The joy of pseudo-science

[I should edit this and really distinguish cultural anthropology from “anthropology”, but instead I won’t since it reflects the confusion in my mind well.]

Call me a sucker, but I’ve always been one to jump into the “is anthropology a science?” debate. For most of my undergrad degree, being that I was in an arts program, I never assumed it was science. I met all sorts of activists talking about saving the world. But then came a challenging professor, who was adamant that it was a science. I took offense, and wondered “if this is science, can we call what used to be science something else? Because using the term for two very different things doesn’t make sense to me.” But that is exactly what was happening. I realized that anthropologists who consider it a science do not use the word science in the same way. They do not agree to definitions of science produced in the hard sciences, and instead redefine understand the word differently.

Next thing you know people are arguing about whether or not something is a science, when science itself is undefined! Does it matter if a study is scientific? What does that mean?

Here is a fantastic example of how such debates begin. The video is from Richard Feynman who wrote some great books, such as “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” which I enjoyed a lot. He is also a freakin genius who worked on various nuclear devices, inspired thousands of students, writes incredibly well etc… Did I mention nobel prize winner? I could go on, but I prefer to criticize.

So what exactly is he saying? Not a lot. He argues “he knows that it means to know something”, and that “he doesn’t know the world very well”. So on one side, we can get better at *knowing* something, but how can we also “know about the world”?  Through pseudo-science and opinion? Yup.  (and throw in a heavy dose of everything non-academic.)

Or better yet, let’s stop thinking and just have smoke some orange juice!

[so how do we define ‘social science’?]  -> and yet if we say it isn’t a science, what does that mean?

who cares about universal laws? -> being ‘pseudo-scientific’ isn’t a problem, + he’s completely right that anthropology borrowed heavily from the natural sciences, possibly out of necessity to get funding and respect. There are also debates in the blogsphere about how peer review, and even the journal format are borrowed and possibly maladapted to anthropology.

[is “scientific” language taken more seriously? ]

[what about linguistics? So many kinds of social science!] -> just because I’m not pushing science doesn’t mean others aren’t.

[here it comes —->  anthropologist…

… as scientist
… as researcher
… as activist
… as artist
… as journalist
… as author                                            ]


10 responses to this post.

  1. Interesting post Owen…I am just wondering where do you locate the anthropologist as a professor in these categories, and within each category you mentioned there is a subcategory, for instance, the researcher might work in business, or academic institutions, etc …It would be also interesting to think about how the social science has developed…When it was named and acknowledged as science…Who named it…When and Where and Why it named as a science…Why there is a “need” to call it science I believe is important point to be developed
    Regarding what is social science, there is a good example of of a social scientist called Ibn Khaldun take a look at this wiki, and it may inspire you
    Nice post 🙂


  2. Posted by Sabina on January 26, 2009 at 5:47 am

    My question is: well, does it matter if anthropology is a science or not? If sometimes, then when and for what reason? The thing with words is that no one has the same definition for the same words, ever. You can try to formalize words in fields to try to get them to have a technical definition, but in every day terms, it really doesn’t matter.

    Do people generally care about precise definitions of words? No. Are chemists enraged that we call what comes out of the tap water when it’s not pure H2O? Probably not. Would you be annoyed if you asked someone for a fruit and they gave you a tomato? Probably, though biologists classify tomatoes as fruit.

    So what is the definition of science, then, and does anthropology fit in? I don’t know very much about anthropology, so it’s not something that I’m going to attempt to answer. But what’s important to note is that people use words in a certain way and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can hardly ever argue with someone and convince them to change their definition of a word. But you can arrive at a common ground if you explain what the underlying definition of the word you’re arguing about is.

    Here are some excerpts from slides from a class I took that try to define science:

    A science may be viewed as a system of statements S on some domain of the world.

    The statements S are general principles or laws, i.e. they are statements expressed in general terms. These statements should provide an accurate description and explanation of phenomena which have already been observed.

    The statements S should explain the observed phenomena but they should also extend beyond the observed phenomena and make predictions about novel situations.

    The statements in S are related not only through their subject matter, but also because they must meet certain logical conditions; for instance, the system S should be consistent, i.e. it should not be the case, for any statement P, that the system S contains both P and its negation.

