The science of opinion

A while ago, I came across this article on Amazing Stories. I’m not going to discuss it at length; it’s essentially a long ramble about why there shouldn’t be women soldiers in fantasy, because ‘realism’ (you know, our very favourite brand of realism, the kind that says that any sort of imaginary world should be all-white, have submissive women and tons of rape and violence, and possibly dragons and wizards as long as they’re realistic). Anyway, the comment thread got started off by someone who had apparently studied the subject a little, and who methodically explained why the arguments made in the article (essentially, that women can only serve in the army if there are firearms, otherwise they’re not strong enough, and anyway they’re needed to work and make children at home) were mostly rubbish if compared to what happened in actual history. The brief exchange ended with this comment from the author:

‘I wish I’d done a tenth of your research before shooting my mouth off :D’

Well. I don’t mean to be rude or anything, Ms Savage, but you definitely should have. And you might have withdrawn your article after discovering that it was mostly based on flimsy arguments and poor documentation. I don’t point this out because I’m some peevish, obsessive geek girl who will fly at the throat of anyone who doesn’t get her favourite subject exactly right. I’m pointing this out because it’s something that deeply bothers me about geekdom: how people will fetichise tifbits, little nuggets of pseudo-knowledge, while blatantly not giving a single miserable fuck about actual science.

Geeks love science. That’s supposed to be one of the defining features of the community. Yet when you dig a little deeper, you soon start to understand that what many of them love is the idea of science. It’s knowing stuff other people don’t. It’s being able to blare out ‘It’s SCIENCE!’ as if that meant anything at all. As for the painstaking aspects of science, the research, the reading, the fact-checking, few people are actually interested in that. That’s how you end up with people telling you about this or that little thing they’re very proud to know, because knowing it meant you actually took an interest in something else than Facebook and Holywood blockbusters, and don’t realise that their precious tidbits are glorified urban legends at best. Did you know Eskimo has over 50 words for ‘snow’? (no it doesn’t; first because ‘eskimo’ is not a language, and also some languages don’t have the same conception of words as we have, so attempting to count words in them is quite futile) Did you know glass is actually a very viscous liquid? (not quite; there’s no clear answer to that one, and I doubt people who present that as fact have an actual opinion on the physics of the problem) And so on, until you’ve got enough of those half-fictitious nuggets to make you sound like quite the science buff, without having ever touched any actual science with a ten-foot pole. And note that I’m saying ‘any’ science on purpose: it’s useful to remember that there are many of them, and the time when a person could be a Scientist and know everything about every existing scientific subject died with… Kant, I believe.

And this is a problem. It’s a problem because while tons of people seem to believe that Science is a big salad of tidbits gleaned on Cracked, they still use the notion of Science as the ultimate authority to justify right about anything, and usually, ‘anything’ happens to be all the preconceived ideas and stereotypes we’ve learned in decades of watching TV. The article I linked to quotes a paragraph about the biological differences between men and women, supposedly citing the San Diego Center for Health; if you follow the link, however, you will land on an article from the Washington Times.

This shouln’t have to be said, but apparently it does, so let’s get a few things straight:

1) You don’t quote the Washington Times as a scientific authority, because it’s not a bloody science journal.

2) And you don’t go around quoting articles that say things like ‘men evolved to hunt mammoth and women to raise children’ as scientific authority, even if you’re not going to quote them on that, because this is proof that the article in question has no scienfic ambition whatsoever.

It goes on: later in the article, another commenter states that of course women are unfit to join the army, because of things he’s heard from… Mythbusters. And doesn’t get called out on it, of course. Good grief.

It would be so cool if factual knowledge came in the form of punchlines, 3-minutes Youtube videos, pictures with funny captions and strip cartoons. There’s a reason scientific journals are not made of Lolcats and memes. The first thing anyone realises when doing actual research is that things are always more complicated than they seem. And very often, they also don’t conveniently coincide with the traditional Western stereotypes about the world. That’s why opinion and science are two different things–and sometimes it can be useful to get a little bit of the second before forming the first, just to make sure you won’t make a fool of yourself by saying things like ‘Fantasy can’t have Black people because the Middle Ages didn’t have them’ or ‘Women evolved to bear children and men to do all the interesting stuff’.

Now, I’m keenly aware of the problems of establishing a hierarchy of knowledge, with academic knowledge at the top and amateur knowledge at the bottom. Just because you don’t have a doctorate doesn’t mean you don’t have a brain. But that doesn’t mean that anyone, blogging about a given subject off the top of their head, will manage to say things that will have as much value as the work of people who have spent months on the same subject, and this goes for people with or without a doctorate. You don’t want to be that obnoxious person who systematically crashes conversations without having listened to anything that was said before, and offers pearls of wisdom without realising that they’ve been discussed, debated and debunked for ages. Well, science is a conversation too. I’m also aware of the fact that if you don’t have access to a wealthy university library, a large part of the current academic knowledge will be inaccessible. Still, some very respected venues, like the Frontiers network or PLoS ONE, offer open-access articles. If you want to participate, at least have some respect for your interlocutors and get up to date on the main points that have been discussed.

If you don’t want to do that? Well, at least you could admit that you’re not really interested in fact. You could just admit that you’re using Science as a more or less disingenuous way to confirm all the worst stereotypes you’ve grown up with. You could just say that you’re not really willing to learn, because learning implies a measure of unlearning of many pre-formed assumptions, and you’re just not interested in doing that; you just want to put a varnish of authority on your prejudice, and you’re quoting Science because quoting from the Bible would feel silly. You could come clean and say that what really turns you on about Science is that is makes you one of the boys, that it allows you to loudly voice opinions that are not really grounded in anything, that it’s wickedly cool to be able to explain that racism, sexism, homophobia and any excuse exclusion are fine because Evolution, and reading actual evolutionary theory is such a bore anyway. You could admit all this, and I bet there would still be people who can’t even be arsed to open Wikipedia and would still call you a savant.

Or I suppose you could get away with ‘I wrote a load of crap because I didn’t do my research, looool’, and not have anyone in an uproar because whatever geeks would like the rest of the world to believe, the majority of them don’t really care about facts. And then next time you want a sandwich, you can tell your mum that she should make it because Evolution. Apparently it works, with some people.

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