Science is hard, but it is possible

By Razib Khan | February 26, 2013 1:07 pm

Again, Chagnon, Sahlins, and science:

When we allow personal ideological bias rule to our scholarly work, we limit the value of our research to answer real questions and to contribute to broader social and scientific debates. If you have an ideological axe to grind, either leave scholarship and go into politics, or else find ways to achieve a level of scholarly objectivity in your research and writing. (yeah, I know, the postmodernists are going to smirk about how naive I am to even use the word “objectivity.” Check out my past posts on epistemology; one can employ objective methods and maintain an overall level of objectivity while admitting that the world is messy and researchers are never free of preconceptions or bias.).

To paraphrase John Hawks, “I think its time to reclaim the name ‘archaeology” from past generations.” We have lots of data and ideas to contribute to major scholarly and public debates today, but too often our writing and epistemological stance work against any wider relevance.

For various reasons cool detachment is harder in anthropology, nor should it always be employed. But the pretense and striving for detachment is an essential part of science (coupled with curiosity and passion about the subject of interest). A counterpoint can be found in the comments below:

Again, your discussion of anthropology is undermined by not having any significant familiarity with the subject. I understand you don’t have the time to do so, but if that’s the case why take the time to write about something in the lack of anything to base it on? What you describe as politics is a reflection of ethical concerns which are fundamental to anyone doing research on human subjects.

Anyone doing research on human subjects has an absolute ethical obligation to avoid harming those subjects in the course of their research. Anthropology is different in that we work with communities, and not individuals – so our ethnical obligation is to the communities we study. As I understand it, medical researchers are focused on avoiding harm while gathering data from their research subjects, not when they publish their findings. For anthropologists, we need to be aware of what we publish as well. So, for example, if I’ve gathered information on people committing crimes, I can’t publish it – it doesn’t matter that I didn’t harm them while observing those crimes, exposing a group as involved in
criminal activities can bring negative consequences on them.

How and what we write about people can matter sometimes – although most of the time it doesn’t, because most people are content to ignore us. So, for example, descriptions of Arab culture in Patel’s The Arab Mind were used to rationalize certain kinds of torture that the US army and intelligence agencies practiced on Muslim detainees. Anthropological studies of indigenous groups in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were used by the US military and intelligence in pursuing their war against Vietnam.

The Yanomamo are a marginalized community, that had a history of displacement and who’s territory was being violently encroached on. When Chagnon described them as primitive and fierce, he was characterizing a marginalized community in negative terms in a political context where that could be damaging to their interests. How we talk about marginalized communities is always political. The idea that scientists should just do empirical research on marginalized communities and not worry about the political effects of that research on those communities is not “apolitical”, it is elevating the interests of scientists as a group over the communities they study. Thats a political commitment which is antithetical to any human science.

Chagnon makes a bad case study to discuss a war between detached empiricists and politicizing post-modernists because his description of the Yanomamo as “fierce” is not itself empirical, and neither is his assumption that they are primitive – and your description of the reasons why are pretty dead on. His descriptions of Yanomamo violence are filled with methodological and ethical problems, and his analysis is compromised by taking them as a discrete community without considering the influence of their community’s history of displacement, or his research tactics, which consisted of deliberately violating taboos in order to get information, on their actions.

Yes, there was a mixture of personal animosity, passionately held theoretical commitments and understanding of the role of power in scholarship which led the AAA to subject Chagnon to an unfair tribunal. The charges against him needed to be answered, but the AAA was not the proper venue to do so, and the review of Chagnon’s work was deeply flawed – they did, however, reject the charges of human experimentation which were the basis of the Nazi invective. That said, the problem many anthropologists have against Chagnon’s work has to do with ethics and methodology. Dismissing them as mere politics ignores issues which are key concerns in any human science.

I also find it odd that you mention economics as an ideal in social science that anthropologists should live up to. Is there any other academic field where it is so routine for people to cycle between the academy and partisan political positions; advocate for political programs based on their research; or create large scale political projects based on their research?

