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Friday, September 12, 2008

Getting Something off My Chest

A few weeks ago I decided that many of the activities I'd been involved in for some time were no longer helping me grow as a person. Organizations concerned with science fiction, bisexuality, and skepticism had helped me broaden my social circle and become less (ultimately, I hope, not at all) dependent on politics for my sense of meaning and purpose in life. But most of my activities with these groups were still of a relatively formal, group nature, and I came to feel that they were not helping me develop further my capacities for interacting with people on a one-to-one basis, or really expressing myself creatively. They seemed to have become a comfortable rut which was filling up some of my free time in a superficially social way, without challenging me to learn how to be more intimate with people.

So on 15 August I decided to drop out not only from the Green Party, but also from the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, and the twice-monthly discussion group of BiUnity of Philadelphia. Nonetheless I will be attending tonight's PSFS meeting, because I have something to get off my chest.

This month's guest is author Connie Willis, who previously spoke to the group about a decade ago. At that meeting she mentioned that she was working on a book that would concern Near Death Experiences, and after her talk I suggested she read Susan Blackmore's nonfiction treatment of the subject, Dying to Live, which is notable for simultaneously championing a materialist view of NDEs, and also looking sympathetically at why they can be so profound and transformative for some of those who go through them.

In 2003 I bought the book Willis had been working on, titled Passage. But I was only about a fifth of the way into it when I found myself feeling profoundly offended.

The two central characters were working together on a study concerned with NDEs. It had been learned that a certain drug caused experiences that shared many features typical of NDEs, and they had advertised for subjects who would be given this drug. What I found extremely offensive was how one of them reacted to interviewing a potential subject who, when asked why he was interested in participating, indicated he's be very interested in finding out what the experience of dying might be like. After the interview the scientist shared notes with her colleague and they agreed that this candidate shouldn't be included because of his "abnormal" interest. (I don't remember for certain if that term was used, but it's representative of the tone of the conversation.)

Now, I was thinking, wait a minute. Doesn't it make sense to be curious about this experience that all of us are, presumably, going to have some day? It felt to me that the characters, and the author, were simply making fun of someone for having an "unusual" interest. For being different.

Well, I spent most of my childhood feeling ostracized or excluded for being different. So I don't take kindly to this sort of thing. At the same time, I grew up believing very strongly in the value of scientific method and critical thinking -- not just for professional researchers, but for everyday life, as a means of protecting ourselves from falling into the trap of our own assumptions. One of the first books I ever read was a biography of Einstein, and the first quote I ever memorized was from him: "What many people refer to as common sense is nothing more than a collection of prejudices accumulated before the age of eighteen." Einstein became my hero, and the idea expressed by that quote helped me sustain my self-esteem in the face of so many peers who thought there was something wrong with me for not having the same interests as they did.

This relates to the other thing that was offensive about that passage, because insofar as they didn't want their subject pool to be biased toward people with an unusual interest in death -- which one may allow could skew the results even if one doesn't think there's anything "wrong" with such an interest -- they could easily have avoided that by not advertising that the study had to do with NDEs! It seems to me that this would have been perfectly ethical, since no actual death or dying was involved.

So, not only was Willis making a cheap joke at the expense of people who are seen as "different," but she willfully disregarded a rather obvious element of sound scientific procedure for the sake of making a cheap joke at the expense of such people. Given how deeply I feel about scientific method on what might even be called a moral level, this really made the passage doubly offensive to me.

So, tonight I will tell Willis how offensive I found this. And that's what makes attending this month's meeting worthwhile for me, because in this case it will be more than an intellectual experience. It will be a chance to get more comfortable expressing my feelings and making myself vulnerable.

Eric Hamell


stripey7 said...

A follow-up appears in the next post.

stripey7 said...

I've subsequently modified the decision described in the first paragraph. I am sometimes going to meetings of these groups, but only if the topic or speaker really interests me. Especially if I have something to say about or to them, which has the advantage of giving others a sense of who I am, in addition to any intrinsic satisfaction.