“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…”
Matthew 28:19 (English Standard Version)
If there is one thing that unites Evangelical Christianity, it’s The Great Commission: Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to going out into all the world and to bring them the gospel. So enthusiastic about this command are some strains of Christianity that a friend recently walked out of his bedroom stark naked, only to be surprised to find that his front door was open, and that two representatives of the local church were smiling at him and asking if he had time to talk about the Good News.
This urge to tell others about your perspective, with the aim of persuading them of it’s benefits as a world view, is common as a social behaviour. If we accept that humans are tribal animals, then its in our nature to both want people to share our value system, and to distrust people who do not. I’m sure that anyone who’s watched the news will be familiar with this, because it’s at the core of any dispute between any two groups you care to name. Participants will each try to besmirch the name of the opposing group whilst promoting the advantages of their own.
I feel the same pattern can be observed in much the same about some of the periodic science communication conversations that come round time and time again. You know the type, the stories which appear in specialist and public press, claiming that, for example, science literacy levels are embarrassingly low, or that governments are spending too little on science and technology or, today, that hard-to-reach groups are disengaged or unengaged in conversations about science. In short, the bread-and-butter of the interface between science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and publics. Today, I see that Australians are jumping on this band wagon, complaining that communicators need to work harder to engage the unengaged.
The unspoken predicate for all these rhetorical attempts is that STEM is so important that in order to validate your existence as a consumer of its outputs, you must have a deep and meaningful understanding of, and views on, a wide range of STEM topics. If this assumption were not lying at the bottom of the discussion, it would be impossible to make a statement like: “But worse than any of the above [recoiling in horror or laughing heartily]: you may not have reacted at all [to news about STEM strategies]” (Cormick, ibid).
Consider the implications of that sentence.
If you recoiled in horror to news that people don’t do well on exams for which they haven’t prepared, then you are in Our Club. Alternatively, if you laughed at such ignorant fools who care so little for the universe around them, then we also approve of you, for you value Science.
If you celebrated that a government chief scientist is promoting the strategic consideration of STEM issues within a governmental context (and, by the way, I might argue that’s what a government chief scientist is paid to do, whether in Australia or Britain) then you are fighting the good fight, sister. If you shook your head, mildly embarrassed that such a basic step had yet to be properly implemented, then you too are a committed to the fight against the legions of uneducated darkness who threaten civilisation.
If, on the other hand, it passed you by, perhaps because you were distracted by the slightly-over-reported news of the birth of Royal Baby Prince Diana (it’s what she’d have wanted), or by news that supposedly-democratic states misuse surveillance technology, or by the introduction of fascist homophobic policies into Russian law, then you are a sinner! You will burn in hell for not caring the degree to which the government funds STEM development in universities. Your soul is forever damned for putting your immediate priorities (feeding the family, going to work, playing Candy Crush Saga) above the Gospel of STEM. AS Cormick puts it:
That’s three in every ten people lined up at the check-out at your average local shops who probably haven’t once thought of Brian Cox nor dinosaurs nor space, yet alone basic chemistry, in the last year!
I know! Thirty percent have not been saved! 3 in 10 of the population are trapped, forever doomed to not appreciate STEM. Worse, they don’t even understand what they are missing. So sinful are they that they cannot see the light, they deny the truth of the beauty of science, they say things like (brace yourselves, for this is horrifying to the True Believer):
Why do you think it so important that we know about your science?
(quoted in Cormick, ibid)
Such infidels hold deeply heretical perspectives, for example, worrying more about whether something is safe and works than how it works, or take sacrosanct rituals such as The Science Lesson and fail to see the inherent beauty in it. They might even take their teachings from people who aren’t Qualified Experts, and thus form an understanding that doesn’t appreciate the true, rational basis of the Truth being conveyed unto them.
Now, obviously, I am slightly paraphrasing and I am reframing the arguments, but if one were so inclined, one might find it difficult to differentiate between the rhetoric of the Science Zealot from that of the enthusiastic preacher from a pulpit of a Sunday morning.
