Anthropologist Underground

Anthropologist Underground
October 13
I'm Terrie Torgersen Peterson. I hold a BA in Anthropology from the University of Wyoming. I've done archeological field work at Haluzta in Israel, San Juan River cliff dwellings in the American Southwest, and in the Big Horn Canyon in Wyoming. I'm currently a writer and stay-home mom to two gorgeous, laughing children. I enjoy exploring the intersection of science and culture and my own life as ethnography. I also write for and You can email me: anthropologistunderground [at] gmail [dot] com.


Editor’s Pick
APRIL 11, 2011 3:31PM

Critical Thinking as Self-Defense

Rate: 19 Flag
I’m pretty sure I was mentally ill until my twenties. I was raised in a patriarchal religious family that didn’t value education and paired profound incuriosity with deep suspicion of anything even slightly unusual, such as spicy food.

Educated people were threatening, and higher education was the realm of wealthy men. Not for our impoverished, occasionally homeless family, and certainly not for a girl (as Lorraine Berry so fantastically illustrates here). At least that’s how it all seemed to me. I learned early on that thoughtful questions tended to make my parents uncomfortable and even angry. I remember spending a large percentage of my childhood feeling angry, depressed, and completely powerless.

In my teens I started realizing that I might be smart. Maybe even smart enough to go to college. People in authority outside of my family and our religion treated me with respect. I realized that I didn’t have to fulfill my dystopian destiny. I wasn’t really trapped. I could choose a different life. So of course, I rebelled. Which felt great, but it was an unthinking, oppositional reaction to the mores of my childhood. It didn’t feel so great when diametrically opposing my parents meant I wasn’t acting in my own best interest.

Near the end of the self-destructive years, I returned to college. Anthropology blew my mind. To this day I remain deeply moved by the profound diversity of human experience around the globe. Exposure to myriad cultures that seemed to (usually) function well in their own fascinatingly exotic ways led me to embrace diversity. It turns out that spicy food, among many other esoteric delights, is awesome! Anthropology and higher education generally were incredibly empowering.

The lens of ethnography has allowed me to view my own childhood as a product of outdated, historical social norms and a specific religious culture. This long view removes most of the emotional toxicity that I had carried into young adulthood. Once I gained this perspective and started thinking critically about my own life as ethnography, I started making better decisions and living a far more joyful and fulfilling life. I felt like I had ascended into disinfecting sunlight. This was the seed of critical thinking that began to germinate years later when I became a parent.

I feel like I came to motherhood between generations. I knew I wanted to be a different kind of parent than my own parents, but I wasn’t sure where to look for guidance. People of my mother’s generation seemed to disapprove of everything I was doing: breastfeeding, breastfeeding (discreetly) in public, breastfeeding a toddler, babywearing, baby sign language, baby music and movement classes, breastfeeding exclusively until six months, positive (non-violent) discipline, babies sleeping on their backs, child car safety seats, bike helmets, and so on. Our pediatrician’s recommendations were in direct conflict to their methods, and their children turned out fine....

Meanwhile, many stay-home mothers in my age cohort were preaching a more intense parenting dogma. 2003 was the year my oldest child was born, and it was right in the middle of the surge of the attachment/helicopter parenting paradigm here in the US. Every single facet of life with a child became a line of social demarcation and marker of status, and this dynamic dominated in numerous parent subsets in real life as well as online. No detail was too small to warrant judgement and render guilt. The pressure was intense and made it difficult for me to just enjoy being a new mom.

A major parenting trend at the time was anti-vaccination. I first encountered anti-vaccination propaganda at at time when I was already driving myself crazy worrying about how I diapered (or if diapering itself was a terrible mistake), imaginary toxins in my food that were poisoning my breastmilk, the provenance of the fibers in my baby’s clothes, and the fact that I drank one cup of (ethically-grown, fair-trade, dark roast) coffee each day even though I was breastfeeding. More than anything else, anti-vaccination was what tipped me into becoming a more skeptical, critical thinker because it was the one major tenant of the dominant subculture that inflicted the greatest level of cognitive dissonance.

