August 21, 2012

'Legitimate' Political Science

Irony is a concept infrequently applied with accuracy: it's a tricky set of circumstances that need to align, and mere coincidence or kismet--not even having 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife--embodies the fullness, the wonder, of true irony. So there is a silver lining in Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's sexist and woefully unscientific comments about rape and pregnancy: he's currently a member of the House Committee on Science. The question: is this verbal irony, or dramatic? Is Akin aware of the incongruity of his political position and his ignorant statements, or is he truly missing the joke?

It's not just that Akin has a blurry grasp on how the female reproductive system works, or that he's been a stalwart pro-lifer throughout his career; Akin's statements reveal something more profoundly troubling about an institutional disregard for scientific fact. His claim that a woman's body "shuts down" against pregnancy if she is "legitimately" raped implies, to start, that any woman who found herself impregnated as a result of an unwanted sexual encounter was not actually raped. It's the same tired "she was really asking for it" argument that has plagued every sexual liberation effort of the last century. But it's also about a disillusion of accurate information: his description of the way a woman's body works, and his baldly subjective preface "from what I understand from doctors," employs the kind of deferred pseudo-authority that keeps right-wing media machines churning. No one is accountable; there is no source; there is no such thing as a fact without interpretation. Akin, in one sentence, disregards fifty percent of the people on this planet and an entire history of biological science. By some miracle of election-year campaign strategy, even his political peers are condemning him. (Some, not all.) And yet, Akin refuses to resign. (You can sign a petition to remove Akin from Congress here.)

The confluence of Akin's dangerous comments and America's recent scientific successes is not a coincidence, it's a trend: the esoteric circles within politics and science have become more hermetic; the public relies more than ever on information mediated by an eclectic and diverse set of mouthpieces. The Higgs boson and Mars, on the one hand, are accomplishments so specialized and abstract that none of us are capable of forming reasonable theories outside of what we're told. This is a video of the Curiosity rover landing on Mars? I believe you. Both ATLAS and CMS verified the Higgs at 125 TeV? I believe that, too. I could choose not to believe it, of course, since no one can really provide a local corroboration; but part of participating in the human experience is allocating trust in situations that warrant it. Science, as we understand it, deserves our (discerning) trust.

The real problem is when politics, with its glossy "political science" cover, acts like its members have a similar privilege of epistemology. An elected official wields more than just the power of a Congressional vote; he has unprecedented access to a malleable authority over a public he represents. When Akin--a member of the House's Committee on Science, remember--says something he thinks he knows from a doctor who may or may not have said that thing, some people will turn to each other and say "Really? Is that a thing--that a woman can't get pregnant if she's really being raped?" Because information has no guarantee, and information is the only capital that crosses the esoteric boundary to the masses. The repercussions here are caught in an unfortunate feedback loop: one, it reveals an endemic disregard for scientific fact among members of Congress: it's impossible to reconcile how a middle-aged man in the year 2012 could misrepresent a woman's body so completely, and that he's also on the science committee. Two, it simultaneously damages the possibility of a public trust in those Congressmen who do respect accuracy (scientific or otherwise). It gives people an opportunity to argue that Bernie Sanders' statements about climate change have as little scientific accuracy, or as much underlying ideological meaning, as Akin's. Caught in the middle are women, who traditionally have less of a voice in Congress, and whose bodies are constantly being allocated by religion and other power apparatuses. Like an approaching event horizon, I'm not sure where our possibility of escape from this undercurrent lies. Akin's ultimate political fate may signal a shift, one way or another, in the priority we place on information and truth. His words affront more than a right to have an abortion, or even a right to define rape; his statements affront a right to be accurately informed, to have an accurately informed opinion on issues that physically affect us, to cast an accurately informed vote in November. When that right erodes completely, we--as a nation, as human beings--are legitimately fucked.

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