Are you a scientist?

I have just finished reading “Why I am not a scientist” by Jonathan Marks. I came across the book while going through the library stacks looking for another title and decided to pick it up because of a story a friend had recently told me. This friend, who is also an archaeologist, had recently gone on an interview and described the process as going well until the question and answer portion of his presentation. One of the more senior members of the department asked him whether he would describe himself as a “scientist or more of a humanist”. Looking across the room, he immediately saw how dangerous this question was as many of his onlookers clearly sided with one position or the other. After an uncomfortable pause he stammered an answer in which he attempted to skirt the issue. It was at this moment he felt he lost the respect of his audience and his chances at getting the position. Based on this experience, my friend looked back over three other interviews he had this summer and thought he could recognize the same question being asked in more subtle ways: e.g. “How important is hypothesis testing within your project?”, “In what ways can your findings be applied beyond your study area?”, “How can your interpretations be proved wrong?”, “What funding sources would you apply for to further your project?”. While the science/culture wars of the 80s and 90s have decreased in their virulence, these experiences, as well as conversations with other friends and colleagues, suggest they still fester away in many academic departments.

With this in mind, I was drawn by the title of Marks’ book and picked it up thinking it might help me better articulate my own position if I was put in a situation similar to the one that sunk my friend’s chances at finding employment. I found the book particularly intriguing as the author is a physical anthropologist whose research is focused on genetics. This was not a cultural anthropologist arguing against applying the scientific method to studying culture – instead, this was a researcher who spent their days looking at genetic code, tracing human evolution, and investigating biologic change through time. I hoped that this background would provide Marks with a powerful point of view on the place of science within anthropology.

While the first chapter was interesting, I was eventually let down by “Why I am not a scientist” as it became a history of science’s failings and misuses in the hands of racists, bigots, sexists, and other politically motivated actors rather than a nuanced look into the intellectual basis of our discipline. Nonetheless, there were some useful aspects of the book as well – particularly the author’s definition of science as a particular mode of knowledge acquisition, legitimation, and propagation. After running through the traits that are normally used to define science (e.g. hypothesis testing, calls for universality, creation of laws, claims to authority), all of which he rejects as being unique to scientific thought, he suggests that science is best defined as a epistemological project in which the material realm of experience and action is delineated from other non-material phenomena and agents. Marks argues that science strives to separate the world into the material and non-material in two ways – first, methodologically they attempt to distance their research from the effects of morality, politics, power, and other aspects of “culture”. Scientists often pride themselves as agents acting in a “rational” world beyond the corrosive effects of the irrational, non-material, and ultimately deleterious powers of religion, money, politics, and the like. Second, scientists understand their subject matter as likewise divorced from the irrational and immaterial world. Epistemologically speaking, science is premised on an understanding of the world as being divisible between the physical and metaphysical. Hybridization between the two is ontologically dangerous and epistemologically incomprehensible to science.

While he does not cite Bruno Latour, anyone that has read “We have never been modern” will recognize the similarities between Marks’ definition of science and Latour’s understanding of modernity in that both are projects of imposing division onto the world of experience. While not as refined as Latour, Marks’ work is far more accessible and provides a point of view that is easier to articulate. In the end, Marks rejects the label of “scientist” as he believes that the walls drawn by science between the material world and everything else is untenable and do not accurately reflect real-world knowledge acquisition. The rest of the book attempts to prove this point by showing how science is a human endeavor and is therefore always situated in a world of competing interests which act to subsume the scientific process into the realm of culture.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Marks’ rejection of the label “scientist” is not his concern with scientific methodology but instead on his epistemological understanding of human experience as being one that is holistic and indivisible. Methodologically there is little to no difference between Marks and those that we would normally define as scientists. Marks continues to create and test hypotheses through the systematic acquisition of data, the value of this research is based on its replicability by others and ability to be falsified, and his goal is to create widely applicable narratives that accurately describe past phenomena. The important division between Marks and a “real” scientist is that he understands his subject matter – humanity – as being indivisible in terms of material/immaterial, nature/culture, or physical/metaphysical. Even our most basic building block – our genetic code – is influenced by millennia of human actions, choices, and history and are therefore inseparable from the scientifically inaccessible realms of belief-systems, power struggles, ethical codes, and other aspects of human culture.

Marks’ writings have helped me think through how I engage with the archaeological record and what I think are viable methods of creating and evaluating knowledge about the past. I hope that such contemplations are useful not only for answering tough questions during an interview but also as guide for how I will conduct myself as an archaeologist in the future. I am still not sure how I would answer the “are you a scientist or humanist” question, but I now feel a little more capable of having an interesting discussion about the role of science within archaeology and my own work.

