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Galileo’s Middle Finger and the politics of science

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Jesse Singal has an interesting essay on Alice Dreger’s recent book Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activsts, and the Search for Justice in Science. Singal argues that a conservative = anti-science/liberal=science frame is simplistic, given several incidents from the academic world that Dreger’s book catalogs. I haven’t read the book yet, but Singal describes a couple of what sound like very disturbing cases. Here’s his description of one of them:

At its core, Galileo’s Middle Finger is about what happens when science and dogma collide — specifically, what happens when science makes a claim that doesn’t fit into an activist community’s accepted worldview. And many of Dreger’s most interesting, explosive examples of this phenomenon involve liberals, not conservatives, fighting tooth and nail against open scientific inquiry. . .

The first involves Napoleon Chagnon, an extremely influential anthropologist who dedicated years of his life to understanding and living among the Yanomamö, an indigenous tribe situated in the Amazon rain forest on the Brazil-Venezuela border — there are a million copies of his 1968 book Yanomamö: The Fierce People in print, and it’s viewed by many as an ethnographic classic. Chagnon made ideological enemies along the way; for one thing, he has long believed that human behavior and culture can be partially explained by evolution, which in some circles has been a frowned-upon idea. Perhaps more important, he has never sentimentalized his subjects, and his portrayal of the Yanomamö included, as Dreger writes, “males fighting violently over fertile females, domestic brutality, ritualized drug use, and ecological indifference.” Dreger suggests that Chagnon’s reputation as a careful, dedicated scholar didn’t matter to his critics — what mattered was that his version of the Yanomamö was “Not your standard liberal image of the unjustly oppressed, naturally peaceful, environmentally gentle rain-forest Indian family.”

In 2000, Chagnon’s critics seized upon a once-in-a-career opportunity to go after him. That was the year a journalist named Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. The book — and a related New Yorker article by Tierney — leveled a series of spectacular allegations against Chagnon and James V. Neel Sr., a geneticist and physician with whom Chagnon had collaborated during his work with the Yanomamö (Neel died of cancer shortly before the book’s publication). Among other things, Tierney charged that Chagnon and Neel had intentionally used a faulty vaccine to infect the Yanomamö with measles so as to test Nazi-esque eugenics theories, and that one or both men had manipulated data, started wars on purpose, paid tribespeople to kill one another, and “purposefully with[held] medical care while experimental subjects died from the allegedly vaccine-induced measles,” as Dreger writes.

These charges stuck in part because Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel, two anthropologists who disliked Chagnon and his work, sent the American Anthropological Association an alarming letter about Tierney’s allegations prior to the publication of Darkness in El Dorado. Rather than wait to see if the spectacular claims in the book passed the smell test, the AAA responded by quickly launching a full investigation in the form of the so-called El Dorado Task Force — a move that led to a number of its members resigning in protest. A media firestorm engulfed Chagnon — “Scientist ‘killed Amazon indians to test race theory’,” read a Guardian headline — and he was forced to defend himself against accusations that he had brutalized members of a tribe he had devoted his career to living with and studying and, naturally, had developed a strong sense of affection for in the process. A number of fellow anthropologists and professional organizations came to the defense of Chagnon and Neel, pointing out obvious problems with Tierney’s claims and timeline, but these voices were drowned out by the hysteria over the evil, murderous anthropologist and his doctor-accomplice. Dreger writes that Chagnon’s “career had essentially been halted by the whole mess.” (Chagnon’s memoirs, published in 2013, are entitled Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.)

There was, it turns out, nothing to these claims. Over the course of a year of research and interviews with 40 people involved in the controversy in one way or another, Dreger discovered the disturbing, outrageous degree to which the charges against Chagnon and Neel were fabricated — to the point where some of the numerous footnotes in Tierney’s book plainly didn’t support his own claims. All the explosive accusations about Nazi-like activities and exploitation, and the intentional fomenting of violence, were simply made up or willfully misinterpreted. Worse, some of them could have been easily debunked with just a tiny bit of research — in one case, it took Dreger all of an hour in an archive of Neel’s papers to find strong evidence refuting the claim that he helped intentionally infect the Yanomamö with measles (a claim that was independently debunked by others, anyway).

In the end, Dreger published the results of her investigation in the journal Human Nature, recounting the full details of Chagnon’s ordeal at the hands of Tierney, and the many ways Tierney fabricated and misrepresented data to attack the anthropologist and Neel. Darkness Is El Dorado is still available on Amazon, its original, glowing reviews and mention of its National Book Award nomination intact; and Tierney’s New Yorker article is still online, with no editor’s note explaining the factual inaccuracies contained therein.

I haven’t read Dreger’s book and know nothing about the Chagnon affair, but obviously Singal’s description of the events is very disturbing, as is his recounting of Dreger’s analysis of the J. Michael Bailey controversy at Northwestern.

Singal argues that in the new social media environment created by the internet age, ideologically-motivated witch hunts are easy to start and very difficult to combat, in part because very few people, either in the academic or journalistic worlds, have the time and the resources to get anywhere close to the bottom of complicated stories.

I would add that in many cases they may lack the inclination to do so as well. For example, last summer Singal did some cursory investigations into the Alice Goffman affair, and failed to confirm the veracity of any of the incidents in the book that critics had brought into question, but oddly enough absolved Goffman of any serious misconduct, declaring the book to be “at the very least, mostly true.”

In my view the Goffman affair represents the obverse of what, on Singal’s account, Dreger is cataloging, in that it reflects how fraudulent academic work can short-circuit academic and journalistic gate-keeping mechanisms, if it supports a narrative the gate keepers find congenial.

Leaving that irony aside, Singal’s essay is well worth reading in full, and it sounds as if the same is true of Galileo’s Middle Finger.

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  • Murc

    Singal argues that in the new social media environment created by the internet age, ideologically-motivated witch hunts are easy to start and very difficult to combat, in part because very few people, either in the academic or journalistic worlds, have the time and the resources to get anywhere close to the bottom of complicated stories.

    If true, this means that the journalistic world is failing in all of its responsibilities whereas the academic world is merely failing in most of them.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      This has been quite obvious for many years now.

      • The Dark God of Time

        Indeed, any fool can get a PhD these days.

        • Nick never Nick

          T’was ever thus, alas

        • Linnaeus

          Thank goodness, or I’d probably never get one.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    Ah, Alice Dreger-I’ll skip. Pretty much unpalatable for a trans person.

    • Vance Maverick

      Can you say something about the kind of claims/arguments you’re referring to?

      • JL

        This does a solid job summarizing it, with links to various scholarly sources (and is extremely critical of parts of Galileo’s Middle Finger).

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          That just means Serano is part of the Cultural Marxist, Authoritarian Regressive left. Free speech 4ever! Off to get my hair dyed purple at the SJW love fest in San Francisco.

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            Sorry if I’m a bit jaded when it comes to Dreger.

          • JL

            Off to get my hair dyed purple at the SJW love fest in San Francisco.

            I want to go to this event, even if it’s not real.

        • Thanks, JL (and Amanda). Wow, oy, yikes.

          • Vance Maverick

            Yes, thanks.

        • Bruce B.

          I was going to provide this link as well.

        • Sly

          See also: Andrea James’s Sexology’s War on Transgender Children

        • ThrottleJockey

          Thanks for sharing folks. Interesting link, especially since the first thing that came to mind when I saw Campos’ post is an article I was discussing yesterday with friends: Psychologists have learned how to treat adults with gender dysphoria, but how about 5-year-olds? The author says that:

          Previously, parents might hope that it would be a passing phase, as it usually is. But now they are under pressure from gender-identity politics, which asserts that children as young as 5 should be supported in wanting to live as the opposite sex. Any attempts to challenge this approach are deemed intolerant and oppressive…

          But prepubescent children who identify with the opposite sex are another matter entirely. How best to deal with them has become so politicized that sexologists, who presumably would be able to determine the healthiest approach, are extremely reluctant to get involved. They have seen what happens when they deviate from orthodoxy.

          My friends and I are now on our 12th iteration of comments as we struggle over the meaning. The article resonates with me for a number of reasons, primarily this: With 95% of “gender” being socially constructed (girls wear dresses, boys wear pants; girls like pink, boys like blue) how can a 5 year old conceive of gender independent of what they see in the world around them?

          Also this: If 80% of kids eventually grow out of being transgender and into either lesbian, gay, or bi-sexual, what does that say about our 5 year old selves?

          • hen wen

            With 95% of “gender” being socially constructed (girls wear dresses, boys wear pants; girls like pink, boys like blue) how can a 5 year old conceive of gender independent of what they see in the world around them?

            How can anyone? And why does it matter? If someone wants to wear pink or dresses or blue or whatever, why not let them? If someone you thought was a little boy tells you they’re a little girl, why not ask them what that means to them and then listen to what they have to say? And so what if they grow out of it? There is more to transitioning than hormones and surgery.

            Also this: If 80% of kids eventually grow out of being transgender and into either lesbian, gay, or bi-sexual, what does that say about our 5 year old selves?

            Being lesbian, gay and bi are not necessarily (or, iirc, commonly) something you are in opposition to being trans or cis. I’m a transwoman and I’m a lesbian. Before I started transitioning, I identified as straight. My orientation did not change with my gender identity. Some people’s do! But the idea that there is a spectrum that runs from “straight and trans” to “gay” is, in my experience, confused.

            • ThrottleJockey

              I’m not debating how to respond to a 5 year old, per se, I’m questioning if there’s any science to support the view that a 5yo can accurately know their gender. If my daughter wanted to wear blue pants and play with trucks I don’t see any harm in that. But neither would I put any stock in her belief that she’s a boy for wanting to wear blue pants and play with trucks.

              Gender is almost entirely socially constructed, which is to say that it manifests differently over time and between cultures: Most people today would think that this picture is of a little girl, but in fact its a picture of FDR. “Pink for girls” and “Blue for boys” didn’t become popular until the ’40s. Its a manifestation of marketing.

              If a 5yo persists over an extended period of time (say a year or two) or has extreme temper tantrums if someone calls them she instead of he, then I think its entirely appropriate to work with child psychologists in treating the issues your kid faces. So, in reality, I’d probably handle the issue in the way you suggest. But until we have some hard science, I don’t see why we should see a 5yo’s opinion on their gender as accurate.

              • Malaclypse

                If a 5yo persists over an extended period of time (say a year or two) or has extreme temper tantrums if someone calls them she instead of he, then I think its entirely appropriate to work with child psychologists in treating the issues your kid faces.

                Or one can explain to the assholes harassing the child that it is in fact not okay to be an asshole to a child.

                • ThrottleJockey

                  The question the parents would be trying to answer would be: Is my child experiencing gender dysphoria?

                  If the child is just going through a phase, as kids are known to do, then there’s nothing wrong with grandma or grandpa calling them “she” instead of “he”…If they’re experiencing gender dysphoria, then its time to get some psychologists involved and understand the best way to respond.

                • JL

                  Why not address the kid using the pronouns the kid wants to use? If the kid later determines that the original set of pronouns better reflects who they are, then switch back, no harm done!

          • McAllen

            There are problems with the study that produced the 80% number, it should be noted (among them: the study lost track of a large number of kids, and all the kids they lost track of were assumed to have detransitioned)

          • alex284

            Honestly think it depends on the situation. If your kid repeatedly says she’s a girl, it’s a little different from having a boy who wants to play with my little pony.

            You can usually tell the difference between a phase and an identity by noting the fact that phases end. Most of the time nothing really needs to be done right away with a 5-year-old other than not actively (or passive-aggressively) punishing them for their gender identity. At most, you’ll have to talk to the kid’s teacher if they’re really insistent about their gender identity.

            FWIW, I dont think I’ve heard about too many 5-year-olds who aren’t trans insisting that they’re a sex other than the one assigned to them at birth. I can’t read the linked article, but the only study that I know of that said something like 80% of transkids grow out of it wasnt looking at trans kids at all: it was examining kids with gender-atypical behavior who may or may not have actually identified as a gender they werent assigned to at birth. That’s a very different thing.

          • I think the sticking point here is identifying “trans” as being equivalent to “gender dysphoria”. In a trans accepting society, a child born with a penis and testicles who identified as (and was accepted as) female may never experience the suffering some trans women have related to their “male” bodies.

