Let’s Have a Shut Up and Sit Down

I am a scientist, and I am a leftist.  To many, these ideas are starkly opposed, and a cursory read of each area’s maxims would seem to corroborate that opposition.  But both modes of thinking are enthusiastically embraced by commanding fractions of the atheist community, often the same people, and there is a good reason for that, too.  This is how this particular leftist scientist reconciles those ideas.

Science is not just a body of knowledge, or even the means by which that knowledge was acquired.  Science is a process and a worldview, a declaration human intuitions and reasoning are powerful but flawed and can be reined, channeled, and improved to determine what is and isn’t actually true about our world.  Science holds that reality is independent of our perceptions (quantum mechanics notwithstanding) and thus that a cumulative and detailed examination of that reality by numerous investigators leads to cumulative insight.

When one compares that to common anti-colonialist-etc axioms, they seem irreconcilable.  The notion that oppressed people have a special insight into their own circumstances and should be trusted over people who don’t experience that oppression when they describe it flies in the face of the idea that knowledge is objective and external.  The notion that it’s ever appropriate to tell someone to “check their privilege” when discussing a topic suggests that the validity of some claims depends on who makes them, which likewise seems premised on facts being situational and personal.  The scientific skeptic’s constant demand for others to cite their sources becomes grating and unwelcome when it is pointed at people whose personal experiences are regarded as “speculative” and “unsourced.”  Centering a fondness for or respect for indigenous or otherwise marginalized bodies of knowledge often means giving at least superficial credence to ideas that have not been tested with scientific rigor, which scientists and skeptics nominally deplore.  Leftist/progressive/etc circles can easily become hostile to science and vice versa, and not all of that hostility is unearned in either direction.

But many scientists and leftists manage to reconcile these two paradigms, because neither actually requires an antipathy toward the other to function, neither actually contradicts the other in practice, and because leftist precepts amply withstand scientific rigor when tested.

Science depends on experiments, and experiments only function when they test hypotheses.  In turn, hypotheses depend on observations, and observations depend heavily on people’s preconceptions, biases, and existing knowledge.  While this has proven nightmarish enough within sciences like biology and physics, it’s particularly deadly in sciences that study humans: psychology and sociology.  Here, the difficulty in building the kind of unified frameworks that characterize chemistry and biology is compounded by scientists who refused to challenge their or their society’s conventional wisdom, instead taking it as a given when building their experiments.   Huge bodies of “scientific” orthodoxy have been built that take as a given (and then “demonstrate”) that transgender people are psychologically disturbed and that most of them are fetishists whose interest in living as a gender other than their assigned gender should be regarded as a grotesque perversion best kept in the bedroom, or nowhere; that members of various indigenous and ethnic groups are innately and fundamentally unintelligent and uncivilized, unfit for living in industrialized societies; that gay people suffer from all manner of psychiatric problems as a result of their “same-sex attraction” and should therefore be institutionalized and “cured.”

Every one of these is a place where better-designed studies would have recognized and avoided those errors, and the easiest path to that better design is to broaden the viewpoints that get considered while hypotheses and experiments are being discussed.  That means getting input from trans people when one aims to study trans people; that means getting input from gay people when one aims to study gay people; and that means getting input from indigenous people when one aims to study indigenous people.  That means recognizing the perspective of a white male scientist as the perspective of a white male scientist, and not necessarily as the neutral viewpoint that science assumes, in situations when another viewpoint might plausibly differ.  This means recognizing that every one of the earth’s peoples is equally capable of producing bodies of folk knowledge and well-tested best practices, and that being disconnected from the burgeoning mass of international science does not mean that those observations are worth nothing.

All of that means that, when someone tells me, “shut up and listen,” I do not hear “you are innately wrong because of who you are,” the way people who do not know what that invocation means often hear.  I instead hear, “We have knowledge about our own experiences that has likely eluded proper documentation because of institutional biases, knowledge that you are very unlikely to have acquired on your own because it is about our own experiences, and your participating meaningfully here is contingent on you recognizing that and letting us share what we know.”  I hear, “Our perspective on our own experiences has been systematically denied and erased, we are now asserting our right to share it, and we shall have no further dealings with you if you will be an impediment to that.”  I hear, “we have data for you, you are being a jerk about collecting that data, and we do not have to give it to you if you keep doing that.”  I hear, “we want to help you be a good scientist by increasing your sample size.

And when I hear, “Of course you think that; you’re able-bodied,” I don’t hear, “the exact same sequence of sounds would be permissible if you were disabled, but since you’re not, you’re wrong.”  I hear, “that thought is characteristic of people who have no firsthand experience of this issue and who haven’t educated themselves on it; you’ll think differently after you do your homework and we’ll be waiting for you here until then.”  I hear, “a disabled person who says this thing is just as wrong as you are, but requires a different response.”

And when I hear “do your homework,” I don’t hear “I am making up unsubstantiated nonsense and am insisting you find my ostensible sources for me to cover my tracks so I have time to spout more nonsense.”  I rather hear, “People like me have been expected to personally and painstakingly walk all of our non-marginalized friends through every step of their education and that expectation is not fair, so we’re going to insist that, if you actually are interested in this topic, you seek out information about it the same way you seek out knowledge about other topics that interest you.”  I hear, “we have better things to do that retype the reams that have already been written on this topic, so go read those and come back when you’ve learned some things.”  I hear, “this is a topology class, and you’re clearly not ready for it, so rather than watch you flail or fail to educate your classmates, we’re sending you to remedial algebra until you’re ready.”   I hear, “Yes.  Good.  Please doubt everything that is happening here.  Doubt it so much that you seek out everything there is to know about this topic, and then check again to see if you still doubt it, and then come back and discuss it at our level.”

Where people from privileged positions have a habit of seeing a lack of “objectivity,” I see a concerted effort to pay attention to people whose voices have long been ignored, and a quest to establish an “objectivity” that never before existed and which the privileged perspective only pretended to claim as its own.  I see vast swaths of potential knowledge, whole regions of information waiting to be categorized and plumbed and mapped like any other area of science, but which haven’t because the scientific establishment convinced itself it already knew what was there.

I am not content with “here be dragons.”

So I am a leftist, I am a scientist, and I am glad that someone at uOttawa has made his life’s work out of collecting Cree, Bosniak, Maya, and other indigenous knowledge, subjecting it to scientific rigor, and sharing the results with them and the world.

Let’s Have a Shut Up and Sit Down