To See or Not to See

Today during a discussion it was suggested that a scientific study of a subculture should not be performed because any negative aspects or perceived negative aspects such a study found would be used as weapons by those who stigmatize it. As so often happens in idle conversation the subject moved on fairly quickly, but I found myself thinking about it again and again during the evening. So, since I haven’t written anything in ages, I figure I may as well muse over this a bit.

Interestingly, I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter what subculture this is, so I’ve taken pains not to say it for both anonymity and for what I will call purity of purpose. If you’re reading this and thinking you agree with me unless it’s one specific subculture that you dislike, what does that say about you?

Anyways, the premise that I’m responding to is that a study should not be performed if the results could be used against the subjects. The short version is: I disagree on both philosophical and practical grounds, and will address them in that order.

From a scientific standpoint, to ask a question without pursuing the answer may well be necessary. Perhaps there’s no way to test it with current technology, or there may be no ethical way to conduct a study, or there may be no funding available, or the question itself may be a thought experiment or philosophical Zen puzzle that has no answer (or at least not a useful one).

From a scientific standpoint, to ask a question and not follow through because of what other people may say or do about the answer is nothing short of moral cowardice. It is also a lie of omission in the same way that it would be dishonest to say that you can’t read a sign in the dark while you have a working flashlight in your pocket. In the end you are refusing to conduct a study because you are afraid of what you might find, which flies in the face of both moral courage and intellectual honesty. Lies and cowardice are the ways of politics, not science.

Science is a tool. It’s a method for not only separating the real and the imaginary, but also for discerning the truth as best as possible. If there is one motto that should be in the heart of any scientist, any person who would use that tool, it should be “Question Boldly!” Don’t merely ask the questions, but pursue their answers courageously. Be brave enough to face unexpected answers and to accept that if your results disagree with your hypothesis and you can find no fault in your methods then your hypothesis is probably wrong. It doesn’t make you a bad person or even a bad scientist, but it does make you wrong and you must be prepared to face that eventuality.

So much for philosophy, let’s look at a more practical side. The way I see it there are two practical aspects. First is the way enemies will use the results of such a study, and second is the actual results of such a study. I will consider them in that order.

Look, if you’re a member of a subculture, and you are, you will sooner or later be a target of those who use the moral outrage of ignorant people for financial or political gains. There are a thousand radio and television talking heads who use this tactic, so I’m just going to lump them all together under the appellation “Assholes”.

I’m serious about you being in a subculture, too. Even if every ancestor of yours for the past 400 years was descended from someone on the fucking Mayflower and you’re a middle-of-the-road Baptist with 2.5 kids, a spouse who’s scarily identical to you, and no hobbies. At some point one of these Assholes has ranted about how you are what’s wrong with the world today and all right-thinking Americans should shun you or vote away your rights or burn you at the stake. (I really hope this is just an American issue, but I suspect the rest of the world has Assholes of this caliber as well.) It’s not because you’re a bad person, it’s because people are complicated. Even the simplest of us have a lot going on in our lives and somehow, in some way, we all fall under the umbrella of Them.

And that’s ok. Assholes know that every single member of their audience will fall under their scorn and know that people will tend to gloss over it. “Well, he made one bad call, nobody’s perfect.” And they will think this and never ask themselves if this Asshole could get things so very, very wrong in the one case that they have personal experience with, what else has Asshole failed to examine closely? So they go on cheering the Asshole, and the rest of the world ignores them until an election rolls around. And life goes on.

Getting back to the subject here, from the point of view of those who would stigmatize a subculture, it really doesn’t matter what a study about that subculture says. If anything in there might possibly be presented as negative, they will do it. If they have to quotemine a thousand page paper to find a single sentence that looks bad out of context, they will do it. If the paper shows nothing but rainbows, kittens and roses and the only way to make them look bad is to lie outright, they will do it. They’ve done it before and will do it again, and if no study exists at all there is nothing to refute them when they make things up. Not conducting the study not only fails to keep weapons from your enemies, it also successfully keeps them from your allies.

