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Feb 14 2012

A Matter Of Survival

The other day I was archive-binging at the fantastic (and alternately hilarious and deeply depressing) tumblr Yo, Is This Racist? and came across this interesting exchange:

Anonymous asked: Is it racist that my science teacher sucks balls?

Yo, science education in the US is a fucking political mess of a tragedy, but it’s worth sticking around and at least trying to learn how to apply evidence and logic, because bastardizations of science are basically the favorite tool of the modern racist.

I loved it.

But… for some reason my mind immediately snapped back to the awful Be Scofield scuffle of a couple weeks ago. And the years I’ve spent hearing repeated accusations that science, maths, reason, education or any kind of intellectual pursuit (take your pick) is somehow inherently an imperialist or patriarchal or racist or heteronormative force of oppression. I’ve heard it so many times, it’s hard for me even to be all that angry about it anymore. But every once in awhile I encounter something inspiring like the beautifully concise response above, or the sheer audacity of Scofield’s accusations of the “purest form of evil”. In short, I want to address this.

I haven’t been a part of the skeptic community for very long, I’ve never really been an insider in the scientific community, and I was never a rationalist (I’m still not a rationalist, actually). My educational and intellectual background has been exclusively in the humanities and actually pretty strongly tilted towards post-modernism (GASP!). Yes, I know that it’s skepticism’s favourite whipping boy and nicely flammable straw-man, but that’s where I’m coming from. That’s where I (formally) learned to think critically, apply doubt, distrust ideology, question assumptions, look for the implicit messages, remain aware of subject positions and motives and biases, all of that. Skepticism (as we understand it in spaces like FTB) and post-modernism are a whole lot more compatible with one another than either would really care to admit.

Coming from that background, I heard those anti-science accusations all the time. I partially understand the reasoning. Yes, the enlightenment and its associated values were very explicitly tied into imperialist and colonial attitudes. French colonization of Africa, for instance, was typically justified with the concept that they were bringing the “universal, rational” values of democracy, education, (French) culture, human rights, Chistianity, and so forth to the poor suffering Africans. Bringing light (hullo, “brights”!) into darkness. Then we have things like the pseudo-sciences that were used to justify racism such as phrenology and less-scrupulous versions of eugenics and evolutionary theory, the appalling treatment of women within medicine and psychology and the psychiatric community’s pathologization and often brutally inhumane treatment of sexual and gender variance. We can consider rationalist Utopian political schemes based on Hegelian dialectics such as communism and  national socialism and note the horrors to which they led, and we can note the potentially apocalyptic nightmares unleashed by scientific investigation of nuclear physics that were employed during the battles against them. You take it all together and we have a very, very clear pattern of people who believed their own positions, ideologies or scientific theories were the most rational, who failed to consider things like their biases, their blind spots, their subject position or the potential social consequences, who failed to take a moment to hesitate and consider the possibility that they were making a mistake, and who were convinced they were doing the right thing, leading to some of the most undeniably awful, oppressive, destructive and inhumane actions and events in the whole of human history. At a glance, it looks like over-confidence in the value of science and reason leads inevitably to atrocity.

But we need to consider that recognizing bias, blind spots and subject positions, predicting consequences, hesitating, following rigorous methodology, being open to the possibility of having made mistakes, and not simply assuming the correct answer but instead questioning and testing and questioning and testing and questioning and testing over and over your hypothesis, that is the core of skepticism and science. That’s what they’re about. The above examples, the atrocities “committed by science and reason” are in fact failures of individuals to remain true to the principles of science and reason. Science isn’t some kind of totalitarian epistemological monopoly on “ways of knowing”, it’s simply a concession to the difficulty and limits of knowing and trying to find the best available coping methods so we don’t all end up paralyzed in relativism or blindly (dangerously!) dashing off after intuitions and faith.

And perhaps most importantly to this particular topic, the tools with which we were able to push back against and undo the damages of previous bad science and bad reasoning were provided by  better science and better reasoning. We now have evidence, and substantive arguments, with which we can counter claims that black people are lower on the evolutionary ladder, that women are less capable in logic and sciences than men, that homosexuality is a mental illness, that gender dysphoria can be successfully treated with therapy, electroshock or lobotomy, and the idea that nuclear weapons are a viable means of winning a war. If we didn’t have that evidence we’d be unable to fight against those claims, and they’d still be entrenched in our cultural consciousness. If we still were around to have a cultural consciousness, anyway.

