Lessons in Prejudice: Part Three (and How I Met Isaac Asimov)
Concluding the series on prejudice, Dr. Janet Asimov reflects on her life experiences dealing with prejudice against science and overcoming first impressions. Read Part One and Two of “Lessons in Prejudice” from last week’s issue of HNN here.
Part Three: Prejudice Against Science
Prejudice against scientific knowledge (including research) often accompanies race and gender prejudices. Unfortunately, there is now a dangerous increase in this prejudice, especially that against the theory of evolution.
Fundamentalist religion is gearing up its motors to run down science. It always has, of course, but I think it’s getting more virulent, in an age when scientific knowledge is what will save humanity from its own run over the cliff’s edge.
My earliest personal experience of this kind of folly began in childhood with, alas, my own prejudice against learning science. Oh, I loved nature, but I was not interested in test tubes or numbers or things like that there.
In early childhood I was taken to a World’s Fair exhibit that showed inhabitants, human and otherwise, of primitive ages on Earth. I loved it. I loved dinosaurs. I did not, however, associate these things with the changes brought about by evolution during the passage of time, lots of time. I can’t remember reading anything about evolution, either.
After all, my childhood was in the thirties, which many of you may consider to be the dark ages. In this prejudice about us left-overs from ancient history, you are not entirely right but also not entirely wrong.
Anyway, I grew up some and went to New Rochelle High School. I decided that because science was not my cup of tea (I then wanted to write and illustrate children’s books), I would take biology in summer school to get it out of the way, since at least one science course was a prerequisite for college admission.
In the high school’s summer session, I encountered a biology teacher who relished explaining evolution to us ignorant students. He was notorious because he went on teaching evolution against the objection of many parents, many religious leaders, and not a few teachers.
This was in 1943, and although everyone had some concern, immediate or indirect, about the war, many of the citizens of New Rochelle seemed able to forget about the war long enough to beat the drum for medieval prejudices against science.
In spite of, or perhaps because of the acrimony directed toward that notorious teacher, I was fascinated by his course, every part of it we had to learn, and I developed a life-long love for evolution. I also got an A in the course and the subsequent Regents’ exam. I went on to college, majoring in biology, as I keep saying (I love biology). I heard that the high school teacher eventually lost his job.
Final Thoughts on Prejudice: How I Met Isaac Asimov
It’s hard to put together some final thoughts about prejudice, so I thought I would write about two illustrative examples from my own life.
The first is a moment when Isaac and I were walking along a path in a field behind houses in Williamsburg, Virginia. We were talking and not paying attention to the scenery when suddenly we both, simultaneously, jumped backward. Then, and only then, we saw a large snake crossing the path in front of us. The jump came first, the awareness later.
Prejudice against snakes is hard to erase (although I try to tell myself I don’t really mind them) because the primitive reaction against snakes is, I believe, built in to all primates. Our ancestors sought refuge from big ground-dwelling predators by going up into the trees, from whence we came in the first place.
Snakes, however, have no trouble climbing trees. They also seem to be harmless tree limbs until it’s too late. This is a prejudice we can work at overcoming but it may always be there.
The other homely example from my life has to do with false first impressions that engender prejudice.
The first time I met Isaac Asimov I was slightly appalled by his appearance. He was not tall, very thin, and somewhat elderly, as I had envisioned the author of I, Robot and Caves of Steel to be. Outside the world of science fiction, Isaac was not famous then, his face not well-known. Furthermore, I had read such beat-up old paperbacks of those books that there was no photo of the author on the covers.
One year the annual big blast known as the World Science Fiction Convention, always held on Labor Day weekend, happened to be in Manhattan. My brother wanted to go, and I went with him to the banquet, our table so far from the dais that when Isaac went there to help another and slightly drunk science fiction writer sing a song, I couldn’t tell what he really looked like. His voice sounded good, so I was heartened, because I liked his writing.
The next day my brother had to go back to his studies in Massachusetts, but before he left he urged me to return to the convention that morning to buy books and have authors sign them. So I did.
I was still conserving funds, and the banquet had, to me, cost a lot, which explains why I bought only a second-hand copy of Isaac’s Second Foundation (it’s probably worth a lot now). Then I stood in line for him to sign it.
He didn’t look at the people as they came up to him. He scowled. He also avoided looking at me and, scowling fiercely, asked “And what do you do?” not as if it mattered.
“I’m a psychiatrist,” I said, already hating him for not being the author I thought had written those wonderful novels.
“Oh?” he said, still scowling. “Let’s get on the couch together. Next?”
I backed away and the next person thrust a book at Isaac to sign. At no time had the guy looked at me.
A lot of time passed. A woman mystery writer who had sat at the same banquet table with me during that science fiction convention had become a friend. I loved—still love—mysteries more than any other branch of literature (yes, they are literature, some of them), so she urged me to go with her to an annual Mystery Writers of America banquet.
That year, she was organizing the banquet and said she would put me at the table that included authors who wrote both mysteries and science fiction, plus some of their editors. Isaac was one of the writers. I went, determined to ignore him.
Usually when I tell this story, I mention that the only reason I went was to hear Eleanor Roosevelt, the main speaker because her husband had been a mystery fan. This is the truth, for to hear her I was reluctantly giving up one of the classes I was taking from Eric Fromm, at the analytic institute where I was still a student.
There I was at the sci-fi table at the banquet. Isaac was charming. He was eloquent. He was funny. And good-looking—no scowl. Finally I mentioned that I’d been at a certain World Science Fiction banquet and had a book personally autographed by him.
I was a bit miffed because, of course, he did not remember me. But he did remember something else.
He said, “I was in such pain during that convention! I was having a horrible kidney stone attack.”
My impression of his nastiness was wiped out. I tried to be a commiserating doctor. I tried to be more friendly than I usually am. I did not drool, at least I don’t think I did, but one of the male editors at the table smiled knowingly (Isaac’s effect on young women was apparently well known). The editor leaned over and asked me if I’d read such-and-such story in a recent issue of the science fiction magazine he was currently editing.
In a panic, I tried to remember the story. I’d read all of them, but my mind was packed with stuff I had to read for school and stuff I had to remember about my patients. Then it came to me. In an unthinking rush, I said I had read the story but didn’t like it. My mother raised me to be polite, but my father raised me to be truthful.
“Oh?” asked the editor, now grinning broadly. “Why?”
“It doesn’t go anywhere. I like stories in which people change in some way, but in that story the protagonist ends up the same as he started.”
I was hoping Isaac, who was ominously silent, would not make some ribald comment about psychiatrists and their insistence on change. But perhaps he hadn’t read the story.
The editor said, “Isaac wrote that story.”
I did not die of shame, or at least crawl out of the room, but I gulped and began to apologize when Isaac said, “No, no—you were right. I will never do it again.”
And he didn’t.
As time went by, I learned that Isaac disapproved of prejudice against change, and he wrote lots of non-fiction that said the same.
You see, prejudice against change can be so subtle it’s not noticed as such, yet it makes it hard for people to cope. This prejudice stifles research, creativity, and compassion for others who are different.
Everyone changes and dies. So does Earth, eventually.
By examining prejudice—all the many kinds—we’d have more of a chance of solving our own as well as the world’s problems.
Dr. Janet Asimov is a writer and psychiatrist in New York. She was married to the science fiction author and past American Humanist Association president Isaac Asimov.