Separating the fluff

Alice Dreger was at the American Anthropological Association meeting when it moved to kick science out.

Interestingly, it isn’t just that the AAA leadership is ditching science. They’re also trying to position the AAA as being primarily about “public understanding” of humankind. As Stu Plattner, who served for many years as Cultural Anthropology Program Director for NSF, observed in email exchanges, this looks like “another step in the conversion of Anthropology from a social science into an esoteric branch of journalism.” Yeah, but the kind of journalism that is much more concerned with editorials than factual reporting.

So not one but two giant steps away from genuine truth-seeking.

Presumably, in the AAA’s tradition, the promotion of the “public understanding of humankind” will include anything that is politically unoffensive to the AAA leadership, and nothing offensive. It’s safe to assume the AAA will not be promoting the public understanding of how human behaviors evolved, especially if those human behaviors are anything that might make some or all humans look violent, greedy, harmful to the environment, or (worst of all) sexually dimorphic.

Among the scientific anthropologists I talked to about this yesterday, pretty much to a one, they were unsurprised yet angry. The primatologist Sarah Hrdy (a member of the National Academy of Sciences) wrote, “My reaction is one of dismay – actually, even more visceral and stronger than that – albeit not surprise.”

So they’re deciding whether to fight, or just give it up and leave.

In the messages flying back and forth, I was reminded why anthropologists refer to the annual conference as “the meetings,” plural: it’s because they go and meet with their own actual disciplinary types, in separate groups, so that the real scientists don’t have to deal too much with the fluff-head cultural anthropological types who think science is just another way of knowing.

Not all cultural anthropologists are fluff-heads, of course. You can usually tell the ones who are fluff-heads by their constant need to look like superheroes for oppressed peoples, and you can tell the non-fluff-heads by their attention to data. But the non-fluff-head cultural anthropologists are feeling utterly beleaguered in this environment that actively denigrates science and consistently promotes activism over data collection and scientific theorizing.

Wait, I have an idea – they could split, and the fluff-heads could all move to Women’s Studies departments. Meanwhile the non-fluff head WS people could move to departments that actually value data collection, though that could include history as well as scientific fields.

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