Re: Barbara Kay, Stephen Pinker, and Post-Modernism

Unfortunately, though, the postmodernist claptrap that is at the heart of the worst of feminism has apparently metastasized throughout much of Academia and is now skewing and corrupting important issues in the political, scientific, and social domains.


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A “virulent anti-science, anti-intellectual sentiment” is stalking the land – a “rough beast” indeed, and that is nowhere more evident, at least as argued in a Feminist Critics review of Professing Feminism, than in various “Women Studies programs”. Unfortunately, though, the postmodernist claptrap that is at the heart of the worst of feminism has apparently metastasized throughout much of Academia and is now skewing and corrupting important issues in the political, scientific, and social domains.

For one instance, we have the case several months ago at Laurier University where devotees of that “sentiment” were busily engaged in “redefining words so they no longer align with facts, common sense, and common usage” – almost criminal to call Bruce Jenner a woman: “Facts are not subject to our feelings” as a National Review article put it.

And similarly and more recently, see Barbara Kay’s Outrage from scientists on “pseudo-science infiltrating an educational institution” and on how “our institutions of higher learning are riddled with (funded) pseudo-scientific ‘disciplines’ [ha! – ‘disciplines’ is, of course, being charitable]”. And relative to which, as I’ve argued here in a comment, there are the efforts of the B.C. School Board and the Education Minister – who, one might suggest, should at least be charged with dereliction of duty – which look rather problematically akin to Lysenkoism. And that “political campaign against genetics and science-based agriculture” was based on the “assumption of heritability of acquired characteristics”, and was accompanied by a “rejection of Mendelian inheritance and the concept of the gene”.

While that “pseudo-science” was eventually discredited, that wasn’t until after Russian biology and agriculture had been set back some 3 or 4 decades, and until after it had cost some 3000 Russian biologists their jobs, their freedom, or their lives. Rather remarkably bad idea to let political, social, or religious ideology trump facts and science.

But a curious though illuminating aspect of the case that Kay described is the extent to which devotees of that “pseudo-science sentiment” are so reluctant to define their terms of reference at the outset, and are so quick to “redefine words” so that meaning itself is lost, and, with it, any chance of separating the wheat from the chaff.

For example, consider their touting of “gender fluidity – the idea that biological sex and gender are unlinked”. But while the entire concept of “gender” is more like a dog’s breakfast than not, one might argue, even if only to get those devotees to face the consequences of their dogma, that the concept of gender “fluidity” is not totally untenable. However, that, in turn, seems to depend crucially on precisely what is meant by the term “gender” in the first place, by “sex” in the second, and, to some extent, their conflation in the third.

And Wikipedia seems to provide a reasonable starting point, even if “gender identity” is a somewhat “thorny” aspect, not least for its efforts to discount the differences between fantasy and reality:

“Gender is the range [AKA, spectrum] of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. Depending on the context, these characteristics may include biological sex (i.e., the state of being male [produces sperm], female [produces ova], or an intersex variation), sex-based social structures (i.e., gender roles), or gender identity.”

By which token, the “patterns in the human brain mosaic” that Kay referred to would certainly seem to qualify as a part of gender, as would the many “… functional differences [between “male-brains” and “female-brains] in various activity centers in the brain …” referred to in a letter disputing some of the original paper.

But that “range of characteristics” would then seem to encompass many more overt physiological differences – body masses, heights, secondary sexual characteristics, predilections in sexual partners, etc – apart from the more or less psychological ones discussed in the referenced PNAS study & letters. In addition, it might be emphasized, as per Wikipedia, that sex, or its absence, should then be construed, generally, as a principal component of gender, and, most definitely, not a gender in itself – as I’ve argued in some detail elsewhere on Post Millennial.

And from all of which one might argue that, for example, Bruce Jenner, having taken some hormones and having developed what some might call “a nice set of tits”, has, in fact, changed some more or less minor aspects of his gender. And if he should have, or has had, some “gender reassignment surgery” – that one might reasonably see as making himself into a eunuch, i.e., an individual of no sex – then that would constitute a major if not irrevocable change in his “gender”. All of which then justifies the argument that gender is, at least to some significant degree, mutable or variable – i.e., somewhat “fluid”, even if the changes might be more suggestive of molasses than of water.

However, that may also raise a reasonable objection that gender can be unlinked from sex since those components of gender other than the principal one of sex can, in fact, be changed, to some degree at least, without that necessarily affecting the primary one of sex.  

