#79: The Need for the Public Understanding of Humanities and Social Science Theory

Words are easy. They are not formulas. You should just be able to read them and understand them instantly. Or so it goes.

We seemingly are living in a time where all the things talked about in the humanities and the social sciences in the recent decades are finally coming to have their day in the public consciousness. Words like “race”, “gender”, (not “class”, that is not of interest ever, really), “narrative,” “history,” “construction,” “capitalism,” “discourse,” “inequality,” “equity” etc. are thrown around with ease that you would think the entire world had just taken advanced theory graduate classes.

But of course, this is not the case. What has happened is that some of these terms – completely taken out of their “habitat”, their historical and philosophical context, have been unleashed as memes into the wild, devoid of their caveats, conditions, footnotes and complications – devoid of all things that make up the equivalent of a mathematical formula.

The perception that the “talking” and “writing” sciences should just be understandable “as is” appears to have made the rounds, and any complexity is denied as it would be deemed to just make this new pseudo-discourse boring, take all the fun out of it, and the possibility to monetize the outcry.

If you have been wondering, should you have been reading anything on this blog so far, what it is that I am actually doing, then you are not alone. It took me, myself and I an entirety of 23 years to comprehend what I have been on about on my blog and in my research. My real interest in this format seems to be the Public Understanding of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

I am trying not to be too pedantic, to have a bit of fun, to not be too dogmatic, to never be mean, and to always be open to new ideas.

Speaking of idea, isn’t that a difficult term? Ah, but I just promised to not be too pedantic, so there’s that for now…

#78: What Is Social Justice – and What Isn’t

Monument to the Burning of Giordano Bruno at the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.
(“To Bruno – from the age he divined  – here where the fire burned”).

If a term like Social Justice has to have any meaning, it needs to solve problems in society.

The biggest social problems typically have one thing in common: They create division.

Overcoming division and enhancing participation in a shared society is thus key to solving such problems.

The first component of Social Justice is thus a focus on society itself, on commonality, on unity, on harmony. Anything that enhances social peace is better than that which creates social strife.

Now to the second component, justice. Justice means a repairing of those aspects of society that are not contributing to social peace, to equal participation, to overcoming division. Problems past, present and future need to be addressed, honestly and openly, and remedies found for repairing the damage caused, and opportunities sought to increase social awareness of social injustice, in order to promote – jointly, collaboratively – social justice.

Social Justice is nothing but social peace, and peace means happiness, productivity, equity of access, equality of worth, shared humanity, acknowledgment of human dignity, even a recognition of the dignity of all life.

Social Justice draws from certain traumatic moments in human history, and aims to learn from them, create justice for the future out of the pain from the past. Social Justice sets itself as a reaction to the Holocaust and other genocides, slavery, mistreatment of others as a group due to culturally constructed differences such as race, class, gender, age, ability, species, and in the future surely the distinction between natural/artificial life forms. All these divisions exist because of culturally constructed differences that are creating differential understandings of others as human or infrahuman (to use Paul Gilroy’s term).

Thus if we truly want to work to enact social justice, some guidelines might help:

