Local ‘ways of knowing’ and western science

The British doctor and science writer Ben Goldacre was once asked in a BBC interview whether science is his ‘god’. His face fell into a mixture of incredulity and exasperation, like he was being asked an utterly ridiculous question. He had no easy answer for it, because the format of the interview did not allow him enough time to explain why science is not another form of religion, and because he had no time to ask the interview to explain what he was trying to say by linking ‘science’ and ‘god’ in one sentence.

I think we can have an educated guess of what Goldacre’s interviewer meant: some people worship a god, some worship science. What’s the difference? Anything goes. Whatever works for you. If it makes you feel good, then it can’t be that bad. That the question was asked at all reveals the influence of  relativism, a potion concocted by professors in world-class universities, but which has spilled and seeped into the casual discourse of the educated classes. The name this school of thought gave itself was the Sociology of Science. There are stronger and weaker versions. I am going to discuss the stronger version because it seems to have broader appeal among people who have never heard or Paul Feyerabend or Thomas Khun but might use words like ‘paradigm’ or ‘construct’.

The strong school subscribes to epistemological relativism and ontological relativism. Epistemological relativism is a fancy way of saying that there is no one universal way of getting at the truth that is superior to other ways at getting at the truth. The difference between your GP and a witch doctor is the authority their societies confer on them. It has nothing to do with practise – i.e. whether what they do actually works.  The assumption is that authority is conferred on someone not on account of having a superior argument but because that person has won a power struggle.

Linked to that is ontological relativism – whether it even makes sense to talk about the existence of objective things. Again, with our example of a witch doctor and GP in mind, one treats the symptoms of spirit possession and another the symptoms of disease, disease caused by things like germs. Are there such things – spirits, germs? Relativists are agnostic.If practitioners say there are, and enough people believe them, then they exist in our heads, at any rate.

So, there is no point in saying that there is a ‘better’ or ‘worse’ way of finding out about what sort of facts there are out there, because there are no such thing as facts. Of course, this claim is a statement of fact. There is no such thing as an objective fact is a statement of fact. We need not dwell on this fatal flaw in the relativist ‘paradigm’ for that is not the point of writing this article. Ultra-relativism has been done to death elsewhere but it still holds a death-grip on the conversation of those who ought to know better and is the source of much muddled thinking among the university-educated.

The ongoing appeal of relativism is, I think, linked to multiculturalism and anti-imperialism. Such arguments seem to promote tolerance and combat cultural arrogance. To aver that one culture is better in finding out what sort of facts there are about the world means that some cultures are superior to others, If so, that is to stigmatise some cultures as inferior. It’s a small step to stigmatising a culture as inferior to that culture’s members as being inferior. From there, an even smaller step to slating individual members of that culture to oppression or even extermination.

There is no doubt that western science served as a handmaiden to imperialism. After all, European seafarers built maritime empires on the back of the compass, which enabled them to sail without sight of land and cross oceans. But this is not a good reason to accept relativists’ arguments. For one thing, it testifies to the efficacy of western science. It worked and it still works. Indeed, 19th and 20th Century Chinese intellectuals,trying to figure out the root causes of their backwardness vis-a-vis the West, fingered the Western culture of science as a key reason. Western science generated useful knowledge, knowledge that could be applied in the real world while traditional systems of could not. Westerners firepower was not physical but intellectual. Hence, China’s headlong modernisation in the second half of the 20th Century was predicated on importing and adapting Western techniques of science. Of course, the great question is whether China can carry on doing this and block out the culture of critical enquiry. That, however, is a question for another day. For now, it suffices to say that to accept relativist principles on account of signalling your tolerant, multicultural credentials ducks the question about whether western ways of generating knowledge are superior or not – in the sense that they work while others don’t.

