"Rice positivists" vs. "contextualized popular epistemologies"

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In discussing yesterday's post on the American Anthropological Association's removal of (the word) science from its long-range plan, several commenters were puzzled or skeptical about the foundations of the debate. One wrote:

The depiction of the different sides – both in the NYT article, the earlier Higher Ed article, and by many of the proponents – strike me as utter nonsense. Despite working in the field, I've yet to meet one of these anti-science cultural anthropologists.

And another wrote:

I can't quite grasp an academic yet non-scientific way to study these things.

It may help to recognize that the "anti-science cultural anthropologists" have traditionally framed their views as an opposition to "positivism".

In fact, this discussion has been going on since before anthropology existed as an academic discipline, with "positivist" becoming a term of opprobrium early on. J.S. Mill wrote in "Auguste Comte and Positivism" (1865):

[T]hough the mode of thought expressed by the terms Positive and Positivism is widely spread, the words themselves are, as usual, better known through the enemies of that mode of thinking than through its friends; and more than one thinker who never called himself or his opinions by those appellations, and carefully guarded himself against being confounded with those who did, finds himself, sometimes to his displeasure, though generally by a tolerably correct instinct, classed with Positivists, and assailed as a Positivist.

It's easy to find social scientists who identify themselves frankly as anti-positivists, from Marx to Habermas.

For the contemporary critique of positivism in anthropology, see e.g. Paul B. Roscoe, "The perils of positivism in Cultural Anthropology", American Anthropologist 1995:

OVER THE LAST TWO decades, a widespread conviction seems to have emerged that positivism is an intellectual conceit cultural anthropology can no longer afford. The target of relentlessly withering commentary, its program has focused the fire of disciplinary disenchantment with the post-Enlightenment project, and its perceived failings have provided a rallying point around which the identities of interpretive, deconstructive, and postmodern movements have formed. [...]

The core of anthropology's image of positivism is what sometimes is called the "received model" of natural science: a set of philosophical or epistemological conceptions about the nature of the universe, the place of humans in it, and the specific (scientific) means by which "objective" or "true" knowledge of it is, or can be, generated. This positivistic model is said to predicate the existence of an "objective" reality independent of human perception and interpretation; it asserts the ability of humans to perceive, via the sensory organs, cognitively and linguistically unmediated aspects of this reality (facts); and it aims to construct a "perfectly impersonal or objective," "value-free," cognitive representation (or "mental map") of reality as a whole (theories).

The critique is taken further in Murray Wax, "On Negating Positivism: An Anthropological Dialectic", American Anthropologist, 1997. His abstract:

Continuing a discussion initiated by Paul Roscoe in the pages of this journal, this essay situates positivism as a social and philosophic movement adversarily responding to the "negative dialectic" of 18th- and 19th-century critical philosophy. Notably, positivistic ideologies and practices have been manifest in cultural anthropology, linguistic analysis without "meaning," and "the new archaeology." Because funding agencies have accepted the positivistic claim that it embodies "the scientific method," interpretivists and other dissidents have had to become "rice positivists," while graduate programs have required that research be fitted into a scenario of "hypothesis testing" of "theoretical problems."

In the body of the paper, Wax explains what he means by "rice positivist":

… it is hermeneutics or interpretivism that has replaced critical theory as the adversary of positivism in the late 20th century.

Despite the ideological fervor, it is not immediately evident who is doing what in actual practice [...] What does remain troublesome is the normative quality of the positivistic ethos that dominates the major agencies funding anthropological inquiry. Since researchers need funding, they are driven to adopt the rhetoric and mindset of the dispensers. (In missionary discourse, they become "rice positivists.") "Applicants" (supplicants) are confronted with schedules whose headings conjure a fictive future of positivistic research: background (theories), problem, hypotheses, methods, measurements, data analysis, conclusions—in sum, the ideological rhetoric of natural science research within the positivistic mode. For natural scientists, the rhetoric is a convenient game its veterans can work retrospectively, offering to study the problems they have already resolved. But for anthropological fieldworkers, the application schedule can become an exercise in fantasy and falsification.

Leaving aside the question of whether there can be any objective reality independent of human perception and interpretion, as of 1997 Wax saw the positivists as dominating his field methodologically through a system of "Lordship and Bondage in Funding Agencies":

Positivism presents itself as the apostle of the scientific method; there can be no other possible strategy or method of investigation. Not too long ago, the anthropological representative to the National Science Foundation announced that she was using the influence and resources of her position in order to make anthropologists more scientific in their work. A similar hortatory phrasing has long distinguished one of the American Association for the Advancement of Science prizes.

He felt that the same positivist hegemonism characterized the field's publication outlets:

Professional refereed journals have been following the same path. By their criteria, an essay in cultural anthropology (or social science) was supposed to mimic the presumed style of articles in the journals of natural science: theory, problem, hypotheses, methods, data, analysis, conclusion.

(As an outsider reading the social science literature in the mid-90s, I perceived a different reality, but whatever…)

He notes — and applauds — the existence of widespread and deeply-felt anti-positivist feelings:

When funding agencies so utilize their powers as to impose a particular paradigm of anthropological investigation, and when applicants dissent from the paradigm and believe their efforts are being misdirected and possibly even impressed within an unethical mode, then there is likely to be a vehement rejection.

And he suggests that this reaction was winning some battles within the field:

The recent transformation in form and content of the American Anthropologist has elicited some irate responses. From the tenor of their letters to the Anthropology Newsletter, I would identify the critics as imbued with the positivist ethos. For them, the transformation was not an informed choice among alternatives each worthy of consideration; it was a betrayal of the scientific status of anthropology.

Thirteen years later, in its most recent issue, the American Anthropologist has published an interesting discussion under the title “In Focus: (Not) The End of Anthropology, Again? Some Thoughts on Disciplinary Futures”. As an outsider, my impression from reading this discussion is that the battle described by Roscoe and Wax is over. The "anti-positivists" have essentially exterminated their enemies within socio-cultural anthropology (though perhaps not within the funding agencies), and are now concerned with other issues, as discussed by Andre Gingrich in his contribution "Transitions: Notes on Sociocultural Anthropology's Present and Its Transnational Potential":

[P]hilosophy has lost its former hegemony as a metascience of sciences. There is no need for anthropologists to go shopping in the next philosophical supermarket. Instead, we could continue to try out these fragments of philosophical epistemologies that we have already acquired, after putting them into shape for own purposes, to see how they work in our anthropological practice. [...]

In the process, we will sooner or later notice that all these diverse philosophical fragments in anthropology's current epistemological activities have one common denominator: they are all derived from a common Euro-American epistemological legacy, as several authors have pointed out (see, e.g., Godelier 2009; Jain 1977). It will also be important to move beyond that legacy as an exclusive source of epistemological inspiration, while anthropology develops further into its transnational era. We all know that there are also other epistemological legacies, whether they are Indian, African, Buddhist, or indigenous (Gingrich 2009).

