Monday, June 30, 2003


I have been reading “The Archaeologist was a Spy” by Charles H. Harris, Louis R. Sadler. I find it interesting as history, as an adventure tale, and in terms of science and development policy.

The book is nominally about Sylvanus Morley, who was an archeologist famous for his work on the Mayan civilization in the first part of the 20th century. (His book, “The Ancient Maya” is still in print after 50 years and a dozen printings.) He was also the director of the Museum of New Mexico and School of American Archaeology, and is credited both with helping to create “the Santa Fe style”, and regretting the ultimate effects of the proliferation of meretricious imitations of that style in making Santa Fe New Mexico the tourist attraction it had become even in his lifetime. He is also described as “arguably the finest American spy of World War I.”

The book recounts the service of a number of U.S. scientists as intelligence agents in World War I, including Roy Chapman Andrews. Most of these scientists used their scientific work and affiliations as covers for their spying. At the time, this appeared a good idea not only to the government but also to some of the key scientific institutions in the U.S.—institutions that willingly lent their support to the cover stories. Some of these spies later in their careers became important leaders in American science – Andrews for example become director of the Museum of Natural History in New York.

Franz Boaz, a German immigrant to the U.S., described as having pro-German sympathies, was the most distinguished American anthropologist of the time. Boaz wrote an open letter to the editor of The Nation magazine, which was published in 1919, disclosing that he had “learned that at least four anthropologists, while serving as government secret agents, had introduced themselves to foreign governments as representatives of reputable American scientific institutions engaged in legitimate research.” He suggested that doing so was unethical, and that doing so brought the entire U.S. scientific community discredit and threatened the integrity of scientific work. The letter caused a considerable debate. Eventually the governing council of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) formally disavowed Boaz’ position, he was removed from that council, and Boaz was forced to resign from the National Research Council.

The book suggests how much scientific opinion has changed since that time, citing the AAA statement (page 316):

“Do no damage—either to those whom we study or to the reputation of our professional community…..Do not deceive. Explain the purposes of your presence and your research, as well as the possible consequences for the people whom you study. No surreptitious or covert research, and no secret reports to sponsors, especially those whose purposes are other than scientific (such as the State Department, the Army, the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Agency.)”

The reason I am blogging is because I have become quite annoyed by this statement. I can’t decide if it is disingenuous or duplicitous.

Most anthropological research is funded by governments, either directly or indirectly (e.g. by tax deductions for philanthropic contributions to scientific institutions). Information that goes to the government, goes to the government; one must assume that information going to a government science agency is available to its sister government intelligence agency. Most of us believe not only that government funded research results should be open to the funding agency, but that it should be open more generally to the scientific community to allow verification of assertions made on the basis of data. Whatever the anthropologist’s purpose is in doing the research, he/she can not know nor describe the purposes of others who will use their information.

What if an anthropologist working in the Middle East had become aware of the 9/11 plot? Would that scientist not have had a human obligation to try to save the 3,000 people who died? How could such an obligation have been met were the anthropologist not to directly or indirectly get that information to the CIA or FBI? Could the report of the conspiracy ever be other than secret?

I certainly hope that development programs, especially donor agency financed development programs, will be informed by social science research. This is one of the best ways to assure that programs will function as hoped, and meet the needs of the people they are to serve. How can a field anthropologist possibly affirm that the information he/she collects will not be used by development program managers in ways neither the scientist nor the subjects would find acceptable. Cultural change is if not the purpose of development projects, almost inevitably their result—and many of the changes are not pretty!

How much damage and deception has been the result of social scientists work, albeit the inadvertent result? How can anthropologists know, much less explain all the consequences of their work, or even the most important consequences? By definition, a social scientist can not know that there will be no unintended negative consequences of his/her work! How can an anthropologist possibly always avoid observations that would be considered surreptitious by the observed? How many people in the studied communities will ever be fully aware of how those studies have been reported in the scientific literature—and does their ignorance not imply that those publications are in an important way, covert?

I certainly hope that social and behavioral scientists will seek to be honest with their subjects, and that spies will use other branches of human endeavor for their cover stories. But gaining new scientific knowledge and publishing it openly seems to let the genie out of the bottle for good or for ill. I think the good far outweighs the ill for the vast majority of scientific knowledge, and I hope that scientific regulatory policies are in place to prevent scientific research for which negative consequences can be foreseen. Still, a social scientist who is unwilling to take any risk of doing damage or deceiving people would be like an extreme Buddhist who will not move for fear of harming some life, even that of a bacteria on the ground. And an anthropological pronouncement that denies that anthropologists will do damage or deceive seems to me itself to be damaging and deceptive.

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