Christine E. Black
A man in a white lab coat with advanced degrees in medicine sexually abused hundreds of young girl gymnasts in his office, sometimes while their parents stood nearby. Michigan State University professor and USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar penetrated girls, most younger than 16, some younger than 13, with an ungloved hand, saying he was examining them internally, doing check-ups necessary for them to perform as young athletes. This doctor continued his abuse of hundreds of girls over many years.
For years, girls told other coaches, the police, university administrators, psychologists. They repeatedly told USA gymnastics officials. And yet, Nassar was not stopped until his arrest in 2016. The girls obeyed. Hundreds of parents kept taking their daughters to see him. Girls must have complained. Some probably vomited quietly in the bathroom later or cried by themselves. They kept competing in gymnastics events.
How was this doctor able to do what he did over these many years?
Well-meaning parents, coaches, teachers, attending nurses; hundreds of adults surrounded this man while he violated young girl athletes in plain view. He was able to do this because he was an “expert”, a “scientist”, someone whom others were certain knew… more than they did… what was best.
He wore a white lab coat and had diplomas on his office walls. He had a high salary, a long career, a staff, and institutions behind him.
In this time of lockdowns, church and business restrictions and closures, immeasurable harms, pervasive losses, and debilitating fear in response to a virus with a survival rate of higher than 99 percent for most people, we have continued to hear the slogan, trust “the Science” or follow (or obey) “the Science” and “the Scientists.” Obey government controls and “the Science” a bit longer, and it will get better.
Further, those who question “the Science” and do not conform – or even merely think differently – are named and targeted as dangerous.
The virus is real, sicknesses and deaths are real, of course, while also real are the harms, deaths, and traumas from measures thought to mitigate it.
Further, some have made huge sums of money during this time while others have lost everything – and some will make huge sums from vaccines.
When “Science” is funded by corporations and special interest groups, we may learn by asking, “Who writes the checks, and who gets paid?”
I thought science had always been about questioning, and yet lately, questioners are degraded as ignorant, superstitious, or heretical. Those touting the slogan, “Follow the Science” or “Obey the Science” have begun to sound more like Biblical literalists, not at all like what I have understood science to be. We have been told that we must obey the literal last word of “The Science”. But whose science? Funded and led by whom and to what purpose?
Published “science” on this virus has changed monthly, even weekly, over many months. Masks are ineffective; wear masks. Wipe surfaces; no need to wipe surfaces as it is airborne and does not live on surfaces. Asymptomatic spread is common; asymptomatic spread is rare.
In addition, many scientists have noted that the tests for the infection are often unreliable.
Confusions and contradictions have been dizzying. Hydroxychloroquine, Zinc, and Azithromycin have been used around the world to prevent and effectively treat this virus in early stages and yet, scientists who share information on these drugs are maligned, threatened, and sometimes fired. How is this science?
Now, almost nine months into lockdowns, governments threaten to fine or jail people gathering for holidays, and questioners are still being called ignorant, psychopathic, uneducated, uncaring, and are also accused of getting people killed. How is this science? Science involves constant scrutiny and questioning, positing hypotheses, then continually examining and testing them in order to disprove them.
Further, a universe of hypotheses opens for our consideration. Responsible science was never, “This is the Science, period, now shut up.”
In the Stanley Milgram experiment in the 1960s, a man in a white lab coat quietly told volunteers to administer increasing levels of electric shocks to a person on the other side of a partition, when the person gave a wrong answer to a question. The experiment was staged, and the shocks not real, but participants did not know this. Some administered near lethal shock levels. Subjects thought the experiment was in learning, but experimenters were actually studying conformity and obedience to an authority figure. When people became uncomfortable and did not want to continue administering shocks, the man in the white lab coat simply stated, “The experiment requires that you continue.”
Lately, we may substitute the word, “science” for “experiment” as in, “The science requires that you continue.”
Participants continued pressing a button to shock another person even while the person screamed in pain. The screams were not real, but participants did not know this. How did experimenters get people to comply and administer almost lethal shocks to another human being? They complied because the white-lab-coated man was an expert. A scientist. A pretend one, but participants did not know that. They thought surely the scientist must know more than them.
History of science is filled with examples of scientists, especially medical doctors, who were horribly, even fatally, wrong.
Bloodletting, leeches, cauterizations of the uterus are a few of the treatments described in For Her Own Good: 150 Years of Experts Advice to Women by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (Anchor Books/ Doubleday, 1978). In the late 18th century, doctors, touting science, moved to replace women healers, who had emphasized relationships and wholistic approaches. Doctors advocated more active, quantifiable, “heroic” measures. They focused on doing something.
Unfortunately for the health of the young republic, the heroic approach contained an inherent drift toward homicide,” write Ehrenreich and English. “Since the point was to prove that the treatment was more powerful than the disease, it followed that the more dangerous a drug or procedure, the more powerful a remedy it was presumed by most doctors to be. For example, blisters (induced by mustard plaster, etc.) were a common treatment for many diseases. In an 1847 paper, a physician observed that extensive blistering had a disastrous effect on children, sometimes causing convulsions, gangrene, and even death. He concluded from this that blisters ‘ought to hold a high rank’. in the treatment of diseases of childhood.’(Ehrenreich and English, p. 46)
Bloodletting was another regular remedy of the time, in addition to other “cleansings,” including inducing vomiting and using laxatives and enemas.
