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Removing science from anthropology: Parallels with medicine

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgIt’s grant crunch time, as the submission deadline for revised R01s is July 5. However, in a classic example of how electronic filing has actually made things more difficult, the grant has to be done and at the university grant office a week before the deadline if it is to be uploaded in time. So, my beloved Orac-philes, I’m afraid it’s reruns today, but, benevolent blogger that I am, I’ll post two, one older, one more recent, but both about the same topic. Earlier today, I posted a rerun from 2007. This one’s a bit newer, from 2010. Even so, if you haven’t been reading at least a year it’s probably new to you. There’s also an update that I didn’t have time to look up, but I’m sure my generous readers will fill us all in as they comment.

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.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

11 replies on “Removing science from anthropology: Parallels with medicine”

Good grief, I must have missed this last year. It strikes me that abandoning science in cultural anthropology (what is called social anthropology in the UK) because it is ethnocentric is like throwing away the menu because it’s chewy and tastes funny.

I agree that we all see the world through cultural filters, and that this can prejudice us against other cultures. I think this applies to all sorts of cultural systems, even medicine and the way science is practiced. Culture creeps in everywhere and we tend not to notice it. But the scientific method is the most powerful way I know of eliminating those cultural biases.

In my opinion, abandoning the most powerful tool we possess for eliminating prejudice and bias in any discipline because it derives from a specific culture is simply crazy (and probably a bit racist).

When we examine the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us.

That is so BEEPing patronising and racist. I put it on a par with “don’t force human rights on us, it’s not part of our culture” and “democracy isn’t part of Arab/African/Asian culture”.

Both of which I have heard and send me into instant rant mode (along with “coloured people in South Africa aren’t interested in becoming accountants” back in the apartheid days)

“those who are for psychological reasons strongly committed to identifying themselves as scientists”

And pray tell, exactly *what* psychological reasons are those?

Oh I don’t know, having formal operational thought, executive functioning, using the reality principle.

I’m amused that they didn’t call it obsessive-compulsive, a fixation, ritualism, a reaction formation, or a phobia. How does “Fear of Stupidity” sound in Latin?

DW: “How does ‘Fear of Stupidity’ sound in Latin?”

Dunno, but it’s vlakeiaphobia in psych-greek. In actual greek, it’s φόβο της βλακείας (pronounced: fóvo ti̱s vlakeías).

I am completely confused by this anthropologist’s argument for removing “science” from the AAA’s mission statement. Does he seriously suggest that ancient superstitious ways of “knowing” such as witchcraft, shamanism or animism be used instead of scientific methods? What is he going to do, have his doctoral students build totems in his lab and dance around them and submit videos of that to Anthropology journals as “proof” that the culture understood better than “western” scientists the medical efficacy of duck bladders?

This person needs a serious education in the history of science and scientific thought. (Since it’s my field I think everyone could do with a few good lessons there, lol) If he cared to study the historical development of science he would come to appreciate how modern methods of science are not the sole development of western thinkers, but rely on intellectual achievements from almost every culture on the planet. There is no “Western” science, but its methods are rather an intellectual achievement of all humanity. True, western thinkers like Bacon were among the first to characterize scientific concepts like empiricism, and I think this is really what is meant when the uninitiated refer to “Western Science”, but we have advanced so far beyond the Novum Organum, that to call scientific thought a sole provenance of the west is only to proclaim your ignorance of cultural history altogether.

Having read his rather obtuse prose I think his objection stems from a rather poorly thought out belief that he is forced to compare (unfavorably) the intellectual achievements of pre-scientific cultures to modern scientific thought. This is an issue that comes up among historians of the philosophy of science every so often and was paraphrased very well by a historian who was better than me at this sort of thing: Its not the job of a historian to give out ribbons for modern thinking (among the ancients), but only to understand and convey the history. In the same way I think this anthropologist conceives the discipline of anthropology. It is not his job as an anthropologist to give out ribbons for scientific thought, but only to understand and convey the culture that he is studying. If this is truly the heart of his poorly thought out argument against “western science” then I might be relieved. It would pain me to think that any professional anthropologist could so easily abandon critical thinking in any academic subject.

@ Krebiozen
“Culture creeps in everywhere and we tend not to notice it. But the scientific method is the most powerful way I know of eliminating those cultural biases.

In my opinion, abandoning the most powerful tool we possess for eliminating prejudice and bias in any discipline because it derives from a specific culture is simply crazy (and probably a bit racist).”

Why is culture something that’s interesting and ok after 5 when you hang up your coat and want to do something entertaining with your spouse or when you want to take your kids to the museum on the weekend, but when it comes to the real business of generating and conducting research and the like it is something insidious that “creeps in”?

That in itself is a ridiculous bias. Throwing out culture because it colours your methods, their application and the way their findings are disseminated is like “throwing away the menu because it’s chewy and tastes funny”.

I am also disturbed that this debate has become an either or debate in some sense, although I was encouraged by the comments that closed the post suggesting mutual collaboration between different ways of knowing.

I don’t feel that any way of knowing is mutually exclusive, nor is any particular way of knowing superior in all aspects. “Science” hands down takes the trophy for being able to produce data and models for forecasting. Indigenous methods of viewing the world (as a vast generalisation this is – as this groups mongolian herders with congolese hunters and all in between) are superior for recognising the inter-relationships and the flow on “effects” of “causes”.

