Archives For history of science

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk.

Fuller, Steve. “Staying Human in the 21st Century Is Harder Than You Might Think.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 39-42.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44W

The Main Street Bridge in Columbus, Ohio, the largest major city near Ashland University.
Image by Bill Koontz via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Let me start by saying that it’s a great honour to address you today.[1] It turns out that nearly forty years ago, I was the ‘salutatorian’ of the Class of 1979 at Columbia College in New York. That means I was the number two guy in terms of overall grade point average across all subjects. And that guy gives the introductory speech, whereas the number one guy gives the closing speech, the so-called ‘valedictory’ address, which literally means saying goodbye.

It seems that once again I am the ‘warm up act’ for a graduation ceremony in that once I finish speaking, you’ll actually get your degrees! And that’s exactly was how it worked in the old days.

I am someone who thinks that if I have anything interesting to say, it will be to those who are more oriented to the future than to the past – or even the present. In any case, this is how I would wish you to interpret me.

There are many challenges to our sense of humanity today. I want to start with a long term challenge that you will increasingly face in the coming years. That has to do with privileging ‘humanity’ understood as a kind of upright ape who has consolidated its place on Earth by monopolizing control over the planet’s resources. This is what geologists are beginning to call the ‘Anthropocene’, and it probably began with the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century – and it marks the first time a single species has dictated the terms of engagement on Earth.

This has led to considerable metaphysical soul-searching about the human condition. And put bluntly, much of this soul-searching has resulted in self-loathing for humanity as a species. We are to blame for the unprecedented levels of mass extinctions and climate change over the past two or more centuries.

All the while, our species has come to range over the entire planet in a manner that reminds some of these scientifically informed misanthropes of cockroaches. However, the difference between us and cockroaches is that cockroaches don’t seem to exhibit the strong sense of inequality among its members that we have historically insisted among ourselves.

So given our evolutionary track record, in what sense are humans are worth promoting, let alone all of us – as Thomas Jefferson said, as ‘created equal’? Of course, it’s been long recognized that there is an enormous spread in the capacity of human beings. Modern biological science has given this informal observation an empirical basis.

Originally it was presented as a demonstration of natural inequality, and the phrase ‘scientific racism’ remains a legacy of that line of thought. However, nowadays biologists prefer to speak of the diversity of life-forms, which together constitute ecologies, the Earth itself being the ultimate ecosystem.

But against this general current of thought, egalitarianism has been advanced by the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – simply on the grounds that we are all children of the same God in some broadly ‘privileged’ sense.

In the modern era, this fundamental intuition was given focus by the classical idea of republicanism, namely, that a society should be constituted only by those who regard each other as equals. And what makes and keeps people equal are the standards by which they are judged – and this is determined by the people themselves. And that was what was meant by the res publica – the ‘public thing’, in Latin.

It’s worth recalling that prior to the US Constitution, republics had been small enclaves of the few who regarded each other as equals. Think about Athens, Rome, Venice and the Netherlands in their republican phases. Basically, they were places for rich migrants.

So What Happens If The Migrants Aren’t Rich?

In law, there are two general ways in which people can become citizens. One is called jus soli, and refers to the land in which you yourself were born, and the other is called jus sanguinis, and refers to the birth of your parents. If you look at a map of the world today, you’ll see that jus soli dominates the Western hemisphere and jus sanguinis dominates the Eastern hemisphere. And that’s because the Western hemisphere – this hemisphere of North and South America – has been seen as a natural place for migrants.

However, candidates for citizenship in a republic typically have to demonstrate their fitness to be treated as equal with regard to the res publica. And then once accepted, they would be obliged to participate in public life. Providing evidence of wealth was historically crucial because it showed both management skills and a desire to pool one’s resources with an alien society. The duty to vote in elections – in which each vote counts as one — is simply a remnant of what had been a much stronger civic expectation to engage in society.

Many philosophers have believed that republicanism cannot be scaled up because they thought it was unreasonable to expect that people with quite diverse backgrounds and interests could treat each other as ‘equals’ in some politically sustainable sense. It’s quite clear that even the American Founding Fathers had their doubts, since they counted slaves as only 3/5 of a person for purposes of Congressional representation.

Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned ‘democracy’. That’s because democracy has historically meant ‘majority rule’, on whatever terms it’s established. For example, 51% could license the execution of the remaining 49% in a democracy. Indeed, people may start equal in a democracy but that equality could soon evaporate after the first collective decision is taken. Think Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, two classic mid-20th century English novels.

Here one can begin to appreciate the abiding importance of the Abrahamic religions in upholding a metaphysical conception of human equality that cuts against what had been traditionally seen as the eventual descent of democracy into ‘mob rule’.

That metaphysical idea – the fundamental equality of all humans — was first made incarnate in the practice of debt forgiveness among the Jews on each sabbatical year. To cut a long story short, since I don’t want to bore you with religious history, the fundamental equality of people was ritualistically demonstrated by the redistribution of wealth from the ‘winners’ to the ‘losers’ in society, which in turn provided an opportunity for everyone to be ‘born again’: The rich as somewhat poorer and the poor as somewhat richer. Thus, society is periodically remade as a level playing field.

Until the losers are regarded as always the equals of the winners of society, democracy is not an especially egalitarian political movement. This helps to explain why such great defenders of liberalism as John Stuart Mill regarded democracy with considerable suspicion. He believed that given the chance, the great unwashed might permanently silence the enlightened few, who throughout history have often been on the losing side of many of society’s great arguments – especially on matters concerning the future.

In What Sense, Then, Are All People ‘Created Equal’?

I would like to propose that our equality is ultimately about possessing a wide degree of freedom. And I mean a freedom that gives you the right to be wrong and the right to fail. This is only possible if you’re allowed to express yourself in the first place — and be allowed a second chance. This is to do with the range of opportunities available to you.

It’s easy to see that someone with a track record of managing their own wealth successfully would already be in the business of allowing themselves second chances – say, when an investment sours – and so would be fit for republican citizenship. However, the ancient Jewish practice of debt atonement was the original policy to allow everyone to acquire that enviable status. It was always in the back of minds of those who designed the welfare state.

Every human is entitled to be free in how they dispose of their lives, regardless of their likelihood of success. Freedom is the capacity to take risks, and universities are for the development of that capacity. There is nothing natural about how people come to want what they want. It is all a matter of training, and the only question is where and how it happens. And you have come to Ashland for that.

If you graduate from Ashland with a clearer sense of purpose than when you entered, then this university will have done its job and you will be able to go forward as an exemplary human being. I say this as a matter of principle – regardless of what you take your purpose to be, and even if your sense of clarity arises from revolting what you have encountered here.

The bottom line is that if you can’t have a sense of purpose unless you have faced serious alternatives – that is to say, ‘opportunity costs’, as the economists like to put it.

You’re not free unless you have had the opportunity to reject alternatives presented to you. And in that respect, the value of your education amounts to increasing your capacity for rejection – you can afford to let go. And that means more than simply saying no because of what you have been taught, but rather saying yes because you can identify with a certain way of being in the world.

We live in a time when those of you before me can self-identify in a wider range of ways than ever before. When I was your age, all we had was class and national mobility at our disposal, but now you also have gender and even race mobility added on to it – at both a social and a biological level, in case one is worried by pedigree.

I am by no means suggesting that you need to think about any of these sorts of migrations, but they are there for the asking, and if you have been trained properly here, you will at least have heard of them and have adopted a reasoned response to them.

Whatever else one can say about humanity in the future, it is bound to be a moveable feast. And you will be among the movers and shakers!

Contact details: S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

[1] What follows is the commencement address to the Winter 2018 graduating class of Ashland University, Ohio. It was delivered on 15 December.

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

Kochan, Jeff. “Suppressed Subjectivity and Truncated Tradition: A Reply to Pablo Schyfter.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 15-21.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44s

Image by Brandon Warren via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to: Schyfter, Pablo. “Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 8-14.

In his review of my book – Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge – Raphael Sassower objects that I do not address issues of market capitalism, democracy, and the ‘industrial-academic-military complex’ (Sassower 2018, 31). To this, I responded: ‘These are not what my book is about’ (Kochan 2018, 40).

In a more recent review, Pablo Schyfter tries to turn this response around, and use it against me. Turnabout is fair play, I agree. Rebuffing my friendly, constructive criticism of the Edinburgh School’s celebrated and also often maligned ‘Strong Programme’ in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), Schyfter argues that I have failed to address what the Edinburgh School is actually about (Schyfter 2018, 9).

Suppressing the Subject

More specifically, Schyfter argues that I expect things from the Edinburgh School that they never intended to provide. For example, he takes what I call the ‘glass bulb’ model of subjectivity, characterises it as a ‘form of realism,’ and then argues that I have, in criticising the School’s lingering adherence to this model, failed to address their ‘actual intents’ (Schyfter 2018, 8, 9). According to Schyfter, the Edinburgh School did not have among its intentions the sorts of things I represent in the glass-bulb model – these are not, he says, what the School is about.

This claim is clear enough. Yet, at the end of his review, Schyfter then muddies the waters. Rather than rejecting the efficacy of the glass-bulb model, as he had earlier, he now tries ‘expanding’ on it, suggesting that the Strong Programme is better seen as a ‘working light bulb’: ‘It may employ a glass-bulb, but cannot be reduced to it’ (Schyfter 2018, 14).

So is the glass-bulb model a legitimate resource for understanding the Edinburgh School, or is it not? Schyfter’s confused analysis leaves things uncertain. In any case, I agree with him that the Edinburgh School’s complete range of concerns cannot be reduced to those specific concerns I try to capture in the glass-bulb model.

The glass-bulb model is a model of subjectivity, and subjectivity is a central topic of Science as Social Existence. It is remarkable, then, that the word ‘subject’ and its cognates never appear in Schyfter’s review (apart from in one quote from me). One may furthermore wonder why Schyfter characterises the glass-bulb model as a ‘form of realism.’ No doubt, these two topics – subjectivity and realism – are importantly connected, but they are not the same. Schyfter has mixed them up, and, in doing so, he has suppressed subjectivity as a topic of discussion.

Different Kinds of Realism

Schyfter argues that I am ‘unfair’ in criticising the Edinburgh School for failing to properly address the issue of realism, because, he claims, ‘[t]heir work was not about ontology’ (Schyfter 2018, 9). As evidence for my unfairness, he quotes my reference to ‘the problem of how one can know that the external world exists’ (Schyfter 2018, 9; cf. Kochan 2017, 37). But the problem of how we can know something is not an ontological problem, it is an epistemological one, a problem of knowledge. Schyfter has mixed things up again.

Two paragraphs later, Schyfter then admits that the Edinburgh School ‘did not entirely ignore ontology’ (Schyfter 2018, 9). I agree. In fact, as I demonstrate in Chapter One, the Edinburgh School was keen to ontologically ground the belief that the ‘external world’ exists. Why? Because they see this as a fundamental premise of science, including their own social science.

I criticise this commitment to external-world realism, because it generates the epistemological problem of how one can know that the external world exists. And this epistemological problem, in turn, is vulnerable to sceptical attack. If the world is ‘external,’ the question will arise: external to what? The answer is: to the subject who seeks to know it.

The glass-bulb model reflects this ontological schema. The subject is sealed inside the bulb; the world is external to the bulb. The epistemological problem then arises of how the subject penetrates the glass barrier, makes contact with – knows – the world. This problem is invariably vulnerable to sceptical attack. One can avoid the problem, and the attack, by fully jettisoning the glass-bulb model. Crucially, this is not a rejection of realism per se, but only of a particular form of realism, namely, external-world realism.

Schyfter argues that the Edinburgh School accepts a basic premise, ‘held implicitly by people as they live their lives, that the world with which they interact exists’ (Schyfter 2018, 9). I agree; I accept it too. Yet he continues: ‘Kochan chastises this form of realism because it does not “establish the existence of the external world”’ (Schyfter 2018, 9).

That is not quite right. I agree that people, as they live their lives, accept that the world exists. But this is not external-world realism, and it is the latter view that I oppose. I ‘chastise’ the Edinburgh School for attempting to defend the latter view, when all they need to defend is the former. The everyday realist belief that the world exists is not vulnerable to sceptical attack, because it does not presuppose the glass-bulb model of subjectivity.

On this point, then, my criticism of the Edinburgh School is both friendly and constructive. It assuages their worries about sceptical attack – which I carefully document in Chapter One – without requiring them to give up their realism. But the transaction entails that they abandon their lingering commitment to the glass-bulb model, including their belief in an ‘external’ world, and instead adopt a phenomenological model of the subject as being-in-the-world.

Failed Diversionary Tactics

It is important to note that the Edinburgh School does not reject scepticism outright. As long as the sceptic attacks absolutist knowledge of the external world, they are happy to go along. But once the sceptic argues that knowledge of the external world, as such, is impossible, they demur, for this threatens their realism. Instead, they combine realism with relativism. Yet, as I argue, as long as they also combine their relativism with the glass-bulb model, that is, as long as theirs is an external-world realism, they will remain vulnerable to sceptical attack.

Hence, I wrote that, in the context of their response to the external-world sceptic, the Edinburgh School’s distinction between absolute and relative knowledge ‘is somewhat beside the point’ (Kochan 2017, 48). In response, Schyfter criticises me for neglecting the importance of the Edinburgh School’s relativism (Schyfter 2018, 10). But I have done no such thing. In fact, I wholly endorse their relativism. I do suggest, however, that it be completely divorced from the troublesome vestiges of the glass-bulb model of subjectivity.

Schyfter uses the same tactic in response to this further claim of mine: ‘For the purposes of the present analysis, whether [conceptual] content is best explained in collectivist or individualist terms is beside the point’ (Kochan 2017, 79). For this, I am accused of failing to recognise the importance of the Edinburgh School’s commitment to a collectivist or social conception of knowledge (Schyfter 2018, 11).

The reader should not be deceived into thinking that the phrase ‘the present analysis’ refers to the book as a whole. In fact, it refers to that particular passage of Science as Social Existence wherein I discuss David Bloor’s claim that the subject can make ‘genuine reference to an external reality’ (Kochan 2017, 79; cf. Bloor 2001, 149). Bloor’s statement relies on the glass-bulb model. Whether the subjectivity in the bulb is construed in individualist terms or in collectivist terms, the troubles caused by the model will remain.

Hence, I cannot reasonably be charged with ignoring the importance of social knowledge for the Edinburgh School. Indeed, the previous but one sentence to the sentence on which Schyfter rests his case reads: ‘This sociological theory of the normativity and objectivity of conceptual content is a central pillar of SSK’ (Kochan 2017, 79). It is a central pillar of Science as Social Existence as well.

Existential Grounds for Scientific Experience

Let me shift now to Heidegger. Like previous critics of Heidegger, Schyfter is unhappy with Heidegger’s concept of the ‘mathematical projection of nature.’ Although I offer an extended defense and development of this concept, Schyfter nevertheless insists that it does ‘not offer a clear explanation of what occurs in the lived world of scientific work’ (Schyfter 2018, 11).

For Heidegger, ‘projection’ structures the subject’s understanding at an existential level. It thus serves as a condition of possibility for both practical and theoretical experience. Within the scope of this projection, practical understanding may ‘change over’ to theoretical understanding. This change-over in experience occurs when a subject holds back from immersed, practical involvement with things, and instead comes to experience those things at a distance, as observed objects to which propositional statements may then be referred.

The kind of existential projection specific to modern science, Heidegger called ‘mathematical.’ Within this mathematical projection, scientific understanding may likewise change over from practical immersion in a work-world (e.g., at a lab bench) to a theoretical, propositionally structured conception of that same world (e.g., in a lab report).

What critics like Schyfter fail to recognise is that the mathematical projection explicitly envelopes ‘the lived world of scientific work’ and tries to explain it (necessarily but not sufficiently) in terms of the existential conditions structuring that experience. This is different from – but compatible with – an ethnographic description of scientific life, which need not attend to the subjective structures that enable that life.