You see, it’s not science and reason that are tools of imperialism and oppression. It’s pseudo-science and manipulative rhetoric. This is part of why I’m so appalled at skeptics who claim that social issues like race, feminism or LGBTQ issues are somehow outside our domain or irrelevant to our concerns. Skepticism is about challenging flawed and irrational beliefs that are not supported by evidence. That is exactly what racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are. What’s more, they are flawed, irrational beliefs with severe and widespread social consequences. If skepticism isn’t being applied to issues of social importance, what are we doing? Are we just some kind of geek hobby? D&D is more fun.

As quoted above: “bastardizations of science are basically the favorite tool of the modern racist.”

Bastardizations of science.

The absolute best tool that we the marginalized and oppressed (and our allies), those of us targeted by this kind of nonsense, have at our disposal to counter this and protect ourselves is to learn to understand science so that we can spot the bastardizations when they appear. So that we can counter it with better science, better evidence. So that we can educate people and eliminate misinformation, myths, prejudicial or bigoted assumptions and hateful propaganda. So that we’ll be able to challenge the ideas that are presented to us. So that we won’t be sucked into internalizing the bigotry they feed us. So that we won’t be taken in by their divide and conquer tactics. So that we know who our enemies are and who’s trying to manipulate us. So that we can recognize intentions. So that we have the better argument. So that we have the means and knowledge with which to build a better world.

Basically? If we don’t learn how to think, they’re going to do our thinking for us. If we don’t learn to understand science, they’re going to use their distortions of it against us. If we don’t know the facts we won’t be able to challenge, or even recognize, the lies. If we don’t bother learning these things we’re just conceding the entire struggle.

If you belong to one of the many vulnerable classes within our current social structure, if you’re one of those people who has a nice close-up look of what the jackboot looks like when its on your neck rather than your feet, skepticism and critical thought aren’t simply abstract values, philosophical concerns or a matter of intellectual or ethical principle. It’s a matter of survival. You need to be able to understand the systems that are pushing against us in order to push back. You need to be able to know what’s happening when it happens, and stay a step ahead. Learning to think is absolutely necessary in order to assert and make the most of what voice, freedom, visibility and power you’re afforded.

Science is just a way of making certain kinds of thinking work better. Just a way of making sure you’re looking at and thinking about what you meant to… seeing what you meant to see, and getting an answer that matches the question you asked. It’s a tool. And one of the best ones we have.

As mentioned before, there’s a terrific saying attributed to Audre Lorde that we can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. But we certainly can’t dismantle anything if we let him convince us that all the tools are his.

59 comments

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  1. 1
    sisu

    Awesome post!

  2. 2
    Anders

    You win the Internet. There’s basically nothing I can add to this. This is what I’ve been trying to say to some of my friends all these years but just haven’t been able to get across. Now I can just point them in this direction here.

    P.S. Warning: If you continue to write posts like these I may fall in love with you.

    1. 2.1
      Anders

      Speaking of that, happy Singles Awareness Day.

      1. Natalie Reed

        Happy Singles Awareness Day!

        Skål!

        1. Anders

          I was going to ask a woman to be my Valentine but I chickened out… :(

    2. 2.2
      JohnW

      This.

      If you continue to write posts like these, there’s going to be a long, long line, with a lot of unseemly pushing and shoving.

      Science isn’t some kind of totalitarian epistemological monopoly on “ways of knowing”, it’s simply a concession to the difficulty and limits of knowing and trying to find the best available coping methods so we don’t all end up paralyzed in relativism or blindly (dangerously!) dashing off after intuitions and faith.

      I am so fed up of “other ways of knowing” – I’m a biostatistician in Seattle, which as well as being Biomed Central, has toxic levels of woo, even among people who ought to know better (glares at office next door). Yes, there are other ways of knowing. But they don’t work very well.