This is very crude language lacking in academic rigour and references, but I’ve intended this as a comment on a blog post. I hope it will provide some food for thought in the spirit with which it was offered.

I’d encourage those who hold the view that culture is nice to think about and it’s place is safe as long as it doesn’t intrude or get in the way of “hard science” to look beyond their own predjudices to see the limits of their world-view as indeed anything in this world is bound by limits of some kind, most especially human ways of thinking about things.

Furthermore, if you can accept these limits exist then I would encourage to find constructive ways of embracing those limits because they are what make us unique and produce plurality in thought – which is inherently a good thing, because this is my opinion and I say it is in the limited space given to me to post blog comments…but really, diversity = :D. Even David Attenborough agrees and he’s a “real” scientist!

Whenever I hear the expression “other ways of knowing” it brings me back to the Seventies, when I was more accepting of such things and read Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” and the first four books that followed (I also consumed the occasional substance that was an alternative way of getting stupid.). I was stunned but oddly relieved when it turned out that the book could have been called “The Imaginings of Carlos Castaneda: A Making S**t Up Way of Knowledge.” I was far from the only fool who fell for “Don Juan” and I have ever since considered it a lesson that promoting something as “another way of seeing” can mean “a way of making what I want to be true appear to be true.” Without a scientific approach, we will be back in the days when traveler’s tall tales, third or fourth hand misinterpretations and outright lies constituted the Western world’s only sources of information about other peoples and places.

Crusher, there’s rather a difference between:

(a) understanding both past and present human cultural practices and being able to explain them and their origins without judgement or (cultural) bias, which I take to be one of the goals of anthropology, and

(b) jettisoning scientific practice, insofar as it can be managed, from anthropology, given that the sciences require rigorous methodology & logic, an awareness and minimization of (cognitive) bias, and most of all support from empirically-derived evidence.

It seems to me that, contra the claims of the blogger at Recycled Minds, without the requirements of empiricism and rigour demanded by a more scientific mindset, anthropology is more likely to fall prey to the cultural biases, prejudices, cognitive traps, and the like – more likely in short, to violate postmodernist sensibilities vis-à-vis indigenous cultures.

If you are not required to back up any given claim about indigenous knowledge (group A believes X) or practices (group B undertakes forms of exchange Y and Z with nearby groups) or what-have-you with carefully-gathered empirical evidence and sound logic, and if you are not expected to overcome common cognitive traps (confirmation bias, affect heuristic, availability heuristic, &c) then what defence do you have against preconception, ‘hegemonic’ imposition of cultural ideals, and prejudice?

It should here be noted that science as an organized method of inquiry is extraordinarily new by human reckoning. It seems to me that scientific thinking remains revolutionary and novel, even in Europe and its transplant polities, to this day.

I’m annoyed that I missed this post the first time around because it explains a great deal about my first and only anthropology class. It was almost purely devoted to criticizing “western” medicine, and if I recall correctly, they did in fact bring up “different ways of knowing” as a reason science shouldn’t have a monopoly on medicine. Interestingly, a program by western health professionals for AIDS patients in Africa that tried to integrate the treatment into the patients’ lives (including lifestyle changes and so forth) was criticized as Foucauldian, even though it basically seemed like the sort of thing alternative medicine got so much praise for.
Watching the irritation on the faces of my fellow classmates gave me hope for the future.


Why is culture something that’s interesting and ok after 5 when you hang up your coat and want to do something entertaining with your spouse or when you want to take your kids to the museum on the weekend, but when it comes to the real business of generating and conducting research and the like it is something insidious that “creeps in”?

Where did I say that it is? I think you grossly misrepresent me or perhaps you misunderstand the nature of this debate. It is the researcher’s (usually Western) cultural biases and prejudices I am referring to. I spent 3 years studying anthropology, I did field work in Egypt and I was employed (briefly) as a research anthropologist. Culture was the object of my study. I was taught to be constantly on my guard against my own ethnocentric biases. It is the people who wish to banish science from anthropology who are most vehemently opposed to any cultural bias. Ethnocentrism, and eurocentrism are insulting terms in that world.

I was trying to point out that the very tool that can eliminate cultural bias is being rejected by some anthropologists because it originated in a specific culture.

Throwing out culture because it colours your methods, their application and the way their findings are disseminated is like “throwing away the menu because it’s chewy and tastes funny”.

Allowing your own cultural biases to affect your research results is more like refusing to eat something on the menu because it’s foreign.

I’d encourage those who hold the view that culture is nice to think about and it’s place is safe as long as it doesn’t intrude or get in the way of “hard science” to look beyond their own predjudices to see the limits of their world-view as indeed anything in this world is bound by limits of some kind, most especially human ways of thinking about things.

You really do misunderstand me. I love anthropology, and I find exploring other cultures fascinating and rewarding. I have the greatest respect for the diversity of human culture. That doesn’t mean I have to adopt the beliefs of the people I study, or abandon the science I also love and respect as a fantastic tool for understanding the world.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is a strange organization. I often wonder how it operates, but then I realize I don’t even wanna know because there’s often no real logic to their madness.

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