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Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, bmartin@uow.edu.au.

Martin, Brian. “Bad Social Science.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 6-16.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47a

Image by Sanofi Pasteur via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

People untrained in social science frameworks and methods often make assumptions, observations or conclusions about the social world.[1] For example, they might say, “President Trump is a psychopath,” thereby making a judgement about Trump’s mental state. The point here is not whether this judgement is right or wrong, but whether it is based on a careful study of Trump’s thoughts and behaviour drawing on relevant expertise.

In most cases, the claim “President Trump is a psychopath” is bad psychology, in the sense that it is a conclusion reached without the application of skills in psychological diagnosis expected among professional psychologists and psychiatrists.[2] Even a non-psychologist can recognise cruder forms of bad psychology: they lack the application of standard tools in the field, such as comparison of criteria for psychopathy with Trump’s thought and behaviour.

“Bad social science” here refers to claims about society and social relationships that fall very far short of what social scientists consider good scholarship. This might be due to using false or misleading evidence, making faulty arguments, drawing unsupported conclusions or various other severe methodological, empirical or theoretical deficiencies.

In all sorts of public commentary and private conversations, examples of bad social science are legion. Instances are so common that it may seem pointless to take note of problems with ill-informed claims. However, there is value in a more systematic examination of different sorts of everyday bad social science. Such an examination can point to what is important in doing good social science and to weaknesses in assumptions, evidence and argumentation. It can also provide insights into how to defend and promote high-quality social analysis.

Here, I illustrate several facets of bad social science found in a specific public scientific controversy: the Australian vaccination debate. It is a public debate in which many partisans make claims about social dynamics, so there is ample material for analysis. In addition, because the debate is highly polarised, involves strong emotions and is extremely rancorous, it is to be expected that many deviations from calm, rational, polite discourse would be on display.

Another reason for selecting this topic is that I have been studying the debate for quite a number of years, and indeed have been drawn into the debate as a “captive of controversy.”[3] Several of the types of bad social science are found on both sides of the debate. Here, I focus mainly on pro-vaccination campaigners for reasons that will become clear.

In the following sections, I address several facets of bad social science: ad hominem attacks, not defining terms, use of limited and dubious evidence, misrepresentation, lack of reference to alternative viewpoints, lack of quality control, and drawing of unjustified conclusions. In each case, I provide examples from the Australian public vaccination debate, drawing on my experience. In a sense, selecting these topics represents an informal application of grounded theory: each of the shortcomings became evident to me through encountering numerous instances. After this, I note that there is a greater risk of deficient argumentation when defending orthodoxy.

With this background, I outline how studying bad social science can be of benefit in three ways: as a pointer to particular areas in which it is important to maintain high standards, as a toolkit for responding to attacks on social science, and as a reminder of the need to improve public understanding of social science approaches.

Ad Hominem

In the Australian vaccination debate, many partisans make adverse comments about opponents as a means of discrediting them. Social scientists recognise that ad hominem argumentation, namely attacking the person rather than dealing with what they say, is illegitimate for the purposes of making a case.

In the mid 1990s, Meryl Dorey founded the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), which became the leading citizens’ group critical of government vaccination policy.[4] In 2009, a pro-vaccination citizens’ group called Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) was set up with the stated aim of discrediting and shutting down the AVN.[5] SAVNers referred to Dorey with a wide range of epithets, for example “cunt.”[6]

What is interesting here is that some ad hominem attacks contain an implicit social analysis. One of them is “liar.” SAVNer Ken McLeod accused Dorey of being a liar, giving various examples.[7] However, some of these examples show only that Dorey persisted in making claims that SAVNers believed had been refuted.[8] This does not necessarily constitute lying, if lying is defined, as it often is by researchers in the area, as consciously intending to deceive.[9] To the extent that McLeod failed to relate his claims to research in the field, his application of the label “liar” constitutes bad social science.

Another term applied to vaccine critics is “babykiller.” In the Australian context, this word contains an implied social analysis, based on these premises: public questioning of vaccination policy causes some parents not to have their children vaccinated, leading to reduced vaccination rates and thence to more children dying of infectious diseases.

“Babykiller” also contains a moral judgement, namely that public critics of vaccination are culpable for the deaths of children from vaccination-preventable diseases. Few of those applying the term “babykiller” provide evidence to back up the implicit social analysis and judgement, so the label in these instances represents bad social science.

There are numerous other examples of ad hominem in the vaccination debate, on both sides. Some of them might be said to be primarily abuse, such as “cunt.” Others, though, contain an associated or implied social analysis, so to judge its quality it is necessary to assess whether the analysis conforms to conventions within social science.

Undefined terms

In social science, it is normal to define key concepts, either by explicit definitions or descriptive accounts. The point is to provide clarity when the concept is used.

One of the terms used by vaccination supporters in the Australian debate is “anti-vaxxer.” Despite the ubiquity of this term in social and mass media, I have never seen it defined. This is significant because of the considerable ambiguity involved. “Anti-vaxxer” might refer to parents who refuse all vaccines for their children and themselves, parents who have their children receive some but not all recommended vaccines, parents who express reservations about vaccination, and/or campaigners who criticise vaccination policy.

The way “anti-vaxxer” is applied in practice tends to conflate these different meanings, with the implication that any criticism of vaccination puts you in the camp of those who refuse all vaccines. The label “anti-vaxxer” has been applied to me even though I do not have a strong view about vaccination.[10]

Because of the lack of a definition or clear meaning, the term “anti-vaxxer” is a form of ad hominem and also represents bad social science. Tellingly, few social scientists studying the vaccination issue use the term descriptively.

In their publications, social scientists may not define all the terms they use because their meanings are commonly accepted in the field. Nearly always, though, some researchers pay close attention to any widely used concept.[11] When such a concept remains ill-defined, this may be a sign of bad social science — especially when it is used as a pejorative label.

Limited and Dubious Evidence

Social scientists normally seek to provide strong evidence for their claims and restrict their claims to what the evidence can support. In public debates, this caution is often disregarded.

After SAVN was formed in 2009, one of its initial claims was that the AVN believed in a global conspiracy to implant mind-control chips via vaccinations. The key piece of evidence SAVNers provided to support this claim was that Meryl Dorey had given a link to the website of David Icke, who was known to have some weird beliefs, such as that the world is ruled by shape-shifting reptilian humanoids.

The weakness of this evidence should be apparent. Just because Icke has some weird beliefs does not mean every document on his website involves adherence to weird beliefs, and just because Dorey provided a link to a document does not prove she believes in everything in the document, much less subscribes to the beliefs of the owner of the website. Furthermore, Dorey denied believing in a mind-control global conspiracy.

Finally, even if Dorey had believed in this conspiracy, this does not mean other members of the AVN, or the AVN as an organisation, believed in the conspiracy. Although the evidence was exceedingly weak, several SAVNers, after I confronted them on the matter, initially refused to back down from their claims.[12]

Misrepresentation

When studying an issue, scholars assume that evidence, sources and other material should be represented fairly. For example, a quotation from an author should fairly present the author’s views, and not be used out of context to show something different than what the author intended.

Quite a few campaigners in the Australian vaccination debate use a different approach, which might be called “gotcha”. Quotes are used to expose writers as incompetent, misguided or deluded. Views of authors are misrepresented as a means of discrediting and dismissing them.

Judy Wilyman did her PhD under my supervision and was the subject of attack for years before she graduated. On 13 January 2016, just two days after her thesis was posted online, it was the subject of a front-page story in the daily newspaper The Australian. The journalist, despite having been informed of a convenient summary of the thesis, did not mention any of its key ideas, instead claiming that it involved a conspiracy theory. Quotes from the thesis, taken out of context, were paraded as evidence of inadequacy.

This journalistic misrepresentation of Judy’s thesis was remarkably influential. It led to a cascade of hostile commentary, with hundreds of online comments on the numerous stories in The Australian, an online petition signed by thousands of people, and calls by scientists for Judy’s PhD to be revoked. In all the furore, not a single critic of her thesis posted a fair-minded summary of its contents.[13]

Alternative Viewpoints?

In high-quality social science, it is common to defend a viewpoint, but considered appropriate to examine other perspectives. Indeed, when presenting a critique, it is usual to begin with a summary of the work to be criticised.

In the Australian vaccination debate, partisans do not even attempt to present the opposing side’s viewpoint. I have never seen any campaigner provide a summary of the evidence and arguments supporting the opposition’s viewpoint. Vaccination critics present evidence and arguments that cast doubt on the government’s vaccination policy, and never try to summarise the evidence and arguments supporting it. Likewise, backers of the government’s policy never try to summarise the case against it.

There are also some intermediate viewpoints, divergent from the entrenched positions in the public debate. For example, there are some commentators who support some vaccines but not all the government-recommended ones, or who support single vaccines rather than multiple vaccines. These non-standard positions are hardly ever discussed in public by pro-vaccination campaigners.[14] More commonly, they are implicitly subsumed by the label “anti-vaxxer.”

To find summaries of arguments and evidence on both sides, it is necessary to turn to work by social scientists, and then only the few of them studying the debate without arguing for one side or the other.[15]

Quality Control

When making a claim, it makes sense to check it. Social scientists commonly do this by checking sources and/or by relying on peer review. For contemporary issues, it’s often possible to check with the person who made the claim.

In the Australian vaccination debate, there seems to be little attempt to check claims, especially when they are derogatory claims about opponents. I can speak from personal experience. Quite a number of SAVNers have made comments about my work, for example in blogs. On not a single occasion has any one of them checked with me in advance of publication.

After SAVN was formed and I started writing about free speech in the Australian vaccination debate, I sent drafts of some of my papers to SAVNers for comment. Rather than using this opportunity to send me corrections and comments, the response was to attack me, including by making complaints to my university.[16] Interestingly, the only SAVNer to have been helpful in commenting on drafts is another academic.

Another example concerns Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist who was lead author of a paper in The Lancet suggesting that the possibility that the MMR triple vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) might be linked to autism should be investigated. The paper led to a storm of media attention.

Australian pro-vaccination campaigns, and quite a few media reports, refer to Wakefield’s alleged wrongdoings, treating them as discrediting any criticism of vaccination. Incorrect statements about Wakefield are commonplace, for example that he lost his medical licence due to scientific fraud. It is a simple matter to check the facts, but apparently few do this. Even fewer take the trouble to look into the claims and counterclaims about Wakefield and qualify their statements accordingly.[17]

Drawing Conclusions

Social scientists are trained to be cautious in drawing conclusions, ensuring that they do not go beyond what can be justified from data and arguments. In addition, it is standard to include a discussion of limitations. This sort of caution is often absent in public debates.

SAVNers have claimed great success in their campaign against the AVN, giving evidence that, for example, their efforts have prevented AVN talks from being held and reduced media coverage of vaccine critics. However, although AVN operations have undoubtedly been hampered, this does not necessarily show that vaccination rates have increased or, more importantly, that public health has benefited.[18]

Defending Orthodoxy

Many social scientists undertake research in controversial areas. Some support the dominant views, some support an unorthodox position and quite a few try not to take a stand. There is no inherent problem in supporting the orthodox position, but doing so brings greater risks to the quality of research.

Many SAVNers assume that vaccination is a scientific issue and that only people with scientific credentials, for example degrees or publications in virology or epidemiology, have any credibility. This was apparent in an article by philosopher Patrick Stokes entitled “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” that received high praise from SAVNers.[19] It was also apparent in the attack on Judy Wilyman, whose PhD was criticised because it was not in a scientific field, and because she analysed scientific claims without being a scientist. The claim that only scientists can validly criticise vaccination is easily countered.[20] The problem for SAVNers is that they are less likely to question assumptions precisely because they support the dominant viewpoint.

There is a fascinating aspect to campaigners supporting orthodoxy: they themselves frequently make claims about vaccination although they are not scientists with relevant qualifications. They do not apply their own strictures about necessary expertise to themselves. This can be explained as deriving from “honour by association,” a process parallel to guilt by association but less noticed because it is so common. In honour by association, a person gains or assumes greater credibility by being associated with a prestigious person, group or view.

Someone without special expertise who asserts a claim that supports orthodoxy implicitly takes on the mantle of the experts on the side of orthodoxy. It is only those who challenge orthodoxy who are expected to have relevant credentials. There is nothing inherently wrong with supporting the orthodox view, but it does mean there is less pressure to examine assumptions.

My initial example of bad social science was calling Donald Trump a psychopath. Suppose you said Trump has narcissistic personality disorder. This might not seem to be bad social science because it accords with the views of many psychologists. However, agreeing with orthodoxy, without accompanying deployment of expertise, does not constitute good social science any more than disagreeing with orthodoxy.

