It's Jared Diamond Versus The Social Sciences
    By Hank Campbell | January 17th 2013 03:22 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Jared Diamond is not impressed by modern social sciences, like psychology and anthropology, because of the need to try and make claims about human nature by doing surveys or visiting a place and then framing the results through their own - not to invoke the most overused cliché of 2012 but just this once it fits - motivated reasoning.

    The reaction from the social sciences and the mainstream media elites who need the social sciences to seem science-y was about what you would expect to him making his case yet again: 'shallow' and that he doesn't understand what it means 'to study human diversity' - in other words, he is a geography teacher trying to invade the big pants super-scientific world of anthropology.  

    You can stop laughing now.

    While older anthropologists made at least an effort to embrace science, the younger generation has thrown of all pretense of being anything but sociological self promotion of WEIRD - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic - ideas so patronizing 19th century Brits in colonial Asia would think the modern humanities have gone too far.  Modern anthropologists are not having it or Diamond. Even his seminal "Guns, Germs and Steel" should not be taught in any basic anthropology class, one of them sniffs in a quote included by anthropologist Barbara King at NPR. Modern anthropological fundamentalism absolutely rejects Diamond and they sure seem to resent his popularity.

    Western social science academics don't like having their superiority challenged, sure, but no one wants to be told that they don't know what they are talking about. One funny review I got about Science Left Behind was by a hard-left old journalist who said it was terrible, while comparing it nonsensically to a book about social psychology written to slam Republicans - the two books had literally nothing in common. But a chapter called "The Death Of Science Journalism", which blames aging, hard-left journalists for ruining the public's trust in media is not going to be well-received by aging, hard-left journalists hoping to retire at Huffington Post, so he took a carrot and stick approach - slam the naughty book puncturing feel-good fallacies and applaud the one that matches the 'correct' political mindset. 

    Now, maybe Diamond's book is terrible, he is big enough that the publisher is not sending me proofs for review. Even Elvis had bad albums - but that doesn't make Diamond wrong in his overall thesis.

    King asks the obvious question at the end of an exhaustive collation of the criticisms of Diamond: if he is wrong, why isn't anyone instead reading books by anthropologists making a better case than he does?


    A quick clarification based on a comment I received; it's not like all of anthropology or all of psychology don't use science. But there is a clear schism that is growing. The long-range plan of the American Anthropological Association removed 'science' because science-oriented anthropologists are far outnumbered by the 'public understanding' types.
    So their plan once read “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects” but is now “The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects” and then they include political 'research' as an anthropological sub-discipline shows that the field has been thrown over to...whatever it is now. 

    That's not to say I contend no anthropologists do science.  I have also argued that recent efforts by young people in social psychology to overthrow popular people blatantly doing shoddy work and outright fraud is a sign it may be back on the path to being real. If they would stop doing surveys outside bars and calling it science, that would go a long way toward credibility.
    Gerhard Adam
    Even his seminal "Guns, Germs and Steel" should not be taught in any basic anthropology class...
    So what should be taught?  I certainly haven't seen an revelatory insights published by anthropologists recently, and often what is published is little better than the "just so" stories of EP.
    Mundus vult decipi
    So what should be taught?
    For modern anthropology??  This could be fun.

    I nominate "The Burning Bed" and "The Help". I think that covers the gamut of the issues young anthropologists seem to be intent on 'studying'.
    They could probably make room for "What's the Matter with Kansas" too.
    John Hasenkam
    "Beyond Human Nature" by Jesse Prinz is worth considering but he's a philosopher so the anthropologists will probably be even more pissed off. It is a great read. 
    Anthropologists should start with primatology. 

    Years ago I devoted some time to reading paleo-anthropology. That was a great study but the problem is that there is so little reliable information. I suspect anthropologists in these days have fallen into the same hole that has happened in history and sociology: forsook a strict empiricism so they could engage in endless speculation predicated on certain philosophies of dubious quality(that is being extremely polite!). Why? There is so little reliable information in anthropology and you have to keep publishing stuff. Or it just becomes another account of another tribe or something about preserving traditional cultures. I know this seems brutal but I think the idea of preserving traditional cultures is bloody ridiculous but anthropologists will typically argue tooth and nail to preserve the same. There's a dissertation or two if you keep those people trapped in their traditional ways while they look longingly at your shiny toys and wonder how you live so long. Oh sure, preserve their traditional way of life so their children can die 30 years before your children, so their children carry parasitic loads which reduce their enjoyment of life, so their children are subject to stupid rituals and shamanism when a simple injection could save their life. Yeah great bloody idea! Me angry now. 

    Anthropology as a stand alone discipline is NEVER going to inform us about the human condition. We have no hope of doing that at present. What is required is a very eclectic approach that incorporates anthropology, neuroscience, physiology, genetics, and psychology. At present it seems to me that the poster boy going down that road is Sapolsky. Again though, primatologist\neuroscientist Sapolsky will probably engender more resentment than Diamond or Prinz. 

    As for social psychology ... blah blah blah. 

    For modern anthropology I nominate The Simpsons and Family Guy.