I couldn’t believe that millions of medical professionals, including two personal friends who are medical doctors, were knowingly harming their own children. It just didn’t make sense to me, so I tried to figure out what was going on. I had already been inundated with anti-vaccine propaganda, so I looked for counter-arguments from the other side. I found SGU, which let me to Science Based Medicine, which has extensive information about vaccinations including links to primary sources about evidence of vaccine safety. This is where I started learning how to sort out credible research from anecdote. This is also where I first learned about Andrew Wakefield’s despicable shenanigans that sparked the current vaccine rejection trend. (Of course I have some anthropology-related opinions about the vaccine rejection trend, but that’s a topic for a future post.)

Learning how to find credible information about divisive parenting topics has helped me* to chart a more rational course through emotionally treacherous waters. Not that I get it right all the time–not even close, but attempting to inform my decisions with credible, peer-reviewed science is reassuring. It also means that my ongoing evolution as a parent is organic. I’m doing my imperfect best, and, in a lovely example of confirmation bias, my children are thriving.

Critical thinking helps me cut through the noise and find a path to decent and peaceful parenting, especially when other parents pile on. Instead of feeling terrified and insecure about every imaginable facet of parenting, I can relax and simply enjoy my bright, laughing children. I have emerged into sunlight again.

*I don’t parent in isolation, thank FSM. My husband is an awesome father who deserves much credit for the state of our children. He’s inherently more rational than I am, and his journey to critical thinking was much shorter and less colorful.
This article originally appeared at Does This Make Sense

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The anger is mystifying. I mean, I get disagreeing, or not participating, but anger? I'm glad you've found peace.
Delighted to find somebody who appreciates thinking.
Critical thinking is, I am afraid, a dying skill. Unfortunately, it can't be easily tested in the public schools, so the type of edcuational resources necessary to foster thoughtful thought is disappearing.
Critical thinking is a skill and a gift not everyone can have. It takes some time to develop this in an individual. If you think you have so much to say about critical thinking, log on now to
Great post, AU, and so glad you escaped your "dystopian destiny."
I agree with using critical thinking as a good way to sort out the emotional quagmire of conflicting messages, not just in "scientific" advice but also other social or religious conflicts. I will draw the line though at presuming that critical thinking can only be applied with scientific method or peer reviewed research. Otherwise, none of us would be here as our ancestors would have all died during childhood or childbirth from their bad choices. There is a distinction between being scientific and scientistic (focused on scientism), where the belief that only "rational, scientific" analysis is appropriate. One cannot assume medical doctors are more or less likely to make mistakes than other parents, it just depends on which mistakes are currently acceptable. I, too, fell in love with anthopology in undergrad, and it still informs my ability to assess my patients where they are- not just where I think they should be- including their critical need for spiritual and religious identity.
Thanks for the Editor's Pick!

loveinmexico: I was a child.

Jan Sand: Thanks!

Rebecca M: Thanks! No kidding about public schools having limited time/funding to teach critical thinking.

Gary F: I think examining one's own beliefs first is key. FSM is like a secret handshake...

Lirpa: I don't think anyone is ever a critical thinker in all regards. We all have our sacred cows.

Linda: Thank you!

Oryoki Bowl: Thanks for commenting. I don't quite follow the first part. Can you give an example of critical thinking that isn't based on empirical evidence? Most of us are here because of modern medicine. Laboring women and newborns still die in large numbers in developing countries where science-based (rather than shamanistic) medical care is unavailable. Maybe I'm misunderstanding your point?

Regarding MDs who vaccinate, my point was not that they make fewer mistakes as parents, but that as MDs they have access to the latest medical literature on the topic and a far better understanding of immunity and infectious disease than I do. If there was some grand medical industry conspiracy regarding vaccine safety, they would be likely to know about it and to avoid vaccinating their own kids. Or they would be witnessing large numbers of vaccine injuries in their own clinics and therefore avoid vaccinating their own kids.

I totally agree that anthropology is a great lens for approaching patients. How does religious/spiritual identity play out in your clinical practice? Do some of your patients refuse certain treatments because of religious taboos?