Lessons

It is all too easy to identify examples of bad social science in popular commentary. They are commonplace in political campaigning and in everyday conversations.

Being attuned to common violations of good practice has three potential benefits: as a useful reminder to maintain high standards; as a toolkit for responding to attacks on social science; and as a guide to encouraging greater public awareness of social scientific thinking and methods.

Bad Social Science as a Reminder to Maintain High Standards

Most of the kinds of bad social science prevalent in the Australian vaccination debate seldom receive extended attention in the social science literature. For example, the widely used and cited textbook Social Research Methods does not even mention ad hominem, presumably because avoiding it is so basic that it need not be discussed.

It describes five common errors in everyday thinking that social scientists should avoid: overgeneralisation, selective observation, premature closure, the halo effect and false consensus.[21] Some of these overlap with the shortcomings I’ve observed in the Australian vaccination debate. For example, the halo effect, in which prestigious sources are given more credibility, has affinities with honour by association.

The textbook The Craft of Research likewise does not mention ad hominem. In a final brief section on the ethics of research, there are a couple of points that can be applied to the vaccination debate. For example, ethical researchers “do not caricature or distort opposing views.” Another recommendation is that “When you acknowledge your readers’ alternative views, including their strongest objections and reservations,” you move towards more reliable knowledge and honour readers’ dignity.[22] Compared with the careful exposition of research methods in this and other texts, the shortcomings in public debates are seemingly so basic and obvious as to not warrant extended discussion.

No doubt many social scientists could point to the work of others in the field — or even their own — as failing to meet the highest standards. Looking at examples of bad social science can provide a reminder of what to avoid. For example, being aware of ad hominem argumentation can help in avoiding subtle denigration of authors and instead focusing entirely on their evidence and arguments. Being reminded of confirmation bias can encourage exploration of a greater diversity of viewpoints.

Malcolm Wright and Scott Armstrong examined 50 articles that cited a method in survey-based research that Armstrong had developed years earlier. They discovered that only one of the 50 studies had reported the method correctly. They recommend that researchers send drafts of their work to authors of cited studies — especially those on which the research depends most heavily — to ensure accuracy.[23] This is not a common practice in any field of scholarship but is worth considering in the interests of improving quality.

Bad Social Science as a Toolkit for Responding to Attacks

Alan Sokal wrote an intentionally incoherent article that was published in 1996 in the cultural studies journal Social Text. Numerous commentators lauded Sokal for carrying out an audacious prank that revealed the truth about cultural studies, namely that it was bunk. These commentators had not carried out relevant studies themselves, nor were most of them familiar with the field of cultural studies, including its frameworks, objects of study, methods of analysis, conclusions and exemplary pieces of scholarship.

To the extent that these commentators were uninformed about cultural studies yet willing to praise Sokal for his hoax, they were involved in a sort of bad social science. Perhaps they supported Sokal’s hoax because it agreed with their preconceived ideas, though investigation would be needed to assess this hypothesis.

Most responses to the hoax took a defensive line, for example arguing that Sokal’s conclusions were not justified. Only a few argued that interpreting the hoax as showing the vacuity of cultural studies was itself poor social science.[24] Sokal himself said it was inappropriate to draw general conclusions about cultural studies from the hoax,[25] so ironically it would have been possible to respond to attackers by quoting Sokal.

When social scientists come under attack, it can be useful to examine the evidence and methods used or cited by the attackers, and to point out, as is often the case, that they fail to measure up to standards in the field.

Encouraging Greater Public Awareness of Social Science Thinking and Methods

It is easy to communicate with like-minded scholars and commiserate about the ignorance of those who misunderstand or wilfully misrepresent social science. More challenging is to pay close attention to the characteristic ways in which people make assumptions and reason about the social world and how these ways often fall far short of the standards expected in scholarly circles.

By identifying common forms of bad social science, it may be possible to better design interventions into public discourse to encourage more rigorous thinking about evidence and argument, especially to counter spurious and ill-founded claims by partisans in public debates.

Conclusion

Social scientists, in looking at research contributions, usually focus on what is high quality: the deepest insights, the tightest arguments, the most comprehensive data, the most sophisticated analysis and the most elegant writing. This makes sense: top quality contributions offer worthwhile models to learn from and emulate.

Nevertheless, there is also a role for learning from poor quality contributions. It is instructive to look at public debates involving social issues in which people make judgements about the same sorts of matters that are investigated by social scientists, everything from criminal justice to social mores. Contributions to public debates can starkly show flaws in reasoning and the use of evidence. These flaws provide a useful reminder of things to avoid.

Observation of the Australian vaccination debate reveals several types of bad social science, including ad hominem attacks, failing to define terms, relying on dubious sources, failing to provide context, and not checking claims. The risk of succumbing to these shortcomings seems to be magnified when the orthodox viewpoint is being supported, because it is assumed to be correct and there is less likelihood of being held accountable by opponents.

There is something additional that social scientists can learn by studying contributions to public debates that have serious empirical and theoretical shortcomings. There are likely to be characteristic failures that occur repeatedly. These offer supplementary guidance for what to avoid. They also provide insight into what sort of training, for aspiring social scientists, is useful for moving from unreflective arguments to careful research.

There is also a challenge that few scholars have tackled. Given the prevalence of bad social science in many public debates, is it possible to intervene in these debates in a way that fosters greater appreciation for what is involved in good quality scholarship, and encourages campaigners to aspire to make sounder contributions?

Contact details: bmartin@uow.edu.au

References

Blume, Stuart. Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial. London: Reaktion Books, 2017.

Booth, Wayne C.; Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup and William T. FitzGerald, The Craft of Research, fourth edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Collier, David; Fernando Daniel Hidalgo and Andra Olivia Maciuceanu, “Essentially contested concepts: debates and applications,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 11(3), October 2006, pp. 211–246.

Ekman, Paul. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. New York: Norton, 1985.

Hilgartner, Stephen, “The Sokal affair in context,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, 22(4), Autumn 1997, pp. 506–522.

Lee, Bandy X. The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

Martin, Brian; and Florencia Peña Saint Martin. El mobbing en la esfera pública: el fenómeno y sus características [Public mobbing: a phenomenon and its features]. In Norma González González (Coordinadora), Organización social del trabajo en la posmodernidad: salud mental, ambientes laborales y vida cotidiana (Guadalajara, Jalisco, México: Prometeo Editores, 2014), pp. 91-114.

Martin, Brian. “Debating vaccination: understanding the attack on the Australian Vaccination Network.” Living Wisdom, no. 8, 2011, pp. 14–40.

Martin, Brian. “On the suppression of vaccination dissent.” Science & Engineering Ethics. Vol. 21, No. 1, 2015, pp. 143–157.

Martin, Brian. Evidence-based campaigning. Archives of Public Health, 76, no. 54. (2018), https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-018-0302-4.

Martin, Brian. Vaccination Panic in Australia. Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2018.

Ken McLeod, “Meryl Dorey’s trouble with the truth, part 1: how Meryl Dorey lies, obfuscates, prevaricates, exaggerates, confabulates and confuses in promoting her anti-vaccination agenda,” 2010, http://www.scribd.com/doc/47704677/Meryl-Doreys-Trouble-With-the-Truth-Part-1.

Neuman, W. Lawrence. Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, seventh edition. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011.

Scott, Pam; Evelleen Richards and Brian Martin, “Captives of controversy: the myth of the neutral social researcher in contemporary scientific controversies,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 474–494.

Sokal, Alan D. “What the Social Text affair does and does not prove,” in Noretta Koertge (ed.), A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 9–22

Stokes, Patrick. “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” The Conversation, 5 October 2012, https://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978.

Wright, Malcolm, and J. Scott Armstrong, “The ombudsman: verification of citations: fawlty towers of knowledge?” Interfaces, 38 (2), March-April 2008.

[1] Thanks to Meryl Dorey, Stephen Hilgartner, Larry Neuman, Alan Sokal and Malcolm Wright for valuable feedback on drafts.

[2] For informed commentary on these issues, see Bandy X. Lee, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017).

[3] Pam Scott, Evelleen Richards and Brian Martin, “Captives of controversy: the myth of the neutral social researcher in contemporary scientific controversies,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 474–494.

[4] The AVN, forced to change its name in 2014, became the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network. In 2018 it voluntarily changed its name to the Australian Vaccination-risks Network.

[5] In 2014, SAVN changed its name to Stop the Australian (Anti-)Vaccination Network.

[6] Brian Martin and Florencia Peña Saint Martin. El mobbing en la esfera pública: el fenómeno y sus características [Public mobbing: a phenomenon and its features]. In Norma González González (Coordinadora), Organización social del trabajo en la posmodernidad: salud mental, ambientes laborales y vida cotidiana (Guadalajara, Jalisco, México: Prometeo Editores, 2014), pp. 91-114.

[7] Ken McLeod, “Meryl Dorey’s trouble with the truth, part 1: how Meryl Dorey lies, obfuscates, prevaricates, exaggerates, confabulates and confuses in promoting her anti-vaccination agenda,” 2010, http://www.scribd.com/doc/47704677/Meryl-Doreys-Trouble-With-the-Truth-Part-1.

[8] Brian Martin, “Debating vaccination: understanding the attack on the Australian Vaccination Network,” Living Wisdom, no. 8, 2011, pp. 14–40, at pp. 28–30.

[9] E.g., Paul Ekman, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage (New York: Norton, 1985).

[10] On Wikipedia I am categorised as an “anti-vaccination activist,” a term that is not defined on the entry listing those in the category. See Brian Martin, “Persistent bias on Wikipedia: methods and responses,” Social Science Computer Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, June 2018, pp. 379–388.

[11] See for example David Collier, Fernando Daniel Hidalgo and Andra Olivia Maciuceanu, “Essentially contested concepts: debates and applications,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 11(3), October 2006, pp. 211–246.

[12] Brian Martin. “Caught in the vaccination wars (part 3)”, 23 October 2012, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/12hpi-comments.html.

[13] The only possible exception to this statement is Michael Brull, “Anti-vaccination cranks versus academic freedom,” New Matilda, 7 February 2016, who reproduced my own summary of the key points in the thesis relevant to Australian government vaccination policy. For my responses to the attack, see http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/controversy.html – Wilyman, for example “Defending university integrity,” International Journal for Educational Integrity, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2017, pp. 1–14.

[14] Brian Martin, Vaccination Panic in Australia (Sparsnäs, Sweden: Irene Publishing, 2018), pp. 15–24.

[15] E.g., Stuart Blume, Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial (London: Reaktion Books, 2017).

[16] Brian Martin. “Caught in the vaccination wars”, 28 April 2011, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/11savn/.

[17] For own commentary on Wakefield, see “On the suppression of vaccination dissent,” Science & Engineering Ethics, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2015, pp. 143–157.

[18] Brian Martin. Evidence-based campaigning. Archives of Public Health, Vol. 76, article 54, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1186/s13690-018-0302-4.

[19] Patrick Stokes, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” The Conversation, 5 October 2012, https://theconversation.com/no-youre-not-entitled-to-your-opinion-9978.

[20] Martin, Vaccination Panic in Australia, 292–304.

[21] W. Lawrence Neuman, Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, seventh edition (Boston, MA: Pearson, 2011), 3–5.

[22] Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup and William T. FitzGerald, The Craft of Research, fourth edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 272–273.

[23] Malcolm Wright and J. Scott Armstrong, “The ombudsman: verification of citations: fawlty towers of knowledge?” Interfaces, 38 (2), March-April 2008, 125–132.

[24] For a detailed articulation of this approach, see Stephen Hilgartner, “The Sokal affair in context,” Science, Technology, & Human Values, 22(4), Autumn 1997, pp. 506–522. Hilgartner gives numerous citations to expansive interpretations of the significance of the hoax.

[25] See for example Alan D. Sokal, “What the Social Text affair does and does not prove,” in Noretta Koertge (ed.), A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 9–22, at p. 11: “From the mere fact of publication of my parody, I think that not much can be deduced. It doesn’t prove that the whole field of cultural studies, or the cultural studies of science — much less the sociology of science — is nonsense.”

Author Information: Nadja El Kassar, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch.

El Kassar, Nadja. “A Critical Catalogue of Ignorance: A Reply to Patrick Bondy.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 49-51.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46U

Image by Lynn Friedman via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article responds to critiques of El Kassar, Nadja (2018). “What Ignorance Really Is: Examining the Foundations of Epistemology of Ignorance.” Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1518498.

Including Bondy, Patrick. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 9-14.

