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Jun 26 2012

F–k Anti-Science

Last week was a really, really rough week. Worse than usual, even. Scary terrible things happening, and very suddenly and unexpectedly, as is usually the case with scary terrible things. Lots of complex and intense feelings I didn’t know how to handle. Lots of memories of really awful things that happened to me in the past deciding they’re not keen on being ignored right now. Lots of stuff that had been building up all Spring kind of arriving at a bit of tipping point into badness. And the terrifying realization that having spent almost my entire adult life as an addict means I never actually learned how to deal with rough patches like this. I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, or how to get through this, or how to cope. Just kind of have to make it up as I go along.

On Tuesday I met up with my BFF at the comic book store, and we went to sit in the nearby park for a bit and talk. She noticed that my knuckles looked rather red, and asked if I’d been punching the wall or something. I hadn’t, but it kind of occurred to me that I totally did find a punching bag of sorts that morning on the internets in the form of a nice argument against someone promoting dodgy anti-science attitudes of the lefty-academic, post-structuralist vein. The idea that science is this nasty “Western” imperialist concept that pretend it knows everything and thinks it’s the One True Path and disrespects other “ways of knowing” and tries to colonize everyone’s minds and get us all to fit into some particular Western conceptual framework and blah blah blah.

I got a tad more aggressive than usual.

I’m not sure, however, that aggression is an inappropriate response to these attitudes.

When it’s come to confronting attitudes and beliefs I saw as damaging amongst the activist, “progressive” movements to which I belong, I’ve often been hesitant and timid. A lot less open in my opposition, and a lot more likely to simply “agree to disagree”, leave subjects alone and untouched. There’s a lot of fear in that. Perhaps I’m scared of being hated. Perhaps I’m scared of losing friends. Perhaps I’m scared of alienating my allies, scared of falling out of any wider movement and no longer having a community to belong to. Scared of belonging to nothing, to no one, no longer being a part of anything beyond myself. Scared of ending up an isolated misanthrope, fighting a lonely angry war, with no one left I’m actually fighting for. Standing for nothing except pride and a stubborn adherence to inflexible, abstracted principles.

Sure. It’s a thing worth being scared of. But I’m also scared of allowing my participation in activism to be defined by compromise, and of my principles ultimately deteriorating to nothing more than a vague adherence to a certain “side” of a certain dialectic ideological conflict that no longer has much of anything to do with what I actually believe in. Just cheering for my team, no matter what they’ve come to stand for.

And I’m really, really, really scared of ending up blindly supporting an ideology that is going to end up hurting people.

I don’t have the same faith in the narrative of “progress” that most people do. Looking back over recent decades, we still see atrocities. We still see oppression. We still see war. We still see hunger, and genocide, and disease, and totalitarianism, and religious zealotry, and slavery, and all the rest. If we isolate particular cultural paradigms, like North America or the rest of the “developed” world, then we can start claiming that as a whole, human rights and quality of life have been steadily improving over the past 75 years or whatever. But how much of that narrative has been dependent on an economic supremacy built on the exploitation of nations where the aforementioned atrocities flourish? How much of our “progress” is built at the cost of the hunger, fear, murder, oppression and slavery emerging in those place that bear the weight of our development…that make our sneakers?

One of the problems with faith in the narrative of progress is that it allows us to believe that so long as we’re part of the “progressive” movement that we’re therefore a force of good. We’re on the right team. But what are we progressing towards, anyway?

Lately I’ve been noticing so many disturbing issues within activist and social justice communities. Things that go beyond the initial issues I observed, like a disturbing tendency within feminism towards transphobia, or gender-policing within the trans community, or whatever was, for me, an obvious internal problem. I’ve been noticing more and more a habit amongst social justice activists of prioritizing the needs of the most privileged at the expense of everyone else, repeated failures to properly address intersectionality, strict and partisan adherence to certain theoretical principles to such an extent that actual human consequence is considered completely secondary if not irrelevant, constant internalization of stigmas, constant selfishness, constant recreation of heirarchies and stratification, constant lack of questioning the consequences of what we’re doing. Constant lack of hesitation, humility and doubt. Constant failure to mind who we might be hurting.

And the deeper I find myself following these concerns, the more I worry that maybe dangerous, harmful attitudes and beliefs within the “progressive” and activist communities may be more dangerous than the failures and problematic attitudes of the mainstream and the right wing that we’re supposedly fighting against.

The thing is, yes, a sheltered, privileged mainstreamer in a position of power and entitlement and unmet responsibility, or a right wing bigot with an opportunity to take out his hatred and fear, are a lot more likely to make certain decisions, or take certain actions, in the here and now that are going to hurt someone who is vulnerable. Definitely. But us, the progressives and activists? We’re the ones who are shaping the ideologies of the future. What will someday become the “traditional” values that the mainstreamers fail to question, and the conservatives fight to uphold. We’re the ones building what will someday become our dominant cultural paradigm.

What happens if we fail to get that right?

What kind of ideology are we building? What kind of values are we promoting? What are we, as said, progressing towards? I don’t align myself with activist movements simply for the sake of change. I do it because I see people getting hurt and neglected, and I don’t want that to be the case anymore. In so far as we go on reproducing all the stratifications, the power-dynamics, the structures and means to marginalize, exclude, oppress, subjugate… in so far as the legacy we leave behind ends up being able to be used to hurt people, I don’t understand why I would want to lend it my support.

I don’t want to be a part of a movement that isn’t moving where I’d like us to go. I don’t want to be part of a movement that demands future activists to go through all this exhausting, painful, heartbreaking work just to undo all of our mistakes because we couldn’t make the effort to get things right back when these ideas were young and malleable. I want to be a part of a movement that’s ideas are conversational, self-questioning, critical, careful, compassionate, adaptable, that doesn’t prioritize adherence to the theory above the human beings we affect. I want to be a part of a movement that contains it’s own questions, it’s own counter-movements, it’s own corrections. I want to be a movement that will be able to address its own mistakes so that we don’t force others into the position of dealing with them. I want to be a part of a movement that knows how to apply skepticism and critical inquiry to itself.

So I want to be aggressive with the dangerous ideas I see amongst activists now. I want to be aggressive with them so that somebody else doesn’t have to be someday down the road. These are our issues, and our mistakes… more so, mistakes we have the opportunity to prevent ourselves from making.

It’s no coincidence that science itself is a system based on similar principles of questioning oneself, having self-correction and acknowledgment of mistakes built into the process, and the values, themselves.

The anti-scientific attitudes that are promoted amongst “well-meaning” members of the progressive left (I am so sick, by the way, of feeling the need to make “well-meaning” disclaimers all the time… can we all just admit that, yeah, we’re pretty much ALL well-meaning, and that we shouldn’t need to endlessly acknowledge that to one another when engaging critically?) are dangerous. They are a mistake. They will hurt people.

This has been a theme that has run through a great deal of what I’ve written on this blog, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. I’ve talked about how people selling “natural transition”, phytoestrogens and “magic” rings have preyed on trans people. I’ve talked about the dangers of what happens when we’re excluded from the medical establishment. I’ve talked about the consequences of scientists allowing their own biases to influence medicine. I’ve talked about feminist theory that ignores evidence and begins behaving as though the theory is what matters, not the reality it claims to speak to. I’ve talked about how appeals to faith to promote tolerance risk validating the foundational beliefs of the intolerant. I’ve talked about a lot of things.

These things do matter. These consequences matter. These consequences are written in a reality. A verifiable reality.

So when I see the science that can help prevent these harms criticized… when I see activists promoting the idea that science is a very narrow “Western” concept of how knowledge operates, and in promoting it, we’re acting like only “Western” ideas and values have merit…well…

No. Science is not “Western”, and the idea that it is is a far more colonial, imperialistic attitude than any of the principles that science, as a process, is based upon. I’m reminded of “Ancient Alien” conspiracy theories, the notion that Egyptian, Mayan and Aztec pyramids must have been crafted by extraterrestial visitors because “primitive” cultures couldn’t possibly have created them with their own technology. Similar doubts, it should be said, are not routinely expressed in regards to the Parthenon, the Colossus of Rhodes or the Roman Colloseum. Instead, it is only people who aren’t white, aren’t “western”, who are seen as incapable of these technological achievements.

But, of course, aliens didn’t build the pyramids. They were built by human beings. Human beings who came up with some brilliant engineering solutions. Human beings who weren’t “Western”.

How about the mathematical achievements of the Moors and Arabs and Persians? How about the printing press and pyrotechnics and paper of China? The numerous technological and medical advancements achieved by Indian and Japanese scientists throughout the 20th century?

Truthfully, there is not a single cultural paradigm on Earth that has been bereft of scientific and technological achievement.

To say that science is “Western” is intensely condescending, dismissive and Euro-centric. It takes the same old colonial narrative of the “advanced”, civilized peoples of Europe, and the savage mystical primitives of Everywhere-Else, and repackages it in such a way as to be enjoyed within the halls of contemporary academia without any post-imperial guilt. Adding “but science isn’t good, like all the awesome magic and ‘other ways of knowing’ in other cultures!” to make you feel better about your patronizing, not-so-vaguely racist attitude does not make it any less colonial in nature.

And what of “Western” culture’s propensity for mysticism, religious zealotry, woo, empty spirituality? What of the nearly half of the population of the United States who reject the theory of evolution? What of our proliferation of horoscopes, New Age bookstores, fortune tellers, Reiki, reflexology, homeopathy, etc? You can’t just cherry pick the scientific achievements of a select few “Western” countries (often a consequence more of our economic supremacy, built, as mentioned, on the economic subjugation of other nations, than any distinct cultural leaning towards scientific understanding) and ignore our entirely human, entirely universal, propensity for magical-thinking.

Granted, all those New Age bookstores will try to argue that they, despite their cultural location, origin, target demographic and so forth, they aren’t “Western” in their cultural nature. But…well… there is the slight matter of their location, origin, target demographic and so forth. Regardless of what bits and pieces they pick from our imperial reach to cobble together a vaguely exoticized, Orientalist Otherness, they are very, very much a product of our particular cultural paradigm. Much like how the post-structuralism upon which such critiques of “Western” science are based is itself a product of a particular “Western” cultural paradigm… a mid-20th century France, attempting to come to terms with its loss of status as an Imperial power. The Algerian revolution comes to mind.

“Good for them, those mystic Orientals, rejecting all our oh-so uniquely European science and technology!”

And the French academics remained uniquely blessed to articulate the grandeur and oh-so OTHERness of those “other ways of knowing”.

It’s telling to consider the history of French colonial philosophy in contrast to the imperial doctrines of other nations. The French had a uniquely patronizing goal, in which they didn’t generally see Africans and Asians as inherently inferior to whites, but that they simply had to be taught the wonders of French civilization, Christianity, language and democracy. They saw themselves as helping by pulling the poor primitives up out of darkness. It wasn’t inferior to be black, as long as you were French.

The views of surrealist primitivists and post-structuralists in France didn’t change this colonial narrative. What it did was simply swap out which side was positioned as the “good guys” and which was positioned as the “bad guys”. But it still saw things like “civilization” (and by extension science, technology, maths, reason, etc.) as a uniquely European, “Western” quality in contrast to the “primitive” mysticism and intuitive “natural” ways of the magic savage Others.

Still, though, the conceptual ghettoes were enforced. It doesn’t matter if we say “primitive” is a good thing or not, it doesn’t matter if we say science is harmful, when we position Other Cultures™ as mystical and magical and ourselves, the West™, as the proprietors of science and reason, we are still devaluing the “Other”, conceptually limiting their potential, describing them as incapable of reaching our achievements, defining who they are within our terms and mentalities, prescribing their destiny, and absolving us of any accountability relative to the luxuries we enjoy at the expense of others. It lets us believe that it isn’t OUR economic agendas that have driven certain “third world” nations into poverty and “dark age” quality of life, it’s simply their “culture”, their “ways of knowing”, who they are. And it’s not OUR exploitation of others that has led us into our technological and scientific achievements, it’s just because us of The West™ place all our “faith” in science rather than the good, natural, intuitive, traditional ways.

