Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Placebo Effect and Anthropology

My idiosyncratic survey so far of years of reading cultural anthropology tells me the field is sort of a mess, but it's where I live: totally thrilling intellectually and filled with endless epistemological brouhahas, High Weirdness, an ill-defined scope that I find charming, and chicanery among the natives towards the First World intellectuals who are studying them that seemingly knows no end. There's a lot of darkness too. Jeez, when you find out what Colin Turnbull was really up to with the Ik...and all that Yanomami stuff. If you ever get a chance, watch the documentary Secrets of the Tribe, directed by Jose Padilha. It's tempting to look at all the Yanomamo material from Chagnon to now, and say it would be a good way to model the possibilities inherent, of the species we call homo sapiens, were They to come into contact with some more technologically advanced Beings that truly meant no harm, but...

But I won't.

                                        A Yanomamo tribesman. Pic probably taken by
                                        Napoleon Chagnon?

I love the complexity of wildest ethnographic endeavor into Deepest Darkest (even driving five miles away from the university and living with crack dealers for a year) and the sheer audacity of it: if we can just rough it, move in with that wandering band society that lives in the rain forest which still seems to live a High Neolithic lifestyle, figure out their language by pointing at objects and writing stuff down, and just hanging out with them, taking notes, doing their drugs, eating, dancing and hunting game with them for a year or so...we'll write an ethnography and tell the First World who these people are, and maybe learn something about ourselves.

Endlessly ballsy. And yet...

That turned out to be quite naive, but I have had numerous thrills reading ethnographies and, the Walter Mitty type that I am, imagining I'm along for the ride, and let's just "bracket" the idea that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is at work on a macro-level when we try to "study" other peoples. Let's "bracket" the knowledge that the natives will tend to lie to you, pull your leg, and bullshit you. (Margaret Mead fell for a lot of it with the Samoans, it appears, but still: read her!)

Robert Anton Wilson loved to talk about the power of word-magick and belief, and how this worked in the entire nervous system. If a shaman knew that you knew that if he pointed the Death Bone at you, you were finished: no one could survive that! But you had to have fucked up pretty bad to get the local shaman to point the death bone at you; far better to go into exile and see if the tribe over yonder hill will accept you. Bring in a bride price if you can and you just have to leave your tribe. But if exile was too terrifying, and the tribe demanded it, the shaman would get rid of you by pointing the Death Bone at you, and of course, this means you're finished. You'll soon be a goner. And guys did die when the shaman pointed the Death Bone at them. Why? Belief in the Death Bone.

                                         Levi-Strauss in the field, 1930s, Brazil

Now, I have read a lot of stories about seemingly supernatural powers of certain shamans. But the best I've ever read was in Claude Levi-Strauss's Structural Anthropology.

In the early 20th century there was a Canadian Indian (First Nation-person) named Quesalid, who was pretty worldly. He thought shamanism was bullshit. But being a bright young native intellectual, he decided to go undercover and see how the bullshit worked, so he apprenticed himself to a shaman and learned all kinds of...sleight of hand. Magic tricks. He learned to jam some down feathers in his mouth, bite his lip enough so that the blood would mix with the down, then, attending a sick person, go into the act of furiously sucking on the body of the sick person, putting on a real wing-ding of an act, and then dramatically spitting out the bloody feathers: the source of the illness! It was tough work, but I have located the source of your sickness and extracted it! Here! Look at it in my hand! You'll be better soon! Everyone around is blown away by your "powers." If you're good at putting on the Show...

Most impressed by your act is the sick person. Why? Because they do get better. Quesalid had once been summoned by a very sick person's family; someone had dreamed of him as their "savior." He performed his act. They got better. Quesalid was flummoxed.

So Quesalid went on to a long career as a shaman. He was still skeptical about his fellow shamans, though. Why? Levi-Strauss didn't know, and this was as interesting to him as it is to you and me. He wrote that Quesalid takes pride in his work, practices his techniques with great attention to detail, and thinks the bloody feathers technique is superior to other shamanic schools' techniques of healing. "He seems to have completely lost sight of the fallaciousness of the technique that he so disparaged at the beginning."


Andrew Crawshaw said...

A little bit off topic. Have you ever read Perec's Life a Users Manual? There is an interesting chapter about an anthropologist who tracks down a very secretive tribe, anymore info and I will spoil it if you have not read it. Jonathan meades also has an intersting few chapters about a semi-fictionalised pygymy community in his Pompey. dunno how accurate they are with actual anthropology, but it is interesting to see how fiction borrows anthropolgical themes to defamilarise the culture you are in.

michael said...

Not off topic at all, Andrew: what I was trying to hint at w/re/to the mess of cultural anthropology (called "social anthropology" in Britain, and has a slightly different set of approaches that overlap with Unistat versions of it) was that...anything can be treated as anthropology. And seemingly, it has.

Indeed fiction borrows from Anthro, but there's scads of stuff from the postmodern era that sought to delineate how to think of the epistemological mind-benders field workers had already presented...and one way was to think of the ethnography as "story." Indeed, different field workers have back out of the rainforests and deserts and written up divergent "realities" of tribes, band societies, nomads that had already been covered.

