No Science please, we’re Anthropologists

Over the last couple weeks controversy erupted in the world of anthropology. No, they didn’t find more Hobbits. The problem began when the American Anthropology Association altered their mandate removing science from their long range goals.

When the organization met for its annual meeting a decision was reached to strip the words “science” from their long range plan.

The new plan has changed from:

“to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.”

it now reads:

“The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.”

The word “science” has been removed from two other places in the revised statement.

This change was reported by the New York Times on the 9th of December and started a considerable upheaval.

There was already tension within the field of anthropology and this latest episode has seemed to exacerbate it further. The debate is between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines like archaeologists, physical anthropology and forensic anthropology — and anthropologists who focus on the more humanities based issues like race, ethnicity and gender.

Those that are defend the old mandate, members of the fields that are science based, are interested in relying on the scientific method to inform their theories about anthropology and ensuring that due diligence is done on new theories and that research is being conducted based on sound principles. In opposition are members who view themselves as advocates and activists. As they see it, research on culture, race, and gender is only harmed by science as it represents the cold arm of colonial imperialism.

This change has brought about serious concerns by researchers. The article quotes Peter Peregrine, president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, who suggested that the changes to the mandate “would undermine American anthropology.”

Obviously viewing this as more than a simple cosmetic change, he compared the attacks and challenges on anthropology to creationism in that they both are “based on the rejection of rational argument and thought.”

After the article in the New York Times, the American Anthropological Association attempted to clarify their position, they issued a statement in which they stated:

“the Executive Board recognizes and endorses the crucial place of the scientific method in much anthropological research.”

To further clarify matters they went on to describe anthropology as:

“Anthropology is a holistic and expansive discipline that covers the full breadth of human history and culture.”

In the follow-up article by the New York Times, Damon Dozier, the association’s director of public affairs is further quoted saying “We mean holistic in terms of the diversity of the discipline.”


Despite the attempts to head off a huge rift, there appears to be lingering doubt as to the direction the American Anthropological Association is going and even more concern that the field of anthropology is under siege from post-modern attacks on its science foundations.

These concerns should not be taken lightly by anthropology or skeptics either.

One of the most important contributions of science to the world has been a method of inquiry that has proven itself unequalled in explaining the natural world. The scientific method is, and should, be foundational in any field where the goal is to explain the natural world.

The so-called “hard sciences” understand this. Where things get muddled is in the “soft sciences” like anthropology, history, and psychology. For some reason these fields have proven especially vulnerable to post-modernism and have fallen prey to schizophrenic notion that science is “western” and trying to use science to explain things is another branch of imperialism.

As someone who’s education is history I’ve personally seen this attitude reflected in the teaching material, my fellow students, and most disturbingly, the professors who teach history. In the field of history, post-modernism claims that no objective truth about the past may be known. In his book Denying History, Michael Shermer warned that “here we find the seedbed for pseudohistory and Holocaust denial.”

The so-called “soft sciences” are occasionally put in the position of making assumptions. When you have a hypothesis you want to test, you unfortunately can’t travel back in time and do an experiment. Therefore, relying on the evidence you already have and employing your critical thinking skills you formulate a rational assumption and await the opportunity to confirm or deny it. It’s not based on a “hunch” or conjured up from the imagination. It’s based on rational skepticism.

This debate is far from over. We can probably expect to see more controversies within the field of anthropology and most likely, continued accusations that science is the tool of western imperialism.

19 Responses to “No Science please, we’re Anthropologists”

  1. captsam says:

    hopefully science wins.

  2. D says:

    I’m glad post-modernism is making a comeback, there is more where that comes from. Science is the new religion and it’s methods should be questioned.

    • Erik Davis says:

      D, I’d love you to explain why you think that’s true. You’re certainly not the only one I’ve encountered who believes that, and I honestly want to understand your point of view. Are you coming from a purely po-mo perspective, i.e. science is imperialism under another name, there is no absolute truth only experience, etc., or is there more to that statement?

      • Jake Fraser says:

        Hey Erik,

        I will defend this from a philosophy of science perspective, either Humeian or Popperian, neither of which are at all friendly towards post-modernism but both of which argue that there is no absolute truth (in the form of universal laws and by extension that there are no absolute guarantees on reality).

