The Remains of the AAA

What is the American Anthropological Association thinking in purging science?

Posted Dec 01, 2010

A few days ago I wrote about the move at the American Anthropological Association to systematically remove "science" from its stated goals. Since then Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education have started covering this story, and I've gotten a veritable flood of mail from scientists expressing sympathy for what I said in my blog. So I thought I'd provide a brief follow-up with a few points worth noting.

After reading my last blog post, my friend Jim Brown wrote to note that anthropology may be facing the kind of association split that psychology went through decades ago. Jim is an academic psychologist and the current president of Cornell College, where I taught this past April. Here's what he said:

"Almost 30 years ago, psychological scientists faced a related situation when the venerable APA [American Psychological Association] became an almost wholly-owned subsidiary of the clinical profession and left out the majority of those with a scientific orientation to become a guild looking out for the professional compensation and professional liability of clinicians. This led to the formation of the APS [American Psychological Society], and most evidence-based psychologists eventually dropped their APA membership. Not a glorious chapter in the history of psychology nor of our society."

Mark Collard, Canada Research Chair in Human Evolutionary Studies at Simon Fraser University's Department of Archaeology, wrote to say, "It was particularly ironic reading your piece this morning, because today is the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society of London (the world's oldest continuously-operating science academy) and they've just set up a website on which cultural evolution is listed as one of 12 major cutting-edge scientific endeavours." Added Mark, "So, the AAA has decided to drop science just as cultural evolution has become a cutting-edge scientific undertaking. Bloody marvelous! There's nothing like deliberately making yourself irrelevant."

Finally, one has to wonder, when are the people elected by the AAA to be their officers going to start taking reporters' calls? When the press has come a-callin', the AAA has opted to send out only a paid spokesperson, one Damon Dozier, a fellow who might well have had to take this job after the Republicans lost power, given his Daily Show-worthy spinning. My favorite quotes from Dozier:

"The removal of any mention of science from the plan's mission statement applies only to the long-range plan -- and not to the organization itself or its larger direction, said Damon Dozier, a spokesman for the association." Riiiiight. So long-range plans don't apply to directions the AAA will be taking, huh?

And this:

"'I understand that certain sections are preparing petitions to send to the executive board and to our president,' Mr. Dozier says. ‘That's how our process works, and I think it's a very open process.'" Oh yes, it opens right up when the membership goes berserk and starts sending in angry communications. Might have been nice if this started with top-down consultation with the membership, rather than bottom-up cries of pain?

Then there's this beauty: "Mr. Dozier, meanwhile, believes that this month's dispute has been rooted in miscommunication. ‘We wanted to choose language that described our purposes in more expansive ways,' he says. No one realized, he says, how loaded the word ‘science' actually might be."

OK, kids, stop laughing. Given the history of the AAA in the last forty years, it is possible that no one in the AAA executive offices uses the word "science," no less practices it. Dozier probably lives in a little office suite blissfully free of discussions of evidence and science. So how was he gonna know?