Bloodletting was used by physicians well into the 20th century for many ailments; including accidents, malaria, childhood fevers, pregnancy discomfort, and anemia.
Many physicians in the early 19th century bled until the patient fainted or pulsed ceased, whichever came first,”
…according to Ehrenreich and English, who examined historical documents and biographies of the time (Ibid. p. 46).
Bloodletting was common during the yellow fever epidemic of 1873. Laxative purges, accomplished by the administration of calomel, a mercury salt, were considered an all-purpose remedy for everything from teething pain and diarrhea to chronic diseases.
Long term use caused the gums, the teeth, and eventually the tongue and the entire jaw to erode and fall off”
(Ibid. p. 47)
According to historians, physicians knew of these side effects but performed these procedures anyway.
During the cholera epidemic in St. Louis, physicians ran around with calomel loose in their pockets and simply doled it out by the teaspoonful (Ibid. p. 47)
In For Her Own Good, historian Ann Douglas Wood describes treatments used in the mid-nineteenth century for almost any female complaint – manual investigation, leeching, injections, and cauterization (without anaesthetic except a bit of opium or alcohol).
William Potts Dewees, an American medical professor, and Dr. Hughes Bennett, a famous English gynaecologist, widely read in the U.S.,…
both advocated placing leeches right on the vulva or neck of the uterus, although Bennett cautioned the doctor to count them as they dropped off when satiated and some may be lost.(Ibid. p. 123)
These men were scientists and doctors; people listened to them and did as they directed.
Questionable, even barbaric, practices have been carried out in the name of science. Eugenics programs advocated and performed forced sterilizations in the U.S. well into the 20th century and some in the 21st century.
Lobotomies and electroconvulsive shocks for the mentally ill were supported by the science. Scientists were certain they were doing the right thing.
Those who listened to them and submitted to their authority believed them.
Certainties may cause us to wonder. During the run up to the U.S. war in Iraq, across almost every major media outlet, we heard over and over words like “indisputable,” “irrefutable” about the “evidence,” supporting the necessity of war. We heard that war was “inevitable,” was “inexorable,” that the science was unquestionable. Former General Colin Powell appeared all over networks with scientific-looking charts behind him while he held a vial of some substance, to demonstrate the science. People who questioned that war’s absolute and immediate necessity were mocked, bullied, vilified, fired, threatened, sometimes even with death.
We learn and change and do differently. Outliers, outsiders, and challengers often lead us to new and important discoveries. And yet, lately our culture seems to suggest that those questioning “the Science” or the “scientists” should be condemned or not allowed to speak at all – even when many scientists disagree. Lately, we have been told, and many believe, that speaking up or stepping out of line may get us killed – or may get someone we love killed. This strikes me as a dangerous psychological trick.
Stepping away from dominant groups or voicing alternatives to dominant narratives can be very difficult. It can sometimes feel, or actually be, life-threatening. And yet, once you have had to speak up, perhaps alone, against a dominant group, or a domineering person, who threatens your life or the life of a loved one if you speak, you are forever changed. You may never be able to comply automatically and without question with the white-lab-coated scientist, telling you to press the button or the doctor, telling you to lie back on the table, or the scientist telling you to take the pill.
An assault survivor may be told by their assailant, “If you speak up, or step out of line, I’ll kill you – or your family.”
This statement is just a few characters away from, “If you speak up or step out of line, it’ll kill you” (the virus). Or alternatively that you (or it) will kill someone you love.
Those who have gathered courage to stand and speak against an assailant; a dominant group; an authority figure, may have a lot to teach us.
My friend, Lucy, killed herself twenty-five years ago. Her father, a Christian missionary and leader in the church and in the community, sexually abused her. The church did not believe her when she told. They turned their backs. Her mother did not believe her. Lucy spoke the truth of her experience even though she thought she may die. She stood against a church and its leaders and her own family. Sadly, Lucy did not survive. But I have — and can remember her and share her story.
Boys in State College, Pennsylvania were raped by Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky from 1994 – 2009 while many suspected or knew but looked away and did nothing. Those boys had to speak up against Sandusky, his wife, a whole football program, an entire town and culture that revered the sport, and a university built around the famous program. They had to tell their mothers, mothers who had believed Sandusky, a man who had started a non-profit organization to help and guide young boys.
Many sexual abuse survivors have had to stand against the Catholic Church. You are forever changed after standing up against powerful groups, institutions, or individuals – whether it be the church, the military, the town, the national scouting program, the department, “the Science”. I admire those who have had to do so, often initially alone. It can feel in the beginning like you may die, whether or not someone actually threatened you with death. And yet, people trust their hearts and instincts and speak up anyway, usually at great cost.
Many, including brave children, have stood and spoken when their conscience, their instincts, their safety, or their faith would not allow them to do otherwise. Once you have had to do this, it becomes much harder to believe, without question, that “everybody” knows better than you do, the authority figure knows better than you do, that the narrative must be swallowed whole.
You have been irrevocably changed. You have faced death or the prospect of death.
You have faced the threat…
“Speak up or act up and I’ll (it’ll)
…and you have survived.
Christine E. Black’s work has been published in Antietam Review, 13th Moon, American Journal of Poetry, New Millennium Writings, Nimrod International, Red Rock Review, The Virginia Journal of Education, Friends Journal, The Veteran, Sojourners Magazine, Iris Magazine, English Journal, Amethyst Review, and other publications. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the Pablo Neruda Prize.
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