Today in bad science reporting

Oh, dear. The New York Times is a frequent offender when it comes to misrepresenting or misunderstanding social science. Today it’s John Tierney, looking (he claims) to anthropology for help understanding gifting.

It was a good thought. Making sense of gifts has been an important topic in cultural anth since the 19th century, and Tierney goes straight to one of the classic case studies, the potlatch.

Unfortunately, he makes it immediately obvious that he has no idea what anthropological research is even about.

After looking at anthropological research into the potlatch, and talking with a Kwakwaka’wakw Indian chief who carries on this gift-giving ritual in British Columbia, I concluded that lavish presents are essential to social harmony.

Um, no. The notion that potlatch helps maintain “social harmony” is only one among many, and more than a little outdated at that. Societies are messy–harmonious in some ways, discordant in others; contemporary social analysis takes this into account, no longer assuming that the function of cultural practices is to help things run smoothly.

We might study potlatches to better understand Kwakwaka’wakw society. We could use an analysis of potlatching in a broader comparison of the many forms of economic organization around the world, to help show how behavior that appears irrational from a standard economics perspective has its own logic, or to open a discussion of how cultural practices has changed through colonial encounters. Anthropologists have devoted a hefty amount of scholarship to potlatch, for a whole host of purposes. Tierney clearly hasn’t actually looked at much research on the subject, at least nothing published after the 1960s.

But that’s not all!

But now this idea has been tested not only in the lab but also at Amazon.com, and it looks as if the zealous shoppers have been kidding themselves. Spending extra time and money for the perfect gift may make them feel better, but it’s not doing much for the objects of their efforts, according to one of the experimenters, Francis J. Flynn, an organizational psychologist at Stanford University.

Of all the things one might learn from studying potlatches, perhaps the most important one I would recommend to Tierney is this: the potlatch is not Christmas. It is not wedding gifts. Psychology research conducted on US gift recipients (and a study population almost certainly not comprised of potlatch-practicing American Indians) has basically nothing to do with anthropological analysis of the potlatch.

So first Tierney misrepresents anthropological research, then he claims this strawman has been disproven by psychology. I’m sure he merely intended to add a clever hook to his article. But it would be awfully nice if journalists actually did some of the research reading they claim.

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