I would be very interested in how other archaeologists view their work in terms of the science/humanist division.  I think many of us who were not involved in the culture wars of the 80s and 90s pay too little heed to the division that remains in our discipline, particularly within the more senior levels, and assume that one can switch between being a scientist or humanist depending on our needs, or that the division between the two is permeable enough to allow us to be both/neither at once.  While I do not immediately reject these claims, my friend’s experience suggests that these positions need to be well-thought out and articulated if one hopes to find success within the academic world.


6 comments on “Are you a scientist?

  1. victoriagd says:

    I’m in the midst of some heavy quals preparation right now, so I’m just going to throw out a few thoughts here to jump on the topic.

    I think this is an immensely important question that we all must ask ourselves throughout our careers as our questions, our interests, and our environment changes. I am amazed at how department-specific this question becomes. Am I scientist? Well, what do my peers think? What does my committee think? As Matt writes, these are powerful questions that affect our funding capabilities and our reputation as ‘respectable’ archaeologists. There is a canon to be followed.

    I must say, asking other archaeologists if they are scientists is becoming one of my favorite pastimes. I think there is much to learn here from our academic kinship charts. For instance, I had the chance to dine with some delightful archaeology grad students from from other Southeastern departments last April over a huge plate of ribs at Rendezvous. “Do you think we’re scientists?”, I asked them. The answers all aligned around the idea, “Well, yes. I mean, do I even have that option in my department?”. I do wonder, however, how that answer might vary in other regions.

    Over the past couple of years I have contemplated ‘jumping ship’ and pursuing an anthropological degree with an STS focus, primarily questioning this relationship of archaeology to science and how we classify ourselves. Alas, I’m too attached to Southeastern archaeology to change my topic now, but the relationship between archaeology and science is something that I believe is ripe for investigation. The fact of the matter seems more grounded and more specific than merely defining science. Science is an action and an enactment – it is something you do (I’m relying on E. Sumerson Carr’s Annual Review article, “Enactments of Expertise”). I think we need to ask where and how science happens, instead of what we feel or assume the idea is.

    I have a few working papers right now discussing this issue. Once I finish my quals process this semester, I will try to clean these up and submit them to the blog for your viewing. I’ve actually done some limited ethnographic study on this question, but no IRB approval just yet. And just so you all know, YOU are all part of my ethnographic study because I wrote about SEAC last fall and the ways that I believe people enacted their scientific label, from the clothes they wore (i.e., tweed) to the language they chose (i.e., model). Remember the joke about Rick Scott and his STEM education ideas in the business meeting? Well, that’s part of the research too.

    My thoughts on all of this are preliminary and messy. Some of you may have been privy to opinions on this topic if you attended my SEAC paper in Jacksonville. Archaeology and science is something I truly wish to explore someday in a detailed ethnographic study of archaeological practice. There is a fantastic data set is you simply ask an archaeologist: “Are you a scientist?” Just try it. The answers are fascinating!

    My take in one sentence: I use scientific methods, but I am not a scientist.

  2. Meg says:

    Well you two have made me think more about this then I ever have before… but as someone planning to step out onto the job market soon, I am glad I have started thinking about it!

    I agree with Viki, that my answer would involve a bit of bet hedging… I use scientific methods to answer questions that many might not consider scientific. Moreover, I try to make an effort to both think like a scientist AND think like a non-scientist in each of my projects.

    My answer depends so much on what the pervasive or common interpretations of what “science” means and what “scientists” study are for the people who I am speaking with. I commonly give presentations to kids and then I usually DO use the word science to describe what I do because they have a more open, less judgmental, and usually very positive view of science. I feel the issue becomes MUCH more touchy when interviewing in an anthropology program. Perhaps this is precisely why you need to do a lot of research on the people you will be speaking to when going to an interview!

  3. MC Sanger says:

    I think you both have touched on something very key in this whole argument which is that defining oneself as scientific or not is largely influenced by ones social context. Like Meg notes, sometimes this is quite tactical in that you deploy a word like science in order to give oneself more legitimacy. Or as Viki suggests, sometimes you have to ask your peers whether you are a scientist or not as they are the ones attributing the label to you and defining the parameters of your persona.

    Unlike the other archaeologists that Viki spoke with I have quite a bit of leeway within my department to move away from the scientific label – in fact, distancing oneself from science is a common theme among the faculty and grad students. I have used this wiggle room to give myself a level of fluidity to my self definition along the humanistic-scientific continuum – something quite akin to Viki and Meg’s “I use scientific methods to answer non-scientific questions”. I think that most archaeologists are relatively comfortable with this messy conglomeration – but I have experienced significant push-back from Socio-cultural faculty and grad students who see this statement as a merging of incompatible methodologies and ontologies.

