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"Savage Minds" - 2 new articles

  1. What I Like About Science
  2. Annual Highlights — 2010
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What I Like About Science

2010 saw some interesting articles lately calling into question some of the most basic assumptions regarding the scientific method. In March there was an article by Tom Siegfried which argued that “the ‘scientific method’ of testing hypotheses by statistical analysis stands on a flimsy foundation.” Of course, the problem may not be so much with the method, but with the application. Siegfried’s point is that

Even when performed correctly, statistical tests are widely misunderstood and frequently misinterpreted. As a result, countless conclusions in the scientific literature are erroneous, and tests of medical dangers or treatments are often contradictory and confusing.

I’m no statistician, so I’ll let the more mathematically literate evaluate the claims in that article. I link to it because it resonates with what my former roommate (and frequent commentator on Savage Minds) once told me. He said that biological anthropologists frequently misunderstand the results of computer programs which produce genetic trees because they don’t properly grasp the underlying math. Some people argue that a similar problem nearly brought down the world economy.

Even when the science is done right, there are some serious problems that need to be addressed. When research isn’t published in fake peer review journals or ghost written by pharmaceutical companies, there are still inherent biases against publishing “negative results.” And even when everything is done right, strong empirical results are often impossible to replicate:

But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain. It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable.

But as the title should make clear, I link to these results not to debunk science but to praise it. Michael Bérubé has an intriguing review of the “science wars” in which he argues that both scientists and their critics have a shared interest in trying to move beyond the impasse of the nineties in order to face the twin threats of those who deny evolution (for religious reasons) and those who deny global warming (for economic reasons):

Fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the Sokal Hoax was making that kind of deal impossible, deepening the “two cultures” divide and further estranging humanists from scientists. Now, I think it may have helped set the terms for an eventual rapprochement, leading both humanists and scientists to realize that the shared enemies of their enterprises are the religious fundamentalists who reject all knowledge that challenges their faith and the free-market fundamentalists whose policies will surely scorch the earth. On my side, perhaps humanists are beginning to realize that there is a project even more vital than that of the relentless critique of everything existing, a project to which they can contribute as much as any scientist–the project of making the world a more humane and livable place.

I sincerely hope that this is the case. What I like about science is that it is not afraid to ask tough questions. There is no reason to think that the scientific method can’t learn from all of the problems listed above and find ways to make scientific results even more robust than they were before. But I don’t think that science can do this on its own. These are also political problems, social problems, institutional problems, psychological problems, etc. and to find ways to make science better scientists will need to work together with anthropologists and others to find ways to overcome these problems. (See James Clifford’s talk on “The Greater Humanities.”) I like science because I think scientists understand this in the same way that the best economists understand that economics alone isn’t enough to solve economic problems.



Annual Highlights — 2010

Welcome to Savage Minds’ 2010 recap! Last year was one rife with kerfluffles, rows, skirmishes, fails, lulz, and the occasional facepalm. Let’s get to it! The top ten posts of the year are in bold.

In 2010 we offered an anthropological spin on the United States’ ongoing wars. There was the Concerned Anthropologists’ letter to Washington over the Human Terrain System. HTS was criticized as bad social science compounded with poor battlefield tactics. The value and authority of WikiLeaks’ documents was debated. We considered how Afghani people and their culture is represented in the mainstream media in the U.S. and the visibility of war in U.S. popular culture. Connections were drawn between the wars and domestic conflicts as predicated on a willful ignorance of Islam, something anthropology seems well positioned to ameliorate.

American politics and celebrity pundits were also a topic of conversation at SM. David Brooks was taken to task after the Haiti earthquake for pinning that country’s underdevelopment on cultural lack. The future of right/left politics in the contemporary global capitalist scene was considered via “neosocialism,” even the Conservative Wahoo made an appearance on the comments board. Arizona’a anti-immigrant laws were re-contextualized in terms of whiteness and a general sense of pervasive xenophobia in the U.S. The never ending story of science vs. religion took a new turn as atheists used hair dryers to de-baptize each other. And lovable scamp, Glenn Beck, took a stab at amateur archaeology.

