Environment

Green With Skepticism: Top 3 Uncritical Pet Peeves

This is my first (of hopefully many!) environmental posts from a skeptics perspective. My education has been entirely in the field of environmental studies and I have blogged on various blogs about environmental topics so hopefully that gives me a little bit of credibility! In this first post I look at three super annoying uncritical assumptions that some environmentalists have: natural being inherently better, local knowledge being better than scientific knowledge and scientific knowledge being colonial and thus useless.

I am an environmentalist. I am a vegetarian, I recycle, I don’t have a license (so I take transit everywhere) and I did my undergraduate degree (and now my masters degree) in environmental studies. I firmly believe that we should be doing the best to preserve the environment for purely anthropocentric reasons (the fact that I a) admit that and b) prefer anthropocentrism over ecocentrism already puts me miles apart from most others in my faculty. People will often refuse to admit that simply by attributing value to the environment they are already performing an act of anthropocentrism! Logic fails them.). Humans are unique and wonderful… sustaining human life means understanding and working with the environment – hence I am environmentalist. It is interesting being an environmentalist in the skeptic’s world because there are so many things automatically attributed to environmentalists that are not always true. However – having been surrounded by avid hippies for the past six years I can see why some skeptics would be a bit turned off from the environmental movement. I plan on writing a few posts about environmentalism in the next few months so for this first one I want to talk about three of the most frustrating themes that come up in my faculty that I constantly have to fight against. (Some of the things I bring up I will discuss more later on [ie: GMO’s])

1. Natural is inherently better

Many people in the faculty like to hold the claim that natural things are inherently better than synthetic things. With this comes a war against GMOs, vaccines, modern medicines and synthetic clothing. It is horrible going to a pot luck at my faculty because you usually need to bring a dish that is vegan, organic and free of wheat extract. In every class you’ll be warned about the dangers of your makeup, taking advil/Tylenol and drinking anything with aspartame. They like to wear hemp clothing (that they make themselves) and hold crocheting circles to teach one another how to make organic socks for their children. While some of their claims hold true (there are a lot of chemicals in makeup and I’m still a bit up in the air about aspartame… but based on the research I’ve done I mostly think it’s fine in moderation) the claims in general and creating a community of misinformation is really dangerous. There is an automatic rejection of things that have any sort of synthetic chemical in them and they usually back this fear up by saying “well there are so many chemicals!”… Ask them what those chemicals do…. “they make you sick! And I have this one friend whose mom’s best friend had a bad chemical reaction to hair dye and it burned her whole scalp!”

The GMO topic is especially scary because they seem to think that the world can be fed 100% on organic foods. This may be the case, but when you’re advocating for starving countries, that are existing within the current food framework not an ideal/fair one, NOT to accept GMO foods it can become pretty harmful. Also there are a lot of parents in the faculty and I have heard some of them (definitely more than 5 that I personally know) say that they will no longer rely on traditional medicine to treat their children because it can actually be more dangerous than the original sickness. So while I support people wanting to wear itchy hemp clothes… I do not support people avoiding modern medicine based on anecdotal evidence.

2. Value of local and “old” knowledge

People in the faculty usually think deferring to old and/or local knowledge is better than scientific or recently developed knowledge. People in the faculty like to use aboriginal methodologies based on circular knowledge (whatever that means) to do their research. They put the knowledge of locals in an area above the knowledge produced by scientists because the scientists don’t live there so they don’t *really* understand the migration path of the caribou… only the local people do (apparently). Additionally there are professors in the faculty that constantly encourage people to talk to “elders” to gain knowledge about the world. They say that current knowledge has been created with too many ideologies and interests in mind and thus to get true wisdom and knowledge about the world you have to talk to elders. Note the words “you  have to” in that sentence. So if you want to know when to plant a tomato seed “you have to” speak with someone who has done it for a long time, you can’t just read a book.

The worst part about this topic is how sensitive it is here in Canada. When you start to challenge aboriginal ways of knowing there is an automatic response of “well don’t we at least owe it to them to see things through their eyes?”… Umm, no… not really. We owe it to them to treat them like normal human beings which means challenging their “ways of knowing” and finding a common language that involves modern ways of understanding.

Side note: I had a prof one  year who was super into this “elders” thing… but he also believed that space exploration is totally horrible because once humans go into space they are no longer “human” because humans are only human based on the context of living on Earth. So once we leave Earth we are no longer “earthings” or “humans” we are aliens. WEIRD, right!?

3. Science is colonial

The trouble with arguing against all of these things is this argument that you get back: well scientific knowledge is colonial and therefore it isn’t useful in discussions. Because science is a western, imperial form of knowing about the world, they argue that it shouldn’t be use. They say that when you come from a scientific point of view that you are automatically oppressing the local and old knowledge. AND that because science is a western tradition that the knowledge ALWAYS comes with interests and therefore it can’t be trusted to be “real truth”. These two statements make it literally impossible to argue against the first two things I’ve talked about. Scientific knowledge about GMO’s and vaccines are seen are “useless” because the studies have be done with too many interests. People funding science just want to ensure that their products will still be bought and that is why studies end up showing GMOs as being okay or vaccines not causing autism.

It’s really unfortunate because a lot of the people in the faculty are really intelligent, but they take this very harsh stance against the mainstream. This stance includes denying most science and even ridiculing science. Most people are very harsh towards the more scientifically inclined in the faculty saying that it “isn’t fair” that scientists seem to think their knowledge is better than social scientists and that instead of social scientists having to change to meet the rigour of physical scientists that physical scientists need to learn how to use qualitative methodologies in their work in order to represent local/old/traditional knowledge. “But how can physics have different laws based on different traditions?” you might ask…. Who knows….. but apparently some aboriginals have answers that science is oppressing with their laws.

Now, not all environmentalists think this way… these are simply the common sentiments that are shared by students (undergraduate, masters and PhD) within my faculty. I have also found that when I tell people I study environmental studies that sometimes they’ll say “oh so you only eat organic, you know that’s bullshit, right?” or something along those lines. No, I don’t eat organic but I do try to limit my pressure on the earth’s environment through other actions. I also try to challenge these anti-science and anti-skeptical assumptions about the world that appear in the environmentalist studies realm. If you push them hard enough for long enough some will admit that they are simply being ideological and unrealistic about the real state of the world. So when you meet an environmentalist talk to them about these topics and if they believe one or two or all – then challenge them!! Because the environmental movement needs more straight thinkers who understand the importance of science and how it positively informs politics, social issues and education.