And still the academics remain, selling the otherness of the “other ways of knowing”. But do other cultures really need to be so other? Do we really need to set them as so alien from us in how they think and conceptualize the world just to feel okay about the disparities in our relative “development”? Do we need to imagine they have some illusory “supernatural”, mystic power that somehow makes up for all the material power that our actions have denied them? And in claiming ownership of science, tangible knowledge, and saying that their knowledge is only to be intangible and unreal, well… what might that be suggesting? What power dynamic might we be enforcing? What roles might we be policing?

Like men who try to justify their misogynistic view that women are “less rational” than men by praising our “women’s intuition” and “mystic connection to the Earth”. Or racists saying they’re not racist because they like how “soulful” black people are, how they “make better athletes” or are “great entertainers” and “have big dicks” and are “good dancers”.

Is it so hard to just view value in other cultural paradigms, other races, other genders, other identities, as tangible human value? The same kind of value and potential and worth and ability and knowledge we all have, or are capable of? Why do we need to feel this compulsive need to other and categorize, to the extent that even our reaction to having to face its negative consequences is to simply restructure that categorization and othering as “praise”?

It also reminds me of another idea I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and will probably write more extensively about in the future. A way of thinking that seems popular amongst the stoners and suburban occultists and new agers and people who read too much beat poetry and college kids who like to slum it in “bad” neighbourhoods and British comic book writers who got big in the late eighties. A way of mythologizing the marginalized and outsiders of our own culture, seeing homeless people, trans people, addicts, the mentally ill, sex workers and so on as being somehow divine, angelic, supernatural, otherworldly.

There are a lot of creepy implications behind that mentality, despite its superficially positive attitude. For one thing, it’s not humanizing. It’s dehumanizing by positioning such people as otherworldly and therefore inhuman.

There are a lot of creepy ways that it sanctifies the straight, cis, white, middle-class perspective (there are many reasons I distrust New Age and its adherents, but the way that it positions normativities as the properties or “energies” of the universe itself is a really big one). As an example, consider the “divine hermaphrodite” concept. A lot of how that idea functions is by buying into gender-binaries so completely, so wholeheartedly, that you see them as fundamental, cosmological law of the universe. Therefore, anything that doesn’t fit into that very, very, very human, very cisgender, perspective is seen as “supernatural” because the cisgender perspective has been positioned as the actual natural order, rather than just how most human beings happen to look at a particular aspect of human biology.

But what I think applies most here is the underlying suggestion of what is demanded of marginalized people in order to be seen as having worth. It’s true that a lot of these experiences can grant a lot of insights most people don’t get, and can leave a person a lot wiser and stronger… but those are human experiences and insights. And it’s true that all of these lives, no matter how neglected, ignored or marginalized, have rich stories behind them. But those are human stories. And it’s true that every single life, no matter how neglected, ignored or marginalized, has beauty and worth and value, and deserves compassion and understanding. But those are human lives.

They aren’t angels. And suggesting that it is some kind of magical, mystic, divinity that grants worth to the lives of those who live in society’s margins… do we really need to be more than human to have value? To deserve that compassion and understanding? Do we really need to be prophets, angels, divine, supernatural, mythological in order to have the worth of our lives recognized?

Isn’t being human enough?

And don’t other cultures deserve respect too, without having to be seen as mystics and noble savages, possessed of magical non-scientific “ways of knowing”? Isn’t their being human enough? Isn’t it enough that they know things the way everyone knows things? That they, like us, are capable of science, and like us, capable of human flaws and biases, and like us, capable of culture?

Do we need to patronizingly act like science just “isn’t their thing” to understand how our global cultural dynamics came into being? Do we need to ignore our own superstitions and myths and biases? Wouldn’t it be a whole lot more honest to admit that there’s nothing more inherently “scientific” about our “Western” culture, and that our access to technological and scientific luxuries relative to their comparable scarcity in other parts of the world is an economic thing? A privilege thing? A legacy of conquest?

To take Haiti as an example… how patronizing would it be to say that their relative poverty and lack of scientific, technological and economic “progress” (there’s that suspicious word again) is simply a result of their “different culture”, “different way of knowing”? Such as their strong spiritual tradition. I think voudoun is a beautiful cultural tradition, I really, honestly, do. To such an extent that when I remind myself that instances where the loa come down to “ride” human vessels, the “possessions”, are simply acts of intense, ritual theatre I feel a bit heartbroken, like I’ve just admitted to my childhood self that there’s no Santa Claus. But it is ritual, and it’s no different than our own rituals. And by no means does its presence, like the presence of ritual in our own cultural context, preclude the possibility of science, reason and rationality amongst Haitian people. They are perfectly and totally capable of it.

When looking at the poverty of Haiti, and the proliferation of myth, ritual and superstition, it’s worth reminding ourselves that those things often go hand in hand with poverty, desperation and vulnerability in our cultural background, our “Western” paradigm, as well. It is always when people most need to believe in something, when they’re most desperate for answers, comforts and control, that they become less skeptical. This is true in all cultures, amongst all human beings, everywhere. An individual isn’t simply “more gullible” or “more rational” than another. We simply can find ourselves in situations where we’re vulnerable and in need, or situations where we’re strong. I wished on countless stars, and prayed countless nights, that my body would be changed to female. I was the same person then that I am now, of the same cultural background. I was just scared, and vulnerable, and desperate, and needed to believe it was possible.

If you threw a bunch of Americans into “third world” conditions of poverty and hunger, their use of spiritual traditions for comfort would be just as strong. In fact, this is already the case in many parts of the United States, “Western” as it may be.

Haiti’s poverty, and much that defines its culture,  is not a consequence of their being possessed of some alien form of rationality and “knowing”. It is not because they’re fundamentally different from us in their conception of knowledge, rationality, evidence or the spiritual. It is largely because after their revolution, the dominant colonial powers refused to establish fair trading relationships with them. A fledgling nation was immediately left in economic isolation, never given a chance to grow. Haiti’s contemporary poverty, and everything that goes with it, is not a product of any exotic Otherness. It is a legacy of the ruthlessness that gave birth to the legacy of “progress” we now enjoy.

There is nothing to suggest that had things gone differently, Haiti could not have been part of the “West” that is treated so scornfully by the anti-science mentality I’m addressing. There is nothing to suggest that their spiritual cultural traditions would (or do) preclude participation in the sciences.

The presence of superstition, myth and ritual in our own culture, after all, does not inhibit our capacity to advance and participate in “Western” science. Remember what I said about Santa Claus? Well, imagine we were the disadvantaged Other Culture whose “ways of knowing” were being fawned over by the “progressive” academics of a comparably “advanced” culture. Larry Brathwaite from accounting dons his Santa Claus costume, and we all play along. During that Christmas party, Larry is Santa Claus. Those ethnographers and academics from elsewhere could easily draw the conclusion that we, all of us in the Mystic Occident, really believe that we can become possessed by the demi-god Santa Claus, which is an intrinsic element of our mysterious, magical, intuitive nature.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? I hope I’m making sense, but am terribly worried I’m not. The differences between the “West” and other cultures aren’t so fundamental as to speak to how we think, how we feel, how we know, how we process knowledge. We’re all human beings, with the same squishy human brains. We’re prone to all the same distortions and biases and things, and we all believe in irrational things like religion, myth, ritual, superstition and magic when we want or need to, and we all are capable of overcoming those biases and distortions and irrational things when we need to be careful and objective in discerning truth from our perceptions.

One might say that nonetheless to apply the concept of “science” to those processes, carefully navigating our cognitive distortions and biases, when they aren’t occurring in the formalized “Western” construct of science-as-we-presently-define-it is still applying a “Western” concept onto something that may not be able to be properly understood in precisely those terms. I disagree. Science is science whether it’s formalized or not, and discussing almost anything in English will result in such applications of our culture’s terms and concepts onto things that don’t necessarily fit completely tidily into them. So what? Language doesn’t need to be a perfect tool to be a meaningful tool. It’s equally an application of “Western” terms and concepts to deem another culture as “intuitive”, or “mystical”, or “spiritual”.

And you know what?

The concept of “The West” is a western cultural construct!

West of what?!

And really, let’s get real: Even if it were true that science as we understand it is simply a “Western” construct being inexactly applied to a more universal kind of thought, does that say anything about science being wrong? Dangerous? Harmful? Does it’s relative “Westerness” have anything whatsoever to do with the applicability of science, or it’s beneficial nature relative to human bias?

By contrast, I can point to a lot that is harmful about turning one’s back on it. To say that one doesn’t care about science, or doesn’t care about objective truth, is the tiniest hair’s breadth away from saying that you don’t care whether or not you’re wrong. And from there, it is more or less inevitable that you stop caring about consequences. Stop caring about who you hurt.

That’s why I see no place for anti-science in any kind of “progressive” movement. An activist movement, an effort to make our culture move forward, that doesn’t know how to question itself, that doesn’t practice skepticism, that doesn’t know how to minimize its biases, that can’t be bothered to check its subject position and cognitive distortions, to check its privilege and blind-spots and check for gaps in knowledge or limitations in perspective, that doesn’t care about the objective truth it makes an effort to speak to and change, that will happily discard evidence that contradicts the currently fashionable theory… that’s a movement that will become an ideology, adhered to by faith, a party-line. An ideology that will hurt people. And when those people come to let you know who you’ve hurt, how you’re wrong, you won’t hear them, because you’ve long since stopped worrying about those truths that don’t fit into “your truth”.

An activism that doesn’t understand the value of skepticism and evidence will eventually become a destructive force. This is why I feel my aggressive opposition is demanded. I don’t want to be part of a movement that just erects new structures that operate just like the old ones did. That isn’t able to admit and seek to minimize bias, recognize mistakes, acknowledge its capacity for error, hesitate, practice intellectual humility, ask new questions, be open to new information and learn.

All of those things, those things that social justice activism needs to be able to grow and keep from becoming another dodgy old harmful ideology, are exactly what science is.

Science is by definition non-cultural. It is not a part of a struggle between different cultural worldviews. In so far as a cultural worldview falls into a scientist’s interpretation of her data, she’s screwing up. She’s making the kind of human error science is structured to minimize as much as possible.

Science is not a “way of knowing”. It is a process. A process designed to minimize all of the different little biases, cognitive distortions, logical fallacies and errors of perception that define a cultural perspective, or subjective vantage point, or “way of knowing”. It’s streamlining a bunch of different principles that have been practiced by all human beings in all cultures for millenia to help us tell what’s really going on from what simply seems to be going on, to tell what is probably true from what we want to be true, to tell the important variables from the coincidences, to tell the actual causal relationships from things that just happen to come after other things.

And it wants to be wrong. It wants to make sure it can be shown to be wrong. It questions itself, it’s open to criticism, it values self-questioning, skepticism… the things I fear our progressive movements don’t value nearly enough. It’s wrong over and over and over again, and it KNOWS it will be wrong again. It acknowledges its margin of error.

What, of the many “other ways of knowing”, ever explicitly remind you “but I might be wrong about this?” What priest presents the competing hypotheses? What psychic informs you of the probability that their prediction is incorrect?

Science is not claiming a “one true path” of truth. It’s the ONLY process out there that explicitly acknowledges the multiplicity of paths, and makes a deliberate effort to carefully pick the best one. It is all the other systems that simply assert their validity, and ask you not to question it.

Science is not a faith. Science and faith are antithetical. Science welcomes and encourages your doubt. It doesn’t ask for your faith. It just asks you to look for yourself.

Science does not know everything. Science never claimed to. Science is not the one going around waving books of ancient poetry around claiming THEY have the answers to the deepest questions. Science is the one still asking questions, still working things out, actually having the courage to admit it doesn’t know… and to keep on trying anyway, with that beautiful, stubborn curiosity that has meant so so much for us, as a species.

A Shakespeare misquote that is often offered in these conversations, usually to dismiss science, is the old “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” bit.

Exactly.

There are far, far, far, far, far more things in this wonderful, magnificent, impossibly vast universe than can possibly ever be dreamed up in limited, human, man-made philosophies. Religion or spiritual or new age or poetry or fiction or art or whatever… they will never hold a candle to the immense contents of the incomprehensibly huge universe spiraling all around us, out into the infinite. Nothing we could ever dream up could possibly come close.