There is a serious issue here: the less socioeconomic advantages a person has in life, the less engaged with STEM issues they tend to be. This to me is entirely understandable: the valency of a carbon atom tends not to be incredibly valuable information when you are working three minimum wage jobs, nor do you tend to have time to watch the latest Epistle from St Brian of Cox. When your education was punctuated with bullying because of your sexuality, when your ethnicity acted as a boundary in the classroom, or when your parents weren’t home and you had nothing to eat, I frankly find it unsurprising that STEM doesn’t seem like a priority.
This serious discussion, in which the failure to engage with STEM is placed at the door of the unengaged sinner, doesn’t address the underlying problem of social inequality and instead goes for the traditional Evangelical approaches to conversion: send more preachers out into the places where the poor wretched delinquents congregate, and
TESTIFY the Word of the Lord, sorry, promote the benefits of STEM unto the blasphemer unengaged until he (or she!) sees the light.
Such a conclusion about outreach (also what churches call it) can only be supported if you accept that without Science people cannot truly be citizens in society. It’s a fundamentally scientistic position in which we take a small step from the Creed of Scientism “everything that is worth knowing is science” to “unless you know science, you have no worth”.
I, for one, cannot accept that conclusion. I love science, I love the way in which science has transformed the ways in which I perceive the world, and I love the ways in which the world is transformed by science, but science is far from the only way to perceive the world, and it’s a privileged perspective at that.
Because if we accept Evangelical Scientism, we are but a step away from instituting a Science Literacy Inquisition. We are but a step away from using our privilege to oppress people whose perspectives differ from ours. And we are a mere step away from knocking on people’s doors at nine o’clock in the morning to ask them if they’ve heard the Good News about evolution.
Some of the rhetoric around equal marriage has been pretty offensive, but all too often the people speaking don’t think they’re being homophobic. Here are three examples of statements where the person is trying to distance themselves from homophobia whilst simultaneously making homophobic arguments.
After a conversation with Jonny over at Leaving Fundamentalism, this post was a write-up of the discussion we had. Preview here, read the rest over there!
This was originally intended to be a comment on Jonny’s post “5 jobs a Creationist can’t do”, but after an extended conversation on Facebook, we thought my thoughts might be better presented as a post in its own right, extending the discussion.
First, I understand the position that Jonny is taking; all other things being equal, young earth creationism (YEC) is intellectually incompatible with many disciplines. However, there are doubtless people who identify as young earth creationists who are in those disciplines.
An example which springs to mind is nursing (I know of several nurses who believe in YEC), yet effective nursing requires acknowledging that microbes evolve in response to antibiotics. Does this mean these self-defined creationist nurses aren’t really nurses?
What I think is actually meant is that holding YEC beliefs requires one to perform intellectual gymnastics in some way, or to compromise one’s beliefs in order to function effectively within one’s chosen discipline. I note that Answers in Genesis explicitly give this advice:
“Because of the intense persecution and potential discrimination, some have chosen to keep their biblical views “under wraps” until they receive their degrees.”
What does this look like in reality?
Dear Former Archbishop of Canterbury
Some notes on your piece in the Daily Mail, which I won’t link to because I don’t want to increase their hits.
more than two-thirds of Christians feel that they are part of a ‘persecuted minority’.
Interestingly, this is the opposite of what you normally claim when you’re trying to assert that the majority of people in the country are Christian, and therefore you should be allowed to use your bigoted, offensive prejudices to set a social agenda which excludes minority sexualities from equality. On this occasion you’re seeking to feed the persecution complex that so many Christians like to assert.
The problem with that is that a minority, in technical terms, is a function of power, voice and visibility in society. People in same-sex relationships have been powerless and excluded from power structures for years, a situation which the institution you led sought to maintain (after all, homosexuals are sinners, and it’s wrong to facilitate sin by recognising it, right?).
Lack of visible role models, an absence of voice in the public spheres, and an inability to effect social change leads to a number of social outcomes.
Homophobia – allowing stereotypes and prejudice to negatively influence personal, institutional and/or social interactions with people who want or are in same-sex relationships – is legitimised when groups are invisible. This gives rise to bullying, physical violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people. And whilst I’m sure you’ll say that you deplore such behaviour, any actions or statements which perpetuate a state of inequality and powerlessness creates a fertile environment in which such behaviour can flourish.