  1. We are all living beings with the same rights every human being has. We may be in different standing in society, in different professions, following different beliefs and ideologies, may be richer or poorer, but at the core, we are all the same. We all share in the human community and the human condition.
  2. We also share in community with our planet and the natural world; we are part of them, and our actions or inactions directly affect the natural world, and consequently again ourselves. We are all on the same planet, we share the same home, and everybody has a right to be here.
  3. We shall never forget that the categories of difference that discrimination is based upon are culturally and socially constructed. Reifying and validating these categories of difference will only further division instead of creating justice.
  4. We are all equal in worth and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Every single life matters, and a mistreatment of one is a mistreatment of all. Some of us are more vulnerable than others and may need to be given special consideration and support. Those who are strong have a duty to protect those who are weaker, and not exploit them.
  5. In a Social Justice framework, there can be no thinking of other human beings as enemies. We are all fellow living beings, no matter our differences.
  6. Without honesty, no community can survive. We need to be striving for truth always, wherever it may lead us, irrespective of ideology.
  7. If you favor Social Justice, you cannot hate other human beings. Hatred means dividing yourself from others, preventing a connection and understanding rather than building them.
  8. Free speech is absolute. Everybody should have a right to speak, just as everybody should also have a duty to listen and be respectful of each other. We only learn, we only progress, if we learn together and from each other, and if we progress together. Once people feel that their voices are being suppressed, they may vent their frustration in a space where much less learning will be possible, and further division is created.
  9. We need to recognize that we are all imperfect beings. We all have the right to say or do things and regret them later and be forgiven for them. Social Justice is social healing, first and for all.
  10. There shall not ever again be masters and slaves – no group shall set itself apart from the others. We need to overcome traditional hierarchy, not recreate it.
  11. There needs to be humility about the things we can achieve. We may have high aspirations, but a recognition of our fallibility protects against undue despair and depression. We do not live only to work, we work to live.
  12. There needs to be grace towards those that fail to live up to standards that may be seen as higher. We all travel through time throughout our lives, and the world keeps changing around us. Assume it will happen to you yourself eventually, and draw humility from that thought.

Certainly there could be more points, but for now, I’ll leave it here.

#74: On the Difference Between Scientific and Mythological Thinking

Plato already talked about the difference between logos and mythos. Put very simply, the first, λόγος, stands for truth, reason, and science, whereas the second, μῦθος, stands for story, narrative, and mythology. Both can describe approaches to learning and truth, but they differ critically in how they function and of use they can be to society.

Mythological thinking is focused on beginnings, on genealogies, on staying within a system. In order to understand a story, you need to follow it from the beginning. If you enter it later, you will need to backtrack and figure out what happened before. Mythologies lay building block upon building block, and the building itself always aims for completion. Stories, as Aristotle reminded us, have a beginning that is not arbitrary, and an ending that conclusively ends the story and that brings to a close what was started in the beginning. The final goal, the telos (τέλος), beings to fruition what was laid out in the beginning. If we pay attention throughout the narrative, we may figure out the final goal, the endgame, the purpose of events. Everything has a deeper meaning, nothing happens by accident, signs and portents are everywhere to be found, and the truth can be revealed by those with special knowledge and insight that know how to interpret the flow of events.

In a way, mythological thinking appears to be core to human nature. We are natural storytellers. All human cultures have stories explaining their origins, their culture, their unique identity. Narrativity is what drives societies through their respective cultures. Narratives give us our sense of self, our sense of hierarchies, of destiny, of past and future, of meaning – for better or worse. They are deeply connected to language, and individual words have deep meanings steeped in history, power relations and ways of thinking.

Individual thinkers, philosophers and artists, have an enormous influence on mythologies.

Mythologies can tolerate variance. Any attempt at systematizing mythological narratives will need to make exceptions for multiple versions. Some core tenets of such a narrative may remain constant, but surrounding factors will change, irrespective of the mode of narration. Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies may each center around a specific pantheon, but some details may vary from narrator to narrator, from time period to time period. Gods will have many names, or many bynames signifying different origins or interpretations. Stories about the gods will vary depending on the author, the specific culture, time period, etc. Mythologies can evolve over time, and emphasize different core elements even transcending specific mythological or religious narratives. The myth of the “Great Goddess”, for instance, sees its main deity in different religious contexts, whether it talks about Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Demeter, or Mary, for instance. The demigod Hero who saves the world after undergoing a variety of self-sacrificing trials can be called Prometheus, Hercules, Odysseus, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But behind this variation stands a clear anthropological truth. Religion cannot be disproven because it is not about facts but about deeply held anthropological / psychological / theological / mythological meaning. What we think about reality is deeply influenced by our narratives.

