“STEM prejudice”: why biological anthropology and archaeology are more popular than cultural anthropology

This article is essentially a repost of a comment I gave to a question on a Reddit forum called r/askanthropology. I thought I pretty much hit the right points. This is the original question on the forum:

“Why does this sub lean so heavily towards physical anthropology subfields, and how can cultural and linguistic anthros get in on more of the action?

I’ve been contemplating this a lot. At my university, in 1964, the #1 requested new department by undergraduates was anthropology. Now, students have not idea what anthropology is, and if they do, it’s usually what I see in this thread — questions that assume primitiveness, looking into the past, etc.

I deeply value and appreciate archaeology, primatology, evolutionary, and all other biological or physical anthropologies. But cultural anthropology has, bar none, the best tools among the social sciences and humanities for understanding the world as we live in it today, and it seems that so many are missing out on this because of assumptions that cultural anthropologists only study “the primitive” — a concept that we almost entirely threw out decades ago! It’s like, in public perception, cultural anthro is still stuck in the 1970s.

It’s extra frustrating, because among most grad students and junior faculty I know across the social sciences, many are reading contemporary cultural and linguistic anthropology to make up for some of the shortfalls in their disciplines — I’ve met sociologists, education studies, geographers, political scientists, and historians who feel this way, and enjoy reading contemporary ethnography.

Some of it may also be other disciplines dumping on cultural anthro. I have heard folks from cultural studies, WGS, and sociology (of course) making very stereotyped tropes about the kinds of work we do, again reflecting that 1970s view of the discipline’s focus on the Other.

Part of this, I think, is the failure of the AAA and cult/ling anthros generally to do good outreach to the public. When our campus does a community outreach day, the cultural and ling anthros often don’t even bother to put up a table, because we don’t want to use racialized tropes to get across what we do. (And there’s understandable reluctance to have a presentation, on a fun day, that would run like “hey, this is what we understand about racisms, domination, subjectification, and social suffering and violence. Oh, and by the way, we understand in large part our complicity in the colonial endeavor, and here is how we’ve theoretically, and today, try to disassemble some of the structures and tropes we ourselves helped produce…”)

But surely there’s a better way to communicate our discipline in ways that excite or engage people. When students finally do “get” cultural anthropology, they’re often astounded and remain ‘anthropological thinkers’ for the rest of their lives.

But I wonder, how do we get out of this rut of misunderstanding and miscommuniciation? Cultural anthropology has changed my life profoundly and forever, and I wish I could better extend that to the public. Current public engagement projects are clearly failing. Apart from introducing anthropology as part of a standard high school curriculum, how do we get even those interested in anthropology — like those that come to this sub — to look beyond physical, and extend our concepts so that we can all understand the world we live in and ourselves in better and more interesting ways? I see more questions that are right in the wheelhouse of cultural and linguistic anthropology being asked over in the r/askhistorians sub than I do here…”

 

My response:

“I think the public has made an association of anthropology with biological anthropology and archaeology. Whenever I’m in a cab and someone asks me what I do and I say anthropology, they either want to talk about archaeology or human evolution. I think good outreach to the public might have something to do with it. As a cultural anthropologist I feel particularly strong about this and have noticed this in this subreddit.

I think its partially because, for better or worse, archaeology and biological anthropology have more “scientific prestige” and create more media-friendly stories about exciting discoveries of lost civilizations and ancient hominids. And to be fair, my interest in ancient Egypt and hominids was what led me to study anthropology in the first place, but I also had a burgeoning interest in world religions and cultures.

I think the public, for reasons that cannot be placed purely on anthropology (funding is severely lacking for cultural anthropology projects) is sometimes simply not interested in cultural anthropology. I think these reasons are largely cultural. Even interest in foreign “Others” seems to be waning next to interest in the “distant past”. In Western society, the “distant past” is a place of mysteries and semi-religious wonder- it’s interesting stuff! Learning about what fuels the conflicts in present day Myanmar or changing dynamics of tribal life in Papua New Guinea is, well, more esoteric to the average person. And I think they could be interested in these cultural anthropology matters, but I think a cultural shift has to occur. You mention other disciplines dumping on cultural anthropology- I think that plays a large part. There is a growing opinion, even among some anthropologists, that anthropology has moved too far from “science” and embraced things like postmodernism. Honestly, I have even experienced this kind of prejudice from archaeologists and biological anthropologists who simply don’t understand what we are doing.

