Friday, December 4, 2009

More Politicized Science

The mixture of politics and science is a toxic brew where the objective search for facts is corrupted into the selection of facts for the purposes of advocacy. While I could easily be talking about climate science, this time I am actually referring to the American Antrhopological Association (AAA) and the science of anthropology. Anthropology is defined by as "the science that deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind." It is an important but, one would think, innocuous field of study. Not so.

When the U.S. went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we desperately needed to understand the culture of the societies in whose areas our soldiers were operating. As an anthropology professor pointed out in 2003, it was incumbent on the government to seek help from anthropologists familiar with the culture of Afghanistan and Iraq if we were to have any hope of winning the hearts and minds. That is precisely what the U.S. Army did, requesting help and receiving it from volunteers. And my hat is off to those who anthropologists who volunteered in service of their country. By all accounts, they made a real difference, "explain[ing] tribal customs and work[ing] to improve health, security and education . . ." Those "efforts . . . helped significantly reduce combat . . ." Who could possibly take issue with that?

The AAA, that's who. This is the largest association of anthropologists in America and a body supposedly dedicated to the advancement of science within their discipline. The reality is that they are a left wing advocacy organization. For example, the organization recently issued a policy brief coming out in favor of card check for labor unions. That seems rather far afield indeed from the concerns of furthering the discipline of anthropology. Similarly biased advocacy can be gleaned from their web-site for a variety of left wing political causes.

None of that is mentioned in a recent NYT article, where the AAA is given a platform to excorciate members of their discipline for daring to support our military efforts. According to the article, the AAA is calling the work of scientists who cooperate with the military "dangerous, unethical and unscholarly" and are taking the position that the academic patriots who volunteer to help our military “can no longer be considered a [as involved in a] legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.”

Should the AAA be entitled to express this opinion? This is supposed to be a scientific association. It is not. It is an advocacy organization overlaid over a scientific discipline. If this groups recommendation carries any weight with things such as tenure decisions for individual anthropologists, then their decision to transform their science into an advocacy is significant indeed. I would love to hear from any antrhopologists who have assisted the military whether the AAA's recommendation has any potential to actually impact their careers.

There is no difference that I can discern between AAA and the climate scientists who have similarly jettisoned scientific inquiry for advocacy. This is an evil must somehow be addressed. If Climategate flowers, as well it might, hopefully it will lead to a backlash throughout the science world against those, such as the AAA, who have replaced science with advocacy. It is a true cancer on the scientific world.

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