Foucault, Flat Earthers, Science, Power and Alternative Facts
The nation of England’s first major conference of those who believe the Earth is flat was hosted this year in Birmingham. In 2018. Not 1718. Not 1418. 2018.
The reporting on this conference revealed something interesting—a questioning of all science because of its connection to power. Explicit links were made to the philosophy of Michel Foucault, with which I am at best glancingly familiar, having read some of it in my college days. As I understand it, Foucault distinguished between repressive power and normalizing power. The former is obvious—prisons, cops, kings, laws. The latter is the power to make societal practices seem so routine that they are not questioned seriously. Of course one goes to school, graduates, perhaps attends college, but then goes out into the work world to “contribute” to society. The majority disdain those who buck these norms, romanticizing them after the fact: the beats, the hippies, the punks. I will show my rebellion by downloading a documentary on them from Netflix. I will then share my opinions on the film over social media, so my preferences can be mined to sell me things I don’t need. And I will question nothing of importance.
Science is created in societal institutions. They have power. As the Flat Earthers channeling Foucault have it, universities say what scientific knowledge is, and then the doctor uses that knowledge to tell you what meds you must take, the architect and civil engineer use that knowledge to say what your home and your roads and your public institutions will look like, the psychologist uses that knowledge to tell you how to adjust to the reality created by the others, and the psychiatrist drugs you (borrowing the knowledge of the chemist and biochemist) to force conformity when talk therapy fails.
I’d argue this is a misunderstanding of science, but an influential one. Science in elementary and middle schools is most often taught as facts and vocabulary to memorize. Mitochondria make food into stored chemical energy. The Earth is the third planet from the sun. This knowledge is tested on standardized tests, up until recently required for graduation in all states in the US, and now only in particularly corrupt and primitive ones (like the one in which I live). As students advance through high school and college, the knowledge gets more esoteric, and the lesser students are shunted into courses that continue the earlier model. Even those occasionally exposed to science as a process generally forget it if they never see it again post-high school. And that’s most Americans.
I was a scientist. I got to peek behind the curtain and see there was no wizard. In reading the scientific literature, I could make the assumption that a lot of what I was reading was flawed or misinterpreted, but if it was in my field, I could generally discern what was wrong and design a better experiment. And as long as I could get funding (the lack of which eventually terminating my scientific career), I, along with grad students, post-docs, techs and others working for me, could do my own experiments and see what I felt to be correct. I went more in that direction than most, employing mathematical modeling (“systems biology” was the buzzword at the time) to test what I knew. If I could simulate on a computer the results I had in the lab, I understood the system. If not, either the data or my understanding was faulty.
Very, very few people in the world have that power to definitively and systematically question such knowledge. Foucault was right—that is the power to say what is true or false.
But the Flat Earthers are wrong, in that they look at science as used by those who cannot question it. The doctor who sees you for a fifteen-minute appointment has no power to question the etiology of a disease—it’s what he/she was taught, of course. So, the Earth is flat because the Flat Earthers do not have the equipment or money to get up in a shuttle and fly around the earth, but those in education and government who try to push Curved Earth reality aren’t astronauts either. So the space missions must all have been faked because to admit otherwise is to submit to power. And your doctor is pushing poisons on you; it’s much better to trust in this homeopathic, homeotic, homoerotic remedy that will only cost you $9.95. If you order today, we’ll throw in a vegetable slicer.
If they don’t have this power, they must denigrate it. Surely their Google search is as valid as my Ph.D.? What sort of an elitist are you to suggest otherwise? I was indeed called an elitist, once, when I suggested to a global warming denier that he should learn to read the scientific literature in order to see what the papers really say, rather than trusting a website.
In a world where truth is your own judgment of what you see on the Internet, even if planted there by a Russian bot, you have alternative truths and fake news. Surely a tax cut will make America great again. And you wouldn’t challenge laissez-faire capitalism, now would you, because it’s been normalized to the point where most have not even been taught that any alternative exists.
The United States has either engaged militarily with or invaded every country in the world over the course of its history except three (Liechtenstein, Andorra, and Bhutan). Why is this? Shut up and salute the flag, you commie, and you better damn well give our veterans a round of applause when commanded to do so at the local hockey game when they interrupt the loud playing of “Rock and Roll #2” (which the sporting world seems to have forgotten was recorded by a pedophile who is on the lam and widely considered guilty of raping twelve and thirteen-year-olds, but why is that important when the President has paid off twelve and thirteen-year-olds not to publicly accuse him of rape) and the fist fights and the occasional slapping at a puck with sticks for your chance to prove your patriotism. It’s normal for the US to be everywhere. It’s not questioned. God bless America. God is an American, isn’t He?
And this false reclaiming of truth serves those in power by leaving all issues muddled and all people powerless. Ninety percent of Americans think they have had a paranormal experience. It’s comfortable to believe in nonsense. Well, until you’re probed by the aliens, but I think you are unconscious for that.
So we are in the era of the end of the expert, the knowledge that isn’t knowledge: Idiocracy. And what to do about it?
I spend my life trying to inspire people to think, to give them the tools to allow inquiry and questioning that is insightful rather than blind, that is critical rather than narrowly focused into established channels. As an educator, as a writer of fiction, as a blogger, as a parent, as one who works for social change, I strive to be a catalyst, a facilitator, an instigator of true questioning on issues of importance and to discourage Flat Earther-style, infantile denial of every established fact.
Call me Sisyphus.
As Foucault counseled, I keep banging my head against the panopticon. It’s bloody. But if enough of us try it, eventually the glass can be smashed.