My sister asked me some unexpectedly provocative questions recently: When it comes to giving birth, what do i think about “natural” techniques like water birth and involving fewer interventions? or of home deliveries as an alternative to hospital deliveries? or of midwifery?
I’ve learned to be skeptical of any medical product or procedure that presents itself as “natural”, or as an alternative to an established convention. To the extent that we can use products produced in ways that are less destabilizing to ecosystems or more compatible with our bodily configurations and processes, “natural” medicine sounds great. Unfortunately, “natural” products and procedures are typically better described as “unsubstantiated” or “unregulated”. Meanwhile, the hype around alternative medicine seems to be more about disillusionment with establishment medicine than with any successes by its challengers.
On midwifery generally, i had only limited exposure, but enough to make me cautious.
So, my biases acknowledged, i dove into the literature…and some of the conclusions i came to surprised me. So, let’s get to it.*
Movement rationalism has lately been characterized by several archetypical and high-profile manifestations of the Dunning–Kruger effect*, as widely renowned scientists, skeptics, and atheists have slipped in succession into scientistic or proto-philosophical defenses of logically and empirically indefensible assertions or positions. Some notable examples:
- When Jeffrey Epstein‘s plea deal over allegations of soliciting prostituting minors—itself a privilege of political connectedness—was challenged by his victims’ attorneys, Lawrence Krauss came to his defense with a fairly obvious abuse of scientific language. In short, Krauss professed to “always judge things on empirical evidence” immediately before confusing empirical evidence with personal experience, relationships, and trust (among the most widely-recognized sources of bias in movement skepticism).
- When Rebecca Watson detailed her experience with (a specific example of) contemporary systemic sexism, Richard Dawkins chimed in to assert that this variety of sexism is unworthy of scrutiny and redress, despite having no relevant background in sociology or feminism. (See also: Michael Shermer.) In a follow-up comment he bemoaned the weak case and foul language of his objectors, though he seems never to have responded to the nine letters tailored specifically (and cordially) to him.
- Sam Harris has developed something of a reputation for pseudophilosophy. This came to a head a little bit back as he shrugged off expert refutation of his defense of racial profiling by Bruce Schneier. Meanwhile, his defense of torture has gradually come to be seen as minimally-contemplative contrarianism, which he arguably maintains by conflating its philosophically literate criticisms with the mainstream progressive onslaught.
- Michael Shermer continues to defend his libertarian political ideology and his broader (also libertarian) view of morality on scientific grounds, errors in judgment in disciplines outside his expertise on which he has been called out multiple times, most recently (and publicly) by Massimo Pigliucci.
Beyond (what may admittedly be a pop-science overgeneralization of) Dunning–Kruger—ignorance of the main topic coupled with proportionately undue self-assuredness—these incidents share context that strikes me as at least equally important for movement rationalism. I see three important aspects to this context Read more…
Before i delve further into the misconferral of authority by antifluoridationists, an i’d like to make point about scientific consensus that i neglected in my previous post. It is easy to think of scientific knowledge as essentially static, with the occasional fact or theory being overturned when new evidence surfaces. We imagine scientific knowledge as a sort of pyramid, with the most reliable knowledge composing the base and provisionality increasing as we move upward. While this model is useful for making the quintessentially (Humean–)Bayesian–Pricean point that stronger evidence should more strongly inform our beliefs, it falls apart as soon as we widen our scope from the single
Providence province to which the pyramid aspires. The sciences are not independent avenues of discovery, as imagery of a field of pyramids might suggest, but highly interdependent configurations of highly intradependent evidences and interpretations.
To draw an analogy of my own: The highly symbolic and culturally entangled concept of gender is not reducible to the space determined by orthogonal (and necessarily binary) spectra of identity, expression, “biological” sex, and attraction; it involves the highly nontrivial and individualized interplay of these factors, each of which in turn arises from the interplay of several distinguishable (if not wholly distinct) factors. A perhaps preferable model of gender is the graph representation of these interrelations: a node for each factor and edges tying them together, with the understanding that any particular node (say, “attraction”) may dissolve into a subnetwork of factors (intimacy, arousal, sexuality, satisfaction, saturation, etc.) on closer scrutiny.
Similarly, out of the intricate network of implications, corroborations, constraints, and tensions that connect elements of our aggregate body of facts and interpretations arises a web of knowledge. Moreover, this web may be anywhere localized, as though sliding a magnifying lens over a paper map, so that all our knowledge may be interpreted in terms of its relevance, or “consequential proximity”, to one’s topic of choice. Ultimately no particular discipline or theory is more “central” than any other.
A friend of mine has a calm, concise, and well-contextualized overview of the latest besuffixed pseudocontroversy in the ongoing Internet sexism wars. Coming into this not from the programmer or even gamer culture but from amidst the -ism schism within the secular/atheist/skeptic communities, i see only a couple of opportunities to weigh in.
I’m preparing a presentation on the misconceptions surrounding polyamory, which honestly requires some care to prevent from cascading into a series of presentations. The natural place to start is the cultural misconception that such a practice, orientation, lifestyle, or philosophy of intimate relationships does not exist at all, or exists only in relation to a monogamous baseline, for this mononormative quality of our culture is the genesis for many (and the catalyst for all) of the misconceptions that follow—including those internal to the internal poly dialogue.
The most obvious variety (strategy, if you will) of marginalization is erasure. The relative invisibility of poly people and of polyamory as a type of relationship testifies to the youth of our collective culture and identity, and certainly of our movement. For the most part, responsible non-monogamous relationships play no role in popular narratives and do not even factor into the general awareness. This exchange from “The Mask” provides a nice illustration:
Peggy: You’re Mr. Nice Guy?
Peggy: Oh, Stanley, do you realize how much mail we got about that letter? I mean, there are literally hundreds of women out there looking for a guy just like you.
Peggy: Yeah. Do you know how hard it is to find a decent man in this town? Most of them think monogamy is some kind of wood.
In the (in this respect, pretty accurate) universe of the story, monogamy is so equated with ethical relationship practices that the word itself goes largely unrecognized.* Monogamy has certainly come into question in the decades since dialogue like this went essentially unchallenged, and in light of the increasing recognition of open and “monogamish” relationships it likely wouldn’t today. There remains a reticence to depart in any enduring way from dyads (and when non-dyadic relationship structures do appear they still tend to be contextualized by crime).
For whatever reasons, we tend to think of societal studies as not so much varieties of science as methodologies of investigation that pull to varying degree from the sciences. (And by “we” i include laypeople, other scientists, and several experts.) Yet economics, human history, politics, linguistics, and similar disciplines have, in many respects, become as describable and predictable as such essentially deterministic disciplines as climatology and cosmology.
Given this backdrop, i seem never to tire of hearing news that some or other discipline traditionally consolidated with the arts or humanities is succumbing to a more overtly scientific protocol. There seem to be several flavors to this trend, but the most palatable is perhaps “quantification”.
Most recently, via The Chronicle, the multidisciplinary approach to the study of human societies ushered into the public discourse by the popular writings of Jared Diamond appears to have given rise to a revival of interest in quantitative history. I, meanwhile, was surprised to learn that this interest was a revival, as apparently the original grand attempt at applying scientific methodology to history suffered from as much bias and misapplication as became its better-remembered counterpart two decades later.