The Amazing Mechanical Leftie: Reflexive Thinking in Alt Culture

There’s a common trope I’ve noticed among progressive liberal types. Including, I will freely admit, myself. It goes something like this:

Anything that’s alternative is good; anything that’s conventional or mainstream is bad.

Tattoos and piercings are good; nose jobs and boob jobs are bad. Arthouse films are good; reality TV is bad. Nature is good; industrialization is bad. (Except when you’re on your Blackberry or your iPhone, or are checking your email twenty times a day.) Meditation and Wicca are good; megachurches are bad. Alternative medicine is good; conventional medicine is bad. Tai Chi is uplifting and spiritual; cheerleading is sexist and shallow. Anything you buy at Rainbow Grocery will be delicious and healthy; anything you buy at Safeway or the A&P will be tasteless and carcinogenic.

It’s not that I don’t understand the trope or sympathize with it. I do. I even agree with some of the statements above (parts of them, anyway). I run this trope myself, way more often than I should. As I wrote in my piece on the Galileo Fallacy (a fallacy that bears much in common with this one), “If you’re a non-conformist and an independent thinker, you’ve probably gotten used to pushing against the current — to the point that doing so feels more comfortable and natural than going along with it. If you’ve spent your life resisting popular but stupid ideas, resisting popular ideas can become a reflex.”

But here’s the thing, the thing it took me decades to figure out and that I still get tripped up on.

It’s not just that the trope is overly simplistic. it’s not just that the trope isn’t always true.

It’s this:


The trope makes you a puppet of mass opinion.

If you reflexively reject something just because it’s mainstream, you’re being every bit as controlled by mass opinion as you would if you reflexively embraced something just because it’s mainstream.

You’re still letting yourself be controlled by what everyone else is doing. Sure, you’re doing it in a Bizarro World/ Opposite Day kind of way. But you’re still doing it. You’re still unthinkingly letting your life be determined by mainstream culture. No, you shouldn’t do something just because everyone else is doing it. That’s a bad reason to do anything. But it doesn’t make any more sense to not do something just because everyone else is doing it.

I see this trope a lot when it comes to alt culture and science. Somehow, in much of alternative culture, science and the scientific community have gotten lumped in together with Big Corporations and Big Media and the Bush Administration. Somehow, the scientific community got turned into The Man.


This is very much the fuel that feeds the twin fires of alternative medicine and woo spirituality. “Conventional medicine,” the trope goes, “only cares about making Big Pharma rich. It’s a billion dollar industry. They want you to stay sick, so they can keep treating you and getting rich. And besides, it’s so… conventional. Let’s take these herbs instead. They were used by (insert extinct primitive culture of your choice here). They understood about the earth and treating the whole body. Not like those reductionist doctors.” (Disregarding the fact that alternative medicine is also a billion dollar industry, and that the primitive culture in question had a life expectancy of 45.)


Or: “Of course those studies on telepathy/ astrology/ Reiki/ reincarnation/ audio recordings of the spirits of the dead didn’t work. The researchers were biased. They unconsciously skewed the test. Maybe even consciously. They didn’t want to see the Truth. It would blow their minds.” (Disregarding the fact that, if any scientist could conclusively prove the existence of metaphysical energy fields or life after death, it would make them the single most famous scientist in the history of the world.)

Beta_decay_Feynman diagram.svg

Or my personal favorite: “Did you know that, according to quantum theory, (insert wild New Age interpretation of quantum theory of your choice here)? No, I didn’t get that from a physicist or a physics text. I got it from Deepak Chopra (or whoever). He understands the true implications of the new science, way more than those scientists. The scientists are so mired in the physical, they can’t see The Truth right in front of their faces.” (Disregarding the fact that maybe, just maybe, people who have spent their entire adult lives rigorously studying quantum physics might know more about it than some New Age guru.)

