Re: The Real Place of Fuzziness in Anthropology

Angeline Kantola (
13 Aug 1996 19:42:47 GMT

First off: my intent was not to attack you personally, Joel. Nor was I
making any reference at all to anthropology--what inspired me to write was
your sentence, attributed below, that "[p]hysics and chemistry are
currently undergoing a revolution thanks to the insights of chaos theory".
I'm a practicing physical biochemist, and I can tell you that the
scientific rank and file are hardly dragging out old data to be
reinterpreted in the light of chaos theory.

What really presses my peeve button, though, is that lots of folks dwell
in this funny gray area of belief about science: that they can discount
whatever science they choose not to believe, or buttress whatever flaky
philosophy they hold dear, by invoking the mysterious science of chaos
theory. Chaos theory seems to be perceived as some 'wild card' that means
anything, but anything, can happen. Ain't so, folks.

In article <>,
Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax <> wrote:
>Angeline Kantola wrote:
>> Heavens help me for jumping into this fray, but I have to comment...
>> In article <>,
>> Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax <> wrote:
>> >Many scientists are questioning the ability to measure things in any
>> universally
>> >predictable manner. Physics and chemistry are currently undergoing a
>> revolution
>> >thanks to the insights of chaos theory. The gist of this is that there
>> are many
>> >factors which can affect a phenomenon.
>> Aaargh! Chaos theory! OK, show of hands here: who in the audience has had
>> graduate-level math and science? Good, good. Alright, now who's read an
>> article or a pop-science metaphysics book about chaos theory? Uh huh,
>> kinda what I thought.
>Ah yes. Another fine example of a so-called scientist acting unscientifically
>and making untrue claims about a poster.

Note that my paragraph above did not refer specifically to you.

>> There is *not* a revolution going on in physics and chemistry. We're not
>> throwing out mechanics, electricity, magnetism, optics, quantum mechanics,
>> relativity (general or special), stoichiometry, electronegativity,
>> molecular orbitals, the periodic table, thermodynamics, PV=nRT,
>> acids, bases, buffers, aldehydes or ketones (though we might want to
>> pitch a few low-molecular-weight amines--P.U.!), Grignard reagents,
>> Tanabe-Sugano diagrams, hydrogen bonds, polycyclic aromatics,
>> analytical methods or damn near anything else as a result of chaos theory.
>Pardon me, but the fact that scientists are no longer just rejecting
>data which is inconsistent with the conclusions they want to find and
>for the first time trying to explain all the data strikes me as a revolution.

Boy, you really don't know anything about how science works, do you? Even
back in high school we learned that massaging the data (including picking
and choosing what you care to analyze among a given data set) is
unethical. Further, physical scientists have long recognized that data
'inconsistent with the conclusions they want to find' can be the surest
pointers to deeper understanding, to new theories. See the ultraviolet
catastrophe, or the history of the discovery of phosphorylation, for

> > Do not be misled. Chaos theory is not some sort of scientifically valid
>> fudge factor that means ***anything*** can happen.

>Never said it was. Again you are putting words in my mouth. I think
>plenty of things can be ruled out fairly decisively by science. (e.g.
>ghosts, fire-breathing dragons, orgones, oolites, etc.)

As I said above, many uneducated people *do* interpret it this way.

>> Chaos theory goes a lot farther than "there are many factors which can
>> affect a phenomenon". Multivariate analysis, anyone? There are almost
>> infinitely many factors which affect, say, the development of a person
>> from birth to adulthood. However, the human organism is anything *but* a
>> chaotic system, scientifically speaking.
>Au contraire, it IS a chaotic system, otherwise every one of us would
>be exactly alike. Ever heard of genotypes and phenotypes? This is
>a term we use in anthropology to discuss the difference between what
>is in your DNA versus what gets actually expressed in your biological
>makeup as you go through life.

Au contraire, it is *hardly* a chaotic system. The biochemical and
molecular biological orchestration that follows from the sperm meeting the
egg is far, far too well regulated to be chucked into the 'chaos theory'
bin. The degree of diversity in the broad scope of the human genome is
small enough that in general, we all turn out fundamentally the same
(head, trunk, genitals, pairs of eyes and ears and arms and legs and so on
and so on; we don't get wings, or claws, or scales) but great enough that
we don't all have the same coloring or features or build. Of course
there's an environmental impact--better nutrition leads to bigger people,
for instance, and a bottle of Miss Clairol can bestow you with different
hair color. But no matter how many bananas you eat, you ain't gonna turn
into a monkey--which to my mind is a similar sort of analogy to that tired
old 'fluttering butterfly-to-hurricane' story.

>How can it be that two individuals with the same DNA turn out so differently?
>Or are you one of those people fascinated by anecdotal evidence like the
>story of twins who marry a man with the same name, name their first
>child the same thing, etc.?

I can't address the social science end of things--which I never purported
to do, you'll note. But from a genotype-to-phenotype standpoint, every set
of identical twins I've seen have looked astonishingly similar. Anyone
have data about correlation in physical health among identical twins?

>I think, Angeline, that you owe me apologies for going off half-cocked
>and misinterpreting the point of what I had to say.

I think you need to recognized your own half-cocked instincts, and get
over yourself. Just a suggestion.

>Why do scientists panic when they see the word "rethinking"? In
>the early part of this century, physicists rethought their discipline and
>gave us quantum physics.

Note that they did not 'rethink their discipline' out of the clear blue
sky; they found that their current theories didn't adequately explain the
data, and they formulated new and better theories. No Chaos Theory Fudge
Factor required.

> Did this mean that Newtonian physics was gone? No.

You're absolutely right. Many people don't understand, however, that new
directions in science most often do *not* mean chucking out what came
before, in its entirety. Chaos theory may offer us new understandings, but
it does not mean that the work done before CT came along is not rendered
invalid. Some people think that. They're wrong.

>If anything, it left them with the new challenge of reconciliating the two
>forms. Wise scientists realize that the contradictions exist. However, the
>two explanations are /useful/. However, someday, someone is going to come
>up with an explanation which encompasses both.

Um, they're already pretty well reconciled, so far as they tell us here at

>But I digress.
>A current problem in anthropology is the notion of "race"...

No, *now* you digress. Anthropology stuff snipped.

>Science will be most useful when it can be employed as a methodology for
>understanding individuals without automatic shoehorning. Consider how this
>leads to misdiagnosis by medical professionals (the scientists most of us
>encounter in real life), for example.

Can you cite an example of how 'shoehorning' leads to misdiagnosis? No,
let's skip the anecdotal evidence; can you proved a statistically sound
cross-sectional study that buttresses you assumption?

>Another help would be to eliminate the knee-jerk response that occurs
>whenever an "outsider" tries to participate in a discussion about

Another help would be if people would learn a bit about science before
critiquing it.