Some time ago Terry Percainte, one of my finest doctoral students at the University at Buffalo, wanted to join missionary friends in the Central American jungle to study the mathematical conceptions of isolated natives. Terry's plan sounded interesting and I encouraged him to discuss it with faculty of the university's anthropology department.
Their response was flat rejection. "Indigenous peoples," they told him, "are not forthcoming. To them the truth is what they think their interrogators' want to hear." Recognizing an insurmountable difficulty, Terry turned to another problem, completed a fine dissertation, and is now a senior mathematics professor in a midwestern university.
That experience came back to me when I read Martin Gardner's essay on Margaret Mead in his excellent new collection, Weird Water & Fuzzy Logic (Prometheus Books). I report on that essay in this, my annual acknowledgment of April Fool's Day.
Dr. Mead's initial reputation as an anthropologist was founded on her extremely popular text, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928 and based largely on her interviews with two young Samoan women, Fa'apua'a Fa'amu and Fofoa. At the time of her visit to Samoa, Mead, a graduate student, was only 23 years old, scarcely older than the interviewed "girls" whom she called her "merry companions."
Gardner describes what probably happened, "Embarrassed and offended by Mead's constant questions about sex, a taboo topic in Samoa, the two...decided to play on Mead what they thought would be a harmless joke.... The two girls had no inkling that Mead was an anthropologist who would go home and write a book about what they told her. To them she was just a young, naive, meddlesome tourist.
"The two merry companions told Mead everything she wanted to hear. Yes, adolescents had complete sexual freedom, moving stress-free from childhood to adultery. Samoans were a happy, free-love people. Poor Mead bought it all." And not only did she accept the wild stories of the young women, but so too did the general public and the anthropological community. Mead's book was not only a best seller, fueling a sexual rebellion among young people, but it was widely adopted as a university text in anthropology. Clearly social scientists then were less critical than were those who counseled Terry Percainte.
When in 1983 Australian anthropologist Derek Freeman exposed the story in Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, he was vilified by his colleagues and American Anthropological Association members formally denounced his book as "unscientific."
Unfortunately for Freeman's critics Fa'apua'a Fa'amu remained alive and in a 1991 interview the elderly grandmother confirmed everything that Freeman had said. "Samoan girls," she confessed, "are terrific liars when it comes to joking. But Margaret accepted our trumped-up stories as though they were true. Yes, we just fibbed and fibbed to her."
Gardner quotes philosopher Karl Popper's reaction to the Freeman critics: "Many sociologists...believe in a relativist theory of truth. That is, "truth is what the experts believe.... In fact, they could prove that you were wrong simply by taking a vote at a meeting of experts. That clearly settled it. And your facts? They meant nothing if sufficiently many experts ignored them, or distorted them, or misinterpreted them."
Margaret Mead died before her reputation was compromised. During her lifetime she remained one of our most honored scientists, despite her beliefs in psychic phenomena and aliens observing us from flying saucers. But how fickle is fame. Her name does not even appear in my 1996 encyclopedia.
Once again I urge you to be alert to artifice on this April first.-- Gerry Rising