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.