Friday, May 2, 2008

Too Much Anthro: Blog and Site Reviews and Links

This week, I’ve decided to spend a bit of time on my linkroll. All of the sites I speak of will have corresponding links in the linkroll section of my sidebar. As I was cruising the anthroblogs for pages with particularly interesting content, I found that many blogs have been chatting as of late about Ben Stein’s new movie about intelligent design, Expelled. What they’ve been discussing more particularly is that there was a screening of Expelled at BIOLA that was attended by Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, from which PZ was thrown out. As such, quite a few of the links this week will be about this frightening occasion. One link is the “Expelled” movie website so you can enjoy intelligent design with Ben Stein in all its glory. Aesthetically, it’s rather pretty with high quality graphics and some amount of time having been spent on the composition of the site and placement of the elements themselves. Sadly, though, it’s about intelligent design! Which, in this case, means that content is considerably lacking. The website Expelled Exposed is the next on the list, and it is, in essence a rebuttal to Ben Stein’s film. This site is not really about appearance, though it is ok to look at and very easy to navigate. It is all about content and extremely rich in this regard. It has some great links to recent news articles concerning intelligent design, creationism and the claims made in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. While we’re on the issue of creationism, let us not forget that the editor of Scientific American magazine, John Rennie wrote an article called 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense which is a must for anybody who needs to brush up on creationism and science. Oh, and for those of you who are a little rusty when it comes to the family tree check out this link.

The official website of Richard Dawkins, world famous evolutionary biologist is up next. In contrast to the Expelled site, this one is content rich, maintains a forum and various social networking boards and applications for those who wish to participate and has an easily manageable interface. The blog of PZ Myers, beloved biologist and vehement critic of creationism has also been added. The content is engaging, humorous and, well, very distinct. Another blog of note, is Afarensis, my favorite anthroblog. The writer is witty, fun and knowledgeable. He posts on a variety of areas within the discipline of anthropology, is informative and well spoken about issues. Also, he holds active dialogues with his readers, which tends to enrich the website, make it more accessible and, in a way, make me feel as though I’m part of a community though I’ve never contributed. Hm…Monkey News is a pretty cool site which also follows news stories, though it never puts up opinion pieces. Odds are that if a story was published in English language newspapers, this website has reprinted it with a link back to the source. It’s pretty amazing for all things primate related. One problem is that there are so many advertisements that it makes finding the archived material and suggested links a little difficult. On the subject of primates, Bonobo Handshake has some amazing photos of orphaned bonobo babies, children and youth but not very much by way of recent written content. And the last link for the week is Panda’s Thumb, a pretty sweet site with tons of contributors speaking on various issues concerning science and evolution that is easy to navigate and a good place to check out if you want to hear varying perspectives from lots of different individuals.

Homo floresiensis: The Impact of Information Sharing

In 2003, an international team of paleoanthropologists & archaeologists discovered seemingly human "hobbit" sized subfossil remains on Flores island in Indonesia. The team that made the discovery claims that the remains of these individuals represent a heretofore unseen species of hominid and has been named Homo floresiensis. Ever since the Hobbit of Flores first graced the headlines in 2003, it has continued to make frequent appearances in news media and journals because its status as a new species is oft contested. This debate over its status as a species continues to be an on-going one because there is limited access to the remains. To date, only members of the original research team and selct outside experts have had access to the bones. All information pertaining to the find has been released by the aforementioned individuals in their published papers and journal articles. This lack of information sharing is a detriment to the scientific community. As the case of the H. floresiensis demonstrates, it continues to produce papers based on idle speculation and recycled information, reinterpreted(often incorrectly).

Recently, the saga of the Hobbit continued through the publication of a paper by Australian scientists Peter Obendorf, John Oxnard & Ben Kefford in the Proceeding of the Royal Society B(Biological Sciences). The article's title succintly summarizes the contents of the paper: "Are the small human-like fossils found on Flores human endemic cretins?" It challenges the attribution of species status to the find in Flores. They state that these remains are those of Homo sapiens suffering from severe congential hypothyrodism which, they claim, explains the oddities in form that the bones exhibit. Their hypothesis is hinged on the size of the sella turcica(aka pituitary fossa, where the pituitary gland rests) which they state was enlarged, a symptom of hypothyroidism. The evidence they used to determine the size of the sella turcica comes from a 2D screen capture of a blurry 3D CT scan captured from a BBC Horizon show called "The Mystery of the human hobbit," similar to the graphic above.

This paper has produced quite the negative reaction in the anthropological community and has translated into a significant amount of press in newspapers, journals and blogs. Mainly, Obendorf et al. have been criticized for unsound methodolgy, statements not backed by tangible information and usage of incorrect data. Peter Brown, a member of the original research team has critiqued the paper for "being complete nonsense...without a glimmer of factual support." Regarding the sella turcica, specifically, Brown stated that the area is "very poorly preserved and not capable of meaningful measurement." Colin Groves, a biological anthropologist recounted to the press "...I warned him [Peter Obendorf] that he would be simply laughed to scorn if he produced what is mainly idle speculation."

Obendorf et al.'s paper is idle speculation. It is not science. Science is a system of acquiring knowledge based off of observation, deduction and measurable, replicable results. Seeing as how the measurement of the sella turcica was taken from a warped and blurry computer simulated image of the area as exhibited on a TV show, I would daresay that this is not a scientifically valid measurement and that they are wrong in their estimation of the size of the pituitary fossa(sella turcica). At the end of the day, their argument is mainly wishful thinking around what could be. Had Obendorf et al. actually been given access to an endocast or another accurate representation of that area, then their measurement of the sella turcica would be demonstrably more accurate. But, then again, that's the issue: lack of access.