When such inattention is elevated to a methodological virtue, however, scientific subjectivity will be excluded from analysis. As we will see in a moment, this exclusion is manifest, on the sociology side, in the rejection of the Edinburgh School’s core principle of underdetermination.

In the mid-1930s, Heidegger expanded on his existential conception of science, introducing the term mathēsis in a discussion of the Scientific Revolution. Mathēsis has two features: metaphysical projection; and work experiences. These are reciprocally related, always occurring together in scientific activity. I view this as a reciprocal relation between the empirical and the metaphysical, between the practical and the theoretical, a reciprocal relation enabled, in necessary part, by the existential conditions of scientific subjectivity.

Schyfter criticises my claim that, for Heidegger, the Scientific Revolution was not about a sudden interest in facts, measurement, or experiment, where no such interest had previously existed. For him, this is ‘excessively broad,’ ‘does not reflect the workings of scientific practice,’ and is ‘belittling of empirical study’ (Schyfter 2018, 12). This might be true if Heidegger had offered a theory-centred account of science. But he did not. Heidegger argued that what was decisive in the Scientific Revolution was, as I put it, ‘not that facts, experiments, calculation and measurement are deployed, but how and to what end they are deployed’ (Kochan 2017, 233).

According to Heidegger, in the 17th c. the reciprocal relation between metaphysical projection and work experience was mathematicised. As the projection became more narrowly specified – i.e., axiomatised – the manner in which things were experienced and worked with also became narrower. In turn, the more accustomed subjects became to experiencing and working with things within this mathematical frame, the more resolutely mathematical the projection became. Mathēsis is a kind of positive feedback loop at the existential level.

Giving Heidegger Empirical Feet

This is all very abstract. That is why I suggested that ‘[a]dditional material from the history of science will allow us to develop and refine Heidegger’s account of modern science in a way which he did not’ (Kochan 2017, 235). This empirical refinement and development takes up almost all of Chapters 5 and 6, wherein I consider: studies of diagnostic method by Renaissance physician-professors at the University of Padua, up until their appointment of Galileo in 1591; the influence of artisanal and mercantile culture on the development of early-modern scientific methods, with a focus on metallurgy; and the dispute between Robert Boyle and Francis Line in the mid-17th c. over the experimentally based explanation of suction.

As Paolo Palladino recognises in his review of Science as Social Existence, this last empirical case study offers a different account of events than was given by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer in their classic 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump, which influentially applied Edinburgh School methods to the history of science (Palladino 2018, 42). I demonstrate that Heidegger’s account is compatible with this sociological account, and that it also offers different concepts leading to a new interpretation.

Finally, at the end of Chapter 6, I demonstrate the compatibility of Heidegger’s account of modern science with Bloor’s concept of ‘social imagery,’ not just further developing and refining Heidegger’s account of modern science, but also helping to more precisely define the scope of application of Bloor’s valuable methodological concept. Perhaps this does not amount to very much in the big picture, but it is surely more than a mere ‘semantic reformulation of Heidegger’s ideas,’ as Schyfter suggests (Schyfter 2018, 13).

Given all of this, I am left a bit baffled by Schyfter’s claims that I ‘belittle’ empirical methods, that I ‘do[] not present any analysis of SSK methodologies,’ and that I am guilty of ‘a general disregard for scientific practice’ (Schyfter 2018, 12, 11).

Saving an Edinburgh School Method

Let me pursue the point with another example. A key methodological claim of the Edinburgh School is that scientific theory is underdetermined by empirical data. In order to properly explain theory, one must recognise that empirical observation is an interpretative act, necessarily (but not sufficiently) guided by social norms.

I discuss this in Chapter 3, in the context of Bloor’s and Bruno Latour’s debate over another empirical case study from the history of science, the contradictory interpretations given by Robert Millikan and Felix Ehrenhaft of the natural phenomena we now call ‘electrons.’

According to Bloor, because Millikan and Ehrenhaft both observed the same natural phenomena, the divergence between their respective claims – that electrons do and do not exist – must be explained by reference to something more than those phenomena. This ‘something more’ is the divergence in the respective social conditions guiding Millikan and Ehrenhaft’s interpretations of the data (Kochan 2017, 124-5; see also Kochan 2010, 130-33). Electron theory is underdetermined by the raw data of experience. Social phenomena, or ‘social imagery,’ must also play a role in any explanation of how the controversy was settled.

Latour rejects underdetermination as ‘absurd’ (Kochan 2017, 126). This is part of his more general dismissal of the Edinburgh School, based on his exploitation of vulnerabilities in their lingering adherence to the glass-bulb model of subjectivity. I suggest that the Edinburgh School, by fully replacing the glass-bulb model with Heidegger’s model of the subject as being-in-the-world, can deflect Latour’s challenge, thus saving underdetermination as a methodological tool.

This would also allow the Edinburgh School to preserve subjectivity as a methodological resource for sociological explanation. Like Heidegger’s metaphysical projection, the Edinburgh School’s social imagery plays a necessary (but not a sufficient) role in guiding the subject’s interpretation of natural phenomena.

The ‘Tradition’ of SSK – Open or Closed?

Earlier, I mentioned the curious fact that Schyfter never uses the word ‘subject’ or its cognates. It is also curious that he neglects my discussion of the Bloor-Latour debate and never mentions underdetermination. In Chapter 7 of Science as Social Existence, I argue that Latour, in his attack on the Edinburgh School, seeks to suppress subjectivity as a topic for sociological analysis (Kochan 2017, 353-54, and, for methodological implications, 379-80; see also Kochan 2015).

More recently, in my response to Sassower, I noted the ongoing neglect of the history of disciplinary contestation within the field of science studies (Kochan 2018, 40). I believe that the present exchange with Schyfter nicely exemplifies that internal contestation, and I thank him for helping me to more fully demonstrate the point.

Let me tally up. Schyfter is silent on the topic of subjectivity. He is silent on the Bloor-Latour debate. He is silent on the methodological importance of underdetermination. And he tries to divert attention from his silence with specious accusations that, in Science as Social Existence, I belittle empirical research, that I disregard scientific practice, that I fail to recognise the importance of social accounts of knowledge, and that I generally do not take seriously Edinburgh School methodology.

Schyfter is eager to exclude me from what he calls the ‘tradition’ of SSK (Schyfter 2018, 13). He seems to view tradition as a cleanly bounded and internally cohesive set of ideas and doings. By contrast, in Science as Social Existence, I treat tradition as a historically fluid range of intersubjectively sustained existential possibilities, some inevitably vying against others for a place of cultural prominence (Kochan 2017, 156, 204f, 223, 370f). Within this ambiguously bounded and inherently fricative picture, I can count Schyfter as a member of my tradition.

Acknowledgement

My thanks to David Bloor and Martin Kusch for sharing with me their thoughts on Schyfter’s review. The views expressed here are my own.

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

Bloor, David (2001). ‘What Is a Social Construct?’ Facta Philosophica 3: 141-56.

Kochan, Jeff (2018). ‘On the Sociology of Subjectivity: A Reply to Raphael Sassower.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 39-41. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Xm

Kochan, Jeff (2017). Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers). http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0129

Kochan, Jeff (2015). ‘Putting a Spin on Circulating Reference, or How to Rediscover the Scientific Subject.’ Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 49:103-107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2014.10.004

Kochan, Jeff (2010). ‘Contrastive Explanation and the “Strong Programme” in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Studies of Science 40(1): 127-44. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312709104780

Palladino, Paolo (2018). ‘Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 41-46.

Sassower, Raphael (2018). ‘Heidegger and the Sociologists: A Forced Marriage?’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(5): 30-32.

Schyfter, Pablo (2018). ‘Inaccurate Ambitions and Missing Methodologies: Thoughts on Jeff Kochan and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge.’ Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7(8): 8-14.

Shapin, Steven and Simon Schaffer (1985). Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Author Information: Matthew R. X. Dentith, Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Bucharest, m.dentith@episto.org.

Dentith, Matthew R. X. “Between Forteana and Skepticism: A Review of Bernard Wills’ Believing Weird Things.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 48-52.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43y

Image by David Grant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Sometimes, when it is hard to review a book, it is tempting to turn in some kind of personal reflection, one demonstrates why the reviewer felt disconnected from the text they were reviewing. This review of Bernard N. Wills Believing Weird Things – which I received three months ago, and have spent quite a bit of time thinking about in the interim – is just such a review-cum-reflection, because I am not sure what this book is about, nor who its intended audience is.

According to the blurb on the back Believing Weird Things is a response to Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things (Henry Holt and Company, 1997). Shermer’s book is one I know all too well, having read and reread it when I started work on my PhD. At the time the book was less than ten years old, and Shermer and his cohort of Skeptics (spelt with a ‘K’ to denote that particular brand of sceptical thought popular among (largely) non-philosophers in the U.S.) were considered to be the first and final word on the rationality (more properly, the supposed irrationality) of belief in conspiracy theories.

Given I was working on a dissertation on the topic, getting to grips with the arguments against belief in such theories seemed crucial, especially given my long and sustained interest in the what you might call the contra-philosophy of Skepticism, the work of Charles Fort.

Times for the Fortean

Fort (who Wills mentions in passing) was a cantankerous collector and publisher of strange and inconvenient phenomena. His Book of the Damned (Boni and Liveright, 1919) is an early 20th Century litany of things which seemed to fall outside the systemic study of the world. From rains of frogs, to cities floating in the sky, Fort presented the strange and the wonderful, often without comment. When he did dare to theorise about the phenomena he cataloged, he often contradicted his previous theories in favour of new ones. Scholars of Fort think his lack of a system was quite deliberate: Fort’s damned data was meant to be immune to scientific study.

Fort was hardly a known figure in his day, but his work has gained fans and adherents, who call themselves Forteans and engage in the study of Forteana. Forteans collect and share damned data, from haunted physics laboratories, to falls of angel hair. Often they theorise about what might cause these phenomena, but they also often don’t dispute other interpretations of the same ‘damned data.’

John Keel, one of the U.S.’s most famous Forteans (and who, if he did not invent the term ‘Men in Black’ at least popularised their existence), had a multitude of theories about the origin of UFOs and monsters in the backwoods of the U.S., which he liberally sprinkled throughout his works. If you challenged Keel on what you thought was an inconsistency of thought he would brush it off (or get angry at the suggestion he was meant to consistent in the first place).

I was a fan of Forteana without being a Fortean: I fail the Fortean test of tolerating competing hypotheses, preferring to stipulate terms whilst encouraging others to join my side of the debate. But I love reading Forteana (it is a great source of examples for the social epistemologist), and thinking about alternative interpretations. So, whilst I do not think UAP (unexpected aerial phenomena – the new term for UFO) are creatures from another dimension, I do like thinking about the assumptions which drive such theories.

Note here that I say ‘theories’ quite deliberately: any student of Forteana will quickly become aware that modern Forteans (contra Fort himself) are typically very systematic about their beliefs. It is just that often the Fortean is happy to be a systemic pluralist, happily accepting competing or complimentary systems as equally possible.

Weird and Weirder

Which brings me back to Believing Weird Things. The first section concerns beliefs people like Shermer might find weird but Wills argues are reasonable in the context under which they developed. Wills’ interest here is wide, taking in astrology, fairies, and why he is not a Rastafarian. Along the way he contextualises those supposedly weird beliefs and shows how, at certain times or in certain places, they were the product of a systemic study of the world.

Wills points out that a fault of Skepticism is a lack of appreciation for history: often what we now consider rational was once flimflam (plate tectonics), and what was systemic and rational (astrology) is today’s quackery. As Wills writes:

The Ancients do not seem to me to be thinking badly so much as thinking in an alien context and under different assumptions that are too basic to admit evaluation in the ordinary empirical sense (which is not to say they admit of no evaluation whatsoever). Further, there are many things in Aristotle and the Hebrew Bible which strike me as true even though the question of ‘testing’ them scientifically and ‘skeptically’ is pretty much meaningless. In short, the weird beliefs I study are at minimum intelligible, sometimes plausible and occasionally true. [4]

Indeed, the very idea which underpins Shermer’s account, ‘magical thinking,’ seems to fail the skeptical test: why, like Shermer, would you think it is some hardwired function rather than culturally situated? But more importantly, how is magical thinking any different from any other kind of thinking?

This last point is important because, as others have argued (including myself) many beliefs people think are problematic are, when looked at in context with other beliefs, either not particularly problematic, or no more problematic than the beliefs we assume are produced rationally. The Psychology of Religion back in the early 20th Century is a good example of this: when psychologists worried about religious belief started looking at the similarities in belief formation between the religious and the non-religious, they started to find the same kind of ‘errors’ in irreligious people as well.

In the same respect, the work in social psychology on belief in conspiracy theories seems to be suffering the same kind of problem today: it’s not clear that conspiracy theorists are any less (or more) rational than the rest of us. Rather, often what marks out the difference in belief are the different assumptions about how the world is, or how it works. Indeed, as Wills writes:

Many weird ideas are only weird from a certain assumed perspective. This is important because this assumed perspective is often one of epistemic and social privilege. We tend to associate weird ideas with weird people we look down upon from some place of superior social status. [10]

The first section of Believing Weird Things is, then, possibly the best defence of a kind of Fortean philosophy one could hope for. Yet that is also an unfair judgement, because thinking of Believing Weird Things as a Fortean text is just my imposition: Fort is mentioned exactly once, and only in a footnote. I am only calling this a tentatively Fortean text because I am not sure who the book’s audience is. Ostensibly – at least according to the blurb – it is meant to be a direct reply to Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. But if it is, then it is twenty years late: Why People Believe Weird Things was published in 1997.

Not just that, but whilst Believing Weird Things deals with a set of interesting issues Shermer did not cover (yet ought to have), almost everything which makes up the reply to Why People Believe Weird Things is to be found in the Introduction alone. Now, I’d happily set the Introduction as a reading in a Critical Thinking class or elementary Epistemology class. However, I could not see much use in setting the book as a whole.

What’s Normal Anyway?

Which brings us to the second half of Believing Weird Things. Having set out why some weird beliefs are not that weird when thought about in context, Wills sets out his reasons for thinking that beliefs which aren’t – in some sense – considered weird ought to be. The choice of topics here is interesting, covering Islamophobia, white privilege, violence and the proper attitude towards tolerance and toleration in our polities.

But it invites the question (again) of who his intended audience is meant to be? For example, I also think Islamophobia, racism, and violence are deeply weird, and it worries me that some people still think they are sensible responses. But if Wills is setting out to persuade the other half of the debate, the racists, the bigots, and the fans of violence, then I do not think he will have much luck, as his discussions never seem to get much further than “Here are my reckons!”

And some of those reckons really need more arguments in favour of them.

For example, Wills brings out the old canard that religious beliefs and scientific beliefs are one and the same (presented as ‘religious faith’ and ‘scientific faith’). Not just that, but, in chapter 6, he talks about the things ‘discovered’ by religion. These are presented as being en par with discoveries in the sciences. Yet aren’t the things discovered by religion (‘humans beings must suffer before they learn. … existence is suffering’ [48]) really the ‘discoveries’ of, say, philosophers working in a religious system? And aren’t many of these discoveries just stipulations, or religious edicts?

This issue is compounded by Wills specification that the process of discovery for religious faith is hermeneutics: the interpretation of religious texts. But that invites even more questions: if you think the gods are responsible for both the world and certain texts in the world you could imagine hermeneutic inquiry to be somehow equivalent to scientific inquiry, but if you are either doubtful of the gods, or doubtful about the integrity of the gods’ prophets, then there is much room to doubt there is much of a connection at all between ‘faith’ in science and faith in scripture.

Another example: in chapter 8, Wills states:

Flat-Earthers are one thing but Birthers, say, are quite another: some ideas do not come from a good place and are not just absurd but pernicious. [67]

Now, there is an argument to be had about the merits (or lack thereof) of the Flat Earth theory and the thesis Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. Some might even claim that the Flat Earth theory is worse, given that belief might entail thinking a lot of very disparate institutions, located globally, are in on a massive cover-up. The idea Barack Obama is secretly Kenyan has little effect on those of us outside the U.S. electoral system.