      1. Will

        There are plenty of non-scientific ways of knowing that aren’t pseudoscientific or woo, like history and philosophy. We shouldn’t keep our definition of knowledge so narrow as to assume that only science produces knowledge.

        1. JohnW

          Well, it depends to some extent on how narrowly we define “science”. How is historical evidence assessed?

          1. Will

            No. See, you don’t get to redefine science to take on knowledge production you like and exclude knowledge production you don’t. I get so tired of the moving goalposts of defining science. Rigorous methodology does not necessarily mean something is scientific.

          2. Vene

            Do historians make testable predictions and then seek to verify or disprove them with empirical evidence? If so, then they’re doing science. I’d be very interested in another way to learning about our world than what I just described and I am not sure one really exists. But I am open to suggestions.

          3. Will

            Vene said: “Do historians make testable predictions and then seek to verify or disprove them with empirical evidence? If so, then they’re doing science.”

            How, pray tell, does a historian make a testable prediction about history and then verify/disprove it with empirical evidence? All they can really use are accounts of events that have already happened. They cannot go back in time and experience those events after they’ve formed their hypothesis. They are interpreting events, and they have no way of testing these interpretations.

            Is anyone who makes testable predictions and seeks to verify/disprove it with empirical evidence doing science? Is a plumber doing science when they are testing for leaks? Is a kid doing science when they predict they won’t be burned when they touch the hot stove and disprove that with empirical evidence? That seems like an awfully broad definition of science to me, and could include practically anything regardless of rigor or peer-review.

            Vene said: “I’d be very interested in another way to learning about our world than what I just described and I am not sure one really exists. But I am open to suggestions.”

            Well, what do you mean by “our world”? Are you talking about the physical natural world? Or are you talking about culture, our social lives, morality, and so on? If you’re talking about the former, I agree that science is the best way to produce knowledge. If you’re talking about the latter, then I think it depends on what people are trying to figure out.

            This is the same debate that goes on within/about anthropology, and it really depends on the specific research that a person is doing. Sure, I suppose there can be history research that is scientific, depending on how the research question is posed (though I’m unfamiliar with any). Would that mean all history is science? No. Does that mean the history that is not science produces no knowledge? No.

            An example of knowledge production that is not scientific is descriptive knowledge. An anthropologist doing a descriptive ethnography is not testing hypothesis or setting out to confirm or falsify anything, they are merely attempting an accurate description of a particular way of life.

          4. Vene

            History prediction: “Alexander the Great invaded Japan.”
            Test: “Are there any documents* concerning this?” “Do we see genetic markers in Japanese people which came from Greece?” “Are there Greek elements (ex: vocabulary) to the Japanese language?”

            *Documents are empirical, they exist and can be verified to exist, they can also be dated to tell you from when they originated.

            Your argument saying we can’t determine what happened in the past sounds suspiciously like saying we can’t tell if the big bang happened because we weren’t there. When an event happens, it leaves behind traces of it. We can use these traces of reconstruct what occurred.

            Your anthropological example also works within the framework I provided. Unless you want to try and say that things like the classification of organisms is not science. I really don’t think that making the case that biology isn’t a science helps you any.

        2. Delictuscoeli

          What Vene may not be grasping here is the difference between scientific knowledge, which consists of predictive systems, and historical knowledge, which consists–speaking very roughly–of observed phenomena. A basic tenet of science is that observations, and the conclusions we make from them, are often (usually) faulty. That’s why we test them with new observations of the phenomena–to correct for faulty observations and inferences. This is impossible for historical events, since they only happen the one time.

          It’s also important to remember that nothing can be empirically verified, only falsified. Thus, empirical evidence (as distinct from observation) cannot directly determine what did happen in history, only what did not. Since the possibilities of historical events are infinite, a purely empirical history is impossible. Thus we have to build narratives based on those observations. These, as we said, can be faulty or even dishonest. The most we can do then is create narratives based on what we consider trustworthy observations that are consistent with the body of empirical evidence.

          With lots of trustworthy observations and lots of empirical evidence, we can be reasonably confident in constructing a narrative that closely approximates what happened. But there can never be new observations or evidence of the phenomenon. The best we can hope for is finding previously unknown observations or evidence to refine the narrative. That’s what sets it apart from science.

