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Internet Source: Stowe Reporter, April 16, 2014.
Source URL: http://www.stowetoday.com/stowe_reporter/community/article_26c07ec4-c576-11e3-90d9-0019bb2963f4.html

The politics of science

By Brian Leven

I am often drawn to a good scientific read and recently stumbled upon two books that, for different reasons, were quite remarkable: “Noble Savages” by Napoleon Chagnon and “Reality Check” by Donald R. Prothero.

“Noble Savages” is the memoir of an anthropologist and is compelling on a number of levels. First, Chagnon details his experiences studying the Yanomamo, a “primitive” and warlike tribe living in the Amazon jungle of Venezuela and Brazil. These experiences, while interesting in their scientific meticulousness, were incredibly thrilling accounts of all the various ways the jungle can kill you — snakes, jaguars, malaria, electric eels and unfriendly hosts, to name a few. Second, the heroism Chagnon demonstrates with his rigorous methodology in light of these perils is certainly something at which to marvel. Third, this memoir also covers the obstacles to the acceptance of the author’s conclusions within the field of cultural anthropology. Finally, once again, the heroism Chagnon demonstrates in combating these obstacles, leading to the authorship and eventual publication of this book.

Beginning in 1964, Chagnon spent a total of five years spread over the span of his career living with and studying the Yanomamo, a fierce yet intriguing group of people, many of whom had had little or no contact with the outside world. The 20,000-plus Yanomamo are divided into roughly 250 villages with varying degrees of amity and hostility toward each other.

Living among them, Chagnon was able to systematically document their genealogies, social patterns, demographics and so on. By doing so, he established their trust, which in turn bolstered the validity of his findings, and he was thereby able to make some very significant contributions to the field of anthropology. These contributions included a wealth of evidence supporting an evolutionary, and therefore biological, basis for cultural anthropology. As a result, prominent anthropologists who favored a purely cultural basis for the development of civilizations instituted a prolonged and relentless attack.

The different worlds of the jungle and academia are fertile environments for Chagnon’s heroics, from dodging 15-foot anacondas to the myriad ad hominem assaults on his conclusions. This memoir artfully depicts two dissimilar groups of “noble savages,” the Yanomamo and the anthropologists.

“Reality Check” is a trumpet-blast wakeup call for the imminent threats of science denial. Prothero, a well-respected geologist and paleontologist, covers a lot of ground in this book, including acid rain, the ozone hole, climate change, evolution, tobacco smoking, vaccinations, AIDS denial, quack medicine, astrology and the scope of Earth’s natural resources. He begins with a presentation of the scientific method and its dependence on peer review and follows with the antithesis to this methodology, one that promotes doubt and flat-out denial in the face of overwhelming evidence.

According to Prothero — and his case is rather coherent — the culprits in these recipes for disaster are the media that is steadily becoming more polarized, and systemic failures in science education. And, underlying all of this are religious ideologies and emotional hardwiring, which present unmistakable threats to human survival.

Finally, having digested enough of science and its politics, I needed a dose of good fiction. “Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, the 2011 winner of the Mann Booker Prize, fit the need perfectly. In this slim novel, Barnes demonstrates his skill as one of England’s great contemporary prose stylists, as well as what has become an apparent British idiosyncrasy of featuring a narrator with a less than adequate memory.

Tony Webster narrates his memories of youth. However, later in life he encounters his first girlfriend who, following the dissolution of their relationship, had become involved with Tony’s good friend, who subsequently killed himself. What unfolds is a story quite different from Tony’s initial narrative, one that upsets his depiction of himself as a self-effacing, harmless character and intimates a more destructive role in his former friends’ tragedies.