        There is a fundamental problem in induction, namely in the belief that one can go from observations (even an extremely large number of observations) to universal laws. It’s also one of the founding principles of skepticism. The wiki link is really good, so I’ll leave it here:

        “First, Hume ponders the discovery of causal relations, which form the basis for what he refers to as “matters of fact.” He argues that causal relations are found not by reason, but by induction. This is because for any cause, multiple effects are conceivable, and the actual effect cannot be determined by reasoning about the cause; instead, one must observe occurrences of the causal relation to discover that it holds. For example, when one thinks of “a billiard ball moving in a straight line toward another,”[7] one can conceive that the first ball bounces back with the second ball remaining at rest, the first ball stops and the second ball moves, or the first ball jumps over the second, etc. There is no reason to conclude any of these possibilities over the others. Only through previous observation can it be predicted, inductively, what will actually happen with the balls. In general, it is not necessary that causal relation in the future resemble causal relations in the past, as it is always conceivable otherwise; for Hume, this is because the negation of the claim does not lead to a contradiction.

        Next, Hume ponders the justification of induction. If all matters of fact are based on causal relations, and all causal relations are found by induction, then induction must be shown to be valid somehow. He uses the fact that induction assumes a valid connection between the proposition “I have found that such an object has always been attended with such an effect” and the proposition “I foresee that other objects which are in appearance similar will be attended with similar effects.”[8] One connects these two propositions not by reason, but by induction. This claim is supported by the same reasoning as that for causal relations above, and by the observation that even rationally inexperienced or inferior people can infer, for example, that touching fire causes pain.”

        Karl Popper attempts to resolve this by suggesting that the criterion (paradigm) for science is falsifiability – we don’t prove things right, we just prove things wrong. A theory becomes stronger when it is particularly open to falsification yet hasn’t been falsified after a number of trials. Thus, we don’t say that H(a) is true; we instead reject H(null).

        This, I think, is a fairly strong rejection of the claim that there ARE absolute truths beyond the level of atomistic events, i.e. that a particular observation took place. Even then, perception and reality itself are subject to the same difficulty: by the same principle, it’s impossible to prove that this is not all a dream.

        A post-modern critique might be one which suggests that scientific laws are valid within the system they’re constructed in, but that this doesn’t provide any justification for preferring that system or that manner of understanding to any other. Thus, unless you’re comfortable with making a tautology, a statement like “the scientific method is the best method for understanding reality” would have to call on something outside of the scientific method to explain why it was the best – namely, some sort of goal or objective which would be non-scientific.

        I don’t think that there are any prominent post-modernists who argue that science is imperialism under another name. Perhaps post-colonialists, but I think that such a statement is reductive, untrue, and would be extremely difficult to prove by citing anyone of any degree of prominence arguing that and relying on “post-modern principles”. The fact that someone on the internet writes that she is a post-modernist that’s why all science is imperialism doesn’t demonstrate that this is either true for science or true for post-modernism, in the same way that writing “I’m a scientist and I don’t believe in global warming” doesn’t mean that global warming is a hoax.

    • Steve Thoms says:

      I’m unclear what you mean by “comeback”. A quick waltz through any university department in cultural studies, political studies, english lit, lit crit, sociology, anthro, and philosophy….you’ll find that post-modernism is alive and well (despite the spanking that Slavoj Žižek gave it in “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”).

      • Jake Fraser says:

        Hmm… I think that if you read Zizek more closely, you’ll find that his dispute with post-structuralists is really very small, in that he accepts their arguments but disagrees on the consequences. As a Lacanian, his beginning assumption is that language is incapable of representing the Real, and that any attempt to actually access the “real world” outside of a (contingent) symbolic structure ends in psychosis.

        Perhaps the one area where Zizek does disagree with “post-modernism” would be in his avowedly Hegelian-Marxist stance, which suggests that the logic immanent to history (as Capital) is that Communism will win. I think that if you take a quick poll of people who think a Hegelian dialectic is plausible (either amongst historians or philosophers) you will find even less support than for post-modernism.

  3. Saulo says:

    That’s my impression or more and more the skeptics are turning against the so-called human studies, like Anthropólogy, Psychology and others? The Psychoanalysis has been attacked in the USA and in the France ( in this case, by a very known writer called Michel Onfray), being called a “charlatanistic pseudo-science”. Soon, we will see the human studies been stormed by several skeptics?

    • Erik Davis says:

      Saulo, I wouldn’t view a disposition toward science as an attack on the social sciences — it’s really just attempt by those within the field to improve the methodological and analytical rigour in order to make their discipline better at achieving its aims. Psychoanalysis (the psychological technique pioneered by Freud) is criticized because we now know it doesn’t work, not because of any bias against psychology. Indeed, the same scientific rigour that invalidated that technique has validated others, e.g. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, thus improving psychologists’ ability to help patients.

      That said, there are uninformed loudmouths who have tarred all psychology with the brush of psychoanalysis — and perhaps more worryingly, practitioners who continue to practice it. That’s unfortunate — and perhaps a justification for better oversight of professional standards and practices — but not a reason to reject the basic science.