None of this is to say there aren’t decent arguments to be had about these topics. It is, instead, to say that often these positions are stipulated. As such, the audience for Believing Weird Things seems to be people who agree with Wills, rather than an attempt by Wills to change hearts and minds.

How to Engage With Weird Beliefs

Which is not to say that the second half of the book lacks merit; it just lacks meat. The chapters on Islamophobia (chapter 8) and racism (chapter 9) are good: the contextualisation of both Islamophobia and the nature of conflicts in the Middle East are well expressed. But they are not particularly novel (especially if you read the work of left-wing commentators). But even if the chapters are agreeable to someone of a left-wing persuasion, all too often the chapters just end: the chapter on violence (chapter 10), for example, has no clear conclusion other than that violence is bad.

Similarly confused is the chapter on tolerance (chapter 11). But the worst offender is the chapter on the death of Conservatism (chapter 14). This could have been an interesting argument about the present state of today’s politics. But the chapter ends abruptly, and with it, the book. There is no conclusion, no tying together of threads. There’s hardly even any mention of Shermer or skepticism in the second half of Believing Weird Things.

Which brings us back to the question: who is this book for? If the book were just the first half it could be seen as both a reply to Shermer and a hesitant stab at a Fortean philosophy. But the second half of the book comes across more as the author’s rumination on some pertinent social issues of the day, and none of that content seems to advance far beyond ‘Here are my thoughts…’

Which, unfortunately, is also the character of this review: in trying to work out who the book is for I find my thoughts as inconclusive as the text itself. None of this is to say that Believing Weird Things is a bad or terrible book. Rather, it is just a collection of the author’s ruminations. So, unless you happen to be a fan of Wills, there is little to this text which substantially advances the debate over belief in anything.

Contact details: m.dentith@episto.org

References

Fort, Charles. The Book of the Damned, Boni and Liveright, 1919

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things, Henry Holt and Company, 1997

Wills, Bernard N. Believing Weird Things, Minkowski Institute Press, 2018

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

Kochan, Jeff. “Decolonising Science in Canada: A Work in Progress.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 42-47.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-43i

A Mi’kmaw man and woman in ceremonial clothing.
Image by Shawn Harquail via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This essay is in reply to:

Wills, Bernard (2018). ‘Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.’ Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective 7(10): 31-36.

In a recent debate about scientism in the SERRC pages, Bernard Wills challenges the alleged ‘ideological innocence’ of scientism by introducing a poignant example from his own teaching experience on the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University, in Corner Brook, Newfoundland (Wills 2018: 33).

Note that Newfoundland, among its many attractions, claims a UNESCO World Heritage site called L’Anse aux Meadows. Dating back about 1000 years, L’Anse aux Meadows is widely agreed to hold archaeological evidence for the earliest encounters between Europeans and North American Indigenous peoples.

Southwest Newfoundland is a part of Mi’kma’ki, the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq. This territory also includes Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and parts of New Brunswick, Québec, and Maine. Among North America’s Indigenous peoples, the Mi’kmaq can readily claim to have experienced some of the earliest contact with European culture.

Creeping Colonialism in Science

Let us now turn to Wills’s example. A significant number of students on the Grenfell Campus are Mi’kmaq. These students have sensitised Wills to the fact that science has been used by the Canadian state as an instrument for colonial oppression. By cloaking colonialism in the claim that science is a neutral, universal standard by which to judge the validity of all knowledge claims, state scientism systematically undermines the epistemic authority of ancient Mi’kmaq rights and practices.

Wills argues, ‘[t]he fact that Indigenous knowledge traditions are grounded in local knowledge, in traditional lore and in story means that on questions of importance to them Indigenous peoples cannot speak. It means they have to listen to others who “know better” because the propositions they utter have the form of science.’ Hence, Wills concludes that, in the Canadian context, the privileging of science over Indigenous knowledge ‘is viciously exploitative and intended to keep indigenous peoples in a place of dependency and inferiority’ (Wills 2018: 33-4).

There is ample historical and ethnographic evidence available to support Wills’s claims. John Sandlos, for example, has shown how the Canadian state, from the late 19th century to around 1970, used wildlife science as a ‘coercive’ and ‘totalizing influence’ in order to assert administrative control over Indigenous lives and lands in Northern Canada (Sandlos 2007: 241, 242).

Paul Nadasdy, in turn, has argued that more recent attempts by the Canadian state to establish wildlife co-management relationships with Indigenous groups are but ‘subtle extensions of empire, replacing local Aboriginal ways of talking, thinking and acting with those specifically sanctioned by the state’ (Nadasdy 2005: 228). The suspicions of Wills’s Mi’kmaw students are thus well justified by decades of Canadian state colonial practice.

Yet Indigenous peoples in Canada have also pointed out that, while this may be most of the story, it is not the whole story. For example, Wills cites Deborah Simmons in support of his argument that the Canadian state uses science to silence Indigenous voices (Wills 2018: 33n4). Simmons certainly does condemn the colonial use of science in the article Wills cites, but she also writes: ‘I’ve seen moments when there is truly a hunger for new knowledge shared by indigenous people and scientists, and cross-cultural barriers are overcome to discuss research questions and interpret results from the two distinct processes of knowledge production’ (Simmons 2010).

Precious Signs of Hope Amid Conflict

In the haystack of Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy, it can often be very difficult to detect such slivers of co-operation between scientists and Indigenous peoples. For example, after three decades of periodic field work among the James Bay Cree, Harvey Feit still found it difficult to accept Cree claims that they had once enjoyed a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship with the Canadian state in respect of wildlife management in their traditional hunting territories. But when Feit finally went into the archives, he discovered that it was true (Feit 2005: 269; see also the discussion in Kochan 2015: 9-10).

In a workshop titled Research the Indigenous Way, part of the 2009 Northern Governance and Policy Research Conference, held in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, participants affirmed that ‘Indigenous people have always been engaged in research processes as part of their ethical “responsibility to keep the land alive”’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 102). At the same time, participants also recognised Indigenous peoples’ ‘deep suspicion’ of research as a vehicle for colonial exploitation (McGregor et al. 2010: 118).

Yet, within this conflicted existential space, workshop participants still insisted that there had been, in the last 40 years, many instances of successful collaborative research between Indigenous and non-Indigenous practitioners in the Canadian North. According to one participant, Alestine Andre, these collaborations, although now often overlooked, ‘empowered and instilled a sense of well-being, mental, physical, emotional, spiritual good health in their Elders, youth and community people’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 108).

At the close of the workshop, participants recommended that research not be rejected, but instead indigenised, that is, put into the hands of Indigenous practitioners ‘who bear unique skills for working in the negotiated space that bridges into and from scientific and bureaucratic ways of knowing’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 119). Indigenised research should both assert and strengthen Indigenous rights and self-government.

Furthermore, within this indigenised research context, ‘there is a role for supportive and knowledgeable non-Indigenous researchers, but […] these would be considered “resource people” whose imported research interests and methods are supplementary to the core questions and approach’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 119).

Becoming a non-Indigenous ‘resource person’ in the context of decolonising science can be challenging work, and may offer little professional reward. As American archaeologist, George Nicholas, observes, it ‘requires more stamina and thicker skin than most of us, including myself, are generally comfortable with – and it can even be harmful, whether one is applying for permission to work on tribal lands or seeking academic tenure’ (Nicholas 2004: 32).

Indigenous scholar Michael Marker, at the University of British Columbia, has likewise suggested that such research collaborations require patience: in short, ‘don’t rush!’ (cited by Wylie 2018). Carly Dokis and Benjamin Kelly, both of whom study Indigenous water-management practices in Northern Ontario, also emphasise the importance of listening, of ‘letting go of your own timetable and relinquishing control of your project’ (Dokis & Kelly 2014: 2). Together with community-based researchers, Dokis and Kelly are exploring new research methodologies, above all the use of ‘storycircles’ (https://faculty.nipissingu.ca/carlyd/research/).

Such research methods are also being developed elsewhere in Canada. The 2009 Research the Indigenous Way workshop, mentioned above, was structured as a ‘sharing circle,’ a format that, according to the workshop facilitators, ‘reflect[ed] the research paradigm being talked about’ (McGregor et al. 2010: 101). Similarly, the 13th North American Caribou Workshop a year later, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, included an ‘Aboriginal talking circle,’ in which experiences and ideas about caribou research were shared over the course of one and a half days. The ‘relaxed pace’ of the talking circle ‘allowed for a gradual process of relationship-building among the broad spectrum of Aboriginal nations, while providing a scoping of key issues in caribou research and stewardship’ (Simmons et al. 2012: 18).

Overcoming a Rational Suspicion

One observation shared by many participants in the caribou talking circle was the absence of Indigenous youth in scientific discussions. According to the facilitators, an important lesson learned from the workshop was that youth need to be part of present and future caribou research in order for Indigenous knowledge to survive (Simmons et al. 2012: 19).

This problem spans the country and all scientific fields. As Indigenous science specialist Leroy Little Bear notes, the Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1991-1996) ‘found consistent criticism among Aboriginal people in the lack of curricula in schools that were complimentary to Aboriginal peoples’ (Little Bear 2009: 17).

This returns us to Wills’s Mi’kmaw students at the Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. A crucial element in decolonising scientific research in Canada is the encouragement of Indigenous youth interest in scientific ways of knowing nature. Wills’s observation that Mi’kmaw students harbour a keen suspicion of science as an instrument of colonial oppression points up a major obstacle to this community process. Under present circumstances, Indigenous students are more likely to drop out of, rather than to tune into, the science curricula being taught at their schools and universities.

Mi’kmaw educators and scholars are acutely aware of this problem, and they have worked assiduously to overcome it. In the 1990s, a grass-roots initiative between members of the Mi’kmaw Eskasoni First Nation and a handful of scientists at nearby Cape Breton University (CBU), in Nova Scotia, began to develop and promote a new ‘Integrative Science’ programme for CBU’s syllabus. Their goal was to reverse the almost complete absence of Indigenous students in CBU’s science-based courses by including Mi’kmaw and other Indigenous knowledges alongside mainstream science within the CBU curriculum (Bartlett et al. 2012: 333; see also Hatcher et al. 2009).

In Fall Term 2001, Integrative Science (in Mi’kmaw, Toqwa’tu’kl Kjijitaqnn, or ‘bringing our knowledges together’) became an accredited university degree programme within CBU’s already established 4-year Bachelor of Science Community Studies (BScCS) degree (see: http://www.integrativescience.ca). In 2008, however, the suite of courses around which the programme had been built was disarticulated from both the BScSC and the Integrative Science concentration, and was instead offered within ‘access programming’ for Indigenous students expressing interest in a Bachelor of Arts degree. The content of the courses was also shifted to mainstream science (Bartlett et al. 2012: 333).

Throughout its 7-year existence, the Integrative Science academic programme faced controversy within CBU; it was never assigned a formal home department or budget (Bartlett et al. 2012: 333). Nevertheless, the programme succeeded in meeting its original goal. Over those 7 years, 27 Mi’kmaw students with some programme affiliation graduated with a science or science-related degree, 13 of them with a BScSC concentration in Integrative Science.

In 2012, most of these 13 graduates held key service positions within their home communities (e.g., school principal, research scientist or assistant, job coach, natural resource manager, nurse, teacher). These numbers compare favourably with the fewer than 5 Indigenous students who graduated with a science or science-related degree, unaffiliated with Integrative Science, both before and during the life of the programme (Bartlett et al. 2012: 334). All told, up to 2007, about 100 Mi’kmaw students had participated in first-year Integrative Science courses at CBU (Bartlett et al. 2012: 334).

From its inception, Integrative Science operated under an axe, facing, among other things, chronic ‘inconsistencies and insufficiencies at the administrative, faculty, budgetary and recruitment levels’ (Bartlett 2012: 38). One could lament its demise as yet one more example of the colonialism that Wills has brought to our attention in respect of the Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook. Yet it is important to note that the culprit here was not science, as such, but a technocratic – perhaps scientistic – university bureaucracy. In any case, it seems inadequate to chalk up the travails of Integrative Science to an indiscriminate search for administrative ‘efficiencies’ when the overall nation-state context was and is, in my opinion, a discriminatory one.

When Seeds Are Planted, Change Can Come

But this is not the note on which I would like to conclude. To repeat, up to 2007, about 100 Mi’kmaw students had participated in first-year Integrative Science courses. That is about 100 Mi’kmaw students who are, presumably, less likely to hold the firmly negative attitude towards science that Wills has witnessed among his own Mi’kmaw students in Newfoundland.

As I wrote above, in the haystack of Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy, it can be very difficult to detect those rare slivers of co-operation between scientists and Indigenous peoples on which I have here tried to shine a light. If this light were allowed to go out, a sense of hopelessness could follow, and then an allegedly hard border between scientific and Indigenous knowledges may suddenly spring up and appear inevitable, if also, for some, lamentable.

Let me end with the words of Albert Marshall, who, at least up to 2012, was the designated voice on environmental matters for Mi’kmaw Elders in Unama’ki (Cape Breton), as well as a member of the Moose Clan. Marshall was a key founder and constant shepherd of CBU’s Integrative Science degree programme. One last time: some 100 Mi’kmaw students participated in that programme during its brief life. Paraphrased by his CBU collaborator, Marilyn Iwama, Elder Marshall had this to say:

Every year, the ash tree drops its seeds on the ground. Sometimes those seeds do not germinate for two, three or even four cycles of seasons. If the conditions are not right, the seeds will not germinate. […] [Y]ou have to be content to plant seeds and wait for them to germinate. You have to wait out the period of dormancy. Which we shouldn’t confuse with death. We should trust this process. (Bartlett et al. 2015: 289)

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

Bartlett, Cheryl (2012). ‘The Gift of Multiple Perspectives in Scholarship.’ University Affairs / Affaires universitaires 53(2): 38.

Bartlett, Cheryl, Murdena Marshall, Albert Marshall and Marilyn Iwama (2015). ‘Integrative Science and Two-Eyed Seeing: Enriching the Discussion Framework for Healthy Communities.’ In Lars K. Hallstrom, Nicholas Guehlstorf and Margot Parkes (eds), Ecosystems, Society and Health: Pathways through Diversity, Convergence and Integration (Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press), pp. 280-326.

Bartlett, Cheryl, Murdena Marshall and Albert Marshall (2012). ‘Two-Eyed Seeing and Other Lessons Learned within a Co-Learning Journey of Bringing Together Indigenous and Mainstream Knowledges and Ways of Knowing.’ Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 2: 331-340.

Dokis, Carly and Benjamin Kelly (2014). ‘Learning to Listen: Reflections on Fieldwork in First Nation Communities in Canada.’ Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards Pre and Post (Sept): 2-3.

Feit, Harvey A. (2005). ‘Re-Cognizing Co-Management as Co-Governance: Visions and Histories of Conservation at James Bay.’ Anthropologica 47: 267-288.

Hatcher, Annamarie, Cheryl Bartlett, Albert Marshall and Murdena Marshall (2009). ‘Two-Eyed Seeing in the Classroom Environment: Concepts, Approaches, and Challenges.’ Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 9(3): 141-153.

Kochan, Jeff (2015). ‘Objective Styles in Northern Field Science.’ Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 52: 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2015.04.001

Little Bear, Leroy (2009). Naturalizing Indigenous Knowledge, Synthesis Paper. University of Saskatchewan, Aboriginal Education Research Centre, Saskatoon, Sask. and First Nations and Adult Higher Education Consortium, Calgary, Alta. https://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/education/21._2009_july_ccl-alkc_leroy_littlebear_naturalizing_indigenous_knowledge-report.pdf  [Accessed 05 November 2018]

McGregor, Deborah, Walter Bayha & Deborah Simmons (2010). ‘“Our Responsibility to Keep the Land Alive”: Voices of Northern Indigenous Researchers.’ Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 8(1): 101-123.

Nadasdy, Paul (2005). ‘The Anti-Politics of TEK: The Institutionalization of Co-Management Discourse and Practice.’ Anthropologica 47: 215-232.

