Monday, December 27, 2010

Frank Bessac, Asian Specialist, Crosses the Divide

Earlier this month Frank B. Bessac passed away at age 88 (1922-2010).  He had been professor of Anthropology at the University of Montana.  He was my mentor there and the lead professor on my Masters thesis.

Obits can be found here and here and suddenly there is a brand new Wikipedia essay here.  There had not been one yesterday, the 26th

Bessac is mostly being remembered for his service as an OSS agent in Inner Asia during WWII and after.  He was also a member of a party that fled Inner Asia into Tibet that ended in tragedy.  That story is one of the great ones of the mid 20th century, related here, here, and here.  Bessac certainly deserves all the honor given to him.

His autobiography is here.

I remember him in two other ways.  First, he was a great teacher and mentor.  In the early 1980s when I was there he was the sage of the department.  Kind, gentle and affable, he always nudged me in the right direction.

Second, he was an excellent Anthropologist and Asian specialist.  He would have us poor grad students work our way through the details of Chinese kinship; he’d get excited and start writing Chinese in the air with his fingers.  I’d have this dull look in my eyes and he’d start over.  I never really got all the fancy kinship stuff but he was a master of it all.

I tip my hat to the Old Master…

Selected Bibliography:

Frank B. Bessac
1963   Culture Types of Northern and Western China.  PhD Dissertation, U. Wisconsin.

1964  Some social effects of land reform in a village on the Taichung plain.  J. Ch. Soc. IV., pp. 15-28. (not sure what the journal abbreviation refers to).

1965. Co-variation between Interethnic Relations and Social Organization in Inner Asia.  Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, v. 50, pp. 373–92.

1965  Revolution and government in Inner Mongolia, 1945-50.  Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, v. 50, pp. 415-429.

1966   Social Consequences of the Land Reform in Taiwan.  Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences, v.26, pp. 76-81.

1967   An Example of Social Change in Taiwan Related to Land Reform. Contributions to Anthropology, No 1, University of Montana.

1969  The Effect of industrialization upon the allocation of labor in a Taiwanese village.  J. Ch. Soc., VI. , pp 13-51. (not sure what the journal is)

1969   Notes on the Restudy of the Land Reform in a Village in Taiwan. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences, v.29, pp. 151-156.

1974   East Asian Cultures.  Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition, pp.122-130.

1981   The Rise and Fall of Landlord Families in Central Taiwan.  Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Asian Studies, pp. 19-45. Asian Research Service, Hong Kong.

1982   The Mother’s Brother in Taiwan. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences, v.41, pp. 131-136.

1982   Some Notes on Chinese Kinship.  Proceedings of the Fourth International Symposium on Asian Studies, pp. 9-20. Asian Research Service, Hong Kong.

1984   Probable Geographic Influences on China.  Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences, v. 43 p. 217-220.

1991   Stalin vs. Bukharin: the Taiwan Case.  Selected papers in Asian studies, new ser., paper no. 38, Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies, 1991.

Frank Bagnall Bessac and  Susanne Leppmann Bessac
2008  To a soldier returning from Iraq, chapter in The tao of anthropology, edited by A. J. Kelso, Gainesville : University Press of Florida.

S. Bessac and F.B. Bessac
1982 American Perceptions of Hmong Ethnicity: A Study of Hmong Refugees in Missoula, Montana, in Studies of Ethnic Minority Peoples, Contributions to Southeast Asian Ethnography Singapour, no 1, pp. 56-71.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

2012: Year of the Dragon

If you want some nostalgia for the American cultural high see here and scroll down to the videos.

I’ll try not to make this one too gloomy.  If such things bother you then skip this one.  Remember, I am working a sociological model to its conclusion.  The model can be wrong.

Previously I discussed American cultural eras (here, and here) and indicated where I think we are in the cultural cycle.  In this essay I compare the US cycle to the Chinese (PRC) one to see how they line up.  The patterns are fairly close.  We are both in secular crisis, with the PRC having started a little later than the US.  

Secular crises are identity crises.  The US has to decide of it will continue to be The Super Power that it has been.  For the PRC, the question is: do they become The New Super Power, or, maybe we could have two super powers. I don’t think other nations are viable challengers, unless they partner up.

When I look back at the large events of American history the episodes of total war within crises always stand out:  King Philips War during the Glorious Revolution, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and WWII.  History book series tend to be defined around those benchmarks. Since American Awakenings have been relatively nonviolent they haven’t gotten much attention.  You have to go back to the Puritan Awakening of the early 17th century and the rise of Cromwell to find a violent one. Awakenings are generally ignored in US history (this blog aims to change that).

In other countries Awakenings have been violent and have led to the overthrow of governments or monarchies, such as the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Awakening rebellions tend to have grass roots leadership intent on correcting the abuses of those in formal power, although they may also have help from high level factions.  They can also lead to long term intermittent warlord like infighting.  Culture War eras start as extensions of the Awakenings and then escalate into the secular crisis.

Total wars with significant genocidal behavior are fought in secular crises; they are either state sponsored wars of complete destruction, or, they are civil wars.  While, in theory, secular crises don’t have to have episodes of genocidal warfare, I have yet to find one that does not (I also haven’t looked far and wide).

