YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 3, 2010

This witch is not for burning: science as magic

Living Idol from the S-M Collection, UCLA

Living Idol from the S-M Collection, UCLA

I was talking to my sister this morning about how the history of science is being taught in history departments. Barbara used to work for the E.P.A., and is an expert on indoor air and toxic molds. One of her projects is the campaign to address asthma in the public schools. 7% of the population suffers from asthma, while among blacks, the figure is at least 25%. (Moreover, in poor neighborhoods, not all doctors are competent to treat asthma, a controllable disease.) This is a disgraceful disparity, but brings out the necessity for any public health measure to consider the dire effects of environmental contaminants, surely one reason that health-care costs cannot be brought be under control without preventive medicine. And our legislators see public health through such a clouded and narrow lens that any legislation that does not extend its vision into every nook and cranny of how we live, will be severely limited.  Will our politicians, at any level of government, address this and related matters affecting public health? It is up to each and every one of us to resist the ferocious anti-science bias in some aspects of “humanistic” Western culture.

I mention this discussion with my sister because she was incredulous (she shouted out in disbelief) when I told her that the UCLA Department of History has a special program in the history of science, taught as cultural anthropology, as if scientists should be studied as primitive tribes, as exotics. I audited a seminar in 1989, led by Cambridge U. academic star Simon Schaffer, in which he confidently declared that “science was, essentially, a swindle.” Schaffer views himself as a leftist, and probably so do the other members of the group that treats science as part of cultural studies. They follow Foucault, who believed that the bourgeoisie created knowledge in their institutions as a route to total mind-control, having their way with the rest of us, the easily bamboozled by the evidence of progress in combating disease, say, increased life expectancy. (I have blogged about this incessantly, but bear with me, or see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/28/power-and-aristocratic-radicals/.) When I fought back in the Schaffer seminar, the much younger graduate students were silent, or joined in the general mockery of Clare, the troglodyte, who was not only not with it, but who would never get a job. (They were correct of course; if it were possible, I would have been burned at the stake for my pro-science heresy.)

But now consider this: if you know the UCLA campus, the humanities are taught on North Campus, while mathematics and the sciences are located in the South Campus.  The students in the South Campus were nearly all Asian, while North Campus was the home to non-Asians. Do you suppose this was a coincidence, or was it a harbinger of the decline of the West at the hands of its groovy postmodernists and multiculturalists? If you think I am describing an atypical episode, take a look at the career of one of the coolest modernist authors of the twentieth century, William Gaddis, for instance, who described the medical profession as witch-doctors in “The Recognitions.” Misanthropy wins awards these days.

On this website and in my comments on Facebook I have often stood with libertarians. But to argue against “Big Government” without specifying what  positive role government can and should play in promoting a healthful life for us and our children, is a lapse of citizenship. Like other vague abstractions, the phrase can mean anything a demagogue wants it to. Localism has too often been a device to perpetuate reactionary social policies, in this sense a reiteration of the antebellum states’ rights ploy to perpetuate slavery. See blogs https://clarespark.com/2009/07/11/multiculturalists-and-wilsonians-cant-diagnose-the-new-antisemitism/, https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/and https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/. At its best, localism can result in a tight community committed to creative problem solving, but at its worst, localism can go parochial/provincial, condemning ourselves and our children to ignorance, undeserved suffering, and early death.

[Added 1-6-10: A note on the burgeoning Green movement. Beware, science students, of fringe groups that have bonded opportunistically with the respected ecologists. I have seen 60s mystical hippies, mystics of the New Age, and their soul-brothers– white supremacist or separatist groups– following the precepts of  the European New Right in order to add to their numbers and to rescue “spirituality” from capitalists, a.k.a. the Jews. Some very foolish Jews have allowed themselves to be used by these far Rightists, but apparently fail to recognize that they are dealing with arch-segregationists. I have read materials from one group suggesting that all Jews should to go to Israel, a reminder of the attitudes reported by Ralph Bunche in 1947 (i.e., there were numerous states that supported “Zionism” and the partition of Palestine in order to rid their country of Jews). The point is that these “new” rightists follow the degeneration narrative so popular in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, and expect new, ethnically homogeneous local [tribes] to spring up with autarkic economies after the great crumbling that they expect to commence any day now. When I wrote to one of their leaders, he did not shy away from the label “national socialist.” It is worth while contrasting those who oppose “multiculturalism” because they are modern Nordics, with those like myself who see multiculturalism as an elite strategy for micromanaging group conflict, subtly reiterating the racial discourse of old.]

Luis Ricardo Falero, 1878

Luis Ricardo Falero, 1878


  1. […] Science is not dogma, and is constantly self-correcting in the collective criticism of the community of scientists. But that is not the view of those relativists who now study the history of science in order to discredit is as “a swindle.” (See https://clarespark.com/2010/02/10/a-brooding-meditation-on-intimacy-and-distance/ or https://clarespark.com/2010/01/03/this-witch-is-not-for-burning-science-as-magic/.) […]

    Pingback by Prometheus Bound, but good « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 15, 2012 @ 9:26 pm | Reply

  2. Good webpage yours faithfully Yetta Orielley

    Comment by svnikkijamesu6 — June 16, 2011 @ 10:12 pm | Reply

  3. Dear Clare– I’m trying to think through what meaning your comments above (and more recently on H-SCI etc.NET) may have for the present support of complementary and alternative medicine by government and private sources. I’m putting together a proposal for a book on the historical background of CAM mental health interventions and would appreciate any related thoughts you might have.

    Thanks, and best regards,
    Jean Mercer

    Comment by Jean Mercer — October 19, 2010 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

    • Thanks Jean. I am in accord with your fears about government and private support of CAM interventions. At this point, you undoubtedly know more about the subject than I do. I suggest to my readers that they consult your own blog, which is very fine and important. Jean Mercer’s blog is here: http://www.childmyths.blogspot.com/.

      Comment by clarespark — October 19, 2010 @ 5:34 pm | Reply

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