November 13, 2005

Intelligent Design and School Curricula

A problem with the Intelligent Design paradigm in a teaching context is that ID potentially eliminates the need to explain anything at all. ID is not limited to biology, it is equally applicable to physics, chemistry and astronomy, among others. This is not really conducive to cumulative learning, since the simplest solution to all problems is to invoke a designer.

Most IDers accept all but a very few of the facts and principles of mainstream biology. The major concept they add is that of ‘irreducible complexity’ (IC). There are two things they have not established. Firstly, to establish that an IC is, in fact, irreducible, which is necessary to have any scientific relevance. The scientific value of providing a strong evidential case for irreducibility would be very high. There is not even a weak evidential case at present, although there are claims. The present scientific value is thus very very low, too low to compete for time against stronger cases for alternatives in the already limited time available in science classes.

Secondly, to establish that even if an IC is irreducible, we require a designer. ID has no theory relating to why a designer is needed in this circumstance, nor is any way to increase the confidence in a designer proposed. There is only a mystery. Appealing to a designer to solve the mystery is not a theory, scientific or otherwise. It is a conjecture that arises from an act of faith with absolutely no chain of evidence leading from IC to ID.

This is also a considerable deviation from the normal practice of science. Even if, some day, someone can prove that an IC is indeed ‘irreducible’, necessarily this would simply mean that the proof demonstrated that accepted principles of biology, physics and chemistry were flawed and did not operate as we expected. This happens with fair regularity in science, and the scientific response is not to say “Well, that’s that. Must be a designer”, however tempting. Instead it leads to more science, attempting to work out the revised nature of the flawed principles. Recourse to a designer, for whatever reason, is simply giving up in a scientific sense.

The whole underlying premise of ID is flawed as a scientific approach; it is a fundamentally unscientific approach that only designates points at which science stops. It is not clear that ID promotes the creationist camp especially well either.

The science associated with ID does not contradict any fundamental point of Darwin that has survived scientific scrutiny. In particular, it does not present an IC that would challenge the view that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor. So it is not, in balance, ‘anti-Darwinist’. ID does not, in general, overturn notions of the antiquity of the Earth, so it does not serve the Biblical ‘literalists’. It does not even provide any additional opportunity to draw on one’s faith in whatever deities one chooses, whether it be the god shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians, or the many deities of Hinduism, or the more recent Flying Spagetti Monstor. It is only through misunderstanding what modern evolutionary theory is about, and indeed what ID is about, that creationists could draw any comfort at all. Fundamentally they should be equally against ID and scientific evolutionary theory, excepting, perhaps, the conjecture that leads to the designer.

If ID is to influence the scientific curriculum of schools, the most ID has to bring is the concept of an IC as a problem to solve. IDers offer no scientific approach to solving these problems and that is where the influence should stop. There is no basis to introduce the concept of a designer into curriculum, as they offer no evidence for this conjecture, scientific or otherwise.

Posted by mdfischer at 06:50 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 02, 2005

Retrospection: AAA rescinds acceptance of the El Dorado Task Force Report

I am publishing the following perhaps a bit prematurely, given its potential for generating flash mob responses. I am not trying to incite but to begin a discourse on how we might use this episode to create a fruitful way forward in developing anthropologists' professional ethics.

Following the announcement of the results of the Referendum to Rescind the AAA's Acceptance of the El Dorado Task Force Report a month ago little comment has appeared other than that in the article by David Glenn in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and to a lessor extent in a piece by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed, though there was a bit of a rumble at SavageMinds.

I voted for the referendum to rescind, was an active discussant during the period that the Task Force sat, opposed setting up the Task Force, and wrote two guest editorials critiquing Turner and Sponsel’s ‘memo’ and Tierney’s book before and after publication (which were suppressed by the editors for being too controversial).