Chinese history is bench marked on both secular crises and awakenings.  Every 45 to 50 years they seem to have a significant outbreak of violence.  The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 and here we are 45 years later in secular crisis.  Also, since 1850, benchmark events have always centered on the influences of Western Civilization penetrating into Chinese culture, as if there is a need to resist or purge something Western out of Chinese culture.  It seems that a new purge could come at any time.  I offer some idea of what that might look like.

First and foremost the Chinese are 90% Han ethnicity.  They are a proud culture that believes they are the center of the world [1].  All things are defined in relation to them.  Han chauvinism is renowned.  They are the Middle Kingdom.  The further you go away from the center the greater a barbarian you are.  The ruler leads due to the Mandate of Heaven and all others kowtow and pay tribute to him. Three hundred years of Westerners meddling in Chinese politics and one hundred years of sustained Western influence since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty does not erase 2000 years of sino-centrism.  As Christ is central to the identity of a devout Christian so is Han chauvinism to the Han people.  And they have hidden it very well these last few decades under the blanket of “communism” [2].

In traditional China all non-family relations were of a patron-client form (the Asian version, not the European one).  One side always had the upper hand but also had to be protective of the other side because the relation would eventually fail if they did not. While both are dependent on each other the patron works to ensure that the client becomes asymmetrically more dependent.  Since 1978, when China began opening up again to outside influences and trade, it has worked hard to establish patron-client relationships.

Americans typically think of partnerships as being one of equals working toward a common goal. The Chinese do not. One side always gets the upper hand.

The US is now heavily in debt to the Chinese and we are dependent on their cheep goods.  To the Chinese, we are the client.  Obama has bowed to their ruler.  The next step is to kowtow.  (They will accept a symbolic kowtow; it doesn't have to be a real prostration).

China is ripe for a re-expression of its core identity.  The great purge that is coming will be the abandonment of any pretext that they are communists. Communism is a Western idea. Purge it.

The Cultural Revolution gives great insight on this.  That Awakening was a conflict between communism and Han chauvinism as Mao had tried to stamp it out from the beginning (here) but failed. In 1966 Mao tried to make communism a heavier blanket over the culture, it backfires against him, starting a successful resistance. The communists destroyed artifacts and libraries of Chinese culture, they put intellectuals into communes, but they couldn’t change the core culture of the Han.  After Mao’s death in 1976 the Chinese, under Deng, made three decisions:  honor Mao for being the savior of the nation [3], ignore his failure in the Cultural Revolution, and allow communism to wane.  Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism all rebounded quickly.  Traditionally having been a trading culture, they slowly opened to the world and slowly gained economic power using the patron-client relationship.

Today, China is ripe to reveal itself as the Dragon it is and always has been.  And on the Chinese calendar, 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, a time when dragons roam freely in the world and take what they want.  Taiwan and South Korea are emeralds worthy of their taking [4].

When the time comes Americans will have to stand tall, not kowtow, and say “the Mandate of Heaven is revoked.”

Game on.

Table 1:  Comparison of American and Chinese cultural eras. Some Chinese events will link to Wikipedia.
Cultural Era
Secular Crisis
Crisis of Confidence
Global Economic Crisis

Culture Wars/Unraveling
 Post Scientism
Opening of PRC to Western influences and trade; one child policy erodes demographics; SARS; human rights

4th; Consciousness Revolution
Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square; 1 to 20 million dead

Cultural High
 American High
PRC under Mao; PRC mostly closed to outside world; ROC

Secular Crisis
 Depression & WWII
Spanish Civil War
Culture Wars/Unraveling
 WWI & Prohibition

3rd Awakening

Western Imperialism ends Qing Dynasty: Boxer Rebellion, 1898-1901, a Chinese  nationalist revival against western ideas (many thousands dead); Xinhai Revolution 1911
Russian Revolution,
Mexican Revolution,
Philippine Insurrection
Cultural High
 Gilded Age
Self-Strengthening Movement, Qing Dynasty builds against Western influences.

Secular Crisis
 slavery Compromise fails
Taiping Rebellion; a Chinese Christian movement against the Qing Dynasty; 20 million dead; other rebellions

2nd Great Awakening
White Lotus Rebellion; 16 million dead
French Revolution
South American Revolutions
Secular crisis
American Revolution
Dzungars ethnic genocide 

Update 16 Feb. 2011: Daniel Bell discussed the possibility of revolution in China.  The worst threat is from the 'Nationalists,' a nice way to refer to Han Chauvinism.  This is something worth watching closely.

1.  I am aware that China is a diverse population, so don't get hung up on generalizations here. I've known many Chinese nationals (from PRC and ROC) and yes they are all individuals.  However, you can't get anywhere in a cultural study with useless generalizations such as "everyone is unique."  In grad school I dated a gal from Taiwan.  I once 'complemented' her on a wave in her hair.  She slapped me so hard I had no idea what was wrong.  She said that "Chinese have straight hair." So, I had actually insulted her.  And she had quite a slap.  That was Han chauvinism, and, it is very apparent in the PRC leadership.
2. An old saying in China is that every black-haired child of Han wears a Confucian hat, a Taoist robe, and Buddhist sandals.  To this, add a communist blanket. It's still a Han underneath.
3. During the 1940s Chinese Civil War two strong Western influences were penetrating China. Communism under Mao and capitalism under Chiang Kai-shek.  Mao "saves" China from one western influence, by using another. Now, the remnants of the second one must go away.
4. The positive qualities of the symbolic Chinese Dragon don't suggest that the Chinese leadership would do something rash.  However, the negative qualities do suggest that overreaching for something is possible.  The temptations of power may be too great to resist. China, from 1950-present--what do we call this new dynasty? The PRC Dynasty?

