Tuesday, July 12, 2011


A colleague recently sent out a link to the Postmodernism Dictionary, which has an entry for the term Objective:
Being objective means to have no bias or distortions; to see things [as] they actually are. It assumes the individual is able to bracket their subjective perspective, biases, and prejudices. Postmodernism, in general, questions the degree to which we can obtain objectivity.
 This is not a good scientific definition of objective; it is, rather, a straw argument, set up as a convenient wall against which to play intellectual ping pong.  Lest I be accused of setting up my own straw postmodernism, let me call your attention to Schultz and Lavenda's textbook, Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition (Oxford 2012).  This book is written largely from the perspective of non-scientific, postmodern, and interpretivist anthropology.  On page 44, they define objective knowledge as:
Knowledge about reality that is absolute and true.
This is no better.  It reduces the notion of objectivity to a cartoon of itself.  But before I offer something more, er, realistic, let me explain why I am so incensed by these kinds of definitions.

I take anthropology to be a social science.  This is relatively uncontroversial; here at UNF, we're even located in the Social Sciences building (but then, so is the Dean's office!). It is true that we often say that anthropology as a discipline overlaps with the "sciences" and the "humanities" (history, philosophy, world languages, literature, etc.), as if these were normally non-overlapping magisteria, to borrow from Stephen Jay Gould. Scientific method applies here, but not over there.  (I disagree with this divide, I think it's an artifact of a particular cultural history, but that might be another post.)
In any case, the business of the sciences is to develop what I am going to call, after Lett, objective synthetic propositional knowledge. A synthetic proposition is one that's not simply an identity. For example, the proposition "bachelors are unmarried men" is not synthetic, it's analytic, because it's simply a definition.  On the other hand, the proposition "all bachelors are unhappy" is synthetic, it's not a definition but rather a proposition that can be tested and shown to true or false.  I don't want to go any further with these terms; the object of this post is to talk about the notion of objective.
Now, organisms need to be able to acquire knowledge of the world around them to survive, multiply, and prosper.  The knowledge of the world that any organism can acquire and make use of is contingent upon the sort of organism that it is. The contingency is defined by the complexity of the organism's nervous system, and also by the needs of the organism- what it has to "know" to make it through its world.  No organism takes in, processes, and acts on raw data; all organisms "filter" incoming data through their senses, which have been shaped by natural selection.  Frogs, for example, have a visual system that is tuned, by evolution, to make them aware of those things around them that they need to "know" about in order to prosper.  Specifically, frogs' visual system consists of the following sorts of "detectors" (Lieberman 1984: 54-55):
  • Edge detectors identify boundaries of objects.
  • Bug detectors identify small convex moving objects.
  • Event detectors identify sudden movements.
  • Dimming detectors identify falling light intensity.
  • Blue detectors identify bodies of water.
Having knowledge about these aspects of the world allows frogs to eat, sit by the waterside, and leap into the water when a potential danger appears.  Frogs need to "know" these things (and some others) about the world if they're going to live long enough to reproduce.   This is as true for humans as it is for frogs, although humans, via culture, can manipulate to some degree the contingencies that apply to them.  So, although we have evolved to be able to perceive and respond to narrow (compared to what the Universe makes available) ranges of light and sound, we can create technology that allows us to see and hear beyond the limits of our native visual and auditory systems.  We can do a lot "better" than frogs, in the sense that our visual system allows us to develop more fine-grained visual knowledge of the world around us.  But we, and frogs, are both constrained by our natures; neither of us can develop knowledge about the world that is "absolute and true."
So, back to objectivity. A scientific definition of objectivity as it relates to the construction of propositional knowledge might go something like this (Lett 1997: 46):
[A proposition] is objective in the scientific sense of the term if it is both publicly verifiable and testable.
Example:  I tell students that the Aymara word for 'your house' is utama.  This bit of knowledge is objective not because it's "absolute and true," but because my students can go to Bolivia or Perú, or nowadays even email an Aymara speaker, and ask them how to say 'your house', and the answer should come back utama.  It's publicly verifiable and testable.
Subjective knowledge is about me: The Aymara language sounds beautiful. Not publicly verifiable, not testable.  Objective knowledge is about us, working together, to develop an understanding of the world: The Aymara language is Head-final (heads of phrases follow their complements).  That proposition can be publicly verified and tested.  And that's what science is about.

Lett, J. 1997. Science, Reason, and Anthropology: The Principles of Rational Inquiry. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Lieberman, P. 1984. The Biology and Evolution of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schultz, E. and R. Lavenda. 2012.  Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition. Oxford University Press.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Stop the stoning!

Today is the International Day Against Stoning; it may sound like a Monty Python sketch, but it's deadly serious.  The International Committee Against Stoning has a petition, and it needs as many signatures as it can get.  As they write:
As you know Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is still languishing in prison. The authorities recently mentioned her case saying that no final decision had yet been reached on her stoning sentence and that Sakineh must remain in prison. Falsely accused of murdering her husband, her only crime is that she is a woman in Iran. Her lawyer, Sajjad Houtan Kian, also remains in prison for having had the courage to defend her and other women with stoning sentences in Tabriz prison; he has been sentenced to four years imprisonment, been put under a lot of pressure and lost 20 kilos (44 pounds) as a result.
The campaign to Save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been an important one. It has spoken out in defence of humanity, and against the barbaric punishment of stoning everywhere. It has mobilised immense pressure against and condemnation of the Islamic regime of Iran from millions across the globe. These are accomplishments we must all be proud of.

