Friday, December 2, 2011

Bad Science, Bad Hermeneutics

In light of Joel's excellent piece on Dawkins et al., and Echidne's smackdown of the latest pseudoscience from professional troll Sacha Simon Baron-Cohen, I think it's time for me to rearticulate my problems with Enlightenment-style rationality.

Don't think I'm in any way an enemy of reason. I adore logic, reason, systematics, scientific principles (there's a reason my brother calls me The Spock). Unfortunately, the Enlightenment pursuit of pure reason, though I'm sure thoroughly noble in intent, gave rise to the most pernicious evil to plague modernist thought: the myth of objectivity.

For example, my own interest in debunking bad science is intricately entwined with my feminism, anti-racism, etc. I freely admit that it's agenda-driven, because it stems from my most basic, deeply-held convictions about the world (the personhood, equality, dignity, and rights of every human individual).

Every act of the intellect, whether it's science or a reading of the Bible, has as its foundations certain assumptions about the world. It couldn't exist otherwise. Any claim to a value-free, unbiased, objective study of anything is at worst totally mendacious and at best coming from a place of unexamined privilege. Hell, if there's one incontrovertible sign of unexamined privilege, it's a belief in your own objectivity.

Think about some of the things that have been considered Totally Objective Reason-Based Agenda-Free Science:
  • That women's delicate ladybrains were inherently inferior to men's
  • That black people were biologically inferior to white people
  • That trans people were only really trans if they conformed to very rigid gender roles – otherwise they were just confused
And many, many more, many of which still sadly have a grip on the fevered imaginations of certain privilege-denying populations, and all of which have been thoroughly debunked by rigorous deconstruction of their agendas.

This is the true value of postmodernism: that it debunks the myth of objectivity by acknowledging that the observer is also an actor. Meaning, we say in postmodern lit theory, is constructed at the moment of interaction between reader and text; which means that any interpretation is as much a product of the reader as of the text, and any honest reading has to acknowledge what it is the reader is bringing to the table. There's no such thing as “just what's there” – there's only what you see.

The same is absolutely true of scientific inquiry. I'm not saying the methods of rationality aren't sound – I'm saying that, as commonly applied, they don't go far enough. Even as you turn that laser-like judgment and doubt onto the subject under critical inquiry, turn it also onto yourself.


  1. I wonder what you think about certain social science polls that come out like in this article I found the other day:

    What confuses me about the study is the inclusion of rapists. WTF?

    (I didn't bother to read the full study) but the news is that the study polled two samplings of people numbering in the few-hundred regarding the trustworthiness of people belonging to this faith group, that faith group, athiests and... apparently just threw rapists in there. (Last I heard, there was no ideology of "Rapeism").

    Did they include other, more neutral non-religious groups? Say "plumbers" or "people from Nevada?"

    I don't know if it constitutes a legitimate variable, but it strkes me that "rapists" were included just to be inflammatory - so that people running the study or reporting on it can say, "Hey! Look at how bigoted believers/Americans/Canadians are for seeing X group as only marginally more trustworthy than rapists!" __ It seriously would have been the same news if the "least trusted group" were Muslims or Jews rather than atheists.

    I don't know about you, but I scratch my head at studies like that. It's the "Suddenly! Rapists!" thing that bugs me.

  2. That actually made me laugh out loud. Rapists? WTF?

    I think that far more useful than repeated studies revealing *that* the American public distrusts atheists would be data studying the (social and contextual) reasons *why* this is the case (to which this study devotes about half a page). On a personal level, it rather flummoxes me, but I spent formative teenage years in a much more secularized society than this one, and when you look at how much religion still pervades US society - as I've been doing in one of my classes all semester - it makes a little more sense that a lot of USians get kind of OOGEDY BOOGEDY about atheists.

    I think maybe the comparison that study draws to gay people is a little more helpful, if only because that gives clear indicators as to how this prejudice can start to be overcome: if people you personally know and like admit their atheism to you, and if you start seeing sympathetic portrayals of atheist characters in popular entertainment, you'll begin to realize they're not all heartless monsters. Of course it's not a perfect analogy, because atheists don't lack civil rights - just a visible, non-threatening presence in US society.

  3. My take on the matter is that "If people distrust you by category, proove them wrong by your own behavior."

    I don't expect a lot of people to trust Christians, actually. Maybe it's because most of my "social interection" is on the Internet and my real life social interaction is all with people who don't care one way or another. I kind of expect whenever I mention being Christian even of an off-kilter kind that people are going to make all kinds of assumptions about me or freak out thinking I'm going to preach at them and it's on *me* to show them I'm "not like that."

    As for the mistrust of atheists - I think it's twofold. First *is* a problem with some churches (and televangelists) - public figures and preachers who say stupid things regarding "moral grounding" (I'd say they actually forget some parts of the Bible about inherent morality, actually...) Internalized distrust of the "other" does happen.

    The second however is how some atheists themselves act. Some of the louder ones - I even tried to comment on the comments section of that article (don't think I was listened to) that "I'm not particuarly inclined to trust people who tell me I'm stupid, worthless and holding the world back before they even get to know me indvidually." There's a whole lot of bawwing on that thread from people who seem to think that theists are horrible people for not trusting them when they reserve the right to distrust and even revile theists.

    All I know is that the known athiests in my life that I do trust - are people who treat me as a full human being and an intellectual equal. I, in turn, know and acknolwedge them as moral equals. That's how trust works.