And where, exactly, is the line between "travel writing" and "anthropology"?

Turnbull's overall picture of his time with the pygmies in the Ituri rainforest is one thing, but when we look at his approach to the Ik, then note Turnbull's (probably true) ethical errors...we wonder about what we were reading.

There's a decent literature on learning cultural anthropology via reading science fiction texts, esp. the ones in which there is "first contact" with an alien society.

I read about half of Perec's A Void one time; I will look out for Life A User's Manual. Thanks for the head's up.

One last thing I should've put in the blog: for the "generalist" Cultural Anthropology seems like Ground Zero: you've arrived: if you're interested in everything, it's your kinda thing. That, in my view describes both its richness and its epistemological quandary.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Probably not much of a difference between the "bloody
feather" technique and a physician in the U.S. solemnly writing an antibiotic prescription for an ailment obviously caused by a virus.

michael said...

Nope: the White Coat phenomenon has been known for a long time. A couple of doctors I know have asserted that their profession has dramatically decreased giving antibiotics for colds/flu, because it was demonstrated how potentially catastrophic it is for public health, but it looks like they curtailed it a tad late: many formerly very effective antibiotics that combatted nasty bacterial infections now do almost nothing.

The good news: we've developed far better ways to sequence new bugs and to develop drugs to combat them: the problem is scope: if something like the 1918 flu came along, we probably wouldn't be able to keep up with demand and a lot of people would die. One of the main reasons this is: the 1% frame "national security" as military; they don't think protecting workers' health is worth a rat's ass, apparently.

A bacteriologist I know says the problem with antibiotics and humans now is not overprescribing by doctors: it's in the meat we eat.

Another weird thing about placebos: they work on animals. There are drugs that measurably depress the immune system. You take a little blood, count white cells, give the drug (which combats autoimmune disorders) and take some more blood: less white cells, depressed immune system. Give a dog with an autoimmune system disease some sugary water every day with a real immunosuppressive drug in it, and their symptoms are alleviated; after a week or so, give them the same sugar water with no drug in it and their blood test still shows less white cells, as if they'd been given the drug.

The placebo effect is really weird and wonderful, I think. On a certain level, it explains billion dollar industries, like homeopathy (which is huge in England and other places, not so much in Unistat.) All sorts of alternative practices which seem to not pass the scientific smell test SEEM to work well enough to support all kinds of spurious stuff. (A lot of it is regression to the mean: you get a nasty cold and take Dr. Quack's Miracle Formula and get better: you attribute it to Dr. Quack, but your immune system just needed to fight off the bug; it needed time. And there's nothing in Dr Quack's formula that can be shown to fight viruses.)

Yep: start writing or talking about some issue in Anthro and it's easy to get 15 divergent subjects going all at once. More!?!?!

Unknown said...

Hi M, long time! This post brings up for me something I've been wrestling with for a while now. I recently found out about these bogus "bomb detecting" dowsing rods that the Iraqi military use at checkpoints all over the country. Have you heard about this? A piece of plastic, a metal antenna, and a card that you insert containing the “brains” of the thing that turns out to be one of those aluminum foil squares that's stuck on consumer products to makes the alarm go off if you try to steal it. Thousands sold to Iraq for $40,000 EACH. These have for obvious reasons cost real lives as well as millions of dollars that could have gone to better use in that poor country. Clearly the guy who makes these is, for lack of a more appropriate word, evil. (and finally facing fraud charges) But what about that shaman guy you talked about whose bullshit actually helps people? Or moving on down the slimy slope, what about John Edward giving "closure" to people who believe he talked to their dead loved ones? What about wiener enlargement pills that men think actually work? Televangelist faith healers? Your shaman probably doesn't make millions off of deceiving people; does the fact the others do make what they do any more wrong if the end result for the beneficiary/victim is the same? So my question for you is, how do you navigate the ethics of all this? Or am I just stuck in a false "sin/not sin" dichotomy for even thinking about it this way?

And another thing I've been ponderin'; is the benefit of a belief in God for religious people one giant lifelong placebo effect?

michael said...

Dear Unknown: Sorry it took so long to get back to you on this, but I was bereft of a non-WiFi hotspot Net hookup for awhile.

All great Qs and my first stab at the ethics: rip a page from Hippocrates: First: Do No Harm.

After this it gets ever-murkier. But I am inclined to think there is a LOT to belief in "God" as a lifelong placebo effect, for sombunall people. Clearly the science shows that believers seem happier. It seems that maybe ignorance "is" bliss.

I think that if you're not smart enough to find out - and it's easy to find out - that pills will not make your wiener permanently larger, then...caveat emptor.

As for the sin/not sin false dichotomy: I don't know anyone who doesn't fall into some variant of it, even if they've studied Korzybski for years. I think one thing we can do is to think of relative harms and benefits. The asshole who sold the dowsing rods? All harm. The pastor/priest who truly Believes and makes members of his flock happy by encouraging them to live lives of charity and loving one's neighbor and not judging...in the name of a "God" I don't believe in? I think that's a lot like the benevolent shaman's role.

But these constitute mere jabs at answers to your very good Qs.

I don't know.