            The model that a lot of people are familiar with is that of medical transition, where a trans person’s ultimate goal is hormone therapy and surgery. This will continue to be the path taken by plenty of people, but it isn’t the whole story, and current trans activism accounts for that.

            By that light, if your 5-year-old says they’re a girl and wants to wear dresses, then there’s nothing wrong with that. If 20 years later they identify as a gay cis male, or as a straight cis male for that matter, there’s nothing wrong with that either. This is difficult to fit into our society’s current binary model of gender, but that’s why we want to change the model.

    • JL

      It might be even worse than you think – one of the stories she’s recounting in this book, that Singal is so disturbed about, is the autogynephilia nonsense. So maybe you are a LIBERAL SCIENCE DENIER, like, I guess, American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow and neurobiologist Ben Barres.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        No, I’m living off my trust fund majoring in gender studies and living in SF.

        • Bruce B.

          How long does your trust fund have to go before its degree, and will it go on to do grad work of some kind?

          :)

  • Srsly Dad Y

    Singal argues that a conservative = anti-science/liberal=science frame is simplistic, given several incidents from the academic world

    Isn’t that some pretty serious Both Sides-ism? (Like Paul, I’ve read Singal’s article but not Dreger’s book.) “Anti-science conservatives” includes every single establishment voice of the Republican party. “Liberals” means — academic infighting within anthropology and a few credulous journalists? Hardly comparable.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      I know that Dreger at least is popular with the “anti-social justice left” (for lack of a better term) on Twitter. So there’s *some* grain of truth, if you spin it a certain way.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        Perhaps its because as a trans person I feel more ill will towards her than most, but I see a lot of anti-mainstream SJ liberals quote her like a lot of conservatives quote Sommers or Paglia.

        • The Dark God of Time

          If you could detail what you find objectionable about her writings, that would be helpful.

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            See JLs link above.

        • brownian

          She’s also popular with the “social justice but the trans activists are going too far® and pushing us around™ left”.

          I know some of them. I don’t know how people who are reasonable on so many other aspects of social justice issues can start shrieking “political correctness is stifling our discourses!” and expect that to be a compelling argument on its own merit.

          So Dreger is tainted for me as well.

          • JL

            the “social justice but the trans activists are going too far® and pushing us around™ left”.

            I am linking Julia Serano kind of a lot in this thread, but her “How to Write a ‘Political Correctness Run Amok’ Article” essay is very relevant here. It can be applied to so many situations, but it is also specifically a response to Katha Pollitt, who has sadly been associating herself recently with the “social justice but the trans activists are going too far® and pushing us around™ left”

            • Linnaeus

              Clipping that to Evernote for future use. That’s a good essay.

            • brownian

              Great piece. Serano really does nail this weird behaviour as I’ve seen it.

          • njorl

            I don’t know how people who are reasonable on so many other aspects of social justice issues can start shrieking “political correctness is stifling our discourses!” and expect that to be a compelling argument on its own merit.

            Hasn’t that been the case with every social justice movement? There are otherwise good people who are so sure the movement is wrong that they won’t engage their minds to consider it. You can’t convince them with logic, because they won’t use it. They need an emotional argument that causes them to involuntarily empathize with the oppressed. Even that has to be subtle, or they accuse you of appealing to emotion, and dismiss you.

            I’ve been in that crowd. The moment of realization is often embarrassing.

          • Amanda in the South Bay

            The thing is, I’m certainly a bit heterodox in my own social justice beliefs-But people being Dreger curious and trying to position themselves as the True Liberals/Progressives while excommunicating others as being Marxist WTF evers, those people are annoying.

    • ThrottleJockey

      I think both sides do do it. I remember during the ’08 primaries when Bill Richardson was asked during a candidate’s forum if “gay people were born that way” and he got torched for saying, It’s a choice…I don’t like to answer definitions like that that are perhaps grounded in science or something else that I don’t understand.”

      In light of how the crowd reacted to Richardson’s answer what was equally surprising was how much they liked Obama’s answer that, “We’re all God’s children” and should be treated equally. Richardson also thought that everyone should be treated equally, he just didn’t have an opinion on the science.

      I, myself, don’t think the science should change our view of LGBT rights. If a geneticist unequivocally proved tomorrow that sexual orientation is not fixed at birth would we rescind gay marriage? Good God no. Would we work any less hard for a LGBT ENDA? Good God I hope not. But, unfortunately as Mother Jones noted at the time, agreeing that sexual orientation is fixed from birth has become an unfortunate necessity in our PC Wars even though the science to support that statement remains unproven.

      • witlesschum

        Am I missing something, because Richardson seems to be asserting “It’s a choice” which is also a scientific statement just as “it’s not a choice” is. Assuming that’s how it was interpreted, even if that’s not what he meant, I see why people were pissed. Also, they were probably jolted to be reminded that Bill Richardson was running for president.

        I don’t know if it “is” a necessity anymore, either. I’m sure some people were initially convinced primarily by the argument that people can’t help it (in this formulation) but I think just as important was just people thinking about it beyond a superficial level where they had a ewww to boys kissing and realizing, oh yeah, what’s the big deal if a few people are gay? Basically, I think a lot of people who changed their views were very soft homophobes of inertia to begin with.

        The “it’s not a choice argument” may have helped kick open the door, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true we need it to keep the door open and can follow where the science leads without any fear for social progress.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Also, they were probably jolted to be reminded that Bill Richardson was running for president.—Hey, he was my #1 candidate! I donated real money to that guy!

          I tended to weight the 2nd half of his statement–“Hell if I know I’m not a scientist”–more heavily than the “It’s a choice” part. But I can see why you say that he’s expressing an opinion on the matter.

          Either way, I hope we’ve moved past the point where “Born that way” is a requirement for liberal orthodoxy. As far as rights & equal protection of the laws are concerned its irrelevant.

          • Hogan

            I tended to weight the 2nd half of his statement–“Hell if I know I’m not a scientist”–more heavily than the “It’s a choice” part.

            I wasn’t there, but I would tend to weigh them the other way round–“It’s a choice.” [audience reacts poorly: “oh shit! Backtrack! Backtrack!”] “Well, I’m just a simple New Mexico governor, not some fancy science-talkin guy . . . “

          • witlesschum

            As Scott delighted in reminding us, a few months back, your guy beat Joe Biden.

            I think the liberal orthodoxy will and should still tend to born that way in absence of strong contradictory evidence, just because gay people often say they always knew they were gay and while I’m sure that’s as riddled confirmation bias as any opinion formed by humans, it’s both sensible and polite to take them at their word.

            Also, just based on neuroscience in general, it seems likely that forming the question strongly into a born this way versus choice is probably just not accurate. Most things about humans have some elements of both, so you’d guess orientation would, too. But I don’t know the specific science really at all, so I’m just talking, possibly ignorantly.

            • We don’t know all the specifics, but what we do know is much closer to “born that way” than “it’s a choice”. Starting first with the lived, stated experience of gay people, and then looking at the science as it stands today.

              And there doesn’t need to be a “gay gene” or a specific prenatal environmental factor involved to keep things closer to “born that way” than “it’s a choice”.

              It’s worth noting that the traditional alternatives provided to “it’s a choice” were “corrupted by some pervert” or “spoiled by some arbitrary failing of the mother” — and both of those are still knocking around out there, too.

              For what it’s worth, my dad was converted to the side of gay rights by the “it’s not a choice” argument. This is a guy who had several gay friends but still wasn’t really comfortable with homosexuality and didn’t support gay marriage. His change of heart had a lot to do with the idea that it was unfair to discriminate against people for something they couldn’t change.

      • xq

        “Fixed at birth” has not been scientifically established, but “not a choice” has. People do not choose their sexual desires.

        • ThrottleJockey

          You’ll have to elaborate on: 1) the distinction you’re making; and 2) sources. I’m unaware of anything that’s empirically conclusive on the subject…If I recall correct, a leading theory to explain male homosexuality, the make up of amniotic fluid, has recently fallen out of favor. Another theory, that its evolution determined, I understand is weak. I, myself, haven’t read much about the determinants of lesbianism, but I’ve read that its much more fluid.

          • xq

            1) Homosexuality could be determined already at birth or it could be determined at some point before adolescence (probably at a very young age) due to currently unknown environmental factors. Neither of these would represent “choice.” 2) see what Lost Left Coaster said below; the claim’s that people choose their sexual desires contradicts the experience of pretty much everyone.

        • Lost Left Coaster

          Indeed, to argue that “it’s a choice” is to argue that there is some sort of weird, fundamental difference between LGB and hetero, because obviously the vast majority of hetero people have no recollection of consciously choosing to be that way.

          • Rob in CT

            Right. I always found it easy to believe it’s not a choice for gay people because it certainly wasn’t a choice for me.

            The backup point I used to make to skeptical people was something along the lines of “seriously, gay people are discriminated against, beat up (or worse) and insulted for being gay, why the hell would people CHOOSE that?”

            [I suppose you could answer “for all the amazing gay sex” but anti-gay people tend to think, or at least claim to think, that gay sex is really, really icky. So I’d have had fun with that answer if I’d gotten it. Which I didn’t.]

            • ThrottleJockey

              Yes, other hetero people argue that. That argument never resonated with me. I don’t see why my sexuality is rigid as opposed to fluid…But perhaps its just that I’ve spent too much time in sociology classes.

      • alex284

        The question was not about being “born that way” (that’s a lady gaga song), but about whether it’s a choice vs. “biological.” Terribly worded, I agree.

        But since the entire point of this example is to show that both sides do it, and since the other side denies climate change and evolution, do you have tons of definitive evidence showing that sexual orientation is a choice, all of which liberals refused to look at before responding to Richardson?

        Of course not, but then both sides do it, so that evidence simply must exist somewhere.

        • ThrottleJockey

          No, the “both sides do it” is just that both sides make ideological claims not based on science…As for the science on orientation, for me personally its of intellectual interest, since I’ve supported LGBT rights since always. I was a very sad teenager when the Supreme Court decided Bowers v. Hardwick, and the 2nd happiest political day of my life (2nd only to Obama’s election) was when the Court announced its opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges.

  • Nick never Nick

    The Chagnon affair was a huge disgrace — but people, let’s keep an eye on what is what! It involved, ahem, anthropologists! It was a dispute among anthropologists! Someone made up a task force of anthropologists, for the love of god! Whoever typed the word ‘science’ in that company should have their fingernails atrophy and fall off and clog the computer.

    I’m an anthropologist, by the way. Of sorts.

    (Please read above comment as if one were Allen Iverson)

    • DrDick

      Speaking as an anthropologist who regards himself as a social scientist, may I kindly suggest you go fuck yourself?

      • elm

        Don’t say that too loudly or you may get Erik in this thread proclaiming that social science can never be science.

        • ThrottleJockey

          As we all know numbers are all make believe!

      • rea

        Some of the anthropologists in this thread may know more, but my recollection of the Chagnon controversy is:

        (1) the claim that he deliberately infected the tribe with measles is not supported by the evidence.
        (2) Chagnon definitely did some things that were both unethical and called into question some of his conclusions. A notable example was his practice of trading steel knives, steel machetes, and shotguns to his informants for cooperation. He concluded that the Yanomami were particularly prone to violence. In other words, he contributed to the escalation of violence in the tribe while simultaneously contaminating his sample.

        • Ruviana

          I too am recollecting from a while ago but it wasn’t like the Yanomamo didn’t already have access to machetes, axes and shotguns, Chagnon just made them easier to get. He traded certain foodstuffs as well. The Yanomamo are reasonably well known (as others have noted) for men being, well, fierce–touchy and fight-y and proud. It wasn’t the increase in access to weapons that created that (if that’s not what you’re suggesting my apologies.)

          • rea

            Well, but (1) giving people inclined to violence better weapons is not a good idea, and (2) as a matter of methodology, giving weapons as a reward for information is going to select for informants who want weapons, which strikes me as a bad idea if you want to get an accurate picture about the extent to which the tribal culture is violent. If he’d given out lollipops as a reward to informants, would he have concluded that the Yanomami had sweet teeth?

            • Nick never Nick

              You’re both right to some degree, and there’s no combination of data or analysis or approach that will ever say anything more definite than that.

