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Scientists Respond to The New York Times

For the third time in three years, The New York Times has published an article by Nicholas Wade (12/20/10, 12/13/10, and again on February 18, 2013) that includes misrepresentations of the American Anthropological Association’s views on science, ethics, and the role of debate in the advancement of knowledge. Some have found their way into the recent article by Emily Eakin in The New York Times Magazine Section (2/17/13). In light of these misrepresentations, we present for the record the exact wording of core guiding documents of the Association.

The American Anthropological Association’s Statement of Purpose (Mission Statement) last amended in 1983 reads as follows: “The purposes of the Association shall be to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects, through archeological, biological, ethnological and linguistic research; and to further the professional interests of American anthropologists, including the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems.”

The AAA’s Long Range Plan, revised April 22, 2011, states: “The American Anthropological Association will support the growth, advancement and application of anthropological science and interpretation through research, publication, and dissemination within a broad range of educational and research institutions as well as to the society at large.”

Furthermore, while AAA does not take sides in intellectual disputes among individual members, the Association remains committed to ethical practice and to robust debate about disciplinary ethics. The Long Range Plan states: “The AAA will reinforce and promote the values associated with the acquisition of anthropological knowledge, expertise, and interpretation. This includes a commitment to the AAA Code of Ethics.” The new version of that code, now entitled AAA Statement on Ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility, was released in 2012. The Statement reflects the multiyear efforts of two different working groups and an Association-wide discussion of draft versions. The final version was adopted by vote of the membership in 2012.

Finally, the Association continues to view lively debate as key to knowledge production. Disagreements about what is good science and what is bad science do not translate into an attack on science.

Science, Advocacy and Anthropology

By Leith Mullings, Monica Heller, Ed Liebow and Alan Goodman


Do you remember the arcade game ‘Whack-a-Mole’? Plastic animals pop up at random from their holes in a table’s surface. The player bashes them back into their holes with a rubber mallet. As the pace picks up, initial delight is replaced by a growing sense of futility. Every time a mole is whacked back into its hole, another pops up somewhere else. The debate about whether science and advocacy are inimical is starting to feel like this.

It has popped up again in this week’s New York Times Magazine in reference to our discipline, anthropology. Contrary to some loudly voiced claims, both advocacy and science are (and long have been) at the core of our discipline. At the same time, of course, both continually raise important ethical questions requiring continued conversation, examination and debate; indeed, the American Anthropological Association recently approved a new statement on professional responsibilities. They both also require a commitment to good scholarship, and to lively but civil scholarly debate, in which arguments are considered persuasive because of a consistent body of evidence whose reliability and validity inspire confidence, not because of exceptional circumstances presented in a made-for-the-movies sensational fashion. (see also Professor Elizabeth Povinelli’s review of Noble Savages).

Let us use the problem of ‘race’ to illustrate the complex relationship between what counts as good or bad science, and significance of advocacy in anthropology. Our modern discipline’s origins are derived directly from an uncritical acceptance of, as well as a critical response to overt 19th and early 20th century ‘scientific racism.’ ‘Science’ legitimated prejudice and bigotry, holding that races were genetically separate and hierarchically ranked, and thus rationalizing slavery, Jim Crow laws and even genocide. And lest we think that ‘scientific racism’ is some archaic relic that was driven out of the public conversation, one need only consult the more recent arguments of authors such as Herrnstein, Murray, Rushton, Jensen, and Lynn.

In an attempt to bring sounder evidence to the debate, our Association’s current Race Project draws from all fields of anthropology and provides a modern, and eminently scholarly, understanding of race, casting a critical eye on race and racism through the lenses of history, science, and lived experience. The project, and the book that accompanies it, RACE: Are We So Different?, is also a form of advocacy, raising public awareness about how human variation differs from the popular, and sometimes even academic, notions of race. It argues, specifically, that 1) race is a recent human invention, 2) popular ideas about race emerge from history and culture, not biology, and 3) race and racism are embedded in institutions and everyday life.

The more general point is that at the very core of our discipline are commitments to the best of science and the best of advocacy. Advocacy suggests at minimum an ethical position to try to protect and better the lives of the individuals we work with, in particular those who are without access to power. Science stands for prediction (based on current understanding), followed by systematic observation and analysis and then, usually, revised understanding. But there is something more: we recognize that science is a practice that is undertaken in a social context, and as such it can be limited by the social hierarchies of its time, creating burdens and benefits, winners and losers. To have this awareness is not ‘anti-science.’ Indeed, it offers the sort of tough love of science that all responsible scientists ought to share. And every time the debate about ‘science’ versus ‘advocacy’ re-emerges, we cannot but hope that our discipline’s lengthy track record of critically embracing science can show that the debate itself is based on false premises.
We’d love to put an end to the futility of the science versus advocacy version of “Whack a mole” so we can focus on quality anthropological work for the public good.

Leith Mullings is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and President of the AAA.

Monica Heller is Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and Vice President and President-Elect of the AAA.

Ed Liebow is the Executive Director of the AAA.

Alan Goodman is Professor of Biological Anthropology at Hampshire College, and a Past President of the AAA.

Last Call for Comment on AAA’s Posted Draft Code of Ethics

Today is the last day to review the posted Code of Ethics and submit your comments to the subcommittee charged to review the draft code. E-mail ethicsfeedback@aaanet.org to share your comments.

