Science Wars, again

A recent action by the executive board of the American Anthropological Association has started another round of “science wars” in anthropology: “A new long-range plan for the American Anthropological Association that omits the word “science” from the organization’s vision for its future has exposed fissures in the discipline” (see this summary from Inside Higher Education).

Like many other academic issues, there’s too much history and debates to provide an accurate summary of the background behind this latest conflict, but Savage Minds has a nice summary (and discussion, in the comments):

On the one hand, then, we need to recognize that knowledge is still knowledge even if it is not ‘scientific’. I think it important that anthropology stand up to people who push narrow and impoverished definitions of understanding and insist that what we do counts, matters, and is important even if it does not look like the kind of knowledge production they are used to…. On the other hand, I think it is also important that anthropologists fight to maintain their right to speak within the scientific community to define what science is.

One deep source of conflict, I believe, is a problem of translation – anthropologists who use more “scientific” methodologies (i.e., quantitative) speak in a different language than those use more “humanistic” methodologies (i.e., qualitative); as a result, anthropologists are “lost in translation,” and what we have here (and perhaps in a way, the problems that anthropology or to go even wider academics as a whole) is a failure to communicate. Of those anthropologists who primarily use qualitative methodologies, how many of them can derive a p-value or use R to conduct a multiple regression? Of those who primarily use quantitative methodologies, how many of them have actually read Foucault and explain the Chinese emperor’s taxonomic scheme?

At the AAA meetings, there are many more presentations that rely on qualitative methodologies, so many of those who use quantitative methodologies often feel excluded from the wider anthropological discourse. I don’t know why the executive board felt it necessary in their wordsmithing to drop “science,” but because this is a shift that is taking place in the wider social context of anthropology, it’s no wonder that people find this disturbing. Shift the terms of the debate to issues of identity – sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc. – and the reaction from a group of people in the minority seems obvious. Think of how soccer fans in the United States feel in the wider American popular cultural discourse of sports.

In order to be relevant, we as anthropologists need to be able to speak the language of those who shape policy – they mostly use numbers to make their case for a particular policy stance. To make sense to the wider public, we need to get beyond numbers and jargon to make our case in a way that people can evaluate the situation for themselves.