              It’s anthropology! From the 1960s.

              • joe from Lowell

                From the 1960s.

                That’s the part that grabbed me. Clearly, some of his practices aren’t considered best practice today, but were they out of bounds at the time? The field has grown and matured.

                • DrDick

                  The answer is no, they were standard practice.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Thanks.

                  So what do you do, throw out all the old research? How do you – Christ, I can’t believe I’m actually writing like this – how do you negotiate with the text to get at the meaning that has value?

                • DrDick

                  So what do you do, throw out all the old research?

                  No. There is nothing there to invalidate the data, though there are some ethical questions about how the data was gathered. That makes it no different than a lot of biomedical research prior to 1974.

        • Julia Grey

          As I remember it, the book didn’t claim that he deliberately infected them for experimental purposes, only that his live measles vaccine could have been a vector among a population which had no experience with the disease and/or that he was criminally careless in exposing “upstream” Yanomomo to the disease with his research visits.

          But the basic defense on the vaccine charge was that it is “impossible” for anyone to get measles (or even a measles-like disease?) from an attenuated live vaccine, not even members of isolated, aboriginal populations. I think this defies common sense, but I am not an immunologist. Something started a rumor among the tribes that Chagnon’s vaccine was poisonous, but that may have been the result of his research team having a prodromal member or two, a “carelessness” Tierney offered as another possibility, since the disease was active “downstream” at the time.

          In any case, Chagnon chose the live vaccine because it did the immunization job with one dose and needed no booster. He was genuinely trying to do good, but while he was on that humanitarian trip “upstream” to ever-more remote tribes he was also trying to get blood samples and family tree information from the natives for his research with Neel, which was meant to prove his evopsych theories (genes for violence were passed down to more sons because successful men in that culture had more wives, etc. –although I’m a little sketchy on the precise hypothesis).

          I vaguely remember Tierney also made a charge in the book that the research project all this was in aid of didn’t actually prove whatever it set out to prove, and that the blood sample or family data had apparently been…massaged somehow. I don’t know whether that charge was also solidly debunked, but it was one serious charge that was kind of eclipsed in all the furor about the measles thing.

          Oh, and Chagnon also supposedly sexually exploited some of the natives? That’s vague in my mind, too, but something along that line was also in the book. Again, something not made much of in light of the much more explosive “deliberate infection” allegation. And it was the 60s after all.

          Tierney was indeed a sloppy journalist, and the footnote thing was truly hilarious in several cases. Talk about “massage”! But I’m still not convinced he wasn’t on to SOMETHING in terms of Chagnon’s research methods, Neel’s study, and the phenomenon of “cultural contamination” by anthropologists who live among their study subjects.

          • Julia Grey

            Oh, now I remember a little bit more about the research. Part of it, at least, was a comparison between the number of children a man had and the number of “confirmed kills” he had in the many tribal conflicts that arose in that population.

            That’s how they were trying to prove that the most successfully violent guys were having the most children.

          • DrDick

            First off, Chagnon only assisted in the vaccination program and was not responsible for it. That was conducted by a physician who accompanied him. Tierney did directly accuse him of deliberately infecting the Yanomami, but all the evidence shows the measles epidemic originated in the eastern end of the tribal range (he worked at the west end) and was introduced by missionaries and traders (who also introduced the shotguns). It is also the case that mortality was far lower among the vaccinate groups than others. The charges of sexual exploitation were actually leveled against some of his critics, one of who married a young Yanomami woman (below the age of consent originally) and another who was accused of sexual relations with underage boys (not uncommon among the Yanomami). There is no basis for anything Tierney wrote.

        • DrDick

          While some of Chagnon’s actions would be marginal or outright unethical by modern standards, they were absolutely standard behavior in the field at the time. It is important to note in his defense (and I do not like him as a person and disagree with him theoretically), that the Yanomami already had access to these same goods from missionaries and white traders. The latter two groups also provided access to shotguns, which had much greater impacts. There is actually no evidence that Chagnon had any impact on the levels of violence.

      • Nick never Nick

        Come, come, my good Dr. Dick — we’re both aware that there is a large wing of social-cultural anthropology that argues that doing anthropology is impossible, or self-referential, or a variety of complex post-modern actions/non-actions. Let us not pay too much lip service to the ‘science’ in ‘social science’ . . .

        Try finding a chemist who argues that chemistry can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, or involves a dialogue between the chemist and the chemistry . . .

        • CD

          That’s meant to be an argument?

          There are questions that arise when social humans study other social humans that do not arise when humans study chemistry. You would expect thoughtful scholarship to explore those, no? You might find a range of views healthy.

          • Nick never Nick

            And I do! And I support thoughtful scholarship! And I support a range of views!

            But ‘thoughtful scholarship’ ain’t the same as ‘science’. Right?

            • ThrottleJockey

              Irreverent though you are, Nick, I like your argument–not that I agree–but I like the way you make it and admire it all the more for the irreverence. :-D

              In fact a good friend and I used to get into the most heated of arguments over this subject, she on your side and I on Dr. Dick’s. But then she didn’t do so with near as much mirth! :-)

              • Nick never Nick

                I love anthropology, I really do — but I also believe that it is one of the most old-fashioned of the social sciences, and I just don’t believe it can be made modern. It’s an awesome field, and it shouldn’t care that it’s not science. Things can be good without being falsifiable.

                • Linnaeus

                  While I will not offer here a view on whether anthropology is a science, I will say that if it could somehow be determined that anthropology is not a science, that would not make anthropology any less worthwhile, interesting, or important.

        • Lost Left Coaster

          The 1990s are over, my friend. Anthropology is on firmer footing these days.

          • Nick never Nick

            You’re right, my knowledge of s-c anthro, from grad school, is from the 1990s . . .

            That said, I will never love anthropology if it turns into a messy version of sociology. There should be one discipline, just one, somewhere, that rejects rigor in favor of offices filled with decaying mouldy specimens, ants, and vanished professors and their ungraded papers.

            • Ruviana

              Uhhh, isn’t that history? (runs)

              • Linnaeus

                I will fight you.

              • J. Otto Pohl

                Yes it is. He got the description of my office down exact.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Are you the vanished professor, or the moldy specimen?

                • Malaclypse

                  Isn’t that a “both/and” sort of issue?

            • Hogan

              Sociologists love Balzac–sociologists of the old school, that is; and if Dr. Whittaker’s school had been any older he would have been dead. He had once been an a camping trip or a field trip–I forget which, but the camping trip seems more likely–with Levy-Bruhl, and would tell bewildered comparative psychologists anecdotes (third-hand, I hope) about Charcot and Janet. He was a sort of last link between Scoiology, Anthropology, and Psychology, and sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists looked at him with respectful impatience, knowing that they would be happier apart.

              Randall Jarrell

    • alex284

      I don’t want to delve into the “is anthropology a science” debate, but you are making a good point: anthropologists aren’t all leftists and everything they do isn’t because they want to defend a leftist narrative, so assuming all the facts are as Dreger presents them, that still doesn’t mean much when it comes to indicting the left as a whole.

      But I guess you gotta scrape the bottom of the barrel when you’re looking to make a giant both-sides-do-it argument in the face of a plainly visible and one-sided reality.

      • Nick never Nick

        WAIT JUST A GODDAMN SECOND

        IS THERE ACTUALLY A DEBATE THAT ANTHROPOLOGY IS A SCIENCE?

        SWEET JESUS MAGGIE GET THE LAUNDRY INSIDE AND CHECK THE BARN DOOR

        (note: derisive comment applies only to social-cultural anthropology)

        • DrDick

          Yes there is such a debate and I am on the other side. I got my Ph.D. socio-cultural anthropology in 1987.

      • Dilan Esper

        The problem is, both sides DO do this, though I do think there’s one big difference alluded to above.

        The two big examples I can think of involved rape cases. And I say this as someone who (1) doesn’t think false rape accusations are common, (2) also thinks they pale in comparison to unreported and uninvestigated rapes in terms of a real social problem, and (3) buys the general feminist critique of rape culture. But the way a number of online feminists handled both the Duke lacrosse case and the Rolling Stone Virginia story was completely ideological.

        I think the broader claim being made here– that lots of people refuse to believe anything that their ideology says can’t be true– is completely correct. We saw it recently here with the posts on mismatching on affirmative action. I don’t know for sure that the mismatching problem is as bad as Sander says it is, but the number of affirmative action advocates who simply assert that it CAN’T. BE. TRUE. and who use shoddy and misleading arguments to attack it is definitely well above zero. I’ve also had discussions with people who claim that anti-vaxx sentiment is completely a right-wing phenomenon, which is belied by a ton of evidence (including zip codes where children are less likely to get vaccination).

        But I do think the one salient point about this is that there aren’t any real examples of the entire left or all liberals espousing an anti-science view or coddling those who espouse it. There are always dissenters, on all these issues; there’s just nothing comparable to the way the entire right wing denies global warming, or kow-tows to religious conservatives who think the earth is 6,000 years old and that its creator is obsessed with what human beings do with their penises, or whatever.

        Both sides do do it, but we’re much better than they are.

        • Nick never Nick

          I think one problem with this argument is the use of the word ‘sides’. The ideal of having a political movement of people who are all entirely reason/logic based and never run down a blind alley, is unreasonable. All that you need to demonstrate that both Teh Left and Teh Right are ideological and biased is a single web site from each side. Obviously, you’ll find it, just like you find people on the left who don’t like admitting there are a lot of anti-vaxxers there.

          Your final point about the left not being in lockstep is the main point — we don’t have as many ideological orthodoxies, though it might be possible to come up with some if we think about it.

        • witlesschum

          Is “completely” your word or theirs?

          Because the data on anti-vaxxers, as I understand it mainly per Chris Mooney, is that they include more righty cranks than lefty cranks. But crankiness, ie, some form of fairly strong dissent from mainstream culture in general is the strongest predictor of anti vax sentiment.

          The media has made crunchy hippy types (or at least the Hollywood celebrities among them) the face of antivaxxers because, I presume, the idea of having Katie Couric sit down with some dominionist homeschooler rather than a hippy would make for bad TV.

          On the Duke and Virginia rape cases though, are you certain people were responding “ideologically” or were they just playing the odds that rape accusations are usually true and some fairly unlikely things (really poor journalism by Rolling Stone and outrageous misconduct by a prosecutor against rich white people) happened?

          • Not your point, I know, but it’s worth pointing out that Jenny McCarthy is not a crunchy hippy type, though it may seem that way (and I’ll go so far as to say, maybe not without reason) to a person who uses the words “flyover country” sorta-kinda unironically to describe himself, and gripes about people who get their money for nothing and their chicks for free. Maybe the loud cranks are more likely to be on the right, for some reason.

          • Nick never Nick

            About the latter, I don’t care, because it isn’t an example of ‘science’ — which is what this dispute is about. For the anti-vaxxers, zip code analysis strongly suggests that it has a strong component of leftists, liberals, however you want to put it. It doesn’t matter if they are ‘cranky’ leftists or not, they still count as leftists — that would be a ‘no true Scotsman’ argument.

            As for whether ‘completely’ is my word or theirs, I don’t see it at all, so it appears to be neither of ours.

            • Hob

              That comment was replying to Dilan, who said: “I’ve also had discussions with people who claim that anti-vaxx sentiment is completely a right-wing phenomenon.”

            • witlesschum

              I was responding to Dilan Esper, above you, who used the word completely and brought up the two rape cases. (Maybe you’re on a device that can’t see the threading?)

              And I don’t see any disagreement between us on the rest.

              There are apparently more right wing antivaxers, which you can see Mooney discussing here but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a goodly number of lefty ones, too.

              He’s not relying on zip codes analysis, but two surveys of people’s opinions about vaccines. Which seems like better data than just zip codes to me.

              What I mean by crankiness:

              But really, political ideology didn’t have a large overall impact on vaccine denial in the study. The study found that the really big contributor to distrusting or disliking vaccines was not political ideology ideology at all, but rather, having a conspiratorial mindset, which can occur on both the left and the right.

              And the analysis that there are more antivaxxers on the right:

              In fact, Kahan found, “respondents formed more negative assessments of the risk and benefits of childhood vaccines as they became more conservative and identified more strongly with the Republican Party.” However, as in the prior study, this was a very slight effect.