One last note- anthropology has been moving away from study purely of the “primitive”. But non-Western societies are still one of the areas of expertise of cultural anthropologists, and it is unfortunate that more people don’t show an interest in specific cultures and societies that anthropologists specialize in. Melanesianists, Amazonianists, Africanists, etc. we all languish in obscurity now that people like Margaret Meade are no longer center stage in the minds of the American populous. Meade used to write popular news columns. Now the most famous people who write on cultural anthropology subjects, like Jared Diamond, aren’t even trained anthropologists and are actually biologists.

I think there is a larger cultural prejudice against the humanistic disciplines, “STEM prejudice”, and this translates into evaporating funding and a diminishing cultural prominence as public intellectuals. I also just think the public intellectuals of today (people like Steven Pinker, another neuroscientist who feels qualified to talk about anthropology) reflect the times we live in, when the world is no longer full of colonies and anthropology’s place as the prestigious experts on primitive societies no longer exists because we live in a more globalized world where the “Others” wear t-shirts and have cell phones. As you suggest, non-Western cultures no longer have as much of the “exoticism” that led the public to be attracted to cultural anthropology in the early 20th century. I think this has actually immensely helped anthropologists become more empathetic toward the cultures that they participate with, and the dreaded “postmodernism” can take a lot of credit in this regard. “

As an addition, I’d like to add that it also has to do with the continuing rationalization of society that Adorno described in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. You could also chock it up to Western logocentrism (a la Derrida).

 

 

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Skeptic Magazine’s beef with Sam Harris’ view on torture

Skeptic Magazine’s “Torture Doesn’t Work”

You would expect that an avowedly atheist magazine editor would have “hawkish” views on terrorism and torture like the current guru of the New Atheists, Sam Harris. However, in this video, Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer presents a morally courageous view on torture. My problem with the “New Atheists”, particularly Harris, have always been their conflation of their particular politics and with their notion of being heirs to the Enlightenment and their self-proclaimed rationalism. Nothing screams “Enlightenment” more than apologetics for the Iraq War, the biggest disaster and human rights violation of the 20th century, am I right?

Now, obviously Skeptic Magazine isn’t going to go full leftist and start calling out all the wars, incessantly saying why what the US is enabling (and doing) in Yemen is a violation of everything that makes us human. But at least they haven’t hit rock bottom and start making “Jack Bauer” analogies for why torture is a good thing. I think that combating pseudoscience and religious crackpots is a worthy goal, particularly in terms of calling out fundamentalism and its ties with the right-wing. That’s why I’m a huge fan of Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski, who frequently talks about the issue of right-wing fundamentalism in America.

The problem is you can’t divorce pure rationality from politics. Fundamentalism landed its biggest touchdown in the Bush administration, when “God” spoke to George W. on how there is a new “evil empire” and blind faith in American exceptionalism causes unheard-of carnage in the Middle East. It’s good to see that Skeptic Magazine is at least butting the status quo a little bit and isn’t doing non-stop Trump bashing at the expense of real issues. Now, I don’t read the magazine, they could be doing that, but at least this segment seems to disagree with that notion.

I have become more endeared to the idea that certain “superstitions” can lead to becoming detached from reality altogether. Belief in the paranormal is extremely high in the US while belief in our military is even higher. The two are correlated- both are ideological fantasies based on mistaken conceptions of reality. However, as Marx said a long time ago in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the critique of religion should evolve into the critique of political economy. The “skeptic” community has yet to evolve from necessarily 18th and 19th century polemics on rationality and Reason.