Please Review the Proposed Code of Ethics

Just a reminder – you, the membership at large, are invited to review the posted draft Code of Ethics, and submit your comments by January 30, 2012 to ethicsfeedback@aaanet.org for the subcommittee to consider.  Your input is crucial to this process, and we thank you for your dedication to our association.

In the event you missed it, here’s the background of this revision process:

At the 2011 AAA Annual Meeting recently held in Montréal, Quebec, Canada, the AAA Executive Board (EB) voted to receive a draft revision of the AAA’s Code of Ethics as revised by the Task Force for Comprehensive Ethics Review. The EB also passed a resolution thanking the task force and its chair, Dena Plemmons, for all of their hard work. Beginning in early 2009, the Task Force was commissioned to review the Code of Ethics and consult extensively with relevant AAA committees and commissions, the Section Assembly, the membership at large and other interested parties. The Task Force finished its review in October 2011.

After receiving the draft, the EB appointed a subcommittee to review the draft code which is currently available for review on the AAA website. The subcommittee is chaired by Vice President and President-Elect Monica Heller, and members include Hugh Gusterson, Jean Schensul, Ida Susser, Vilma Santiago, Deb Martin, Sandra Lopez Varela and AAA President Leith Mullings (ex-officio). The subcommittee will present its recommendation to the Executive Board at its May meeting.

Review of the Proposed Code of Ethics – Deadline Approaching

The January 30th deadline to review the posted draft code of ethics and submit your comments is quickly approaching.

At the 2011 AAA Annual Meeting recently held in Montréal, Quebec, Canada, the AAA Executive Board (EB) voted to receive a draft revision of the AAA’s Code of Ethics as revised by the Task Force for Comprehensive Ethics Review. The EB also passed a resolution thanking the task force and its chair, Dena Plemmons, for all of their hard work. Beginning in early 2009, the Task Force was commissioned to review the Code of Ethics and consult extensively with relevant AAA committees and commissions, the Section Assembly, the membership at large and other interested parties. The Task Force finished its review in October 2011.

After receiving the draft, the EB appointed a subcommittee to review the draft code which is currently available for review on the AAA website. The subcommittee is chaired by Vice President and President-Elect Monica Heller, and members include Hugh Gusterson, Jean Schensul, Ida Susser, Vilma Santiago, Deb Martin, Sandra Lopez Varela and AAA President Leith Mullings (ex-officio). The subcommittee will present its recommendation to the Executive Board at its May meeting.

We invite you, the membership at large to review the posted code, and submit your comments by January 30, 2012 to ethicsfeedback@aaanet.org for the subcommittee to consider.  Your input is crucial to this process, and we thank you for your dedication to our association.

Review of the Proposed Code of Ethics

At the 2011 AAA Annual Meeting recently held in Montréal, Quebec, Canada, the AAA Executive Board (EB) voted to receive a draft revision of the AAA’s Code of Ethics as revised by the Task Force for Comprehensive Ethics Review. The EB also passed a resolution thanking the task force and its chair, Dena Plemmons, for all of their hard work. Beginning in early 2009, the Task Force was commissioned to review the Code of Ethics and consult extensively with relevant AAA committees and commissions, the Section Assembly, the membership at large and other interested parties. The Task Force finished its review in October 2011.

After receiving the draft, the EB appointed a subcommittee to review the draft code which is currently available for review on the AAA website. The subcommittee is chaired by Vice President and President-Elect Monica Heller, and members include Hugh Gusterson, Jean Schensul, Ida Susser, Vilma Santiago, Deb Martin, Sandra Lopez Varela and AAA President Leith Mullings (ex-officio). The subcommittee will present its recommendation to the Executive Board at its May meeting.

We invite you, the membership at large to review the posted code, and submit your comments by January 30, 2012 to ethicsfeedback@aaanet.org for the subcommittee to consider.  Your input is crucial to this process, and we thank you for your dedication to our association.

The Proposed Code of Ethics – Please Review

At the 2011 AAA Annual Meeting recently held in Montréal, Quebec, Canada, the AAA Executive Board (EB) voted to receive a draft revision of the AAA’s Code of Ethics as revised by the Task Force for Comprehensive Ethics Review. The EB also passed a resolution thanking the task force and its chair, Dena Plemmons, for all of their hard work. Beginning in early 2009, the Task Force was commissioned to review the Code of Ethics and consult extensively with relevant AAA committees and commissions, the Section Assembly, the membership at large and other interested parties. The Task Force finished its review in October 2011.

After receiving the draft, the EB appointed a subcommittee to review the draft code which is currently available for review on the AAA website. The subcommittee is chaired by Vice President and President-Elect Monica Heller, and members include Hugh Gusterson, Jean Schensul, Ida Susser, Vilma Santiago, Deb Martin, Sandra Lopez Varela and AAA President Leith Mullings (ex-officio). The subcommittee will present its recommendation to the Executive Board at its May meeting.

We invite you, the membership at large to review the posted code, and submit your comments by January 30, 2012 to ethicsfeedback@aaanet.org for the subcommittee to consider.  Your input is crucial to this process, and we thank you for your dedication to our association.

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