The “Napoleon Chagnon Kicked My Dog” Anti-Anthropologist-Defamation-League Movement

March 7, 2013

Judging by the number of times my post about Napoleon Chagnon kicking my dog has been viewed, shared, tweeted, etc., I am beginning to wonder if maybe a few people have mild feelings on the subject.  [Attention True Believers: This is meant in an ironic sense.  Please do not question my ability to notice that people from all over the world have been reading my personal blog.]

In particular, Barbara King [edited-see Barbara’s comment below] found it ironic that on one hand I would call for civil discourse, while on the other hand I was referring to others’ views as “vomit.”  Let me be clear here: I am not referring to Barbara’s views or work as “vomit.”  What I am referring to as “vomit” is the wholesale regurgitation of quotes, allegations, and innuendo bandied about by some individuals, and a collective failure to digest and analyze such.

Barbara, if you’re reading this, I am not trying to bully on you or on NPR.  I like your pieces, and I will continue to read them. I like NPR, and I plan on listening to and contributing to my local station.  But, you took me task for criticizing others for lack of civility while I myself was not being civil.  I would argue that any blog post containing an image of a protester with a sign that says “Chags Doom Nations” must be taken with tongue in cheek, and by obvious parody and satire distinguishes itself from other blog postings that carry the drapings of impartial commentary…but I see your point.

So here goes:

A thought experiment

If I were to state boldly, publicly, and prominently an allegation–let’s say, that a prominent anthropologist kicked my dog.  Some folks would immediately assume that I had been drinking crack-a-ccino with Mel Gibson at the La-La Cafe.  But most rational academicians would probably evaluate the evidence for my allegations of dog kickery.  And, after numerous prestigious institutions concluded that the allegation was baseless, the issue would go away.  Sure, some people might continue to believe that my dog had in fact been kicked, but they would be in the minority.  Sure, they could blog about it, but readers would probably want to know what the basis of the allegation was, and would (hopefully) inevitably be directed to the knowledge that nobody had in fact kicked my dog.  But, if one of those people went on national news and said “Napoleon Chagnon is a known dog kicker”, said news outlet would most likely have someone vet that information or at least provide a counterpoint.

Application

Now, let’s change my allegation to “Napoleon Chagnon’s work has been widely discredited.”  Again, I would hope that most folks would probably want to evaluate the basis for my claim in a rational and reasoned manner, especially since this statement has a direct bearing on 40+ years of anthropological research.  Yet, with the release of Chagnon’s new memoir, this allegation is being repeated ad nauseam on blogs (e.g., here), organizational Web sites (e.g., here) and in some news outlets (e.g., here).  What are the standards of truthiness for this statement?

What I found frustrating about Barbara’s post was that it says “[t]he Sahlins essay from 2000 shows how key parts of Chagnon’s argument have been ‘dismembered’ scientifically,” and links directly to the Washington Post book review of Darkness in El Dorado.  I disagree with Barbara that Dr. Sahlins shows how anything has been “dismembered” in this book review.  Sure, he says that Chagnon’s work has been “dismembered,” but he neither demonstrates how nor provides the reader with the ability to evaluate his statement.  The review itself conveys many of the allegations made by Tierney–allegations found baseless by a number of esteemed societies and institutions, and that have been evaluated by Gregor and Gross in 2004 and by Alice Dreger in Human Nature in 2011.  But, there is no mention in Barbara’s post that might give the layman the knowledge that the allegations written in Sahlins’ book review have themselves been “dismembered.”  Rather, the reader is left to feel as this were the final word on the subject.

On March 1, a user named “Dennis James” commented on Barbara’s post and shared a link to Dreger’s article.  Barbara’s response was that “in no way have ethical concerns about Chagnon been ‘thoroughly discredited’ “, and she directs readers to the various links embedded in her post as well as to an excellent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  And, yes, those links (including Jonathan Marks’ blog and Survival International’s “report”) all cast dispersions on Chagnon’s work, results, and moral character.  But, drilling down through these links reveals that the central “evidence” cited for Chagnon’s work having been “discredited” is….Sahlins’ review of Darkness with no acknowledgment of the fact that the book itself has been discredited.  The lay person is left to assume that what Sahlins’ says is well established, accepted, and truthy beyond truthfulness.