Scientific thinking is different. Beginnings matter in different ways than in narratives. Science does not care about narratives. It does not care what Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Max Planck, Archimedes, Richard Dawkins or even Neil DeGrasse Tyson my think. While there is Norse mythology according to Icelandic or German traditions, to Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, Wagner or Tolkien, science is the same everywhere. It matters not one iota whether Einstein discovered Special and General Relativity, somebody else would have eventually – or not. Science describes reality, and reality does not care about narratives. You may need narrative power to explain science (and none do it better than the likes of Dawkins and Tyson), but again, science does not care. It is true regardless.

Whether we know how the universe truly began may or may not inform important technologies derived from our scientific knowledge about the beginning, but knowledge about its beginning is immaterial to our contemporary reality. The so-called laws of science are mere descriptions of reality. Planck did not disprove Einstein, who did not disprove Newton (as it is frequently said). Quantum physics describes a different lens on the same reality as Einsteinian relativity or Newtonian mechanics. Relativity is an important consideration when discussing very fast objects, but for our day-to-day lives, Newton does just fine. No matter how fast humans move on Earth, we will never even approach the speed of light, and time dilation does not matter to us. And unless we look at very small particles, we need not contend with quantum physics. Whether space has 3 dimensions or 4 or more does not change our day-to-day lives.

If Darwin made a mistake, that does not unravel the theory of evolution. Einstein underestimated the importance of quantum physics, but that does not take away from quantum physics. Newton did not think about objects traveling close to the speed of light affecting their passage of time, but that does not disprove his theory of gravity. Why? Because science is based on observable reality, on repeatable experiments and observations, on falsifiability, and on a community of free-thinking scholars all eager to compete with each other in the discovery of scientific principles underlying reality.

In mythological thinking, beginnings matter and individual thinkers can make a big difference. In scientific thinking, the latest and newest findings matter, and individual scientists – as accomplished and justifiably famous as they may be – do not matter with respect to their discoveries.

We see this difference being played out right now in the times of Coronavirus. Those believing that it is all a big conspiracy will point out that early in 2020, some scientists said masks do not make a difference, and the conspiracists will assume that this was somehow an original truth and what scientists say now (that masks matter) is a lie. But science only analyzes the data. We learned that the virus spreads in ways that indeed make mask wearing necessary to protect yourself and others. (We also were able to make more masks in the meantime and do not have to ration them for hospital workers as we had to in early 2020).

In science, the majority opinion matters because it is based on the competitive attempts of all scientists to discover reality. In science, of a specific hypothesis or even theory is disproven, science benefits even more – and scientists will applaud this, bruised egos aside. There cannot be “renegade scientists” – because all scientists are, in a sense, renegades already. “Scientific consensus” means that the burden of evidence supporting a hypothesis or theory is so great that the likelihood of it being wrong is low; but should there be evidence overturning a specific way of thinking, it will be welcome, and will be invited with great interest as it serves the larger interest, the search for truth.

In the end, the great seeker of compromise, Stephen J. Gould, spoke of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria. Science and religion (or mythology) seek different answers, both, ideally, speaking to our human quest for meaning. But when it comes to confronting a real-world problem, whether it is a pandemic or climate change, I prefer to listen to the majority of scientists over singular renegade voices focusing on narratives and conspiracy mythologies.

Mythos may be good for the soul, but logos ensures our survival.

#66: Democracy Needs Well-Educated Citizens

Democracy is a participatory activity. While not everyone can (or should) run for office, being a good citizen extends to much more than engaging in the business of politics. It begins with embracing the dignity of being the sovereign – or, more clearly, part of the group that constitutes the sovereign – and recognizing that it comes with responsibilities.

The first responsibility is to that without which no society can function in the long run: a commitment to the truth. Without a shared truth, there can be no society. Without the recognition of facts and science, there can be no community. We cannot live in a world together in peace if we claim to be in the possession of different sets of facts.

