Bad science, Part III: implications

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Roman_ruins_(State_1)In this final Bad Science post I want to talk about the implications of all this and what it means for those of us interested in herbalism. I have wrestled with this post for weeks now, but it was always either too long and rambling, or too lacking in context to be worth writing at all. So let this be the tl;dr version:

  • “Bad science” is a combination of (1) scientistic materialism that has gone from the normative worldview of industrial civilization to a more-or-less religious orthodoxy (atheism notwithstanding); (2) scientific method that has been subverted by corruption and ego; and (3) the abuse of science’s intellectual authority (in the service of Numbers 1 and 2), leading to the demise of that authority as discussed in Part I and Part II of this series.
  • These changes arise in the philosophical domain, but have material effects.
  • This is all part of the larger process of the decline of industrial civilization. I picked this particular facet because our medical and food-production systems are strongly effected by changes in the arena of science. Presumably, this matters to those of us interested in herbalism.
  • One of the symptoms of this is a lot of nasty infighting among different social interest groups, each trying to defend its turf against all the others.

And now my reasoning.

I was originally thinking of having a post about the various rhetorical dirty tricks employed by the materialist true-believers against their many perceived foes (including us). But it was depressing me, and it was also boring. And you are probably familiar with all of them anyway. I decided to move straight to the wider implications of that behavior, which was the ultimate point anyway.

I have become quite a fan of John Michael Greer’s Archdruid Report blog. In spite of the title, it’s not about archdruiding so much as it’s about the process of decline and fall of our civilization. This is not a bunch of doomsday prophesying. Greer knows his history, and recognizes the repeating patterns. Not that Greer is the only one talking about this, but his writing is possibly the most prolific. I won’t delve into this; if it’s of interest to you, check out his blog. The central point is that we have a civilization that was built on non-renewable resources which are now running out.

Roman Ruins null Jacob More circa 1740-1793 Purchased as part of the Oppé Collection with assistance from the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund 1996 of the first things to be abandoned as the resource-base of a civilization begins to contract are what Greer terms its intellectual and cultural projects:

“Every human society likes to think that its core cultural and intellectual projects, whatever those happen to be, are the be-all and end-all of human existence….It’s important not to underestimate the shattering force of this experience. The plays of Euripides offer cogent testimony of the despair felt by ancient Greek thinkers as their grand project of reducing the world to rational order dissolved in a chaos of competing ideologies and brutal warfare. Fast forward most of a millennium, and Augustine’s The City of God anatomized the comparable despair of Roman intellectuals at the failure of their dream of a civilized world at peace under the rule of law.”

Science has been the big intellectual project of modernity. Intellectual projects need a lot of resources, and when those are in short supply, and society is losing its organizational ability to distribute those resources, priorities shift away from “progress” and toward survival. Therefore, we can’t expect to see science replaced by a similar project or coherent worldview–“when the barbarians are at the gates, one might say, funds that might otherwise be used to pay for schools of philosophy tend to get spent hiring soldiers instead.”

offensive potatoIt’s not just a matter of resources and where they are directed. It’s also that as science’s authority has started to crack, the discontented turn literally almost anywhere else for an alternative. There are a lot of alternatives out there, and there’s also a lot of fear. And so people invest a huge amount of their personal energy in drawing lines in the sand, finding their co-believers, and attacking the “enemy.” It’s about ideology, and it’s about identity. People latch onto any ideology that promises salvation–or in modern terminology, “progress”–like the drowning latch onto a life preserver. A huge amount of personal energy is poured into being offended by anything and everything. Professors are even starting to notice this combination of ideological fragmentation and belligerence among students. Under the current corporate model of university management, instructors are discouraged from presenting any material that makes the customers students uncomfortable, and students are quick to complain, loudly, when that happens. The problem is that there are so many identities and interest groups represented among the student body that it’s impossible not to offend somebody, especially when everybody’s looking for a reason to get offended. Every perceived offense is an opportunity to bang the drum for whatever identity/ideology the offended party belongs to.

Yet we still carry on under the pretense that everything’s ok, and will be even better soon. So actually doing something to remedy whatever offends us is both difficult to imagine and unnecessary. So much of what started out as well-intentioned reform and sensitivity devolved into politically correct thought- and speech-policing, whereby all that’s needed to prove one’s goodness and righteousness is to swiftly dogpile anyone who uses the wrong terminology or asks uncomfortable questions.

Some have claimed that this is because feelings now trump objectivity. I think that’s a very superficial reading of the situation. If that were all that’s happening, I am not sure I would have a problem with prioritizing people’s feelings and subjective experiences. But if people’s feelings and social justice really mattered as much as well-meaning young liberals like to claim, then our first order of business would be to change the social conditions that create suffering and injustice. But that would require admitting that the faith in progress, scientific materialism, technoutopianism, and neoliberal economic models which we trusted would save us was just smoke and mirrors. It’s so much easier just to shout about it.