Like I said, this is numero unero in an unknown number of posts about the environment. Next week I’ll be talking about climate change denialism. Some other topics I think I’ll likely cover are: vegetarianism, being childfree, ecological economics, systems thinking and post normal science in the ecohealth approach, Chinese health and environment and hopefully urban farming (which I actually know nothing about but would like to know more).

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katie

katie

Katie is a graduate student from Canada studying the environment and systems theory. She also loves dinosaurs and baking cupcakes. Follow her on twitter @katiekish

20 Comments

  1. February 6, 2012 at 8:21 pm —

    Hi Katie,

    I’m curious about #2 and #3 on your list. These are pretty big topics within anthropology, and there have been some really great critiques that go against what you are saying.

    For #2, I have not personally encountered people (or read any literature) who have said local knowledge is better than scientific knowledge merely because it is local and that science has nothing important to say. What I have found the critiques to say is that scientists often ignore local knowledge to the detriment of scientific inquiry and to the peril of local populations. This is not a problem with science itself; it is a problem with scientists going into areas with assumptions about people.

    For example, when scientists venture down into parts of the Amazon jungle looking for plants to make into medicines, they will often go with assumptions and stereotypes about indigenous cultures. The assumptions affect the way they treat the local indigenous populations. The scientists will also often assume that they know more about the area *because* they are scientists. Why is it problematic to talk to elders (and why do you put it in scare quotes?) to find out more about the people and their perceptions of their own environment? It seems that you are assuming that because their knowledge is not “typical” science that it is useless or irrational.

    You say that we should actively seek to bring indigenous people into “modern ways of understanding,” and then you follow this point up by trying to refute that science is colonial. But the very notion that science has something valuable to teach indigenous peoples, that they are backwards and primitive because they don’t value science, and that we need to enlighten them is colonialism by definition.

    For #3, I’m not sure who said scientific knowledge is colonial, but they are incorrect. What they probably meant (or what they should have said) is that scientific knowledge and worldviews based in science have been used to further colonialism. It’s not that coming from a scientific perspective is automatically colonialist, it’s that when you come from the perspective like you do in #2, that is colonialist. When you have the perspective that indigenous people have nothing valuable to contribute to the production of knowledge, that science always knows better, and that indigenous people are primitive and backwards, that is colonialism.

    It seems that the main thrust of your argument is that people are criticizing science and you don’t like that. Do you believe science is above criticism? Do you believe that science has never been used to actively and purposefully oppress people? Do you think that science has never misinformed politics or public policy?

    Having a critical eye on the limits of science and the knowledge it can produce is not being anti-science. In fact, it makes science better. Being open to other ways of knowing about the world (whether or not we ultimately agree or disagree with them) is not a bad thing. We can talk to people about their relationships with their environments and gain insight into both people and ecology which can help all of us who are interested in protecting the environment (which, I promise you, includes indigenous peoples).

    I can recommend some really great literature that can shed some light on these topics for you if you are interested. I’d highly recommend that–if it’s possible for you to do–you look into taking some courses in your school’s anthropology department (if it has one). Especially see if there are some cultural and environmental anthropology courses.

    • February 6, 2012 at 8:53 pm —

      Will:

      #2: I have personally encountered people who have this argument, that was my point. They explicitly state that local/aboriginal knowledge/ways of knowing are better than scientific knowledge (such as medicine). I have also heard the criticism that science doesn’t take into account aboriginal/local knowledge but this is not the primary argument that I’ve heard made in my discussions.

      Also I feel like you’re sort of putting arguments into my blogosphere-mouth. I didn’t actually state an opinion about aboriginal and local knowledge and did that very intentionally. I slanted the anecdotes to be critical of these people because I don’t think people who fully support science should have to tread lightly on these issues – I think they need to get better at being vocal about the benefits of science for everyone. Maybe it’s because I attend a very liberal university but we are continuously bombarded with the idea that local knowledge should be considered first and fore-most but I don’t think this is always the case. I also don’t think it’s problematic to talk to elders about their environment, like you’ve extrapolated from my post – in fact I do this in my own research… it is however, not pure science and has a lot of limitations for data seekers (and yes, I realize that this is the same vice versa).

      “You say that we should actively seek to bring indigenous people into “modern ways of understanding,” and then you follow this point up by trying to refute that science is colonial. But the very notion that science has something valuable to teach indigenous peoples, that they are backwards and primitive because they don’t value science, and that we need to enlighten them is colonialism by definition.”

      I actually said ” …finding a common language that involves modern ways of understanding.”

      As in – find a common language that is translatable to modern discussions on epistemology, ontology, science… etc. I don’t see the use in “othering” anyone’s point of view and prefer to see everyone as having important input in specific areas. I would like to see the language between these realms become more understandable for everyone… this means aboriginals changing their language and scientists changing theirs.

      #3: Their (and again – “their” isn’t some grand scholar it’s the stereotypical culture of my faculty) argument is that science *is* inherently colonial because it seeks to understand everything from a reductionist viewpoint. Additionally it is colonial because it is the dominant form of knowing while others are swept under the rug. To an extent – this is quite true and has it’s own problems, but I don’t hold this view as strongly as my environmentalist classmates.

      “It seems that the main thrust of your argument is that people are criticizing science and you don’t like that.”

      Then you misunderstood. The main “thrust” of my argument (if there even is one) is that some environmentalists believe weird things – and I am encouraging young environmentalists to challenge these stereotypical ideas that emerge in these sorts of “down-with-the-man” settings/classes.

      “Do you believe science is above criticism?”

      No. In fact my primary work/research is on systems theory and within that is a very intense critique of science within the realm of post-normal science. Additionally the very epistemological basis of systems theory rejects a great deal of traditional scientific epistemologies through hierarchy and emergence theories.

      “Do you believe that science has never been used to actively and purposefully oppress people?”

      Of course it has.

      “Do you think that science has never misinformed politics or public policy?”

      Of course it has.

      “…ecology which can help all of us who are interested in protecting the environment (which, I promise you, includes indigenous peoples).”

      This statement is boardline insulting, but I’ll leave it alone.

      And of course my university has anthropology courses but as a graduate student I definitely don’t have time to take them.