As a result of this, LGBT people are at much higher risk for stress-related mental health problems (eg. depression and anxiety), a problem in itself, and increased use of non-positive coping mechanisms such as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or risky behaviours, such as unprotected sex. As such, serious health problems, physical and mental, are more pronounced within LGBT communities, along with the associated higher rates of mortality and suicide, particularly in young people. Young LGBT people tend to do less well in the education system and are more likely to be made homeless by parents rejecting them.
Similar patterns have been observed in other minority groups, including ethnic, religious, gender and ability minorities. We know that legitimising even minor discrimination increases the social acceptability of any form of discrimination.
We have been countering this by fighting for small changes: LGBT characters in soaps, high profile community actions, positive news stories enabling politicians to come out and campaigning for changes in laws. Slowly, our voice has been heard, and things are beginning to change. However, young LGBT people still commit suicide at higher rates than straight cohorts, older LGBT people still don’t get the respect they deserve in care institutions and we are still at a disadvantage in society.
To contrast Christians – specifically but not exclusively the Anglican Church for whom you speak – have automatic seats in parliament, have historically had a massive influence over how society has been structured and are rarely out of the press. As a single example, the number of bishops and archbishops who’ve been given column inches to repeat their offensive, wilfully ignorant and factually incorrect bigotry over the last year has, I’m sure, contributed negatively to the self image and health of many in the LGBT communities. And whilst numbers of church attenders and self-identifying Christians are undoubtedly dropping, our society is still culturally Christian, caught up in the moral values of an increasingly secular society.
You go on to say this is evidence that
there lurks an aggressive secularist and relativist approach towards an institution that has glued society together for time immemorial.
Except that institution isn’t fixed, unchanging and constant. Marriage from five thousand years ago is not the same as marriage from five hundred ago, or even fifty years ago. Women are no longer chattels to be bought and sold, rape is no longer a socially acceptable way of taking wives and polygamy has been nominally (if delusionally) forbidden and unseen for the last couple of hundred years. As our concepts of relationships have changed, so have the institutions which formalise them in society. And now you claim that reflecting changes will change the institution beyond recognition.
You say that marriage has a
fundamental religious and civic meaning as an institution orientated towards the upbringing of children.
Except that’s historically not true and I deeply offensive to the large number of (in your view, legitimate) marriages in which procreation does not occur. Contrary to your belief that “traditional” marriages are diminished by reflecting practice in law, you in fact diminish “traditional” and non-traditional relationships which do not confirm to your narrow, normative view of relationships. It is you who diminish the bond of love, not those who seek to join it.
There will be no exemptions for believers who are registrars. … Christian teachers … may face disciplinary action if they cannot express agreement with the new politically-correct orthodoxy.
Unfortunately, it’s not the job of the state to provide exemptions. Would you accept that registrars can opt out of performing mixed ethnicity or mixed religion marriages? I would hope not. Whether teachers like it or not, if the law changes, LGBT people will have the right to get married regardless of their views on it; just as teachers are expected not to bring their party political views to the classroom, so they’re expected to support and uphold the rights, education and dignity of all their students regardless of their backgrounds.
Frankly, Mr Carey, your entire message reminds me of the temper tantrum of a school bully who has been found picking on the weakest and most vulnerable members of the school, and who then tries to bully the teachers into silence when they challenge it. Your religious values – and make no mistake, the only objections I can see are values, for the facts cannot and do not support continued discrimination – are not a legitimate reason to perpetuate a social wrong.
What you regard as a dangerous move towards secularism is, for many people, one to be welcomed. Secularism isn’t about banning religion or excluding religious views from public discussions, it’s about broadening the range of voices to include the broadest possible cross-section of the people in that society. It’s about ensuring that no particular view, however significant from an historical perspective, is privileged and that all people are treated equally.
The sad thing is, Mr Carey, you are more concerned with maintaining a discriminatory, favoured voice, and the power that goes with it, than you are in empowering the dispossessed and allowing the silent to be heard. If I’m honest, this doesn’t really sound like the example of a Jesus who dined with tax-collectors and prostitutes.
I’m sorry that you feel that the campaign for equal marriage is going to inhibit your “right” to discriminate, but ultimately this isn’t about you. It’s about the LGBT people whose lives and health are put at risk by your attitudes and values. Lets focus on the victims here, not the abusers.
