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Archive for February, 2012

Considering how anti-intellectual North Americans are, we show a curious eagerness to justify ourselves by mentioning science. Sometimes we mention science to make our ideas respectable, sometimes to make our prejudices seem true, and other times to dramatize our illnesses and fears, but we almost always do so in a way that shows that we know little about what we talking about.

Evoking science is, of course, a form of appeal to authority, one of the most basic forms of invalid argument. In former times, we might have appealed to God in the same way, but the debating tactic remains the same – by mentioning an unassailable authority, we hope to reinforce our positions while deflating any counter arguments.

Take, for example, many New Age beliefs and medical treatments. New Age practitioners frequently dismiss science as being narrow minded. Yet, when called upon to justify their own beliefs, almost all of them depend on a veneer of science.

Sometimes, they refer at second or third hand to scientists who seem closest to their beliefs, such as Carl Jung, or to discredited studies such as those that claimed to prove the power of prayer.

More often, though, New Agers fall back on pseudo-scientific jargon. By far the most common is to describe what they are doing as a transfer of energy, either from themselves to their clients, or from an inanimate object to a person. Since no trace of such energies has ever been found, at best the reference is a metaphor, but at worst it is simply wrong.

Personally, I’ve always thought that New Agers would do better to come into the Computer Age and talk about a transfer of information, which often can’t be expected to leave any detectable trace. But instead they remain bemired in vague recollections of Newtonian physics, and make dismissing their ideas all too easy.

In other cases, science is mentioned to reinforce prejudice. For example, sexism is often justified by an appeal to biology. If men’s and women’s brains are structured differently, for example, sexists will claim that the two sexes must have different capacities, as well – never mind that no one has ever shown that brain structure and capacity have any relation to one another.

If anything, the fact that the radically different brain structure of parrots does not keep them from having an intelligence at the lower end of the human scale suggests that the differences between male and female brain capacity are trivial or non-existent.

Similarly, many parents claim that behavioral differences between the sexes must be biological because, despite their best efforts, their children act in stereotyped ways. This idea is not only ridiculous in that any connection between our fixed ideas of masculinity or femininity and our DNA seems so remote as to be non-existent, but conveniently ignores the fact that stereotyped expectations are placed upon children from their birth.

In fact, when parents know the sex of their child before birth, they begin talking about the child in stereotyped terms. But the biological explanation sounds better than suggesting we are unaware of our own sexism, and has the added benefit of excusing us from any responsibility.

Science is also used to elevate our infirmities and insecurities. Like someone who has found a book of medical or psychological diagnosis, many of us like to exaggerate our conditions by claiming that we have a recognized condition. If we are always sleepy because we stay up until 2AM every morning, we decide – often without any expert diagnosis – that we have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. If we are anxious, we have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If we have react naturally in a stressful situation, then we have Impostor Syndrome.

By making these self-diagnoses, we make life harder for those who actually have the conditions we have claimed. After all, when people have heard enough spurious claims, they are less likely to believe in genuine ones, or give them any consideration. Through this verbal hypochondria, we create the impression that anyone who claims these conditions must be as insincere or as misguided as we are.

Just as importantly, by claiming a condition, we evade responsibility for doing anything about our behavior. For example, if we acknowledge that we have problems interacting with others socially, then society pressures us to try to improve. But if, like some computer programmers do, we insist that we have Asperger’s Syndrome, then we are freed of any obligation to act better. The fact that Asperger’s Syndrome might indicate that, while we are highly functional autistics, we might also be geniuses doesn’t hurt our self-esteem, either.

But the truth is, we are only being dishonest with ourselves. We are renaming our problems with a scientific name – not to gain understanding but so we can feel better about ourselves without having to do anything. At the very least, we are elevating our problems to a medical drama.

Even practicing scientists, or graduates with science degrees can use science in these ways. Historians of science are a minority, and few of us in any field have any clear idea of what constitutes scientific principles or practices. But the prestige of science! Of that we are all too aware, and we rush to claim it for our own petty reasons.

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“I can’t imagine what that must be like,” person after person has told me, referring to the fact that I’m a widower. I don’t have time to write a book to help them imagine, although referring them to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking might give them some idea.

Instead, let me offer some metaphors.

What’s it like, being alone after the person you lived with for over thirty years has left you in a matter of hours? Very approximately, it’s:

  • Like being a cliff eroded by a storm. You’re still standing, but there’s much less of you than before. Moreover, what’s left is unstable, and could collapse at any time.
  • Like being an amputee, learning to get by without an arm or a leg. Everyone thinks that you’re being brave and doing just fine, but of all the thousands of thing you do each day – walking, reaching for an object – there’s not one you can do without being reminded of what’s missing.
  • Like you’re an inhabitant of Pompeii or Herculaneum, and Vesuvius has finally erupted, raining down the destruction that you always knew was coming, but somehow managed to shove to the back of your mind because of everyday concerns and of the years in which it didn’t happen. Now that the moment has arrived, you’re partly relieved and partly unable to grasp fully that it’s finally happened.
  • Like you’re the first person to see a new color. You can’t begin to describe it, because no one else has the least idea of what you’re talking about. They think you’re making too big a deal of the discovery, and some wonder if you’re not hoaxing them in some way.
  • Like you are trapped far from the door at a party where people are talking about topics that matter tremendously to them – sports, perhaps – but don’t matter the least to you. But you’re expected to be polite and pretend that you share everyone’s enthusiasm, and never talk about what matters to you.
  • Like you are far from home and you learn that it has been bombed, invaded, razed and re-settled. Even though you don’t mind traveling for a while, you realize that you will be traveling for the rest of your life, because you no longer have any place to which to return.
  • Like everything you planned and hoped has become so invalid that you wonder if something is wrong with your brain or your sight and other senses that you could ever have had those expectations.
  • Like someone who worries about their memory failing – not because anything’s wrong with your recall, but because what you remember is so distant from the way you live now that the simplest explanation seems to be that you must have imagined it all.
  • Like you are a Visigoth, Vandal or Hun, camping in the ruins of what you cannot possibly understand. Occasionally, you might take a marble column or a block of stone from the ruins for something other than their original purpose, but you cannot imagine what their original use must have been, no matter how handy the relics might be.
  • Like history has stopped and been replaced by an unending present.

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