In 1998, Anthropologist Wade Davis published Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire:
“There is a well known account of an old Inuit man who refused to move into a settlement. Over the objections of his family, he made plans to stay on the ice. To stop him, they took away all of his tools. So in the midst of a winter gale, he stepped out of their igloo, defecated, and honed the feces into a frozen blade, which he sharpened with a spray of saliva. With the knife he killed a dog. Using its rib cage as a sled and its hide to harness another dog, he disappeared into the darkness.”
Since then, the story has gone on to become somewhat of an
urban arctic(?) legend. But according to a team of researchers, that story, is shit:
The Case For Real Zombies
This is not the first time Davis has been caught both promoting sketchy claims based on questionable methods, and then having those claims successfully spread into the public consciousness. In the early 80’s he promoted a theory that tetrodotoxin—a neurotoxin derived from puffer fish—was the active component in Haitian “zombie powder”. He went on to push this idea in the 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which went on to be the basis of a feature horror film directed by Wes Craven.
Of course, there was little evidence to support this idea, and tests on examples of “zombie powder” revealed insignificant if any quantities of the toxin. Furthermore, even if there had been significant quantities, the pharmacodynamics of TTX involve blocking sodium channels to cause paralysis or death, neither of which induce a zombie-like state of compliant slavery as was the assertion.
The Fuzzy Science of Ethnography
Ethnographic research is a staple of the social sciences, but whether or not it qualifies as actual science—much like the method itself—is a matter of opinion. Unlike experimental or other means of collecting data to identify correlations or even causal relationships, ethnography introduces a much higher degree of subjectivity and bias.
In a nutshell, the process involves one or more researchers essentially embedding themselves with the subjects of their study to closely observe them and gather data. (Think Jane Goodall, but instead of chimpanzees, furries.) On the surface the process seems reasonable, and has been used to produce interesting and useful studies about the lives of people.
But it’s also highly dependent on the ability of the researchers to dispassionately study their subjects, and to be mindful of the possibility of introducing bias into their study at all steps of the process. In one sense, it is more a method of narrative building and storytelling than it is a process by which a falsifiable hypothesis can be confirmed and reproduced.
Take for example the 2011 study by Vacarro, Schrock, & McCabe entitled Managing Emotional Manhood: Fighting and Fostering Fear in Mixed Martial Arts. (Sci-hub link) A few minutes into reading the paper yields the obvious conclusion that the ethnographers simply have no perspective on what they’re studying. Furthermore, by framing everything within the perspective of upholding masculinity norms, they completely misattribute pre-fight jitters to fear rather than the more parsimonious, biological explanation of anticipatory surges of adrenaline; something anyone who has actually been in a fight would understand.
And even worse, both the bias towards a pre-determined conclusion about masculinity and the researchers’ ignorance of Mixed Martial Arts are highlighted by the simple fact that female fighters exist, and could not give a single frozen shit about whether or not they are doing the emotional work to process fear in accordance with expectations for their masculinity.
- Ding-dong anthropologist with a history of publishing dumb shit, again gets his shit debunked.
- More ethnographers need to be punched in the face
- People who’ve used the word “ethnographer” in a sentence don’t need TL;DRs.
Eren, M. I., Bebber, M. R., Norris, J. D., Perrone, A., Rutkoski, A., Wilson, M., & Raghanti, M. A. (2019). Experimental replication shows knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 27, 102002. doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.102002
Vaccaro, C. A., Schrock, D. P., & McCabe, J. M. (2011). Managing Emotional Manhood: Fighting and Fostering Fear in Mixed Martial Arts. Social Psychology Quarterly, 74(4), 414–437. https://doi.org/10.1177/0190272511415554