No Death Panels for Science! AAA Issues Clarification

This was previously called “The Detritus of the AAA/Science Debate” but that was boring.

Yes, I’m still talking about it, because there’s a few things I want to say. When the AAA Executive Board issued its clarification, they made a reference to their “What is Anthropology” document, which was approved at the same time as the much-maligned Long Range Plan. That document, which the EB had to draw attention to when all science hell broke loose, explicitly refers to science and anthropology in the same breath when it says, “anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences.” Of course, that’s not as newsworthy as the “excision” of science.

We’ve been played, my friends! The AAA Executive Board is not setting up Death Panels for science! AAA EB is not carving out the entire discipline of anthropology into their own image, laughing evilly while we sheeple stare helplessly from the sidelines, wringing our wrists.

I mean, seriously. Isn’t that even just a wee bit ridiculous? Perhaps we overreacted just a teeny tiny bit? (And when I say “we”, I’m being generous. I mean you. I didn’t overreact). Okay, I don’t think the AAA EB was entirely blameless. Here’s what I think they did wrong:

  1. Failed to predict the future: The EB should have known that anthropologists all over the US would be guided into a frenzy by outsiders with unknown vested interests (see Daniel Lende’s post on Neuroanthropology for an as-always reasonable discussion of the civil discussion within anthropology, which also quotes me, how exciting).  The EB should have known, therefore, that the fertilizer would hit the fan. And let’s be fair. With all our skills at reading people and behavior, we do expect, for reasons unknown and inexplicable, that our fellow anthropologists will be rational, civil, people. Which brings me to point number two.
  2. Failed to predict level of incivility and frothing-at-the-mouth reactions from anthropologists and outside interests alike: The EB should have known that this would open old wounds in the form of the science/non-science debate, which expresses itself thusly. “I so do science. My methods are scientific. So there! You don’t do science.” “Fine. I don’t do science. I’m taking my anthropology and going home.” Or some such thing. It’s all rooted in the very old fear of not being considered a real discipline, yadda yadda, you know the drill. I think this could have been anticipated, but wasn’t simply because the AAA EB didn’t know they were excising science from the AAA Mission (because they weren’t).
  3. Failure to react fast enough: Now this is the one I’m serious about. Predicting the future is an imprecise science, so the EB is off the hook for that. But their clarification should have come swiftly, and nipped all this in the bud. I’m going to assume that they were just startled by the vehemence of reaction to something they didn’t even intend. So while they were busy scratching their heads and going “WTF?!”, we were busy self-flagellating while kicking each other in the kidneys with steel-toed boots.

As the dust clears, voices of reason emerge. Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology is one, as I meantioned earlier, and he links to many others. Tom Boellstorff, in his letter to the NYT editor, is another. I refer particularly to the last paragraph of his letter, which says,

At issue are not “factions” but mishearings. Like so many of us in this age of antagonism, we anthropologists need to employ our skills of careful listening more effectively toward one another, to advance both science and public understanding of the human condition.

And here, really, is the central bit of things. We have the skills to analyze social situations, and we didn’t. (Just for the record, I don’t think “science” and “public understanding of the human condition” are necessarily two different things). We succumbed to the lure of the rant, and were righteously indignant without consideration for whether we had cause, or for who was pulling the puppet strings. If we can’t think about situations, they should take our Ph.D.s away.

There’s something else I want to say about the leadership of the AAA. There’s been a lot of incivility toward them as well, and mockery, e.g. referring to them as the “Group of Four.” I’m sure someone thought they were being clever, but it’s simply unkind. These are our colleagues, whom we elected to represent us. They advocate for us. They are anthropologists just like you and me, not power-hungry and corrupt politicians using their massive power as the EB of the AAA to…do what? Ask yourself this question. And refer to paragraph #2 of this post as you do so. Virginia Dominguez, for example, is someone who has often spoken about how nice it would be if more biological anthropologists and archaeologists were to attend the AAAs. She would like be part of a more unified discipline. In terms of scholarship, she focuses on strong and rich data with data-driven conclusions, and she likes numbers. Hardly the profile of someone who has it in for “scientific anthropologists” (as opposed to the rest of us who pull our data out of thin air?)

Related to all this, you might have noticed I don’t use the hashtag #AAAfail. There’s a reason. I think it’s a too-clever name for a complex but unnecessary situation, doesn’t effectively convey what actually happened, and is a bit rude. Also erases a point I think is important and have made before, that we are the AAA. Not the EB. They just represent us, because there’s too damn many of us and we opted for representative government.

Frank Marlowe, president-elect of the Evolutionary Anthropology Society, said in the NYT,

I really don’t see how or why anthropology should entail humanities. We evolutionary anthropologists are outnumbered by the new cultural or social anthropologists, many but not all of whom are postmodern, which seems to translate into antiscience.

Objection, your honor!The prosecution has no evidence to make that claim.

I leave you with a thought that has been bubbling up now and again in this debate, but I would like to reaffirm it now. Eric Wolf said, “anthropology is both the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences.”

Enough said.

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One Response to No Death Panels for Science! AAA Issues Clarification

  1. Pingback: Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding | Neuroanthropology

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