Thanks to Patrick Bondy for these inspiring comments that allows me to further explain the arguments and rationale of the integrated conception of ignorance. 

Weak and Strong Ignorance

Bondy’s suggestion that there is weak ignorance and strong ignorance just as there is strong and weak knowledge is very interesting and perceptive (Bondy 2018, 11-12). But I take it that this distinction is more relevant for defenders of the propositional conception of ignorance, in particular supporters of the Standard View and New View.

In my reply to Peels (2019), I suggest that we should not see knowledge and ignorance as simple opposites, nor that their accounts should be mirrored. And in the original article I have argued that the Standard View and the New View are not adequate for capturing ignorance. Therefore, Bondy’s suggestion and the related criticism of the debate between the Standard View and New View is not as pertinent for my integrated conception of ignorance, but I think it should be taken seriously as an alternative approach to distinguishing forms of ignorance.

“Agential Ignorance” and “Agential Conception of Ignorance”

I need to point to a terminological issue in Bondy’s reply that may be central for distinguishing conceptions of ignorance and particular instances of ignorance, and thus also for motivating and defending the integrated conception of ignorance: Bondy swiftly changes between “agential conception of ignorance” and “agential ignorance” and seems to use these terms interchangeably. Similarly, for “structural conception of ignorance” and “structural ignorance”.

But these terms are importantly distinct: the former refers to a conception or an approach, the latter to a form of ignorance, or also particular instances of ignorance. In my article I only discuss agential conceptions and structural conceptions and I do not use the terms “agential ignorance” or “structural ignorance” because I am specifically interested in conceptions of ignorance

Practical Ignorance

Bondy, like Peels, points out that I do not address lack of practical knowledge or lack of know-how. Again, I fully agree that this is an open question in my article and for the integrated conception and I look forward to addressing this question in more detail. In his reply, Bondy suggests that my integrated conception can be extended to apply to such “practical ignorance” in the following way:

Theoretical ignorance: this would remain as El Kassar formulates her integrated conception of ignorance, as “a disposition of an epistemic agent that manifests itself in her beliefs – either she has no belief about p or a false belief – and her epistemic attitudes (doxastic attitudes, epistemic virtues, epistemic vices)”

Practical ignorance: a disposition of an agent that manifests itself in her actions – where S fails to φ, or S does not φ well or properly – and her practical attitudes (ethical and pragmatic attitudes, ethical or practical virtues and vices). (Bondy 2018, 13)

Yet, I have to reject this charitable extension. Bondy, as well as Peels, is right that there is work to do in this field, but simply imposing the integrated conception on “practical ignorance” would not be appropriate, nor is it an approach that I would wish to take.

First, I doubt that we can simply replace epistemic attitudes, virtues and vices with practical attitudes, practical virtues and vices to cover the practical case. Second, I think we need to respect the highly-evolved debate about know-how and include their concerns and arguments in any account that wants to address the lack of know-how or lack of practical knowledge. Any further conclusions require starting communication between the different fields and debates – a genuinely exciting prospect for philosophy of ignorance!

A first step might be to examine the terminology that we are using: Bondy discusses “practical ignorance” but maybe the term “incompetence” is more apt for these practical cases? Interestingly enough, psychologists who work on ignorance and meta-ignorance sometimes frame ignorance in terms of incompetence, see, for example Dunning in describing the Dunning-Kruger-Effect (Dunning 2011, 260).

Finally, and more fundamentally, I do not see why one should go for a unified account of theoretical and practical ignorance that uses the same components for both forms of ignorance. As I explain in my reply to Peels, I think that one should not aim for a unified account of ignorance and knowledge but instead take the phenomena seriously as they are. For now I take the same considerations to hold for theoretical ignorance and practical ignorance.

“We Can Say Everything That We Want to Say About Ignorance”

Bondy claims that “we can say everything we want to say about ignorance” (Bondy 2018, 9) with the propositional conception. But his claim is based on the assumption that what I call constituents of ignorance really are just causes of ignorance and I hope that my clarificatory remarks in this reply and my reply to Peels’ contribution explain why the assumption is not warranted and why the propositional conception does not say enough about ignorance. Let me briefly return to some arguments to motivate my position:

One problem is that Bondy’s (and Peels’) interpretation of closed-mindedness and other virtues or vices as causes of ignorance makes it seem as if these virtues and vices are naturally efficient causes; i.e. they turn the original claim that epistemic virtues and vices are co-constituents of ignorance into the claim that they are efficient causes.

But I would like to hear more about why we should draw this conclusion or why it is warranted. Again, a parallel in philosophy of know-how may be helpful in that context: know-how as a disposition does not explain why a performance occurred, it explains “why a certain kind of act … is possible in the first place” (Löwenstein 2017, 85, emphasis in original). And, similarly, a disposition, like open-mindedness or closed-mindedness, does not explain why someone does not know that p or why someone is ignorant of that particular fact. We need events in the world, decisions, beliefs, and motivations and the like to explain why someone is ignorant.

Second, as I say in the article, ignorance is more than a doxastic issue, it also has an attitudinal component, how one is ignorant – not how one has become ignorant, but the particular character of one’s ignorance. That also involves more than saying what kind of ignorance (e.g. propositional ignorance or practical ignorance) the particular instance belongs to. There is another facet of ignorance that is constitutive of ignorance and it cannot be captured by the propositional conception since it is restricted to the doxastic component.

That is why I want to say more about ignorance than just refer to the doxastic component. And even more, I suggest that everyone who wants to capture actual instances of ignorance should want to say more about ignorance than the propositional conception does.[1]

Contact details: nadja.elkassar@gess.ethz.ch

References

Bondy, Patrick. 2018. “Knowledge and Ignorance, Theoretical and Practical.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7 (12): 9–14.

Dunning, David. 2011. “The Dunning–Kruger Effect.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44:247–96. Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-385522-0.00005-6.

Löwenstein, David. 2017. Know-How as Competence: A Rylean Responsibilist Account. Studies in Theoretical Philosophy, vol. 4. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann.

Peels, Rik. 2019. “Exploring the Boundaries of Ignorance: Its Nature and Accidental Features.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8 (1): 10–18.

[1] Thanks to David Löwenstein and Lutz Wingert for helpful discussions.

Author Information: Manuel Padilla-Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es.

Padilla-Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting: A Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46B

Image by Rolf Dietrich Brecher via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Juli Thorson and Christine Baker have recently set the spotlight on a verbal activity which, in their view, may yield rather positive outcomes in oppressive or discriminating environments: venting. This is claimed to play a significant role in fighting epistemic damage.

Although their discussion is restricted to cases in which women vent to other women who are acquainted with unfair epistemic practices in the asymmetrical and hierarchical social groups to which they belong, in “Venting as epistemic work” the authors contend that successful venting can make people aware of oppressive social structures, their place in them and possible solutions for the epistemic damage that those structures cause.

As a result, venting enables individuals to regain trust in their epistemic practices, author knowledge, and accept their own epistemic personhood (Thorson and Baker 2019: 8).

Damage, Personhood, and Venting

Thorson and Baker’s (2019) argumentation relies on two crucial elements. On the one hand, the notion of epistemic damage, which, in an analogous way to Tessman’s (2001) concept of moral damage, is defined as a harm curtailing an individual’s epistemic personhood. This is in turn described as the individual’s “[…] ontological standing as a knower”, “[…] the ability to author knowledge for [oneself]” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2), or, in Borgwald’s words, “[…] the ability to think autonomously, reflect on and evaluate one’s emotion, beliefs, desires, and to trust those judgments rather than deferring to others” (2012: 73).

Epistemic damage hampers the development of a person’s knowledge-generating practices and her self-trust in her ability to implement them (Thorson and Baker 2019: 2).[1] It is inflicted when someone cannot assert her epistemic personhood because she fears that what she says will not be taken seriously. Consequently, the victim suffers testimonial smothering (Dotson 2011) and gets her self-trust diminished and her epistemic personhood undermined.

On the other hand, the authors’ argumentation is based on a differentiation of venting from both complaining and ranting. These three verbal actions are depicted as contingent on the presence of an audience, expressing “strong feelings” and conveying “agitation about some state of affairs or person” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 3), but neither complaining nor ranting are believed to involve expectations for a change in the state of affairs that gave rise to them.

Complaints, the authors say, may be left unaddressed or the solution proposed for their cause may turn out unsatisfactory and leave it unfixed, while ranting is “a kind of performance for someone” (Thorson and Baker 2019: pp.) where the ranter, far from engaging in conversation, simply exposes her views and expresses anger through a verbal outburst without concern for an ensuing reaction. Venting, in contrast, is portrayed as a testifying dialogical action that is typically performed, Thorson and Baker (2019: 4-5) think, in face-to-face interaction and where the venter does have firm expectations for subsequent remedial action against a state of affairs: denied uptake, sexist comments, silencing or undermining of cognitive authority, to name but some.

By expressing anger at (an)other individual(s) who wronged her or frustrated confusion at their actions, the venter seeks to make her audience aware of an epistemic injustice –either testimonial or hermeneutical– which negatively affects her epistemic personhood and to assert her own credibility.

Thorson and Baker (2019: 7) also distinguish two types of venting, even if these are not clear-cut and range along a continuum:

  1. Heavy-load venting, which is a lengthy, time-consuming and dramatic activity following a serious threat to epistemic personhood increasing self-distrust. It aims for recognition of credibility and reaffirmation of epistemic personhood.
  2. Maintenance venting, which is a “honing practice” requiring less epistemic work and following situations where there are “lack of uptake, dismissal, or micro-aggressions” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 7). Its goal is reinforcement or maintenance of epistemic personhood.

Despite their valuable insights, a series of issues connected with the features defining venting and characterising its two types deserve more detailed consideration in order to gain a fuller understanding of the reasons why venting can actually have the positive effects that the authors attribute to it.

Firstly, its ontology as a verbal action or speech act (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) needs ascertaining in depth with a view to properly delimiting it and adequately differentiating it from other related actions. Secondly, in addition to length and goal, a further criterion should be provided so as to more accurately characterise heavy-load and maintenance venting. Addressing the first issue will help unravel what venting really is and how it is accomplished, while dealing with the second one is fundamental for capturing the subtleties individuating the two types of venting.

What follows addresses these issues from two disciplines of linguistics: pragmatics to a great extent and conversation analysis to a lesser extent. The former, which is greatly indebted to the philosophy of language, looks into, among others, how individuals express meaning and perform a variety of actions verbally, as well as how they interpret utterances and understand meaning.

More precisely, the issues in question will be accounted for on the grounds of some postulates of Speech Act Theory (Austin 1962; Searle 1969) and contributions on complaints made from this framework. Conversation analysis, in turn, examines how individuals structure their verbal contributions with a view to transmitting meaning and how conversational structure determines interpretation. Although Thorson and Baker (2019) admit that an analysis of venting from a linguistic perspective would be fruitful, unfortunately, they did not undertake it.

1) Venting as a Speech Act

Thorson and Baker (2019) take venting, complaining and ranting to be three distinct speech acts that have in common the expression of anger. To some extent, this is right, as there is much confusion in the literature and researchers consider venting and ranting the same speech act “[…] and use the terms synonymously” (Signorelli 2017: 16). However, venting and ranting could rather be regarded as sub-types or variations of a broader, more general or overarching category of speech act: complaining.

Venting and ranting satisfy in the same way as complaining four of the twelve criteria proposed by Searle (1975) in order to distinguish specific verbal actions: namely, those pertaining to the illocutionary point of the act, the direction of fit between the speaker’s words and the external world, the expressed psychological state and the propositional content of the utterance(s) whereby a verbal action is attempted. In other words, complaining, venting and ranting share similar features stemming from the speaker’s intentionality, the relationship between what she says and the external world, her psychological state while speaking and the core meaning or import of what she says. Complaining would then be an umbrella category subsuming both venting and ranting, which would differ from it along other dimensions.

1.1) Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Complaints

Pragmatists working within the fruitful speech act-theoretic tradition (Austin 1962; Searle 1969, 1975) have made illuminating contributions on complaints, which they have classified as expressive acts wherewith the speaker, or complainer or complainant, expresses a variety of negative feelings or emotions. This is a relevant aspect unveiling illocutionary point or intentionality. Such feelings or emotions include anger, irritation, wrath, frustration, disappointment, dissatisfaction, discontent, discomfort, anxiety, despair, etc.

This is another key point, but it shows this time the expressed psychological state (Edmondson and House 1981; Laforest 2002; Edwards 2005). In fact, the expression of such feelings and emotions –a further important issue linked now to the communicated propositional content (“I am angry at/disappointed by p”)– differentiates complaints from other expressive acts like complimenting, where the expressed psychological states are positive: admiration, approval, appraisal, etc. (Wolfson and Manes 1980; Manes and Wolfson 1981).

