Archives For Critical Replies

Critical Replies are engagements with articles recently published in Social Epistemology.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca.

Wills, Bernard. “On the Limits of Any Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 34-39.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Zn

See also:

Image by Vancouver Island University via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Mizrahi is, alas, still confused though that perhaps is my fault. I did not attribute to him the view that non-scientific disciplines do not produce knowledge.[1] I am sorry if a cursory glance at my article created that impression but what I thought I had said was that this was the position known as strong scientism. Indeed, looking over my paper it seems that I made it quite clear that this position was ‘strong scientism’ and that Mizrahi defended something called ‘weak scientism’. According to this latter view the humane disciplines do indeed produce knowledge only of a qualitatively and quantitatively inferior kind. If this is not what weak scientism says I confess I don’t know what it says.

Thus, the opening salvo of his response, where he answers at some length a charge I did not make, has sailed clean over its intended target. (Mizrahi, 41-42) In my paper I distinguished weak scientism from strong scientism precisely on these grounds and then argued that the weaknesses of the former still dogged the latter: Mizrahi does not address this in his response. Here is a place where Mizrahi could have learned from humanities scholars and their practices of close reading and attended to the rhetorical and argumentative structure of my essay.

I began by critiquing ‘strong scientism’ which I said was not Mizrahi’s view and I did this by way of setting up my actual argument which was that Mizrahi’s proposed replacement ‘weak scientism’ suffered from the same basic flaws. I ask Mizrahi to read my response again and ask himself honestly if I accused him of being a proponent of ‘strong scientism’ rather than of ‘weak scientism’. To help him let me include the following citation from my piece:

I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind. (Wills, 18)

Asking Why Quantity of Production Matters

Mizrahi is still on about quantity. (Mizrahi, 42) I really have no idea why he is obsessed with this point. However, as he regards it as essential to ‘weak scientism’ I will quote what I said in a footnote to my essay: “Does Mizrahi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.” This point is surely not lost on him.

I have no firm opinion at all as to whether the totality of the sciences have produced more ‘stuff’ than the totality of the humanities between 1997 and 2017 and the reason is that I simply don’t care. I don’t accept quantity as a valid measure here unless it is backed up by qualitative considerations and if Mizrahi can’t make the case on qualitative grounds then quantity is simply irrelevant for the reason I gave: there are more commercials than there are artistic masterpieces. However, if Mizrahi still wants to fuss over quantitative metrics he faces the problem I raised.

While science in a global sense may indeed produce more sheer bulk of material than English, say, if there are subfields of science that do not produce more knowledge than subfields of English by this measure these must be inferior. Plus, what if it were true that Shakespeare scholars produced more papers than physicists? Would that cause Mizrahi to lower his estimate of physics? He would be an odd man if he did.

At any rate, there are all kinds of extrinsic reasons why scientific papers are so numerous that include the interests of corporations, governments, militaries and so on. The fact that there is so much science does not by itself indicate that there is anything intrinsically better about science and if science is intrinsically better that fact stands no matter how much of it there happens to be.

On the Power of Recursivity

To my argument that recursive processes can produce an infinite amount of knowledge he replies with an ineffectual jibe: “good luck publishing that!” (46) Well I am happy to inform him that I have indeed published ‘that’. I have published a number of papers on ancient and early modern philosophy that touch on the question of reflexivity and its attendant paradoxes as Mizrahi can find out by googling my name. Since he is so concerned about purely extrinsic measures of scholarly worth he will have to admit that there are in fact journals happy to ‘publish that’ and to that extent my point stands by his own chosen metric.

At any rate, in a further answer to this charge we get the following sophism: Besides, just as “recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics,” they can also extend our knowledge in other fields as well, including scientific fields. That is, one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the” (Wills 2018, 23) (sic) Standard Model in physics or any other scientific theory and/or finding. For this reason, Wills’ objection does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism.” (46)

Of course we can extend our knowledge indefinitely by reflecting on the standard model in physics just as Augustine says. But this has nothing whatsoever to do with whether a proposition is scientific or not. It can be done with any proposition at all. Nor is recursive doubling a scientific procedure in the terms described by Mizrahi. This is why quantitative claims about the superiority of science can never succeed unless, as I have said many times, they are backed up with qualitative considerations which would render a quantitative argument unnecessary.

On the Intentionality of the Ism

Mizrahi makes the standard response to the concerns I raised about sexism and colonialism. He denies he is a racist and indeed, Fox News style, turns the charge back on me. (44-45) He should understand, however, that my concern here is not personal but systemic racism. The version of scientific ideology he proposes has a history and that history is not innocent. It is a definition of knowledge and as such it has a social and political dimension. Part of this has been the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers. This is the ‘privilege’ I refer to in my paper.

Mizrahi, as a participant in a certain tradition or practice of knowledge that claims and can often assert hegemony over other discourses, benefits from that privilege. That is not rocket science. Nor is the fact that, rightly or wrongly, Mizrahi is making hegemonic claims for science from which he himself stands to benefit. It is nothing to the point for Mizrahi to proclaim his innocence of any such intention or to use the ‘you are the real racist for calling me a racist’ ploy. As anyone familiar with the discourse about racism and colonialism can tell him, intention is not the salient feature of this sort of analysis but overall effect.

Also he has not distinguished an ideological critique from an ad hominem attack. I am not attacking him as a person but simply pointing that the position he takes on scientism has social, political and monetary implications that make his defense of weak-scientism ideologically loaded. And let me emphasize again that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Mizrahi’s intentions or personal feelings: I am happy to consider him a perfect gentleman. Perhaps a consideration of Marx would help him see this point a bit better and I can assure Mizrahi that Marx’s impact rating is stellar.

So Who Is Correct?

Of course, as Mizrahi says, all this is forgivable if his overall thesis is correct. (45) Apparently, I truly did not understand that “Even if it is true that “craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false. This is because Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12). (46) I admit this point did escape me.[2]

This means that if I find knowledge produced outside the academy with qualities comparable to scientific knowledge that is irrelevant to the argument. Well, by all means then, let me limit my consideration to the academy since Mizrahi has defined that as his sole battleground. I gave many examples of knowledge in my paper that come from an academic context. Let us consider these with respect to Mizrahi’s chosen criteria for “good explanations, namely, unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).” (47) (46)

Mizrahi seems to think this applies to a statement I made about Joyce scholars. (47) Let me take them as my ‘academic’ example. I take it as a given that a masterful exposition of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man will show the unity, coherence and simplicity of the work’s design to the extent that these are artistically desired features. What about testability? How does a Joyce scholar test what he says? As I said he tests it against the text. He does this in two ways.

First on the level of direct observation he establishes what Stephen Daedalus, say, does on page 46. This is, as far as I can see, a perfectly reputable kind of knowledge and if we can answer the question about page 46 directly we do not need to resort to any more complex explanatory processes. The fact that such a procedure is perfectly adequate to establish the truth means that scientific procedures of a more complex kind are unnecessary. The use of scientific method, while it may mean better knowledge in many cases, does not mean better knowledge here so Mizrahi’s complaint on this score is beside the point. (47)

Statue of James Joyce in Dublin, Ireland
Image by Loic Pinseel via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Can Improve Knowledge?

Of course, the Joyce scholar will also have an interpretation of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This is where he answers broader questions about the work’s meaning, structure, unity and so on. This also entails the test of looking at the text not at any particular point but as a whole. What in this hermeneutic process would be improved by ‘scientific method’ as Mizrahi describes it? Where does the Joyce scholar need to draw testable consequences from a novel hypothesis and test it with an experiment? What would that even mean in this context?

His test is close reading as this is practiced in the discipline of English literature and he has peers who judge if he has done this well or badly. What is amiss with this process that it could be improved by procedures that have nothing to do with determining the meaning and significance of books? How on this question could science even begin to show its supposed ‘superiority’? It seems to me the only option for Mizrahi here is to deny that the Joyce scholar knows anything (beyond bare factual information) and this means, alas, that his position once again collapses into strong scientism.

I think, however, that I see where Mizrahi’s confusion lies. He seems to think I am saying the following: Joyce scholars look at a book to determine a fact just as scientists look at the world to determine a fact ergo Joyce scholars are scientists. (47) Let me reassure him I am not so jejune. Of course, field notes and other forms of direct observation are part of the arsenal of science. Plus, scientific statements are, at the end of the day, brought into relationship with observation either directly or indirectly. Still, Joyce scholars do not just look at page numbers or what characters are wearing in Chapter 2. They formulate interpretations of Joyce.

In this way too scientists not only observe things but formulate and test hypotheses, construct theories and so on. In some ways these may be comparable processes but they are not identical. Hermeneutics is not just an application of hyothetico-deductive method to a book. Conclusions about Joyce are not products of experimental testing and I can conceive of no way in which they could be strengthened by them except in a purely ancillary sense (ie. we might learn something indirect about Ulysses by exhuming Joyce’s bones).

Thus, Mizrahi’s argument that scientific explanations have more ‘good-making properties’ overall (47) is, whether true or not, irrelevant to the myriad of cases in which scientific explanations are either A. unnecessary or B. inapplicable. Once again we teeter on the brink of strong scientism (which Mizrahi rejects) for we are now forced to say that if a scientific explanation of a phenomenon is not to be had then there can be no other form of explanation.

There Are Radical Differences in How Knowledge Is Produced

Let me go back to my daughter who was not out in a field or cave somewhere but in a university classroom when she presented her analysis of Scriabin’s Prometheus chord. This, I hope, satisfies Mizrahi’s demand that I confine myself to an ‘academic’ context. Both her instructor and her classmates agreed that her analysis was sound. Why? Because it was the clearest, simplest explanation that answered the question of how Scriabin created this chord. It was an abduction that the community of knowers of which she was a part found adequate and that was the end of the story.

The reason, let me emphasize again since Mizrahi has such trouble with the point, is that this was all the question required. Kristin did not deduce a “…consequence that follows from a hypothesis plus auxiliary hypothesis” (47) to be made subject of a testable prediction. Why? Because that is not how knowledge is produced in her domain and such a procedure would add no value to her conclusion which concerned not facts about the natural world but Scriabin’s thought processes and aesthetic intentions.

Again it seems that either Mizrahi must concede this point OR adopt the strong scientist position that Kristin only seems to know something about Scriabin while actually there is nothing to be known about Scriabin outside the experimental sciences. So, to make his case he must still explain why science can produce better results in music theory, which IS an academic subject, than explanatory procedures currently used in that domain. Otherwise the superiority of science is only contextual which is a trivial thesis denied by no one.

Thus, Mizrahi is still bedeviled by the same problem. How is science supposed to show its superiority in domains where its explanatory procedures are simply not necessary and would add no value to existing explanations? I do not think Mizrahi has established the point that:”…if distinct fields of study have the same aim (i.e., to explain), then their products (i.e., explanations) can be evaluated with respect to similar criteria, such as unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17). Mizrahi says ‘similar’ but his argument actually depends on these criteria being ‘identical’ such that we can judge all explanations by one pre-set standard: in this case hypothetico-deductive method.

But this is nonsense. All disciplines use abduction, true, but they do not all arrive at the ‘best explanation’ by the same procedures. Their procedures are analogical not univocal. Failure to see this distinction seems to be at the root of Mizrahi’s errors. Differing explanatory processes can be compared but not identified as can be seen if we imagine a classicist taking his copy of the Iliad down to the chemistry lab to be analyzed for its meaning. The Chemistry lab here is the classicist’s brain! To use a less flippant example though there are sciences such as paleontology that make liberal use of narrative reconstruction (i.e. how those hominid bones got in that tiny cave) which is a form of abduction that does not correspond simply to the standard H/D model. Still, the story the paleontologist reconstructs, if it is a good one, has unity, simplicity and coherence regardless of the fact that it has not achieved this by a robotic application of H/D but rather by another, less formalized, form of inference.

Thus, I think Mizrahi’s reforming zeal (48) has got the better of him. He does not help his case by issuing the Borg-like boast that ‘resistance is futile’. If I recall my Trek lore correctly, the boast that ‘resistance is futile’ ended in ignominious defeat. One final point. One should never proofread one’s own papers, I did indeed misspell Mizrahi for which I heartily apologize.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

[1] Though, as I point out in my response (Wills, 22), he clearly vacillates on this point.

[2] It is an odd kind of scientism that holds science is superior within the academy while leaving open the question of whether non-scientific knowledge outside the academy may be superior to science. However, if that is Mizrahi’s position I will not quibble.

Author Information: Stephen John, Cambridge University, sdj22@cam.ac.uk

John, Stephen. “Transparency, Well-Ordered Science, and Paternalism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 30-33.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Zf

See also:

Image by Sergio Santos and http://nursingschoolsnearme.com, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Should a physician tell you that you have cancer, even if she thinks this would cause you needless distress? Of course she should! How, though, should she convey that news? Imagine three, stylised options. Dr Knowsbest is certain you should have your cancer operated on, so tells you the news in a way which vividly highlights the horrors of cancer, but downplays the risk of an operation.

Dr Neutral, by contrast, simply lists all of the facts about your cancer, your prognosis, your possible treatment options, their likely benefits and risks and so on. Finally, Dr Sensitive reports only those aspects of your condition and those risks of surgery which she judges that you, given your values and interests, would want to know about.

Many Methods to Reveal

We can, I hope, all agree that Dr Knowsbest’s communicative strategies and choices are ethically problematic, because she acts in a paternalistic manner. By contrast, Dr Neutral does not act paternalistically. In this regard, at least, Dr Neutral’s strategies are ethically preferable to Dr Knowsbest’s strategies. What about the choice between Knowsbest and Sensititve? In one sense, Dr Sensitive acts paternalistically, because she controls and structures the flow of information with the aim of improving your well-being.

However, there is an important difference between Dr Sensitive and Dr Knowsbest; the former aims solely to improve your epistemic well-being, such that you can better make a choice which aligns with your own values, whereas the latter aims to influence or override your judgment. Knowsbest’s “moral paternalism” is wrong for reasons which are absent in the case of Sensitive’s “epistemic paternalism” (Ahlstrom-Vij, 2013).

Therefore, plausibly, both the Neutral and Sensitive strategies are ethically preferable to Knowsbest; What, though, of the choice between these two communicative strategies? First, I am not certain that it is even possible to report all the facts in a neutral way (for more, see below.) Second, even if it is possible, Dr Sensitive’s strategy seems preferable; her strategy, if successful, positively promotes – as opposed to merely failing to interfere with – your ability to make autonomous choices.

At least at an abstract, ideal level, then, we have good reason to want informants who do more than merely list facts, but who are sensitive to their audiences’ epistemic situation and abilities and their evaluative commitments; we want experts who “well-lead” us. In my recent paper in Social Epistemology, I argued that that certain widely-endorsed norms for science communication are, at best, irrelevant, and, at worst, dangerous (John 2018). We should be against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.

It’s a Bit Provocative

One way of understanding that paper is as following from the abstract ideal of sensitive communication, combined with various broadly sociological facts (for example, about how audiences identify experts). I understand why my article put Moore in mind of a paradigm case of paternalism. However, reflection on the hypothetical example suggests we should also be against “anti-paternalism” as a norm for science communication; not because Knowsbest’s strategy is fine, but, rather, because the term “paternalism” tends to bundle together a wide range of practices, not all of which are ethically problematic, and some of which promote – rather than hinder – audiences’ autonomy.

Beyond the accusation of paternalism, Moore’s rich and provocative response focuses on my scepticism about transparency. While I argued that a “folk philosophy of science” can lead audiences to distrust experts who are, in fact, trustworthy, he uses the example of HIV-AIDS activism to point to the epistemic benefits of holding scientists to account, suggesting that “it is at least possible that the process of engaging with and responding to criticism can lead to learning on both sides and the production, ultimately, of better science”. I agree entirely that such a dynamic is possible; indeed, his example shows it does happen!

