Removing science from anthropology: Parallels with medicine

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.