Sunday 6 January 2013

Astrophysicists Aren't Really 'Hard' Scientists: And Other Responses to Ann Gibbons's "An Annus Horribilis for Anthropology?"

Always the pessimist, me, I wasn't surprised when I read the io9 synopsis of a recent article in Science, which foretells the doom of anthropology and with it archaeology and paleoanthropology. The great thing about being a pessimist is that you can never be disappointed, except in a happy way.
     Ann Gibbons is especially warm and fuzzy about our discipline and the prospects it holds for those who would be tutored in it. I couldn't agree with her more that studying anthropology--all four fields, mind you--can make us better human beings. And, alas, most of us know that we're not in it for the money. So, what's so great about her article, the title of which is "An Annus Horribilis for Anthropology?" *pauses for effect* It's in Science, fer hevvenssake! When was the last time anything besides archaeology and fossilized relatives made it into the primary outlet of the American Association for the Advancement of Science? Right. [Only a slender hyperbole, I might add.]
     I'm lucky that I'm old enough to remember the first time gender bias in the sciences was treated in the same journal. It produced empirical evidence for what was being denied across the English-speaking world, from kindergarten to K-Street--the systematic bias against women in science. That article wasn't enough to promote immediate change. I believe it's because the article represented change, itself. Likewise with this Gibbons article. They don't know a thing about us [that big, grey 'They' that inhabits every expression of conventional wisdom, especially in the so-called hard sciences]! The sooner we can redress that lacuna in the heads of wanton boys* AND the gods of science, the sooner we'll put a stop to the science gods' favourite sport of killing our good ideas with accusations of disciplinary flaccidity! We need more social science in Science, not less. And if half of my social scientist colleagues knew half of what I know about philosophy of science, we'd get there twice as fast.
     I'm a bear of very little brain. But even I can spot analogical reasoning and the uniformitarian method from a mile away. Those 'hard' scientists don't have a lock on knowledge-making. Hell, I'd be surprised if any of them even knew how they reasoned, much less had any idea of how close they were to social scientists in the way astrophysicists make knowledge of the universe's past.
     We archaeologists, as I've said before, make knowledge of the past in the same way that early universe physicists do [i.e. using the same inferential path, the same kind of reasoning]! Yet, they get money thrown at them. What do we get? Do I have to remind you? You well know [or should] that the entire annual NSF budget for Anthropology would easily fit inside any decent-sized NASA or Space Telescope Science Institute or even NSF grant for astrophysical research. What's wrong with this picture? I'll tell you what. They think that because we deal with characteristics that change almost capriciously--i.e. people--we must be makin' shit up! They believe that their Einsteins and Plancks are better than we, simply because they deal with unchanging physical processes. I've got news for them. They have no better idea of how close or how far away from "sure and certain knowledge" of the workings of this universe than archaeologists are to understanding the collapse of the Classic Maya or the "evolution" of socioeconomic inequality.
     It's no surprise to me that astrophysicists talk in terms of evolution, archaeology and the fossil record of cosmic processes. They're just as dependent on present-day phenomena as we are for interpreting what went on in the past. Astrophysicists see photons that exist today, but which may have started on their way to us [literally] billions of years ago. Similarly, in the present we pull a piece of rock out of the desert in Namibia. Both sensory impressions are part of our brief life at this end of the temporal span of the universe--they're not pieces of a past! The only way that either science can make sense of these observations is by heavily theorized reference to other better understood phenomena--phenomena that can be understood in the present, then cast backward in time and be seen as the causal process that led to our humble sense impressions in the present. For archaeologists, it's the ethnographic or the geologic record. For astrophysicists, it's nuclear physics or electromagnetism, or mathematics.
     I could go on all day if I thought anybody'd follow me.

     Do me and our holistic discipline a favour, please. If you don't already know, learn how you construct anthropological knowledge. Find it out from someone who understands epistemology, or who's at least flirted with what's known as Realist philosophy of science. Scientific Realism puts to bed all of those arrogant "holier than thou"s of Empiricism [Logical Positivism and Logical Empiricism] and exposes them for what they are: wholly insupportable theories about how scientific knowledge is made. Scientific Realism understands that it's often what can't be seen, tasted, heard, felt, or smelled that is the nub of scientific knowledge--be that science 'hard' or 'soft.' Indeed, Logical Positivism and it's bed-mate Logical Empiricism would have ruled out any investigation of the Past, simply because the past literally doesn't exist. Those physics-inspired philosophies of science also said that such things as 'the mind' and 'intention' couldn't be studied either, because they couldn't be operationalized [i.e. broken down into particles of sense data that could be measured or otherwise observed]. It was crap then, and it's crap now. At least, if you spend some time with your discipline's epistemology, then you'll be able to stand up for yourselves when you hear the inevitable and persistent sniggers from your physicist friends [bet you don't have many of them!].
     Galileo couldn't see the orbits of Jupiter's moons. He simply took Copernicus's heliocentric model of the universe and modified it to account for his observations, which also happened to support Kepler's theory of elliptical orbits.
     I'll leave you with that. Make this a good day--one that you'll remember.

* "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods/They kill us for their sport."
King Lear IV:1:32–37.

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  1. I have not read Ann Gibbons's article but I do agree with yout comments re epistemology.

    Two ideas come to mind: the first is that even the hard sciences must find a way to make their data accessible to the senses. Without such access they cannot practice their discipline in any sensible way. Ditto of course the so-called human sciences.
    The second is that the human sciences have a much more difficult task when it comes to making aspects of their discipline sensible. The difficulty is precisely situated in the fact that there are 'disciplinary epistemologies' - each discipline has its own way of dealing with knowledge and its own way to provide their concepts with meaning.
    The problem is that many people who embark on this route (implicitly) think that language is arbitrary...socially created (if you follow my drift). The problem is that we do not have a scientific approach, a scientifically demonstrated theory of knowledge; a theory that accepts and starts from the premise that only the physical (material) exists. Most (if not all of us) carry within our brains many invalid and false concepts that were acquired in our childhood and during our academic years. Concepts that we invariably utilize and that often drives our our reasoning processes and conclusions/inferences. As an example see how often people approach anatomical and behavioural processes manifest in humans as "evolved for....". Even Dan Dennett, (a philosopher that should know better) writes something along the following lines: "The primary agents did not evolve for writing and reading but for berry picking [....]" (Consciousness explained) [Quoted from memory).
    IT will be some time yet.... so bear with them but continue to point out the errors in thinking. ;)

  2. Hi, Juan,
    Thanks for your input. I especially liked the berry picking quote.


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