However, conceding this possibility does not show that we must endorse a norm of transparency, because, ultimately, the costs may still be greater than the benefits. Much here depends on the mechanisms by which transparency and engagement are enacted. Moore suggests one model for such engagement, via the work of “trust proxies”, such as ACT-UP. As he acknowledges, however, although proxies may be better-placed than lay-people to identify when science is flawed, we now create a new problem for the non-expert: to adapt a distinction from Goldman’s work, we must decide which “putative proxies” are “true proxies” (Goldman, 2001).

Plausibly, this problem is even harder than Goldman’s problem of distinguishing the “true experts” among the “putative experts”; because in the latter case, we have some sense of the credentials and so on which signal experthood. Again, I am tempted to say, then, that it is unclear that transparency, openness or engagement will necessarily lead to better, rather than worse, socio-epistemic outcomes.

Knowledge From Observation and Practice

Does that mean my arguments against transparency are in the clear? No. First, many of the issues here turn on the empirical details; maybe careful institutional design can allow us to identify trustworthy trust-proxies, whose work promotes good science. Second, and more importantly, the abstract model of sensitive communication is an ideal. In practice, it is easy to fail to meet this ideal, in ways which undermine, rather than respect or promote, hearers’ autonomy.

For example, rather than tailor her communication to what her audiences do care about, Dr Sensitive might tailor what she says to what she thinks they ought to care about; as a result, she might leave out information which is relevant to their choices given their values, while including information which is irrelevant. An influential strain in recent philosophy of science suggests that non-epistemic value judgments do and must run deep in practices of justification; as such, even a bald report of what a study showed may, implicitly, encode or endorse value judgments which are not shared by the audience (Douglas, 2000).

Reporting claims when, and only when, they meet a certain confidence level may, for example, implicitly rely on assumptions about the relative disvalue of false positives and false negatives; in turn, it may be difficult to justify such assumptions without appeal to non-epistemic values (John, 2015). As such, even Dr Neutral may be unable to avoid communicating in ways which are truly sensitive to her audience’s values. In short, it may be hard to handover our epistemic autonomy to experts without also handing over our moral autonomy.

This problem means that, for research to be trustworthy, requires more than that the researchers’ claims are true, but that they are claims which are, at least, neutral and, at best, aligned with, audiences’ values. Plausibly, regardless greater engagement and transparency may help ensure such value alignment. One might understand the example of ACT-UP along these lines: activist engagement ensured that scientists did “good science” not only in a narrow, epistemic sense of “good” – more or more accurate data and hypotheses were generated – but in a broader sense of being “well-ordered”, producing knowledge that better reflected the concerns and interests of the broader community (Kitcher, 2003).

Whether engagement improves epistemic outcomes narrowly construed is a contingent matter, heavily dependent on the details of the case. By contrast, engagement may be necessary for science to be “well-ordered”. In turn, transparency may be necessary for such engagement. At least, that is the possibility I would push were I to criticise my own conclusions in line with Moore’s concerns.

A Final Sting

Unfortunately, there is a sting in the tail. Developing effective frameworks for engagement and contestation may require us to accept that scientific research is not, and cannot be, fully “value free”. To the extent that such an assumption is a commitment of our “folk philosophy of science”, then developing the kind of rigorous engagement which Moore wants may do as much to undermine, as promote, our trust in true experts. Moore is surely right that the dynamics of trust and distrust are even more complex than my paper suggested; unfortunately, they might be even more complex again than he suggests.

Contact details: sdj22@cam.ac.uk

References

Ahlstrom-Vij, K. (2013). Epistemic paternalism: a defence. Springer

Douglas, H. (2000). Inductive risk and values in science. Philosophy of science, 67(4), 559-579.

Goldman, A (2001) “Experts: Which Ones Should You Trust?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63(1), 85–110.

John, S. (2015). Inductive risk and the contexts of communication. Synthese, 192(1), 79-96.

John, S. (2018). Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty. Social Epistemology, 32(2), 75-87.

Kitcher, P. (2003). Science, truth, and democracy. Oxford University Press.

Author Information: Kristie Dotson, Michigan State University, dotsonk@msu.edu

Dotson, Kristie. “Abolishing Jane Crow.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 1-8.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3YJ

See also:

Image by Adley Haywood via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

It took me 8 years to publish “Theorizing Jane Crow.” I wrote it at the same time as I wrote my 2011 paper, “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” The many reviews that advocated for rejecting “Theorizing Jane Crow” over the years made me refine it…and alter it….and refine it some more. This is not necessarily a gripe. But it will seem that way. Because there are two consistent critiques of this paper that have stuck with me for how utterly problematic they were and are. In this reply to Ayesha Hardison’s commentary, “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments,” I display and analyze those critiques because they link up in interesting ways to Ayesha Hardison’s commentary.

The two most common critiques of this paper include:  1) the judgement that my paper is not good intellectual history or not good literary criticism and 2) the conclusion that Black women’s literary production is so advanced that there is no way to make a claim of unknowability with respect to US Black women today (or yesterday).  In what follows, I will articulate and explore these critiques. The first critique brings attention to just how wonderful Hardison’s commentary actually is for how it sets up the rules of engagement between us. The second critique can be used to tease out convergences and a potential divergence between Hardison’s position and my own.

The First Critique: Does E’rybody Have to be Historians or Literary Studies Scholars?

Since I neither claim to be a literary scholar nor a historian, I found no reason to deny the first (and by far most consistent) critique of this paper. This paper is not good intellectual history. And, plainly speaking, it is terrible literary criticism. Let me say this, for the record, I am neither an intellectual historian, nor a literary critic. And, with all due respect to those people who do these things well, I have no desire to be.

Hardison detected that she and I are coming to the same sets of problems with different trainings, different habits of attention, and, quite frankly, different projects. Because, no, I am not a literary critic. Hardison acknowledges our different orientations when she writes:

Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining social features facilitating black women’s ‘unknowability,’ in literary studies, we might say black women’s ‘unknowability’ is actually a matter of audience, and more importantly, a problem of reception. (2018, 57)

Another place where differences in our respective approaches is foreshadowed is in the very first line of Hardison’s reply when she writes, “To acknowledge Jane Crow…is not the same as understanding how black women’s subjugation works – or why it persists,” (2018, 56). From the very first line, I was put at ease with Hardison’s commentary. Because however much we might disagree or agree, at least, she recognized my actual project. I treat Murray like a philosopher. In accordance with philosopher stone rules, e.g. like an element from which composite understandings can be derived. It was clear to me that even among Black feminist academics, potential audiences for this paper were simply unused to the kinds of flights of fancy that taking Black women as philosophers requires.[1]

Hardison didn’t have this problem at all. In other words, Hardison was, for me, a “brown girl’s heart” to receive what I was trying to articulate. For that I am so very grateful to her. I believe that Hardison understood what I was trying to do. I was treating Pauli Murray the way I would be allowed to treat any theoretical white dude. Like her work should be able to inspire more work with family resemblances. I treated Murray like there could and should be Murray-ians. And it was this move that I utterly refused to compromise on. It was also the move that inspired, in my estimation, the most resistance from anonymous reviewers. But Hardison got it. But, then, of course, she would get it. She does the same thing in her book, Writing Through Jane Crow (Hardison 2014). We treat Murray like a philosopher.

The performance of Hardison’s commentary accords very much with the existence of (and necessity of) “an empathetic black female audience” (Hardison 2018, 59). And what is uncovered between us is a great deal of agreement between her positions and my own and a potential disagreement. At this point, Hardison and I can talk to each other. But I want to draw attention to the fact it is Hardison’s commentary that sets the stage for this exchange in a way where our convergences and divergences can be fruitfully explored. And that is no easy feat. Hats off to Hardison. I am deeply grateful for her work here.

The Second Critique: Black Women’s Literary Production vs. Jane Crow Dynamics

The second most common critique of “Theorizing Jane Crow” concerned skepticism about whether US Black women could be understood as unknowable in the face of US Black women’s literary production. It was only in reading Hardison’s commentary that I realized, I may have misunderstood part of the critiques being leveled at me from (again) anonymous reviewers that were most likely Black feminist academics themselves. One might have misread my essay to say that Black women never afford each other the kind of empathetic audiences that are needed to render them, broadly speaking, knowable in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces. That the Black community at large never extends such empathy.

Or, in Hardison’s words, some may have taken me as advocating for “the conceit that black women’s narratives about their multivalent oppression registers similarly in hegemonic and counterhegemonic spaces” (2018, 56). Now, I am not sure if Hardison is accusing me of this. There is reason to believe that she isn’t but is rather choosing this point as a way of empathetically extending my remarks. For example, Hardison writes:

An analysis of African American women writers’ engagement with Jane Crow is outside the scope of Dotson’s epistemological story in “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Unknowability,” but their texts illuminate the philosophical conundrum she identifies. (2018, 57)

This suggests, to me, that Hardison detects the problem of Jane Crow unknowability in Black women writer’s work, even as they work to navigate and counter such unknowability with some degree of success.

Now, to be clear, unknowability, on the terms I outline, can be relative. One might argue that the difficulty of receiving a fair peer-review for this paper in a particular domain rife with either Black feminists with literary, historical, and/or sociological training means that hegemonic and counterhegemonic communities alike pose epistemological problems, even if they are not exactly the conditions of Jane Crow (and they aren’t). But those epistemological problems may have the same structure of the epistemological engine I afford to Jane Crow dynamics, e.g. disregard, disbelief, and disavowal. This is primarily because, epistemologies in colonial landscapes are very difficult to render liberatory (see, for example, Dotson 2015).[2]

Limits of Unknowability, Limits of a Single Paper

Still, for me, the most egregious misreading of “Theorizing Jane Crow” is to interpret me as saying that Black women are equally as unknowable to other Black women as they are in “hegemonic spaces” (56) and according “hierarchical epistemologies” (58). Yeah, that’s absurd. Hardison’s commentary extends my article in exactly the ways it needs to be extended to cordon off this kind of ludicrous uptake, i.e. that Black womenkind are equally unknowable to ourselves as we might be in the face of hegemonic epistemological orientations.[3]

But, as Hardison notes, an extensive development of the point that Black womenkind offer empathetic audiences to Black womenkind that render them knowable, at least “to themselves and each other” (Hardison 2018, 57), both for the sake of their own lives and for the sake of the lives of other Black womenkind, is outside the scope of my paper. Rather, I am concerned with, as Hardison rightly notes, “understanding how black women’s [Jane Crow] subjugation works – or why it persists” (2018, 56). And though I don’t think my essay indicates that Black womenkind are equally “unknowable” to each other in all instances, if that is a possible reading of my essay, thank goodness for Ayesha Hardison’s generous extension of this project to make clear that the performance of this text belies that reading.

Perhaps Hardison says it best, my “grappling with and suture of Murray’s philosophical fragments challenges the hierarchical epistemologies that have characterized black women as unknowable and unknowing,” (2018, 58). This is why I love Black feminist literary studies folks. Because, yes! The performance of this piece belies the message that there is no way for us to be known, especially by ourselves. And, what’s more, such an inexhaustible unknowing has to be false for the successful performance of this text. But then I am aware of that. So what else might I be attempting to articulate in this paper?

It strikes me that a charitable reading of the second main criticism leveled at this paper might proceed as follows:

From where does the charge of unknowability come in the face of the existence and quantity of US Black women’s literary and cultural production? This is an especially important question when you need Black women’s production to write about their ‘unknowability,” how can you claim that Black women are unknowable when the condition for the possibility of this account is that you take yourself to know something about them from their own production? This seems to be a contradiction.

Yes. It does seem like a contradiction or, if folks need a white male theorist to say something to make it real, it is a kind of differend- (Lyotard 1988).[4] Radically disappeared peoples, circumstances, and populations are often subject to problems with respect to frames, evidence and modes of articulation. Being disappeared is different than being invisible simpliciter, but then I make this claim in “Theorizing Jane Crow.”

Problems of large scale disappearing that affect entire populations, events, and historical formations render unknowable unknowability. This problematic seems to be what this second critique falls prey too, i.e. the disappearing of unknowability behind sense making devices (Dotson 2017). As the critique goes, if Black women are unknowable at the scale I seem to propose, then how do I know about this unknowability?[5] How, indeed.

I still reject this rendition of the second criticism, i.e. the one that says with all the literary production of Black womenkind we are no longer unknowable or else I wouldn’t know about a condition of unknowability. Jane Crow unknowability, in my estimation, is not subject to brute impossibilities, i.e. either we are knowable or unknowable. This is because Jane Crow is domain specific in the same ways Jim Crow was (and is). Also, Jane Crow is made of epistemological and material compromises. Hardison gets this. She is very clear that “Black women continue to be ‘unknowable’ in dominant culture due to its investment in white supremacy and patriarchy,” (Hardison 2018, 57).

But, let’s get something clear, an “investment” is not only a set of attitudes. It is composed of sets of institutional norms (and institutions through which to enact those norms). Sets of norms of attention. Sets of historically derived “common sense” and “obvious truths” that routinely subject Black womenkind to Jane Crow dynamics. It is composed of social and material relations that make sense because of the investments that invest them with sense.

Jane Crow as a Dynamic of Complex Social Epistemology

Jane Crow dynamics, when they appear, are built into the functioning of institutions and communal, social relations. They are embedded in the “common sense” of many US publics- including counterhegemonic ones- because I am presuming we are assuming that some Black communities indulge in patriarchy, which is what lead Murray to her observations (See, Hardison 2018). And though Black women can disrupt this in pockets it does not change the epistemological and material conditions that are reinforcing and recreating Jane Crow dynamics for every generation. And it doesn’t change the reality that there is a limit to our capacity to change this from within Jane Crow dynamics. So, we write ourselves into existence again and again and again.

Hardison acknowledges this, as she astutely notes, “Although I engage Pauli Murray as a writer here to offer a complementary approach to Dotson’s theorizing of Jane Crow, I do not claim that black women’s writings irons out Jane Crow’s material paradoxes,” (2018, 62). And this is the heart of my disagreement with the second major critique of this essay. Are those critics claiming that epistemological possibilities brought by Black women’s literary production iron out material paradoxes that, in part, cause Jane Crow dynamics? Because, that would be absurd.

But here is where I appear to disagree with Hardison. Is Hardison claiming that epistemological possibilities have ironed out Jane Crow’s epistemological paradoxes? Because I sincerely doubt that. Schedules of disbelief, disregard, and disavowal are happening constantly and we don’t have great mechanisms for tracking who they harm, whether they harm, and why (on this point, see Dotson and Gilbert 2014).

This leads to a potential substantive disagreement between Hardison and I. And it can be found in the passage I cited earlier. She writes:

Whereas Dotson theorizes Jane Crow by outlining social features facilitating black women’s ‘unknowability,’ in literary studies, we might say black women’s ‘unknowability’ is actually a matter of audience, and more importantly, a problem of reception. (2018, 57)

There is a potential misreading of my text here that seems to center on different understandings of “epistemological” that may come from our different disciplinary foci. Specifically, I don’t necessarily focus on social features. I focus on epistemic features facilitating black women’s unknowability, when we encounter it. That is to say, disregard, disbelief, and disavowal are epistemic relations. They are also social ways of relating, but, importantly, in my analysis they are socio-epistemic. What that means is that they are social features that figure prominently in epistemological orientations and conduct. And these features are embedded in what makes audiences and uptake relevant for this discussion. That is to say, the reasons why audiences matter, and problems of reception are central, is because varying audiences indulge in disregard, disbelief, and disavowal differently.

So, the juxtaposition that might be assumed in Hardison’s statement of the focus in literary studies, which is indicated by the phrase “actually a matter of,” is not a difference in kind, but rather a difference in emphasis. I am tracking the kinds of things that makes audience and problems of reception important for rendering anything knowable in social worlds, e.g. disregard, disbelief, and disavowal. Because it is there, as a philosophy-trained academic, that I can mount an explanation of “how black women’s [Jane Crow] subjugation works -or why it persists” (Hardison 2018, 56).