So, in addition to reinforcing our epistemological and practical resistance against "unequal interdisciplinary exchange relations" across national boundaries, moving beyond the narrow boundaries of Euro-American epistemological legacies represents a second major task for the next phases of sociocultural anthropology's complicated transition process. Breaking up and leaving behind the enduring Euro-American epistemological monopoly in our field certainly is a task of transnational and global dimensions—and perhaps the most important one of all. Among other exciting sources of inspiration, such as the philosophical legacies of Asia or Africa, this may in fact also imply a thorough reconsideration of sociocultural anthropology's own, vastly rich fieldwork records. They certainly include a multitude of contextualized popular epistemologies that emerged outside of, and against, the monopoly of Euro-American reasoning.

I conclude — again as an outsider — that the current argument within the American Anthropological Association pits the socio-cultural anthropologists and their project to "break up and leave behind the enduring Euro-American epistemological monopoly", which presumably includes all of "science" whether "positivist" or not, against the various other species of anthropologist (archeologists, biologists, and so on) who are somewhat more reluctant to move beyond these "narrow boundaries".

[Update -- For a rational (and funny) perspective on intra-disciplinary arguments about the philosophy of rational investigation, see Geoffrey Pullum's 1983 essay "The revenge of the methodological moaners". A similar idea, I think, was behind something that I heard Jim McCawley say on several occasions: "When a linguist starts talking about the philosophy of science, you should put your hand on your wallet."]



  1. Rodger C said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    I'll be the fool who jumps in first on this.

    "We all know that there are also other epistemological legacies, whether they are Indian, African, Buddhist, or indigenous." Surely there are also a great many other European epistemological legacies to choose from? Please, sir, may I suggest phenomenology and hermeneutics?

    [(myl) Anthropologists have been exploring phenomenology and hermeneutics for at least half a century.]

    Anyhow, when I hear talk of African etc. thought, my essentialist bullsh*t detector goes off. Have these folks read Wiredu on this topic? They should, though his philosophical views are very different from mine.

    And what disjunctive distinction is being made between Indian and Buddhist, or between African and indigenous? Anyhow, aren't all epistemologies indigenous to the places they're indigenous to?

    [(myl) My impression is that indigenous, in this literature, is used to mean something like "from a pre-industrial society", or "non-Euro-American", or just "other". The idea seems to be that in any situation likely to be the object of anthropological study, "we" (the observers) are (perhaps colonial) outsiders, and "they" (the observed) are the indigenes.]

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » “Rice positivists” vs. “contextualized popular epistemologies” [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    [...] Language Log » “Rice positivists” vs. “contextualized popular epistemologies” languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2838 – view page – cached December 12, 2010 @ 1:06 pm · Filed by Mark Liberman under Language and [...]

  3. Qov said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    So the positivist "scientific" side argues that they are dispassionately recording cultures while the others are being unscientific, while the anti-positivists acknowledge that it is impossible to be truly objective in observing human behaviour, so they discard the pretense and get in there to work with the people, trying to improve their treatment as human beings, rather than just compiling data on them.

    Do I have that correct?

    Like many things that have "science" on one side and something else on the other, it seems like a dichotomy that should be complementary rather than adversarial. I guess the issue is, as always, competition for funding.

  4. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    Speaking of epistemological legacies, it strikes me as though a lot of the anti-positivist flak is aimed at anthropology as practiced a couple of generations ago by Bronislaw Malinowski and Margret Meade, for example, or by missionaries who doubled in anthropology. Contrast them with Jared Diamond, who manages to combine frank admiration for societies of the New Guinea highlands with reasonably rigorous objective analysis of cultural and environmental aspects of human existence. I don't think that current anthropology has much to apologize for.

    I'm just a spectator here, so there may well be subtleties of which I'm unaware.

  5. John Cowan said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

    Mead certainly admired at least some of the cultures she dealt with.

  6. JS Bangs said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    The impression I get from this discussion is that positivist/anti-positivist is roughly the anthropological equivalent of descriptivist/prescriptivist, except that what is being prescribed is (roughly speaking) progressive multiculturalism. And the prescriptivists seem to have won.

  7. TGGP said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    A lot of cultural anthropologists have issues with Jared Diamond:

    In response to that old hubub I got Robert Lindsay to offer an insider's defense of cultural anthropology (assuredly not who they would designate as a spokeman), but that was on his old blog which google removed.

  8. Christian Andersen said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

    At the risk of starting something bad, I'll venture that socio-cultural anthropologists really need to find some better arguments to justify their research funding if they want to turn their backs on "science" and "positivism".

    I am not all surprised that the fund agencies are reluctant to dole out grants to people who refuse to acknowledge science. The talk of imposing a certain "paradigm of anthropological investigation" simply reeks of philosophical relativism. Arguing for things like "indigenous epistemologies" (whatever that is) as a replacement for "Euro-American epistemology" has always seemed to me to be rather weird. Why do some of these educated people think that science is so bad and useless?

    The reality is that the chances of striking upon something true in an ever-increasingly complex world become smaller by the day; without a self-correcting search mechanism and a general and interdisciplinary framework of solid theories on which to build your claims, finding new truths is not likely.

    I am not to say that it cannot happen, though the fact that, to a large extent, even (analytic) philosophy has recognized science as an important source of inspiration indicates the beginning of the end of non-scientific investigations.

    In concord with what Dan Lufkin has said in a comment above, I find the sort of cultural anthropology practiced by Jared Diamond and the like to be extraordinarily respectable and as serious a competitor for funding as any subject.

    I apologize for any blatant ignorance of important details that might not have made it into this comment.

  9. Anthropology, Science, and Public Understanding | Neuroanthropology said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    [...] Mark Liberman, Language Log: "Rice Positivists" vs. "Contextualized Popular Epistemologies" [...]

  10. Dominik Lukes said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    I think the word that has (for many) replaced positivism as the primary threat to empirical and conceptual integrity in the humanities is 'scientism' represented by one side of the fall out of the 'Sokal Hoax' and promulgated by many in the subsequent attack on the Social Sciences (e.g. EO Wilson's 'Consilience') as simply not being as rigorous as the natural sciences. Scientism in the broad sense is a refusal to admit the legitimacy of any other kind of situated knowledge but in the narrow and more pernicious sense it is the conviction that only a very specific set of investigative techniques can be admitted as legitimate knowledge.

    This is also at the heart of linguistics' own divide (often being played out to the fullest outside linguistics proper in philosophy of language and cognitive sciences). Chomsky's pronouncements on his own framework and that of others have a distinctly scientist (positivist) tinge to them.

    The problem with 'scientism' is that it seems to take any potential slight against its supremacy very personally. See Fodor's pronouncement on relativism repeated with glee by Pinker even as he goes to completely misrepresent the position of cultural anthropology. Not that there aren't excesses on the other side of this debate (e.g. Stanley Fish) but the proponents of 'scientism' appear to be more willful at ignoring empirical evidence that doesn't fit their world view (see Feyerabend for examples).

    I think this blog is the perfect example of a balance between the two extremes. Fastidious in its insistence on empirical evidence, yet not constrained by a particular set of techniques.

    [(myl) For an entertaining discussion of the role of scientism in linguistic argumentation, see Geoffrey Pullum "The revenge of the methodological moaners", 1983.]

  11. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    @Bangs: I’d be careful in drawing that connection . “Prescriptivism” is a label of disapproval, and it could just as easily be applied to the other side by a wise rhetorician; say, by claiming the positivists/scientismists/whateverists are “prescribing” a single method to arrive at the “correct” truth, while in fact truth is multiple etc etc.

