Academic Conferences Are a Scam

If progressive virtue-signaling has replaced professional debate, what, exactly, are we paying for?

On September 25, 2023, I received an email notifying me that a previously accepted abstract, and the panel in which it was to be presented, were now being cancelled. The email came from the presidents of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA). The reason given for the cancellation, which made news around the world and was even covered in the New York Times, was that talks discussing the importance of binary biological sex as a research variable in anthropology would supposedly “cause harm to members represented by the Trans and LGBTQI of the anthropological community [sic] as well as the community at large.” Never mind that my collaborators and I had written in the panel description and in my abstract that gender was not binary and was worth its own discussions in anthropology. The “harm” narrative won out, and our session was cancelled. Fortunately, Heterodox Academy hosted a virtual version of the panel earlier this month.

Even though I think it’s a pity that anthropology has gone off the deep end on many woke topics—from the reburial of bones to decolonization to the transgender movement—I must say that I’m not disappointed that I’ll miss the conference. Academic conferences have lost their appeal to me due to their emphasis on safety (from harmful language, germs, relationships, and allergens); their high fees with no equivalent benefits; and their stifling atmosphere that no longer welcomes debate.

Academic conferences have lost their appeal due to a stifling atmosphere that no longer welcomes debate.The last conference I attended was the AAA’s annual meeting in Seattle in November 2022. I wrote about the meeting for Minding the Campus. Although it was fun to meet up with a few like-minded (in the sense of still seeing the importance of evidence-driven inquiry) individuals in the panel we put together, the overall conference experience was a dud. From signs warning us not to use scented products to empty lecture rooms likely resulting from the hybrid nature of the conference, I could have spent my money and time more productively.

The bookroom, too, was empty. Previously, bookrooms had been where faculty browsed new publications and met acquisition editors who might have been interested in one’s latest book proposal. Last year’s bookroom at the AAA, however, had few publisher stalls and fewer books than can be found in just one of my rooms at home. Rules preventing the display of book covers with images of bones also rendered bookrooms and program materials less interesting than in previous years. The Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the largest archaeological conference in the U.S., essentially has a ban on such images. These bans have now spread to journals and smaller organizations.

Perhaps most disappointing of all was the lack of good talks. Last year’s talks on human remains included such embarrassments as a mea culpa from an anthropologist who had, in the past, done interesting work on prehistoric violence in the Americas; a forensic talk about missing young-adults in Mexico that focused on sounds (such as those of frying beans) rather than forensic data or methods; and a particularly painful keynote that was practically just a reading of a Native American activist’s CV. This year doesn’t look more promising. The program is full of topics on decolonization, reburial, and queer studies. The keynote will focus on these topics and on the issue of Indian Residential School clandestine burials that don’t actually exist. There are also a few presentations that border on the absurd (such as panels discussing ghosts) and the banal (such as anthropologists discussing their own parenting problems). The traditional anthropology, which focused on exotic places, new discoveries, and insights from the field that can help us understand humans, is long gone.

In the past, I went to conferences because attending and presenting would encourage me to write an article. The presentation and the feedback—both positive and critical—served as a draft that, upon my return home, would enable me to finish the project and produce an academic article fit for publication. Yet conferences nowadays seem far more concerned about “safety” than debate. The SAA—an organization that deplatformed a talk I gave about the misuse of creation myths to bury Native American skeletal collections—has a 10-page code of conduct that focuses on safety and must be adhered to at its conferences. One would think we’re entering war zones given the  virtual padded walls that prevent people from hearing, seeing, or experiencing something that might cause “harm.”

The SAA, for instance, prohibits

unwelcome comments and/or exclusionary behaviors related to an individual’s age, sex, gender identity and expression, perceived sexual identity, appearance or body size, military status, ethnicity, individual lifestyle, marital status, sexual orientation, physical or cognitive abilities, political affiliation, race, religion, or nationality.

The American Association of Biological Anthropologists (AABA) requires conference attendees to abide by a code of conduct that includes agreeing that “it is unethical in any professional setting to use the inequalities of power that characterize many professional relationships to obtain personal, sexual, economic, or professional advantages.” In other words, don’t form friendships or relationships with anyone who doesn’t have the same professional rank as you.

To be part of conferences’ protected bubbles, one must pay a hefty financial price.Of course, trying to control such interactions is ridiculous. Normal people frequently use their status to impress others, become friends, obtain access to collections, or even form romantic relationships. All attendees are adults and can thus decide whom to form relationships with on their own.

Safetyism also permeates conferences in terms of Covid protocols. Last year at the AAA, vaccination was required, masks were encouraged, and people could wear safety comfort ribbons to signal whether they would welcome a handshake or wanted to keep their distance. The more scientifically oriented AABA has Covid protocols for its upcoming conference that include encouraging masks (with KN-95s available at the registration table) and requiring all attendees to be vaccinated and up-to-date on their booster shots.

To be part of these protected bubbles, one must pay a hefty financial price. Sometimes, costs are covered by universities (and therefore by taxpayers in the case of public schools), though more often only part of one’s costs are picked up. The AAA’s fees were around $759 for a regular faculty member this year after registration, section membership, and general membership (all of which are required). These hundreds of dollars—not including airfares, hotel fees, and meals—are being paid so that faculty can hear such talks as “Body by Colonialism: Engaging the (False) Sex Binary in Biological Anthropology” and “Decolonial Cuisine: Entangled Politics of Food Revitalization in Native-led Culinary Organizations.” But don’t worry: Attendees can also attend such social events as the “Wenner-Gren Foundation and Association of Black Anthropologists Reception.”

Conference fees have increased dramatically in recent years, due possibly to the bureaucracies that have grown out of conference safetyism, among them ethics committees and legions of paid ombudsmen. However, other progressive goodies, such as childcare stipends, may also have increased the cost.

I’ll likely not attend another academic conference—it’s unlikely that I’d be welcome at one. After one deplatforming, two rejections due to the “harm” I’ve caused, and this latest cancellation for explaining that skeletons are either male or female, I think I’m done. I won’t miss much, my pocketbook will be fuller, and I’ll find other ways to share my latest findings—likely in a forum that isn’t obsessed with pronouns, Palestine, and perfume.

Elizabeth Weiss is a professor of anthropology at San José State University, a faculty fellow at Heterodox Academy, and a soon-to-be board member of the National Association of Scholars. She is the co-author (with James W. Springer) of Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020).