19th century pencil drawing of Roman temple/ruinsI have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as science loses the right to be the sole arbiter of truth and reality, the things that have been consigned to the “fake” category–like herbalism–have a chance to regain the legitimacy and authority they once had. On the other hand, there are some major drawbacks. First among them is that as a system burns itself out, those invested in it double down. The reaction can get nasty, and you never know which end of the pitchfork you’ll be on. It’s very likely that I will not live to see a day (if family history is any indicator, I can expect to live as much as 60 more years) when we are fully free to do our thing as makers and users of herbal medicine, but that we will be increasingly constrained by bureaucratic red tape put in place to protect corporate and oligarchic interests. Still, I will keep on growing my own food and making my own medicine and sharing them with my community. We dandelions somehow manage to thrive.


Bad science, Part II: Philosophy and ideology


In today’s anti-intellectual social climate I often see philosophy dismissed as useless ivory-tower navel-gazing, but the reality is we are all philosophers. The most basic questions asked by philosophy are fundamental: What Is? (i.e., ontology) and How do we know? (epistemology). We spend our infancy asking those questions–the little kid asking “Why?” endlessly is a perfect philosopher–until we get to the age where we just accept the answers our elders give us. Philosophy is the study of ideas, and it is basic to the experience of being human and having a human brain.

Of course not everybody wants to go pro with philosophy. When I was a kid I was fascinated by philosophy and even told one of my elementary school teachers I was going to get a Ph.D. in it (ha!). Yet by the time I went to college I had learned to disapprove of it as “useless,” and I regret to say I never took a single philosophy class. Granted, this was partly because I had become aware that all of us are doing it all the time, so why take a class? Also, some of my friends (and one guy I dated) were philosophy majors and holy cats could they get infuriating. It was almost impossible to have a conversation without footnotes defining every word! But I still wish I had given it some formal study, if only to learn a better language for asking questions, so I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time.

“Study of ideas” does sound a little rarefied until you consider that almost everything we ever “know” is actually an idea. We can’t get outside of our own heads, so our experiences are always mediated through our perceptions and memories. Our experience is made up of ideas about things, not the things themselves. In that sense, philosophy is the study of lived experience, plus everything we think about that. So you know, pretty important stuff.

While we’re on the topic let me say that the philosophical school I most closely identify with is Skepticism. I don’t mean those smug jerks who make it their life’s mission to liberate us from our “errors” (they are true-believers, and I’ll come back to them shortly)–I’m talking about David Hume’s Skepticism, or that of the ancient Greeks. Because we can’t get out of our own subjective head-space, we can’t know whether anything objectively exists outside of it, or what that anything might be like. A more extreme Skeptic would even question whether other subjectivities–other minds–exist at all. I don’t take it quite that far. I certainly don’t say that nothing else exists, I just don’t believe any of us humans has a tool kit that would enable us to determine its objective nature, or indeed even our own objective nature. I also think of myself as a sort of Neo-Gnostic in that I suspect (but don’t know!) that there is some kind of objective reality but that our subjective human experience is different from and even deceptive about what that reality is, and I also suspect that reality is both conscious and non-material in nature, though I have no way of being sure. I’m telling you this to be as forthcoming as possible about my own perspective, since I’m about to criticize others for not doing that.

The philosopher and scientist (and skeptic and atheist) Massimo Pigliucci has been calling out scientists and sciencelebrities lately for taking an anti-intellectual stance toward philosophy, and some other disciplines which aren’t their own, for example in this piece at Scientia Salon and this one in the Huffington Post. In his HuffPo piece, Pigliucci points out that philosophy is “the mother of all sciences,” and criticizes sciencelebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson in particular:

“It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson [1] has done it again: He has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so.

…someone who regularly appears on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and has had the privilege of remaking Carl Sagan’s iconic Cosmos series — in short, someone who is a public intellectual and advocate for science — really ought to do better than to take what amounts to anti-intellectual (and illiterate) positions about another field of scholarship.”

But aside from being rude to fellow scholars, what’s the big deal? The dismissal of philosophy as a valid field of inquiry demonstrates two deeper issues:

  1. There has been a serious deterioration in science (both in practice and education) to the point where its predication on beliefs, ultimate subjectivity, and its history and cultural context have been forgotten, or are deliberately obfuscated.
  2. In the hustle to achieve greater authority (see the previous post in this series), scientists have become unwilling to face challenge–not only from ordinary people like you and me, but even from fellow academics.

So it’s partly a sign of ignorance of the foundations and ethics of science, and partly due to fear of losing their status if anyone dares to point out that there’s a man behind the curtain.

If you’ve ever taken an English composition or historiography class, you’ve probably been told never to use the passive voice (e.g., say “X did Y” not “Y was done by X” or even more vaguely, “Y was done.”) However in science writing, the passive voice is used preferentially. This is to make it appear as if the findings simply manifested all by themselves, without any interference from a flawed human. It creates a veneer of objectivity.

Just as scientific experiments don’t happen in a vacuum, science didn’t arise in a vacuum: It was the product of specific historical and cultural trends–and philosophical beliefs. These beliefs have evolved somewhat, but not as much as you might think/hope. Science and the belief in scientific and technological progress arose out of what John Michael Greer calls the “prophetic religious sensibility,” which was also the source of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

“A religious sensibility isn’t a religion. It’s the substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions on which religions are built, and to which religions owe both the deep similarities that link them to other faiths of the same general age and historical origin, and the equally deep divides that separate them from faiths of different ages and origins.”

