Flight Papers

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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

The Doctor Will Sue You Now

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

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I have once again been demonstrating enormous lackadaisicality in keeping up with my writing. In penance, I’m taking advantage of the Creative Commons license on the recently released final chapter of Ben Goldcare’s book.

It’s a horrifying look at the ways in which a kind of eco-romanticism—properly blended with colonial and racial privilege—can end up supporting oppression. He touches on the ways in which we westerners export not just suffering and death, but also denialist modes that just cut genuine activism, and, briefly, kill millions of people. After all, it’s easy to demonize Thabo Mbeki, a man who saw millions of people in his country dying of AIDS and encouraged them to eat more potatoes. It’s harder to see the western denialists standing behind him; harder still to look at the hundreds of thousands of prostitutes killed not just by AIDS or by men but by health policies and social structures that marginalize them, sometimes very, very literally.

This is an extract from
BAD SCIENCE by Ben Goldacre
Published by Harper Perennial 2009.

You are free to copy it, paste it, bake it, reprint it, read it aloud, as long as you don’t change it – including this bit – so that people know that they can find more ideas for free at www.badscience.net


The Doctor Will Sue You Now

This chapter did not appear in the original edition of this book, because for fifteen months leading up to September 2008 the vitamin-pill entrepreneur Matthias Rath was suing me personally, and the Guardian, for libel. This strategy brought only mixed success. For all that nutritionists may fantasise in public that any critic is somehow a pawn of big pharma, in private they would do well to remember that, like many my age who work in the public sector, I don’t own a flat. The Guardian generously paid for the lawyers, and in September 2008 Rath dropped his case, which had cost in excess of £500,000 to defend. Rath has paid £220,000 already, and the rest will hopefully follow. Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meetings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with endlessly cross-referenced court documents.

On this last point there is, however, one small consolation, and I will spell it out as a cautionary tale: I now know more about Matthias Rath than almost any other person alive. My notes, references and witness statements, boxed up in the room where I am sitting right now, make a pile as tall as the man himself, and what I will write here is only a tiny fraction of the fuller story that is waiting to be told about him. This chapter, I should also mention, is available free online for anyone who wishes to see it.

Matthias Rath takes us rudely outside the contained, almost academic distance of this book. For the most part we’ve been interested in the intellectual and cultural consequences of bad science, the made-up facts in national newspapers, dubious academic practices in universities, some foolish pill-peddling, and so on. But what happens if we take these sleights of hand, these pill-marketing techniques, and transplant them out of our decadent Western context into a situation where things really matter?


Any color so long as it’s black.

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

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Over at Punkass, Lisa has an interesting bit on how women are functionally censured no matter what choice we make with respect to childbearing (and, of course, many other things).

She concludes, wondering,

Why, in a country purportedly founded upon the rights of the individual to choose any number of things–why we have created a situation where doing so is overwhelmingly disapproved of, a situation where the only fix in terms of general societal approval would be to remove entirely that right..?

I think it’s because we… don’t. We as a society don’t genuinely value individual choices, desires, and responsibility. We don’t like agency, and we don’t like individuals to have actual power to affect change. We like to say we do, though, because we can leverage that narrative of free choice to legitimize our institutions. “See,” we might say, “women don’t actually want access to employment and equal pay, for when completely free of coercion of any kind, they choose to stay at home and have kids.” Or we might say, “Look, those poor blacks / immigrants / white trash wouldn’t be poor if they didn’t choose to live that way.” Or perhaps, “Fattie fattie fattie stop choosing to be fat fat fat.”

The thing is: if you hold a gun to someone’s head and say, “Believe this. Do this. Live like I tell you to,” you lose a certain amount of authority to claim that your way is superior to any other. Shallow Nietzschen ethics aside, we have some intuition that “because otherwise I will shoot you,” is not an argument that supports, “society should be structured like this.” We aren’t, in short, interested in a free, liberated society because such a thing is valuable for its own sake. We are interested in a free, liberated society—or at least the appearance of one”because it supports our ideology. Because then we can say, “hey, whatever your qualms, with it people freely choose to support a white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” as if such a thing were even possible.

So first of all, this is why it’s important to make individuals responsible for every single negative thing that has happened to them—if not directly, then situationally, in that they have failed to choose to overcome the same adversity that everyone else obviously does. Mockery, derision, and distilled shame are the only effective medicines.

It’s also particularly evident when we decide to—what’s the euphemism? “Export colonialism?” “Engage in neo-democracy?” Something like that, anyway. Especially when the state we’re trying to build isn’t particularly popular with anyone, y’know, living there, maintaining the illusion that this is Exactly What They All Want is crucial.

This is also why we like innovative! entrepreneurial! driven! straight! white! men! who are rebels! bucking the system! by making money and exploiting others in a very slightly novel way. We particularly like IEDSWMWARBTS when they aren’t technically straight, white, or men”after all, Oprah shows us that any black woman can attain incredible wealth, fame, and power, since, see, one has!

In all of these cases, it is completely acceptable and desirable for anyone and everyone to passionately pursue their desires and boldly make individual statements and choices, so long as those choices support and reify patriarchal power structures. Women choosing their career over their children are obviously heartless and demonstrate the need for men to help them make the right choice; women choosing their children over their careers obviously demonstrate that feminism did no good for anybody; women insisting that the choice is a false dichotomy and working against to support their carers and family are, sadly, simply unrealistic.

And God help you if you’re a childless lesbian (tragic), a lesbian with kids (gross!), or a single lesbian (metaphysical impossibility).

Think of it this way

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

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Behind every concept lies a web of stories.

They may be very simple. Without her, my life is less—love. This is mommy; this is daddy. Mommy does mommy things, daddy does daddy things—gender. I wish we had never met—hatred. They are simple, but they are many, and without these narratives, concepts and ideas fail to exist. That’s because even self-evident concepts are not pre-social. They do not exist in the ether, waiting for us to analyze away our worldly knowledge so that we may come to attain perfect knowledge of them. They are created things, which exist in their telling. And for ideas to survive as more than flickering thoughts, they need a narrative foundation to latch onto.

This is how the world came to be, in a moment of desire. This is why good should triumph over evil. This is why we should believe in either.

These things are the foundation of our world.

That’s why I’m interested in stories. They hook into us in a very deep level—stories are not how we learn, they are how we know.

Games are what happen when you collect enough stories that they start to define rules. Not well, necessarily, but well enough. The tales of logic and reason give us analytic philosophy; the tales of love and hate and gender tell us how to live. It may seem strange or amoral to refer to these pursuits as games, but (rest assured), it isn’t. They are activities which exist within their own space, and have their own rules—play doesn’t need to imply inauthenticity, and indeed, might well imply the opposite.

When we explicitly play a game—be it BDSM roleplay, or the other kind—we are building barriers. But those barriers give us power. They let us deal with foreign concepts, play with stories that we would not otherwise entertain. We can reject foundational narratives with comfort, knowing that we are only doing so in the course of play. And because they are communal, we let other people into a part of our mental space normally off-limits, and we invite ourselves into theirs. In the course of play, we construct new stories. They aren’t immediately foundational, but they may well become so.

And that’s why I’m interested in play.