A fact is something that is true without need for interpretation. To recognize facts is typically not that difficult. Something either happened or not, something is either true or false, something happens with a certain likelihood or not (which is more complicated to understand – probability is difficult to understand for human beings, it seems), some things can be predicted to occur given a certain set of parameters and trends (again, not that easy if it is not a linear growth), etc.

Then there are things that need interpretation, because they are not immediately clear because the facts are not yet completely known, or because some fields of science and knowledge production are focused not on recognizing facts, but on recognizing human psychology, behavior and culture. Even then you need not despair, because also for these “fuzzy” sciences there are methods.

What holds true for all of science and knowledge production and fact-gathering: None of this can happen in a vacuum, and without substantial education. If the overwhelming majority of researchers agree on a set of facts and/or interpretations, it is probably more likely to be true or not. Truth, of course, can be evolving, based on our collective knowledge about the object for which a certain truth is claimed. Criticism is important, but it needs to be grounded in truth, not mere rejection of authority. Experts exist for a reason: In a complex world, none of us can be experts in everything, and we all need to trust others to provide reliable information for all.

John Dewey already pointed to the necessary connection between democracy and education. Immanuel Kant showed that without internalizing reason and morality, there can be no democracy, as we all are participants in this society. Without education – and behavior grounded in facts, science, and morality – there can be no democracy. We cannot take democracy for granted, but so many of us seemingly are doing just that.

What does that mean for our future? Does a lack of education, a lack of willingness to do the hard work of being a citizen, the lack of willingness to take care of each other, does all this point to the inevitable impossibility of maintaining democracy? Are we really willing to succumb to the alternative?

#60: How We Know that the New Coronavirus Is a Real Threat

There are all kinds of stories out there claiming that the threat posed by the New Coronavirus (Covid19 / SARS-CoV-2) would not be real, and that everything is a big global conspiracy for some typically unspecified sinister purpose. Allegedly, the tests are said to be meaningless, and even if there was a threat, it would be marginal, comparable to a seasonal flu. Third, even if there was a threat, it would be dangerous only to the elderly and those that are already vulnerable, and that this would just be one of the normal risks of life, and that we cannot risk the fates of young people for the sake of protecting those allegedly close to death anyway.

How to answer this? If you try to argue with such positions, you may not get far with calling them conspiracy theorists, (Cov-)idiots, or any other insult that you may think helpful. It’s not helpful. In my experience, such positions exists due to an actual and serious concern about the present dangers of lockdowns, about the lives of children, the fate of our economy, the fates of elderly suffering and dying in silence in hospitals, rehab facilities, hospices and retirement homes, and the isolation enforced on grandparents from their children and grandchildren. Additionally, there are perceived threats to the freedoms of speech, of assembly, of protest, etc. All these concerns are real. They are not trivial, they need answers and not ridicule.

The reason that people may have to frame their concerns in conspiratorial ways may well be that these concerns are not taken seriously, not even in part, and that scientists and politicians are horrible at explaining the reasons for the preventative measures taken.

Let me say that first, I am not a medical doctor, I have no degrees or experience in virology, epidemiology, or public health when it comes to matters of disease prevention. I am an interdisciplinary cultural/social/political theorist and historian, with a specialization in humanistic gerontology (or age studies). This is important. Everybody should know their limits. I can tell you something about how people have historically and presently thought and conceptualized their lives, how societies function, how people have been thinking about politics, and how all this may have influenced also how we think about matters of health, life, death and the beyond. I am concerned, for instance, about how people think and feel about aging and old age, and not about the biology of aging.

If I were to say anything medically about Covid19, I would have to research information online. I can do that, but – despite all my academic training in the disciplines mentioned above – I am not trained to evaluate medical information. If I were to research this data on my own, I would certainly display all the symptoms of a first-year medical student: everything would be so overwhelming that I would basically believe everything, and probably display symptoms. There is a reason that medical practitioners and researchers study for many, many, many years, and have to conduct guided research on their own and/or practice medicine for yet many, many more years before finally being able to be considered fully trained. Science may be accessible to anyone, but it requires all this training for a reason. It is complicated, oftentimes counter-intuitive, and laborious.