Somehow, the idea has taken hold in alt culture that non- conformity means you can reject scientific consensus. And it shows a troubling lack of understanding about what science is and how it works. The reflexive tendency to assume that mainstream consensus means conformist groupthink ignores this basic truth about science: when you’re trying to understand physical reality, when you’re trying to figure out cause and effect in the physical world, replicability is the name of the game. And replicability means consensus.

Yes, of course, new ideas and paradigm shifts and thinking outside the box are important in science, too. But until the freaky new idea has been tested and tested and tested, by hundreds or thousands of other scientists, it doesn’t make sense to embrace it. You don’t embrace an idea based on a handful of papers. You can find a handful of papers to support almost any nutjob idea. You don’t embrace it until it’s run the replicability gauntlet. In other words, until it’s no longer freaky and new, and has become part of the consensus, inside the newly expanded box.
So here’s what I think is missing when people in alt culture reject science, or cherrypick it based on their personal biases and whims. (No, it’s not critical thinking. That’s missing too, but it’s not what I’m talking about now.)

I think they don’t get who they’re making common cause with.


I think they don’t get that they’re making common cause with creationists. With global warming denialists. With proponents of abstinence-only sex education. With supporters of the War On Drugs. With a whole host of right-wing assholes who feel perfectly comfortable rejecting science and evidence and reality when it doesn’t conform to their ideology.

I think that they don’t get that they’re participating in an old American tradition: the tradition of know- nothing- ism, of anti- intellectualism.

So let me just say this: It is not a tradition that has historically been kind to progressive, alternative, liberationist culture.

There was a time when alternative culture meant valuing the intellect. I am deeply troubled by the trend in modern alt culture that seems bent on rejecting it. Independent thinking means exactly that — thinking. It doesn’t mean reflexively rejecting the mainstream, any more than it means reflexively going along with it. It means evaluating each choice on its own merits, based on your values and experiences and the evidence you’ve seen. And it means having respect for people who think for a living… and who carefully test their thoughts against the reality of the world.

The Amazing Mechanical Leftie: Reflexive Thinking in Alt Culture
OrbitCon: The Orbit's online conference. Attend from anywhere.

17 thoughts on “The Amazing Mechanical Leftie: Reflexive Thinking in Alt Culture

  1. 1

    Greta, you are excessively, qrotesquely, decandently cool.
    I myself have grappled with these concepts at times. I tend to reject the mainstream, and I sometimes worry that I may be doing it reflexively, and simply deluding myself into thinking that it is otherwise.
    Nowadays, I am reasonably satisfied that this is not so, but the doubt still lingers, and it worries me, because that kind of thinking is every bit as ridiculous and harmful as you imply.

  2. 4

    Completely true. I sometimes feel a little reflexive guilt when I say I’m into something conventional (like pop music or a specific reality tv show or a movie), but in the end, I mostly do what’s fun and comfortable for me. I like body mod, but not because it’s “hardcore.” I shave my head, but although I embrace the “statement” it makes, that’s not the only reason I did it (trichotillomania and overheating were big parts of it). I’m not crazy about plastic surgery, but I believe that if it isn’t my body, it’s not my choice. I try not to let the people who I’m with determine everything I think.

  3. 5

    Greta is absolutely right once again. Lisa Randall did a little video thing for Seed magazine and she mentioned in passing that there was a survey done asking people who identify as creationists and people who are convinced evolution is true about how evolution actually works. BOTH GROUPS WERE ENTIRELY FUCKING CLUELESS as to how evolution actually works!! Both groups were merely accepting their respective truth claims merely on perceived authority and political identity. This should SCARE THE SHIT OUT OF ALL OF US.

