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The Joy of Subjectivity

by on April 19, 2014

                                                                                 The Joy of Subjectivity

                                                                                     by  Marco M. Pardi

 

“Without data, you have only opinion.” Attributed to Sigmund Freud

When I remembered to do so, I began my college classes with the simple statement, “This course is biased.” Among those who were conscious there was usually some stirring.

I then proceeded to elucidate how. I was not merely a cardboard cut out, I was a developing person of a certain age, ethnicity, background, experience, education, etc., etc. Students who registered for Anthropology classes got me (at one particular State College), the sole instructor. Until I received tenure, which I did within 3 years, I had no say in the choice of textbook. However, not being one to stand in class and read the book aloud, I would emphasize some parts of it, gloss others, and ignore what I felt irrelevant. I also felt personal real world experience could be valuable.

While some students seemed taken aback at such candor, most readily understood the fundamental nature of social interaction. It seemed to sink in at the collective “Uh huh” level. But there was an undercurrent abroad in the student population, perhaps concentrically intensifying inward from the general public to the general college students to the “science” students. That undercurrent was the presumption that while the instructor was a subjective human (“Oh, yeah. Everyone knows that.”) the material was not; the material was objective. After all, it’s in a book, isn’t it? And, the book usually includes data. Bar graphs, Venn diagrams, neat pictures. So, the instructor could not help but be drawn toward the objective point on the compass. After all, he/she was trained.

Thus did the classrooms fill with first-college-semester Supplicants and less than two year Neophytes, some hoping to progress to Upper Division and Acolyte status in their vocational calling to the Priesthood of Scientism, a perverse and dogmatic interpretation of science. For they had come to hear the Word. And the Word was Data. But first they must be purged of Original Sin, the sin of having original thoughts despite the best efforts of the K-12 system to crush the insidious mechanisms from which these spring.

My admission of real world bias in the nature of the classroom may have struck some as unscientific heresy, even anathema. Supporting this misunderstanding of science was an equally woeful ignorance of history. The words science and scientist did not gain common parlance until William Whewell coined scientist in the 19th century. Until then those who studied nature were known as natural philosophers. Though few bother to look, this can still be seen in the apex degree Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). More modern societies award the D.Sc., or Doctor of Science.

“Doctor” simply means licensed to practice, which should be obvious from the ubiquitous “Doctors” peddling their evangelical religious twaddle. “Philosophy”, a more amorphous concept, distills to a core set of beliefs, concepts and attitudes of an individual or group. Also described as a search for wisdom, it does not implicitly claim to have found that wisdom, unless it is being practiced by the wrong doctors.

Thus arose a core set of beliefs, concepts and attitudes generally called the sciences. The above cited individual very quickly became irrelevant except as a spokesperson for this presumably monolithic corporate entity.   

I have written elsewhere about science being a totally open yet organized means of exploration and discovery and not a subject merely to be taught as fait accompli. True science attempts to answer the question, What if, not just the question, What is. I will not flog that deceased equine further. I am here concerned with the genesis of the cult of scientism, its pernicious metastasis throughout the semi-educated and even the over educated world, and the often unacknowledged ramifications for the existence and survival of self value.

Consider the times we have said, or have heard others say, “I know what science says, but I know what I (saw, heard, felt, etc.)” I’m betting that was said in camera, and even then to only a trusted audience. After all, the Brethren and their agents gave up wearing their robes in public long ago. We are cautious lest they denounce us as “unscientific”. But, why?

The rules of early science were just congealing when Sigmund Freud came to prominence. It was still a time when, especially in the behavioral sciences, protocols for repeatable observations and replicable results were weak. In reading hundreds of pages by and about Freud I have not yet seen the quote attributed to him above. So far, then, I find it ironic that it should be so attributed when the great works he issued were clearly based on limited and skewed observations, yielding data he then tortured to serve his presumptive conclusions about Mankind. Indeed, the later Cardinals of the Faith must surely have turned scarlet upon their examination.

But what about that examination, known as Peer Review? A close examination of the examination reveals that The Imprimatur, the seal of approval, is awarded to those whose work supports and expands the Holy Literature. Others, whose protocols meet or exceed the standards but result in significantly new or disagreeable findings are ranged from heresy to outright anathema. There is a long list of scientists who were ostracized only to be quietly vindicated later, after their careers had been sidelined or destroyed. Examples of the outright censorship in the purportedly open field of science can be found in the famous TED talks. Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D., author of more than eighty technical papers and ten books was a Cambridge Fellow and a Royal Society Research Fellow in cell biology. He, and others like him, have been banned from TED talks. His findings differ from the Revealed Wisdom.

It could be said that some of the worst offenders in the congregations of scientism are college instructors. Throughout the years in seminary, they crafted papers and toiled sequentially through classes like so many rosary beads. Awarded even the highest degrees, they often have demonstrated little more than adroitness at navigating the wickets, hopscotching their way from the back of the classroom to the front. The final conferral of the robe and mantle marked their ordination into the order. They were trusted by their peers.

At colleges and universities other than the one at which I have recently been teaching I asked psychology and sociology instructors if they had ever been to a Medium. After the laughter and denials died down, I asked why not. “Unscientific” was the core of the responses. Oh, so pronouncement of a verdict, without first hand examination of the evidence, is scientific? Apparently so. I did find a very few who were open to the idea, but would never admit to it publically.    