Furthermore, when it comes to new or unsettled science, you will always find scientists who disagree with the majority opinion; there may even not be a majority opinion at all. This can be even more confounding to a lay audience, and to evaluate frontier science should be left to the experts, and the safest bet is to trust the majority opinion, especially if it comes from researchers and practitioners from around the globe. Yes, the Chinese government initially withheld necessary information, and this was relevant in the initial phases of the pandemic. But by now, we – that is, the experts, but also all of us if we have been paying attention to the news – we all know much more, and we do not anymore rely on the Chinese dictatorship to tell us what’s going on. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) by now seems to have learnt from their mistakes. If experts from countries with governments that seriously do not agree on anything else can agree on Covid19, that agreement should not be underestimated. No matter who you ask, experts from the EU, the US, from Israel, from Canada, from Mexico, from Russia, from China, from Iran, from Saudi Arabia, from India, from Pakistan, from Australia, from Nigeria, from South Africa, from wherever you could possibly think of, if all of them agree, then we should listen intently.

Thus, 1., as laid out before, a global conspiracy is really not likely to happen. The Bill and Melinda Gates has been very much interested at fighting at diseases around the globe, and have frequently warned about the dangers of a coming pandemic. The likelihood of that happening has been, and continues to be, extremely high. After H1N1, SARS-1, MERS, yet another virus transmitted through the respiratory tract was likely to emerge, and any betting person would have assumed it could be a Coronavirus. There is nothing sinister about preparations such as the Pandemic 201 scenario conducted just last year. Also, Covid19 will not be the last Coronavirus to haunt us. We keep bothering nature, and nature will bother us back.

2., the tests are not perfect, but they have been shown to be a good predictor, and I would seriously follow medical and scientific advice. Not a single country benefits from rising infection numbers, from hospitals overburdened, from people dying prematurely. There have been very clear numbers about Covid19 actually killing people, or about hastening mortality – which is the same thing. If a person would have lived longer without a Covid19 infection, then the virus contributed to their death, case closed. Any speculation on the order whether a person died “with” or “from” Covid19 is irrelevant sophistry.

3., masks work, distance works, and airing out works. Independent experts have shown so. Yes, it seems that older people are more at risk. Some of them die close to their life expectancy at birth. But that is a misleading value. If the “life expectancy at birth” is 80, that means that a baby born now will have a chance to live till 80, statistically. But there is a different value also. If a person is currently 80, they still have 10-15 more years life expectancy at 80. If they are 90, they could actually grow to be over 100. This may sound confusing, but again, it is for the experts to decide. Now, who is to decide which life has value or not? Are we seriously considering senicide, the killing (or “letting die”) of the elderly? We are speaking actually of people older than 50 or 60. These are people who still fulfill many social functions, and they also, by the way, have a right to live their life.

Some people are uncomfortable with restrictions like masks and distancing posed upon children or younger people, assuming their risk of dying would be less. We don’t quite know whether this risk may actually climb, as it did during the Spanish Flu, and we also are seeing severe consequences to infection with Covid19, including neurological damage, and possibly permanent impairment of functions of several organs. This disease is new, and from all we know, very serious. It is much worse than the flu (which can be deadly also, but less so). And if it comes to preexisting conditions that may affect whether you survive or not, whether you recover with still much damage or not; we all have such conditions probably, whether we know it or not.

The discomfort or psychological damage of people is serious; but long-term illness or even death are worse. If in order to protect those that need protecting we all need to limit our normal activities, than this is what we will have to do. We have to do that smartly and with as much consideration for all of us as possible, but if we are to survive this as human beings, wearing masks and distancing and airing out are really not too much to ask.

We know that the threat is real because the majority of scientists and experts agrees. Should that agreement break down completely, we can reconsider. But for now, this is real, and we need to act accordingly.