  12. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    It would seem there is little coincidence that all this reminds me of the debates we used to have about the role of theory in literary criticism.

    The anti-positivists may or may not be generating anything of value (I am not qualified to say) but at least it seems they're being up front about what they are and are not up to.

  13. Henning Makholm said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    What is particularly confusing here is that the ostensible ideals of both camps seem (to me) to be quite opposite to the conclusions they draw from them.

    On one side, if you're an honest cultural relativist, you ought to think that naturally every researcher will see the world in ways that are compatible with what their intellectual and cultural predispositions. This is not only inevitable, it is the best possible because it is axiomatically impossible to be objective. Furthermore, the cultural relativist would realize that funding agencies are not, and cannot possibly be, objective disinterested umpires. Each source of funding for researchers is rooted in particular cultural, politicial and economic interests, and that is as it should be because it cannot possibly be otherwise. If an American funding body pays someone to study social dynamics of rural East African communities, it does that not in order to find the objective truth about East Africa (because that is impossible anyway) — it does it to get an account of East Africa that makes sense from an American perspective, in the hope that the insights that result from the study can help Americans steer the American society in a desirable direction, or guide American policy towards Africa, or whatever. And it should be neither surprising nor lamentable that the funding agency attempts to direct its resources towards applicants that will deliver that.

    On the other hand, if you think that there is an objective, universal truth to be found about some phenomenon, which is valid for all people at all times, and that it is the Grand Purpose of Science to uncover or at least approximate it, then you should want to have the phenomenon approached from as many different paradigms and epistemologies as you can get your hands on, in the hope that out of these various understanding, an understanding of the underlying universal truth may eventually be synthesized.

    But in real life it works out exactly opposite to that. The anti-positivists, who say that human understanding cannot possibly, even in principle, be value-neutral, argue that we should try to make it so anyway, by including lots of viewpoints and hope it all evens out. Meanwhile, scientism, which assumes the existence of a universal truth, is nevertheless satisfied with finding understandings that make sense in its own particular cultural context.

    Does nobody else find this ironic?

  14. Michael Johnson said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 7:16 pm

    @Henning Makholm

    I'd think that people who think that there are objective facts regarding certain domains and that we can discover them also think that there are objective facts about which methodologies ("epistemologies") eventuate in such discovery and further that we can discover these latter objective facts. I'm such a person.

    For instance, if I want to resolve a medical question, I'd turn to systematic metanalyses of double-blind randomized controlled trials, because I think there's oodles of evidence that they work, and I'd ignore anyone who thought we should also investigate what witch-doctors thought about the subject, because that's the "epistemology" of indigenous people X.

    Maybe I'm confused about what is meant by "epistemology" here (that's why it's been in scare quotes), but I honestly can't fathom an approach opposed to "scientism". If indigenous people X think that the proper method of resolving a question is to consult their origin myths, and their origin myths say that all ills bestowed upon man are the wrath of the gods, would a "relativist" cultural anthropologist cease to advocate change in the political and economic systems that oppress these indigenous peoples, because this equally valid "epistemology" says that political and economic systems are irrelevant? I'd hope not: there's an objective fact of the matter about why these people are not well off and there's an objective fact of the matter about what to do about it.

  15. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 7:20 pm

    Maybe I'm guilty of singling out a minor facet of the anti-positivists' viewpoint, but I have trouble understanding how anybody can possibly believe that there isn't an objectively existing external natural world, which has the properties that it has regardless of one's opinion. (I would even go a bit further and say that we directly observe this external world.)

    The idea that there's no objective external reality seems like a pose, something that one purports to believe in a classroom, but does not (and cannot) practically believe in everyday life.

    I don't wish to appear too glib, because I'm sure there is a large and multilayered debate within anthropology, consisting of lots of subtle questions. But I really wish that people, when they want to make the point that there are voices and perspectives who have been unfairly unheard, would refrain from over-the-top pronouncements about there being no objective reality.

  16. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

    Didn't Samuel Johnson refute Bishop Berkeley's doctrine that everything is actually insubstantial by kicking a stone?

    It's very hard to construct a serious theory of reality that permits the simultaneous existence of color TV and ghosts. Yet here we are in a society that often gives equal deference to Ayurvedic medicine and molecular biochemistry.

  17. aqilluqqaaq said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    Many linguists have a rather uncertain grasp of philosophy. (GKP)

    Say it ain’t so!

  18. Margaret L said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

    Michael Johnson @ 7:16,

    Bravo, sir.

  19. Rodger C said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

    @Skullturf: Can you define "objective" non-circularly? As for "natural" and "reality," I grew up speaking a form of English which contained neither of them in the required sense. At any rate, the word "natural" seems redundant in the sentence. And what are these entities posited to be "external" to, again in a way that avoids circularity?

    @Dan Lufkin: "It's very hard to construct a serious theory of reality that permits the simultaneous existence of color TV and ghosts." I don't understand this assertion at all. It reminds me of Bultmann's "It is impossible to turn on an electric light and believe in the resurrection of Christ"–a statement only about the speaker, not about anything, um, external.

  20. Tom said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    To Christian and others:

    I think you're missing the point. Anthropologists who speak of the limits of positivism don't necessarily believe that science is always "bad" or that it has no uses. Yes, they do often point to the ways scientists have often (especially in the past) have used the discourses of objectivity to push ideas that are fundamentally ideological (claims that modern science has been better but not perfect at keeping away from — as long as we're talking about what appears in scholarly journals; once it hits the popular press, it's as bad as it's ever been). But there's a more fundamental matter at stake, which is that there are questions worth asking that can't be answered in positivist terms — questions that aren't reducible to claims of truth but rather to claims of interpretation. The question "What is the social function of X ritual?" has no objective answer somewhere out there that we just have to dig around and find. To say there's no "right" answer, doesn't mean anything goes: such anthropologists still assemble evidence. Some but not all of that evidence is governed by questions of truth or falsehood, but the answers it works toward can't be proved true or false, not because the data isn't there, but because that's not the right question. Is Stanley Cavell's reading of King Lear not valuable because it can't be proved?

    As the marked up statement at http://www.unl.edu/rhames/AAA/AAA-LRP.pdf shows, the changes, rather than marginalizing "scientific" factions of the AAA (as the press insists on reporting), insist on defining the discipline inclusively ("This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research"), which is something the statement didn't do when it began by defining the discipline as a science ("Anthropology is the science that studies…").

  21. Sivi_Volk said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

    I might be stepping into a minefield too, but who the hell is still a positivist in science? I thought Karl Popper killed it, and we're all good falsificationists now?

    The "cultural anthropologists" seem to have this weird idea that science is so 19th Century and hasn't moved on at all.

    That being said. I think there's some confusion here between epistemologies which are culturally valid and relevant, which may not necessarily be good tools for discovering an approximation of the ways things physically are. I also dislike this idea of science as being exclusively European – Europe has it's own epistemological systems, and while science grew out of them, as a tool for knowing it works for everyone, regardless of context.

  22. Dan T. said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

    It seems largely to be yet another variety of leftist PC claptrap, holding that such things as science and rationality and objective reality are inherently racist and sexist and need to be dumped in favor of, I guess, the wisdom of witch doctors.