The Great Obstacles of Abolishing Jane Crow

In the end, this may not be a disagreement at all. I tend to think of it as a change in focus. My story is one story that can be told. Hardison’s story is another. They need not be taken as incompatible. In fact, I would claim they are not incompatible but, as Hardison notes, complementary (2018, 62). They uncover different aspects of a complicated dynamic. One can focus on the problems of audience and reception. And I think that this is fruitful and important. But, and this is where Hardison and I might part company, focusing on these issues can lead one to believe that Jane Crow dynamics are easier to abolish than they are.

One might suspect, as some of the anonymous reviewers of this essay have, that all the literary production of US Black womenkind means that US Black womenkind don’t actually face Jane Crow dynamics. Because, and this seems to be the take-home point of the second critique, and as Hardison explains, “Structural realities (and inequities) demand black women’s invisibility, but black women’s philosophical and literary efforts make them visible – first and foremost – to themselves” (2018, 57). And this is the crux of our potential disagreement.

What do we mean by “make them visible” and, more importantly, where? In the domains where they are experiencing Jane Crow dynamics, i.e. epistemological and material compromises, or in the domains where they, arguably, are not? Because the empathetic audiences of “brown girls” outside of institutions that operate to our detriment are not major catalysts for the problem of Jane Crow unknowability, on my account. This is where domain specificity becomes important and one must reject the conclusion (as I do in “Theorizing Jane Crow”) that Jane Crow unknowability is invisibility simpliciter.

As Hardison explains, Pauli Murray’s experiences with racial and gender subordination motivated her towards identifying and signifying Jane Crow oppression (along with constructing epistemological orientations with which to do so) (2018, 61). What the anonymous reviewers and Hardison insist on is that “These fragments of knowing identify black women’s autobiography as a vehicle for positive self-concept and social epistemology.”

Moreover, Hardison claims, and rightly so, that though “Black women writers do not ‘resolve our dilemmas,’…they do ‘name them.’ In a destructive culture of invisibility, for black women to call out Jane Crow and counter with their self-representation has substantive weight” (2018, 62). I agree with all of these conclusions about the importance of Black women countering Jane Crow dynamics, even as I wonder what it means to say it has “substantive weight.”

I question this not because I disagree that such countering has substantive weight. It does. But part of what has to be interrogated in the 21st century, as we continue to grow weary of living with centuries old problematics, what does the abolition of Jane Crow look like? Are there other forms of “substantive weight” to pursue in tandem to our historical efforts?

In asking this I am not attempting to belittle the efforts that have gotten us to this point- with resources and tools to “call out and counter” Jane Crow dynamics. My work in this paper is impossible without the efforts of previous and current generations of Black womenkind to “name” this problem. Their work has been (and is) important. And for many of us it is lifesaving.  But- and yes, this is a ‘but,’ what next? I want a world other than this. And even if that world is impossible, which I half believe, I still want to work towards a world other than this today as part of what it means to live well right now. So, though this may be blasphemous in today’s Black feminist academy, I don’t think that Black women’s literary production is quite the panacea for Jane Crow dynamics that it is often assumed to be.[6] But then, from Hardison’s remarks, she doesn’t assume this either. How we come to this conclusion (and how we would extend it) may be quite different, however.

The Limits and Potential of Literary Production

And, yes, I think a focus on the socio-epistemic and material conditions of Jane Crow can help us detect the limits of relying on black women’s literary production for the abolition of Jane Crow dynamics, even if such production has an integral role to play in its abolition, e.g. producing knowledge that we use to form understandings about potential conditions of unknowability. And though I would argue that black women’s cultural production is key to worlds other than (and better than this). Because, as Hardison explains, such work helps us “confront the epistemic affront intrinsic to black women’s Jane Crow subjection,” (2018, 60).

I will still never argue that such production, by itself, can fix the problems we face. It cannot. But then, Hardison would not argue this either. As Hardison concludes, disruption of Jane Crow dynamics means a “a complete end to its material and epistemological abuses,” (2018, 62). Indeed- this is my position as well. In making this claim, we are not attempting to overshadow what has been (and continues to be) accomplished in US Black women’s literary production, but to continue to push our imaginations towards the abolition of Jane Crow.

Contact details: dotsonk@msu.edu

References

Dotson, Kristie. 2012. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limititng Epistemic Oppression.”  Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33 (1):24-47.

Dotson, Kristie. 2013. “Radical Love: Black Philosophy as Deliberate Acts of Inheritance.”  The Black Scholar 43 (4):38-45.

Dotson, Kristie. 2014. “Conceptualizing Epistemic Oppression.”  Social Epistemology 28 (2).

Dotson, Kristie. 2015. “Inheriting Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Epistemology.”  Ethnic and Racial Studies 38 (13):2322-2328.

Dotson, Kristie. 2016. “Between Rocks and Hard Places.”  The Black Scholar 46 (2):46-56.

Dotson, Kristie. 2017. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Thoerizing Unknowability.”  Social Epistemology 31 (5):417-430.

Dotson, Kristie, and Marita Gilbert. 2014. “Curious Disappearances: Affectability Imbalances and Process-Based Invisibility.”  Hypatia 29 (4):873-888.

Hardison, Ayesha. 2018. “Theorizing Jane Crow, Theorizing Literary Fragments.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (2):53-63.

Hardison, Ayesha K. 2014. Writing Through Jane Crow: Racec and Gender Politics in African American Literarure. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1988. The Differend: Phases in Dispute. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[1] Nothing I am saying here is meant to indicate that literary critics are not (and can never be) philosophers. That is not a position I hold (Dotson 2016). Rather, the claim I am making is that treating people like philosophers can come with certain orientations. It takes extreme amounts of trust and belief that the person(s) whose thought one is exploring can act like a transformative element for the construction of composite understandings (Dotson 2013). It takes trust and belief to utilize someone else’s ideas to extend one’s own imagination, especially where those extensions are not written word for word. One way to treat a person’s work as philosophical work is to assume a form of authorship that allows one to use that work as a “home base” from which to explore and reconstruct the world that is implied in their abstractions. I call this activity, “theoretical archeology” (Dotson 2017, 418). And all I really meant to describe with that term was one way to take a writer as a philosopher. I had to become very detailed about my approach in this paper because of the propensity of anonymous reviewers to attempt to discipline me into literary studies or intellectual history.

[2] This is what I attempt to draw attention to in my work. The epistemological problems in Jane Crow, for example, are epistemological problems that might be able to exist without their corresponding material problems. The material problems in Jane Crow are material problems that might be able to exist without the epistemological problems. But in Jane Crow they are so linked up with each other that they reinforce and reproduce one another.  So, one can address the epistemological problems and leave the material ones (that eventually reintroduce those epistemological problems again). One can address the material problems and still leave the epistemological ones (that will eventually reintroduce those material problems again). Epistemic relations impact material relation and material relations impact epistemic relations, on my account. But they are not the same and they are not subject to domino-effect solutions. Fixing one does not mean one has fixed the other. And it is unclear one can make a claim to have fixed one without having fix both.

[3] If the reader needs more evidence that I have “figured this out,” see (Dotson 2012, 2016).

[4] There is a great deal about Lyotard’s account I would disagree with. But we are undoubtedly grappling with similar dynamics- though our subject population and approach differs significantly. Pauli Murray’s work pre-dates this formulation, however.

[5] I consider the appearance of this kind of seeming paradox to be a symptom of second order epistemic oppression. See (Dotson 2014).

[6] It may be my lower-socio-economic class background that makes it hard to accept the position that writing is going to save us all. I acknowledge that Black womenkind in the places where I am from needed literature and other cultural products for our survival (especially music, social and film medias. The kind of emphasis on writing in this exchange has a tinge of classism. But we can’t do everything here, can we? There is much more dialogue to be had on these issues.) Though, some might say, as Murray did that we need a “brown girl’s heart to hear” our songs of hope. I will agree with this and still maintain that I needed far more than that. When child protective services were coming to attempt to take me from my very good, but not flawless mother, I needed not only brown girl’s hearts. I also needed hierarchical epistemological orientations and oppressive, material conditions to lose hold.

Author Information: Moti Mizrahi, Florida Institute of Technology, mmizrahi@fit.edu

Mizrahi, Moti. “Weak Scientism Defended Once More.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 41-50.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Yx

See also:

One of Galileo’s original compasses, on display at the Museo Galileo, a feature of the Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence, Italy.
Image by Anders Sandberg via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Bernard Wills (2018) joins Christopher Brown (2017, 2018) in criticizing my defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 2017b, 2018a). Unfortunately, it seems that Wills did not read my latest defense of Weak Scientism carefully, nor does he cite any of the other papers in my exchange with Brown. For he attributes to me the view that “other disciplines in the humanities [in addition to philosophy] do not produce knowledge” (Wills 2018, 18).

Of course, this is not my view and I affirm no such thing, contrary to what Wills seems to think. I find it hard to explain how Wills could have made this mistake, given that he goes on to quote me as follows: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge” (Mizrahi 2018a, 7; quoted in Wills 2018, 18).

Clearly, the claim ‘Scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge’ entails that there is non-scientific knowledge. If the view I defend entails that there is non-scientific knowledge, then it cannot also be my view that “science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18).

Even if he somehow missed this simple logical point, reading the other papers in my exchange with Brown should have made it clear to Wills that I do not deny the production of knowledge by non-scientific disciplines. In fact, I explicitly state that “science produces scientific knowledge, mathematics produces mathematical knowledge, philosophy produces philosophical knowledge, and so on” (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). Even in my latest reply to Brown, which is the only paper from my entire exchange with Brown that Wills cites, I explicitly state that, if Weak Scientism is true, then “philosophical knowledge would be inferior to scientific knowledge both quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success)” (Mizrahi 2018a, 8).

If philosophical knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively inferior to scientific knowledge, then it follows that there is philosophical knowledge. For this reason, only a rather careless reader could attribute to me the view that “other disciplines in the humanities [in addition to philosophy] do not produce knowledge” (Wills 2018, 18).

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Right from the start, then, Wills gets Weak Scientism wrong, even though he later writes that, according to Weak Scientism, “there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences” (Wills 2018, 18). He says that he will ignore the quantitative claim of Weak Scientism and focus “on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18). Wills can focus on whatever he wants, of course, but that is not Weak Scientism.

Weak Scientism is not the view that only science produces real knowledge; that is Strong Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). Rather, Weak Scientism is the view that, “Of all the knowledge we have [i.e., there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge], scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354). In other words, scientific knowledge “is simply the best; better than all the rest” (Mizrahi 2017b, 20). Wills’ criticism, then, misses the mark completely. That is, it cannot be a criticism against Weak Scientism, since Weak Scientism is not the view that “science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else” (Wills 2018, 18).

Although he deems the quantitative superiority of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge “a tangential point,” and says that he will not spend time on it, Wills (2018, 18) remarks that “A German professor once told [him] that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone!” Presumably, Wills’ point is that research output in literature exceeds that of scientific disciplines. Instead of relying on gut feelings and hearsay, Wills should have done the required research in order to determine whether scholarly output in literature really does exceed the research output of scientific disciplines.

If we look at the Scopus database, using the data and visualization tools provided by Scimago Journal & Country Rank, we can see that research output in a natural science like physics and a social science like psychology far exceeds research output in humanistic disciplines like literature and philosophy. On average, psychology has produced 15,000 more publications per year than either literature or philosophy between the years 1999 and 2017. Likewise, on average, physics has produced 54,000 more publications per year than either literature or philosophy between the years 1999 and 2017 (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Research output in Literature, Philosophy, Physics, and Psychology from 1999 to 2017 (Source: Scimago Journal & Country Rank)

Contrary to what Wills seems to think or what his unnamed German professor may have told him, then, it is not the case that literary scholars produce more work on Shakespeare or Kafka alone than physicists or psychologists produce. The data from the Scopus database show that, on average, it takes literature and philosophy almost two decades to produce what psychology produces in two years or what physics produces in a single year (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359).

In fact, using JSTOR Data for Research, we can check Wills’ number, as reported to him by an unnamed German professor, to find out that there are 13,666 publications (i.e., journal articles, books, reports, and pamphlets) on Franz Kafka from 1859 to 2018 in the JSTOR database. Clearly, that is not even close to “40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone” in the first half of the 20th Century (Wills 2018, 18). By comparison, as of May 22, 2018, the JSTOR database contains more publications on the Standard Model in physics and the theory of conditioning in behavioral psychology than on Franz Kafka or William Shakespeare (Table 1).

Table 1. Search results for ‘Standard Model’, ‘Conditioning’, ‘William Shakespeare’, and ‘Franz Kafka’ in the JSTOR database as a percentage of the total number of publications, n = 12,633,298 (Source: JSTOR Data for Research)

  Number of Publications Percentage of JSTOR corpus
Standard Model 971,968 7.69%
Conditioning 121,219 0.95%
William Shakespeare 93,700 0.74%
Franz Kafka 13,667 0.1%

Similar results can be obtained from Google Books Ngram Viewer when we compare published work on Shakespeare, which Wills thinks exceeds all published work in other disciplines, for he says that “Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat” (Wills 2018, 18), with published work on a contemporary of Shakespeare (1564-1616) from another field of study, namely, Galileo (1564-1642). As we can see from Figure 2, from 1700 to 2000, ‘Galileo’ consistently appears in more books than ‘William Shakespeare’ does.

Figure 2. Google Books results for ‘William Shakespeare’ and ‘Galileo’ from 1700 to 2000 (Source: Google Books Ngram Viewer)

Racking Up the Fallacies

Wills continues to argue fallaciously when he resorts to what appears to be a fallacious ad hominem attack against me. He asks (rhetorically?), “Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?” (Wills 2018, 19) It is not clear to me what sort of “privilege” Wills wants to claim that I have, or why he accuses me of colonialism and sexism, since he provides no arguments for these outrageous charges. Moreover, I do not see how this is at all relevant to Weak Scientism. Even if I am somehow “privileged” (whatever Wills means by that), Weak Scientism is either true or false regardless.

After all, I take it that Wills would not doubt his physician’s diagnoses just because he or she is “privileged” for working at a hospital. Whether his physician is “privileged” for working at a hospital has nothing to do with the accuracy of his or her diagnoses. For these reasons, Wills’ ad hominem is fallacious (as opposed to a legitimate ad hominem as a rebuttal to an argument from authority, see Mizrahi 2010). I think that SERRC readers will be better served if we focus on the ideas under discussion, specifically, Weak Scientism, not the people who discuss them.

Speaking of privilege and sexism, however, it might be worth noting that, throughout his paper, Wills refers to me as ‘Mr. Mizrahi’ (rather than ‘Dr. Mizrahi’ or simply ‘Mizrahi’, as is the norm in academic publications), and that he has misspelled my name on more than one occasion (Wills 2018, 18, 22, 24). Studies suggest that addressing female doctors with ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ rather than ‘Dr.’ might reveal gender bias (see, e.g., Files et al. 2017). Perhaps forms of address reveal not only gender bias but also ethnic or racial bias when people with non-white or “foreign” names are addressed as Mr. (or Ms.) rather than Dr. (Erlenbusch 2018).

Aside from unsubstantiated claims about the amount of research produced by literary scholars, fallacious appeals to the alleged authority of unnamed German professors, and fallacious ad hominem attacks, does Wills offer any good arguments against Weak Scientism? He spends most of his paper (pages 19-22) trying to show that there is knowledge other than scientific knowledge, such as knowledge produced in the fields of “Law and Music Theory” (Wills 2018, 20). This, however, does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism. For, as mentioned above, Weak Scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge, which means that there is non-scientific knowledge; it’s just not as good as scientific knowledge (Mizrahi 2017a, 356).

