Re: The Real Place of Fuzziness in Anthropology

Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax (
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 15:35:52 -0800

Angeline Kantola wrote:
> 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.

Maybe that's a problem. Over here in anthropology we are dragging
out some of that old data. But then, our data subjects don't just sit in
a test tube and gurgle. They have minds and can think for themselves.
They can also comment on our studies.

> 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.

All I note is that Ms. Science here keeps bringing this up when I have
made some clear statements that I believe to the contrary.

> 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.

Yet you made it in response to something I said. This is nothing more
than bullshit, being used to cover up the fact that you have but recently
been a boor. Unlike you, I /admit/ that I mean much of this personally
-- I am not about to couch what I am saying behind some alabaster facade
of academic respectability.

> >>
> >> 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?

Not at all personal eh? Good thing I paid some attention to the humanities end
of things so that I can recognize double-talk at twenty
paces or more. Pity they don't seem to teach that in the
Science curriculum.

> 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.

And yet it is done quite regularly. Perhaps some of your professors have
pulled the stunt before.

What would you have done in high school, I ask you, should you have
heated your little test tube mercuric oxide for the hour of the class
and found it still a cinnamon powder? In the meantime, your classmates
were playing with their shiney little balls of mercury? What do you
think would have gone on your report? I've known plenty of people
who have rewritten the little lab report pretending that it did
"what it was supposed to do". Otherwise, they were left to explain
why it didn't do what it was supposed to do.

Note also that Robert Milliken presented his data on oil drops as
reflecting all the data. In fact, he threw out a lot of tries
that didn't look right to him.

What is happening here is that you are talking about the high
ethics of science and I am talking about the culture of Science.
Like many scientists, you think that these ethics are enough
to control the minds of every person in science. There is
a direct parallel here to claims by a few scientists (protected
by tenure) who insist that race and intelligence are clearly
correlated, that the human population is always divisible into
neat little bell curves. Don't tell me that there is not
an outside concern that sometimes affects how scientists
perceive the world.

>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
> examples.

See my remarks above. Also see Thomas Kuhn. What Kuhn found was that
scientists are more often than not interested in ignoring difficult
anomalies. If it can't be easilly explained, it is often forgotten.
That is until someone comes along and offers a way of thinking about
the data which will cover the bases.

> > > 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.

And as I said, I think I find that you betray the actual personal and
self-righteous nature of your attacks at every turn. See above for
a prime example.

> >> 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.

Au contraire, but this is /still/ chaos. Another of the lessons of
chaos theory is that just because there are things jumping out all over
the place doesn't mean that there are not patterns which develop! What
is unique is that within the patterns you find variations. Things do
not turn out exactly alike.

> >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?

Again you are missing the point: what if the twins are raised in different
environments? Do you think that starving one twin while young and letting
the other live like a prince is going to have any effect?

As you agree, these are the same genotype. But is the phenotype going to
turn out the same? Do you believe in some "psychic connection" between
the twins? Do you believe that even under drastically different conditions
the twins are going to turn out looking exactly alike?

I hope not!

> >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.

That's worth quoting back at you: I think you need to recognize your own
half-cocked instincts, and get over yourself. Just a suggestion.

In social sciences, we call this kind of phenomenon "projection". You've
described yourself very well in your attack on me.

> >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
> UW.

Ah, another student who waits for the professor. Expect no Einstein here, folks.

> >But I digress.
> >
> >A current problem in anthropology is the notion of "race"...
> No, *now* you digress. Anthropology stuff snipped.

Excuse me, but did you notice that this thread was in sci.anthropology?
You /digress/.

And does a real scientist throw out data so casually as that?

> >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?

Read Susan Sontag's excellent book ILLNESS AS METAPHOR.

> >Another help would be to eliminate the knee-jerk response that occurs
> >whenever an "outsider" tries to participate in a discussion about
> >Science.
> Another help would be if people would learn a bit about science before
> critiquing it.
> AK

I think my statement still stands. Thanks for once again demonstrating
the knee-jerk doublespeak that I so criticize in contemporary
Scientific Culture.



___ ___
/\ _|_ /\ Joel and Lynn GAzis-SAx
/ /\_|_/\ \
/ / /\|/\ \ \
\ \ \/|\/ / / "If we try to flee from our human condition into
\ \/_|_\/ / the computer, we only meet ourselves there."
\/__|__\/ William Barrett