Margaret Mead, between 1930 and 1950. (Library of Congress; Edward Lynch, World-Telegram staff photographer)

Science wars are coming back: and this time, they are being promoted by a combination of conservative politicians and media, albeit probably for different purposes.

First up, the politicians. A story in Inside Higher Ed this week covers the conservative political backlash against Federal funding for research that is seen as unscientific. Inside Higher Ed correctly noted that the US representative involved praised the National Science Foundation "for supporting discoveries in the "hard" sciences (typically math, engineering, and the physical, natural and computational sciences)" that he accepted have had good economic impacts.

The congressman contrasted grants in these areas with others he apparently did not find compelling, even though both were intended to provide guidance in formulating new digital media (virtual collaboration on the one hand, and video game sound on the other). While the fields of these grants were engineering, business, and computer science, the attack on NSF funding was almost immediately interpreted as a danger signal for-- the social sciences.

The first person cited responding to the congressman's attack was Howard Silver, described as "executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations".

Why do social sciences feel especially vulnerable when targets are being singled out and lines are being drawn? As Inside Higher Ed notes, "Many times, these salvos -- in which politicians pounce on silly-sounding research projects, often without understanding their underlying purpose -- have ended up backfiring" because the research involved actually has economic significance.

But is that good enough? do we really want to be in a position where research stands or falls on whether someone can envisage an economic use?

And that leads me to the media interest in reigniting science wars. Anthropology, my own field, recently found itself in the eye of a storm of manufactured controversy over, guess what? The word "science".

According to an article in the New York Times, anthropologists were "thrown into turmoil" by tensions between "researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights".

In a follow-up article, the author, Nicholas Wade, continued his division of anthropology between "those who hew closely to scientific tradition versus those who take a more humanistic approach", also characterizing the two groups he claimed were at loggerheads as "evidence-based anthropologists" and "those more interested in advocating for the rights of women or native peoples".

The event that spurred Wade to project this divide onto my discipline was what Daniel Lende, contributor to the PLOS Neuroanthropology blog characterized as "an internal process gone public": the revision of a long range plan by the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association.

The offending section reads:

The purposes of the Association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects. This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research. The Association also commits itself to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

Of course, this is not the mission statement of the AAA. That explicitly says the purpose of the association is:

  • to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological, and linguistic research. [emphasis added]

Think that's just a relic of the good old days? Then consider the AAA's current statement "What is Anthropology?"

Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences.

But it is much more convenient for all those with an investment in reviving science wars to ignore facts, ironically, even while claiming to hold the high ground as defenders of empirical realities.

Greg Downey, who also blogs at Neuranthropology, put the issue most clearly:

To me, the people doing much of the most outrageous arguing are anthropologists with well-ground axes or are outsiders who have some sort of interest in stirring up a ruckus in our field, like vandals who take advantage of a social protest to smash a few windows and have a bit of a lark.

Or maybe a better analogy is a pack of enthused spectators hoping two angry drunk guys can be goaded into a punch-up if the spectators just keep shouting, ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!' It's all fun, but someone's liable to wind up with a headache in the morning.

What that headache is, for me, is simple: by drawing a line between "evidence-based" and "advocacy" anthropology, Nicholas Wade-- and others who have weighed in along the same lines-- ignore the reality of anthropology as a social science, and I would suggest, of all the social sciences-- including psychology-- today.

Social sciences are distinctive because our objects of study are human beings.

That means that we are constantly engaged in proposing generalizations that can be questioned by those whose actions they purport to explain. It means that what we say matters profoundly, because even a badly worded generalization can still end up serving as the basis of governmental policy. As anthropologists have long noted, the people we study also can internalize our analyses, so we do more than merely describe a situation: we can promote a new way of talking about that situation among those we study. (Just think about how widespread talk about "culture" is in the US today for a nearby example.)

Anthropologists today understand that studying human beings entails being engaged scholars.

Consider the second line from the mission statement of the AAA:

  • to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.

Anthropology's strength comes from its insistence on both conducting evidence-based investigations and reflecting on those in contributions to policy debates: advocacy. A great example of this combination is the RACE initiative of the American Anthropological Association.

Contrary to what Nicholas Wade wants to claim, "evidence" doesn't just mean the things archaeologists like me, or biological anthropologists, measure and weigh.

Nor is it the case that the only people concerned with engaging in public advocacy are some wishy-washy postmodern cultural anthropologists. Among the people signing on to the new language in the AAA long range plan, specifically intended to make it clearer to a public how broad the field of anthropology actually is, were four archaeologists and a physical anthropologist. The Archaeology Division of the AAA-- of which I am an officer-- debated the issue and came out in support of the good intentions of the Executive Board, satisfied that there was no desire to repudiate science.

They-- and I-- agree that it is crucial for anthropology to have a public impact, and not necessarily one that a conservative congressman would be comfortable with.

And we are not alone: at the 2010 Annual Meeting, archaeologist Jeremy Sabloff, president of the Santa Fe Institute, called for anthropologists to produce a new generation of Margaret Meads, engaged public intellectuals.

Again, Greg Downey is, I think, right on target about who wins if we let ourselves get caught up in these manufactured controversies:

forces outside the University and research community more generally often use exaggerated rhetoric from our internal battles against us, manipulating us into fighting each other for their own purposes (‘Fight! Fight! Fight!'). I'm not saying it's some sort of conspiracy; rather, when anti-intellectuals want to delegitimize academic inquiry, or when people on the border want to attack those on the other side or in the middle zone, they elevate any critique from within science for their own purposes.

Social scientists have to preserve our right to use whatever tools we need in understanding humankind in all its aspects (the language that was added to the Long Range Plan to clarify that anthropology is an inclusive discipline).

We need to defend the role of social sciences in advocacy. Otherwise, we risk agreeing with conservative politicians who want science done the old-fashioned way: as an effort to describe facts without context, and without concern about what might be done about these facts.

Most Recent Posts from What Makes Us Human

Family Reunion

The ancestral human family expands, putting a spotlight on treatment of the dead

Aztec Marriage: A Lesson for Chief Justice Roberts

Has "a single social institution" formed the basis for human civilization? No.

Chez Chimp: Why Our Primate Cousins Don't Cook

Chimpanzees "cook" food for researchers. It doesn't mean they want a restaurant.