              • alex284

                The entire anti-vaxxer movement is about parents’ rights to control their kids without interference from the government.

                Somehow some people have a problem with seeing this as a typical rightwing stance. Perhaps they should refrain from commenting on politics?

                • Dilan Esper

                  Leftcwing parents believe in parental control of what goes into their precious little flowers too.

              • Dilan Esper

                Zip codes are better because they show who actually refuses to vaccinate, as opposed to simply espousing it.

                • Unless the zip codes are homogenous, they don’t. Actually even if they are, they don’t by definition! (Aggregating at the zip code level is probably sufficiently k-anonymous that you can’t identify anyone).

        • alex284

          No, the larger point is not about narrative construction. This entire discussion is about whether one side is more anti-science than the other. That’s why Galileo is at the top of this post and why the word “science” has been used a bajillion times on this thread. That’s the “it” in “Both Sides Do It.”

          You have 2 examples. 1 is the Duke Lacrosse team rape case. That was not about science.

          Your first example is a swing and a miss.

          Your second example is about mismatching (and people were responding to Scalia, not Sanders. Not quite the same person). I was on that thread and a lot of people were saying that it could exist, but that there was no proof for Scalia’s assertion that minority students were worse off because of mismatching. The evidence is pretty solid in the other way – minority students who take offers from better schools do better in terms on income than similar students who don’t accept those offers. The science was against Scalia, and I think Scalia represents the conservative position.

          So 2nd swing and miss.

          Care to try again? Remember, we’re looking for example of the left ignoring science and clinging to ideology on par with the right’s climate denialism or creationism.

          • Dilan Esper

            Sander’s studies are definitely scientific. And there is data on false rape accusations too, which was ignored by many bloggers.

            At any rate, “denying science” versus “denying empirical reality” is a distinction without a difference.

        • I think the broader claim being made here– that lots of people refuse to believe anything that their ideology says can’t be true– is completely correct. We saw it recently here with the posts on mismatching on affirmative action.

          Oh I totally missed this hilarity!

          We saw something in that thread, namely your embarrassing anti-intellectualism in full force.

          I guess if you count as being on the liberal/left, then there are people making bad arguments on the liberal/left. But those aren’t pro-leftist positions.

          And not in one of my comments a trace back to your PRIOR determination that everyone who disagreed with you on your ridiculous theory of causation was completely ideologically biased against Nader and thus unreliable including the unrepentant Nader voter who is a grad student in statistics.

          You are getting exponentially worse, dude. Pull yourself together!

    • trashdog

      Late to the party, but the American Anthropological Association has publicly said that they don’t consider much of Anthropology to be science, and, deep breath, THAT’S OK.

    • ColBatGuano

      It was a dispute among anthropologists! Someone made up a task force of anthropologists

      Avoiding the dispute about the scientific qualifications of anthropology, the fact that it was a debate within that community with just a few forays out into the wilder world of The New Yorker sort of undermines the thesis that liberal society was suppressing science doesn’t it?

  • AcademicLurker

    Singal argues that a conservative = anti-science/liberal=science frame is simplistic

    Wasn’t that already pretty clear from the Science Wars of the 90s?

    • Marc

      Yes, but it’s pretty obvious that there are a lot of left activists who think that history started the day that they were born, don’t remember what happened in the 90s, or think that repeating the same mistakes will, somehow, have a different outcome if we amplify them.

      • postmodulator

        I don’t know. I can’t see a couple of the lesser postmodernists badly misunderstanding fluid dynamics as comparable to 45% of the country steadfastly insisting that climate change isn’t real. It’s just upscale nutpicking.

        I’m not opposed to going after the people who were on the wrong side of the Science Wars in the 90s: as a postmodernist, I want postmodernists kept honest. But you’re talking about about a couple of dozen people.

        • Marc

          Yes, there is a reason why virtually no scientists are Republicans now. But that doesn’t, in any way, excuse bad behavior on the other side. And it’s a lot more than a couple of dozen people.

          For example, I’m a scientist, and I think that diversity, in the broad sense, of researchers is important. I also want to know what the real problems are (for example, how do the applicant pools and acceptances for positions compare for different groups) and whether certain tactics are effective. We have some basic skeptical tools that we apply in our own fields: is this study well constructed? Are the questions well posed? Are the samples unbiased? If you apply these to research finding about, say, how women are treated in the sciences, you will find a strong politically motivated hostility that you wouldn’t see if you were questioning something about invasive plant species – or, yes, even climate change.

          And there is also a striking unwillingness to consider complications – such as whether policies that might improve gender diversity disfavor applicants from families where they’re the first person to go to college, or whether such policies make it harder for international applicants (who add their own diversity of background, ethnicity, and experience.)

          This is just one area, and there is certainly fine work being done in it. But the ideological tensions are quite real, and I don’t envy people working in fields where there will be very strong political pressure in favor of some results but not others.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          This. Too many people taking Alice Goffman seriously is not remotely equivalent to climate science denialism, keeping evolution and sex ed out of schools, or banning CDC studies of the public health impact of guns. And it wouldn’t be even if the academic left universally defended Goffman, which afaict we don’t.

          • AcademicLurker

            keeping evolution and sex ed out of schools

            It’s worth noting that one of the authors featured in the infamous Science Wars issue of Social Text (the one with Alan Sokal’s celebrated hoax article) later appeared in court to testify in favor of pushing intelligent design creationism into public schools.

            • Incontinentia Buttocks

              Absolutely. But to compare Steve Fuller to contemporary conservative skepticism about evolution is a classic example of nutpicking. How many people on the academic left — and even the postmodern academic left — agree with Fuller on “intelligent design”? And how much political/legal traction did his arguments have in the Dover controversy?

          • alex284

            But, but… both sides do it!

            How can I bend reality to fix my worldview – the worldview that says that everyone bends reality to fit their worldviews except for me because I’m awesome – if people keep on pointing out that Goffman is not the left equivalent of every Republican in Congress, Fox News, rightwing radio, and a major share of the voting public?

        • It’s not just that. There was no real upshot for most people to claims like the ones made (though I believe this is still disputed by people on the left who were there at the time) against science by the postmodernists (though I believe there is a kernel of valuable critique that was misunderstood, misused, or blown out of proportion by people who mistakenly believed it supported their partis prises) in the 1990s. You would have had to have been a conspiracy theorist of some kind to think it mattered in the here and now. Well, not necessarily. But it really only mattered if you were in science studies, or doing humanities where it touched on science, like biographies of scientific figures, or you were doing interpretive social science and had basic philosophical objections, or possibly if you were doing a kind of humanities that let you borrow freely from scientific literature and occasionally encountered resistance to this from more sciency people.

          And the kinds of opposition Singal finds on the left are of a very different kind. A person with an interest in how the science ends up treating people makes different kinds of objections to it.

          • Ruviana

            Yes, this.

            • Linnaeus

              Seconded.

          • AcademicLurker

            Certainly in the here and now, antiscience attitudes are largely a thing of the right. I brought up the science wars simply to note that this is a contingent fact about the present moment, not proof that leftists are possessed of some unique righteousness that ensures that they are always on the correct side of things.

            • Philip

              Certainly in the here and now, antiscience attitudes are largely a thing of the right.

              I honestly think this is conceding too much. IME a lot of very anti-science attitudes sit just barely outside the mainstream left.

            • Linnaeus

              Certainly in the here and now, antiscience attitudes are largely a thing of the right.

              IMHO, it goes back farther than the here and now (I may or may not have written an MA thesis about science and the right wing), but it’s also true that quarrels with science, to borrow a phrase, aren’t solely the province of the right.

              That said, it’s important to make distinctions with respect to such things as degree, kind, context when discussing antiscientific attitudes. It’s also important to have a fairly clear working definition of “antiscience”. I’m not saying you don’t do these things, but too many other people don’t.

              • AcademicLurker

                Ultimately, despite the fact that some people were less than polite, I think that the science wars were a healthy thing precisely because some species of creeping nonsense that were beginning to gain an aura of respectability in certain left-ish quarters were swept away.

                There has been no similar intellectual housecleaning on the right in my lifetime, with evident results.

                • postmodulator

                  Yes, this. The leftists and semioticians and postmodernists and what have you in academia were chargrined by the Sokal article, for the most part.

                • Linnaeus

                  I began my graduate training right around, or just after, Peak Science Wars, so I got a pretty close look at all of this. My reaction is a bit more mixed than yours. I certainly think that the intellectually weak arguments that some scholars offered were fair game for serious criticism (which is how I feel about any argument, strong or weak). I also think that there was some overreach and the discourse went beyond criticism (polite and impolite) and became more about control of the discourse itself.

    • There were science wars? Were professors attacking each other with giant robots and Tesla cannons? I was an undergrad at a tiny state college in southwestern Wisconsin in the 1990s how did I miss this? that must be why I missed this.

      • Linnaeus

        You didn’t really miss anything.

        • The Temporary Name

          I thought it was endless amusement. Vast armies of straw men met their deaths.

      • witlesschum

        Tesla cannons

        Apparently there was a science war going on while I was playing Red Alert against my fellow students over the universities network.

        • If they don’t use Tesla cannons or giant robots, how are we supposed to know it’s a science war instead of the regular kind?

          • witlesschum

            By the maniacal cackling and blood-stained lab coats?

  • Warren Terra

    he has long believed that human behavior and culture can be partially explained by evolution, which in some circles has been a frowned-upon idea.

    I’d argue this gets the issue a bit wrong. Obviously we, as humans, are what we’ve evolved to be, as individuals and as societies. The problem with Evolutionary Psychology isn’t that it’s wrong, it’s that it’s useless. You can make an Evolutionary Psychology argument to support either side of any dispute, to fit any observations or suppositions. Those arguments can be compelling, and they can be a lot of fun – but they’re really just an empty intellectual game.

    • Murc

      Mmm, I’ve always thought that the problem with evo psyche isn’t that it is either wrong or useless (insight into the human condition is always useful!) it is that people try and use it as a trump card. Like, they think “we’re predisposed by our current evolutionary state to act in X way” somehow absolves those acting in X way of responsibility for their actions, or indeed confers some sort of blessing upon them.

      And that’s bullshit. And it pisses me off, because I think we have much to learn in the way we’ve evolved to fit our environment.

      • elm

        Right. I don’t know enough about the actual academic discipline of evo psych to be willing to dismiss it as Warren does, but the way evo psych gets used casually is typically as bullshit just-so stories meant to end conversations. I assume professional evolutionary psychologists know what they’re doing, though.

        • I assume professional evolutionary psychologists know what they’re doing, though.

          You would think so. But then you look at the professional evo-psych journals like “Personality and Individual Differences” a.k.a. the Eysenck Times, and they keep publishing crap.

      • medrawt

        Yeah, I’ve always figured it’s done badly is the problem.

        So I would consider this to be evo psych: humans are wired to over-recognize patterns, because the consequences of not noticing the panther in the bush are much higher than the consequences of thinking there’s a panther in the bush when there isn’t … which is why we’re prone to both seeing shapes in the dark and developing conspiracy theories.

        Now, that SEEMS right to me (the most important kind of right!). Maybe it’s not. Maybe that’s something evo psych people can argue about. But it seems like the sort of thing that ought to be evo psych, and it also seems like unobjectionable stuff to me.

        OTOH: Current sexual mores built around the idea that men want to schtup everything they can and women have to be conned into giving it away, as demonstrated by my highly tendentious surveys of college students, must be rooted in the social conditions of the veldt in which we evolved, and historical contexts in which sexual mores were otherwise are unknown to me! – well, that’s bad evo psych, but that’s what makes headlines.

        • Ruviana

          Echidne of the Snakes critiques a lot of the bad evo psych really well.

          • witlesschum

            The book Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk does a good job of skewering those and related arguments about there being some one true way that human beings must act, eat, etc because GENES. Her argument is that the data shows humans seem to have evolved so as to be able to thrive in a number of environments and societies, so trying to organize society or human behavior into some particular way because we think it’s the most “natural” is misguided at best.

            She was also really good at getting my humanities-oriented self to much better understand evolution as a not-linear process and how that must have translated into practical terms.

