Against science

You’ve probably heard that there was a “march for science” this weekend, and you may have asked yourself what the hell that was supposed to mean. This is one of many things nowadays that is “common sense” and “shouldn’t be a partisan issue” and “it’s so ridiculous that it’s 2017 and we’re still talking about this,” which is exactly how you know that this is not where the real issue is. That is, there’s a notion that certain strains of political thought are “anti-science,” but of course this is absurd. Science is a methodology, not a goal, and for this reason, no one is actually opposed to it as such. Republicans are more than happy to support science when it’s being used to construct giant bombs and mass surveillance tools. Nobody is insisting that these things be done according to Biblical instructions. People who have goals that they want to achieve use the means that are available to them, and science is one of those.

First of all, the specific issue we’re talking about here is global warming, which is something that we should not euphemize, as it is and continues to be the single most important issue in politics. (If we’re particularly unlucky, it will continue to be the most important issue for the remainder of human history.) There’s a lot of talk concerning a “scientific consensus” on this issue and the fact that certain politicians won’t “accept” it, but this does not amount to an explanation. Science is, again, a method that can help you understand what the situation is right now, and potentially help you figure out how to do something about it, but only after you’ve decided what it is that you’re going to do. As explained by the Big D himself, David Hume, in a much-quoted-but-apparently-not-quoted-nearly-enough passage:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

In short, science can, ideally, tell you exactly what the present situation is, but what it can tell you about what you ought to do about it is – again ideally – exactly dick. After all, the group of people who accept the scientific consensus on global warming includes Barack Obama, who, well, I’ll be generous and not say that he did nothing about it during the time that the issue was on his desk, but considering the scale of the problem, it’s difficult to argue against the conclusion that he basically sat on his hands.

Worse, “science” is in fact the thing that caused global warming in the first place. It’s more than a little peculiar to oppose global warming by demanding more science in politics, seeing as what actually happened is that extreme advancements in industrial technology outstripped our ability to monitor and control them via policy. If it weren’t for science, if it were simply a matter of choosing a policy, no one would ever have chosen for global warming to happen. But, you’ll object, that’s not science’s fault. It was the profit motive, or human short-sightedness or whatever. You are entirely correct. To attach the label “science” to the results of a scientific process is a category error. Science is the process and is not the outcome. The first sentence of this paragraph makes the same category error. Science is not the cause of anything; it can only be the means by which a cause produces its effect. For this same reason, science cannot save us. Indeed, treating science as a real thing and not clinging to it as a fetish means respecting it even when it cuts against you – when it demonstrates that getting what you’re after requires sacrifice.

And also for this same reason, “science” cannot be the thing that our recent marchers were in fact marching for. They are making the same error: what they are actually in favor of is the results of science. A common grievance is the fact that the current administration seems to be attempting to neutralize the function of the EPA, if not eliminate it entirely. This is usually framed as an attack on “science.” But “science” and “the environment” are not the same type of thing. “The environment” is what we want; “science” is potentially how we get there (again, it can just as easily be how we don’t get there). Insisting on “more science” does nothing to oppose those who don’t want to preserve the environment in the first place.

More than that, “the environment” is not actually what we want, either. There’s always going to be an environment, no matter what. Even a Mars-like lifeless rock is still “an” environment. What we want is an environment that is good for humans, and it is here that we finally get around to imposing some fucking constraints. The thing that’s really disgusting about global warming is that rich fucks are going to be fine. They have high-tech doomsday colonies in which to while away their decadent lives while the rest of the world burns. The thing that allows them to do this is science. The other thing that allows them to do this is a hell of a lot of money – money that could be used to help the people who are actually going to get fucked to death otherwise. This is the only thing that is intelligible as a political demand. We don’t want rich fucks to jump up and down and shake their pom-poms when they see a pretty picture of a nebula. We want their fucking money. To actually argue this, though, you’d have to argue that rich fucks are not entitled to spend their money however they please – indeed, you might even end up arguing that people in general have a moral obligation to use their resources to make things better for others. And that’s just not how we do things in America.

The reason, then, that one “fucking loves science” is because it is easy to do so. Like, I wouldn’t normally do this stuff. Y’know, everything’s so partisan these days. I don’t like engaging in politics, like some kind of union laborer. It’s just that I love facts, you know? Facts are the best.1 Which, like, yeah. Facts are facts, which is why that is a worthless statement. What matters is what you’re going to do about them. And if what you want to do about them were something that the people in charge of this society were okay with, it would already be happening. If you want something different, then, you should be honest about what it is you’re saying. After all, most of the problems that we aspire to solve using science have already been solved – for some people. As William Gibson famously put it, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. So if you’re going to protest, don’t settle for taking the easiest possible stance out of fear that you won’t get a sympathetic writeup in the New Yorker. Make a real claim. What you are actually in favor of is coercive economic redistribution.