My point

Is Chagnon’s work beyond reproach? No.  Are there errors in it?  Sure, I guess.  Does this mean it’s been “discredited”?  I don’t think it does.  Is he a disagreeable ‘ole coot?  I don’t know, but he seemed to think my blog post was funny and insightful, so he can’t be all that bad of a guy.  I mean, at least he laughed about it and he doesn’t take himself as seriously as some of the folks that read it.  (My favorite comment was along the lines of I must be his student because “no sane person would ever defend such a pariah”, although it was stated in more colorful language than that.)  I’m not defending him.  I’m lampooning the situation, while trying to point out just how vitriolic things have gotten and how baseless rumors are following the wake of his book release.

I admire Marshall Sahlins for resigning from the NAS.  If this was primarily about Chagnon, I wonder why he did so almost a year after Chagnon got elected, but nonetheless, I admire him as a anthropologist, as a principled person, and as an outspoken critic of anthropological involvement with the military.  Do I go around besmirching his reputation because Joan Silk “dismembered” his argument in American Anthropologist back in 1980?  Nope, I sure don’t.

Denouement

So, what can you do as an anthropologist if you are all for civil discourse and peaceable exchange of ideas?  What can you do if you believe that facts-is-facts.  If you feel that just because you don’t agree with someone, that doesn’t make her or him a bad person?  If you’re willing to amiably discuss and insightfully evaluate disputed findings in moderated intelligent venues not for your own personal gain, but for the betterment of your peers and your discipline?

In this situation, there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into the editor wherever you are, just walk in say “Editor, Napoleon Chagnon kicked my dog.” And walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and they won’t publish him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both idiots and they won’t publish either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singing Napoleon Chagnon Kicked My Dog and walking out. They may think it’s an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singing a bar of Napoleon Chagnon Kicked My Dog and walking out. And friends they may think it’s a movement. And that’s what it is, the Napoleon Chagnon Kicked My Dog Anti-Anthropologist-Defamation-League Movement, and all you got to do to join is sing it the next time it come’s around on the guitar.

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3 Responses to “The “Napoleon Chagnon Kicked My Dog” Anti-Anthropologist-Defamation-League Movement”

  1. I’ve started to read, but I don’t know if I will continue and finish reading this post. Please tell me from which of my words have you concluded that I “took offense” at your description of my blog post as less shrill or stringing together quotes? I don’t think I just strung together quotes, of course, but I didn’t raise that issue with you anywhere in our communications (or anywhere else). Your saying that I did is either simply a misunderstanding or it is a fabrication, Matt. Yes, I corrected you at referring to my blog post as a review of Chagnon’s book, which it wasn’t. Yes,I told you that I thought if you use the word “vomit” in description of people’s views that you take issue with, *in a post calling for civility*, that’s a problem. Please try to represent my views accurately.

    • Barbara:

      Thank you for taking the time to read and to comment. It appears that I misunderstood your tweets and comments, and will revise my post accordingly. If there are any other instances in which you feel I have misrepresented your views, please let me know and I will do my best to correct them.

  2. I just read this post for the second time and liked it even more than the first. There have been a few other non-anti-Chagnon (or anti-regurgitation) posts, but none have shined a light on the BS quite as intelligently or comedically as yours. This is a very valuable thought experiment. As academics we have a responsibility to the public when attempting to disseminate information to them. Not checking the facts or responsibly telling both sides of the story is to do a disservice to our discipline and those outside of it. To say someone’s done bad science without offering any more evidence than a lack of evidence is an inappropriate – and in the realm of science, a very hurtful – accusation. To use words like “murderers” rather than words that Chagnon used himself, like “warriors”, to paint a picture so absurd that no one could possibly believe it, and to call those who do “fucking idiots”, is inflammatory in the very worst way and is, at the very least, incredibly irresponsible. Your blog posts point out the absolute absurdity that this debate has been reduced to and do it in a smart way – without name-calling or profanity (which has no place when referring to other human beings on an academic blog, thankyouverymuch). You’re saying, “You want to disagree with someone? Fine. Do it on academic merit, in academic terms, and please, for god’s sake, base your disagreements on facts. You don’t like someone or the theoretical position they took (40 years ago…)? GREAT! But be civil and thoughtful in your discourse.” For the greatest failure we can make as academics AND TEACHERS is to let our anger get the best of us, stray from our own scientific training, and present anger- and passion-based half-truths and falsehoods to the public. In short, Matt, thanks for the posts. Someone needed to say all of that stuff. Someone needed to point out the ridiculousness of it all. Good for you for having the guts to do it.

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