Overzealous, Overcommunicating

Naturalization of Politics (or, When Assholes Use Science)

by Jon

Science studies has been on the receiving end of a great deal of criticism from self-proclaimed defenders of science. One of the most common targets of that criticism is the examination of science’s social dimensions. It has been thoroughly demonstrated that the authority and legitimacy that science and scientific explanations enjoy is not simply the product of science’s unique access to the Truth, but arises out of a set of historical, social, and political circumstances that have led people in Western societies to trust science over other forms of understanding. One of the projects of science studies is to examine those circumstances and tease out the kinds of work that science is doing socially and politically (whether or not scientists are aware of that work) in addition to its quest for knowledge of nature.

Those who see these lines of inquiry as an assault on science tend to see science exclusively as an epistemological program and perhaps the body of knowledge derived from that program. To these critics, the role that science serves as a legitimator of ideologies or beliefs is either invisible or made up by radical relativists who (for mysterious reasons) are out to discredit the most successful intellectual program in human history.

What’s ironic is that these same people who bristle at the suggestion that there’s more to science that the discovery of awesome facts about nature are also often on the front lines of the fight against misappropriations of science and scientific accoutrements by the purveyors of alternative medicine, self-help gurus, and psychics, not to mention politicians and pundits who see science-y sound bites as an invaluable tool in advancing their agendas.

A prime example of the latter can be found in a recent statement by current US Representative and Senate candidate Todd Akin[1], who asserted that “the female body has ways” to prevent pregnancy resulting from “legitimate rape.” Akin’s statement does a lot of work to advance his agenda using the role of science in our society. By putting his opposition to abortion alongside a (completely spurious) biological fact, he is framing his political aim as arising out of biology and medicine as opposed to his (very real) rank misogyny. Even better (from his perspective) is that in doing so, he is taking the standard misogynistic distinction between “legitimate” rape (by which he almost certainly means the violent rape of an otherwise chaste woman by a complete stranger) and other rapes (marital or partner rape, incest, date rape, rape of a woman who is drunk/promiscuous/wearing slutty clothes/otherwise asking for it) and making it a fact of nature that is recognized by the human body independently of legal or political concerns.

The naturalization of political ideology is a time-honored tradition. For centuries, science (or its forbearer, natural philosophy) was used to naturalize racial disparities, justify policies ranging from slavery to eugenics, and absolve the white European and American elites of any responsibility for racial injustice (and, as anyone who follows right-wing intellectual trends knows, these activities haven’t gone away). Science has also been used to justify the institutionalization and sterilization of homosexuals, the mentally ill and incompetent, the poor, and criminals of all stripes.

What’s so frustrating about the people who want to save science from those who would critically engage with it, is that they are usually keenly aware of the appropriation of scientific legitimacy by practitioners of homeopathy or creationists but they are unwilling to accept any questioning of “legitimate” scientists or scientific institutions, even though history demonstrates that “legitimate” scientists can abuse scientific legitimacy just as effectively as charlatans and quacks (more so, actually). We as a society have granted science a great deal of authority, and thus power. The study of the social dimensions of science isn’t an attack on science, but rather a necessary check on those who would misuse the power we have given them.

[1] This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the same asshole who recently suggested that we should “look at or overturn” the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. A class act all the way.

On perfectionism

by Increase M

To begin with, perhaps as a disclaimer, perhaps as an invocation of the muse (or lack there of), I should say that I am not a perfectionist. No, if there is an easy way, a cutting corners half ass of a way, a mildly sloppy good-enough that will allow me to drink some wine, play some video games, watch BSG and then go to bed, I will go that way. So, I imagine, would most people. My success, if you want to call it that, is more about my obsessive need to win rather then my obsessive need to get things right (just relax, I’m not endorsing cheating). Frequently these things overlap and I am very fortunate in that regard.

