Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

This post is distressingly lacking in butt jokes...

Before we begin, I'd just like to thank Brayden King for his welcome to the world of blogging. Then again, I guess it's only fair since he's the one that talked me into this.

Today I want to spend a little time talking about an article in the May issue of the Skeptical Inquirer. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the Skeptical Inquirer is the official journal of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. If you haven't heard of CSICOP before, it's worth taking a glance around their site. In addition to a lot of good web resources for scientists and consumers, they also provide support for individuals who like to take a skeptical view on things. Plus, as a bonus, they have some really spiffy stickers you can order for free.

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I have two myself!


In any case, in the May issue of SI there was an article by Karla Mclaren, a former mover and shaker within the New Age community, on the failure of the Skeptical community and the New Age community to communicate with each other. As she tells it, the skeptical community finds itself unable to contest new age "learning" like ESP and aroma therapy because it insists on denigrating the people who adhere to such approaches. Ms. Mclaren has a good point, and one that we should all try to remember. After all, while science is a confrontational system that thrives on conflict (What else is the peer review process for, after all?) people outside science who don't understand our rules may find it a bit off-putting. If we want to reach out to non-scientists, we would do well to reign in the insults, while preserving the critical thought that makes science so powerful.

Mclaren also makes a valuable argument that the new age is a culture, or a micro-culture, of its own. It comes complete with a set of understandings about the world, causal arguments for why things happen, and moral judgements about the rightness or wrongness of actions and beliefs. That this cultural content is, in Mclaren's words, a "...screamingly inconsistent sacred canon," does not differentiate it from the culture the rest of us live in on a day-to-day basis. If we want to talk about screamingly inconsistent, let's talk about a society that on the one hand vilifies pedophiles, and on the other converts a young woman into a sexualized product. This isn't to say that I approve of pedophiles, or pardon them for their actions, but the point stands. Cultures aren't internally consistent in every way, so we can perhaps forgive new age folk for their acceptance of multiple, contradictory, viewpoints. The important issue for Mclaren's argument is that if science is to have a dialogue with the new age community, we must recognize that the words we use may have very different meanings to their ears. A failure to be aware of that just makes us in fact as arrogant as many new agers believe us to be.

At the same time, however, I think Mclaren inadvertently strikes the real crux of the conflict between science and pseudoscience. She argues that:

One of the biggest falsehoods I've encountered is that skeptics can't tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery - not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that's a cultural conceit and it's utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture's disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety.


Indeed! This is something I've long suspected myself, but have never phrased so eloqently. Skeptics, and scientists, are in my experience frequently those sorts of people who would prefer an unpleasant truth, to a comforting falsehood. Achieving certainty in science is, at best, excruciatingly difficult and, at worst, impossible. Therefore scientists must learn to be comfortable with NOT knowing a great deal about the world. Perhaps this is because participating in science makes us so aware of the limitations of human knowledge. Perhaps Jorge Cham over at Ph.D. has the answer as well.

We shouldn't feel too superior as scientists, however. It isn't that we're necessarily comfortable with not knowing, but that we understand and accept the limitations of science as a system for knowing the world. Science is great at discovering facts about the physical universe, and even about social life (Hey, I'm a sociologist, what do you think I'm gonna say?), but it isn't so good at providing meaning. Think about it: science tells us how things are, and why they work that way, but it doesn't tell us whether or not things SHOULD be that way. Science can't make value judgements.

Most scientists understand this on some level. Some of us are religious, and find meaning in God. Others are not religious, but we also find meaning in our lives beyond the system of science, often without realizing it. It is this limitation of science that has, I believe, led to the criticism of science levelled by post-modernists. The PoMo folk, as tragically misguided as they often are, are correct in arguing that science does not tell us how things should be, and in warning that science can be a tool of oppression and evil. Such messages are worth hearing.

Yet, where we have failed is in communicating this point to the general public. There is, for example, a perception that science and religion are inevitably antagonistic. This just isn't so. Certainly, religion and science have had their skirmishes in the past, geocentrism and evolution being two of the most significant points of contention. No doubt there will be skirmishes in the future (particularly in the case of evolution, which is a battle that continues to be fought. More on that some other time), yet science and religion are no longer systems of thought with the same purpose. Science attempts to tell us how the world is, without making value judgements about those conditions. Religion tells us how the world should be, and about the sort of people we should aspire to be. There is nothing in these two methods of understanding that forces them into inevitable confrontation- they are simply answers to different questions.