The Core of His Concept

Wills finally gets to Weak Scientism on the penultimate page of his paper. His main objection against Weak Scientism seems to be that it is not clear to him how scientific knowledge is supposed to be better than non-scientific knowledge. For instance, he asks, “Better in what context? By what standard of value?” (Wills 2018, 23) Earlier he also says that he is not sure what are the “certain relevant respect” in which scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge (Wills 2018, 18).

Unfortunately, this shows that Wills either has not read the other papers in my exchange with Brown or at least has not read them carefully. For, starting with my first defense of Weak Scientism (2017a), I explain in great detail the ways in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Briefly, scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of research output (i.e., more publications) and research impact (i.e., more citations). Scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success (Mizrahi 2017a, 364; Mizrahi 2017b, 11).

Wills tries to challenge the claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge by exclaiming, “Does science produce more knowledge that [sic] anything else? Hardly” (Wills 2018, 23). He appeals to Augustine’s idea that one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of [one’s] own existence” (Wills 2018, 23). In response, I would like to borrow a phrase from Brown (2018, 30): “good luck getting that published!”

Seriously, though, the point is that Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research. In terms of research output, scientific disciplines outperform non-scientific disciplines (see Figure 1 and Table 1 above; Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-21). Besides, just as “recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics,” they can also extend our knowledge in other fields as well, including scientific fields. That is, one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the” (Wills 2018, 23) Standard Model in physics or any other scientific theory and/or finding. For this reason, Wills’ objection does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism.

Wills (2018, 23) tries to problematize the notions of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success in an attempt to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success. But it seems that he misunderstands these notions as they apply to the scientism debate.

As far as instrumental success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) asks, “Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start?” Even if it is true that “craft knowledge has roughly 3 million-year head start,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false. This is because Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12).

Solving the Problem and Explaining the Issue

As far as explanatory success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) writes, “Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist.” There are a couple of problems with this objection. First, explaining and problem solving are not the same thing (Mizrahi and Buckwalter 2014). Second, what makes scientific explanations good explanations are the good-making properties that are supposed to make all explanations (both scientific and non-scientific) good explanations, namely, unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).

I have already made this point several times in my replies to Brown, which Wills does not cite, namely, that Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is used in both scientific and non-scientific contexts (Mizrahi 2017a, 362). That is, “IBE is everywhere” (Mizrahi 2017b, 20). It’s just that scientific IBEs are better than non-scientific IBEs because they exhibit more of (and to a greater extent) the aforementioned properties that make any explanation a good explanation (Mizrahi 2018b).

As far as predictive success is concerned, Wills (2018, 23) asks, “Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily?” There are a few problems with this objection as well. First, even if it is true that “for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily,” it is irrelevant to whether Weak Scientism is true or false, since Weak Scientism is a thesis about academic knowledge or research produced by academic fields of study (Mizrahi 2017a, 356; Mizrahi 2017b, 11; Mizrahi 2018a, 12).

Second, contrary to what Wills (2018, 24) seems to think, testing predictions in science is not simply a matter of making assertions and then checking to see if they are true. For one thing, a prediction is not simply an assertion, but rather a consequence that follows from a hypothesis plus auxiliary hypotheses (Mizrahi 2015). For another, a prediction needs to be novel such that we would not expect it to be the case except from the vantage point of the theory that we are testing (Mizrahi 2012).

As I have advised Brown (Mizrahi 2018, 17), I would also advise Wills to consult logic and reasoning textbooks, not because they provide support for the claim that “science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions,” as Wills (2018, 23) erroneously thinks, but because they discuss hypothesis testing in science. For Wills’ (2018, 24) remark about Joyce scholars suggests a failure to understand how hypotheses are tested in science.

Third, like Brown (2017, 49), Wills (2018, 23) admits that, just like science, philosophy is in the explanation business. For Wills (2018, 23) says that, “certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science” (emphasis added). But if distinct fields of study have the same aim (i.e., to explain), then their products (i.e., explanations) can be evaluated with respect to similar criteria, such as unification, coherence, simplicity, and testability (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17).

In other words, there is no incommensurability here, as Wills seems to think, insofar as both science and philosophy produce explanations and those explanations must exhibit the same good-making properties that make all explanations good explanations (Mizrahi 2018a, 17; 2018b).

“You Passed the Test!”

If Wills (2018, 24) wants to suggest that philosophers should be “testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines,” then I would agree. However, “testing” does not simply mean making assertions and then checking to see if they are true, as Wills seems to think. After all, how would one check to see if assertions about theoretical entities are true? To test a hypothesis properly, one must derive a consequence from it (plus auxiliary assumptions) that would be observed only if the hypothesis (plus the auxiliary assumptions) is true.

Observations and/or experimentation would then indicate to one whether the consequence obtains or not (Mizrahi 2012). Of course, some philosophers have been doing just that for some time now (Knobe 2017). For instance, some experimental philosophers test hypotheses about the alleged intuitiveness of philosophical ideas and responses to thought experiments (see, e.g., Kissinger-Knox et al. 2018). I welcome such empirical work in philosophy.

Contrary to what Wills (2018, 19) seems to think, then, my aim is not to antagonize philosophers. Rather, my aim is to reform philosophy. In particular, as I have suggested in my recent reply to Brown (Mizrahi 2018a, 22), I think that philosophy would benefit from adopting not only the experimental methods of the cognitive and social sciences, as experimental philosophers have done, but also the methods of data science, such as data mining and corpus analysis (see, e.g., Ashton and Mizrahi 2018a and 2018b).

Indeed, the XPhi Replicability Project recently published a report on replication studies of 40 experimental studies according to which experimental studies “successfully replicated about 70% of the time” (Cova et al. 2018). With such a success rate, one could argue that the empirical revolution in philosophy is well under way (see also Knobe 2015). Resistance is futile!

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

Ashton, Z., and Mizrahi, M. “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the ‘Received Wisdom’ About Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis 83, no. 3 (2018a): 595-612.

Ashton, Z., and Mizrahi, M. “Show Me the Argument: Empirically Testing the Armchair Philosophy Picture.” Metaphilosophy 49, no. 1-2 (2018b): 58-70.

Brown, C. M. “Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s ‘What’s So Bad About Scientism?’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 8 (2017): 42-54.

Brown, C. M. “Defending Some Objections to Moti Mizrahi’s Arguments for Weak Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 1-35.

Cova, Florian, Brent Strickland, Angela G Abatista, Aurélien Allard, James Andow, Mario Attie, James Beebe, et al. “Estimating the Reproducibility of Experimental Philosophy.” PsyArXiv, April 21, 2018. doi:10.17605/OSF.IO/SXDAH.

Erlenbusch, V. “Being a Foreigner in Philosophy: A Taxonomy.” Hypatia 33, no. 2 (2018): 307-324.

Files, J. A., Mayer, A. P., Ko, M. G., Friedrich, P., Jenkins, M., Bryan, M. J., Vegunta, S., Wittich, C. M., Lyle, M. A., Melikian, R., Duston, T., Chang, Y. H., Hayes, S. M. “Speaker Introductions at Internal Medicine Grand Rounds: Forms of Address Reveal Gender Bias.” Journal of Women’s Health 26, no. 5 (2017): 413-419.

Google. “Ngram Viewer.” Google Books Ngram Viewer. Accessed on May 21, 2018. https://books.google.com/ngrams.

JSTOR. “Create a Dataset.” JSTOR Data for Research. Accessed on May 22, 2018. https://www.jstor.org/dfr/.

Kissinger-Knox, A., Aragon, P., and Mizrahi, M. “Does Non-Moral Ignorance Exculpate? Situational Awareness and Attributions of Blame and Forgiveness.” Acta Analytica 33, no. 2 (2018): 161-179.

Knobe, J. “Experimental Philosophy.” Philosophy Compass 2, no. 1 (2007): 81-92.

Knobe, J. “Philosophers are Doing Something Different Now: Quantitative Data.” Cognition 135 (2015): 36-38.

Mizrahi, M. “Take My Advice–I Am Not Following It: Ad Hominem Arguments as Legitimate Rebuttals to Appeals to Authority.” Informal Logic 30, no. 4 (2010): 435-456.

Mizrahi, M. “Why the Ultimate Argument for Scientific Realism Ultimately Fails.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 43, no. 1 (2012): 132-138.

Mizrahi, M. “Don’t Believe the Hype: Why Should Philosophical Theories Yield to Intuitions?” Teorema: International Journal of Philosophy 34, no. 3 (2015): 141-158.

Mizrahi, M. “What’s So Bad about Scientism?” Social Epistemology 31, no. 4 (2017a): 351-367.

Mizrahi, M. “In Defense of Weak Scientism: A Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017b): 9-22.

Mizrahi, M. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018a): 7-25.

Mizrahi, M. “The ‘Positive Argument’ for Constructive Empiricism and Inference to the Best Explanation.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science (2018b): https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-018-9414-3.

Mizrahi, M. and Buckwalter, W. “The Role of Justification in the Ordinary Concept of Scientific Progress.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science 45, no. 1 (2014): 151-166.

Scimago Journal & Country Rank. “Subject Bubble Chart.” SJR: Scimago Journal & Country Rank. Accessed on May 20, 2018. http://www.scimagojr.com/mapgen.php?maptype=bc&country=US&y=citd.

Wills, B. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

Author Information: Claus-Christian Carbon, University of Bamberg, ccc@experimental-psychology.com

Carbon, Claus-Christian. “A Conspiracy Theory is Not a Theory About a Conspiracy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 22-25.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Yb

See also:

  • Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Expertise and Conspiracy Theories.” Social Epistemology 32, no. 3 (2018), 196-208.

The power, creation, imagery, and proliferation of conspiracy theories are fascinating avenues to explore in the construction of public knowledge and the manipulation of the public for nefarious purposes. Their role in constituting our pop cultural imaginary and as central images in political propaganda are fertile ground for research.
Image by Neil Moralee via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The simplest and most natural definition of a conspiracy theory is a theory about a conspiracy. Although this definition seems appealing due to its simplicity and straightforwardness, the problem is that most narratives about conspiracies do not fulfill the necessary requirements of being a theory. In everyday speech, mere descriptions, explanations, or even beliefs are often termed as “theories”—such repeated usage of this technical term is not useful in the context of scientific activities.

Here, a theory does not aim to explain one specific event in time, e.g. the moon landing of 1969 or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, but aims at explaining a phenomenon on a very general level; e.g. that things with mass as such gravitate toward one another—independently of the specific natures of such entities. Such an epistemological status is rarely achieved by conspiracy theories, especially the ones about specific events in time. Even more general claims that so-called chemtrails (i.e. long-lasting condensation trails) are initiated by omnipotent organizations across the planet, across time zones and altitudes, is at most a hypothesis – a rather narrow one – that specifically addresses one phenomenon but lacks the capability to make predictions about other phenomena.

Narratives that Shape Our Minds

So-called conspiracy theories have had a great impact on human history, on the social interaction between groups, the attitude towards minorities, and the trust in state institutions. There is very good reason to include “conspiracy theories” into the canon of influential narratives and so it is just logical to direct a lot of scientific effort into explaining and understand how they operate, how people believe in them and how humans pile up knowledge on the basis of these narratives.

A short view on publications registered by Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science documents 605 records with “conspiracy theories” as the topic (effective date 7 May 2018). These contributions were mostly covered by psychological (n=91) and political (n=70) science articles, with a steep increase in recent years from about 2013 on, probably due to a special issue (“Research Topic”) in the journal Frontiers of Psychology organized in the years 2012 and 2013 by Viren Swami and Christopher Charles French.

As we have repeatedly argued (e.g., Raab, Carbon, & Muth, 2017), conspiracy theories are a very common phenomenon. Most people believe in at least some of them (Goertzel, 1994), which already indicates that believers in them do not belong to a minority group, but that it is more or less the conditio humana to include such narratives in the everyday belief system.

So first of all, we can state that most of such beliefs are neither pathological nor rare (see Raab, Ortlieb, Guthmann, Auer, & Carbon, 2013), but are largely caused by “good”[1] narratives triggered by context factors (Sapountzis & Condor, 2013) such as a distrusted society. The wide acceptance of many conspiracy theories can further explained by adaptation effects that bias the standard beliefs (Raab, Auer, Ortlieb, & Carbon, 2013). This view is not undisputed, as many authors identify specific pathological personality traits such as paranoia (Grzesiak-Feldman & Ejsmont, 2008; Pipes, 1997) which cause, enable or at least proliferate the belief in conspiracy theories.

In fact, in science we mostly encounter the pathological and pejorative view on conspiracy theories and their believers. This negative connotation, and hence the prejudice toward conspiracy theories, makes it hard to solidly test the stated facts, ideas or relationships proposed by such explanatory structures (Rankin, 2017). As especially conspiracy theories of so-called “type I” – where authorities (“the system”) are blamed of conspiracies (Wagner-Egger & Bangerter, 2007)—, such a prejudice can potentially jeopardize the democratic system (Bale, 2007).

Some of the conspiracies which are described in conspiracy theories that are taking place at top state levels could indeed be threatening people’s freedom, democracy and even people’s lives, especially if they turned out to be “true” (e.g. the case of the whistleblower and previously alleged conspiracist Edward Snowden, see Van Puyvelde, Coulthart, & Hossain, 2017).

Understanding What a Theory Genuinely Is

In the present paper, I will focus on another, yet highly important, point which is hardly addressed at all: Is the term “conspiracy theories” an adequate term at all? In fact, the suggestion of a conspiracy theory being a “theory about a conspiracy” (Dentith, 2014, p.30) is indeed the simplest and seemingly most straightforward definition of “conspiracy theory”. Although appealing and allegedly logical, the term conspiracy theory as such is ill-defined. Actually a “conspiracy theory” refers to a narrative which attributes an event to a group of conspirators. As such it is clear that it is justified to associate such a narrative with the term “conspiracy”, but does a conspiracy theory has the epistemological status of a theory?

The simplest definition of a “theory” is that it represents a bundle of hypotheses which can explain a wide range of phenomena. Theories have to integrate the contained hypotheses is a concise, coherent, and systematic way. They have to go beyond the mere piling up of several statements or unlinked hypotheses. The application of theories allows events or entities which are not explicitly described in the sum of the hypotheses to be generalized and hence to be predicted.

For instance, one of the most influential physical theories, the theory of special relativity (German original description “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper”), contains two hypotheses (Einstein, 1905) on whose basis in addition to already existing theories, we can predict important issues which are not explicitly stated in the theory. Most are well aware that mass and energy are equivalent. Whether we are analyzing the energy of a tossed ball or a static car, we can use the very same theory. Whether the ball is red or whether it is a blue ball thrown by Napoleon Bonaparte does not matter—we just need to refer to the mass of the ball, in fact we are only interested in the mass as such; the ball does not play a role anymore. Other theories show similar predictive power: for instance, they can predict (more or less precisely) events in the future, the location of various types of material in a magnetic field or the trajectory of objects of different speed due to gravitational power.

Most conspiracy theories, however, refer to one single historical event. Looking through the “most enduring conspiracy theories” compiled in 2009 by TIME magazine on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, it is instantly clear that they have explanatory power for just the specific events on which they are based, e.g. the “JFK assassination” in 1963, the “9/11 cover-up” in 2001, the “moon landings were faked” idea from 1969 or the “Paul is dead” storyline about Paul McCartney’s alleged secret death in 1966. In fact, such theories are just singular explanations, mostly ignoring counter-facts, alternative explanations and already given replies (Votsis, 2004).

But what, then, is the epistemological status of such narratives? Clearly, they aim to explain – and sometimes the explanations are indeed compelling, even coherent. What they mostly cannot demonstrate, though, is the ability to predict other events in other contexts. If these narratives belong to this class of explanatory stories, we should be less liberal in calling them “theories”. Unfortunately, it was Karl Popper himself who coined the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1940s (Popper, 1949)—the same Popper who was advocating very strict criteria for scientific theories and in so became one of the most influential philosophers of science (Suppe, 1977). This imprecise terminology diluted the genuine meaning of (scientific) theories.