My response was not particularly polite. I don’t feel I have to be polite to people who I feel misrepresent my views (in short, after accusing me of not knowing anthropology, they proceed to assume they know my own take on assorted subtle issues, likely by simply inserting their “naive positivist” straw-man). The major takeaway that objectivity may be hard, and it may be impossible in the absolute sense, but it is something we should aim for. Additionally, just because scientific study entails ethical choices, it does not mean that those who disagree with your ethical choices necessarily reject the idea that ethics should inform and shape science. Some anthropologists seem to find it impossible to comprehend that those who don’t agree with their particular vision and implementation of social justice don’t necessarily then support the proposition that the study of humans can be analogized to impersonal billiard balls. Scholars who study cultural diversity have no familiarity with sincere intellectual diversity of perspective. Perhaps more anthropologists should do research among natural scientists, and see the reality that somehow progress in understanding occurs despite human frailties of bias, self-interest, and lack of just desserts.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
MORE ABOUT: Epistemology
  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    I find that diversity proponents aren’t willing to truly entertain intellectual diversity because they can’t imagine how they could be wrong.

  • viewfromafield

    I was repeating you when I said that you don’t understand anthropology – you’ve said before that you don’t have the time to read anthropological writings, but that your reading of critics of anthropology confirms what you’ve suspected about us. Your descriptions of what anthropologists believe (e.g. the Standard Social Science Model) are in no way representative of mainstream anthropologists, and since you don’t name anyone who holds the beliefs you denounce in anthropology its impossible to know exactly what you’re talking about. I do agree, though, that if anthropologists believed what you think we do, we would be worthy of all the scorn you direct towards us.

    Correct me if I’m misreading you, but in your last Chagnon post you seem to be making a distinction between empirical disputes which are fundamental to science (i.e. what are the causes of conflicts in small scale societies?) and political disputes which are antithetical to science (i.e. how should we represent marginalized populations in our research?). As I see it, the dispute with Chagnon wasn’t political, but ethical. That’s not to deny that his critics were motivated by theoretical commitments and personal animosity, that’s hard to miss. But they seized on real ethical lapses that he made, both in his interactions with the people he studied, and in the way he popularized understandings of them as primitive and violent at a time when their territory was being
    encroached on by outsiders.

    Ethical concerns about anthropologists’ responsibilities to the people we research were there before postmodernism came, and are still around now that its gone, which is why many of the anthropologists opposed to Chagnon can in no way be described as post-modern. I’m perfectly open to criticism that anthropological ethics are misplaced, but in order to do so you would have to demonstrate that you are aware of them as ethical concerns which are not extraneous to the study of human subjects. That is to say, regardless of whether you agree with mainstream anthropological conceptions of ethics, I’m assuming you aren’t suggesting we should have no ethics at all. What are your conceptions of what anthropological ethics should be, and why are yours superior to conventional anthropological understandings of ethics?

    As far as your call for dispassionate research, I do agree that there can be a tension between normative beliefs about the way the world should be and ideals of empirical research. And that these tensions are stronger the closer you get to studying human social organization. But I disagree that anthropology is the only field with normative commitments- economics, sociology, climate science, environmental science, etc.. All of these fields attempt to inform public policy and public debates, and are
    carried out by people with normative commitments about the phenomena they study. Without explaining why anthropology is particularly egregious in this respect (More so than economics? Really?), I’m left with the suspicion that your problem isn’t that we have commitments at all, but that ours are different than yours.

    • razibkhan

      I was repeating you when I said that you don’t understand anthropology

      i don’t have time to follow up right now in detail (perhaps i will tonight, assuming my other obligations are taken care of), but let me clarify here. it isn’t that i don’t understand anthropology due not engaging with it periodically. it’s that i have a hard time even parsing what anthropologists are trying to say. it is not quite so bad as the material which falls under the rubric of deconstructionism, but your field seems totally consciously obscure, as well as committed to a set of political objectives which result in self-contradiction and incoherence. for example, the fact that you often feel that you need to protect and advocate for the communities you study often results in what seems to be a patronizing and manipulative relationship with those communities. that’s hard to avoid, but often the self-righteous among your discipline don’t engage in this self-critique often enough, so intent are you toward seeking out witches in other camps.

