Oh, Richard


Last week, Richard Dawkins finally came out against racism and sexism. It turns out that, aside from his well-documented feelings about the 800 million or so terribly oppressed Muslim women out there (every single last one of you, by the way, because Islam is a giant monolith that is exactly the same for everyone and it just so happens to be precisely as bad as the worst Orientalist stereotypes that the West can come up with) there is another group whose plight moves the professor to speak out.

I am referring, of course, to middle-aged white male British academics who wear loafers. Or should I say l*s? For to the good Professor, no slur is more offensive than a pair of well-crafted and comfortable shoes.

So yes, there was a palaver, Twitter collectively sighed, facepalmed and snarked their little hearts out (I love you, by the way, Twitter), and Our Richard dug his heels in.

You’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to tell you all of this. Dawkins says something ignorant, it’s pouring rain, must be a summer’s day ending in Y somewhere in Britain and/or Ireland, eh?

See, what happened next was that he, well.. he hit off one of my sensibilities. Check this out:

According to Dawkins, the people uniquely unsuited to educate him on matters relating to human society are… the people working and/or studying within one of the major academic disciplines devoted to the study of human society. Richard goes on to snark endlessly about sociology and sociologists, going so far as to call it a social “science”. Seriously. Look:

 

 

 

A little aside here, which I feel obliged to add. My own background is in sociology. One of the side-effects to working in the social sciences is having to deal with a regular barrage of people from the ‘hard’ sciences (I’d say that isn’t a word coined by a social scientist) who think exactly as Dawkins does: that sociologists, by virtue of being sociologists, are less qualified to talk about society and social science than biologists, physicists and the like. People who have never taken a sociology class in their lives, who know nothing about social theory, research, methodologies (and the reasons behind them), who figure that they somehow know more about it than, well, the entirety of sociology and sociologists. And anthropology and anthropologists (lovely bunch).

You’ll notice that at no point above does Dawkins have a point to make other than poo-poohing the social sciences. He doesn’t have any evidence (aside from the Oxford dictionary) to support his claim that there is something inherently sexist and racist about pointing out his sex and race. He’s engaging in the most ludicrous of, yes, ad-hominem attacks: saying that sociologists can’t educate him on sociology because they’re sociologists, and that sociology isn’t a real science because it’s not.

But that isn’t quite the point I want to make here. I want to point out the sheer hypocrisy of Dawkins’ attitude.

One of the stories I loved reading in one of his earlier books- it might have been the God Delusion, maybe not- was about one of his professors. Who had, for decades, taught a particular side of a particular debate in, well, biology I guess. One day this professor went to a lecture by someone who was able to demolish the case for what this guy had been teaching for decades. The good professor went up to the lecturer at the end of the hour, thanked him, and shook his hand. And then went home to rewrite his course material, because boy was that suddenly out of date.

This is what Dawkins claims to admire.

But there’s another thing. Dawkins himself spends a lot of his time defending his field. He’s an evolutionary biologist, and the world is filled with people without the faintest idea of what either of those things are about who nevertheless dispute the very existence of evolution. He’s as familiar as I am with the phenomenon of people who know nothing about his field disputing even the validity of science itself. Of scientific methods. Of things which have been extensively studied and observed.

You would think that a person who claims to value skepticism and questioning of one’s own biases, and who faces a daily barrage of ignorant dismissal of his own field, would know better than to engage in knee-jerk insults and poo-poohing of fields he knows nothing about.

I sincerely doubt that he’ll ever read this, but if he does, I have this to say: Be a scientist, Richard. Show a little of the skepticism you have inspired in others. Learn about social theories. Understand how they are applied. Learn about social research methodologies and why we study things the way we do.

Because right now, Richard? You may be a great biologist and I’m sure you earned the hell out of the qualifications you have. But not one of them is in a social science. Which means that every person with a PhD, an MA, a BA, or even a year or so of social science modules under their belt is qualified to school you on this one. And if you are interested in science as a tool for learning about the world, as opposed to your position as a tool for beating the opposition, you will sit down, get out your pen and paper, get ready to take some notes and listen.

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The Meaninglessnes of the Mean


I had an argument about research methods with a psychologist a while ago. Nothing unusual there, eh? While most of what went on was fairly standard stuff, there is one thing that struck me. It seemed to get to the heart of how we do research, what we mean by research, how it can be applied to people, and what it says about us as individuals.

The Psychologist’s position was that one of the main aims of psychological research should be to find the mean of human behaviour and experience- what most of us feel and do. By this, he hopes to come to a greater understanding of who we genuinely are.

I… disagree.