Which is why there is more beauty and wonder and magic in science’s capacity to say “I don’t know… let’s try to find out!” than there can ever be in the “knowledge” of human myth and superstition.

It’s true that there are things science can’t speak very well to. It’s true that ultimately there are some things in our experience that are inherently fuzzy and subjective, and sometimes we need to determine by way of our values and principles. But that means NOTHING in terms of criticizing the validity of science as a process for speaking adequately of the nature of the phenomenological world, and it means NOTHING in terms of mysticism or spirituality or subjective “ways of knowing” being able to make truth claims.

We all make truth claims. Even the assertion that there IS such a thing as a “Western” culture for science to be tied to is a truth claim.

The person with whom I was arguing about this really did claim a lack of interest in objective truth. Bullshit. We are all of us, constantly, making assertions that are not only truth claims, but truth claims about the nature of the world and universe we live in, or dependent on assumptions about it.

I would have loved to ask this person how little he cares about objective truth, and science’s capacity to help us understand it, when it comes time for his testosterone shot. Or to get on an airplane.

Or how about how science enabled the technological advances that allowed him to promote these anti-science views in the first place, and allowed me to respond?

It’s this that reminds me of the thing that got me most angry about his dismissal of science’s validity. His open, proud contempt for it… why that inspired in me contempt that his views would go unchallenged…

The real reason I decided to take out last week’s anger and frustration on his stupid views instead of the wall.

As he wrote that, and as we argued, someone I love very very much lay in a hospital bed not far away. She was hooked up to a machine that was breathing for her. In those moments, it was science that was keeping her alive.

And it was science that allowed us to communicate with one another, over the internet. To tell each other how much we meant to one another. How much we cared. How fucking scared we were, and how badly I wanted to be with her to hold her hand.

That’s what science offers us.

So don’t tell me science means nothing to the human heart. And don’t tell me you don’t care.

140 comments

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  1. 1
    Andy, uncultured Brit

    I must confess that I skimmed this a bit. But

    Science is not “Western”, and the idea that it is is a far more colonial, imperialistic attitude than any of the principles that science, as a process, is based upon.

    This so very, very, very much. Science is based on results, and all peoples have valued those who can get things right.

    Also,

    Last week was a really, really rough week. Worse than usual, even.

    I hope that this week gets better for you!

    1. 1.1
      Goldstein

      When the nuclear war finally comes, hopefully at least limited, it will dawn on people that no matter what set if off, SCIENCE made it posssible in the first place,

      And OH BABY, there will be a Mother of All Backlashes!

      1. timgueguen

        Because no one engaged in mass killing before the concept of science appeared.

        If science is so terrible why are you using a computer to post to blogs, instead of living in some isolated part of the world as a hunter-gatherer?

      2. Erl

        Dude, Limited Nuclear War ALREADY HAPPENED. That is, by definition, the end of WWII.

  2. 2
    Billy Clyde Tuggle

    Natalie, it strikes me that you care in much greater proportion than should be expected of any mere mortal. All we can do in life is speak our truths. We can’t control whether or not the message is heard. That’s not up to us. The human race may rise to the occasion or it may destroy itself. I would say “God only knows, but that seems a tad bit innappropriate for FTB”. Perhaps the appropriate sentiment is that “No human knows how things will turn out”. There is a saying along the lines “Life is like a shipwreck, but we can still sing happy songs in the lifeboats”.

    Your courage is amazing. Take care!

    \BCT

    P.S. If the above seems overly patronizing, it’s because I am a clueless clod, but I do mean well.

    1. 2.1
      Prodigeek

      “Well meaning” is not a get out of jail free card. If you’d read the article, you’d have noticed that she addressed that very notion with some seriousness, but here you are trotting it out again.

      Here you are talking about “speaking your own truth”, while simultaneously suggesting that she not be so emotionally invested, hinting that perhaps she ought to be less invested like yourself with your “happy lifeboat songs”.

      I have a whole family worth of “I’ll put zero effort into understanding your position or acknowledging your struggle, but here: let me tell you how to be happier like me”.

      I don’t want to presume too much on Natalie’s behalf, but I’d be telling you where to go and what to do when you get there.

    2. 2.2
      Prodigeek

      So yeah. That was condescending of you.

    3. 2.3
      Robert B.

      A rule of thumb for achieving your good intentions in the future: claims of the form “You shouldn’t care so much about X” are almost always wrong. Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience. If you’re ever considering saying something like that, think twice and then think again.

      1. Prodigeek

        “Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience.”

        Pure gold xD

        1. sphex

          Seconded.

      2. leftwingfox

        Just chiming in with Prodigeek, that’s a beautiful line.

      3. Robert B.

        Uh, thanks, folks! *writer ego swells to dangerous size*

      4. DaveB

        Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience.

        -Robert B.

        Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever “QFT”-ed before, but this should be front-and-centre in any collection of quotes-for-the-day. Very succinctly driving home a point that’s so easy to forget, and one that can and should be used again.

        Permission to use this in the future?

        1. Robert B.

          Yeah, sure, go for it. I thought of attribution, but if I wanted that I should have been using my full name. Reuse or quote, with or without attribution, as you see fit.

          1. Crimsonheight

            I love your phrase but forgot to bookmark it! Spent the last hour googling and checking my history. It is great!

  3. 3
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Wow. Great post and hugs if you want them.

    Science means a lot to the human heart as well the head. Just look at the Hubble images of distant vistas full of stars and worlds and wonders.

    Look at all the difference modern medicine and engineering make to our qulaity of lives and opportunities.

    Look at how science has explained tehthunderstorm and guarded against lightnig and illuminated the old superstitions turning them from shadows in the night into mundanities, expectedand clearly seen.

    Look at how science has debunked flawed and oppressive race and gender and sexuality constructs at least very many times albeit far from perfect in some past and present cases.

    Look at well, so much more I could be typing examples here still tommorrow night.

    Yes, I care about science and people and the world.

    I am often worried, enraged and despairing but I am not without hope.

    We have made so much progress and come so far and we can glimpse the road ahead and see that whilst we may sometimes take a few steps back, dragged by the mire of former ideologies and people who still cling to them, we are ever so gradually and often painfully getting there. Maybe.

    Hope this makes sense too.

  4. 4
    Ace of Sevens

    I’ve been getting a lot of the attitude from the local occupy group. I went out to join them. After an hour or so, I decided I couldn’t stand their company. Everything was a mash-up of the naturalistic fallacy and conspiracy theories, so plenty of stuff about how agricultural science was a plot to poison us, medicine is a perversion of nature and humans would live longer if they just ate organic foods and never went to the doctor and how the flood survey was a conspiracy to get rid of poor people.

    1. 4.1
      drshell

      Ace, that’s the *exact* example that popped into my head as well–the ZOMG GMO MONSANTO people. Ugh.

  5. 5
    Rob

    Bravo Natalie. A great post and desperately needing to be said. Thank you. All the best to you and your friend.

  6. 6
    Dana Hunter

    Tour de force once again. You make me think so hard I get a delicious sort of brain ache, like ideas and concepts are filling the old skull to capacity and beyond. Thank you for that!

    Take care of yourself. My best to you and your friend. If there is anything you need that I can possibly provide, just say. I’ll be here.

  7. 7
    A nym too

    Thank you for this.

    I lost someone very close to me, only two weeks ago. Science has saved him many times, this time it couldn’t. However, it gave him a good death, a. peaceful, painless, relatively swift death.

    We then had to spend a week screaming and kicking, because certain relatives were insisting on a religious funeral, for a proud atheist, a man of science who despised what religion had done to. his own family.

    It made a hard time into a fucking excruciating one. It almost made me want to slide back into the religion I was raised in.

    We stood our ground, gave him the send-off he deserved, with no religion present. We ignored the muttering and looks, it wasn’t their day, it was his.

    I’m so glad that science helped him, and eased the pain of dying. Religion can fuck off.

  8. 8
    Miri

    I couldn’t agree with all this any more than I do. There is nothing really to add to this, other than I hope some of those who would be inclined to disagree with you, actually read what you have to say, and critically examine their own positions. Although, I won’t be holding my breath, since “critically examining their position” is likely to be viewed as an example of Western rationality and cultural imperialism… *sigh*

  9. 9
    Matt E

    Hey Natalie -

    Another great post. I’ve never commented here before, but I want you to know that I’ve been really influenced by your writing over the last few months. You have consistently caused me to reassess concepts that seemed so settled in my brain. So, thank you.

    So many people I grew up with (here on the west coast of BC) have developed a deep-seated belief in these ‘other ways of knowing’ especially when it comes to medicine (vaccinations, homeopathy, etc.). I find it incomprehensible how they will sneer at science and then happily use science to justify other beliefs. I had a Facebook argument with one person who insisted that the smallpox vaccine wasn’t what wiped out smallpox. It was all part of a big conspiracy to make doctors rich.

    I work with a whole cadre of ancient aliens believers, who love science as long as it deals with rocket ships, but think evolution “is just like the bible – it’s just a bunch of crap that’s been passed down through the years, and anyway, why are there still monkeys?” These guys consider themselves enlightened and progressive, and at the same time call trans people “it” and rail against gay people adopting kids.

    It heartens me to read a post like this. It’s like a little lifeline when I am floating in a sea of bigotry and woo.

    1. 9.1
      benstansfield

      Yeah, I’m from the coast, too, and I know those people (well, some very like them). If could think or write as well as Natalie, I would have been able to refute some of their nonsensical conclusions. Instead I shook (and shake) my head, try my best to talk ‘em out of it.

  10. 10
    rq

    Thank you for writing so well and so much and about things that need to be said, like this. Best wishes.

  11. 11
    Bia

    My favorite author of all time had this to say on the matter.

    “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

    Frederich Fuckin’ Nietzsche

    Yeah, I have friends like that too. People I adore but I have to bite my tongue when they’re around because they say some really stupid things. And when you object, they act like you’re trying to oppress them.

    White people, I’d be done with you if I wasn’t so privileged as to be born as one of you.

  12. 12
    Dunc

    What a fantastic post! Bravo!

    1. 12.1
      Sercee

      *joins the applause with standing ovation*
      Brava!

  13. 13
    navis

    Thank you so very much for this.

    The number of times I meet people who are “the good ones”, and everything seems perfect until one of them starts talking about some insane conspiracy theory writ large; be it on how there is a perfectly simple and cheap “natural” cancer cure but big pharma is supressing it, the pathetic vaccine scare stuff, or straightforward esoteric tripe (morphic fields anyone?)…

    In particular the first of those gets my back up. Having lost friends and family to that darn disease, amongst them one person who could have been saved, but decided to go for an alternative medicine “remedy” initially, i.e. until it was too late, I tend to become rather irate.

    The scientific method and all it entails has to be the backbone of any truly progressive movement, the scaffolding on which the desired social and political change is draped. If not, then the entire thing runs the risk of heading off into the wrong direction, or simply being pushed to the sidelines of history. I guess it does not help that many of the older generation still remember the days of Woodstock and talk about how they helped “expand the global consciousness” by sucking on bits of blotting paper.

    In situations like these I often find myself thinking of the saying “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out”. It can be immensely frustrating, in particular if I genuinely like and respect the person spouting the nonsense. In the future, I might just point one of two of them to your article.

  14. 14
    resident_alien

    *exhales deeply*
    Wow!
    This post is brilliant!If I could afford to,I’d have multiple copies of it printed on flyers to hand out in front of my local New Age book store.
    I,too,was a teenage New Ager/woo enthusiast/conspiracy theorist,it took much time and effort to learn to know better.
    Many,many thanks for your wonderful writings!

  15. 15
    Zinnia Jones

    “Someone once quoted Shakespeare to the philosopher W. V. O. Quine: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ The remark was meant as a put-down, a sort of ‘Yeah, what do you know?’ To which Quine is said to have responded: ‘Possibly, but my concern is that there not be more things in my philosophy than are in heaven and earth.’

    1. 15.1
      Jen

      Absolutely! Yay Quine!

      And thank you Natalie too. Spot on as usual.

