Get thee to the semiotics department!

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Steve points me to this George Johnson piece. Regular readers of this weblog know that we have had our differences with Jared Diamond. That being said, Diamond’s ideas are clear & distinct, you can actually understand (and disagree) with what he is trying to say. A few years back when the Savage Minds weblog was getting into it with Diamond’s defenders on the blogosphere one of the main issues seemed to be that it was hard to parse exactly what problem the cultural anthropologists had with Diamond besides the obvious perception from their camp that he was a racist (the post above GNXP authored was actually used to support that contention!). There are two distinct issues at work here, one general and the other rather specific.


First, some anthropologists, generally of a cultural or social bent, have become enamored of the same fashions which are rife within literary scholarship. One could use a catchall term like “Post Modernism” to describe these tendencies, though that’s oversimplifying. Roughly, the flight to relativism and the acknowledgment of the subjectivity of scientific methods inevitable in the human sciences have been taken almost to a reductio ad absurdum by cultural anthropologists. The broader dynamic was one reason that Stanford’s anthropology department was split in two, separating those who viewed their discipline as a science and those who took a more humanistic tack. In the latter case one could say that the goal is interpretation, not analysis, fine grained description as opposed to smoking out systematic general truths. The trend toward very specific description and disinclination to place the local in the general context leads to intellectual myopia. Imagine a riverine system where you have two groups of scholars. One group uses a method where a researcher takes a very deep core sample at one location. They examine that core and perfectly characterize the sedimentary structure on that location. The other group engages in a broad study of shallow cores and visual inspection across the whole system; they lack detailed specific knowledge but are attempting to sketch out the general dynamics of the system. Obviously there are strengths and weaknesses to both methods, and your needs and goals need to be kept in mind. The generalists will no doubt elide specific details, while those who pour over a specific deep core will accept a trade off between their detailed local knowledge and the broader framework.

And so it is when “thick description” partisans square off against general system-builders. General system-builders will usually be wrong, most theories do not stand up to the test of time, and the vast majority of hypotheses are false. Additionally, they will ignore local detail and over generalize so as to remove outliers from their model. This is not a bug, but a feature! Cultural anthropologists who jump upon inaccuracies in inferred detail (that is, they contend that the hypothesis does not hold in the case of their studied culture) seem to not consider that system-builders by the nature of their topic of study in the human sciences will offer up statistical truths, as opposed to apodictic ones. I suspect that this confusion is in part due to the fact that many cultural anthropologists seceded from the nation of social science just as statistical techniques became ubiquitous in validating assertions of truth. The problem with American cultural anthropology is not that it is not true, but that it can never be wrong! Where as they see the naked & plain error within Diamond’s work as a mark of its folly, in truth it is simply the beauty of science that falsities are exposed for what they are. On occassion marginal deviations along the edges of a theoretical construct are even cleaned up in future iterations. Imagine that, scientific progress! Instead of rebutting Diamond’s thesis with their own general system cultural anthropologists reject the whole project in its entirety. In the stinginess of their vision I must admit that they remind me of Michael Behe, who implies that what is not known or understood with any level of clarity in the present shall be incomprehensible in a naturalistic sense indefinitely by its very nature.

As for the specific problem with cultural anthropology, it is encapsulated in this quote from the piece above, “Diamond in effect argues that no one is to blame,” said Deborah B. Gewertz, an anthropologist at Amherst College. “The haves are not to be blamed for the condition of the have-nots.” Does the ethologist blame the sick Wildebeest which is killed by the lion? Does the conversation biologist blame the Dingo for likely having driven the Tasmanian Tiger to extinction? Or does the conservation biologist absolve the Dingo of blame because the arrival of Europeans would likely have heralded the Tiger’s doom in any case? Does the particle physicist give thanks to CP violation for allowing the flourishing of our civilization? And so on. These are ridiculous queries because even though a wildlife biologist might, as a human, harbor an affection for the animals of their study, in the end they are animals to study. This sort of objectivity, or at least the attempt, seems anathema to some anthropologists who see themselves as activists and actors who are deeply engaged with the material basis of their scholarship. Despite the cultural anthropologists’ rejection of general inferences from data they seem to have no great qualms in making general normative assertions derived from their own axiomatic value system.

As human beings we are likely cognitively biased toward viewing our own species as special. This crops up in taxonomy, where Carl Linnaeus placed us within our own genus though subsequent cladistic systematics implies that we form a monophyletic lineage with the other great apes. The Great Chain of Being suffused early evolutionary thinking, and even after our descent from pre-human primates was acknowledged our morphogenesis was conceived in a teleological light, we were the crown jewel of biological processes. The Modern Synthesis banished this sort of teleological thinking from evolutionary biology, killing the batch of orthogenetic theories which reigned supreme circa 1900. In the first half of the 20th century anthropology was an ideological discipline which also expressed a teleology, the evolution of human societies expressed a trend which culminated with the Europeans, anthropologists were an arm of the supremacist Zeitgeist in the West. The Nazi abomination showed anthropologists that such activism was illegitimate. But instead of turning from activism and ideological pursuits anthropology simply inverted itself, it became a handmaid of the counter-cultural elite, pushing relativism and lack of positive assertion as virtues except in their rejection of the West and a general suspicion of the culture of European man. The disaster of racial science as the handmaid to the racial state did not draw anthropologists to the conclusion that aspiration toward objectivity should be their goal; rather, they switched sides en masse and hitched their wagon to the cultural winners in the academy.

Though this secured their place in the humanities departments, it also made them a laughing stock in the eyes of other scientists. Here was what L. L. Cavalli-Sforza stated when I interviewed him:

I entirely agree that the average quality of anthropological research, especially of the cultural type, is kept extremely low by lack of statistical knowledge and of hypothetical deductive methodology. At the moment there is no indication that the majority of cultural anthropologists accept science – the most vocal of them still choose to deny that anthropology is science. They are certainly correct for what regards most of their work.

Anyone who is familiar with Cavalli-Sforza knows he is a humanist; he has a passion for humanity and wishes to understand our species to the best of his ability. It is clear that he does not perceive that cultural anthropologists share the same passion for understanding, as opposed to their own admittedly subjective interpretations. The evolutionary geneticist James F. Crow stated upon controversial research on human evolution & behavior:

I hope that such questions can be approached with the same objectivity as that when we study inheritance of bristle number in Drosophila, but I don’t expect it soon. There are too many strongly held opinions. I thought Lahn had a clever idea in thinking that the normal alleles of head-reducing mutants might be responsible for evolution of larger heads in human ancestry. Likewise, I think that Cochran et al. are fully entitled to consider the reasons for Jewish intelligence and I found their arguments interesting. In my view it is wrong to say that research in this area — assuming it is well done — is out of order. I feel srongly that we should not discourage a line of research because someone might not like a possible outcome.

Is man but a fly? Why not? I can give you my ethical and moral rationales for why man is not a fly in an ontological sense, but scientifically we are of the same essence, the same atomic units, many of the same genetic switches, and so forth. The insight that man is an animal was one Charles Darwin popularized in the 19th century, but cultural anthropologists reject this truth because they reject all truths except the ones they feel privileged to assert from their perches as conscious and enlightened folk (but is not being enlightened itself an expression of a hegemonic mindset?). It is difficult to take a system of scholarship which seems to promote obscurity and subjectivity as goods seriously. Study of human societies is more difficult than breaking down a molecular genetic pathway; but that is no excuse to give up the quest for clarity, precision and prediction. We’re a complex species, and there are many contingent variables which clog up any system. But I see no reason that that justifies reading societies like a work of fiction; presenting arguments as clever word games which rise and fall based on prose opacity and the fads of the day. Cultural anthropology’s adherence to critique is not the problem, criticism is a necessary antidote to sloppy thinking, rather it is its promotion of critique as the sin qua non of the discipline and insulation from falsification by saying nothing positive at all. They should leave criticisms of Jard Diamond’s grand system of the world to those who actually believe that such activities are not scandalous in the first place!

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116 Comments

  1. I thought it quite amazing that such a long article on Jared Diamond’s errors should fail to mention what those errors actually are, and why cultural anthropologists have so much trouble with him. Generalizations mean nothing without specifics.

  2. Well, it seems to me that if these Cultural Anthropologist types claim not to be doing science and also perhaps not to believe in objective reality then…we should take them at their word!

  3. The prevailing sense I got from the descriptions of these cultural anthropologists is how invested they are in victimhood. Everyone seems to be a victim of whitey.  
     
    What a tedious story to tell, over and over again.  
     
    Thanks for posting.

  4. The prevailing sense I got from the descriptions of these cultural anthropologists is how invested they are in victimhood. Everyone seems to be a victim of whitey. 
     
    Or maybe it’s your victimhood talking.

  5. The real story is that this brand of cultural anthropology is as shot through with the kind of essentialist human exceptionalism as any of the doctrinaire religions whose missionaries they so fervently oppose. It’s no coincidence that the worst of the Post-Modernists come from the home of Descartes. From Sartre, through Foucault to Derrida, they’re all Dualists of one stripe or another. It’s paradoxical, in a way, that the systematists they oppose are actually the ones with the leaner ontologies. One nature, one set of laws, let’s get to work. For sure there’s the risk of oversimplifying with a naturalistic outlook, but look at the risks of not. De Man being a Nazi was not much of a shock to those familiar the basic outlook.

  6. Well, it seems to me that if these Cultural Anthropologist types claim not to be doing science and also perhaps not to believe in objective reality then…we should take them at their word! 
     
    yeah, that talk out of both sides of their mouths. 1) they don’t believe in objective truth, 2) but want to claim corrective expertise.  
     
    The real story is that this brand of cultural anthropology is as shot through with the kind of essentialist human exceptionalism as any of the doctrinaire religions whose missionaries they so fervently oppose. 
     
    yes. 
     
    exceptionalism as any of the doctrinaire religions whose missionaries they so fervently oppose. It’s no coincidence that the worst of the Post-Modernists come from the home of Descartes. From Sartre, through Foucault to Derrida, they’re all Dualists of one stripe or another.  
     
    i don’t think that descartes really should be included here. but in any case, i think that relativism is a particular problem with american anthropology.

  7. The problem with American cultural anthropology is not that it is not true, but that it can never be wrong! 
     
    Au contraire! The problem with American cultural anthropology is that it’s nothing but wrong
     
    Like you say, they want the authority of science while simultaneously denying its epistemology. Ridiculous.

  8. I’ve added Gregor and Gross’s devastating critique of the AAA, ‘Guilt by Association: The Culture of Accusation and the American Anthropological Association’s Investigation of Darkness in El Dorado‘, to the gnxp files section.

  9. Great post. 
     
    “… in the end they are animals to study.” 
     
    But nobody views the world in such as way, through such crystal clear goggles. And if it’s the case that everything is in essence just potential knowledge, nothing higher, then I don’t see where there’s an obligation to investigate. I don’t think it’s always moral to want to know. Is there an imperative to study? Then where does it come from?

  10. Is there an imperative to study? Then where does it come from? 
     
    some of us are like children, we want to know. thanks to the engineering applications of science over the past century our propensity is enabled and given social sanction.

  11. A posting like this deserves to be in a magazine or something. 
    It’s pretty damn depressing the decline of the social sciences, since I once aspired to work in them. It’s gotten to the point that anthropological and sociological material from decades ago is more valuable and spot on than anything done today. One of the major pieces of research I used for my Master’s thesis were collections of statistics and short profiles of ethnic communities in my home state done from the 1930s-1960s. Anything done after then had no real data in them at all. It was all observations, citations of crap theory, and political commentary. It’s pretty damn sad when an archived undergrad term paper from 1952 can deliver more than a 1993 Doctoral dissertation on the same subject. 
     
    I also took a class as an undergrad from one of the guys who did the smear job on Chagnon. He was a pompous preening bully who three weeks into the course, asked me into his office and gave me the ultimatum of leaving the class or receiving a failing grade from him. When I took it to the head of the department, basically he said when folks had tenure they could pull such things. Let’s just say what happened all those years ago was my first realization that all was not well in the nation of Academe.

  12. It’s simply not so that American anthropology was racist from the start. Franz Boas, the immigrant German scholar who popularized anthropology in the US, was a Jew and utterly opposed to any sort of racialism. He published little, but what he did publish argued strongly against common racial stereotypes. He believed that basic human biological equality could be established scientifically. I agree that this seems simplistic now, but for the time, it was a scientific advance upon “dumb but happy” ethnic caricatures.  
     
    There’s also an argument to be made for the difficulty of achieving a “Martian” viewpoint that sees humans as just another animal. You don’t achieve this simply by getting an academic credential. You’re a product of your own society/culture and tend look at other folks through an ethnocentric lens.  
     
    That said, I don’t think that you must therefore abandon any effort at objectivity, and engage in cultural “interpretation” as a form of belles lettres. Science can help us come closer to a Martian viewpoint, even if we’ll never reach that elusive asymptote.  
     
    So can education and communication. If your “subjects” can critique your conclusions, you can’t be as high-handed as anthros used to be.

  13. It’s simply not so that American anthropology was racist from the start. Franz Boas, the immigrant German scholar who popularized anthropology in the US, was a Jew and utterly opposed to any sort of racialism. 
     
    it was a minor dissident trend before world war ii. again, i’m not making universal assertions, and not all cultural anthropologists in the USA need the critique i’m offering.

  14. I’d like to know why postmodernism has made such a ferocious assault on the American academy. I’m aware of the popularity of De Man, Foucault, et al, in the humanities but it appears to contaminate the universities at all levels. Is it merely PoMod’s congeniality to the left, or is there something more?

  15. Is it merely PoMod’s congeniality to the left, or is there something more? 
     
    social science is hard. critique is lower hanging fruit than hypothesis construction. it may be that some scholarship can never be turned into a science, as such. i think cultural anthropologists have either given up too early, or, they have decided that the science thing isn’t something they’re interested in. if the latter is the case then they should leave it to scientists to critique jared diamond. it’s about as relevant for a cultural anthropologist who rejects science to criticize genuine human scientists as it is for a physicist to object that literary fiction is insufficiently elegant. 
     
    this is not to say jared diamond, or any scientist, can not make errors. most theories are riddled with errors and must be discarded. but if you reject the general premise of theory construction and validation using experiments and observation with an emphasis on quantitation then quibbling over small details is besides the point. if you reject science as an enterprise then just focus on how your subjectivist magic can save your child’s life when they are faced with a life threatening illness, and do not use airplanes, manifestations of phallo-centric western linear thinking, to get to your field area. 
     
    btw, when kerim first started savage minds i needled him about the fact they had no physical anthropologists on their list of contributors. he admitted that they were looking. after 3 years i note that no regular contributor, nor any of the alumni, nor any of the guest bloggers, have been a physical anthropologist. that’s fine, but it does suggest a culture gap here. the subhead for the blog states: “notes and queries in anthropology.” if i wanted to get interpretative i might conjecture that this is a case of subconscious hegemonic appropriation of idea space, an act of marginalizing physical anthropologists by reading them outside of the discipline by acting as if they don’t exist, as if they can not speak and have no voices.