    I am not sure how, or if, this divide in understanding is bridgeable – but I think that this is the challenge of our “Post plus” world of anthropology.

  4. Shane says:

    So, this reminds me of a pretty interesting book chapter I read a long time ago by Carole Crumley. She started with something of a narrative style, where she discussed how, as a high school student, she loved both science and history. When she started college, she was dismayed when she realized that the structure of the university system was forcing her to choose one over the other.

    Then she discovered archaeology, which allowed her to do both.

    I know you guys like to say “I use scientific methods to answer non-scientific questions,” but what is a scientific question? I kind of feel like this framing of “science” is something of a straw man argument, especially given the proliferation of models that incorporate complex systems and chaos theory in the hard sciences over the past 20 years.

    Again, I’ll bring up this quote from Murray Gell-Mann, the guy who got the Nobel Prize for theorizing the presence of quarks:

    “But the main thing here is that it predicts probabilities. Now, sometimes those probabilities are near certainties. And in a lot of familiar cases, they of course are. But other times they’re not, and you have only probabilities for different outcomes. So what that means is that the history of the universe is not determined just by the fundamental law. It’s the fundamental law and this incredibly long series of accidents, or chance outcomes, that are there in addition.”

    He’s basically interested in a historical question (How did the universe come to look the way it does now?) and uses formal models as a point of departure, is but very much willing to acknowledge their deficiencies. Moreover, he is also willing to admit that there’s a lot of events that simply cannot be predicted, and that our views of how things work is structured by previous research and our technological limitations. These things change, and so does our view of the universe.

    I would argue that this makes him both a scientist and a historian.

    Honestly, I think this debate is very symptomatic of this:

    Stare at it a little bit.

    First, you’ll see that there’s a large cluster in the center that is pretty much the social sciences. The way I interpret that social network diagram is that there are large discussions raging in the social sciences, and you get a lot of intellectual cross-over as a result. Unfortunately, you’ll notice that Anthropology and Archaeology are on the periphery of the debate.

    Second, you’ll notice that there’s a pretty large gulf between the social sciences and the hard sciences. Frankly, I think this is part of the issue for why the social sciences are screaming “HISTORY!” and beating up on a science straw-man. In other words, aside from reading a materials science paper here or a paper on paleo-climate there, archaeology isn’t really investing much time at all in trying to understand how physicists, chemists, geologists, or biologists view the world. We just assume we know, call it “science,” saddle it with all of the baggage that comes along with that label, and then shrug them off.

    Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill here, but I still feel like there’s a great big wide world of questions to ask, and yet we still find ourselves fighting the battles we inherited from our predecessors.

    I do science. I do history. This is not the conflict that keeps me up at night. Wondering whether I’ve dedicated my life to a discipline that has cornered itself in a parochial ivory tower, however, does.

    Crumley, Carole
    2007 Historical Ecology; Integrated Thinking at Multiple Temporal and Spatial Scales.

    Murray Gell-Mann on beauty and truth in physics

    Visualizing Academic Interest

    • Meg says:

      Shane, I definitely see your point… and I am perfectly willing to admit that my answer comes largely from a need/desire for others to have an accurate idea of what I do. Given your argument above, I see that this constitutes a certain degree of laziness on my part. Why give in to the misconceptions of the public about what is and is not “science” when I could educate them on the fact that it’s perfectly possible to do both at once (and in fact, most people who claim to do either, do exactly that)? But…. how do you take on that education when your average interaction with someone who wants to know what you as an archaeologist do is about 5 minutes long? Does the answer that you use scientific methods (“doing science”) to answer not traditionally scientific questions (“doing history”) not imply that it’s possible do both at once? Maybe not…. but it’s the best short and sweet answer I’ve found so far.

  5. If you all will accept a comment from an old fogey, I suggest that when a question like this is asked in an interview situation, it is an attempt not to find out what you know, or even what sort of work you will do if hired, but it is instead a probing of what kind of colleague you might be. I think it was Eric Wolf who said that Anthropology is the most scientific of the humanities, the most humanistic of the sciences. Archaeologists act rationally in their investigations — we observe, we count, we weigh, we measure, we compare. But when all is said and done, we construct a narrative of what happened, when, and where. I think Shane is right not to be bothered about whether to be one or the other. As it happens, I know Carole Crumley very well, and I would say that she became who she is intellectually because she dared to question the questions. So, when you find yourself in this kind of interview, smile and state with confidence that anthropological archaeology is at its very best when it is neither totally scientific nor totally humanistic. Give an example or two from your work if you can, but don’t allow yourself to be boxed into being new or old archaeology, modern or post-modern, scientist or humanist. The profound beauty of anthropology is that it is at the interface of both, and rigid adherence to one or the other will impoverish our pursuit if we let it.

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