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ANTHROPOLOGICAL SCIENTIFICITY and SCIENTISM

by Hugh M. Lewis

 

The proof is always in the pudding.

 

Science has been surprisingly successful in coming to grips with reality and in wresting from nature its secrets. It is little wonder that science has become the new secular religion of modern civilization. Its promise is of a real world utopia in real human time. There is no problem that is beyond the power of science to eventually resolve. If we wish to shroud ourselves with a veil of respectability and of credibility, then we could want no better than to don the garb of the white lab jacket and to call whatever it is we do a science. And there is a great deal of ritual in scientific praxis, and many legends of great men and even a few myths and more than a mere modicum of magic, and its professors sometimes resemble an officially ordained priesthood.

Perhaps it is to be expected when Social scientists and others with a softer more humanistic field of inquiry adopt or reinterpret many of the traits of the physical sciences. For many it has been a way of selling one's wares in a System that prizes and puts a premium upon scientific research, but which affords little compensation for more humanistically oriented endeavors. Maybe it is a means of career advancement, or professional survival, or even just a living. The need to dress up basic interpretations with numbers, diagrams and statistics to provide the front of respectability and authority of science, just in order to publish what otherwise remains an interpretation, makes a hypocrite of many professors.

We must separate the issue of the reality and praxis of science from its ideological sycophancy and promotion in the world. We must learn to recognize its many limitations and its boundaries. It is not so that anything that is not amenable to science is without value or credibility, or that any question which is deemed unworthy of scientific method is somehow trivial or irrelevant in the world. Science cannot answer some kinds of questions, but these questions are therefore no less important to ask.

Philosophers argue the finer points of the significance of science, and even the issue of exactly what it is or how it works is a topic hotly debated in some circles. Though many people may call themselves scientists and act the part, they may not actually have a very detailed or complete idea of what science really is. In fact, though many of its sycophants talks as if they know what science is really all about, no one in the world has a bottom line on the subject.

Science has been judged primarily in terms of its successful track record--we know it works and this seems to be enough. But we do not know if it will keep on working forever or if it will sooner or later fail us.

The many technological spin-offs of science and the scientifically organized process of progressive development in the world seems to be generating many unintended side-effects which our original models and equations had not anticipated. We might call this a kind of iatrogenic disorder of Science--diseases and problems that are the result of the treatment of other diseases and problems.

Science as a construction of reality has been as much an ideology in the world, a kind of history in the making, as it has been any genuine attempts to account for the natural processes of the world. There has been science, and then there has been scientism and scientism. In this regard, it should be emphasized that governments and corporations can fund science and even direct its development, but it cannot appropriate science to its own ends and still call what it has appropriated science.

And there has been an inherently destructive side of scientific praxis. Its tampering with natural processes and the natural order has in many ways irreversibly destroyed or disturbed natural rhythms. And scientific discovery has led to the technological production of many deadly weapons--in fact the quest for more lethal weaponry has been one primary motivation for the support of scientific research. So much destruction has been wrought by science in the name of progress that it has led a few skeptics to speculate upon the darker side and motivations of science, and perhaps to even see in the dogma of science the harbinger of death.

The pure scientists of course can claim a well guarded neutrality in this matter, and point blame to their less respectable "applied" cousins who will work for whoever will provide the most funding. But scientific neutrality is as much a vain claim to untouchableness as it is a necessity in the objective advancement of a value-free orientation. All people, pure and applied, must acknowledge the responsibility for which their own actions and decisions play in a broader world.

Science is, in fact, not value free. Whether we adhere to a dogma of positivism or to a more open version of our science, we are in fact tacitly affirming certain loaded values and conceptions about a scientific worldview, about the nature of reality, the value of knowledge and the power to interfere with and control the natural order. And scientists as human beings cannot long feign a protected neutrality from the many consequences of their own work, to be human in the world is to acknowledge one's unavoidable involvement. Science is in fact a world-view and value orientation in the world with many profound implications.