  16. As former cultural anthropology student whose wife is in grad school for cultural anth all I can do is shake my head at the truth of this. The science of understanding human nature is fascinating study why is everyone so scared of it.

  17. Is man but a fly? Why not? I can give you my ethical and moral rationales for why man is not a fly in an ontological sense, but scientifically we are of the same essence, the same atomic units, many of the same genetic switches, and so forth. 
     
    From a scientific perspective man is unique from the other species because of his extended phenotype, his culture. You seem to disagree.. why?

  18. From a scientific perspective man is unique from the other species because of his extended phenotype, his culture. You seem to disagree.. why? 
     
    no. the complexity of his culture, not culture (which is a very vague term anyway, but i won’t quibble with semantics). in any case, i used the word ontology for a reason. fundamentally we’re subject to the same dynamics as other animals, and theoretically our behavior and nature should also be amenable to decomposition through reducing down to lower fundamental units. many religious people deny that we’re fundamentally the same, and will believe in something like a soul (whatever they call it). many secularist post modernists seem to be implicitly chomskyian mysterians of a sort insofar as they believe our consciousness and language simply mean we exist outside of the bounds of conventional analysis. we are supermen who can only be interpreted. i don’t accept this, this sounds a lot like “irreducible complexity,” doesn’t it? 
     
    an analogy here can be made with the study of religion. the ‘religious studies’ school of scholars often views religion as a sui generis cultural product, subject to special rules and only open to interpretation, not to decomposition and analysis. in contrast, there is the ‘naturalistic school’ which uses cognitive science, evolutionary psychology and neurobiology to get at religious phenomena as if it was an emergent property of materials and dynamics. obviously, i favor the latter. that doesn’t mean that the former isn’t interesting scholarship, but it isn’t giving me what i want. it’s like having the precise recipe and chemical composition of a cake vs. being given a taste. 
     
    note: cultural complexity probably increases adaptive evolution.

  19. also, i won’t be coy about this: cultural anthropologists don’t accept radical relativism for their own specialized knowledge. they know very well that what they report about culture X isn’t all pure interpretation skewed by their own subjective vantage point. no matter how murky their lens is, they do see something of the invariant reality out there. so in practice their carping on subjectivism occurs in two contexts 
     
    1) it prevents the linking up of specific knowledge into a broader system 
     
    2) it is a useful obfuscatory move to use against anyone who tries to extract generalizable data from their specific case 
     
    in other words, operationally it turns into a rhetorical trick. in practice they speak about a reality out there, and specific real customs, and seem to behave as if they can interpret across cultures despite their alien and outsider status in one society. in rhetoric they emphasize subjectivism and muddy the waters so that outsiders won’t challenge them. they’ve abandoned the hard reality of science, where you make theories which almost always turn out to be false, to run around word twisting reality as much as you can so as to climb various peaks of Theory, all the while continuously pursuing the nitty-gritty specific facts which you pretend are outmoded Ways of Knowing.

  20. I’m interested in what you think of the proposed dichotomy between greedy and non-greedy reductionism.

  21. I’m interested in what you think of the proposed dichotomy between greedy and non-greedy reductionism. 
     
    it has instrumental utility. i’m interested in evolutionary biology, not the biological dynamics branch of quantum physics.

  22. Just wondering, I felt that was relevant here. In a way, you could say that the cultural anthropologists who oppose Diamond are greedy anti-reductionists..  
     
    Anyways, I think EO Wilson in his book Consilience talks about how its understandable that softer sciences are more concerned with data-gathering than grand synthesis at this period in time… they’re dealing with much more complex, difficult subjects.

  23. Razib, 
     
    IsnÂ’t it possible that anthropology can never be a science in the sense that astronomy or chemistry is? 
     
    I can think of two possible reasons. On the one hand, human beings are already natural experts on humans for various reasons (e.g., the “Machiavelli hypothesis”) in a way that they are not naturally experts on electrons. We physicists can discover pretty basic stuff about electrons and itÂ’s big news and very useful technologically. But the basic stuff about humans is already known and used by ordinary humans and has been for tens of thousands of years. 
     
    Second, the non-basic stuff may simply be computationally or conceptually intractable. This has happened many times in the natural sciences. For example, we know the basic laws underlying meteorology, but we will probably never have good weather predictions two months out (e.g., because of the apparently “chaotic” nature of the relevant equations). A similar point can be made about nuclear physics: we now know that nucleons are made up of quarks and gluons obeying fairly straightforward equations, but calculating good solutions to these equations for, say, an iron nucleus may never be possible. 
     
    Indeed, it seems to me that a false desire to be “objective,” to superficially imitate the appearance of the natural sciences (what Feynman called “cargo-cult science”), may be one of the impediments to progress in the human sciences. Some years ago, I was interested in what anthropologists had to say about the origins of the state. It turned out they had a lot to say. But they had trouble discussing the fact that at least some states (e.g., in Hawaii and in the Zulu lands) were started by ruthless thugs who surrounded themselves with a gang of bully boys who threatened and intimidated the rest of the population. To describe this process without using terms that inevitably have some moral connotations is very difficult. So, they had a tendency to use “functionalist” terms that obfuscated what was actually happening. 
     
    I havenÂ’t surveyed the literature on the subject recently – perhaps the pomo turn has ended the fake objectivity or perhaps it has merely added a new level of obfuscation. 
     
    Clearly, there are some things the human sciences can do better, and the attempt to integrate evolutionary knowledge is surely one of them. But we do need to recognize the possibility that there really are reasons why they cannot make the kind of progress we have seen in natural science in the last five centuries. 
     
    (Incidentally, IÂ’m a Ph.D. in physics, hence my choice of examples.) 
     
    Dave

  24. Dave, 
     
    I don’t understand what your examples in physics have to do with anthropology. It seems to me that there is clearly standards of objectivity at work in anthropology and in physics. Anthropology may never be as rigorous or precise as physics but that’s ok. These standards have been beneficial in studying human cultures and populations and human evolution. We now know much much more than we did 400 years ago about the different cultures, past and present, languages, and peoples of the world. And there is plenty of scientific consensus on major issues in anthropology. Anthropologists will be the first to tell you that there is no absolute certainty in their science and that we cannot apply many of the standards and critera in the physical sciences to the social sciences but, again, they would say that that is perfectly ok.  
     
    As you mentioned, even some of the pre 20th century standards thought to apply to physics are no longer held to be true standards due to the developments of chaos theory, for example. You didn’t need to use meterology as a example to show this. Even following newtonian mechanics and assuming for perfectly elastic collisions, no friction, etc, after a few bounces of the billiard ball, prediction becomes “computationally intractable”. But the science of physics go on with their own set of criteria and standards for objectivity much as anthropology may go on with its own set of objective criteria and standards taylored to their science.  
     
    Anthropologists do not throw their hands up and give up because of the complexities of humans and societies. They know that their efforts are fruitful because it produces results consistently. Just ask any anthropologist working in the field who first encounters and studies a tribe no scientist have studied before. I don’t think social scientists are now trying to immitate the physical sciences. They realize that there is no way to absolutely rid all technical terms in their respective disciplines of “value” connotations but they still cling to notions such as relative explanatory value, parsimony, experimental repeatability (for certain phenomenon), and theoretical elegance as critera for their theories much as the physicists do.

  25. I’m always amused by examples pointing out how we can’t predict the weather, since weather prediction has gotten radically better in the four decades I’ve been looking at the forecast.

  26. Without big theories to test, fact-gathering for the sake of fact-gathering can be a pretty autistic enterprise. How do you know you are gathering the important facts about a culture unless you are engaged in a dialogue with big theories, trying to demonstrate and/or debunk them?

  27. because of the apparently “chaotic” nature of the relevant equations 
     
    I’ve been bringing up the importance of chaos, every once in a while, for years now. I don’t think anyone’s ever noticed…

  28. I think PhysicistDave is on to something that maybe could be put a bit sharper. Part and parcel of the human exceptionalism that is the post-modern stance is a skepticism of all reductionist answers, precisely because of the exceptions to them. Weather can be predicted months out, so long as you’re willing to give it within a fairly low confidence interval. But for the po-mos, the confidence level of any acceptable answer would have to be 100%, and since, as they rightly note, no social science is ever likely to do that, we should stick to interpreting (de/con/structing and problem/atizing) texts, blah blah blah. I find it humorous that those in the grips of po-mo and the unfortunate students in their grips are fond of accusing science of being dry and rigid when it’s just the opposite. For arid rigidity and doctrinaire inflexibility, take a class in Comp Lit, oops, I mean Cultural Anthropology.

  29. David Boxenhorn: “I’ve been bringing up the importance of chaos, every once in a while, for years now. I don’t think anyone’s ever noticed…” 
     
    People often use “chaos” to imply that no useful modeling can be done. So I usually refer to nonlinear dynamic systems. Such systems can be difficult to model since initial errors in measurement can rapidly increase in an unbounded manner. In the real world there are often dispersive forces or “statistical” properties that constrain the system. Yes, in theory, the beat of a butterfly’s wing could cause a hurricane. In practice, very, very few wing beats even disturb pollen drifting a few feet away. The human brain is incredibly chaotic but we can model another person’s thoughts well enough to communicate.

  30. But for the po-mos, the confidence level of any acceptable answer would have to be 100%, and since, as they rightly note, no social science is ever likely to do that, we should stick to interpreting (de/con/structing and problem/atizing) texts, blah blah blah. 
     
    yes. part of it is the essay format where you have a thesis and marshal only a small number of supporting points. people think in small numbers collected together and pointing in the same direction. 
     
    as for dave’s critiques, they’re real, but i think the jury is out. also, it wouldn’t just invalidate social science, but broad swaths of biolgical & geological science as well! so the answer to that conjecture is more important than just an issue with cultural anthropology. 
     
    in any case, my own bar for what counts as science is pretty low. you need to beat expectation bullshitting to justify the data collecting effort and formalism.

  31. Razib wrote: 
    “as for dave’s critiques, they’re real, but i think the jury is out.”  
     
    Agreed. And I think almost everyone here expects that anthropologists can be more scientific than the pomo folks believe they can be, but less scientific than physicists or chemists are. ItÂ’s really a mistake to rigidly lay down a priori methodological rules or limitations. In the end, results speak for themselves. 
     
    Steve Sailer wrote: 
    “weather prediction has gotten radically better in the four decades I’ve been looking at the forecast.” 
     
    Steve, youÂ’re almost as old as I am! Yes, it has gotten better, but there is good reason to expect that we will never have good predictions two months out due to the computational intractability. I know that you and almost everyone else here already know this. I mentioned this merely to show that if, even in the “hard” physical sciences, there are limits to knowledge and predictability, then we should not be surprised if we run up against even more restrictive limits in the human sciences. 
     
    And, Steve, let me acknowledge that you yourself (and some of the folks here at GNXP) have done a fine job of exploring those areas in which increased understanding of human nature and human affairs has proven to be feasible. Let us indeed push the human sciences as far as possible. 
     
    I also strongly agree with your point that fact gathering needs to be motivated by the need to be engaged “in a dialogue with big theories.” Indeed, historically, even in physics, it has often happened that valid experimental results were ignored or disbelieved until a theoretical framework was proposed which made those results plausible or relevant (e.g., parity violation). 
     
    I would add, however, that one needs to be discriminating about the “big theories.” The old-fashioned unilineal “evolutionist” approach in cultural anthropology always struck me as unproductive and even silly: the idea tended to be that all human cultures were implicitly striving to be like England circa 1900 – obviously false, even though I acknowledge that, in many ways, England in 1900 was worthy of emulation. (I put “evolution” in scare quotes because this idea really had little to do with Darwinian ideas and was more a relic of “Great Chain of Being” thinking.) 
     
    On the other hand, despite the fact that evolutionary psychology sometimes makes overblown claims and engages in “just so” stories (I think some of FodorÂ’s criticisms in “The Mind DoesnÂ’tÂ’ Work That Way” are valid), I applaud the attempt to introduce insights from ev psych into anthropology. While we may quibble over the details of ev psych, this is clearly a legitimate research program – there has to be some validity to ev psych. 
     
    Jujuby said: 
    “And there is plenty of scientific consensus on major issues in anthropology.” 
     
    Is there? ThatÂ’s not my impression – the different squabbling schools of thought seem to be talking past each other. Could you give a few examples – IÂ’m not trying to score debating points; IÂ’d honestly like to know what you have in mind. 
     
    Finally, Stephan, Fly, and Razib, yes, any sensible person acknowledges that statistical regularities, or merely probable relationships, are better than nothing at all. Indeed, even quantum mechanics only makes statistical predictions. 
     
    I actually think that both RazibÂ’s original post and the piece by George Johnson were reasonable and balanced. As a natural scientist myself, I of course find more congenial RazibÂ’s “general system builders” than the pomo practitioners of “thick descriptions” – which is why I read GNXP and iSteve.com more than SavageMinds! But, as long as the pomo folks actually engage in accurate, factual “thick descriptions” (often they donÂ’t but merely waste their time in pointless navel gazing), they are engaged in valid scholarship. All of us may find the general systems building more interesting, but we should be aware that it may have only limited success. 
     
    Dave

  32. Dave, 
     
    Have you considered the possibility that you’re praising with faint damns? 
     
    Why on earth would cultural anthropology be a “science?” It’s quite a “science” in which no controlled experiments can be conducted, no falsifiable hypotheses can be stated, and no underlying quantitative structure can be imagined. On the other hand, it does end in “ology.” 
     
    Imagine you were a member of a species which is to humans as humans are to fruit flies. You could construct pairs of arbitrary human cultures which differed in only one variable, holding all others constant. Then “humanology” really would be an experimental science. It still wouldn’t have a simple quantitative structure, but at least it would produce testable propositions. 
     
    Imagine you are a humanologist of this species. You are making a hiring decision on someone who claims to be a humanologist. However, he does not construct controlled experiments. All his work is based on one test planet, which he just instantiated and left in the fridge for a while. He finds various random cultures that developed in this system and compares various attributes of them to various other attributes. He calls these tests “natural experiments.” 
     
    Wouldn’t you tell this individual to go read Feynman on cargo cult science, and tell him to come back when he actually cares enough to isolate his variables? 
     