    • February 6, 2012 at 8:56 pm —

      I also just wanted to add that I felt like framing my post in this way because far too often younger people entering into academia can be made to feel bad when they challenge aboriginal and local thought and people tell them they are being “colonial” or start to make strange statements (like accusing us of thinking science doesn’t misinform people sometimes). I think it is a good thing for young scientists/environmentalists to be able to speak up against these social issues so everyone involved can learn.

      And also – you’re sort of arguing the same way the people in these classes do….. and that is the problem. These people need to learn to be critical of what they are saying instead of automatically assuming their arguments are better because they come from a position of local/wise authority.

      • February 6, 2012 at 10:40 pm —

        Hi Katie,

        Thanks for your reply. People who have used those particular arguments are off base. However, the way your post comes across to me is that you are critiquing the ideas of local/indigenous knowledge and science’s role in colonialism in general. Yes, you couch it with language about the faculty in your program, but you also use very broad language in your discussion. For example:

        “The worst part about this topic is how sensitive it is here in Canada. When you start to challenge aboriginal ways of knowing there is an automatic response of “well don’t we at least owe it to them to see things through their eyes?”… Umm, no… not really. We owe it to them to treat them like normal human beings which means challenging their “ways of knowing” and finding a common language that involves modern ways of understanding.”

        This quote is not about your faculty per se, but about indigenous knowledge and how people discuss indigenous knowledge with a sensitivity towards indigenous people. It’s these types of points that you make that I am taking issue with.

        You said: “Also I feel like you’re sort of putting arguments into my blogosphere-mouth. I didn’t actually state an opinion about aboriginal and local knowledge and did that very intentionally.”

        But you did state an opinion about indigenous and local knowledge–you just did it implicitly. For example, putting the word elders in scare quotes indicates that you take issue with indigenous social organization. You also put scare quotes around “ways of knowing,” as if all indigenous knowledge is meaningless woo. Whether you intend to or not, the style that you write about these issues is indicative of an antipathy towards indigenous people and postcolonial critique. If that’s not the case, then there’s no need to use scare quotes, and you might want to re-think your use of certain words and scare quotes.

        You said: “I also don’t think it’s problematic to talk to elders about their environment, like you’ve extrapolated from my post – in fact I do this in my own research… it is however, not pure science and has a lot of limitations for data seekers (and yes, I realize that this is the same vice versa).”

        What, pray tell, is “pure science”? Are you saying that qualitative research is not “pure science”? Are you saying quantitative research is pure science and does not have limitations? I’m a little confused as to what your point is here. Could you clarify, please?

        You said: “As in – find a common language that is translatable to modern discussions on epistemology, ontology, science… etc. I don’t see the use in “othering” anyone’s point of view and prefer to see everyone as having important input in specific areas. I would like to see the language between these realms become more understandable for everyone… this means aboriginals changing their language and scientists changing theirs.”

        We are in agreement that translation can go both ways. But that sentiment is nowhere to be found in your original post. The word “modern” is a loaded term–especially when discussing indigenous people and colonialism. Further, why do you assume that they *want* to be involved in “modern discussions”? This is colonialism par excellence.

        You say you don’t see the use in Othering points of view, but in my reading of your post, you Othered indigenous people through your use of language. You also Other them indirectly through the language you use to talk about your faculty–implying that their open acceptance of indigenous knowledge makes them automatically weird and wrong implies that indigenous knowledge is weird and wrong.

        I definitely think it is important to be sensitive when you discuss this topic. You can be sensitive and critical–these things are not mutually exclusive. You say that scientists shouldn’t have to “tread lightly” on these issues. I agree that science has important things to say about these topics; however, I disagree because I feel that we do need to go about discussing them in culturally sensitive ways.

        You said: “Their (and again – “their” isn’t some grand scholar it’s the stereotypical culture of my faculty) argument is that science *is* inherently colonial because it seeks to understand everything from a reductionist viewpoint.”

        Perhaps they have a different definition of colonialist than I do. I agree that science is inherently reductionist, but I don’t see how that makes it automatically colonialist. So we agree on this point.

        You said: “Additionally it is colonial because it is the dominant form of knowing while others are swept under the rug. To an extent – this is quite true and has it’s own problems, but I don’t hold this view as strongly as my environmentalist classmates.”

        I do agree that when science is used to dominate people and sweep other epistemologies under the rug that that can be colonialist. I also think we’d probably agree that that can be a reductionist view of science, which is something people making that critique criticize about science.

        You said: “Then you misunderstood. The main “thrust” of my argument (if there even is one) is that some environmentalists believe weird things – and I am encouraging young environmentalists to challenge these stereotypical ideas that emerge in these sorts of “down-with-the-man” settings/classes.”

        Perhaps I did misunderstand; however, can you see why I would reach the conclusions I did? The language you used in the post portrayed the sentiments behind #2 and #3 as completely wrong and weird. What I’m pointing out is that, while your faculty may be taking it too far, the underlying critiques are valid critiques of science and colonialism. We agree that people should not uncritically accept what they are told. I am encouraging people to not uncritically accept that some of your faculty represents where these critiques originate.

        You said: “No. In fact my primary work/research is on systems theory and within that is a very intense critique of science within the realm of post-normal science. Additionally the very epistemological basis of systems theory rejects a great deal of traditional scientific epistemologies through hierarchy and emergence theories.”

        Sounds very interesting! I like systems theory. I hope you will write more about your research. 😉

        You said: ““…ecology which can help all of us who are interested in protecting the environment (which, I promise you, includes indigenous peoples).”
This statement is boardline insulting, but I’ll leave it alone.
And of course my university has anthropology courses but as a graduate student I definitely don’t have time to take them.”

        I’m interested in how the statement is insulting. Would you mind telling me? (I am being genuine here, I really don’t get what you might be offended by there). And I know what you mean about not having time as a grad student. If you have some free electives or anything, I’d highly recommend an anthro class (esp. an environmental anthro class if your university has one). I have gone outside of my department for courses, and it’s quite eye-opening to see how different disciplines operate. =)

        You said: “I also just wanted to add that I felt like framing my post in this way because far too often younger people entering into academia can be made to feel bad when they challenge aboriginal and local thought and people tell them they are being “colonial” or start to make strange statements (like accusing us of thinking science doesn’t misinform people sometimes).”

        I want young people entering academia to be critical as well. What I want to avoid, however, is challenging indigenous knowledge with loaded and insensitive language. I think you could have made valid critiques of your faculty taking these sentiments too far without painting the postcolonial critiques they are based on with the same brush. You could have distinguished how these faculty members are taking these critiques beyond the pale, but that the initial postcolonial critiques contain valuable insights into both indigenous and scientific knowledge.