On 11 July 2011, the International Day against Stoning, let’s once again step up the pressure to demand Sakineh’s immediate release and an end to stoning. Join us by either standing in a city square with a photo or poster of Sakineh, tweeting, or by organising an act of solidarity or a flash mob to raise awareness and attention. On 11 July, in 100 cities worldwide, let us once again raise the banner of humanity against one of the barbarisms of our time.
Here's a direct link to the petition.

Friday, July 8, 2011

It's only "fraud" if you are poor?

In response to an online petition I signed yesterday, I just received an email from Florida Senator Bill Nelson.  The petition asked senators not to "balance the budget" on the backs of seniors and the poor.  The email included this [my emphasis]:

     While I support reasonable cuts to discretionary spending, it is clear that we cannot balance our budget through discretionary spending cuts alone. That’s why I am pressing my colleagues to support a comprehensive approach to deficit reduction that not only eliminates duplicative programs, but also reduces extraneous procurements and phases-out unnecessary and outdated tax breaks that only benefit a few large corporations. Furthermore, we must continue efforts to curb the fraud that plagues programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which costs taxpayers billions.

So, wait. The term "fraud" is applied to the elderly and the poor, who are the major recipients of Medicare (I am among them) and Medicaid.  Meanwhile, "large corporations" are only guilty of taking advantage of "tax breaks," which are presumably at least legal?
This is why I am not a registered Demoncrat.  Very few of them are significantly more moral than the Rethuglicans.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sometimes, students get it!

So, I taught a section of our Peoples and Cultures of the World (a junior-level course for non-majors) in the Summer A term; we met twice a week for six weeks, three and a half hours per session, and there were 45 students in the class.  I treat this course as an introduction to cultural anthropology, with a rich variety of "peoples" and "cultures" to illustrate the concepts.  The peoples we met included the Aymara (Central Andes), Yanomama (Orinoco Basin), Baka (Cameroun), Maya (Yucatan, Mexico), Maasai (East Africa), and of course Carriacou, where I've done fieldwork.

The final topic of the course, as I teach it, deals with globalization and the culture of capitalism.  For this subject matter I like to bring the students back to themselves, by including "us" as one of the "peoples and cultures of the world."  One way that I sometimes do this is by showing them the first 30 minutes or so of the John Sayles film Matewan.  This true story of the May 1920 Matewan Massacre deals with the culture of capitalism by showing how West Virginia coal miners in the early 20th century had to deal with exploitative coal operators, dangerous working conditions, and the threat of violence on the part of "agents" hired by the coal companies to prevent the miners from organizing themselves into unions.  It also touches on globalization, by showing coal company owners attempting to replace striking miners with African Americans and immigrants from Italy.

This time, I got an unexpected reaction to this bit of film.  A student, in her final reflexive essay, wrote this:
Also, I wanted to thank you for showing the video about the West Virginia coal miners. I am from West Virginia and came from a family of coal miners. I don’t think people in the United States understand how dangerous coal mining still is today. My Uncle was a survivor of the Sago Mine explosion that happened about 4 years ago and it hit my family with the realization that something can happen at any second. Even though devastating disasters like this still exist today, the mines do not take all the safety precautions to prevent explosions from happening in the future. I hope that this video has opened the eyes of some of the people in class to realize that the coal used to heat their homes, is mined in dangerous working conditions. 
 Unfortunately, I didn't read the essays until the course was over, and thus I could not go back into class and try to generate some extra discussion.  But at least there is satisfaction in knowing that something in the course was deeply relevant for at least one student, and that's a good feeling.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tonight's evening sky

I just watched the International Space Station go overhead. It came out of the northwest at 9:16 pm and headed toward the southeast, a very bright point of light with a slight orange color due to the recently-set Sun. It was visible for about four minutes.  Balanced against it nearby was the bright crescent Moon.
Pretty cool... If only we could do more of this kind of thing, instead of waging wars.

The day after the 4th of July

Ok, so I didn't write anything on the 4th; I was busy starting the job of cleaning out our horribly overcrowded garage, which I did after walking 4 miles with Tinker the Terrier.  I worked on the garage until it got too hot, and then got busy with some other things.  So, I didn't get around to writing a 4th of July post.

And anyway, last year's post is still valid.  We still labor under the same misconceptions about what our country is really about, the same disconnect between what we say we are and what the evidence suggests that we actually are. No need to rebelabor the points.

I will say that it continues to frustrate and disappoint me that our President, the one we elected under a banner of "hope and change," continues to behave pretty much as a Bush Lite on two major points:
  • Our ongoing and never-ending wars.  Not only do continue massive troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now we've added Libya and Somalia to the list of countries we are either occupying or terrorizing from the air. I wrote about our national war-addiction back in May, so I won't repeat it here.
  • The continuing absence of punishment for war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by former "president" Bush and his administration.  President Obama and his DOJ continue to acquiesce to claims of immunity on the part of members of the Bush administration who suggested, allowed, ordered, justified, and otherwise participated in Bush's Torture Regime.  People who should be in jail by now are walking the streets, enjoying their retirement from what can only be called the most immoral administration in the history of the United States.
One thing I am pretty sure of is that things are not going to change much between now and July 4, 2012.