Thanks everyone!
I agree with and can relate to absolutely everything you say here. I love what you say about ethnography. I know just what you mean. Ever since I sort of "got" anthropology and ethnography, I understood how I could look at tense or difficult family situations. I used to blow up in anger at some things and now when I feel in danger of becoming overly emotional, I put on my anthropologist's hat and just observe. It does a world of good. I think Obama's measured calm, by the way, is a result of being influenced by his anthropologist mother.
Hey AU-
My main point about critical thinking is that we need to clear ourselves of presumptions, regardless of whether they "appear" scientific. One of my professors was told by a PhD microbiologist, for instance, that one needn't worry about getting nutrients through their diet because if a cell was low in nutrients, it could just take it from a neighboring cell. I think her time looking through the lens allowed her to "forget" where all that nutrition comes from. Minerals cannot be created, and vitamins are name "vitamin" for the very reason that one has to acquire them through diet- they are not made by the body. Those kinds of presumptions and errors happen a lot, because science and medicine is run by people, not robots. There is a presumption that anything that is not obvious as to the why it works, is therefore not possible. We don't understand why acupuncture works, but we know that studies show again and again it has an impact on human pain, and perception of pain. Perception may be subjective, but in humans, that is part of their picture.

As to spirituality, it is part of a person's mental and psychic health. I work among a strong mormon community, for instance, so there is a presumption that there is no premarital sex or alcohol or tobacco use. I still need to ask, and also still need my patients to personally reflect on that and say, no, or, sometimes. HPV vaccination (which I don't do in practice, not my field) is not as common. I can't presume they are idiots for not wanting to implement it - the need for it contradicts all their teachings about marriage and morality. I need to find a way for my patients to see the possible benefit while removing the moral implications of avoiding vaccine versus avoiding sex. I am not against all vaccine, as I can see why it is useful.
As to modern medicine, we are not all here because of that. More women do die in childbirth without basic measures of nutrition, hygiene and protection from perinatal infection (or death by other's hands) in countries without it. But, until we had more of it, everyone was born without it, all of our ancestors survived homebirth to grow up and give birth to the next generation. Like with any population, some are prolific and successful, some are not. Modern medicine has allowed more women and children to survive, but we cannot assume we will die without it. Homebirth (planned or accidental) is still how many people are safely born. Those are the empirical things we need to see without presumption. MDs may be better informed, but aren't necessarily more tuned in (many still have little idea of decent food for children, for instance, or the relationship with certain food groups and chronic asthma, eczema, for instance). They assume because they didn't learn it, it can't be right. For me, empiricism also begins with, if you remove food from a diet and your symptoms clear up- that is a cause. If you reintroduce it and they return, that is a cause. There may be labs to support this (outside those commonly regulated and paid for by insurance), and there are, but primary empiricism requires looking at the obvious in front of you- not a stat sheet. If there is a 1 in a 100 chance, you can actually be that #1.
I get annoyed at how hard it is to find credible research. I, too, struggled to find out what was really true about vaccines. Junk science abounds. So do "facts" from newspapers based on credible research, but taken out of context and with no scale. For example, I presume that most of the claims in the herbal supplement market are based on some facts and research, but if you believe their claims, sprinkle enough herbs on your food daily and you will never get sick and can cure almost anything.

There's always a set of people who like to be holier than thou. If they're fundies, they pick the bible as their source, but in the less religious crowd, there's politics, mothering, the environment and any number of other topics for orthodoxy.
Lainey: Thanks! Ethnography provides a nice buffer!

Oryoki Bowl: Thanks for all your responses. I'm really interested in the biases and cultural baggage that both patients and doctors bring to the table. I think we agree that critical thinking begins with empirical observation, but IMO it shouldn't end there. Our brains wired to see all kinds of false correlations and ignore evidence against our beliefs. I think corroborating peer-reviewed literature, although not infallible, is a good place to start when gathering multiple independent lines of evidence.

To use your dietary example below, I read a few years ago in Slate that there is a strong trend of people self-diagnosing celiac disease, which is a fairly uncommon condition. The people who though they had celiac disease stopped eating wheat, and their intestinal flora evolved away from digesting wheat. When they did eat wheat, they didn't digest it well-because of the flora-and felt sick again. Medical tests (biopsies, if I remember correctly) showed that a large percentage of people who had self-diagnosed actually didn't have celiac to begin with. So, yes, the initial observation that they felt better not eating wheat and felt sick when it was reintroduced is a good place to start. But I think they should have been tested for celiac early on. Feeling better could have been placebo, or for some other unrelated issue coincidentally resolving on its own. It's possible that something more serious was overlooked because of the distraction of assuming it was celiac disease.
Malusinka: No kidding about how hard it is to sort out the credible information from the bunk! It's also hard when science evolves (which is a good thing....) and established paradigms shift. People get really emotionally invested in orthodoxy.
Gary F: Very well said.

