Why Science is Important

A thread on Feministing that degenerated into a series of dumb arguments against Ashley’s growth stunting reminded me just how important it is to argue from science, or facts in general, rather than personal experience.

It’s very attractive to argue from personal experience. It’s your own safe space, which no hierarchist can deny. When you’re sure you’re right, it immunizes you against having to defend yourself to people who just don’t get it. Unfortunately, it also immunizes you against being able to make any headway with people who don’t already agree with you.

Everyone has personal experiences. But the experiences that make it to the mainstream are those of people who are connected in some way. The personal experience of a President or Prime Minister matters more than this of a member of Congress or Parliament, which matters more than this of someone who is merely connected to a politician, which matters more than this of a plebian.

Unsurprisingly, social movements that are based on members’ personal experience fail. Feminism that’s based on personal experience is doomed, because when a woman’s personal experience conflicts with a man’s, absent any evidence the man’s experience will be favored.

In contrast, science is by and large objective. For all the stories of systematic bias, the scientific community has only had two or three cases of lingering bias: early anthropology, eugenics, and maybe psychanalysis. It’s been wrong a few more times, but given that the only methodology with a better batting average than the scientific one is the mathematical one, which isn’t generalizable to most real world questions, attacking science for having been wrong has no merit.

The center and the right successfully characterized the left as all about good feeling for decades. Heart-wrenching moral arguments rarely work in politics. The last time they did in the US was when MLK was fighting segregation. Even MLK couldn’t apply the same organizing strategy that had worked in the South to poverty in Chicago.

In the last forty years, the social movements that have done any good were those based on empirical data. Even within the same movement, battles that were based on empirical data succeeded, whereas those that were based on personal experience failed. Feminists could get extensive anti-discrimination laws on the books, but personal stories of sexual harassment never went anywhere. They could pass laws against domestic violence and strengthen laws against rape, but they could never get criminologists or police departments to apply feminist theories to rape reduction.

As I’m fond of saying, a safe space is a powerless space. Serious political activism requires getting into the mainstream space and working from there. And that requires showing that you have strong enough a case to be allowed in. If it weren’t an excruciating process with fewer successes than you think you deserve, Bismarck wouldn’t analogize it to making sausages.

6 Responses to Why Science is Important

  1. Lynet says:

    Unsurprisingly, social movements that are based on members’ personal experience fail. Feminism that’s based on personal experience is doomed, because when a woman’s personal experience conflicts with a man’s, absent any evidence the man’s experience will be favored.

    You have a point in that, when trying to influence public policy, scientific statements are more likely to convince large numbers of people than personal experience (unless you are tapping in to the personal experience of those you are trying to convince in the first place).

    That statement in parentheses was relevant to feminism in the 1960s and 70s, I think, when feminism was able to get more women on board by pointing out things that women already knew were happening and offering a movement that would work to change that.

    However, feminism is not merely a movement about public policy. A piece of feminist art which was able to powerfully convey an element of women’s experience might not make a direct impact politically, but could still be important to many women, in the manner of the poet who “gives to airy nothing / a local habitation and a name”, if you will. Thus, for example, Ithell Colquhoun’s painting Scylla is important to me as an expression of feminine sexuality that doesn’t revolve around make-up and high heeled shoes (not that I think there’s anything terribly wrong with make-up and high heeled shoes as long as they’re not compulsory, but as an expression of my sexual nature I find them somewhat incomplete). It’s not a political statement, but I think it probably is a feminist one.

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