    But if humanology without controlled experiments is a pseudoscience, it’s a pseudoscience. It cannot produce any falsifiable results. It doesn’t matter what species the experimenter is. 
     
    Before the last century’s bout of mass insanity, people did “cultural anthropology” and “social science” in a very different way. They realized that they were humans writing about other humans. Humans being a social species, we have a rather intense interest in each others’ behaviors. We often find it quite entertaining to read about how other humans live and work and play, especially if they are very different from us. Surely this is enough to motivate the practice. 
     
    Perhaps the occasional numerical illustration helps a human explain some humans to other humans. Perhaps it is interesting, when reading about the Yanomamo Indians, to know the percentage of Yanomamo fathers who have killed other Yanomamo males. Absent the practical ability to treat Yanomamo as if they were fruit flies, good social statistics will get you about as close to a falsifiable humanology as a good trampoline will get you to Jupiter. But good statistics are always better than bad ones, and I suppose if you want to call this “science” you can. 
     
    The ultimate cause of the tragedy is that all this work – call it whatever you want – is paid for by the State. Everything the State does has to be Official and Important. And the more of both the better. So, as a matter of normal Darwinian evolution in the funding process, the simple and endlessly fascinating task of investigating other humans and writing about them becomes larded over with pretentious mathematics, forty-dollar words, and outrageous claims to universal truth. 
     
    Frankly: fuck these bureaucratic fuckwits. (Victor Klemperer had exactly the right idea for how to deal with them.) I want my Richard Francis Burton back.

  33. Is there? ThatÂ’s not my impression – the different squabbling schools of thought seem to be talking past each other. Could you give a few examples – IÂ’m not trying to score debating points; IÂ’d honestly like to know what you have in mind. 
     
    http://www.amazon.com/Anthropology-12th-Carol-R-Ember/dp/0132277530/ref=pd_bbs_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1198902860&sr=8-2 
     
    1. Out of Africa theory of Human migration 
    2. Human taxonomic relationships to other primates (Some controversy but good evidence from fossil and genetic evidence to establish main branches) 
    3. Taxonomic relationships of many linguistic family groups are well established 
    4. How many well-studied cultures around the world politically organize their societies.  
    5. What religious practices and rituals many well-studied cultures around the world participate in. 
     
    etc, etc, etc.

  34. mencius said:It’s quite a “science” in which no controlled experiments can be conducted, no falsifiable hypotheses can be stated, and no underlying quantitative structure can be imagined. On the other hand, it does end in “ology.” 
     
    Actually, this is, many times, false. There are many hypothesis even in cultural anthropology that are testable and falsifiable.  
     
    For example, if an anthropologist wishes to explain the historical intertribal behavior and viewpoints between two neighboring tribes that must share limited resources, he may opt to use game-theoretic models. These quantitative models are testable from the archeological, observational, testimonial or other types of evidence. They can also be evaluated on other objective critera such as predictability, coherence, explanatory value, parsimony etc.  
     
    Some other anthropologists might wish to explain certain cultural taboos within tribes as stemming from pragmatic practices or concerns in response to disasters or disease causing agents, for example. These are also testable from historical, geological, archeological evidence. Of course, other anthropologists might reject these theories using evidence gathered that falsifies the hypothesis.

  35. I wonder what Cultural anthropologists think of Brown’s Human Universals… 
     
    Anyways, another key point… perhaps THE key points… that makes the study of human beings necessarily unique is the fact that our findings about human nature have policy implications. It’s all good and fun for scientists to present sweeping, falsifiable views of the way we humans are, but I think that such views have to be presented with the public in mind… the lay public doesn’t understand scientific progress the way scientists do… As a specific example, a scientist may open up a “Farewell to Alms” and he’ll read it and come to the conclusion that it has some very interesting hypotheses with some degree of evidence, but still needing much further testing. But Joe Smith in Townsivlle, USA reads “Farewell to Alms” and thinks it has immediate policy implications, because it intentionally presents itself this way (even in the title it says we should stop giving to the poor!)… 
     
    Perhaps scientists should have something like doctors have with the Hippocratic oath, and maybe have some sort of ethical standard whereby they don’t make policy prescriptions based on weak/indirect evidence.

  36. JuJuby 
     
    IÂ’ll cheerfully grant you that paleoanthropology is a real science and has been for a long time, and of course the introduction of DNA methods, etc. into paleoanthropology has everyone excited. And whether or not we call historical linguistics a science, IÂ’ve been fascinated since I was a kid with the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European, etc. Yes, that is real, significant knowledge. 
     
    But RazibÂ’s original post was about cultural anthropology, and the question was whether systematic knowledge is possible here, as opposed to a mere accumulation of descriptions. 
     
    Your points four and five: 
    “4. How many well-studied cultures around the world politically organize their societies.  
    5. What religious practices and rituals many well-studied cultures around the world participate in.” 
     
    seem to me to fall into the category of description. (Indeed, the way you phrase it sounds more like questions than answers!) IÂ’m all for data-gathering: IÂ’m the one here defending the “thick descriptivists” as long as they are factually focused and honest. 
     
    Are you simply pointing out that, on the subjects of politics and religion, cultural anthropologists have gathered lots of data (certainly true) or are you claiming that they have arrived at significant, non-trivial generalizations that are generally accepted in the field? I donÂ’t know of any, but IÂ’d sincerely like to hear of some if you can offer examples. 
     
    You know of Donald BrownÂ’s book “Human Universals”? I think it succeeds in definitively refuting the extreme cultural relativists. But I also donÂ’t recall anything there that would really surprise most people, which supports my suggestion that most humans already grasp fairly broad and deep generalizations about human beings without help from cultural anthropologists. Do the anthropologists have any results that are significant and non-obvious and generally accepted in the field that were not already known to ordinary people? 
     
    If I understand Razib correctly (and I may not), he seems to think that they donÂ’t yet have such results, but that serious pursuit of a scientific approach and the infusion of ideas and data from ev psych, behavioral genetics, cognitive psychology, etc. can lead to new, significant, non-trivial results that can win general acceptance in the field. IÂ’ve been playing the skeptic here, but I agree with the view that I just attributed to Razib – real progress may well be possible. I just donÂ’t yet see many non-trivial, broad generalizations in cultural anthropology that are solidly established. 
     
    If IÂ’m missing some, please let me know. 
     
    Your and MenciusÂ’ exchange makes my point. Of course, as you say, cultural anthropologists can make hypotheses that are testable and falsifiable. But have they accomplished any broad non-trivial results by doing this or are they still stuck pretty much with low-level descriptions and a lot of verbal sparring over alternative, unsettled theories? 
     
    IÂ’m not an expert in this field, and IÂ’d honestly like to know if my understanding here is correct or if I am really missing some wonderful, non-trivial, broad generalizations in cultural anthropology that are well-established and generally accepted in the field. 
     
    Dave

  37. Dave, 
     
    Whoa… we both mentioned Human Universals within seconds of each other… Much respect! 
     
    ben

  38. For example, if an anthropologist wishes to explain the historical intertribal behavior and viewpoints between two neighboring tribes that must share limited resources, he may opt to use game-theoretic models. These quantitative models are testable from the archeological, observational, testimonial or other types of evidence. 
     
    This is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. 
     
    Fitting a model to your existing “archeological, observational, testimonial, or other types of” data is called hindcasting. There is no conceivable distinction between hindcasting and data dredging. Which is simply a scientific crime. “A key point is that very hypothesis must be tested with evidence that was not used in constructing the hypothesis.” Indeed. 
     
    But suppose you produce a model and your model turns out to fit new data that is genuinely out-of-sample, ie, could not have been available to the researcher when the model was generated.  
     
    Is this evidence of the model’s accuracy? Or just a coincidence? There is no way to know. Because you have no control over the relationship between your in-sample data and your out-of-sample data, and no guarantee that the latter is in any way representative of anything. 
     
    This is especially true in “anthropology,” ie, the study of wild hominids, which after a century of meticulously collecting the fecal hygiene habits of every conceivable Papuan cannibal tribe is pretty low on out-of-sample data. If any such appears, it is likely to be quite unusual, ie, unrepresentative. 
     
    Forgetting the Papuans for a moment, the nature of the problem is easier to see when we look at history (ie, the study of civilized human beings). For the past 150 years, everyone from Comte to Marx to Peter Turchin has been claiming to invent a science of history. Turchin’s is even quantitative, with, like, models and shit. Hari Seldon for real. 
     
    And none of them has come any closer to making a testable prediction than Mary Lou Retton came to Jupiter. History is always happening. Every day it presents us with a little nugget of fresh, steaming out-of-sample data. But the earthquake prediction people have it easy by comparison. 
     
    Moreover, you have a slight problem in defending the connection between your quantitative models (ie, formulas) and the behavior of your hominids, which is that any attempt to quantify any interesting human behavior is hopelessly subjective.  
     
    Go ask an economist what the units in his “utility curves” are. Especially when cross-cultural comparisons are going on, the only objective quantitative values you will get out of humans are bits: dead/alive, male/female, etc. But if you limit your models to this sort of material, your chance of getting that writeup in the Times is pretty slim. Sooo… 
     
    Some other anthropologists might wish to explain certain cultural taboos within tribes as stemming from pragmatic practices or concerns in response to disasters or disease causing agents, for example. These are also testable from historical, geological, archeological evidence. Of course, other anthropologists might reject these theories using evidence gathered that falsifies the hypothesis. 
     
    If the word “pseudoscience” means anything other than “that which pretends to be science, but is not,” my Greek is failing me. 
     
    One of the classic ways to spot an unjustifiable position is that, rather than finding the one or two watertight arguments that justify it and ignoring the large number of spurious nonjustifications that must surround any correct rationale, it spreads its efforts across everything that sounds vaguely right. This is often (though not always) a sign that there are no watertight arguments, only spurious justifications. A classic case of this pattern was Johnnie Cochran’s defense in the OJ trial. 
     
    Note that cultural anthropology, in its effort to describe itself as a science, follows a similar strategy. It is not a science in just one simple, obvious way. Whenever it finds some piece of scientific cargo on the memetic beach, it carries it home in triumph and piles it on the altar. 
     
    When statistics are hip, the pseudoscientist is all about p-values. When models are hip, anything can be modeled. Anthropology, economics, rock and roll, lit crit, you name it. Perhaps in the future, formulaic mathematical models will yield in turn to highly multivariate simulations which start to resemble virtual realities. And the pseudoscientist will be there, with his “evidence” and “experiments” and “hypotheses.” 
     
    And what conceivable good does any of this fraudulent busywork, this intellectual pork, this mindless and mind-numbing nonsense, produce for anyone in the world? Besides, of course, the legion of cerebral drones it feeds and occupies? 
     
    I suppose it keeps them from making trouble in the streets, at least most of the time. Not a trivial achievement. If history shows us anything, it shows that smart people are dangerous. But if Uncle Sam reorged his budget and assigned his acolytes to, say, copying illuminated manuscripts, at least he’d wind up with something he could put on eBay. Lord knows he needs the cash.

  39. Mencius wrote to me: 
    “Have you considered the possibility that you’re praising with faint damns?” 
     
    I come neither to praise cultural anthropology nor to bury it. I really am curious as to what it has accomplished (mainly data gathering, I think – but I may be missing something) and what it can accomplish in the future (more, I think – how much more, IÂ’m not sure). 
     
    Mencius also wrote: 
    “The ultimate cause of the tragedy is that all this work – call it whatever you want – is paid for by the State. Everything the State does has to be Official and Important. And the more of both the better.” 
     
    It sounds as if you and I may have similar political views, or at least similar experiences observing the politics of the academic funding process! 
     
    But I donÂ’t think Razib would appreciate our turning this thread in that direction. 
     
    Dave

  40. Dave, 
     
    It’s funny that you mention historical linguistics, because this is a fine example of a meaningful technical discipline which does not meet the Popperian criteria of “science.” It certainly does not make any falsifiable predictions. 
     
    Is historical linguistics wonderful and worthwhile? Absolutely. Should some waitress at Applebee’s be taxed to pay people to do it? Absolutely not. Historical linguistics is a fun puzzle, and you would have to beat the world’s geeks with sticks to keep them from working on it. 
     
    And there is even a place for quantitative methods in it. But they exist not to make the field a “science,” but only to illustrate arguments. As we see when we start drifting backward into the superfamilies and world languages, historical linguistics is a matter of argument and opinion.  
     
    The relationship between English and German is obvious. The relationship between English and Japanese is debatable. The relationship between English and Ngaatyanjara is probably not worth debating. Note that there is no line in this continuum, which is a pretty good indication that whatever we’re looking at, it ain’t “science.” 
     
    Similarly, writing about primitive peoples is a fun avocation for writer and reader alike, practiced since the days of Herodotus. Or, at least, it used to be fun for the reader. These days I’m not even sure it’s fun for the writer. The overwhelming impression I get from all of this bureaucratic pseudoscience is of brutal intellectual joylessness. Remember, kids, it’s never too late to switch over to the productive economy – I know it’s hell on your social status, money-grubbing and all, but sometimes it’s just a ton of fun to produce actual goods and services.

  41. Mencius, 
     
    cultural anthro is a science, when done correctly. what do you call brown’s “human universals”? a pretty grand synthesis, no? completely falsifiable, too.

  42. Dave, 
     
    Don’t get me wrong – you are demonstrating a classic scientific attitude in the broad, pre-Popperian Wissenschaftlich sense of the word. Is I just figured the interrogation might go a bit faster if it wasn’t just Officer Friendly in the room…

  43. ben g,  
     
    I call it data mining. :-) 
     
    The vast patchwork of human tribes on the planet certainly looks a little like a random sampling. It is no such thing.  
     
    To truly define a cultural trope as “universal” is to state that no human culture which lacks that trope can be constructed. Imagine how much fun our aliens who can treat humans like fruit flies could have with that. Would they validate Brown’s entire list? Possibly. Would I bet my life on it? Certainly not. Whereas I would certainly bet my life on general relativity. 
     
    Any less strict definition of “universal” simply fades into “common.” Yeah, well, so what? 
     
    Imagine what Richard Francis Burton would make of Brown’s book. WTF? Sure, just about everyone sings and dances and is afraid of snakes and whatever. So? Who cares? Burton would be bored to tears within five pages, as would any reader before 1950 or so. Talk about saying the obvious over and over and over and over again. 
     
    We find Brown’s list interesting because of a very special historical situation peculiar to our time. I believe the list is printed as an appendix to Pinker’s Blank Slate, and it indeed is a good thing to look at if you are trying to escape from Blank Slatism, and remind yourself that hominids do indeed have genetically encoded behavioral instincts. 
     
