Thursday, March 11, 2004

What Counts as Vanilla?

Public health professionals have long complained that they lack reliable information about human sexual behavior. No entomologist would publish a paper on the maculated okra beetle without knowing more about its natural history than anybody knows about the doings of our own kind. Who does what to whom and how often is highly relevant to policy issues ranging from population control to the spread of HIV, but any attempt to find out automatically raises a hell of a fight and not out of concern about privacy or personal rights. The presumption is that the professors are obsessed with sex and already know too much when, in fact, our ignorance is quite comprehensive. But sex isn’t the area in which endless discussion goes along with a lack of baseline information. For example:

We supposedly live in an era of rampant scientism. This presumption allows devotees of various alternative points of view to represent themselves as daring rebels. I have to wonder whether they are really entitled to romanticize themselves in this fashion, however, since nearly everybody I meet is into astrology or Chinese herbal medicine or homeopathy or intelligent design or morphic resonance or spiritualized quantum mechanics or telekinesis or tarot or ESP or, in one memorable recent instance, traditional alchemy. Amid these dense flocks, it’s the stray positivist who appears as the lone eagle; and that’s in the context of the kind of people I meet, hardly a random sample. To judge by the membership and financial clout of various literalist religious groups, the population as a whole is even more haunted—literally. Many even claim that the dead rise. Survey sampling provides some information on what people actually believe, but the method is a very blunt instrument. Granted that people only seldom think the way they are supposed to as members of a high-tech, postmodern civilization, it would be useful to understand the real worldview of the tribe.

I once read a case study of a supposedly schizophrenic girl who reported that she could read minds and was hospitalized, in part because of this delusion. The shrink who studied her case took the trouble to interview her family and discovered that they one and all believed she could indeed read their minds. Like an unlucky medieval peasant, the girl made the mistake of maintaining a folk belief too obstinately before the wrong tribunal.

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