        You said: “I think it is a good thing for young scientists/environmentalists to be able to speak up against these social issues so everyone involved can learn.”

        I agree. So, for example, if someone had brought up environmental racism in the United States, and put scare quotes around “leaders” when talking about local populations, I’d have taken issue with that, too. If you put forth the idea that scientists know better about how environmental racism is affecting the lives of people in a certain place than the people who live there, I’d say that’s a problem. Maybe they know more about certain aspects, but they cannot possibly know more about what it is like to have experienced environmental racism at that place unless they lived there. And living through it will produce certain ways of knowing that science cannot produce. It is the same with indigenous knowledge. Sure, scientists may know certain things about caribou migration patterns that indigenous people don’t, but that doesn’t mean that they know more about that local environment as a whole or what it’s like to live in that environment.

        You said: “And also – you’re sort of arguing the same way the people in these classes do….. and that is the problem. These people need to learn to be critical of what they are saying instead of automatically assuming their arguments are better because they come from a position of local/wise authority.”

        Well, since I’m not in those classes, I can’t really know what you’re talking about. I assume “these people” means the faculty? I also don’t know the faculty involved. I am really only getting your side of things here, so you must understand why I am taking what you’re saying about them with a grain of salt. I’m not saying you’re wrong; I just have no way to verify what you’re saying.

        Finally, I have to ask: why you are in a program with faculty that you disagree with so strongly? Seems like you’d be better at a department where your interests fit more snugly.

        Looking forward to your reply. =)

      • February 7, 2012 at 1:39 am —

        @Will
        For most of it, I didn’t read it that way. So I don’t know where your misunderstanding comes from. She never said anything about forcing science on the indigenous, that they had to be enlightened, or that their culture shouldn’t be respected. She was critiquing the way people took what the indigenous had to say and put it in an elevated status. The fact that you have not encountered people who argued that is immaterial to her experience in her own place. The weird part was not that they were open to indigenous knowledge and wanted to know about what they thought or believed. The weird part was they accept all of it without picking apart which part is wrong, and elevating it to an unnecessary degree in a way people do similarly to ancient knowldedge. Meaning, things like, “it must be correct because it is an old way of knowing”, which is kind of like the way I have seen people support traditional Chinese medicine. By the way, the people she interacted with were not criticizing science. They were entirely dismissing it because it is not some sort of traditional knowledge, which is very different criticism. The only part that I thought was problematic was “finding the common language” part. So at least I am glad that you got her to clarify that part. And one more thing, I think you are right about the word modern. In the context of the indigenous, it is loaded.

        • February 7, 2012 at 3:36 am —

          I disagree that she didn’t say those things in the original post. Examples:

          “The worst part about this topic is how sensitive it is here in Canada. When you start to challenge aboriginal ways of knowing there is an automatic response of “well don’t we at least owe it to them to see things through their eyes?”… Umm, no… not really. We owe it to them to treat them like normal human beings which means challenging their “ways of knowing” and finding a common language that involves modern ways of understanding.”

          and

          “So when you meet an environmentalist talk to them about these topics and if they believe one or two or all – then challenge them!! Because the environmental movement needs more straight thinkers who understand the importance of science and how it positively informs politics, social issues and education.”

          When she says things like their perspectives are unimportant (she outright said we do not need to see things through their eyes), “involving modern ways of understanding” and “straight thinkers” as a critique against indigenous knowledge, that is devaluing their culture and their knowledge systems. Your assumption that she is not being disrespectful towards indigenous people is based on the idea that the faculty member she is talking about is not an indigenous person. I peaked at the program she’s in, and the only reference I found in any of the faculty’s work to elders was from an indigenous scholar. So, she is directly taking shots at an indigenous person’s worldview by calling it “weird.” I think the idea, to use her example, of how interconnected our humanity is with the planet is an interesting question to think about. To call it weird, as if it has no intellectual merit whatsoever, is overly dismissive to me. But, again, I don’t know the context of how that argument came about–which is the problem! None of us knows the context that any of this arose in, and we only have her word for it.

          Anyway, one of the main points I am making is that we can disagree with them and criticize their assertions without using loaded words (like “weird” or “modern” or “straight thinker”).

          I agree that IF members of the faculty are outright dismissing science because it is not “ancient knowledge,” that is just as ludicrous as dismissing indigenous knowledge because it’s “not science.” I would hope that, within the academy, the tent is large enough for many different sorts of knowledge production. I agree with the idea behind the original post that students should feel open and be encouraged to engage in rigorous critique, but it should be backed up with sound argumentation and evidence. Calling someone “weird” and dismissing their view is not sound argumentation.

          And again, all we have is her account of these people. They are not here to defend themselves or to clarify their positions. I have no way of verifying the veracity of her claims about them. Forgive me if I am skeptical of her claims, especially after looking into the faculty in her department and skimming some of their publications. That’s not to say that they don’t say/think in these ways, but I have no evidence aside from her anecdotes. Perhaps a better tack would not have been to attack the faculty in her department, but to more broadly discuss the problems with uncritical acceptance of ANY knowledge claims.

          The bigger picture, to me, is the way her original post seemed dismissive of postcolonial and indigenous critiques of science and the use of loaded language. I am glad she clarified herself a little bit, but I still have some questions. 😉

          It seems like we are all in agreement about a few things: (a) science is awesome; (b) science is not perfect; and (c) human knowledge of any kind is imperfect. I’m still interested to hear why she thinks quantitative “pure science” is better/worse than qualitative research in her field.

          (Sorry if this got repetitive. It’s late and I’m heading to sleepy time! Stimulating discussion, though. Take care!)

    • February 9, 2012 at 3:01 pm —

      Will,
      I have to agree with Katie on all points, though I’d have stated things differently: I hate the woo-soaked contingent of the environmental movement because of their direct impediment to progress (Golden Rice [GMO] that could save children from disability and death?), for their diversion of effort and attention (do we really need to waste more time debunking the anti-vax stuff?) and also because of the whole credibility drag. I have written comments often over on Biofortified and Pharyngula.

      But you obliquely “push my buttons” regarding some of my specific pet peeves, so I am compelled to reply, even though some of this was touched-on in other comments.