The feelings and emotions voiced by the complainer concern some state of affairs –another person’s behaviour, appearance, traits, mood, etc., an event and, evidently, some injustice, too– which is regarded not to meet (personal) expectations or standards, or to violate sociocultural norms. The state of affairs originating the complaint is referred to as the complainable and is assessed or appraised from the complainer’s point of view, so complaints often involve a high degree of subjectivity (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995). As expressive acts, complaints lack direction of fit: neither do they reflect the outer world, nor is this affected by or adapted to what the complainer says.

However, complaints could also be considered to some extent informative or representative acts, inasmuch as the complainer may make the hearer –or complainee– aware of the unsatisfactory state of affairs, which might have gone completely unnoticed or be utterly unknown to him. If so, complaints would be hybrid acts combining the expression of psychological states and the dispensing of information. Accordingly, they could have a words-to-world direction of fit because what the complainer says matches the world, at least from her perspective.

Complaints can be subdivided in various manners. A first twofold division can be made depending on whether the complainable pertains to the complainee or not. Thus, direct complaints concern a state of affairs for which the complainee is held responsible, while indirect complaints deal with one whose responsibility lies in a third party, who may be present at the conversational exchange or absent (Edmondson and House 1981; Boxer 1993a, 1993b; Trosborg 1995).

Another twofold distinction may be made depending on whether the complainer simply voices her feelings or has further intentions. Hence, complaints are retrospective acts when she just expresses her psychological states about some recent or past state of affairs without further intentions, or prospective when she also seeks to influence the complainee and bias his (future) course of action (Márquez Reiter 2005).

In discoursive, conversational terms, complaints can be made through just a single sentence that is produced as an utterance counting as the core act, or through more than one sentence and utterance, either in the same conversational turn or in different ones. Additional utterances make up pre-sequences or post-sequences, depending on their position relative to the core act, or moves, a label frequently used in the literature on conversation analysis.

Since they often lend support to the complaint by offering further details about the complainable, giving reasons for the complainer’s feelings and/or informing about her expections, those moves work as supportive moves. A core complaint and the possible supportive moves accompanying it are often arranged in adjacency pairs along with the utterances reacting to them, whereby the complainee agrees, shows his own psychological states, elaborates on the complaint or responds to it (Cutting 2002; Sidnell 2010; Padilla Cruz 2015; Clift 2016).

1.2) Characterising Venting

Following this characterisation, venting can be said to be a type of complaining on the basis of the following features: its topic or aboutness, its target, the participation of (an)other individual(s), dialogicality, length, the newness or known nature of its subject matter, and the predominance of the expressive and representative functions or the fulfilment of an additional influential or conative function. Of these, the first three features are fundamental, while the fourth and the fifth ones may be regarded as consequences of the third feature. Whereas the sixth one facilitates differentiation between types of venting, the seventh enables recognition of intentions other than simply voicing feelings about recent or past states of affairs.

Although solely produced by one individual –the complainer or venter– venting would be an indirect form of complaining that “[…] reveals underlying perspectives [on] a given topic, situation, or individual(s)” (Signorelli 2017: 2) and engages (an)other individual(s) who must share the assessment of, perspective on and feelings about the complainable, as well as be in a position to react in a particular manner or intend to do so in the (immediate) future.

Their sharing such viewpoints and feelings may prompt participation in the discoursive or conversational episode through tokens of agreement or commiseration, enquiries aimed at getting additional information about the complainable, further verbalisation of negative feelings through additional censuring, critique or irritated comments, and expression of commitment to future remedial action (Boxer 1993a).

Therefore, venting could be depicted as a dialogic phenomenon that is achieved discoursively and requires conversation, to which (an)other participant(s) contribute(s). As Signorelli puts it, “[…] venting is deliberately and necessarily communal” (2017: 17) and can therefore be described as a type of “participatory genre” (2017: 16) with a specific purpose, recognisable moves and characteristic rhetorical strategies (2017: 1).

Its dependency on the contribution of some other epistemic agent(s) makes venting be a cooperative action that is co-constructed by means of the joint endeavours of the venter and her audience. Its dialogic nature causes conversation to unfold through more than just one turn or adjacency pair, so venting episodes may be (considerably) longer variations of complaints, which may be performed by means of just one utterance or a brief sequence of utterances that is normally followed by reactions or responses.

Hence, venting would require more effort, time and verbal material enabling the venter to elaborate on her viewpoints, clearly express her feelings, refine, revise or deepen into the subject matter, and/or announce or hint her expectations. Through it the venter seeks to secure her audience’s future collaboration, which renders venting a long form of prospective complaining. In turn, the audience may show understanding, indicate their positioning as regards what is talked about and/or reveal their future intentions.

1.3) Venting and Related Actions

Venting cannot be judged to differ from complaining on the grounds of the likelihood for a solution to a problem to exist or to be plausible, as Thorson and Baker (2019) conjecture. If a solution to a problem actually exists, that is something external, extralinguistic. Whether the solution is worked out or sought for, and ends up being administered or not, are perlocutionary effects (Austin 1962) that escape the venter’s control. Indeed, although perlocutionary effects may be intended or expected, and, hence, insinuated and pursued through what is said and how it is said, whether a particular solution to a problem is actually given or not is something that totally falls under the audience’s control. Venting nevertheless displays pragmatic and conversational properties that single it out as a special manifestation of complaining.

On the other hand, venting is also distinct from ranting in that, regardless of whether ranting is a direct or indirect form of complaint, it initially excludes the participation of the audience. Ranting, therefore, is chiefly a monologic speech action characterised by its length and detail, too, but deprived of joint cooperation. It mainly is an “[…] individualistic production of identity” (Vrooman 2002: 63, quoted in Signorelli 2017) that is “[…] rooted in self-styling” (Signorelli 2017: 12) and whose mission is “[…] to establish and defend a position of social distance” (Signorelli 2017: 13).

If something distinguishes ranting, that may be the intensity, vividness and high level of irritation or agitation wherewith the complainable is presented, which results in a verbal outburst, as Thorson and Baker (2019) rightly put it. Relying on Searle’s (1975) parametres to classify speech acts, the strength with which ranting is performed certainly differentiates it from venting and also sorts it out as a peculiar manifestation of complaining. Ranting, then, differs from venting on the grounds of its narrative nature and emotional intensity (Manning 2008: 103-105; Lange 2014: 59, quoted in Signorelli 2017).

2) The Two Types of Venting

As pointed out, Thorson and Baker (2019) differentiate between heavy-load and maintenance venting. In their view, the former arises when nothing or very little is known about a disappointing, frustrating, irritating or unfair issue. The venter’s action, then, seems to be mainly aimed at informing her audience and giving details about the issue in question, as well as at making them aware of her feelings.

In turn, maintenance venting appears to correspond to the sort of trouble talk (Jefferson 1984, 1988) in which people engage every now and then when they are already acquainted with some negative issue. This distinction, therefore, may be refined by taking into account the informational load of each action, or, to put it differently, its informativeness, i.e. the newness or known nature of the complainable (Padilla Cruz 2006).

In informational terms, heavy-load venting may be more informative because either what is talked about is utterly unknown to the audience or both the venter and her audience are familiarised with it, but have not dealt with it beforehand. Both the informative –or representational– and the expressive function play a major role in this sort of venting: along with conveying her feelings the venter also dispenses information, the possession of which by the audience she considers is in her interest.

The informativeness of maintenance venting, in contrast, would be lesser, as the venter and her audience are already acquainted with a troublesome or disrupting state of affairs because they have previously discussed it in previous encounters. Although this type of venting still fulfils an informative or representational function, this is subservient to the expressive function and to an additional one: affirming or strengthening common viewpoints and feelings (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005). This is essential for aligning the audience with herself or positioning them along with her as regards the complainable.

The low level of informativeness of maintenance venting and the affirmation or reinforcement of common viewpoints that it achieves render this sort of venting a phatic action in the sense of anthropologist Bronisław K. Malinowski (1923). It is of little informational relevance, if this is understood to amount to the newness or unknown nature of information, and, therefore, of scarce importance to the audience’s worldview. Even if maintenance venting does not significantly improve or alter their knowledge about the vented issue, like phatic discourse, it does nevertheless fulfil a crucial function: creating or stressing social affinity, rapport, bonds of union, solidarity and camaraderie between the venter and her audience (Padilla Cruz 2004a, 2004b, 2005).

These effects stem from venting’s implication that the interlocutors brought together have similar viewpoints and feelings about a problematic or unfair state of affairs. Maintenance venting, so to say, insinuates or highlights that the interlocutors may be equally affected by what is talked about, expect a similar reaction or react to it in a similar manner. It fosters a feeling of in-group membership through a topic with which the interlocutors are equally acquainted, which similarly impacts them and towards which they also hold akin attitudes (Padilla Cruz 2006).

Conclusion

Venting satisfies criteria that enable its classification as a manifestation of complaining behaviour. Owing to its target –a third party– topic –some recent or past state of affairs– and fulfilment of expressive, representative and conative functions, it amounts to an indirect prospective form of complaint. Its conversational features make it exceed average complaints made through just one conversational turn or adjacency pair, so venting requires more time and effort. However, if there are characteristics significantly distinguishing venting, these are dialogicality and engagement of the audience.

Venting certainly depends on the presence and participation of the audience. It must be jointly or cooperatively accomplished through dialogue, so it must be seen and portrayed as a communal action that is discoursively achieved. The audience’s participation is crucial for both the acknowledgement of a troublesome state of affairs and the achievement of the ultimate goal(s) sought for by the venter: fighting or eradicating the state of affairs in question. While dialogicality and participation of the audience facilitate differentiation between venting and another type of complaint, namely, ranting, the level of informativeness of what is vented helps more accurately distinguish between heavy-load and maintenance venting.

It is along these pragmatic and conversational features that venting may be more precisely described from a linguistic perspective. Although this description may certainly enrich our understanding of why it may have the effects that Thorson and Baker (2019) ascribe to it, other issues still need considering. They are left aside for future work.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

References

Austin, John L. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Borgwald, Kristin. “Women’s Anger, Epistemic Personhood, and Self-Respect: An Application of Lehrer’s Work on Self-Trust.” Philosophical Studies 161 (2012): 69-76.

Boxer, Diana. “Complaints as Positive Strategies: What the Learner Needs to Know.” TESOL Quarterly 27 (1993a): 277-299.

Boxer, Diana. “Social Distance and Speech Behaviour: The Case of Indirect Complaints.” Journal of Pragmatics 19 (1993b): 103-105.

Clift, Rebecca. Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Cutting, Joan. Pragmatics and Discourse. A Resource Book for Students. London: Routledge, 2002.

Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (2011): 236-257.

Edmondson, Willis, and Juliane House. Let’s Talk and Talk about It. München: Urban & Schwarzenberg, 1981.

Edwards, Derek. “Moaning, Whinging and Laughing: The Subjective Side of Complaints.” Discourse Studies 7 (2005): 5-29.

Jefferson, Gail. “On Stepwise Transition from Talk about a Trouble to Inappropriately Next-positioned Matters.” In Structures of Social Action. Studies in Conversation Analysis, edited by J. Maxwell Atkinson and John Heritage, 191-222. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Jefferson, Gail. “On the Sequential Organization of Troubles-Talk in Ordinary Conversation.” Social Problems 35, no. 4 (1988): 418–441.

Laforest, Marty. “Scenes of Family Life: Complaining in Everyday Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics 34 (2002): 1595-1620.

Lange, Patricia G. “Commenting on YouTube Rants: Perceptions of Inappropriateness or Civic Engagement?” Journal of Pragmatics 73 (2014): 53-65.

Malinowski, Bronisław K. “The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages.” In The Meaning of Meaning. A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism, edited by Charles K. Ogden and Ivor A. Richards, 451-510. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, INC, 1923.

Manes, Joan, and Nessa Wolfson. “The Compliment Formula.” In Conversational Routine. Explorations in Standardized Communication Situations and Prepatterned Speech, edited by Florian Coulmas, 115-132. The Hague: Mouton, 1981.

Manning, Paul. “Barista Rants about Stupid Customers at Starbucks: What Imaginary Conversations Can Teach Us about Real Ones.” Language & Communication 28, no. 2 (2008): 101-126.

