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.