Like it or not, Science is probably not the end all or be all of modern life. Science may not be able to solve all our problems, and may in the long run lead to more problems than it will be able to redress. Science is not without its own limits, and failure to recognize or to live within those limits may have more unforeseeable consequences for the world. This is not an anti-scientific call to a return to basic fundamentalist Christian values. A realistic science is a limited science, and a limited science is a safe one.

But because no one has a bottom-line on science, about what it is or how it works or why, no one can play the final authority in judging what is genuinely scientific from what is not. It is not satisfactory to most scientists if Thomas Kuhn finds the ground of science to be subjective intuition and epistemologically, phenomenologically relative. It is a paradox that much of what passes for hard science may in fact be quite spurious and superficial, while much which gets passed by as "unscientific" may actually be quite scientifically suggestive or profound. Science has little to lose and much to gain from adopting a more open and broader account of it self. It is not a unitary phenomenon. It is many different kinds of things to many different kinds of people. We cannot too easily prescribe what science can and cannot do, what kinds of questions science should or should not answer, or what kinds of solutions we ought to label as scientific or not.

There is a great likelihood that as the world changes and as science changes the world, science itself, as a part of the world, will also change and become something different from what it is today or has been in the past. It is very likely that the science of Archimede's day or of Ptolemy's was very different than Galileo's or Newton's science, and that Einstein's or Max Planck's science was different from the science of today. And if science has taught us nothing else about our world, it is that we probably cannot predict what our science will become like.

 

*****

 

We again must look for a critical conjuncture between those anthropological aspects which underlie  the criteria of science, and those scientific aspects which underlie the legitimacy of anthropology as science. For reality, however else we may define it, is inescapably a human reality from the standpoint of the knowledge of the human observer, and human reality, from the standpoint of the world encompassed by the knowledge of the human observer, is a universal reality.

The criteria claimed to underlie science has been variably defined as demonstrability, verifiability, falsifiabileness, productivity, predictability, replicability, or explanability. Truth as it is held to be scientifically verifiable, is subject to certain tests or cannons of tenability which are used to determine its acceptance or rejection. These tests are rarely defined formally or explicitly, and some would claim exist more as the function of social consensus or of casual praxis than anything that is rigorously or rigidly followed.

I would add to the criteria of science the relative values of openness and communicability of the system--something which is it self a difficult thing to measure. But there is good reason for such values, as it places upon the proof or disproof of science the responsibility for its public access, as an "inter-subjectively verifiable" phenomena, and for its necessary lack of closure in its connections to a larger and always encompassing universe.

It has also been asserted by some that different "paradigms" obey different standards of truth and different ways of knowing reality. Religion relies upon the authority of sacred texts as the basis for its truth-value, and upon the willingness to believe, or to accept by faith, the truth of its doctrine. Art, on the other hand, relies upon an intuitive and appreciative faculty, and has as its criteria perceptive and sensational experience of aesthetic phenomena. Philosophy looks for the truth of logos and reason, and rationality is the principle means and avenue for the attainment of such understanding. Science, as noted previously, is primarily empirical in orientation, and applies certain specific, objective criteria of public verification.

In this regard we might speculate whether Anthropology, as a science and as a field of the humanities, must strictly follow the criteria applied in the harder sciences, or else must have its own paradigmatic criteria of validity and verifiability. And we may answer this that Anthropology follows both its own and a broader set of scientific criteria of openness and communicability at the same time. The special criteria of anthropology has to do with inter-subjective validation,; and its principle way of knowing is the knowledge of the self in relation to the other. It follows the broader criteria of science that is similar to other fields of inquiry, but it translates these broader criteria in its own special way, in terms of its own way of understanding the world.

*****

For good reason, statistics has become the preferred language of description in Science. Statistics forces the quantification of values upon a mathematical field of relational saliency that may or may not reflect the actual empirical field of relations it purportedly represents. The critical point of conjuncture (or disjuncture) is the arbitrary assignation of numerical values to observable things in the world. Such quantification has several consequences. It renders as discrete and discontinuous variables that may in reality be indiscrete and continuous. The resulting numerical values, and their quantitative loading within the mathematical field, may or may not realistically reflect the actual, intrinsic differential values of the things so represented. Some things and kinds of things lend themselves more readily to numerical quantification than other things. The result of these two discrepancies is the likelihood of distortion that would tend to favor the biases of the individual who makes the decisions. Finding three or more blind coders will probably yield three sets of biases that may or may not have a net effect of neutralizing one another. Also, the assignation of values quantitatively defined to things fundamentally qualitative in definition has the effect of superimposing a superficial sense of one-to-one correspondence, or of isomorphic congruity which remains part and parcel of the postivist presumption.