    2. 15.2
      drshell

      Also, [English Professor Hat] that’s not quoting “Shakespeare” but quoting the fictional character Hamlet. People really need to stop spouting “Shakespeare said ____________” when they really mean one of his characters said it. The play doesn’t even overtly validate Hamlet’s opinion in this case; we’re left with no idea if he was right in the end. Additionally, Horatio, the philosophy student Hamlet is addressing, is not only the most honest, respectable character in that play, but he is the one major character left alive in the end (spoiler). Perhaps Shakespeare was in fact more sympathetic to his position on such subjects? The point is, we can’t know. Hell, people are constantly running around quoting Polonius, “To Thine Own Self Be True” and all that, and Polonius is a moron.

  16. 16
    sundiver

    To address one little morsel of this post, the idea that learning about why, say, thunderstorms form, or why stars go supernova, or anything else science discovers “takes away the mystery” is, to me, arrant nonsense. What kind of poets are we if we can talk about Jupiter if we regard him as a god, but if he’s only a spinning ball of gas we remain silent? I don’t recall who said that, but it so eloquently describes the paucity of many “new agers’” imaginations. For too many people science is merely a body of knowledge when it’s really a process. It doesn’t take away the wonder to understand the world, it should only enhance our sense of wonder. Recall Hans Bethe’s line, when he’d worked out the principles of stellar nuclear fusion. Someone had said how beautifully the stars were shining and Bethe replied, “Yes. And right now I’m the only person in the world who knows WHY they shine”. To steal a line from the religites, science is best understood as a verb, a process, it’s the most reliable method to figure out how our universe works and our place in it. And, when one thinks about it, through us, and any other sentient life forms out there, the universe becomes aware of itself. This view of mine hasn’t won me a lot of friends, I’m called a materialist, a “bring down” but fuck it. That’s how I see it. And whether one os straight, gay, bi, black, cis-normal we’re all human and we’re all we’ve got. As for all the fucked up shit we do
    I can’t even pretend to have a clue as to why we do it or how to stop it. Reading your post however gives me a bit of hope that at least one other person sort of sees the world the way I do. That rationality is the way out of the mess we’re in.

    1. 16.1
      Natalie Reed

      I remember I had a friend in college who once quoted to me that “the moon landing was science’s great assault on poetry”.

      I thought that was one of the stupidest things he ever said.

      The lunar surface is beautiful and poetic entirely in itself! Who couldn’t write poems about that gorgeous, tranquil desolation? And how does simply knowing about it take away from our capacity to continue writing poetry about how the moon appears to us here on Earth? It sure hasn’t stopped the moon from showing up in song lyrics all the time, or from artists and animators and cartoonists and so on to continue imagining the moon as being something entirely different.

      And really… the fact that we actually fucking walked on the thing is a pretty damn poetic achievement all in itself. If anything, it was science’s great gift to poetry.

      1. hall-of-rage

        The moon landing (or technically a close-to-moon orbit), and the sudden human impulse of a scientist, gave us Earthrise. Surely that photo is one of science’s greatest gifts to poetry.

    2. 16.2
      Blake Stacey

      If walking on another world does not strike you as supremely poetic, then stick a fork in your soul, ’cause it’s dead and done.

    3. 16.3
      Lucas

      The “what men are poets” line is due to none other than one Richard Feynman… it was my senior high yearbook quote (lo these many years ago)!

      Good one. I still trot it out at every possible opportunity (and I get a lot, as a science teacher)

      1. sundiver

        Thanks, Lucas. I thought that was Feynman but wasn’t sure. And I’m still a bit, well, awed by Natalie’s post. She said all the things I’ve been thinking for years and did so a lot more eloquently than I can.

      2. Ivo

        Feynman also made the same point with a flower:

        Ode to a flower

    4. 16.4
      KT

      I once felt that way – when I was a teenager. I didn’t want to know about the stars or the ocean because I thought it would destroy the mystery and beauty of them. It was, for me, I think a remnant of being a kid obsessed with mermaids and unicorns and magic worlds, etc. Wishing they were true, but knowing they weren’t made me cling to the things I felt were magical.

      Then I discovered Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and found out that learning more about these things could make them even more beautiful and amazing. I just think there are so many people who want a kind of magic and beauty to exist and they mistakenly think that science and medicine are some kind of solvent that washes away the magic, so they fear it and elevate things they see as outside of that paradigm.

      And there are some people who don’t like things that tell them the truth, even if it’s not what they want to hear, or even worse admit it doesn’t have the answer when they very badly want an answer or a cure.

      1. ik

        I once had a faint feeling of that. But you know what? Being a sorcerer of dread power, one with the knowledge and the strength to command the waves and the lightning, to create diamonds out of coal, to know the secrets behind making mirrors and seeing beyond sight, to build constructs to serve you and dictate the very structure of animal and vegetable life itself?

        Much preferable.

        1. Natalie Reed

          Not to mention the capacity to rend apart the underlying structure of matter itself to release the unimaginable fire and destruction held within…

  17. 17
    samoanbiscuit

    Thank you so much for writing this insightful and amazing post. I recently subscribed to the entire FTB rss feed (instead of just Pharyngula) and you’re one of the most impressive bloggers I have read so far. Thank you again.

  18. 18
    Ma Nonny

    I agree with the overall point of your post, but there was something I wanted to think through more deeply:

    “It takes the same old colonial narrative of the “advanced”, civilized peoples of Europe, and the savage mystical primitives of Everywhere-Else, and repackages it in such a way as to be enjoyed within the halls of contemporary academia without any post-imperial guilt.

    And still the academics remain, selling the otherness of the “other ways of knowing”.

    Well, imagine we were the disadvantaged Other Culture whose “ways of knowing” were being fawned over by the “progressive” academics of a comparably “advanced” culture.

    Those ethnographers and academics from elsewhere could easily draw the conclusion that we, all of us in the Mystic Occident, really believe that we can become possessed by the demi-god Santa Claus, which is an intrinsic element of our mysterious, magical, intuitive nature.”

    [S]cience itself is a system based on similar principles of questioning oneself, having self-correction and acknowledgment of mistakes built into the process, and the values, themselves.”

    Reading this makes me feel that you are arguing that academics (and left-wing progressives) are mutually exclusive with practitioners of science. This was confusing to me since most scientists I know ARE academics (and left-wing progressives who are social justice advocates).

    Academia is not some ivory tower where scientists are out of touch with the rest of the world, especially today. Academia is, instead, a place you fight tooth-and-nail FOR THE PURPOSE of having freedom to not follow the party line and to go out there and find out the truth without the financial pressure of producing a marketable product for the masses. At least, ideally, that’s what it’s supposed to be. It is more often a place with little job security where you have to convince the government to pay your salary or else you lose your job (or your ability to do your job, if you have tenure). I agree that there is a great deal of privilege that some academics have, but that does not preclude their ability to have critical thinking skills and the ability to explore how that privilege operates.

    How much global collaboration is required for science today (especially if you do field work) and how many scientific institutions are popping up in these so-called “third-world” countries without obvious imperialistic interference by the first-world seems to support your argument that we first-world people are not necessary for science to exist, but it contradicts your notion that academics are exclusively first-worlders who only condescend to others.

    I see us all living on a single earth as a single species, so I don’t think “mystical thinking” is inherent to one people but not others. All groups have the capacity to do great things, but some do not have resources due to politics and regional history, etc. I also don’t think you have to have a fancy lab to do science – for instance, take the recent “garage science” movement. Most academic scientists I know would never assume that the people they work with in other countries are inherently less able to understand science. Also, since science is self-correcting over time, many academics I know would be happy to find out they were biased so they can correct that bias. So, therefore, I was confused by your “othering” of academics, i.e. “they” are the ones imposing imperialistic notions onto other cultures, but at the same time science is everywhere. I’m not saying that particular academics in the past have not held dangerous positions, but rather I want to know whether academics and the system they exist in are inherently dangerous.

    I guess I’m just asking for a discussion/comment about what your concept of “academic” is and whether it’s really accurate to the lived experience, behavior, and philosophy of most academics.

    1. 18.1
      Natalie Reed

      In those examples, I’m referring to a very, very specific kind of academic/academia, and that kind alone. Namely, the post-structuralists, and various other types of humanities theorists, who have long since stopped looking at or caring about the world they profess to offer insight on through “deconstructing”. Whose worldview is 90% books, 9% NPR, and 1% the drive from the suburbs to campus or Whole Foods. I don’t by any means intend to refer to academia, or even the humanities, as a whole.

      1. Ma Nonny

        That clears up a lot – thanks!

        A question for anybody – is there usually a particular field these post-structuralist theorists are in (i.e. Philosophy) in modern day, or is it a point of view that theorists in many fields hold and use to interpret their field? Google wasn’t helpful about the variety of current uses of the theory.

        1. Natalie Reed

          It’s in a lot of different fields, but most commonly philosophy, linguistics/semiotics, anthropology and literary theory.

          1. beneficii

            Really? Linguistics? I’ve always found linguistics to be an interesting field, and though you get the emphasis in linguistics that doesn’t exist among grammarians, namely that linguists are more interested in how the language is actually used verses grammarians who are more interested in prescribing how it should be used. It’s very fun to work in, and to compare different languages.

      2. Marja Erwin

        I don’t think you give the poststructuralists enough credit.

        Structuralism tended to explain things through difficult-to-test and often impossible-to-test claims about universal structures in the human mind. I think Levi-Strauss had this whole theory based on universal hostility between in-laws. Poststructuralism challenges this. A lot of it exposes how these aren’t always universal structures, but can derive from specific historical circumstances in specific cultures.

        1. Natalie Reed

          I’m getting very annoyed with people assuming that I simply “don’t get” post-structuralism or haven’t read it and that’s why I find these ideas harmful and deeply flawed. I’ve read Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Foucault, etc. Yes, I know what it is. No, what we’re talking about is not the whole of post-structuralism. We’re talking about contemporary post-structuralist critique of science. Thanks.

        2. Dalillama, Schmott Guy

          I would argue that a great deal of the problem was that until recently, it was virtually impossible to see what was going on inside the brain, and the methods that were used previously were crude, dangerous, and often wildly unethical. These days, a great deal of progress is being made regarding what various bits of the brain are actually used for, because we can measure what’s happening without actually shoving probes into the brain. (I say we in the broadest sense, of course. I’m not a neurologist or anything similar.)

    2. 18.2
      Sinead

      Um, my experience in physics (and why I didn’t pursue graduate studies) is that research is publish or die, and most were beholden to the electronics industry for funding of their research…thus there were far more opportunities in Solid State Physics than in Astrophysics.

  19. 19
    Prodigeek

    This hits very, very close to home for me. Earlier this spring I left my local Skeptics group in a rather epic fashion. I left over much of the kinds of things mentioned here which are seemingly being directed towards activist communities. Things like the complete lack of any understanding or acknowledgement of privilege, like the essentialist attitudes towards economically decimated countries, and demographics within our own country and even our own city. And pretty much any kind of social awareness and seemingly anything outside of what we consider physical sciences.

    I really do have to agree with your assertions. In fact, knowing that the activist communities here are rife with anti-science and bereft of skepticism is what had me fighting so hard to try and change the skeptical community for the better before ultimately giving up.

    I do have to say that I see one very key piece missing from your stance on this issue, however. I agree with what you’re saying science is as a method. But “science” has become one of those very sticky complex words, and for much of this the skeptical community itself is very responsible. I can’t tell you how many times and how many people I’ve seen go off on these rants about the self-critical, self-examining nature of science by people in the skeptical community, who themselves couldn’t possibly stand in any greater contrast to their own words. They are not self-examining or self-critical, and only use these ideas as a dogma to beat other people over the head.

    Many of these skeptics are in very direct ways, appropriating their identity and consequently their attitude with the word “science”. They are deeply neo-liberal in their social attitude, often very pro-capitalist, pro-industrial etc etc.

    I am not saying that science IS these things, but that atheist/skeptical communities are co-opting science and conflating it with these things. No, science is not just an “other way of knowing” or simply a “western, colonialist” ideology, but skeptics and atheist are THEMSELVES too often treating it like it IS these things, albeit with lip service to the opposite.

    I think you do address the flaw in this thinking. And I do also acknowledge the relevance in criticizing the activist community on these grounds, certainly!