            • Ruviana

              Yes! This was a great book!

    • alex284

      I’m wondering what those circles are, and how small they are. Because the idea that absolutely no human behavior can be explained by evolution and that all humans are born tabula rasa is for all i know not a position taken by anyone.

      And this is an important point, because the only link Dreger shows between Chagnon’s critics and the left is that reference to “some circles.”

      • Nick never Nick

        The problem is the vast gap between ‘explained by evolution’ and ‘falsifiably explained by evolution’.

        • Warren Terra

          Yeah, this, exactly.

      • njorl

        I was wondering the same thing. Perhaps it’s a differential question. I think all informed, rational people would concede that human behavior is strongly affected by evolution (otherwise we’d be acting like prokaryotes), but is the behavior of different populations significantly different from other populations due to genetic differences?

        That can quickly become a fraught topic. There’s no shortage of people who would eagerly tout such findings as proof that black people are more violent than white people. Any serious investigation into physical explanations of the behaviors of populations risks being overwhelmed by people with agendas.

        • alex284

          Actually, now that I think about it, the only major ideology that would disagree with the notion that some behavior is explained by evolution would be creationists.

          Who, of course, must be Marxists because Both Sides Do It!

    • xq

      Hmm. Obviously, it’s trivially true that you can come up with a bad argument for anything. But I don’t know how to interpret your claim in a way that is both nontrivial and correct. Evolutionary theory does constrain the space of plausible arguments. And particular evo pscyh hypotheses (one does not test the entire field as one unit) cannot be made to fit any observations or suppositions; they can be tested by experiment and observation (perhaps not as decisively as we would like).

      (also worth noting that evo pscyh is not the only field that studies the link between evolution and human behavior; one doesn’t need to take an evo pscyh perspective to agree that “human behavior and culture can be partially explained by evolution”)

    • ISTM that the problem with evo psych isn’t theoretical or philosophical or meta, it’s more sociological. As the field is constituted, it’s fundamentally based AFAICT on the assumed fact that evolution supports a kind of psychology and social structure that some people might call “traditional.” It’s like economics in that way. There are fringes where people try to show other things, but the rest of the field appears to treat them as if they’re missing some enormous fact about how their field is constituted.

      • Karen24

        Exactly. Studying the archaelogical record for evidence of human thought patterns is a respectable academic discipline. Using those conclusions to support public policy designed to immiserate a significant part of the population is another matter entirely. Most evo psych advocates do the latter.

        • No-one ever seems to argue in the opposite direction: taking current human thought patterns and social structures, and making testable predictions about the archeological record.
          Instead we’ve had this situation where archeological reconstructions of paleolithic lifestyles keep changing, and the evo-psych people simply change their rationales accordingly.

        • xq

          I don’t know what you mean by “evo psych advocates” but most evo psych researchers don’t get involved in public policy debates at all.

      • Steve

        Yup. Bad functionalist arguments in favor of the status quo.

      • joe from Lowell

        The actual field of economics, the actual people who hold degrees and do research in the field, is lot further left than the pseudo-scientific fan boys who write “You need to take Econ 101, haven’t you ever heard of supply and demand?” in response to the modern regulatory and welfare state. It’s sort of like the difference between actual military personnel and the “Support Da Trooooooops!” idiots circa 2003.

        There was a famous instance of some libertarian shop sending out policy surveys to real economists in an attempt to prove that they all opposed the minimum wage. The results came back showing that most thought it would have no impact or a positive impact on employment rates, and most of them supported it.

        • Steve

          Most economists I’ve met/interacted with seem to fall into the center-left camp (e.g. the Brad DeLong types). Interesting though to see both DeLong and Krugman move noticeably left in their blog postings over the last decade.

          I think this holds in terms of averages too. Of course there are the George Mason and U. Minnesota types (and U Chicago, of course) too and they are loud and publically visible and they skew our perceptions of the field.

          • petesh

            Krugman, I suggest, has not moved left so much as lost his patience, and that started well over a decade ago.

            • Rob in CT

              Combo of lost patience and the Right marching farther and farther to the Right.

              • joe from Lowell

                Also, he’s writing more politics and less economics/economic policy wonkery.

                Which, I suspect, can be traced back to your point, and petesh’s.

    • mds

      The problem with Evolutionary Psychology isn’t that it’s wrong, it’s that it’s useless.

      Why not “both/and”? When I see it being useless, I usually also see it being wrong in a scientific sense, because it’s being wielded by people who have no serious background in evolutionary biology, neurobiology, or any of the things that would allow it to be right. So it could be rigorous, and hence not useless, but not in the hands of some of its loudest eminent academic proponents

      (FWIW, the sociology and anthropology courses I took were in a department composed entirely of left-liberals to leftists, and yet no one expressed any belief in horseshit “noble savage” stories. I mean, our anthopology class coverage of the Yanomamö largely consisted of films with Chagnon in them. Apparently everyone missed the memo that it’s boldly contrarian for an anthropologist to suggest that humans have tended to behave badly. Oh, look, an atlatl! I’ll bet that never chucked anything at another person.)

    • CD

      a conservative = anti-science/liberal=science frame

      human behavior and culture can be partially explained by evolution, which in some circles has been a frowned-upon idea

      Run for your lives, straw men!

      • Warren Terra

        oh, hell, it didn’t even occur to me that the frowned-upon idea was not Evo-Psych but evolution itself. Because at that point what’s the point of even having a conversation? And yet, having seen where you trimmed the quote I can go back and look at the full passage and see that indeed it may have been suggesting a dispute over all of evolution.

    • Steve

      The Spandrels of San Macro. It’s glib functionalist accounts (i.e. “just so stories”) that are the problem scientifically and socially. Scientifically because some of the arguments are not falsifiable or because they are asserted as self-evident rather than investigated/supported. Socially because functionalism is pretty much inherently conservative in implication…”things are this way for a good reason,” and thus become go to arguments for those who support the status quo.

      • functionalism is pretty much inherently conservative in implication…”things are this way for a good reason,” and thus become go to arguments for those who support the status quo.

        It usually is, but in the same way as what Warren points out, it doesn’t have to be. There’s a respectable tradition of social science that probably, philosophically, is using functionalism-like assumptions, but accepts the possibility that society is currently dysfunctional(1), and criticizes it on the basis of its difference from functional adequacy.

        (1) for reasons that are not “because the Bible says different”

      • xq

        Scientifically because some of the arguments are not falsifiable or because they are asserted as self-evident rather than investigated/supported.

        All evo pscyh does, pretty much, is do psych experiments to test hypotheses derived from evolutionary theory. You can argue that the experiments are not actually good tests, or that the results should be interpreted differently, but evo psych hypotheses are definitely falsifiable and not considered self-evident by researchers in the field.

        (more broadly, I don’t think glib functionalist accounts are all that common in mainstream evo bio either–the anti-“adaptionist” critique has always suffered from lack of examples of the claimed phenomenon, imo.)

        • DrDick

          What evo psych actually does is totally ignore the actual evolutionary record for humans, as well as the very extensive cross-cultural data on human behavior. It is largely useless and mostly serves to confirm pre-existing cultural biases.

          • xq

            No; that’s not at all an accurate characterization. A lot of cross-cultural data on human behavior was collected by evolutionary psychologists. And many findings do not confirm pre-existing biases. But we’ve had this discussion at least twice before….

            • DrDick

              And you have yet to provide any evidence that this is in fact characteristic of the field.

              • xq

                No one else has provided evidence on this subthread.

                Here’s an evo psych paper picked at random from Jan 2016 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior.

                (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1090513815000781)

                Note that

                1. It doesn’t ignore cross-cultural data; it cites studies from three non-western cultures in addition to the western data
                2. I’m not sure what “pre-existing cultural bias” it confirms
                3. It finds against the dominant hypothesis that attraction to “average” faces is caused by selection for attractiveness to increased genetic quality; i.e., far from the authors’ hypothesis being “self-evident” the finding conflicts with their hypothesis
                4. In discussion they mention the possibility that attraction to average faces is not adaptive at all, in contrast to all the commentors on this thread claiming that evolutionary psychologists always assume adaptation and never consider the possibility of spandrels or drift

                I’m not saying it’s a perfect paper, I’m sure you can (and I can) find things to object about it. But a lot of the popular complaints about evo psych are not based on actually reading and evaluating large samples of the modern literature.

                • DrDick

                  2. I’m not sure what “pre-existing cultural bias” it confirms

                  I quote from the paper: “Popular theory suggests that facial averageness is preferred in a partner for genetic benefits to offspring.”

                  Their finding do not actually support an evolutionary psych model:

                  While we found that facial averageness does have a genetic component, and a significant phenotypic correlation exists between facial averageness and attractiveness, we did not find a genetic correlation between facial averageness and attractiveness (therefore, we cannot say that the genes that affect facial averageness also affect facial attractiveness) and paternal age at conception was not negatively associated with facial averageness.

                  You also have this

                • xq

                  “Popular theory suggests that facial averageness is preferred in a partner for genetic benefits to offspring.”

                  Yes, and they find evidence against that theory, as I said and you note. So their results disconfirms a pre-existing cultural bias.

                  Their finding do not actually support an evolutionary psych model:

                  Yes. A bunch of evolutionary psychologists tested an evo psych model, found their data didn’t support it, and pointed that out in an evo psych journal. This is how science is supposed to work.

                • DrDick

                  Yes. A bunch of evolutionary psychologists tested an evo psych model, found their data didn’t support it,.

                  Which is what happens pretty much any time you test one of these models against cross cultural data. Sort of invalidates the whole approach, doesn’t it? That’s how science works!

                • ajay

                  This is kind of beautiful, DrDick. I mean, watertight.

                  “evo psych …is largely useless and mostly serves to confirm pre-existing cultural biases”.

                  No, here’s a paper that shows evo-psych researchers actually disconfirming a pre-existing bias.

                  “Sort of invalidates the whole approach, doesn’t it?”

                  So if they do studies that confirm their hypotheses, they’re doing bad science. But if they do studies that don’t, then it proves evo-psych is useless.

    • Brett

      The problem with Evolutionary Psychology is that (as PZ Myers has pointed out) just figuring out that some behavior has a genetic and/or hereditary component doesn’t give you grounds to make an argument as to “why that evolved”. A lot of Evo Psych folks have a tendency to treat evolution as if it’s all positive selection – as if all genetic traits in human beings evolved/selected to do something.

      But it’s really much more complicated than that. A lot of selection (maybe even the strongest part of it) is negative selection: deleterious traits being wiped out because they negatively effected reproduction to a significant degree. And selection itself may not be the most powerful force at work in the evolution of a population – random genetic drift tends to be far stronger than natural selection when you’re dealing with slow-reproducing small populations of individuals (i.e. hominids before about 8000 years ago).

      That means it’s extremely difficult to tell whether a hereditary trait evolved because it offered a fitness advantage, or just because it got fixed in the small populations of migrant hominids due to random genetic drift.

      • Steve

        There is also pleotropy to complicate things.

      • DrDick

        Right, It is also the case that humans exhibit far greater neuroplasticity and responsiveness to environmental factors than other primates. It is very difficult to sort out the differential effects of genetics, learning, and various other environmental factors on behavior and cognition.

  • Ruviana

    I read the book, which I liked, in part because of Dreger’s explorations of the Chagnon and especially the Mead cases. I thought some of her discussion of trans issues was provocative and interesting, and it does seem like trans people have a range of views on her perspective. She did unpack the Freeman-Mead controversy pretty well; I’m always surprised that the general public thinks (to the degree that they think about such things) Freeman “destroyed” Mead. The Chagnon case was to some degree an anthropological fight but it does have implications for how indigenous people are treated. Tierney was a journalist looking for a “sexy” topic and the anti-Chagnon guys took what he said and ran with it. I’m no fan of Chagnon, who strikes me as a misogynistic bully but his good work was misused and his and Neel’s reputations were unfairly tarnished in this case.

    • AcademicLurker

      My impression of the Chagnon case is that the charges sounded so right that a lot of people jumped to the easy conclusion that therefore they must be right. The charges had the pleasant effect of telling people what they already “knew” about scientists, indigenous peoples & etc.

      • Ruviana

        Yeah, a lot of this.