  1. Like, there’s apparently a hat with the word “facts” on it, because wearing that in public will totally show everyone what a functional and intelligent person you are. 

Get the cuts you need

This ranking of Tegan and Sara albums is a remarkably comprehensive argument against the idea that ranking things has any value whatsoever.

The first and most obvious issue is that The Con isn’t at the top, seeing as it’s clearly magical. When Robert Mapplethorpe was taking pictures of Patti Smith for the cover of Horses, he looked at one of the shots and said to her, “this one has the magic.” There’s nothing really remarkable about the image, it’s just a lady wearing a suit and looking at the camera, but it is, in fact, magic. Anyone who’s seen it has it permanently burned into their mind; it has a transcendent itself-ness that gives it an insistent significance; it communicates in a primal language that creates its own understanding; it’s the kind of thing that you feel in your heart before you even know what it is. The Con is the one that has the magic.

This seems like a slam-dunk argument that it’s “the best,” but it doesn’t actually hold up on reflection. The characteristic of magic is precisely that it does not obey the normal laws, so it’s incoherent to say that something is the objective best because it’s magical. On the contrary, the whole point of rankings, it would seem, is to get around vague notions of “specialness” and down to brass tacks.

So, I mean, fine. If you’re trying to rank things, you need to ignore magic and just focus on the things you can measure. This is already pretty suspicious, since we’re ignoring what seems to be the most important thing, but we can at least see if it works. The specific claim made by the listperson is that So Jealous is cohesive while The Con is all over the place. This is certainly true, and it’s also obviously intentional; you don’t follow “Hop A Plane” with “Soil, Soil” because you’re trying to provide a smooth listening experience. But there’s a critical missing step here, which is the argument that a consistent album is better than one with extreme emotional ups and downs. To me, this is clearly backwards: the album that pulls off greater emotional range and more diverse songwriting is the better one.

But the issue isn’t whether I’m right or the listperson is right; the issue is that neither of us is. That missing step is actually just nonexistent: there is no argument you can make as to why one mode of expression is “better” than another. This is professionally known as the is/ought gap: even an exhaustive description of reality does not imply any standard or metric for evaluating that reality. You can spend all day making correct, incisive observations, but everyone still has to decide on the actual value of the underlying content for themselves. So there’s all sorts of analysis to be done as to what an album does and what it’s about, but even after you’ve done that, tacking a number onto it is still completely arbitrary.

So the first two problems with rankings are that they can’t capture transcendence, and that they don’t add anything to the analysis they’re based on. You can just talk about music without sticking numbers next to it. But surely the problem is that we’re splitting hairs between great and greater albums, right? There are certainly some albums that can be said to be better than others, so ratings do have a proper and properly limited utility. For example, Under Feet Like Ours is clearly the worst Tegan and Sara album. They’re pretty much the exact opposite of the band that comes right out of the gate with a fully-formed sound and then struggles to move forward with it: their first record is jittery and awkward, all ideas and no form, and every album after it takes a huge leap in a new direction. The comparison is made extra simple by the fact that This Business Of Art contains many of the same songs reworked to be more fleshy and coherent, making it easy to see it as a strictly superior album.

But what does it actually mean to call something the “worst” album? Does it mean that you shouldn’t listen to it? I mean, maybe; it depends on how worst it is and whether Tegan and Sara are the sort of band who are good even when they’re bad (or when they want to be bad). So even if we take this ranking to be straightforwardly correct, it still gives us no relevant information. After all, we’re talking about the album that has “This Is Everything” on it, which is definitely something I would recommend experiencing (not to mention that that song is itself about transcendent value overcoming practical failure). This is the paradox of aesthetics: being worse doesn’t actually make something worse, so rankings are wrong even when they’re right.