My dissertation is going to use a technique called ‘discourse analysis’ to help me understand the ways in which people are talking about a particular alternative cancer therapy, and invariably about the people involved in delivering, using and promoting the therapy. But what is discourse, and why is it important? My aim in this post is break down what we mean by discourse, and why I think it’s important, and useful for my topic.
“The Universe began with a word you know. But which came first? The word, or the thought behind the word? You can’t create language without thought, and you can’t conceive a thought without language. So, which created the other, and thus created the Universe?”
– Lorien, Babylon 5 ‘Whatever Happened to Mr Garibaldi?’ (s4 e02)
As Lorien told Sheridan in Babylon 5, words and thoughts, and therefore attitudes, beliefs and values, are deeply intertwined in such a way that it’s impossible to tell where language shapes our thought and our thoughts shape our language. This is true not only about individuals – after all, this is the basis of going and talking to a counsellor – but also about wider society.
The language used to talk about a subject – spoken or written, in conversation, in formal and informal publications such as newspapers and blogs, on broadcast media or in other locations – both reflects and shapes the attitudes and thoughts we have about the subject. We call this collection of written and spoken communication “discourse”, and we can use discourse analysis to understand the the underlying attitudes and thoughts and how each influence the other.
A classic example of this is looking at the language used in national newspapers and politics to describe asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are those people who travel to Britain from abroad seeking sanctuary from abuse in their own countries, and, wearing my namby-pamby pinko commie liberal T-shirt for a second, their stories are frequently horrific and heartbreaking. (Examples taken from Lynn and Lea 2003 : 446, as quoted in Bryman 2008 p 506.)
However, the people writing and talking about asylum seekers often (and sometimes deliberately) confuse the concepts of asylum seekers with immigrants here for economic, family or other reasons. In addition, the language used often paints an extreme view of what an asylum seeker is. For example, a letter to The Sun stated, “[they should] say no now and again instead of accepting every freebie that comes their way…” a perspective which ignores that under UK law asylum seekers are not legally able to work or claim many benefits.
“Asylum seekers who are genuine should have no qualms about being held in a reception centre”. This quote from a letter to the ever compassionate Daily Mail suggests that people escaping political imprisonment and torture shouldn’t have a problem with being locked up without charge.
A final letter confuses the value, ‘society has a responsibility to support asylum seekers’ with ‘I have a personal responsibility to support asylum seekers’: “A solution to the problem of dispersing asylum seekers is staring us in the face – namely, billet them free of charge on white liberals… White liberals will of course be only to happy to welcome them into their homes. Indeed, it is most odd that they have not been queuing up to offer their services.” (from The Independent).
The use of language contributes to how publics build their view of the topic. In this case, it is argued that these extreme positions (asylum seekers shouldn’t accept ‘freebies’, asylum seeks should be locked up, ‘white liberals’ should house asylum seekers free of charge) influence the ways in which people talk about asylum seekers.
One way of thinking about this is by imagining the range of all possible conversations on a topic as a spectrum running from red at one end to violet at the other, with red and violet representing extreme positions (say, violet being ‘we shouldn’t tolerate asylum seekers being in the country at all’ and red being ‘anyone who says they’re an asylum seeker should be welcomed at the tax-payers expense’ – note this is not intended to represent political party affiliations).
The actual conversations that are being had can be imagined as a window onto the spectrum, and the Lynn and Lea research suggested that in 2003 the conversation was perhaps around the blue indigo region of the spectrum. Every time someone makes a contribution to the conversation – perhaps a violet-, green- or red-tinged comment – that window representing the conversation moves a bit in that direction.
The louder the contribution, the bigger the movement, so a comment from a leading politician would cause a bigger movement than a comment from a drunk bloke in the pub (although, arguably you may not be able to tell the different between their statements). If there are enough people making violet or red contributions then the window might stretch wide, suggesting that public opinion is spread across the entire spectrum. However, if all of the contributions are at one end, then the window is likely to be very narrow.