      • AuRevoirGopher

        Guilty as charged. I bought the book years ago when it came out on paperback. Never read it, but every few years when I clean my bookshelves, I take it down, look at the back cover and think Napolean Chagon, Monster.

    • JL

      it does seem like trans people have a range of views on her perspective.

      Maybe you’re familiar with different subsets of trans people than I am, but I will say that when Julia Serano and Andrea James BOTH dislike something, and on top of that, trans scholars who are less inclined to get into gender theory debates, like Deirdre McCloskey or Ben Barres, are jumping in to criticize it, my first thought is not “There’s a range of trans perspectives on this.” It’s probably true at the trivial level – no group is monolithic, and you can find trans people who believe transphobic things just like you can find women who believe misogynistic things and black people who believe racist things – but the trans perspectives certainly seem to lean in a particular direction.

      • hen wen

        The range is “This thing Dreger wrote is terrible” to “Dreger is terrible.”

    • DrDick

      Agree completely on this. I have met Chagnon and he is a collossal arrogant, overbearing, contentious, misogynistic asshole. That said, there is no evidence that he harmed the Yanomami in any way (which is what the AAA committee found) and his involvement in the vaccination program actually saved many lives.

  • twbb

    As someone who currently does a fair bit of work in the anthropology of science, I’ve come to more and more accept that point 1 (the inaccuracy of the “conservatives=anti-science/liberals=science”) is for the most part correct. It goes beyond academic infighting or postmodernism; for example, a large amount of progressives outside the academy, particularly in the 1970’s-1980’s, were strident believers in the toxic effects of all sorts of chemicals that toxicologists were (and still are) convinced aren’t that dangerous, at least in the amounts at which people are exposed. This really had a lot of real-world policy implications. And in both the academy and activist circles there was also a substantial progressive demographic who saw science generally as a right-wing endeavor, allied with industry and Western hegemony.

    And as a side note, and relying on the anthropology part of my job, while Goffman may have made some mistakes, I think Paul and Steven Lubet have unfairly maligned a lot of what she did and ethnography as a whole. Though at least Paul didn’t try calling around to police and prosecutors trying to get her thrown in jail.

    • Paul Campos

      I think it’s important to distinguish between two quite different meanings of the word “mistake.”

      The first sense of the word involves, for example, unintentionally misinterpreting data.

      The second sense involves intentionally making stuff up and then lying about it.

      • Ruviana

        I still come down on Team Goffman here. I haven’t been convinced that Goffman made stuff up and lied about it.

        • The Dark God of Time

          That many details of her story can’t be verified, shows that reality has an anti-academic bias.

      • twbb

        Did she make stuff up? I don’t know. But I don’t think it necessarily follows from the stuff she said. She might have fallen victim to framing things in a way that made them more dramatic, and believed what she was told a little too much. More importantly, as any neuroscientist will tell you human memory is notoriously unreliable and plastic, and human beings have a tendency to mix up what we saw and what we were told happens. Even if she wasn’t in the hospital room she described that doesn’t mean she doesn’t think she was. The same for the other stuff. Ethnography is getting deep into the culture you are studying; that helps with certain aspects of data collection and not with others. The first ethnographic study you do as a graduate student particularly is largely a training exercise, and should be expected to have mistakes. The mistake was maybe the editors not realizing that when they commissioned a book based on her dissertation.

        • Paul Campos

          as any neuroscientist will tell you human memory is notoriously unreliable and plastic, and human beings have a tendency to mix up what we saw and what we were told happens. Even if she wasn’t in the hospital room she described that doesn’t mean she doesn’t think she was. The same for the other stuff.

          If only there were some tool ethnographers could use so they didn’t have to rely strictly on long-term memory when trying to remember what they observed in the field.

          • twbb

            Which goes back to my point about grad student inexperience. Maybe she didn’t take notes enough (and maybe she thought that people hiding from the police might balk at talking to her if she was writing what they said down). Maybe her notes sucked, or maybe her notes sucked at first then got better. Maybe her informants later insisted that she was with them at certain points when her notes were ambiguous. Maybe she anonymized things too haphazardly.

            Margaret Mead’s first ethnographic work, Coming of Age in Samoa, is widely (though not universally) considered completely flawed and unreliable precisely because she was a young, clueless graduate student who hadn’t developed the skills necessary to critically evaluate what she saw, and in effect saw exactly what she wanted to see philosophically. But it wasn’t just assumed that she made up things to sell books.

            • Paul Campos

              I don’t know the details of the Mead controversy — which is apparently a big topic in Dreger’s book — but again, the problem with several incidents AG claims to have witnessed in OTR isn’t a matter of distorted or otherwise flawed interpretations of events. It’s whether those events happened at all.

              If those events didn’t happen — and the evidence in my view is overwhelming that they didn’t — then claims about bad note taking are quite beside the point, unless you think things like Michael LaCour’s “mistakes” are somehow methodological, as opposed to moral and/or psycho-pathological.

    • medrawt

      Could you expand on your second paragraph? The most generous reading I can come up with (I should note my anthropology training stops at a year of mandatory social sciences distribution reading excerpts of Durkheim and Levi-Strauss) is that the presentation of Goffman’s work was appropriate to the context and uses of ethnography, but inappropriate to the context and uses of reportage, and that when her ethnography dissertation was published and repackaged as a work of journalism she should have either modified the text accordingly or included disclaimers making clear exactly what the book was.

      • twbb

        That’s my reading, too. Was it republished as journalism? And if it was, was that Goffman’s fault?

        • medrawt

          Well, as I’ve said before, the pull quote from the NYTimes Book Review by Alex Kotlowitz literally says: “A remarkable feat of reporting”. The Amazon section of editorial reviews is interesting; it has some more scholarly sources referring to the work as “ethnography”, and the more mainstream outlets are coming from the place of “she lived in this neighborhood and she’s telling us what it’s like to live that life”.

          I don’t know which came first, the attention or the push, but at some point there was clearly a recognition that the book either was receiving, or was capable of receiving, much more attention than the typical volume in the University of Chicago Press’ “Fieldwork Encounters and Discoveries” series. It was reviewed by nonacademic outlets, it’s priced more like pop nonfiction than the typical academic text, and it seems to me that the promotional material stresses the narrative and the emotion in a way that is reminiscent of similar journalistic projects … more Barbara Ehrenreich than Claude Levi-Strauss, if you will.

    • alex284

      The toxin thing, though, isn’t the domain of the left, at least not today. Can’t be bothered to look up a link, but antivaxxers tend to be conservative according to one poll and the only party that made antivaxxing part of its platform was the Texas GOP.

      Maybe there’s some more lefties on the anti-GMO position, but then it’s not like that’s the center of liberal activism or anything. It’s, at most, something that gets talked about at college campuses.

      Compare that stuff to, say, climate denialism, various rightwing claims when it comes to abortion, sex ed in schools, creationism, etc. These things are actually what motivates them to go to the polls and are things where the divide is clearly left/right.

      But, you know, nice try at showing that Both Sides Do It. I know many people want to believe that.

      • Ruviana

        Absolutely not trying to “both sides do it” here, but there is a significant corner of the crunchy left that is as anti-vax as the crunchy religious right. I amuse myself comparing these two very different subgroups’ very similar arguments about it.

        • Dilan Esper

          As I allude to above, there have been studies of zip codes where non-vaccination is most common, and these studies STRONGLY suggest that anti-vax sentiment is more common on the left. I mean, I realize you can’t automatically tag everyone living in West Los Angeles as a liberal, but it’s certainly not what you would expect to see if the phenomenon were associated with Christian conservative groups and rejected on the left.

          As a result, I think the opinion that is commonly expressed that anti-vax sentiment is a right wing belief is a classic example of this trope. That’s something that people want to believe for ideological reasons, but isn’t, in fact, true.

          I guess that points to a broader point here. The fact that Both Sides Do It arguments are often bad (which they are) doesn’t mean they are always wrong. There are clearly some pathologies that do show up on both sides of the political spectrum. Rather than simply assuming anyone who makes a Both Sides Do It argument must be justifying right wing barbarism, these things have to be evaluated on the merits in each instance.

          • JL

            I don’t disbelieve you that you encounter this, but I’m really surprised that you run into a lot of liberals/lefties who think anti-vaxxers are largely right-wing. My mostly-nerdy-liberals bubble thinks of anti-vaxxers as New Agey hippies.

            • Rob in CT

              The pushback I’ve seen is “this is not something that is clearly a left-wing phenomenon, here are examples of right-wing anti-vaxxers” not “anti-vax views are primarily coming from right-wingers.”

              If I had to guess, I’d guess that maybe 1/3 of anti-vax nonsense is coming from right-wingers (loosely defined, because of course a lot of people aren’t politically engaged or coherent enough to even be labeled left or right with any degree of precision. A lot of anti-vaxxers are probably best described as simply cranks).

              • Philip

                I think the gap is partly because right-wing antivaxxers are the kind of religious groups that tend to be pretty insular; they’re not out there trying to convince mainstream people they should abandon vaccination. Anti-vax leftists are. So we see the anti-vax right less than the anti-vax left, even though it may contain more people.

                • Rob in CT

                  This is also a good point. Or at least it sounds good ;)

              • Scott Lemieux

                The pushback I’ve seen is “this is not something that is clearly a left-wing phenomenon, here are examples of right-wing anti-vaxxers” not “anti-vax views are primarily coming from right-wingers.”

                This. Dilan is just dancing with a strawman here. In addition, he’s simply wrong that the evidence says that anti-vax sentiment is primarily left-wing.

                • Dilan Esper

                  Take a look at this map, Scott. You are simply wrong about this:

                  http://la.curbed.com/archives/2014/09/mapping_la_schools_with_vaccination_rates_as_low_as_chad.php

                • elm

                  What should I believe, nationally representative surveys in articles published by peer review or a map of vaccination rates in one city published on a real estate web-site?

                • alex284

                  oops mt

                • alex284

                  Let’s see, a map of a city to divine what people of various ideologies believe, or the actual, stated beliefs incorporated into a state party platform?

                  You’re substituting a map for scholarly work in order to prove that we’re the ones who are anti-science. Is Dilan trying to be ironic?

                • Rob in CT

                  Dilan,

                  I really don’t think it’s terribly… what’s the word I want? Oh, right, scientific, that’s it, to look at a zip code whose population typically votes D and decide that it’s D voters (or, more specifically, “liberals”) who are anti-vaxxers. Particularly when voter turnout is… what, ~50%?

                  EDIT: well, for Marin County, the Internets tells me it was 87% in the 2012 Presidential election. Presumably it is lower in non-presidential years. But not 50%. However, this is also important: 60/37 D/R.

                  Like I said before, I have a vague sense that there is slightly more (or more visible/loud) anti-vax nonsense on the left, but this is just my guesstimate. I could be wrong, and there is data suggesting I am.

                • alex284

                  OK so i just read the article associated with that map, and it says nothign about liberalism being associated with anti-vaxxing. It only notes that some wealthier elementary schools have higher percentages of unvaccinated kids, like those in Malibu and Beverly Hills.

                  How “rich” is equivalent to “leftist” is beyond me, but I’m sure we’ll be reading about how the Robber Barons were the true Marxist revolutionaries soon enough.

                • Scott Lemieux

                  Dilan cherry-picking some piece of pseudo-evidence to defend a conservative view while ignoring more rigorous evidence and accusing liberals of being opposed to scientific inquiry is one of this blog’s more hilarious traditions.

                • elm

                  I really don’t think it’s terribly… what’s the word I want? Oh, right, scientific, that’s it, to look at a zip code whose population typically votes D and decide that it’s D voters (or, more specifically, “liberals”) who are anti-vaxxers. Particularly when voter turnout is… what, ~50%?

                  It’s scientific, it’s just bad science. The technical term for it is ‘ecological inference,’ which means inferring individual level behavior from aggregate data. Sometimes ecological inference is the best one can do and often it would yield the correct inference, but it can be perilous.

                  Not to Godwin the thread, but the canonical example of the ecological inference problem is vote returns in interwar Germany. Hitler and the Nazi party tended to do better in regions that were more Catholic. If you conclude from this that Catholics were more likely to vote for the Nazis, you’d be completely wrong. Rather, it was that Protestants who lived near lots of Catholics were more likely to support Hitler than Protestants who lived in more religiously homogenous areas.