  23. Tom said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    Dan, how much familiarity do you have with the work of interpretive anthropologists? Your dismissal reads like standard-issue anti-intellectualism. Sit down and read, say, Clifford Geertz some time.

  24. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

    @ Rodger C: Rocks and trees and mackerels and volcanoes are really there, and are not figments of our imagination. That's all I mean. You believe it too. Everyone does. And I would listen to postmodernists and relativists a bit more if they wouldn't phrase their arguments in a way that could be taken as saying physical reality doesn't exist.

  25. MJ said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

    @Skullturf For an accessible defense of metaphysical realism, which covers many angles of the antirealist position, and so is a good way into why philosophers take antirealism seriously, see Michael Devitt, _Realism and Truth_. Galen Strawson is good on this front as well– see _The Secret Connexion_.

  26. Mark F. said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    Tom -
    I really don't understand what it means for a question to be worth asking but not reducible to claims of truth. Take the example you give, about the social function of a ritual in a culture. Why is that not reducible to claims of truth? The ritual may have a different meaning to every member of the culture, with its very existence the culmination of numerous accidents of history that will never be reconstructed. But if so, then that's one true fact about the ritual, and you could try to find what it means to some of the people, and what some of the accidents of history are. Those are all questions with answers.

    If you are dealing with a question that has no objective answer, how do you address it at all?

    I get the sense of a defense against epistemic overconfidence that has been allowed to run rampant. If people aren't even trying to search for truth, then I'm not interested.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 12:12 am

    @Rodger C.: A Navajo woman once told me that indigenous means closely connected to the land. In my paraphrase, an indigenous culture is one that would have to change drastically if it moved somewhere else. On the other hand, I'm going to travel 1500 miles in a few days, and I'll do about the same things there that I do here.

    For another look at how objective truth might not exist, this woman said that indigenous cultures recognize that what's true for one culture may not be for another. (Is that an objective fact?) Vine Deloria, Jr., gives an example in one of his books, probably Red Earth, White Lies (The only other one I've read is God is Red. As I recall, he notes that people with a scientific worldview say that different systems of medicine can't work because different tribes ascribe different powers to the same herb or whatever. However, every indigenous person knows the answer to that: the healing powers come from the herb's kinship relations, which are different in different cultures. I don't recall that he commented on how an outsider would tell whether the herb really is efficacious within the culture.

  28. Michael Johnson said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 12:20 am


    I find it surprising that you direct Mr. Beavispants to Michael Devitt. I'll admit, I haven't yet read Devitt's work on realism, but I poked around online and found this:


    Here, professor Liu presents Devitt's "argument for commonsense realism" as follows:

    1. Anti-realists, Kant, and Constructivists (Putnam, Goodman, and Kuhn) appeal to epistemological skepticism in arguing against commonsense realism.
    2. But over a few years of living, people come to the conclusion that there are stones, trees, cats, and the like, existing independently of us.
    3. Therefore the realists' conviction is much more firmly based than anti-realists' epistemological speculations.
    4. Therefore, rather than using epistemological speculations as evidence against realism, we should use realism as evidence against epistemological speculations.

    Now, I don't know if that's the correct interpretation of Devitt– as I said, I haven't read his book. But IF it is, then I don't see how directing Mr. Beavispants to it would help him: that's the argument he's already made: he says that everyone believes that mackerels and volcanoes are real, and this is evidence against the anti-realist.

    I do think it might help if you stated a reason why philosophers took anti-realism seriously, and why this might justify epistemological relativism, instead of just pointing to books which aren't accessible to everyone in this discussion (myself included).

    [Apologies if Beavispants is a Ms. and not a Mr.]

  29. JG said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 1:53 am

    However, every indigenous person knows the answer to that: the healing powers come from the herb's kinship relations, which are different in different cultures.

    Yep…and there are many words applied to such reasoning by many different cultures, although my native expression beginning with "b" and ending with "t" seems to suffice.

    I'm vividly reminded of the Korean protests against U.S. beef, based upon utter lies about he threat of mad cow disease. Many people I know justified their worry by arguing that Koreans could be vastly more susceptible that other races, despite a total lack of support from evidence-based epistemological narratives.

  30. Christopher said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 3:00 am

    For instance, if I want to resolve a medical question, I'd turn to systematic metanalyses of double-blind randomized controlled trials, because I think there's oodles of evidence that they work, and I'd ignore anyone who thought we should also investigate what witch-doctors thought about the subject, because that's the "epistemology" of indigenous people X.

    Are we talking about a drug test funded by the company that invented the drug here?

    I feel like you're conflating hypotheses and the methods of investigating them. You've gone right past "I'm not gonna believe something works just because somebody says it does" and off into "I can dismiss anything somebody says if I don't like their religion", which is the attitude I imagine most anthropologists would like to argue against.

    In my culture, we drink a mysterious potion called "coffee". Popular folklore suggests that it increases your energy and awareness if you drink it in the morning and during difficult tasks. I have no idea how it could possibly work, and my evidence for it's efficacy is entirely anecdotal.

    So, obviously, the question of how and whether coffee effects you is meaningless to science, right? I arrived at my understanding of how coffee works the same way a Witch Doctor (Do they have those anymore? I thought they were just in cartoons and novelty songs) comes to his conclusion about what medicines cure what diseases, so obviously coffee has no effect whatsoever on anybody, has no interesting properties, and we should never even think about it again.

    This idea that if you don't have a western education you can't possibly have anything meaningful to say about anything seems like the sort of thing that nobody believes anymore and that nobody would need to argue against anymore. But yet here you are, making the argument.

  31. Robert Furber said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 4:40 am

    Indigenous is a term of art of anthropology, distinct from its ordinary meaning. Welshmen, for instance, are not indigenous, because some of them own cars (apparently).

  32. outeast said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 4:42 am

    @ Jerry Friedman

    people with a scientific worldview say that different systems of medicine can't work because different tribes ascribe different powers to the same herb or whatever.

    That's a bit of a straw man, to say the least, since the placebo effect (or meaning effect) is well recognized and has long been the subject of study (hell, pharmaceutical companies make conscious and deliberate use of the effect). All this 'person with a scientific worldview' would say (sweeping generalizations about others' opinions being a bit risky) is that it is not in fact the physical properties of the medicine that make it work but the meanings ascibed to the medicine by its users.

    Leaving aside any commentary on 'every indigenous person knows the answer to that: the healing powers come from the herb's kinship relations', you're making a truth claim there that could be tested through a double-blinded placebo-controlled trial.

  33. outeast said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:02 am

    @ Christopher

    This idea that if you don't have a western education you can't possibly have anything meaningful to say about anything seems like the sort of thing that nobody believes anymore and that nobody would need to argue against anymore. But yet here you are, making the argument.

    I don't think that was the argument being made (to put it mildly – that was a pretty offensive restatement of Michael Johnson's claim). The point is simply that we will learn more from an investigation method specifically designed to tease out physical effects from placebo/meaning effects than we will from relying on anecdote or tradition.

    For your coffee example, sure, you report these effects and claim they are physical (or rather, claim that your oral tradition says they are physical). That gives us testable truth claims, but it offers no insight into coffee per se – and unless we can see if your cultural beliefs are founded, it doesn't even offer much insight into your culture. So how can we test those truth claims? There are obviously scientific methodologies available (trials; analyses of the reported effects of coffee as used in different cultures; etc.), and these will yield insight.