      In your example of scientists travelling in the Amazon, and their attitudes (“Why is it problematic to talk to elders (and why do you put it in scare quotes?) to find out more about the people and their perceptions of their own environment?”), please don’t mistake cultural differences or having other interests for something nefarious. Time is limited, and not everyone is an ethnobotanist or sociologist. If a trip is planned to collect herbarium specimens or germplasm of a particular species, a side-trip to ask a local about their opinion of the species’ phylogeny, though interesting, just might not be in the budget.

      You said “the very notion that science has something valuable to teach indigenous peoples, that they are backwards and primitive because they don’t value science, and that we need to enlighten them is colonialism by definition.” This is what set me off: Let’s suppose that a local person WANTS a demonstrably more-effective treatment for their child’s appendicitis, or a more effective agricultural technique, or better crop strains. I have seen people advocate for witholding such knowledge and matériel because it is “colonial” and because it jeopardizes e.g. indigenous (though less-effective) traditional methods and varieties. This has been applied in Haiti, Italy, Mexico, Chile, Peru, and many places in Africa and is grossly PATERNALISTIC: who has the right to lock people up in some sort of “indigenous knowledge preserve” like animals or children? “We owe it to them to treat them like normal human beings.” Yes, I might mourn over cultural homogenization, but I don’t feel that I or anyone else has the right to impose limits on what other people might like to do. What if some native of an area without much in the way of modern knowledge wanted to go attend a modern university? Would you prevent them? Would you allow them to return?

      Oh, and another pet peeve: I frequently see in the ethnobotany literature lists of e.g. plants and their indigenous uses, with terms like “used to cure cancer.” To laymen and woo-meisters, this is too-often taken literally, leading to claims that “the FDA withholds the cure for cancer” or “Malaria is no longer a problem, since it is easily treated.”

  2. February 7, 2012 at 1:40 am —

    Correction: Which is very different from* criticism.

  3. February 7, 2012 at 10:12 am —

    Will: I put the word “elders” in quotation marks because it seemed the most grammatically correct way to do it. I put “ways of knowing” in quotation marks because I was using it in place of a more jargon-ish philosophical word and wanted people to see it as a single term – not three words. Taking either of these instances any other way is your own incorrect reading of my writing.

    When I mention pure science I am talking about physics and chemistry which at the most fundamental levels do not have biases. And I already said that quantitative methods have limitations by saying “vice versa”. And yes, I do not consider qualitative research to be as objective as physics and thus do not consider it to be pure science.

    I don’t assume that aboriginals want to be involved with modern discussions – I take it as a given that some do want to be involved in modern discussions because they are sitting around the table trying to do it. I am not forcing these discussions on anyone… To suggest that I am is really quite gross.

    My intention is not to other anyone. I am simply subjecting aboriginal thought and discussions to the same discourse as science receives. For some reason people think it’s okay to other science and attack it relentlessly but then get worked up when people do it back to local/aboriginal knowledge. Where we may differ is that I don’t think discussions about aboriginal knowledge should have their own specific rules and be free from very harsh criticism. I also said very explicitly that it is the student body talking this way – not the faculty members… when I say “faculty” I mean the program culture, I guess. As for your last question – this is the dominant opinion in my faculty but this isn’t the discussion that dominates all the classes. It comes up once in a while, but usually in my specific classes this discussion doesn’t happen (because I take classes that have to do with epidemiology, systems and Asian studies). I have a brilliant advisor who I wouldn’t trade for the world’s weight in gold.

    The statement was boardline insulting because of the condescending tone it took – especially when you imply that I think indigenous peoples have nothing to contribute to the discussion on protecting the environment, which is blatantly false. It’s also a bit insulting that you assume I don’t have a breadth of experience taking classes outside of my own faculty. I have gone to five different universities across Canada and have taken courses in most subjects, including anthropology (although the specific class looked at religion, not environmentalism). I hope you understand that as one progresses in academia they very rarely have the luxury of taking courses that do not directly contribute to their major thesis.

    “When she says things like their perspectives are unimportant (she outright said we do not need to see things through their eyes),”

    Where, in your opinion, did I outright say we do not need to see things through their eyes? I’m sorry but I really feel like you’re being a bit nitpicky, cherry-picky and not giving me any benefit of the doubt here. I also never said that science research is better or worse than qualitative research in my field. …Except to say that I critique science rigorously. In fact I am well aware that traditional scientific methods can’t be used to explore complex social problems, this is something you’ve made up about my opinion on the matter.

    IBY: Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you picked up on this “She never said anything about forcing science on the indigenous, that they had to be enlightened, or that their culture shouldn’t be respected. She was critiquing the way people took what the indigenous had to say and put it in an elevated status.” very clearly, as this was one of my main intentions.

    • February 7, 2012 at 1:36 pm —

      Katie:

      I would suggest that if people are reading your writing a certain way, it isn’t entirely because they are reading it incorrectly. You say putting elders in quotation marks was the most grammatically correct way to write the word. Why? There is no grammatical reason to do so. You could have just as easily written “elders in their community.” I maintain the claim that those are scare quotes, and they set up a certain mood in the post.

      Same thing with ways of knowing. I don’t think that’s jargon, and I don’t understand what you mean by wanting people to see it as a single term and not three words. You used it in the same paragraph twice–the first time you did not put it in quotes (that would have been the time to establish it as a term of jargon). The choice of quoting it the second time, when you were talking about how we need to bring them into “modern” conversations is telling. Grammar and writing style matters. A lot can be read from the style that you write in.

      You can tell me I’m wrong all day long, and that’s fine and something I’m willing to admit to. But you should consider how people are interpreting your choice of grammar and style of writing. It’s in our best interest as writers to be as clear and concise as possible to avoid muddying our meanings and reader misinterpretation. I have no way of knowing your intentions–all I have are your words.

      I have major problems with your claims about “pure science.” You are equating science with scientists. While physics and chemistry may “not have biases” (I’m not sure what you even mean by that), physicists and chemists most certainly do have biases. And their biases easily find their ways into their work–especially if they are unaware of them. Science is limited in the kinds of knowledge it can produce, and no person is completely objective–it is an impossibility. It is entirely possible that our definitions of science are different, but to me the idea of “pure science” is quite dogmatic. The way you wrote about it in the original post makes it seem like “pure science” has no limitations and is unencumbered by human biases. There is no such science because science has to operate through humans, who are biased creatures.

      You continue to use the word “modern” in your reply without the slightest hint that you understand my critique of the word. It is an Othering word, and it is way loaded, especially when discussing indigenous people. Your intention may not be to Other people, but the way you’re discussing them is doing just that (as I have pointed out). You say some “people think it’s okay to other science and attack it relentlessly”–this is a problematic statement.