    There are different models of science. Two famous ones are Aristotelian and Galilean models of science. The one most sciences adopt nowadays is the Galilean model (or a modified version of it):

    A hypothetical deductive science (Galilean) is a system of statements S which meet
    the following conditions:
    – a system of statements bearing on some empirical domain.
    – Most of these statements represent hypotheses/ conjectures/guesses on the structure of the real.
    – The novelty lies in the fact that these hypotheses have testable consequences, that is, consequences that can be tested by experimentation. The experiment, as part of the active confrontation with nature, may confirm of falsify any of these hypotheses. The hypotheses are accepted as true only after experimental verification; they are susceptible of revision, can be criticized and superseded by better ones.
    – these hypotheses are logically ordered, each deriving from some set of preceding ones.
    – formalization and mathematicization.

    I don’t consider linguistics to be a social science because I assume that social sciences have to do with looking at the way humans interact in some way or another. (but I have no idea.) Linguistics doesn’t care about communication, the interesting part for us is not how humans end up describing their feelings to each other or give them instructions or whatever. What we care about is figuring out what’s common to all languages, the rules or whatever else might be the thing that we’re born with that allows us to acquire language, regardless of what language it is. All of this is very abstract and it has to do with the mechanism in the brain that allows us to acquire, compute and generate language. It has nothing to do with language use or communication. It’s trying to figure out what is happening in the mind. Linguistics is generally labeled as a cognitive science for this reason. But the short answer to why linguistics is a science is because it follows the Galilean model of science.

    But who cares if linguistics is a science or not? I don’t, you probably don’t, either. If you care about why that professor considers anthropology to be a science, you should ask him what it means for something to be a science.


  3. Posted by Sabina on January 26, 2009 at 6:16 am

    By linguistics I meant theoretical linguistics (phonology, syntax, and possibly semantics, depending on who you ask). Phonetics, evolutionary, historical, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics haven’t really been following the same principles or ideas about language as the general theoretical linguistics enterprise, though some people have started to “reinterpret” the subfields and be Chomskyan within them. Linguistics only started to be scientific in the late 50’s and so it hasn’t been looking at language scientifically for very long. The hope is that the study of linguistics will someday tell us about the biology of humans, since we assumes that there is a “language organ” of some sort in the brain. But anyway, I just wanted to explain why I think it was classified as a social science on Wikipedia. I don’t care about any of the non-theoretical stuff and I used linguistics to refer to just the theoretical stuff.


  4. Thanks Sara and Sabina for your replies! I certainly stepped in a big one with this post.

    Sabina, you are right that I’m not worried about cultural anthro being a science, or about it not being one, but I am trying to ‘shore up’ my understanding of the criticisms against anthropology and of my own biases and methods. Why do I dislike the ‘science’ of anthropology? Where did I pick this taste up?

    As you point out there are many different conceptions of science, so that might be the best place to counter the “it’s pseudo-science” critique that Feynman voiced.

    Sara, the need for science that you question is a big one for the current stage of my research. I suppose I am trying to consider all the different audiences, and ways ‘the science of anthropology’ can be understood.

    For one, maybe it has nothing to do with method, or epistemology. The debate is also of vocabulary. When we say anthropology needs to be scientific is it pointing to the way scientific words and phrases are used to generate credibility? Or is it about the methods themselves?

    lol, I just thought to myself ‘the science of anthropology was and is not monolithic’.

    I’ll work on a better definition of cultural anthropology, and the ways it ‘judges’ good research from bad. Understanding the science in anthropology is one way I’m trying to investigate the activist and practical sides of anthropology. I realize the whole debate is quite slopppy around definitions, and that I have a lot of work ahead of me if I hope to dig my way out of this hole.

    Coincidentally Max assigned quite a few papers on this topic in a previous class I took with him.
    Sometimes however I like to just dive in headfirst into a blog post, without doing research. And this is what it gets you. I’ll be hitting the books to ‘shore’ this post up asap.


  5. Posted by baddestofthebad aka rsrcher aka mike on January 29, 2009 at 6:24 am

    This is a very cool & enticing discussion (I’d offer a simile, but for fear of offending specific-undefined publics I’ve not yet explored). The ‘scientific’ (non)status of cultural anthropology (cultural studies, sociology, etc.) runs up immediately in my mind with the notion of ‘ideology critique’ and all of that baggage…think Althusser’s ‘apistemological break’ and ‘scientific Marxism.’ No change is good unless slipped in at the most opportune moment. 1968? “Infantile leftists.” Can we get behind the self-apparent, common understanding, individual subjectivity or “ontology as presence”?