Although Greer is talking about religion and not science, it isn’t only religions that are built on the substructure of “religious sensibility”–so are all of our just-so stories. They shape each of our subjective lived experiences. Atheism and science are not the same thing–although the dominant metaphysical premise of modern science is scientific-materialism and there is significant overlap–yet if you substitute “science” for “atheism” in this quote, it is still true.

“…the contemporary quarrels between atheists and theists, like the equally fierce quarrels between the different theist religions of salvation, take place within a shared sensibility. It’s indicative, for example, that theists and atheists agree on the vast importance of what individuals believe about basic religious questions such as the existence of God; it’s just that to the theists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from eternal hellfire, while to the atheists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from the ignorant and superstitious past that fills the place of eternal damnation in their mythos. That obsession with individual belief is one of the distinctive features of the current western religious sensibility…

The hostilities between Christianity and contemporary atheism, like those between Christianity and Islam, are thus expressions of something like sibling rivalry. Salvation from the natural world and the human condition remains the core premise (and thus also the most important promise) of all these faiths, whether that salvation takes the supernatural form of resurrection followed by eternal life in heaven, on the one hand, or the allegedly more natural form of limitless progress, the conquest of poverty, illness, and death, and the great leap outwards to an endless future among the stars.” (my emphasis)

In another post on a related topic, Greer elaborates:

“I think most of my readers are aware that most versions of Christian doctrine insist that the Christian God is the only authentic deity in the cosmos, and the deities of other religions are a) imaginary, b) demons masquerading as divinities, or c) more or less garbled human misunderstandings of the one true Christian god—the choice between these options being largely a matter of the personal predilections of whoever’s doing the preaching.

Those religions that insist that theirs is the one and only real deity tend to have an awkward time dealing with the prevalence, and similarity, of religious experience across the whole spectrum of human religions.

All the prophetic faiths, from east to west, have certain things in common besides their abandonment of the old gods of nature. To begin with, as already noted, each was founded by someone who claimed unique access to the truth about the universe. To belong to one of these faiths isn’t simply a matter of participating in its ceremonies and showing reverence to its holy things, as in the nature religions; all of them started out with the idea that belonging to the religion required acceptance of a specific set of opinions about religious issues—the Four Noble Truths, the Nicene Creed, or what have you—and accepting them, furthermore, in a sense that formally excluded accepting any other set. Most of them, though not all, still maintain that principle of membership to one degree or another.”

All the prophetic faiths also share, to one degree or another, a rejection of the world as it actually exists in favor of some more or less utopian substitute…” (my emphasis)

I quote Greer at length here because I think this point cannot be overstated–the scientific method is a specific response to a specific set of cultural, historical, and philosophical conditions (one of which is the substructure of the prophetic religious sensibility with its notions of progress and transcendence), which were enveloped within the developing concept. Like a snowball rolling along, over time science has gathered to itself a set of mandatory beliefs necessary for membership (an ideology) and its own community of prophets and true-believers. Notice how the exact same language that Christians use to dismiss non-Christians is used by science’s true-believers to dismiss people who believe in sasquatch or ghosts. The problem is when people mistake their beliefs for truth. As we know, this has led to many wars. It’s very easy to point the finger at someone else and label their “truths” as beliefs, but we have to be able to do the same thing in the mirror.

For a more in-depth examination and critique of the mandatory beliefs of scientific-materialism, I recommend this debate on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer. Note the fact that Shermer, the darling of materialist true-believers, is not actually a scientist (he does hold a Ph.D. in history of science); Sheldrake, their bete-noire, actually is a scientist. It’s not merely an irony, it’s indicative of how true-believers accept as science only that which corresponds to their fundamentalist beliefs.

In this debate, Sheldrake takes the position that science needs to move past its dogma, while Shermer argues “science, properly conceived, is a materialistic enterprise; for science to look beyond materialist explanations is to betray science and engage in superstition” (my emphasis). I think the italicized part there is really interesting and reveals much about materialist orthodoxy: Shermer could have said that science is a materialistic enterprise, full stop. Or he could have said that it’s a materialistic enterprise, everything else is outside of science’s purview, and so simply is not of interest/can’t be addressed by science. If you read the rest of Shermer’s remarks, it seems that the crux of his argument is that attributing something to a “supernatural” or “paranormal” (or by extension, any other non-material) cause is laziness–those aren’t explanations, just “placeholders” for material processes we don’t yet understand. And the goal of science is to continue investigating until we do understand. This is a fair point (although he assumes a priori that the answers science will discover must be material in nature), so why didn’t he say that? Why did he sum up his argument the way he did? When you read closely what he actually did say (in the quote above), you see that Shermer is stating that science is materialistic, and everything else doesn’t exist/is delusion. Moreover, to even attempt to investigate all of that non-material/non-existent stuff is betrayal–which totally contradicts his argument that science keeps on investigating until the answer is known. Shermer is not arguing that we need to keep investigating and not be lazy; he’s arguing that we should adopt a particular ontology and ignore and deny everything that doesn’t seem to fit it. And I don’t know about you, but his language sounds rather religious and very emotional to me. I’m half surprised he didn’t say “apostasy” or “heresy” instead of betrayal. It’s also a ridiculous statement from anything other than an ideological point of view. I mean, think how ridiculous it would be if I applied this same reasoning to an entirely different thing. What if I said, “horses are mammals; only mammals exist, therefore all other animals are mythical and it’s a betrayal of horses to investigate them.” Or, “painting is done with paints; and therefore all other art forms are imaginary, and it’s a betrayal of painting to do other kinds of art.” But notice how normal and familiar it sounds if I say, “Islam (or Christianity, etc.) is the only true religion; all other religions are lies/sin/delusion/heresy/paganism/etc. and it’s a betrayal of God to follow them.” As Sheldrake says,

