Category Archives: April Fools

Counterpoint: Good Americans should pay their debts, thank Sallie Mae

In the interest of providing fair and balanced coverage of the ongoing Anthropologies-Savage Minds issue on student debt, I contacted Thomas J. Snodgrass to share some of his thoughts with us.  Snodgrass is a retired lobbyist (30 years of service), and currently heads up the Public Outreach Department (POD) for the American Education Fund (AEF), which is one of the premier student loan providers in the greater USA.  He has an MBA and a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago (1967).  His dissertation focused on efficient market models for domestic education and national patrimony.  In 1986 he was named to the Ayn Rand Institute’s “Top 100 Loyal Americans” list, an honor which he held for a record 13 straight years.  He is currently writing a memoir about his life and career in education reform, “The Spectre of Marxism: My fight to save the soul of higher ed.”  His book will be published in early 2015.

I had the opportunity to take a class in anthropology with a young Clifford Geertz when he was at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s.  I was nearing the end of my PhD, and I needed a “fun” course to blow off some steam.  I picked the right class.  Now, while Professor Geertz was indeed witty, frankly, after my rigorous studies in economics, I found anthropology to be slightly on the “soft” side.  That’s not to demean the discipline; I have no doubt it has its uses.  We all love dinosaurs and cave men, after all.  But I wanted to share my experiences to let you know, as readers of this anthropology “weblog,” that I am quite well versed in anthropology (I got a B plus in Mr. Geertz’s class).  Because of my deep familiarity with anthropology, I am not at all surprised by the slanted, misinformed, and, frankly, borderline un-American coverage of the student loan opportunity (it’s not a problem, let alone a “crisis”) on this site.

Frankly, back in the late 1960s anthropology was a hotbed of socialistic thinking and brazen anti-American thought.  So it’s no surprise to see that trend continue today, although it is disheartening for a lover of America like myself.  Only a bunch of Marxists could take the wonderful American institution of the student loan, which has helped generations improve their lives, and turn it into yet another blatant attempt to forgo personal responsibility and demand a free ride from the government.  I am here to set the record straight in three easy points that even those of you from the social sciences and humanities should be able to digest. Continue reading

11 Cutting-Edge Thinkers That Anthropologists Should Be Paying Attention to Right Now!

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Well it wouldn’t be an unpaid internship in the 2014 if the bosses upstairs didn’t have me doing a listicle, so I’m proud to present to you a new feature: The Savage Minds Rundown. Every week, I’ll be bringing you an informative list of items that I think you should be paying attention to, if you want to impress your colleagues. This week, I bring you the top 11 big thinkers that you, as an anthropologist, should be reading right now.

You won’t believe who’s on this list. Number seven nearly stopped my heart! Without further ado: Continue reading

Against Open Access: A change of heart

Open Access (OA) has always been an issue that the contributors to Savage Minds have covered thoroughly.  When I joined the SM crew, I too joined the chorus singing the praises of OA and calling for change in our publishing regimes.  I spent a lot of time over the past year or so writing about OA issues.  It was always OA this, and OA that, and on and on.  I am sure many of you got sick of it all.  But I haven’t written about it much over the past couple of months.  There’s a reason for this.  After some recent experiences, and a lot of reflection about academic publishing, I have completely changed my position about open access.  In fact, I think the whole push for OA is a waste of time, if not a complete delusion.

About six months ago I decided to look into internships and other opportunities within the academic publishing field.  Out of pure luck, I managed to land a pretty sweet three month gig with one of the top academic publishers here in North America.  This is part of the reason why I haven’t been posting much on SM, and why I specifically gave all the OA stuff a bit of a rest.  I was intrigued and also a bit skeptical about this chance at getting a closer look at the inner-workings of the publishing world.  Due to a disclosure agreement with this publishing company, I cannot tell you which one I worked with.  But I can tell you that this experience is what really changed my mind about all this open access business.  And I can also tell you that the coffee they gave us was *not from 7-11.  It was amazing.  I didn’t even have to add a bunch of Coffeemate to make it drinkable.  Amazing!  But I am getting off point.  Sorry.