What is most heartening, if not sad at the same time, is the apparently growing disconnect between students and their instructors. My conversations with students suggest this is not a turning away from science, but rather from scientism, a very healthy trend. The exponentially growing availability of information and perspectives is leaving behind those who cling to discipline bound dogma. Increasingly, subject matter is to be “learned for the test” not for the foundation of future learning.

Instructors, and thus far self censoring practicing scientists should become aware of this and shift the emphasis from what to learn to how to learn, understanding all the while that “data” are meaningful only at the meta-level; We each ultimately are who we are, beneath whatever superficials may seem to group us or connect us.

The classroom very much reminds me of a church congregation at a service. Many hours of candid talks with parish priests I associated with as part of the early hospice movement brought out the admission, and the caveat, that one does not go from parishioner to parishioner attempting to elicit something deeper and more personally meaningful than that which the Catechism espouses. As long as the answers basically match the text one can be sure one is among the faithful. The same seems to hold true in classrooms; tests are more often measures of adherence, not of learning. While the process becomes more intricate as one progresses through the academic ranks, it remains one in which the candidate successfully portrays conformity while concealing personhood.

This drive to succeed by “tried and true” measures is the spike through the heart of the very subjectivity from which new ideas arise.     

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10 Comments
  1. I believe this post and this article are relating to the same idea. http://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978
    The problem is if there are certain things you believe to be true, you don’t know to question them. I do recall in your classes that is exactly what you did. You made me questions things I never otherwise would have. Your first class my world was turned upside down. By the 3rd or 4th I learned this is what true learning was about. Not the memorization of the book’s text.

  2. Thank you, Mary. I look back on the years in which you were a student and shudder that I knew so little at the time. I’m still so very ignorant. I had not seen the article you provide, and am now deeply enjoying it. Thank you, Marco

  3. Marco, many times in my life I too found myself pondering on the `rightfull-ness` of so many cultured persons denying from the start phenomena that they were not familiar with, without ever bothering to `go look`.
    As for the Medium thing you mention, you can imagine how the OBE phenomena was looked upon (or frowned upon ) even only ten years ago (well, at least in my own environment).
    And besides, SCIENCE itself (big capital letters) keeps changing every few years !! …so how does one justify that ? i mean, how do they justify their beliefs or the `rightful-ness` of their beliefs??

    When i first tentatively mentioned OBEs years ago, i was asked if i had eaten mushrooms the night before (:-) ), now it seems to be all the rage.

    A real scientist to me should be the first to admit that the only thing we can be sure of is that we know very very little . The only truth is we are always learning !! and our scientific truths are only truths for the time being…. and this is all right , because it is good that we are always learning and growing.
    I most thoroughly envy your studenst who found such a teacher in you!
    Thank you for always making me `think` 😉 !

  4. Thank you, FOAL. Yes, even today, especially in America there is great resistance throughout society to the entire NDE/OBE spectrum. I find this odd in a society that claims spirituality as its primary value. And, those who treasure science appear to have little to no understanding of the core values of science. I know you must find it difficult at times to be a thinker among non-thinkers. We do indeed live alone, finding ourselves able to connect at some level with only a few. Marco

  5. The most important thing to know in science, as in life, is not so much how to remember and repeat the known and accepted doctrine of the day, but to question the validity and truth of that doctrine. Knowing isn’t enough; it requires thinking. Everything which has attained the status of fact entered this world as a subjective opinion, and was then (hopefully) put through testing using the “scientific method”. The problem with this is that, not just the results, but the tests themselves may be skewed to support the hypothesis in question.

    Some of the more contentious moments in my existence come from expounding on the scientific method in defining truth for a given superlative statement. Maybe it’s just me being contrary, but when my husband tells me that something was absolute just because it was true on one occasion, I find myself telling him that one test is not statistically significant. If he wants me to believe that his statement is true, then he should run the same test a thousand times with essentially the same results, and then maybe I will accept his statement as fact -for the moment.

    Faith is believing in something without proof of its truth. Skepticism is our friend here, but lack of belief does not equal lack of that truth which we so ardently seek. In my lifetime, I have visited a medium, and experienced both NDE and OBE, and yet hesitate to speak of them with most people because I have been scoffed at for doing so.

    If scientific “data” was static, we would still be living in the dark ages. Listen, dear people, no matter what you’ve been told, the world is not flat, and the sun does not revolve around the earth.

    Thank you, Marco, not only for teaching me how to think, but for introducing me to people around whom an original thought is not considered heresy. Rose

  6. I echo FOAL’s comment. Thank you, Rose. I appreciate the days and years of solitude you have experienced. Marco

  7. In life’s final summation, my dear friend, we shall all be counted alone.

  8. Tristan Bohling permalink

    “The classroom very much reminds me of a church congregation at a service.” That statement best describes my sentiments towards a great deal of the classes I’ve taken throughout my experiences.at public schools and colleges (and especally grades 1 through 7, which I had spent at a Presbyterian private school). I’ve found in recent years that it is sometimes better to teach oneself and to pursue the subjects that captivates ones interest in order to formulate scientific observations and questions instead of relying solely on a teacher’s observations within the classroom setting. Though, as many of us probably already know, college usually requires one to adhere to the agenda of the teacher and the institution in order to earn a degree, However, I was fortunate enough to come across a few teachers, such as you, Professor Pardi, who had an unconventional but efficient approach to teaching and encouraged students like myself to think outside of the box.

  9. Thank you, Tristan. I consider you to be far more than just a survivor. Whether you encourage it or not, people will look to you throughout your life in hope of gaining at least some of your wisdom. I was encouraged by being in the same class with you. Marco

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