Your lived experience doesn’t trump (sound) science

One of the major tenets of feminism and other social justice movements has been “lived experience” – that is, elevating the voices of people who have experienced injustice directly instead of relying on the “objective” voices of those who are not marginalized. This is a great concept and has lead to powerful truths being unleashed; I have observed it most directly in sexual assault/harassment activism where women tell what sexual assault/ harassment is like and explore the true mechanisms behind it, exposing the lies of victim blaming and other faulty beliefs about rape/harassment.However, it has also led many feminists to embrace bullshit concepts like women’s intuition, even though such mythical intuitive abilities have been thoroughly debunked. Feminism’s embrace of pseudoscience, including alternative medicine, is also deeply disturbing, and variations of lived experience (e.g. “these therapies have been used for thousands of years!,” “I used this and it worked,” etc.) are used to prop up unfounded and debunked practices like acupuncture and homeopathy. These are couched as medicine that is more women friendly, as opposed to (western) medicine which is supposedly completely untrustworthy and part of the patriarchy. Although there is no denying the abuse that the medical community has perpetrated against women in the past, or that even current studies are sometimes biased and poorly constructed, it doesn’t follow that all science and scientific studies/findings are. In fact it is downright insulting to the many women in the sciences to imply that their research is invalid and worthless due to some scientists inserting their own biases and producing skewed, unsound, or invalid studies/data. It is important for women, and other oppressed groups, to thoroughly examine studies and data to make sure that they have been conducted using sound methodology (good sample size, no leading questions, control groups, etc.) but by dismissing science that we don’t like we are turning away from reality to construct a fantasy.

I am reminded of this when discussions crop up about the dangers of birth control, which was nicely debunked by Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon; the supposed evils of gynecologists; and the trumpeting of religion as an aspect of society we are obligated to respect and pay due reverence to. Often times I see otherwise smart women and feminists, who I admire, turn a blind eye to evidence in favor of promulgating beliefs that have no basis in fact.

This thread on Feministe, “For Catholics Interest in Exorcism is Revived,” is what initially inspired me to think more about the concept of lived experience and its attendant philosophies when using it in to support unscientific medical practices (as well as shore up an unfounded respect for faith). This commenter seems to think that any worldview, no matter how ridiculous, unsupportable, and improbable must be accorded respect:

Ashley: The dismissiveness here, and the idea that anyone who believes in possession must be lacking in all rationality, marginalizes a whole lot of people’s worldviews.
A rational person should no more accept possession as a supportable worldview than they should accept that men are superior as a reasonable worldview. Why? Because both are untrue. There is no evidence to support demon possession; therefore, it is not a valid worldview.
Holding a belief or worldview that is marginalized doesn’t make it true or obligate rational people to support or respect it. However, many feminists seem to think that it does. This commenter below makes all sorts of truth claims about practices that have been well established as pseudoscience and tries to claim that rejecting it is privileging “western” medicine (as well as not so subtlety charging racism):

bfp: Native women had healthy, safe, reliable methods of birth control since before europeans showed up. Okinawans have been studied by numerous westerners who all agree that their spiritual practices are an intricate part of their longevity and health. Acupuncture as a reliable treatment method for everything from back pain to nausea is consistently found to be effective.

…there have been *numerous* controlled studies about the power of prayer on chronically sick people. If somebody wants to be prayed over while getting chemo treatments–why on earth should that be a problem?

These claims are bullshit. Acupuncture is pseudoscience with no medical value, and that has been well established in multiple studies. Also, this commenter’s claim of studies that validate the power of prayer is either a flat out lie or extreme ignorance of current research because all credible studies show no benefit from prayer. This 2006 article, “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients,” in the American Heart Journal, showed there was no benefit, and also showed preliminary evidence that knowledge of prayer increased complications in some patients. Lying to yourself and others about the validity of a medical practice is hardly ethical (or feminist). Likewise with “spirituality;” where is the proof that a spirit or higher power exists? Hint, there isn’t any. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop these claims from being brought up in feminist spaces with the expectation that we are supposed to respect them even when they are flat out wrong.

It is difficult to admit that something you believe to be true isn’t, but it is a vital part of growing as a person and as an activist. As feminists we ask that people reexamine their beliefs all the time about women’s place in society, women’s abilities, sexual assault, gender roles, etc., so we too must examine our beliefs and hold them up to examination and study to ensure that we discard what is shown to be false or no longer valid.

About Elsa Roberts

Women's and LGBT rights activist. All around progressive. Always reading about new issues and the complexities of the progressive movement. I live for the info in my google news and twitter feeds. Cyclist and erstwhile runner. Nothing pisses me off more than victim blaming (except maybe the Oppression Olympics).
This entry was posted in Ethics, Personal, Politics, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

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