Márquez Reiter, Rosina. “Complaint Calls to a Caregiver Service Company: The Case of Desahogo.” Intercultural Pragmatics 2, no. 4 (2005): 481-514.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Aproximación pragmática a los enunciados fáticos: enfoque social y cognitivo.” PhD diss., Universidad de Sevilla, 2004a.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Social Importance of Phatic Utterances: Some Considerations for a Relevance-Theoretic Approach.” In Current Trends in Intercultural, Cognitive and Social Pragmatics, edited by Pilar Garcés Conejos, Reyes Gómez Morón, Lucía Fernández Amaya and Manuel Padilla Cruz, 199-216. Sevilla: Research Group “Intercultural Pragmatic Studies”, 2004b.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Phatic Interpretation of Utterances: A Complementary Relevance-Theoretic Approach.” Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses 18 (2005): 227-246

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Topic Selection for Phatic Utterances: A Relevance-Theoretic Approach.” In Usos sociales del lenguaje y aspectos psicolingüísticos: perspectivas aplicadas, edited by Joana Salazar Noguera, Mirian Amengual Pizarro and María Juan Grau, 249-256. Palma de Mallorca: Universitat de les Illes Balears, 2006.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis.” In The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, edited by Carol A. Chapelle, 1-6. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Searle, John. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Searle, John. “Indirect Speech Acts.” In Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 3: Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan, 59-82. New York: Academic Press, 1975.

Sidnell, Jack. Conversation Analysis. An Introduction. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

Signorelli, Julia A. “Of Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Hamplanets, and Fatspeak: The Venting Genre as Support and Subversion on Reddit’s r/Fatpeoplestories.” MA diss., The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Tessman, Lisa. “Critical Virtue Ethics: Understanding Oppression as Morally Damaging.” In Feminists Doing Ethics, edited by Peggy DesAultes and Joanne Waugh, 79-99. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2001.

Thorson, Juli, and Christine Baker. “Venting as Epistemic Work.” Social Epistemology. A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy (2019).

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[1] The feminine third person singular personal pronoun will be used throughout this paper in order to refer to an individual adopting the role of speaker in conversational exchanges, while the masculine counterpart will be used to allude to the individual adopting that of hearer.

Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, bmartin@uow.edu.au.

Martin, Brian. “Technology and Evil.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 1-14.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-466

A Russian Mil Mi-28 attack helicopter.
Image by Dmitri Terekhov via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Humans cause immense damage to each other and to the environment. Steven James Bartlett argues that humans have an inbuilt pathology that leads to violence and ecosystem destruction that can be called evil, in a clinical rather than a religious sense. Given that technologies are human constructions, it follows that technologies can embody the same pathologies as humans. An important implication of Bartlett’s ideas is that studies of technology should be normative in opposing destructive technologies.

Introduction

Humans, individually and collectively, do a lot of terrible things to each other and to the environment. Some obvious examples are murder, torture, war, genocide and massive environmental destruction. From the perspective of an ecologist from another solar system, humans are the world’s major pestilence, spreading everywhere, enslaving and experimenting on a few species for their own ends, causing extinctions of numerous other species and destroying the environment that supports them all.

These thoughts suggest that humans, as a species, have been causing some serious problems. Of course there are many individuals and groups trying to make the world a better place, for example campaigning against war and environmental degradation, and fostering harmony and sustainability. But is it possible that by focusing on what needs to be done and on the positives in human nature, the seriousness of the dark side of human behaviour is being neglected?

Here, I address these issues by looking at studies of human evil, with a focus on a book by Steven Bartlett. With this foundation, it is possible to look at technology with a new awareness of its deep problems. This will not provide easy solutions but may give a better appreciation of the task ahead.

Background

For decades, I have been studying war, ways to challenge war, and alternatives to military systems (e.g. Martin, 1984). My special interest has been in nonviolent action as a means for addressing social problems. Along the way, this led me to read about genocide and other forms of violence. Some writing in the area refers to evil, addressed from a secular, scientific and non-moralistic perspective.

Roy Baumeister (1997), a prominent psychologist, wrote a book titled Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, that I found highly insightful. Studying the psychology of perpetrators, ranging from murderers and terrorists to killers in genocide, Baumeister concluded that most commonly they feel justified in their actions and see themselves as victims. Often they think what they’ve done is not that important. Baumeister’s sophisticated analysis aims to counter the popular perception of evil-doers as malevolent or uncaring.

Baumeister is one of a number of psychologists willing to talk about good and evil. If the word evil feels uncomfortable, then substitute “violence and cruelty,” as in the subtitle of Baumeister’s book, and the meaning is much the same. It’s also possible to approach evil from the viewpoint of brain function, as in Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2011) The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. There are also studies that combine psychiatric and religious perspectives, such as M. Scott Peck’s (1988) People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.

Another part of my background is technology studies, including being involved in the nuclear power debate, studying technological vulnerability, communication technology, and technology and euthanasia, among other topics. I married my interests in nonviolence and in technology by studying how technology could be designed and used for nonviolent struggle (Martin, 2001).

It was with this background that I encountered Steven James Bartlett’s (2005) massive book The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. Many of the issues it addresses, for example genocide and war, were familiar to me, but his perspective offered new and disturbing insights. The Pathology of Man is more in-depth and far-reaching than other studies I had encountered, and is worth bringing to wider attention.

Here, I offer an abbreviated account of Bartlett’s analysis of human evil. Then I spell out ways of applying his ideas to technology and conclude with some possible implications.

Bartlett on Evil

Steven James Bartlett is a philosopher and psychologist who for decades studied problems in human thinking. The Pathology of Man was published in 2005 but received little attention. This may partly be due to the challenge of reading an erudite 200,000-word treatise but also partly due to people being resistant to Bartlett’s message, for the very reasons expounded in his book.

In reviewing the history of disease theories, Bartlett points out that in previous eras a wide range of conditions were considered to be diseases, ranging from “Negro consumption” to anti-Semitism. This observation is part of his assessment of various conceptions of disease, relying on standard views about what counts as disease, while emphasising that judgements made are always relative to a framework that is value-laden.

This is a sample portion of Bartlett’s carefully laid out chain of logic and evidence for making a case that the human species is pathological, namely characteristic of a disease. In making this case, he is not speaking metaphorically but clinically. The fact that the human species has seldom been seen as pathological is due to humans adopting a framework that exempts themselves from this diagnosis, which would be embarrassing to accept, at least for those inclined to think of humans as the apotheosis of evolution.

Next stop: the concept of evil. Bartlett examines a wide range of perspectives, noting that most of them are religious in origin. In contrast, he prefers a more scientific view: “Human evil, in the restricted and specific sense in which I will use it, refers to apparently voluntary destructive behavior and attitudes that result in the general negation of health, happiness, and ultimately of life.” (p. 65) In referring to “general negation,” Bartlett is not thinking of a poor diet or personal nastiness but of bigger matters such as war, genocide and overpopulation.

Bartlett is especially interested in the psychology of evil, and canvasses the ideas of classic thinkers who have addressed this issue, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karl Menninger, Erich Fromm and Scott Peck. This detailed survey has only a limited return: these leading thinkers have little to say about the origins of evil and what psychological needs it may serve.

So Bartlett turns to other angles, including Lewis Fry Richardson’s classic work quantifying evidence of human violence, and research on aggression by ethologists, notably Konrad Lorenz. Some insights come from this examination, including Richardson’s goal of examining human destructiveness without emotionality and Lorenz’s point that humans, unlike most other animals, have no inbuilt barriers to killing members of their own species.

Bartlett on the Psychology of Genocide

To stare the potential for human evil in the face, Bartlett undertakes a thorough assessment of evidence about genocide, seeking to find the psychological underpinning of systematic mass killings of other humans. He notes one important factor, a factor not widely discussed or even admitted: many humans gain pleasure from killing others. Two other relevant psychological processes are projection and splitting. Projection involves denying negative elements of oneself and attributing them to others, for example seeing others as dangerous, thereby providing a reason for attacking them: one’s own aggression is attributed to others.

Splitting involves dividing one’s own grandiose self-conception from the way others are thought of. “By belonging to the herd, the individual gains an inflated sense of power, emotional support, and connection. With the feeling of group-exaggerated power and puffed up personal importance comes a new awareness of one’s own identity, which is projected into the individual’s conception” of the individual’s favoured group (p. 157). As a member of a group, there are several factors that enable genocide: stereotyping, dehumanisation, euphemistic language and psychic numbing.

To provide a more vivid picture of the capacity for human evil, Bartlett examines the Holocaust, noting that it was not the only or most deadly genocide but one, partly due to extensive documentation, that provides plenty of evidence of the psychology of mass killing.

Anti-Semitism was not the preserve of the Nazis, but existed for centuries in numerous parts of the world, and indeed continues today. The long history of persistent anti-Semitism is, according to Bartlett, evidence that humans need to feel prejudice and to persecute others. But at this point there is an uncomfortable finding: most people who are anti-Semitic are psychologically normal, suggesting the possibility that what is normal can be pathological. This key point recurs in Bartlett’s forensic examination.

Prejudice and persecution do not usually bring sadness and remorse to the victimizers, but rather a sense of strengthened identity, pleasure, self-satisfaction, superiority, and power. Prejudice and persecution are Siamese twins: Together they generate a heightened and invigorated belief in the victimizers’ supremacy. The fact that prejudice and persecution benefit bigots and persecutors is often overlooked or denied. (p. 167)

Bartlett examines evidence about the psychology of several groups involved in the Holocaust: Nazi leaders, Nazi doctors, bystanders, refusers and resisters. Nazi leaders and doctors were, for the most part, normal and well-adjusted men (nearly all were men). Most of the leaders were above average intelligence, and some had very high IQs, and many of them were well educated and culturally sophisticated. Cognitively they were superior, but their moral intelligence was low.

Bystanders tend to do nothing due to conformity, lack of empathy and low moral sensibility. Most Germans were bystanders to Nazi atrocities, not participating but doing nothing to oppose them.

Next are refusers, those who declined to be involved in atrocities. Contrary to usual assumptions, in Nazi Germany there were few penalties for refusing to join killings; it was just a matter of asking for a different assignment. Despite this, of those men called up to join killing brigades, very few took advantage of this option. Refusers had to take some initiative, to think for themselves and resist the need to conform.

Finally, there were resisters, those who actively opposed the genocide, but even here Bartlett raises a concern, saying that in many cases resisters were driven more by anger at offenders than empathy with victims. In any case, in terms of psychology, resisters were the odd ones out, being disengaged with the dominant ideas and values in their society and being able to be emotionally alone, without peer group support. Bartlett’s concern here meshes with research on why people join contemporary social movements: most first become involved via personal connections with current members, not because of moral outrage about the issue (Jasper, 1997).

The implication of Bartlett’s analysis of the Holocaust is that there is something wrong with humans who are psychologically normal (see also Bartlett, 2011, 2013). When those who actively resist genocide are unusual psychologically, this points to problems with the way most humans think and feel.

Another one of Bartlett’s conclusions is that most solutions that have been proposed to the problem of genocide — such as moral education, cultivating acceptance and respect, and reducing psychological projection — are vague, simplistic and impractical. They do not measure up to the challenge posed by the observed psychology of genocide.

Bartlett’s assessment of the Holocaust did not surprise me because, for one of my studies of tactics against injustice (Martin, 2007), I read a dozen books and many articles about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which between half a million and a million people were killed in the space of a few months. The physical differences between the Tutsi and Hutu are slight; the Hutu killers targeted both Tutsi and “moderate” Hutu. It is not widely known that Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa, yet many of the killings occurred in churches where Tutsi had gone for protection. In many cases, people killed neighbours they had lived next to for years, or even family members. The Rwandan genocide had always sounded horrific; reading detailed accounts to obtain examples for my article, I discovered it was far worse than I had imagined (Martin, 2009).

After investigating evidence about genocide and its implications about human psychology, Bartlett turns to terrorism. Many of his assessments accord with critical terrorism studies, for example that there is no standard definition of terrorism, the fear of terrorism is disproportionate to the threat, and terrorism is “framework-relative” in the sense that calling someone a terrorist puts you in opposition to them.

Bartlett’s interest is in the psychology of terrorists. He is sceptical of the widespread assumption that there must be something wrong with them psychologically, and cites evidence that terrorists are psychologically normal. Interestingly, he notes that there are no studies comparing the psychologies of terrorists and soldiers, two groups that each use violence to serve a cause. He also notes a striking absence: in counterterrorism writing, no one has studied the sorts of people who refuse to be involved in cruelty and violence and who are resistant to appeals to in-group prejudice, which is usually called loyalty or patriotism. By assuming there is something wrong with terrorists, counterterrorism specialists are missing the possibility of learning how to deal with the problem.