Nicholas, George (2004). ‘What Do I Really Want from a Relationship with Native Americans?’ The SAA Archaeological Record (May): 29-33.

Sandlos, John (2007). Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (Vancouver: UBC Press).

Simmons, Deborah (2010). ‘Residual Stalinism.’ Upping the Anti #11. http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/11-residual-stalinism [Accessed 01 November 2018]

Simmons, Deborah, Walter Bayha, Danny Beaulieu, Daniel Gladu & Micheline Manseau (2012). ‘Aboriginal Talking Circle: Aboriginal Perspectives on Caribou Conservation (13th North American Caribou Workshop).’ Rangifer, Special Issue #20: 17-19.

Wills, Bernard (2018). ‘Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.’ Social Epistemology Review & Reply Collective 7(10): 31-36.

Wylie, Alison (2018). ‘Witnessing and Translating: The Indigenous/Science Project.’ Keynote address at the workshop Philosophy, Archaeology and Community Perspectives: Finding New Ground, University of Konstanz, 22 October 2018.

 

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, serrc.digital@gmail.com.

Riggio, Adam. “Asking the Best Questions About Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 31-35.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42Y

Image by Juan Antonio Segal via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

My response to Jim Butcher’s piece carries a little extra authority because, as Digital Editor, I approved its publication in the first place. I say this not to disavow the authority of my role, but to acknowledge it.

For a web platform’s editor to have okayed and published a piece that he is about to critique explicitly, is an inherently problematic position. It was already an inherently problematic position to publish an essay that so directly critiques the priorities of post-colonial research in a platform that has become more explicitly allied with post-colonial research since I took over as editor.

Context: The Problem of Platforming

My own position as an editor who both approves and critiques is also difficult, thanks to an intriguingly awkward coincidence. I live in Toronto, where a well-heeled, prestigious intellectual debate series just hosted a high-profile conversation between David Frum and Steve Bannon over the future of Western politics.

Frum, the former speechwriter and policy developer for George W. Bush, was and remains a vocal advocate for spreading democracy by the barrel of a rocket launcher, as he was when he wrote the famous “Axis of Evil” speech for Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address. He took the liberal, progressive side, contrary to Bannon’s advocacy of open nationalism.

Protestors outside the venue during the event, who faced disproportionate violence from police and security guards, were primarily motivated by a principle with which I largely agree: No Platform.

No Platform is the refusal to cede your venue to people advocating particularly violent or exclusionary ideologies. The principle considers that there are two reasons for refusing a platform for people to air these views. One is that ceding a platform lends dignity, respect, and prestige to morally repugnant ideas. The other is that it shifts the popular limit of politically and morally acceptable discourse so that what was widely considered extremist 15 years ago (using democracy promotion as an excuse to invade a country of millions on fraudulent pretenses, as Frum did) as perhaps a touch conservative but not that bad.

The No Platform principle, however, is all-too-often depicted as an expression of cowardice, fragility, or weakness of the personalities and principles of those who refuse platforms. This disingenuous image suggests, when its proponents do not state explicitly, that progressive moral and political values are weak because they cannot stand up to the challenge of debating an opposing viewpoint.

It is, however, nationalism and similar ideologies based on authoritarian domination that erodes democratic institutions and enforces violent caste / race hierarchies, that are the genuinely weak ones. Such ideologies do not gain adherents through genuine reason. They instead play on resentment and disingenuous insults about opponents, including resentments of the historically marginalized, to seduce people with feelings of natural superiority and displays of power to control and suppress people who are different than they are.

The Scope of a Claim to Be Universal

I open my response to Butcher’s article with this prologue, so that you can understand why a common reaction to his piece is to wonder why he was given a platform to begin with. The common progressive reaction to critiques of post-colonial theory such as Butcher’s is to deny them the legitimacy of a platform.

I was okay with the publishing of Butcher’s piece because, despite and because of its flaws, it remains a valuable misunderstanding of post-colonial thinking. Butcher’s essay displays a common initial reaction of many Westerners to post-colonial challenges to the scientific and educational institutions and traditions that emerged from Europe’s Enlightenment period.

He is in good company, such as Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker. He is also in bad company, such as Jordan Peterson, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Richard Dawkins.

Butcher’s fundamental philosophical error is mistaking a challenge to the Enlightenment tradition’s own specific claim of universality for a challenge to the very possibility of universality in knowledge. Here is an example from my own philosophical influences that I hope will contribute positively to explain this point.

That James Madison himself was a slave owner does not invalidate the philosophical strengths and concepts of his Federalist Papers. That he wrote the most philosophically insightful Federalist Papers likewise does not invalidate the moral and political violence of his having owned slaves or conceived the infamous and grotesque “three-fifths compromise” that precisely quantified the institutional sub-humanity of American slaves for census and taxation purposes.

European powers’ military-economic imperialism in the Atlantic slave trade and their colonization of the Americas fuelled European industrialization. European industrialization fuelled the growth of European scientific enterprise. The Enlightenment project began when this colonization process was already a century underway.

Popular morality that dehumanized Africans as slavish and Indigenous as savage was largely shared by the main intellectual and political leaders of the Enlightenment. The claims to universality of those who began the Enlightenment tradition were already corrupted by the ethical / political presumption that such universality required conformity to the specifically European (or Western) approach to universal knowledge.

Contemporary post-colonial research focuses primarily on demonstrating the falsehood of this necessity, the presumption that achieving the universal exclusively requires adopting the European-designed model whose crucible was the Enlightenment tradition.

When Knowledge Weds Itself to Terror

This presumption of exclusiveness is false. Even given the concept in post-colonial theory of different knowledge traditions constituting “multiple worlds” or “plural worlds,” the presumption of exclusiveness is false. Throughout his essay, Butcher presumes that taking differences in knowledge traditions to constitute multiple worlds of knowledge functions to exclude those worlds from each other.

The problem with Enlightenment traditions of science is not that they believed that universality in knowledge was possible. It was that they mistook the European approaches to knowledge as necessarily and exclusively universal. The European culture of science that descended from the Enlightenment was so economically and ideologically wedded to colonizing imperialism that the presumptions of what constituted properly universal forms of knowledge themselves justified the imperial enterprise.

The presumption of exclusiveness is the imperialist framework of thinking that post-colonial knowledge practices work to overcome. All the diversity of knowledge production methods in every non-Western culture was excluded from recognition as a legitimate method of knowledge production throughout the popular culture of Western societies. The British Empire was one of the worst offenders in its scale of influence around Earth, the intensity of its exclusionary rhetoric, and its ingenuity in building legal and military institutions to destroy and exclude all forms of knowledge that differed from the model of the Western Enlightenment.

In my own country of Canada, the Indian Act laws governing physical movement and removing political rights from Indigenous people created a residential concentration camp network in our Native Reserve system. This refusal of citizenship rights operated in concert with the national residential schools system, which forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and communities, imprisoning them in boarding schools where teachers forced them through violence to forget their languages, cultural stories, and identities.

The United Nations recently declared, correctly, Canadian institutions of Indigenous governance to be machinery of a centuries-long act of genocide.

All of this was justified as the benevolence of English government educating Indigenous people to become proper citizens capable of learning at all. This is the intensity and seriousness to which European and broader Western institutions excluded ways of life from public legitimacy as knowledge producing cultures.

Misunderstanding “Decolonize”

In presuming that post-colonial thinkers themselves exclude all knowledge produced in scientific traditions and disciplines linked with imperialism-justifying ideologies, Butcher himself accuses post-colonial theory of colonialism.

Post-colonial thinkers who understand the fundamental point of post-colonial thinking do not consider their mission to exclude Western culture’s knowledge production traditions and methods from legitimacy as European empires did to others. Such exclusion is itself one of the central methods and principles of the imperialism that post-colonial thinking aims to identify.

Given the pervasiveness of exclusionary or delegitimizing attitudes toward Indigenous knowledge traditions in many academic disciplines for so long, it is naïve of anyone to think that any decolonizing process would be simple. Every practice in a scientific discipline should be scrutinized ruthlessly.

No territory should be exempt from the search for which practices presume their own exclusive correctness. This includes conceptual development, empirical research and interpretation methods, the popular images of the discipline, and how the university departments where all this work takes place carry out their daily work, hiring, tenure and promotion decision processes.

Butcher can say that the Enlightenment concept of universality, conceived abstractly, includes a plurality of sources, traditions, and methods of knowledge. All that he may say will not repair actual, concrete practices.

A memory of a man, frozen in stone, can no longer take issue with how others use his words.
Image by Ade Russell via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Epilogue: Unseemly Rhetoric

Butcher unfortunately leans on several rhetorical devices to make his point that have been widely discredited, due to their frequently occurring in racist right-wing trolling culture. Here is the most stark example.

He refers to Martin Luther King’s universally famous “I Have a Dream” segment from his speech at the March on Washington, to deride post-colonial theorists as themselves opposing genuine equality.

This has been a common tactic among the racist trolls of the United States at least since the 2012 murder trial of George Zimmerman. King’s words were often used to invalidate anti-racist advocates as themselves being anti-equality, as the quote was the rhetorical centrepiece of an argument that they wished to refuse Zimmerman a fair trial.

It did not matter to the trolls that the trial’s critics wanted us to explore, understand, and reject the ideologies that enabled Zimmerman to perceive Trayvon Martin as a dangerous threat to his neighbourhood, instead of a teenager being a jackass. King was quoted as a rhetorical means to use a superficial conception of equality to make more complex conceptions of equality appear hypocritical.

For Butcher to end his essay with such an appeal is, at best, terribly naive. Readers can easily imagine what it would be at worst. At worst, you need only consider what Steve Bannon and people like him propagate throughout popular culture today. But I am sure that Butcher would not consider himself so malicious in his intent.

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Butcher, Jim. “Questioning the Epistemology of Decolonise: The Case of Geography.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 12-24.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2015.

Author Information: Raphael Sassower, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, rsasswe@uccs.edu.

Sassower, Raphael. “Post-Truths and Inconvenient Facts.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 47-60.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40g

Can one truly refuse to believe facts?
Image by Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If nothing else, Steve Fuller has his ear to the pulse of popular culture and the academics who engage in its twists and turns. Starting with Brexit and continuing into the Trump-era abyss, “post-truth” was dubbed by the OED as its word of the year in 2016. Fuller has mustered his collected publications to recast the debate over post-truth and frame it within STS in general and his own contributions to social epistemology in particular.

This could have been a public mea culpa of sorts: we, the community of sociologists (and some straggling philosophers and anthropologists and perhaps some poststructuralists) may seem to someone who isn’t reading our critiques carefully to be partially responsible for legitimating the dismissal of empirical data, evidence-based statements, and the means by which scientific claims can be deemed not only credible but true. Instead, we are dazzled by a range of topics (historically anchored) that explain how we got to Brexit and Trump—yet Fuller’s analyses of them don’t ring alarm bells. There is almost a hidden glee that indeed the privileged scientific establishment, insular scientific discourse, and some of its experts who pontificate authoritative consensus claims are all bound to be undone by the rebellion of mavericks and iconoclasts that include intelligent design promoters and neoliberal freedom fighters.

In what follows, I do not intend to summarize the book, as it is short and entertaining enough for anyone to read on their own. Instead, I wish to outline three interrelated points that one might argue need not be argued but, apparently, do: 1) certain critiques of science have contributed to the Trumpist mindset; 2) the politics of Trumpism is too dangerous to be sanguine about; 3) the post-truth condition is troublesome and insidious. Though Fuller deals with some of these issues, I hope to add some constructive clarification to them.

Part One: Critiques of Science

As Theodor Adorno reminds us, critique is essential not only for philosophy, but also for democracy. He is aware that the “critic becomes a divisive influence, with a totalitarian phrase, a subversive” (1998/1963, 283) insofar as the status quo is being challenged and sacred political institutions might have to change. The price of critique, then, can be high, and therefore critique should be managed carefully and only cautiously deployed. Should we refrain from critique, then? Not at all, continues Adorno.

But if you think that a broad, useful distinction can be offered among different critiques, think again: “[In] the division between responsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who bear public responsibility, and irresponsible critique, namely, that practiced by those who cannot be held accountable for the consequences, critique is already neutralized.” (Ibid. 285) Adorno’s worry is not only that one forgets that “the truth content of critique alone should be that authority [that decides if it’s responsible],” but that when such a criterion is “unilaterally invoked,” critique itself can lose its power and be at the service “of those who oppose the critical spirit of a democratic society.” (Ibid)

In a political setting, the charge of irresponsible critique shuts the conversation down and ensures political hegemony without disruptions. Modifying Adorno’s distinction between (politically) responsible and irresponsible critiques, responsible scientific critiques are constructive insofar as they attempt to improve methods of inquiry, data collection and analysis, and contribute to the accumulated knowledge of a community; irresponsible scientific critiques are those whose goal is to undermine the very quest for objective knowledge and the means by which such knowledge can be ascertained. Questions about the legitimacy of scientific authority are related to but not of exclusive importance for these critiques.

Have those of us committed to the critique of science missed the mark of the distinction between responsible and irresponsible critiques? Have we become so subversive and perhaps self-righteous that science itself has been threatened? Though Fuller is primarily concerned with the hegemony of the sociology of science studies and the movement he has championed under the banner of “social epistemology” since the 1980s, he does acknowledge the Popperians and their critique of scientific progress and even admires the Popperian contribution to the scientific enterprise.

But he is reluctant to recognize the contributions of Marxists, poststructuralists, and postmodernists who have been critically engaging the power of science since the 19th century. Among them, we find Jean-François Lyotard who, in The Postmodern Condition (1984/1979), follows Marxists and neo-Marxists who have regularly lumped science and scientific discourse with capitalism and power. This critical trajectory has been well rehearsed, so suffice it here to say, SSK, SE, and the Edinburgh “Strong Programme” are part of a long and rich critical tradition (whose origins are Marxist). Adorno’s Frankfurt School is part of this tradition, and as we think about science, which had come to dominate Western culture by the 20th century (in the place of religion, whose power had by then waned as the arbiter of truth), it was its privileged power and interlocking financial benefits that drew the ire of critics.

Were these critics “responsible” in Adorno’s political sense? Can they be held accountable for offering (scientific and not political) critiques that improve the scientific process of adjudication between criteria of empirical validity and logical consistency? Not always. Did they realize that their success could throw the baby out with the bathwater? Not always. While Fuller grants Karl Popper the upper hand (as compared to Thomas Kuhn) when indirectly addressing such questions, we must keep an eye on Fuller’s “baby.” It’s easy to overlook the slippage from the political to the scientific and vice versa: Popper’s claim that we never know the Truth doesn’t mean that his (and our) quest for discovering the Truth as such is given up, it’s only made more difficult as whatever is scientifically apprehended as truth remains putative.

Limits to Skepticism

What is precious about the baby—science in general, and scientific discourse and its community in more particular ways—is that it offered safeguards against frivolous skepticism. Robert Merton (1973/1942) famously outlined the four features of the scientific ethos, principles that characterized the ideal workings of the scientific community: universalism, communism (communalism, as per the Cold War terror), disinterestedness, and organized skepticism. It is the last principle that is relevant here, since it unequivocally demands an institutionalized mindset of putative acceptance of any hypothesis or theory that is articulated by any community member.

One detects the slippery slope that would move one from being on guard when engaged with any proposal to being so skeptical as to never accept any proposal no matter how well documented or empirically supported. Al Gore, in his An Inconvenient Truth (2006), sounded the alarm about climate change. A dozen years later we are still plagued by climate-change deniers who refuse to look at the evidence, suggesting instead that the standards of science themselves—from the collection of data in the North Pole to computer simulations—have not been sufficiently fulfilled (“questions remain”) to accept human responsibility for the increase of the earth’s temperature. Incidentally, here is Fuller’s explanation of his own apparent doubt about climate change:

Consider someone like myself who was born in the midst of the Cold War. In my lifetime, scientific predictions surrounding global climate change has [sic.] veered from a deep frozen to an overheated version of the apocalypse, based on a combination of improved data, models and, not least, a geopolitical paradigm shift that has come to downplay the likelihood of a total nuclear war. Why, then, should I not expect a significant, if not comparable, alteration of collective scientific judgement in the rest of my lifetime? (86)

Expecting changes in the model does not entail a) that no improved model can be offered; b) that methodological changes in themselves are a bad thing (they might be, rather, improvements); or c) that one should not take action at all based on the current model because in the future the model might change.

