Ep 108 – Cultural Relativism Can Bite Me

Listener Essay

Posted September 18th, 2014

Matthew Vernon provides a listener response to Chelsea Shields Strayer’s recent Placebo Effect episodes and sets the stage — excuse me, constructs a “springboard” — for a future panel discussion on the value (or not) of Cultural Relativism.

To listen to the Reasonable Doubts episode Matthew references, follow the link here:
http://freethoughtblogs.com/reasonabledoubts/2014/08/27/episode-131-witch-hunt-with-guest-leo-igwe/

  • Tierza Rose Askren

    Just finished listening to this one and I cannot wait for the further discussion. As a trained anthropologist myself, I struggled with how to study and engage cultures different from my own (and my own, because, honestly, a lot of my work has been about Mormonism) without enacting cultural imperialism. It is hard work to look at a cultural practice with a neutral eye, it may be impossible, but it is an essential part of the work of anthropology to strive for an open, unbiased mind.

    I have little patience in my own life for medical quackery and religious superstition — BUT, as a long-time patient of psychiatry, I can testify that an awful lot of American mainstream medicine is based less on carefully studied and understood, scientifically proven, methods and a whole lot of guess-work, tradition, personality and the inherent authority of the medical establishment.

    Scientific method and rational thinking are ESSENTIAL to moving us forward. But modern medicine is mostly different from witchcraft and shamanism and ‘grandmother cures’ in degree not type. We think we practice medicine fully grounded in science and rationality but ACTUALLY practice medicine based hugely on tradition, cultural expectations and belief.

    Can’t wait to hear these two valid, well-supported and interesting points of view duke it out!

    • Matthew Vernon

      I totally agree that we practice medicine with a host of grandfathered-in biases. My purpose in writing and recording this was not so much to state what we DO as what we should STRIVE FOR. And I do think that in the last decade or two we are really starting to acknowledge that our practice needs to be evidence-based. Getting there is another matter.

      • Tierza Rose Askren

        The problem is, and the reason anthropologists are so thoughtful about cultural relativism, is that Western Cultures have been wandering around the globe imposing their ‘scientific’ ideas on other cultures for a long time and cause great harm to many, many people, so realizing that there are a lot of things about western practices (including Western medicine) that are not rational, are not always effective or to the greater good, we should approach other cultures with humility and an idea of wanting to understand what they do and why before we stomp in again to insist that they do it our way.

        I also think there is a huge difference between encouraging people to be educated in the scientific method, to share our ideas in a broad way, and trying to change things in individual cases. It MAY be better for the GROUP to move away from a belief in witchcraft but it may be better for an individual girl that an outsider not try to interfere with a culturally appropriate ritual (that girl may have suffered far more in every way if Chelsea had not bent her behavior to the needs of the community).

        It is also of value for there to be both anthropologists who accept and study cultures as they are AND doctors and teachers and activists both inside and outside of cultures who encourage growth and change.

        • JT

          Well put Tierza … Here and in the previous Thanks.

        • Randy_Snyder

          Thanks Tierza. You have helped me better understand the plight of the anthropologist.

  • Matthew Vernon

    That Reasonable Doubts episode is pretty long, and includes a lot of other discussion. Here’s a link to just the interview I mentioned: http://doubtcast.org/podcast/segments/interview/rd131_interview_leo_igwe.mp3

  • Reardon’s Stomp

    Dr Vernon, Really liked the essay and I’m glad you beat back some of the nonsense spouted in the placebo series. That said, I couldn’t help but snicker at your matter-of-fact dismissal of homeopathy (which I detest as counterproductive and exploitative). I’m sure your familiar with the book Superfreakonomics; what did you make of their summary of the study that suggests the efficacy of some popular treatments in your field are negligible and primarily profit-driven?

  • Darth Bill

    No real comment other than I was a missionary in Brattleboro, VT many years ago and Whitingham was in my area. Beautiful area, horrible mission.

  • Jeremy

    I appreciate your comments, Matthew.

    Chelsea said a couple of real howlers after which I stopped listening as carefully, but I seem to recall her complaining in the second podcast that people who haven’t studied evolution as much as she has feel entitled to express strong opinions about it, or something to that effect. As an MD myself, I can say to her, now you know how I feel when cultural anthropologists extoll the benefits of alternative medicine, speak with certitude about the existence of gluten sensitivity, or suggest that alternative medicine is better at coping with or preventing cardiovascular disease than allopathic medicine.

  • JT

    … In case the image doesn’t show: http://jturnonmormonism.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/once-intuitive/

    Placebo Intuition

    Imagine if a meaningful and rewarding life could be achieved by purchasing the longer of these horizontal line segments.

    https://jturnonmormonism.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/mueller.jpg

    Could the intuitively obvious longer one be made with perfect confidence, with ne’er a life-long look-back, and achieve its end?

    And what of the person who, for some reason – perhaps by accident of disposition – pauses, retrieves a ruler, and holds it up to both?

    If he pulled it away quickly enough, could he ne’er a life-long look-back?

    And what then would he do with his ruler?

  • Scott Evans

    Thank you for eloquently stating what I attemped to in my previous comments. Chelsea’s witch doctor does serve a purpose. But it is the same purpose that the priesthood blessings serve in the LDS faith or the oracles of Delphi. To take what they do as “real”…real in the sense that a CAT scan shows a tumor, regardless of belief…is a false analogy.

    They do serve a purpose. Other than the placebo effect and the occasional lucky guess, they do NOT solve actual medical problems. They REALLY do solve societal ones. They create others, but they can give comfort and meaning to chaotic events.

    In the example of Chelsea’s beaten 14 year old, the problem was not physical, it was societal. The group shunning and beating was worse than the physical ailment. In that instance, the witch doctor fixed the problem. No one actually got better, but the tribe was able to view her differently. The witch doctor “cured” the societal illness.

    The challenge is when faith is relied on to solve non-societal problems. The witch doctor, and his “cures” have no place in our society, because our society is not sick with the same illnesses. We have other “witch doctors”. We call them missionaries or bishops or homeopaths or Scientologists. Like your patients who use Homeopathy or Reiki, they are trying to use societal doctors to cure physical problems.

    This is the challenge. To find the right doctors to solve the right problems. A witch doctor is a real doctor. Just not a medical one. He cures the societal problems, not physical ones.

  • mindog

    I await eagerly at the RSS vail for further light and wisdom.

  • Polly Anna

    Just because something has a bias doesn’t mean that has a negative connotation or isn’t true or useful. When Chelsea says that the CT scan and other technologies are a western bias she isn’t saying they are ineffective or doesn’t demonstrate empirical facts. It just means it came out and was developed by mindset that is found only in the west. Like witchcraft, scanners and biochemical medicine are built on a foundation of a long standing cultural ethos. They didn’t just spring up completely free or culture.

  • Vic Ferrari

    Yes! Cultural relativism is BS. The example I provide to any proponent of cultural relativism is female genital mutilation. I happen to believe that no matter what your religion, whatever your culture, wherever you live, it is just plain wrong to take a young woman and hack off portions of her sexual organs with a bit of sharp glass or a rusty knife. There is no social cohesion, cultural norm, or religious principle you can recite that justifies this. FGM is just wrong: it’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Africa, it’s wrong in Australia. It’s universally wrong; it’s not relative.

  • Tierza Rose Askren

    I thought this report from NPR was interesting in relation to this discussion: http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2014/09/28/351845664/the-experts-missing-from-the-ebola-response-anthropologists?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20140928

    It talks about the ways that anthropologists can help in the Ebola crisis by understanding the cultural realities that are making this crisis so horrible to control.