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Call for Wisdom

As the year comes to a close it is time to reflect on the things that are the most meaningful in our lives. Family visits will be enjoyed and lots of food and beverages consumed--mmm good.  I really like pie and plan to have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in between. I know it’s a binge but it’s that time of year and it’s been known to sustain life.

Along with these thoughts I felt a need to continue to ponder the Is-Anthropology-a-Science “shit storm” that has played out for several weeks.  The postmortems are still underway, here and here are examples.  Again, I don’t care what they call themselves.  I do care if the public’s perception of scholarship and research is devalued a little due to events such as this. One should never forget the social contract between scholars and the broader society. New understandings of it are here, here, and here

My perspective on this comes from many years studying American archaeologists, and by extension American Anthropologists.  For archaeologists I’ve described their power structures, critiqued their word games, and forecast the demise of their bread and butter, cultural resource management (see the list here).  I am also an avid reader across the sciences, American history, art history, and philosophy. As a sociologist of scholarship I am interested in the construction of knowledge. 

I’ve learned that Academic Tribes (here & here) are funny creatures. They act like families with their patriarchs and matriarchs, their crazy uncles, their spinster aunts, the kissing cousins, the identical twins, the fraternal twins, the step children, the step dads and moms, the bastards, the orphans, the abandoned and the adopted. They do their genealogies, worship their ancestors, and publish family histories, biographies and autobiographies.  They have family newsletters and every year they have family reunions. Internal feuds are common, sometimes leading to outcasts. And each generation has to prove something to their elders.  Academics are humans with all the vices and virtues that come with that label.

Somehow scholarship became the great quest for Truth.  Scientists and humanists seem to have bought into the quest. However, I don’t think it’s enough. What I want from scholars is Wisdom because it is greater than Truth.

I also know that sets up an apparent paradox. I ask for wisdom but I do not want anyone to seek it. Wisdom, like Truth, is not an end game.  You don’t find it.  It is something that just happens along the way of life.

However, there are guideposts that help judge the wisdom of ideas.  Knowledge that is profound, interesting, and exceptional will likely pass the evaluation. Call it pie.  

I don’t expect every researcher to give me pie; I know it will be a collective effort.
The pie doesn’t have to be useful to me, just to someone.
There is no rush.  Pie can be had at any time and is worth the wait.

Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Credit Unions: Bend Over

OK, the rant for today is about the F*&^%$# big banks and their damn bought off politicians.

Over at Zero Hedge there is an essay about a bill passed in CONgress Dec. 16 that appears to be the first step toward taking out credit unions (CU).   The CUs are regulated by the NCUA and the new legislation redefines what the NCUA can do to help struggling CUs.  Basically, they won’t do much.  And, now CUs can transform themselves into little regular banks that could be then bought out by big banks.  Currently regular banks can’t own a CU as a subsidiary.  So, just change the law such that CUs can stop being CUs.  Screw You.

This will become open season on CUs by the big banks.  Get ready to put your money in your mattress.  

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Secular Crisis and Identity Crisis—American Style

The recent flare up at the American Anthropological Society (AAA) about whether or not they would use the word science in a mission statement reminded me that I haven’t clearly articulated the concept of secular crisis.  In my first essay about the AAA problem I made the comment that they were in an identity crisis. Let’s take a look at what this means.

In the context that I am using the phrase, identity crisis is a social problem.  AAA is an organization whose members join freely because they have some common ground that unites them.  The crisis occurs because that common ground is shaken by new ideas and new power structures among members—the overall trust that exists within the organization becomes mistrust. The group no longer has unified goals and objectives. The crisis is resolved when some resemblance of trust is reestablished; they may or may not redefine their goals and objectives.

Sometimes an identity crisis can be transformative.  In the 1970s-1980s the industry of medicine went through an identity crisis that led to the deprofessionalization of medicine.  In those years the roles and responsibilities of doctors and nurses were redefined (probably due to insurance companies getting more power over the industry).  Part of the resolution was the wider acceptance of other roles (the physician assistant & nurse practitioner) that previously had been minor within the industry.

Likewise, the profession of journalism is currently in an identity crisis.  Journalists are fighting the same battle as AAA. The recent debate between Ted Koppel and Keith Olbermann was about those who adhere to the ethos of Modernism (Koppel) and those who don’t. (Olbermann is similar to the Romantic scientists--he claims to be doing good journalism without adhering to the narrow strictures of old Modernism; Romantic scientists pursue a expanded version of science and don't limit themselves to narrow causality or positivism). Within AAA it’s the Modernist scientists who feel that they are marginalized (Peter Peregrine’s closing comments here) while the Romantic scientists and non scientists are okay with the way things are. Remember, Modernism is fading in American culture while Romanticism is raging.