    • razibkhan

      But I disagree that anthropology is the only field with normative commitments- economics, sociology, climate science, environmental science, etc.

      this is the kind of thing that makes it hard to engage with you. on the contrary, i implied quite clearly that all human endeavors are normatively fraught. e.g.: Social sciences such as economics and psychology which are more explicitly scientific in ambition are subject to the fact that statistical analysis can be easily manipulated and misused. The same holds with biology, especially biomedical science. Obviously these problems are also rife in cultural anthropology.

      as for the problems with normative commitments. anthropologists enjoy throwing around inaccurate or vacuous terms such as ‘genetic determinist,’ ‘reductionist’, and ‘social darwinist,’ with almost no prompting. just as the love affair with excessive theoretical formalism in economics has misled as to the power of that ‘science,’ so the absorption in internecine conflicts in anthropology makes it seem like the discipline has no proper order aside from personal invective.

      finally, as for chagnon, whatever ethical lapses he had, depending on how you judge it, the accusations made against him were egregious, and character assassination. scholars are humans too, even if they make errors, and are sorely lacking in proper judgement.

      • viewfromafield

        Sure, some people went way out of bounds of professionalism when confronting Chagnon’s ethical lapses. Acknowledging that doesn’t necessarily invalidate those ethical concerns, it suggests they’re best dealt with in a fair and reasonable manner. But my sense is that you read anthropology through the lens of a pretty unusual conflict which in no way reflects what most anthropologists do most of the time. Right now there’s a controversy over the use of anthropology in the US Army’s Human Terrain Program, and while it is more ethically troubling than anything Chagnon did I haven’t seen too much invective over it. Reductive and essentialist do get thrown around a lot, but I don’t see them as especially defamatory, they’re criticisms of bad work.

        Much of what you seem to dismiss as “politics” strikes me as a misunderstanding. In earlier posts you seem to be suggesting that when anthropologists address colonialism we do so to demonize the West. But we study people who have been colonized, and the influence of colonialism on post-colonial society is often essential for understanding subjects we`re concerned with. We often study marginalized populations, so issues of power and social categories are central to understanding them. Instead of pointing out specific instances where these concerns lead to bad research -and they definitely exist – you seem to be suggesting that they are improper in and of themselves.

        And if that’s the case, I’m left wondering how you can study a topic like ethnicity and nationalism in China, where issues of colonialism, race, and power are central to any comprehensive understanding of what’s going on. Right now I’m teaching a class that touches on Native American history, can I do so without discussing colonialism and genocide?

        And as I wrote above, advocacy on behalf of the people we study -which, to be sure, can be narcissistic at times – stems from ethical commitments which, while you might not agree with them, are not superfluous to what we study.

        Please correct me if I’ve misinterpreted what you’ve written, but with so little in the way of specific examples it’s hard to know what you’re talking about.

        Again, I am in no way suggesting that there aren’t bad anthropologists out there. But I don’t see why we should all be judged by the lowest points of the worst among us.

        • razibkhan

          Reductive and essentialist do get thrown around a lot, but I don’t see them as especially defamatory, they’re criticisms of bad work.

          they’re quite often used as ‘buzzwords’ to dismiss. the essentialist trope is particular stupid because many cultural anthropologists seem unable to think in a statistical manner, and deal in categoricals. e.g., ‘the west’ vs. ‘the rest.’

          Instead of pointing out specific instances where these concerns lead to bad research -and they definitely exist – you seem to be suggesting that they are improper in and of themselves.

          power and social categories are fine. e.g., i have been known to say that pre-modern social economic orders were such that elites were all rentiers who stole from the production of farmers. but that’s a descriptive matter. i don’t spend my time fixating on the evil of rentier elites when talking about a *model* of a society. i do when i talk about wall street. if anthropologists separating the two alternatively, rather than mashing them together, it would be sufficient.

