@TheScienceGuy (& @jref) knock #psychics, #astrology, & more #pseudoscience bullshit around the block!
In the last few years it’s become increasingly socially unacceptable to use the noun “retard” and its adjective. I have some linguistic reservations about this. The fact is, the word is a euphemism for earlier expressions such as “idiot savant,” so the word itself is only pejorative because our society deemed it such. The status of its pejorative-ness is arbitrary and void of inherent weight. And as we’ve seen, though it’s since been replaced by “special,” that word, too, has now acquired negative connotations because, at the end of the day, for a person to label another person or thing as less intelligent than average is an insult.
I won’t ignore, however, the linguistic reality. As much as I might disagree with the reason or method by which a word becomes pejorative and all that that implies, the fact remains that “retard” is pejorative. What’s the replacement? According to the National Down Syndrome Society, the preferred term is either “intellectual disability” or “cognitive disability.” I like the latter. It flows better.
Interestingly, as “retard” has become increasingly socially unacceptable, it seems that other things have become increasingly socially acceptable. I remember clearly when Oprah openly endorsed The Secret, a blatantly pseudoscientific pile of bullshit based entirely on wishful thinking and gullibility.
Or how Oprah also gave a platform to Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaccination movement (seeing a trend here)?
Yet I’ve anecdotally found that when these and other pseudoscientific concepts are challenged or attacked, there’s significant social pressure to back down and “keep an open mind.” For one to challenge or attack these ideas is to run the risk of being labeled a “bigot” or “intolerant.”
It’s my hypothesis that as the culture struggled to be more inclusive and sensitive to those groups, such as individuals with Down syndrome, who had previously been marginalized or made to feel less-than, the word of the day soon became not only to defend the downtrodden, but to defend absolutely anyone who claimed to be downtrodden. The danger here, of course, is that if, as a society, we lend credibility to those people and concepts which haven’t earned it, including, but not limited to, legal legitimization, it becomes increasingly difficult to win public support for those people and concepts which do merit it and criticize those that don’t.
The other night, I caught the below episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy. At first I was delighted. In the episode, Nye openly and mockingly attacks ridiculous concepts and conveys the general message that for any (extraordinary) claim there must be (extraordinary) evidence. Soon into the show, however, I felt a growing disappointment and I realized, “This would never be produced today.” Of course I don’t know that for certain, but I have a high suspicion that my pessimism was founded. We now live in a society in which it’s unacceptable to criticize or even question a passionately made claim, especially if that claim has thousands or millions of adherents. I’m not even talking religion here. I’m talking all that I mentioned above and more. We’ve grown so accustomed to granting respect to anyone who cries loudly enough for it that we’ve lost sight of critical thinking and why it’s necessary. I hope that we soon change this about our culture, but I fear that my mid-episode disappointment won’t go away soon.