    Asking you (consulting the witch doctor) will not offer new information. It won't tell us whether and in what circumstances coffee will really aid concentration (which might be relevant if, say, our goal was to maximize performance in people whose jobs can either save or cost lives), and it certainly won't help inform us as to how coffee will affect people with none of your folkloric beliefs in its effects.

  34. Sam said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:08 am

    @Mark F.,
    What Tom is getting at, I think, is that some phenomena are not amenable to particular objectivist methods and do not have a single true answer but rather several answers dependent on the subjective experiences of those you investigate; this does not mean that one can't make truth claims or collect valid empirical evidence. Such subjective views are certainly worth investigating because they influence how people act and interact.

    The notion that anything goes, all views are valid, is in reality very much a minority one. That is why I made the point – quoted in Mark's post- that I've not met any of these anti-scientific anthropologists (and am not one myself). As Dominik Lukes notes, some have argued against what they see as narrow 'scientism' but this is not the same as being ‘anti-science’ in general. The parodies of cultural relativism here are also mostly off the mark and miss the point of it as a methodological device. For example, cultural anthropologists are usually less interested in whether people’s views about the world are objectively true but rather put aside such concerns so as to investigate what those beliefs are and how this interacts with people's observable behaviour.

    What I find baffling (and irritating) about all this are the strawmen erected by both ‘sides’ in this debate. I’ll grant that the anti-positivists that Mark quotes here are as tiresomely broad-brush in their approach as those decrying politically correct cultural anthropologists turning their backs on rationality. I mean, who is a positivist these days (in science or anywhere)? However, I don’t think such rabid anti-positivists dominate; simply, I think most practitioners have simply stopped worrying about whether they are ‘scientific’ enough (or maybe that is just how I see it over here in the UK). The danger is that when such arguments erupt, the loudest and most extreme voices (on either side) are taken as representative.

    Oh, and those here recommending Jared Diamond may be interested to know that some cultural anthropologists working in the areas about which he writes (e.g. Papua New Guinea) have questioned his data; that is he is strongly suspected of making stuff up and/or massaging his findings. That this bothers them suggests they do believe in some objective reality; the problem is pinning it down.

    [(myl) For more on the Diamond story, see here.]

  35. Sam said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:23 am

    @Outeast and Christopher,
    I think your coffee example illustrates what I was trying to say in the long post (sorry) above. As an anthropologist I would be less interested in investigating whether one's beliefs about the effects of coffee are true (not that this is not important, just that I'd leave that to someone better able to do that kind of thing), but what those beliefs are, how they play out in the world, and perhaps where they come from. In the case of the latter, I might well draw on scientific evidence as well as the history of the coffee trade, marketing, the role of coffee in social life, and the subjective views of the people who drink coffee. All these would provide some kind (or level) of 'truth' but it may not be the same one.

  36. maidhc said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:27 am

    Aren't there already anthropologists who are natives of Asia and Africa? Or is there some special mechanism by which they don't get counted?

    There are plenty of societies that have got along fine for centuries without having any anthropologists at all. Should we now be training them to develop their own indigenous schools of anthropology?

    I know from personal experience a couple of cases in which local informants, working with linguists, archaeologists and anthropologists studying their culture over a number of years, have developed a degree of expertise in their own culture that would have easily deserved a PhD, had these people not been people with little formal schooling who preferred to spend their lives living in their native culture. I'm sure there are many more such people around.

    People like this fill a very valuable scholarly function, which they appreciate themselves, and are appreciated for and credited for by the formal scholars with whom they work, and frequently by their own communities as well. But I think they have little interest in becoming members of the American Anthropological Association, no matter how welcoming to diversity the mission statement of the AAA becomes.

  37. Chris Buckey said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 6:03 am

    Good Lord, this whole debate is giving me flashbacks to my freshman year, when I still wanted to be an archaeologist. The cultural anthropology classes I took killed my enthusiasm for the discipline before I even did much archeology, sadly (six weeks in a bog in Ireland during a overseas summer course did the rest), and I ducked into history. At least at UC Santa Cruz (hello Prof. Pullum, I wish now I'd taken some linguistics courses) the History department was relatively clear of combat between post-modernists and traditionalists (or at least my lecturers steered well clear of it all).

    In any case I suspect Prof. Liberman is correct that this is a spat between a sub-segment of the cultural tribe and the physical and archeological ones. In my limited experience there always seemed a bit of tension between the two. I can't imagine the typical cultural anthropologist would see the story of Ishi and Alfred Kroeber in the same way as a typical archeologist. Or even a typical linguist (if such a thing exists!)

  38. Rodger C said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 7:07 am

    Of course statements and beliefs are either true or false. Creationism, for example, is false, as is positivism. And the river is truly a river and the mountain is truly a mountain. My point was that while "true" is a good old English word with a meaning (etymologically I believe it means "right there like a tree, dammit"), "objective"and "reality" are early modern technical terms that have degenerated into rhetorical bludgeons. (Where I come from they're largely heard in defenses of mountaintop removal and coal ash dumping.) The kind of silly relativism some people here are trying to accuse me of is the result of inverting this usage instead of criticizing it.

  39. outeast said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 7:13 am


    All these would provide some kind (or level) of 'truth' but it may not be the same one.

    Not sure what you mean by this, really – and I get worried when I see truth-in-quotes! Surely all those kinds of investigation would uncover truths rather than 'truths'? 'People from this culture often believe that drinking coffee when tired aids concentration' is a truth (if that's what the data show), not a 'truth'.

    If you mean something like '…and so it is "true" for them', well, that's just lazy (or at best can be expressed without resort to fuzzifying the idea of objective reality). Maybe coffee really helps these people concentrate, maybe it doesn't, maybe it does in some circumstances, maybe it depends on their prior belief that it does – but all can all be investigated and the truth (not the 'truth') can be identified.

    So why the scare quotes?

  40. Sam said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 7:54 am


    Sorry about the quotes around true. I did not mean them to be scare quotes but simply to convey that sometimes what people mean by true is not agreed upon (and here I'm not making an epistemological point but simply saying 'not agreed upon by us observers and commentators').

    Also my point about truths is that there may be different levels of explanation, all of which may be empirically valid (this was where I said true) but not the whole explanation: I drink coffee because I really like the taste; I drink coffee because doing so reminds me of the year I lived in Rome; I drink coffee because it is mildly addictive; I drink coffee because of particular historical and social processes making it desirable; I drink coffee because a particular commodity chain has arisen from particular historical processes. These can all be true simultaneously. The whole point is that all are open to investigation, most likely by using different methods for each. In reality, the different levels of investigation, would likely be done by different disciplines.

    My larger point is that questions about the existence of objective reality are usually not the issue for cultural anthropology. Mostly we just get on doing what we do (and if we don't, we should). Hence, some of the criticisms of the anti-science brigade seem wide of the mark and there seems to be confusion about the type of phenomena that are typically investigated by anthropologists. As an anthropologist I would probably not be interested in testing a proposition of the order 'does coffee increase concentration?'. Rather, for me the question would be 'what do people believe about coffee?, 'what are the consequences of this belief?' 'how does this belief manifest? Do people believe this all the time? . So yes, we are concerned abut validity and truth in our accounts of the world but usually not in assessing the truthfulness of the claims of the people we investigate (not because the latter is not important but because we have other, still compelling, concerns).