Of course what would an academic blog be without a little Ivory Tower naval-gazing and in-fighting? Ckelty blogged about conflict between departments and administration in UC Berkeley, scientific misconduct and the case of Marc Hauser, and the implosion of Rice University Press. Rex suggested that being an alum from a top program was not a silver bullet to professional success and reviewed The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy by Paul Shankman. ‘Round conference time some advice was offered for making the most of the AAA’s (the topic of leaving drunken emails after carousing with colleagues was curiously left untouched). As a former employee of xkcd’s alma mater it was fun to see this cartoon on university websites make an appearance.

SM also a ran a few posts on navigating the trials of grad school and professional anthropology. Kerim reflected on shifting his research away from a focus on Taiwan, despite the fact that he had taken a job in Taiwan in order to do research there. Then there was a two-part series on good work practices. The first bit of advice, an article a day, offered a deceptively ambitious way to add depth and breadth to your repertoire. This he generalized in the second piece as work smarter, not harder and develop a daily routine. To get through your dissertation “Don’t break the chain” and be consistent, doing a little bit of work every day. The value of Qualitative Data Analysis software was held up to scrutiny too.

The year 2010 was one marked by disciplinary soul-searching: What is anthropology, What do anthropologists do? Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket? Meanwhile here at SM, we opened debate on what unresolved questions might anthropologists seek to pursue. We probed the nature of culture’s compulsion as something “you can’t choose.” Things were put in perspective with a time line history of anthropology. Kerim wrestled with theory as a force that gives us meaning (his hip was wrenched and he limped for days), while Rex related a true story of theory as a source of stress. And December would have been a dull month without #AAAfail. Rex championed anthropology as true, even if not a science, (the #3 most read post of the year) and suggested ethnography as a remedy to finding the place of science in the discipline.

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen David Harvey speak on the contemporary global economic crisis while his ideas are illustrated on a whiteboard! Also on the subject of political economy, a handy link and extended quote on the anthropology of money. And more here on American consumerism and masculinity.

Being that we lived through the science fiction sounding year of 2010 without making contact with an alien obelisk it is still worth nothing the extent to which digital technology, social media, blogging, and teh Interwebs made their ways into our posts. Adam republished a Twitter conversation as Remix Culture is a Myth and quoted Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, as comparing Facebook to a potlatch. The iPad was reviewed and the possibility of revolutionary changes to the publishing industry were considered. It already seems that PDF’s are to dead tree publications what MP3′s have become to recorded music. Savage Minds got props in American Anthropologist, which pinned us as a kind of public anthropology. SM needed a new assistant editor and, indeed, it turned out to me, the guy who writes the “weekly” Around the Web column which appears once a month or so. Some folks paid $10 to hear Ckelty deliver his thoughts on blogging, but SM readers got the same stuff for free. So everyone please be sure to Paypal him, okay?

Somewhere between blogging and public anthropology lies journalism. SM offered two takes on this: what’s wrong with anthropology that there is no journalism about it, and, there’s so much wrong with journalism why would anthropology want to go there. At least we don’t have to worry about being fair and balanced crap now that we’re all in for complicity with our subjects.

SM brought its readers some compelling personalities too. There was a review of the anti-Jared Diamond book Questioning Collapse. Adam did a series on corporate anthropology including this interview with a self-proclaimed entrepreneur theorist and another interview, with IBM’s in-house anthropologist.

In 2010 some of the best posts on Savage Minds were original, ethnographic works or reports from the field: whether its calling on the SM community for help in interpreting ‘Life at the Googleplex’ or connecting classic anthropological theories like food taboos with problems of modern life like food allergies. Michael Powell wrote on consumerism and the movements of shoppers as they navigate contrived retail spaces. Guest blogger, Ashley Mears, discussed her work in the modeling and fashion industries (the #2 post on the year).

In the year’s most widely read post, archaeologist Bradley Garrett spoke with Adam on urban exploration and Place Hacking.

Thanks to all our readers for a great year of conversation. If you’ve never left a comment on a post, make it your New Year’s resolution. Our community is richer for your contribution.


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