          As a side point, the nearest thing to “history that makes predictions” would be the kind of historicism that Popper shows is impossible, since (roughly) the present is never the same as the past and it’s impossible to account for technological change in models of future events.

      2. Will

        Clearly there is a disagreement between us on terminology here; namely, I don’t think you’re using “empirical” correctly.

        First, “Alexander the Great invaded Japan” is not a prediction. It is precisely not a prediction because it is a statement about past events (whether true or false). Prediction are statements about the future.

        Second, finding genetic markers in populations is not what historians do. Sociolinguistics is not necessarily scientific, as it can be descriptive and not test any hypotheses. Besides, those things you said are not tests, they are research questions that would need tests to answer.

        Third, of course documents exist and can be verified to exist and can often be dated (though not always extremely accurately). That doesn’t mean anything about the information within the documents. The information itself is not necessarily empirical, it could be descriptive. And how do we test the information in the documents? We can corroborate it with other documents, but we cannot empirically test it to verify or falsify it. ALL we can do is compare it to other descriptive information.

        I never said that we can’t determine what happened in the past. My argument is that there are other ways of producing knowledge than only science, and that history is not a science. We can produce knowledge through theory and logic. We can sometimes test that knowledge using the methods of science and refine it.

        My anthropological example does not in any way fit into your framework because it doesn’t “make testable predictions and then seek to verify or disprove them with empirical evidence” (your exact words on what makes something science). Further, the classification of organisms is not science, it is philosophy. It is using reason and logic to argue why certain things should be categorized in certain ways. Those categories are not objective facts, they are subjective ways of grouping things together based on whatever traits are agreed to be the most important. That doesn’t say anything about whether or not biology uses the scientific method.

        1. Delictuscoeli

          The information itself is not necessarily empirical, it could be descriptive.

          I would go beyond this and say that nothing written by a human being or anything else with agency can possibly qualify as empirical evidence. Any observation or testimonial is informed by motives, assumptions, and biases in addition to run-of-the-mill fallibility.

          1. Michael Brew

            I wouldn’t go so far as to say anything written by a human being can’t be empirical. It is, at the very least, empirical evidence as to one person’s views on an issue. Even the books of the Bible are empirical evidence for the beliefs, biases, and intrigues of early Christians. Of course, the more writings one has on the same subject that agree, the more one can verify a particular event in the past.

        2. Vene

          “Predictions are statements about the future.” Well, there goes palaeontology, climatology, and astrophysics as sciences. Clearly saying ‘I predict that if the big bang occurred we should see background radiation’ totally is not a prediction and is instead a nonsense statement. I still do not see why the study of what happened 100 million years ago is okay and totally scientific, but when something happened 1000 years ago science is powerless to address it.

          I also guess work like this never happened, or aren’t history, even if they are used to understand what happened in the past to humans: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/323/5913/467

          @Delictuscoeli,
          You have a really weird definition of empirical if you think documents are unobservable. They may not be absolutely 100% reliable evidence, but they are a form of evidence. If I have a document written in Japanese about Alexander conquering Japan which can be dated to ~300-400 BCE which was found in Japan, that is empirical verification of my hypothesis. It isn’t enough to reach consensus, but it does support my prediction and any competing theories would have to take it into account in some way.

          1. Delictuscoeli

            Vene, we’re not agreeing on some basics here. First, no one is saying that history or philosophy are invalid because they are not scientific. To the contrary, they are valid despite not being scientific. Secondly, you’re conflating “history” with “events that occurred in the past.” This is not the strict definition of history academics use. History is the study and interpretation of the historical record, which is the surviving body of recorded testimony from literate societies. Many things occurred in the past that are not part of the historical record. They are not, strictly speaking, a part of history. They can be a part of archaeology or anthropology, or the natural sciences.

            I did not say documents are unobservable (what would that even mean?). I said the information contained in historical documents is not empirical evidence in a scientific sense. We can observe that the document exists, but it is literally impossible to empirically verify what it says. At most we can falsify what it says by empirical means. If it can’t be falsified (either in principle or with available evidence), we can choose to believe it or not based on how trustworthy we deem it to be. But we can’t know a historical fact based on testimony. The testimony can be mistaken, or dishonest, or we may not understand it properly.