One can write whole tomes on the relationship between science and human progress but this is out of our scope. Still, this apprehension of the link between upholding relativism and tolerance needs to be addressed. So we should say that relativism does nothing to uphold the progressive purposes it is supposed to serve. It does not respect cultures who are not relativists. The authority of the witch doctor does not rest on relativist grounds. His authority rests because people accept that there is such a thing as spirit possession and that there are ways of finding out how someone is something is so possessed and ways to deal with that possession. To be told that this is just a parochial form of knowing is to do it disrespect because it denies its claims to an objective truth. Spirits are not just metaphors. They are real.

Moreover, as I have argued in a previous post about cultural imperialism, relativism cannot say anything about cultures that are imperialist and expansionist, cultures like the monotheistic religions, which believe they uphold a universal truths. This blind spot emerges because many relativists are of a leftist political persuasion and the only culture that they can consider imperialist is western culture. Relativists cannot adjudicate between clashing imperialist cultures.

To return to our question, and deal with relativism on its own terms: let’s address this issue with a concrete example: the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. One of the challenges field workers trying to contain the outbreak was convincing people that Ebola was REAL and that there was a right way of understanding it and a wrong one. The right way was that it was a virus, that it was a natural phenomenon. It was a physical condition, blind, impersonal, with no mind of its own. It spread according to natural laws. To contain its spread meant understanding these laws and respecting them. Spells, incantations, rituals and words – none of this would do. Only understanding that Ebola was a real thing would do that.

In combating its spread, epidemiologists traced and mapped its vectors. Microbiologists investigated its properties and tried to crack its genetic code to devise means to preventing and treating it. The pandemic’s containment was predicated on investigation, observation and experiment, proceeding from a mass of knowledge and understanding accumulated over decades of experiment and observation. It arose, in other words, from the scientific method, devised in the west from the 17th to 18th centuries. There were other ways to understand the virus – local ways of knowing – but they simply failed to offer an answer to pandemic. Is this cultural arrogance? No. This is meant as one in the eye for the philosophers in Western universities. It is not an argument that local field workers can or should use because it will go nowhere. This is not a tool to bludgeon people into submission.

For locals’ resistance to was not in itself unreasonable. As the WHO notes re the role  the role of traditional healers:

“Traditional medicine has a long history in Africa. Even prior to the outbreaks, poor access to government-run health facilities made care by traditional healers or self-medication through pharmacies the preferred health care option for many, especially the poor. Many surges in new cases have been traced to contact with a traditional healer or herbalist or attendance at their funerals.

After the outbreaks began, the high fatality rate encouraged the perception that hospitals were places of contagion and death, further reinforcing the lack of compliance with advice to seek early medical care. Moreover, many treatment facilities, hidden behind high fences and sometimes draped with barbed wire, looked more like prisons than places for health care and healing.”

In other words, we can accept that the resistance of locals to external intervention was not irrational in the sense of being unfounded in actual perceptions. They noted relatives going into hospitals and not coming out. They were not mistaken in that. They saw that with their own eyes but they drew the wrong conclusion from the facts at hand.

The first step to beat the disease was to persuade locals that Ebola was real and that meant they had to think a different way, including accepting that traditional resources for dealing with death and disease were no match for the threat they now encountered.

If you think that Ebola is socially constructed, that there is no such thing as Ebola, its just a linguistic game, an outcome of a struggle for power among scientists themselves, at the expense of other forms of knowledge, then you are bound to say that it doesn’t matter. But to apply this in the real world is grossly irresponsible.

A separation needs to be made from the intellectual exercise of recognising the superiority of the scientific method in a practical sense and respect for local custom and culture. Superiority here means technical superiority.

To contain the Ebola epidemic, there was no need to overthrow wholesale local customs around life and death or even a supernatural understanding of the world. The issue was convincing people that specific practices – such as washing the corpses of Ebola victims – should be suspended in response to a specific threat. The suspension of such practices is not the same as overthrowing them.