I doubt that most people are, truly, perfectionists but I hear about perfectionism a lot. From my friends, colleagues, mostly women, mostly in the context of making a demand. They say, “I’m just a perfectionist” and that means “indulge my silly whims and do it this way” instead of “my way is right, you should follow it.” It’s a way of softening the inevitable ego blow of being told what to do, a way of embodying assertiveness as a kind of character flaw, or at least, a quirk.

Perhaps I’m overstating it.

It’s like that asinine interview question: “what is your biggest flaw,” to which everyone responds: I work too hard. As an aside, if I ever get asked that question again I’m going to say something interesting and true, like “I’m an arrogant bitch-monster”, or maybe something interesting and false, like “I killed a man in Reno just to watch him die.” People rarely work too hard. Not even me, who got rid of most of my friends so I could hang out in my apartment reading blogs, Bruno Latour, and watching stupid documentaries on the porn-industry* is working too hard. I just have dubious work-play distinctions. As a counterpoint, I know a woman who works full time at an extremely demanding job suffers from extreme fibromyalgia but comes home from work everyday to sweep the house (by hand, with a broom) because she has 6 or 7 inside cats, a poodle, a husband who’s a farmer and she cannot handle her house being dirty. She works herself sick.

Academic culture, at least for me, is rife with misrepresentation and hyperbole. Back in the day, it seemed everyone was underestimating how much work they were doing; now, I feel like it’s all about the overestimation, the “I stayed up for 32 hours straight reading Derrida therefore I am worthy of being taken seriously,” or “I’m a perfectionist, I’m a work-a-holic, please take me seriously.” Inevitable this burden of proof falls unevenly on the portion of academia that consists of non straight, white, het dudes. It’s obnoxious, to say the least, to participate in a class where the bar for “engaged participation” is set at “doing everything, all the time,” especially when adjuncted to other criteria such as “being male”, “being white”, “being a mansplainer.”

Some of those criteria I can never meet, it’s pointless to even attempt it through self-serving hostile space making, where others, particularly minorities, feel like they have to go over-the-top just to fit in. Like, I don’t study all the time. Not at all. I’m even a little sloppy. I half-ass things, I make mistakes, I enjoy fielding the juggernaut of Kardashian-themed reality shows. I have pretty horrific spelling. I don’t care that much about my spelling. I like clothes.  And do you know what? People have to take me seriously anyway.


*This one was really awful. I had to turn it off. I can handle soft-core wank material (although REAL TALKE: why would you watch this when you can just beat it to the nubile, soft-skinned internet), or alarmist propaganda for the evening news crowd, but I cannot deal with faulty methodology in a scientific study. Listen guys, if you’re going to do a “study” on the effects that porn has on a relationship, you really should include both partners, and hey, a woman or two more generally would have been nice also. Although, I mean really, why should you control for sex differences? Also, Art Alexakis, WTF are you doing, broski?

The “Science” of history

by Jon

At my undergraduate institution, I took a seminar on Early Modern England. The first day of class, we all introduced ourselves and mentioned our areas of study. When I said that I study the history of science, one particularly aggressive (and not overly bright) classmate attempted to correct me: “You mean the Science of History!” At the time, I didn’t really understand what he meant. After all, history isn’t a science, and no one these days even thinks that it should be.

Well, almost no one. It turns out that there are a group of scholars led by Peter Turchin, a professor of ecology and mathematics at the University of Connecticut, that do think that the discipline of history just isn’t scientific enough. Last week, a bunch of nerd-media outlets (Endgadget, io9, Neatorama, and Metafilter to name a few) picked up on the existence of “Cliodynamics”, as Turchin refers to his new-and-improved version of history. These accounts were all based on an article in Nature which provided a brief overview of the state of the emerging discipline.

The Nature article points out that historians are skeptical of this approach (the journal launched by Turchin in 2010 failed to get a the contribution of a single historian in its first issue), but it fails to engage with any criticisms of Cliodynamics beyond the most superficial (primarily the “lack of data”). The problems with Turchin’s approach, however go much deeper, and stem from the fact that he is trying to remake a discipline he is completely ignorant of.

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