Subjective Science

Gather round, everyone, and let’s have a little chat about how seemingly “objective” means are frequently used for subjective ends.

The supremacy of science and phrases like “Facts don’t care about your feelings” are frequently trumpeted on the internet by men who are some combination of fedora owners, neo-Fascists, and lovers of literature about lobsters written by white men. (The funny thing is that you don’t know if I’m talking about Jordan Peterson or David Foster Wallace. The sad thing is that it doesn’t matter.) The idea is that there is a Realm of True Things, and they are always available to us if we just Logic hard enough and set our feelings aside. And to a certain extent, they are right—my feelings do not change the efficacy of vaccines, or the reality of climate change. The Three Laws of Thermodynamics do not give a fuuuuuuck about my feelings regarding entropy. But the same people who say these things aren’t usually talking about how gravity is the one law that anarchists have to believe in. They’re talking about things like gender, and sexuality, and biology, and race, and that is where scientific things get really, really squishy. Because science, you see, is done by people. And people… well people are just monkeys with anxiety and superiority complexes, basically. And we are really good at using supposedly objective things to support subjective goals, even while still loudly bragging about how objective we are.

Language, for example, would seem at first glance to be objective—it’s “just” words, an agreed upon system of sounds and pictures that we use to convey meaning. But did you notice that I started this post off with “Gather round, everyone” instead of the more traditional “Gather round, boys and girls”? I did so deliberately, because “Gather round, boys and girls” implies that there are only two genders, whereas I know that things aren’t that simple. We have nonbinary gender folks, agender folks, transgender folks, etc. And so I deliberately avoided using a seemingly objective opening that would have carried a point of view that I don’t agree with.

But that’s language. Language is already suspected of treason by the Fedora Federation, because it is very close to poetry, which is feminine, and also was probably invented by left-wing academics. So let’s talk about their beloved science.

Science, as we said before, does have some objective foundations. And then it has a looooot of subjective sprinkles on top, depending on who is doing the science and what they believe is true. At various points in our history, we Absolutely Knew Thanks to Bulletproof Science that:

  • Women who grew despondent in the face of the patriarchy were “hysterical” and could be cured by a combination of forced seclusion and forced orgasms.
  • People with mental illness could be cured via an icepick through the orbital socket.
  • People of color, especially Black people, were “inherently” inferior races due to the size and shape of their skulls.
  • Diseases like cholera were spread via “bad air.”

All of these things were scientific “discoveries” or even widely believed scientific “facts” at one point or another. Note that a lot of them seem to specifically disadvantage marginalized people. I wonder why that is… (I don’t actually I was just using one of those sneaky rhetorical flourishes. Language again.) Science, you see, is only objective when it is used by a subjective person as objectively as possible. If the person doing the science is consciously or unconsciously putting their thumb on the scale to change the results… well. Phrenology happens.

All of which is a very long way to say a very short thing: what is happening to Caster Semenya is fucked up. Because quirks of biology, discoverable through scientific means, seem to only be “unfair” when they are happening to a Black woman.

Athletic ability has a lot to do with dedication, and practice, and luck, and privilege… and biology. Like, some folks are just gonna be 7’3”, and that is probably going to give them an advantage in basketball. It doesn’t have to, they could still suck at basketball, but… I mean it probably is going to help them out. And we don’t say, “Hey, tall people have an unfair advantage in basketball! They should only be allowed to play basketball if they walk on their knees!” I admittedly would probably watch more basketball if everyone was walking on their knees, but that is neither here nor there. We just accept that their genetically-imbued factors, namely their tallness and skills, are a natural part of who they are, and their use of their genetic gifts in their sport is seen as normal.

We don’t have to compare Caster Semenya to all other athletes to see how she is being treated unfairly, however. We really only need to compare her to one: Michael Phelps. As Monica Hesse writes, Phelps possesses a slew of genetic oddities that make him perfect for dominating the world of swimming:

Phelps possesses a disproportionately vast wingspan, for example. Double-jointed ankles give his kick unusual range. In a quirk that borders on supernatural, Phelps apparently produces just half the lactic acid of a typical athlete — and since lactic acid causes fatigue, he’s simply better equipped at a biological level to excel in his sport.

I’m thinking of those stories, because I’m thinking about the ways Michael Phelps was treated as wondrous marvel. Nobody suggested he should be forced to have corrective surgery on his double-jointed ankles, nobody decided he should take medication to boost his lactic levels.

As Hesse points out, no one is suggesting that Phelps hamper or cripple himself in order to make the sport more “fair” on other contestants. He is taken as-is, and has gone on to win a shitload of gold medals.

Semenya gets no such free passes. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that if Semenya wanted to compete, she would have to take medication to curtail her testosterone, which is naturally higher than it is for the average woman. The CAS was not so much making their own bad ruling as upholding an earlier bad ruling from the International Association of Athletes so… way to pay it forward. And on top of that, they said the quiet part out loud, and admitted, “discrimination is a necessary, reasonable and proportionate means of achieving the IAAF’s aim of preserving the integrity of female athletics.” Which… what?