Bartlett on War Psychology

Relatively few people are involved in genocide or terrorism except by learning about them via media stories. It is another matter when it comes to war, because many people have lived through a time when their country has been at war. In this century, just think of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where numerous governments have sent troops or provided military assistance.

Bartlett says there is plenty of evidence that war evokes powerful emotions among both soldiers and civilians. For some, it is the time of life when they feel most alive, whereas peacetime can seem boring and meaningless. Although killing other humans is proscribed by most moral systems, war is treated as an exception. There are psychological preconditions for organised killing, including manufacturing differences, dehumanising the enemy, nationalism, group identity and various forms of projection. Bartlett says it is also important to look at psychological factors that prevent people from trying to end wars.

Even though relatively few people are involved in war as combat troops or even as part of the systems that support war-fighting, an even smaller number devote serious effort to trying to end wars. Governments collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars on their militaries but only a minuscule amount on furthering the causes of peace. This applies as well to research: there is a vastly more military-sponsored or military-inspired research than peace-related research. Bartlett concludes that, “war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).

Thinking back over the major wars in the past century, in most countries it has been far easier to support war than to oppose it. Enlisting in the military is seen as patriotic whereas refusing military service, or deserting the army, is seen as treasonous. For civilians, defeating the enemy is seen as a cause for rejoicing, whereas advocating an end to war — except via victory — is a minority position.

There have been thousands of war movies: people flock to see killing on the screen, and the bad guys nearly always lose, especially in Hollywood. In contrast, the number of major films about nonviolent struggles is tiny — what else besides the 1982 film Gandhi? — and seldom do they attract a wide audience. Bartlett sums up the implications of war for human psychology:

By legitimating the moral atrocity of mass murder, war, clothed as it is in the psychologically attractive trappings of patriotism, heroism, and the ultimately good cause, is one of the main components of human evil. War, because it causes incalculable harm, because it gives men and women justification to kill and injure one another without remorse, because it suspends conscience and neutralizes compassion, because it takes the form of psychological epidemics in which dehumanization, cruelty, and hatred are given unrestrained freedom, and because it is a source of profound human gratification and meaning—because of these things, war is not only a pathology, but is one of the most evident expressions of human evil. (p. 225)

The Obedient Parasite

Bartlett next turns to obedience studies, discussing the famous research by Stanley Milgram (1974). However, he notes that such studies shouldn’t even be needed: the evidence of human behaviour during war and genocide should be enough to show that most human are obedient to authority, even when the authority is instructing them to harm others.

Another relevant emotion is hatred. Although hating is a widespread phenomenon — most recently evident in the phenomenon of online harassment (Citron, 2014) — Bartlett notes that psychologists and psychiatrists have given this emotion little attention. Hatred serves several functions, including providing a cause, overcoming the fear of death, and, in groups, helping build a sense of community.

Many people recognise that humans are destroying the ecological web that supports their own lives and those of numerous other species. Bartlett goes one step further, exploring the field of parasitology. Examining definitions and features of parasites, he concludes that, according to a broad definition, humans are parasites on the environment and other species, and are destroying the host at a record rate. He sees human parasitism as being reflected in social belief systems including the “cult of motherhood,” infatuation with children, and the belief that other species exist to serve humans, a longstanding attitude enshrined in some religions.

Reading The Pathology of Man, I was tempted to counter Bartlett’s arguments by pointing to the good things that so many humans have done and are doing, such as everyday politeness, altruism, caring for the disadvantaged, and the animal liberation movement. Bartlett could counter by noting it would be unwise to pay no attention to disease symptoms just because your body has many healthy parts. If there is a pathology inherent in the human species, it should not be ignored, but instead addressed face to face.

Remington 1858 Model Navy .36 Cap and Ball Revolver.
Image by Chuck Coker via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Technologies of Political Control

Bartlett’s analysis of human evil, including that violence and cruelty are perpetrated mostly by people who are psychologically normal and that many humans obtain pleasure out of violence against other humans, can be applied to technology. The aim in doing this is not to demonise particular types or uses of technology but to explore technological systems from a different angle in the hope of providing insights that are less salient from other perspectives.

Consider “technologies of political control,” most commonly used by governments against their own people (Ackroyd et al., 1974; Wright, 1998). These technologies include tools of torture and execution including electroshock batons, thumb cuffs, restraint chairs, leg shackles, stun grenades and gallows. They include technologies used against crowds such as convulsants and infrasound weapons (Omega Foundation, 2000). They include specially designed surveillance equipment.

In this discussion, “technology” refers not just to artefacts but also to the social arrangements surrounding these artefacts, including design, manufacture, and contexts of use. To refer to “technologies of political control” is to invoke this wider context: an artefact on its own may seem innocuous but still be implicated in systems of repression. Repression here refers to force used against humans for the purposes of harm, punishment or social control.

Torture has a long history. It must be considered a prime example of human evil. Few species intentionally inflict pain and suffering on other members of their own species. Among humans, torture is now officially renounced by every government in the world, but it still takes place in many countries, for example in China, Egypt and Afghanistan, as documented by Amnesty International. Torture also takes place in many conventional prisons, for example via solitary confinement.

To support torture and repression, there is an associated industry. Scientists design new ways to inflict pain and suffering, using drugs, loud noises, disorienting lights, sensory deprivation and other means. The tools for delivering these methods are constructed in factories and the products marketed around the world, especially to buyers seeking means to control and harm others. Periodically, “security fairs” are held in which companies selling repression technologies tout their products to potential buyers.

The technology of repression does not have a high profile, but it is a significant industry, involving tens of billions of dollars in annual sales. It is a prime cause of human suffering. So what are people doing about it?

Those directly involved seem to have few moral objections. Scientists use their skills to design more sophisticated ways of interrogating, incarcerating and torturing people. Engineers design the manufacturing processes and numerous workers maintain production. Sales agents tout the technologies to purchasers. Governments facilitate this operation, making extraordinary efforts to get around attempts to control the repression trade. So here is an entire industry built around technologies that serve to control and harm defenceless humans, and it seems to be no problem to find people who are willing to participate and indeed to tenaciously defend the continuation of the industry.

In this, most of the world’s population are bystanders. Mass media pay little attention. Indeed, there are fictional dramas that legitimise torture and, more generally, the use of violence against the bad guys. Most people remain ignorant of the trade in repression technologies. For those who learn about it, few make any attempt to do something about it, for example by joining a campaign.

Finally there are a few resisters. There are groups like the Omega Research Foundation that collect information about the repression trade and organisations like Amnesty International and Campaign Against Arms Trade that campaign against it. Journalists have played an important role in exposing the trade (Gregory, 1995).

The production, trade and use of technologies of repression, especially torture technologies, provide a prime example of how technologies can be implicated in human evil. They illustrate quite a few of the features noted by Bartlett. There is no evidence that the scientists, engineers, production workers, sales agents and politician allies of the industry are anything other than psychologically normal. Indeed, it is an industry organised much like any other, except devoted to producing objects used to harm humans.

Nearly all of those involved in the industry are simply operating as cogs in a large enterprise. They have abdicated responsibility for causing harm, a reflection of humans’ tendency to obey authorities. As for members of the public, the psychological process of projection provides a reassuring message: torture is only used as a last result against enemies such as terrorists. “We” are good and “they” are bad, so what is done to them is justified.

Weapons and Tobacco

Along with the technology of repression, weapons of war are prime candidates for being understood as implicated in evil. If war is an expression of the human potential for violence, then weapons are a part of that expression. Indeed, increasing the capacity of weapons to maim, kill and destroy has long been a prime aim of militaries. So-called conventional weapons include everything from bullets and bayonets to bombs and ballistic missiles, and then there are biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Studying weaponry is a way of learning about the willingness of humans to use their ingenuity to harm other humans. Dum-dum bullets were designed to tumble in flight so as to cause more horrendous injuries on exiting a body. Brightly coloured land mines can be attractive to young children. Some of these weapons have been banned, while others take their place. In any case, it is reasonable to ask, what was going through the minds of those who conceived, designed, manufactured, sold and deployed such weapons?

The answer is straightforward, yet disturbing. Along the chain, individuals may have thought they were serving their country’s cause, helping defeat an enemy, or just doing their job and following orders. Indeed, it can be argued that scientific training and enculturation serve to develop scientists willing to work on assigned tasks without questioning their rationale (Schmidt, 2000).

Nuclear weapons, due to their capacity for mass destruction, have long been seen as especially bad, and there have been significant mass movements against these weapons (Wittner, 1993–2003). However, the opposition has not been all that successful, because there continue to be thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of eight or so militaries, and most people seldom think about it. Nuclear weapons exemplify Bartlett’s contention that most people do not do much to oppose war — even a war that would devastate the earth.

Consider something a bit different: cigarettes. Smoking brings pleasure, or at least relief from craving, to hundreds of millions of people daily, at the expense of a massive death toll (Proctor, 2011). By current projections, hundreds of millions of people will die this century from smoking-related diseases.

Today, tobacco companies are stigmatised and smoking is becoming unfashionable — but only in some countries. Globally, there are ever more smokers and ever more victims of smoking-related illnesses. Cigarettes are part of a technological system of design, production, distribution, sales and use. Though the cigarette itself is less complex than many military weapons, the same questions can be asked of everyone involved in the tobacco industry: how can they continue when the evidence of harm is so overwhelming? How could industry leaders spend decades covering up their own evidence of harm while seeking to discredit scientists and public health officials whose efforts threatened their profits?

The answers draw on the same psychological processes involved in the perpetuation of violence and cruelty in more obvious cases such as genocide, including projection and obedience. The ideology of the capitalist system plays a role too, with the legitimating myths of the beneficial effects of markets and the virtue of satisfying consumer demand.

For examining the role of technology in evil, weapons and cigarettes are easy targets for condemnation. A more challenging case is the wide variety of technologies that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to climate change, with potentially catastrophic effects for future generations and for the biosphere. The technologies involved include motor vehicles (at least those with internal combustion engines), steel and aluminum production, home heating and cooling, and the consumption of consumer goods. The energy system is implicated, at least the part of it predicated on carbon-based fuels, and there are other contributors as well such as fertilisers and clearing of forests.

Most of these technologies were not designed to cause harm, and those involved as producers and consumers may not have thought of their culpability for contributing to future damage to the environment and human life. Nevertheless, some individuals have greater roles and responsibilities. For example, many executives in fossil fuel companies and politicians with the power to reset energy priorities have done everything possible to restrain shifting to a sustainable energy economy.

Conceptualising the Technology of Evil

If technologies are implicated in evil, what is the best way to understand the connection? It could be said that an object designed and used for torture embodies evil. Embodiment seems appropriate if the primary purpose is for harm and the main use is for harm, but seldom is this sort of connection exclusive of other uses. A nuclear weapon, for example, might be used as an artwork, a museum exhibit, or a tool to thwart a giant asteroid hurtling towards earth.

Another option is to say that some technologies are “selectively useful” for harming others: they can potentially be useful for a variety of purposes but, for example, easier to use for torture than for brain surgery or keeping babies warm. To talk of selective usefulness instead of embodiment seems less essentialist, more open to multiple interpretations and uses.

Other terms are “abuse” and “misuse.” Think of a cloth covering a person’s face over which water is poured to give a simulation of drowning, used as a method of torture called waterboarding. It seems peculiar to say that the wet cloth embodies evil given that it is only the particular use that makes it a tool to cause harm to humans. “Abuse” and “misuse” have an ignominious history in the study of technology because they are often based on the assumption that technologies are inherently neutral. Nevertheless, these terms might be resurrected in speaking of the connection between technology and evil when referring to technologies that were not designed to cause harm and are seldom used for that purpose.

Consider next the role of technologies in contributing to climate change. For this, it is useful to note that most technologies have multiple uses and consequences. Oil production, for example, has various immediate environmental and health impacts. Oil, as a product, has multitudinous uses, such as heating houses, manufacturing plastics and fuelling military aircraft. The focus here is on a more general impact via the waste product carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. In this role, it makes little sense to call oil evil in itself.

Instead, it is simply one player in a vast network of human activities that collectively are spoiling the environment and endangering future life on earth. The facilitators of evil in this case are the social and economic systems that maintain dependence on greenhouse gas sources and the psychological processes that enable groups and individuals to resist a shift to sustainable energy systems or to remain indifferent to the issue.

For climate change, and sustainability issues more generally, technologies are implicated as part of entrenched social institutions, practices and beliefs that have the potential to radically alter or destroy the conditions for human and non-human life. One way to speak of technologies in this circumstance is as partners. Another is to refer to them as actors or actants, along the lines of actor-network theory (Latour, 1987), though this gives insufficient salience to the psychological dimensions involved.