      First, why is it not okay to attack science relentlessly? If science is truly the best method of knowledge production we have, then it will withstand any attacks either by adapting or continuing on unaffected. Your complaint reminds me of when men complain that they’re the targets of sexism too! Science (and men, in my analogy) are in positions of power and privilege–especially in the academy. To pretend like indigenous critiques of science (no matter how harsh they get) is going to do anything to damage science is absurd. If anything, they will improve it. And I’m not “getting worked up” over critiques of indigenous knowledge; I’m disturbed by the way you are talking about these things to people who may not know much about them. You don’t seem to me to be advocating equally harsh critiques of both science and indigenous knowledge when you use loaded language to discuss indigenous knowledge and put science up on a pedestal.

      I never said that indigenous knowledge “should have their own specific rules and be free from very harsh criticism.” I said that you are not critiquing indigenous knowledge per se, you are critiquing faculty in your department and letting that critique spread to indigenous knowledge. If you had written this post solely about how people in your department go too far with certain ideas, that’d be something entirely different.

      You did not “very explicitly” say that it is the student body and not the faculty. In your original post, you said: “Side note: I had a prof one year who was super into this “elders” thing… but he also believed that space exploration is totally horrible because once humans go into space they are no longer “human” because humans are only human based on the context of living on Earth. So once we leave Earth we are no longer “earthings” or “humans” we are aliens. WEIRD, right!?”

      If you mean “program culture” then say “program culture” and not “faculty.” See, you tell me I am incorrect in the way I’m reading your post, but you are moving the goalpost here, trying to change words that you used. There is a huge difference in meaning between “faculty” and “program culture,” and to expect your readers to just know the meaning of a word you are trying to use differently is not good writing.

      As far as being insulted, my reading of your original post was such that you seemed to be poopooing on indigenous knowledge more generally by way of insulting your faculty. You’ve since clarified that it’s not so much the indigenous knowledge that you take issue with, but the ways some of the people in your program discuss it. I’m sorry if my words came across as condescending as I expressed my interpretation of your post. I’ve tried to be very careful to be cordial and find areas of common ground (which you’ve completely ignored).

      I appreciate that you have a breadth of background knowledge. But, I can tell by the way you discuss this that you don’t have a background in anthropology (one class is not really a background–I don’t have a background in math because I took college algebra as an undergraduate). I suggested it not as a point to insult your intelligence, but as a point of advice, because I think your field overlaps with a lot of what is going on in environmental anthropology. In fact, I’ve read some stuff by some of the faculty in your program, and they draw from environmental anthropology. More knowledge is never a bad thing–and a course in environmental anthropology may (or may not) end up directly contributing to your major thesis–especially if you’re working in a foreign country. I’m well aware of the course and time limitations of graduate school. Talk about not giving the benefit of the doubt!

      You asked: “Where, in your opinion, did I outright say we do not need to see things through their eyes?”

      You said it here: “When you start to challenge aboriginal ways of knowing there is an automatic response of “well don’t we at least owe it to them to see things through their eyes?”… Umm, no… not really.”

      You go on to say we should “treat them like normal human beings”–to me, seeing other people’s perspectives better enables us to treat them as human beings and lessens the possibility of Othering them.

      You said: “I’m sorry but I really feel like you’re being a bit nitpicky, cherry-picky and not giving me any benefit of the doubt here.”

      I find it quite ironic that in a post about how we should rigorously challenge people’s perspectives and how we should never be unskeptical of claims, you are complaining that I am being critical and skeptical. First of all, I’m not cherry-picking anything. I’ve been very thorough in addressing what I see as problematic ways of talking about this topic. I’ve very consciously tried to point out where we have common ground and agreements. I have not personally insulted you or said anything about your character–this is about your use of language and the issues I take with how you’re discussing indigenous knowledge. Anything I’ve “made up” is a result of interpreting your poorly worded post.

      Again, I disagree with IBY, especially after looking at your faculty and seeing the professor who talks about elders a lot is an indigenous person. Accusing an indigenous person of taking what indigenous people have to say and putting it in an elevated status over science and how they need to start “straight talking” in “modern” ways *is* forcing science on them and saying they need to be enlightened–even if you don’t use those words explicitly. It’s more about the ways in which you are writing about it. You are claiming that there is not room for both forms of knowledge within your department unless indigenous knowledge submits to the standards of science. Yet, science does not have to submit to the standards of indigenous knowledge? That’s not an equal relationship.

      If you really want there to be an equal relationship between science and indigenous knowledge, then you would recognize that forcing indigenous knowledge to be “subjected to the same discourse as science” (to paraphrase you) does not create an equal relationship. Science and indigenous knowledge are in an unequal relationship in much deeper ways than discourse, and subjecting indigenous knowledge to scientific rigor does not automatically bring them into equal alignment.

      Again, let me state for the record that I have nothing against you personally and that my issues here are with your post and the manner of presentation.

  4. February 7, 2012 at 3:46 pm —

    “Again, I disagree with IBY, especially after looking at your faculty and seeing the professor who talks about elders a lot is an indigenous person”

    What? No he’s not. We have one aboriginal professor and he is not the one that said this and talks about elders a lot.

    • February 7, 2012 at 5:36 pm —

      Fair enough. The only faculty member I found in your department that had anything publicly available about elders was an indigenous scholar. Again, I’m not there involved with the classes and professors, and these people cannot defend themselves here. You’re being purposefully vague about who you’re talking about, which means I have to go looking for more specific information. I am more than willing to admit that I could be wrong and you are talking about someone else, but, again, I have no way of verifying that short of you pointing me towards some literature or other information.

      • February 7, 2012 at 6:33 pm —

        Sorry but I openly called his opinion “weird” and he is potentially going to evaluate me in the future so I’m not going to put on an online blog “oh its prof blah blah blah that’s super weird!”

        I have tried to clear up what I meant a couple of times now and you continuously misunderstand me (like when did I claim to have a background in anthropology???) or just want represent my points in a way that I don’t think are correct (I have said many times we should criticize science!). So thanks for your comments but I really don’t think that you’re here to reach a mutual understanding. It’s strange because I don’t disagree with you on any of your points (except on there being a fundamentally objective science) – you just seem to be taking what I’m saying incorrectly. I think science should be criticized, I also happen to think that aboriginal thought should be criticized just as much but worry that young people entering academia think they need to tread lightly around the subject instead of speaking their mind.