Still, we cannot flinch from one conclusion that follows from the arguments above. It means that local explanations for Ebola relying on magic and the supernatural were flat out wrong. Is this cultural imperialism? Perhaps it is. But a form of imperialism that ends up saving lives has something going for it. Nonetheless, if imperialism it was, then what would cultural relativists have had us do? Refuse to tell locals for example that washing the corpses of Ebola victims meant contracting the disease itself, for fear of causing offence? So, it’s worse to let them do what they have always done and end up dying a hideous and painful death?

The western scientific method is not a threat to traditional culture as such. It appears that locals may have made a pragmatic accommodation in this case but still rely in traditional healers to see them through every day travails. Perhaps though, the result of this accommodation will be to undermine local sources of authority. That raises other questions about whether local customs and cultures deserve to survive, if their adherents no longer consider them credible. There is also the question -which relativists refuse to consider – whether all cultural practices are really worth saving. The belief that albinos body parts have magical properties, therefore justifying the murder of their owner to obtain them, the belief that men infected with HIV will be cured of their condition if they have unprotected sex with virgins;  such beliefs deserve to die out.

All these are thorny questions and there are no easy answers. But one thing we can say for certain is that the strong school of the sociology of science doesn’t even ask the right questions, let alone offer any hope of acceptable answers. That much, I think we can safely say, we know.








Predicting Trump.

Let me begin by making this one thing clear: if I was an American, I would have voted for Clinton. But I would have had to have held my nose when doing so. I would have had to have looked past her as a person, such as her links to Wall Street Plutocrats and all that, and toward the values her campaign represented. For me, these were and are incomparably superior to those on offer from her rival. So Wednesday morning here in the UK was a disappointment.

That said, just three days on, I am beginning to feel enervated by the shrill apocalyptic predictions about Trump’s presidency. This is not out of a Pollyannish complacency, a psychological defence mechanism against an intractable reality over which I have no influence. I find myself irritated at commentators’ lack of humility. So many predictions about the fate of Trump’s campaign have been so wrong. Yet, cocksure predictions are flying thick and fast, as if the prophets of doom memories extend no further back than last Wednesday.

This is not to say that the doomsayers will be wrong. They may well be right. But is anyone assessing the degree to which their predictions are well founded? Dire predictions are made on the basis of what Trump has said rather than what he has done. Of course, he has never held public office so he has no track record. There are many blanks to fill. But why fill them with the most lurid scares stories? It is true that he ran a divisive campaign, and he himself bears the blame for his opponents reading the worst into his character and motivation.  But this alone gives us no clue as to what he is going to do.

So what is Trump going to do? Answer: despite all the bluster, no one really knows. Are there good reasons for thinking that? Surely there are. First, no one is really able to fathom who the real Donald Trump is. It was said of Clinton that despite decades spent in the public eye, no one really got a sense of who she is. The same might just as well be said for Trump. On any given hot button issue, like abortion or gay marriage, no one can say emphatically what his position is, on the basis of his public utterances alone. And, despite his celebrity status, no one seems able to offer any insight into his motivation or core values. No one seems to know him – not even his own children who, when they talk about him, seem at a loss to offer any insight into their father’s personality.

Since this morning, there is an even better reason for caution when it comes to making predictions as to what he is going to do: his unexpected shift on the issue of Obamacare. On this issue, his public position seemed to be clear. He was going to replace it root and branch. It would be easy, he claimed, while on the campaign stump. Yet now, he is prepared to consider retaining key aspects of it. What is the significance of this?  I am going to venture some suggestions. Not predictions -but limited conjectures, based on a recognition that my answers are based on a background of ignorance, the lack of any conclusive clues about the man’s character and motivation.

We will take the cynical explanations first. Perhaps this is a smokescreen, a kind of chaff to confuse opponents’ radar and conceal his own position and direction of travel. Perhaps this is just spectacle, with no real motivation other than to confound the pundits and keep people guessing. Perhaps it was an off-the-cuff, unscripted remark and he just was not thinking things through. He said it on a whim. If any of these explanations are true, then we can expect him to pivot back back to the Republican mainstream. It’s nothing more than a blip. It’s insignificant.