“These beliefs are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the beliefs that govern conventional scientific thinking are an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology….Many people are unaware that these doctrines are assumptions; they think of them as science, or simply believe that they are true. They absorb them by a kind of intellectual osmosis.”

I do know some scientists that are aware of this. Unfortunately, true-believers–the evangelists of scientific-materialism–rarely even understand how scientific experimentation is done, let alone do it themselves, let alone know anything about the history and philosophy and cultural context of science and how the method has changed over the years. Just as 99.9% of Christians I encounter have virtually zero knowledge of the history and philosophy and cultural context of Christianity. Part of why I get so irked by the pop-science Facebook memes (a few of which I dissect in my next post), and the pandering of prophets sciencelebrities like Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that their proliferation, their sheer numbers, give them credibility in the eyes of anyone who doesn’t think critically about this stuff. The more that stuff is shared uncritically, the more natural and normal it appears to be. “Everybody knows.” “They say.” “Studies show.” “It’s a well-known fact.” They’re all code for ideology.

Oh, really?

I love how it looks like Tyson is experiencing some kind of mystical communion here.

I’m not sure when science came unmoored from its fundamentals and its history. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy tells his class, “Archaeology is the search for fact–not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall”? Indy was correctly acknowledging that questions of “truth” are not the domain of science, but of philosophy. Have Tyson and his fellow sciencelebrities forgotten that, or are they simply ignoring it? I can tell you that scientists’ unwillingness to engage with philosophy is a sign of science’s devolution into a cult. It’s more important to belong to the group, and to show that by espousing the same opinions and beliefs and not doing transgressive stuff like, say, cryptzoology to name just one example (unless the point is to belittle the notion). This is an extremely inflexible, and therefore fragile, position.

Because this is where we get into Black Swan territory. For a materialist or a so-called skeptic, a philosophical challenge taken seriously could be a Black Swan. Nothing in your past led you to believe it could be possible, so when it happens, it blows your world up; yet looking back, you see that really, all the necessary ingredients were there all along, you just didn’t realize it. The important thing about Black Swans in this context is that they are dependent on your worldview. An oft-quoted example is that Thanksgiving is a Black Swan to the turkey, but not to the butcher. It all depends on your prior experiences and your perspective. It is possible to turn a Black Swan to your advantage, but all of them are dangerous to some extent. The more inflexible you are, the more likely a Black Swan is to break you. The antidote is to have horizons so broad and mental doors so open that it’s almost impossible to take you completely by surprise.

Once you grasp that there’s more than one way to add up to 9–and even more importantly, that 9 is not even a foregone conclusion but some may be adding up to 7, or 15, or 232–you are down the rabbit hole my friend. You have chosen the red pill, and shit gets weird. You’ll never be able to go back to the comfortable certainty of your prior belief system, whatever it was. Being truly aware of and open to other ontologies isn’t mere political correctness, or even cultural relativism, it’s an awakening that completely changes your views of the universe. Meeting actual flesh-and-blood Martians would not be any more mind-imploding than this. From then on, no premise can be taken for granted. You will, like it or not, be forced to think critically about everything all the time. (The good news is there will be infinite new horizons of thought to explore.)

This is not incompatible with good science–science that lives up to its stated ideals rather than its secret agendas. However, it does reveal scientific-materialism for what it was all along, which is merely one among many metaphysical propositions which cannot ever be proved or disproved. Scientific-materialism is an ideology, and those who trumpet it as the Alpha and Omega, the Way, the Truth, and the Light, are ideologues. They have a vested interest in converting you to their belief just as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Evangelical Christians will try to convert you to theirs. They cannot see that, though, like the fish who can’t see the water. Now, I think they are all entitled to their religions, I only want them to recognize them for what they are.

What we have to avoid here is falling into the same trap as the true-believers. Being critical of some current scientists (and their followers) for not recognizing the philosophy underlying their work does not mean we get to reject scientific principles or findings out of hand. These findings still represent generations of empirical observations made by our ancestors. They are now part of the Western tradition. It means we take things on a case-by-case basis, critically evaluate the claims, realize they are probably at least partly wrong and so are we. Yes, we need guidelines on which to base our life decisions. You can be philosophically a Skeptic or a Gnostic who views life as a flight simulation, but as long as you’re in it, remember that you don’t get infinite lives and play as if it were real. We can even take our guidelines on faith and be totally devoted to living them, as long as we don’t call it truth, ram it down everybody else’s throat, and infantilize and demean them for having different guidelines.