            Your hypothetical Japanese document serves as a basis for forming a historical narrative. Narratives are kind of like hypotheses, except unlike scientific hypotheses they don’t have to be 100% falsifiable (either in principle or in practice).

            Now, even if the narrative is falsifiable, and we can’t falsify it, it still may not be true. For example, we may or may not correctly understand the author’s observation or testimony. The author may have been lying. The author may have misinterpreted events.

            Contrast this with your big bang example. The existence of background radiation is an ongoing observable phenomenon. This is distinct from historical observation because it can be re-evaluated. The same is true of the geneological/linguistic study you mention. Similarly, fossil record can be examined and evaluated directly, right now, by lots of scientists. There is a categorical difference between this and testimony (even lots of testimony) that people have seen unicorns, even though both refer to the past.

  3. 3
    baal

    I come from the science side of things and have held a generally negative view on post-modernism. I’m impressed that you understand what science & rationality is and its proper use – evenmoreso that you come from the po-mo side of things.

    1. 3.1
      Anders

      Dawkins comments on this in one of his TV documentaries (Enemies of Reason?)… something like “You’re so damn close to being right… but you’re wrong.” Much of the values of the Enlightenment is still alive in post-modernism as I understand it, but they’ve taken it to the nth degree. It is reasonable to distrust authority, but it is perhaps not so reasonable to deny all claims to authority…

  4. 4
    Movius

    What studies did you do that you would consider postmodern?

    I considered myself a fan of postmodernism as an aesthetic style in art for a long time and probably still would. By this I mean films like Cache/Hidden or books like House Of Leaves.

    Later though I was exposed to the true depth of relativist trash regularly spewed out by faux-academics and was horrified to see not just that disdain for reality was common, but also admired.

    I don’t consider this to be anywhere near as dangerous as some other irrational/unscientific views. But it is a peculiarly noxious pseudo-science in that it can make good ideas sound incredible bad.

  5. 5
    Luna_the_cat

    If we don’t learn how to think, they’re going to do our thinking for us. If we don’t learn to understand science, they’re going to use their distortions of it against us. If we don’t know the facts we won’t be able to challenge, or even recognize, the lies.

    QFT.

    I’ve tried in the past to encapsulate at least some of these thoughts as: Knowledge is not always power, but ignorance is pretty much always powerlessness.

  6. 6
    sidneyia

    This is wonderful!

    Recently a book came out that argued that sexual orientations are purely socially constructed – all nurture, no nature – and it’s oppressive and heteronormative for science to try to find the biological bases for them. I saw a lot of people agreeing with these ideas and even arguing that science should stop studying human sexuality altogether. I thought it was pretty disturbing, seeing otherwise rational, progressive people engaging in what was essentially creationist-level science denial. I can’t even comprehend how knowing *less* about human biology could possibly be somehow superior to knowing *more*. And I personally find it very empowering to view my non-normative sexual orientation as something I was born with.

    I mean, there are right ways and wrong ways to study this stuff, but science denial generally seems like such a dangerous road to go down.

    1. 6.1
      Anders

      I remember a few years ago when scientists managed to make the eggs from two rats (or was it mice?) produce viable offspring – essentially making male rats unnecessary. Anyway, they interviewed some student heavily invested in the ‘nurture side of that debate’ and she argued that this discovery was completely irrelevant since sex, sexuality and gender were all socially constructed anyway.

      And I wonder if she had talked to any lesbian couples about this? Lesbian couples who, if this carries over to humans, can have kids together. Sure, most lesbian couples probably don’t mind going to someone else for sperm but it’s still nice to have an alternative.

    2. 6.2
      Will

      Would you mind sharing the title of the book and the author? This isn’t a new argument, really. It’s something Michel Foucault argued in The History of Sexuality.

      1. sidneyia

        The book is called Straight and the author is Hanne Blank.

        http://www.salon.com/2012/01/22/the_invention_of_the_heterosexual/

        It seems like the book discusses a lot of things, but the idea that orientations are socially constructed is what this particular interviewer latched onto.

