All posts filed under: Features

Why Is the Society for American Archaeology Promoting Indigenous Creationism?

In April, one of us—Elizabeth Weiss—gave a talk, titled Has Creationism Crept Back into Archaeology?, at the 86th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). The 87-year-old SAA identifies itself as “an international organization dedicated to research about the interpretation and protection of the archaeological heritage of the Americas.” The SAA board of directors includes professors, curators, and government archaeologists, all of whom presumably appreciate the importance of studying artifacts and human remains as a means to understanding the history of our species. The subject of the April 15th talk, co-authored with James W. Springer (who also co-authored this essay), was the threat of religious literalism being used as a means to insist on the repatriation of human remains (mainly skeletons) and artifacts to presumed descendent populations—i.e., present-day Indigenous communities whose members live near the location where such remains are discovered. However, our use of the term “repatriation” more broadly encompasses the new laws, ideological claims, and policies that serve to give Indigenous claimants control over remains and artifacts, as well as over …

One ‘Maverick’ Documents Another—Jason Riley’s Biography of Thomas Sowell

A review of Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell, by Jason Riley. Basic Books, 240 pages (May, 2021). Thomas Sowell is an icon. And, now, he has a biographer. While Sowell himself has written, by my count, 43 books, Jason Riley’s 2021 Maverick seems remarkably to be the first-ever major press biography of the heterodox African-American giant. Riley’s book sums up most of the key themes of Sowell’s thought, including the Anointed and Constrained visions of human behavior, the fact that the plain existence of racism does not explain most differences in group performance, and the idea of quantitative culturalism as an alternative to both “critical race theory” and genetic determinism. Sowell’s biographer also sums up two factual story-lines critical to an understanding of the man: how growing up outside the national elite allowed Sowell to become a truly innovative thinker, and how he (no doubt aided by revenues from all those books) remained a genuinely independent voice throughout his career—a conservative who never ran for office, rarely endorsed mainstream GOP candidates, and openly detested …

The Purposeless Society

Humans are wired to think in terms of purposeful social agents and their objectives, and to tell themselves stories. In every culture, there are myths that tell its members who they are and how they relate to one another, that help to structure life and give it order. The idea that there is a crisis facing the West is by no means unique to conservatives. Classical liberals and technocrats lament the rise of populism and the loss of faith in their policy prescriptions, while progressives claim that the societies in which they live are built on foundations of violence, and must therefore be destroyed and remade. Conservatives place the genesis of the problem further back. Where others see systems and structures that must be dismantled or that are under attack, conservatives believe that the dismantling has already occurred and that we are now suffering the consequences. The destruction of traditional social structures with their strictures and obligations divides the world into two groups. The first experience it as a liberation of the individual, and use …

How the (Much Maligned) Mongol Horde Helped Create Russian Civilization

If the great nomadic regime born from the Mongol expansion of the 13th century were projected on today’s maps, it would stretch across a region occupied by Ukraine, Bulgaria, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Russia, including Tatarstan and Crimea. The history of this Horde is therefore a shared legacy. That legacy does not belong exclusively to the national narratives of any of these nation-states, narratives centered on linguistic, ethnic, and religious communities that had very different experiences with the Horde and today invest those experiences with a range of meanings. As a result, the historiography of the Horde has tended to depend very much on the standpoint of the historian. Where nationalisms solidified in opposition to Mongol rule, historians have told one kind of story; where nationalisms presume continuity with the Mongol past, historians have told another kind of story. In Russian nationalist scholarship, the Horde is an alien entity with disruptive effects on the formation of the Russian nation. In the Soviet Union, the Russian experience of vassalage to the Horde was …

Confusing Cure and Disease

In 2005, I published a book attacking the dogma then bleeding over from pop psychology into American society-at-large. My primary target was the self-esteem movement, which had been entrenched in schools since the late ’70s. By the time of my book’s publication, it was receiving ambient reinforcement everywhere else—notably from “helicopter parents” determined to shield their kids from every ignominy while micromanaging their every success. I have been reminded of these themes amid the cultural colloquy over tennis star Naomi Osaka. Her abrupt withdrawal from the French Open has prompted calls for yet another of our periodic national dialogues, this time on our failures in the area of mental health. Two main points have emerged. The first is that America faces an unprecedented mental health crisis. The second is that we need to work on creating an emotionally responsive world in which we are attuned to early signs of struggle so we can minister to children and young adults whenever they feel at risk. Point one is uncontroversial. America’s mental health does indeed appear to …

