So my professor might be a nihilist…

For the most part, Western science views culture top-down, as an expression of theory. It tries to justify systematized sets of rules through logic and consistency or coherence, looking for a single, universal, objective foundation for judgment. This objectivism almost inevitably slides into ethnocentrism as some privileged understanding of rationality is falsely legitimated by claiming for it an unwarranted universality.

(from Origin Myths and Migration Theory via Examining the Myths and Realities in Indian Country at the Time of European Contact)


I’ve been running this lecture over in my head since it happened on Thursday. (The reason I didn’t speak up about stuff like conflating theory with viewpoint and Dr. Olson-Raymer literally saying “just a theory” at one point was that the class is dramatically behind schedule and I’ve been erring on not making the situation worse.) I was at the point of writing a letter with the intent of getting it read first by a few friends and classmates and in doing so went to reread the lecture notes. And then I clicked on a link and it got so much worse.

Essentially, the lecture states that scientific theories and the various Native American creation myths (and I love Joesph Campbell, I use the word myth with the utmost respect) are equivalent in their ability to explain how Native Americans got to the Americas. “Reality: From a strictly scientific viewpoint, we do not know how ancient human remains might be related to contemporary Indian peoples, nor do we know from whence they came” (emphasis in original). The linked page goes even further,  putting the scientific method and all empiricism into a relativist construct. It also argues that empiricism “inevitably slides into ethnocentrism,” so science is also ethically problematic. There’s also this straw man about conflating theory and fact which I’ll get to later.

On some level, not being a science teacher (or a scientist full-stop) means understanding that my discipline, history, doesn’t have exactly the same epistemological framework as science. I get that, I think I always have. (The extent to which historians are just a catty as scientists are is new though!) Approaching something like miasma theory as a historian, even of science, is fundamentally different from approaching it as a scientist. Both care about the theory and its ramifications, but the scientist is concerned with why it’s wrong while the historian is concerned about why people thought it was right.

And those of you reading this that know me, especially if it was as Cal before Isaac, know how equivocal I am. It takes a lot of willpower not to make the implicit “I think” and “I believe” clauses explicit throughout my writing. (Queue Skaald screaming “Bloody neutrals!” over Zero’s mic.) That comes from trying to be empirical above all else, which means accepting what I know, don’t know, and how well I know those things. That need to equivocate is also because I embrace postmodernism.

(In the spirit of disclosure, I am an atheist. I would have these same issues not dismissing the Bible out-of-hand where it has major historicity problems during a unit on the ancient Near East for example. I would hope I would have them even as a theist, but who knows!)

I understand that even things I’m aware that “I know” are subject to biases that are at some point insurmountable. But the quote above, that’s something else entirely. There is a thin but bright line between “I have biases and they cannot be completely corrected for, therefore you should take what I say with a grain of salt” and “I have biases and they cannot be completely corrected for, therefore objective reality is unknowable.” The line between that and “. . . therefore objective reality doesn’t exist” is less bright and I’m not sure if the article goes all the way there.

I do not understand how one can reject the fundamental bases by which they are transmitting these sorts of ideas. How one can critically assess something using deductive logic at one moment while rejecting it as a means to understand objective reality the very next? As historians and as history teachers, we base our work on things like logic and analysis. This is literally what I do every day now. We of course need to engage with how a culture sees itself, especially if they’re a group that has been historically taught about poorly, but we need the capacity to put their views aside and say they do not agree with anything else. (This is where something like young Earth creationism could completely destroy a discipline.) We have to be able to say that people are wrong in so far as what they believe tells us about objective reality.

Moreover, I am troubled by the implication that we can take information from other disciplines and effectively remove it from its epistemological context. An accepted scientific theory isn’t just a theory, it’s a dude standing with his arms out screaming “Come at me bro!” and beating all comers to date. It’s not a fact, it can be improved upon or shown to be outright wrong later, but right now it’s the gold standard of empirical knowledge. A theory in the common usage is a hypothesis which is something else entirely.

Beyond the level of “words mean things” is the question of when historians are using information from other disciplines to do history, what is the appropriate level with which we can interact with it? Where does the conflict between “good history teacher, bad science teacher” resolve? I can make a joke about Texas public education here, but their objectives are clear: make people dumb and passive thinkers. At my school, in this class, we go on and on about the importance of critical analysis except here, and maybe elsewhere? It’s fantastically easy to be cynical here, or make jokes about indoctrination, but there has to be something else. Right?