Are you attending the American Anthropological Association meetings this week in Denver? Feel like hanging out with me, having a beer, and hearing about some big ideas? Check out my talk, co-sponsored by Cafe Sci Colorado and the Society for Anthropological Sciences, ‘Beyond Cargo Cult Science: Reclaiming Anthropology from the Fringe‘, held at Brooklyn’s near the convention center (map) at 7:30pm on Thursday, Nov. 19. Many thanks to the SAS (a section of the AAA) and the folks at Cafe Sci Colorado for putting this all together to help expose social-scientific ideas to a broad audience. It’s an open event, free of charge, and if you’re already registered for the conference you can find it on the program here.
In his famous essay, ‘Cargo cult science’, the physicist Richard Feynman used the anthropological concept of the cargo cult to illustrate the dangers of those who adopt the trappings of science without understanding the fundamental nature of the enterprise. The risk of self-delusion, he argued, was greatest when this form-without-function was followed mindlessly by scientists: ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’
Forty years later, anthropology’s own status as a science is in question. Pseudoscientific ideas abound – claims of ancient aliens and lost civilizations on the History Channel suggest that there are a lot of self-deluded fools. Feynman didn’t think much of social science, because of its annoying lack of laws, but he was wrong. We can and do scientific anthropology as long as we don’t fool ourselves. We only need to be able to ask What would convince me that I’m wrong? and Why should I believe I’m right? In this talk, I will show, using linguistic evidence, how non-specialists can think critically about pseudoscientific ideas in anthropology, and why it important to care about anthropological junk science in the media.
Linguistic anthropology is particularly open to spurious claims of cultural contact across thousands of years and kilometres because most people are not linguists, so it is possible to make superficially plausible claims with limited knowledge. Against this position, it is possible to show that with a little knowledge and a critical eye, we can separate verifiable long-distance similarities – the remarkable new discovery that Navajo is related to some languages of central Siberia – from wildly implausible claims, such as that the Maya were descended from Egyptians. Learning how to think about linguistic evidence for cultural contact is a powerful inoculation against bunk.
And, for those conference attendees who haven’t had enough strange science, you can then check out my panel, ‘Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe‘ on Friday morning, 10:15-12:00, in room 607 of the convention center. Hope to see you there!