One would not normally seek out the annual meeting of the Society of American Archaeology (SAA) for intrigue and drama, but this year’s web-based conference provided some heat.In April, San Jose State University anthropology professor Elizabeth Weiss was set to deliver a pre-recorded address to the meeting. Her talk, titled “Has Creationism Crept Back into Archaeology?” discussed the role of “religious literalism” as a way of determining whether human remains should be repatriated to indigenous communities near where the remains were found.
‘Trust the science’ fails when liberalism dominates science
The problem with “returning” the remains to indigenous people is that there often isn’t sufficient scientific evidence the remains ever belonged to a member of the tribe in the first place. In these cases, Native American creation myths borne from oral traditions have worked their way into scientific research and are often given as much weight as scientific data, such as DNA.
Weiss’ speech objected to the use of religious mythology in lieu of scientific evidence.
“By promoting objective knowledge and scientific reasoning, we would say that we are doing our best to help students, colleagues and the public understand the world around us, and negating the misinformation promoted by creationism,” Weiss told me.
In other words, she advocates for more science in the fields of science.
One does not have to be overly steeped in the ways of cancel culture to realize what happened next.
Attendees who viewed the speech immediately accused Weiss of racism, posting comments like, “f—ing yikes!,” “this is some bulls–t,” “ewww,” fight memes, and vomit emojis. The SAA pulled the talk from its archived videos and offered an apology to those “who were harmed by the inclusion of the presentation.”
Of course, had Weiss argued that Christian-based creationism shouldn’t replace hard science in anthropology, her speech would have been hailed by the very mob that is denouncing her.
Over the past year, Americans have been inundated with pleas to “trust the science” on everything from social distancing, to mask wearing, to vaccines. Progressives boast of their blanket obeisance to all flavors of “science,” which has become the “all lives matter” of the left.
Yet, too many times, those on the left are more than willing to cast aside their unquenchable thirst for scientific knowledge when it doesn’t neatly fit their political narrative.
For instance, last year, as protesters marched through American cities by the hundreds of thousands to decry police brutality, scientists suddenly went silent about the dangers of cramming people into tight spaces. While schools trying to keep their doors open and businesses attempting to keep customers spending money were vilified as cashing in on death, demonstrators chanting loudly inches from one another were lionized.
Further, just last week, comedian Jon Stewart was pummeled by fellow progressives for conceding COVID-19 may have, in fact, originated in a lab in Wuhan, China–– a very real scientific possibility raised by conservatives for over a year, but largely laughed off by Democrats.
Democrats politicized science
In other words, science is now entirely negotiable.
Take what’s happened at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, which has vowed to return a collection of 1,000 human skulls to their communities of origin. The skulls, largely belonging to people of African ancestry, were amassed between 1830 and 1840 by Dr. Samuel George Morton, a white supremacist.
But in the wake of last summer’s George Floyd protests, the school has decided to give the skulls away, despite their scientific research value.
Of course, individuals of African descent – for very good reason – have always been skeptical of donating their remains to science, given the history of Black people being used for unethical research. That makes the Penn collection tremendously valuable, in that it allows a window into the lives of an under-researched population.
“Through the use of skeletal remains, anthropologists and archaeologists can reconstruct people’s past lives – diet, disease, activities,” Weiss told me. “In order to improve our identification methods, diverse skeletal samples are crucial,” she said.
In fact, Penn told me the collection has actually been valuable in debunking many of the racist scientific theories espoused by Morton himself. The museum received a National Science Foundation grant to share scans of the skulls with interdisciplinary scholars around the world for research on the variation in the functional morphology (shape) of the cranium, patterns of growth and development, traumatic injury analysis, dentition and palate shape changes, as well as health and disease patterns in human populations of the past.
“This research has advanced studies around childhood disease, sleep apnea, and forensic anthropology, among others,” a museum spokesperson told me, noting around 17,500 scans have been distributed to outside researchers. And that doesn’t consider future research that isn’t possible today.
Nonetheless, Penn is turning over the collection, even if it may be impossible to determine where the skulls originated. The school has called the repatriation “a step toward atonement and repair for the racist and colonial practices that were integral to the formation of these collections.”
But the end result is that we will know less about both the lives and deaths of those individuals.
Progressives are fond of excoriating those on the right for undermining science. But in making the veracity of research dependent on fleeting political movements, it may be those on the left killing science’s reputation.
And we won’t need archaeologists in the distant future to exhume science’s body to figure out what happened.
Christian Schneider is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @Schneider_CM.