I completely agree. I just can't see a place for religion in the practice of medicine unless it has to do with the HCP being culturally sensitive to certain populations, which good HCPs will do anyway.
GF and AU: I am interested in the evolutionary role that religion plays, and I think that you dismiss this somewhat, focusing instead on the veracity/lack of regarding religion. That's irrelevant in the larger discussion about why many (though not all--itself an interesting question) humans seem wired for creation myths.

GF, you say "Religion attempts to make people feel better, although it is based on fiction. I think it would be much better to attend to people's psychological needs with reality.

That is an opinion. What is it based on? Why do you think dismissing religious belief is better than in some other way acknowledging/accepting/attending to it in others even if you are rational? I'm not saying you are wrong; I'm just saying that you haven't convinced me with any evidence. The older I get, the more I am inclined to indulge people, to let them have their comfort. Please don't answer with the larger disadvantages of religion to society; I'm looking for reasons why it is better to challenge/dismiss an elderly or diseased individual's religious belief rather than let them have their comfort. And do you ever consider the possibility of unintended consequences to such a mission? I've thought about this. I've wondered about the role that religion plays in survival, and I know sociobiologists point to community, etc., but I also think it might be to alleviate or prevent Depression, a potentially deadly disease. What do you think about this?

I don't know.. I'd have to look into it in more depth. Here's my opinion, based only on my own musings and some random things I've read and heard, etc. I agree that it seems like we're wired for religion. I'm not a dualist, so I think the sense that we have a spirit or soul is an artifact of our neurobiology. Something about how our brains map to our bodies and our spacial relationship with our surroundings? Again I don't know really.

I do think it's a short leap form there into the supernatural. I can imagine how mythologies helped early societies make sense of the natural world. I can also see how religious identity might have/still does fostered cultural cohesion (or lead to conflicts with other groups whose faiths are different...)

Anyway... not to answer for GF, but here's what I had in mind when I agreed with his point. I don't think docs and what not should challenge or deny patients access to their faith, but I do really worry about bringing religion into a medical context from either side. I worry that patients will refuse lifesaving medical treatment based on prescientific religious taboos, and I worry that practitioners will deny care to patients like refusing to prescribe AIDS medication or birth control.

If a person finds comfort or psychological wellness in faith-based communities in addition to standard medical care, then I don't see any conflict. If someone needs medication for depression and also feels better praying along with taking the medication, then I don't see a problem unless the faith has some sort of taboo against the medication.

Just my opinion. I hope that makes some sort of rambling sense...
I don't disagree with anything you said there, AU. I was really just musing about the role of self-deception in general, I guess (rather than specifically in the medical field). I used to be sort of rigid in assuming that any kind of deception was always bad. I am coming around to seeing the value of self-deception in getting through the day. I'm talking about things other than religion, too. Things like imagining we look good in an outfit (rather than scrutinizing too closely via that three-way mirror), assuming our kids are great at soccer, or whatever. The truth is that life is really hard--a struggle and a competition for survival, in fact--and we are not special. Those are hard truths and I'm starting to see the role of deception in survival.
The anti-vaccination trend is serious, and disturbing. But at some point you also have to go beyond critical thinking as a defense, too, and make it something positive, creative, and independent. Or you allow the wackos to choose the issues of investigation. It's a little bit complicated...but for instance, if 11th centurty scholars like Avicenna, and later on the Italians in the 16th century, didn't discover how micro-entities invade and destroy cells, there would never have been vaccines. And they weren't reacting to people who disagreed with them. That's not the genesis of discovery, it's a side effect.

Bet your family would have gone nuts to discover how many modern scientific discoveries are based in the work of medieval Islamic scholars!
Sam, Tim Minchin has a great line, "Do you know what they call 'alternative medicine' that's been proved to work? Medicine!"
80% of religion is bunk. The rest is dreams. But dreams, as Nerval said, are a whole second life.

All we are is what we think...and to think critically is sublime.