Through the Fighting Toward Understanding

A couple of months ago, I did a post covering much of the uproar around the work of Napoleon Chagnon. The controversies and the behavior of various scientists was fascinating in that it was almost precisely unsuited to uncovering scientific knowledge.

Now, however, along comes Greg Laden with an article in Slate that helps those of us bewildered by the conflicts and controversies do just that.

Chagnon spent decades with the Yanomamö of Venezuela and wrote a monograph called Yanomamö: The Fierce People. The first through third editions kept the subtitle, but it was dropped for the fourth edition. The Venezuelan government had used Chagnon’s work to label the Yanomamö as dangerous and unsociable, as part of its effort to displace indigenous tribes occupying land otherwise exploitable for lumber or for other purposes.

Some sociocultural anthropologists and human rights activists have held Chagnon responsible for the use of his ethnography against an indigenous group. This seems rather unfair. If the Yanomamö are fierce, that is not Chagnon’s fault; the use of an honest ethnography for nefarious political or economic goals is not the ethnographer’s responsibility. However, a litany of other charges has been made against Chagnon. More than 10 years ago, Marshall Sahlins accused Chagnon of unethical practices, including disregarding Yanomamö cultural proscriptions against using names and discussing kinship relations in order to assemble census and genealogical data for the villages he worked in. Sahlins claimed Chagnon tricked the Yanomamö into giving up information that they held as secret, and that this led to conflicts which led to violence. Others have suggested that Chagnon’s payment of informants and helpers with western goods such as machetes caused or escalated violence. Most recently, Marshall Sahlins resigned from the National Acaedemy of Sciences in protest of Chagnon’s election to that body.

These may be valid criticisms, but we should also take into account context and timing.

Greg’s article doesn’t ignore the criticisms, the controversies, or the politics of what happened to the Yanomamö. What it does instead is put them all into context, both the context of the field of anthropology and the context of a world in which anthropology isn’t just a study of “other” people.

Go read the article. You’ll come away with both a better understanding of where all this dust came from and a better understanding of what is left when it all settles.

I Get Email: fMRI and Autism

I did receive one response to my talk at SkepTech that wasn’t entirely positive.

Good afternoon Stephanie,

I was one of the attendees at skeptech in Minneapolis last weekend, and had asked you a question as to whether MRI’s have contributed to discovering autism in children at a young age (or at all, for that matter). I remember your reply, where you said that MRI’s weren’t advanced enough to make those kinds of detections without the need for physically splitting someone’s head open and investigating.

Curiousity got the best of me, and I decided to look around on the internet. I found the following scientific paper, “State-dependant changes of connectivity patterns and functional brain network topology in Autism Spectrum Disorder” on arxiv.org, a reputable source containing a library of scientific papers available to the public. Within this paper, another paper in 2007 by Alexander et al. discussed that “structural MRI studies have reported abnormal developmental trajectory of brain growth, with evidence of poorly organizated white matter”.

My questions to you are:

  • What is your reaction to this new information?
  • Given that your website shows no credentials of neuroscience or anything related to which you may have degrees in, why would you attend a conference and answer questions so confidently without knowing more about these subjects and the science behind these matters?

Thank you for your time. I hope you have a great week!

All right. Let’s go through my mental processes on this one, shall we? [Read more…]

The Use and Abuse of Psychometrics

I had a very short time slot for my solo talk at SkepTech, so I decided to use it to give a very brief, simplified look at how the process of developing measurement tools in psychology limits what those tools can tell us.

The talk has made my fellow psych people happy, which means I didn’t get anything glaringly wrong. I haven’t yet heard much from people outside psychology, so I have no idea how this plays as an introduction to the topic.

Darkness in Anthropology

It was an aside in an article by Alice Dreger that first told me there was something more than usually controversial about anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. I had heard of the Yanomamo, of course. I’m not sure it’s possible to be friends with an anthropologist who’s studied a hunter-gatherer population or possible to have followed the disputes over the nature of genetic contributions to behavior without having heard of them. I’m sure I’d even heard Chagnon’s name before, but it hadn’t stuck with me. This time, with the whiff of scientific scandal about it, I remembered it.

It probably helped that I had to remember it for less than three weeks before Chagnon’s new book, Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes–the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists, came out. Following hot on its heels came all sorts of information about why Chagnon was controversial, how the controversy had led to charges of bad behavior and some actual bad behavior from multiple quarters, and how the process of science continued on its way despite the bad behavior to improve our understanding of our world and ourselves. This sort of thing fascinates me, as regular readers will know, and I’d like to thank the anthropologists who kept putting new information on this under my nose, in particular Daniel Lende and Jason Antrosio. [Read more…]

A “Deep Human History” of Polyandry

Many evolutionary psychologists like to talk about polygyny. Some say it’s a good thing for the individuals involved. Some say it’s a bad thing. But they tend to agree that this is just how we evolved. Polyandry, if it’s discussed at all, is generally dismissed as being insignificant.