    But there are about a billion ways to remind yourself of this – for example, looking at chimpanzees or baboons for two minutes. It is no credit to the obvious that it can refute an obvious delusion. If eradicating the delusion was simply a matter of providing a refutation, we’d be home by now.

  44. Mencius, 
     
    Could you define “science” as far as how you’re using it here?

  45. cultural anthro is a tale told by a fool signifying nothing. 
     
    its rrlationship to physical anthro (which is increasingly just biometrics plus genomics) is like the relationship of alchemy to chemistry, or astrology to astronomy 
     
    the fact cannot be evaded thatcultural anthros have in a strong sense negative knowledge. Their predictions about the fates of societies are worse — not better — than those of the man on the street.

  46. ben g, 
     
    I am using the narrow Popperian definition: science is a discipline that makes falsifiable, reproducible predictions. 
     
    Of course the word “science” predates Popper, and of course in the past it was used in a much broader sense. The reason I like the Popperian definition is that in the last few decades, “science” in common public usage has come to mean “authoritative and indisputable truth.” The Popperian formalization is the only one, IMHO, that can withstand this kind of abuse. 
     
    The point matters because in these same decades, science as a profession has become an arm of the State. Authoritative truth has become Official Truth. Obviously, this is an intellectual catastrophe of unlimited destructive capacity. However, it is the reality, and the narrowest possible definition of “science” helps control the damage. 
     
    Of course, facts without inferences can be authoritative and indisputable, if they are collected by disinterested investigators who can resist the temptation to filter. Cultural anthropology has certainly collected a large number of facts. I’m sure most, or at least many, are true. However, my impression is that it is not shy about drawing conclusions from these facts. 
     
    My beef is that these conclusions, as in the case of Margaret Mead, have often had a considerable effect on the outside world. If Mead had just written a travelogue, a la Herman Melville, no false authority would have been assumed. Instead she told millions and millions of readers that Science confirmed what they wanted to hear. While it’s nice that Mead’s embroidery has been unmasked, the fact that one person can lie and another (in this case Derek Freeman) can find them out does not constitute the scientific method. At least not in the Popperian sense.

  47. Human Universals, even if it is based on data mining, is falsifiable… one need only find a society that doesn’t follow its predictions (this is possible both through archaeology and through present day developments). 
     
    Also, the descriptions of cultural anthros are falsifiable… how else could Margaret Mead have been debunked?

  48. By that reasoning, everything is science, because anything can be falsified by showing that it cannot be falsified.

  49. ben g, 
     
    If a universal is truly universal, it is not only impossible to find a society that lacks it. It is impossible to construct a society that lacks it. Since no one at present has the practical ability to construct human societies, the proposition is unfalsifiable. 
     
    Suppose your universal is “no one likes ketchup on watermelon.” You can go around the world and find no existing tribes that put ketchup on their watermelon. Is this proof that the human sense of taste inherently abhors the combination of ketchup and watermelon? Or is it just that the tribes which had discovered watermelon had not discovered ketchup, and vice versa? 
     
    Any data-mining algorithm can produce an arbitrary number of historical accidents indistinguishable from genuine patterns. The only solution is to control your variables. If you can’t control your variables, you are not doing science. 
     
    Do I believe in Brown’s universals? Basically, yes. But I am convinced not by his methodology, but by the fact that his results are obvious. It is a sad state of affairs when the obvious demands such exhaustive illustration. And if anyone led us to this state, it was 20th-century cultural anthropology in the tradition of Boas, Mead and Benedict, with its fanatical Rousseauvian crypto-Christianity in the white robes of Science.

  50. By that reasoning, everything is science, because anything can be falsified by showing that it cannot be falsified. 
     
    Straw man. Margaret Mead’s work was actually falsified, as in shown not to be true in its claims. 
     
    If a universal is truly universal, it is not only impossible to find a society that lacks it. It is impossible to construct a society that lacks it. Since no one at present has the practical ability to construct human societies, the proposition is unfalsifiable. 
     
    An archaeologist could discover a society where the proposed universals didn’t hold true. 
     
    Do I believe in Brown’s universals? Basically, yes. But I am convinced not by his methodology, but by the fact that his results are obvious. 
     
    Anthropology isn’t supposed to produce complete, convincing understandings of human beings any more than personality psychology is meant to explain the neuroscience of brain synapses. It’s when fields get together, as EO Wilson describes in Consilience, that we get the complete understanding. Cultural anthropology contributes the cultural descriptions and the patterns, and then sociology, pyschology and eventually neuroscience and genetics explain the basis for these descriptions and patterns.  
     
    To call the softer sciences unscientific ignores the necessary function they play in forming our final scientific understanding.

  51. Also, forgot to mention this, another way that the human universals could be falsified is if a present day society changes over time in such a way as to violate one of the supposed universals.

  52. I think what Caledonian meant to say is that the fact that you can lie about something doesn’t make it “science.” By this standard, Roger Clemens is a scientist, because he says he didn’t use steroids but he did. 
     
    Facts are everywhere. Science is about drawing inferences. 
     
    As for the rest of your objections, I think they rest on a (quite understandable) misunderstanding of the Popperian system. We can’t really apply Popper’s definition unless we understand the social engineering behind it. Why does Popperian falsifiability let us place a remarkable amount of trust in a claim? 
     
    Because, if the claim is both falsifiable and false, someone is almost sure to present some refutation. A falsifiable claim which is actually false is the equivalent of the economist’s $20 bill lying on the sidewalk. As doctors say, “when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” A falsifiable claim which is actually false is a zebra. 
     
    We can thus see Popperian falsifiability as a sort of Neanderthal precursor of Linus Torvalds’ idea that with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. A kind of antediluvian crowdsourcing. 
     
    Popper’s machine works if, and only if, the following statements are true: 
     
    (a) Any refutation is compelling enough to silence all advocates. 
     
    (b) There exists a large pool of potential refuters who have significant personal incentives to be the first to present a compelling refutation. 
     
    (c) The potential refuters actually have the practical capacity to construct any such refutation. 
     
    Cultural anthropology is not a Popperian science because it fails (c). Human societies cannot be constructed. The set of all tribes, cultures, nations, etc, which currently exist is a very small subset of the set of societies which could exist, have existed in the past, etc, and we have no reason at all to assume that it is a representative set. 
     
    Note also that funding processes and academic politics are very, very capable of breaking (a) or (b) as well. But this is a separate discussion. 
     
    Here is a good example of something that passes the Popperian test: the “g” hypothesis. Anyone who can construct a test of intellectual capacity which does not correlate with “g” can destroy the entire psychometric edifice. Many, many people would love to do exactly that. So far, none have succeeded, and this is why I believe in “g.”

  53. Dave, 
     
    I definitely think that non-trivial, “systematic” knowledge is possible in cultural anthropology. I am not sure exactly what youy mean by “nontrivial” and “systematic” but the way that the scientific discipline of cultural anthropology is carried out is systematic, as systematic as any other science. Of course, it is not as rigourous and precise as some but that doesn’t entail it is unsystematic. As for triviality, anthropologists would certainly disagree that their hard work results in “trivial knowledge”. We know concrete and relevant facts from their science about other peoples past and present. Now, math may be seen as offering trivial truths in some sense (a priori truthes) and even in physics, Boltzmann’s statistical laws of thermodynamics seems to me to be far more “trivial” than the concrete facts mined by the anthropologists. Given a set of innitial conditions and statistical laws we may derive the truths of much of thermodynamics but anthrologists must actually go into the field to test their hypothesis, etc.  
     
    Description is also a role of all science, not just anthropology, biology, etc. That’s what science does, it describes reality. There’s nothing trivial about knowing reality through observation.

  54. (c) The potential refuters actually have the practical capacity to construct any such refutation. 
     
    Cultural anthropology is not a Popperian science because it fails (c). Human societies cannot be constructed. The set of all tribes, cultures, nations, etc, which currently exist is a very small subset of the set of societies which could exist, have existed in the past, etc, and we have no reason at all to assume that it is a representative set.
     
     
    Are you perhaps making a jump of logic here from: 
     
    1) human societies can’t be constructed 
     
    to 
     
    2) descriptions of these societies and patterns in these socities therefore aren’t falsifiable. 
     
    That’s clearly not the case though… Perhaps you are arguing something more along these lines: 
     
    1) human societies can’t be constucted 
     
    so 
     
    2) we can’t be sure if the human universals follow directly from genes. 
     
    If the above is what you’re arguing, then I’d agree with that… but I’d also point out that that logic doesn’t lead to the conclusion that it’s not Popperian science!

  55. Mencius, 
     
    Data mining and ad hoc model fitting occurs in all sciences, not just anthropology. Just because there is data mining doesn’t entail that the science is not falsifiable or non-objective or not testable. My point is that you can’t draw a line between some sciences as testable and falsifiable and then claim that cultural anthropology is not because it clearly is.  
     
    Is this evidence of the model’s accuracy? Or just a coincidence? There is no way to know.  
     
    Yes there is. There are justifiable procedural ways to know. See some of the new developments in Bayesian decision theory.  
     
    Also see this book.  
     
    One of the classic ways to spot an unjustifiable position is that, rather than finding the one or two watertight arguments that justify it and ignoring the large number of spurious nonjustifications that must surround any correct rationale, it spreads its efforts across everything that sounds vaguely right. This is often (though not always) a sign that there are no watertight arguments, only spurious justifications.  
     
    Again, this “objection” can be leveled at some scientists in any discipline including physicists. This is a problem in all science, not just cultural anthropology. You’ve gone from “cultural athropology is not falsifiable and testable” to these other types of objections which can be, to varing degrees, leveled at all other sciences. That doesn’t entail that they are non-objective, non-falsifiable, non-testable.  
     
    The developments in Bayesian decision theory, the already existant criteria in the sciences of parsimony, explanatory value, predicatbility, coherence, etc can answer just about all your objections.

  56. Cultural anthropology is not a Popperian science because it fails  
     
    No science is a “Popperian science.” Popperian inductive epistomology has been thorouly refuted since the 60s (for example, see Hilary Putnam’s work on Popper’s falsifiability criterion). Even Popper had to concede he was wrong about his most fundamental assertions. 
     
    [quote] “Popper’s final position is that he acknowledges that it is impossible to discriminate science from non-science on the basis of the falsifiability of the scientific statements alone; he recognizes that scientific theories are predictive, and consequently prohibitive, only when taken in conjunction with auxiliary hypotheses, and he also recognizes that readjustment or modification of the latter is an integral part of scientific practice. Hence his final concern is to outline conditions which indicate when such modification is genuinely scientific, and when it is merely ad hoc. This is itself clearly a major alteration in his position, and arguably represents a substantial retraction on his part…”

  57. ben g, 
     
    It’s definitely the latter: “we can’t be sure if the human universals follow directly from genes.” 
     
    “Directly” is a meaningless word. “Human universals” assumes what it is trying to prove. If we can’t be sure of something, we must identify some alternative possibility. 
     
    The statement can be clarified as: “we can’t be sure whether the features on Brown’s list follow from human genes, or are the consequence of historical and/or environmental coincidence.” 
     
    I think it’s pretty clear that a “human universal” must follow from human genes, rather than simply being a condition that applies to all humans living at present. For example, if you conquered the world and taught everyone to speak English, English would not become a “human universal” in the sense that Brown implies. 
     
    Ergo, Brown’s work is not Popperian science.

  58. JuJuby, 
     
    You’re arguing from authority. 
     
    I explained above why I treat Popperian science as a special category. I invoke Popper’s name not because I consider him invested with some extraordinary magisterium, but because the falsifiability test was his idea and most people know it. 
     
    If you feel my trust criteria are ineffective and are likely to accept false claims or reject true ones, I’d be happy to hear your argument. 
     
    My opinion of the Bayesians is not high. But I feel this is off-topic. If you are interested, here is a discussion on my own blog.

  59. Mencius, 
     
    Brown’s Universals can in fact be falsified in the short term through archaeology, new contradictory findings, and future societal developments, and conceivably in the long term through a consilient understanding of psychology, sociology, and genetics. 
     
    Your definition of science seems more like “Likely to be falsified this year if untrue” than “Can be falsified.”

  60. *correction, to make something clear: “and all of Brown’s Universals could be falsified in the long term through a combined understanding of psychology, sociology, and genetics.”

  61. I wish some GNXP contributors could have stuck around to give Mencius a much-deserved thwacking, but they might have gotten scared off by the derailment of the thread so I’ll try to bring it back. 
     
    The NYT piece was simply awful. I hate it when people use a phrase with no predicate as a sentence. It’s just signalling “I’m too deep to write properly”. All the focus on the author’s subjective experience travelling rather than Diamond’s theories themselves reminded me of the crap that geeks hail as vindicating their hobby. There is some real glaring idiocy in there. some anthropologists saw it as excusing the excesses of the conquerors. If it wasnÂ’t their genes that made them do it, it was their geography. 
    Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Of course explaining always means justifying, let’s remain completely ignorant as to the causes of anything we dislike, that will be sure to minimize the frequency at which they occur. 
    I’m surprised nobody noticed this flub: No one visits Stonehenge, she noted, and asks whatever happened to the English. 
    That’s because the pre-Roman celtic Britons built them, the English are the descendants of Germanic tribes like the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who pushed out the old culture and brought in the new and gave us our language. 
     
    What do you guys think of the criticism Diamond receives in Hart’s Understanding Human History? I discussed the book here, not nearly as good as GG&S (Diamond’s just a better writer) but I found his New World vs Africa counter-example an interesting jab at Jared. I criticized Diamond, including a book by him I never bothered to read, in some comments here.

  62. Mencius wrote to me: 
    >I just figured the interrogation might go a bit faster if it wasn’t just Officer Friendly in the room… 
     
    Are you suggesting that this thread is the Web equivalent of a bare-knuckled brawl? Did you see the recent attempt by a New York Times columnist to claim that a GOP Presidential candidate, Congressman Ron Paul, is a neo-Nazi? Her lies were so blatant that the TimesÂ’ editors had to issue a formal retraction. Or have you followed the current street-fighting among us physicists over superstring theory and the “Landscape scenario”? 
     
    Now those are bare-knuckled brawls! 
     
    No, this thread is just the equivalent of polite dinner conversation among a group of friends (at least, my friends). 
     
    Since RazibÂ’s original post, and several of the comments, were largely focused on “post-modernism,” I think it is worth mentioning Terry EagletonÂ’s interesting “The Illusions of Postmodernism.” Eagleton is an unreconstructed old leftist, and a literary scholar, who argues quite convincingly that post-modernism is a sign of defeatism and loss of nerve among the political left: theyÂ’ve given up trying to change the world and have turned to playing solipsistic verbal games among themselves.  
     