Next time I tackle how ideological arguments are constructed so as to beat us into submission.

Bad science, Part I: Authoritah


Okay. Deep breath. There’s a post I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, but every time I start I get so worked up about the issue and I have so many words I can’t sort through them. Every time I have given up. This time, I was almost to the end when I hit some unknown combination of buttons and accidentally erased more than half of what I’d written. But I think this time I will make it through to the end…

(This got really long, so I’m breaking it up into parts.)

I want to say at the get-go that I’m trying as hard as I can to spell out my thoughts clearly. Not because I am underestimating your intelligence. Far from it! If you read this blog you are clearly a person of wisdom, discernment, and excellent taste! But I don’t want to assume that you already know my thoughts, let alone agree with them. Writing your thoughts and cherished beliefs–I mean, not just stating them, but explaining them–to someone who has never met you and can’t see your facial expression or hear your tone of voice is really difficult. I have discovered that through bitter experience. So I’m trying not to assume any prior knowledge, as if you just stumbled on this blog and this is the first post you’re reading (which it might be).

In other posts I’ve alluded to the fact that I used to be a science educator and used to do scientific analyses in an R1 (does its own research) university. In a lab and everything! I ended up leaving that path, first because I realized I was not interested in just measuring stuff, but in wrestling with questions about meaning and human subjectivity. I went humanities, in other words. Second, because my mom got sick and I had to take care of her, and my nascent academic career disappeared in a cloud of smoke.

I make no claim that the herbalism I practice is science-based. That is, I do incorporate scientific findings and will share them with you when relevant; and I do base my practice on empirical (but subjective) observation–but I personally am not conducting a controlled study. But this doesn’t mean I stopped being interested in science. Nor does it mean I forgot how science works or stopped associating with practicing scientists.

Because I love what science actually is (I’ll return to that in a minute), I get really incensed when I see it being misused.

Specifically, I’m referring to the use of “science” to establish and enforce an epistemological and ideological hegemony. To be completely clear, what I am saying is this: over the course of my adult life I have seen the concept of “science” co-opted by thought police who want to enforce conformity in the general public–determining what questions can be asked, whether and how they can be discussed, and using rhetorical tricks and misdirection to discredit opposing voices.

Now I know it might sound like I’m making some crazy conspiratorial claim here. Stay with me and you’ll see it’s nothing so glamorous.

I am not the only person noticing this. Currently, the protesting voices are coming from the fringes–not from mainstream society–but there are more and more of them. It’s time for me to add my voice to the chorus. If every person adds their grain of sand, in time they make a mountain. But whether my grain of sand adds much to the pile is irrelevant–a person’s character is obvious from their values, and this misuse of “science” in the attempt to quash free inquiry and free speech goes against everything I believe in and care about.

I believe in critical thought, and that if you’re not thinking critically you’re wasting your human brain. I understand that it’s often difficult to look beneath the surface explanation of things, especially when we really like the explanation we’re being given, but making the attempt is not only good for the developing your cognitive skills but is also a moral virtue. Moreover, we need to turn that probing eye on ourselves and our own society, to put them under the microscope, and never accept something as truth just because someone told us so. In particular, we must always ask whether what we’re being told is a statement of fact or an ideological belief or philosophical premise being packaged as fact. I don’t care whether the claim is that Yahweh is the one true god, or that there is no god, or that the two-party system is the best form of governance, or that such-and-such war is justified, or that you need to detox your liver, or that science is the best way to investigate the universe. The metric for truth is not whether we agree with it, whether it makes us happy, or whether it’s convenient. In fact, we need to beware anything that feels easy and comfortable because that is where blind spots develop.

I think it should go without saying–though I’m saying it anyway–that scientific materialism is the dominant paradigm in modern Western society, and has been for about 200 years. We give science ultimate explanatory authority. Previously, Christianity and the Church held that role, and although there are still a small minority who look to Christianity for answers, their day is long past. It was already getting shaky in Henry VIII’s time. But it’s still a long way from being really threatened. When was the last time you heard a talking head report sincerely the good news that Jesus has appeared miraculously in a tortilla? Not in your lifetime. The fact that creationism is increasingly being packaged as “creation science” shows how desperate people are to reconcile what they want to believe in–Christian theology–with what they kind of believe in spite of themselves and think everyone else believes–science.

Yet there has been much hand-wringing and arm-waving, as well as snarky mockery, lately about people being “anti-science” and “science-deniers,” and it’s true that cracks are beginning to appear in science’s credibility. What’s got scientists and science fans so defensive? Basically, people are starting to question and in some cases even dispute their authority. Take for example this blog post by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who writes:

“So you have the direct problem of science collectively steering my entire generation toward obesity, diabetes, and coronary problems. But the indirect problem might be worse: It is hard to trust science.

Today I saw a link to an article in Mother Jones bemoaning the fact that the general public is out of step with the consensus of science on important issues. The implication is that science is right and the general public are idiots. But my take is different.