      • John Greg says:

        Erik, this might sound like a slightly hostile attack on your short post, but I swear it’s not. I’d just like to make a small point. You said:

        “That said, there are uninformed loudmouths who have tarred all psychology with the brush of psychoanalysis….”

        I think part of that problem is that some folks fail to distinguish correctly (in diction and sometimes in thought) between Psychology, a, to some degree, proveable technique/methodology and Psychiatry, a rather suspect bit of, ahem, wooish psychobabble.

        If you see what I mean. Psychoanalysis has been debunked because psychology has proven itself valid and has shown psychiatry to be wooish.

        At any rate, that is my undserstanding of the issue; if I am wrong, I offer my humblest apple oagies.

      • Kim Hebert says:

        The psychiatrists I’ve worked with professionally were doctors who made diagnoses, prescribed meds, and planned patient care – just like any other doctor, but specifically for mental health. Not every psychiatrist is a psychoanalyst.

      • Erik Davis says:

        John – I wouldn’t have taken that as an attack, however — the difference between psychology and psychiatry has nothing to do with psychoanalysis. It’s simply a matter of training — in Canada, psychiatrists are specialized MD’s, whereas psychologists have masters or doctorate degrees in psychology. Both are protected designations governed by their respective professional bodies. And both may practice psychotherapy — of which Freudian psychoanalysis is one method, though increasingly abandoned in favour of better-supported methods like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

        But psychiatrists have an additional tool at their disposal being MD’s, which is the ability to prescribe medication. And this increasingly represents the real division between the two, as more psychiatrists lean more heavily on pharmacotherapy at the expense of psychotherapy. The AJP just published a study (abstract here, editorial review here) that confirmed this fact, though it had long been suspected. While it’s certainly possible that this shift is being driven by the increased efficacy and diminished side effects of the latest crop of anti-depressants — both certainly factors — I strongly suspect that there’s more to it than that.

        Psychotherapy is hard, time consuming to practice, and often slower to show results, whereas pharmacotherapy is the exact opposite. As well, weekly psychotherapy sessions might be $500/mo with limited insurance coverage, whereas pharmacotherapy might be $20-30/mo worth of co-pays. Given these factors, it’s understandable that prescribing is becoming the first line of defense for practitioners able to do so (i.e. psychiatrists). Unfortunately, the two approaches have vastly different risk profiles, not to mention treatment lengths — CBT might last a year or two, but anti-depressants are often for a lifetime.

      • John Greg says:

        Kim and Eric, thanks very much for the clarifications. I was not aware of the crossover’s involved. Count me better informed now.


    • Steve Thoms says:

      A while back, I wrote a piece wondering why there seemed to be so few humanities skeptics. In the comments section (which, sadly, can no longer be read because we since switched servers, and we lost a great deal of comments from our early days), I was torn to shreds by people demanding that I cite some evidence that indeed, there were no/few humanities skeptics.

      I could not provide evidence, nor am I certain on how to devise a survey that adequately includes academics, former academics, professionals, and amateurs.

      Since I wrote that article, I’ve had to re-examine my opinion that I suppose I reached primarily because of my personal accounts and a ‘feel’ for how skeptics organize/operate.

      I now know that there are plenty of humanities-oriented skeptics (the academic background of the author of this piece is in history, and my own is in political science), and it was wrong of me to assume that humanities people were being driven out, or discouraged from participating.

      Like Erik says, skeptics *generally* have a disposition towards science and the scientific method, but that doesn’t mean that humanities topics are under fire. Sadly, whenever skeptics point out that post-modernism is one of the furthest philosophies that there are from science, the post modernists come out in force full of the language of derision against science…as if criticizing post-modernism was equal to criticizing philosophy or political science.

  4. Iain Martel says:

    Hey Steve, leave philosophy out of it! At least in the English-speaking world, a philosophy department is about the last place that you’ll see someone espousing po-mo nonsense. Apart from a few bastions like SUNY Stony Brook, any mention of postmodernism will immediately get you ostracized: “What do you mean, you want to study Derrida and Foucault? Get thee hence to an English department!”

    Even Kuhn is considered unacceptably radical these days, as the objective realists hold sway. I would say the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, if anything. (And I say this as an unreconstructed logical empiricist.)

    On the other hand, I’ve often wondered why analytic philosophy still gets classified as “humanities” in the first place – much of it has little, if anything, to do with the study of humanity. I think it just gets left there because it doesn’t belong anywhere else. So in this respect you are right: the disciplines which study humanity, broadly construed, have mostly developed an unhealthy distaste for objective evidence or analysis.