Here are a few of the unforgettable lessons I learned. Continue reading

American Ethnologist To Check Your Facts

Fact checking is all the craze these days. This American Life ran an episode-length retraction of Mike Daisey’s Apple story. Sites like Politifact regularly check politicians on their Truth-o-Meter. Magazines like the New Yorker are proud of their fact checkers, but academic journals rarely bother to check facts. Sure, academics have peer-review, but peer-review is not the same thing as fact checking. An expert on linguistic anthropology who does work in Latin America might be asked to review an article on indexicals in Chinese speech. As peer review goes, there is nothing wrong with this. Said expert will be able to do a good job of evaluating the argument and the relationship of the argument to the data presented in the paper. What they won’t be able to do is to check whether that data is accurate.

With the exception of a few big controversies, such as Margaret Mead or Jared Diamond (who isn’t actually an anthropologist), it is very rare for anyone to go and talk to an informant and ask them if they really said the words attributed to them by the anthropologist. For this reason the American Ethnologist’s recent announcement that they will fact check all articles is truly groundbreaking.

And it raises a number of questions: how will they pay for it? Fact checking anthropology articles is a lot more difficult that fact checking your ordinary piece of journalism. Especially for fieldwork conducted in some of the more remote corners of the earth. Of course, more and more people have internet access these days, and English skills are more widespread so maybe it won’t be as difficult as all that.

Even then, there is still the question of what constitutes a factual claim in anthropology. Will they just be confirming the most obvious statements of fact, or will they ask informants about the interpretation of their words in the text?

And what about privacy? While I trust American Ethnologist not to divulge names, there are serious risks related to divulging name and contact information to anyone, especially those living in countries that might monitor phone calls or email.

Still, I have seen enough questionable research in print that I applaud AE’s efforts to raise the bar beyond mere peer-review. But the details matter and I worry about how the AE fact-checkers will interpret their mandate. It will be interesting to hear reports from the first round of scholars who submit articles under the new regime. If you are one of them, please let us know and we will be happy to publish your account here.

UPDATE: Please note the date of this post.

Marc Hauser’s Trolley Problem

Many of you may be following the Marc Hauser case. If you aren’t: the NY Times has reported on it (here and here), the Chronicle of HIgher ed has published a leaked document from a former research assistant in Hauser’s case, Language Log, John Hawks and NeuroAnthropology have all posted some links, greg laden has a hilarious post about his perception that Hauser could make his new world monkeys consistently do surprising things. And so on.

I have a weak sense of the details, but I do know that accusations of fraud, regardless of whether fraud was committed, tend to have a range of effects on people involved, especially the administration of a university, the graduate students in a lab, and the fellow researchers in an accused’s field. One might think of this as Hauser’s trolley problem, a tool he’s fond of using himself in order to supposedly get at the basic biological modules or organs of morality. In this case, the person on the track, about to be flattened by a runaway trolley, is Hauser himself. One can imagine a number of scenarios: should one pull a lever to save Hauser? Should one push an unnamed (fat) graduate student or post-doc onto the track to save Hauser? Should one divert the trolley onto a track containing five other researchers who work on moral cognition, or leave it on the track towards Hauser to save those five? Should one derail the trolley and risk destroying a building (cognitive science at Harvard) that might contain sleeping researchers, etc. etc. etc.

As many journalists have noted, there is irony in the fact that Hauser’s forthcoming book is called Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad. But it’s more than irony, it’s a question of scale and temporality. Whatever evil is at stake here, it might have both a distant cause (evolution) and a proximate one (the institutional pressure to publish and the problem of being a star scientist), and neither Hauser nor anyone else seems able to mount a theory that would accommodate both. If there is a problem with Hauser’s style of research, it’s probably not that it is fraudulent. More likely, the problem is that his theories cannot explain the possibility of fraud arising as a result of the intense desire to prove that fraud has an evolutionary origin.