I think science has earned its lack of credibility with the public. If you kick me in the balls for 20-years, how do you expect me to close my eyes and trust you?

If a person doesn’t believe climate change is real, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is that a case of a dumb human or a science that has not earned credibility? We humans operate on pattern recognition. The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:

Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.

Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time.”

(Emphasis and link are in the original.) Adams isn’t dumb and he isn’t a “science denier.” He understands that science is a “’mostly wrong’ situation by design that is intended to become more right over time. How do you make people trust a system that is designed to get wrong answers more often than right answers?” Indeed! By definition scientific findings can never be conclusive; it’s always a work-in-progress. So how did science ever come to be granted so much authority as the arbiter of truth?

The picture gets even murkier. John Michael Greer elaborates:

“Especially but not only in those branches of science concerned with medicine, pharmacology, and nutrition, the prostitution of the scientific process by business interests has become an open scandal. When a scientist gets behind a podium and makes a statement about the safety or efficacy of a drug, a medical treatment, or what have you, the first question asked by an ever-increasing number of people outside the scientific community these days is ‘Who’s paying him?’ …

From influential researchers being paid to put their names on dubious studies to give them unearned credibility to the systematic concealment of “outlying” data that doesn’t support the claims made for this or that lucrative product, the corruption of science is an ongoing reality, and one that existing safeguards within the scientific community are not effectively countering. …

Not that many years ago, all things considered, scientists didn’t have the authority or the prestige, and no law of nature or of society guarantees that they’ll keep either one indefinitely. Every doctor who would rather medicate than cure, every researcher who treats conflicts of interest as just another detail of business as usual, every scientist who insists in angry tones that nobody without a Ph.D. in this or that discipline is entitled to ask why this week’s pronouncement should be taken any more seriously than the one it just disproved—and let’s not even talk about the increasing, and increasingly public, problem of overt scientific fraud in the pharmaceutical field among others—is hastening the day when modern science is taken no more seriously by the general public than, say, academic philosophy is today.”

(I’ll have more to say on academic philosophy and science next time.)

Nothing upsets a scientist more than telling her that her work is irrelevant, but a close second is finding her work misrepresented in the popular media. How often have I seen scientists raging about how the spin put on their research is going to mislead people? Or gloating over how uninteresting some rival’s findings are once you discount the spin? But a recent (scientific!) study shows that most of that spin actually comes from the scientists themselves, or from the universities where they work. Scientists have to compete for funding, and bigger results get bigger grants, so there is a lot of pressure to exaggerate the significance of results. Greer again:

“These days, in any field where science comes into contact with serious money, scientific studies are increasingly just another dimension of marketing.”

In short, there are a lot of reasons why people are starting to reject scientists’ a priori authority and are getting pissed that their every challenge is dismissed as ignorance, stupidity, or conspiracy theory. It’s kind of sad in that in its early days, modern science was a challenge to hegemony and ideological oppression–but now it has become its own tool of oppression. But in the long view, you see that over and over through history.

Particularly concerning, to me, is the fact that scientific authority is used not only to promote scientific findings as accurate and truthful, but how it is used to bully and shut down discussion. Thought- and speech-policing is a bad, bad sign of deeper and darker social and political problems.

A list of things we're not allowed to talk about.

Shhhh… A list of things we’re not allowed to talk about.

Although in principle nothing is off-limits for scientific investigation, and nothing can be discounted until thoroughly investigated, above you see a list of things a scientist is not allowed to investigate or seriously discuss. To do otherwise is to lose all credibility (and thus funding). As far as science fans are concerned, all that is necessary to discredit an opponent is to accuse them of pseudoscience (even when the label, as in some of the items on this list, is inaccurate).

Why are these particular topics off-limits?

Because they relate to aspects of human life that are generally very meaningful, where people are most likely to stand up to authority and say the emperor has no clothes on. For example: 8 out of these 25 items (32%) relate to health and healing; 5 of 25 (20%) directly relate to religion; and a conservative count of 18 out of 25 (72%) pertain to the possibility of the existence of non-material phenomena or experiences. You know, the kinds of things that massively effect people’s quality of life. People don’t like being shut out of the discussion on topics that are important to them.

Most importantly, I think people are starting to see the man behind the curtain. They are starting to recognize that many claims which are in fact ideological (belief-based) are masquerading as science in order to ride the wave of scientific authority. So things that for a long time were accepted as natural, self-evident, and true are now being challenged. The reason that the topics on the above list are verboten is not because they have any inherent conflict with science–it’s because they conflict with materialism, the metaphysical proposition that underlies science as it’s currently practiced.

This takes us into philosophical territory, which will be the topic of my next post.

EDIT: Just one week after I published this post, an article about “Big Science Frauds” was published in The New York Times.

Every day, on average, a scientific paper is retracted because of misconduct. Two percent of scientists admit to tinkering with their data in some kind of improper way. That number might appear small, but remember: Researchers publish some 2 million articles a year, often with taxpayer funding. In each of the last few years, the Office of Research Integrity, part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, has sanctioned a dozen or so scientists for misconduct ranging from plagiarism to fabrication of results.