Additionally, journalism is deprofessionalizing. The rise of the internet, the rise of bloggers, the decline in newspaper readership, and the decline in TV viewing, all point to the transformation of journalism.  Will it survive? I don’t care and I don’t expect Modernist journalism to rebound.

Now, take the idea of identity crisis and step it up a whole level of scale and think about a whole society that is undergoing an identity crisis.  Do the majority of Americans still believe we are Number One? Are we still a superpower? Is the US dollar still the most powerful currency? Is the US military still the best functioning weapon in the world?  Today, it seems that there is much doubt about positive answers to all these questions.  America is in secular crisis.

A secular crisis is a culture wide identity crisis.  However, it has other attributes that make it different such as:  it is transformative because a status quo is changed, genocidal warfare is common, and it is recursive in American culture history.  Previously, I reviewed the cultural eras in American history.  The secular crisis is winter within the Four Seasons theme. Let’s review the crises.

The Glorious Revolution (ca. 1676-1700) from the perspective of colonists
   Identity question: do English colonists have full rights as English citizens?
   Events: King Philip’s War (genocidal); governors from all colonies are evicted via several rebellions; CT, MA and RI colonial charters are terminated-all three are combined into a provisional colony called New England; Salem witch trials.
   Status Quo change: King James dethroned with William and Mary seated jointly; new colonial governors seated.
   Identity resolution:  Colonists are not English citizens with full rights; colonial charters rewritten.

The American Revolution (ca. 1763-1794) from the perspective of colonists
   Identity question: do English colonists have full rights as English citizens?
   Events: Succession (independence); civil war (Continentals v Redcoats); genocidal warfare on western front against Indians, and, in the Carolinas as guerilla fighting.
   Status Quo change:  “these” United States created out of the English empire
   Identity resolution: Americans are free of English control; Tories are evicted.

Slavery Conflict/Civil War (ca 1854-1876)
   Identity question:  can we have slavery and believe in freedom too?
   Events: Succession and civil war with widespread genocidal behavior; reconstruction
   Status Quo change:  The Southern power block that had prevailed since the 1790s was overthrown; the federal government became more powerful.
   Identity resolution:  we believe in freedom; slavery abolished; “these United States” became “the United States”

Depression/WWII (ca 1929-1946)
   Identity question:  Are Americans isolationists or are we a superpower?
   Events: depression; WWII with genocide in the Pacific theater
   Status Quo change: Power center of Western Civilization shifts to US from Europe
   Identity resolution:  the US is a superpower.

Our current Crisis of Confidence (ca 2001 to about 2025)
   Identity question:  is US still Number One?
   Events: World Trade Center attack; War on Terrorism, Great Recession; FED owns everything; we can expect an episode of genocidal warfare
   Status Quo change:  US Dollar replaced? Decline in economic and political influence? Will some wealthy folks get lynched?
   Identity resolution: America will either become a more powerful Superpower or a fallen one.

Our current crisis is still unfolding.  I tend to see it as being similar to the Glorious Revolution and the Civil War era since those played out during Dionysian times.  There will be lots of seemingly isolated events that take place that actually are connected reciprocally or reflexively (but not in a cause/effect way). Thus, I can foresee rebellions in several states with the governors and elected bodies being replaced wholesale like.   I can foresee many wealthy families leaving the country or being lynched.  This could all happen as WW3 plays out overseas and our need for collective emotional release allows for some genocidal events. Resolution will come when there is a sense that fairness is returned to the population; America will either become a more powerful Superpower or a fallen one.

Stepping back down to the organization level, AAA isn’t likely to go through a blood bath.  They either agree to get along or break up. Years ago at Stanford U they chose to break up and now there are two Anthropology programs there, the scientists (Department of Anthropological Sciences) and the non scientists (Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology). Must be nice to have the luxury to afford both.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Curved Roofs and Other Feminine Things

If Modernism was all about cubes, rectangles, and angularity [here] then our new romanticism likely has to add in a curve or two or many.  And, this is one of the traits that will jump out at you as you drive or walk by the new romantic "postmodern" stuff.

One popular curve is called the Curved Roof or Arched Roof.  It is seen everywhere these days in corporate buildings, homes, and utilitarian structures.  Here are some examples. 

[1]. House

[2] Shed

[3] Shelter

[4] Office building.  Kinda looks like Donald Trump's hair.

So now that you get the picture, where else do we see these images and ideas?  How about the things we like to look at.  For example, in health clubs everywhere, the new image is curvy-ness (with or without muscles) as people want roundness not slimness and angularity. And the name Curves resonates with this.

[5] The Curves health club, note the circle training area.

The new goal for women is to just have nice looking curves such as enhanced butts, [6].  Hard to miss those curves.

The old Modernists liked to emphasize the chest with bullet bras, making triangles or pyramids [7].

Meanwhile economist and humorist Jodi Beggs promotes herself using romanticism.  And, of course, she claims to be interested in Behavioral Economics and public economics. No modernist her.  I suspect she wouldn't like a real Rational Man. Her logo [8]

And, of course, we have new eye dazzlers [9].  No need here to embellish an Apollonian base--it's pure right hemisphere Dionysian fun.

