Let’s find out.
The following is a response to this piece on refugeesfromthecity.blogspot.com
I haven’t really ever been in this position before, but I would rather acknowledge the piece than ignore it.
Hi John – thanks for reading my piece on Scalzi’s blog. I suppose your answer here might highlight the risk of writing a piece on a fantastical premise on the blog of a Sci-Fi writer.
I think you make good and obvious points here about civilization’s debt to science and the scientific method, but since being called an idiot always gets the blood running merrily through the veins, I’ll say a few things:
– Hyperbole is an excellent seed for fiction. The book centers around a magic couch, and so to defend some whimsical speculation in a fantastical book as not adhering to what’s possible in science does not seem germane.
i.e.: Moby Dick is a horrible western; there are no horses!
– The scientific method can be defended righteously. Its implementation cannot.
– The book has as a theme the loss of knowledge throughout history – including the loss we are experiencing now, which is primarily via genetic material and through cultural imperialism. Irrigation advances civilization, true. But Tuvan throat singing enriches it. And the potential of these, scientific or otherwise, is more or less unknown. Certainly to the science of systems they are an irreparable loss. Perhaps within this loss is contained a fascimile of your coal tar derivatives. Perhaps within the loss of any of these other cultures is equal in scale.
– “Idiots such as Parzybok who repudiate the best of Western culture in our intelligentsia are ingrates. The 30 million or so Chinese mothers making their kids study Western classical piano have none of the white-guilt problems that cause overeducated fools in the West to repudiate what’s good about their heritage – they know what works when they see it.”
I think this is a dangerous perspective. Many cultures through time have thought their cultures superior to all others, which in essence is what this argument is. Having lived in Chinese speaking countries and taught English in cram schools, I believe what you’re describing is called cultural hegemony.
I love science and spent many early years of my life wanting to be a scientist. However, I think the world is less black and white than your article seems to imply. All knowledge is not equally valuable to all people, but all knowledge has the potential of great value to some.
November 9, 2008 at 8:24 am
Obviously this John has some issues that need to be worked out.
I read the Big Idea post, I’m a few pages into your book, and I tried but failed to read John’s rant. Of all three, I’d say your book is the most enjoyable. I’m not a sci-fi reader, and so I guess I wasn’t reading it as science.
I can say though that after writing a political blog for a while now, there are some people out there that are best ignored (there’s probably some reason ignore and ignorance share a linguistic root). However, in the end, the platform says it all. Anyone who uses Google Blogger….
November 9, 2008 at 8:33 pm
Ben – I think I pulled the trigger on you too soon. I’m going to leave the post up with an update to that effect. I didn’t get the hyperbole in “The Big Idea” piece, and the reason is that I’m currently researching a piece on Postmodernism, and specifically their connection to the crud that’s creeping into Western medical thought, as charlatans use their excesses as cover for their ideas. For a good primer on this, try “The Racial Economy of Science”, edited by Sandra Harding.
I guess by coincidence, your hyperbolic rhetoric exactly matched honest-to-God serious arguments made by Harding and others (true idiots, all, and I apologize for calling you one and lumping you in with them), both in and out of that book. That is why I took your arguments at face value. If the wording had been slightly different (which of those cultures might have developed a cure for cancer if left alone?) I’d not have written that piece.
We’ll have to agree to disagree on the cultural hegemony bit. I have a bit of experience in the East as well (I’m married to a Chinese woman who also happens to be a Ph.D. in Chemistry, and her views on the cultural divide are a bit interesting – she’s a “banana” to her more superstitious relatives). My judgment of a culture boils down to how complex a thought structure and infrastructure it has, and how great a material well-being it provides its members. By that criterion in this place and time Western culture is it. The key to cultural superiority is the ability to evolve in response to stimulus and stress , and most pre-modern cultures did not have that. China is taking what allows to to be a more evolutionary society from the West, and not that our music is superior to classical Chinese (though in my taste it is) – but it is more complex in its harmonies and organization, and Chinese moms realize that complexity fosters certain kinds of brain development they want their kids to have.
Now we can argue about the changing requirements of an evolutionary society over time – I don’t think that in the materially impoverished world of the Ancients, that Western style open culture is necessarily superior, as in such times of material poverty, the aristocratic classes provided a great service by being patrons of the great thinkers, and I’m not so sure that Athens was superior to Sparta or other modes of organization in that time.
But in this time of relative wealth, there is no other form of organization that’s shown itself to be superior.
One last note- linguistic and genetic diversity are terribly not related, and I’m not lamenting the loss of those South American languages. They are isolates for a reason, and at this point in time, science and scientific thought has passed them by. In fact, it’s probably better for their speakers to lose those languages and take up one that has evolved to express complex thoughts, and most importantly, to interface with the one language that does come from a different part of the brain – math.
I was an exchange student in Lithuania in 1990 and 1991. Around WWI, Lithuanian scientists sat down and basically created a whole Lithuanian scientific lexicon, because Polish and Russian had been the language of their scientists up to that point, and they realized that without that lexicon, Lithuanian was going to die. When the Communists brought them into the USSR, their scientific language was again repressed in favor of Russian. When I was there, they were again examining the work of those scholars of the 1920s, in order to keep Lithuanian from dying in favor of English. A stone-to-bronze age language of South America is going to have nothing with which to even approach the language needed to describe the Industrial Revolution, to say nothing of String Theory, so I think their time has passed.
One thing I do lament for their passing is that history is the only experimental ground we have for testing theories of human behavior, and losing any of that information is a crime, given how fixed so many the variables are in that field. But once the historical tradition has been translated, I”m probably more of the opinion that those languages should go into the dust bin, because their traditions likely contain mostly superstitious nonsense that hold their speakers back from the modern world.
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