I can see his point. It’s an attractive idea. Finding the genuine (as opposed to perceived) mean of human behaviour could be interesting.

It’s a pity that the mean, by its very nature, simply does not apply to most of us, most of the time. There’s this thing about humans, you see. One characteristic which defines us more absolutely than any other.

We adapt. We change.

The interesting thing about  humans isn’t in our averages. It’s in the stunning diversity of our adaptations, in why and how we do things differently in different- or similar- situations. It’s in how our hardware interacts with environment, in the commonalities and differences between us. It’s in why we do things the way we do.

The mean erases this diversity. And as a method of studying people, it seems odd to pick one which erases that which makes us most human.

But it’s not just that.

Simplification can be necessary for modeling just about any phenomenon you care to study. Since humans are about as complex as it gets, simplification can be incredibly important in the social sciences. But simplifying is also powerful. What we leave out of a question is as important as what we leave in. The framing of a question can drastically affect the answers we get. If we are to be intellectually honest and aware of the impact of what we do, we cannot make these choices lightly.

A one-size-fits-all decision to use a single method of analysis is not just incredibly intellectually lazy. It also misses the point of why we do research in the first place.

More on Neda: extremism, religion, power and ‘us’.


I’ve been thinking a lot about Neda today, since watching For Neda, the doc I linked to in my last post. I’m still trying to work out how to relate to and conceptualise what happened. I don’t think that’s a process that I’ll reach a clear conclusion with any time soon, if ever.

My first and strongest reaction is, of course, a deep-seated sense of sorrow and of horror. And of shame, at my own intrusion into such a.. senseless is the wrong word for this act. Because it wasn’t senseless. On the part of the Iranian government, killing its citizens was (and continues to be) a calculated act. On the part of the Basiji who killed her- well, it must have made sense at the time.

understand.

I want to know more about these Basij, these government militia. I want to know more about who they are, about why they are part of the militia. About how they became who they are now. Who taught them. What their lives are like. If it is fear that makes them beat and kill or if it is just a hunger for power? Where in society are they from- are they from all social classes or just some? This is what I want to know. This is what I want to understand. I can empathise so easily with those who mourn Neda, but in order to help to end this, I think we need to understand those who kill, and would kill, those like her.

There’s a quote from that doc. I can’t remember it exactly, but it involves some Basiji women who confronted Neda in the days before she died, saying that it was dangerous for her to be outside because she was beautiful, and ‘they’ hate beauty. That they cannot control themselves around it, and they need to control themselves or else they will be wicked, so they must destroy it.

I want to know how people learn to hate that much. I want to learn how to empathise with that hatred, to understand it, deep in its most basic motivations and impulses. Not to forgive, mind you. To understand, because you can’t fight against a thing you cannot comprehend.

about religion.

I don’t think it’s about religion, although it is, of course, always about religion. However, it’s so, so easy to point and say “this is religion” or “this is Islam”, when discussing what appear to be fanatical, irrational motivations. These people believe one irrational thing, so why not another, and another, and another?

To say so, however, is to be lazy and simplistic. To hijack religion to explain the acts of extremists is to throw up your hands, to not have to bother thinking about any implications of other, more uncomfortable elements of a more complex explanation. While it is impossible to deny the religious motivations of the Basij- they are serving the Islamic Republic, after all- it would be unfair and inaccurate to deny that many, including Neda herself, practiced and lived a spirituality and religion entirely different, sharing only a name. The religion of the Islamic Republic, here, can be seen as a cover for power, for fear of the Other, for motivations I am too ignorant and too distant to begin to guess at. The religion that they use, however, can only be diminished by understanding those facets, the context within which it occurs. Simply brushing aside heinous acts by blaming the religion of their perpetrators is not only unfair, it is blatantly inaccurate.

us (westerners).

I’m a European, middle-class, college educated, urban, white cis woman. I don’t know what you are, but since this is the internet, it’s likely that you and I share at least one or two of those characteristics- although you’re probably American, not European. What I’m about to say has been said before, many times, but it stands saying again. The death of a young, attractive, cosmopolitan woman- wearing a baseball cap, no less- is going to resonate with people like you and me. Demographically speaking, she ticks all the boxes.

I don’t say this to be flippant. I definitely don’t say this in order to wave away the tragedy and disgrace of her death. I just say it in order that I might remember that the deaths of people who are not young, people who are not beautiful, people who are not cosmopolitan, who dress in unfamiliar ways and whose lives and dreams are not so similar to mine? Those deaths are tragic, they are disgraceful every bit as much.