Because it is Friday

LOLinator.com turns any website into a lolcats website. I know it sounds like taking a now-dusty internet meme and applying a vanilla web 2.0 trope to it and yet…..

…”It might be worth taking a look”:http://lolinator.com/lol/savageminds.org

Customary land tenure volume published open access

Now for a little self-promotion: I’m very proud to announce the publication of Customary Land Tenure In Australia and Papua New Guinea by the Australian National University Press, which includes a piece by me entitled “From Agency to Agents: Forging Landowners Identities in Porgera”. It is a great volume edited by Katie Glaskin and Jimmy Weiner — both prominent in Australian circles — and the contributors list is a who’s who of people who have been active in policy, anthropology, and activism surrounding customary land registration.

But best of all: the entire book available open access so you can “read it in its entirely online”:http://epress.anu.edu.au/customary_citation.html in either “PDF”:http://epress.anu.edu.au/apem/customary/pdf_instructions.html or “HTML”:http://epress.anu.edu.au/apem/customary/html/frames.php. For instance, you can “get my article here”:http://epress.anu.edu.au/apem/customary/pdf/ch05.pdf.

Working with Jimmy and Katie has been a good experience — this volume has gone through peer review from outside readers, is professionally copy-edited, and has high production values. It is available print-on-demand. The ANU press is, to a certain extent, neither fish not fowl as a press, and as such it demonstrates how open access is not an either-or proposition but enables a variety of different — and very flexible — publishing models.

The Genetics of Postmodernism

Mankind is genetically predisposed to view the world in concrete terms, according to researchers at the Nebraska Biocultural Research Center. As hunters ranging through the Pleistocene wilderness, our ancestors were under great selective pressure to engage the world as it really is, without questioning the validity of their immediate responses. Prehistoric foragers who engaged in abstract thinking were ill-equipped to deal with the day-to-day necessities of early human life: defending themselves from dangerous predators, responding to changes in the local environment, and securing adequate resources for themselves and their offspring. “Deconstruction,” says NBRC Senior Research Fellow Brian Talagi, “was a luxury our ancestors simply could not afford.”
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Erasing the Slate

As Stephen Pinker so persuasively argued, modern evolutionary psychology tells us clear and simple that there is no such thing as a “blank slate.” Humans are born with a set of natural dispositions, endowing them with the basic building blocks of social behavior: language, cognition, desire, etc. However, a recent discovery by genetic researchers in Korea could change all that.

Yesterday, the South Korean research firm Klonaid announced that, in the process of looking for a way to bypass the human body’s natural resistance to cloned embryos, they discovered a way to effectively turn off the set of genetic switches which determine who we are. In other words, using genetic science it is possible to wipe the slate clean, creating babies free of any genetic predispositions.

While real-world implementations remain far off, the possibilities of such tabula rasa babies (TRBs) is already beguiling researchers. Yale scientist Stanley Milgram was quoted as saying:

Freed of their natural wiring, TRBs would allow us to truly observe the effects of socialization for the first time. Whereas before such effects were filtered through each subject’s biological filter, such baggage would be absent in TRBs.

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Elementary Structures of Sex & the City

It has recently become fashionable to argue that the contradictory nature of the information about the sexual habits of the great apes does not allow any resolution, on the animal plane, of the problem of whether polygamous tendencies are innate or acquired. Fashionable, yes; empirically defensible, no. Social and biological observation combine to suggest that, in women, these tendencies are natural and universal, and that only limitations born of the environment and culture are responsible for their suppression. Consequently, to our eyes, monogamy is not a positive institution, but merely incorporates the limit of polygamy in societies where, for highly varied reasons, economic and sexual competition reaches an acute form ( vide the NYTimes wedding announcements page).
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