Stay Rigorous

From a language pragmatics perspective, it seems odd to abandon the term conspiracy theory as it is a widely introduced and frequently used term in everyday language around the globe. Substitutions like conspiracy narratives, conspiracy stories or conspiracy explanations would fit much better, but acceptance of such terms might be quite low. Nevertheless, we should at least bear in mind that most narratives of this kind cannot qualify as theories and so cannot lead to a wider research program; although their contents and implications are often far-reaching, potentially important for society and hence, in some cases, also worthy of checking.

Contact details: ccc@experimental-psychology.com

References

Bale, J. M. (2007). Political paranoia v. political realism: on distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice, 41(1), 45-60. doi:10.1080/00313220601118751

Dentith, M. R. X. (2014). The philosophy of conspiracy theories. New York: Palgrave.

Einstein, A. (1905). Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper [On the electrodynamics of moving bodies]. Annalen der Physik und Chemie, 17, 891-921.

Goertzel, T. (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 15(4), 731-742.

Grzesiak-Feldman, M., & Ejsmont, A. (2008). Paranoia and conspiracy thinking of Jews, Arabs, Germans and russians in a Polish sample. Psychological Reports, 102(3), 884.

Pipes, D. (1997). Conspiracy: How the paranoid style flourishes and where it comes from. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Popper, K. R. (1949). Prediction and prophecy and their significance for social theory. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of Philosophy, Amsterdam.

Raab, M. H., Auer, N., Ortlieb, S. A., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). The Sarrazin effect: The presence of absurd statements in conspiracy theories makes canonical information less plausible. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(453), 1-8.

Raab, M. H., Carbon, C. C., & Muth, C. (2017). Am Anfang war die Verschwörungstheorie [In the beginning, there was the conspiracy theory]. Berlin: Springer.

Raab, M. H., Ortlieb, S. A., Guthmann, K., Auer, N., & Carbon, C. C. (2013). Thirty shades of truth: conspiracy theories as stories of individuation, not of pathological delusion. Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 4(406).

Rankin, J. E. (2017). The conspiracy theory meme as a tool of cultural hegemony: A critical discourse analysis. (PhD), Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, CA.

Sapountzis, A., & Condor, S. (2013). Conspiracy accounts as intergroup theories: Challenging dominant understandings of social power and political legitimacy. Political Psychology. doi:10.1111/pops.12015

Suppe, F. (Ed.) (1977). The structure of scientific theories (2nd ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Van Puyvelde, D., Coulthart, S., & Hossain, M. S. (2017). Beyond the buzzword: Big data and national security decision-making. International Affairs, 93(6), 1397-1416. doi:10.1093/ia/iix184

Votsis, I. (2004). The epistemological status of scientific theories: An investigation of the structural realist account. (PhD), London School of Economics and Political Science, London. Retrieved from Z:\PAPER\Votsis2004.pdf

Wagner-Egger, P., & Bangerter, A. (2007). The truth lies elsewhere: Correlates of belief in conspiracy theories. Revue Internationale De Psychologie Sociale-International Review of Social Psychology, 20(4), 31-61.

[1] It is important to stress that a “good narrative” in this context means “an appealing story” in which people are interested; by no means does the author want to allow confusion by suggesting the meaning as being “positive”, “proper”, “adequate” or “true”.

Author Information: Francisco Collazo-Reyes, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN,  fcollazo@fis.cinvestav.mx
Hugo García Compeán, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN
Miguel Ángel Pérez-Angón, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del IPN
Jane Margaret-Russell, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Collazo Reyes, Francisco; Hugo García Compeán, Miguel Ángel Pérez-Angón, Jane Margaret-Russell,. “The Nature of the Eponym.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 12-15.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3XZ

See also:

Image by Mark Hogan via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

We agree in general with the comments made by G. Vélez-Cuartas (2018), on our paper published recently in Social Epistemology (Collazo-Reyes, et al, 2018). He accepts the use of our methodology in the analysis of the eponym of Jerzy Plebanski and at the same time, suggests applying this methodology to search for the formation of invisible colleges or scientific networks associated with the emergence of epistemic communities.

This was not a direct goal of our work but we included some related aspects in the revised version of our manuscript that may seem somewhat distant from the ambit of the eponym: namely, intertextuality, obliteration by incorporation, scientometrics networks, invisible colleges, epistemic communities, Jerzy Plebanski and “plebanski”. All these topics are keywords to access our paper in the indexes of scientific literature. These aspects distinguish our methodology from other approaches used in almost a thousand papers that addressed the issue of eponyms, according to a recent search for this topic in Web of Science database.

Within this framework, we appreciate the author’s suggestion to extend our analysis to other subject areas since “eponym as a scientometric tool sounds good as a promising methodology”. In particular, “to induce an analysis on other areas of sociology of science and social epistemology” in order “to reach a symbolic status in a semantic community that is organized in a network of meaning” and could show “a geographical penetration of scientific institutions and global dynamics of scientific systems” (Vélez-Cuartas, 2018).

Traditionally, published work on eponymy has studied the contribution or influence of certain authors in their respective scientific disciplines through biographies, tributes, eulogies or life histories and narratives. Some of these have been published as a series of studies like “Marathon of eponyms” (Scully et al., 2012) or “The man behind the eponym” (Steffen, 2004). The post-structuralism movement mentioned in our paper (Collazo-Reyes, et al, 2018) has criticized this approach.

In scientific texts, the use of the term “plebanski”, as an eponym of the proper name of Jerzy Plebanski, corroborates the recognition given by various authors to the work developed by the Polish scientist. Acknowledgement is apparent in cognitive texts on different aspects of plebanski’s contributions and in this context; the “plebanski” term is cited as a cognitive entity macro-referenced in the framework of scientific communication (Pang, 2010).

We would like to mention two points related to future applications of our findings on the use of eponym in the Latin American scientific literature:

1) The process involved in the construction of an eponym inherently generates a macro-referential scheme that is not considered in the cognitive structure of the databases of the bibliographical indices. The operational strength of the intertextuality associated with the referential process helps to generate socio-cognitive relations and space-time flows of scientific information.

This scheme requires characterization through a relatively exhaustive search in the different variants of the bibliographical indices: references, abstracts, citations, key words, views, twitters, blogs, Facebook, etc. (WoS, Scopus, arXiv, INSPIRE, ADS/NASA, Google citation, altmetric platforms). Most of these have arisen within the domain of the traditional bibliographical databases. Therefore, there is a clear possibility to generate an eponym index to characterize the intertextual structures not associated with the known bibliographical indices.

2) We coincide with the author on the need to take a new approach to carrying out an exhaustive search of eponyms as related to the Latin American scientific community. We are interested in characterizing the geography of collaboration at different levels: local, national, regional, and international (Livingstone, 2003; Naylor, 2005). This approach has been followed in the study of the geographical origin of eponyms in relation to the dominant system of scientific communication (Shapin, 1998; Livingstone, 1995, 2003; Geographies of Science, 2010).

We made a first attempt in this direction in our study of the “plebanski” eponym in the area of mathematical physics. In this paper, we made use of the methodology involved in “geographies of science” (Livingstone, 2010; Geographies of Science, 2010; Knowledge and Space, 2016) with theoretical tools that enhance the projections made in the framework of the sociology of science, bibliometrics and science communication.

In particular, the “spatial turn” movement (Finnegan, 2008; Gunn, 2001; Frenken, 2009; Fa-ti, 2012) offers a new dimension in the development of information systems, maps and networks using an innovative methodology such as “spatial scientometrics” (Frenken et al., 2009; Flores-Vargas, et al, 2018).

The new proposal considers, in each application of an eponym, the original source of authors, institutions, journals and subject matters. Each source includes the position in the geographical distribution of scientific knowledge associated with a given discipline. This information is then referred to as “geo-reference” and the eponyms as “macro-georeferenced” entities.

In this scheme, the generation of eponyms involves the combination of the different sources for authors, institutions, journals and subject areas. The resulting network may develop new aspects of the distribution mechanism of the asymmetrical power associated with the geographies of knowledge (Geographies of Knowledge and Power, 2010).

Contact details: fcollazo@fis.cinvestav.mx

References

Collazo-Reyes, F., H. García-Compeán, M. A. Pérez-Angón, and J. M. Russell. 2018.  “Scientific Eponyms in Latin America: The Case of Jerzy Plebanski in the Area of Mathematical Physics.” Social Epistemology 32 (1): 63-74.

Fa-ti, F. 2012. “The global turn in the history of science.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 6 (2): 249-258.

Finnegan, D. A. 2008. “The spatial turn: Geographical approaches in the history of science.” Journal of the History of Biology, 41 (2): 369-388.

Flores-Vargas, X., S. H. Vitar-Sandoval, J. I. Gutiérrez-Maya, P. Collazo-Rodríguez, and F. Collazo-Reyes. 2018. “Determinants of the emergence of modern scientific knowledge in mineralogy (Mexico, 1975-1849): a geohistoriometric approach.” Scientometrics, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11192-018-2646-5.

Frenken, K. 2009. Geography of scientific knowledge: A proximity approach. Eindhoven Centre for Innovation Studies (ECIS), working paper 10.01. http://cms.tm.tue.nl/Ecis/Files/papers/wp2010/ wp1001.pdf. Accessed 4 June 2016.

Frenken, K., S. Hardeman, and J. Hoekman. 2009. “Spatial scientometrics: Toward a cumulative research program.” Journal of Informetrics 3 (3): 222–232.

Geographies of Science. 2010. Peter Meusburger, David N. Livingstone, Heike Jöns, Editors. London, New York; Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg, ISBN 978-90-481-8610-5 DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-8611-2.

Geographies of Knowledge and Power. 2010. Peter Meusburger, David N. Livingstone, Heike Jöns, Editors. London, New York; Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg. 347 p.  DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-8611-2.

Gunn, S. 2001. “The spatial turn: Changing history of space and place”. In: S. Gunn & R. J. Morris (Eds.), Identities in space: On tested terrains in the Western city science 1850. Aldershot: Asghate.

Knowledge and space. 2016. Peter Meusburger, David N. Livingstone, Heike Jöns, Editors. London, New York; Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg, ISBN 978-90-481-8610-5 DOI 10.1007/978-90-481-8611-2.

Livingstone, D. N. 2003. “Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge.” Chicago.

Livingstone, D. N. 1995. “The spaces of knowledge: Contributions towards a historical.” Geography of Science 13 (1): 5–34.

Livingstone, D. N. (2010). “Landscapes of Knowledge” In: Geographies of Science, edited by Peter Meusburger, David N. Livingstone, Heike Jöns, Editors. London, New York; Springer Dordrecht Heidelberg,

Naylor, S. 2005. “Introduction: Historical geographies of science—Places, contexts, cartographies.” British Journal for the History of Science, 38: 1–12.

Pang, Kam-yiu S. 2010. “Eponymy and life-narratives: The effect of foregrounding on proper names.” Journal of Pragmatics 42 (5): 1321-1349.

Scully, C., J. Langdon, and J. Evans. 2012. “Marathon of eponyms: 26 Zinsser-Engman-Cole syndrome (Dyskeratosis congenita).” Oral Diseases 18 (5): 522-523.

Shapin, S. 1998. “Placing the view from nowhere: Historical and sociological problems in the location of science.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 23: 5–12.

Steffen, C. 2004. “The man behind the eponym – Lauren v. Ackerman and verrucous carcinoma of Ackerman.” American Journal of Dermatopathology 26 (4): 334-341. /10.1007/s11192-018-2646-5.

Veles-Cuartas, G. 2018. “Invisible Colleges 2.0: Eponymy as a Scientometric Tool.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (3) 5-8.

Author Information: Jeff Kochan, University of Konstanz, jwkochan@gmail.com

Kochan, Jeff. “On the Sociology of Subjectivity.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 39-41.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xm

See also:

As the original photographer put it, “Shelves full of Heidegger.”
Image by Justin Yost via Flickr

Raphael Sassower has the rhetorician’s gift for creating pithy and compelling images to ornament his arguments. In this instance, he has me presiding over a forced marriage between Heidegger and sociologists of scientific knowledge. I’m relieved that he didn’t put a shotgun in my hands. At the end of his review, Sassower asks: ‘would the couple ever have consented to this on their own? And if the answer is no, who are we to force this on them?’ Momentarily granting the legitimacy of Sassower’s image, the answer to his first question is: no.

Freedom of Interpretation

Neither Heidegger nor SSK practitioners thought they were formulating an incomplete account of science, thereafter desperately awaiting its consummation through a union with they knew not what. Luckily, these scholars also made their works public, so we’re free to play with them as we like (within legal limits). In answer to Sassower’s second question, since published texts are not the sort of thing that can either give or withhold consent, it’s nonsense to say that anything can be forced on them in the way he implies. Here, Sassower’s image falls apart.

Granted, one could potentially charge me with a ‘forced’ interpretation of some of the texts I discuss. But one should then show this, not just say it. Anyway, much interesting work has been produced through the careful misinterpretation of past scholarship. If, based on evidence and argument, I were found guilty of this, I should not complain.

Using an unfortunate heteronormative gender assignment, Sassower has me arguing that ‘Heidegger […] presents an ideal groom who can offer his SSK bride the theoretical insights of overcoming the Cartesian-Kantian false binary of subject-object (11).’ Page 11 of my book, where evidence for this characterisation ostensibly lies, says only that ‘Heidegger deconstructs the Kantian subject-object distinction.’ Later, on page 40, one finds the sentence: ‘It must be emphasised […] that Heidegger does not dismiss the orthodox subject-object distinction as a false account of the subject’s relation to the world.’ The point is that the orthodox subject-object distinction, despite its many intellectual merits, brings with it some intractable problems. One is the problem of the external world. Those who subscribe to the distinction, and who also claim to be realists, remain vulnerable to sceptical attack regarding the existence of the external world.

The Importance of Heidegger’s Deconstruction

In Chapter One, I argue that SSK practitioners, though certainly aware of and actively contending with this problem, have nevertheless remained vulnerable to it. I propose to remove this vulnerability by combining SSK with Heidegger’s deconstruction of the subject-object distinction, which treats it as a ‘founded mode’ dependent on our phenomenologically more basic experience of being in the world.

Why might this be important? Because, as I demonstrate in Chapters Two and Three, SSK’s competitors in the broader field of science studies have exploited these vulnerabilities in order to discredit SSK and successfully erect their own, different, methodologies. My goal is to show that, with some help from Heidegger, these attacks can be deflected, thereby leaving SSK’s methodology intact and ready for action.

Sassower’s review overlooks my discussion of this internal dispute in the sociology of science. As a result, in what appears to be an objection directed at me, he argues that the role of the social subject in scientific knowledge production is already well-established, his point presumably being that my book adds nothing new. According to Sassower, ‘as philosophers of science have understood for a century […], the observer is an active participant in the observation.’

But that’s not all: ‘Add to this the social dimension of the community of observers-participants and the social dynamics to which they are institutionally subjected, and you have the contemporary landscape that has transformed the study of Science into the study of Scientific Community and eventually into the study of the Scientific Enterprise.’ This is a tidy and commonplace history of science studies, one from which the role of SSK has been quietly erased.

What do I mean by this? On page 1 of my book, I write that SSK – also known as the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of scientific knowledge – arose in critical response to what was retrospectively dubbed the ‘weak programme’ in the sociology of science: ‘The weak programme focussed mainly on institutional studies of the scientific community.’ This sounds like Sassower’s description of scientists as being ‘institutionally subjected’ to social dynamics, as well as his description of science studies as the study of ‘Scientific Community’ and the ‘Scientific Enterprise.’ Here, the core epistemic products of scientific practice – theories and facts – as well as the means by which they are produced – techniques and methods – are excluded from sociological analysis.

This is an exclusion that ‘strong programme’ practitioners sought to overcome. For their efforts, they were ferociously attacked by historians, philosophers, and sociologists alike. Why? Sassower’s popular, potted history cannot answer this question, because it fails to recognise science studies as a field of historical contestation. From the century-old insight of philosophers of science that observation is theory-laden, the current state of social studies of science naturally flows – says Sassower. It’s always nicer when the bodies have been neatly buried.