In today's America, the important lines of the body and the built environment are curved.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Science and its Social Contract

[This post is a reply to a comment by onathanatos on my previous essay, Trust and Contradictions.  You may have to read those others comments to follow the thread. I put it here as blogger says it's too long as a comment reply.  Also, I'm traveling for three days with little computer access, so I may not reply for a while.]

Hi onathanatos, thanks for your questions.  I hope this narrative helps.

Let me back up and remind everyone that what sparked this conversation was the problem at AAA.  They have a social conflict underway, maybe a power struggle between factions, and the resolution will be a social one. So, eventually there will be some agreement to get along with each other, or they will break up.  They could patch it over and let it simmer a while longer.

My main points have been about the social issues.  AAA has a problem and I assume they will solve it within their organization.  Remember that the problem is about their mission statement. That document is a statement of their unity and their organizational “self” identity.  It is also one of their main ways of telling the general public who they are.  It is a very import presentation. It is one of the ways to affirm the social contract between researchers (scientists or not scientists) and the public.  There are no “ephemeral advantages” with the public.  There are contracts (employment, consulting, etc).

To simplify, the big social contract is that the public, through their taxes and corporations and governments, provide monies and facilities to researchers.  In return researchers provide useful, interesting knowledge and gadgets. At various times the social contract is strong or weak.  In the 1950-1960s the contract was very strong.  For scientists, they could do no wrong (although they could be crazy as in the mad scientist theme).  Scientism was strong (and many people talked about science being a religion).

All this began to weaken and decline through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. There were many issues that assisted this, the rise of anti intellectualism, the reprise of the hard Christian right, etc. Today scientism is weak and the social contract is weak with some cracks.  Some professions are trying to repair the cracks, because they recognize them, and they are doing this under the banner of Public engagement as in public anthropology, public archeology, etc.

Recently, the social contract has taken some big hits and large cracks may even become serious threats.  One was the whole Global Warming fiasco.  Regardless of what your stance on the issue is please understand that it is a public relations nightmare for all scientists.  That there is even the appearance of corruption and fraud by a few scientists reflects poorly on all scientists (especially if there is a smear campaign led by the anti intellectuals).

Next, we have the bad economy.  Here the leadership of American economics drove the economy into a train wreck. They were the conductors and, it is widely understood, they “didn’t see it coming.”  And those on the margins of their power structure did see it, talked about it, and were ignored by the conductors. This tragedy is another blow to the social contract.  The public knows that a scientific profession failed to take care of them. Again, the failure of some scientists reflects poorly on all scientists (please try to understand the perspective of people on the other side of the social contract).

The economic crisis ties us to the Jurassic Park book and to Daniel Bells book.  One of the main reasons that economists didn’t see it coming was that they were arrogant and full of hubris.  They really believed they had it under control.  The plot line of Jurassic Park is that capitalists and scientists partner to create a theme park of genetically engineered dinosaurs. Someone gets greedy and creates a situation where the dinosaurs get free and they eat many people. The scientists and capitalists are discredited (they lose credit, loss of credibility).  The moral of the story is that arrogance and hubris (thinking you know nature and can control it) will likely lead to your downfall. Daniel Bell gives us the social science description of that process.

My argument is that if you blend theory and fact you are adding another insult to the social contract.  Most people are not going to have complex understandings of scientific thought but they often know when they are being bull shit-ed.  In every day parlance that goes on in America facts are explained by theories.  When you tell someone that a theory is a fact their bull shit detector lights up, they think they are being conned or being sold snake oil. 

In the special case of evolution there is the extra energy of the science vs creationism debate that was revived in the 1970s. What happened scientists, did the debate cause so much stress that some needed to firm up their argument and claim that theory was fact? Did you sell yourselves a batch of snake oil? Are you corrupt and fraudulent? Are you purposely making bigger cracks in the social contract?  Are we seeing here the cultural contradictions of science playing out?

My concern is that the argument that evolution is “proved” reeks of arrogance and hubris. As discussed above, that likely does not end well.

Throughout this discussion I have heard that evolution was proved. When did scientists stop disproving theories?  To my knowledge evolution has never been disproven.  But, that is no reason to claim that it is fact.

For those of you who believe that evolution is fact, what theory explains it?  I’ll even help you:
a. the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that... entropy.. closed system
b. derived from a) the Theory of Biological Diversity on Planet Earth, a closed system, states that organic life forms are entropic as they interact within their environment.
c. the theory is supported by the process of evolution
d. evolution has been documented a 100 thousand times across thousands of earthly contexts and situations such that there is a high probability that it functions at a high mean rate with an acceptable standard deviation in un-described earthly situations and contexts.  Once thought to be a theory it was never disproven so is used as fact.

I turn know to the comments What personal evidence, exactly, are you referring to? What does "personal evidence" even mean? and I'm puzzled by your response to Paul's carefully-worded refutation.

