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.
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.)
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.
IÂ 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.