From Marx:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” 

Therefore, the criticism of religion still plays a valid role in being a precursor to the infinitely more important material critique of embodied practices, such as torture.

However, can we establish a critique of something like torture without a moral foundation? That moral foundation does not have to be religious, but science itself cannot offer it. One can use data to find out that torture does not work, but I prefer the interpretation of the Catholic Church, who in their recent doctrinal change on the death penalty, say it is “an affront to the fundamental dignity of the human being [sic]”. It is this basic moral reasoning that, a priori and not a posteriori, that seems to be lacking in our culture. Perhaps this is where Buddhist philosophy can step in to talk about the role of unlimited compassion as the highest possible ideal.

Here we enter the long-trodden philosophical terrain of moral philosophy and the sophomoric debates surrounding utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative. Perhaps we should not seek to establish a “true” a priori moral ultimate in the supremely Western fashion of searching for the correct “theory” or “origin”, but rather simply take certain rules, like “the fundamental dignity of the human being” as being a starting point, an assumption of our system. In fact, if we begin to question or “deconstruct” these values, it can lead to all sorts of reactionary critiques of “humanism”.

As an anthropologist, despite the diversity of moral systems in cultures and my belief in cultural relativity, I do not espouse moral relativism even if I fervently believe that emphasizing cultural relativity can lead to a positive moral outcome. That is because the moral is always the foundation of any anthropologist’s endeavors, whether they like it or not.

And that seems to be the problem. The debate rages on in anthropology about female genital mutilation, and the debate rages on in international relations about the value of military intervention. Facts are employed by sides of these moral debates, but no consensus is possible. There seems to be only way to reconcile these debates: a dialectical process of viewing the world in totality which takes account of the major historical dynamics of the past few centuries, namely colonialism, slavery, capitalism, and imperialism. The FGM debate is seen in a new light through this historical lens, as is the value of military intervention. The history of nations and their power games strangely makes many moral problems clearer and provides (I believe) strong answers to these “dilemmas” if seem in the correct historical framework which recognizes the overriding power of capitalism and imperialism in the modern world system. Torture can be seen in this light as well. However, one could argue that capitalism and imperialism itself is in violation of this “fundamental dignity of the human person”, and they would be correct.

That is why Sam Harris basically bugs me. His ignorance of history knows no bounds, as his debate with Noam Chomsky makes extremely evident (see my prior post on the subject: Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky: Moral Vectors in current politics. His arguments in favor of intervention ignore historical precedent, ignore the biggest catastrophes of his lifetime (Vietnam) and betray a quintessentially American “we can never be wrong” mentality. It is the inability to morally scrutinize one’s own country that seems to be a failing of many Americans, who overwhelmingly support their own military. Trust in the military is the highest of any American institution, despite the fact that its the one that is robbing us blind. As Jimmy Dore says, we are a nation of adult alcoholics who keep making excuses for our abusive relationship. We are most attached to those who exploit us the most. Our biggest moral failures (our foreign policy coupled with our domestic policy on poverty) lie in plain sight, so close that they become almost the “background” or “wall paper” from which everything else emerges.

Some people may feel powerless in the face of such extreme moral poverty of our leaders or our institutions. But I would argue an even larger group of people is simply ignorant. What would Buddha have to say about political ignorance? More on that in another post.

For now I will continue to point to the massive failures of our leaders in foreign policy and our moral bankruptcy:

Yemen: The Forgotten War

 

The psychology behind UFOs: why do we believe?

UFO Skeptic Psychology article

In the era of the Simulacrum, no one can tell what’s true anymore. We couldn’t even tell what was true with our own eyes before with the faulty nature of memory and perception, but now with digital editing, computer simulation, and enhanced visual techniques, telling a genuine from a hoax even in terms of a picture of a mundane object is becoming an increasingly difficult task.

So picture yourself walking down a country road at night, and you see something that looks like a flying saucer in the air. Are you more likely to lose your sense of focus and believe it is the real deal, or pay close attention to the fact that it may be some lights strung to a weather balloon by some merry pranksters?