My reasons for these positions and actions were based on ethical grounds. My explanation for how this situation arose was political. In other words, I came to believe that that Turner and Sponsel were motivated by political reasons, not ethical ones when they wrote the memo, and assisted Tierney in writing the book (at least Turner - Sponsel denies this), and that Turner, Sponsel and Tierney apparently abandoned all consideration of ethical behaviour in their actions. It was political because they were trying to mobilise support by manipulating circumstances and appealing to political solutions. This is not to say that they did not believe that Neel and Chagnon had behaved unethically by their standards. But the fact that they were willing to create and promote an ethical cesspool in order to prosecute their belief does not bode well for ethical standards overall.

Ethics must to be approached from the high ground - otherwise there is no point, and certainly the result will be without conviction. This is why I think the referendum to rescind acceptance of the Task Force report succeeded. It was not because, as suggested in some of the SavageMinds commentary, that people were weary of the issue, or that there was a vast conspiracy of ‘Neel and Chagnon supporters’ who stuffed the ballot-box to continue with their evil ways. It was for the reasons stated in the referendum. The process appeared to have been unfair and there was no reasonable case put to counter this conclusion. This referendum was the first real opportunity for the process to be evaluated by a more general cross-section of the Association (at least those willing to cast a ballot). They cared about ethics, and the ethical ramifications of the ‘El Dorado’ process were more than they could stomach.

I don't think that rescinding acceptance of the report moves us back to square one in the development of our disciplinary ethical framework. It does highlight that those who believe that change is required cannot simply make up standards of ethics as they go along, supporting gross ethical violations on the one hand, and on the other promoting as yet unestablished principles as if these had been established for all time. Perhaps we do need venues for ethical enforcement beyond the institutional base of individual researchers (which is a robust system), but this need has yet to be established. We almost certainly need more substantial guidelines as a discipline, but it is not the sole preserve of the AAA to establish these ... there are anthropologists who live outside the USA. But for an ethical framework to succeed in anthropology or in any activity, it must grow and develop by consensus, not combat.

Posted by mdfischer at 08:52 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 02, 2005

Live 8 online

It's never too late. Join the virtual rally in Edinburgh for the Live 8 demonstration. Join here

Try here for information on what you can do to help Live 8

For the UK:

Posted by mdfischer at 03:31 PM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2005

Scenes from a Marriage or No Weddings and a Funeral: Part I

This originated as a comment I posted to John Norvell's piece Anthropology: Scenes from a Marriage. Since I have started a blog here, it seemed more appropriate to take over ownership directly.

There are three themes in John's posting, which I will respond to separately.

The first is the “Scenes from a marriage” analogy. Although this suits the “Four Field Myth”, it does not apply well to the ethnographic roles the divisions of anthropology condition for anthropologists.

Borofsky’s 2002 AA article is cited to demonstrate the low rate of collaboration by different ‘fields’ of anthropology. Come on! -- 9.5% of articles surveyed is huge, more than enough to indicate that the four fields structure is a very productive disciplinary ‘grand narrative'.

I think the differing opinions of the significance of this extent of overt collaboration arises from the tension between the orchestra model as a disciplinary ideal vs the battle of the bands model (or maybe in today’s world the “Pop Idol” AKA “American Idol” model).

If we actually read and ponder our critiques of other disciplines, it is pretty clear that what defines a discipline is not some common set of methods and questions that people work on, but the ability to influence other’s conceptions of what they are doing and how this can be interpreted and built upon. This does not require that each anthropologist be aware of and be influenced directly by every other anthropologist (or even every category). It just requires that the network be dense enough to where there is influence, however indirect. 9.5% direct interaction represents more density than one might find in a discipline such as physics, for example.

Physicists are not a unified happy group of people. There are major structural divisions, for example between experimental and theoretical physicists (probably the most fundamental division), but also a whole raft of internal specialisms with their own base information, questions, conceptualisations, methods etc. which are unique to a specialism, and with poor comprehension between specialisms with respect to these internal issues. The results from the specialisation become useful to others when the results can be expressed in a manner that is ‘relevant’ to another specialisation. This is a tiny minority of activity within the discipline.

Why anthropology should be more coherent than physics I can’t imagine. Holism is not attained by explicit interactions alone, but rather by assumptions of direct and indirect influences and constraints.