    I will NOT take a stance of “Not this, but that”.
    I will take a stance of “This, but ALSO that”

    The skeptical community also needs to GET ITS SHIT TOGETHER. There needs to be a comming together of social activism and awareness, along with thoughtful skepticism and scientific integrity. I hope I don’t presume too much to think that we ultimately agree on this notion? In fact I think it was main objective, but from another “side”?

  20. 20
    Robert B.

    There actually are other valid ways of knowing besides science – such as history, journalism, and textual analysis. I’m sure that wasn’t what the person you were arguing with meant, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Science is awesome, but it’s possible to have too much confidence in it. I’ve had this conversation (paraphrased) on another blog:

    Idiot: You have to believe that black people aren’t as smart, because there’s all this IQ test data!

    Sensible Person: Um, dood, there’s some historical and social factors…

    Idiot: Who cares? Data!

    Sensible Person: Would you like to see some studies on stereotype threat?

    Idiot: Sociology is a soft science! I have data!

    Everyone: *facepalm*

    And of course, that guy was doing science wrong. But he was doing science wrong because he was privileging scientific evidence above other kinds without good cause (among other reasons.) There are some things that science isn’t so hot at learning (yet), where quantitative, double-blind controlled studies are impractical, or unethical, or inaccurate. For that matter, even some sciences, like biology and astronomy, still use the old “natural history” model of “observe, record, analyze” for some things rather than the high school textbook “scientific method” model of “hypothesize, experiment, analyze.”

    And you’re quite right, Natalie, that if cultural worldviews impinge on scientific work, the scientist has made an error of the sort science was designed to avoid. But such errors do consistently occur. If they didn’t, science wouldn’t be so disproportionately packed with white guys – a state of affairs that has had some seriously bad consequences, both scientifically and ethically. For example, that’s why there’s a term “hysteria,” my personal least favorite word in the English language.

    I doubt I really need to tell a post-modernist to keep a critical eye even on good things, so I guess I’m putting this out there for the rest of Natalie’s audience. Science is awesome, but it’s not perfect, nor is it the only rational form of inquiry.

    1. 20.1
      Prodigeek

      Fantastic point Robert! I myself obviously got caught up in the science vs woo dichotomy yet again. Yes, there are other ways of knowing as you’ve pointed out here which is VERY much what is missing in my local skeptical community, and as I understand it, here and there throughout the larger skeptical community. This seems quite evident with every new dog pile du jour on Skepchick, just as an off-the-top-of-my-head example.

    2. 20.2
      Ace of Sevens

      To be fair, history is science and journalism and textual analysis ideally should be. There’s a lot more to science than controlled experiments.

      1. Robert B.

        I think by “science” you mean something I would phrase as something like “rational empirical inquiry.” That is, I agree that science, history, journalism, and textual analysis (when done well) all have important features in common, such as a reliance on evidence and practices designed to reduce or eliminate human bias. But there are important differences also. For example, a physicist or chemist relies heavily on direct observation, and often manipulation, of the events she studies, whereas in history (as I understand it) someone who directly observed the events being studied is not considered a historian, but rather a primary source. I think things like that make the practice of history a very different thing than the practice of science.

    3. 20.3
      Natalie Reed

      Yeah, I definitely agree with all that. But I think in terms of where I was coming from, the point about how such influences and biases are in fact failures to be sciencey, a product of human bias influencing what types of data and information are privileged over others, is key. It’s important to remember WHY that “hard” data can end up being so strongly relied on in such instances in contrast to “soft” science. The same individual would likely be leaning on the “soft” data in contrast to the “hard” in the event that the prior was what was benefiting his assumptions. For instance, evo psych papers on how different races have “evolved” more or less “criminal tendencies” might appeal to him, at which point his “soft science” song and dance would probably be discarded in favour of saying something about “uncomfortable truths” or whatever.

      What I mean to say is I’ve yet to encounter someone who had this problem with over-privileging “hard science” who was truly consistent and dedicated in their professed belief that it’s superior information to things like sociology, psychology, history, etc. Instead of being a bias favouring such forms of science which leads to an inaccurate perspective, they favour such forms of science because they can most readily be manipulated in support of their existing socio-cultural assumptions and biases.

      1. Robert B.

        Good point.

      2. hall-of-rage

        Oops, now I kinda wish I could retract my irrelevant comment (reply #4).

        Not sure how on-topic this is but I’m curious, have you heard of Marc Hauser? I mentioned him to a biologist who studies non-human primates (I forget which kind), who went on a huge rant about how the stuff you can actually conclude based on observation is not that interesting because there are so many variables and possible explanations. Apparently Hauser got ahead in the field because he would make up stories like “this community of monkeys has invented a police force” and otherwise spin behaviors to sound really appealing and close-to-human with bogus explanations. And write awful reviews of other scientists…it makes me wonder just how much damage to the field of evopsych can have been done by a lone individual. Or worse, how many more there are like him.

      3. geocatherder

        Yes!!! If you actually DO science with integrity, you’ll be highly aware that you might actually be WRONG. Your biases might be getting in the way of interpreting the data. This applies whether you’re analyzing something intricate and obscure or trying to figure out what’s eating the bean plants in your garden. Biases just get layered on top of one another when the so-called “soft” sciences are involved.

      4. Prodigeek

        @geocatherder: Yes, you not only need to be extra careful about bias when delving into the “softer sciences”, but you also need to qualify the shit out of every claim. This is because what defines “softer science” IS the fact that it’s a field where there is a lot more that is unknown, not to mention the fact that it’s a science about the the very thing being used to evaluate it: the human brain (the hub of human social behaviour and of bias). As such, conclusions in such fields are likely to be of little immediate practical use and open more questions than they started with.

        The hurdles in the way of “doing it right” are not simply the integrity of the individuals (though obviously that plays a part). Let me explain.

        To do anything as a primary occupation requires money so that you can afford to eat and have a home while you do it. This means that someone with money must be willing to pay you, which in turn means that you will have to provide them with something useful in a time-frame that they feel is worth their investment.

        So we end up with a heavy bent against honest, well qualified conclusions like this and towards ones which lend themselves to practical, albeit less honest conclusions. These bad conclusions can become the marketable “product” of scientific credibility attached to certain ideas, acting as a access point into public opinion, for political or marketing purposes.

        Governments and Universities as bastions of pure research are themselves increasingly falling under the sway of free-market mania. I’m trying to avoid seeming too absolute and speak about trends and the overall nature here. I recognize the variations and exceptions to what I’m saying here, but I see this as the trend.

        So individuals matter ideologically, but the market is a system of selection working against a varied body of individuals ranging from the honest and thoughtful scientist, to the sell-out, charlatan, pseudo-scientist. As long as their claims aren’t too falsifiable and tickle popular biases, bad science can fly. There are bubbles that exist between honest science that the market doesn’t care about, and falsifiable horse crap. As in evolution, they fit a niche.

        So what I’m trying to say is that the problem isn’t so inherently tied to the kind of science it is, but the context in which it exists that tends to sway it toward certain interests. Being a “soft” science doesn’t make it inherently less important, in fact I would argue that it makes it more so. It also doesn’t make it inherently bad.

        Not to mention that fact that this attitude can give a false sense of comfort when dealing with so-called “hard” science. Much of the “bias” (not necessarily methodological) in “hard” science is present before anyone steps foot into a lab. Why are we asking THIS question of science and not that other one?

        What’s the solution? I don’t have the answer to that, but let’s first be clear about the problem and take it from there.

    4. 20.4
      hall-of-rage

      Right. Science shouldn’t necessarily be privileged over other forms of inquiry. Science is just an example of a form of inquiry that has (or rather, should always have) skepticism built into it. I haven’t fully processed the whole post yet, but I don’t think science is meant to be the only kind of “rational inquiry” here.

      If the “hypothesize, experiment, analyze” methods cannot adequately answer a question, other methods might, including the observational ones–if they are continually trying to look at the possible gaps, to be ready to change.

      Then there’s the question of communicating these nuances when showing results to others, which is head-bangingly difficult to do.

    5. 20.5
      ik

      Ideally, history and etc would also be science as well.

      A critical, common failure is the inability to separate the scientific method (which has NO EQUAL) from the extant institutions of science, which have some kyriarchal bits and some blind spots, but are getting better every day.

  21. 21
    baal

    “It’s no coincidence that science itself is a system based on similar principles of questioning oneself, having self-correction and acknowledgment of mistakes built into the process, and the values, themselves.”

    I’ve was a member of the scientific community for a long while. The are plenty of scientists who managed to form and keep what amounts to cults’o-personality. They tend, however, to get washed out after the facts start piling up from everyone else’s research.

    That said, I whole heartedly support the notion that scientific process is the best way forward for everyone. You’ve said with passion an idea that I’m fumbled quite a bit with.

    I also agree with the other point woven through that people get to be who and what they are and judged as themselves rather than by what category they can be placed in. Over-using paradigms seems deeply engrained in how people’s brains work, however.

  22. 22
    Dalillama

    *Applause* I don’t have much of anything to add to that post, so have some internet *hugs* and cookies, and best wishes to you and your friend.

    1. 22.1
      Buzz Parsec

      Oh, you stole my comment! :-) I was going to say exactly the same thing.

      Thank you, Natalie. And I also hope your friend/family member/loved one does as well as possible, if not better.

  23. 23
    navis

    Thank you so very much for this.

    The number of times I meet people who are “the good ones”, and everything seems perfect until one of them starts talking about some insane conspiracy theory writ large; be it on how there is a perfectly simple and cheap “natural” cancer cure but big pharma is supressing it, the pathetic vaccine scare stuff, or straightforward esoteric tripe (morphic fields anyone?)…

    In particular the first of those gets my back up. Having lost friends and family to that darn disease, amongst them one person who could have been saved, but decided to go for an alternative medicine “remedy” initially, i.e. until it was too late, I tend to become rather irate.

    The scientific method and all it entails has to be the backbone of any truly progressive movement, the scaffolding on which the desired social and political change is draped. If not, then the entire thing runs the risk of heading off into the wrong direction, or simply being pushed to the sidelines of history. I guess it does not help that many of the older generation still remember the days of Woodstock and talk about how they helped “expand the global consciousness” by sucking on blotting paper.

    In situations like these I often find myself thinking of the saying “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out”. It can be immensely frustrating, in particular if I genuinely like and respect the person spouting the nonsense. In the future, I might just point one of two of them to your article.

    1. 23.1
      Dalillama

      Yeah, here in PDX we have some fuckweasel who’s suing the school district because they expose his children to *gasp* WI-FIOMGelventy!1!!1. So far the district has had to piss away nearly $200000 debunking the ‘experts’ this asshole brings in.

      1. Robert B.

        Does he not want the kid to have internet access, or does he think wifi causes cancer or something?

      2. ik

        Have heard of people who claimed they were allergic to low-power microwaves and being in a building with a wifi network would be quite uncomfortable for them. Experiment with hidden wifi routers turned on or turned off? They couldn’t tell a thing.

  24. 24
    Sinead

    I’ve encountered this a lot since living on the Left Coast, that people who ordinarily have very progressive personal and political beliefs will swallow bunk pseudoscience and anecdotal claims as long as it is wrapped up in “healthy” sounding things like “natural” and “organic”. I mean, I’m sceptical of GMO and hydrocarbon based synthetic pesticides, but my scepticism is more towards the corporations and that I don’t believe that neither they nor the shills at the FDA will genuinely look out for the interests of the public.

    I even have a coworker who is anti-evolution, yet he is non-Christian, some kinda Deadhead spiritualist of some sort. We get into huge rows because he thinks science (and Darwinism) is a just as much a religious belief as creationism. Let’s just say that we’ve agreed to not discuss these issues at work, like adults, but I still like to wear my “98% Chimp” t-shirt to work.

    I have to admit, that despite my strong belief in the soundness of the scientific method, I did have some dalliances with some far out ideas while I was in college. There was something about being a physics major and being absorbed in high levels of mathematics and eating an awful lot of LSD that contributed to my detachment from reality, but nonetheless, I never completely lost it either.

    Let’s just say I was much more of an “actively experimenting philosopher”.