        1. Will

          Hmm. Just looking at that interview, I can’t tell much about her book per se. But this is nothing new. Jonathan Ned Katz put out a book about the same thing a few years ago called “The Invention of Heterosexuality.”

          Frankly, I tend to agree with her perspective. While I wouldn’t say that orientations are “purely” socially constructed (something I never saw her say in that interview–maybe she does in the book?), the categories we create are not clear, natural categories that exist outside of culture and history. Her point about bodies is spot-on, and is something that’s been discussed at length by other scholars (notably Anne Fausto-Sterling, whose work I highly recommend).

          That being said, I think it’s ludicrous for people to claim that science should not be used to study these topics. Science absolutely should be used, but it must be tempered with nuanced understandings of the deep interconnections between culture and biology. There is no “nature/nurture” divide here–they both play important roles, and they both influence each other in profound ways.

    3. 6.3
      Jeff Engel

      Maybe – struggling for a charitable interpretation here – there is some sense that nominally scientific studies of sex are designed to support some heteronormative, cisnormative, or otherwise traditional-come-what-may sort of view. That they’re not ways of knowing more but just propaganda in a lab coat.

      Mind you, the responsible thing to do in that case is to _examine them critically_ for those biases instead of bury one’s head in the sand and go on biasedly about biases you allege but can’t bother to show.

  7. 7
    Besomyka

    I don’t have anything to add either, other than a voice of support for the position you’ve taken in this post. I think we need to make these issues more clear to a wider audience, and you’ve given me a few good phrases to adapt that summarize my own thoughts pretty well.

    Thanks!

  8. 8
    lizdamnit

    Holy crap – I have no time right now to reply intelligently, but that made my day! Especially the Audre Lorde bit at the end. May I excerpt some of this for a handout on critical thought for my undergrads? I’m not a science teacher, but instead I do basic writing (really, critical thought 101!) and this is just what I’m trying to get across to them, to a friggin’ T!

    Awesome post and I want to reread and pass around :)

    1. 8.1
      Natalie Reed

      Yeah, sure. I’m fine with my stuff being shared and used. Just credit me and provide a link?

      1. lizdamnit

        Sure thing – I cite fully :) Thanks!

  9. 9
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    I want to buy this post a beverage of its choice and a cupcake. SO GOOD. My academic background is also social sciences, with the harder stuff more of a hobby-type-interest. Questioning the structures and dialogues around established pseudo-science and junk science is what brought me into skepticism. And like you said, the need to examine/criticize larger social context is a vital skill to remaining alive and not absolutely crushed when you’re a minority in a system where the dominant social order is built on bullshit.

  10. 10
    beardofpants

    I come from a social science background, and consider myself a wanna-be scientist. I did anthropology as my undergrad, but to be honest, I couldn’t handle the more amorphous qualities of studying a social science… so I have a lot of respect for those people who do (go for the more amorphous areas of study). I’m actually more intimidated by people who can dissect Kant, than I am about any scientific methodologies. I have no doubt that if I sat down long enough, I could understand to some degree, any scientific process. But post-modernism does my head in. It really, really, really runs counter to how I think and process the world. Mad props to anyone who comes from that background. Truly.

  11. 11
    Anders

    How does this relate to CP Snow’s concept of the two cultures? Is it totally unrelated, or is this another manifestation of it, with the humanities invalidating the empirical method and the sciences declaring the humanities irrelevant?

  12. 12
    Anders

    You say that you’re not a rationalist and never have been, but that’s a term that has a plethora of meanings. Popper contrasts two views.

    1. Rationalism as opposed to empiricism, the idea that we can reach the important truths using only logic and self-evident axioms. I’m perfectly willing to say that I’m not a rationalist in this sense, and I think few practitioners of the empirical sciences are. Mathematicians, yes, but we don’t talk about them. :)

    2. The second meaning Popper talks about is summarized thusly:

    We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.

    And if you are not a rationalist in the second sense I will eat my computer.

    Or do you mean some third sense?

    1. 12.1
      Natalie Reed

      I mostly just mean the kind of people who go around declaring themselves rationalists. Like the first definition but not quite. People who hold logic and rationality as being the supreme values and virtues, above all else.