The Royal Society of London (1660) set the benchmark of scientific credibility low when it accepted as scientific evidence any report by two independent witnesses. As the years went by, testability (“confirmation,” for the Vienna Circle, “falsification,” for Popper) and repeatability were added as requirements for a report to be considered scientific, and by now, various other conditions have been proposed. Skepticism, organized or personal, remains at the very heart of the scientific march towards certainty (or at least high probability), but when used perniciously, it has derailed reasonable attempts to use science as a means by which to protect, for example, public health.

Both Michael Bowker (2003) and Robert Proctor (1995) chronicle cases where asbestos and cigarette lobbyists and lawyers alike were able to sow enough doubt in the name of attenuated scientific data collection to ward off regulators, legislators, and the courts for decades. Instead of finding sufficient empirical evidence to attribute asbestos and nicotine to the failing health condition (and death) of workers and consumers, “organized skepticism” was weaponized to fight the sick and protect the interests of large corporations and their insurers.

Instead of buttressing scientific claims (that have passed the tests—in refereed professional conferences and publications, for example—of most institutional scientific skeptics), organized skepticism has been manipulated to ensure that no claim is ever scientific enough or has the legitimacy of the scientific community. In other words, what should have remained the reasonable cautionary tale of a disinterested and communal activity (that could then be deemed universally credible) has turned into a circus of fire-blowing clowns ready to burn down the tent. The public remains confused, not realizing that just because the stakes have risen over the decades does not mean there are no standards that ever can be met. Despite lobbyists’ and lawyers’ best efforts of derailment, courts have eventually found cigarette companies and asbestos manufacturers guilty of exposing workers and consumers to deathly hazards.

Limits to Belief

If we add to this logic of doubt, which has been responsible for discrediting science and the conditions for proposing credible claims, a bit of U.S. cultural history, we may enjoy a more comprehensive picture of the unintended consequences of certain critiques of science. Citing Kurt Andersen (2017), Robert Darnton suggests that the Enlightenment’s “rational individualism interacted with the older Puritan faith in the individual’s inner knowledge of the ways of Providence, and the result was a peculiarly American conviction about everyone’s unmediated access to reality, whether in the natural world or the spiritual world. If we believe it, it must be true.” (2018, 68)

This way of thinking—unmediated experiences and beliefs, unconfirmed observations, and disregard of others’ experiences and beliefs—continues what Richard Hofstadter (1962) dubbed “anti-intellectualism.” For Americans, this predates the republic and is characterized by a hostility towards the life of the mind (admittedly, at the time, religious texts), critical thinking (self-reflection and the rules of logic), and even literacy. The heart (our emotions) can more honestly lead us to the Promised Land, whether it is heaven on earth in the Americas or the Christian afterlife; any textual interference or reflective pondering is necessarily an impediment, one to be suspicious of and avoided.

This lethal combination of the life of the heart and righteous individualism brings about general ignorance and what psychologists call “confirmation bias” (the view that we endorse what we already believe to be true regardless of countervailing evidence). The critique of science, along this trajectory, can be but one of many so-called critiques of anything said or proven by anyone whose ideology we do not endorse. But is this even critique?

Adorno would find this a charade, a pretense that poses as a critique but in reality is a simple dismissal without intellectual engagement, a dogmatic refusal to listen and observe. He definitely would be horrified by Stephen Colbert’s oft-quoted quip on “truthiness” as “the conviction that what you feel to be true must be true.” Even those who resurrect Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts,” quietly admit that his admonishment is ignored by media more popular than informed.

On Responsible Critique

But surely there is merit to responsible critiques of science. Weren’t many of these critiques meant to dethrone the unparalleled authority claimed in the name of science, as Fuller admits all along? Wasn’t Lyotard (and Marx before him), for example, correct in pointing out the conflation of power and money in the scientific vortex that could legitimate whatever profit-maximizers desire? In other words, should scientific discourse be put on par with other discourses?  Whose credibility ought to be challenged, and whose truth claims deserve scrutiny? Can we privilege or distinguish science if it is true, as Monya Baker has reported, that “[m]ore than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments” (2016, 1)?

Fuller remains silent about these important and responsible questions about the problematics (methodologically and financially) of reproducing scientific experiments. Baker’s report cites Nature‘s survey of 1,576 researchers and reveals “sometimes-contradictory attitudes towards reproducibility. Although 52% of those surveyed agree that there is a significant ‘crisis’ of reproducibility, less than 31% think that failure to reproduce published results means that the result is probably wrong, and most say that they still trust the published literature.” (Ibid.) So, if science relies on reproducibility as a cornerstone of its legitimacy (and superiority over other discourses), and if the results are so dismal, should it not be discredited?

One answer, given by Hans E. Plesser, suggests that there is a confusion between the notions of repeatability (“same team, same experimental setup”), replicability (“different team, same experimental setup”), and reproducibility (“different team, different experimental setup”). If understood in these terms, it stands to reason that one may not get the same results all the time and that this fact alone does not discredit the scientific enterprise as a whole. Nuanced distinctions take us down a scientific rabbit-hole most post-truth advocates refuse to follow. These nuances are lost on a public that demands to know the “bottom line” in brief sound bites: Is science scientific enough, or is it bunk? When can we trust it?

Trump excels at this kind of rhetorical device: repeat a falsehood often enough and people will believe it; and because individual critical faculties are not a prerequisite for citizenship, post-truth means no truth, or whatever the president says is true. Adorno’s distinction of the responsible from the irresponsible political critics comes into play here; but he innocently failed to anticipate the Trumpian move to conflate the political and scientific and pretend as if there is no distinction—methodologically and institutionally—between political and scientific discourses.

With this cultural backdrop, many critiques of science have undermined its authority and thereby lent credence to any dismissal of science (legitimately by insiders and perhaps illegitimately at times by outsiders). Sociologists and postmodernists alike forgot to put warning signs on their academic and intellectual texts: Beware of hasty generalizations! Watch out for wolves in sheep clothes! Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

One would think such advisories unnecessary. Yet without such safeguards, internal disputes and critical investigations appear to have unintentionally discredited the entire scientific enterprise in the eyes of post-truth promoters, the Trumpists whose neoliberal spectacles filter in dollar signs and filter out pollution on the horizon. The discrediting of science has become a welcome distraction that opens the way to radical free-market mentality, spanning from the exploitation of free speech to resource extraction to the debasement of political institutions, from courts of law to unfettered globalization. In this sense, internal (responsible) critiques of the scientific community and its internal politics, for example, unfortunately license external (irresponsible) critiques of science, the kind that obscure the original intent of responsible critiques. Post-truth claims at the behest of corporate interests sanction a free for all where the concentrated power of the few silences the concerns of the many.

Indigenous-allied protestors block the entrance to an oil facility related to the Kinder-Morgan oil pipeline in Alberta.
Image by Peg Hunter via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

Fuller begins his book about the post-truth condition that permeates the British and American landscapes with a look at our ancient Greek predecessors. According to him, “Philosophers claim to be seekers of the truth but the matter is not quite so straightforward. Another way to see philosophers is as the ultimate experts in a post-truth world” (19). This means that those historically entrusted to be the guardians of truth in fact “see ‘truth’ for what it is: the name of a brand ever in need of a product which everyone is compelled to buy. This helps to explain why philosophers are most confident appealing to ‘The Truth’ when they are trying to persuade non-philosophers, be they in courtrooms or classrooms.” (Ibid.)

Instead of being the seekers of the truth, thinkers who care not about what but how we think, philosophers are ridiculed by Fuller (himself a philosopher turned sociologist turned popularizer and public relations expert) as marketing hacks in a public relations company that promotes brands. Their serious dedication to finding the criteria by which truth is ascertained is used against them: “[I]t is not simply that philosophers disagree on which propositions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ but more importantly they disagree on what it means to say that something is ‘true’ or ‘false’.” (Ibid.)

Some would argue that the criteria by which propositions are judged to be true or false are worthy of debate, rather than the cavalier dismissal of Trumpists. With criteria in place (even if only by convention), at least we know what we are arguing about, as these criteria (even if contested) offer a starting point for critical scrutiny. And this, I maintain, is a task worth performing, especially in the age of pluralism when multiple perspectives constitute our public stage.

In addition to debasing philosophers, it seems that Fuller reserves a special place in purgatory for Socrates (and Plato) for labeling the rhetorical expertise of the sophists—“the local post-truth merchants in fourth century BC Athens”—negatively. (21) It becomes obvious that Fuller is “on their side” and that the presumed debate over truth and its practices is in fact nothing but “whether its access should be free or restricted.” (Ibid.) In this neoliberal reading, it is all about money: are sophists evil because they charge for their expertise? Is Socrates a martyr and saint because he refused payment for his teaching?

Fuller admits, “Indeed, I would have us see both Plato and the Sophists as post-truth merchants, concerned more with the mix of chance and skill in the construction of truth than with the truth as such.” (Ibid.) One wonders not only if Plato receives fair treatment (reminiscent of Popper’s denigration of Plato as supporting totalitarian regimes, while sparing Socrates as a promoter of democracy), but whether calling all parties to a dispute “post-truth merchants” obliterates relevant differences. In other words, have we indeed lost the desire to find the truth, even if it can never be the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Political Indifference to Truth

One wonders how far this goes: political discourse without any claim to truth conditions would become nothing but a marketing campaign where money and power dictate the acceptance of the message. Perhaps the intended message here is that contemporary cynicism towards political discourse has its roots in ancient Greece. Regardless, one should worry that such cynicism indirectly sanctions fascism.

Can the poor and marginalized in our society afford this kind of cynicism? For them, unlike their privileged counterparts in the political arena, claims about discrimination and exploitation, about unfair treatment and barriers to voting are true and evidence based; they are not rhetorical flourishes by clever interlocutors.

Yet Fuller would have none of this. For him, political disputes are games:

[B]oth the Sophists and Plato saw politics as a game, which is to say, a field of play involving some measure of both chance and skill. However, the Sophists saw politics primarily as a game of chance whereas Plato saw it as a game of skill. Thus, the sophistically trained client deploys skill in [the] aid of maximizing chance occurrences, which may then be converted into opportunities, while the philosopher-king uses much the same skills to minimize or counteract the workings of chance. (23)

Fuller could be channeling here twentieth-century game theory and its application in the political arena, or the notion offered by Lyotard when describing the minimal contribution we can make to scientific knowledge (where we cannot change the rules of the game but perhaps find a novel “move” to make). Indeed, if politics is deemed a game of chance, then anything goes, and it really should not matter if an incompetent candidate like Trump ends up winning the American presidency.

But is it really a question of skill and chance? Or, as some political philosophers would argue, is it not a question of the best means by which to bring to fruition the best results for the general wellbeing of a community? The point of suggesting the figure of a philosopher-king, to be sure, was not his rhetorical skills in this conjunction, but instead the deep commitment to rule justly, to think critically about policies, and to treat constituents with respect and fairness. Plato’s Republic, however criticized, was supposed to be about justice, not about expediency; it is an exploration of the rule of law and wisdom, not a manual about manipulation. If the recent presidential election in the US taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of political gamesmanship and focus on experience and knowledge, vision and wisdom.

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

Fuller would have none of this, either. It seems that there is virtue in being a “post-truther,” someone who can easily switch between knowledge games, unlike the “truther” whose aim is to “strengthen the distinction by making it harder to switch between knowledge games.” (34) In the post-truth realm, then, knowledge claims are lumped into games that can be played at will, that can be substituted when convenient, without a hint of the danger such capricious game-switching might engender.

It’s one thing to challenge a scientific hypothesis about astronomy because the evidence is still unclear (as Stephen Hawking has done in regard to Black Holes) and quite another to compare it to astrology (and give equal hearings to horoscope and Tarot card readers as to physicists). Though we are far from the Demarcation Problem (between science and pseudo-science) of the last century, this does not mean that there is no difference at all between different discourses and their empirical bases (or that the problem itself isn’t worthy of reconsideration in the age of Fuller and Trump).

On the contrary, it’s because we assume difference between discourses (gray as they may be) that we can move on to figure out on what basis our claims can and should rest. The danger, as we see in the political logic of the Trump administration, is that friends become foes (European Union) and foes are admired (North Korea and Russia). Game-switching in this context can lead to a nuclear war.

In Fuller’s hands, though, something else is at work. Speaking of contemporary political circumstances in the UK and the US, he says: “After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have largely managed to outflank the experts at their own game, even if they have yet to succeed in dominating the entire field of play.” (39) Fuller’s celebratory tone here may either bring a slight warning in the use of “yet” before the success “in dominating the entire field of play” or a prediction that indeed this is what is about to happen soon enough.

The neoliberal bottom-line surfaces in this assessment: he who wins must be right, the rich must be smart, and more perniciously, the appeal to truth is beside the point. More specifically, Fuller continues:

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins. They are talking about worlds that could have been and still could be—the stuff of modal power. (Ibid.)

By now one should be terrified. This is a strong endorsement of lying as a matter of course, as a way to distract from the details (and empirical bases) of one “knowledge game”—because it may not be to one’s ideological liking–in favor of another that might be deemed more suitable (for financial or other purposes).

The political stakes here are too high to ignore, especially because there are good reasons why “certain parties are advantaged over others” (say, climate scientists “relative to” climate deniers who have no scientific background or expertise). One wonders what it means to talk about “alternative facts” and “alternative science” in this context: is it a means of obfuscation? Is it yet another license granted by the “social constructivist position” not to acknowledge the legal liability of cigarette companies for the addictive power of nicotine? Or the pollution of water sources in Flint, Michigan?

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

If we corral the broader political logic at hand to the governance of the scientific community, as Fuller wishes us to do, then we hear the following:

In the past, under the inspiration of Karl Popper, I have argued that fundamental to the governance of science as an ‘open society’ is the right to be wrong (Fuller 2000a: chap. 1). This is an extension of the classical republican ideal that one is truly free to speak their mind only if they can speak with impunity. In the Athenian and the Roman republics, this was made possible by the speakers–that is, the citizens–possessing independent means which allowed them to continue with their private lives even if they are voted down in a public meeting. The underlying intuition of this social arrangement, which is the epistemological basis of Mill’s On Liberty, is that people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively. The entangled histories of politics, economics and knowledge reveal the difficulties in trying to implement this ideal. Nevertheless, in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified. (109)

To be clear, Fuller not only asks for the “right to be wrong,” but also for the legitimacy of the claim that “people who are free to speak their minds as individuals are most likely to reach the truth collectively.” The first plea is reasonable enough, as humans are fallible (yes, Popper here), and the history of ideas has proven that killing heretics is counterproductive (and immoral). If the Brexit/Trump post-truth age would only usher a greater encouragement for speculation or conjectures (Popper again), then Fuller’s book would be well-placed in the pantheon of intellectual pluralism; but if this endorsement obliterates the silly from the informed conjecture, then we are in trouble and the ensuing cacophony will turn us all deaf.

The second claim is at best supported by the likes of James Surowiecki (2004) who has argued that no matter how uninformed a crowd of people is, collectively it can guess the correct weight of a cow on stage (his TED talk). As folk wisdom, this is charming; as public policy, this is dangerous. Would you like a random group of people deciding how to store nuclear waste, and where? Would you subject yourself to the judgment of just any collection of people to decide on taking out your appendix or performing triple-bypass surgery?

When we turn to Trump, his supporters certainly like that he speaks his mind, just as Fuller says individuals should be granted the right to speak their minds (even if in error). But speaking one’s mind can also be a proxy for saying whatever, without filters, without critical thinking, or without thinking at all (let alone consulting experts whose very existence seems to upset Fuller). Since when did “speaking your mind” turn into scientific discourse? It’s one thing to encourage dissent and offer reasoned doubt and explore second opinions (as health care professionals and insurers expect), but it’s quite another to share your feelings and demand that they count as scientific authority.

