Friday, February 14, 2014

How not to fix the problems with science

Once again, people have said something on the internet, and driven me to say others things in reply. Today's something is How the Scientific Method Silences All Ways of Knowing That Are Not White and Male, by Taeha Condon. If you know me at all*, you know this won't be a glowing review.

One would assume the article is about how they are some ways of knowing that are not White and Male, and the scientific method silences them. One would be wrong. It is in fact about how the author doesn't quite understand what the scientific method is but likes to blame it for everything anyway.

Problem the first: the author confuses quantification with the scientific method. Or at least I think she does, because otherwise I cannot explain why she continually rages against modern society's tendency to measure and quantify and considers that a criticism of the scientific method.

The core of the scientific method is "test your hypotheses", not "put a number to it". Numbers can be precise and amenable to statistical analysis and a lot of other nice things that make them useful for scientific research, but they are not what science is about. So when your title talks about problems with the scientific method and your primary argument is "we're using too many numbers", I'm gonna be somewhat disappointed.

Could one blame the scientific revolution for the abundance of quantifiable measures in today's world? Yeah, definitely. Partly because people use numbers to lend an air of sciencyness, and therefore legitimacy to their nonsense, but mostly because numbers work and science showed us that most conclusively. The author claims that "[w]e have relied on numbers and quantifiable solutions for too long, and clearly, they are not working", but then again quantifiable solutions have taken us to a world with vaccines and the Internet, so they are doing pretty fucking good, if you ask me. If "We've been doing this for a long time and the world is not perfect yet" is an argument against quantifiable solutions, then it's also an argument against agriculture, writing and democracy.

So problem the first is actually two-pronged: Quantifiability is not some sort evil demon, and it's not the same thing as the scientific method

Problem the second: You know those titular "all ways of knowing"? I am struggling to find any way of knowing in the text other than the scientific method**. Sure, the author alludes to "Aboriginal [...] ways of knowing that account for the interconnectivity of land, spirituality, country and kin", but doesn't actually say what they are or describe how they work. But they must be better than science, since they account for all that stuff! And science doesn't! For some reason.

Why would there be some ineffable, science-proof quality to interconnectivity of land et al.? I have no idea. Can you not formulate testable hypotheses about it? Or is it just that it doesn't look like the sort of thing you find in a lab with microscopes and test tubes?

Problem the third: The author consistently asserts that science is a white male way of knowing. And I'll grant that science has a gender problem; it's mostly a male dominated field, women's contributions are under-appreciated and boys are encouraged to pursue STEM careers much more than women. This has been said a thousand times before. You know how you don't go about solving that problem? By claiming that empirical thinking is a male thing and women are made for intuition and feeling. In fact, that strikes me as exactly the sort of thing that caused the problem in the first place.

Telling women that they cannot be scientists? That the single most successful way of knowing humankind has found is not their thing? That they are not built for logic and analytical thinking? That's one of the most unfeminist memes our society has. When you spread that meme, you are part of the problem.

So, in summary:
1) Learn what science actually is.
2) If you're gonna talk about how science stifles other ways of knwoing, kindly provide an example of one that has been successful to a level at least comparable to the scientific method
3) And for the love of all the nonexistent gods, there are enough sexist assholes telling women science is not for them. We don't need more.

*Which of course you do not.

**I am strongly reminded of learning about Feyerabend in my Introduction to Scientific Thought class in college.