Despite the complaints of some sociocultural anthropologists, the four fields (and more) are active and working in anthropology, and it would be a great shame to let departmental politics overtake good sense.

I should add that in the UK we are undergoing somewhat a reversal of the American trend - so far about half of all departments are reincorporating areas into anthropology that have been separated for more than a half century. Even with formal divisions the intellectual connections survived, and the need to interface with the world as it is becoming just seems to be a bit easier when people come together in an organisational sense as well as satisfying intellectual needs.

Posted by mdfischer at 01:22 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Introduction - Michael D Fischer

Introductions are boring, but probably necessary. The really boring details you can check out at, though I need to update this a bit as I have just received a personal chair, which in the UK system means I am finally a professor, fully empowered to bore and irritate people to my heart's content.

I'm Michael D Fischer, a thread of the biography melded with my doppleganger Michael M J Fischer. It's an interesting blend, all the more fascinating because he and I have approached issues from pretty much different directions while arriving at more or less the same places. He wins the biography on points (I get the name, he gets the photo). This biography gave rise to a future project of a panel at the AAA someday consisting entirely of speakers named Michael Fischer.

Although I am now British, I was born in the USA in a small town in Oklahoma. All my formal education was in the US, at the University of Texas, Austin. Anthropology was my third career, and I have been at the University of Kent, Canterbury for the past 20 years. I began there as a Lecturer in Anthropology and Computing, an inspiration of John Davis, now Warden of All Souls, Oxford, who had spent a year at Berkeley and was quite taken by Gene Hammels' Quantitative Anthropology Laboratory. He went back to Kent in 1984 and wrote two proposals, one to acquire equipment for the entire Department for Teaching and Research, and another to fund the post that I eventually occupied. The post was under this really terrible Thatcherite programme called "New Blood", and formally I replaced Paul Stirling, the founder of the department who was offered a small fortune to retire early. He remained at Kent for another 13 years as my mentor and colleague, where we produced what was probably the first complete set of fieldnotes available online in 1994, spanning 45 years of research in the Turkish Village. This is presently in the middle of a face-lift to incorporate new technology and so is not entirely operational, but can be found at It will be relaunched in October, on his birthday.

As one might guess a lot of my work has related to methods, though I have always related these methods to ethnographic work in progress. Since 1982 when I became an Anthropology graduate student to present I have been in the field about six years, mostly in Pakistan and the Cook Islands, but including work on all continents except Antarctica, which I hope to fit in some day just to be tidy. People (such as Georgina Born) often assume that I am that 'straw anthropologist" that is so unpopular in post-structuralist discourse, but that is usually because they are not paying attention. It is true that I consider a lot of my research and teaching as 'science', but it is also true that a great deal of it is scholarship with more of a humanities orientation. I chose Anthropology because it did span the humanities to the sciences, and was not one or the other. The UK has turned out to be a good place to be during the dark ages of anthropology in the USA, where both the humanities and sciences influences in Anthropology were marginalised by powerful political cliques. In the UK we could largely do Anthropology rather than argue about it, and anthropology in the UK is funded by all the different disciplinary focused research funding bodies depending on the specifics of the research. When you consider that we have perhaps 300 permanent academic anthropologists in the UK, against perhaps 5000 in the USA, we have managed to publish beyond our weight in the confusion.

Whatever the value of what I've had to say, I have been active in developing online resources for anthropologists since the late 1970s, though its fair to say that little of this had much impact until the WWW took off sometime in 1995. Since that time we have created a great midden of resources at in what we call the Ethnographics Gallery, founded in January 1994, the direct descendent of our first web site in April, 1993, which basically extended our BB, gopher and ftp sites to the WWW. The EG is currently undergoing a transition to new grid-based technologies (so-called E-Science) which will make it much easier to find and use our materials and make possible many more services on our part. Much of this transition will take place over the coming summer, and new services will begin over the following year.

Anyway, that's far more than you want to know at the moment.

I do want to commend John Norvell who has taken the initiative to set up this site.

Posted by mdfischer at 03:02 AM | Comments (2)