To disagree, Paul’s comment wasn’t carefully worded. To me it demonstrated those social qualities that I have argued against, arrogance and hubris, thus he personally "proved" my points. I am sarcastic and ironic; at times I will hit someone on the head when they are being stupid to shake them out of it.  I try hard to not be demeaning.  Paul was demeaning toward economics; sure that is his opinion but I didn’t like it. He egged me on about do I believe in facts.  To me it sounded like a five year old having a tantrum.  So I told him I would never have a social contract with him.  I would not hire him or use him as a consultant because I am uncertain that I could trust him.  Social contracts, at the personal level and the societal level I discussed above, are based in trust not truth.  When I hire consultants I want technical competency, good judgment, and a pinch of wisdom. Hubris is not acceptable.

Being confused is okay; being skeptical is even better.

Update (12/17/2010)
It seems that the White House is also interested in the social contract between scientists and the public. See

Monday, December 6, 2010

Trust and the Contradictions of Science

     I thank Paul Prescod for his comment to my last post and for providing me with links to discussions about scientists believing that their theories can also be facts, especially as they relate to evolution.  They are here and here.

     Having read these discussions I am even more disappointed in scientists. Yes folks, we can do better than this.  Talk about having your cake and eating it too. I know that during the years of the 80s and 90s the debates were brutal.  And semantic games had to be played.  And, intellectual slippage can occur.  And yet, I am also reminded of the old jokes about “if your data doesn’t support your theory then adjust the data” or “if the data suggests something else then adjust the theory to it.”
     I am particularly bothered by the statement “…the theory of evolution can also be called a fact, referring to this theory's well-established nature. Thus, evolution is widely considered both a theory and a fact by scientists” (from the second reference).

      So, basically skip all the above jokes and say that Theory is Fact.  This is a cop out and very disingenuous.

     Let’s ask ourselves:  is there any possibility that some day we wake to the screams of agony and ecstasy from biologists because they were wrong about evolution--because some other theory trumped it?

     Yes, it is very possible.  It can happen to you.  And smart people write books called Jurassic Park about it.

     Imagine yourself to be a Dismal Scientist waking up to the screams of Alan Greenspan having to admit that a part of his Monetarism theory was wrong.  That was big news and most economists understood he meant the whole theory was wrong.  (With the Maestro you always had to read between the lines).

     And now that the Monetarists have led us into the Greatest Economic Crisis of our life time the so called solution is Keynesianism, the other American economic theory that is thought to be “factual.”  Yes folks, economists believe their theories are Facts too.  Actually, they also thought their theories were too elegant to be bothered by facts (see this for one interpretation).  Honestly folks, I don’t want to watch this tragedy play out.

     Scientists who believe their theories are facts are fucking scary.  I don’t want anyone like that making policy decisions about the economy or environment.

     This whole discussion reminds me of Daniel Bell’s book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.  His argument was simply that capitalism “harbors the seeds of its own downfall by creating a need among successful people for personal gratification—a need that corrodes the work ethic that led to their success in the first place.”

     Saying that Theory is Fact is a corrosion of the scientific work ethic.  Are we now seeing the internal contradictions of science?

     To conclude:  I don’t care what Anthropologist’s do to solve their current dilemma.  I do care if the broad diverse American public can trust scientists.  With our economy dying, and after the circus of global warming, I am not certain I can trust scientists.

     Anthropologists:  seek Trust not Truth in making your decision.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Anthropologists: Lost in a Post Scientism World

     It seems that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is having spasms again [1].  This time it is due to their leadership folks deciding to drop the word “science” from the AAA mission statement. The word is too hot, if you will, because it reeks of colonialism and such.  The debate seems to have crumbled into the clean pro-science bunch verses the science haters (dirty ugly postmodern types).  That’s their characterizations, not mine.

     There are several blogs hitting the issue.  A story in Higher Education is here; excellent blog coverage is here and here and here.

     I am compelled to offer my two bits because a few years ago I told my colleagues in archaeology that science just wasn’t what it used to be [2].  I’ll get to that essay in a minute.

     Let’s start by understanding the term scientism.  That link takes you to a website that has several definitions of the word.  All are generally accurate as they typically relate to the idea that scientists believe in their work and that their work applies to most, if not all, aspects of life.  Scientism is about the value of and use of science in society.  Don't confuse it with science itself.

     Scroll down that page to the Dawkins essay “Is Science a Religion?”  Now Dawkins, of course, argues that science is not a religion because “Science…is free of the main vice of religion, which is faith.  But, as I pointed out, science does have some of religion's virtues.  Religion may aspire to provide its followers with various benefits — among them explanation, consolation, and uplift.  Science, too, has something to offer in these areas.”  So, to him, faith is the ugly bugger that separates science from religion. 

     Dawkins also tells us the following:  “I believe in the fact of evolution.  I even believe in it with passionate conviction.  To some, this may superficially look like faith.  But the evidence that makes me believe in evolution is not only overwhelmingly strong; it is freely available to anyone who takes the trouble to read up on it.  Anyone can study the same evidence that I have and presumably come to the same conclusion.  But if you have a belief that is based solely on faith, I can't examine your reasons.  You can retreat behind the private wall of faith where I can't reach you.”

     Sadly, Dawkins hides behind the word “fact” because he has no other place to go.  Viscerally, faith, fact, what's the difference?  It demonstrates he is a shill for science.  Also, see here.