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I don’t know what to say or to think about this. I still don’t. I circle it, theorising around the edges, never getting closer to the centre.

On Existentials and Skeptics.


I thought I’d start this off with something easy. You know, nothing too deep. Nice and simple and unchallenging. Unfortunately, I appear to want to talk about existentials, so the nice, simple stuff is going to have to wait until later.

I’m in my mid-late 20s, I have a couple of Arts degrees*, and, in case nobody’s mentioned it to you, we’re in a recession**. Having an entirely fashionable quarter-life crisis is only to be expected. In my case, this has revolved around two main themes. The first is pretty basic- where am I going in my life and why am I nowhere near any of the massively important ‘grown-up’ milestones that so many people around me seem to be galloping past? The second is far more interesting than that, and is to do with some ways in which I have done a bit of growing-up over the past few years.

One of the major things I have been doing over the past few years is coming into my own as a skeptic. While it didn’t hand me a ready-made career, college did teach me an awful lot about critical thinking- and once you start that (awesome!) process of questioning and looking deeper into the world around and within you, it’s hard to stop. For me, this process also involved a transformation, so gradual I couldn’t tell you where it started and when it stabilised, towards what currently appears to be a confident atheism. My newfound perspective on the world was something I found both marvellous and terrifying- but that’s a whole new topic for another post. However, what is relevant here is that I spent a lot of time lurking about skeptical and atheism-related blogs and communities, as well as devouring all the related books I could get my hands on.

Those people love science. I mean, they really, really love it. I love it too- the process of finding out, of increasing knowledge, the ways in which we correct for our biases and come to the most wonderfully fascinating discoveries. It inspires all sorts of flowery language in me, images of our relentlessly chipping away at out own ignorance, the wonders of describing what we can barely grasp, our having created tools to compensate for the weaknesses of the very minds that created them- that sort of thing. I think it is, for want of a better word, awesome.

As for what I do, what I’m trained in? It’s in the grey area between Real Science and, well, Everything Else. One of the unfortunate things about being around a community of people who are so excited about science is that they’re, to put it mildly, a bit less excited about things that may not strictly be considered science. Social science is fuzzy that way. Because in the social sciences we are people studying people, it’s impossible for anyone to be unbiased or detached from the data. You may think you can, but any social scientist worth their salt knows that even sociologists are part of society, have been moulded and biased by the very thing we want to study. It provides quite the challenge, to be honest. But it means that if you’re going to do good research, one of the first things to do is to quit even thinking you’ll get the same kind of certainty that your counterparts in the hard sciences can achieve. Useful knowledge and fascinating insights? Absolutely! But it’ll rarely be replicable, or generalisable, and you’ll never be able to fully correct for your own bias.

And yes, this is where the existential comes in. One of the major fears I’ve had in recent times is that I’m going in the wrong direction in my life. That I took a wrong turning back when I started college, and, goddamnit, if I could do it over I’d be a marine biologist*** by now. Or, at the very least, doing something that I’d need a lab for. In my head, for a while, that was what was truly useful, what would make a real difference in the world.

It wasn’t until the other day that it hit me that I was thinking about things the wrong way around. Sure, it would be lovely to go back to college and do another degree in something deliciously sciencey. In the kind of science that everyone acknowledges is Science. In the kind of thing that doesn’t get disparagingly referred to as wishy-washy, or somehow not real. But that wishy washy, not-real-science field? That’s where I cut my teeth on critical thinking. That’s where I learned how to examine, and re-examine, and to question everything. To not take things at face value. It’s where I developed the very skills that made me want to go back to college and be a ‘real’ scientist.

So you never know. Maybe someday, when I’ve the money****, I’ll take myself back to college and have a fine old time at Real Science. However, for the moment, I’m okay with being a person who knows how to do good research and answer questions that could do with answering, and I’m okay with my field being one that people see as a bit ‘fuzzy’. It was that fuzziness that taught me to look harder, question more, and be prepared for my assumptions to be shown up at any moment. It’s really… kind of awesome.

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* BA in Sociology and Politics, and MA in Sociology of Development and Globalisation. Entirely lovely, both of them.

**It is possible that you’re not in a recession. Lucky you! Please send information regarding your location, as well as immigration requirements and procedures. Also, since you’re not in a recession, you probably have a sofa for someone to crash on, right?

*** In my fantasies, I am a marine biologist somewhere marvellously exotic, making incredibly fascinating discoveries that just happen to take place in breathtakingly beautiful coral reefs. I can dream, right? Right?

****I KNOW! I made a FUNNY! I have Arts degrees, we don’t make money! The lulz, they kill me.