A Book’s Immanent Domain

Sassower has another objection. To wit: ‘what about the dynamics of market capitalism and democratic political formations? What about the industrial-academic-military complex?’ My answer: what about them? These are not what my book is about. Sassower seems to object that I wrote the book I did, rather than some other book. To this charge I happily admit my guilt. But it goes on. Having granted that science is social, Sassower asks: ‘does this recognition alone suffice to understand that neoliberalism has a definite view of what the scientific enterprise is supposed to accomplish?’ My answer: no it doesn’t – and what of it? My book isn’t about that either.

I’m not a political theorist, nor do I desire to become one. Nevertheless, Chapter Seven of my book does address some issues that may interest those engaged in political theory. As Sassower notes, in Chapter Seven I ‘nod’ to those, discussed in earlier chapters, whom I now retrospectively name ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ critics of SSK. (The ‘nod’ to liberals was a prolonged one, spanning most of Chapters Two and Three.)

My claim was that both kinds of critic are united in their rejection of subjectivity as a legitimate theme for micro-sociological study. The conservatives reject the subject as being, at best, just one more object among objects. The liberals reject the subject as being irremediably infected with the Kantian subject-object distinction. Because they reject this distinction tout court, they also reject the subject. With this, the sociological study of subjectivity is prohibited.

What interests these critics instead are fields of practice. Within these fields, the subject is constituted. But the fundamental unit of analysis is the field – or system – not the subject. Subjectivity is, on this theory, a derivative phenomenon, at best, a secondary resource for sociological analysis.

From my perspective, because subjectivity is fundamental to human existence, it cannot be eliminated in this way. In reality, the liberal account submerges subjectivity in fields of practice, where it effectively disappears from the analyst’s view. I call this position ‘liberal’ because it seems to rely on a tacit model of the subject as being unconstrained by social and historical limits.

If the existential subject is not properly acknowledged to exist, then how can its limits be acknowledged, much less studied and understood? And if the subject really does, in fact, exist, but one can’t ascribe limits to it, then doesn’t this reflect a liberal notion of negative freedom? Taking a phrase from Baudelaire, I liken this model of the subject to ‘a prince who everywhere enjoys his incognito’ (379). By offering an alternative to this model, by combining Heidegger with SSK, I hope, through my book, to equip those scholars who are keen to challenge and expose this incognito.

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

Kochan, Jeff. Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2017.

Sassower, Raphael. “Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 30-32.

Author Information: Robert Piercey, Campion College at the University of Regina, robert.piercey@uregina.ca

Piercey, Robert. “Faraway, So Close: Further Thoughts on Kanonbildung.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 33-38.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xg

Please refer to:

In the courtyard of Humboldt University, where Georg Hegel taught at the apex of his institutional career.
Image by Joan via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I’d like to thank Maxim Demin and Alexei Kouprianov for their probing study of Kanonbildung in 19th century Germany. As I understand it, the study has two goals. The first is substantive: to gather and present facts about how a particular philosophical canon emerged in 19th century Germany. The other is methodological: “to develop formalised methods of studying Kanonbildung as a process,” methods which “may turn out to be useful beyond the original scope of our project, in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history and mechanics of cultural memory formation” (113).

It’s this second goal that I find particularly interesting. So in what follows, I won’t quarrel with the substantive conclusions Demin and Kouprianov draw about the formation of the 19th century German philosophical canon—in part because their conclusions strike me as plausible, and in part because I lack the expertise to challenge their findings. Instead, I’d like to reflect broadly on the methods they use to study Kanonbildung, especially the notion of distant reading which they borrow from Franco Moretti (113). More specifically, I’d like to raise some questions about whether, how, and to what extent their strategy of distant reading must be supplemented by a form of close reading: namely, a form that treats histories of philosophy as literary artifacts whose contents are to be studied by many of the same techniques brought to bear on fictional narratives.

I raise these questions as a philosopher interested in the philosophy of history and in the intersections between philosophy and literature. To be clear, I don’t reject the methods developed by Demin and Kouprianov. On the contrary, I suspect that distant reading has an important role to play in the history of philosophy in general, and in the study of canon formation in particular. But I’d like to suggest that this method becomes more useful when it is supplemented by others—as well as to raise some questions about what this supplementing might look like.

Canon: An Institution of Thought

Let me start by highlighting what I take to be the key points of Demin’s and Kouprianov’s  analysis. They describe themselves as contributing to an institutional history of philosophy: that is, a history that downplays the “conceptual reconstruction” of past views in favour of a “study of practices” (113). The practices that interest them most are the “implicit rules and patterns” (113, emphasis added) that shape philosophers’ understandings of what their activity is and how it should proceed—practices typically not noticed by philosophers themselves. And the epoch that interests them is the 19th century, since it was during this period “that the history of philosophy began its transformation from a generalised body of knowledge into an academic discipline” (112).

A crucial part of this transformation is the development of philosophical canons. Demin and Kouprianov say relatively little about what they think canons are. Very roughly, I take them to be groups of thinkers who are seen as representing the highest and most important achievements of philosophy as a practice, thinkers with whom one should be familiar if one wishes to understand or contribute to philosophy at all.

Furthermore, a canon consists of not just a list of thinkers, but some sort of ranking, some sense—perhaps not fully explicit—of each thinker’s relative importance. In the canon Demin and Kouprianov study, for instance, philosophers are variously described as “primary,” “secondary,” or “tertiary” (116). Understood in this way, canons perform several important functions. They perform sociological functions of “indoctrination and identity formation” (113). By the end of the 19th century in Germany, a familiarity with Kant, Hegel, and others had come to shape philosophers’ understandings of their enterprise to such an extent that it was probably a necessary condition of being considered a philosopher at all.

Canons presumably perform other functions as well—for instance, inspiring philosophers by providing “mountains peaks to look up towards,” in Richard Rorty’s phrase.[1] Canons can change dramatically over time. So if one wants to understand a particular period in the history of philosophy well, it is important to know not just which figures it considered canonical, but how and when its particular canon was formed. That is what Demin and Kouprianov set out to discover about 19th century Germany.

What Is Distant Reading?

As mentioned above, the methods they use to do so go by the name of distant reading. This term was coined by Franco Moretti to designate a particular way of studying literary texts. It is to be opposed to close reading, which privileges the contents of particular texts and engages in “the analysis of ideas and the reconstruction of conceptual schemata” (113). Distant reading focuses instead on the practices “standing behind” these texts, using “formal analytic methods” to uncover “objective characteristics of large amounts of digitised texts” (113).

I take it that the authors see distant reading not as intrinsically superior to all other approaches, but as a way of correcting an imbalance. Their suggestion seems to be that the study of the history of philosophy heretofore has been so dominated by close reading that it has overlooked “implicit rules and patterns” (113). Distant reading nudges the pendulum in the other direction by encouraging historians to pay “closer attention” (113, emphasis added) to previously overlooked practices.

With this goal in mind, Demin and Kouprianov examine a large number of 19th century German works in the history of philosophy, constructing a data set that reveals how often particular philosophers were mentioned and at what length they were discussed. Examining “845 [table of contents] entries for 151 philosophers’ names,” they compile data about the “number of pages devoted to each philosopher” in these works, the “share of the 19th century section devoted to him,” and the “start and end pages of the paragraph and those of the 19th century section” (114).

The result is a very precise snapshot of how much discussion was devoted to certain philosophers at various points in the 19th century—one that allows us to trace the ways in which interest in these figures increased, peaked, and in some cases declined as the century unfolded. It lets us see precisely how and when certain figures came to be seen as more canonical than others.

This approach bears several sorts of fruit. One—in keeping with the authors’ second, methodological goal—is that it spurs the invention of new concepts helpful for making sense of the data. The undertheorized concept of a “philosophical bestseller” (115), for instance, announces itself as important, and can be defined quite precisely as a work published three times or more. Likewise, their approach allows Demin and Kouprianov to develop precise markers of the perceived greatness of philosophers, in terms of “the frequency that a particular name appears across tables of contents” (117). A primary thinker, for instance, can be defined as one “mentioned in more than 80% of treatises” (117).

Other gains are substantive. We learn that the reputations of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were cemented between 1831 and 1855, as the rate at which they were mentioned outpaced that of other thinkers. And we learn that a common view of Schopenhauer—that he was underappreciated in his lifetime and scorned by the philosophical establishment—is false, “with his views being included in three textbooks by 1855” (118). These are important discoveries, and they demonstrate the value of the authors’ strategy of distant reading.

The new museum at Humbolt University.
Image by Bartek Kuzia via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Shifting Fortunes of Fame

Of course, as Demin and Kouprianov acknowledge, “presence in the canonic history does not tell us much about the part a philosopher played within it” (119). In order to bring this dimension into view, they use several additional techniques. The one I find most intriguing is their examination of where certain philosophers appear in various histories of philosophy, and more specifically, their study of how often various philosophers appear at the end of a history.

The authors focus on three philosophers—Herbart, Schleiermacher, and Fries—who are often discussed in conjunction with Hegel. Then they see how often the figures in question are discussed before Hegel, and how often they are discussed after. “This relative position,” they explain, “is an indirect but a most meaningful criterion which allows to assess the degree of perceived recency and relevancy of a given philosopher. The closer a philosopher stays to the end of the list, the more ‘recent’ and ‘relevant’ to the current debate he is” (123).

This view seems plausible, and in the authors’ hands, it sheds important new light on how these four thinkers were viewed at various points in the 19th century. But we should note that it makes a crucial assumption. In order to move from the premise that a history discusses a given philosopher last to the conclusion that it sees him as most relevant to current debates, we must assume that it tells a particular kind of story: roughly speaking, a progressive story.

We must assume that the historian has organized her data in a very particular way, with the episodes of her story becoming more and more germane to contemporary readers’ concerns as they get closer and closer to them in time. No doubt many, if not most, histories of philosophy actually are stories of this kind. But is a philosopher’s position in a given history a good general clue to her perceived relevance? Is it such a reliable indicator of perceived importance that it should be built into a method intended for use “in a wide range of possible studies in intellectual history” (113)?

Philosophy as a Tradition

I linger over this matter because it raises an important issue in the history of philosophy: the issue of genre. Histories of philosophy, I take it, are narratives, and every narrative belongs to some genre or other.[2] Narratives in different genres may describe the same events in the same order, but assign them different meanings by shaping these events into different sorts of plots. The philosopher who has contributed most to our understanding of this process is Hayden White. In his seminal essay “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” White asks us to consider several different ways in which a single series of events might be emplotted. We can imagine a pure chronicle in which the series is “simply recorded in which the events originally occurred” (93); it might be represented in the following way:

  • a, b, c, d, e, …, n[3]

But this series “can be emplotted in a number of different ways and thereby endowed with different meanings without violating the imperatives of the chronological arrangement at all” (92). The following series are all equally possible:

  • A, b, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, B, c, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, C, d, e, …, n
  • a, b, c, D, e, …, n[4]

In each of these series, one event is symbolized with a capital letter to indicate that it is being assigned “explanatory force,”[5] or some other special significance, with respect to the others. Privileging one event rather than another yields stories in different genres. Series (2) would be a “deterministic” history which endows a “putatively original event (a) with the status of a decisive factor (A) in the structuration of the whole series of events following after it.”[6] Were we to privilege the last event in the series, we would have a story in the genre of “eschatological or apocalyptical histories” such as “St. Augustine’s City of God” and “Hegel’s Philosophy of History.”[7]

Many other permutations, and thus many other genres, are possible. In some genres, it is plausible to suppose that the last figure discussed is seen by the author as most relevant to current concerns. But in other genres, this assumption cannot be made. In a history of decline or forgetting, the last figure discussed might well be seen by the author as the least relevant to these concerns. Consider a Heideggerian history of philosophy, in which the last figure discussed is Nietzsche, but the figure most relevant to the contemporary situation is one or another pre-Socratic thinker.

The point is that knowing that a philosopher appears last in a given history—even in a large number of histories—does not tell us much about how the author understood his significance for current concerns. To draw conclusions about significance, we must know the genre (or genres) of the history (or histories) in question. And that is something we can discover only through careful attention to a history’s “literary” features—precisely the features identified through traditional close readings. So while the data Demin and Kouprianov uncover, and the methods they use to do so, are indispensable, I suspect they do not give a full picture of Kanonbildung on their own. They will be most useful when pursued in tandem with certain types of close reading.

Merging Historical Paths

I have no reason to think that Demin and Kouprianov would deny any of this. But I would like to know more about whether, and how, they think it complicates their project. What is the relation between distant reading and close reading? Do these types of analysis simply complement each other, or are they also in tension? I’ve already speculated that the authors see distant reading as a way of correcting an imbalance—that “formal analytic methods” directed at the “objective characteristics… of digitised texts” (113) are called for today because a longstanding bias toward close reading has left historians oblivious to implicit rules and patterns.

If that is the case, is there a danger that performing close reading in conjunction with distant reading will overshadow the distinctive value of the latter? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I suspect that it will be important to answer them if the methods of this study are to be extended to other areas.

I hasten to add that I am not “for” close reading or “against” distant reading. Distant reading, as the authors describe it, is clearly an important tool. But I would like to know more about how it relates to the other tools at the disposal of historians of philosophy. Whatever their view of this matter, I’d like to thank Demin and Kouprianov again for making a promising new contribution to our conceptual toolbox.

Contact details: robert.piercey@uregina.ca

References

Demin, Maxim, and Alexei Kouprianov, “Studying Kanonbildung: An Exercise in a Distant Reading of Contemporary Self-descriptions of the 19th Century German Philosophy.” Social Epistemology, 32, no. 2: 112-127.

Kuukkanen, Jouni-Matti. Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Rorty, Richard “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

White, Hayden. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

[1] Richard Rorty, “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres,” in Philosophy in History, ed. Richard Rorty, Jerome Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 23.

[2] Not everyone agrees that all histories are narratives, but space does not permit me to broach this issue here. For an important recent discussion of it, see Jouni-Matti Kuukkanen, Postnarrativist Philosophy of Historiography (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), especially Chapter 5.

[3] Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 92.

[4] White, 92.

[5] White, 92.

[6] White, 93.

[7] White, 93.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Why Mizrahi Needs to Replace Weak Scientism With an Even Weaker Scientism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 18-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3WS

See also:

Image by Matt via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Moti Mizrahi has been defending something he calls ‘weak scientism’ against Christopher Brown in a series of exchanges in the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. His animus seems to be against philosophy in particular though he asserts that other disciplines in the humanities do not produce knowledge either. He also shows remarkable candor in admitting that it all comes down to money: money spent on philosophy would be better spent on the sciences because scientific knowledge is better qualitatively (i.e. because it makes true predictions) and quantitatively (scientists pump out more stuff than philosophers). (11)

Measuring Success

As he tells us: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.” (Mizrahi; 7). Furthermore: “Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge- in the form of scholarly publications-than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact)” (7)

The relevance of this latter claim seems to me unclear: surely by a quantitative measure, Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat.[1] A German professor once told me that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone! I will not, however, spend time scratching my head over what seems a tangential point. The quantity of work produced in the sciences would be of little significance were it not valuable by some other measure. No one would think commercials great works of art on the grounds that there are so many of them.

Then again some concerned by the problem of over-specialization might view the sheer quantity of scientific research as a problem not an advantage.  I will focus, then, on the qualitative question and particularly on the claim that science produces knowledge and all the other things we tend to call knowledge are in fact not knowledge at all but something else. I will then consider Mr. Mizrahi’s peculiar version of this claim ‘weak scientism’ which is that while there may be knowledge of some sort outside of the sciences (it is hard, he thinks, to show otherwise) this knowledge is of a qualitatively lesser kind.