People who subscribe to the concept of social construction believe that the language used builds the ways in which we view the world, so they often examine the language being used to look at what we mean when we use certain words or concepts. So, in the example I’ve quoted here, we could argue that the language constructs a quite an extreme anti-asylum seeker position, which could perhaps be argued to be borderline racist in nature.
I would personally argue that this is the dominant view in society, and it’s a position that I don’t support. However, I am fascinated by the interplay between the newspapers’ use of language and the attitudes and values of people in society. Do newspapers or people have more influence over the other? Does the language or the thought come first?
It’s for this reason that I think conversations – discourse – are important. It’s rare that I get to cite one of my favourite television programmes when I’m writing, let alone twice in one piece, but I think G’Kar might just have it right:
“Our thoughts form the universe. They are always important.”
– Citizen G’Kar, Babylon 5 ‘The Hour of the Wolf’ (s4 e01)
In my next post, I’ll be discussing several different-but-related approaches to understanding how a particular discourse is being built, and making a decision about which method I am going to use in my project.
Bryman, Alan (2008) Social Research Methods 3rd edition, Oxford University Press (Oxford)
Lynn, Nick & Lea, Susan (2003) ‘”A Phantom Menace and the New Apartheid”: The Social Construction of Asylum Seekers in the United Kingdom’, Discourse and Society, 14 : 425-52
I guess I’m not a typical blogger as I don’t like to generate my own reasons to blog: I blog when there’s a topic which interests me and about which I feel I can say something novel. (Which is another way of saying that a lot of blogs seem to be somewhat echo-chambery – not that echo chambers are inherently a bad thing, but that I don’t necessarily feel sufficiently married to any particular social group that I feel the need to necessarily reinforce my social bonds with that group by echoing discursive themes.)
However, having completed modules in science and the public and communicating science in the information age, and been awarded my post graduate diploma in science and society, I now have to research and write a 15,000 word dissertation. in order to get the full MSc in Science and society degree. (That’s mainly sociology of science and technology, with some philosophy of science, social psychology, linguistics, politics and other odds and sods.)
Well, my research proposal has been accepted. I’ll expand on the detail shortly, but part of the marking criteria includes keeping a regular research log. Rather than keep a purely private log, my intention is to develop it as part of my blog.
First, we are living in a networked world, and my research cannot exist independently of the world in which it exists, so this is a good way of acknowledging engaging what I’m doing with that world.
Second, one of my modules was on science communication in the digital age: if, as the basic thesis of that module proposes, the world of research is being transformed, I don’t think that can be restricted to just the natural sciences. I can do a bit of action research and actually try out the idea of a public lab book, and see how I feel about it, and how it compares with other projects I’ve worked on. May be it won’t work, but negative findings are still findings 😉
Third, the discipline of writing something each week will actually benefit me, ensuring I’m writing down what I’m thinking and allowing me to keep a track of the development of ideas and theories. It will probably allow me to air drafts of sections of the dissertation, and refine the arguments and presentation.
Fourth, I’d be interested in getting feedback on my ideas and actions. The main weakness of Open University study (and it’s not much of a weakness in the grand scheme of things) is that I often feel disconnected from the academic community, and I’d welcome intellectual discussion and constructive criticism of my ideas and action. This is not a licence to slag me off because you don’t like me, social science, my values, my face (you’re not alone in this one) or whatever, and I will cull comments which aren’t constructive, but could be fun for me. (Of course, what will probably happen is no-one will ever comment. Meh.)
So over the coming few months (the dissertation is to be submitted in September 2012) I will try to post a blog at least once a fortnight touching on my research; for example, my next post will be on choosing a methodology for undertaking the research. If you have questions, ideas and comments, please post them.
So, now for the big reveal, what is it I’m studying? I’m interested in the way social groups construct their views of scientific topics, and in particular in medical subjects. I’m also interested in a social group who describe themselves as “skeptics”; they’ve become increasingly active and high profile in the UK and I have a lot of sympathy with a lot of what they say and do, but there’s very little research into them as a social group, influence and norms and values. So, my proposal aims to explore those key areas.
