Planet Earth

Science is hard, but it is possible

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanFeb 26, 2013 6:07 PM

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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.

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