          I’m left wondering how you can study a topic like ethnicity and nationalism in China, where issues of colonialism, race, and power are central to any comprehensive understanding of what’s going on. Right now I’m teaching a class that touches on Native American history, can I do so without discussing colonialism and genocide?

          the primary issue whenever this sort of argument comes up, is that it takes a post 1880 or so view of race and colonialism and extrapolates across history. for example, the ching dynasty was colonialist in the 18th century and engaged in genocide against the dzhungars. but, the ideological framework was very different from the european colonialism informed by taxonomic science, evolution, and scientism more generally. in short the anthropological understanding is in fact not “thick” enough for me. on the contrary, it is thin enough to set up a manichaean order where the west is special and all interactions are interpreted through the western colonial lens. that is a powerful lens, but not sufficient.

          • viewfromafield

            That’s certainly a valid criticism of a point of view, it’s just not one of my point of view. Nor do the views you’re attacking resemble any prominent anthropologists I can think of.

            When I said that colonialism was essential to understanding Chinese Nationalism I meant that modern understandings of Chinese national identity were formulated by intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th century who saw China as being in a crisis due to its domination by colonial powers, and drew on Western political theories to understand that crisis. This involved reinterpreting China’s past in terms of Western ideas of race and nation, and adapting those ideas to their understanding of China’s history and of China’s place in an unequal world order. So, you have Yan Fu, who translated Darwin and Spenser into Chinese, coining the term Huangzu, which means both Yellow Race or Descendants of the Yellow Emperor depending on how you read it, combining a social Darwinist understanding of racial difference with an idea of an essential Chinese identity based on blood descent from the Yellow Emperor. And so on through the May 4th movements critique of colonialism and use of Western political theories to critique Chinese tradition, and up to today.

            Colonialism is relevant, because it involves people who were reacting to colonialism, and the political and social projects they enacted. I’m not viewing things through the lens of Western colonialism, I’m looking at other people who viewed their world through that lens. And you’d have to dispute a lot of fairly established historical research to claim otherwise.

            So, yes, I am familiar with the structure of the Qing state and how it differs from European colonialism, modern European states and post-1911 Chinese states. I am also familiar with the difference between the way in which differences between social groups was conceptualized under the Qing, and modern Chinese and Western ideas of race. When I mentioned the relationship between social categories and power, that’s exactly what I was referring to – the relationships between those different kinds of states and those different ideas of race. By looking at how changing ideas of bodies, nation, state and the world order led to corresponding changes in the exercise of political power by the Chinese state after 1911 you can see how large scale political change was related to changing ideas of human nature. Thinking about race and nation differently, leads to a different kind of state power in a way which you can see both on a large scale, and in the mundane aspects of everyday life.

            I trust you can find something to criticize in this description, but it is not the straw man you’re attacking as anthropology.

    • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

      i hate to butt in again but all i have to do is look through all these hilarious syllabuses to know we’re right. or simply watch Sapolsky’s “biology” lectures for kids going to **Stanford** to see him live right up to the stereotype. He even made an appearance in Zeitgeist to do some fear mongering about eugenics. anyway:

      http://www.academia.edu/1745749/Cultural_Anthropology_Syllabus_Winter_2012

      http://academics.wellesley.edu/Anthropology/syllabi/ANTH214%20S11.pdf
      “The widespread representation of human “races” as
      branches on an intraspecific population tree is genetically
      indefensible…”http://www.realfuture.org/GIST/Readings/Templeton%281998%29.pdf
      Templeton, Gould…i can also recommend skimming through the Israel/Palestine suggested readings but, really, the whole thing is quite indicative.

      i like how they have their “must reads” like “Selling Crack in El Barrio”:)
      http://www.stanford.edu/class/casa1/coursework/syllabus.html

      this one requires a trip to the grocery store:
      http://www.aaanet.org/sections/sacc/pdf/CultAnthro202E.pdf

      http://women.ucla.edu/Bays/09WANTH9.pdf
      this one speaks for itself.

