Look out, you po-mo poobahs, King Crocoduck is heading up the Scientific Inquisition!
A popular urban legend in the ’60s claimed that soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army were still holed up in remote Pacific islands, unaware that World War Two had ended decades ago. Similarly, YouTuber King Crocoduck is still fighting the Science Wars of the ’90s, evidently unaware that the combatants have largely found common ground. You can’t blame a smart guy like King C for getting tired of waging one-sided slapfights with creationists and crackpots. However, like all fundies, he’s a little behind the times when it comes to keeping up with contemporary thought.
Make Videos Not War
I’ve discussed King C before, when I answered his question “Is Science a Social Construct?” in the affirmative. I still find it amazing that people like King Croc think there’s something wrong with admitting that the scientific method is a human invention and that scientific inquiry in its entirety is a for-us-by-us construct. Does he want us to think that science sprang fully formed from the head of Zeus or something?
Well, King C is back with another video in his playlist called The Science Wars. Is he any more fair-minded than he was in dealing with these issues in the past? We shall see.
As in his previous video about constructionism, King Croc starts out with a very astute and comprehensive description of what postmodernists believe about truth and discourse:
In 1979, the French post-structural philosopher Jean-François Lyotard published a book called The Postmodern Condition, where he says the following: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” A metanarrative is a discourse, which is particular to a specific history and culture, but is incorrectly taken by its participants to be universally applicable. Science, and quote-unquote “Western” science in particular, is regarded by postmodernists as one such metanarrative. They take science to be a discourse that is situated within a particular social context, which means that not only are its signifiers artifacts of the cultures that produced it, but the discourse as a whole exists to reinforce and legitimate the unquestioned assumptions of that culture. And in order for science to be universal, it would have to encompass all discourses, requiring science to be the product of the culture and history of every society that has ever existed and ever will. Since science is evidently no such thing, its claims to universality are unfounded, which makes it a metanarrative.
I don’t see that as being anything more than a straightforward explanation of Lyotard’s idea of the metanarrative and how it relates to scientific inquiry. But King Croc seems to think the ideas are so self-evidently absurd that merely stating the position renders it null and void. As with his dismissal of constructionism, he never explains what’s wrong with these ideas. He intends his alarmist tone to make us believe that postmodernists want to get rid of science, but how does he back that up?
Let The Online Shenanigans Begin
What he does is cherry-pick a few excerpts from the writings of the postmodernists that he knows his audience will find incomprehensible or idiotic. King Croc leans heavily on feminist authors, whose works are excerpted to highlight the criticism of the patriarchy that he considers self-refuting. Science fans are notoriously averse to reading philosophy, so the chance that the average science bro could assess a passage taken out of context from contemporary philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s writing—particularly one King Croc only chose for its density and obscurity—and immediately make sense of it is comically slim. His audience is supposed to gather that this is New Age nonsense, and King Croc drives the point home by fixating on the abstruse paragraph as if it is a foundational text of postmodernism.
King C likes to lump postmodernists and social constructionists in with the garden-variety crackpots and creationists he usually debates, assuming that since they all are targets of his immature scorn, their ideas must all be similar at their roots. This is clumsy sleight of hand that definitely won’t make Penn & Teller lose any sleep. Putting pictures of Deepak Chopra in his videos while he discusses postmodernism is simply assuming what he’s supposed to be proving; since King Croc never explains what’s wrong with postmodern approaches to scientific inquiry (except to call them “stupid” and employ loaded terms like “Lysenkoist”), anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills is left wondering why King C thinks Chopra is relevant to the discussion.
The Vendetta Gets Personal
Even more unfair is the way he treats Donna Riley. King Croc makes it seem like Riley is just some gender studies hack whose criticism of the emphasis on rigor in engineering is boilerplate undergrad blather. In fact, Riley is a scientist with impeccable credentials, and one who was program director at the National Science Foundation for two years. He even introduces her as the Kamyar Haghighi Head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, a position she has held since leaving Virginia Tech’s engineering education program in 2017. So in what universe does a vlogger like King Croc get to characterize Donna Riley as some sort of anti-science nitwit? Anyone more informed about Riley’s work—and inclined to make his claims comport with reality—would be charitable enough to admit that she has spent decades working to situate engineering education in a social context that is more about inclusion than about accurate calculations. She’s asking the question, “How can we get women and minorities to be better represented in the traditionally white male fields of engineering?” Just because King Croc doesn’t consider that a relevant question doesn’t mean that most science educators share his indifference.
Privilege, Not Parsimony
It’s obvious from his sneering references to the “emancipatory political agenda” and “historical guilt-mongering” of the postmodernists that all this has more to do with political ideology than scientific methodology. King C doesn’t object to postmodernists on the same basis as he does the creationists, because there’s no religion involved; what he objects to is their left-wing, feminist critique of science’s objectivity and authority. It’s a matter of privilege for King Croc: he doesn’t present rational defenses of modern science against accusations that it was founded in an era of colonialism and domination; that the universality of science is philosophically problematic; or that science has become the enabler of corporate and military interests. He just doesn’t feel obligated to consider those accusations, that’s all.
Is This Freethought or Fundamentalism?
It’s no accident that his latest video begins with footage of a March for Science speech by activist and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, saying:
Let us celebrate indigenous science, that promotes the flourishing of both humans and the beings with whom we share the planet. […] Western science is a powerful approach, it is not the only one. Let us march not just for science, but for sciences.
King C once again expects the viewer to see this rhetoric as self-evidently fallacious, without ever explaining what is wrong with it. Kimmerer, a Native American woman with her hair dyed green and wearing artisanal jewelry, talking about “cultures of respect, reciprocity and reverence,” is simply supposed to represent something negative and scary to King C’s science bro audience. It’s not as if he goes out of his way to outline how conventional Western science could address the concerns of activists like Kimmerer or Donna Riley; he implies by his silence that those concerns aren’t worth his attention. Basically, the idea that there is more than one science is simply unconscionable to people like King Croc, because it represents a challenge to their perceived power and authority.
King Croc is applying purity tests to those engaged in scientific inquiry and education and calling for the shunning of heretics who deviate from the letter of the holy law. His brand of scientific Inquisitionism isn’t exactly what you’d expect to appeal to freethinkers, or anyone who sees scientific inquiry as a useful and versatile methodology rather than our sole authority about absolute Truth.
What are your opinions on King Crocoduck’s coverage of the “science wars”?