    Eagleton, as a true-believing socialist, is very depressed by this. As someone who has never had any use for socialism, I myself find it quite cheering. Post-modernism is a game preserve in which we isolate the few remaining socialists to see to it that they cannot do any harm to human beings. Turning over a few university literature departments to unreconstructed socialists is surely a small price to pay to see to it that they cannot damage normal human society. 
     
    It should also be mentioned that not all self-identified post-modernists are poseurs or fools. For example, political scientist Anne Norton calls herself a post-modernists, but her idea of post-modernism seems to be not to deconstruct serious science or scholarship but rather to “deconstruct” the lies used by corrupt elites to maintain political power. For example, her “Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire” is a bitterly funny expose of some of the neocons who have hijacked US foreign policy, but the book is actually eminently fair towards both traditional conservatives and, indeed, towards Leo Strauss himself. Her “95 Theses on Politics, Culture, and Method” also offers little tidbits of “post-modernist” wisdom that seem rather sensible. 
     
    There has been a lot of “cargo cult” pseudo-science in the last century in the social sciences: attempts to imitate the form of real science without any of the substance. I mentioned above unilinear “evolutionist” theories in anthropology as an example; functionalist theories in poli sci, sociology, and anthropology also illustrate the point. Perhaps post-modernists such as Professor Norton can help contribute to the needed housecleaning of exposing and eliminating all of the silly theories that have encrusted the social sciences for so long. 
     
    Dave

  63. JuJuby wrote to me: 
    “Description is also a role of all science, not just anthropology, biology, etc. That’s what science does, it describes reality. There’s nothing trivial about knowing reality through observation.” 
     
    I know that all this cross-posting by everyone can get confusing, but if you read through my posts, youÂ’ll notice that IÂ’m one of the guys defending data gathering. Description – if it is honest and factually based – is swell. 
     
    And there is another point about anthropology that I do not think anyone has mentioned in this thread: by teaching us concepts and examples such as patrilocal/matrilocal/neolocal, parallel cousin/ cross cousin, rite of passage, etc., it causes us to view our own culture and society through new spectacles. I doubt that anyone who is well-read in anthropology can look at the Pledge of Allegiance or a Thanksgiving dinner in quite the way that the average American views those traditions. 
     
    Broadening oneÂ’s perspective, widening the questions one is inclined to ask, is a good thing. 
     
    Natural science also does all of this, of course.  
     
    But the point that I (and, perhaps, Razib) have been trying to stress is that natural science has also succeeded at something else: it has produced very specific but also broadly applicable and successful generalizations that were really surprising, that no human knew were true until they were proposed and tested by science. We all know numerous examples of these broad, surprising generalizations in natural science – the fact of evolution, the atomic theory, plate tectonics, the heliocentric theory, the Big Bang, etc. 
     
    I cannot think of any equivalent success in anthropology.  
     
    Can you? 
     
    ThatÂ’s my question. 
     
    Several posters here seem to think that when anthropology adopts a scientific stance, ignores the pomo silliness, and aggressively integrates modern discoveries in ev psych, behavioral genetics, etc. it will finally start to produce surprising, new, and well-tested generalizations just as the natural sciences have done. 
     
    I hope they are right, though IÂ’m only moderately optimistic. 
     
    But I really am sincerely trying to get from you whether you can think of any such broad, surprising, generally-accepted generalizations that already exist in anthropology, or whether you agree with me that such generalizations, if they are to be at all, must lie in the future. 
     
    Dave

  64. I wonder what Cultural anthropologists think of Brown’s Human Universals… 
     
    I’m not an anthropologist, and I hope I’m not derailing the thread here, but I’m really surprised by some of the things in Brown’s list of human universals. (I’ve read it via Steven Pinker, I haven’t yet read Brown’s book). 
     
    Ex1: The boundaries in RGB colour space denoted by different colour words vary between cultures. Compare English, Japanese, Polish, Native American languages, particularly with respect to the “green”/”blue” distinction. 
     
    Ex2: Gender terms, and what does the culture call people with intersex conditions, or who like same sex sexual activities? Current Western approach: pretend that intersexed people don’t exist (except in specialised scientific contexts) and classify gay men as male. On the other hand, Navaho has words like “nadle”, in India: “hijra”. So I doubt that gender terminology is universally binary. (3-valued seems common). 
     
    Ex3: At least in the UK, there is a large subculture of people who like watching each other having sex (“doggers”). Which makes it hard to claim that a preference for sex in private is a universal. 
     
    Ex4: “mother normally has consort during child-rearing years”. I suspect that this is contigent on the culture’s economic arragements. See single mothers in contemporary western societies for one example of where a culture has managed to economically de-incentivise having a partner. 
     
    etc.

  65.  
    And there is another point about anthropology that I do not think anyone has mentioned in this thread: by teaching us concepts and examples such as patrilocal/matrilocal/neolocal, parallel cousin/ cross cousin, rite of passage, etc., it causes us to view our own culture and society through new spectacles. I doubt that anyone who is well-read in anthropology can look at the Pledge of Allegiance or a Thanksgiving dinner in quite the way that the average American views those traditions. 
     
     
    I think it was Samuel Clemens who said that travel broadens the mind. Even travel within one’s own country does that. Far too many city people are totally out of touch with the life of people in the country. 
     
    We don’t need not steenkin’ Anthropology.

  66. But I really am sincerely trying to get from you whether you can think of any such broad, surprising, generally-accepted generalizations that already exist in anthropology 
     
    Well, Claude Levi-Strauss’ incest taboo is certainly trying to be such a generalisation. I’m not sure how well accepted it is these days, but it’s certainly surprising to discover that: 
     
    (a) Your own cultures’ kinship rules are not followed by all other human societies 
    (b) Nevertheless, the kinship rules of all known societies share an invariant property that appears to be universal 
    (c) Previously, we weren’t conciously aware of what this invariant property was (we weren’t deliberately trying to enforce it). 
     
    I might also count (for example) Mary Douglas’ work on risk perception. It’s initally surprising that the socially-perceived “riskiness” of a potential bad outcome is driven by factors other than its liklihood and the resulting loss. (At least, it’s surprising if you’re an economist. This is systematic, cross-cultural failure of economic rationality).

  67. But I really am sincerely trying to get from you whether you can think of any such broad, surprising, generally-accepted generalizations that already exist in anthropology 
     
    I’d say they don’t, but they conceivably could. The way I see it, Anthropology and the other soft sciences exist in a state similar to biology before Darwin. Before Darwin Biology was just Nautral History– it was just observation and description… It wasn’t incredibly explanitory or broad, but I’d say it was still science.

  68. PhysicistDave, like Terry Eagleton another old-fashioned leftist (an unrepentant Stalinist who also defends Mao’s purges, in fact) who decries modern pomo leftism is Robert Lindsay. I wrote about him here.

  69. Dave said: But the point that I (and, perhaps, Razib) have been trying to stress is that natural science has also succeeded at something else: it has produced very specific but also broadly applicable and successful generalizations that were really surprising, that no human knew were true until they were proposed and tested by science. We all know numerous examples of these broad, surprising generalizations in natural science – the fact of evolution, the atomic theory, plate tectonics, the heliocentric theory, the Big Bang, etc. 
     
    I cannot think of any equivalent success in anthropology.
     
     
    I think your notion of “success” is very subjective. Like I explained, as far as a qualitative difference between how different sciences are conucted and their values, ideally, all science are prety much the same, working under the same assumptions of objectivity, testability, explanatory explanation, parsimony, coherence, etc. Anthropology, by definition, is the study of people. It has reached generalized, testable conclusions that are accepted by a consensus. The fact that there are cultural anthropology textbooks which includes factual information about human societies, etc which almost always agree with each other (because they usually will include only accepted and “generalized” facts about human cultures and societies) testifies to this. Of course those facts are not as “general” as those in physics but they are not meant to be. To truly say something about “generalizability” you’d have to givbe a much more rigorous definition than the one you are using. A theory is by definition general, in some sense, and there certainly are plenty of theories in cultural anthropology. Are they “successful”? Again, that is a loaded subjective word. They most certainly are in the fact that they illuminate and broaden our understanding of other and our own cultures, so yes, they are successful.

  70. ben g, 
     
    You seem to be demanding that the word “falsifiable” be interpreted as literally as possible. I am not particularly attached to this word. I can use another if you prefer. Nor am I citing Karl Popper, who of course was right about some things and wrong about others. 
     
    What I am attached to is a certain criterion for extending unconditional, or nearly unconditional, trust to assertions made by others which I cannot verify personally. 
     
    I am not concerned as to whether something may be falsified in the future. I am concerned as to whether, if it is untrue, it would probably have been demonstrated to be false in the past. If you are one of these people who prefers math to English, you should not have much trouble in translating this into Bayese.

  71. Dave, 
     
    I’m a huge fan of the physics wars, though I have no way at all of telling who is right or wrong. It’s sort of like watching ice hockey when neither of the teams is yours. It is really a pity, I feel, that neither Motl nor Woit lives in a jurisdiction where dueling is legal. I’d love to see them have it out with cavalry sabers, or at least German fraternity swords. 
     
    I think it’s worth investigating whether your conclusions about the so-called “social sciences” extend to their so-called “queen.” If you haven’t already, try some Austrian economics one of these days. I’ll bet you can’t eat just one. 
     
    I like the distinction between broadening one’s perspective and uncovering new generalizations. Physics is a science. Chemistry is a science. Geology is a science. History is an art. And broadening the reader’s perspective is exactly its purpose.  
     
    As a category of knowledge, surely “cultural anthropology” – which in practice tends to equate to the study of living savage tribes – is best described as a minor subspecies of history. Call it “modern prehistory.” 
     
    I would venture to suggest that we are not exactly living in the golden age of modern prehistory. First, the supply of real savages is not what it once was. Second, bad writing can’t be good art.

  72. Mencius, 
     
    So your problem with anthropology seems to be not that it’s literally unfalsifiable, so much as a fear that if we call it “science”, people will show undeserved deference towards it, perhaps grouping it with biology, or even physics and chemistry. (Correct me if I’m wrong in this summary of your motives and position… I get the impression that this is the crux of the argument because people don’t argue over words like “science” unless the application of those words has some meaningful relevance to public discourse and opinion.) 
     
    Isn’t there a middle ground here, though? We already refer to some sciences as “soft”, and others as “hard”… the public seems to have a good understanding of the difference between atomic theory and the pop psychlogy or economics they read in Newsweek. Can’t we say that anthropology is science, but that we don’t yet have the knowledge and tools to falsify all of its claims? This would seem to address your main concerns, and would also encourage anthropologists to get away from the cliquey and anti-scientific nature of so much of their discipline.

  73. mhagneto wrote:  
     
    “I’d like to know why postmodernism has made such a ferocious assault on the American academy. I’m aware of the popularity of De Man, Foucault, et al, in the humanities but it appears to contaminate the universities at all levels. Is it merely PoMod’s congeniality to the left, or is there something more?” 
     
    There is definitely something more, and this is what readers should be focusing on. Unfortunately, most of the commentators here seem to be focused on the technicalities of method and the pissing match between the “hard” and “soft” sciences.  
     
    Whether you call this broad and nebulous ideology postmodernism, cultural marxism, or something else, it is essentially a nihilistic intellectual movement. It denies the existence of objective standards, the ability to attain practical knowledge that could lead to progress, and the concept of progress itself. Occasionally, it’s practitioners will even deny the existence of an objective reality.  
     
    However, even though it is logically impossible to make value judgments in such an intellectual system, the practitioners of this ideology regularly make such judgments to attack the foundational principles of Western Civilization and the people who created it.  
     
    The question is, how did such a cynical and destructive ideology take over nearly every humanities and social sciences department in America and throughout much of Europe in less than 80 years time? Why did the intellectuals of the most advanced Civilization in the history of the world decide to turn on themselves? And why was the opposition to this so weak? I don’t think there are any simple answers to this question. I don’t think there is any one reason or any one group of people who are soley to blame. But this is the important question we should be thinking about because it know affects every one of us in more ways than you can imagine.

  74. ben g, 
     
    The 20th century saw a tremendous expansion in the set of disciplines that described themselves as “science,” adopting the terminology and imitating the methodology of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. 
     
    This can only be explained as a political phenomenon. Much, indeed perhaps most, of the “cultural anthropology” of the 20th century was associated with political movements which it seemed primarily designed to justify. Both National Socialism and Communism were woven around a corpus of politically motivated “social science.” If you believe that their victorious competitor, American democracy, was immune to this disease, perhaps you are new to GNXP. 
     
    So why shouldn’t we see this phenomenon as entirely pernicious? Where is the complexity? The moral nuance? What is your basis for hoping that this dog will learn new tricks? 
     
    Every department of “social science” is conquered territory. Philosophers, historians, essayists, belletrists of every hide and hair had been doing economics, anthropology, and psychology since Khufu was a little boy. When the positivists, numerologists, cargo cult kids and party hacks arrived, their treatment of the natives was not gentle. Why should they expect mercy in return? What is this, Wiffle ball?

  75. MBP, 
     
    Asking why professors are leftist is like asking why stormtroopers are fascist. Leftism is the belief that the world should be ruled by professors. Presumably if cooks felt they had any chance of taking over the world, they would invent some grand theory of culinary governance. 
     
    All the intellectual tropes you describe display one invariant: they can be used to justify socialism. Ie, the rule of professors. If there is a question here, it is why the professors succeeded in capturing the State, the stormtroopers failed, and the cooks never had a chance. 
     
    Power corrupts. It has been good to the professors, less so to their subjects. Just be glad you don’t live in the culinary state – imagine what it would be feeding you!

  76. Steve Sailer wrote: 
     
    Without big theories to test, fact-gathering for the sake of fact-gathering can be a pretty autistic enterprise.  
     
    Yes, but without the autistic enterprises, many of the facts may disappear and be lost forever. 
     
    It’s a liability unique to the cultural sciences.

  77. JuJuby wrote to me: 
    >Anthropology, by definition, is the study of people. It has reached generalized, testable conclusions that are accepted by a consensus. 
     
    WellÂ… JuJuby, you keep saying this, and I keep asking for specific examples (from cultural anthropology –I know about examples in paleoanthropology), and you just keep repeating the general statement without mentioning specific examples. 
     
    Of course, you donÂ’t have to honor my request. ItÂ’s up to you. 
     
    But your failure actually to give some examples does tend to confirm my opinion that the only examples that exist are trivial in the (fairly objective) sense that almost everyone would have expected them without any need to consult cultural anthropologists. 
     