                • Dilan cherry-picking some piece of pseudo-evidence to defend a conservative view while ignoring more rigorous evidence and accusing liberals of being opposed to scientific inquiry is one of this blog’s more hilarious traditions.

                  That’s just your ideology talking! We know you aren’t reliable because you don’t agree with Dilan in spite of your different priors.

                • You’re substituting a map for scholarly work in order to prove that we’re the ones who are anti-science. Is Dilan trying to be ironic?

                  He makes it look so easy!

                • DrDick

                  Damn it Scott, there you go trying to inject facts into an argument with Dilan!

                • Craigo

                  Not to Godwin the thread, but the canonical example of the ecological inference problem is vote returns in interwar Germany. Hitler and the Nazi party tended to do better in regions that were more Catholic. If you conclude from this that Catholics were more likely to vote for the Nazis, you’d be completely wrong. Rather, it was that Protestants who lived near lots of Catholics were more likely to support Hitler than Protestants who lived in more religiously homogenous areas.

                  Good example, but you don’t need to godwin it. Just note that there is a correlation between statewide black population and the statewide Republican vote. Obviously, this means that African-Americans are Republicans.

          • Ruviana

            Yep. Marin County which skews left and pockets of rural Oregon with faith healing Christian churches vie for the lowest vaxx rates. A kind of OT amusing factoid is that people who send their kids to Waldorf schools appear to have very low vax rates (lot of that in Marin). I generally agree that the “both sides do it” issue can be used to undermine some, often left/liberal, positions but it does happen. It’s kinda like “both/and” arguments since most of us contain multitudes and sometimes those multitudes have conflicting opinions that we ourselves hold.

        • drwormphd

          A few years ago in liberal college town Charlottesville, VA a lot of liberals led a campaign against water fluoridation, complete with arguments about an inch away from Jack D. Ripper. More generally there’s a lot of nonsense from the left about GMOs. I think it’s very clear that conservatives are worse on science, but some misconceptions are shared by a lot of progressives, and they also impact public policy. In this case it’s really not ‘both sides do it’, but ‘both sides do it (albeit differently)’.

          • Srsly Dad Y

            Oh please.

            Hey, the entire Republican party is batshit crazy.

            Hey, sometimes some crazy groups include liberal people.

            Both sides!

            • ajay

              Hey, the entire Republican party is batshit crazy.

              Hey, sometimes some crazy groups include liberal people.

              Well, if you were both a liberal and a member of the Republican party, you’d pretty much have to be crazy.

      • ASV

        I’ve done a fair amount of research on anti-vax beliefs, and there’s no partisan or ideological relationship there (at least as of late 2014, when I last collected data). Religiosity yes, and pro-environmental attitudes yes.

      • twbb

        It’s (mostly) faded away on the left outside the antivax movement, but the fact that it was a significant platform of the activist left seems fairly strong evidence that science and anti-science aren’t baked into liberalism and conservatism respectively. Right now liberals are largely pro-science (with the exception of GMO) and conservatives are anti-science but that is not a universal.

        “But, you know, nice try at showing that Both Sides Do It. I know many people want to believe that.”

        Oh lordy. Seriously, man?

        • Linnaeus

          It might be worth unpacking what we mean by “antiscience” and “proscience”.

          • twbb

            Personally I’m using science in both terms here as a shorthand for “believing in the general accuracy of scientific consensus about scientific facts.”

            • Linnaeus

              Fair enough. I wasn’t trying to be sarcastic or otherwise nasty – it’s just that I’ve been in discussions where those terms get used a little too breezily.

              • twbb

                Didn’t think you were, and you raise a good point; I prefaced my statement with “Personally” because you made me realize not everyone might be defining it like I did.

        • Rob in CT

          Conservatives are fine with science right up until it conflicts with their ideology. So most of ’em like NASA when it’s launching probes to the outer solar system or sending rovers to Mars, but get pissed off when NASA observes the Earth and supports the Great Liberal Climate Change Hoax. Geology is cool for finding oil, but a certain subset of Conservatives don’t want to hear about the actual age of the Earth. And so on.

          There is some of this amongst liberals, of course, because in the end we’re all human. Anti-Vax and Anti-GMO (though I think there are different concerns about GMOs and some of them sound non-crazy to me) are examples. But I think there’s a certain flexibility in liberalism that provides a partial defense against it.

          The intelligent argument about both-sides-do-it-ism has never been that one side doesn’t do it. It’s that both sides don’t do it remotely equally. At least in the here and now.

          • witlesschum

            I’d put it as “I’d like to think that everyone has problems when science conflicts with their ideology, but happily science just conflicts with liberal ideology much less often.”

            • Rob in CT

              I don’t think that’s just pure happy coincidence. I think it’s partly happy coincidence and partly liberals being more willing & able to adapt our ideology to what science tells us, or being more willing & able to accept science telling us something that causes ideological problems for us.

              • GFW

                You beat me to saying “not pure coincidence”. I’d expand on your second sentence to claim that a meta-principle of liberal thought is to adjust ones beliefs in light of new evidence. Certainly not every liberal lives up to that principle all the time, but it’s a general bias towards reality.

                That the opposite tendency is true of conservatism … well, it’s sorta right there in the name – conserve the existing order, despite new evidence. Stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” That sort of thing.

              • alex284

                I think that’s part of the issue with GMOs. People just haven’t read up on the science on that issue because, let’s face it, it’s not a hot topic in the US right now. At least it isn’t up there with gun violence, abortion, creationism, and climate change in terms of what people talk about. It’s not surprising that most people aren’t all that informed on that topic.

        • alex284

          “but the fact that it was a significant platform of the activist left ”

          It is an actual plank of the Texas GOP platform. The Texas GOP is *not* the “activist left.”

          It was not an actual plank of any Democratic platform.

          Seriously, why use the word “platform” when the only platform it appears on is one from the far right?

      • Maybe there’s some more lefties on the anti-GMO position

        The Alt-Med movement is becoming more right-wing. Partly that’s because the biggest Alt-Med grifters and thought-leaders — Natural News, Gary Null, Mike Adams, GreenMedInfo — are pushing a glibertarian survivalist Birch-Society barrow, because that’s where the money is (also because they don’t want to pay taxes and have an understandable aversion to the FDA). The rightwing and the alt-med crowd are both practicing the Long Con; their interests coincide.

      • Sebastian_h

        This is frustrating, and the second time this has come up on this thread. The research you are alluding to is about skepticism about the safety or efficacy of vaccines. It shows that lots of people from both sides are skeptical about the safety or efficacy of vaccines. Like a HUGE number.

        They aren’t all anti-vaxxers in the sense of actually taking the step of keeping their children from being vaccinated. The zip code analysis and school data on opting out of vaccinations combined with the cluster analysis of the actual disease breakouts strongly suggests that the people WHO ARE ACTUALLY NOT VACCINATING THEIR CHILDREN seem to have a pretty strong (though not EXCLUSIVE) left-valence.

        The reporting on the issue strongly plays into what we are talking about–an ideological unwillingness to deal with the actual facts. They say things like “The biggest myth about vaccine deniers: That they’re all a bunch of hippie liberals” [emphasis mine]. Yes that is true. But lots of them are non hippie liberals. And some of them are conservatives. But the actual people who are going beyond expressing concern about vaccinations and taking the step of not vaccinating their kids–those people are largely on the left.

        • Sebastian_h

          Also this doesn’t conflict with nearly everybody’s sense that most of the people on their side aren’t anti-vaxxers.

          Of course they aren’t, being a serious enough anti-vaxxer to not vaccinate your children is a very unlikely fringe belief. Even if lefties didn’t vaccinate at triple the rate of righties, the overall number who didn’t vaccinate would still be very small.

          • Rob in CT

            There is that, too. We’re dealing with varieties of serious cranks here.

    • CD

      was also a substantial progressive demographic who saw science generally as a right-wing endeavor, allied with industry and Western hegemony.

      Any evidence, given your claimed “fair bit of work”? I remember being a left activist in the 70s and 80s, and remember scientists being held in high regard.

      • twbb

        Even nuclear physicists? Industrial chemists? Agronomists?

        Looking at Marxist and postcolonial critiques of science in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Science Wars (while they were in the 1990’s they were in response to a lot of research developed in the 1980’s), the unfortunately popular belief among too many on the left in alternative healing/quack medicine in that time period, and New Age beliefs.

        For an analysis of scientific beliefs by ideology over the time period we’re discussing, check out Gauchat’s “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study
        of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.”

        For a modern view, check out the Pew Report on how political ideology impacts scientific beliefs (http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/07/2015-07-01_science-and-politics_FINAL.pdf)

      • AcademicLurker

        My experience at the time as a student in the late 80s/90s was that, within the academic left (and some of the activist left as well), some of the sophisticated critiques of the Enlightenment of earlier decades had, by the late 80s, calcified into a knee-jerk “the Enlightenment is the root of all evil” attitude. Likewise, the realization that Western Europe did not have the monopoly on all worthwhile thought had in some fashionable quarters become a lazy exoticizing belief that anything non Western must be great (and of course anything Western must be suspect).

        People who thoroughly bought into these ideas were prone to think that championing homeopathy and various other fringe/crackpot ideas put you on the side of the angels, because you were challenging the hegemony of the Western Scientific Establishment(Tm). They also went in for some dubious politics (described in some of Meera Nanda’s work, for instance).

        Obviously I’m not describing every leftist academic from that time, but these ideas were definitely “in the air”. I don’t have my copy of The One Culture? at hand, but there is one SSK person in there explicitly railing about evidence for homeopathy being “suppressed” by wealthy Pharma interests.

  • Crusty

    I skimmed Signal’s piece and got the sense she didn’t really distinguish between an intra-field squabble involving to legitimate but rival schools of thought vs a dope like Inhofe bringing his snowball into the Senate and saying see, no global warming.

    • medrawt

      Yeah … this is the sort of thing that makes me roll my eyes.

      On the one hand you have the reality that a lot of people are assholes, and many of them are particularly assholes when it comes to political maneuvering at their jobs; as a consequence, being people, many academics are like this, and unsurprisingly some of them bring their ideological priors into the fray … just like everybody else.

      On the other hand you have people willfully ignoring scientific consensus, willfully misunderstanding and misappropriating basic scientific knowledge, and saying logically incoherent things like “I’m not a scientist [which is why I’m appointing myself to adjudicate a dispute between scientists that isn’t even really a dispute, instead of shutting up and letting them teach me].”

      So take your “leftists do it too!” and stuff it.

    • alex284

      If she distinguished between them, then she couldn’t prove her point that Both Sides Do It.

      So of course she’s going to assume that all anthropologists are leftists, they are all motivated by their political beliefs at all times, and that all leftists care about their professional in-fighting. Those are some giant assumptions, but she needs them to make her point.

      • JL

        Just for the record, before more people assume that the people commenting before them got Singal’s gender right, Singal is a man.

        • alex284

          Weirdly enough that’s what I thought when i read his first name, but then i read some other comments and assumed that I was wrong. Thanks for the correction.

    • ColBatGuano

      Yeah, scientists disputing a theory and politicians denying evidence aren’t equivalent. Certainly, there are some politics involved in scientific disputes, but whether those fall on a left-right spectrum is debatable.

  • allium

    As an aside, Galileo’s middle finger (along with two others) are on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence (along with an excellent collection of historical scientific instruments and books).

    • LeeEsq

      Is it the right position? Because that would be awesome.

  • LeeEsq

    Science can reveal anything it wants through valid experimentation, people are under no obligation to like the results or follow the recommendations of scientists even if it is to the detriment of the earth like with climate change denial. It might be very nice if we can get rid of politics when it comes to implementing policy or even reactions to discoveries in many cases but when you are dealing with humans this isn’t going to happen. The tendency of some scientists to treat themselves as prophets of revealed truth or hard-headed truth tellers when dealing with non-scientists does not help the cause of science at times. Diplomatic tact does work.

    • The Dark God of Time

      Tell the truth and same the devil, as my mother used to say.