  4. 6

    I’d say it’s a sign of alternative medicines and so on actually having gained a toehold in mainstream culture. A hundred years ago, if you wanted a tattoo and weren’t a sailor, then you probably really wanted a tattoo, for reasons of your own; as the culture around you would think you very weird for getting one (probably including your friends and contemporaries), you’d have to think it through, come to your own decisions. Now tattoos are fashionable in certain circles, you don’t need much of a reason; plenty of other people are doing it too.
    Everybody’s prone to tribalism to a certain extent, and the most free-thinking group in the world is likely to develop its own customs – and the larger it gets, the more people will be in it who are just following the lead. If you define your tribe as ‘not-mainstream’, you’re in a bit of trouble, though, because like you say, you’re depending on the mainstream – and also you’re going to develop your own habits and get conventional in your own way, which is probably not what you originally wanted. After all, Christianity was a pretty freaky cult for a long time, and now look…

  5. 8

    A lot of this anti-intellectualism, I think, comes from a good motivation taken too far. For instance, it’s absolutely true that pharmaceutical companies would rather develop drugs for minor but profitable First World lifestyle diseases, while leaving serious Third World killers like malaria untouched because there’s little profit in it. It’s absolutely true that drug companies have at times tried to cover up unfavorable data to get a new pill approved. It’s even true that, at times, innocent people have been victimized and exploited for medical tests they didn’t consent to be a part of. Everyone should know these things, and we’re in the right to condemn them.
    But where the New Agers go wrong is in failing to recognize that this doesn’t constitute reason to reject modern medicine as a whole. For all its faults, and for all the terrible things that unethical scientists have done, scientific medicine still works, and is far superior to any of the alternatives that don’t rely on testing and verification. The New Agers think they can find a better, “purer” way of knowing that doesn’t have those sins on its ledger – but the price of having something that works is that people are occasionally going to misuse it. The only method that can never be misused is the one that does nothing at all. And that, unfortunately, is a very apt description of much of the modern woo-woo crowd.

  6. 10

    If you reflexively reject something just because it’s mainstream, you’re being every bit as controlled by mass opinion as you would if you reflexively embraced something just because it’s mainstream.

    This reminds me of an Art Buchwald column (yes, I’m showing my age) on how the US president can deal with the French: first, give a speech about some program, and ask for international cooperation. Then, have the US ambassador have a private word with the French president, saying, “In confidence, our president had to give that speech because there’s political pressure on him to implement this program. But privately, he’d be quite happy if you were able to scuttle it.” Then sit back and watch the French commit themselves wholeheartedly to supporting the program.
    Neal Stephenson also had a wonderful aphorism along the lines of: just because alternative medicine is different from clinical western medicine doesn’t mean it’s better, any more than the fact that the atmosphere on Jupiter is different means that it’s better for you than the one on Earth.
    PS: Yay


  7. 11

    When my son was a teenager he said, dressed like, and did everything his friends did.
    The punk, the goth, whatever. And I would say to him “You’re conforming to non-conformity.” At the time, he didn’t get it, or the peer pressure was too strong for him to resist. I think now he understands what I meant.

  8. 13

    As always an illuminating and enjoyable post. This form of thinking is also evident with that other alternative….alternative energy. It’s like we haven’t been making windmills since the 15th Century or something. It is scary that people latch on to these kind of things and waste valuable time and resources on non-solutions whilst the problem continues to compound itself with interest.
    Keep up the good work.

  9. 14

    This is exactly the argument I’ve had with my “alternative” friends, esp. my sister-in-law. I’ve just never put it in such a concise and thoughtful manner.
    As usual, Monty Python had it right.

  10. 15

    Several people have commented about how always swimming away from the mainstream means the mainstream has more control over your choices than you do. One person mentioned Art Buchwald, but we can even go back to William Blake and find the same message: Being the opposite of something means you are tethered to that something. If you genuinely want something Other, you are going to have to think your way around to doing something Different, not something in direct Opposition.
    Now whether people in general want to do that big nasty THINKING step is another problem. I’m teaching a rhetoric of science course this fall, and getting 35 students to think their way through excepts of _The Origin of Species_ is going to be all sorts of fun…..

  11. 16

    This is your great effort to share your ideas.Alternative medicine is not better than natural things and exercise.
    (URL removed due to apparent commercial content. -GC)

  12. 17

    I find your post very enlightening Greta – personally I’ve never understood the whole ‘I’m not conforming just for the sake of not conforming’ agenda!
    (URL removed due to commercial content)

Comments are closed.