    Again, it would be really nice if you could actually give, letÂ’s say, your five best examples of surprising, significant generalized conclusions that have been reached by cultural anthropologists. I could easily do this in various natural sciences (e.g., special relativity, plate tectonics, evolution, the atomic theory, etc.) and even in economics (the quantity theory, the effect of minimum wage laws on employment or of rent control laws on housing availability, etc.). 
     
    I donÂ’t think you can. 
     
    But IÂ’m not an expert in the field. Prove me wrong. WeÂ’ll all be winners if you do. I really would enjoy seeing some of your examples – IÂ’d like to learn something. 
     
    Dave

  78. Mencius wrote to me: 
    > I’m a huge fan of the physics wars [over supertrings and the Landscape scenario], though I have no way at all of telling who is right or wrong. 
     
    Strangely, neither do I, though I have a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford! I lean slightly in the Woit direction, but I would be reluctant to bet on either side – aesthetically, superstrings are very appealing, but their predictive value has, thus far, been nil. 
     
    You also wrote: 
    >. I think it’s worth investigating whether your conclusions about the so-called “social sciences” extend to their so-called “queen.” If you haven’t already, try some Austrian economics one of these days. I’ll bet you can’t eat just one. 
     
    WellÂ… actually, I read “Human Action,” “Prices and Production,” etc. in high school and knew Murray Rothbard personally. I think they are correct that almost all economic theory is simply deductions from some very obvious empirical facts, and that attempts to turn economics into a clone of physics have failed dismally. Of course, just as math can be applied in various empirical circumstances without “testing” math, so also the results of economics can be applied in various cases (e.g., to explain how price controls cause shortages). But I donÂ’t know of any case where empirical tests in economics have led to a spanking new, interesting, well-established generalization.  
     
    IÂ’m not opposed to empirical work in economics – I just note that it has not seemed to lead to the discovery of important new laws. 
     
    And, of course, that is the same point I am making about cultural anthropology – itÂ’s great for broadening oneÂ’s perspective and the questions one can ask (perhaps also the most important benefit of economics), and ethnographic studies, if factually focused and well-written, can certainly be interesting. I just have not been able to find any surprising general laws coming out of those empirical studies. 
     
    I do see two major differences between economics and anthropology. First, in economics “armchair thinking” (i.e., working through the logical implications of some well-known empirical facts) does seem to have produced some significant results. I donÂ’t think anyone claims this for cultural anthropology. 
     
    Second, various results in DNA technology, evolutionary theory etc. that we all know about do seem to me to have the potential to bring about a real revolution in cultural anthropology – I think almost everyone who reads GNXP is interested in that possibility. But I donÂ’t think that revolution has yet happened. 
     
    Dave

  79. [Cultural] Anthropology … testable conclusions that are accepted by a consensus 
     
     
    I think that word there (consensus) is the problem. 
     
    As far as I can tell, science does not proceed by consensus.

  80. Dave, 
     
    Yeah, economics at least admits deductive reasoning (praxeology). It does so only by treating humans as abstract actors, though – ie, by stripping away every trace of anthropology. Try to reverse this and you get “behavioral economics,” about which the less said the better. 
     
    The other day someone else with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics told me that he thought there might be some real value in this Garrett Lisi thing, which surprised me. What’s your take?

  81. Mencius, 
     
    I see what you’re saying… in light of the history of how “social science” is abused for political reasons, it makes sense to distance it somehow from the rest.. 
     
    But I think the solution might be something more like a hippocratic oath for scientists– not to make policy prescriptions off of things that are weakly/indirectly supported (just about all of the social sciences). It seems like that would be at least as effective as insisting that people not call their weakly supported hypotheses “science.”

  82. This is the sort of thing I would expect to come out of Cultural Anthropology: 
     
    An interesting conclusion on a pressing social issue from Hebrew University

  83. Mencius, 
     
    I havenÂ’t investigated Garrett LisiÂ’s work directly for myself (for everyone else, Lisi has a novel proposal for a “theory of everything”). People like Woit whose judgment I respect seem to think that there might be something useful there, but that it would be a big surprise if it really holds the whole answer. 
     
    I agree with your comments on economics. Over the last few decades, there have been various attempts to introduce evolutionary paradigms into economics, to do “experimental” economics (in a lab setting) to study how people actually make decisions and behave strategically, etc. As far as I can tell (IÂ’m willing to be corrected by those with greater knowledge, just as I am in cultural anthropology), these studies have largely either told us what we already know or have made minor contributions to cognitive psychology.  
     
    Being a physicist, IÂ’ve naturally been interested in attempts to introduce serious math into economics – LeontiefÂ’s input-output analysis, game theory, Arrow-Debreu general equilibrium theory, rational expectations theory, etc. Some of this ended up being nonsense, most ended up telling us stuff we already knew. The only stuff that I thought was really innovative was somewhat on the fringes of economics theory as generally conceived – IÂ’m thinking of AxelrodÂ’s work on repeated strategic interaction (“Tit for Tat”) or ArrowÂ’s impossibility theorem on constructing consistent mechanisms for democratic voting. 
     
    As in cultural anthropology, IÂ’m not dogmatic about this: the proof of methodological claims is the results you actually deliver. But even the interesting new stuff in economics (Gary BeckerÂ’s work on applying economics to “non-economic” areas of life, Oliver WilliamsonÂ’s neo-institutionalism, etc.) basically uses the old style of semi-deductive “praxeological” reasoning. So far, that seems to be where interesting results have come from in economics. 
     
    I hope itÂ’s clear that IÂ’m not trying to attack either economics or cultural anthropology on this thread. IÂ’ve even spoken kindly of one post-modernist – one who is willing to write in clear English! IÂ’m genuinely curious as to how and why different disciplines have achieved the results they have and whether their approaches might change/improve in the future. It would not be fair to criticize us physicists because we cannot follow Max WeberÂ’s “Verstehen” method in physics (i.e., acquire a sympathetic understanding for the meaning of the life of an electron). It also would be unreasonable to criticize economists or cultural anthropologists for not being physicists. 
     
    Dave

  84. WellÂ… JuJuby, you keep saying this, and I keep asking for specific examples (from cultural anthropology –I know about examples in paleoanthropology), and you just keep repeating the general statement without mentioning specific examples. 
     
    I’ve given you general examples such as the intertribal game-theoretic example. Other examples are when anthropologists have developed theories for how food is transfered in different types of hunter and gather societies and diffferent kinds of agrarians societies using calorie transferance as a function of different variables such as food availability, etc. These relationships can be expressed in very similar equations to the ones ecologists use in types of ecosystems to describe energy transfer. Other cases are the theories describing how work or goods are distributed in different kinds of societies using developments in economic theory etc. I also know that interesting theories of color concept categorization have been developed. These are but a few of the literally, hundreds of examples of general, testable, theories in that science. You’ve put me on a spot as I am not a cultural anthropologist but even off the top of my head I’ve given you examples countering your claims and I’ve given you link for a cultural anthropology textbook. Check it out yourself. Don’t be lazy. Some physicist complain that “pomos” are misrepresenting developments in physics but you seem to be a phycists that is misrepresenting cultural anthropology without knowing anything about what cultural anthropologists actually do. At least I have looked through a cultural anthropology textbook before and there are plenty of examples like the ones I given you. It seems to me the only thing you’ve said were strawman arguments, not knowing anthropology when just a quick review of a texbook at a library would show you many examples. I’ve pointed to where you can find more information on these examples now its your turn to follow up on it.

  85. The Real Richard Sharpe said: 
     
    [Cultural] Anthropology … testable conclusions that are accepted by a consensus 
     
    I think that word there (consensus) is the problem. 
    As far as I can tell, science does not proceed by consensus.
     
     
    It may not “proceed” by consensus but surely there is consensus in science. Evolution? Quantum mechanics? Etc etc etc.  
     
    con·sen·sus [kuhn-sen-suhs] 
    noun, plural -sus·es 
     
    1. majority of opinion: The consensus of the group was that they should meet twice a month.  
     
    2. general agreement or concord; harmony.

  86. One neat development in economics is that the rise of virtual worlds may make it practical, sort of, barely, for some problems, to do controlled experiments. It’s not exactly clear to me where the boundary between economics and anthropology is supposed to be, but perhaps this could be said for the latter as well. I find it hard to imagine this producing anything particularly useful, but at least it would be science (by my definition). 
     
    Math is definitely a plague. A sort of intellectual hydrilla. Vast areas of computer science – if I have a specialty, this is it – have been overrun by the stuff. For example, the people who call themselves “programming-language researchers” have not produced a usable programming language in, quite literally, the lifetime of many researchers now in the field. What have they been doing? What crack are they on? Math. 
     
    In the modern world of academia, whenever two parties with different visions of the field are competing, the side which can present itself as more rigorous tends to win. This means math, math, and more math. As we’ve seen, math is not at all the same thing as science. 
     
    But I think this is basically JuJuby’s definition of science. Science is anything that uses math. Anything that uses math is science. One wonders what he thinks of “Moneyball.” 
     
    Perhaps you’ve noticed that some funky stuff is going down in the world of rarefied high finance. Ever wonder how that happened? With all these smart people? Ex-physicists galore? Answer: math. The hydrilla is everywhere.  
     
    The basic problem in finance is that math was used as a sort of data laundering tool. Subjective assumptions went in the front end. Objective numbers came out the back. Sometimes I think that to be admitted to any graduate program which accepts public funding, you should have to write “Garbage in, garbage out” on the blackboard 1024 times. I mean, if Congress is going to act…

  87. But I think this is basically JuJuby’s definition of science. Science is anything that uses math. Anything that uses math is science. One wonders what he thinks of “Moneyball.” 
     
    Where did you get that idea from? I was just using the commonly used definition of science. If a methodological discipline assumes objectivity and uses certain critera to assess its theories like testability, falsifiability, predictability, explanatory value, coherence etc then its a science. And anthrology is clearly a science.  
     
    BTW, what exactly were your objections to baysians anyway? It seems to me you have delt with a very limited group of baysians. There are very modest baysians out there who have developed very answers to many of the objections you raised, not just the extreme ones (so called immodest baysians).

  88. ben g, 
     
    Most of the people in any university today are there because their personal goal in life, the little tippy-top of their Maslow’s pyramid, is to influence either public policy, public opinion, or both. In other words, to wield power. I mean, we are talking about hominids, here. 
     
    Take a look at this dude. “Too divorced from social change.” He’s practically singing Jacob Zuma’s theme song. And this is the cream of the crop. 
     
    Dismantling this power structure is not a matter of an ethics code. I’m thinking more in terms of a military coup. Certainly, anyone who thinks it’s possible to impose any external change on the universities except under some kind of martial law is being way, way too optimistic.

  89. JuJuby, 
     
    At least these days, baseball is actually far more rigorous than anthropology, I’d say. At least baseball produces scores and other stats which are unambiguous and perfectly measurable. And think of how much easier it is to manage a baseball team than control a savage tribe. 
     
    My objection to Bayesians is not to Bayes’ law, which is a perfectly valid if somewhat trivial result in probability theory, but to the ways in which it has been misused.  
     
    Bayes’ law is a formula which computes one number from three others. If you don’t fall prey to the tendency to use the Reverend as a magical degarbaging machine which takes subjective fudge factors and turns them into objective quantities, there is nothing at all wrong with being a “Bayesian.” But my general impression is that most people who are willing to adopt the label have so fallen. Bayes’ theorem becomes the lamppost that they are always looking for their keys under, and they easily forget that they know nothing at all about the stochastic structure of their inputs, knowledge that is of course required if you want to use Bayes’ theorem.

  90. Most of the comments I’ve read in this blog miss the essential critical points of the seminar (as did the article in the NYTimes, as well written and insightful as it was). Most seminar participants were archaeologists, not cultural anthropologists, and their biggest issues with Diamond was that his theories are usually way out in front of the archaeological data. Cherry-picking data to support one’s favorite theory is not good history or good science, but it makes for great reading and it sells books. I suggest you all keep your minds open until the seminar proceedings come out. The book will be published by Cambridge Press in early 2009. Thanks.

  91. Mencius, 
     
    Baseball needs to be very rigorous or else fans would not want to watch. People want concreete decisive scoring etc. Baseball is designed so that it is relatively easy to judge and clear cut. Life is usually much more diffcult. 
     
    I do agree with you that Bayes’ law is somewhat trivial but so is much of probability’s laws. Bayesian epistomology however, goes much further than that law to include a whole branch of epistomology and probability theory. I also agree with you that orthodox Bayesians (who now seems to be a minority in the philosophy of science) have taken subjective “fudge factors” and made them into precise factors. That’s a problem with them that modest Bayesians have come to terms with. You don’t need to assign to each of your belief’s a precise confidence factor or utility number or anything like that to have a robust Bayesian confirmation theory or decision theory that can ground lots of scientific or rational epistomology. 
     
    I like the book by Mark Kaplan who is a modest Bayesian. He shows that simply by acepting some very basic rational assumptions such as the Kolmogorov axioms, “ordering,” “confidence” and “modest probabilism” without having to assign every belief a confiddence factor, you can derive a very robust and rational decision theory and confirmation theory.

  92. Diamond vs the anthropologists is discussed at Bloggingheads here. George Johnson has a column on it here.

  93. Shoot, George Johnson the blogginghead is the same guy who wrote the Times column! And I thought he was the reasonable one compared to John Horgan.

  94. Most of the people in any university today are there because their personal goal in life, the little tippy-top of their Maslow’s pyramid, is to influence either public policy, public opinion, or both. In other words, to wield power. I mean, we are talking about hominids, here. 
     
    Mencius, 
     
    What you’re saying reminds me of a quote from Eric Hoffer: “The self-styled intellectual who is impotent with pen and ink hungers to write history with sword and blood.” 
     
    True enough. But Hoffer also says: “It has been often stated that a social order is likely to be stable so long as it gives scope to talent. Actually, it is the ability to give scope to the untalented that is most vital in maintaining social stability. For not only are the untalented more numerous but, since they cannot transmute their grievances into a creative effort, their disaffection will be more pronounced and explosive… For there is a tendency in the untalented to divert their energies from their own development into the management, manipulation, and probably frustration of others. They want to police, instruct, guide, and meddle. In an adequate social order, the untalented should be able to acquire a sense of usefulness and of growth without interfering with the development of talent around them.”

  95. TGGP: What’s so bad about the writing of the Times column? The people quoted were ridiculous, but the writing itself?

  96. ben g, I found it too New Journalismy, and the author had a silly spin on the collapse of the societies. I agree with Ed Glaeser that it is people rather than places/cultures that are interesting, but the collapse of such things still entail suffering and the lowering of standard of living. Also, his remark on the English making Stonehenge. 
     
    Speaking of Glaeser and Bayesianism, he has a paper on Credulous Bayesians discussed here.