Another approach is to refer to technologies as extensions of humans. Marshall McLuhan (1964) famously described media as “extensions of man.” This description points to the way technologies expand human capabilities. Vehicles expand human capacities for movement, otherwise limited to walking and running. Information and communication technologies expand human senses of sight, hearing and speaking. Most relevantly here, weapons expand human capacities for violence, in particular killing and destruction. From this perspective, humans have developed technologies to extend a whole range of capacities, some of them immediately or indirectly harmful.

In social studies of technology, various frameworks have been used, including political economy, innovation, social shaping, cost-benefit analysis and actor-network theory. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but none of the commonly used frameworks emphasises moral evaluation or focuses on the way some technologies are designed or used for the purpose of harming humans and the environment.

Implications

The Pathology of Man is a deeply pessimistic and potentially disturbing book. Probing into the psychological foundations of violence and cruelty shows a side of human behaviour and thinking that is normally avoided. Most commentators prefer to look for signs of hope, and would finish a book such as this with suggestions for creating a better world. Bartlett, though, does not want to offer facile solutions.

Throughout the book, he notes that most people prefer not to examine the sources of human evil, and so he says that hope is actually part of the problem. By continually being hopeful and looking for happy endings, it becomes too easy to avoid looking at the diseased state of the human mind and the systems it has created.

Setting aside hope, nevertheless there are implications that can be derived from Bartlett’s analysis. Here I offer three possible messages regarding technology.

Firstly, if it makes sense to talk about human evil in a non-metaphorical sense, and to trace the origins of evil to features of human psychology, then technologies, as human creations, are necessarily implicated in evil. The implication is that a normative analysis is imperative. If evil is seen as something to be avoided or opposed, then likewise those technologies most closely embodying evil are likewise to be avoided or opposed. This implies making judgements about technologies. In technologies studies, this already occurs to some extent. However, common frameworks, such as political economy, innovation and actor-network theory, do not highlight moral evaluation.

Medical researchers do not hesitate to openly oppose disease, and in fact the overcoming of disease is an implicit foundation of research. Technology studies could more openly condemn certain technologies.

Secondly, if technology is implicated in evil, and if one of the psychological processes perpetuating evil is a lack of recognition of it and concern about it, there is a case for undertaking research that provides insights and tools for challenging the technology of evil. This has not been a theme in technology studies. Activists against torture technologies and military weaponry would be hard pressed to find useful studies or frameworks in the scholarship about technology.

One approach to the technology of evil is action research (McIntyre 2008; Touraine 1981), which involves combining learning with efforts towards social change. For example, research on the torture technology trade could involve trying various techniques to expose the trade, seeing which ones are most fruitful. This would provide insights about torture technologies not available via conventional research techniques.

Thirdly, education could usefully incorporate learning about the moral evaluation of technologies. Bartlett argues that one of the factors facilitating evil is the low moral development of most people, as revealed in the widespread complicity in or complacency about war preparation and wars, and about numerous other damaging activities.

One approach to challenging evil is to increase people’s moral capacities to recognise and act against evil. Technologies provide a convenient means to do this, because human-created objects abound in everyday life, so it can be an intriguing and informative exercise to figure out how a given object relates to killing, hatred, psychological projection and various other actions and ways of thinking involved in violence, cruelty and the destruction of the foundations of life.

No doubt there are many other ways to learn from the analysis of human evil. The most fundamental step is not to turn away but to face the possibility that there may be something deeply wrong with humans as a species, something that has made the species toxic to itself and other life forms. While it is valuable to focus on what is good about humans, to promote good it is also vital to fully grasp the size and depth of the dark side.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Lyn Carson, Kurtis Hagen, Kelly Moore and Steve Wright for valuable comments on drafts.

Contact details: bmartin@uow.edu.au

References

Ackroyd, Carol, Margolis, Karen, Rosenhead, Jonathan, & Shallice, Tim (1977). The technology of political control. London: Penguin.

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

Bartlett, Steven James (2005). The pathology of man: A study of human evil. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Bartlett, Steven James (2011). Normality does not equal mental health: the need to look elsewhere for standards of good psychological health. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Bartlett, Steven James (2013). The dilemma of abnormality. In Thomas G. Plante (Ed.), Abnormal psychology across the ages, volume 3 (pp. 1–20). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Baumeister, Roy F. (1997). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Freeman.

Citron, D.K. (2014). Hate crimes in cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gregory, Martyn (director and producer). (1995). The torture trail [television]. UK: TVF.

Jasper, James M. (1997). The art of moral protest: Culture, biography, and creativity in social movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Martin, Brian (1984). Uprooting war. London: Freedom Press.

Martin, Brian (2001). Technology for nonviolent struggle. London: War Resisters’ International.

Martin, Brian (2007). Justice ignited: The dynamics of backfire. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Martin, Brian (2009). Managing outrage over genocide: case study Rwanda. Global Change, Peace & Security, 21(3), 275–290.

McIntyre, Alice (2008). Participatory action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: New American Library.

Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Omega Foundation (2000). Crowd control technologies. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Peck, M. Scott (1988). People of the lie: The hope for healing human evil. London: Rider.

Proctor, Robert N. (2011). Golden holocaust: Origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Touraine, Alain (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittner, Lawrence S. (1993–2003). The struggle against the bomb, 3 volumes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wright, Steve (1998). An appraisal of technologies of political control. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Author Information: Kamili Posey, Kingsborough College, Kamili.Posey@kbcc.cuny.edu.

Posey, Kamili. “Scientism in the Philosophy of Implicit Bias Research.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 1-15.

Kamili Posey’s article was posted over two instalments. You can read the first here, but the pdf of the article includes the entire piece, and gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41k

Image by Rigoberto Garcia via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In the previous piece, I outlined some concerns with philosophers, and particularly philosophers of social science, assuming the success of implicit interventions into implicit bias. Motivated by a pointed note by Jennifer Saul (2017), I aimed to briefly go through some of the models lauded as offering successful interventions and, in essence, “get out of the armchair.”

(IAT) Models and Egalitarian Goal Models

In this final piece, I go through the last two models, Glaser and Knowles’ (2007) and Blair et al.’s (2001) (IAT) models and Moskowitz and Li’s (2011) egalitarian goal model. I reiterate that this is not an exhaustive analysis of such models nor is it intended as a criticism of experiments pertaining to implicit bias. Mostly, I am concerned that the science is interesting but that the scientism – the application of tentative results to philosophical projects – is less so. It is from this point that I proceed.

Like Mendoza et al.’s (2010) implementation intentions, Glaser and Knowles’ (2007) (IMCP) aims to capture implicit motivations that are capable of inhibiting automatic stereotype activation. Glaser and Knowles measure (IMCP) in terms of an implicit negative attitude toward prejudice, or (NAP), and an implicit belief that oneself is prejudiced, or (BOP). This is done by retooling the (IAT) to fit both (NAP) and (BOP): “To measure NAP we constructed an IAT that pairs the categories ‘prejudice’ and ‘tolerance’ with the categories ‘bad’ and ‘good.’ BOP was assessed with an IAT pairing ‘prejudiced’ and ‘tolerant’ with ‘me’ and ‘not me.’”[1]

Study participants were then administered the Shooter Task, the (IMCP) measures, and the Race Prejudice (IAT) and Race-Weapons Stereotype (RWS) tests in a fixed order. They predicted that (IMCP) as an implicit goal for those high in (IMCP) “should be able to short-circuit the effect of implicit anti-Black stereotypes on automatic anti-Black behavior.”[2] The results seemed to suggest that this was the case. Glaser and Knowles found that study participants who viewed prejudice as particularly bad “[showed] no relationship between implicit stereotypes and spontaneous behavior.”[3]

There are a few considerations missing from the evaluation of the study results. First, with regard to the Shooter Task, Glaser and Knowles (2007) found that “the interaction of target race by object type, reflecting the Shooter Bias, was not statistically significant.”[4] That is, the strength of the relationship that Correll et al. (2002) found between study participants and the (high) likelihood that they would “shoot” at black targets was not found in the present study. Additionally, they note that they “eliminated time pressure” from the task itself. Although it was not suggested that this impacted the usefulness of the measure of Shooter Bias, it is difficult to imagine that it did not do so. To this, they footnote the following caveat:

Variance in the degree and direction of the stereotype endorsement points to one reason for our failure to replicate Correll et. al’s (2002) typically robust Shooter Bias effect. That is, our sample appears to have held stereotypes linking Blacks and weapons/aggression/danger to a lesser extent than did Correll and colleagues’ participants. In Correll et al. (2002, 2003), participants one SD below the mean on the stereotype measure reported an anti-Black stereotype, whereas similarly low scorers on our RWS IAT evidenced a stronger association between Whites and weapons. Further, the adaptation of the Shooter Task reported here may have been less sensitive than the procedure developed by Correll and colleagues. In the service of shortening and simplifying the task, we used fewer trials, eliminated time pressure and rewards for speed and accuracy, and presented only one background per trial.[5]

Glaser and Knowles claimed that the interaction of the (RWS) with the Shooter Task results proved “significant,” however, if the Shooter Bias failed to materialize (in the standard Correll et al. way) with study participants, it is difficult to see how the (RWS) was measuring anything except itself, generally speaking. This is further complicated by the fact that the interaction between the Shooter Bias and the (RWS) revealed “a mild reverse stereotype associating Whites with weapons (d = -0.15) and a strong stereotype associating Blacks with weapons (d = 0.83), respectively.”[6]

Recall that Glaser and Knowles (2007) aimed to show that participants high in (IMCP) would be able to inhibit implicit anti-black stereotypes and thus inhibit automatic anti-black behaviors. Using (NAP) and (BOP) as proxies for implicit control, participants high in (NAP) and moderate in (BOP) – as those with moderate (BOP) will be motivated to avoid bias – should show the weakest association between (RWS) and Shooter Bias. Instead, the lowest levels of Shooter Bias were seen in “low NAP, high BOP, and low RWS” study participants, or those who do not disapprove of prejudice, would describe themselves as prejudiced, and also showed lowest levels of (RWS).[7]

They noted that neither “NAP nor BOP alone was significantly related to the Shooter Bias,” but “the influence of RWS on Shooter Bias remained significant.”[8] In fact, greater bias was actually found with higher (NAP) and (BOP) levels.[9] This bias seemed to map on to the initial results of the Shooter Task results. It is most likely that (RWS) was the most important measure in this study for assessing implicit bias, not, as the study claimed, for assessing implicit motivation to control prejudice.

What Kind of Bias?

It is also not clear that the (RWS) was not capturing explicit bias instead of implicit bias in this study. At the point at which study participants were tasked with the (RWS), automatic stereotype activation may have been inhibited just in virtue of study participants involvement in the Shooter Task and (IAT) assessments regarding race-related prejudice. That is, race-sensitivity was brought to consciousness in the sequencing of the test process.

Although we cannot get into the heads of the study participants, this counter explanation seems a compelling possibility. That is, that the sequential tasks involved in the study captured study participants’ ability to increase focus and increase conscious attention to the race-related (IAT) test. Additionally, it is possible that some study participants could both cue and follow their own conscious internal commands, “If I see a black face, I won’t judge!” Consider that this is exactly how implementation intentions work.

Consider that this is also how Armageddon chess and other speed strategy games work. In Park et al.’s (2008) follow-up study on (IMCP) and cognitive depletion, they retreat somewhat from their initial claims about the implicit nature of (IMCP):

We cannot state for certain that our measure of IMCP reflects a purely nonconscious construct, nor that differential speed to “shoot” Black armed men vs. White armed men in a computer simulation reflects purely automatic processes. Most likely, the underlying stereotypes, goals, and behavioral responses represent a blend of conscious and nonconscious influences…Based on the results of the present study and those of Glaser and Knowles (2008), it would be premature to conclude that IMCP is a purely and wholly automatic construct, meeting the “four horsemen” criteria (Bargh, 1990). Specifically, it is not yet clear whether high IMCP participants initiate control of prejudice without intention; whether implicit control of prejudice can itself be inhibited, if for some reason someone wanted to; nor whether IMCP-instigated control of spontaneous bias occurs without awareness.[10]

If the (IMCP) potentially measures low-level conscious attention, this makes the question of what implicit measurements actually measure in the context of sequential tasks all the more important. In the two final examples, Blair et al.’s (2001) study on the use of counterstereotype imagery and Moskowitz and Li’s (2011) study on the use of counterstereotype egalitarian goals, we are again confronted with the issue of sequencing. In the study by Moskowitz and Li, study participants were asked to write down an example of a time when “they failed to live up to the ideal specified by an egalitarian goal, and to do so by relaying an event relating to African American men.”[11]

They were then given a series of computerized LDTs (lexicon decision tasks) and primes involving photographs of black and white faces and stereotypical and non-stereotypical attributes of black people (crime, lazy, stupid, nervous, indifferent, nosy). Over a series of four experiments, Moskowitz and Li found that when egalitarian goals were “accessible,” study participants were able to successfully generate stereotype inhibition. Blair et al. asked study participants to use counterstereotypical (CS) gender imagery over a series of five experiments, e.g., “Think of a strong, capable woman,” and then administered a series of implicit measures, including the (IAT).