He says this is so “in certain relevant aspects”. (10) I’m not sure what he means by this hedge. What makes an aspect relevant in this context? I will proceed though on the assumption that whatever these relevant aspects are they make for an over-all context independent superiority of science over non-science.[2]

Of course, were I a practitioner of the hermeneutic of suspicion I would point out the glaring conflict of interest in Mr. Mizrahi making these claims from the fastness of a technical institute. If someone pops up claiming that only half the university really earns its keep it is a little bit suspect (if not surprising exactly) when that half of the university happens to the very one in which he resides. I might also point out the colonialist and sexist implications of his account, which is so contrived to conveniently exclude all sorts of ‘others’ from the circle of knowledge. Is Mr. Mizrahi producing an argument or a mere rationalization of his privilege?

However, as Mr. Mizrahi seems unlikely to be overly impressed by such an analysis I will stick to something simpler.[3] Does science alone produce knowledge or do other epistemic forms produce knowledge as well? This is the question of whether ‘strong scientism’ is correct. Secondly, if strong scientism is not correct does weak scientism offer a more defensible alternative or does it suffer from the same drawbacks? Accordingly, I will refute strong scientism and then show that weak scientism is vulnerable to precisely the same objections.

Politicized Words and Politicizing Ideas

There are dangers to antagonizing philosophers. We may not be pulling in the big grants, true , but we can do a great deal of damage regardless  for when the ‘scientistic class’ is not accusing philosophy of being useless and ineffectual it is accusing it of corrupting the entire world with its po-mo nonsense.[4] This is because one of the functions of philosophy is the skeptical or critical one. When scientists go on about verification and falsification or claim the principle of induction can be justified by induction philosophers perform the Socratic function of puncturing their hubris. Thus, one of the functions of philosophy is deflationary.

A philosopher of science who makes himself unpopular with scientists by raising questions the scientist is unequipped to answer and has no time for anyway is only doing her job. I think this is a case in point. Since Descartes at least we been fascinated by the idea of the great epistemic purge. There is so much ‘stuff’ out there claiming to be knowledge that we need to light a great bonfire and burn all of it. This bonfire might be Cartesian doubt. It might be ‘scientific method’. Either way all the ‘pretend’ knowledge is burned off leaving the useful core. This may well be a worthwhile endeavour and in the time of Descartes it surely was.

However, I suspect this tradition has created a misleading impression. The real problem is not that we have too little knowledge but too much: as a phenomenologist might say it is a saturated phenomenon. Knowledge is all around us so that like bats our eyes are blinded by the sun. This is why I find the idea that only scientists produce knowledge the very definition of an ivory tower notion that has no basis in experience. To show this let me make a list of the kinds of non-scientific knowledge people have.

As we shall see, the problem is not making this list long but keeping it short. I offer this list to create an overwhelming presumption that strong scientism at very least is not true (I shall then argue that weak scientism is in no better a case).  This procedure may not be decisive in itself but I do think it puts the ball in the court of the ‘strong scientist’ who must show that all the things I (and most everybody else) call knowledge are in fact something else.

What is more, the ‘strong scientist’ must do this without violating the criterion of strong scientism itself: he cannot avail himself of any but scientific arguments. Moreover, he must show that science itself meets the criterion of knowledge he sets out which is not an easy task given such well known difficulties as the problem of induction. At any rate, prima facie, there seems overwhelming empirical evidence that strong scientism is incorrect: a claim so extraordinary should have an unusually strong justification, to paraphrase Hume. Let’s see if the ‘strong scientist’ can produce one.

Making a Problem of “Results”

To begin, I should point out is that there are bodies of knowledge that produce ‘results’ not through scientific method but through analysis and application to cases. Two prominent examples would be Law and Music Theory, practitioners of which use an established body of theory to solve problems like whether Trinity Western should have a law school or how Scriabin invented the ‘Prometheus chord’. What sense of ‘know’ can we appeal to in order to show that my daughter, who is a music theory student, does not ‘know’ that the Prometheus chord was derived from the over-tone series?

Secondly, there is knowledge about the past that historians uncover through the interpretation of primary documents and other evidence. In what sense do we not ‘know’ that the Weimar Republic fell? This claim is even more remarkable given there are sciences that deal with the past, like Paleontology, which ‘interpret’ signs such as fossils or tools in a manner much more like historians (there is hermeneutic judgment in science which functions no differently than hermeneutic judgment elsewhere).

Thirdly, there is first person knowledge which is direct. “Did that hurt?” asks the doctor because without accepting first-person reportage he cannot proceed with treatment. This is a kind of knowledge without which we could not even do science so that if Strong scientism wants to deny this is knowledge science itself will be the primary victim. Again science can go nowhere without direct factual knowledge (the strip turned green when I put it in water) that is not produced by science but which science itself rests upon.

What about know how? Craftsmen and engineers know all kinds of things by accumulated experience. They know how a shoe is made or what makes for good beer. They also built the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What are we to make of disciplines like mathematics, geometry or logic? What about ethical or aesthetic or critical judgments? In what sense does a translator not ‘know’ Japanese? Does anyone really think literature scholars don’t ‘know’ anything about the texts they discuss even on a factual level? What scientific justification does the claim “Marlowe did not write King Lear’ have or even require?  And while we are at it may well be that philosophers do not know much but they do know things like ‘logical positivism fails its own criterion of meaning’ or ‘Berkeley cannot be refuted by kicking a stone’. [5]

It could well be that in regarding all the above as instances of knowledge I am missing something fundamental. If so I wish someone would point it out to me. Let’s take a hypothetical knower, Jill: Jill knows she is feeling cold, knows how to repair watches, knows why the Weimar Republic fell, knows how to speak Portuguese, knows there are 114 Surahs in the Quran, knows how Beethoven transformed the sonata form, has extensive topographical knowledge of places she has travelled, prefers the plays of Shakespeare to those of Thomas Preston, can identify Barbara as valid syllogism, considers racial prejudice indefensible, understands how attorney client privilege applies to the Stormy Daniels affair, can tell an stone age arrowhead from a rock, can comment on the philology of Hebrew, can understand Euclid’s proofs, is engaged in correcting the received text of Finnegans Wake , can explain the Quine/Duhem thesis and its relevance to the question of falsification, has written a commentary on Kant’s third critique and on top of all this is performing experiments in chemistry.

Strong scientism may be correct that only the last endeavour constitutes Jill’s ‘knowledge’ but on what grounds can it defeat what to me looks like the overwhelming presumption that Jill is not just a Chemist who wastes her time at hobbies but a genuine polymath who knows many things in many fields along with all the ordinary knowledge all humans possess?

Problems of Both the Strong and the Weak

The ‘strong scientist’ has surprisingly few options here. Will he point out that science makes true predictions? So have craftsmen for millennia. Further, many of these forms of knowledge do not need to make true predictions: I don’t need to test the hypothesis that there 114 Surahs in the Quran because I know already having checked.[6] Is science more certain of its conclusions? According to the post-Popper consensus at least, scientific statements are always tentative and revisable and in any case first person knowledge so surpasses it in certainty that some of it is arguably infallible. Is science more instrumentally successful?

Craftsmen and hunters kept the species alive for millennia before science even existed in difficult circumstances under which no science would have been possible. What is more some craft knowledge remains instrumentally superior to science to this day: no baseball player chooses a physicist over a batting coach.[7] At any rate success is relative to one’s aims and lawyers successfully produce legal arguments just as philologists successfully solve problems of Homeric grammar.

Now as Aristotle would say science does have the advantage over craft of being explanatory but is explanation unique to science? No; because hermeneutic practices in history, literature, classics and so on also produce explanations of the meaning of things like documents and if the ‘strong scientist’ wants to say that these explanations are tentative and changing (abductions as it were not inductions) then the same is true of a great deal of science. In short, none of the features that supposedly make for the superiority of science are unique to science and some are not even especially exemplified by it. It seems then that there is no criterion by which scientific claims can be shown to be knowledge in a unique and exclusive sense. Until such a criterion is identified it seems to me that my initial presupposition about Jill being a polymath rather than a chemist with distractions stands.   

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizrahi to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to.  Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities.” (22)[8] Still, when pushed, he seems content with the position that all the things I mentioned above might count as knowledge in a weaker sense but that scientific knowledge is still better and, presumably, more worthy of grants.

Unfortunately, the exact same objections which tell against strong scientism tell against weak scientism too. It is interesting that at this point Mizrahi employs a kind of knowledge I did not discuss above: to defend weak scientism he appeals to the authority of textbooks! (17) These textbooks tell him that science is instrumentally successful, explanatory and makes true predictions. He then tells us that while other disciplines may also betray these traits they do not do so to the same extent so that any money spent on them would be better spent on science on the maxim of prudence (another knowledge form I did not discuss) that one should seek the most bang for one’s buck.

Mizrahi gains little by this move for the question immediately arises better how and at what? Better in what context? By what standard of value? Just take the example of quantity so favored by Mizrahi. Does science produce more knowledge that anything else? Hardly. As Augustine pointed out I can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of my own existence. (City of God; XI, 26) Indeed, I can do this by reflecting recursively on my knowledge of ANY fact. Similar recursive processes can extend our knowledge indefinitely in the field of mathematics.

Does science have (taken in bulk) more instrumental success than other knowledge forms? How would you even count given that craft knowledge has a roughly 3 million-year head start? This does not even count the successful record of problem solving in law, politics, or art.[9] Is science more successful at explanation? Hardly, if science could solve problems in literature or history then these fields would not even exist. Science only explains the things it is good at explaining which is no more and no less than one can say of any other discipline. This is why many proponents of scientism tacitly assume that the explanations produced in other disciplines only concern frilly, trivial things that science needn’t bother about anyway.[10]

Does science make more true predictions? Again how would you even count given that for millions of years, human beings survived by making hundreds of true predictions daily? What is more, the inductive procedures of science seem relatively useless in the many endeavours that do not involve true prediction but some other method of justification like deduction or direct observation.

Thus, weak scientism seems in no better a case than strong scientism for the same reasons: there is no clearly applicable, context-independent, criterion that shows the superiority the ‘weak scientist’ claims: certainty, instrumental success, utilitarian value, predictive power and explanation all exist elsewhere in ways that are often not directly commensurable with the way they exist in science. As I told someone once (who asserted the superiority of the French language over all others) French is indeed the best language for speaking French in.[11] Science is the best way to do science.

Why Make Science an Ism at All?

Thus, if Mr. Mizrahi wants a thesis to defend it may well be possible to show that science is at least somewhat better on average at certain things than other approaches. He may call that ‘even weaker’ scientism. This would be to admit after all, that science is superior only in ‘certain relevant aspects’ leaving it to be inferred that it is not superior in others and that the ‘superiority’ that science demonstrates in one context, like particle physics, may vanish in another, like film criticism. If that is what ‘scientism’ amounts to then we are all proponents of it and it is hard to escape the impression that a mountain of argument has given birth to a mouse.

What is more, he informs us: “Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation. To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable.” (17) I suppose then it remains open to say that, after all, Joyce scholars ‘test’ their assertions about Ulysses against the text of Ulysses and are to that extent scientists. Perhaps, craftsmen, music theorists, historians and (gasp!) even philosophers, all in their various ways, do likewise: testing their assertions in the ways peculiar to their disciplines. Perhaps, then, all these endeavors are just iterations of science in which case Mirhazi’s mouse has shrunk to something the size of a pygmy shrew.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Aristotle, Metaphysics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. R. McKeon (Random House, Aristotle, 1941)

Augustine, The City of God. Trans. H. Bettenson. (Penguin Classics, London, 1984)

Mizrahi, Moti. “More in Defense of Weak Scientism: Another Reply to Brown.”  Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no 4 (2018) 7-25.   

Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987) 595-597

[1] Does Mirhazi mean to say that if a particular sub-discipline of English produces more articles in a given year than a small subfield of science then that discipline of English is superior to that subfield of science? I’m sure he does not mean to say this but it seems to follow from his words.

[2] The qualitative superiority of science must be based on the value of its goals firstly (like curing disease or discovering alien life) and, secondly, its superiority in achieving those goals over all other methods. The discussion surely assumes that the things done by science must be worth doing more than their opposites. The question has of necessity an axiological component in spite of Mizrahi’s claim to the contrary (9). This means the values of science must be commensurable with the values of non-science if we are to say one is better overall than the other. Not only must science be instrumentally superior at answering scientific questions it must answer the questions of other disciplines better than those disciplines. Otherwise one is simply making the innocuous claim that science answers scientific questions better than geometry or rhetoric can. Mizrahi marshals only one example here: he tells us that the social sciences produce more knowledge about friendship than philosophy does. (19) Of course this assumes that philosophers and social scientists are asking the same or at least commensurable questions about friendship but even if I grant this there are still a vast multitude of instances where this is manifestly not the case, where non-scientists can produce better explanations on non-trivial questions than scientists can. I shall note some of these below.

[3] Mr. Mizrahi might consider, though, whether ideological self-critique might, after all, be a useful way of acquiring self-knowledge (which may not be so contemptible an attainment after all).

[4] This is the ‘Schrodinger’ phenomenon where an antagonist makes two contradictory accusations at once. (https://davewebster.org/2018/02/28/schrodingers-snowflake/) For what seems to be the fons et origo of this narrative see Theocharis and Psimpoulos “Where Science Has Gone Wrong” Nature (1987).

[5] The underlying question here is one of Platonism vs. Aristotelianism. Strong Scientism argues that there is one paradigmatic form of ‘knowledge in itself’. I argue the Aristotelian position that just as ‘being’ is said in many senses (Metaphysics;9, 992b 15) so there are many analogical forms of knowledge. What all the things I have listed have in common is that each in its own peculiar way supports beliefs by appeals to evidence or other forms of justification. Everyday discourse may be wrong to use the word knowledge for these other forms of justified belief but I think the onus is on the ‘strong scientist’ to show this. Another thing I should point out is that I do not confine the word knowledge to beliefs that are indefeasible: a knower might say “to the best of knowledge” and still be a knower. I say this to head off the problem of skepticism which asks whether the criterion of indefeasible knowledge (whatever it is said to be) is ever actually fulfilled. There are valid responses to this problem but consideration of them would take us far afield.

[6] It is silly to imagine me hypothesizing the various numbers of Surahs the Quran could contain before testing my hypothesis by opening the book. Of course, if Mizrahi wishes, I can always put ordinary factual knowledge in the form of a testable proposition. Open War and Peace and you will find it contains an account of the battle of Borodino. Why is a true prediction of this kind any different than a true prediction in science?

[7] Here in fact we get to the nub of the problem. The ultimate problem with scientism weak or strong is that in the real world different knowledge forms interact with each other constantly. Science advances with the help of craftsmen as with the invention of the telescope. Craftsmen make use of science as when a running coach consults a physician. Archeologists and paleontologists employ abduction or hermeneutic reasoning. Art historians call on chemists while biologists call on the local knowledge of indigenous peoples. In a sense there is no such thing as ‘science’ pure and simple as other knowledge forms are inherent to its own structure (even deductive reasoning, the proper province of logicians, is essential to standard accounts of scientific method). This is one reason why, in fact, there is no one superior knowledge form but rather systematic interdependence of ALL knowledge forms.

[8] This is not the only instance of Mizrahi, apparently, trying to use a persuasive definition to win what looks like a mere verbal victory. Of course you can define knowledge as “what the sciences do”, assign another word to “what the humanities do” and go home waving the flag of triumph. But why should any of the rest of take note of such an arbitrary procedure?

[9] Again the problem is that the instrumental success of science rests on the instrumental success of a multitude of other things like the knowledge of bus schedules that gets us to the lab or the social knowledge that allows us to navigate modern institutions. No science tells us how to write a winning grant proposal or informs us that for as longs as Dr. Smith is chief editor of Widgetology the truth about widgets is whatever he says it is. Thus even if we confined the question to the last 50 years it is clear that science cannot claim instrumental superiority over the myriad other anonymous, unmarked processes that make science possible in the first place.