Finally, even if we endorse the view that we “collectively” reach the truth, should we not ask: by what criteria? according to what procedure? under what guidelines? Herd mentality, as Nietzsche already warned us, is problematic at best and immoral at worst. Trump rallies harken back to the fascist ones we recall from Europe prior to and during WWII. Few today would entrust the collective judgment of those enthusiasts of the Thirties to carry the day.

Unlike Fuller’s sanguine posture, I shudder at the possibility that “in a post-truth world, this general line of thought is not merely endorsed but intensified.” This is neither because I worship experts and scorn folk knowledge nor because I have low regard for individuals and their (potentially informative) opinions. Just as we warn our students that simply having an opinion is not enough, that they need to substantiate it, offer data or logical evidence for it, and even know its origins and who promoted it before they made it their own, so I worry about uninformed (even if well-meaning) individuals (and presidents) whose gut will dictate public policy.

This way of unreasonably empowering individuals is dangerous for their own well-being (no paternalism here, just common sense) as well as for the community at large (too many untrained cooks will definitely spoil the broth). For those who doubt my concern, Trump offers ample evidence: trade wars with allies and foes that cost domestic jobs (when promising to bring jobs home), nuclear-war threats that resemble a game of chicken (as if no president before him ever faced such an option), and completely putting into disarray public policy procedures from immigration regulations to the relaxation of emission controls (that ignores the history of these policies and their failures).

Drought and suffering in Arbajahan, Kenya in 2006.
Photo by Brendan Cox and Oxfam International via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

There is something appealing, even seductive, in the provocation to doubt the truth as rendered by the (scientific) establishment, even as we worry about sowing the seeds of falsehood in the political domain. The history of science is the story of authoritative theories debunked, cherished ideas proven wrong, and claims of certainty falsified. Why not, then, jump on the “post-truth” wagon? Would we not unleash the collective imagination to improve our knowledge and the future of humanity?

One of the lessons of postmodernism (at least as told by Lyotard) is that “post-“ does not mean “after,” but rather, “concurrently,” as another way of thinking all along: just because something is labeled “post-“, as in the case of postsecularism, it doesn’t mean that one way of thinking or practicing has replaced another; it has only displaced it, and both alternatives are still there in broad daylight. Under the rubric of postsecularism, for example, we find religious practices thriving (80% of Americans believe in God, according to a 2018 Pew Research survey), while the number of unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics is on the rise. Religionists and secularists live side by side, as they always have, more or less agonistically.

In the case of “post-truth,” it seems that one must choose between one orientation or another, or at least for Fuller, who claims to prefer the “post-truth world” to the allegedly hierarchical and submissive world of “truth,” where the dominant establishment shoves its truths down the throats of ignorant and repressed individuals. If post-truth meant, like postsecularism, the realization that truth and provisional or putative truth coexist and are continuously being re-examined, then no conflict would be at play. If Trump’s claims were juxtaposed to those of experts in their respective domains, we would have a lively, and hopefully intelligent, debate. False claims would be debunked, reasonable doubts could be raised, and legitimate concerns might be addressed. But Trump doesn’t consult anyone except his (post-truth) gut, and that is troublesome.

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

Fuller admits that “STS can be fairly credited with having both routinized in its own research practice and set loose on the general public–if not outright invented—at least four common post-truth tropes”:

  1. Science is what results once a scientific paper is published, not what made it possible for the paper to be published, since the actual conduct of research is always open to multiple countervailing interpretations.
  2. What passes for the ‘truth’ in science is an institutionalised contingency, which if scientists are doing their job will be eventually overturned and replaced, not least because that may be the only way they can get ahead in their fields.
  3. Consensus is not a natural state in science but one that requires manufacture and maintenance, the work of which is easily underestimated because most of it occurs offstage in the peer review process.
  4. Key normative categories of science such as ‘competence’ and ‘expertise’ are moveable feasts, the terms of which are determined by the power dynamics that obtain between specific alignments of interested parties. (43)

In that sense, then, Fuller agrees that the positive lessons STS wished for the practice of the scientific community may have inadvertently found their way into a post-truth world that may abuse or exploit them in unintended ways. That is, something like “consensus” is challenged by STS because of how the scientific community pretends to get there knowing as it does that no such thing can ever be reached and when reached it may have been reached for the wrong reasons (leadership pressure, pharmaceutical funding of conferences and journals). But this can also go too far.

Just because consensus is difficult to reach (it doesn’t mean unanimity) and is susceptible to corruption or bias doesn’t mean that anything goes. Some experimental results are more acceptable than others and some data are more informative than others, and the struggle for agreement may take its political toll on the scientific community, but this need not result in silly ideas about cigarettes being good for our health or that obesity should be encouraged from early childhood.

It seems important to focus on Fuller’s conclusion because it encapsulates my concern with his version of post-truth, a condition he endorses not only in the epistemological plight of humanity but as an elixir with which to cure humanity’s ills:

While some have decried recent post-truth campaigns that resulted in victory for Brexit and Trump as ‘anti-intellectual’ populism, they are better seen as the growth pains of a maturing democratic intelligence, to which the experts will need to adjust over time. Emphasis in this book has been given to the prospect that the lines of intellectual descent that have characterised disciplinary knowledge formation in the academy might come to be seen as the last stand of a political economy based on rent-seeking. (130)

Here, we are not only afforded a moralizing sermon about (and it must be said, from) the academic privileged position, from whose heights all other positions are dismissed as anti-intellectual populism, but we are also entreated to consider the rantings of the know-nothings of the post-truth world as the “growing pains of a maturing democratic intelligence.” Only an apologist would characterize the Trump administration as mature, democratic, or intelligent. Where’s the evidence? What would possibly warrant such generosity?

It’s one thing to challenge “disciplinary knowledge formation” within the academy, and there are no doubt cases deserving reconsideration as to the conditions under which experts should be paid and by whom (“rent-seeking”); but how can these questions about higher education and the troubled relations between the university system and the state (and with the military-industrial complex) give cover to the Trump administration? Here is Fuller’s justification:

One need not pronounce on the specific fates of, say, Brexit or Trump to see that the post-truth condition is here to stay. The post-truth disrespect for established authority is ultimately offset by its conceptual openness to previously ignored people and their ideas. They are encouraged to come to the fore and prove themselves on this expanded field of play. (Ibid)

This, too, is a logical stretch: is disrespect for the authority of the establishment the same as, or does it logically lead to, the “conceptual” openness to previously “ignored people and their ideas”? This is not a claim on behalf of the disenfranchised. Perhaps their ideas were simply bad or outright racist or misogynist (as we see with Trump). Perhaps they were ignored because there was hope that they would change for the better, become more enlightened, not act on their white supremacist prejudices. Should we have “encouraged” explicit anti-Semitism while we were at it?

Limits to Tolerance

We tolerate ignorance because we believe in education and hope to overcome some of it; we tolerate falsehood in the name of eventual correction. But we should never tolerate offensive ideas and beliefs that are harmful to others. Once again, it is one thing to argue about black holes, and quite another to argue about whether black lives matter. It seems reasonable, as Fuller concludes, to say that “In a post-truth utopia, both truth and error are democratised.” It is also reasonable to say that “You will neither be allowed to rest on your laurels nor rest in peace. You will always be forced to have another chance.”

But the conclusion that “Perhaps this is why some people still prefer to play the game of truth, no matter who sets the rules” (130) does not follow. Those who “play the game of truth” are always vigilant about falsehoods and post-truth claims, and to say that they are simply dupes of those in power is both incorrect and dismissive. On the contrary: Socrates was searching for the truth and fought with the sophists, as Popper fought with the logical positivists and the Kuhnians, and as scientists today are searching for the truth and continue to fight superstitions and debunked pseudoscience about vaccination causing autism in young kids.

If post-truth is like postsecularism, scientific and political discourses can inform each other. When power-plays by ignoramus leaders like Trump are obvious, they could shed light on less obvious cases of big pharma leaders or those in charge of the EPA today. In these contexts, inconvenient facts and truths should prevail and the gamesmanship of post-truthers should be exposed for what motivates it.

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

* Special thanks to Dr. Denise Davis of Brown University, whose contribution to my critical thinking about this topic has been profound.

References

Theodor W. Adorno (1998/1963), Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords. Translated by Henry W. Pickford. New York: Columbia University Press

Kurt Andersen (2017), Fantasyland: How America Went Hotwire: A 500-Year History. New York: Random House

Monya Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature Vol. 533, Issue 7604, 5/26/16 (corrected 7/28/16)

Michael Bowker (2003), Fatal Deception: The Untold Story of Asbestos. New York: Rodale.

Robert Darnton, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” New York Review of Books Vo. LXV, No. 11 6/28/18, pp. 68-72.

Al Gore (2006), An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Rodale.

Richard Hofstadter (1962), Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Jean- François Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robert K. Merton (1973/1942), “The Normative Structure of Science,” The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 267-278.

Hans E. Plesser, “Reproducibility vs. Replicability: A Brief History of Confused Terminology,” Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 2017; 11: 76; online: 1/18/18.

Robert N. Proctor (1995), Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know and Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

James Surowiecki (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds. New York: Anchor Books.

Heidegger Today, Paolo Palladino

SERRC —  August 23, 2018 — 1 Comment

Author Information: Paolo Palladino, Lancaster University, p.palladino@lancaster.ac.uk

Palladino, Paolo. “Heidegger Today: On Jeff Kochan’s Science and Social Existence.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 8 (2018): 41-46.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-40b

Art by Philip Beasley
Image by Sean Salmon via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I have been invited to participate in the present symposium on Jeff Kochan’s Science as Social Existence: Heidegger and the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge. I would like to preface my response by expressing my gratitude to the editors of Social Epistemology for the opportunity to comment on this provocative intervention and by noting the following about my response’s intellectual provenance.

I have long worked at the intersection of historical, philosophical and sociological modes of inquiry into the making of scientific accounts and technological interventions in the material world, but at an increasing distance from the field of science and technology studies, widely defined. As a result, I am neither invested in disciplinary purity, nor party in the longstanding arguments over the sociology of scientific knowledge and its presuppositions about the relationship between the social and natural orders.

I must also admit, however, to being increasingly attracted to the ontological questions which the wider field of science and technology studies has posed in recent years. All this is important to how I come to think about both Science as Social Existence and the argument between Kochan and Raphael Sassower over the merits of Science as Social Existence.

Kochan’s Problems of the Strong Programme

As the full title of Science as Social Existence evinces, Kochan’s principal matter of concern is the sociology of scientific knowledge. He regards this as the field of study that is dedicated to explaining the production of knowledge about the material world in sociological terms, as these terms are understood among proponents of the so-called “strong programme”. As Kochan’s response to Sassower conveys pointedly, he is concerned with two problems in particular.

The first of these is that the sociology of scientific knowledge is hostage to a distinction between the inquiring subject and the objective world such that it is difficult to understand exactly how this subject is ever able to say anything meaningful about the objective world. The second, closely related problem is that the sociology of scientific knowledge cannot then respond to the recurrent charge that it holds to an unsustainable relationship between the social and natural orders.

Kochan proposes that Martin Heidegger’s existential phenomenology provides the wherewithal to answer these two problems. This, he suggests, is to the benefit of science and technology studies, the wider, interdisciplinary field of study, which the sociology of scientific knowledge could justifiably be said to have inaugurated but has also grown increasingly detached from the latter. Incidentally, while Kochan himself refers to this wider field as “science studies”, “science and technology studies” seems preferable because it not only enjoys greater currency, but also conveys more accurately the focus on practices and materiality from which stems the divergence between the enterprises Kochan seeks to distinguish.

Anyway, as becomes evident in the course of reading Science as Social Existence, Kochan’s proposal calls first for the correction of Joseph Rouse’s and Bruno Latour’s arguably mistaken reading of Heidegger, particularly in regard to Heidegger’s pivotal distinction between essence and existence, and to Heidegger’s further insistence upon the historicity of Being. This is followed by the obligatory illustration of what is to be gained from such a philosophical excursus.

Kochan thus goes on to revisit what has become a classic of science and technology studies, namely the arguments between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes over the former’s signal invention, the air-pump. Kochan shows here how Heidegger’s thought enables a more symmetric account of the relationship between the social and natural order at issue in the arguments between Boyle and Hobbes, so disarming Latour’s otherwise incisive objection that the sociology of scientific knowledge is a neo-Kantian enterprise that affords matter no agency in the making of the world we inhabit. From this point of view, Science as Social Existence would not only seem to answer important conceptual problems, but also offer a helpful explication and clarification of the notoriously difficult Heideggerian corpus.

It should also be noted, however, that this corpus has actually played a marginal role in the development of science and technology studies and that leading figures in the field have nonetheless occasionally felt compelled to interrogate texts such as Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology. Such incongruity about the place of Heidegger within the evolution of science and technology studies is perhaps important to understanding Sassower’s caustic line of questioning about what exactly is to be gained from the turn to Heidegger, which Science as Social Existence seeks to advance.

Real Love or a Shotgun Marriage?

Bluntly, Sassower asks why anyone should be interested in marrying Heideggerian existential phenomenology and the sociology of scientific knowledge, ultimately characterising this misbegotten conjunction as a “shotgun marriage’. My immediate answer is that Science as Social Existence offers more than just a detailed and very interesting, if unconventional, examination of the conceptual problems besetting the sociology of scientific knowledge.

As someone schooled in the traditions of history and philosophy of science who has grown increasingly concerned about the importance of history, I particularly welcome the clarification of the role that history plays in our understanding of scientific knowledge and technological practice. Kochan, following Heidegger to the letter, explains how the inquiring subject and the objective world are to be understood as coming into being simultaneously and how the relationship between the two varies in a manner such that what is and what can be said about the nature of that which is are a matter of historical circumstance.

As a result, history weighs upon us not just discursively, but also materially, and so much so that the world we inhabit must be understood as irreducibly historical. As Kochan puts it while contrasting Kant’s and Heidegger’s understanding of finitude:

For Heidegger … the essence of a thing is not something we receive from it, but something it possesses as a result of the socio-historically conditioned metaphysical projection within which it is let be what it is. On Heidegger’s account, not even an infinitely powerful intellect could grasp the intrinsic, independently existing essence of a thing, because no such essence exists. Hence, the finitude of our receptivity is not the issue; the issue is, instead, the finitude of our projectivity. The range of possible conceptualisations of a thing is conditioned by the historical tradition of the subject attempting to make sense of that thing. Only within the finite scope of possibilities enabled by the subject’s tradition can it experience a thing as intelligible, not to mention develop a clearly defined understanding of what it is (258-9).

Literally, tradition matters. Relatedly, I also welcome how Science as Social Existence helps me to clarify the ambiguities of Heidegger’s comportment toward scientific inquiry, which would have been very useful some time ago, as I tried to forge a bridge between the history of biology and a different set of philosophers to those usually considered within the history and philosophy of science, not just Heidegger, but also Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

As I sought to reflect upon the wider implications of Heidegger’s engagement with the biological sciences of his day, Science as Social Existence would have enabled me to fend off the charge that I misunderstood Heidegger’s distinction between ontic and ontological orders, between the existence of something and the meaning attributed to it. Thus, Kochan points out that:

Metaphysical knowledge is, according to Heidegger, a direct consequence of our finitude, our inescapable mortality, rather than of our presumed ability to transcend that finitude, to reach, infinitely, for heaven. Because the finitude of our constructive power makes impossible a transcendent grasp of the thing in-itself — leaving us to be only affected by it in its brute, independent existence — our attention is instead pushed away from the thing-in-itself and towards the constructive categories we must employ in order to make sense of it as a thing present-at-hand within-the-world.

For Heidegger, metaphysics is nothing other than the study of these categories and their relations to one another. Orthodox metaphysics, in contrast, treats these existential categories as ontic, that is, as extant mental things referring to the intrinsic properties of the things we seek to know, rather than as ontological, that is, as the existential structures of being-in-the-world which enable us to know those things (133-4).

