Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An actual post about something other than sex

Greta Christina has been on kind of a roll lately, with a very good post taking on the subject of new-agey science-bashing. Its a good defense of science and reason from somebody who's had her share of psychedelic experiences and been profoundly affected by them, but refuses to give way to the kind of New Age irrationalism that many "experienced" (in the Jimi Hendrix sense) people unfortunately give in to. (She also has an earlier post on the same topic that's worth reading.)

Like me, Christina lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. While the Bay Area is one of the most progressive (and sex-positive) places in North America, there is a certain smug mentality that one encounters here that can be very frustrating. We think of ourselves as more enlightened than xtian fundamentalist hotspots like Kansas or South Dakota, but the Bay Area has its share of New Age irrationalists and political fundamentalists who can be just as wacky as any six-day creationist. (Berkeley is a notorious hot spot for this, though at least a few people have a sense of humor about it.)

(Don't even get me started on class issues in the SF Bay Area – for all the professed left/liberalism and rhetoric about "diversity" around here, this is probably one of the hardest places in the US to live if you're at all poorer than upper middle class – economically speaking, the SF Bay Area is up there with New York City as one of America's worst gated communities.)

In the responses to Greta's column, I wrote about some of my experiences with New Age types and my thoughts on this kind of irrationalism:

I haven't read any of Morford above and beyond the columns you've presented, so I don't know what he normally writes about, but his mentality toward science is highly frustrating.

As a scientist (studying the taxonomy of Psilocybe mushrooms, no less) living in the Bay Area, I run into this "New Age" mentality a lot.

I remember talking to somebody a year back about medicinal and toxic plants – she expressed quite matter-of-factly that for any poisonous plant or mushroom, there will be another plant growing nearby that is its specific antidote. When I said I thought this idea was nonsense and could think of plenty of examples to the contrary, she seemed a bit offended. She defended the idea not on its merits, but on the fact that she'd learned it from a medicinal plant guru (forgot his name) who was supposed to be incredibly knowledgeable. When I come across this kind of "fashionable nonsense" among apparently educated people here, I think that perhaps the "progressive" parts of the country like the Bay Area really aren't that far ahead of supposed bastions of ignorance like Kansas. People here just pick different anti-intellectual poisons.

They seem to think that somehow science, and reason and logic in general, are in some way detrimental to an appreciation of the wonder of the universe or some kind of sense of holism. These people really seems to want shortcuts to knowledge, and seem to think there can be an understanding of the whole without understanding of the parts. In fact, they dismiss understanding of the parts as "reductionism", without understanding that both reductionism and holism are vital parts of science.

Daniel Dennett calls this a "skyhook" mentality, a kind of "greedy holism" that demands a grand understanding of the whole without building on an understanding of the parts. Admittedly, its opposite, "greedy reductionism", the idea that you completely understand a phenomenon when you really only understand a small part of it, is a real problem with some scientists. The "gay gene" hypothesis and much of evolutionary psychology are examples of this.

Of course the error that "new age" types make is that they reduce all of science to the caricature of greedy reductionism and use this straw man to defend their own deeply problematic greedy holism.