My accepted proposal reads as follows:
The Burzynski Affair: a case study in perspectives on alternative cancer therapy
Patients with terminal cancers, their friends and families often seek out therapies which would not normally be considered as a “last ditch” effort to save their own or loved ones’ lives. An example of this type of therapy, which appears in the press not infrequently, is the “antineoplaston therapy” promoted by the Burzynski Clinic in Texas, USA (http://www.burzynskiclinic.com/). A typical story is that of Chiane Cloete, a five year old girl who has been diagnosed with a supratentorial primitive neuroectodermal tumour in the brain; her parents are seeking to raise £130,000 to get her treatment “not available in the UK” at the Burzynski clinic (Parsons, 2011).
I am interested in exploring how four different groups represent the Burzynski Clinic’s therapies in discourse available publicly. The first group will be that of proponents of the Burzynski Clinic and its work. The principle sources will be the Burzynski website, promotional materials, testimonials (via blogs, tweets and publicly accessible fora) from patients and associated materials.
The second group will be that of skeptics in the UK (the spelling using a ‘k’ comes from the American spelling, and is used to differentiate skepticism – the movement – from scepticism – the philosophical position – although the two are not unrelated). Writing about the emerging skeptical community in the USA in 1993, Hess described skeptics as “antiantiscientists” (Hess, 1993, p 11) who focus on debunking and demystifying “parapsychology … superstition, occultism and ‘pseudoscience’” (ibid. p 11). In the intervening 18 years, a sceptical community has arisen in the UK, complete with its own internet counter-culture and real-world community events (such as skeptics in the pub, and conferences such as Q.E.D.). After skeptics in the UK raised concerns about Burzynski in September 2011, a threat of libel action was made against several of the sceptical voices. The principle sources will be sceptical websites, blogs, tweets and other associated materials of people in the UK who self-identify as skeptics, or who are strongly associated with the skeptic movement in the UK (for example, Dr Ben Goldacre, Robin Ince and Dr Brian Cox).
The third group will be the printed news media in the UK. The principle sources will be Nexis and using Google to find other material hosted on major outlet (ie. national distribution) websites. This will be limited to information available at no direct cost to the consumer.
The fourth group will involve a literature search exploring the view of peer-reviewed scientific journals and associated research (eg. Cochrane reviews). This will be as light-touch as possible, to identify the boundaries of knowledge rather than to provide a considered opinion on the use of such treatments.
In order to undertake this research, the following questions will be considered:
- What language is used by each group to describe the Burzynski therapy, and what are the implications of the language used?
- What are the similarities between the way the Burzynski therapy is represented by each groups, and what are the differences?
- What values are revealed or highlighted by the language used by the contrasting groups?
- How does what each of the groups say compare with what the scientific literature has to say on the issue? What situated knowledge is implicit or explicit in the discourse?
- How are groups (particularly proponents and skeptics) represented by the other participants in the discourse?
- What implications does this analysis of the discourse have for understanding the ways in which an issue is represented in the public?
Exploring these research questions will demonstrate an understanding of the ways in science, scientists and their limitations are understood and represented by contrasting public groups. This will touch on issues raised in S802 such as concepts of anti-science, ethics, expertise, regulation, policy and risk.
Certainly the issue raises questions of what constitutes science and non-science (see for example: Grove, 1989), but also raises the issues of the knowledge boundaries of scientific research (Collins & Pinch, 1998). It also touches on how scientific knowledge is used, constructed and reconstructed in everyday life (Irwin & Wynne, 1996).
- Construct a narrative relating to the Burzynski affair based on publicly available material
- Compare and contrast through discourse analysis four differing perspectives on the Burzynski affair: proponents, skeptics in the UK, UK news media and published papers in scientific journals
- Understand how the perspectives reflect on the construction of scientific knowledge, uncertainty and how the values of each group influence their representation of the issue
Collins, H., & Pinch, T. (1998). The Golem: What You Should Know about Science (Second.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grove, J. (1989). Anti-science. In Defence of Science: Science, Technology and Politics in Modern Society (pp. 151-177). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Hess, D. J. (1993). Science in the New Age: the paranormal, its defenders and debunkers, and American culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Irwin, A., & Wynne, B. (1996). Misunderstanding Science? The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage.
Parsons, R. (2011, December 14). Cancer girl’s £130,000 plea for life-saving operation in US | News. The London Evening Standard. London.