So how does this all connect back to the new age and pseudoscience? As long as science and religion seem to be at odds, people will be forced to choose between two uncomfortable extremes. On one hand they can choose religion, but in doing so must close the door to a wealth of knowledge accumulated over centuries. On the other hand, they can choose science, and find themselves awash in facts, and yet lost in a desert baren of meaning. In sociology we refer to this state as "anomie" or a condition wherein a person is left without guidelines for behavior. The new age movement is so appealing because it attempts to provide both knowledge AND meaning, much as a religion does, while side-stepping the taint of superstition and ignorance that lingers faintly about many of the established faiths. A similar argument might be made for the rise of Scientology, which claims in its very name, as well as its documents, to be a scientific system for achieving enlightenment. That scientology has numerous critics and that its tenets have not been empirically validated in the few occasions when they have received scientific scrutiny makes no difference. So long as it appears that people can have their cake and eat it too, scientology, new age, and a host of other pseudoscientific ideologies will continue to flourish.

As skeptics and as scientists it is our reponsibility to contribute to scientific literacy by delineating between what science CAN and CANNOT do. We must be clear that science is not a panacea for all the ills of mankind, and that it cannot make us better people. At most science enables us to make more informed, and therefore better, decisions. Movements like the New Age and Scientology WILL always exist, or more accurately should always exist if we live in a free society, but let's at least understand what drives their general popularity.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Putting the "Ass" in "Astro"

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few days or, well, uh, happen to be one of the millions of people who don't give a damn about sociology, you've probably been hearing the buzz over the proposal to add a new "Astrosociology" section to the American Sociological Association. I won't go into any detail on whether this is a good idea or not, aside from pointing you to the blog of Kieran Healy. In fact, I bear no ill will towards Dr. Jim Pass, the main proponent of this idea, and wish him the best of luck in his absurd endeavor.

So, you might be asking, what AM I going to talk about today? I'd like to think you'd have something more important on your mind, by the way, but I'm a realist. Just do better tomorrow. In any case, as there seems to be a general consensus among bloggers that there's really no need for astrosociology, I decided to talk about the other interesting element of this controversy. No, I don't mean the fact that the astrosociology website looks like it was gang-fucked by the graphics from a b-grade science fiction movie, although that certainly doesn't help. No, what I want to talk about is the why of this sordid affair. Why "Astro" sociology?

Indeed, as Jeremy Freese points out, the proposed subject matter of astrosociology seems to fit quite neatly within older, established sections of the sociological community. While work has been done in sociology that deals with the space program, it certainly hasn't necessitated the creation of an entirely new section! So what does this new astrosociology get us? What new, wonderful benefit may we reap from the crafting of astrosociology that otherwise would remain beyond our grasp? Well, if I had to guess, it would be the ability to use the word "astro" to describe what we do.

I mean, think about it, what isn't cooler with the word "astro" attached to it? Think of all the amazing things that we owe to that little five-letter prefix. There's astroturf (Which is apparently in a new generation now! Astrotastic!), the closely-related astro-substance astrolawn, the astrobar for those who want an astrosnack, the Houston Astros who can entertain you while you eat, the miraculous astroglide (which promises that "sex will never be the same." Obviously, because now it will be astrosex!) for after the game, and, of course, the Jetsons' lovable dog Astro. It seems beyond question that everything gets better when you apply the word "astro" to it! With such a proven track-record, how can we possibly criticize this new astrosociology? This can be our road to the fame and riches we all dreamt of in grad school, the key to the general acceptance of sociology, nay, ASTROSOCIOLOGY, by the mainstream!

Just think about the possibilities for future conferences on astrosociology. Instead of arriving in our current bevy of economy cars, we can all drive astrocars! For the vision impaired, myself included, there will be astroglasses, and we can all agree to exchange uncomfortable suits for the new, relaxing, astroclothes! What wouldn't be better about that, I ask you? Conferences of the future could look just like this!

So, obviously, I'm laying on the sarcasm with a backhoe here, and for good reason. Attaching the word "astro" to something is hardly new, people have been doing that since the space program became fashionable (albeit briefly) in the late twentieth century. It became such a trend, in fact, that "astro" has become its own punchline. The real danger here is not that attaching astro to the front of sociology makes us sound like a bunch of morons, although it does that too, or that there simply isn't a subject matter for this hypothetical section, even though there really isn't, but that this encourages us to think that because something is new, or different, it's better.

Academics like new things. We can't deny it, we all know it's true. How do we get published: by replicating a result some other scholar got, or by discovering something new? I think we all know the answer to that question. So, we all struggle to make our mark by adding something new to the literature (much, by the way, as we bloggers try to add something new to public discourse by babbling incessantly online). Sometimes, this may mean that we blow something out of proportion; making a case for something to be regarded as different, when really it isn't. For science, which is supposed to find the commonalities in all things and explain the most phenomena with the fewest variables, this isn't just an inconvenient problem, it is potentially a mortal danger. Before long, instead of studying inequality, we're studying Bisexual Lithuanian truck-drivers in the deep south as distinct phenomena from heterosexual mexican muslims in Oregon. I'm looking at you, PSA! Pretty soon, we as scientists won't have any better idea what's going on than non-scientists because we're treating every single case as a sub-discipline.

