This Saturday I’m Marching for Science and You Should Too

This Earth Day, 22 April, People across the world will be celebrating the important role that science plays in supporting human freedom and prosperity. This is an event that anthropologists everywhere should participate in. If you are an anthropologist who likes freedom and prosperity — and I’m guessing you are — then you should get out there this weekend and celebrate that fact.

Some people might say that anthropology is somehow opposed to science, but nothing could be further from the truth. Some anthropologists consider themselves scientists, while other consider themselves humanists, while yet others consider the humanities-science binary problematic. We are also aware that ‘science’ itself is not a simple term. As Steven Shapin has pointed out, scientists themselves don’t have a coherent meta-scientific account of what science is.

But a keen interest in how science works and the interesting epistemological questions raised but science studies are on thing. Actually opposing science is something else. I think  if Bruno Latour found out  people were becoming anti-vaxxers because they read Aramis he would begin vomiting uncontrollably. No. These very interesting, highly abstract discussions should not distract us from the more fundamental things that we agree on as a discipline: That life is better when we understand the world around us, that this understanding should be available for everyone and not just the powerful, and that we can make better decisions about our lives when we know how the world works.

Of course, if you are an anthropologist who is critical of science, perhaps you should not support the march. If you think that the government should not make policy based on evidence, then you shouldn’t support the march. If you don’t want our children to have cutting-edge science education, then don’t go. If you don’t think that we should include voices and contributions from people of all identities and backgrounds in science, then feel free to stay home  — because the march is about supporting all of those things.

But I doubt our discipline is so muddled that there are very many people like that. Anthropology tends to skew left harder than most social sciences, and the left has gotten really good at talking about what it is against. But now we need to start talking about what we are for. We need to be honest about our value commitments, and we need to be clear about the bedrock assumptions of our discipline. I think anthropology is with science and against ignorance. We are with science because we believe in the power of skepticism to improve what we know about the world by asking “but how do we know this?” and “is this the best we can do?” We are with science because we think people have stories that need to be heard because those stories are true, even if they are inconvenient for the powerful. We are with science because we believe our discipline has results that are factual and accurate and important. We are with science because our ethnography tells us what it is like to live in places where free speech is stifled, where communication is controlled by the government,  where students are taught lies, and where disconfirming evidence is explained away as the work of provocateurs. And we don’t want to live in that world.

So this Earth Day come out for science and be part of the conversation. Its the best way to show how important anthropology is to science, and how important science is to anthropology.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

2 thoughts on “This Saturday I’m Marching for Science and You Should Too

  1. Scientists may not agree on a single, coherent account of what science is. Shapin’s evidence clearly demonstrates that. Suppose, however, that we distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. The assumption that there must be a great variety of sufficient conditions to account for, to borrow a phrase from Isabel Stenger, the various ecologies of practice found in and within sciences as diverse as physics, anatomy, and soil science does not rule out the possibility of agreement on necessary conditions. I think, for example, of those spelled out by Michael Agar in The Lively Science: a combination of fact, logic, and careful searching for evidence that contradicts existing ideas. How many scientists would deny that these are essential elements in what they do?

  2. “Scientists may not agree on a single, coherent account of what science is.”

    Perhaps the best justification for anthropology offered this week.

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