In any case, and as a third instance to underline all of that aversion to the principles and methods of science – bordering on a phobia one might suggest, we have the recent case at the Portland State University which featured a panel discussion with James Damore, the Google engineer fired for supposedly advancing “stereotypes about women versus men”, “moderated by a philosophy professor”, and which “also included two women known for their conservative views on gender dynamics.” [The horror!] But the crux of the problem is that Damore argues, with no little justification, that those stereotypes are based, to a not inconsiderable degree, on generally quite sound science, and that by ignoring if not anathematizing that science and its proponents Google has created an “ideological echo chamber” and a rather decidedly toxic working environment.

A curious phenomenon with many manifestations, and one with many historical antecedents that we might be wise to take some instruction from. However, it is a most problematic one, and therefore one we should be expending some effort in getting some purchase on its roots. And recently the Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker – author of the Blank Slate which many on the left seem to choke on for some reason – wrote brilliantly of The Intellectual War on Science – even if “intellectual” may be a serious misuse of the word – that more or less delineates the nature of that phenomenon – not to mention being a rather damning indictment of much of the entire Academy, and much else besides.

However, the crux of Pinker’s argument is that the “demonization of science in the liberal arts” matters a great deal, that “stigmatization of science is also jeopardizing the progress of science itself”, and that those have led to “low standards of reasoning”, along with a general inability to “logically think through a problem”, a tendency to “infer causation from a correlation”, and to “use anecdotes as evidence far beyond the predictability warranted”.

But Pinker also acknowledges that there is much of value in the humanities, that the “arts are one of the things that make life worth living, enriching human experience with beauty and insight”. And there’s some cause for arguing that more than a few with their feet more solidly planted in the science camp have a faith in science that mathematics itself gives cause for thinking is seriously misplaced and untenable.

For instance, some years ago, Massimo Pigliucci, a biologist and a philosopher at the City University of New York, took the American author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, Sam Harris to task for his rather bold claim that “science can answer moral questions”. More than just a bit of evidence that values are not really something that science has a strong purchase on – it can certainly give some clues on the social consequences of promoting certain values, but, unfortunately or not, it appears not to be some magical philosopher’s stone that is any kind of a final arbiter.

Yet a hint of a way off the horns of that particular dilemma, a way – as Pinker argued – to recognize and build on the complementary natures of science and of the humanities, maybe even a way to acknowledge some utility in “faith” even if that’s not strictly of the religious kind, may have been provided by a recently published book by “Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy” titled “The Strange Order of Things”. It argues that “what the body feels is every bit as significant as what the mind thinks”, although the book reviewer suggests with some justification that Damasio is being somewhat disingenuous, probably on the view that not all feelings are created equal as is likely the case with all scientific theories.

However, Albert Einstein – as is frequently the case – provides some illuminating insight when he argues: “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” Which underlines science’s claim to fame, its willingness to cultivate intuitions yet its commitment to testing those intuitions to the harshest conditions imaginable in Nature’s laboratory.

Which, one might argue, is in notable contradistinction to the worst of the humanities which, as Pinker argues, “have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, self-refuting relativism, and suffocating political correctness.”

Many have argued in many different ways and in many different venues that science and the humanities are complementary; that, as Pinker phrased it, “the spirit of science is the spirit of the Enlightenment”. But it does us no good at all to elevate either to positions beyond reproach, into sacrosanct ideology, or to throw out the undoubted benefits that each have contributed to mankind’s incredible journey.


4 Comments

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  1. “But it does us no good at all to elevate either to positions beyond reproach, into sacrosanct ideology, or to throw out the undoubted benefits that each have contributed to mankind’s incredible journey”

    You mean “peoplekind” of course and not “mankind”.

    😉

    1. Ah, yes, indeedy – mea culpa; 😉 . One must bow down to the Gospel according to Saint Justin – AKA #JihadiJustin, he who is long on virtue-signalling, soft-headedness, and high-mindedness, while being dangerously short on facts and intellectual honesty.

      A hypocrite of the first water. Never ceases to amaze me how quick he is to go for various photo-ops with various Indian chiefs, Muslim mullahs, and Sikh separatists, yet is so totally clueless about the “flies” in those particular ointments. Wonder if he has even an inkling of an understanding that the beliefs of those & other similar groups are generally deeply held, and that an exhibition of their superficialities might reasonably be construed as an insult to not just those groups but to many outside them.

    1. Does not compute …

      As I’ve had a “Your article is truly excellent” response, maybe your impression is due more to what you bring to the table in the way of background? 😉 Though it is a rather complex topic, and all I can do in 1500 words is touch on a few relevant islands in the archipelago that I have a bit of a handle on. So to speak.

Jim Wiggins

Jim is a retired electronics technologist from Surrey, BC with some 30 years experience in programming, designing, maintaining, & repairing electronic equipment, primarily for the sawmill, marine, and automotive industries. Current interest include science, logic, the mind, sudoku, and writing Mathematica programs: http://demonstrations.wolfram.com/SudokuLogic/ https://twitter.com/SteersMann

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