  97. Also, his remark on the English making Stonehenge. 
     
    yeah. that was dumb. the celts didn’t even build stonehenge.

  98. Are the pre-Saxon Britons not considered Celts? Or did someone else build Stonehenge? 
     
    Robert Lindsay, who dislikes GNXP and is disliked in return, has a post on the anthropologists issue. Having done some cultural anthropology himself, he doesn’t like being told that it isn’t real science.

  99. JuJuby wrote to me: 
     
    >You’ve put me on a spot as I am not a cultural anthropologist but even off the top of my head I’ve given you examples countering your claims and I’ve given you link for a cultural anthropology textbook. Check it out yourself. Don’t be lazy. 
     
    I hate to disappoint you, young?un, but I have looked through anthropology texts. Lots of ?em. I?ve been interested in this subject for over thirty years. I?m over a half century old. 
     
    And, I have been unable to find any generally accepted, well-established generalizations in anthropology that would be surprising to an ordinary human being. 
     
    JuJuby also wrote: 
    > I’ve given you general examples such as the intertribal game-theoretic example. 
     
    No, you have not. What you actually wrote was: 
    >For example, if an anthropologist wishes to explain the historical intertribal behavior and viewpoints between two neighboring tribes that must share limited resources, he may opt to use game-theoretic models. 
     
    Yeah, perhaps he may. And physicists may use calculus, and an astronomer may use a telescope, and pomo folks may use a Ouija board. 
     
    Those are examples of (possible) tools, not results. 
     
    You also wrote: 
    > Other examples are when anthropologists have developed theories for how food is transfered in different types of hunter and gather societies and diffferent kinds of agrarians societies using calorie transferance as a function of different variables such as food availability, etc. These relationships can be expressed in very similar equations to the ones ecologists use in types of ecosystems to describe energy transfer. Other cases are the theories describing how work or goods are distributed in different kinds of societies using developments in economic theory etc. 
     
    Yes, some social scientists do indeed suffer from ?physics envy?: i.e., they write down complicated equations that actually look like they are doing natural science. 
     
    But when you try to find out what results they actually have gotten out of all this, what well-established surprising generalizations, generally acknowledged and accepted in the field, they have arrived at, the answer is generally ?Nada.? Nothing. 
     
    I pointed out a couple of exceptions to this rule above: Arrow?s impossibility theorem and Axelrod?s results concerning repeated strategic interactions (?Tit for Tat?). 
     
    You have yet to point out one single exception to this rule in the field of cultural anthropology. What you have done is point out that various cultural anthropologists have fooled around with various pseudo-mathematical stuff in the hopes that they would get some interesting results. But you have not told us of any such broad, well-established, surprising results that they actually have gotten. 
     
    In all likelihood, that is because there are no such results. You and I have both been interested in this subject for some time ? in my case, almost four decades. If cultural anthropologists did have this sort of result, you and I would probably know of it ? they?d probably be shouting the results from the rooftops. But I don?t, and you have admitted you don?t. 
     
    Neither I, nor as far as I know, anyone else here denies that some cultural anthropologists have played games with diff equs, with game theory, systems theory, cybernetics, etc. I?ve been well aware of that for decades. The only question is whether anything significant has come of all that ? i.e., any well-established generalization that was a real surprise, not pretty obvious to anyone of normal intelligence who thought about the matter a bit. 
     
    You have offered none. 
     
    I’ve been looking into this for a long time. I could give a detailed lecture on the different forms of functionalism, that, for quite a few years, were taken seriously as real ?science? among anthropologists (you had Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and all the attempted borrowings from functionalist sociology). Before functionalism, there was the silly unilinear ?evolutionary? theories and then, post-functionalists, there was the attempt by Leslie White, Talcott Parsons, et al. to revive ?evolutionist? theories with energy-flow arguments, etc. (For the uninformed, this ?evolutionism? had nothing to do with real evolutionary arguments.)  
     
    I?ve actually lived through part of this and had a chance to observe it a bit. 
     
    To see what sort of nonsense was accepted by social scientists as real ?science,? long before the pomo turn, I invite anyone to try to read Talcott Parsons? ?masterpieces,? ?The Social System? and ?The Structure of Social Action.? I?m old enough to remember when these were truly considered major intellectual achievements! They (literally!) consisted largely of drawing boxes within boxes — the infamous AGIL scheme. 
     
    One reason I have a teeny bit of sympathy for post-modernists is that I think even I might have turned to pomo if forced to digest nonsense like Parsons.? 
     
    To re-connect with Razib?s original post, I think this is a big part of the reason for the pomo turn in cultural anthropology. If decades of attempts to pursue a ?scientific? approach in cultural anthropology yielded pretty much nothing of interest, except of course for a huge accumulation of ethnographic data, some of which is indeed pretty amusing, it?s not surprising that leaders in the field, such as Geertz, advocated trying out a different strategy. 
     
    Of course, I agree with Razib that the pomo strategy has not yielded much either, but it was not just some crazy left-wing conspiracy: it was a response to some real failures in the ?scientific? approach to cultural anthropology. (Let me again emphasize that I am speaking of cultural anthropology, not paleoanthropology, which is a real science and has had spectacular successes.) 
     
    Bottom line: the natural sciences have made stupendously unbelievable progress in the last five centuries in expanding human knowledge far beyond that possessed at the beginning of the modern era. In natural science, we are to Aristotle as Aristotle was to Cro-Magnon man. 
     
    In most of the social and human sciences (I?d include ethics), we are not far beyond Aristotle. The two main exceptions are economics (which, as Mencius and I discussed, has achieved a number of well-established, surprising results, but not by aping the methods of natural science) and some of the subfields of psychology, especially those closest to biology. A case can be made (I?m still agnostic on this ? but see the writings of the sociologist Randall Collins) that there are some good generalizations in macro-history and macro-sociology. 
     
    My ?bottom line? here is so obvious that it is a rare find to discover someone like yourself who will really contest it ? you, JuJuby are truly a rare find! Even among social scientists, the main issue tends not to be whether most of the social sciences have achieved well-established, surprising generalizations as the natural sciences have (the answer is: of course not!), but why they haven?t and whether there is some way to change all this or whether social scientists should just learn to accept the inevitable. 
     
    Really. Your constant repeating of the mantra that cultural anthropology has achieved such generalizations without offering any is tiring. It has now become clear that I actually know more about this than you. 
     
    I think this issue is, for practical purposes, closed. 
     
    Dave

  100. ben g, 
     
    Hoffer, though he generally rocks, is wrong about this. It is the conventional wisdom (Vilfredo Pareto’s circulation of the elites) which is right on. 
     
    What Hoffer is missing is that the primary talent of the talented elites is in organizing and directing the untalented masses. Typically in some outrageous act of brutality or other. Not since Khufu was a little boy has there been a mass movement that was not led by smart, hard-working people. 
     
    For this reason, aristocracies throughout history have seen demagoguery and mob violence as a threat to their very existence. If reason did not demonstrate this principle, history would confirm it.  
     
    The twentieth century was if anything the century of Clodius and Milo. Perhaps we can hope for a short period of Augustan or Antonine revival before anakyklosis takes its ugly course. Otherwise, take a look at some of the pictures coming out of Kenya and Pakistan this week. That’s your future looking back at you – just my personal opinion, of course.

  101. Mencius, 
     
    >Math is definitely a plague. A sort of intellectual hydrilla. Vast areas of computer science – if I have a specialty, this is it – have been overrun by the stuff. For example, the people who call themselves “programming-language researchers” have not produced a usable programming language in, quite literally, the lifetime of many researchers now in the field. What have they been doing? What crack are they on? Math. 
     
    Curiously, the sickness also infected mathematics itself. Did you ever take a math course which started ?A vector space is a set V and two operations ?+? and ?x? such that?? 
     
    The current generation of mathematicians is rebelling against this and trying to turn math back into real questions about spaces, numbers, etc. 
     
    Incidentally, the ?abstract turn? is generally attributed to Emmy Noether, an immigrant from Germany to the US who actually did have good reasons for taking this approach (she was trying to clean up some brilliant but often simply incorrect work done in algebraic geometry by the ?Italian geometers?). 
     
    Some anthropologists could do an interesting ethnographic study here on generational interactions in an unusual ?tribe.? 
     
    Of course, arcane math does have its uses ? I actually am co-patentholder on several patents that successfully apply ?Galois field theory? to error-correction in digital storage and communication systems. It?s a very broad and commercially successful field (you may have had some of my inventions running on your hard-drive controller a few years ago). 
     
    I think one good result of abstract math in computer science is the impossibility theorems (the halting problem, etc.) due to self-referentiality. Since the human and social sciences are inherently self-referential, perhaps this should be a warning that there are real limits as to what can be achieved by social scientists. 
     
    Maybe ?free will? is not a concept in metaphysics but rather in the theory of computation? 
     
    Dave

  102. Of course, arcane math does have its uses ? I actually am co-patentholder on several patents that successfully apply ?Galois field theory? to error-correction in digital storage and communication systems. It?s a very broad and commercially successful field (you may have had some of my inventions running on your hard-drive controller a few years ago). 
     
    A current generation of Intel Storage Controller does P+Q in hardware …

  103. Mencius wrote: 
    >The twentieth century was if anything the century of Clodius and Milo. Perhaps we can hope for a short period of Augustan or Antonine revival before anakyklosis takes its ugly course. 
     
    Ah, but aren?t there a few developments that could break the cycle? The horrors of the twentieth century really did teach people some things ? pretty much no one advocates Soviet-style socialism any longer. 
     
    While I?m skeptical of attempts to present the Internet as a deus ex machina, it really does help dramatically in broadening learning and communications for motivated people ? especially in the non-Western world. And I think the Web helps catalyze independent education and thought ? for example, we?re homeschooling our kids, which was possible but much rarer and more difficult before the Web (my kids aren?t using the Web that much themselves yet, but the Web is invaluable for me to learn about educational resources for the kids). 
     
    And, while the West itself may be in decline, isn?t the birth of a new global civilization going to change everything? Our host here, Razib, is surely an example of that. He?s not a ?Westerner? in the sense I am (one of my ancestors was actually on the Mayflower), but he has command of an awful lot of knowledge of ?Western? science that is very impressive (and useful to those of us who read his posts). 
     
    I married into a family of Chinese immigrants. Razib is not unique. A large number of Asians are cherry-picking the good stuff from the West and ignoring a lot of the nasty or idiotic stuff. It seems to me that in a couple of centuries the slogan out of Asia will be ?The West is dead! Long live the West!? 
     
    Cultures are always changing, and there were some horrible aspects to Western culture in the twentieth century. But I?m optimistic about the next couple of centuries. 
     
    Of course, there is a basic question here: is Razib or bin Laden emblematic of the course that will be taken by the rest of the world? At least among my Chinese in-laws, they are clearly ?Razibs,? not ?bin Ladens.? 
     
    Dave

  104. Mencius, 
     
    I haven’t read Pareto, but my impression based on a quick Google is that he’s presenting elites as a general threat to the ruling order. Depends how we define elites, I guess? Totalitarian leaders generally handpick their own elites and give them a great deal of power. 
     
    Even if Pareto is right, I don’t see how exactly that contradicts Hoffer’s key idea here: that peoples’ sense of usefulness is what motivates them to mind their own business and work in ways that benefit society. 
     
    My reading of Hoffer is that if we invite the social scientists to the scientific table with us, they might actually rise to the occasion. Constructing a cultural and linguistic wall between the hard and soft sciences seems like it would just make things worse. And even if the ruling aristocracy of cultural anthropology is greedily anti-reductionist, and cherishes their sense of difference, I think that the next generation of anthropologists might opt for a more scientific middleground.. 
     
    Perhaps I’m wrong, though. I rarely know what I’m talking about when it comes to philosophy (who does?). I think this is largely a matter of opinion. But when I picture myself as in an alternate universe where I majored in cultural anthro (I’m actually in biochemistry) I see myself as someone who wouldn’t feel very encouraged to practice scientific rigor when I was told “anthropology isn’t science.” On the other hand, if the prevalent attitude were that anthropology is a young, very complex science that has yet to produce reliable hypotheses, I think that would encourage me to make big falsifiable claims like Diamond.

  105. Dave, 
     
    The basic problem in CS – in my opinion, which is obviously not as humble as it probably should be – is not that programming is not math, but that the wrong kind of math is being deployed. 
     
    A programming language is a way of specifying functions – in the mathematical sense of the word. It is also a user interface for programmers. Given that almost any formalism you can imagine for specifying functions will turn out to have the same formal power (Turing completeness), you would think that PL researchers would put most of their energy into the UI design aspect. 
     
    You would be extremely mistaken. Rather, today’s PL researchers (starting from the foundational metamathematics of the 1930s, no happy coincidence from the UI perspective) invest their government dollars in churning out more and more intricate formalisms. Even their simpler efforts are languages that are simply inaccessible to anyone who lacks the aptitude to get an undergraduate math degree from a good school. 
     
    And even most people who can actually program, sort of, in OCaml or Haskell (PL research languages from the ’90s) do not really understand the type inference algorithms. They tend to understand them as a mysterious black box that can often be coaxed into working, a common trope with bad UIs. These languages are always taught by tutorial, and the general idea is that once you learn to use them by example, you will gradually grok the algorithms and absorb them by osmosis.  
     
    From the UI design perspective, this is professional malpractice on the most appalling scale, like treating a skull fracture with arsenic. And Haskell and OCaml look like 2+2 = 4 next to what the PL research community is churning out now. Suffice it to say that the software industry has learned, often quite painfully, to simply ignore the whole field. 
     
    Once I was in an architecture meeting at a software company which, at the time, was generally seen as the technology leader in the mobile Web space. In fact its “technology” was ass, but I digress. One unfortunate individual of European extraction (the Euros are far less skeptical of the academic sector, a failing that has often cost them dearly) said, in response to some murky issue, “maybe we should research that.” 
     
    This guy Bruce who was chairing the meeting said, “if Alain heard you use that word, he’d rip off your head and spit down your neck.” Bruce was the CTO of our little company. Alain was the founder and CEO. So, you see, there are problems all around. 
     
    Compare this sad situation to, say, error-correction, where the mathematical rubber really is in contact with the road. (Although I could just kill those Digital Fountain people for making it impossible to use rateless erasure codes on the Internet for the next 15 years. Thank you, Michael Luby. Thank you, Bayh-Dole. Way to serve humanity, guys.) 
     
    It’s interesting that you describe math itself as infected by the hydrilla. Perhaps this disease could be described as “Bourbakitis”? Clearly my description of it is somewhat imprecise. Then again, I was never very good at math…

  106. Dave, 
     
    Unfortunately, the Internet has its dangerous aspects as well.  
     
