Willful Ignorance in Anthropology (and Elsewhere)

by David French

Robert, I’ve been reading with interest your dispatches from the world of anthropology, and I’m particularly grateful for pointing me to Razib Khan’s excellent writing. Clicking through the links and reading the debate, I’m struck (as I frequently am) by what seems like a desire of many anthropologists not to know, not to learn. The Khan quote you highlighted is worth re-pasting:

Too often when I argue with the sort of cultural anthropologist who is strongly influenced by what we would broadly (and sometimes inaccurately) term ‘post-modernist,’ and buys strongly into the thesis that we look through the glass so darkly that objectivity is well nigh impossible, one is invariably pummeled by a gale-force blast of obscurantism. But there is a curious tendency at work: obscurity, complexity, and subtly, are on stark display when they wish to deny a positive assertion you make, but such nuance recedes when they make clear statements as to what is just, right, and true. In the end I feel that I’m wasting my time with a bizarro-world lawyer.

This form of argument is certainly not unique to anthropology. Conservative students — especially social conservatives — are quite accustomed to hearing one factual and moral assertion after another, only to be condescendingly told that truth is relative when they respond with factual and moral assertions of their own. The agenda is not to discover truth, but to communicate ideologies. Within anthropology, if race is supposed to be a social construct, then by golly, it’s a social construct, and they’ll even go so far as to redefine and narrow the very discipline itself to safeguard their conclusions.

As we’ve said many times, this is not education. And so long as academic disciplines place ideology over the search for truth, they are due less and less deference. We cannot be sure our “scholars” know basic facts, researched alternative hypotheses, or even considered opposing arguments. In fact, we know that even asking the wrong question can give some academics the vapors.

The academic elite is simply not all that elite.