  41. outeast said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 8:09 am

    Thanks, Sam. That's clear (even obvious). (And perhaps your 'Mostly we just get on doing what we do' is what Wax was getting at when – in the quote at the top of the page – he wrote 'Despite the ideological fervor, it is not immediately evident who is doing what in actual practice.')

  42. Sam said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 8:27 am

    you'd think it would be obvious but sometimes even this basic stuff gets lost (or sometimes, I feel, wilfully misinterpreted) amidst all the vitriol.

    These discussions about the direction of anthropology (woe is me, the positivists/relativists/ phenomenologists/ whateverists have taken control), and what faction has won the war often have only a tenuous link to what most practitioners actually do or think (I know the same is true of other disciplines too).

  43. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    @ Roger C re ghosts and TV, etc.:

    This is a line I used to use teaching a college course in history of science disguised as astronomy. I used the rest of the lecture period to bloviate on how physical science was founded on a framework of interlocking falsifiable assertions that had gradually Popperized into a coherent world-view that no longer contained unexplored territory spacious enough to accommodate ghosts (once Sir Oliver Lodge [Ether & Reality] had come to grips with the loss of his son in WW I). There was more to it than that, but you get the idea.

    The question of the nature of the reality of the Resurrection has come up among theologians time and time again.If you had been sitting there with a camera, next to Thomas, do you think you'd have been able to take a picture of Christ?

  44. language hat said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    I get the sense of a defense against epistemic overconfidence that has been allowed to run rampant. If people aren't even trying to search for truth, then I'm not interested.

    Hear, hear. Anytime I see "truth" in scare quotes, my bullshit detectors tingle, although of course such quotes can be used perfectly sensibly.

    Hence, some of the criticisms of the anti-science brigade seem wide of the mark and there seems to be confusion about the type of phenomena that are typically investigated by anthropologists. As an anthropologist I would probably not be interested in testing a proposition of the order 'does coffee increase concentration?'.

    No, but (if you're that kind of anthropologist) you might well be interested in investigating bones from many thousands of years ago preserved in some region that is now inhabited by some tribe that holds the completely unscientific view that they've been there since the Creation and therefore those bones are the bones of their ancestors and therefore (by another completely unscientific view) should not be susceptible to study by imperialist colonialist representatives of hegemonic "Western" "science." And then push comes to shove; you either insist on the primacy of science as a worldview or you cave in to blatant anti-scientific attitudes. And it seems to me anthropology has been doing the latter, which is just another illustration of our increasingly anti-scientific age.

  45. Sivi said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 9:17 am


    I think part of this issue is while you're saying

    "As an anthropologist I would probably not be interested in testing a proposition of the order 'does coffee increase concentration?'. Rather, for me the question would be 'what do people believe about coffee?, 'what are the consequences of this belief?' 'how does this belief manifest? Do people believe this all the time?"

    What a lot of people in science, or who think of themselves as scientists, hear is

    "As an anthropologist a proposition of the order 'does coffee increase concentration?' is meaningless and uninteresting. 'What do people believe about coffee?' is the only question worth asking. Science cannot tell us anything about coffee or its effects, because non-European cultures don't believe in science."

    Part of it's the sort of issue that arises when people from different disciplines talk to each other about the same topics. Even between, say, physicists and biologists you get a lot of misunderstanding and cross-talk. And when it comes to people who aren't even addressing the same questions it gets really bad.

    Tie that in with a lot of the socio-political anxiety scientists have about the use of alt-med, anti-vaccination ideas, rejection of science as a means of improving quality of life, etc, and you can see why anything that smacks of 'relativism' gets people on edge.

    (It's still weird to be called a positivist. Like I and another person above asked, who the heck is still a positivist?)

  46. Sam said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    I was at least one of the people here wondering who would still call themselves a positivist. I find those railing against the evil positivists just as peculiar as the other lot.

    I agree that sometimes this kind of disciplinary cross talk sets off all kinds of anxieties that obscure what people really do. I had hoped I was being careful not to suggest that the other approach was meaningless and that both are reasonable questions to ask (within the bounds of this hypothetical example), it is just that it is likely different people would seek to answer them and would do so using different methods. It also works in the other direction: is the question ‘does coffee really increase concentration?’ the only pertinent question? I think the more defensive of the purportedly anti-science bunch (or whatever you want to call them) have the exact same reaction as the edgy scientists you mention: a perception that the other side doesn’t think their approach has value and therefore ratchet up their rhetoric. It is all a bit silly but there you go.

  47. Kim Belcher said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    Not an anthropologist, but I work in ritual studies, which is broadly anthropological. It seems to me that these attacking comments are totally missing the point.

    The key assertions are these:
    1. Positivism (and structuralism, which I think is more relevant) are the products of a specifically Western, European understanding of truth that has identifiable intellectual roots. They are not, as scientific discourse tends to assume, acultural constructs. Although the natural world is universal, our culture gives us a certain way of investigating that culture that seems "natural" to us. (I think this thread is an adequate demonstration.) This is what's being called "indigenous epistemologies."
    2. Cultural anthropology sets out to study other cultures. Part of this work has always been recorded the understanding that the other culture's adherents have of their own culture.

    The examples upthread are helpful: of course there are real phenomena in the world, but part of what cultural anthropology studies is how humans interpret those. So for example, the Western scientific mindset says that all mountains are basically the same, except for differences verifiable with scientific instruments. Some cultures assert rather that not all mountains are the same, in that this ritual can take place on this mountain but not on that mountain. They don't dispute that both mountains are made of the same kind of rock; they have another kind of rationale. What is it? This is a cultural question that can be obscured by rigid adherence to scientific methods.

    More helpful, I think, is the medicinal question raised above. It's part of the Western scientific mindset that the only kind of healing is cure of biological symptoms, which is what we study in drug tests. This is enormously helpful, especially in our culture where buying a drug means we want biophysical relief. In other cultures, they acknowledge other forms of "disease" that also require healing, such as social isolation, division, and displacement. (When people are hospitalized, they often want to go home more than they want to get better.) If we treat healing rituals as if they are meant to address only biophysical symptoms (as our healing is), we misunderstand what we are attempting to study.

    My personal preference would be for acceptance of varied and even blended methodologies, and perhaps this is the purpose of eliminating some of the specific language.

  48. Sam said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    @language hat. I did explain that I did not mean to question the existence of truth.

    In the example you give, an archaeologist might not believe that the bones have been there since creation, might think that they really should be scientifically investigated, but still choose not to dig them up because to do so would cause an almighty shirt storm that would mean no-one could ever do any research in the area ever again. You might decry such an approach as a kind of moral cowardice but it seems to me to be as much about cultural politics as science vs. anti-science. There is serious debate to be had about the limits of what one can do because it is scientifically interesting and positions on this are often not black and white. I’d bet, for example, that many of those who would say ‘don’t dig up the bones’ would also grumble about those who cite religious reasons in their attempts to ban stem cell research.

  49. Sivi said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    I should link my girlfriend to this discussion, as she works with Native material culture, while being very science-friendly, which I think gives her a rare perspective on these issues.

