politically correct anthropologists tackle science

December 2, 2010

If you’ve been reading for a while, you know my position on science. Science is good. It provides a formal and objective framework to verify claims and make new discoveries by asking questions and constantly probing a little deeper than the last experiment. And this is why I think the idea of anthropology moving away from using even references to science or the scientific method is as disheartening as Orac found it. Sure, anthropology is a messy science where nothing is certain, like psychology and sociology, but that’s no reason to whip out the post-modernist, overly politically correct spiel and start beating the scientific, investigative elements of the discipline out of the picture with a very liberal use of what can only be described as white guilt and hipsterish, fluffy New Age quasi-spiritual appeals to unspecified “other ways of knowing” so frequently invoked today.

Look, what colonists from Europe did to countless indigenous populations was absolutely terrible. Only very, very creative revisionists could even think of claiming otherwise. But it’s not science that should bear the brunt of some anthropologists’ urges to make their discipline a living version of PCU, only with humanities scholars instead of college kids looking for a cause to make their own. Unfortunately, I’m not kidding here. Check out a quote from an anthropologist defending the decision not to reference science in the discipline and while you do, just try to count the fallacies and think of where else you’ve seen them before…

When examining the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us… Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are 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… 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.

Got all that? Science is bad because it’s a Western term and used by elitist Westerners to crowd out all those other forms of knowledge in nations with which they have tense relations or have colonized in the past, and if the governing body of American anthropology keeps using the word science, it’s simply continuing to support those over-privileged Western no-goodniks. Frankly, I think the anthropologist in question, Dooglas Carl, was condescending and insulting to the very “indigenous cultures” he was trying to praise. Does he really believe that ancient Africans or the Chinese didn’t use the scientific method and really fit the New Age mold into which so many liberal commentators hell-bent on political correctness past the point of good taste and reason try to jam them? Just look at the pyramids and temples of North Africa and South America. The Egyptians and the Nubians who emulated their feats, as well as the Aztecs and the Maya, were excellent engineers. In Medieval times, well-funded Muslim scholars produced seminal treatises on mathematics the principles of which are one of the key parts of computer science, principles I use every day. The Chinese experimented with rocketry and herbal medicine. None of the things mentioned above was achieved by “alternative ways of knowing” but by good, old fashioned trial and error as the cultures’ own records show.

Obviously we can offer even more examples, like the navigational abilities of Polynesians and the wheel and the aqueducts of Sumerian city-states, but I think you get the point. Science is not some sort of “privileged and elitist Western idea that marginalizes indigenous knowledge,” it’s a basic, experiment-driven process human civilizations used to learn and advance. Every culture has its mythology and traditions, but every culture has a pretty good grasp of the scientific method as well, and every culture has used it during its history. To embrace their myths and folk tales, then elevate those above their scientific and engineering abilities is not praising an alternative method of knowledge. It’s placing them in a “special” box and inventing a PC term so they can hold that box proudly, as if you’ve done them a favor. How condescending, insensitive, and tone-deaf. This is why I used the loaded term white guilt to describe this, because those suffering from a need to make sure we’re all aware that other cultures exist and their views, opinions, and history are valid and to be respected so often get so much wrong about them and end up with a back-handed compliment they present as flattery. You know, a little like an old guy who says “oh he’s Asian? He must be really good at math and karate,” or “he’s black? He must be an awesome basketball player,” then leans back, certain that he was really sensitive to other people and cultures. But in reality, all he did was throw out a clichĂ© instead of getting to know them.

[ illustration by Miguel Covarrubias ]

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  • Russ Toelke

    Indeed, how elitist, as if Westerners would be the only ones to ever understand science! This does come off as a backhanded insult to indigenous cultures.

  • Greg Fish

    I really don’t think that was Carl’s point. What bothers me here is how he ignores the numerous well known scientific discoveries by many ancient cultures and wants us to abandon the use of the term science as not to offend them, as if all those indigenous peoples he has in mind just reject science wholesale as some sort of Western tool of neo-imperialist oppression.

    Maybe Carl doesn’t even have a point and is just drifting in post-modernist fluff.

  • Paul

    “Maybe Carl doesn’t even have a point and is just drifting in post-modernist fluff.”

    That’s the problem with po-mo. How would you tell?

  • Russ Toelke

    I see what you’re saying. It’s kinda like he’s afraid that science is too simple an explanation to indigenous cultures, as if we must be sensitive to their beliefs in divine guidance or cult of personality having more to do with such discoveries, as opposed to simple trial-and-error.

    I can understand how strong religious belief and/or worship/fear of despotic leaders could light a fire of incentive to keep trail-and-error from turning to simple frustration, but sticking to scientific terms would help more in explaining that incentive dynamic.

  • Public positions similar to this remind me of what I was taught when I pursued my literature degree. In order to make a career, we were instructed to write “bull-shit” that we didn’t necessarily believe, but could find sufficient evidence for, and create an argument. The actual legitimacy of the argument wasn’t important, so long as we could create one, and back it with (occasionally poor done or biased) research. This isn’t something that’s just done in literary criticism, but also archaeology, and other fields. I imagine that there are a great many careers built on this work ethic.