The translation between a quantitative, formally constrained language and one that is qualitative, and informally ordered, may or may not be correct or accurate, and depends upon the reification of natural language, an informal fallacy, for its justification. Also, all statistics contains the intention to average together sets of values that may or may not be meant to be averaged together. In the first place, the causes and contexts of one suicide may be very different, and virtually incomparable, to the reasons and factors lying behind another. Calling both by the same name as suicide will not yield a solution, but rather serves to obscure the original problem of their many incommensurability. This broaches another important part of statistical description, the comparing together of things which may fact be otherwise incommensurable. Finally, if we take both suicides to be variants of the same basic kind of thing, and we average the two together to find the modal kind of suicide we face the consequence of foisting upon reality as a ideal fact what is in actually an average fiction. If we then compare all our examples of suicide with our average form to see how much or in what way they may very from it, we risk the illusion and fallacy of comparing, and implicitly defining something in the world, in terms of what it is not, and in terms of something which does not have any substantive basis in reality. Another problem in statistical description is the bounding of a universe for a significant sample. If we rely upon our own definitions for determining the boundaries between phenomena, we risk the fallacy of reifying our own superimposed definitions and taxonomic schemas upon the world which may not necessarily be so ordered. Especially important in this are the exclusion or inclusion of "inbetweenies."

These dilemmas are especially apparent to the anthropological investigator engaged in cross-cultural research. A great many different, arbitrarily defined traits or institutions may be in essence "lifted" from their original ethnographic context, and thrown together into a common pool based upon criteria of common definition, type, etc., which may obfuscate the complexities of the reality in which they are ethnographically embedded. Coders in the field may not know whether to call the twitch of an eye a wink or a blink, nor how many times a person winked and how many times the same person blinked--but it might make a decisive difference if we believed winking to be a significant tactic in social interaction or if we believed that blinking may be a significant symptom of a certain culture-specific nervous syndrome.

In spite of these shortcomings of statistical science, we must acknowledge the important role which statistics has come to play in the articulation of the dialectic of science, and of anthropology as a science. The very factors which are the inherent limitations of statistical methodology also constitute the basis for its greatest strength--the capacity for comparing together otherwise incomparable things, and for deriving significant correlations and central tendencies from such comparison, correlations which may not otherwise be obvious or available for evaluation. Statistics, if correctly done, will yield conclusions which will be independent of the evaluator's own biases, and therefore can be used as an independent check and guage against which different evaluations can be measured.

But statistics is important for another reason. Statistics allows us to model in fairly precise terms, and to simplify in a systematic way, what would prove to be otherwise impossibly complex to model or represent in more naturalistic terms. Because of its reductionist tendencies, and the systematicity with which it does so, statistic offers the potential for capturing in relatively simple and concise terms aspects of reality which, because of enormity, scale and complexity, would not be otherwise describable. Statistics offers us a way of handling and finding order in chaos, in terms that we can quickly comprehend and facilely manipulate.

Furthermore, statistics is a language par excellence for dealing with relativistic phenomena, and for defining the relationships between different things. Heisenberg gave us a paradoxical account of a physical universe that is fundamentally statistical in nature. It offers a kind of relativistic degree of association and significance which does not discount the possibility for error or bias, and which takes into account in its basic formulas the inherent indeterminancy of the final definition of reality. Because statistics is written in terms of probabilities, significances, central tendencies, uncertainties and likelihood, it offers us an alternative language relatively free of the fallacies of the essentialist bias found in our natural discourse--that we can come to terms and capture on paper the "essence" of things instead of just their most likely appearance.

 


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05