        Perhaps you’re right – and I’m just a bad blog writer.

        • February 8, 2012 at 3:01 am —

          So you are willing to describe someone’s views and call them weird, but you’re not willing to say those things to their face? And you want readers to believe that you’re being honest about your representations about people? That’s troubling.

          You did not claim to have a background in anthropology, you claimed that you had “a breadth of experience” with classes outside of your department. Then you said you took one anthropology course. In religion. And my suggestion was to take some anthropology courses, particularly environmental anthro, because it would probably be beneficial to someone who is studying the environment in a different society. Why you took that personally is beyond my comprehension.

          It’s funny to me that you say I’m not here to reach a mutual understanding when I have repeatedly pointed out our common ground, and inquired about your research. I am genuinely interested. Me taking issue with the way you approached this particular topic does not mean I am uninterested in reaching mutual understanding.

          Anyway, maybe we can take this discussion in a different direction and get onto some topics that you bring up in this post. First, you said, “It’s strange because I don’t disagree with you on any of your points (except on there being a fundamentally objective science)”. I am interested to know how there can be a fundamentally objective science, what that looks like to you, and how you think human bias can be completely erased from a human endeavor like science. Are you familiar with Donna Haraway at all, particularly her article on situated knowledge?

          The other thing I’d like to discuss is: “I also happen to think that aboriginal thought should be criticized just as much but worry that young people entering academia think they need to tread lightly around the subject instead of speaking their mind.
”

          Do you think that it is important for people to be respectful of each other in academia? Does this not involve carefully selecting what words people use with each other? I would say that young people just coming to university should tread lightly in this area because they probably don’t know much about the nuanced language issues (e.g., using the word “modern”). Or do you think it’s more like anything goes? What if it was not indigenous thought but instead was feminist thought? Should students be encouraged to say whatever comes to their mind without knowing the nuanced language issues there?

          I do hope you will continue a discussion with me, as I think these are interesting issues. But I understand if you’re tired of this and want to move on. At any rate, thanks for the responses you have given, and for the clarifications you provided (even if we still disagree on some things). 😉

          • February 8, 2012 at 7:50 am

            “So you are willing to describe someone’s views and call them weird, but you’re not willing to say those things to their face? And you want readers to believe that you’re being honest about your representations about people? That’s troubling.”

            It might be troubling but the fact remains that there are unfortunately issues of power for young people in academia. Once I’m sure he’s not on my review committee I’ll be happy to confront him.

            Why do you keep implying that I’m lying? I get that it’s preferable to have references – but I don’t think I’ve given anyone any reason to distrust me. And its not like his comment was the point of the post.

            “Me taking issue with the way you approached this particular topic does not mean I am uninterested in reaching mutual understanding.”

            It’s not that you’re taking issue that I don’t think you’re here to read a mutual understanding it’s that you seem intelligent enough yet you seem to repeatedly miss my points and you keep making arguments against things I’ve already addressed.

  5. February 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm —

    Will:
    Knowing Katie very well personally, I can say that this whole disagreement is far more due to the two of you talking past one another than substantive differences in opinion. It’s true that Katie’s language in several instances could be easily misinterpreted, but in other instances she was perfectly clear with her meaning.

    For example, she did say in her original post: “Now, not all environmentalists think this way… these are simply the common sentiments that are shared by students (undergraduate, masters and PhD) within my faculty.” The word faculty does not necessarily mean the teaching faculty, but can be used to denote instead the student body within a faculty. Certainly, I and many other people I know use it that way. Thus this whole arm wrestle boils down to your disagreeing with her choices of words and language.

    However, I think that to read too rigorously into the scholarship and writing style of this post is a bit of an overkill. After all it’s a blog targeted towards teenagers and not an academic treatise on aboriginal knowledge. All Katie wanted to point out are some ways in which students in our faculty uncritically ignore the strengths of science due to ideological preconceptions and a lack of understanding of science itself. I think a charitable reader would have taken those points out of her original post – I did, but I am biased due to the fact that I knew her opinions ahead of time.

    Katie’s second point was really only that a lot of students in our faculty see science as inferior to aboriginal knowledge, often using extremely flawed and outdated criticisms of science, as well as an uncritical acceptance of all things aboriginal. Some students even insisted that scientists would never be able to even dream of the understanding of nature achieved by aboriginal cultures. Yes, she could have made it more clear and precise, but again, this blog post is not meant to be detailed academic essay.

    Her third point was that conclusions of science are often unfairly dismissed merely because of Western colonial history, which is of course a non sequitur. What do vaccine trials in 2000 have to do with 19th century colonialism? Again, she referred to the students in the faculty, and wasn’t saying that science itself is always perfect, or that it can never be used to oppress people.

    • February 7, 2012 at 6:08 pm —

      John Xu,

      I’m sure there is a bit of talking past each other going on here. I agree that parts of her post could be easily misinterpreted, which is why I brought it up. I disagree with your example of her being “perfectly clear” in her meaning.

      I have never seen the word faculty used in an academic environment to mean anything other than teachers. The standard definition refers to “the teaching staff of a university or college, or of one of its departments or divisions, viewed as a body.” There is nothing in the standard definition about students being part of the faculty. Therefore, it is not a “perfectly clear” example of her meaning because she’s using the word in a non-standard way. That doesn’t mean it’s an incorrect usage, it just means that it’s not how the majority of people use it–which means it’s not “perfectly clear” unless she defines how she’s using it.

      Again, I am quite shocked by the assertion that one can be “too rigorous” in a post that demands rigor from students. You say that critique and rigor are overkill because this blog is aimed at teenagers–are you implying that teenagers are too naive or ignorant or stupid to follow the argument here? Must we “dumb down” our discussion and let sloppy language slide past because this is a blog aimed at teenagers? I’m confused as to why you would bring that up. I think teenagers–especially ones involved in a skeptical blog–are mostly very bright people who could easily follow my critiques, or at the very least ask questions or seek out more information. I find it extremely hypocritical to tell people to stop being critical and skeptical in a blog post that is encouraging skepticism and critical thinking. You either want people to do those things or you don’t–you don’t get to dictate when and where they are acceptable.