The article goes on to point out that it isn’t just a matter of a few dishonest scientists. Scientists want to publish in more prestigious, and therefore more competitive, journals such as Science and Nature. But the high-profile journals actually retract more papers than the less-prestigious ones. Maybe the editors of big-name journals are more conscientious (but then why are mistakes being made in the first place?); or are scientists are cutting corners to make their articles more competitive? The article’s conclusion is so perfect, I’m just going to quote it:

Economists like to say there are no bad people, just bad incentives. The incentives to publish today are corrupting the scientific literature and the media that covers it. Until those incentives change, we’ll all get fooled again.

Science’s crisis of authority continues…

Herbalism as animism

I wonder if all kids are animists, until society teaches them not to be.


I know I was. I can remember my undoubting certainty that trees, rocks, objects had feelings and wishes. One of my mom’s favorite stories about me as a kid is about the sad, scrubby little Charlie Brown Christmas tree I insisted we buy one year. She voiced a lack of enthusiasm, but I said, “What if its feelings are hurt because everyone else has been saying the same things?” In the face of such totally cute little-kidness, naturally my mom couldn’t refuse and we got that tree. The Christmas tree lot guys thought it was cute too and gave us a bunch of ornaments for free. And that tree, as my mom is fond of saying, turned out to be probably the most beautiful one we ever had. Just like the Charlie Brown one. (Of course, from an adult perspective I rather suspect the tree’s feelings were more hurt over being murdered for the sake of holiday decor.)

As adult Homo sapiens we have learned not only to represent things, people, places, etc. using language (something I’m doing right this very second as I write) but this representation even becomes our primary way of relating to the world. So we tend to relate at a remove–first we represent something, then we relate to the representation. Although the act of representation is a kind of relating, we can create a representation in our mind virtually instantaneously and then stop relating to the original thing or person. The representation, of course, is not the same as the original represented thing, hence the sayings “the map is not the territory” and “a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.” In societies where the scientific-materialist mode of investigation and explanation is privileged, things which cannot be represented by language are profoundly disturbing. Science depends on writing (i.e., representation) for replication of experiments, which is the means of assessing objective reality. Which is kind of ironic because observing the representation of the results of an experiment is not the same as observing the results, and the representation is always subjective, and science always dismisses things that are subjective as irrelevant because impossible to replicate. Indeed, representing-through-language is a way of making the totally subjective, the totally un-shareable, shareable. It’s the closest we can come–short of ESP–to bringing others into an experience with us. So we’re very dependent on it, and when something just cannot be shared in that way, it leaves us feeling isolated and alienated if only on an un- or semi-conscious level. When a culture has granted scientific-materialism the authority to dictate what is “real,” anything that cannot be assessed by the scientific method has to be dismissed as unreal or it will literally upset the entire fabric of that society. This process doesn’t happen only on the communal level but within each individual in that society–or I should say, each individual who is primarily reliant on the scientific-materialist paradigm to dictate real-ness.

Not actually a topic change

I think children start learning language earlier than we give them credit for, but it’s still a long process, and I suspect there is a period where kids live in a world that is much more directly experiential, less representational. I wonder if this is part of why young children seem to have more “psychic” and “paranormal” experiences. We like to say they are more “open,” whatever that means. But as they become more linguistically-proficient, for kids that have a lot of experiences that are not capable of being adequately represented by language–such as those “psychic” and “paranormal” ones–the inability to represent those experiences to themselves or others can lead to social isolation. When they do try to represent, they are likely to be dismissed as liars, fantasists, delusional, or mentally ill. Better to keep quiet about it. The Burning Times aren’t such a distant memory, after all.

Unfortunately, I imagine for many children the instinctual understanding that everything is alive, is a person*, a subject (or indeed that the distinction between subject and object is pretty much arbitrary and/or bogus)–which is to say, animism, is one of those un-representable experiences that gets locked inside a drawer in the mind, all too often to be replaced by some other religious orthodoxy, scientific-materialist atheism, or shrug-the-shoulders-and-forget-it agnosticism.  

Stories like my Charlie Brown Christmas tree are pretty much par for the course with empath kids. Like ghosts, transgender, and clowns, empath-ness (I don’t want to say “empathy” because that means something different) is one of those things that can’t be fully represented by language, which makes it threatening to the social status quo. Plus there wasn’t even a word for it until pretty recently (I don’t know the history of it, although I believe it did exist before Star Trek: TNG…but I could be wrong). The defining thing about empath-ness, as opposed to the empathy that non-sociopathic humans have, is the experience of others’ feelings. I don’t mean that we understand how others are feeling–that’s empathy. I mean that without any conscious intent, I directly feel others’ feelings, to the point that I cannot always tell which are mine and which are yours. This includes both emotional feelings and some physical feelings as well as a physical/emotional/mental sensation of what, for lack of any other word, I can only call energy. (I hate to use that word because it’s so abused, especially in New Age thought, but like I said, you can’t represent this stuff with language.) As an empath, I could never dismiss animism because I feel the aliveness of beings, although I didn’t have words (even inadequate ones) for any of it until I was an adult. When I did find that word, I was happy to have a way to represent (and thus relate) animism, though I thought it was stupid that it’s written of as a primitive belief system. As if people graduate from silly, childlike beliefs like animism and sympathetic magic to polytheism, then to monotheism, and finally to scientific-materialism. (Oh, 19th-century social evolutionary theory! You’d be funny if you weren’t such a tool of oppression.)