For better or for worse, we academics aren't the only ones who are vulnerable to this. I recently became aware of an exciting new product called "Gay Fuel," which is apparently an energy drink for homosexuals. No, seriously. Now, I may be behind on my reading, but the last time I checked, homosexuals and heterosexuals, being members of the same species and all, didn't have different nutritional requirements. In fact, so far as I can tell, we're all humans with the same human needs and claim to human dignity. So why do we need energy drinks tailored for our sexual orientations? Is there some sort of vitamin deficiency that is an inevitable part of having one particular sexual orientation? Don't get me wrong, if gay America wants its own energy drink, that's fine by me, but is there really a need for it? Have we become so obsessed with tailoring our lives to our own intensely detailed sense of identity that we need custom beverages in order to fully express ourselves? My god... what does it mean that I've just been drinking boring old softdrinks all this time?! Quick! Quick! I'm intense! I'm adventurous! Someone give me a Dark Dog!

What it all comes down to is this: if we already have something that does the job, that provides an outlet, why reinvent the wheel? Why should we fragment our discipline, or our society, even more into uncommunicative, self-absorbed cliques? My answer is: we shouldn't. Genuinely new and different perspectives are one thing, seemingly-new perspectives, on the other hand, just distract us from serious business. Again, I have nothing against studying space, or the space program, or astronauts. Hell, I've been a space nut as long as I can remember and am one of the few people who knows what Eta Carinae is, much less how to pronounce it. If there were genuinely something for a sociologist to study in space, I'd be the first to sign up for astronaut (See? Another great use of astro!) training. What I have a problem with is pretending that something old is, in fact, something new. It's like taking a dump in a porsche: sure it's sexy on the outside, but it's the same old pile of shit underneath.

There's more than enough for we scientists to discover in the world already. We don't have to resort to inventing more.


Update: Dr. Pass, father of Astrosociology, responds to this post! Come and see what he has to say!

Monday, June 28, 2004

This blog sucks.

At the urging of a friend I have finally decided to cave in to peer pressure and start a blog. I used to think that blogs were a sign of the sickness of modern society- a manifestation of our obsession with identity, and with trying to communicate our deep inner selves, as though it's some sort of revelation that we have them, or that there's some reason why thousands of other people just HAVE to get access to such wonderful mind-expanding material. Come to think of it... I really haven't changed my mind about that.

I start this blog with a heavy heart, and feel intense sorrow for the horror that has been unleashed into the world. It is doubtless true that the internet will be a slightly lesser place for my presence in it. Then again, given what's already around, maybe I won't change the average much.

So, why am I here? Well, I guess I'm trying to offer a new and unique perspective on blah, blah, blah. Whatever. We've all heard the same routine about expressing ourselves, and sharing our unique perspectives and feelings. You know what? I don't f-ing care about anyone's unique perspective. "Unique" just means "being the only one of its kind," it does not mean "good" or "valuable" or even "interesting." Seriously, you don't know me, and in all likelihood, you never will. So why the hell are you sitting there reading this? Shouldn't you be talking to your husband, or your wife, or seeing how your kids did at school today? If you don't have a husband or a wife... well that ain't my problem, but it does raise the question of why you're wasting your time with me. Do I look like a singles site to you? Why are you so interested in what some random asshole has to say about politics, or consumerism, or (and you know it's only a matter of time, I'm not a font of fascination here, people) the newest episode of Navy NCIS? For that matter, what makes me think that what I have to say is so interesting that you should have the option of reading it? This is like some kind of twisted exhibitionism; an intellectual strip-show where I reveal my thoughts for your hungry little eyes, and you stuff dollars (well, comments) into my g-string. As anyone that knows me can tell you, the idea of me wearing a g-string, much less one with money in it, is peculiarly horrifying. So what makes me think that what I have to say is important enough to publish? Absolutely nothing. That's why my blog is titled "Total Drek" and not "Earthy Wisdom." I believe in truth in advertising.

I am NOT an important guy, and I do NOT have any pearls of wisom to share. Anytime you think you've spotted a useful idea in the midst of my ranting, please rest assured that it was entirely accidental. I labor to excise any such valuable contributions before posting. The fact is, folks, that it would be the height of arrogance for me to claim that my perspective is worth your time because it is unique- all of our perspectives are unique in their own way, which makes them all alike. My opinion doesn't matter any more than my neighbor's does. You know, the one with the really huge dog that torments the poor mailman. Your spouse and children have as much right to comment on world events as I do, so go talk to them. I'll wait, if you like, I ain't going anywhere.

If you DO insist on reading this (it's a free country, with proof of purchase. Please allow six to eight weeks for delivery) what you'll get won't be brilliant, but it will be honest. If you like what I have to say, great. Feel free to comment on it. If you don't like what I have to say, fine. Feel free to tell me that, too. Or not. Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one. I don't need a good whiff of yours to know it's there.

So, make your choice: grab a seat or make for the door. Either way, it's fine with me. Welcome to Total Drek, where you'll get exactly what it sounds like, and no claims otherwise from the management.

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