  • Matt Walker

    Some anthropologists seem to find it impossible to comprehend that those who don’t agree with their particular vision and implementation of social justice don’t necessarily then support the proposition that the study of humans can be analogized to impersonal billiard balls.

    You’re talking to somebody who just told you that his ethics require him to do fraudulent science if it furthers the interests of those he empathizes with. And he seems to think that you represent interests he doesn’t empathize with. My guess would be that if he did honestly believe you were the strawman he paints you as, then he’d feel required by his ethics to portray you as something even worse than that.

    Nevertheless, I think you’re a bit harsh. Your highest value is truth, and so in your mind, ethics means a devotion to truth. He has different values. For you, science is a way to arrive at truth; for him, it’s a way to fight for social justice (otherwise known as “the interests of people he empathizes with”). Each of you respects science as a path to achieving the highest goals you can visualize.

    • viewfromafield

      No, I didn’t say you should do fraudulent science, I said you should consider the effects of what you write on the community you study. Anthropologists working in Taiwan during the White Terror largely avoided writing about the violence of martial law because they reasonably suspected it would lead to retribution against their research subjects. I’m sure there was a lot of fascinating research they could have done on the subject, but it would have been unethical to put the communities they studied at risk.

  • viewfromafield

    “The major takeaway that objectivity may be hard, and it may be impossible in the absolute sense, but it is something we should aim for. Additionally, just because scientific study entails ethical choices, it does not mean that those who disagree with your ethical choices necessarily reject the idea that ethics should inform and shape science. ”

    Oh, and I completely agree with you on both points – and the point about striving for objectivity while acknowledging its difficulty is pretty universally acknowledged among anthropologists I work with. Ethical choices are more sticky, in that there are some absolutes and some gray areas where honest well meaning people can disagree – and there may be disagreement on where that line is drawn. But that’s true for any field – we can, for example, have productive disagreements on various questions surrounding the ethics of teaching, but threatening to fail a student if she doesn’t have sex with you is not one of them.

  • http://skadhitheravernerblog.wordpress.com/ Skadhi_the_Raverner

    “For various reasons cool detachment is harder in anthropology, nor should it always be employed.”

    Why not?

    • razibkhan

      e.g., if u r studying a group about to be genocided, and you know, i think you should intervene rather than observe/record. just my opinion :-)

  • Sandgroper

    “So, for example, if I’ve gathered information on people committing crimes, I can’t publish it – it doesn’t matter that I didn’t harm them while observing those crimes, exposing a group as involved in
    criminal activities can bring negative consequences on them.”

    No shit. That is a *very* disturbing comment. In this case http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Bropho criminal activity was repeatedly covered up until a 15 year old girl committed suicide by hanging herself. Even then, conviction relied on the testimony of a very courageous Aboriginal woman named Lena Spratt, whose action prevented the ongoing abuse of female children.

    The white ‘protectors’ of Bropho and his fellow ‘elders’ who actively concealed their activities for decades got off.

  • AMac78

    A physician-journalist attacks the non-reporting of unfavorable clinical trials:

    In a system where half of all clinical trials never see the light of publication, doctors are merely “imagining that we’re practicing evidence-based medicine,” says Ben Goldacre, MBBS, a British physician and science journalist. [He] is among the most vocal critics of drugmakers who refuse to hand over complete clinical trial data, making it impossible for doctors and patients to get the full picture on most of the medicines widely used today.

    In the original post, Viewfromabove is quoted as giving an example of the ethical requirement for anthropologists to not publish unfavorable fieldwork:

    So, for example, if I’ve gathered information on people committing crimes, I can’t publish it – it doesn’t matter that I didn’t harm them while observing those crimes, exposing a group as involved in criminal activities can bring negative consequences on them.

    Quite a contrast in attitudes between the two fields.

    Some of Viewfromabove’s remarks appear to buttress Razib’s critiques.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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