    Anyway, if thinkgeek doesn’t come up with one first, I’m going to have to silkscreen my own t-shirt that says “Formaldehyde is Organic”

    1. 24.1
      Jake Hamby

      How about “Arsenic is Organic”? That has a bit more of a Wednesday Addams vibe to it, I think. Also I was reminded of the homeopathic teething cream that the US FDA pulled after some children were poisoned by the homeopathic arsenic that wasn’t diluted enough.

      Also, homeopathy comes from Germany, which is hardly “the mystical Far East”, unless you’re out on the Pacific coast, in which case east Asia is to the northwest and not all that far.

      Oh, the FDA also pulled a popular Traditional Chinese Bullshit I mean “Medicine” remedy that was being sold online under various names including “herbal V—ra” (don’t want to trip the spam filter). Anyway, it wasn’t for ineffectiveness, but rather due to the illicit presence of the ingredient in C..lis at 3x the standard dosage.

      1. Ness

        That’d be rather inappropriate, because arsenic isn’t organic at all. Natural, yes. Organic, no.

        1. sheila

          How about “Cobra venom is organic”?

      2. A. Person

        Organic arsenic is a shorthand for organic molecules containing arsenic. See link 1 and link 2 (PDF) from the FDA.

        1. A. Person

          Note, this doesn’t defend homeopathic or other irresponsible uses of arsenic. Or people who say “arsenic is organic”, because I doubt they know organic chemistry. (If this doesn’t make sense, it will when the comment it’s replying to is pulled out of moderation.)

        2. ik

          OH GOD ARSINE.

          THe lab I work at over the summer (big semiconductor fabrication and nanotech facility) has cylinders of arsine. It’s like methane, an organic gas, but arsenic based. (We also have silane, which is SiH4, and pretty lively, but that is not as dangerous.) Super toxic, gaseous so you can inhale it, AND it is spontaneously flammable.

          Actually a lot of organic-metallic compounds are spontaneously flammable.

  25. 25
    SimonB

    I’ve benefited immensely from your posts and your blog, but this is one of the most eloquent examples. Thank you so much for sharing your life and your thoughts.

  26. 26
    Brian

    It is amazing to me that *our* side, the side that correctly fights against teaching creationism and young-earth hypotheses in public schools, needs to be reminded that — yes — some claims about reality are empirically true and others are false, and the way to distinguish between them is called science.

    It is amazing to me that before even thinking of applying the scientific method (and its relatives in other disciplines) to test and refine progressive postulates, it is necessary to write an article about why science is not Western or colonialist or marginalizing.

    It is not amazing to me that we still have to explain that science, with its emphasis on falsifiability and hypothesis testing, is in principle more open-minded than any faith tradition, including the ones that pride themselves on their open-mindedness. The reason this is is not amazing is that we tend to teach science in school as a set of well-verified results and not as a way of learning about the world. But it is still disappointing.

    Maybe the conflict comes from the fact that science studies how the world actually is, while progressives put a philosophical premium on imagining how the world ought to be. There does not need to be a war between these emphases — in fact, we need to know how the world is in order to figure out how to make it better. But there is a tension between them. There is no doubt that XY people, on average, are taller than XX people, and that this difference is not a result of acculturation or nurture, but is genetic in origin. We pretty much accept this. But what if science reliably and repeatedly establishes that either XX or XY people are similarly privileged on a more sensitive dimension — spatial reasoning, emotional intelligence, whatever — and that some of this difference is also genetic in origin? Or what if it turns out that the children of same-sex couples actually do have worse outcomes on some axes than those of opposite-sex couples? We should examine the science, of course, and if it is methodologically unsound we should discard it. But we must not say that the science must be wrong because it doesn’t fit our doctrine; that way lies doublethink and the eventual end of the progressive project. Our philosophy needs to be able to cope with whatever world we turn out to live in. We believe in the moral equality of all human beings. We do not need to fear or disdain science. We need to embrace it and apply our moral principles to the human world it reveals to us.

    1. 26.1
      Natalie Reed

      Actually, almost all sexual dimorphic charateristics are epigenetic in nature, a result of hormonal differences, not genetic. The chromosomes just change the gonads. Science! :D

      1. Brian

        Hee, you caught me! Yes, saying “genetic” instead of “hormonal” was an elision on my part — it’s genetics, which we can’t change, operating through hormones, which we can. Thanks for the correction. I don’t think it affects my point.

        1. hall-of-rage

          When claims are made carefully and specifically like “estrogen is a factor in emotional sensitivity”, science might actually be able to analyze them productively.

          In our culture right now, there are many researchers out to prove (for example) that women are intrinsically more emotional than men, or men are more logical, and so on; and there is a public eager to apply its confirmation bias to studies supporting their results. Even for scientists wishing to prove equality, it is hard to get past their preconceptions of gender down to what the specific research questions should be, AND then figure out what sort of conclusions can be drawn. AND it’s difficult for anyone to stop people from jumping to other conclusions.

          Your eagerness to use “XX people” and “XY people” as the different data sets, and to look for a conclusion saying that some categories of people are demonstrably better than others in some respects, is a great example of this clouded thinking at work.

          1. Brian

            Hall-of-rage, what if it did turn out to be true that “some categories of people are demonstrably better than others in some respects?”

            I agree that there is an unhealthy appetite in the media and among the public for pseudoscience and oversimplified science that “proves” the tenets on which privilege is built. But neither the fact that this appetite is unhealthy, nor the fact that the “science” justifying it has to date usually been lousy, has one jot to do with the answer to this question. Our moral disapproval of inequality also has nothing to do with the answer to this question.

            I’m belaboring this point because I think that some progressive hostility towards science comes out of a fear that some legitimate scientific studies might be used against the principle that people are equal. But this should not be a reason for us to fear science; it should be a reason to focus on the notion of moral equality, and the duty of treating people equally.

          2. hall-of-rage

            Well, I think that happens when progressives start believing people who say “I’m not being PC, I’m just laying out facts about the world. Group A really is smarter than Group B on average [for my favorite measure of 'smart'].” Progressive or not, people have unconscious racism, sexism, etc. that make them inclined to listen to messages of inequality far more than they should.

            I think because of this, a lot of liberal-minded people are afraid that this statement might be true, and that science proving this would lead to justified inequality, eugenics, whatever. I agree that we should not base the morals of treating humans equally well on the presupposition that humans are somehow “equal”. Indeed, I’m not sure what “equal” means: humans are diverse. We shouldn’t be afraid of science exploring that, in theory. In fact, the idea that people have to be equally talented in order to be equally deserving is…probably pretty strongly ableist. I agree with you that this mentality is a problem.

            But still, we should emphasize how suspect are the motives of any scientist or layperson who wants to talk about how neuroscience says this or that about men or women, etc. etc. The biases in such scientific papers have been demonstrated over and over again, such that I am thoroughly sick of them. We should never let such people make us afraid that we’re “wrong” in wanting a society that treats people better.

          3. Brian

            Exquisitely well said. I think we agree completely.

    2. 26.2
      Robert B.

      I was just talking about this crap. I’ve never refuted someone before they spoke before, it’s weird.

      But what if science reliably and repeatedly establishes that either XX or XY people are similarly privileged on a more sensitive dimension — spatial reasoning, emotional intelligence, whatever — and that some of this difference is also genetic in origin? Or what if it turns out that the children of same-sex couples actually do have worse outcomes on some axes than those of opposite-sex couples?

      Do you anticipate this happening any time soon? Do you have a culture-free test of cognition, or a vaccine for stereotype threat, or a pair of biospheres where we could stick same-sex and opposite-sex parent families to see whose kids turn out better when isolated from society’s inequitable treatment? Barring that, we can’t perform the reliable, methodologically sound science you blithely imagine. All the tests for all the questions you mention have known systematic errors of unknowable size. That’s just a fail, the rational scientist gives up and goes to look at quasars or volcanoes, something she might be able to draw sound conclusions about.

      One of the premises of the “progressive project” you mention, is that when privileged people appear to be “objectively better” in any sense than everyone else, it is because the privileged people have stacked the deck. There was absolutely no scientific evidence for this when we started. In fact, in the early days, science shamefully came in on the wrong side, and used all its prestige and authority to spread racist, sexist, evil falsehoods. And yet liberalism continued, and has been steadily reducing the gaps in outcome between privileged and underprivileged groups wherever its reach extends.

      So, yeah, this is exactly what I was talking about upthread. History and sociology tell me that, when asked these questions you mention, my beloved science is not going to tell me the truth. It can’t, until we create an equitable society to be an unbiased laboratory. Then, someday long in the future, when we’ve finally got a world that isn’t trying to fuck up women and people of color and LGBTQ people etc. etc., then we can do the experiments and find out if we were right. (Though maybe we won’t – maybe in that world nobody will care anymore.) But if we all start expecting now that we’ll get results we won’t like then, we’ll sabotage the whole equality project, and we’ll never get there to find out.

      1. Brian

        My original point was that progressives do not have to be afraid of science, because the philosophy of treating people as moral equals is unaffected by any possible scientific finding that groups are in any other way systematically unequal. If I understand you correctly, you are going farther and saying that science, in the world as we know it, is actually incapable of making such a finding in the first place. I think that view is rather dour, but you make good points and I won’t try to refute them; it’s outside the scope of what I was trying to say. What troubles me is your final sentence:

        “[I]f we all start expecting now that we’ll get results we won’t like then [in the utopian future], we’ll sabotage the whole equality project, and we’ll never get there to find out.”

        This may be the only point we categorically disagree on. Just as I try to treat each of my friends Alice and Ben well even though they are two very different people, I think that treating groups of people as equals is a moral imperative, whether or not they turn out to differ in ways we don’t like. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But there’s no reason that admitting the possibility of differences should “sabotage the whole equality project,” because that project is a moral project. Correspondingly, there’s no need to fear science that exposes those differences — if such a science exists or ever could. That was my point.

        1. Robert B.

          That assumes we’re all perfect rational agents, whose unjustified opinions on questions of fact don’t bias our ethical choices. I don’t know about you, but I don’t live in a brain like that.

    3. 26.3
      anna

      My least favorite science what if is the “what if we find real differences showing one group isnt as good as another group how will we deal with that?”

      We wont have to.

      In things like intelligence, emotional response, etc the in group differance is so much larger; and the differances found between groups so low that its a completely pointless hypothetical. No meaningful difference will ever be found. Progressive scienctists are not afraid of research in this area they are just rightly pointing out that there cannot by nature be meaningful findings.

      1. Ma Nonny

        And besides, so what if there are average differences between groups of people on one category or another? As you stated, belonging to that category does not predetermine your individual traits due to the variability between individuals within a group being larger than the variability between groups. But also, and what I think is the bigger point, just because differences may be found to exist between groups (on average), this does not in any way justify that individuals should be given fewer opportunities just for belonging to that group.

        It almost seems to me like the “born this way” movement. By “being born this way” it’s supposed to be “not my fault I’m different” and therefore not morally inferior to be LGBTQ, but so what if you chose it instead of were born into it? You shouldn’t be treated as less of a human being because of it.

        I think treating people differently for being different is the more dangerous thing than there actually being average differences between groups. [With the obvious caveat that once any such differences are found, bigots will of course say that it JUSTIFIES treating people differently. This is the thinking that needs to be broken.]

  27. 27
    hall-of-rage

    So much content to this post, wow. I can feel how my brain takes longer to process ideas that are new, as compared to ones that I knew already, and even longer if they challenge my own ideas.

    In particular, the challenge to the “science is Western” concept, and how this is disguised Othering–this way of thinking is very new to me. It points out once again how I must get over privilege-guilt, because if being “Western” makes me feel guilty, I am less likely to question messages phrased as “you’re being too Western in your science, Other people might think differently.”

    There is plenty of culture in scientific communities, and the European roots of academic science research, as a community of information, are painfully obvious. I think when people say “Science is Western” the criticism should be aimed at this cultural community that Western scientISTS are a part of. But science itself, or engineering that results from science, can come from anyone.

    Maybe it would have been a good idea to post this as a series, but really, this was worth the wait.

  28. 28
    sphex

    Whew. As so many others have already said, reading that was awesome. Thank you for writing and posting it.
    Keeping you and your friend in my thoughts.