  • joelcr

    I’m a biochemist by trade. I’ve run into plenty of ‘inconvenient truths’ in the scientific world. They’re typically pretty boring; some celebrated observation is made using imprecise techniques, misguided hypotheses, or whatever else. These observations might be reproduced using the same approach — but if the basic approach is wrong, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately, labs write grants hinging on the truth of said observation and lose every incentive to disprove it. The effort to disprove ends up being so monumental that no one undergoes the task. So the fundamental falsehood continues unchallenged.

    The process of the soft sciences is largely foreign to me. I usually disregard its conclusions.

    • Karen24

      I am not a scientist, but being a product of a humanities education who made a decent living translating Engineer into a language that actual humans can understand, I really think the best distinction is not between hard and soft sciences but between laboratory and narrative sciences. Some kinds of things can be learned from controlled experiments with test tubes and complicated electrical devices, and other things can be learned from interviewing people, digging up artifacts, and reading old stories and manuscripts. Physicists aren’t necessary smarter or more important than historians, and at least in the area of public policy, physicists are considerably less important. No one is going to lose her health insurance because of anything related to the Higgs Boson. Additionally, no one is going to build a bomb or a bio weapon based on research into Roman agricultural practices.

      • Philip

        at least in the area of public policy, physicists are considerably less important.

        North Korea is trying quite hard to prove you wrong right now ;)

        I think lab vs. narrative science is also a flawed distinction, because some “soft” sciences straddle that line, depending on sub-discipline. And “hard” sciences can too (eg if you’re studying geophysics, sometimes you have to do some serious archival work to get anything resembling a coherent record of earthquake patterns)

      • N__B

        I am not a scientist, but being a product of a humanities education who made a decent living translating Engineer into a language that actual humans can understand

        On behalf of my profession, I’m sorry.

        • Karen24

          Engineers usually have a reason for their complex vocabulary. Economists, on the other hand, use language in the same manner and for the same reasons that stage magicians use smoke and mirrors.

          • Linnaeus

            I think that’s a tad unfair.

            • Karen24

              The economists I was dealing with were expert witnesses. If anything, my characterization of that kind is too charitable. (Imagine men — and they are all male — who make a living testifying for utility company rate increases.)

              • Linnaeus

                Sure, specialized technical language can be used in an obfuscatory fashion, and I share your disapproval of the people whom you describe, but such language often serves a useful purpose in any field of endeavor.

                • djw

                  It seems to me there are three main categories at work here in the social sciences:

                  1)Specialized, technical language used to obfuscate

                  2) Specialized, technical language used because author is following disciplinary norms, and/or because incentives to write this way outweigh incentives to do otherwise and/or because they never learned to do otherwise

                  3) Specialized technical language that is both necessary and useful

                  The more time I spend in academia the larger I suspect the ratio of 2:3 actually is. (I have less confidence in my views on the size of 1, but outside of clear cases of academic discourse overtly weaponized for specific legal/political purposes, as Karen24 describes above, I’m charitable enough to think it’s probably fairly small.) Also, the academic culture of a particular scholarly community can create a tendency to construct unneccesarily difficult/technical prose that can have the collective effect of obfuscation, even if that’s not the goal of any particular author.

                • Linnaeus

                  The more time I spend in academia the larger I suspect the ratio of 2:3 actually is.

                  I could see that being the case. I’m all for not using jargon just for the sake of using it because there’s always been a lottery, and I certainly oppose using it in the weaponized fashion that Karen24 describes.

    • Linnaeus

      The process of the soft sciences is largely foreign to me. I usually disregard its conclusions.

      I suspect that you may not do this as much as you think you do.

  • A couple of thoughts:

    1. Singal is not surprisingly most interested in the ways science, to work, has to be like his own field, journalism; but opposition to science does not only take the form of thinking science can be different from journalism, being less based in openness and so on, and vice versa.

    2. This

    what happens when science and dogma collide — specifically, what happens when science makes a claim that doesn’t fit into an activist community’s accepted worldview.

    is interesting wrt partisan questions, in part, to be brief, because especially in the physical sciences, I think, there’s an idea that opposition to scientific consensus comes from truth-hating reactionaries. The idea of activism on the left that disputes some supposed scientific consensus as they understand it–which probably has a lot of general, worldview kinds of beliefs that were never exposed to scholarship in the relevant fields–is something they can’t get their heads around. So they decide that activism is actively opposed to science.

    • petesh

      There certainly can be a lot of mutually frustrating talking-past-each-other when social activists meet researchers, for instance over privacy issues with genomic data. Actually meeting and talking with each other does seem to help.

  • alex284

    ” Singal argues that a conservative = anti-science/liberal=science frame is simplistic”

    Interesting argument. So far, for evidence, we’ve heard:

    1. about some in-fighting among anthropologists of unknown political leaning for reasons that may or may not have been related to politics

    2. about people who believed those who accused the Duke Lacrosse team of rape, who were mostly on the left, but then the whole story had nothing to do with science

    3. about anti-vaxxers, even though most evidence points to this group being a larger rightwing phenomenon than leftwing (which makes sense, since the fundamental argument is that the family patriarch should have absolute authority over his children without government interference, a classic conservative position)

    4. about the anti-GMO positions of some people on the left, which are taken for a mix of scientific and economic reasons.

    So I’ll grant 1 issue, #4, and only partly since a lot of the issues people have with GMOs are about IPR and humans’ relationship to nature (in a more philosophical sense, like the general angst around technological progress deemed to have gone too far for reasons related more to the technology itself than its effects). And it’s nothing that could be deemed to be a rallying cry on the left of the same scale as climate denial, abortion, or creationism on the right.

    So the frame might be “simplistic” in that it doesn’t account for every belief held by every person, which is of course going to be true for any framing of an issue. There’s always more nuance than any discussion can allow.

    But it’s still a pretty useful frame. I haven’t heard of too many scientists voting GOP because they’re disgusted by the anti-GMO positions held by some liberals.

    • Rob in CT

      On 2., it wasn’t about science. It was about evidence/lack thereof so I can kinda squint and see its applicability to this issue.

      On #3, I think you’re overselling the Mooney article in the Post (or rather the research underpinning it). I think it’s fair to say that it’s far from proven that anti-vaxxers are all/overwhelmingly lefties. I think it’s a bit much to take a couple of pieces of data and conclude that it’s actually the other way ’round.

      As for #4: I have a general sense that there are two basic categories of claims about the evils of GMOs. One is that eating GMO foods is bad for you. That one, as far as I can tell, is totally unsupported by evidence. The other category is basically concern about various environmental impacts of using lots of GMOs. The second species of concern is something I really haven’t researched. I have a general sense that such claims are probably overblown, but they don’t trip my bullshit detector nearly as hard (not that this means anything, really, unless you REALLY trust my bullshit detector).

      • petesh

        On GMOs: Unless you are using “environmental” in an unusually broad sense, there is also a significant set of concerns that center around economic centralization and its social effects. GMOs have largely been developed as a way of making the growth and/or distribution of agricultural products more efficient for large, relatively capital-intensive, farms. The benefits to consumers are more postulated than provided, and the benefits to actual farmers are distinctly questionable. Those are not scientific objections, but they are rather significant social and economic ones that cannot be addressed by science out of context.

        • Linnaeus

          Those are not scientific objections, but they are rather significant social and economic ones that cannot be addressed by science out of context.

          Yes, and this speaks to my view that terms like “antiscience” need to be used with some degree of care, because such as what you describe sometimes gets tagged as “antiscience”, when it’s really not.

      • AcademicLurker

        Maybe this has been said already up-thread somewhere, but my impression was that the latest research on anti-vaxxers found the strongest correlation with socioeconomic status, regardless of politics. Basically anxious upper middle class types who are obsessed with the idea that their Timmy/Tina is extra super duper special and doesn’t need to be vaxinnated because their good genes and virtuous pure living will protect them.

        I think anti-vaxx crankery gets associated with the left because leftists don’t go in for crackpottery as heavily as the right does these days, so this is one of the few areas where leftists are present in significant numbers. Sort of like a workplace with equal numbers of men and women gets perceived as being skewed heavily towards women.

  • Gregor Sansa

    A crank on the right is capable of saying “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes” with a straight face. Faith, in the (corrupted) sense of sense of actively refusing to allow one’s beliefs to be questioned, is seen as a positive virtue by a non-negligible segment on the right.

    A crank on the left can only stay, “who are you going to stand with, me or your lying eyes”. Blind faith in doctrine is not itself a virtue; though solidarity is.

    The result is that sure, both sides do antiscience, but the right does it a lot more.

    Personally, I’m clearly on the left; and I’m also extremely scientifically literate, relatively aware of the actual scientific (and social) issues around GMOs, nuclear power, hydropower, and various allegedly unsavory chemicals (BPA, teflon, DDT, triclosan, to name a very mixed bag). There are cases where I think that the right move is to stand in solidarity with leftist cranks in the anti- position. I’d rather do the right thing for the wrong reasons than allow myself to be led around by the nose by industry-funded experts. There are other cases (especially the case of vaccines) where it’s important to stick with the science over solidarity. (Note also that on the issue of hydropower, I said some things in favor of Hetch Hetchy here just the other day; I’m willing to be anti-hydro in solidarity with indigenous communities, but not just as a knee-jerk thing.)

    (For similar reasons, I’d rather side with an MMT crank than with an Econ-101 fool. They’re equally wrong in theory, but in practice one of them is pointing in the right direction and the other in the wrong one. Solidarity.)

    • sonamib

      I understand your conflicting opinions about hydro. In Brazil, there is an ongoing controversy about two new hydro dams that are being built in Amazonia. One of them, Belo Monte, would displace a community of a few hundred native people. That’s not the only bad effect of building a dam in Amazonia, the working conditions also suck. The living quarters are bad, everything is expensive since it has to be imported from far away, and the region is quite infamous for its lawlessness (it wouldn’t surprise me if any labor activism would be severely repressed in those circumstances).

      But Brazil is increasingly relying on fossil fuels to generate electricity. No new hydro dams were built since the 90s. The share of hydro power in electricity production fell from 95+% to about 75% today. That’s really bad news for global warming. I tend to come down on the side of “build the dams” because disastrous global warming would be so fucking horrible, but it’s not right either to just shrug the concerns of the affected indigenous people.

      • Gregor Sansa

        If I were king of the world, they’d build little dams and big pipes, and get hydropower without some of the ability to time-shift energy (though still better than wind or solar in that regard). To pull some figures out of my ass, I’d guess that kind of project could give about 60% of the power for about the same cost with about 10% of the displacement; a worthwhile tradeoff in my book.

        But I’m not king of the world. And investors don’t share my priorities. And they won’t until some of their displacement-heavy megaprojects get scuttled. So for now, I’m anti-hydro, except in unpeopled places like Iceland, or places with rich people who can look out for themselves where it’s not gonna happen anyway.

  • CSI

    intentionally used a faulty vaccine to infect the Yanomamö with measles so as to test Nazi-esque eugenics theories, and that one or both men had manipulated data, started wars on purpose, paid tribespeople to kill one another…

    You’d think that accusations seemingly based on the plot of an 1980s Italian cannibal schlock move (e.g. Cannibal Ferox) would have raised some alarms.

  • Well_Thats_Just_the_Turtles_Teeth

    I haven’t read the entire thread, so forgive me if I am duplicating anything said above. If we’re still interested in evaluating whether one side of the political spectrum is more “anti-science” than the other, limiting our case analysis to only the most high-profile cases where polarization over scientific information has already been observed is a pretty poor way to go about it.

    Confining one’s attention to the most pitiful spectacles (vaccination, climate change, and so on) is a classic case of selecting on the dependent variable. Of course, it is interesting to know why the public is so polarized on these issues, but any inferences seeking to examine, generally, how or why pro or anti-science attitudes map onto certain political orientations is going to be invalid if it employs this approach. Any inferences one draws about how this polarization is caused has omitted cases in which the potential might have been present but has *not* generated the phenomenon we’re interested in.

  • Julia Grey

    Tierney did directly accuse him of deliberately infecting the Yanomami

    Whoa! A much more serious charge than carelessness or lack of due diligence!

    What did Tierney claim was Chagnon’s reasoning behind a protocol of deliberate infection? How would it have helped him and Neel prove their hypothes(e)s?

    (I clearly don’t remember it well enough.)

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