    In the realm of the social, the ‘scientific’ is so painfully political (it legitimates almost a priori, it also disarticulates the opposition; you know this already, you’ve already moved on to hinting at inadequacies in peer-review procedures cross-discipline) that I think the fundamental question is inescapable, despite all of the post-haters. Method/epistemology are just constructions intended to shore up our confidences in intersubjective understanding; how well/badly?

    As for the question of when/how the social ‘sciences’ were named as such, Saint-Simonian, Comtean sociology did the trick, from the narrative I’ve been fed (and they both founded their own religions out of the exploit!)

    Escaping mystification or ‘ignorance’ (‘ideology’, pejorative sense) seems to be the point of ‘science’…so is the description of ‘mystification’ or ‘(re-)enchantment’, of meaning-structures and beliefs (affects, contingencies, possibilities)that have a profound effectivity and independent existence regardless of validity vis-a-vis physics, teleological history, analytical reason, etc. still science? Naw…but who cares?

    Figuring out the world means figuring out that people can’t be (meaningfully) figured out on terms other than their own. Knowing human systems like we (well, other people) know physics problems would be an ethical dystopia. No?


  6. Thanks very much for the contributions. The ‘crowd’ really came through on this post. From this discussion I think we can safely say cultural anthropology doesn’t need to be a ‘science’ to be valuable, and that arguments about it being scientific are often based on differing definitions. Moving beyond that gets tricky (for me anyways!)…

    Depending on what definition of science one has, aspects of cultural research are scientific. This opposes the critical/activist/engaged/practical/woken up side popular in cultural anthropology.

    It seems that being transparent with ones method is an important aspect, given the idea that readers will be able to establish the credibility of your work based on how well they understand how you got your results. Sounds reasonable, except from Feynman’s general attitude we can assume he didn’t buy social research methods at all. Maybe he didn’t take the time to understand them, and it’s really too bad he didn’t go into more detail because in the end it turns into the familiar scene of two academics banging their hands on their chests to see who’s more right! (err sorry scientific.)

    Also interesting, Loic Wacquant calls part of his research method a ‘quasi-scientific’ study, giving us more than just pseudo-science to play with 🙂


  7. Here is a nice piece from “Open the Social Sciences. Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences” from Wallerstein et al.

    “The idea that we can reflect intelligently on the nature of humans, their relations to each other and to spiritual forces, and the social structures that they have created and within which they live is at least as old as recorded history. And there is the oral wisdom that has been passed on through the ages, and often put into written form at one point of another. No doubt, much of this wisdom was the result of culling inductively from the fullness of experienced human life in one of another part of the world over a long period of time, even if the results were presented in the form of revelation of rational deduction from some inherent eternal truths.

    What we today call social science is heir to this wisdom. It is, however, a distant heir, and perhaps often an ungrateful and unacknowledging heir, for social science consciously defined itself as the search for truths that went beyond such received or deduced wisdom. Social science is an enterprise of the modern world. Its roots lie in the attempt, full-blown since the sixteenth century, and part and parcel of the construction of our modern world, to develop systematic, secular knowledge about reality that is somehow validated empirically. This took the name of scientia, which simply meant knowledge. Of course, philosophy, etymologicaly, also means knowledge, or more precisely the love of knowledge.” (p2)

    I wonder how much I can quote before I get into fair use issues…

    ” … By the beginning of the ninetheeenth century, the division of knowledge into two domains had lost the sense of their being “separate but equal” spheres and took on the flavor of a hierarchy, at least in the eys of natural scientists – knowledge that was certain (science) vs knowledge that was imagined … (what was not science.) Finally. in the beginning of the nineteenth century, the triumph of science was ensconced linguistically. The term “science” without a specifying adjective came to be equated primarily (often exclusively) with natural science.” (p5)

    I highly recommend the book if anyone else stumbles down this line of questioning.


  8. Posted by Pearl on March 20, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    every discipline is evolving, interconnected and almost encompassing, we just have to accept that. even if you ask the most intelligent person in the world, she/he cannot define science where everyone will agree, as we define and understand things differently. all are relative
    but if you ask my opinion, social science is indeed a science just like geography which is under this category. haha..


  9. I agree Pearl, and I’m also going to avoid/ignore this topic in my thesis.


  10. Well it turns out this topic is too hot and too important to avoid. Making some serious edits to chapter 2 in the thesis to better incorporate this debate.

    Here is an article discussing reactions to the American Anthropology Association’s recent change to its’ definition of anthropology, where it removed mention of “science”. How can I not include this?


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