[10] My son, when he was a toddler, ran about the playground proclaiming himself ‘the greatest’. When he failed at any task or challenge he would casually turn to his mother and say “well, the greatest doesn’t do that”! This seems to be the position of many proponents of scientism. If scientists cannot produce good explanations in a field like literature or classics, then it must be that those fields are not really knowledge.

[11] Aristotle made this point ages ago. No inquiry into ethics he tells can have the rigour of geometry any more than the geometer need employ the art of rhetoric. (Nichomachean Ethics; 3, 20,25) Ethics employs phronesis or prudential judgment not logical deduction. Each discipline is answerable to its own internal standards which do not apply outside that discipline. There is, then, no overall ‘super-science’ (like the Platonic dialectic) that embodies a universal method for dealing with all subjects. Aristotle’s world is pluralist, discontinuous and analogical. For this reason, scientists have tended to be Platonists and modern science might be viewed as the revenge of the Platonic/Pythagorean tradition against its wayward pupil. Contemporary philosophy of science, if this author understands it correctly, seems to have restored Aristotelian praxis to the centre of the scientific enterprise. Students of Wittgenstein will no doubt appreciate the point that knowledge comes in as many varieties as games do and there is no more a single account of the first than there is of the second.

Author Information: Alfred Moore, University of York, UK, alfred.moore@york.ac.uk

Moore, Alfred. “Transparency and the Dynamics of Trust and Distrust.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 4 (2018), 26-32.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3W8

Please refer to:

A climate monitoring camp at Blackheath in London, UK, on the evening of 28 August 2009.
Image by fotdmike via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In 1961 the Journal of the American Medical Association published a survey suggesting that 90% of doctors who diagnosed cancer in their patients would choose not to tell them (Oken 1961). The doctors in the study gave a variety of reasons, including (unsubstantiated) fears that patients might commit suicide, and feelings of futility about the prospects of treatment. Among other things, this case stands as a reminder that, while it is a commonplace that lay people often don’t trust experts, at least as important is that experts often don’t trust lay people.

Paternalist Distrust

I was put in mind of this stunning example of communicative paternalism while reading Stephen John’s recent paper, “Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.” John makes a case against a presumption of openness in science communication that – although his argument is more subtle – reads at times like a rational reconstruction of a doctor-patient relationship from the 1950s. What is disquieting is that he makes a case that is, at first glance, quite persuasive.

When lay people choose to trust what experts tell them, John argues, they are (or their behaviour can usefully be modelled as though they are) making two implicit judgments. The first, and least controversial, is that ‘if some claim meets scientific epistemic standards for proper acceptance, then [they] should accept that claim’ (John 2018, 77). He calls this the ‘epistemological premise’.

Secondly, however, the lay person needs to be convinced that the ‘[i]nstitutional structures are such that the best explanation for the factual content of some claim (made by a scientist, or group, or subject to some consensus) is that this claim meets scientific “epistemic standards” for proper acceptance’ (John 2018, 77). He calls this the ‘sociological premise.’ He suggests, rightly, I think, that this is the premise in dispute in many contemporary cases of distrust in science. Climate change sceptics (if that is the right word) typically do not doubt that we should accept claims that meet scientific epistemic standards; rather, they doubt that the ‘socio-epistemic institutions’ that produce scientific claims about climate change are in fact working as they should (John 2018, 77).

Consider the example of the so-called ‘climate-gate’ controversy, in which a cache of emails between a number of prominent climate scientists were made public on the eve of a major international climate summit in 2009. The emails below (quoted in Moore 2017, 141) were full of claims that might – to the unitiated – look like evidence of sharp practice. For example:

“I should warn you that some data we have we are not supposed [to] pass on to others. We can pass on the gridded data—which we do. Even if WMO [World Meteorological Organization] agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.”

“You can delete this attachment if you want. Keep this quiet also, but this is the person who is putting in FOI requests for all emails Keith and Tim have written and received re Ch 6 of AR4 We think we’ve found a way around this.”

“The other paper by MM is just garbage. … I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd [sic] from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

As Phil Jones, then director of the Climate Research Unit, later admitted, the emails “do not read well.”[1] However, neither, on closer inspection,[2] did they show anything particularly out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing like corruption or fraud. Most of the controversy, it seemed, came from lay people misinterpreting the backstage conversation of scientists in light of a misleading image of what good science is supposed to look like.

The Illusions of Folk Philosophy of Science

This is the central problem identified in John’s paper. Many people, he suggests, evaluate the ‘sociological premise’ in light of a ‘folk philosophy of science’ that is worlds away from the reality of scientific practice. For this reason, revealing to a non-expert public how the sausage is made can lead not to understanding, ‘but to greater confusion’ (John 2017, 82). And worse, as he suggests happened in the climate-gate case, it might lead people to reject well-founded scientific claims in the mistaken belief that they did not meet proper epistemic standards within the relevant epistemic community. Transparency might thus lead to unwarranted distrust.

In a perfect world we might educate everybody in the theory and practice of modern science. In the absence of such a world, however, scientists need to play along with the folk belief in order to get lay audiences to adopt those claims that are in their epistemic best interests. Thus, John argues, scientists explaining themselves to lay publics should seek to ‘well-lead’ (the benevolent counterpart to mislead) their audience. That is, they should try to bring the lay person to hold the most epistemically sound beliefs, even if this means masking uncertainties, glossing complications, pretending more precision than you know to be the case, and so on.

Although John presents his argument as something close to heresy, his model of ‘well-leading’ speech describes a common enough practice. Economists, for instance, face a similar temptation to mask uncertainties and gloss complications and counter-arguments when engaging with political leaders and wider publics on issues such as the benefits and disadvantages of free trade policies.

As Dani Rodrik puts it:

As a professional economist, as an academic economist, day in and day out I see in seminars and papers a great variety of views on what the effects of trade agreements are, the ambiguous effects of deep integration. Inside economics, you see that there is not a single view on globalization. But the moment that gets translated into the political domain, economists have this view that you should never provide ammunition to the barbarians. So the barbarians are these people who don’t understand the notion of comparative advantage and the gains from trade, and you don’t want… any of these caveats, any of these uncertainties, to be reflected in the public debate. (Rodrik 2017, at c.30-34 mins).

‘Well-leading’ speech seems to be the default mode for experts talking to lay audiences.

An Intentional Deception

A crucial feature of ‘well-leading’ speech is that it has no chance of working if you tell the audience what you are up to. It is a strategy that cannot be openly avowed without undermining itself, and thus relies on a degree of deception. Furthermore, the well-leading strategy only works if the audience already trusts the experts in question, and is unlikely to help – and is likely to actively harm expert credibility – in context where experts are already under suspicion and scrutiny. John thus admits that this strategy can backfire if the audience is made aware of some of the hidden complications, and worse, as was case of in climate-gate, if it seems the experts actively sought to evade demands for transparency and accountability (John 2017, 82).

This puts experts in a bind: be ‘open and honest’ and risk being misunderstood; or engage in ‘well-leading’ speech and risk being exposed – and then misunderstood! I’m not so sure the dilemma is actually as stark as all that, but John identifies a real and important problem: When an audience misunderstands what the proper conduct of some activity consists in, then revealing information about the conduct of the activity can lead them to misjudge its quality. Furthermore, to the extent that experts have to adjust their conduct to conform to what the audience thinks it should look like, revealing information about the process can undermine the quality of the outcomes.

One economist has thus argued that accountability works best when it is based on information about outcomes, and that information about process ‘can have detrimental effects’ (Prat 2005: 863). By way of example, she compares two ways of monitoring fund managers. One way is to look at the yearly returns. The other way (exemplified, in her case, by pension funds), involves communicating directly with fund managers and demanding that they ‘explain their investment strategy’ (Prat 2005, 870). The latter strategy, she claims, produces worse outcomes than those monitored only by their results, because the agents have an incentive to act in a way that conforms to what the principal regards as appropriate rather than what the agent regards as the most effective action.

Expert Accountability

The point here is that when experts are held accountable – at the level of process – by those without the relevant expertise, their judgment is effectively displaced by that of their audience. To put it another way, if you want the benefit of expert judgment, you have to forgo the urge to look too closely at what they are doing. Onora O’Neill makes a similar point: ‘Plants don’t flourish when we pull them up too often to check how their roots are growing: political, institutional and professional life too may not flourish if we constantly uproot it to demonstrate that everything is transparent and trustworthy’ (O’Neill 2002: 19).

Of course, part of the problem in the climate case is that the outcomes are also subject to expert interpretation. When evaluating a fund manager you can select good people, leave them alone, and check that they hit their targets. But how do you evaluate a claim about likely sea-level rise over the next century? If radical change is needed now to avert such catastrophic effects, then the point is precisely not to wait and see if they are right before we act. This means that both the ‘select and trust’ and the ‘distrust and monitor’ models of accountability are problematic, and we are back with the problem: How can accountability work when you don’t know enough about the activity in question to know if it’s being done right? How are we supposed to hold experts accountable in ways that don’t undermine the very point of relying on experts?

The idea that communicative accountability to lay people can only diminish the quality either of warranted trust (John’s argument) or the quality of outcomes (Prat’s argument) presumes that expert knowledge is a finished product, so to speak. After all, if experts have already done their due diligence and could not get a better answer, then outsiders have nothing epistemically meaningful to add. But if expert knowledge is not a finished product, then demands for accountability from outsiders to the expert community can, in principle, have some epistemic value.

Consider the case of HIV-AIDS research and the role of activists in challenging expert ideas of what constituted ‘good science’ in conduct of clinical trials. In this engagement they ‘were not rejecting medical science,’ but were rather “denouncing some variety of scientific practice … as not conducive to medical progress and the health and welfare of their constituency” (Epstein 1996: 2). It is at least possible that the process of engaging with and responding to criticism can lead to learning on both sides and the production, ultimately, of better science. What matters is not whether the critics begin with an accurate view of the scientific process; rather, what matters is how the process of criticism and response is carried out.

On 25 April 2012, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) celebrated its 25th anniversary with a protest march through Manhattan’s financial district. The march, held in partnership with Occupy Wall Street, included about 2000 people.
Image by Michael Fleshman via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

We Are Never Alone

This leads me to an important issue that John doesn’t address. One of the most attractive features of his approach is that he moves beyond the limited examples, prevalent in the social epistemology literature, of one lay person evaluating the testimony of one expert, or perhaps two competing experts. He rightly observes that experts speak for collectives and thus that we are implicitly judging the functioning of institutions when we judge expert testimony. But he misses an analogous sociological problem on the side of the lay person. We rarely judge alone. Rather, we use ‘trust proxies’ (MacKenzie and Warren 2012).

I may not know enough to know whether those climate scientists were not doing good science, but others can do that work for me. I might trust my representatives, who have on my behalf conducted open investigations and inquiries. They are not climate scientists, but they have given the matter the kind of sustained attention that I have not. I might trust particular media outlets to do this work. I might trust social movements.

To go back to the AIDS case, ACT-UP functioned for many as a trust proxy of this sort, with the skills and resources to do this sort of monitoring, developing competence but with interests more closely aligned with the wider community affected by the issue. Or I might even trust the judgments of groups of citizens randomly selected and given an opportunity to more deeply engage with the issues for just this purpose (see Gastil, Richards, and Knobloch 2014).

This hardly, on its own, solves the problem of lay judgment of experts. Indeed, it would seem to place it at one remove and introduce a layer of intermediaries. But it is worth attending to these sorts of judgments for at least two reasons. One is because, in a descriptive sense, this is what actually seems to be going on with respect to expert-lay judgment. People aren’t directly judging the claims of climate scientists, and they’re not even judging the functioning of scientific institutions; they’re simply taking cues from their own trusted intermediaries. The second is that the problems and pathologies of expert-lay communication are, in large part, problems with their roots in failures of intermediary institutions and practices.

To put it another way, I suspect that a large part of John’s (legitimate) concern about transparency is at root a concern about unmediated lay judgment of experts. After all, in the climate-gate case, we are dealing with lay people effectively looking over the shoulders of the scientists as they write their emails. One might have similar concerns about video monitoring of meetings: they seem to show you what is going on but in fact are likely to mislead you because you don’t really know what you’re looking at (Licht and Naurin 2015). You lack the context and understanding of the practice that can be provided by observers, who need not themselves be experts, but who need to know enough about the practice to tell the difference between good and bad conduct.

The same idea can apply to transparency of reasoning, involving the demand that actors give a public account of their actions. While the demand that authorities explain how and why they reached their judgments seems to fall victim to the problem of lay misunderstanding, it also offers a way out of it. After all, in John’s own telling of the case, he explains in a convincing way why the first impression (that the ‘sociological premise’ has not been fulfilled) is misleading. The initial scandal initiated a process of scrutiny in which some non-experts (such as the political representatives organising the parliamentary inquiry) engaged in closer scrutiny of the expert practice in question.

Practical lay judgment of experts does not require that lay people become experts (as Lane 2014 and Moore 2017 have argued), but it does require a lot more engagement than the average citizen would either want or have time for. The point here is that most citizens still don’t know enough to properly evaluate the sociological premise and thus properly interpret information they receive about the conduct of scientists. But they can (and do) rely on proxies to do the work of monitoring and scrutinizing experts.

Where does this leave us? John is right to say that what matters is not the generation of trust per se, but warranted trust, or an alignment of trust and trustworthiness. What I think he misses is that distrust is crucial to the possible way in which transparency can (potentially) lead to trustworthiness. Trust and distrust, on this view, are in a dynamic relation: Distrust motivates scrutiny and the creation of institutional safeguards that make trustworthy conduct more likely. Something like this case for transparency was made by Jeremy Bentham (see Bruno 2017).

John rightly points to the danger that popular misunderstanding can lead to a backfire in the transition from ‘scrutiny’ to ‘better behaviour.’ But he responds by asserting a model of ‘well-leading’ speech that seems to assume that lay people already trust experts, and he thus leaves unanswered the crucial questions raised by his central example: What are we to do when we begin from distrust and suspicion? How we might build trustworthiness out of distrust?

Contact details: alfred.moore@york.ac.uk

References

Bruno, Jonathan. “Vigilance and Confidence: Jeremy Bentham, Publicity, and the Dialectic of Trust and Distrust.” American Political Science Review, 111, no. 2 (2017) pp. 295-307.

Epstein, S. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Gastil, J., Richards, R. C., & Knobloch, K. R. “Vicarious deliberation: How the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review influenced deliberation in mass elections.” International Journal of Communication, 8 (2014), 62–89.

John, Stephen. “Epistemic trust and the ethics of science communication: against transparency, openness, sincerity and honesty.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 32, no. 2 (2017) 75-87.

Lane, Melissa. “When the Experts are Uncertain: Scientific Knowledge and the Ethics of Democratic Judgment.” Episteme 11, no. 1 (2014) 97-118.

Licht, Jenny de Fine, and Daniel Naurin. “Open Decision-Making Procedures and Public Legitimacy: An Inventory of Causal Mechanisms”. In Jon Elster (ed), Secrecy and Publicity in Votes and Debates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2015), 131-151.

MacKenzie, Michael, and Mark E. Warren, “Two Trust-Based Uses of Minipublics.” In John Parkinson and Jane Mansbridge (eds.) Deliberative Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2012), 95-124.

Moore, Alfred. Critical Elitism: Deliberation, Democracy, and the Politics of Expertise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Oken, Donald. “What to Tell Cancer Patients: A Study of Medical Attitudes.” Journal of the American Medical Association 175, no. 13 (1961) 1120-1128.

O’Neill, Onora. A Question of Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Prat, Andrea. The Wrong Kind of Transparency. The American Economic Review 95, no. 3 (2005), 862-877.

[1] In a statement released on 24 November 2009, http://www.uea.ac.uk/mac/comm/media/press/2009/nov/cruupdate

[2] One of eight separate investigations was by the House of Commons select committee on Science and Technology (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/387/38702.htm).