      If that truly was all Katie wanted to point out, why did she not also point out that there are valid critiques of science coming out of postcolonialism? Look at the overall gist of the post. It reads as “look at all these people who I know that take indigenous knowledge too far, and look how science is better!” For example, Katie said: “So when you meet an environmentalist talk to them about these topics and if they believe one or two or all – then challenge them!! Because the environmental movement needs more straight thinkers who understand the importance of science and how it positively informs politics, social issues and education.”

      So, when I talk to an environmentalist and they say they take indigenous knowledge seriously and think about how they don’t want to reproduce colonialism with their science, I should challenge them? We need more “straight thinkers,” not people who listen to indigenous voices? As someone who does not know Katie at all, and is familiar with postcolonialism and critical theory, can you see how that comes across as a problematic sentiment, even if she doesn’t mean for it to?

      I really don’t feel I am being unreasonable here. I am pointing out how her post could be interpreted by people who are familiar with these issues and how the problems with the way she’s framed this post could lead to misunderstandings among people who aren’t familiar with these issues. So far, one person has agreed with me about some of her word choices, and you have agreed with me that at least some of her post could be easily misinterpreted. And yet there is no admission of this on her part–in fact, the response is to tell me to stop being so critical and skeptical, the exact opposite of the message she is trying to put out. It’s also that it’s my fault for reading it wrong, not that she has any responsibility in the way she writes.

      As for your last point, I’m aware of what she was saying after she clarified herself a bit. I agree that dismissing science because of colonialism is unfair, but I disagree that the two are not linked together. You asked “What do vaccine trials in 2000 have to do with 19th century colonialism?” Who said anything about vaccine trials in 2000 and 19th century colonialism? That’s a straw man. I can, if you wish, give you very specific examples of medical and scientific advances that have come at the expense of indigenous people.

  6. February 7, 2012 at 4:55 pm —

    When you write things like, “I think it is a good thing for young scientists/environmentalists to be able to speak up against these social issues so everyone involved can learn,” it exposes a very trenchant misunderstanding of what working colonialism looks like, especially in academia. It is not as if scientists and Native people are two different kinds of people– often they are not–but the position that you yourself occupy in scienific academia IS one that is a PRODUCT of colonialism…a product of the systematic denial of access to education that Native people are up against. So the “speaking up” you advocate for–unless it is executed with a strong anti-colonialist conviction–can very easily end up being little more than white folks talking down to Natives. The aim, in that case is likely not for “everybody to learn,” but rather to silence one of the very few areas of expertise that Native peoples are allowed to publicly lay claim to. Perhaps in your admittedly small liberal college, Native knowlege has a bit of a foothold–but that is DEFINATELY the exception, as the overarching attitude in scientific academia is one that excludes Indigenous knowledge. Because there are so very few programs that permit/welcome Indigenous discourses in their science programs, it would be a shame to dismantle rather than appreciate one that does.

    The threat of “automatically assuming your argument is better”, I would posit, comes more readily out of the scientific community rather than Indigenous cultural communities. I think the ways in which you encourage young people to “talk to environmentalists [who support local knowledge]…then challenge them!!”– presumably with the fundamental arguments you have provided– is really, deeply misguided. You are conflating new age woo with Native knowledge in your post. New age woo (that routinely co-opts, roamnticize, and permutates Native knowledge) suggests vaccines and aspertame and polyester are going to kill us all- not Native knowledge. Native knowledge might not even have an ideology about these things because it is the product of a culture that may not produce them. For example, it is a wholly different thing to say “only wear organic hemp because bleached cotton will kill your skin off and give you head cancer!!” than it is to say “we traditionally wear natural, unprocessed fibers because that’s what our cuture produces and we think it is good.”

    Someone recently told me, while I was arguing to keep Arizona-style immigration laws out of my state, that I “shouldn’t feel bad for the Mexicans in the US because they send money home and then save enough money to go back and buy villas on the beach…which are better than whites live!!” as if Mexicans living “better” than white people is inherantly unjust, or has upset the “natural” order of things, or somehow works to keep white people in America poor. So too, your claim that young scientists must be encouraged and empowered with “modern knowlege” in order to “challenge” local knowledge is a bit of a strawman. Do you really think that Indigenous people’s environmental knowlege is going to threaten (rather than deepen) or silence (rather than nuance) Western methods of science? Of course it isn’t!

    • February 7, 2012 at 8:15 pm —

      “Perhaps in your admittedly small liberal college…”

      My university is the 3rd largest in the country.

      Also I kept the arguments about vaccines/woo separate from the point about aboriginals.

      I think that aboriginal knowledge in some departments and schools is automatically given more credibility than scientific ways of knowing about the environment simply because they are local&aboriginal and some people are too quick to accept them as being better ways of looking at the environment simply BECAUSE they are local&aboriginal… which isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes natives will have more to contribute to a discussion and sometimes science will have more to contribute to a discussion.

      “So the “speaking up” you advocate for–unless it is executed with a strong anti-colonialist conviction–can very easily end up being little more than white folks talking down to Natives.”

      D: no one should be afraid of questioning someone else’s view for fear of being told they are “white folks talking down to Natives”… especially in academia.

      “Because there are so very few programs that permit/welcome Indigenous discourses in their science programs, it would be a shame to dismantle rather than appreciate one that does.”

      It would be a shame to not question it.

      But at this point I feel like I’m just repeating everything that has already been said by myself and others.

  7. February 13, 2012 at 10:01 pm —

    Wow. I’m tempted to say “QED” and leave it at that.

    But the complaint about aboriginal people themselves being locked out of education to some degree gripes me. It’s too often oxymoronic to the people making it. On the one hand they’re denying the usefulness (and often validity) of scientific education, but on the other that they claim to be disadvantaged by not having it. Which is nonsense.

    I’d almost be tempted to start with “science is colonial” and assert somewhat post-modernistically that the scientific method stands outside value systems in the same way that physical laws do. A memetic law, if you will. Or alternatively, the scientific method is a tool, just as feelings are, and what counts is results.

    But many value systems consider results less important than other things (adherence to tradition, elimination of evil, feeling good, obedience to authority, etc). People die from that sort of thing all the time, and I am disinclined to dissuade them (“it wastes my time and annoys the pig” as the saying goes).

    And don’t knock small liberal colleges. I went to a tiny university on the far side of the world but my ME/BA combo seems to work pretty much everywhere. Admittedly engineering is where hard science meets woo a lot of the time – we don’t know how it works, we just know that it does. So we keep doing it and trying to work out why. Concrete is a simple example – bulk properties comparatively easy, atomic models computationally implausible.

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