  29. 29
    Marja Erwin

    UYes, I also skimmed this. I plan to get back to it soon.

    Here’s the thing:

    I can respect multiple ways of knowing. But science is a really awesome way of testing what we are wondering about or think we know.

    Someone whose language uses evidentials to sum up how the speaker knows any claims she’s making, may think about knowing a bit different than those of us whose languages don’t use evidentials.

    Someone who focuses positive knowledge may think about knowing a bit differently than someone who embraces multiple tentative hypotheses.

    Someone who accepts the idea of epistemic closure might approach long logical arguments differently from someone who rejects epistemic closure, perhaps because she thinks it too easy to incorporate unconscious additional premises or unconscious equivocation into the long logical arguments.

    But for almost any of them, it can be really useful to devise a test, or find a natural test, or catalogue similar situations and see what happens [or happened]. Science works. Science came out of empiricism but it has taken off because it works just as well for rationalists as for empiricists.

  30. 30
    ik

    Natalie Reed, I am privileged to compliment you on this article, for you have served the Greater Good.

    I would like to reiterate that even if it were discovered that some group of humanity truly were inferior, even morally inferior, the proper treatment would be pity and not hatred. I have little fear of that happening.

    I sometimes wonder about the whole Eurocentric and Other-ness thing. Sometimes I just wish we could retreat into Europe and not have to deal with this, to regard those outside Europe as foreign to us, and know that we must be foreign to them.

    Not fully convinced that Europe’s successes are wholly because of oppressing outsiders. I think that a lot of it is a combination of brutal, internal military engineering competition, having the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Revolution first and at just the right time.

    1. 30.1
      Prodigeek

      But IK, what resources from where (both food and industrial) were being used to fuel all of that growth, and what was driving all of that military engineering and industrial growth? I’m pretty sure the answer is mainly expansion and conquest.

    2. 30.2
      ik

      I’m not saying that wasn’t there. But a lot of it was expansion into each other, and it’s not like Europe has a lack of natural resources, unless I am massively mistaken. Plus, I think that it was more certain specific resources (the whole guns germs and steel thing) that they already developed coming into the Rennaisance, that drove the expansion.

  31. 31
    Travis McClain @TravisSMcClain

    There’s so much here to discuss, but as I begin typing there are already 69 comments so I’ll offer just two observations in the interest of avoiding repetition.

    Reading your disillusionment with various “progressive” groups, I am reminded of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and its portrayals of the various in-fighting among African-American groups, each with its own agenda and disconnects between leadership and group members, etc. I don’t have anything further to add in elaboration on this point. Just pointing to a literary analog.

    As for the anti-science movement, I face a ton of that as a Crohnie. In truth, the few things medical science can do for me really are rather destructive, particularly the steroids and especially the biologics, which are now being understood as cancer-causing on an alarming scale. I do question what’s going on with our foodstuffs and air and water.

    I find that skepticism consistent with the values of science, however. Science itself is also questioning whether we can do better than the current pharmaceutical offerings, and truthfully even the anti-science crowd has to thank science for calling out the ways in which some science has been used to tamper with our foods. It’s like people who are certain that you can’t trust the media at all, but then immediately cite something they learned of from the media as new evidence to support their paranoid perspective.

    Anyway, I can certainly relate to your overall frustrations. I joined a Crohn’s disease support network about two years ago, but I wound up leaving it last year because I just could not stand this one woman constantly peddling her book that promised if you ate according to her, you would be “cured” of Crohn’s. I challenged her on a few occasions (including some where she was too self-absorbed to even realize I was, in fact, calling her out), but it reached a point where I saw the group founder supported her and if he wasn’t going to curtail her shenanigans, there was little point in me trying to stand up to her so I left the group.

    I did (and do) feel a pang of guilt that I gave up, allowing her to continue preying on confused, ill-informed and often scared people. I content myself that at least some group members saw my interactions with her and I hope that I reached them…and that they, in turn, have followed my example in speaking out against her…and that new members, in turn, have continued the string of opposition.

    It was certainly a reminder, though, that even groups formed to address a singular topic can have wildly disparate philosophies and that they may be hijacked by people with divisive agendas.

  32. 32
    San Ban

    Natalie, Thank you for writing so eloquently on this subject! Now I know where to direct my friends who indulge in this anti-science othering.

  33. 33
    Birger Johansson

    “Stereotype threat” should be a compulsory subject in school.
    That said, I wonder if there are also other subtle factors in intellectual development. I am thinking of diet, and how it affects the intellectual development of children.

    Maybe people of Eurasian descent have been exposed to the relaitvely poor post-hunter-gatherer diet so long that they are more tolerant to the garbage that passes for food in most western nations (if you are poor, you will find it hard to afford food of good quality).
    People of African descent not only have a greater genetic variablility, but they have also been exposed to farming and thus relaively poor diets for shorter times, say a couple of millennia less than Eurasians (although pastoralists in East Africa have developed a tolerance to bovine milk compareable to that of Europeans).
    It would be interesting to see the long-term results of providing afro-american children with a more balanced diet.

    Another obvious factor is exposure to pollutants during childhood. Unfortunately it is inherently difficult to find subtle effects in the noisy data.
    — — — — — — — — — — — —
    “and British comic book writers who got big in the late eighties”

    There are some like that, but Garth Ennis and a zillion other comic book writers are NOT mythologizing the marginalized and the outsiders.

    1. 33.1
      Robert B.

      “Stereotype threat” should be a compulsory subject in school.

      It is. Just not in the way you mean.

      1. Prodigeek

        Actually, there kind of is though not pervasive enough.

        1. Lori

          You can embed videos in comments here? Awesome comment policy! I’m thrilled!

  34. 34
    Pieter-Jan van der Veld

    “And don’t other cultures deserve respect too, without having to be seen as mystics and noble savages, possessed of magical non-scientific “ways of knowing”? Isn’t their being human enough? Isn’t it enough that they know things the way everyone knows things? That they, like us, are capable of science, and like us, capable of human flaws and biases, and like us, capable of culture?”

    I really liked your post, especially the phrase above.
    I am working for a Brazilian NGO in the Amazon forest, with Indigenous people, for over 14 years now, with a wide diversity of projects. (I am an agronomist by formation). As such, I have been a participant of many encounters discussing the relationship between scientific knowledge and Indigenous knowledge, more often rephrased as Indigenous wisdom. If one of these meeting had been called scientific wisdom and Indigenous knowledge, the house should have come down.

    During this meeting the talk between the Academics many times referred to the theme of “the corrupt Western science, in league with Big Business and Big Industry, arrogant, reductionist and close minded, against the noble wisdom of the Indians who have other, more holistic, better ways of knowing”. Just change the noble savage in noble wisdom and you have the idea, it is Rousseau all over. The Indigenous participants on the other hand are much more down to earth. Yes, they want their culture respected, they want their languages to survive, they want their land to be secured from non-indigenous invaders. They also want schooling, with science included, health care with “Western” medicine, some money in their pockets and more things like this. Not much different from the thing I wish for my kids.

    While one anthropologist was ranting against our “Western” culture, dominated by big, bad science and cold reason (he came to the conference by airplane, had been vaccinated against tropical diseases and a notebook on his table) I was thinking of my wife who had just taken our kids to the homeopathic doctor, who advised her to go to a “benzedora” (something like a healer who use blessings). Probably she had consulted the horoscope to see what the stars had in store in the near future. My mother in law probably had recently been to a ceremony were a shaman transformed bread and wine in human flesh and blood. And not just normal flesh and blood but the blood of a cultural hero that died 2000 years ago and could walk upon water. Very scientific indeed.

    Just for information, my wife and mother in Law are not Indigenous. They are coming from a normal medium class Brazilian family. (Don´t worry about the homeopathy stuff, she has also a lot of common sense, when necessary we are using real medicine). Our modern society, be it in Europe, United States or Brazilian middle class, is not dominated by science and our modern “Weltanschauung” is largely irrational, just as the Indigenous societies. The Indigenous societies I work with have a shamanic “Weltanschauung” and they have absorbed Christianity as well. They have also a lot of down to the earth knowledge, science if you want it.

    It is a pity that the Brazilian society, and modern society in general, does not know what to do with Indians. Either you kill or expel them to rob the land, or you enslave them, or you idealize them. Either they are less than human, sub-humans who need to be put to good use (enslaved) or exterminated, in name of progress, or “civilized “ and “saved” in name of the Nation and Christ, or they are “noble savages” more than humans with Wisdom That Can Save The World.

    The middle way is difficult. It is difficult to see them as human beings just like us, with all the flaws and all the qualities. It is difficult to see their societies as a mixture of both irrational and rational attitudes. They can be good people to be around with, curious, intelligent, and sometimes their culture can be used as an example how to life with your environment without destroying it (you can easily recognize some of Indians reserves form an airplane, where there is forest there are Indians, where there is pasture or monoculture are the “whites”). They can also screw up badly, both as a person or as a society.

    In the end, I think that the Indians will need to find a balance between respecting their tradition and culture and integrating “modern” values and ways of thinking, including science. There are new crises coming up fast that they will need to confront, they will need to understand “Western” politics, economics and science to survive, and they will need non-Indigenous allies. Treating them as “noble savages” will not help, and this anti-science attitude by their allies will not help either.

    1. 34.1
      Pieter-Jan van der Veld

      Errata
      Medium class = middle class, I am mixing up some Portuguese and English here.

      1. Lori

        So I take it the rarified strata of Portuguese society are referred to as the rare class?

  35. 35
    Matthew Jude Brown

    Thank you for an eloquent and intelligent post.

  36. 36
    DaveB

    Natalie,
    Thank-you, as always, for taking the time to write about these things that matter. Can you put this one in with your ‘Essential Reading’ column?

    1. 36.1
      Sphex

      Oh, yes please!!

  37. 37
    authorizedpants

    As a young adult, I tried all the New Age and Earth Magic stuff that the 90s had to offer.

    And I discovered something amazing.

    It didn’t work. At all. Not a damn bit.

    I thought I was broken since magic didn’t work for me but supposedly did for friends.

    In time, I realized that I was incapable of deluding myself. I had done so much self-reflection (it was still another 15 years before I realized I was trans, though), that I knew the ins and outs of my mind well enough to avoid fooling myself in these matters.

    Although… I claim to be agnostic. It’s only because I like the idea of a Creator that tinkers with the Universe like an infinite Erector Set, not because there will ever be any evidence.

  38. 38
    sheila

    Natalie, thanks for a great post. And I hope the person you love pulls through.

  39. 39
    Doug S.

    West of what?!

    The Iron Curtain, I think. Or possibly Russia. (I’m not sure if Poland and the other Eastern European countries that were once Communist are considered part of “the West” or not.)

    1. 39.1
      Miri

      It’s west of “the East”, or “the Orient”. It only makes sense in a historical context, before Europeans spread beyond Europe. New Zealand is part of “the West”, and it’s geographically further east than any where in Asia (other than the eastern most part of Siberia).

    2. 39.2
      Lori

      Nah, “West” is just code for “Christendom”.

      1. ik

        I’ve always counted Turkey as part of the West.

  40. 40
    Lori

    I think some of the anti-science thought results from combining the idea that science is power with the idea that power is corrupt. But power in the sense of empowerment is a good and progressive thing. If nothing else, it empowers you to avoid falling for “‘natural transition’, phytoestrogens and ‘magic’ rings”. But asymmetric scientific knowledge is asymmetric power (and a literal “killer app”) and I can understand objections to that. Perhaps objections to science itself should be replaced by objections to classified/proprietary research, or promotion of the idea that a scientist worth their salt doesn’t work under a security clearance, or the idea of “publish or perish”—not the just the researcher, but the research, is unworthy if not published, preferably in open-access journals.

  41. 41
    orathaic

    thank you.

  42. 42
    geocatherder

    Awesome post, Natalie, you GO, Grrrl! I suspect I may need to read it again to truly assimilate it… but my gut and my limited understanding is with you.

  43. 43
    Jubal DiGriz

    That’s a righteous rant (in a good way!).