    • Steve Thoms says:

      Yeah, I admit that adding philosophy was a bit of a gamble there. The philosophy dept of my old university (Trent, a haven for PoMo) has all but thrown out the post-modernist literature (though it certainly has hung on to its offshoots, such as phenomenology and post-structuralism).

      It’s rather odd that the philosophy dept has excluded PoMo as much as it has, when several other larger departments (politics, cultural studies, Lit Crit etc…) have embraced it wholeheartedly….even ravenously.

      So yes. I withdraw my inclusion of philosophy departments in the aforementioned list when it comes to wholesale acceptance and promotion of post-modernism. Philosophy has rightly moved past it (Just as the atomic bomb was the death knell for modernism, so too was 9/11 for post-modernism).

      I just wish other departments and disciplines could figure post-modernism out for the intellectually bankrupt navel gazing that it is. But I also get angry at it, so take my rage with a grain of salt.

      • Erik Davis says:

        Can I suggest that there may be a very good reason why philosophy is the outlier with respect to post-modernism, viz. that it’s the only field where serious thought has been given to the notion that a theory might be correct and useless at the same time. After all, post-modernism is probably right based on the terms it defines for itself, it’s just that those terms aren’t practically meaningful.

        “There’s no absolute truth, only a cascade of referentially-valid ones.” OK, fine, I agree, and will do my best to consider all perspectives. But at some point I need to make a damn decision, otherwise why get out of bed? And precisely because there’s no absolute truth, I need to apply some weighting to those relative truths in order to pick which one to base my decisions on.

        “Progress isn’t a linear progression toward enlightenment, we’re not getting anywhere.” Can’t argue with that. But while we’re standing still not progressing, let’s lower the infant mortality rate, extend life spans, and reduce diseases and poverty. It may not move the needle, but it makes the journey more pleasant.

  5. Equus says:

    This is all about money. So called “activist anthropologist” publish books that make more money for universities and draw more students(arguable) ergo more professors were hired that follow it. As time went on the activists took control and are now trying to remove the arguments that always kept them from being seen as part of the field of Anthropology specifically the fact that they do not follow any form of scientific method. They are not anthropologists and have simply been using the the field to justify continued public funding of their “research” on the premise that they are some sort of scientist.

    It is a danger to the field and should be stopped.

  6. Jake Fraser says:

    Just wanted to point out that this quote is poor form for a “skeptic”:

    “As someone who’s education is history I’ve personally seen this attitude reflected in the teaching material, my fellow students, and most disturbingly, the professors who teach history. In the field of history, post-modernism claims that no objective truth about the past may be known. In his book Denying History, Michael Shermer warned that ‘here we find the seedbed for pseudohistory and Holocaust denial.’”

    Two major problems: first, it suggests a weak understanding of historiography and of post-modernism. Could you post some quotes from ‘post-modernists’ claiming something like this? There are a lot of reductive claims about “what post-modernists think” that lack any sort of citation – I note that your fellow author Steve Thorns suggests that phenomenology is an “offshoot” of post-modernism, a claim which is not only a reversal of history (speaking of post-modernism’s problem for history!) but also typical of people commenting on post-modernism as a monolithic entity that are long on rhetoric and short on actual citations. And, given that a lot of post-modern historiography is generally concerned with how the Holocaust changed historical narratives and how one represents the suffering of the Holocaust, I think it’s disingenuous to imply that post-modernism primes the pump for Holocaust denial. Post-modern criticisms of historiography are perhaps more interested in debating the interpretation and representation of historical events.

    Second, this is a shaky understanding of philosophy of science, including some of the foundational thinkers of skepticism and epistemological possibilities of universal truths, laws, certainty, etc.. For example, Hume’s critique of induction, or the Popperian emphasis on falsifiability (we’ll put their dispute aside, momentarily), or indeed any experiment done with an H(null) begins with the assumption that science is not about proving, but rather disproving. Rejecting H(null) does not mean that H(alternate) is true, it just means that H(null) is rejected.

    As such, scientists also operate in a field of not objective truths, but instead a very high degree of certainty. I think you’ll find that this is true for your daily life as well – it is logically impossible to disprove that you are living in the Matrix, but you probably go about your day with such a high degree of certainty (bordering on 100%, I suspect) that this isn’t really a concern. Similarly, a point which may be dear to the heart of a skeptic – I can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. However, I’m so certain that he/she/it doesn’t (again, 99.99%) that I go about my day as if it didn’t matter.

    I would think that an organization of skeptics would be a little bit more comfortable in managing uncertainty in daily life.

    PS: Two historians you might find interesting to actually read from could be Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra. White has an interesting lecture online that I think is a relatively fair representation of post-modern thought :


  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.