The clarification would have helped me to articulate how the ontic and ontological orders are so inextricably related to one another and, today, so entangled with scientific knowledge and technological practice that Heidegger’s reading of Eugen Korschelt’s lectures on ageing and death matters to our understanding of the fissures within Heidegger’s argument. All this seems to me a wholly satisfactory answer to Sassower’s question about the legitimacy of the conjunction Kochan proposes. This said, Heidegger and sociology are not obvious companions and I remain unpersuaded by what Science as Social Existence might have to offer the more sociologically inclined field of science and technology studies. This, I think, is where the cracks within the edifice that is Science as Social Existence begin to show.

An Incompleteness

There is something unsettling about Science as Social Existence and the distinctions it draws between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the wider field of science and technology studies. For one thing, Science as Social Existence offers an impoverished reading of science and technology studies whereby the field’s contribution to the understanding the production of scientific knowledge and related technological practices is equated with Latour’s criticism of the sociology of scientific knowledge, as the latter was articulated in arguments with David Bloor nearly two decades ago.

Science as Social Existence is not nearly as interested in the complexity of the arguments shaping this wider field as it is in the heterogeneity of philosophical positions taken within the sociology of scientific knowledge with respect to the relationship between knowledge and the material world. It bears repeating at this point that Kochan defines the latter enterprise in the narrowest terms, which also seem far more attuned to philosophical, than sociological considerations. Such narrowness should perhaps come as no surprise given the importance that the sociology of scientific knowledge has attached to the correspondence theory of truth, but there also is much more to the history of philosophy than just the Cartesian and Kantian confrontations with Plato and Aristotle, which Heidegger privileges and Kochan revisits to answer the questions Rouse and Latour have asked of the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Sassower’s possibly accidental reference to a “Spinozist approach” is a useful reminder of both alternative philosophical traditions with respect to materiality, relationality and cognitive construction, and how a properly sociological inquiry into the production of scientific knowledge and technological practices might call for greater openness to the heterogeneity of contemporary social theory. This might even include actor-network theory and its own distinctive reformulation of Spinozist monadology. However, Science as Social Existence is not about any of this, and, as Kochan’s response to Sassower reminds us, we need to respond to its argument on its own terms. Let me then say something about Kochan’s configuration of phenomenology and sociological thought, which is just as unsettling as the relationship Kochan posits between the sociology of scientific knowledge and the wider field of science and technology studies.

Ethnomethodology is the most obvious inheritor to the phenomenological tradition which Kochan invokes to address the problems confronting the sociology of scientific knowledge, and it has also played a very important role in the evolution of science and technology studies. Key ethnomethodological interventions are ambivalent about Heideggerian constructions of phenomenology, but Kochan does not appear to have any great interest in either this sociological tradition or, relatedly, what might be the implications of Heidegger’s divergence from Edmund Husserl’s understanding of the phenomenological project for the relationship between subjects and knowledge.

Instead, Kochan prefers to weld together existential phenomenology and interactionist social theory, because, as he puts it, “interactionist social theory puts the individual subject at the methodological centre of explanations of social, and thus also of cognitive, order” (372). This, however, raises troubling questions about Kochan’s reading and mobilisation of Heidegger. Kochan equates the subject and Being, but Heidegger himself felt the need to develop the term beyond its more conventional connotations of “existence” as he came to understand the subject and Being as closely related, but not one and the same. As Kochan himself notes Being “is not a thing, substance, or object” (39). This form of existence is to be understood instead as a performative operation, if not a becoming.

Furthermore, Kochan would seem to underestimate the importance of Heidegger’s understanding of the relationship between social existence and the fullest realisation of this form of existence. While Heidegger undoubtedly regards Being as emerging from within the fabric of intersubjective relations, Heidegger also maintains that authentic Being realises itself by extricating itself from other beings and so confronting the full meaning of its finitude. As a result, one is compelled to ask what exactly is Kochan’s understanding of the subject and its subjectivity, particularly in relation to the location of “knowledge”.

Possible Predecessors Gone Unacknowledged

Strikingly, these are the kinds of questions that Foucault asks about phenomenology, an enterprise which he regards as contributing to the consolidation of the modern subject. Yet, Kochan would appear to dismiss Foucault’s work, even though Foucault has much to say about not just the historicity of the subject, but also about its entanglement with mathēsis, a concept central to Kochan’s analysis of the encounter between Boyle and Hobbes. Despite the richness and symmetry of the account Kochan offers, it seems quite unsatisfactory to simply observe in a footnote that “Heidegger’s usage of mathēsis differs from that of Michel Foucault, who defines it as ‘the science of calculable order’” (234 n20).

Put simply, there is something amiss about all the slippage around questions of subjectivity, as well as the relationship between the historical and ontological ordering of the world, which calls into question the sociological foundations of the account of the sociology of scientific knowledge which Science as Social Existence seeks to articulate.

Clearly, Kochan mistrusts sociological critiques of the subject, and one of the reasons Kochan provides for the aversion is articulated most pithily in the following passage from his response to Sassower, in relation to the sociological perspectives that have increasingly come to dominate science and technology studies. Kochan writes:

What interests these critics … 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 other words, if the subject is constructed, then its subjectivity and structures of feeling can provide no insight into our present condition. This, however, is a very familiar conundrum, one that, in another guise, has long confronted science and technology studies: That something is constructed does not necessarily amount to its “elimination”. The dividing issue at the heart of Science as Social Existence would then seem to be less the relationship between scientific knowledge and the material constitution of the world about us, and more whether one is interested in the clarity of transcendental analytics or charting the topological complexities of immanent transformation.

My preference, however, is to place such weighty and probably irresolvable issues in suspension. It seems to me that it might be more productive to reconsider instead how the subject is constituted and wherein lie its distinctive capacities to determine what is and what can be done, here and now. Anthropological perspectives on the questions science and technology studies seek to pose today suggest that this might be how to build most productively upon the Heideggerian understanding of the subject and the objective world as coming into being simultaneously.

Perhaps, however, I am just another of those readers destined to be “unhappy” about Science as Social Existence, but I am not sure that this is quite right because I hope to have conveyed how much I enjoyed thinking about the questions Science as Social Existence poses, and I would just like to hear more about what Kochan thinks of such alternative approaches to reading Heidegger today.

Contact details: p.palladino@lancaster.ac.uk

References

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

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

Mizrahi, Moti. “The (Lack of) Evidence for the Kuhnian Image of Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 19-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Z5

See also:

Image by Narcis Sava via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Whenever the work of an influential philosopher is criticized, a common move made by those who seek to defend the influential philosopher’s work is to claim that his or her ideas have been misconstrued. This is an effective move, of course, for it means that the critics have criticized a straw man, not the ideas actually put forth by the influential philosopher. However, this move can easily backfire, too.

For continued iterations of this move could render the ideas in question immune to criticism in a rather ad hoc fashion. That is to say, shouting “straw man” every time an influential philosopher’s ideas are subjected to scrutiny is rather like shouting “wolf” when none is around; it could be seen as an attempt to draw attention to that which may not be worthy of attention.

The question, then, is whether the influential philosopher’s ideas are worthy of attention and/or acceptance. In particular, are Kuhn’s ideas about scientific revolutions and incommensurability worthy of acceptance? As I have argued, along with a few other contributors to my edited volume, The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? (2018), they may not be because they are based on dubious assumptions and fallacious argumentation.

In their reviews of The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? (2018), both Markus Arnold (2018) and Amanda Bryant (2018) complain that the contributors who criticize Kuhn’s theory of scientific change have misconstrued his philosophy of science and they praise those who seek to defend the Kuhnian image of science. In what follows, then, I would like to address their claims about misconstruing Kuhn’s theory of scientific change. But my focus here, as in the book, will be the evidence (or lack thereof) for the Kuhnian image of science. I will begin with Arnold’s review and then move on to Bryant’s review.

Arnold on the Evidence for the Kuhnian Image of Science

Arnold (2018, 42) states that “one of the results of [his] review” is that “the ‘inductive reasoning’ intended to refute Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis (found in the first part of the book) is actually its weakest part.” I am not sure what he means by that exactly. First, I am not sure in what sense inductive reasoning can be said to refute a thesis, given that inductive arguments are the sort of arguments whose premises do not necessitate the truth of their conclusions, whereas a refutation of p, if sound, supposedly shows that p must be false.

Second, contrary to what Arnold claims, I do not think that the chapters in Part I of the book contain “‘inductive reasoning’ intended to refute Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis” (Arnold 2018, 42). Speaking of my chapter in particular, Chapter 1 (Mizrahi 2018b, 32-38), it contains two arguments intended to show that there is no deductive support for the Kuhnian thesis of taxonomic incommensurability (Mizrahi 2018b, 32), and an argument intended to show that there is no inductive support for the Kuhnian thesis of taxonomic incommensurability (Mizrahi 2018b, 37).

These arguments are deductive, not inductive, for their premises, if true, guarantee the truth of their conclusions. Besides, to argue that there is no evidence for p is not the same as arguing that p is false. None of my arguments is intended to show that p (namely, the Kuhnian thesis of taxonomic incommensurability) is false.

Rather, my arguments show that there is no evidence for p (namely, the Kuhnian thesis of taxonomic incommensurability). For these reasons, as a criticism of Part I of the book, Arnold’s (2018, 42) claim that “the ‘inductive reasoning’ intended to refute Kuhn’s incommensurability thesis (found in the first part of the book) is actually its weakest part” completely misses the mark.

Moreover, the only thing I could find in Arnold’s review that could be construed as support for this claim is the aforementioned complaint about straw-manning Kuhn. As Arnold (2018, 43) puts it, “the counter-arguments under consideration brought forward against his model seem, paradoxically, to underestimate the complexity of Kuhn’s claims.”

In other words, Kuhn’s theory of scientific change is so complex and those who attempt to criticize it fail to appreciate its complexity. But why? Why do the criticisms fail to appreciate the complexity of Kuhn’s theory? How complex is it such that it defies interpretation and criticism? Arnold does not say. Instead, he (Arnold 2018, 43) states that “it is not clear, why Kuhn’s ‘image of science’ should be dismissed because […] taxonomic incommensurability ‘is the exception rather than the rule’ [Mizrahi 2018b,] (38).”

As I argue in Chapter 1, however, the fact that taxonomic incommensurability “is the exception rather than the rule” (Mizrahi 2018b, 38) means that Kuhn’s theory of scientific change is a bad theory because it shows that Kuhn’s theory has neither explanatory nor predictive power. A “theory” with no explanatory and/or predictive power is no theory at all (Mizrahi 2018b, 37-38). From his review, however, it is clear that Arnold thinks of Kuhn’s image of science as a theory of scientific change.

For instance, he talks about “Kuhn’s epistemology” (Arnold 2018, 45), “Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability” (Arnold 2018, 46), and Kuhn’s “complex theory of science” (Arnold 2018, 42). If Kuhn’s thesis of taxonomic incommensurability has no explanatory and/or predictive power, then it is a bad theory, perhaps not even a theory at all, let alone a general theory of scientific knowledge or scientific change.

In that respect, I found it rather curious that, on the one hand, Arnold approves of Alexandra Argamakova’s (2018) criticism of the universal ambitions of Kuhn’s image of science, but on the other hand, he wants to attribute to Kuhn the view that “scientific revolutions are rare” (Arnold 2018, 43). Arnold quotes with approval Argamakova’s (2018, 54) claim that “distinct breakthroughs in science can be marked as revolutions, but no universal system of criteria for such appraisal can be formulated in a normative philosophical manner” (emphasis added).

In other words, if Argamakova is right, then there can be no philosophical theory of scientific change in general, Kuhnian or otherwise. So Arnold cannot be in agreement with Argamakova without thereby abandoning the claim that Kuhn’s image of science is an “epistemology” (Arnold 2018, 45) of scientific knowledge or a “complex theory of science” (Arnold 2018, 42).

Arnold (2018, 45) also asserts that “the allegation that Kuhn developed his theory on the basis of selected historical cases is refuted” by Kindi (2018). Even if that were true, it would mean that Kuhn’s theory has no inductive support, as I argue in Chapter 1 of the book (Mizrahi 2018b, 32-38). So I am not sure how this point is supposed to help Arnold in defending the Kuhnian image of science. For if there is no inductive support for the Kuhnian image of science, as Arnold seems to think, and there is no deductive support either, as I (Mizrahi 2018b, 25-44) and Park (2018, 61-74) argue, then what evidence is there for the Kuhnian image of science?

For present purposes, the important point is not how Kuhn “developed his theory” (Arnold 2018, 45) but rather what supports his theory of scientific change. What is the evidence for a Kuhnian theory of scientific change? If I am right (Mizrahi 2018b), or if Park (2018) is right, then there is neither deductive support nor inductive support for a Kuhnian theory of scientific change. If Argamakova is right, then there can be no general theory of scientific change at all, Kuhnian or otherwise.

It is also important to note here that Arnold (2018, 45) praises both Kindi (2018) and Patton (2018) for offering “a close reading of Kuhn’s work,” but he does not mention that they offer incompatible interpretations of that work, specifically, of the evidence for Kuhn’s ideas about scientific change. On Kindi’s reading of Kuhn, the argument for the Kuhnian image of science is a deductive argument from first principles, whereas on Patton’s reading of Kuhn, the argument for the Kuhnian image of science is an inference to the best explanation (see Patton 2015, cf. Mizrahi 2018a, 12-13; Mizrahi 2015, 51-53).

Bryant on the Evidence for the Kuhnian Image of Science

Like Arnold, Bryant (2018, 1) wonders whether Kuhn’s views on scientific change can be pinned down and criticized or perhaps there are many “Thomases Kuhn.” Again, I think we do not want to make Kuhn’s views too vague and/or ambiguous (Argamakova 2018, 47-50), and thus immune to criticism in a rather ad hoc fashion. For that, in addition to being based on dubious assumptions and fallacious argumentation, would be another reason to think that Kuhn’s views are not worthy of acceptance.

Bryant (2018, 1) also wonders “whether the so-called Kuhnian image of science is really so broadly endorsed as to be the potential subject of (echoing Kuhn’s own phrase) a ‘decisive transformation’.” As I see it, however, the question is not whether the Kuhnian image of science is “broadly endorsed.” Rather, the question is whether “we are now possessed” by it. When Kuhn wrote that (in)famous first line of the introduction to The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the image of science by which we were possessed was a positivist image of science according to which science develops “by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions” (Kuhn 1962/1996, 2). Arguably, philosophers of science were never possessed by such a positivist image of science as much as they are possessed by the Kuhnian image of science.

This is evidenced by the fact that no positivist work in philosophy of science has had as much impact as Kuhn’s seminal work (Mizrahi 2018a, 1-2). Accordingly, even if the Kuhnian image of science is not “broadly endorsed,” it is quite clear that philosophers of science are possessed by it. For this reason, an “exorcism,” or a “decisive transformation,” is required in order to rid ourselves of this image of science. And what better way to do so than by showing that it is based on dubious assumptions and fallacious argumentation.

As far as the evidence (or lack thereof) for the Kuhnian image of science, Bryant (2018, 2) claims that “Case studies can be interesting, informative, and evidential” (emphasis added). I grant that case studies can be interesting and informative, but I doubt that they can be evidential. From “Scientific episode E has property F,” it does not follow that F is a characteristic of scientific episodes in general. As far as Kuhn is concerned, it is clear that he used just a few case studies (e.g., the phlogiston case) in support of his ideas about scientific change and incommensurability.

The problem with that, as I argue in Chapter 1 of the book (Mizrahi 2018b, 32-38), is that no general theory of scientific change can be derived from a few cherry-picked case studies. Even if we grant that the phlogiston case is a genuine case of a so-called “Kuhnian revolution” and taxonomic incommensurability, despite the fact that there are rebutting defeaters (Mizrahi 2018b, 33-36), no general conclusions about the nature of science can be drawn from one (or even a few) such cases (Mizrahi 2018b, 36-37).