     If evolution was fact scientists would call it a Law like gravity.  Evolution is a Theory.  It may be a good theory and it may have withstood strong critiques.  But, as a Theory it is always open to the possibility that some other theory will replace it.

     Let’s add a new definition to scientism:  scientists who believe their theories are facts are religious folks who approach science with the same fervor and dogmatism that other religious fundamentalists do.  Scientists have their evangelical epiphanies and their revivals too [3].  Science is not a religion; scientism can be a religion.

     For most of the Modernist era (1890-1990), especially the post war period (1945-1987), science was revered and scientists were given high prestige in society.  If you went to grad school in the 1970s and 1980s some science professors were more than Professors they were Prophets--noting the shared root.  In the 1980s archeologists James Deetz and Louis Binford were treated like gods. (I knew Deetz and remember that he despised being treated that way; he also handled it with grace).   

     This reverence for science was one of the defining characteristics of modernism.  And, that is why historian and sociologist of religions William McLoughlin proclaimed the 20th century as the Era of Scientism [4].  He did so because he recognized that in doing intellectual history the separation between science and religion is arbitrary, only meaningful to those professions that are built around them.  

     And so my essay was about the decline of scientism—understood in all the versions above--in American culture that occurred through the 1980s and 1990s.  The tipping point of the decline was the Challenger disaster of 1986 wherein scientists demonstrated gross incompetency.  After that there is much less reverence and the prestige was gone. Today, scientists are average people with all the foibles that anyone else has—they are not the legends and heroes that Old Modernism made them out to be. For the change in philosophy see here.

     For American archaeology I have already offered my opinion that the profession is in an identity crisis and that the word “prehistory” should be abandoned, perhaps to be replaced by “antiquity” or something similar [5].  If you drop "science" I won't care.  We'll just call our work inquiries or something else.

     My advice to the AAA is to recognize that you are in an identity crisis (along with the rest of the United States btw).  The membership needs to have a serious discussion of why they should or should not use the word “science” in their mission statement.  Maybe the compromise is to just redefine what it means.

     However, today, America is a Dionysian high context culture; it has shed much, but not all, of its Modernistic Apollonian low context culture.  If you choose to drop the term “science” then recognize that this is a Dionysian impulse.  It would be another insult to Apollo.  Do you really care?  I suspect most Americans don't care what you call yourselves--their faith in science has eroded greatly. 

1. Confession:  I haven’t belonged to the AAA in over twenty years because I haven’t felt that the cost of admission was worth it.  You get too little for your buck.  Also, I haven’t been in an Anthropology class room in even longer time.  So, I have no idea what goes on in academia.  I still do old fashioned culture history.    

2.  L. Moore “Archaeology’s High Society Blues:  Reply to McGimsey,” The SAA Archaeological Record 7(4), pgs 11-14 & 32, 2007. Here.

3.  How else should the late 1960s through 1970s in American archeology be described?  It was a religious love fest for science.  Remember this and this? All of it to be eviscerated in the 1980s-1990s culture wars.

4.  William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform:  An Essay on Social Change in America, 1607-1977, 1978, pg. 42.

5.  For the identity crisis see my “Toward a Still and Quiet Conscience: A Study in Reflexive Archaeology,” North American Archaeologist 27(2): 149-174, 2006.  On dropping prehistory see “The End of Prehistory,” Society for Historical Archaeology Newsletter 40(1): 26-28, 2007.

Friday, December 3, 2010

What Goes Around Comes Around: Knowledge is Not Cumulative

      This essay is about the reprise of Romantic intellectualism in American culture.  Modernists believed in the idea that knowledge is cumulative.  This is nonsense.  Our culture, including its science, is both additive and subtractive.  We add new ideas and artifacts and abandon others.  We also revisit some abandoned ideas and reuse them—and this is very much in vogue today.

     One of the things I’ve noticed lately is that beyond just looking at the events of late 19th century Romanticism--I already noted Kennedy’s essay--people are also studying the ideas of that era.  The Gilded Age and Progressive Awakening were years of intellectual brilliance with true insights.  And, much of this continued into Romanticism’s hangover into the 1930s.

     Before I point out some obvious connections between today’s Romantic intellectualism and the earlier era, please remember:  Romantic intellectualism emphasizes nonlinear and relational ideas and analyses; social and emotional issues are included because it is right hemisphere High Context intellectual saturation.  Romantic science studies causality, reciprocity, and reflexivity using different methods for each.  Modernism emphasizes formal linear models that exclude emotions because they are believed to be separate from thinking; it is left hemisphere Low Context intellectual saturation.  Modernist science understands causality; its practitioners either ignore reciprocity and reflexivity, or, they try to apply the models of causality everywhere.  Both use qualitative and quantitative methods

     If you are a stock picker or investor you may have heard of wave analysis, especially Elliot Wave analysis.  That model was created by Ralph Nelson Elliott (1871-1948) in the 1930s.  One of its primary insights is that markets move based on social mood which is a net aggregate of people’s fear or greed.    Thus, market movements are thought to be predictable because they are “natural laws and can be measured and forecast using Fibonacci numbers.”  The model languished with few adherents for many years—the years of high modernism--until Robert Prechter began using it successfully in the 1980s.  Today, it is widely used, as are other types of wave models.