      1. Jeff Engel

        We really do not need to let that sort of “rationalist” define the use of the word. Conceding it makes it look like we’re supposing that having other values – empathy, for instance – is irrational, or that being rational _isn’t_ a value we have.

        Also, if they’re the sort of skeptic who turns up their nose at the entirety of the social sciences, they don’t deserve to let their claims of rationalism slide without comment.

        1. Michael Brew

          Sounds like a Straw Vulcan to me. I find rationality to be at least in the top three of our most important virtues, but there’s no reason to think that empathy and other emotions are irrational.

          1. Natalie Reed

            The thing with Straw Vulcans is that unlike most straw men it’s not usually their opponents who are painting them as Mr. Spock, they do it THEMSELVES. Like, I don’t go around saying they’re vulcans in order to more easily argue against their positions. They go around pretending to be vulcans in order to say that everyone else are being too irrational / emotional / melodramatic / whatever. They claim to be above all the logical fallacies and cognitive distortions and biases and emotional influence and things that are common to all human beings. I see this as a huge problem because if we don’t recognize our failings we can’t work around or against them.

          2. Anders

            You’re interested in neuroscience, right? Pick up Damasio’s Descarte’s Error and The feeling of what happens the next time you are at the library. The first book is about the limits of rationality and what happens when emotions are disconnected from the decision-making process (frontal lobe injuries) and the second is about the making of consciousness. I highly recommend them.

      2. Michael Brew

        Indeed. Humans can be highly illogical. *eyebrow*

  13. 13
    Sheila Crosby

    Go you! If we ever meet, I have to buy you several drinks. (Unfortunately, I’m on a small rock in the Atlantic, so it’s not likely.)

  14. 14
    gillyc

    This whole post is awesome!
    This blog is now on my ‘must read daily’ list.

  15. 15
    Delictuscoeli

    Science isn’t some kind of totalitarian epistemological monopoly on “ways of knowing”, it’s simply a concession to the difficulty and limits of knowing and trying to find the best available coping methods so we don’t all end up paralyzed in relativism or blindly (dangerously!) dashing off after intuitions and faith.

    So much this. This kind of dismissal of scientific reasoning by tying it to existing power structures really drives me nuts. I’m in the humanities myself and it took me several years to figure out that just because it was the self-identified feminist and queer studies crowd that tended to voice these kinds of criticisms, it wasn’t actually the fault of feminism or queer studies (at least not entirely). It also seems to be appealing to the “rebellious” types who like sticking it to “the man” and think they are oh so clever for doing so (meanwhile not examining their own contrarianism in a critical way).

    On a related note, I had a long argument a year ago with a colleague about the NYT mag article about about sugar being poison. He essentially dismissed all my science-related arguments (dose makes the poison, just because the liver processes fructose doesn’t make it bad, the actual “science” was dishonest with fraudulent citations) by claiming that medical research was all just a big positivist fantasy (and then erroneously calling Popper a positivist). I just couldn’t go on–that kind of epistemological divide shuts down any possibility of communication because there is literally no means of creating common ground.

    1. 15.1
      Anders

      It’s a position similar to the theist’s “God works in mysterious ways.” It’s not really an argument or part of one, it’s a method of shutting down all arguments. And it is so tiresome.

      1. Delictuscoeli

        Yes. The worst part is the kind of shit-eating grin they get when they deem themselves to have “won” the argument with their edgy anti-establisment cleverness, as opposed to having stymied any possibility of reasoned discussion through obstructionism and naivete.

  16. 16
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    there’s a terrific saying attributed to Audre Lorde that we can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. But we certainly can’t dismantle anything if we let him convince us that all the tools are his.

    THANK YOU!!! I can’t tell you how often I, as a feminist physics student in the 80s, heard this quoted against me as why doing physics & maths meant I was like, all male-identified and shit. (After the little brief window where I got to be a heroic pioneer.)

    Yes, you can’t fix oppression with more oppression, that part’s good. But the overgeneralisation is wrong wrong wrong, and you have provided the absolutely perfect reply.