In case anyone is confused, this isn’t about maintaining the integrity of female athletics. This is about maintaining the “integrity” of a popular concept of femininity. Specifically, the integrity of a popular concept of white femininity. They’re not exactly questioning the integrity of the female competitors of sports like discus, even though those women are super swole. (They’re also usually white.) When Michael Phelps literally doesn’t make enough of the thing that tells you that you are tired and should stop, there is no pearl clutching about the integrity of male athletics, or even the integrity of “non-superhuman athletics.” Even though the science on the benefits of a failure to produce lactic acid seems (to my English major-brain at least) a lot more convincing than the science on the benefits of testosterone.

The way that you study data, interpret data, and make decisions about data can turn seemingly objective “facts” into subjective weapons. And the athletic community is making a subjective claim in the battlefield of gender politics under the guise of an objective statement of facts. The more that we learn about the biology of sex, the more that we learn it is as much of a spectrum as the concept of gender. Humans are complicated, y’all. And while I don’t have the answer as to how sports should be divided (or even if it should be divided) I know that it shouldn’t be this—invasive testing and blanket proclamations that tell a woman that she does not have the right “stuff” to be considered a woman, while white male athletes have their biology unquestioned.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a phrenology map next to the word “science.”

Let’s Talk About “Societal Norms”

Because there are better ways to run a society.

 

I “godwinned” myself this weekend, at a national conference.

It was a conference focusing on scholarly publishing and blockchain technology, and I’d been invited to talk about citation indexing because the combination of the two (blockchain technology and citation indexes) is a personal hobby of mine. Yes, I’m great at parties, why do you ask? Anyway the talk went fine, and I got through the whole thing without, I think, horribly offending anyone.

But there was another talk, by a self-described “blockchain skeptic,” which did not go over quite so well with the crowd.

Now before I go any further, I want to point out that I am absolutely in favour of skepticism when it comes to the usefulness of blockchains. Here’s a handy flowchart to find out if you need one (hint: you probably don’t). The vast majority of things are not sufficiently improved by the added cost and complexity of a blockchain to warrant the use of one.

But that said, this presentation had a number of serious issues. There were some very strange claims. The claim was made that privately-delivered packages are stolen off America’s porches more than USPS-delivered letters because stealing letters is a “federal offense,” which is wrong because packages are simply more likely to contain things of value that can be fenced anonymously. The claim was also made that Bitcoin isn’t a currency because it’s a security, which, well, the SEC disagrees with, anyway. The claim was also made that we don’t need a self-sovereign identity (a government-free secure ID) because we have social security numbers, which was just a terrible argument because have you even looked at the costs of identity theft?

But the chief claim that made me twitch was the assumption that “societal norms” are a simpler, more reliable way to do most things.

And boy did that not sit well with me.

Here’s one example: the presenter said that speed limits are governed by societal norms, and that’s fine. If a speed limit is (say) 30 miles per hour, you can probably go 40 miles per hour. The police generally don’t mind, he said, until you get to 41 or 42, and then they really get you. It’s a societal norm that certain rules can be bent. On the surface this seems like it gels with my experience, except I’m white, and, well.

Have you ever heard of “driving while black”?

See, societal norms are not just. They are not fair. They are privy to racism, sexism, and bigotry of all stripes. Societal norms automatically privilege those in power. There are a lot of places in America where it’s generally agreed that you can break a law with impunity, but only if you’re white. Waiting for a friend at Starbucks before you buy anything? Fine. But if you’re black that’s “loitering.” Having a loud party on your lawn? Fine. But if you’re black that’s “disturbing the peace.” You see where I’m going with this?

Societal norms replicate our worst biases.

So I godwinned myself and pointed out that societal norms are both powerful and often dangerous, in that they also gave us the Holocaust. The societal norms in 1930s Germany gave Jewish, queer, and white people different speed limits—if you replace “speed limits” with “rights to even exist.”

Societal norms are almost always a terrible thing to rely on, because society is made of people, and people can’t be relied upon to be fair and just to one another. It’s not that we don’t ever get it right, but all you have to do is look at the rise in actual Nazis in America, or at the rate of white Evangelical support for the lying, self-aborbed, racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist president of the United States, to see that “norms” are easily made worse with only the slightest of nudges.

Frankly, given with how much ease they privilege the powerful at the expense of the dispossessed, it’s probably a moral imperative to get away from reliance on societal norms.

So does that mean we should use blockchains to help govern society more? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they’d just help us, as members of society, to replicate the problems of societal norms in more high-tech ways. But what it does mean is that “societal norms work” is a bad argument against looking into whether new technologies might be able to help.

Because god knows we need all the help we can get.

Signed: The Remixologist

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Featured image is of a speed limit sign reading “Speed Limit 25 Miles,” by Eric Fischer, CC BY 2.0