlos Castaneda, charlatan, huckster, rascal, and fabulist though he was, knew what he was lying about. Don’t discount the relevance of metaphor as you dismiss your examples of shamanistic knowledge. As westerners and scientists, we approach reality rationally and have built the modern world on our certainty. But another aspect of reality is irrational, and will never make sense in rational terms or to rational interpreters. The universe is a balancing act, all forces in opposition. Paradox is the gateway to a unified understanding. The only way to gain irrational knowledge is to feel it with your body. The only trick is to pay attention.

  86. #86 WIll
    December 3, 2010

    Furthermore, I don’t consider myself to be schizophrenic, nor do I claim to have any understanding of schizophrenia. I have sympathy for anyone who suffers but I think the pathologization of ESP is disgraceful. Those of us who are “normal” operate with certain consensual filters that lead us to assemble reality in a certain way. Without these filters, schizophrenics and other minds assemble different realities, or are in contact with other beings. Just like tryptamines do not insert artificial visions (hallucinations) into the mind; rather they disrupt and may temporarily disable our filters, allowing us to perceive what is around us all the time.

  87. #87 Anthony McCarthy
    December 3, 2010

    AF

    I’m using the apparently unfashionable definition of science where things like definite identification of phenomena, actual observation of it, data collection and analysis aren’t replaced by ideological assumptions and wishful thinking. And the acknowledgment that when those things aren’t possible to do with sufficient rigor then the results aren’t reliable and are not science. And when a phenomenon is as complex as a “culture” it’s not possible for vast parts of it. The results get overturned with remarkable swiftness in all of the so-called sciences. It’s not reliable because it’s not really science.

  88. #88 Tracy W
    December 7, 2010

    Will, you come across as massively cocksure yourself. You have made a number of sweeping statements about reality and science, without any qualification, or without any attempt to back them up. When asked for some explanation, you ignore them and make further sweeping statements. You also freely criticise science despite not actually appearing to know much about it. (“built the modern world on our certainty”? I’m guessing that you’ve never encountered the two-slit experiment.)

    Basically, take the log out of your eye before starting to criticise scientists for the mote in their’s.

  89. #89 Antiquated Tory
    December 7, 2010

    There are a lot of issues inside Cultural Anthropology, and a lot of them (or so was my impression in grad school) are due to the extremely wide range of questions being asked and methods being used to ask them.
    This is part of the reason why a phenomenological approach had become popular at the time I was in grad school. A host of new PhDs were sick and tired of the fights between their professors. It was not a reaction against science. It was a reaction to acrimony in the field, and a recognition that theory was a toolkit, and different tools in the toolkit were appropriate to different situations, or even different interests in the same situation.
    Cultural Anthropology also has the issue that there is no “objective” instrument of observation. He or she is a person, whose very ego is the result his or her own cultural understandings and individual traits, trying to understand other people’s culture through interacting with them! There are problems with simply calling the results “science.”
    Physical anthropology is certainly science, and some questions asked by some cultural anthropologists are more scientific than others, but there are aspects of cultural anthropology that are no more scientific than English lit.
    Lastly, I would strongly suggest this article in Inside Higher Ed, and especially the comments, which are largely by academic anthropologists: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/11/30/anthroscience#Comments

  90. #90 Antiquated Tory
    December 7, 2010

    How did I not see that this was the article Orac was referring to? Gosh. I did follow a link to it from elsewhere, but still. My apologies. Do read the comments, though. I will go back to lurking (and trying to read for retention).

  91. #91 phoenixwoman
    December 12, 2010

    The anthropologists here seem to want to trade in colonial paternalism for some sort of well-intentioned Mommy-ism, keeping peace among different tribes by shutting down arguments.

    Which leaves them open to being taken advantage of by hucksters and shills who know how to threaten them by calling them bad names if they don’t submit to their demands.

  92. #92 CN
    December 20, 2010

    I’ve been lurking on your blog on and off for several months now Orac; always enjoyed it, and like reading the commentary underneath – the commentors provide a great deal of educative, insightful, debate.

    I know I’m late to the party, but I only just got to reading this entry, and I have to take issue with AndrewR at #13. Where he says “…history … where all results are possible and acceptable as long as you don’t contradict the department heads world view?” – I’m sorry, but that’s not even close to accurate.

    I suspect that someone didn’t actually studied history in university. In the very first lesson of the first year the lecturers drill the need to verify sources into students’ heads, and require them to raise the cry “prove it” every time they encounter a claim. Sources, all kinds, had to be evaluated and compared for accuracy when writing our own work, and others’ works that didn’t cite sources at all weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. And it’s drilled in again and again ad nauseum; demand sources, require that the material be correctly identified, and if necessary, go and look at it yourself.

    Like Scott Cunningham said at #40, there are objective right answers in History; Julius Caesar and his Romans conquered Gaul, not Montezuma and his Aztecs. We know this because archaeologists have found the hard, physical, evidence of the Roman conquest, and historians have found the original accounts by Caesar and his contemporaries – the primary source material. There is no material supporting any alternative hypothesis, and the primary source material available disproves the notion that Montezuma did it.

    In other words, just like harder sciences, all results in History are possible on one condition; they must be supported and corroborated by the current, accurate, evidence.

  93. #93 CN
    December 20, 2010

    I’ve been lurking on your blog on and off for several months now Orac; always enjoyed it, and like reading the commentary underneath – the commentors provide a great deal of educative, insightful, debate.

    I know I’m late to the party, but I only just got to reading this entry, and I have to take issue with AndrewR at #13. Where he says “…history … where all results are possible and acceptable as long as you don’t contradict the department heads world view?” – I’m sorry, but that’s not even close to accurate.

    I suspect that someone didn’t actually studied history in university. In the very first lesson of the first year the lecturers drill the need to verify sources into students’ heads, and require them to raise the cry “prove it” every time they encounter a claim. Sources, all kinds, had to be evaluated and compared for accuracy when writing our own work, and others’ works that didn’t cite sources at all weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. And it’s drilled in again and again ad nauseum; demand sources, require that the material be correctly identified, and if necessary, go and look at it yourself.

    Like Scott Cunningham said at #40, there are objective right answers in History; Julius Caesar and his Romans conquered Gaul, not Montezuma and his Aztecs. We know this because archaeologists have found the hard, physical, evidence of the Roman conquest, and historians have found the original accounts by Caesar and his contemporaries – the primary source material. There is no material supporting any alternative hypothesis, and the primary source material available disproves the notion that Montezuma did it.

    In other words, just like harder sciences, all results in History are possible on one condition; they must be supported and corroborated by the current, accurate, evidence.

  94. #94 Corey
    December 27, 2010

    I’m one of those “soft” scientists, holding a Ph.D. in Experiemental Psychology. There’s a lot to be said for making attempts to understand the frame of reference for a society/group as it will help in understanding behavior. It also helps in animal training as animals have vastly different motives for behavior.

    I’m also something of a history buff. This is something on the order of a vast oversimplification, but in the Middle Ages, the precursors to our current sciences were literally in the hands of the people who had “other ways of knowing,” trappers, masons, sailors, hunters, etc. They went out and did things in nature and in so doing understood it. Later, people with mathematical acumen took up some of their knowledge and began to systematically organize it. Later still, other applied logic to what was currently knowledge and started to make concerted attempts to fill gaps.

    The main differences between the sciences and the other ways of knowing are the level of organization of knowledge and the logical rigor applied to it. It’s quantitative, not qualitative. Fact is, the sciences are better at understanding reality. You need organization and logic to do it.