Thursday, December 2, 2010

Social Science, the Right, and the AAA

The Right’s relationship with academics, and social scientists in particular, has two sides: trying to make use of them (the Human Terrain System, encouraging psychologists’ participation in torture, “security” centers, efforts to use scholarly credibility to burnish propaganda efforts, and corporate influence on the functioning of universities in general) and attacking them (seeking to withdraw funding to Middle Eastern Studies programs or social science funding by the NSF, generally rejecting social scientific research other than that viewed as useful). This week’s news has highlighted both prongs, neither of them good, of course, for the social sciences, and both of which continue to be resisted. Unfortunately, it’s also brought to light some confused social scientists who seem to be playing into this strategy while apparently believing they’re doing the opposite.

The attempts to utilize academic credibility for propaganda purposes have been revealed by Adrienne Pine in her work on FIU’s “Strategic Culture” Initiative, in which “anthropology's analysis and cultural capital are appropriated in order to facilitate and legitimize military violence.” As she argues:
The concept of "culture" is being used to justify the violent actions of the U.S. military throughout the hemisphere. Culture is also used to justify U.S. training of and funding for Latin American military forces that engage in torture, targeted assassinations of dissidents, and carry out coups d'etats. But the abuse of the culture concept in the service of empire is neither new, nor unique to the militarized university. In the case of Honduras, groups like the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) have promoted the idea that Honduras suffers from a culture of violence—rather than a neoliberal policy of state violence in which poverty is criminalized and the victims of structural violence are blamed. This difference is crucial; if violence is cultural, then "security"—in the form of increased U.S. military aid and training—is a logical solution for disciplining an unruly, uncivilized population. However, if violence is the explicit policy of a militarized client state protecting corporate profits from falling into the hands of the Honduran people, then democracy—however the Honduran people should choose to approach it—is the solution.
I’ve read quickly through the Bolivia report, and it’s astonishing. It would be hilarious if I didn’t fear its potential effectiveness. In this attack on the Bolivian Left, the entire history (and present) of exploitation, oppression, terror, greed, and destruction is purported to be – I said it was astonishing – essentially a set of notions concocted by an authoritarian “culture of victimization.” It’s pure propaganda. There is, in fact, no science here. The author, making several patently ridiculous suggestions, offers a handful of citations, of a quality people can judge for themselves. This isn’t scholarship.

The other side of the blade is the outright attack, represented most recently by the efforts of Eric Cantor. As PZ describes:
He wants people to search NSF and report back to him with grant numbers that they don't like.

...And then he gives hints on searching the database, listing words that might yield boondoggles: "success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc."
What’s important to recognize is that this has nothing to do with spending or waste. These attacks are, in some cases, mere posturing, and in many based on a genuine fear of the production and dissemination of real scholarly work contrary to their interests.

In this ongoing context of active efforts by those on the Right to derail the social sciences by co-opting or eliminating them, I found the reports of the past few days concerning intended changes to the American Anthropological Association’s mission statement troubling. This appears to be an effort to distance anthropology from science. (I’m unimpressed by Hugh Gusterson’s suggestions (in the comments here) that the changes aren’t significant and that the process has been democratic because, well, “The Executive Board is elected by the membership to make these kinds of decisions” and the document was sent to the section heads.

Sadly, science has for many people come to be conflated with imperialism and oppression, state and corporate power. It’s one thing to say that anthropology as a discipline has been used for statist, imperialist, and corporate ends (and this includes not only the content of anthropological works but, as Foucault made clear long ago, the practice of anthropology itself). It’s quite another to suggest, as these changes would, that this is somehow inherent in science.

I’m most distressed that the terms central to the discussion are not being defined, leading to unintentional misrepresentations. Science is a means of building knowledge about the world through reasoned and systematic empirical investigation and analysis. It’s the only valid or reliable means we have to assess fact claims. I’d like to think – realizing this would be na├»ve – that anthropologists wouldn’t seriously reject this as a description of their discipline, but I fear I might be wrong. I was recently watching an interview with Derrick Jensen (not an anthropologist, it should be noted) on Democracy Now!*, which contained this exchange:
AMY GOODMAN: Derrick, what is the influence of Native Americans in your writing, in your work, in your activism?

DERRICK JENSEN: It’s another great question. And I have tried not to romanticize them, which is another form of objectification. And what I do know is I know that the Tolowa Indians, on whose land I now live up in way northern California, they lived there for at least 12,500 years, if you believe the myths of science. And if you believe the myths of the Tolowa, they lived there since the beginning of time, using a myth as stories that we tell ourselves that make the world fit together. So, in any case, the Tolowa lived there for at least 12,500 years....
No. Science is not simply a “story we tell ourselves to make the world fit together.” It’s a method of discovering reality. The Tolowa have been there for an amount of time, and that is a fact. If you want to say that whenever “they” arrived there was, for them, the beginning of time, OK, but you’re merely poeticizing that fact. And seriously, you’re first sentences offered empirical claims about environmental changes (which I haven’t confirmed) that are the products of science.

On the other side, what are the “ways of knowing” these anthropologists wish to place alongside science? Concretely, as a method – what are they? Personal revelation? The interpretation of ancient texts? As much as “science” needs to be defined in this discussion, so does “ancient wisdom.” Is this term being used to refer to sets of ideas or to the “method” of referring to elders or texts? I think that in contexts in which practices that have allowed people to live sustainably in the world for tens, hundreds, or thousands of years, ecological ideas or practices should be taken and investigated very seriously. There’s a great deal that’s unknown about ecosystems and our role in them, and practical knowledge that’s been developed in essence scientifically over generations is potentially highly valuable. That does not mean that we should accept any fact claims wearing the mantle of “ancient wisdom.”

Nor do I understand the line some people seem to want to draw between advocacy and science (in which I include history). The idea that advocacy is in essence un- or anti-scientific is simply wrong. Advocacy, to be effective and to be ethical, needs to be based on an accurate assessment of reality, and for this we need science. I understand (and frequently make) the argument that scientific practice is generally organized to serve corporations and governments; I understand that corporations and governments have effectively worked to claim “science” for themselves. But we need to distinguish between the current, transitory, situation and the meaning of science. We should criticize scientific work on its questions, methods, data, and analysis, and promote good science. It’s sad that those who are buying the “culture/activism = anti-science” line don’t seem to grasp that the conception of science on which this is based is fundamentally flawed, and that accepting it contributes – intentionally or not - to a right-wing political project.

I think – and I’m in the good company of Sokal, Chomsky, and Mills here – that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that science, as the means of establishing knowledge about reality (including social reality), is a tool of liberation, and ignorance and anti-science means of oppression. It’s a catastrophic error to allow others to define science in such a way that people are led to reject it, and it plays Right into the hands of the (corporate, political, religious) oppressors.

*(Which I otherwise found quite interesting, particularly his challenge to the “Gandhi shield,” though I have problems with some of his arguments.)

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