The Duck of Minerva

To science or not to science — is that a question?

10 December 2010

Dear American Anthropological Association:

According to recent reports, you are considering dropping the term “science” from your long-range planning document. You propose replacing it with the phrase “public understanding,” and also including a long litany of the variety of things that fit under this umbrella:

This includes, but is not limited to, archaeological, biological, social, cultural, economic, political, historical, medical, visual, and linguistic anthropological research. The Association also commits itself to further the professional interests of anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation.

All that really changes here is the term “science,” since this kind of diversity was and is already characteristic of the discipline of anthropology; the change is therefore symbolic, as you note. But it’s a powerful symbol, perhaps even more powerful than you realize. I’m not an anthropologist and so I don’t really have a dog in this fight, except for the broader philosophical and cultural issue of what “science” means. But since that’s largely an issue of “public understanding” — or, better, “public misunderstanding” — I would really urge you to think very carefully about this move.

See, in abandoning the term “science” you are, in effect, ceding the rhetorical ground commanded by one of the most potent terms in modern intellectual culture and society at large — and you’re ceding it to a very narrowly neopositivist construal of the term and practice of “science.” As soon as you say “I’m not doing science” in this environment, you set yourself up to be critiqued as subjectivist, relativist, fuzzy, woolly-headed, arbitrary, and a bunch of other dismissive caricatures culiminating in what the president of the Society for Anthropological Sciences called “the rejection of rational argument and thought,” akin to creationism and due to a postmodern attack on the authority of science. So from a purely public relations standpoint, this doesn’t sound like a wise move.

The more important issue, however, is that in simply rejecting the term “science” you reaffirm the very boundary that critics like this insist on maintaining. If I have a narrow understanding of science that restricts that term to practices involving hypothesis-testing, cross-case generalizations, and a rooting of knowledge in an external material reality to which knowledge-claims approximate, I have that understanding not because it’s a personal preference about how to do my work, but because I think that such procedures are somehow uniquely warranted and rooted in the pursuit of Truth or, at the very least, validity. Procedures and techniques are thus inseparable from epistemic goals, and if I reject one I am taken to be rejecting the other. So rejecting the testing of general empirical hypotheses against data about the material world looks like an abandonment of the whole enterprise of producing knowledge that is in some sense valid, and that’s what the critics see as being signaled in the loss of the word “science.” By not confronting this head-on, you are in effect letting the critics have the word “science” as a magical talisman that they can conjure with in debates and discussion — not to mention in the competition for grant funding and publication.

And much like the Democratic Party, which last time I looked still have a majority in both houses of Congress and could make a concerted effort to actually pass something instead of rolling over and playing dead, you have some pretty firm ground on which to stand in refuting the nonsense that the critics are spewing. “Science” is simply not equal to its neopositivist construal; philosophers of science are quite divided about how to define science, and indeed most of them gave up the effort to produce sharp demarcation criteria between science and non-science decades ago. Instead, they are interested in the variety of ways that valid knowledge-claims about the world are produced, ways that are all “scientific” inasmuch as they are a) systematic in that they feature a logical relationship between premises and conclusions, b) public in that they are susceptible to challenge and critique by members of the relevant community of judgment, and c) worldly in the sense of being related to and about the world and the things in it rather than pointing beyond the world towards some transcendent question of the world’s value or purpose. That’s about all one can say about “science” that is generally the case, I would wager. Science isn’t art and it isn’t politics and it isn’t engineering and it isn’t normative critique, although it can inform all of those in various ways; the important thing remains the goal of the exercise, and science is about making systematic, public, worldly knowledge-claims that are in some sense valid, whereas these other vocations are about pursuing different goals. (At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I would suggest my recent bookas a good guide to the issues.)

My point is that you have an excellent warrant for expanding the definition of science rather than abandoning it, and in particular abandoning it to a very narrow definition that equates science with disciplines like biology and practices like archaeology — not that these aren’t scientific, far from it, but there is no reason that the study of cultural practices can’t be just as scientific, albeit in a distinct way. And who wouldn’t want to construct systematic, public, worldly knowledge-claims about human cultural practices as a or perhaps the major component of their professional practice in studying humanity? Seriously, what’s the alternative: abandoning these goals in favor of just advocating on behalf of native peoples? Following Paul Gauguin and painting idiosyncratic pictures of native life? Writing speculative fiction about imagined societies? Go that way and you abandon the epistemic authority of your own research, which strikes me as both short-sighted and unnecessary. I think that if you poll most of your members you’ll find that they agree that they are trying to produce knowledge-claims that are in some sense valid, which means: broadly scientific. Not narrowly scientific, not inextricably linked with hypothesis-testing and broad generalization and determining materiality, but broadly scientific in a way that is easily supported by even a casual perusal of philosophical debates about science over the past few centuries.

And what makes this particularly urgent is that the neopositivist caricature of science is also very similar to the popular misunderstanding of “science,” which seems to hold that science requires numerical data, sweeping generalizations, and incontrovertible facts. (Good neopositivists don’t agree with this, of course, but when attacked many of them trot out old canards about the putatively unique relationship between their preferred procedures and the pursuit of Truth. Public debate makes us all lose our subtlety.) None of this is true, and all of it makes the epistemic authority of science questionable whenever any politician can come up with one practicing scientist willing to publicly doubt some set of research findings (e.g. global climate change), because the public’s confidence is then eroded inasmuch as it mistakenly thought that science was about unquestionable truths. This is bullshit, and the only way to combat it is to help to improve the public understanding of what “science” actually means and how diverse scientific practice is, and this in turn is helped if you keep the study of cultural practices inside of the big tent of science. Otherwise the tent gets small, and the people left to defend it are vulnerable to all sorts of political silliness.

And let’s be honest here: we all want to defend that tent and the broad notion of science. None of us would be happy going back to a world in which public truths were simply proclaimed and imposed rather than being critically constructed, something that we performatively reveal when we criticize some established bit of conventional wisdom as arbitrary and unjustified. Note that this doesn’t mean that we are all committed to the same set of procedures for establishing validity, nor does it mean that we will all one day agree on the same set of facts after we approximately-ideal-speech-situation ourselves into the Linguistically De-Transcendentalized Kingdom of Ends and are escorted to our place at the Kantian table by our maitre d’, Herr Doktor Professor Habermas. But the alternative is not a complete abandonment of the task of thinking, but a reworking of what it means to think scientifically such that it is neither narrowly neopositivist nor the key to a secularized Promised Land, but instead a set of practical procedures for dealing with the world. If anthropology takes its toys and goes home, the whole tent gets smaller, which none of us actually wants.

So please reconsider. What is called for at this juncture is attack, not defense; the definition of science needs to be pluralized, not abandoned to those who would restrict it even further. Otherwise we all lose, if not immediately, than over the next few years, as our culture and civilization continue to drown in the muck of reality TV, soundbite politics, and people just plain making shit up and imposing it by nothing but the authority of sheer naked force. Don’t believe me? Have you looked at the caricatures of other societies and cultures — and even of our own — that circulate in our politics and our school textbooks? You can’t fight that kind of ridiculousness without the power of “science.” Don’t give up the fight before you’ve even begun, and don’t leave the field of battle and make it that much harder for the rest of us.