    When you read about American politics in the 19th and early 20th century, you realize that the West today has basically no politics as such. For example, from the Revolution to 1932, paramilitary forces (Sons of Liberty, Wide Awakes, Ku Klux Klan, American Protective League, Bonus Army…) were a perennial fixture of democracy. 
     
    This makes tremendous abstract sense, as an election is a contest for power, ie, a war. A very limited war, for sure. But the temptation to push the limits is eternal. 
     
    What changed in the 20th century? One word: broadcasting. Public opinion could be centrally coordinated. So it was, and so it remains. A big war ironed out the remaining conflicts. 
     
    By 19C standards, all Westerners today support one party: the party of the permanent civil service. If you count journalists as civil servants, regardless of the nominally private status of their employers (is there really some huge difference between working for CNN, PBS or the BBC?), you see how pervasive and successful this party is. There are fewer substantive policy disagreements between left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans than within any pre-1932 party. 
     
    This model of government has its problems, but the effective abolition of democratic politics – while preserving the nominal form – is definitely a historic achievement. While the New Deal state did unleash murder and destruction across most of the planet (believe it or not, the term “Third World” was originally an expression of unalloyed optimism) in Europe, Japan and North America it has produced over 60 years of relative peace, prosperity and good government. 
     
    The trouble is that the democratic forms are still there. And everyone still believes in them. In an era in which public opinion can no longer be coordinated by broadcasting, a resurgence of democracy is a serious danger. For Asia as well as the US. 
     
    For example, have you ever wondered why there is no racist TV station in the US? Call it Confederate Racist Television – CRTV. Its popularity has surely ebbed over the last 40 years, but surely on a 200-channel cable network there would be a sufficient market share for CRTV. At least in Alabama. But somehow, you just don’t see it. I wonder why that is. 
     
    On the Internet, however… I think you see my point.

  107. ben g, 
     
    Totalitarian leaders generally handpick their own elites and give them a great deal of power. 
     
    This is just one stage in Pareto’s circulation process. What happens is that at first, when the new regime is being born, working inside it is infinitely exciting. But this develops into Brezhnevian bureaucratic sclerosis, in which the smartest, most energetic and most creative people cannot stand being a cog in the machine. So they avoid it, and eventually wind up organizing, attacking and destroying it. 
     
    For example, in the 1930s the New Deal attracted the smartest, most ambitious young people in the US to government work. The promise was renewed in Kennedy’s New Frontier, although White’s Making of the President 1960 – written before Dallas – tells us that New Dealers who saw the New Frontier considered it a pale imitation, something that boggles the mind. Everyone today in Washington who remembers the Kennedy-Johnson period consider it the most exciting time of their lives, a period when the Uncle Sam could really do things
     
    Nowadays, young ambitious people do not get government jobs. Maybe the Foreign Service still attracts a few. But all the real action is in the NGO world (especially if you count journalism as being in the NGO space, which I do). Which in turn is growing, you guessed it, bloated and sclerotic. What fresh hell awaits us? I can’t even imagine. I am not a fan of revolutions, either. 
     
    I think that the next generation of anthropologists might opt for a more scientific middleground 
     
    The point of the discussion, I think, is that they already feel tremendous pressure to be as “scientific” as possible, and what results is not science but scientism. 
     
    I would like to see the next generation of anthropologists opt for a more literary home ground. Do you want to write about people? Then write about people. Lord knows the subject will never be exhausted. If you need facts and figures to support your point, make sure your facts are square and your figures aren’t stretched. If just telling the truth is “science,” I am all for it – as long as we have another word to describe the process of constructing falsifiable generalizations.

  108. This is just one stage in Pareto’s circulation process. What happens is that at first, when the new regime is being born, working inside it is infinitely exciting. But this develops into Brezhnevian bureaucratic sclerosis, in which the smartest, most energetic and most creative people cannot stand being a cog in the machine. So they avoid it, and eventually wind up organizing, attacking and destroying it. 
     
    Heh, looks like Pareto was perfectly fit for his century– trying to put history into stages and whatnot. I think history has deviated from the stages you describe, many times. Sometimes there are no rebelling elites– their ideas are actually realized through the aristocracy, and they’re not meer cogs but guiding forces in the ruling party. Other times they do rebel– after recognizing their ideals didn’t work out into reality– and they *fail* (this is usually what happens when they rebel!). 
     
    I would like to see the next generation of anthropologists opt for a more literary home ground. 
     
    That’s kind of what they do already in sociology. They call it “Hermeneutics”.. it’s essentially applying the methods of bible study to human societies. EO Wilson talks about it in Consilience.

  109. Mencius said:  
    You would be extremely mistaken. Rather, today’s PL researchers (starting from the foundational metamathematics of the 1930s, no happy coincidence from the UI perspective) invest their government dollars in churning out more and more intricate formalisms. Even their simpler efforts are languages that are simply inaccessible to anyone who lacks the aptitude to get an undergraduate math degree from a good school. 
     
    Have you (or someone else) written more on this? I learned to code using c/c++, and I’m wondering whether I should take the time to seriously commit to learning ocaml and friends. If there’s some class of problems that the new fancy languages are simply better (or worse) at doing, that would make it easier in figuring out what to study.

  110. tc, 
     
    Learning OCaml and friends is a fun exercise which will stretch your brain. I don’t think it has any particular practical implications. I would only avoid it if you have any interest in designing programming languages yourself, because it is impossible to unlearn anything, and I am quite convinced that these languages are historical dead ends. 
     
    That said, if you want to write a theorem prover or anything of the sort, a typed higher-order functional language is exactly the ticket. Extremely intricate algorithms which traverse data structures so abstract that they are positively ethereal can be expressed quite succinctly in, say, Haskell.  
     
    Unfortunately (from the perspective of a PL researcher) these problems are quite rare. And the typed higher-order languages are not so much better at solving them that there is any way to justify these incredibly specialized tools. What the advantage boils down to is that if you are solving a certain type of math problem in a language which already understands this type of problem – no pun intended. This is legitimate, but there is something of the self-licking icecream cone to it, and it should certainly be moved over into the math department. 
     
    If you are more interested in practical problems, I would recommend Erlang first. It has many of the same tropes but is actually designed for a real-world purpose, and it is way simpler. Another alternative is of course Scheme, which is in a slightly different lineage but still qualifies as functional. You could also take a look at the Perl 6 prototyping that is happening in Haskell. Perhaps this qualifies as “practical,” though I am skeptical! 
     
    I have discussed this a little over at UR – if you search for “Haskell” you’ll pick it up. I know, I should use tags.

  111. That’s kind of what they do already in sociology. They call it “Hermeneutics”… 
     
    I’m afraid literary style only counts if it’s actually good literature! 
     
    Good literary anthropology from the later 20th century is rare, but you could try, say, Tobias Schneebaum.

  112. Dave, 
     
    At bottom, it comes down to this. You have not shown throughout this entire time a single objective criterion to distinguish a “real science” like physics, or as you are now admitting economics, from cultural anthropology. You have only given subjective criterion such as (some) of the findings in physics and ecnomics are “surpising” and “successful”.  
     
    To establish your case that there is some kind of qualitative difference between these disciplines qua “sciences” you would need to show some type of methodological difference. You have failed on that fundamental requirement. Sure it is harder to establish a sustained paradigm in cultural anthropology and the results are less precise but that is more of trivial difference. Many sciences exept math and logic come up short relative to physics in those regards.  
     
    Cultural anthropology does go by scientific methods and values exhibited in the physical or other sciences. Being a science or not depends on objective properties such as methodological differences, not whether or not you, dave, think the results are “suprising” or “successful.” Most people who have studied cultural anthropology do think its results surprising and successful. Much of you original critique of anthropology can be applied to physics as well. In your first post, you even mentioned that human behavior is “computationally intractable” but then went on to say that so is the chaotic behavior of physical objects. So where are the non-subjective differences? The theories of cultural anthropology do describe societies, cultures and human behavior much like the theories of physics. Just because you, and few others, think that these results are not surprising or successfull does not make the results in that science any less objectively verifiable than they are. That objective fact simply does not disapear no matter what you, dave, feel the results.

  113. JuJuby wrote to me: 
    >At bottom, it comes down to this. You have not shown throughout this entire time a single objective criterion to distinguish a “real science” like physics, or as you are now admitting economics, from cultural anthropology. 
     
    JuJuby, dear child, I?m not quite sure how to get this through to you. 
     
    I?m not trying to do what you say I have failed at. 
     
    You?re quite right: I have indeed not shown a single objective criterion to distinguish a ?real science? form cultural anthropology. 
     
    I never tried to. 
     
    And, no, I never ?admitted? that economics was a ?real science,? either. 
     
    I have zero interest in arguing with you about whether cultural anthropology is a ?real science.? 
     
    I really don?t care how you choose to use the word ?science.? You are kind of hung-up on words ? maybe you should be a lexicographer, or a post-modernist. 
     
    I have just re-read all of my posts on this thread. I can find none in which I expressed interest in the correct meaning of the phrase ?real science.? I did, again and again, raise the issue of whether cultural anthropology has any broad, generally-accepted, well-grounded generalizations that would not already be obvious to most ordinary people. 
     
    I am interested in whether cultural anthropology has any non-trivial, well-established generalizations. You kept claiming it did. You gave no examples of any. 
     
    You were wrong. It does not. 
     
    I know you will never admit this. 
     
    Cool. 
     
    But I, and several other people here, happen to be curious about why it does not ? is it the intrinsic nature of the subject, faulty methodologies pursued by anthropologists, failure to incorporate results from evolutionary biology, etc.? 
     
    You have chosen not to participate in that conversation. 
     
    Cool. 
     
    But please do not pretend that I have been participating in an imaginary conversation that you are in fact having with yourself about the meaning of the phrase ?real science.? I couldn?t care less about your imaginary debate. 
     
    Your interests do not interest me. 
     
    Sorry to sound harsh, but I?m not quite sure of a gentler way of making the point. 
     
    I find you boring. 
     
    Dave

  114. JuJuby, 
     
    One other point. You wrote: 
    >The theories of cultural anthropology do describe societies, cultures and human behavior much like the theories of physics. 
     
    No, they don?t. I asked you repeatedly to give an example. You gave none. 
     
    Here are your two most serious attempts:  
    >4. How many well-studied cultures around the world politically organize their societies.  
    >5. What religious practices and rituals many well-studied cultures around the world participate in.? 
     
    >For example, if an anthropologist wishes to explain the historical intertribal behavior and viewpoints between two neighboring tribes that must share limited resources, he may opt to use game-theoretic models. 
     
    The first attempt I have quoted above are simply questions, not theories. 
     
    The second attempt says an anthropologist ?may opt? to do something, which I suppose he may. But you did not actually show any anthropologist?s actually doing it. And even if he did, this would not show that he actually arrived at a well-established, non-trivial generalization. 
     
    You know the joke about the math paper that says ?the purpose of this paper is to prove that?? Only later does it become clear that the purpose was, alas, not achieved. 
     
    Everything you have written about anthropology is like that ? all promissory notes as to what anthropologists might perhaps do, but no reason to think they have actually done it. 
     
    We established in the course of our exchange that I actually know a lot more about this than you do. 
     
    I know about the glorious, grand theories of anthropology ? ?evolutionism,? the various flavors of functionalism, Levi-Strauss?s binary structuralism, the goofy pseudo-ecology energy-flow models, the various attempts to use cybernetics, systems theory, etc. All a lot of fun, and all colossal failures. The attempt to create ?big picture? generalizations in cultural anthropology has not worked. 
     
    All of your claims to the contrary cannot change that basic fact. 
     
    Anyone who knows anything about cultural anthropology knows this. Who do you think you are going to fool? 
     
    The natural sciences do have glorious, grand theories ? Newtonian mechanics, relativity, evolution, the atomic theory, the Big Bang, plate tectonics, etc. ? that are about as ?big picture? as you could want and that have not been colossal failures at all. 
     
    I am curious as to why there is this dramatic difference between cultural anthropology and the natural sciences (again, I am not interested in arguing about what is a ?real science?). 
     
    You?re not. 
     
    Cool. 
     
    Your and my interests do not intersect. 
     
    Dave

  115. I?m not trying to do what you say I have failed at. 
     
    I pointed out what you have failed at doing, now stop it with your hissy fits. This is what you said in your first post (exact quote):  
     
    Isn?t it possible that anthropology can never be a science in the sense that astronomy or chemistry is? 
     
    You then mounted a incoherent babbling rant on the “pomo” influence in cultural anthro which was a collosal failure to show any objective methodological differences betwen anthropology and these other sciences. Sure we can all wax poetic and rant about pomo in academia but a real dialogue would involve giving good reasons and making coherent objections. You have simply not accomplished that. No dave, you are not participating in a dialogue with me at all and that’s the problem.  
     
    It is ironic that many rants against pomo claim that pomo writers like to show off by droping names and buzz words from the physical sciences to establish their arguments without truly understanding what these terms mean. That’s exactly what you have done with cultural anthrology. Nice that you did a google and threw around some names and (outdated) buzzwords and such but where’s the substance? tsk tsk. Take some responsibility for what you said. If you are changing your tunes, fine. cool.  
     
    SUre we all know by now that you don’t feel the findings in cultural anthro are not “surprising” “successful,” and are “obvious” etc. But guess what? No one cares.  
     
    cool. 
     
    You?re quite right: I have indeed not shown a single objective criterion to distinguish a ?real science? form cultural anthropology. 
     
    I never tried to.
     
     
    And there’s your problem. You made a claim that anthropology was not a “science” the way chemistry and astronomy was. Can you name a non-trivial difference betwen them? No. Sure we know of trivial differences like anthrology studies poeple and cultures etc and the other two disciplines are physcical sciences that studies physical things and physical processes but that’s not what you meant when you said there’s a difference betwen them right?  
     
    Evasion, using buzz words without nowing what they mean, conceptual confusion, fancy verbiage, who does that? Um…pomos? 
     
    You are kind of hung-up on words ? maybe you should be a lexicographer, or a post-modernist. 
     
    I find that, usually, when soemone says this, they are conceptually confused. WHen I clear up a semantic confusion for someone or ask them what they mean by certain terms and how they justify their usages, they, when they actually know what they are saying, will gladly clearify. OTOH, when they have no idea what they are saying…well, pomos do this kind of evasion often. You made a non-trivial distinction between anthropology and chemstry and astronomy qua “sciences”. I asked what you meant. You’ve ranted incoherently and are now having a hissy fit. Stop it and act your age.

  116. ok guys…think this is a good time to divert you to other discussions ;-)

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