At this point I should probably clarify that I am aware of what the actual purpose of ranking things on the internet is. Rankings are supposed to be bad and wrong, because they’re outrage bait (arbitrary lists of nonsensical rankings are a running joke on Gawker, the internet’s premier source of self-incriminating mockery). What I’m meant to be doing here is ranting about how putting Sainthood in the bottom half of basically any list about anything is blatantly pathological behavior. But the fact that rankings are guaranteed to generate strident disagreement is just more evidence that there’s no substance behind them. If, for example, I were inclined to make a (much) better version of this list, how would I handle Sainthood? The album is fucked up six ways from Monday, from the awkwardly staggered lyrics on “Paperback Head” to the way “Sentimental Tune” crescendos itself off a cliff. “Arrow” bristles with big, gaudy effects, “On Directing” piles up multiple layers of self-reference, “Red Belt” is placid to the point of pain. Are these good things or bad things? Should I just give in to idiosyncrasy and order the albums however I feel like, or should I try to restrain my own impulses as much as possible and put them in the most defensible order? Which of these approaches is less dishonest? The fact that there’s no answer to any of this reveals the fundamental problem: there is zero connection between the score someone gives an album and the actual experience they had listening to it, i.e. the thing that actually matters. The usual distinction is between subjective feeling and objective facts, but actually, neither of these things has any correspondence with rankings.

The reason this is important, the reason we shouldn’t just let these things be stupid and find something better to do (although we should also do that), is that there’s a reason they work, a real insight that underlies their cynical conception: people like rankings. It’s not just internet lists, the basic concept of giving something a numerical score necessarily implies a ranking order. So if it’s so obvious that no one cares which number some hack sticks next to something on a list, why are lists and scores and rankings all over the place?

If you’re reviewing like dishwashers or whatever, some of them actually are going to work better than others, and numerical ratings are a sensible way to represent that. The key, though, is the word “work,” which implies a defined function: the better appliance is the one that accomplishes its intended task more effectively. Some aspects of this will be subjective or situational, but by doing multiple carefully controlled tests and aggregating the results, we can arrive at an assessment that will be broadly applicable in most circumstances, one that is “objective” in the colloquial sense of the term. This process is what we generally refer to as “science.”

And you can’t apply this to art, because art isn’t functional. It is susceptible to analysis; you can focus like a microscope and make all sorts of substantive observations, but none of that is useful until you cross the is/ought gap and start valuing things. And once you’ve done that, you have left the realm of objectivity, turning any kind of rank or score you want to assign into a category error. Subjective experience isn’t just hard to get at, it’s absolutely inaccessible.

Why, then, would anyone get upset about a rating being “wrong,” given that it has nothing to do with how anyone feels about the work in question? The specific feeling at issue is invalidation. When someone gives a low “objective” score to something you care about, you feel like your experience is invalid. And the opposite feeling is the reason people like ratings in the first place: a high “objective” score means that you’re right to like something, that the way you feel is true. But such a source of validation can only be described as cowardice. Certainly, the person who embraces things only after they have been deemed permissible by the appropriate cultural gatekeepers is a coward. But the same is true of any external source of validation: the safety of objectivity is a refuge from the responsibility to determine one’s own values.

Music is one of the less extreme examples here, since the appeal of music is generally understood as idiosyncratic anyway. The most prominent example is, of course, ethics in games journalism. The extreme stupidity of that, uh, “debate” is somewhat offset by the fact that it’s drawing the battle lines very clearly. Some people think games are basically appliances that you plug yourself into in order to be “entertained,” in which case assigning them an objective numerical score according to how entertaining they are makes perfect superficial sense. Others think that the point of games is to create new experiences, which requires engagement with the real world and active acceptance of subjectivity. So the one nice thing about this is that is provides a convenient sanity check. If you find yourself on the wrong side of an argument this obvious, you’ve gotta back it up.

Subjective experience is inherently desperate. It contains within itself the understanding that it cannot be verified or transmitted, that it is a pure moment, that it seems on reflection to not exist at all, even though it’s the only thing of any actual importance. Art is largely an attempt to get around this, to turn subjectivity into something more substantive than simply raw feeling. At a live show in particular, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else in the room is feeling the same thing you are. But the attempt to reify subjective experience as something externally valid is no kind of solution, because this creates only a hollow shell, bereft of the animating spirit that made it matter in the first place. The only real option is to embrace the horror, to hold transience without shaking.

But we have to be careful not to back into reverse nihilism. If everyone just likes what they like, then nothing means anything. There’s no substantive distinction between hearing a symphony and watching paint dry. So it seems like we need a way to preserve objective orders of rank without muffling subjectivity.

The one rating system with a subjectivity-respecting justification is the two-point thumbs-up/thumbs-down system, because it implies nothing other than an answer to the actual question: should I spend time on this or not? But if you accept that, you’ve accepted the idea that there are objective standards that can be applied to art, and that would seem to open the floodgates. Any other rating system, no matter how convoluted, has the same theoretical justification. A rating of 3 stars out of 5 could mean “check this out only if you’re a fan of the genre”; 28.6 points out of 100 could mean “worth it only on a rainy day when you don’t feel like doing anything else.” So it seems like accepting the validity of analysis requires us to countenance every nonsensical rating system that anyone comes up with, and we’re stuck disagreeing with every Bad Opinion on a case-by-case basis.

