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.


  1. Before you start talking about the "law of gravity" and the "theory of evolution", you should read this:

    And this:

    From those links:

    Critics of evolution frequently assert that evolution is "just a theory", with the intent of emphasizing evolution's unproven nature, or of characterizing it as a matter of opinion rather than of fact or evidence. This reflects a misunderstanding of the meaning of theory in a scientific context: whereas in colloquial speech a theory is a conjecture or guess, in science a theory is simply an explanation or model of the world that makes testable predictions.


    From a scientific standpoint, therefore, evolution may be called a "fact" for the same reason that gravity can: under the scientific definition, evolution is an observable process that occurs whenever a population of organisms genetically changes over time. Under the colloquial definition, 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.

  2. Paul, I posted another essay in reply to your comment.

  3. It's two years later but I just stumbled upon this blog. Question: Does anyone outside of anthropology ever ask for and anthropologist's opinion? On anything? I think that most people who could name an anthropologist would name Margaret Mead. A lot of people are interested in the Maya or Neanderthals, but they are not the least bit interested in anything in the table of contents of the latest American Anthropologist ( and I have no hint as to what might be there). Anthropology can organize academic lynch mobs to castrate Napolean Chagnon or lobotomize E. O. Wilson. but that doesn't solve the problem of the complete irrelevancy of anthropology. Why is the moat popular anthropologist not an anthropologist (that would be Jared Diamond)?

  4. I don't have an answer as to why Anthropologists are not better recognized by the public. The same is true of others such as geologists or biologists. Maybe as scientism died out so did the interest in knowing about scientists.