Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Vani Hari & the social responsibility of scientists

This is a response to this fantastic take-down of Vani Hari, aka The Food Babe, which you should definitely read.

First off, it should go without saying that this woman is a charlatan & a liar, & I hope she gets fired out of a cannon. That said, as is my tradition I'm going to take a non-obvious approach and say that her idiotic productions are actually kind of good.

How is it good to exploit unfortunate morons? Some might be tempted to take a kind of schadenfreude from seeing idiots get exploited. I'm one of those people, but this kind of smug privilege should be resisted at all costs. Not everyone has the good fortune to be educated in science, not everyone has the background to know why scary-sounding chemicals aren't that scary. You, as someone who DOES know this stuff, have a RESPONSIBILITY to help other people understand it, not stand at the sidelines like a smug asshole grinning at poor shmucks who buy into hucksterism.

So why is it good? Well, it goads scientists into lowering themselves into the slums of the common people, again. This piece is a FANTASTIC take down, not because it marshals facts & whatnot, but because it's well-written, accessible, & carries the appropriate level of sneering disdain. THAT is how you communicate with a general audience, not with the lofty, authoritarian tones of the ivory tower, or the stale, purified jargon of the laboratory. Those dialects have their place, but when it comes to the RESPONSIBILITY of the educated to inform the uneducated, you aren't doing charity. You're doing your duty, and part of that duty is ensuring you're understood. This Gawker piece is understandable, it's approachable, it's entertaining & it feels like it's worth reading. It does talk down, but not to the reader, it talks down to the unethical slimeball it's refuting.

What irritates a lot of people about the scientific community is its sneering, exasperated elitism. I have a LOT of affinity for sneering AND elitism, but after a few years of painfully listening to idiots I understand where they're coming from, and they have a point. They're basically trying to impart what I've said above, that leaning on your privileged education & expecting it to automatically convey authority is bullshit. Saying a bunch of words you know damn well your audience won't understand, then rolling your eyes and snapping "VACCINES GOOD. CLIMATE CHANGE BAD. Let me know when it sinks in you fucking idiots" doesn't let people know you're an expert, it lets them know you're a fuckwit.

So, what's wrong with expecting to be taken seriously as an expert? Science is a profession, one that takes many, many years of intense study. If you decide to eschew that kind of labour in favour of doing some half-assed bullshit like learning a TRADE, or raising a FAMILY, why should hard-working scientists have to learn to dilute their knowledge so it can be effectively communicated in populist terms? Don't people have a responsibility to educate themselves, if not to the level of actual scientists, then sufficiently so they can at least understand them?

No, they don't, and part of the reason why is excellently demonstrated by Vani Hari here, which is why this whole thing is kind of good. In short, the language of science is so steeped in exclusionary lingo that it's almost impossible for the under-educated to distinguish good science from bad. "But science is extremely precise!" I hear the scientists opine, & they're right. I believe science needs its complicated, extremely precise terminology & methods. Scientific inquiry, after 1000s of years of compounding development, needs to be exhaustively detailed & precise.

So there's an impasse here. Science is inaccessible, and into this uncertainty creeps assholes like Hari, who put on the veneer of popular science language to basically make shit up, trading on that most popular of human emotions, terrified aversion to the unknown. The unknown quality of science, NO MATTER HOW NECESSARY, is the responsibility of the scientific community to address. Science is done on the behalf of our entire species, that is the conceit the scientific community has adopted for itself, and I applaud it without reservation. It is the proper comportment for a scientific community, and indeed for any community. It is a truly inspiring brand of humanism.

However, saying it is one thing, actually doing it is another. Actually DOING science for humanity's sake means ensuring your insights are actually accessible to humanity, including the pesky humans that aren't scientifically literate. This means work, difficult work that scientists have spent their careers not learning, and in fact dismissing as an irrelevant distraction. It means writing well, it means debating, it means (and this is the most galling part) PERFORMING. Making people believe something means making it understandable, making it plausible, whilst maintaining your authority. This Gawker piece is an excellent example of one way to do that.

Another way to do that, which I do NOT like, is the semi-religious grossness of productions like Cosmos, or books like Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show On Earth. These productions are steeped in the elitism of scientists as lofty geniuses, as truth-givers from on high, bedazzling us with spaceships & fascinating but totally irrelevant insights about bizarre distant environments & abstracted materialist philosophies about the nature of matter. It's fucking prestidigitation, an insulting spectacle of graphics & sound designed to make scientists look like wizards rather than the dedicated, often working class professionals they actually are.

Aside from how insulting it is, it's ultimately not functional for what it needs to do. The spectacle of the "gentleman scientist" like Dwakins or DeGrasse Tyson is easily replicated & turned to any ideological mission, as Dwakins himself has demonstrated with his one-man theological religious crusade against traditional spirituality. He's no different from Vani Hari, using the language of science to sell books to the gullible. Fuck that noise. It's little wonder that this language is appropriated by accessible, actually LIKABLE people such as Vani Hari. It's little wonder that people are more than willing to take heed of a "scientist" who doesn't ooze elitist smarm or constant exasperation with the ignorance of the morons around her.

I still, almost daily, on Twitter & elsewhere, hear scientists bemoaning the hubris of the humanities for trying to explain the social role of science to scientists. These are the same people who also whine endlessly that their warnings about climate change & GM crops & vaccines & 100 other things fall constantly on deaf ears. They also take umbrage at people like Vani Hari appropriating the veneer of their disciplines to make a few bucks at the expense of people's ignorance. Well, their ignorance is your responsibility. If your science is merely a way for you to get paid, that's fine, but then you're no different to any lawyer or other career professional, and people have no greater cause to treat your work with automatic respect. If it's merely a personal labour of love, then it's a hobby, and again is of no automatic relevance to anyone else. If it is a social DUTY, an undertaking for the betterment of all mankind, then that lofty ideal carries with it responsibility. A responsibility to communicate truths effectively, to educate the uneducated, and to protect your authority from appropriation by charlatans.

This means, like it or not, expressing yourself in a way that can be understood by those without a science background, eg most of humanity. That is a responsibility the trappings of scientific endeavour are bound up with. Either take it seriously, even if that requires sullying yourself with the concerns of the humanities, or abandon it entirely & join the ranks of the working class professionals, & leave the determination of truth to the democratic populism of politics. Just don't start fucking moaning when nobody heeds your dire warnings, because I don't know if you've turned on the television lately but EVERYONE has a dire warning about some shit or other. The word of scientists carry automatic weight, and that's the way it should be, but the word of scientists is only useful if it can be understood. If you don't know how to do that, I've got some good news: I know a shitload of underemployed humanities graduates who would just love to help you guys out.

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