But what if he is serious? This should not be dismissed out of hand. For one thing, it is inconceivable that any other Republican president-elect would have stated, three days after winning the election, that he would have been prepared to reconsider his root and branch opposition to Obamacare. This is totemic issue for Republicans – on the same level as rolling back abortion rights and opposing gun control. They hate Obamacare and have used all means – fair and foul – to undermine it. Congressional Republicans have voted 50 times to undo the law.

During Trump’s bid for the candidacy, the Republican mainstream liked to present themselves as men of reason and moderation, and made a show of deploring Trump’s brash, vulgar populism. But on Obamacare, the respectable Republican mainstream is out of step with public opinion. Key aspects of Obamacare test well, in surveys of public opinion, as shown in this table taken from Nate Silver’s 538

Extension of dependent coverage to age 26 80%
Close Medicare “doughnut hole” 79
Subsidies for low- and middle-income people to buy insurance 77
Eliminate out-of-pocket costs for preventive services 77
Medicaid expansion 74
Insurers can’t discriminate based on pre-existing health conditions 70
Medical loss ratio 62
Increase Medicare payroll tax on people who make more money 56
Requiring most people to have insurance or be fined 35

Perhaps this table gives a clue to Trump’s motivation. Perhaps his political instincts may be sounder than many of the pundits make out. If the public does not share the Republicans’ Maoist fevour to eradicate 8 years of Obama’s Presidency, starting with a demolition of Obama care, then his shift makes sense. He can count on public support and use that to overcome opposition from his own party. His timing is certainly right. Change course now, while he still enjoys the authority and prestige his victory has conferred. Do it while the voices of naysayers in the Republican establishment – who never believed he could pull it off – are stilled in the wake of his victory.

On one view, if power is all that matters to him, then he will simply fall into line with his party because to do that is the route of least resistance. He has plenty of opponents as it is. He won’t want to cultivate more within his own camp. On the other hand, if power is what matters to him, then a pragmatic course might be the best option to pursue, if it is in line with what the majority of the public thinks. We should not assume that because a man wants power, then this must mean that the only option to retain it is to cleave to hard-right position. He can earn credit and kudos by showing he is own man and a not a tool of the Republican party machine. Perhaps his shift is cynical but that does not mean that cynical motivations have unhappy consequences.

So is the shift a feint or it may it represent a genuine change of heart?  On the basis of what we know about Trump – or rather what we don’t know – both possibilities are just as likely. As far as making predictions is concerned, all that can safely be said is that we should expect the unexpected. Prepare to be surprised.

Update, 14 March 2017. “Prepare to be surprised”, I said. Yes, Trump actually means what he says. As far as his conciliatory tone on healthcare is concerned, this article lends support to my revised view that Trump’s supposedly big heart on keeping the most popular aspects of Obamacare was down to awareness of procedure:

“True, the public supports the provisions of the health law that allow adult children to stay on their parents’ health plans until they turn 26 and that prohibit insurers from rejecting or charging more to people with preexisting health conditions. Those things remain in the GOP bill.

But even if Republicans had wanted to get rid of those provisions, they likely could not. That’s because the budget rules Congress is using to avert a filibuster in the Senate forbid them from repealing much of the ACA that does not affect government spending.”

This dimension Nate Silver left out. Now that I have become aware of it, my view has turned decidedly more pessimistic.

On other matters, cited by the optimists as signs that Trump mellowed when elected, such as his decision to drop the threat of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton, the reason is probably down to procedural and process. Separation of powers means he does not have the right to appoint a special prosecutor, to confirm a verdict he has already determined before the investigation, to lock Clinton up. As the examples of the travel ban and the border wall show, where procedure is not such an obstacle, Trump means to do as he said.