    Natalie’s comments on progressive politics are spot on. However, in my experience there is no “perfect” movement, and that seems to be because no human culture has yet to get there act together and manage a true practice of respect. Since every political/activist movement is embedded in a larger culture, there will always be a large fraction of people who have completely assimilated some screwed-up bias.

    I’ve also had problems with participating in movements or even individual actions, and I’ve reached a sort of balance where I’m not part of any particular group, but contribute on a case-by-case basis. However by doing that I’m pretty much unable to make any change on how things are done or shape the tone of the discussion… I’m a “warm body”.

    The crying shame is everyone is broken, and every activists movement is a collection of broken people. If a person is compelled to try contribute in a meaningful way, they’ll have to swallow some objections and learn how to work with different kinds of bigots. I always get a grin on my face when I realize other people likely think the same way about me!

    Non-participation preserves integrity, but action and working with groups gets shit done. I don’t think there’s any best solution, just ones a person can live with.

  44. 44
    Movius

    Hear fucking hear.

    Unfortunately those propagating anti-science attitudes cling like parasites onto every and any political group, social movement, cartoon animal fan-club or other loose affiliation of humans.

    I hope you recover from whatever is keeping you down. the more needlenosed pliers ripping out these bloodsucking ticks the better. (I was going to make an analogy to burning them off with a lit cigarette, but apparently this is pseudoscience too.)

  45. 45
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    I’ve posted kind of a response to / riff on this, adding some more factors to the equation: “When should we call out woo on the left?”

  46. 46
    EEB

    This was all wonderful, a lot of thoughts that I’ve been having myself after spending a lot of time engaging in feminist activism online. Especially in my corner of the world (Northern CA) there is so much woo on the lefty side, and my tongue has a permenent indentation from biting it everytime the people around me started taking about TCM and chiropractics.

    I did want to say something. I’m also in addiction recovery, and I really understand the problem of suddenly having to cope with life as an adult with zero positive coping skills. For me, cutting and pills were the only way I knew how to get through life. I’m also very weary of therapy, as there’s a lot of junk-science there, too, and I was pretty scarred after the anti-gay therapist my folks dragged me to as a kid. However, I’ve found that DBT has been really helpful (CBT, too, though DBT more so). Many times it’s financially impossible, and it is time-consuming (at least in the beginning, when they usually want you to take several classes a week), but sometimes you can find places that offer it on a sliding scale or even free (especially to former addicts, at least in my area). So, just a thought, don’t know if you’ve already given that a shot (if so, just ignore me) but I thought I’d put it out there that I found it very helpful.

  47. 47
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    All I’ve got to say is that you should try for a “soft” separation from people and groups that aren’t as “pure” as you would prefer. Not because you’re wrong, but because I know from my personal experience that when you whip out the razors to cut yourself loose, you can wind up turning the razors on yourself if only to maintain consistency. Being aggressive can turn inward, and it can be pretty self-damaging.

  48. 48
    Cara

    “If we isolate particular cultural paradigms, like North America or the rest of the “developed” world, then we can start claiming that as a whole, human rights and quality of life have been steadily improving over the past 75 years or whatever. But how much of that narrative has been dependent on an economic supremacy built on the exploitation of nations where the aforementioned atrocities flourish? How much of our “progress” is built at the cost of the hunger, fear, murder, oppression and slavery emerging in those place that bear the weight of our development…that make our sneakers?”

    This is not true: things have gotten better most places in the last 100 years. (Yes, there are exceptions.) A wide variety of infectious diseases kill many fewer people now than they used to because of vaccines and improved sanitation; smallpox no longer exists in the wild, polio is gone almost everywhere, and many other diseases are much less common than they were. (The sad coda on how Westerners aren’t any more rational than non-Westerners is the return of vaccine-preventable diseases in countries like the US and UK because of anti-vaxxers.) Fertility rates are down almost everywhere because of improved access to birth control and new birth control methods that didn’t exist in 1912. Average lifespans are up and infant mortality is down most places. GDP per capita and other standards of wealth are up most places, sometimes radically so: Japan was not part of the “developed world” in 1912, but definitely is now; and many countries that were desperately poor, like China, have moved from poverty into middle incomes. Mass violence is down: recent genocides like Rwanda and Bosnia don’t compare to the earlier mass killings like Stalin’s slaughter of the kulaks and political purges, the deaths from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and of course the Holocaust; and wars between countries are also down, with nothing comparable to the World Wars in the last 60 years and fewer wars like the Arab-Israeli wars, the China-India war, and the Pakistan-India wars.

    On almost all measures of human welfare, most everyone living now is better off than everyone living in 1912, inside or outside the developed world, which itself has gotten bigger. The main reasons for this change are improved technology and institutions, not exploitation of other countries by the West. Yes, some places have experienced little progress, but that doesn’t negate the fact that things have gotten better.

  49. 49
    Kate S

    Sometimes I read posts by other bloggers and I think “This person has taken my vague thoughts and ideas and turned them into a comprehensible piece of writing!” Then I read your posts, and I wonder how I’ve gone through life never having even considered the most elementary forms of your brilliantly complex concepts. Thank you, and please continue.

  50. 50
    Jon Cantwell

    This is, far and above, one of the most ringingly magnificent things I have ever read in my entire life. This one’s going on my eternal bookmarks list- and yes, every word of it made sense.

  51. 51
    Susan Ferguson (Suferable)

    Awesome post, you have a new fan. I have noticed that my tolerance for a lot of new age claptrap has become increasingly less tolerant as the years have gone by. I’m an atheist, so no religion for me either, the problem is, most of my friends subscribe to some sort of religious or new age bs. I wish I was as articulate as you when it comes to defending my perspective. I had my eyes opened to so called western culture by Derrick Jensen’s book Endgame. He does buy into the concept of the noble savage a bit too much, that kind of got on my nerves. But he makes a point about how, for all of the privileges that we enjoy in out rich western society, a lot of other people in other parts of the world have to suffer in poverty. We don’t appreciate the real cost of the privilege of being lucky enough to be born in this part of the world. Also, the next time someone tries to tell me about the benefits of Reiki, acupuncture, the Secret, not vaccinating their children, royal jelly or how 200 dollar hot rock massages remove “toxins” from their bodies, I’m going to give them a photocopy of this post.

  52. 52
    Sinéad

    You know I was just reminded that as a union steward, I’m a representative on our employee benefits committee, and I just remembered how we were to discuss urging Kaiser to include naturopathic medicine coverage due to member requests. I honestly don’t think it is wise to have it covered, but I am supposed to represent the democratic interests of my coworkers. I’m conflicted.

    I joined originally because we have two health care plans, Kaiser and ODS. ODS covers transition related surgeries, but this is sort of a non-issue because there are no surgeons (in-network or anywhere in the country that I’m aware of) who will bill directly to insurance, rather you have to pay them and then wait to be reimbursed by the insurer. That’s such bullshit, because a heart surgeon wouldn’t make you pay for your heart attack bypass surgery and leave it up to you to be reimbursed. Nonetheless, I don’t see how getting Kaiser to cover it would change much because they probably don’t have any surgeons capable of srs.

    I’m just so frustrated when people say shit like “oh look, they cover srs for trans employees” um yes but no…it is still a classist position of prviledge to have that sort of money available or have the credit worthiness to take out loans,

  53. 53
    Miriam

    Just chiming in with everyone to say that I loved this.

  54. 54
    Stella

    This is a post everyone should read. I don’t mean everyone on FTB, I mean everyone, everywhere.

    “Different ways of knowing” (along with its subsets such as “separate but equal” and “different ways of learning”) is one of the most damaging ideas in the world today.

  55. 55
    Georgina

    appeals to faith to promote tolerance
    ___________________________________________________

    Personally, I object to this raising of tolerance to a level of almost worship. Tolerance is bad.

    When I am aware that people are doing evil, unethical or just plain illegal things, I must try to stop them.
    To tolerate is to condone.

    When I am aware that people are doing things that are difference, whether in taste or custom, that are not harming anyone else, I mind my own business.
    To tolerate is interfering arrogance.

    1. 55.1
      Prodigeek

      False dichotomy. There is nuance between tolerating and condoning. I’m too busy to spell it all out right now and we’re kinda necro-posting at this point, but I’m sure you can figure it out. I will just suggest that there are not only degrees of harm, but also that gradual progressive change is sometimes more successful than the shock-cannon “YOU’RE DOING EEET WRONG!!” especially when you have other realms of understanding to be factored in, like say correlation of religion with racially oppressed groups, and say atheism with privileged white middle-class people. You have to think harder than that. This doesn’t mean that we can’t ever discuss certain things, but it does mean we need to be mindful of their full context and ours, and the relation of the two. Sometimes the “how” is just as important as the “what”.

      1. Georgina

        There is no nuance – either a thing is evil i.e. it harms others – or it is not.

        Those shades of grey are for things that don’t matter, that are not of our business (what day one prays on, what colour skin one has, etc). These do not require tolerance.

        Please give me one example of a situation/activity that you feel it is necessary to tolerate and which does not fit into either of the 2 categories of condoning or arrogance.

        1. Prodigeek

          I’m not talking about isolated actions, and it’s not about simply tolerating or not tolerating. I’m talking about human beings, and how we communicate with them. I’m saying that even when we are not tolerating a particular action, we need to be smart about how we decide to communicate it, according to how urgent that behaviour needs to be dealt with. There is too much of a tendency within skeptical/atheist circles to to think I am “So Rational”(TM) so anything less than a shock-cannon to the face is some watered down, “PC”, version of rationality.

          Really it’s about being MORE rational by including some understanding of human behaviours and limitation in HOW we approach it. I’m merely advocating that the “how” matters. What good is it to be “RIGHT” if we are taking a tact that will be less effective in reaching our goals for change. This to me is the epitome of irrationality. This is religious style black and white morality infecting the more rational outlook of causes and effects, and it’s unfortunately quite prevalent.

    2. 55.2
      Prodigeek

      Troll Repellent:
      And NO, feeling guilty about being white and/or privileged is not the point. I’m merely advocating for empathy and thoughtfulness in how we approach things.

      Science may not be “western”, but privilege is.

      1. naturalcynic

        Science may not be “western”, but privilege is. Uhhh, no. “Western” is not a pejorative. That should be clear from the discussion. Privilege is inherent in any hierarchy, anywhere.

        1. naturalcynic

          gakk html fail:
          Science may not be “western”, but privilege is. Uhhh, no. “Western” is not a pejorative. That should be clear from the discussion. Privilege is inherent in any hierarchy, anywhere.

    3. 55.3
      Prodigeek

      …and there ARE still some times to be loud and uncompromising. OK I’m done.

  56. 56
    sarahb

    I am not sure why these people who are liberal but anti-science get to pretend that they have the moral high ground just because they think about inequality. Guess what? They don’t. I live in the bay area and If you took a second to question what many of these folks believe most of them would be resolved to take away the advances that help people that aren’t them. For instance they are against “western medicine” including the western medicine that saved my life and makes my life livable. They are against any type of genetically modified plants including letting african nations have drought resistant plants. My friend explained to me that they basically deserved to die if they couldn’t support the population without these advances. Never mind the fact we have a lions share of resources. Fuck these people in the ear. They want to have a discussion about privilege as long as they don’t have to actually do anything to make shit a little better for other people. Fuck them.

  1. 57
    Links! — The Good Men Project

    [...] you read one thing on this link roundup, read this. It’s by Natalie Reed and it’s very long, but it’s about science and skepticism [...]

  2. 58
    MISSING PERSON ALERT: Natalie Reed « SkepDirt

    [...] to her latest blog entry, “scary, terrible things” are “happening” “very suddenly and [...]

  3. 59
    Sunday Link Roundup | Brute Reason

    [...] On anti-science and why it fails.This article especially makes a brilliant critique of liberals who claim that science is [...]

  4. 60
    Outraged Beyond Your Understanding: On Listening to Minority Voices | Brute Reason

    [...] I’m saying can be summarized by a sentence I once found in a comment on a mostly-unrelated but excellent blog post. It goes like [...]

  5. 61
    Culture and ‘science’ « Said Simon

    [...] prompt for discussing this topic is an essay by Natalie Reed, whom I hold in general esteem for a great many reasons, but who has to a large [...]

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