Tag Archives: In the Press

Looking at how the news reports on anthropology.

We need more mainstream social science, not less.

Nicholas Cristakis’s recent op-ed in the New York Times “Let’s Shake Up The Social Sciences” has a lot of things going for it. I appreciate his call for more hands-on teaching of research methods, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the application of social scientific knowledge. To make this point, unfortunately, he mischaracterizes the social sciences as “stagnated”, “boring”, “counterproductive”, and “insecure”. He calls on us to “change[] the basic DNA of the social sciences” in order to “evolv[e] with the times” as the natural sciences have. What’s more, his piece mischaracterizes the natural sciences in important ways. Christakis’s piece is remarkably data-free and lacks any concrete reference to the social-scientific work it stigmatizes and merely asserts our dysfunction. Of course, he didn’t have much space and was writing for a popular audience, which probably explains this fact. An account of how the social and natural sciences actually work, however, makes clear that the difficulties of the social sciences stem from quite different sources then those that Christakis points to.

The first and most obvious difficulty that the social sciences face is funding, pure and simple. Compared to the natural sciences, we receive peanuts. In Fiscal Year 2013, the NSF got roughly 5.5 billion dollars from Congress to spend on research. Before you press the ‘Read More…’ link in this article, ask yourself “what percent of that was spent on social sciences?”

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“But of course, only a fucking idiot would believe that”

Sometimes a blog entry comes along that just bowls you over. I almost always enjoy Jon Marks’s all-to-infrequent posts but his latest one  is really a work of art and now wins my awards for ‘best short explanation of why anthropologists think NAS jumped the shark when it elected Napoleon Chagnon’.

The fire works really start in the second half of the entry, where Marks asks “can we generalize from Napoleon Chagnon’s demonstration that murder and babies are correlated?” He writes:

What would it mean if Yanomamo murderers outbred non-murderers?  Well, if you believe that this is a bi-allelic system, then the Yanomamo murderer alleles would quickly swamp out the non-murderer alleles.  But of course only a fucking idiot would believe that. 

When Brian Ferguson (amongst others) made this point (without cursing) Chagnon said that “it looks as though [Ferguson's] hypothesis doesn’t hold up”. To which Marks replies:

No, Chagnon is the one with a hypothesis, and his data are statistically inadequate to either confirm or deny it.  Moreover, when Nicholas Wade writes, “Dr. Chagnon said he was familiar with those criticisms but called them invalid and said none had been published in a peer-reviewed journal”  he puts an unchallenged falsehood in Chagnon’s mouth in support of this poor scientific reasoning In science, if you make a claim, you have to demonstrate its validity and do the proper controls.  Or else shut up.  Really. That’s not an extravagant demand; it is an expectation.

Emphasis is in the original there folks.

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Chagnon vs. Asch

Asch

It seems a lot of anthropologists have had cause to write angry letters in response to Chagnon’s latest book: Sahlins, Fuentes and Marks here on Savage Minds, and a host of others elsewhere (see Anthropology Report for a good rundown). But I thought Jay Ruby’s criticism was unique enough that it deserved it’s own post. Sent to VISCOM, an email list for visual anthropology, Ruby wrote the following:

For me, the most annoying thing about this book is Chagnon’s attempt to erase Tim Asch’s contribution to the production of the Yanomamo films.  At one point, Chagnon even refers to the films as “my documentary films.” I knew Tim Asch as a friend and colleague.  We had many discussions about his collaboration with Chagnon.  Anyone interested in reading about Asch’s view of the collaboration should look at Chapter 4 of my book, Picturing Culture (2000, U of Chicago press). When it was commonly assumed that the best way to make an ethnographic film was for a filmmaker to collaborate with an ethnographer, The Asch-Chagnon collaboration was regarded as the model. Few people knew that the partnership was a disaster with Asch literally begging Chagnon to spend more time working on these films. Their relationship was so unpleasant that when Asch died in 1994, Chagnon refused to contribute to a planned memorial.  To say Chagnon’s treatment of Asch in this book is unjust and petty is an understatement.

* The photograph of Timothy Asch posted above is taken from the DER Timothy Asch website.

Sahlins resigns from NAS as Chagnon enters

Since David Graeber’s widely cited tweet on Saturday, Savage Minds has been able to confirm (read: Marshall sent me an email) that Marshall Sahlins has resigned from the National Academy of Sciences and that his resignation has been accepted. As Sahlins tells it, his main reason for the resignation is Chagnon’s election to the US’s National Academy of Sciences:

By the evidence of his own writings as well as the testimony of
others, including Amazonian peoples and professional scholars of the
region, Chagnon has done serious harm to the indigenous communities
among whom he did research. (See my review of Tierney in the Washington
Post, 2000, below). At the same time, his “scientific” claims about
human evolution and the genetic selection for male violence–as in the
notorious study he published in 1988 in Science–have proven to be
shallow and baseless, much to the discredit of the anthropological
disciple. At best, his election to the NAS was a large moral and
intellectual blunder on the part of members of the Academy. So much so
that my own participation in the Academy has become an embarrassment.

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The New York Times on Chagnon

I received this link via the e-anth listserv and thought I would pass it along.  This piece in the NY Times gives a pretty good overview of some of the controversies and debates that have surrounded the career of Napoleon Chagnon.  Here’s the intro:

Among the hazards Napoleon Chagnon encountered in the Venezuelan jungle were a jaguar that would have mauled him had it not become confused by his mosquito net and a 15-foot anaconda that lunged from a stream over which he bent to drink. There were also hairy black spiders, rats that clambered up and down his hammock ropes and a trio of Yanomami tribesmen who tried to smash his skull with an ax while he slept. (The men abandoned their plan when they realized that Chagnon, a light sleeper, kept a loaded shotgun within arm’s reach.) These are impressive adversaries — “Indiana Jones had nothing on me,” is how Chagnon puts it — but by far his most tenacious foes have been members of his own profession.

