broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Open Minded Skepticism

I have observed that fellow atheists often make the mistake of idealizing science.  I have made this mistake myself.  I would describe the typical attitude of atheists as quite positive toward science.  In this view, science has brought us many wonderful inventions and life saving forms of knowledge.  Science has allowed us to understand the patterns of our universe, making sense of rules and events that were otherwise baffling to ancient societies.  Superstition, by contrast, has resulted in the repression of ideas and the oppression of people, social conservativism, and all around backwardness.  In this dichotomy then, skepticism and science are good and superstition and religion is bad.

If there is one lesson I have learned in life, it is to avoid idealizing anything.  So it is with science and skepticism. Surely science has resulted in some wonderful accomplishments.  One area is in medicine, where we have many treatments and cures.  Our ability to systemize information and knowledge on the basis of such things as predictability, testability, reliability, and validity  is useful in rendering reality more comprehisible by a greater number of people.  Then what is my gripe with science?  My only gripe is that it should be treated as an instrument.  Now, it should not be treated as an instrument that is neutral, but one that was largely developed by European men and which exists within the superstructure of capitalist patriarchal society.  This means that science is not neutral nor is it good, but as with all things in this superstructure, imbued with power.  Sometimes the power is terrible and obvious, such a infecting African Americans with syphillis or the devotion of resources to the development atomic weapons.  Other times it is less obvious, such as the silencing and debunking of traditional knowledge.

I am going to address the less obvious way that power operates through science.  Now, when I was younger…say in my early 20s, I was put off by feminism.   I thought it was a bunch of emotional women who embraced superstitious nonsense like homebirth, spirituality, and the feminine divine.  I want my feminism to be rational and masculine, damn it.  A skeptical person may approach those ideas as silly.  Afterall, why birth at home when it is cleaner and safer at a hospital?  Why not reject ALL divine and ALL spirituality?  Obviously, I now know that these were forms of resistance.  Women have felt alienated from medical institutions that have treated pregnancy like a disease.  Women have felt disconnected from a male God.  Women have wanted to mediate their own spiritual lives.  So, there is a logic to what may at first glance be irrational.

Of course, it is not good to idealize this either.  There are many people who feel disenchanted with medical science.  Can you blame them?  It is expensive, treatments can have harsh side effects, the experience is sterile and impersonal….the list goes on.  As an alternative, people  may turn to aromatherapy, accupuncture, prayer, magnets, copper, or hundreds of other things.  The problem is that some alternatives can be fraudlent money sink, harmful, or just plain ineffective.  This is where skepticism  can be useful.

What should be done?  I myself am trying to be an open-minded skeptic.  To me, this means that I try not to dismiss the knowledge and experiences of others, even if they are not scientific.  This is hard.  There are some things that truly annoy me.  It truly annoys me that perfectly intelligent people believe in ridiculous things such as ghosts or astrology, for instance.  It truly annoys me that many of the non-conformists who left Christianity go on to embrace dumb spiritual stuff.  Those are my true thoughts.  But hey, I am trying to grow.  A first step in this open-minded skepticism is looking for power.  For example, when I assert something such as…Native Americans came to the Americas 13,000 years ago and killed all of the mega fauna, I may be following the dominant line I was taught growing up…but, I am dismissing the knowledge and experiences of Native American people.  Also, when I say this, the story ends there.  Am I an expert on this story?  Am I an anthropologist who has carbon dated artifacts?  Has this matter been definitely settled?  Science is never settled.  I don’t feel I have to give credence to every idea…such as the belief that evolution doesn’t exist or that lizard people rule the world.  However, I can still empathize with how the person who believes such things may feel disempowered.  Beyond looking for power, breaking down the science and tradition dichotomy is also important.  There are traditional healing practices that have been adopted by medicine.  For instance, a yam in Mexico inspired the first oral contraceptives.  A plant used in Papua New Guinea has been used to develop male oral contraceptives.  Lavendar, which has been used in aromatherapy, has been found by an Australian university study to have a calming effect which is evidenced by brain scans.  Many medicines originate with plants, so dismissing traditional knowledge as unscientific fails to note how this knowledge was tested and systemized over time.  It also fails to give credit to the discoveries of poor people, people of color, and women.  Breaking down the veil between the two can benefit science by allowing more ideas and knowledge to be tested.  On the other hand, if proponents of science take a softer, more culturally sensitive approach, people may feel less alienated by science and more invited to partake in it.

At the end of the day, we do many things each day that are not particularly scientific or skeptical.  When we order a pizza, we usually don’t confer with an expert on pizzas or read a scholarly article about pizza.  When we watch television, we may confer with friends, but generally, this is not a scientific endeavor.  There are some benefits from this.  When we search out experiences on our own, without asking an expert or utilizing an institution, we are able to construct our own knowledge.  While this is somewhat limited, as we live in a social world and have many predispositions, the degree to which we discover on our own is a degree to which we are free of institutions that seek to discover for us.  There is risk in discovery.  Leaving some things to the experts is fine.  I would rather not discover how to fix my own car….only to find that I am grossly incompetent and have rendered it unfixable.  Still, sometimes the lessons we learn from discovery are meaningful and long lasting.  Anyone could have told me credit cards = bad.  However, there is nothing quite like experiencing it myself to learn a lifelong lesson.  In any event, unless everything that we do is also deliberate, scientific, and rational, we are all in some ways…sloppy thinkers.  With that said, I would implore atheists not to idealize science, to look for power, be humane to people who believe differently, and to accept that there is power in discovery.

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