  17. 17
    Anders

    Natalie, if you ever make a ‘greatest hits’ compilation I nominate the following three posts:

    1. In memory of another Natalie – for waking me from my dogmatic slumber and making me realize I had to commit myself to help the trans people.

    2. Why I love My Little Pony – because your story is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

    3. And this post, for being a beautiful defense of science and reason.

    And that is also why I want you to become a scientist, by the way. How do I put it in a way a Canadian would understand? Well, if a person is a great fan of Vancouver Canucks and sees a young Wayne Gretzky or Peter Forsberg play in some obscure backwater, wouldn’t he try to talk to that player and get him to play for the Canucks? I’m a fan of team science… :D

    1. 17.1
      Natalie Reed

      Naaahhh… I think I’m doing good work for Team Science right where I am. :)

      Maybe over time I can learn more about it and become a better researcher, and perhaps work towards doing science writing rather than the more sociological stuff I’ve been doing. But I think being a writer is what I do best.

    2. 17.2
      Natalie Reed

      Also, good heavens, how can I have a greatest hits compilation when I’m only on my fourth week?

      I have been thinking about maybe doing monthly recaps, though, where I pick seven particularly worthwhile posts from the previous month and put them in a little list. With adorable animals, of course.

      Also, let’s remember Skepchick too. “Sacrificing Privilege” and “13 Myths and Misconceptions” were pretty well received. They also got a scary number of hits.

      1. Anders

        I’m just getting my say in early. But who knows what will come in the future? Maybe for the yearly Grand Galloping Recap? Or a lucrative book contract? I’m pimping your blog wherever I go so I’m doing my best to bring the masses here… :D

        1. Natalie Reed

          If any publishers happen to be reading this, a lucrative book contract certainly wouldn’t be rejected… =O.O=

          1. Anders

            Just don’t forget us when you are munching on caviar and being massaged by three stunning manservants… :)

  18. 18
    anthonyallen

    Great post! I think I’ve always understood that “bastardizations of science” have been (and indeed are) tools of bigotry, but I still have a hard time filtering out what constitutes a bastardization, sometimes. I like to think I’m getting better, but I don’t really have a baseline comparison.

    One thing I don’t understand, what is post-modernism? The definition I got says: a number of philosophical and critical methods that can be considered ‘postmodern,’ which, of course tells me nothing.

    Come to think of it, there is a lot that I read around here that I don’t understand. I don’t think that it’s because I’m necessarily dumb (although I very well may be, and not smart enough to know that).

  19. 19
    davroslives

    I think a problem with post-modernism as applied to science is that it is treated (by some) as the overarching driving force, rather than a social factor. Because it would be flat out wrong to say that some research hasn’t been driven by bigotry and/or ignorance. Of COURSE it has. But too many treat the entire concept of the scientific method as the product of these flawed paths, rather than a tool that was misused.

    Psychology and anthropology is filled with such racist, sexist, and other ist studies. But eventually, science corrects itself (hopefully). It is a PROCESS, not a body of knowledge. The process itself is NOT biased. Bias is added by the researchers (and other interpreters of the data).

    So, in general, we should certainly pay attention to it when interpreting studies, especially in the social sciences. But it should simply be another factor we consider (along with sample population/size, clinical/statistical results, file-drawer effect, funding conflicts of interest, etc) when evaluating a given study. As a tool on this level, it’s valuable. As an overarching philosophy of science, not so much.

    1. 19.1
      Will

      davroslives said: “Psychology and anthropology is filled with such racist, sexist, and other ist studies. But eventually, science corrects itself (hopefully). It is a PROCESS, not a body of knowledge.”

      I can’t speak for psychology, but in anthropology the things that led to changes in those areas mostly came out of theoretical paradigm shifts, critical theory, and postmodern critiques.

      Also, I think science can be defined as both a process and the body of knowledge created through that process. At least, I’ve seen it defined and used in such a way (similar to ethnography, which is both the method and the product).

  20. 20
    1000 Needles

    This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read on FtB.

    I hope you don’t mind if I print a few copies for my next skeptics meetup; many of our members would find this article, and your blog, very inspiring.

    1. 20.1
      Natalie Reed

      Nope, that’s fine!

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