Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bias In Anthropology

I have just finished War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley (there will be a post on that later today), who accuses any number of anthropologists of misreading the data in accordance with their philosophical biases.  I mention again, this level of scathe occurs more frequently than I expected among anthropologists.

(I mentioned this to my brother who assured me that the average faculty meeting does not even rise to that level of discussing academic topics, even poorly and viciously. That would be a relief.)

Yet I should expect it. In the physical sciences, in math or in much of engineering, the implications for how we should live are usually remote.  People might have something personal tied up in whether the ideas they have been announcing have turned out to be true or their career has been largely wasted, but that it is largely pride. The answers don't greatly impact how one should vote, or whether to have children, or how much responsibility we have to others.  At most, they have some philosophical or theological implications, which in turn might influence whether one believes in a god, and what kind.  But even this is usually oversold, raising no new questions but merely asking the old ones in more complicated ways.

Perhaps physicists and the occasional mathematician gets overexcited by this and just have to write a book on the topic because they feel left out.  All the biologists and sociologists get to play with the fun questions, why not us?

Climate and nutrition become political topics because they involve themselves with the questions of how people are supposed to live.  It quickly becomes apparent that the disputants are not merely arguing data, they are contending for one side or the other in the grand questions of what Society is supposed to do, or what Humankind is all about.

We used to have a lot more of that in mental health.  The long reign of the Freudians and their cousins was coming to an end, replaced by what was then sneeringly called the Medical Model, which was armed with medications which actually did relieve the symptoms of some people. It now appears that an entire century's trend in psychology grew up mostly because intellectuals in Europe, then America, wanted desperately to believe that it was all about secret sexual desires. Which is much more fun to talk about than receptors, eh?

That wasn't the work of a few psychiatrists, BTW.  That idea became dominant because people wanted it to. The culture wanted something like that, and so it was given to them.  This involved ignoring what was already known, and setting human understanding back by decades, but what is that, compared to being a Kinsey, hailed as a scientist while sponsoring the molestation of children, and giving your own sexual practices cultural justification?


james said...

Is the Keeley book related to the BBC story? I hadn't tracked down the Finnish report, but BBC's summary sounded like "before people assembled in large groups they didn't have wars, just fights between small groups." Or something like that.

Subjects like cold fusion aside, the physicists I've hung around with have generally used fairly polite language when warning of recto-crainial insertions. Or muted their end of the conference call and laughed. "Nonsense" is usually the worst.

I think you're right--these arguments are career-level stuff, but they have no implications for how we ought to live our lives (or compel our neighbors to live theirs).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The BBC story is a perfect lead in for my post. Thanks.

Sam L. said...

I've read comments that the fiercest faculty/academic battles are fought over some of the smallest things.

And Freud must have been highly obsessed with sex. (Most all of us are greatly interested, but not obsessed, or so we think.)

james said...

Parkinson's Law chapter 3 is a classic on the fighting of fierce battles over small stakes.