From the fact that one (or a few) cherry-picked episode(s) from the history of science exhibits a particular property, it does not follow that all scientific episodes have that property; otherwise, from the “Piltdown man” episode we would have to conclude that fraud characterizes scientific discovery in general (Mizrahi 2018b, 37-38).

Speaking of scientific discovery, Bryant (2018, 2) takes issue with the fact that I cite “just two authors, Eric Oberheim and Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who use the language of discovery to characterize incommensurability.” For Bryant (2018, 2), this suggests that “it isn’t clear that the assumption Mizrahi takes pains to reject is particularly widespread” (emphasis added). I suppose that “the assumption” in question here is that Kuhn “discovered” incommensurability.

If so, then I would like to clarify that I mention the fact that Oberheim and Hoyningen-Huene talk about incommensurability in terms of discovery, and claim that Kuhn “discovered” it, not to argue against it (i.e., to argue that Kuhn did not discover incommensurability), but rather to show that some of the elements of the Kuhnian image of science, such as incommensurability, are sometimes taken for granted. When it is said that someone has discovered something, it gives the impression that what has been discovered is a fact, and so no arguments are needed.

When it comes to incommensurability, however, it is far from clear that it is a fact about scientific change, and so good arguments are needed in order to establish that episodes of scientific change exhibit taxonomic incommensurability. If I am right, or if Park (2018) and Sankey (2018) are right, then there are no good arguments that establish this.

Not Conclusions, But Questions

In light of the above, I think that the questions raised in the edited volume under review remain urgent (cf. Rehg 2018). Are there good reasons or compelling evidence for the Kuhnian model of theory change in science? If there are no good reasons or compelling evidence for such a model, as I (Mizrahi 2018b), Park (2018), and Sankey (2018) argue, what’s next for philosophers of science? Should we abandon the search for a general theory of science, as Argamakova (2018) suggests? Are there better models of scientific change? Perhaps evolutionary (Marcum 2018) or orthogenetic (Renzi and Napolitano 2018) models?

• • •

I would like to thank Markus Arnold and Amanda Bryant for their thoughtful reviews. I am also grateful to Adam Riggio and Eric Kerr for organizing this book symposium and for inviting me to participate.

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

Argamakova, Alexandra. “Modeling Scientific Development: Lessons from Thomas Kuhn.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 45-59. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Arnold, Markus. “Is There Anything Wrong With Thomas Kuhn?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 5 (2018): 42-47.

Bryant, Amanda. “Each Kuhn Mutually Incommensurable.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 1-7.

Kindi, Vasso. “The Kuhnian Straw Man.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 95-112. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Third Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962/1996.

Marcum, James A. “Revolution or Evolution in Science? A Role for the Incommensurability Thesis?” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 155-173. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Mizrahi, Moti. “A Reply to Patton’s ‘Incommensurability and the Bonfire of the Meta-Theories.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 51-53.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Introduction.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 1-22. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018a.

Mizrahi, Moti. “Kuhn’s Incommensurability Thesis: What’s the Argument?” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 25-44. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018b.

Park, Seungbae. “Can Kuhn’s Taxonomic Incommensurability be an Image of Science?” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 61-74. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Patton, Lydia. “Incommensurability and the Bonfire of the Meta-Theories: Response to Mizrahi.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 7 (2015): 51-58.

Patton, Lydia. “Kuhn, Pedagogy, and Practice: A Local Reading of Structure.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 113-130. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Rehg, William. “Kuhn’s Image of Science.” Metascience (2018): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11016-018-0306-2.

Renzi, Barbara G. and Giulio Napolitano. “The Biological Metaphors of Scientific Change.” In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation?, edited by Moti Mizrahi, 177-190. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Author Information: James A. Marcum, Baylor University, james_marcum@baylor.edu

Marcum, James A. “A Role for Taxonomic Incommensurability in Evolutionary Philosophy of Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 9-14.

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

See also:

Image by Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In a review of my chapter (Marcum 2018), Amanda Bryant (2018) charges me with failing to discuss the explanatory role taxonomic incommensurability (TI) plays in my revision of Kuhn’s evolutionary philosophy of science. To quote Bryant at length,

One of Marcum’s central aims is to show that incommensurability plays a key explanatory role in a refined version of Kuhn’s evolutionary image of science. The role of incommensurability on this view is to account for scientific speciation. However, Marcum shows only that we can characterize scientific speciation in terms of incommensurability, without clearly establishing the explanatory payoff of so doing. He does not succeed in showing that incommensurability has a particularly enriching explanatory role, much less that incommensurability is “critical for conceptual evolution within the sciences” or “an essential component of…the growth of science” (168).

Bryant is right. I failed to discuss the explanatory role of TI for the three historical case studies, as listed in Table 8.1, in section 5, “Revising Kuhn’s Evolutionary Image of Science and Incommensurability,” of my chapter. Obviously, my aim in this response, then, is to amend that failure by discussing TI’s role in the case studies and by revising the chapter’s Table to include TI.

Before discussing the role of TI in the historical case studies, I first develop the notion of TI in terms of Kuhn’s revision of the original incommensurability thesis. Kuhn (1983) responded to critics of the original thesis in a symposium paper delivered at the 1982 biannual meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association.

In the paper, Kuhn admitted that his primary intention for incommensurability was more “modest” than with what critics had charged him. Rather than radical or universal changes in terms and concepts—what is often called “global” incommensurability (Hoyningen-Huene 2005, Marcum 2015, Simmons 1994)—Kuhn claimed that only a handful of terms and concepts are incommensurable after a paradigm shift. He called this thesis “local” incommensurability.

More Common Than Incommensurable

Kuhn’s revision of the original incommensurability thesis has important implications for the TI thesis. To that end, I propose three types of TI. The first is comparable to Kuhn’s local incommensurability in which only a small number of terms and concepts are incommensurable, between the lexicons of two scientific specialties. The second is akin to global incommensurability in which two lexicons are radically and universally incommensurable with one another—sharing only a few commensurable terms and concepts.

An example of this type of incommensurability is the construction of a drastically new lexicon accompanying the evolution of a specialty. Both local and global TI represent, then, two poles along a continuum. For the type of TI falling along this continuum, I propose the notion of regional TI—in keeping with the geographical metaphor.

Unfortunately, sharper delineation among the three types of TI in terms of the quantity and quality of incommensurable and commensurable terms and concepts composing taxonomically incommensurable lexicons cannot be made currently, other than local TI comprises one end of the continuum while global TI the other end, with regional TI occupying an intermediate position between them. Notwithstanding this imprecise delineation, the three types of TI are apt for explaining the evolution of the microbiological specialties of bacteriology, virology, and retrovirology, especially with respect to their tempos and modes.

Revised Table. Types of tempo, mode, and taxonomic incommensurability for the evolution of microbiological specialties of bacteriology, virology, and retrovirology (see text for details).

Scientific Specialty Tempo Mode Taxonomic

Incommensurability

 

Bacteriology Bradytelic Phyletic Global

 

Virology Tachytelic Quantal Regional

 

Retrovirology Horotelic Speciation Local

 

 

Examples Bacterial and Viral

As depicted in the Revised Table, the evolution of bacteriology, with its bradytelic tempo and phyletic mode, is best accounted for through global TI. A large number of novel incommensurable terms and concepts appeared with the evolution of bacteriology and the germ theory of disease, and global TI afforded the bacteriology lexicon the conceptual space to evolve fully and independently by isolating that lexicon from both botany and zoology lexicons, as well as from other specialty lexicons in microbiology.

For example, in terms of microbiology as a specialty separate from botany and zoology, bacteria are prokaryotes compared to other microorganisms such as algae, fungi, and protozoa, which are eukaryotes. Eukaryotes have a nucleus surrounded by a plasma membrane that separates the chromosomes from the cytoplasm, while prokaryotes do not. Rather, prokaryotes like bacteria have a single circular chromosome located in the nucleoid region of the cell.

However, the bacteriology lexicon does share a few commensurable terms and concepts with the lexicons of other microbiologic specialties and with the cell biology lexicons of botany and zoology. For example, both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells contain a plasma membrane that separates the cell’s interior from the external environment. Examples of many other incommensurable (and of a few commensurable) terms and concepts make up the lexicons of these specialties but suffice these examples to provide how global TI provided the bacteriology lexicon a cognitive environment so that it could evolve as a distinct specialty.

Also, as depicted in the Revised Table, the evolution of virology, with its tachytelic tempo and quantal mode, is best accounted for through regional TI. A relatively smaller number of new incommensurable terms and concepts appeared with the evolution of virology compared to the evolution of bacteriology, and regional TI afforded the virology lexicon the conceptual space to evolve freely and self-sufficiently by isolating that lexicon from the bacteriology lexicon, as well as from other biology lexicons.

For example, the genome of the virus is surrounded by a capsid or protein shell, which distinguishes it from both prokaryotes and eukaryotes—neither of which have such a structure. Moreover, viruses do not have a constitutive plasma membrane, although some viruses acquire a plasma membrane from the host cell when exiting it during lysis. However, the function of the viral plasma membrane is different from that for both prokaryotes and eukaryotes.

Interestingly, the term plasma membrane for the virology lexicon is both commensurable and incommensurable, when compared to other biology lexicons. The viral plasma membrane is commensurable in that it is comparable in structure to the plasma membrane of prokaryotes and eukaryotes but it is incommensurable in that it functions differently. Finally, some viral genomes are composed of DNA similar to prokaryotic and eukaryotic genomes while others are composed of RNA; and, it is this RNA genome that led to the evolution of the retrovirology specialty.

Image by AJC1 via Flickr / Creative Commons

And As Seen in the Retrovirological

As depicted lastly in the Revised Table, the evolution of retrovirology, with its horotelic tempo and speciation mode, is best accounted for through local TI. An even smaller number of novel incommensurable terms and concepts accompanied the evolution of retrovirology as compared to the number of novel incommensurable terms and concepts involved in the evolution of the virology lexicon vis-à-vis the bacteriology lexicon.

And, as true for the role of TI in the evolution of bacteriology and virology, local TI afforded the retrovirology lexicon the conceptual space to evolve rather autonomously by isolating that lexicon from the virology and bacteriology lexicons. For example, retroviruses, as noted previously, contain only an RNA genome but the replication of the retrovirus and its genome does not involve replication of the RNA genome from the RNA directly, as for other RNA viruses.

Rather, retrovirus replication involves the formation of a DNA provirus through the enzyme reverse transcriptase. The DNA provirus is subsequently incorporated into the host’s genome, where it remains dormant until replication of the retrovirus is triggered.

The incommensurability associated with retrovirology evolution is local since only a few incommensurable terms and concepts separate the virology and retrovirology lexicons. But that incommensurability was critical for the evolution of the retrovirology specialty (although given how few incommensurable terms and concepts exist between the virology and retrovirology lexicons, a case could be made for retrovirology representing a subspecialty of virology).

Where the Payoff Lies

In her review, Bryant makes a distinction, as quoted above, between characterizing the evolution of the microbiological specialties via TI and explaining their evolution via TI. In terms of the first distinction, TI is the product of the evolution of a specialty and its lexicon. In other words, when reconstructing historically the evolution of a specialty, the evolutionary outcome is a new specialty and its lexicon—which is incommensurable locally, regionally, or globally with respect to other specialty lexicons.

For example, the retrovirology lexicon—when compared to the virology lexicon—has few incommensurable terms, such as DNA provirus and reverse transcriptase. The second distinction involves the process or mechanism by which the evolution of the specialty’s lexicon takes place vis-à-vis TI. In other words, TI plays a critical role in the evolutionary process of a specialty and its lexicon.

Keeping with the retrovirology example, the experimental result that actinomysin D inhibits Rous sarcoma virus was an important anomaly with respect to the virology lexicon, which could only explain the replication of RNA viruses in terms of the Central Dogma’s flow of genetic information. TI, then, represents the mechanism, i.e. by providing the conceptual space, for the evolution of a new specialty with respect to incommensurable terms and concepts.

In conclusion, the “explanatory payoff” for TI with respect to the revised Kuhnian evolutionary philosophy of science is that such incommensurability provides isolation for a scientific specialty and its lexicon so that it can evolve from a parental stock. For, without the conceptual isolation to develop its lexicon, a specialty cannot evolve.

Just as biological species like Darwin’s Galápagos finches, for instance, required physical isolation from one another to evolve (Lack 1983), so the evolving microbiological specialties also required conceptual isolation from one another and from other biology specialties and their lexicons. TI accounts for or explains the evolution of science and its specialties in terms of providing the necessary conceptual opportunity for the specialties to emerge and then to evolve.

Moreover, it is of interest to note that an apparent relationship exists between the various tempos and modes and the different types of TI. For example, the retrovirology case study suggests that local TI is commonly associated with a horotelic tempo and speciation mode—which to some extent makes sense intuitively. In other words, speciation requires far fewer lexical changes than phylogeny, which requires many more lexical changes or an almost completely new lexicon—as the evolution of bacteriology illustrates.

The proposed evolutionary philosophy of science, then, accounts for the emergence of bacteriology in terms of a specific tempo and mode, as well as a particular type of TI; and, it thereby provides a rich explanation for its emergence. Furthermore, the quantity and quality of taxonomically incommensurable terms and concepts involved in the evolution of the microbiology specialties suggest the following relative frequency for the different types of TI: local TI > regional RI > global TI.

The Potential of Evolutionary Paradigms

Finally, I proposed in my chapter that Kuhn’s revised evolutionary philosophy of science is a good candidate for a general philosophy of science, even in light of philosophy of science’s current pluralistic or perspectival stance. Interestingly, regardless of the increasing specialization within the natural sciences (Wray 2005), these sciences are moving towards integration in order to tackle complex natural phenomena. For example, cancer is simply too complex a disease to succumb to a single specialty (Williams 2015).

The revised Kuhnian evolutionary philosophy of science helps to appreciate and account for the drive and need for integration of different scientific specialties to investigate complex natural phenomena, such as cancer. Specifically, one of the important reasons for the integration is that no single scientist can master the necessary lexicons, whether biochemistry, bioinformatics, cell biology, genomic biology, immunology, molecular biology, physiology, etc., needed to investigate and eventually to cure the disease. A scientist might be bilingual or even trilingual with respect to specialties but certainly not multilingual.

The conceptual and methodological approach, which integrates these various specialties, stands a better chance in discovering the pathological mechanisms involved in carcinogenesis and thereby in developing effective therapies. Integrated science, then, requires a systems or network approach since no one scientists can master the various specialties needed to investigate a complex natural phenomenon.

In the end, TI helps to make sense of why integrated science is important for the future evolution of science and of how an evolutionary philosophy of science can function as a general philosophy of science.

Contact details: james_marcum@baylor.edu

References

Bryant, Amanda. “Each Kuhn Mutually Incommensurable”, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 6 (2018): 1-7.

Hoyningen-Huene, Paul. “Three Biographies: Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Incommensurability”, In Rhetoric and Incommensurability. Randy A. Harris (ed.), West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, (2005): 150-175.

Kuhn, Thomas S. “Commensurability, Comparability, Communicability”, PSA: 1982, no. 2

(1983): 669-688.

Lack, David. Darwin’s Finches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1983).

Marcum, James A. Thomas Kuhn’s Revolutions: A Historical and an Evolutionary Philosophy of Science. London: Bloomsbury, (2015).

Marcum, James A. “Revolution or Evolution in Science?: A Role for the Incommensurability Thesis?”, In The Kuhnian Image of Science: Time for a Decisive Transformation? Moti Mizrahi (ed.), Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, (2018): 155-173.

Simmons, Lance. “Three Kinds of Incommensurability Thesis”, American Philosophical Quarterly 31, no. 2 (1994): 119-131.

Williams, Sarah C.P. “News Feature: Capturing Cancer’s Complexity”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, no. 15 (2015): 4509-4511.

Wray, K. Brad. “Rethinking Scientific Specialization”, Social Studies of Science 35. no. 1 (2005): 151-164.