At 74, Chagnon may be this country’s best-known living anthropologist; he is certainly its most maligned. His monograph, “Yanomamö: The Fierce People,” which has sold nearly a million copies since it was first published in 1968, established him as a serious scientist in the swashbuckling mode — “I looked up and gasped when I saw a dozen burly, naked, filthy, hideous men staring at us down the shafts of their drawn arrows!” — but it also embroiled him in controversy.

I heard various takes on Chagnon throughout my anthropological training.  I read his book about the “Yanomamo” in some of my very first classes at community college, and then as the years went on I heard about the debates, the fights, the controversies.  When I first heard his name I had no idea he was such a controversial figure.  But then, a lot of thing[s] that I first heard about in my early anthropology courses became a bit more “complicated” along the way.  It’s interesting to me that this author calls Chagnon the best-known living anthropologist.  Maybe he is.  I guess it depends on who you ask though–and where you ask.  Anyway, this NY Times piece is an interesting overview of some of these histories, and it’s worth reading.  Read the rest here.

UPDATE 2/20/13: A lot of folks posted some great resources and links in the comment thread.  I thought I’d update the post and put them up here to make things a little more accessible.  As Jason Antrosio said, this story definitely needs some serious contextualization.  Let me know if you have other links/sources and I will add them here.

1. Elizabeth Povinelli’s review of Chagnon’s new book.

2. Response to the NY Times piece by AAA president Leith Mullings.

3. Jon Marks on Jared Diamond and Napoleon Chagnon.

4. Sociobalderdash, and the Yanomami? Part II by Ken Weiss.

5. Meet Joe Science by Jonathan Marks.

6. Marshall Sahlins on Chagnon’s research.

7. What the press is saying about Napoleon Chagnon (Louis Proyect)

8. The Weird Irony at the Heart of the Napoleon Chagnon Affair (John Horgan @Scientific American)

…Rob Weir needs to go get his shinebox

I’ve always enjoyed reading Rob Weir’s columns in Inside Higher Education. He’s insightful, his advice is actually good (a rarity on the Internet) and he seemed to have a connection (somehow?) with anthropology. Although a lot of what he writes is for students or new faculty, I’ve benefitted from it. His latest column on Aaron Swartz, however, is a true disaster that indicates his profound naiveté about that last decade or so of thought that has occurred around scholarly publishing.

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Who Built the Internet? We Did! (Part 5)

In 2006, according to Time Magazine, the theory of technoindividualism “took a serious beating.” In electing You to the position of the Person of the Year, Time prophesized the fourth discourse of internet historiographical revisionism following President Obama’s statement. It was not the state, corporations, or genius insiders who made the internet, nonfiction best seller author and transhuman apologist Steven Johnson claimed in the New York Times, but Us who built the internet. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? The State! (Part 3)

Despite Crovitz’s best wishes, Taylor’s Xerox PARC Ethernet didn’t become the internet as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo and Time’s Harry McCracken explain. Two days later, Manjoo rebutted Crovitz’s “almost hysterically false” argument. Aligning with given wisdom, Manjoo stated that the internet was financed and created by the US government. Despite being more historically accurate than Crovitz’s argument this statement is also political. In reminding the residents of Roanoke of the government’s role in the founding of the internet, President Obama, according to Manjoo, “argued that wealthy business people owe some of their success to the government’s investment in education and basic infrastructure.” This argument is progressive, social democratic, or socially liberal–advocating for responsible taxation and the shared burden of national identification, and is therefore a political narrative opposed to the Darwinism of technolibertarianism expounded by the Technology Liberation Front. Continue reading

Who Built the Internet? Corporations! (Part 2)

Obama may have gaffed, neoliberal assistant editors at Fox News and the Republican National Committee, exploitatively edited, repurposed, and exaggerated the speech, but it was Wall Street Journal writer L. Gordon Crovitz who mistook the misedits as evidence for US executive branch internet revisionism. Crovitz, ex-publisher of the Journal, ex-executive at Dow Jones, and social media start-up entrepreneur, attacked President Obama’s statement that the internet was funded and engineered by the federal government. “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet,” he idiosyncratically declared. The crux of Crovitz’s argument was focused on Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPAnet, a US DAPRA project that connected computer networks to computer networks. Taylor, according to Crovitz, stated that this proto-internet, “was not an Internet.” And therefore, most importantly for Crovitz, this meant that President Obama was dead wrong, Taylor, a federal employee at this time did not help to invent the internet. The internet was not made by engineers paid by public but private hands. Crovitz’s twist on the accepted story is that Taylor later made a different internet, ethernet, at Xerox PARC where we worked after DARPA. And it was Ethernet that became the internet. Continue reading

Peggy R. Sanday: “Why don’t some boys see it as rape?”

Anthropologist Peggy R. Sanday has a new article on CNN that discusses rape and (male) youth culture in regards to the ongoing case in Steubenville, OH.  Here’s an excerpt:

The rape case unraveling in Steubenville, Ohio, brought back memories of my own frightening experience. I didn’t know what was happening that day when the four young men began looking at me differently. I only knew that I had to get away as soon as possible.

In the Steubenville case, a girl who was incapacitated by alcohol purportedly passed out and was allegedly sexually assaulted by two young men on the high school football team while others watched.

What strikes me about the incident is that it demonstrates a split in the boy rape-prone sexual culture. Some young men continue to believe that when a girl gets drunk, staging a sexual spectacle for their mates is part of a night’s fun. They don’t think of it as rape. Some of their buddies, however, disagree. In their transition to manhood, they are able to name rape when they see it.

Read the rest of Sanday’s article here.