A new study just out suggests we shouldn’t dismiss polyandry so quickly, particularly not if we want to talk about evolved behavior. Last year, Katherine Starkweather and Raymond Hames published “A Survey of Non-Classical Polyandry” (pdf) in Human Nature.

Terms first. What do Starkweather and Hames mean by “polyandry”?

In general, we define polyandrous unions as a bond of one woman to more than one man in which the woman has relatively restricted sexual rights toward the men, and the men toward the women, as well as economic responsibilities toward each other and toward any children that may result from the union.

They note that this arrangement may be formal, in which the family created becomes a household, or informal, in which the sexual relationships and responsibilities are recognized but the family does not all live together. For a polygynous equivalent to informal polyandry, consider the old (at least) royal practice of a king who maintained mistresses and their children on estates away from the royal palace.

“Non-classical” has largely meant “ignored” up to this point for reasons pointed out in the Atlantic article that drew my attention to the survey. [Read more…]

Time to Go to Medical School

Rob Tarzwell has been running a series of videos that, ironically, I’ve only just had some time to check out. I say, “ironically”, because the series is called One-Minute Medical School. They’re quick and easy to understand, each covering an aspect of normal or “abnormal” human physiology.

Since I’ve been up to my elbows (and sinuses) in dust recently, these videos on allergies caught my attention.

The poster for this video is here if you want to look at it more closely. [Read more…]

The Evolution of Creationism

PZ’s talks on biology are okay and stuff. I mean, they’re educational and all, but…don’t tell PZ, but bio just doesn’t sing to me the way it does to a lot of people.

I just like this talk better. I saw it at the Midwest Science of Origins conference in Morris this past March. He’s been giving it locally but not at conferences, to the best of my knowledge. Luckily, he’s been captured on video.

It’s fascinating to watch how what were once fairly reasonable ideas, given the state of knowledge at the time, became sacred and entrenched. It’s appalling to see how contorted thinking became so that people could hold on to those ideas. At its root, creationism is like any other pseudoscience that grew out of ignorant beliefs too important to be shed, but it’s rare to get to see a history this complete.

When Denial Is Progress

Bernice Sandler spoke at last year’s Women in Secularism conference. The title of her talk was “The Chilly Climate”, and it covered (in brief) her decades of researching the ways in which women’s contributions are treated as less valuable than men’s.

In some ways, the talk was sobering. We’re not talking about blatant sexism–for the most part. The behaviors involved are subtle, easy to overlook unless you’re paying specific attention, and they are often invisible as just the way things are done. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t have real effects.

Depressing, right? Or perhaps “chilling”.

However, Sandler hasn’t just studied the problem.

[Read more…]

Going Further on Evolutionary Psychology

A couple of weeks ago, Brad Peters of the blog Modern Psychologist left a comment on my post on Rebecca’s Skepticon talk. He suggested many of us, me included, were going too lightly on evolutionary psychology. Today, he’s put up a post saying something very similar.

Many, for example, want to censor Watson based on her apparent lack of scientific credentials (she has a communications degree). My thought is this: if you do not like what she has to say, you ought to engage her in debate, based on your own reasons. You should not try to dismiss an argument because they do not work within that field, or you don’t like what they have to say. By this logic of ‘specialized credentials,’ we might follow a slippery slope where we decide that only experts in evolutionary psychology should be able to critique their own, which is absolute nonsense, since conceptual communities naturally gravitate toward insular thinking that only serves to reinforce its own biased set of assumptions. It is for this reason that we need not less, but MORE people challenging theories from the outside.

Edward Clint, an evolutionary psychologist, seems particularly offended by Watson’s critique, and in his multiple-page attack of Watson’s position, goes so far as to accuse her of ‘science denialism’. Of course this is a ridiculous assertion, and both Stephanie Zvan and Mark HoofNagle do a fair job of arguing his points, though they regrettably suggest that Watson might have been critiquing only a small segment of pop evolutionary psychology. It seems blasphemous to critique the whole field, lest you ironically find yourself charged with ‘denying science.’

I suspect that if Peters and I were to talk it out, he’d find that I don’t consider the problems Rebecca brought up in her talk to be a particularly “small segment” even by his reckoning. But that’s a quibble. [Read more…]