Many may find the argument in the skeptic article condescending. The argument that we can’t trust our own eyes implies that we are all crazy or that what we see on an everyday basis can’t be discerned properly. However, things are compounded when it comes to UFOs. They are almost universally seen at night when visibility is low. Secondly, there are things in the air, such as meteors, comets, planes, helicopters, and flares, not to mention more exotic things such as stealth bombers and weather balloons, which may appear for a moment to be like a UFO.

The article makes the argument that something like a UFO is too good to be true. It plays too deeply into what we want to be true. People who saw a purposeful hoax when told it was a haox refused to believe it and instead made up pseudoscientific explanations.

However, as I stated in my article Physics and New Age pseudoscience- so what if time is relative?, there are legitimate philosophical takeaways from the new developments in physics that are then used by quacks and New Age devotees to justify their ideologies (and sell books). Are there, despite all the New Age hype surrounding UFOs and aliens, despite all the hoaxes and abduction memories caused by hallucinations, any evidence for extraterrestrial visitation?

My hypothesis is that if we can, as the article suggests, eliminate certain lines of “evidence” for UFOs as being inherently suspect, then we can create a typology of lines of evidence that hierarchizes which types are greater than others.

Here is my hypothesis for a ranking of this kind:

  1. Undeniable visitation: This would be as if aliens landed on the White House lawn and made first contact. This kind would not need to be substantiated because presumably there is “nothing to hide”
  2. Mass sighting involving mass media: This would be as if a flying saucer was hovering clearly over Los Angeles and stayed there during the day, inviting world wide press coverage. Presumably, there would be “nothing left to hide” here as well

Because these two have never happened, the only way UFO believers can justify the idea that sightings are real is that UFOs visit us “in secret”. They do not want to be found.

Why is this suspect on face value? Because if they are truly “in secret”, and have the technology to fly millions of light years to Earth, then presumably they would have the technology to never be seen by us. However, let’s continue with the typology.

3. Mass sightings involving multiple videos and pictures: These actually exist, although what is seen is always unproven and could always be some kind of military craft. The famous Phoenix lights appear to be lights on a giant craft, but could be some kind of strangely aligned flares. These are especially interesting before the advent of digital editing software.

4. Video evidence from a singular person: This kind of evidence is becoming increasingly suspect in and of itself. If it cannot be substantiated by independent people (and things can be still be staged by hoaxers), then odds are it is an elaborate (or increasingly, with digital technology, simple) hoax.

The simple logic goes like this. What is easier to believe, a single vast government conspiracy surrounding extraterrestrials (implying the outlandish existence of these beings), or a bunch of mini-hoaxes perpetrated by self-motivating individuals? More than likely, people get creative in their spare time with digital software these days.

Nevertheless, I have to confess that I do not have a definitive answer about whether I “believe” in UFOs or not. Much of it is of course fun speculation and hype, much like ghosthunting and other paranormal hobbies. Sometimes, it is not easy to tell between those who hunt for ghosts as a hobby and true believers, who are often New Age spiritualists. However, the jury is still out for me. I find that the skeptic article above makes a bad argument for the nonexistence of a “UFO cover-up” purely in terms of their rationale (I still don’t believe in one). Their argument goes that Edward Snowden released a huge amount of CIA files, but none of them pertained to UFOs. However, that was not his line of work, and hypothetically, if they wanted to cover it up, it would “Super Top Secret”, not for lowly workers like Snowden to hack and find. This just goes to show you that even the reasoning of hardened skeptics are not infallible. However, I find their argument about the fallibility of our perception especially interesting from a philosophical perspective. Perhaps those who long for something in the sky just yearn for something more fulfilling spiritually. As Carl Jung stated many years ago, perhaps UFOs are our collective projection of a wish for psychic wholeness. Jung’s theory to date is the most insightful on how modern spirituality intersects with the phenomenon of science fiction and UFOs.

That all being said, you still have to wonder…are they out there?