Positivism, History, and Optimism: NPR’s 13.7 on the Endurance of Scientific Knowledge

“Religious repression and wars pass, but scientific knowledge remains.”

So goes theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s argument in a recent opinion piece on NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. To which I thought:

Not necessarily.

Knowledge can be suppressed, corrupted, or simply lost. In one of the latter (lesser?) books of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a character describes the problem of chronicling millennia of human history. In short, you can’t preserve everything. Choices are always made. Topics fall out of vogue. Those in power can produce countering knowledge, or bury unfavorable information. Even the most meticulous archivists, following the most stringent of professional standards, are guided by prevailing cultural assumptions about what is worth saving.

Later in the blog post, Gleiser writes:

“Kepler witnessed the state collapsing around him, and felt helpless. He couldn’t pick up a sword to fight, for he was a hero of ideas and not of bloody battles. Instead, he looked up. And so did Galileo. And what they saw, and their diligence in pursuing the truth, changed the world forever.”

How can one make such an eternal claim? For someone who lauds the scientific method and the “objective” power of observation so heartily, this is quite the leap of faith.

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So we retreat

into familiar narratives
ways of seeing
being
thinking
to the company of those who share our values

We’re all so busy drinking our own Kool-Aid
Few attempt mixing all the fountain sodas together anymore

We fear the unexpected flavor

 

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Book Review: The Quarry Fox

Quick plug:

A few months ago I read The Quarry Fox and other Critters of the Wild Catskills by Leslie T. Sharpe. The Literary Review recently posted my review.

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Autumn Chill

The October night is mine to fill. My parents have long since gone to bed with our cat, who knows something is wrong. I’m left alone with my paperback copy of Never Let Me Go, purchased yesterday during our weekly trip to Costco. Never have I been so invested in a fictional friendship. I let the drama absorb me; it’s an effective distraction from the death that looms outside.

Autumn lies on the top step of the stoop. Once a swift jumble of insatiable canine exuberance, tonight she is quiet and still. The cool concrete seems to give her 13-year-old body some relief. A year ago Autumn was overweight for a shepherd-lab mutt her size. The growth in her lung that announced its presence in March has siphoned away much of her muscle, leaving a scrawny, dull-eyed creature whose every breath seems to cost effort she doesn’t have to spare.

It’s brisk outside. I put down my book and rise from the couch, opening the heavy wooden screen door to check on her. This is the third or fourth time I’ve done so tonight. It is a ritual I will reenact on several evenings before we let her leave us.

“Do you want to come inside, baby girl?”

Autumn does not raise her head at the sound of my voice. I crouch and lay a hand on her greying brow. We have to be gentle; sometimes she flinches when we pet her. I watch her ribs rise and fall under the mottled brown coat that inspired her name.

The humans in the family have realized that we should take her to the vet for the last time. We’re still not sure when. No one wants to decide. Soon is too close to now, even as now extends her decline. We’re watching her, waiting for a definitive sign, but Autumn doesn’t give us one. She simply fades, often imperceptibly. Eating less, sleeping more, weighing less, hurting more. There is no marker, no metaphorical cliff over which she can fall to let us know that the time, her time, has arrived.

We cannot discuss this with her. We do not ask, Have you suffered enough? Do you want to die? When should we kill you? but we have taken it upon ourselves to answer for her.

Inside, Ishiguro’s codependent characters await reactivation. They will endure intimate betrayals and paradigm-shifting revelations under my watchful gaze until one character enables the others to slowly disconnect from life. Even fictional mercy requires consent.

I stroke Autumn’s torso, my palm barely grazing her. We look into each other’s eyes and she seems to sigh. I tug her collar and again suggest that she come indoors, lay on her soft bed, let the cat cuddle close.

She won’t move.

Unwilling to wait, to be with her stillness, I stand and return to the house, to the couch, to the book whose ending is probably as dismal as our family’s current reality. How long do we let her endure this lessened life? Even after we make the call, we won’t know.

Autumn never tells us.

The essay above is a dispatch from 2010, written for a 2016 creative nonfiction class.

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“Anthropologists” in the 24th Century

Star Trek doesn’t know what anthropologists do. That, or the discipline undergoes a radical transformation between now and when TNG is set, in the 24th century.

A few days ago, I watched a season three episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers.” The crew of the Enterprise is called to assist a team of “anthropologists” who have been secretly observing a species of “Bronze Age” humanoids (Mintakans) on another planet.

Pause. Two things.

One, that’s not what anthropologists do. Anthropologists don’t conduct long-term studies of people without their knowledge, consent, or cooperation. That’s unethical, to say the least. The ethnographic methodology is called participant-observation. Not hide-in-a-cave-hidden-by-a-hologram-and-catalog-the-behaviors-of-people-as-if-they-were-an-exotic-species-of-bird. Star Trek seems to think that anthropologists are naturalists, but for humans. (Or, in this case, humanoid aliens.)

This leads to point number two: the whole “Bronze Age” thing, which casts the Mintakans as primitive human Others who are imagined to be from a different time, as opposed to coexisting in the very same century as our technologically advanced “heroes.”* Star Trek‘s (misguided) idea of social evolution gets at the very heart of its most cherished guiding principle: The Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive stipulates that Star Fleet must not interfere with the “natural development” of any alien societies it encounters. This assumes that all societies follow the same trajectory of change over time, passing predetermined stages of (particularly technological) development. These stages seem predicated on a (simplified, Western) notion of human social development on earth. Here Star Trek assumes humanity is a monolithic entity, rather than a complex collection of interconnected cultures that yes, change over time, but not by following a path of predetermined developmental stages. The fictional universe has this problem in general, assuming that each species of alien Star Fleet encounters has but a singular culture.

Furthermore, Star Fleet personnel are forbidden from making their presence known to species or societies that have yet to develop space travel. What if an alien society simply doesn’t value pursuing that area of science and technology? To my (limited) knowledge, that possibility is not considered.

Star Trek‘s vision of the future, like all science fiction, is constrained by its creators’ understandings of the past and present. As Gene Roddenberry and the writers and other folks who worked on the show were embedded in U.S. culture, the show has a particularly Western pop-understanding of multiculturalism, liberalism, and social dynamics. Although it takes pains to present the different species and societies Star Fleet encounters without judgment, Star Trek‘s lack of understanding of how culture operates seriously hinders their ability to do so convincingly. At least for this 21st century anthropologist.

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*Here it is crucial to cite Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s seminal 2003 essay, Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness.

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