    The issue of bones, for example, is definitely a touchy one. And Sam raises a good point, which is that within even many hard sciences there are experiments or studies that would be useful, but are unethical. This is particularly true in medicine.

    So while you might want to know if such-and-such bones are pre-human or human, or if their composition reflects the current diet of the peoples in that region, it's pretty unethical to just dig them up while a bunch of Natives stand around going "…um, what are you doing digging up our relatives?" And even if you can prove that the bones were there before that tribe entered the area, it's still enough of a dick move that as Sam says, it's not worth the soured relations.

    One can insist on the primacy of science as a worldview – though things get murkier the more you deal with people – without being imperialist about it. At least, I hope so.

  50. Rodger C said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    @Dan Lufkin: My present beliefs about the Resurrection are irrelevant to the analogy, whose point was that Bultmann was thinking purely associationally when he made that notorious statement. The fact as I see it is that electrical engineering and the relation of consciousness to space and time are such different aspects of the world that they can't be discussed in the same kind of language, and that this is the real reason "a serious theory of reality" (or explanation of the world) has trouble dealing with both simultaneously. As for ghosts, my judgment is reserved.

    On a different topic, I also think that Deloria on indigenous (ahem) herbalism is problematic to say the least, but since when is this kind of thinking not found in Western culture? I'm old enough to remember my mother painting my scratches with a horrible, red, corrosive, toxic mercury-sulfur compound (woot! Paracelsian alchemy!), whose real function seems to have been to display visually the parent's care for the child. (Some here will remember the sendup of this in "Body Ritual among the Nacirema.") Eventully it was determined scientifically that merthiolate is bad stuff.

  51. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    > And it seems to me anthropology has been doing the latter, which is just another illustration of our increasingly anti-scientific age.

    Wow, those are a couple of pretty strong claims you’re making there languagehat. I think I’m disinclined to believe them unless they’re backed by extraordinary evidence ;)

  52. MJ said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    @Michael Johnson The point of pointing Skullturf to Devitt was so that he or she could see a philosopher who espouses realism engaging the antirealist tradition in a serious manner. No one would bother defending realism if skepticism and antirealism did not pose significant challenges.

  53. titmouse said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    Absolute objectivity is impossible, as we are all subjects who filter experience through personal desires and fears.

    However relative objectivity *is* possible, as measured by corroboration. Observations that have been verified by independent parties are more likely to be true as compared to observations that have not been verified.

    Science, in essence, means that you get to double-check what I say, and vice-versa.

  54. language hat said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    In the example you give, an archaeologist might not believe that the bones have been there since creation, might think that they really should be scientifically investigated, but still choose not to dig them up because to do so would cause an almighty shirt storm that would mean no-one could ever do any research in the area ever again.

    Yes, of course, just as if someone is holding a gun to your head and telling you not to do something, you're likely to decide not to do it. Neither situation impacts the prestige of science… unless the archaeologist, instead of straightforwardly saying "These bones should be investigated, but for the moment political pressure prevents it" issues some sort of mealy-mouthed statement implying that, hey, we've all got our worldviews and theirs is of course totally worthy of respect and blah blah blah," which avoids the shitstorm at the cost of further eroding respect for science. (If Leonardo Boiko seriously thinks I'm making it up, he should check out the recent shitstorm over global warming, not to mention the percentage of Americans who don't believe in evolution.)

  55. Sam said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

    @ language hat,

    I was being a little facetious (although only a little).

    Anyway, I refer you to Sivi's post about this. Respecting the world view of another does not necessarily equate to being anti-science; it can mean taking those views into account when making decisions about what is an appropriate and ethical action. This is rarely a straightforward decision and, as I said, does not come down to science vs anti science. In any case, I don't think charging in and ignoring the wishes of others necessarily advances respect for science either. This is not to say you always need to defer to other world-views but they can be worth taking into account.

    Oh, and I accidentally wrote 'shirt storm' rather than shit storm. I did, of course, mean the latter. My shirts are quite un-stormy.

  56. Mark F. said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 6:59 pm

    Sam –

    Very nice response.

    Still, I think I don't like that way of talking about truth. I would rather talk about a question having no simple answer, or perhaps the question being admittedly ill-posed but hinting at a family of well-posed questions that we may be unable to fully enunciate because humans are so complicated.

    Having said that, it does seem to me that there is a kind of objectivity in at least provisionally stipulating to the implausible beliefs of the people you study. If you're always thinking "of course this is all nonsense" as somebody is telling you about how they treat headaches, you probably won't really understand their point of view. But it seems like a tricky path to follow.

  57. Dan S said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    Mark Liberman recommends Geoffrey Pullum's essay "The revenge of the methodological moaners". That essay is perfectly appropriate, wonderfully hilarious, and is indeed a Pullum-grade hatchet job. But the link Mark provided gives merely the first page, unless you subscribe to JSTOR.

    You can read the entire essay here:

    Just click "Look Inside", then search for "rail against", and scroll down from there. Enjoy! (And then buy the book, of course.)

    [(myl) I second the recommendation to buy the book. Meanwhile, I've modified the link in the text to point to a readable pdf.]

  58. Michael Johnson said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 1:13 am

    @ Dan S, 12/13 9:42pm

    I got more pages than the JSTOR preview would show, but not many more. This happened to me yesterday before I saw your suggestion (in fact, then I got even fewer). Perhaps "look inside" doesn't return the same previews each time it's independently accessed?

  59. Michael Johnson said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 1:13 am

    @MJ, 12/13 11:25am

    OK, sure. I guess what I really wanted to say is this. We're having a discussion in this thread. There are doubters like Beavispants who aren't very fond of anti-realism, and produce arguments that look strikingly like arguments adduced by well-known realists. You could spend a minute sharing your knowledge about why anti-realism is taken seriously, or you could say "it should be taken seriously because serious people take it seriously, and you should go read their books." In a way that's probably right, but it's just profoundly unhelpful.

    I mean, you certainly don't want to say "no-one would bother defending the theory of natural selection if young-Earth creationism did not pose significant challenges." People regularly must defend obvious truisms against deluded detractors. THIS IS NOT TO SAY that anti-realists in philosophy are deluded nuts like young-Earth creationists. They aren't. But what you have to understand is that there are people right now on this blog who think philosophy is nothing but deluded nuts (believe me, I've argued with them), and they won't read the Devitt book, and they won't accept your appeal to authority ("philosophers take serious arguments against realism so you should too"). I was hoping maybe you might share your knowledge of Devitt's work to advance the discussion. Apologies if you don't care about the general discussion and just wanted to add to Beavispants' reading list.

  60. Michael Johnson said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 1:44 am

    @ Kim Belcher

    I want to concede that western epistemologies are not acultural (i.e. they're a cultural inheritance). And they do seem "natural" to us. And they may feel "natural" in the same way that indigenous epistemologies seem "natural" to indigenous persons. But that's all etiology and phenomenology. The central question here is truth-conduciveness. The fact that I can dutch-book you if you don't conditionalize seems to be pretty strong evidence that you should conditionalize, and ipso facto pretty strong evidence that epistemologies recommending otherwise aren't truth-conducive.