No, Critical Race Theory Isn’t a New Civil Rights Movement. (Just the Opposite)

Critical Race Theory has become a prominent subject in American political discourse. Several state legislatures have advanced measures aimed at banning it from public schools, on the basis that its rigid moral categorization of people as either “privileged” or “oppressed” is offensive and even racist. Yet supporters argue that Critical Race Theory is vital to the project of eliminating racism, which they see as an omnipresent contaminant in every sphere of American life. Only by constantly and explicitly taking race into account in every aspect of policy-making, the theory goes, can we rid ourselves of its presence. One of the most ideologically ambitious defenses of Critical Race Theory presents the doctrine as the next logical stage in the process that began with the civil rights movement. This is the argument made by the American Bar Association, the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. The ABA instructs us that Critical Race Theory provides a “powerful approach for examining race in society,” as well as a “lens through which the civil rights lawyer can imagine …

Understanding the Unidentified

An advantage of having worked in the skeptical business for 30 years is institutional memory that enables me to place current claims and controversies into historical context. So, when the New York Times published their article on “The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program” in December 2017, and CBS’s 60 Minutes reported that “UFOs Regularly Spotted in Restricted U.S. Airspace” in May 2021—the reports bracketing the latest wave of apparent sightings—I immediately recalled similar waves dating back to the 1890s groundswell of “mystery airships” (later identified as dirigibles). Historian Mike Dash’s description of the 1896–1897 reports in his book Borderlands: The Ultimate Exploration of the Unknown will sound familiar to those energized by the latest round of UFO videos: Not only were [the mystery airships] bigger, faster and more robust than anything then produced by the aviators of the world; they seemed to be able to fly enormous distances, and some were equipped with giant wings … The files of almost 1,500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of …

Modern Europe and the Enlightenment—A Review

A review of Modern Europe and the Enlightenment by Rumy Hasan. Sussex Academic Press, 240 pages (May 2021). In a June 2019 interview given to the Financial Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin brashly declared that the liberal idea had outlived its purpose. He supported this claim by noting that the public had rejected ostensibly “liberal” European policy stances on immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism. In his new book, Modern Europe and the Enlightenment, social scientist Rumy Hasan rigorously explores whether the aforementioned positions really are consonant with liberal democracy and the Enlightenment values that underpin it, and concludes that Putin was burning a straw man. If Hasan is correct, then the entire configuration of the political board game has been misconstrued. This makes his argument pivotal to understanding how well (or poorly) the rhetorical labels ascribed to political policies fit their substance. Modern Europe and the Enlightenment opens by presenting a balanced examination and robust summary of Enlightenment values. Hasan diligently charts counter-Enlightenment influences in Europe, whether in the cultural relativism of soi-disant liberals, the …

White Lotus, Red Dragon—China’s History of Millenarian Dissent

On a warm Wednesday evening in May 2014, six people walked into a McDonald’s in Zhaoyuan, on China’s north-east coast. Four of the group were members of the same family, including a 12-year-old boy. Within minutes of entering the restaurant, they had cornered a young mother and were beating her to death. The motive for this murder has never been satisfactorily explained, but state media would soon portray it as the latest act in a drama that has been unfolding for almost 2,000 years. The group had been harassing diners, asking for their phone numbers. When one woman refused and snapped at them to “go away,” they attacked her with a chair and mop handle. Bystanders were told that if anyone tried to interfere, they would be killed. Police arrived quickly but the attackers continued to batter the woman’s body, breaking their weapons in the frenzy, until they were arrested. Part of the incident was captured by an onlooker’s mobile phone and uploaded to the video sharing site Sohu, from where it went viral. The …

Six Great Ideas from Adam Grant’s ‘Think Again’

A review of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. Viking Press, 320 pages (February 2021). Of everything a person must maintain, his mind is most important, and king of all is his connection to reality. Yet, our tether to the world can be tenuous. Our ideas, particularly our most fundamental ones, help us make sense of the world. But if they’re wrong, they completely shift the image, like a turn of the kaleidoscope. Nature is no child’s toy, though, and to be commanded, it must be obeyed. So, as much as we hate to feel the ground move beneath our feet, we have real incentives to get things right, even if that means upending ideas we’ve held for decades. And, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant, the trait of regularly rethinking one’s beliefs, big and small, is what puts the best thinkers a cut above the rest. In fact, a propensity toward frequent and flexible rethinking in the face of new evidence may even outstrip IQ as an …