Finally, let us consider the possibility that the actual results of such a study might contain unpleasant information. I can tell you with near-certainty that it will because any subculture, no matter how small, is made up of human beings. The works of any group of people will contain beauty, wisdom, ugliness, foolishness, ignorance, comedy, tragedy, joy and horror at the least. And most likely you will be able to find more examples of bad stuff than good, if only because it’s so much easier to remember the bad. The Assholes will accentuate the negative. The members will point out the good parts. The public at large won’t much care.

But consider that negative, and recall what I said earlier about not merely questioning, but doing so boldly and with the courage to face unpleasant results. If you examine your subculture and find something unpleasant, is it right to hide that knowledge away? Knowledge you might be able to use to improve things? Should you pretend that the bad stuff doesn’t exist, or should you use the knowledge you’ve gained to reduce it, maybe even eliminate it? Surely it must be better to face an unpleasant truth and by doing so learn how to combat it. Perhaps your subculture isn’t so nice after all, but now you’ve learned more about it and know what needs to be fixed. You can’t possibly improve things if you don’t know what’s wrong.

Of course, in the most selfish view, you probably aren’t the only person thinking about these things. Why shouldn’t you be the first to publish? When other studies come, and they will, yours would be the basis of comparison. And even if similar studies have already been published, knowledge always benefits from more data. Even if only in the smallest way, you would still be contributing to the well of human knowledge.

So that’s my case. Not conducting a study, or suppressing the results of one, is at best a wasted effort. At worst it’s dishonest, cowardly, and counterproductive. However good the intentions, I cannot see any way that it improves things, and the best that I can say is that it doesn’t make things any worse while passing up a potential chance for improvement.

As always, if you have any thoughts, comments, or refutations of this post, I’d love to read them below.

About Leo Tarvi

Mostly fictional.

Posted on July 26, 2011, in Nonfiction, Personal and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. The question in point is can it be done ethically, and you argue well that it should be done. I would point out, one might want a statistically relevant sample showing just how long the average person can live without their liver. We know how long unhealthy people can do so, but not healthy ones. There is such thing as a moral break that says, just because we can ask the question doesn’t mean we should actively pursue the answer. Just how long can we expose someone to a level of radiation and keep them alive before they, can’t take any more?

    Just how much can we explore the dynamics of a given subculture before we add further ridicule to it, doesn’t sound like it’s on the same level until you’ve lived with a given stigmatization. Then you realize that ANY added stigma is both cruel and harmful, but in the long run neither useful or purposeful.

    I guess my answer, despite being a good lil’ scientist at heart, is that just because we can ask the question, doesn’t mean we have to or should actively seek the results. Some things really are better off left unknown, I think Nagasaki and Hiroshima are proof enough of that.

    • I think the real question we’re on opposite sides of is “would studying a subculture bring more stigma, more pain to its members?” I don’t think it would. Sociological studies get quoted a lot, but they don’t really get much attention outside their field unless someone holds a press conference, maybe not even then. Unless the study turns up something very surprising, it would likely be just another paper, more or less forgotten except for when people already looking for data on the subject look it up.

      But it’s useful for it to exist, even beyond the realms of science, because then when some red faced blowhard who makes their living fanning the flames of moral outrage targets this group they have facts to point to in their defense. Data that exposes the lies. The only danger there that I can see is that it gives another source to quotemine, but in that case people are already looking for nasty things to say. Without such studies they will simply make things up and it will be far more difficult to refute them.

      I keep reading this as saying “we shouldn’t look at this because some people will be mean about it,” with the implication that “maybe if we don’t look they won’t either.” But they will look, sooner or later, and they’ll be mean no matter what the truth is. It feels like keeping your head down and hoping the bully won’t notice you, will pass you by. It won’t work forever, and now you won’t see him coming and will be less able to defend yourself. And to add insult to injury now you don’t know the truth, because you were afraid to look.

  2. Even if studies are conducted people will find ways of twisting, refusing, or nullifying results. Especially when it comes to sociological studies that focus more abstract aspects that are hard to quantify. Even when presented with the facts or the truth, those red-faced blowhards will believe themselves to be superior and correct about everything. That said, reasonable and more open minded people will be able to discern fact from fiction and decide for themselves. Therefore, studies should be conducted regardless of the outcome so that the comparative data is available.

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