Anyway, through all my years of exploring other religions (on my own and in the academic context), I have never abandoned my animistic relationship to the world because it’s just so obviously true and real. I once had a moment of spiritual gnosis where it was suggested to me that when we die, every other experience we’ve had may turn out to have been a kind of virtual reality, but we’ll see that our relationships were real. If that’s true, then we better get right with the other persons in our world, and I don’t just mean the human ones. Otherwise we had better hope that a happy afterlife isn’t based on a majority vote of Earthlings. Revenge of the Coprophages? Yikes.

*Person can be defined in myriad ways, but this is not so much about the definition of the word as its implications. So I’m going to save myself some work by quoting from this discussion of animism and personhood at Eaarth Animist, where my point is stated more succinctly and effectively than I could do:

“[Beings] are persons in that they have their own lives going on and for that reason, even though we probably have no clue what those lives are about…they have value beyond anything to do with humans….’Person’ is a way to get humans to think “Oh! They have value outside of me using them.” (Although sadly many humans see other humans as having no value outside of using them!).”

Herbanimism & ethics

tiny grass

Tiny grass is people!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think science is fun and interesting; and I tried to do it as a career for over a decade. Unfortunately, I had this annoying habit of spotting holes in the materialist paradigm, I didn’t join in making fun of people with spiritual beliefs (even the ones I didn’t agree with), and I was overheard at a couple parties talking about seeing ghosts. This kind of behavior is not the way to get ahead in science, so Science and I divorced amicably and here I am back with my childhood sweetheart, the herbs.

They don’t mind at all that I’m an animist or an empath, in fact they’re pretty encouraging about the whole thing. (Yes, I am well aware there are many humans who will still dismiss me as a liar, fantasist, delusional, or mentally ill, and others who will think I’m a blasphemer, possessed, or a Satan-worshipper. Believe me, I can feel it. But it doesn’t make me any less right.)

The more I work with plants the more I feel their different personalities. Personhoods. They’re not like animals because they have a more communal structure: If you work with one dandelion plant in an area, you’re really working with all of them, because they’re all communicating chemically through their roots and pheromones and who knows how else.  (For more on that, watch this: NATURE: What Plants Talk About.) Surprisingly, in spite of the horrible plant-murders humans commit in the name of a perfect lawn, the worts don’t seem to hate us. In my interactions with them, and I realize it’s different for each person, most actually really like being helpful. I’ve found calendula, dandelion, and pine to be very generous, and plantain I just spontaneously started to call “Mama Plantain” because the quality of his/her/its/their caring vibe is so like our maternal archetype.

At the same time, the more I work with plants the more I feel a heavy ethical responsibility. First there is the disturbing fact that human persons are so constituted that we have to kill to live. We don’t photosynthesize, we get necessary nutrients by eating other persons. (Although I respect the choice not to eat non-human animal persons if you are able,  I have always been offended by the because-killing-animals-is-immoral argument advanced by some vegetarians. If killing animals is immoral, why isn’t killing plants? That has never made a lick of sense to me. If you have some ethical scheme that distinguishes some persons as “edible” then ok, but at least be honest about it.) And sometimes when we make herbal medicines, we kill the plant-person to make medicine from its dead body. I don’t say that to make anyone “feel bad” but it should be disturbing. If it’s not then ok, maybe you should feel a little bad that you haven’t considered the implications. If it helps you can at least be comforted by knowing that the number of plant persons you kill, even if you have a very busy clinical practice, is probably far less than the number of persons of various species which pharmaceutical companies kill. I see my first obligation as recognizing my role as a (reluctant) killer even as I strive to be a healer, and as dependent on the plants for my continued existence.

A second obligation is to learn to communicate with the plants better. You can ask for permission to remove a plant’s body parts or kill it, but what’s the point if you can’t understand the answer? Even empaths have to learn to discern among the bazillions of messages with which we are bombarded. Some of which are true only from perspectives we don’t share. Better communication includes learning to recognize plants in all their seasonal guises, as well as the characteristics of their communities, and their relationships to the region generally and its communities of other persons. This is work to last a lifetime!

The third obligation, as I see it, is to extend this process of relating to everyone else in Indra’s Net.

The weight of these obligations is, I think, all the greater because so many other humans aren’t living up to them. There are a few humans who would exploit-to-destruction every other being on the planet just to add another hundred thou to their bottom line, and the rest of us are in various states of exploitation. If our attitude toward other species is that they exist for our use and pleasure, then frankly we don’t deserve any better than what we’re getting. It’s our God(s)-given right and our sacred responsibility to poke holes in the wool over our eyes, which can start with something as small as investigating alternative healing modalities and can blossom into conscious, collaborative relationships with the living universe.