Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.
— Carl Sagan
Whatever it Is, I’m Against It.
— Song by the Capaces sung in Horse Feathers by Groucho Marx
At a meeting a few years ago on food technology trends, an activist who was challenged on the underlying scientific data that supported his claim that natural, organic, locally produced foods were healthier and safer responded with this:
Hearing this story from a friend, neither he nor I could fathom where this attitude came from. Now, I think I know.
By now, most people have heard of Critical Race Theory (CRT), but it is part of a much broader field called “Critical Theory” (CT). This theory encompasses and challenges race, but also colonialism, Christianity, teaching, feminism, gays (sex and gender), history, math, the myth of progress, science and medicine. “Oppression” appears to be the common theme that ties the different aspects of CT together and it is something that must be continually identified, even in its most obscure and insignificant instances but, in the case of the oppressed, celebrated.
The rejection of science and medicine by Critical Theory, which is often shortened to just “Theory,” is truly “critical.”
Theory is also called postmodernism or Social Justice. “Theory” is capitalized because those that advance this framework believe it is truth. In fact, not just truth, but the only truth that can never be denied. Legitimate disagreement is not an option and, if you don’t agree, you will be canceled. If you are a student, you will not be allowed to challenge the teacher. You are just perpetuating the current power structure that excludes people not in that power structure (pretty much everyone except for white, Western, males).
Postmodernists object to the idea that rationality, evidence and science can lead to objective truth because all they do is to continue to impose their current power structure on marginalized people and countries. The “they” are is largely white Western heterosexual males. In turn, these ideas marginalize “nonrational, nonscientific forms of knowledge production from elsewhere.” The knowledge produced by these liberal ideas, in areas like science and medicine, not only marginalize those producing knowledge from elsewhere, they are both invalid and oppressive.
Postmodernists believe then, that we must reject both the ideas that any knowledge can be objective and value free but also the idea that there are any truths that are universal. For example, the science that instructs us to believe that evolution is real, that climate is warming, that benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks for most of us and that the earth revolves around the sun, are just value-laden assertions by Western elites.
According to postmodernists, the asserted Western truths must be rejected and instead, we should listen only to those whose knowledge has been undervalued and who rely on emotion, personal experience, traditional narratives, customs, spiritual beliefs, folk wisdom, folklore and witchcraft. Hearing from people with these “oppressed identities will give us “extra dimensions of sight.”
Again, these nonrational, nonscientific forms of knowledge production represent the Truth and cannot be disputed.
Interestingly, during COVID many people disputed the science coming from the government, but some social media sites treated that government science as truth and canceled anyone who disputed that science. Postmodernists would reject any Western science pronouncements and would listen only to the learned experiences from those who are marginalized.
Medicine may be viewed as “applied science” where most believe there are universal truths in treating patients the same way. This may be changing somewhat as we move toward precision medicine that takes into account individual variability in genes, microbiome, environment and lifestyle. But that is a far cry from postmodernists who maintain that “diagnosing, treating and curing disabilities is a cynical practice dependent on corrupt “ableist” assumptions upheld by a neoliberal system.” “Abelism” is used to describe an attitude that disabilities need to be corrected and people with disabilities should not be categorized that way.
That is, Postmodernists object to categories like “healthy” (and unhealthy) which implies that healthy people are more highly valued than unhealthy people. If someone has a disability, neither they nor anyone else should regard it as something to be treated, but rather treat it as an aspect of their identity. Doctors, who suggest treating disabilities, are engaging in “healthism.” Even further, some claim that if those with disabilities do not claim their perpetual victim status, they “are complicit with the powers of evil.”
For example, postmodernists object to the American Medical Association’s classification of obesity as a disease (I agree with this). They go one step further, however, in instructing people to believe that obesity is healthy. An additional problem is “nutritionism,” which is an excessive focus on the relevance of the nutritional value of foods.
Ten years ago a French scientist observed that, “postmodernist thought has mostly gone unnoticed by scientists, despite its growing importance in the twentieth century.” A recent poll found that 54% of Americans now believe that we cannot establish truth objectively. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we find postmodern concepts creeping into the press, business, academics, entertainment and politics.
Even if we believe that there are many instances of oppression, is it really time to jettison science and medicine? Or is this just “rejectionism.”
The information in this post comes primarily from a well-written book called Cynical Critical Theories by Pluckrose and Lindsay (2020).