Thursday, 03 May 2018 18:18

Decolonization

So the other day I ran across this awesome website: Decolonize ALL The Things. And, happily, its companion: Decolonize ALL The Science.

In the spirit of privilege-checking, I should point out that I am as white, male, hetero, cis..... basically, I'm as vanilla white dude as they come. Despite that, I firmly believe that the Decolonization movement is ridiculously important. Here's why.

There is such a thing as 'Western' science. In fact, most science is 'Western', because despite the usual homilies about science being impartial and objective, concerned solely with facts and the proper methods used to generate them, science itself crucially depends on philosophy. What counts as a fact, what doesn't, isn't a determination that comes out of thin air. It comes, in the Western model, from a group of people with similar backgrounds and interests who get together and agree on two key questions: how they go about deciding what counts as a fact (the jargon-phrase for this is epistemology), and what facts are considered to pass the threshold of fact-hood and so are accepted implicitly as constituting what is "real" (the jargon-phrase for this is ontology).

This is what the "peer-review" process in science is all about. Groups of "peers" read one another's work and decide whether it passes muster as science according to their collective opinion.

Scientists don't usually like to discuss this too openly with laypersons. But this basic reality of science as being a social endeavor, fundamentally bound to the identities of the people doing the science, cannot be denied. As much as practicing scientists are loath to admit it, pure objectivity is impossible in science. Bias is always present, because people can't help but be biased in at least some dimension. Scientists, no less than the rest of humanity, are psychologically and culturally shaped by the circumstances of their upbringing. What they are prone to accept as real or not-real is bound up with their life experiences.

The basic problem with contemporary science across all the disciplines is that this inherent bias is rarely considered. It gets swept under the rug at every opportunity. And because it is effectively taboo to discuss, extremely damaging prejudices and assumptions have been allowed to persist and thrive within the scientific community for far too long.

And here is where colonialism comes in. Most scientists living today have been trained to accept that the European Enlightenment was a time of explosive growth in knowledge and technique, where brilliant minds laid out the fundamentals of what we know today as science. Scientists are trained to uncritically accept that they are, in effect, the intellectual descendents of these Enlightenment luminaries. Standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak. And further, they're trained to believe that these Enlightenment types were themselves working according to traditions dating back to the European Renaissance, and before that, of course, Ancient Greece itself.

Notice something? This model of science, which is taught throughout North America and Europe, roots itself entirely in a European (and male) perspective. And what contemporary scientists are by-and-large loath to accept, is that these scholars baked in their own narrow prejudices into their writings. Because, like all humans... they were human. Limited in perspective. Limited in time.

They were also direct beneficiaries of Europe's 500-year effort to dominate and enslave the rest of the world. Consider who, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, had the time and education necessary to do science, write down their results, and report them to other scientists. Science at the time was an upper-class and male endeavor. It was also intrinsically bound up with, and served, the European colonial effort. Edward Said's classic book Orientalism shows how this worked in literature, where White Europeans were always the default and proper identity for a protagonist, while the African or Indian was always a secondary or supporting character, often described in atrocially racist terms, denied independent will or capability. And scientists, part of the upper classes who read this literature, couldn't help but have their opinions of other peoples shaped by this European conceit.

And, of course, there was the whole theft of resources (and bodies) from the colonized, which fed the rapid economic growth and industrialization of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is why, at the turn of the 20th century, insane ideas like social darwinism emerged from and were supported by the scientific community. Eugenic theories proliferated that insisted (falsely!) African brains were smaller and less intelligent by nature than European brains. The Nazis in Germany, insane as they seem now, actively deployed science and scientists to justify their dehumanization of anyone not sufficiently aryan. And there were many Americans, writing in the early 20th century, who agreed with them.

The heritage of western science is directly tied to the colonial effort. And the rot goes back even further in time. Consider, for example, how many scientific papers and books at some point or other quote some Ancient Greek or Roman philosopher. Only rarely do they quote someone from China, or the Islamic world, or Africa, or the pre-colonial Americas. Consider too, how the "Socratic" style has permeated higher education over the years. Isn't it interesting, that scientists who would otherwise be skeptical of any argument rooted in the ideas of one thinker, will happily commit the basic logic error of arguing from authority - so long as that authority is a dead Greek man.

The Ancient Greeks, and the Romans who imitated them, were nothing more than sexist, racist, elitist, slave-owning murderers. Both societies depended on using war to obtain slaves, who did the actual work necessary to keep Athens and Rome up and running. Citing Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cato, whomever, isn't that different than citing Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein, if either were to write a book of philosophy. That modern universities continue to teach the words and style of these disgusting creatures is one of the greater ironies of our time. Particularly when there are scholars from numerous other traditions, whose ideas go back as far as those of the Ancient Greeks, who were themselves merely minor players in the Axial Age.

The pernicious persistence of sexism and racism in the modern university is in large part due to most scientists accepting what amounts to little more than received wisdom. And a graduate student or other aspiring scholar questions this received wisdom at their peril. Because whether or not they are allowed to join the science club is heavily determined by their willingness to parrot this mythological version of science. And this in turn produces powerful selection pressures, which are partly responsible for the continued over-representation of white males in the Academy (the political economy of the modern university, as with other major institutions in our society, is another key factor).

One of the greatest projects of the 21st century will be reclaiming science from the basic failures of the Western model. The institutions must be reclaimed and rebuilt to allow a new generation of scholars to break free from intellectual traditions that, in the end, reduce to arguments from authority, where authority is granted to a narrow and unrepresentative set of perspectives that have fundamentally biased huge swaths of what we accept today as "science".

Published in Blog
Monday, 30 November -0001 00:00

Insight Maker Experiment

This is an experiment using Insight Maker, an awesome, free tool for modeling dynamic systems.

Because I'm interested in the idea of looking at society itself as a composite system, I like to do little thought experiments to explore social issues. In this, I model gun violence (just to be outlandish) as a system, where gun buyers scale their purchases to their observation of gun violence in broader society. It is constructed as a bit of a trap: gun buyers make purchases because they see incidents of gun violence on the news, but more guns tends to produce more gun violence, and losses to the gun buyer population due to accidents and suicides*

Long story short, I suggest here that gun violence is a self-sustaining problem, where all actors behave 'rationally', but also end up harming themselves in the long run.

Embedded Insight Maker



*I grew up hunting, and for the first 18 years of my life was rarely more than a few feet from a firearm. Plus, I served in the Army, and was trained/practiced in the use of weapons ranging from pistols to chain guns and grenade machine guns. I see firearms first and foremost as tools - exceptionally dangerous tools that are too easily placed in the hands of half-trained paranoiacs who are more likely to kill themselves or a family member than any home intruder. I have no problem with the 2nd Amendment. I have a serious problem with idiots abusing it.

Published in Blog