    Second, I think your mountains example is confused. Here's how I take it the "Western Scientific Mindset" would approach the issue. Step 1: formulate hypotheses concerning which beliefs this indigenous culture has that lead them to draw a distinction between two mountains; Step 2: try as hard as you can to find evidence that would distinguish among your hypotheses, say, by living with the people, asking them questions, learning their history, and so forth; Step 3: conditionally accept the explanation that best accounts for your acquired evidence.

    Someone might argue that we should escape this rigid "Western Scientific Mindset" and instead consult the spirits of our ancestors to determine the source of these people's practice. I'd say such people are misguided and I would like them to take a series of bets…

    The point here is that one uses western epistemology to determine the answer to the question of how other cultures think and operate. The alternatives are known to be fruitless. (Note: by this I mean actual alternatives, not possible alternatives, because of course we can improve our methodology). So anti-science anthropologists are still wrong.

    Third, I can't say I'm with you on the medicine question. (a) It's just patently false that western medicine only treats symptoms. Think about chemotherapy for five seconds. (b) It's just patently false that all non-western medicines treat things other than just the symptoms. Think about sympathetic magic for five seconds. (c) Finally, if other cultures have practices that are intended to resolve things that aren't "biophysical symtoms" that's perfectly fine: but whether those practices work is a matter of fact, and is to be investigated with science. What would you say to an indigenous person who says ritual X heals rifts between individuals when ritual X had a 0% success rate? That you couldn't critique them because effectiveness is a "western" concern?

  61. Michael Johnson said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 2:17 am


    Straw man, much?

    Are we talking about trials funded by drug companies? Who cares? What I said was we should trust methodologies that are proven effective. If there's evidence that drug-company funded trials are good indicators of the truth, then yes, we're talking about them. If there's no such evidence, then no, we're not. You seem to be assuming that there's a fact of the matter about whether we should trust such trials. If so, you're agreeing with me. Why the attitude?

    I never said I could dismiss someone's claims because I disagreed with their religion. What gave you that idea? There are some Christians who think that intercessory prayer is effective. I dismiss their claims because the evidence suggests they're wrong, not because I'm not a Christian (although I'm not). If the evidence suggested intercessory prayer worked, I'd change my tune. That's my point: we oughtn't to be epistemological relativists. There's a fact of the matter.

    I don't believe in the positive effects of coffee because of popular folklore. Popular folklore says Eskimos have 500 words for snow, that tax cuts for the rich help the economy, and that black children don't do well in school because they are lazy. Consulting popular folklore is a silly methodology. I can, however, point you to studies about the pharmocological effectiveness of coffee. But I suppose you aren't interested.

  62. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 7:28 am

    @languagehat: Oh, you’re talking America. I guess it might be true that respect for science is being eroded in that one specific religious backwater. You know that natural selection or global warming never were an issue in basically the whole rest of the world, right? I mean, only the U.S. refused to sign Kyoto, and even the Catholic Church admits evolution.

  63. language hat said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    Michael Johnson: While I am in full agreement with your point of view, I would urge you to avoid terms like "Western Scientific Mindset," "western epistemology," "western medicine," etc. Science knows no borders and does not favor one particular hemisphere, and to my mind such terms are insulting to the many fine scientists in Japan, China, etc. This is not a matter of West vs. East, it is a matter of knowledge vs. ignorance.

    Leonardo Boiko: Thanks for that burst of nationalistic rhetoric, which I'm sure goes far to advance the discussion.

  64. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    It’s rather a burst of anti-nationalistic rhetoric, as I find quite jarring when people seem to assume America is the only country that matters. If the American public is taking a turn against science and reason, that most certainly does not mean we are living in an “increasingly anti-scientific age”. It only mean America is inscreasingly anti-scientific. “We” are not all living in the U.S.

  65. Michael Johnson said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 3:12 am

    Dear Language Hat,

    I think you have me mistaken (apologies, sometimes I'm opaque). I have a habit of taking on my opponents' commitments insofar as they're irrelevant to the disagreements I have with them that I would like to emphasize. This tends to minimize discussion of topics that I consider irrelevant to the point at hand (which I take it you recognize, because you say "I'm in full agreement with your point of view").

    Here are some phrases in Kim Belcher's post:

    "specifically Western, European understanding of truth"
    "Western scientific mindset" (occurs twice)

    Please notice that I only use the adjective "western" in my response to Kim. This was deliberate: I didn't want to debate the borders of science; for the discussion at hand, I was willing to accept, for the sake of argument, Kim's characterization of western vs. non-western approaches to things.

    As you're in full agreement with my point of view, I'm in full agreement with yours. Science is no more "western" than a desire for freedom is "eastern": these are universal human traits. Forgive me my rhetorical concessions. Might I suggest you take the matter up with Kim?

  66. Rodger C said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:46 am

    @Leonardo Boiko: Thank you for your information that Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour are Americans.

  67. Dragos said,

    December 17, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

    @Language Hat:

    If we accept that "Western epistemologies are not acultural', then I guess there's nothing wrong with 'Western' since we use it to identify a cultural tradition, not to impose some constraints. If we speak of a German school of philology or archaeology, it doesn't mean all the scholars in question are Germans. Aristotelean logic is not Aristotle's only. American Indians are not Sanskrit or Tamil speakers. The Gypsies are not really Egyptians. The turkeys are not really from Turkey. If we're to wage this war all the way, we'll lose so many words :)

    @Michael Johnson:

    Some social and cultural phenomena are so complex and counter-intuitive and for so long scholars failed to understand them and perhaps in some cases they still do. For example the study of ethnic and other group identities was dominated for a long time by essentialist views and in some disciplines it still is. Some may still have difficulties in understanding "who are the Lue".
    I wonder if not the long traditions of failed theories is what drives some scholars to a sort of nihilism: to record facts and to discourage interpretations.

  68. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 18, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    @ outeast: You quoted me saying:

    people with a scientific worldview say that different systems of medicine can't work because different tribes ascribe different powers to the same herb or whatever.

    That's a bit of a straw man, to say the least, since the placebo effect (or meaning effect) is well recognized and has long been the subject of study (hell, pharmaceutical companies make conscious and deliberate use of the effect). All this 'person with a scientific worldview' would say (sweeping generalizations about others' opinions being a bit risky) is that it is not in fact the physical properties of the medicine that make it work but the meanings ascibed to the medicine by its users.

    Sorry, when I said "work" I meant "work better than a placebo".

    Leaving aside any commentary on 'every indigenous person knows the answer to that: the healing powers come from the herb's kinship relations', you're making a truth claim there that could be tested through a double-blinded placebo-controlled trial.

    Apparently I didn't make it clear that I wasn't making that claim; Vine Deloria was.

  69. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 18, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    If anyone were still reading this, I'd point out that I made another mistake: The paragraph starting "Leaving aside" is quoted from outeast, not mine.

  70. Cross-disciplinary cross-talk. « A still more glorious dawn… said,

    December 19, 2010 @ 9:08 pm

    [...] And part of it is just what people are studying, and what things are amenable to certain kinds of investigation. As you might have heard, the American Anthropological Association removed the word "science" from their long-range plans. This has caused something of a kerfuffle. [...]

  71. v said,

    December 27, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    @Rodger C
    "Eventully it was determined scientifically that merthiolate is bad stuff."

    Can you give some citations to support that assertion?

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