Obendorf et al. have been unfairly criticized for writing this paper without ever having handled the remains. It is not that they did not want access to them, it is that they were not allowed access. If Obendorf et. al had been given access to the actual remains of casts of high resolution photos of it, then we likely would have avoided this entirle debacle. It seems ridiculous to condemn this paper for having been written without better access to quality data when information sharing is a problem within the broader community. This paper was a product of its environment. Yes, Obendorf et al. could have decided against bringing their voices into the room concerning this debate, bu they didn't. Why not publish a paper challenging the generally accepted theory based almost solely on bad data and wishful thinking when so few others have access to quality information? It's definitely a way of adding papers to your curriculum vitae. And, maybem just maybe, the people holding a monopoly on the evidence will tire of the challenges based on flimsy evidence and finally allow other people access to the find.

Earlier on, I mentioned a comment that Peter Brown made about the sella turcica. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say I failed to convey the spirit of the quote. Since guilt plagues me so, I'll provide you with it now. Peter Brown said that "I'm the only person on the planet to have seen what's left of the pituitary fossa. It is very poorly preserved and not capable of meaningful measurement." Yup, that's right. He's the only person in the world to have seen that area of the skull, so, of course, he would know. But we wouldn't. John Hawks, an American paleoanthropologist provides a rather astute critique of this comment. In his blog he states "It may be true, but that doesn't make it science. If nobody can see it, then nobody can replicate it. Which means we have no reason to believe it."

Human Terrain Teams: Mobilized Social Science

Human terrain teams (HTTs) have garnered intense criticism at home from American academic anthropologists. These critiques have been aimed at this program because it requires that one member of the five on these teams must have an MA or PhD in cultural anthropology. Those who oppose HTTs point to potential ethical issues in the short and long term. Sadly, the massive amounts of negative attention HTTs have received from academic anthropologists citing ethical issues has not resulted in the provision of any practical solutions to these problems. This is extremely disheartening and seems to reveal that there is a lack of motivation and commitment within the discipline when it comes to engagement in action with the potential to yield positive change. This deficiency in constructive criticism, coupled with the absence of productive activity gives one cause to wonder whether or not a shift in the discipline has occurred that has led to the return of the glorification of the armchair anthropologist.

One major source of critique is the Network of Concerned Anthropologists(NCA), a self described "independent ad hoc network of anthropologists seeking to promote an ethical anthropology." On their website, they ask for anthropologists to sign a pledge of non-participation in counterinsurgency operations on the basis of ethical issues. Two of the founding members, David Price and Roberto Gonzalez have written letters concerning HTTs that have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. These letters strongly suggest that HTTs are part of a clandestine intelligence gathering program specifically geared towards identifying potential insurgents for later removal by an implied paramilitary branch, similar to the Phoenix Program that existed in Vietnam during the late 60s and 70s. They also indicated that data collected would be used not only to murder people but to further destabilize local communities and to manipulate people into doing the bidding of the US military. The American Anthropological Association(AAA) is also a major source of criticism, albeit not one plagued by fears of conspiracy and boogey monsters under the bed. This organization has instead engaged in scrutiny of the more plausible aspects of the situation and focused on ethical issues ranging from conflicts of interest, informed consent and potential coercion.

The criticisms put forth by the network of Concerned Anthropologists and its members, imaginative as they are, fail to really deal with the isue of improving the lives of Iraqi and Afghani locals and American nationals throughout the remainder of U.S. military operations in said countries. These criticisms focus much more on the less than stellar historical relationship between the Department of Defense and the discipline. These comments also serve only to relay the anxiety and fear experienced by some over the potential for anthropological expertise to be exploited to carry out military objectives harmful to former research participants and the field itself. These criticisms fail to deal with the actual issues raised by the existence of HTTs and the quality of life of individuals in countries with occupying forces of disparate/divergent cultures. In the case of the AAA, though they do provide salient criticisms, they do not address nor do they advance conceivable solutions to the deficiencies that exist in terms of the Human Terrain System(HTS) as an organization that conducts ethnographic research to improve military operations as well as quality of life.

Col. William Darley, the editor of the Military Review states "You have all kinds of people in the universities complaining that we've got into a situation we don't understand in Iraq and that we're buffoons for not making any efforts to understand the culture. On the other hand, when we do try to do it, critics say, 'You can't do that,' or 'What you are doing is somehow immoral.'" Both Col. Darley's remarks and the formation of HTTs indicate that the military is receptive to hearing new, alternative strategies regarding Iraq. As experts in the realm of culture, is it not one's duty to make a contribution where possible?

The fundamental question undergirding all of this is: how do we mobilize social scientists to carry out the task of instilling cultural sensitivity in military personnel to aid in the improvement of quality of life, mutual understanding and respect and the reduction of violence while maintaining a code of ethics? Our code of ethics exists to help and protect people. We merely need to find the best ways to do this in our particular context. This is an extremely difficult question that is compounded by the urgency with which cultural information is needed to create new tactical strategies for the reduction of loss in terms of civilian and combatant lives. The military, for one is at least making an attempt to answer it.

Capt. Matthew Tompkins, a HTT leader in Iraq proposes that the military ask scholars "'To what extent are you valuing your discipline over real lives that you could be making a difference in?'" Fearful of being associated with the U.S. Armed Forces and the Nation's global power politics, American anthropologists are rejecting the possibility of a future where the social sciences and the Department of Defense may reconcile to pursue their, at times, varying goals. In doing this, they are dooming these endeavors to the wretched fate of tea time chats and dissolution. A biting critique coupled with an absence of practical solutions is a form of most exquisite abortion, perfected. The social sciences would do well to learn the lesson that the US military appears to be learning right now: carrots, not sticks, will probably do the trick.
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