This is a false dichotomy based on the idea that analysis requires a number as its output, and anything else is just personal feelings. It is not only possible to combine subjectivity and analysis, it is vitally necessary. If you only have your own subjective experience, then there’s no room for any kind of conversation or collaboration; everything is just, like, your opinion, man. And if all you have is analysis, you’ve just got a big convoluted structure that doesn’t mean anything; it might as well just be a big rock.

In fact, it’s perfectly easy to do everything valuable about analysis while ignoring the dumb numerical part. For example, consider this review of Sleater-Kinney’s discography (eMusic used to have a lot of good music writing, but it apparently got run over by the freight train of progress at some point). It has the same album-by-album format, but even as it makes judgments, it doesn’t pretend to be any kind of ranking, and this clarifies the underlying analysis. Actually, the reason I chose this example is because it’s moronic. The person who wrote it thinks that Janet Weiss joined on Call the Doctor, so he disses Lora MacFarlane’s drumming on the first album and then praises it on the second, without realizing he’s talking about the same person. The real problem, though, it that he thinks The Hot Rock was “Sleater-Kinney on an off day,” which I honestly can’t even begin to address. I lack the ability to inhabit the mental space where this is a comprehensible statement. But because the album isn’t “ranked,” there’s no fake argument about whether the ranking is “right” or whether it’s properly “objective” or what the fuck ever. We can just accept that this guy has terrible taste in music and get on with our lives.

What we need to do is to split the concept of ranking along its fault line. As mentioned, it conflates two distinct things that don’t have a real connection: there’s analysis, and then there’s putting a number on that analysis. And what putting a number on something actually means is establishing a hierarchy. Hence the phenomenon of the internet ranking list: a list of which things are better than which other things.

Hierarchy has its uses, but our society has established a hierarchy of people, and this surely ranks among the greatest possible crimes against existence. Its function is to justify the dominance of the ruling class by positing them as the “best” people, and to justify the direction of our development as progress toward a higher goal. People want to feel like they live in an ordered universe, but there are different types of order, and some of them are dispreferable to chaos. Recognizing that there is no real apotheosis, no greatest hit, reveals our society’s horrors as the chosen project of our rulers – a project that we have the freedom to oppose. This is the cure for our crimes.

There’s an old saying, which I thought was Chinese but am completely failing to source, that perfection arouses the envy of the gods. I mean, everything is an “ancient Chinese proverb,” but I genuinely thought that this was a Chinese or Japanese concept. There is, for example, the Japanese term “wabi-sabi,” which expresses the idea that flaws can make something better. But this isn’t like mystical wisdom or whatever; it’s a very practical concept that doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality or metaphysics. What it means is that perfection is impossible not because it is the asymptotic limit of quality, but because it is a self-defeating concept.

If there actually were a perfect album, something that literally every person agreed was the best, that could only mean that no one had an individual reaction to it. If one person were to feel something about it that no one else did, that opens up the possibility that someone else could have such a reaction to a different album, meaning the perfect album is not perfect. In order to actually be perfect, it would have to provide all possible experiences to all people, which is to say it would have to do nothing. The only way to speak to everyone equally is to remain silent. Actually, even that’s not true; 4’33” is one of the most divisive pieces of music in existence. Anything that actually exists is necessarily rough, flawed, divisive, incomplete, and wrong. Perfection is logically impossible.

In a more practical sense, this means that nothing can ever meaningfully be said to be “the best” of anything, even when the category is as simple as 7 albums by the same band. Even on a strictly personal level, this is why it doesn’t make sense to have favorites. Casual conversation is one thing, but seriously conceiving of your values in terms of “favorites,” as a hierarchy, is ridiculous. More than that, it’s a concession to a social schema which is actively trying to kill you, a subordination of your subjectivity, the thing that makes you actually exist, to a fake, boring god of rules and lines. America has a very particular problem with being unable to comprehend quality in any sense other than being “#1” or the “Mattress King” or whatever. Hence certain of our current political problems.

And Tegan and Sara are actually one of the best examples of why this whole idea is dumb, because they don’t make albums that are trying to be better versions of albums they’ve already made. They make different albums. Following up Sainthood with Heartthrob was a good move, even from my perspective, where Sainthood is the kind of music I like and Heartthrob is, uh, less so. The only thing worse than changing is not changing. In the words of Kathleen Hanna, we don’t want to hear you making the right decisions, we want to hear your voice. You might write something that someone might want to read, someday.