Saturday, December 11, 2010

We're losing a science

This week the American Anthropological Association officially stopped considering its goals to be scientific in nature, exposing the world to a civil war within the discipline between evidence-based researchers and social activists.

Dr. Peregrine, who is at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, said in an interview that the dropping of the references to science “just blows the top off” the tensions between the two factions. “Even if the board goes back to the old wording, the cat’s out of the bag and is running around clawing up the furniture,” he said.

He attributed what he viewed as an attack on science to two influences within anthropology. One is that of so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with. The other is the postmodernist critique of the authority of science. “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought,” he said. is a science blog, as I spend most of my focus on the social science of economics. I love science and economics is my major field of interest, but it wasn't always this way. I was a sociology minor in college but I grew frustrated with the discipline when I kept seeing weak arguments that appeared to be more politically motivated than scientific.

The gender wage gap is the perfect example. My sociology professors kept drilling into my head that it can only be explained by discrimination. I learned on my own that male and female employees and the jobs they gravitate towards have different qualities. Even if discrimination is a factor, it is one of many. There wasn't even a mention of this important view in any of my classes. The sociology argument was a simple correlation-equals-causation yarn and it's widespread acceptance shook my faith in the discipline and I left.

Perhaps social sciences are doomed to be hamstrung by political bias. Look at the peer-reviewed psychology study that concluded that conservative politics are a mild form of derangement. It sloppily claimed that Stalin was a conservative and anti-Semitism is a "right-wing cause." History books don't do a good job of presenting events from multiple perspectives. Even my beloved economics is vulnerable to political bias, and I don't mean just the Keynsians. The freshwater economists are just as likely to be blinded by their world view.

What's happening to anthropology is a scandal. Science is getting in the way of the story the social activists are trying to tell, and research with a desired outcome has a habit of misrepresenting reality. Postmodernists deserve no place in academia, let alone anthropology. They manage to be both pretentious and anti-intellectual at the same time. My heart goes out to the pro-science anthropologists.


  1. The question is really, What is science? Of course, disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, economics and history are all social sciences, which is a different type of science than such disciplines as mathmatics, physics and chemistry. The difference, I think, lies in such factors as verifiable facts, repeatable experiments, and things like that. I'm not sure.

  2. And of course there is the attendant squeamishness that comes with the literal objectification of fellow humans. Ideally, and procedurally, it shouldn't matter, but that's a pretty big hurdle to overcome. Can one be compassionate and empathetic as well as objective? However, aspirant objectivity is one of the most if not the most necessary attributes all scientists should possess. If you can't handle that, the answer is to leave the discipline, not to rearrange scientific inquiry to accommodate your unease.

  3. This reminds me of a paper I wrote about about Freud in college where I critisized him as unscientific...not original, of course. But, the reception wasn't positive, to be mild. It was for Women's Psychology. I was one of two men in the class. But I had the the thought...Is this more political than anthing else? Then I digressed. But your blog reminded me of it...

  4. Social sciences have repeatable experiments too. However, things like the Great Depression are called a "natural experiment" and its much more difficult to extract reliable information as they can not be set up and repeated.

    In 2010 Hong Kong established a legal minimum wage, and different groups have made predictions to what will happen to levels of employment and compensation.

    In 1999 thimerosal was removed from vaccines. The anti-vacc movement predicted autism rates would fall as a result. They have increased instead. I take this as a natural experiment too.

  5. Just a passing thought I had, Michael. Perhaps the lack of TRUE scientific inquiry you noticed in sociology is a symptom of funding sources. For instance, social work used to suffer from the same ailment (I use "suffer" lightly here). However, due to tighter government budgets (from which modern social work derives much of its budget for both theory and practice) the field has moved HEAVILY toward evidence-based modalities. So, not really knowing much about the ins and outs of sociology research/practice, I'm wondering if its funding sources could perhaps have agendas that value ideology over solid positive outcome. Any insight? And again, great post.

  6. That's a good question Abner. I'm not sure what impact it has, and the reason I'm doubtful that that's the biggest factor is no studies were cited. This was straight from the instructors' mouths in a public college. I think it was more of a fundmental aversion to asking difficult questions of notions that complimented their world view more than the influence of any funding sources.