     Wave models are cyclical models; if you know where you are within the cycle then you can predict how the rest of the cycle will play out.  If it is summer you can predict what type of clothes are needed in winter.  Basically, you take a nonlinear pattern and project it into the future. 

     This is very different from the modernist Random Walk theory which states that past performance can’t be used to predict future performance.  The caution of the Random Walk Theory is needed because modernists are very likely to project their linear models into the future.  When someone tells you that stocks return, on average, 8 percent in the long term, you may be impressed and use that information as an investment plan.  However, you need to know that the long term that goes with that claim is 100 years.  Realistically, no one has a 100 year time frame for planning (unless they are doing multi-generational wealth planning).  What you really need to know are your investment goals and the duration needed to reach them.  For planning out 5 to 20 years, cyclical ideas are likely useful and you can expect that there will be planned and non-planned episodes of extra spending and saving.

     Continuing with the economics and finance theme--recently, the cyclical ideas of the Austrian school of economics have been getting much attention.  The Monetarists and Keynesians (both versions of Modernism) hate this theory because it doesn’t fit their formal empirical models.  Of course it won’t.  Austrian economics is based in right hemisphere stimulation that addresses the economy as a part of high context culture.  It is as much a relational theory as it is cyclical one.  Linear modeling of it won’t work because straight lines can’t depict multi relational associations.  Does multiple regression really work? No.  You have to do matrix analysis or fractal analysis to understand the relations between multiple variables.  Complexity and chaos theory are being done today of course.  See Steve Keen for recent examples.  Also see this that has a nice eye dazzler cover, and, if you try to read it, have a bottle of whiskey near you because half the papers are about “web theory” as if spiders are crawling all over your economic relations [1].

     One widespread, and useless, comment from modernism is:  “Correlation is not causation.”  Of course it isn’t.  If there is a strong correlation between two variables then there is likely a reciprocal relation in place and trying to study it with linear regression is stupid.  (I know, modernists only have a hammer and everything is a nail).  Reciprocity has to be understood through its own processes not the ones of causality.  The Austrian economists seem to understand these ideas.  Hayek’s Book The Road to Serfdom, 1944 (see an interesting video of it here) is a discussion of reciprocity, reflexivity, and causality (without using those terms).  Hayek was a prolific man and many of his ideas are being reviewed once again today (here).

     Another user of romantic ideas is George Soros.  I know that may sound weird because he is such a neoliberal rationalist with his attempts at creating the Open Society.  However, his theory of making money in the markets is pure romanticism.  His book The Alchemy of Finance, 1988, is just right brained fun. 

     Next we have hedge fund manager Hugh Hendry quoting Walt Whitman.  He even has a picture of the old sot.  He also mentions biologist Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) and the Millerites, an American sect of the 1830s-1840s.  From all this he reminds us that the wealthy are at war with everyone else.  That was commonplace in the 19th century and it is again commonplace today.

     Next we have Mort Zuckerman telling us that Western Civilization may be collapsing.  He knows we have all heard this before—he starts with Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, 1918, and treats us to some bitter comparisons.  Here is one:  “Among Spengler's convictions was that money, instead of serving mankind, would betray the Western civilization as it had others—and money in politics and media especially.  If he could have seen this [2010] election season, he would have been even more downcast! Money is surely the great corrupter of American democracy.”  Well, have we learned anything new?  No, just remembered what was forgotten.

     Turning away from the doom and gloom of our economy let’s look at philosopher Mark Johnson’s recent book on embodied cognition, The Meaning of the Body, 2007.  Johnson summarizes much of the cognitive science and neuroscience research that has been done recently and argues that the arts are the culmination of human attempts to find meaning.  He bases much of his perspective in the work of William James and John Dewey both who were romantic pragmatists.  What goes around comes around.

     Individuals accumulate knowledge as they grow up and age; they may even become wise which suggests that there may be some positive cumulative change.  The quantitative build up of knowledge and meaning in a person may lead to someone being qualitatively different—quantitative changes leads to qualitative change.

     Does this also apply to our culture? I know we have had “progress” in terms of technology.  I know there have been fascinating discoveries in science.  Are we any wiser for all of it?  In my younger days I was na├»ve enough to simplistically believe that we were.  Today, given the fraud, corruption, and greed surrounding us I suspect that wisdom is not something that cultures achieve, even at their cultural highs.  Old and ancient texts and ideas continue to help some folks toward wisdom.  I guess individuals can have such goals.  Apparently, cultures may or may not have such goals depending on their era.  We are in a secular crisis; our goals are to survive it and rediscover our cultural identity.

Update: here is another example of our current interest in the 19th century.  Once again, we approach it with Dionysian excess.

1.    I about fell out of my chair laughing when I saw that book.  I mean, putting an eye dazzler on a book about complexity theory and the dismal science? Surely these guys knew how funny that was.  If the modernists loved to say “if you can’t blind them with your brilliance then baffle them with your bullshit” I guess the romantics must be using the “just blind or baffle them because you can” theorem.