Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Twa Cultures

Well, this is an interesting argument:

It’s easy to end up in an endless loop of using our prodigious scientific skills to carefully debunk the shoddy science that props up this argument. This is important and valuable work, but it’s also worth considering why this loop exists at all. Science’s greatest myth is that it doesn’t encode bias and is always self-correcting. In fact, science has often made its living from encoding and justifying bias, and refusing to do anything about the fact that the data says something’s wrong.

The context is that "Google memo" that tout le internet is still talking about:

Most saliently in the context of the Google memo, our scientific educations almost never talk about the invention of whiteness and the invention of race in tandem with the early scientific method which placed a high value on taxonomies—which unsurprisingly and almost certainly not coincidentally supported prevailing social views. The standard history of science that is taught to budding scientists is that during the Enlightenment, Europe went from the dark ages to, well, being enlightened by a more progressive mindset characterized by objective “science.” It is the rare scientific education that includes a simultaneous conversation about the rise of violent, imperialist globalization during the same time period. Very few curricula acknowledge that some European scientific “discoveries” were in fact collations of borrowed indigenous knowledge. And far too many universally call technology progress while failing to acknowledge that it has left us in a dangerously warmed climate.

And here's where I point out that lack of "a simultaneous conversation" is because science has little to do with humanities, a/k/a the "liberal arts."  C.P.  Snow identified these two fields of knowledge as separated over half a century ago, and the gap hasn't closed but only widened.  And here we are.  Because, frankly, the failure to recognize the cost of technology ("a dangerously warmed climate" is only a tiny piece of it; consider the waste dumps in parts of the world where enlightened white people don't live, dumps of heavy metals and toxic wastes that were once our electronic toys; or the floating pile of plastic in the Pacific which is now the size of a U.S. state) is not a new concept we could only have formed after Al Gore's first movie.  The Romantics were sounding the alarm about the time the Industrial Revolution was getting started (1798, if you're checking your calendars).

Everything old is new again.  But it was about that point that we separated the poets from the factory owners, and guess who was deemed more important?  Of course poets as truth tellers, as scops, had faded from social important centuries before, so some of these problems go back a long, long way.  But the alternative viewpoints, the challenges from other perspectives, have always been there.  That we refuse to countenance them is on us, not them.

The problem is that science was just the shield he needed in the 18th century, and unfortunately, it seems that it continues to function that way today. In other words, pseudoscience has always been a core feature of post-Enlightenment scientific knowledge and it remains that way because scientists refuse to integrate contemporary science, technology, and society studies research into university curricula. And so too many of us get out of school and end up in a world where we are suddenly forced to grapple with the reality of how science, in practice, is not as objective as we hoped. Enough of us have heard a man, sometimes the president of our college, sometimes our research adviser, express the view that women’s brains “just work differently” and “aren’t suited to technical skills” the way men’s are. Nonbinary people don’t exist, and transgender people are de-normalized in these narratives. Women of color listen to white women normalize Europe as the birthplace of scientific intelligence while telling us that our curly hair isn’t professional-looking. Senior men who we would hope could be mentors turn out to be our sexual harassers, and with some frequency, senior women tell us to suck it up and lean in, rather than helping us.

Actually, the problem is the very concept of "objective" has been pretty much shredded by post-modern philosophy, an observation actually rooted in the work of Bohr, Schrodinger, and Heisenberg; but even from the heart of the "hard" sciences, much less from the completely dismissed realm of philosophers, that word was not allowed to penetrate the temple of Science, where one must be objective to gain entry to the holy of holies, and fatal proof of lack of "objectivity" is to make any critique of objectivity itself.  Those who study the liberal arts are not really playing a different language game (pace Wittgenstein, but you were too narrow in the end); they are describing and discerning a larger reality, a more complex universe that does, indeed, allow for examination of "the invention of whiteness and the invention of race."

And in keeping with the high intellectual traditions of comments at Slate, this is the "top comment" on this essay:

Obviously any science done by anyone not a young Black female with a degree in physics is at best bunk, but probably evil. We all need to throw away the Constitution because an evil White man wrote that, too.

I can read equally useful screeds written by young earth creationists using similar language to attack evolutionary biology, social science and "the deification of science itself."

No wonder we are screwed.
So "it’s [not] worth considering why this loop exists at all?"  If we are screwed, this comment is an excellent example of why, because this is where the essay's argument ends:

Google bro would argue that we ought to consider the possibility that white women and racial minorities simply produce lower-quality work, which is why we struggle to be recognized as competent knowledge producers. It’s time to turn the tables on this debate. Rather than leaning in and trying endlessly to prove our humanity and value, people like him should have to prove that our inferiority is the problem. Eliminate structural biases in education, health care, housing, and salaries that favor white men and see if we fail. Run the experiment. Be a scientist about it.

Too much of a challenge, that.  Too radical; too true to be good.  As a committed Christian (which is not an anti-science position at all), I'm committed to upending the system in favor of the basilea tou theou.  Which always prompts the response that it's the critique that's the problem, not the system; especially for people who benefit from that system.  Science, we are told, is supposed to question everything.  But "everything" always turns out to be much smaller than "everything."

Funny, that.

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