Similar to Moskowitz and Li (2011), Blair et al. (2001) found that (CS) gender imagery was successful in reducing implicit gender stereotypes leaving “little doubt that the CS mental imagery per se was responsible for diminishing implicit stereotypes.”[12] In both cases, the study participants were explicitly called upon to focus their attention on experiences and imagery pertaining to negative stereotypes before the implicit measures, i.e., tasks, were administered. Again it is not clear that the implicit measures measured the supposed target.

In the case of Moskowitz and Li’s (2011) experiment, the study participants began by relating moments in their lives where they failed to live up to their goals. However, those goals can only be understood within a particular social and political framework where holding negatively prejudicial beliefs about African-American men is often explicitly judged harshly, even if not implicitly so. Given this, we might assume that the study participants were compelled into a negative affective state. But does this matter? As suggested by the study by Monteith (1993), and later study by Amodio et. al (2007), guilt can be a powerful tool.[13]

Questions of Guilt

If guilt was produced during the early stages of the experiment, it may have also participated in the inhibition of stereotype activation. Moskowitz and Li (2011) noted that “during targeted questioning in the debriefing, no participants expressed any conscious intent to inhibit stereotypes on the task, nor saw any of the tasks performed during the computerized portion of the experiment as related to the egalitarian goals they had undermined earlier in the session.”[14]

But guilt does not have to be conscious for it to produce effects. The guilt produced by recalling a moment of negative bias could be part and parcel of a larger feeling of moral failure. Moskowitz and Li needed to adequately disambiguate competing implicit motivations for stereotype inhibition before arriving at a definitive conclusion. This, I think, is a limitation of the study.

However, the same case could be made for (CS) imagery. Blair et al. (2001) noted that it is, in fact, possible that they too have missed competing motivations and competing explanations for stereotype inhibition. Particularly, they suggested that by emphasizing counterstereotyping the researchers “may have communicated the importance of avoiding stereotypes and increased their motivation to do so.”[15] Still, the researchers dismissed that this would lead to better (faster, more accurate) performance of the (IAT), but that is merely asserting that the (IAT) must measure exactly what the (IAT) claims that it does. Fast, accurate, and conscious measures are excluded from that claim. Complicated internal motivations are excluded from that claim.

But on what grounds? Consider Fielder et al.’s (2006) argument that the (IAT) is susceptible to faking and strategic processing, or Brendl et al.’s (2001) argument that it is not possible to infer a single cause from (IAT) results, or Fazio and Olson’s (2003) claim “the IAT has little to do with what is automatically activated in response to a given stimulus.”[16]

These studies call into question the claim that implicit measures like the (IAT) can measure implicit bias in the clear, problem-free manner that is often suggested in the literature. Implicit interventions into implicit bias that utilize the (IAT) are difficult to support for this reason. Implicit interventions that utilize sequential (IAT) tasks are also difficult to support for this reason. Of course, this is also live debate and the problems I have discussed here are far from the only ones that plague this type of research.[17]

That said, when it comes to this research we are too often left wondering if the measure itself is measuring the right thing. Are we capturing implicit bias or some other socially generated phenomenon? Are the measured changes we see in study results reflecting the validity of the instrument or the cognitive maneuverings of study participants? These are all critical questions that need sussing out. The temporary result is that the target conclusion that implicit interventions will lead to reductions in real-world discrimination will move further away.[18] We find evidence of this conclusion in Forscher et al.’s (2018) meta-analysis of 492 implicit interventions:

We found little evidence that changes in implicit measures translated into changes in explicit measures and behavior, and we observed limitations in the evidence base for implicit malleability and change. These results produce a challenge for practitioners who seek to address problems that are presumed to be caused by automatically retrieved associations, as there was little evidence showing that change in implicit measures will result in changes for explicit measures or behavior…Our results suggest that current interventions that attempt to change implicit measures will not consistently change behavior in these domains. These results also produce a challenge for researchers who seek to understand the nature of human cognition because they raise new questions about the causal role of automatically retrieved associations…To better understand what the results mean, future research should innovate with more reliable and valid implicit, explicit, and behavioral tasks, intensive manipulations, longitudinal measurement of outcomes, heterogeneous samples, and diverse topics of study.[19]

Finally, what I take to be behind Alcoff’s (2010) critical question at the beginning of this piece is a kind of skepticism about how individuals can successfully tackle implicit bias through either explicit or implicit practices without the support of the social spaces, communities, and institutions that give shape to our social lives. Implicit bias is related to the culture one is in and the stereotypes it produces. So instead of insisting on changing people to reduce stereotyping, what if we insisted on changing the culture?

As Alcoff notes: “We must be willing to explore more mechanisms for redress, such as extensive educational reform, more serious projects of affirmative action, and curricular mandates that would help to correct the identity prejudices built up out of faulty narratives of history.”[20] This is an important point. It is a point that philosophers who work on implicit bias would do well to take seriously.

Science may not give us the way out of racism, sexism, and gender discrimination. At the moment, it may only give us tools for seeing ourselves a bit more clearly. Further claims about implicit interventions appear as willful scientism. They reinforce the belief that science can cure all of our social and political ills. But this is magical thinking.

Contact details: Kamili.Posey@kbcc.cuny.edu

References

Alcoff, Linda. (2010). “Epistemic Identities,” in Episteme 7 (2), p. 132.

Amodio, David M., Devine, Patricia G., and Harmon-Jones, Eddie. (2007). “A Dynamic Model of Guilt: Implications for Motivation and Self-Regulation in the Context of Prejudice,” in Psychological Science 18(6), pp. 524-30.

Blair, I. V., Ma, J. E., & Lenton, A. P. (2001). “Imagining Stereotypes Away: The Moderation of Implicit Stereotypes Through Mental Imagery,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81:5, p. 837.

Correll, Joshua, Bernadette Park, Bernd Wittenbrink, and Charles M. Judd. (2002). “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 6, 1314–1329.

Devine, P. G., & Monteith, M. J. (1993). “The Role of Discrepancy-Associated Affect in Prejudice Reduction,” in Affect, Cognition and Stereotyping: Interactive Processes in Group Perception, eds., D. M. Mackie & D. L. Hamilton. San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 317–344.

Forscher, Patrick S., Lai, Calvin K., Axt, Jordan R., Ebersole, Charles R., Herman, Michelle, Devine, Patricia G., and Nosek, Brian A. (August 13, 2018). “A Meta-Analysis of Procedures to Change Implicit Measures.” [Preprint]. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/dv8tu.

Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007). “Implicit Motivation to Control Prejudice,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44, p. 165.

Kawakami, K., Dovidio, J. F., Moll, J., Hermsen, S., & Russin, A. (2000). “Just Say No (To Stereotyping): Effects Of Training in Negation of Stereotypic Associations on Stereotype Activation,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 871–888.

Kawakami, K., Dovidio, J. F., and van Kamp, S. (2005). “Kicking the Habit: Effects of Nonstereotypic Association Training and Correction Processes on Hiring Decisions,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 41:1, pp. 68-69.

Greenwald, Anthony G., Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Nosek, Brian A. (2015). “Statistically Small Effects of the Implicit Association Test Can Have Societally Large Effects,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 553-561.

Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David. (2010). “Reducing the Expression of Implicit Stereotypes: Reflexive Control through Implementation Intentions,” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36:4, p. 513-514.

Monteith, Margo. (1993). “Self-Regulation of Prejudiced Responses: Implications for Progress in Prejudice-Reduction Efforts,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65:3, p. 472.

Moskowitz, Gordon and Li, Peizhong. (2011). “Egalitarian Goals Trigger Stereotype Inhibition,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47, p. 106.

Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2013). “Predicting Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: A Meta-Analysis of IAT Criterion Studies,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, pp. 171-192

Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2015). “Using the IAT to Predict Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: Small Effect Sizes of Unknown Societal Significance,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 562-571.

Saul, Jennifer. (2017). “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Epistemic Injustice,” in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, eds. Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. [Google Books Edition] New York: Routledge.

Webb, Thomas L., Sheeran, Paschal, and Pepper, John. (2012). “Gaining Control Over Responses to Implicit Attitude Tests: Implementation Intentions Engender Fast Responses on Attitude-Incongruent Trials,” in British Journal of Social Psychology 51, pp. 13-32.

[1] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007). “Implicit Motivation to Control Prejudice,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44, p. 165.

[2] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 167.

[3] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 170.

[4] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 168.

[5] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 168.

[6] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 169.

[7] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 169. Of this “rogue” group, Glaser and Knowles note: “This group had, on average, a negative RWS (i.e., rather than just a low bias toward Blacks, they tended to associate Whites more than Blacks with weapons; see footnote 4). If these reversed stereotypes are also uninhibited, they should yield reversed Shooter Bias, as observed here” (169).

[8] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 169.

[9] Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007), p. 169.

[10] Sang Hee Park, Jack Glaser, and Eric D. Knowles. (2008). “Implicit Motivation to Control Prejudice Moderates the Effect of Cognitive Depletion on Unintended Discrimination,” in Social Cognition, Vol. 26, No. 4, p. 416.

[11] Moskowitz, Gordon and Li, Peizhong. (2011). “Egalitarian Goals Trigger Stereotype Inhibition,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47, p. 106.

[12] Blair, I. V., Ma, J. E., & Lenton, A. P. (2001). “Imagining Stereotypes Away: The Moderation of Implicit Stereotypes Through Mental Imagery,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81:5, p. 837.

[13] Amodio, David M., Devine, Patricia G., and Harmon-Jones, Eddie. (2007). “A Dynamic Model of Guilt: Implications for Motivation and Self-Regulation in the Context of Prejudice,” in Psychological Science 18(6), pp. 524-30

[14] Moskowitz, Gordon and Li, Peizhong (2011), p. 108.

[15] Blair, I. V., Ma, J. E., & Lenton, A. P. (2001), p. 838.

[16] Fielder, Klaus, Messner, Claude, Bluemke, Matthias. (2006). “Unresolved problems with the ‘I’, the ‘A’, and the ‘T’: A logical and Psychometric Critique of the Implicit Association Test (IAT),” in European Review of Social Psychology, 12, pp. 74-147. Brendl, C. M., Markman, A. B., & Messner, C. (2001). “How Do Indirect Measures of Evaluation Work? Evaluating the Inference of Prejudice in the Implicit Association Test,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5), pp. 760-773. Fazio, R. H., and Olson, M. A. (2003). “Implicit Measures in Social Cognition Research: Their Meaning and Uses,” in Annual Review of Psychology 54, pp. 297-327.

[17] There is significant debate over the issue of whether the implicit bias that (IAT) tests measure translate into real-world discriminatory behavior. This is a complex and compelling issue. It is also an issue that could render moot the (IAT) as an implicit measure of anything full stop. Anthony G. Greenwald, Mahzarin R. Banaji, and Brian A. Nosek (2015) write: “IAT measures have two properties that render them problematic to use to classify persons as likely to engage in discrimination. Those two properties are modest test–retest reliability (for the IAT, typically between r = .5 and r = .6; cf., Nosek et al., 2007) and small to moderate predictive validity effect sizes. Therefore, attempts to diagnostically use such measures for individuals risk undesirably high rates of erroneous classifications. These problems of limited test-retest reliability and small effect sizes are maximal when the sample consists of a single person (i.e., for individual diagnostic use), but they diminish substantially as sample size increases. Therefore, limited reliability and small to moderate effect sizes are not problematic in diagnosing system-level discrimination, for which analyses often involve large samples” (557). However, Oswald et al. (2013) argue that “IAT scores correlated strongly with measures of brain activity but relatively weakly with all other criterion measures in the race domain and weakly with all criterion measures in the ethnicity domain. IATs, whether they were designed to tap into implicit prejudice or implicit stereotypes, were typically poor predictors of the types of behavior, judgments, or decisions that have been studied as instances of discrimination, regardless of how subtle, spontaneous, controlled, or deliberate they were. Explicit measures of bias were also, on average, weak predictors of criteria in the studies covered by this meta-analysis, but explicit measures performed no worse than, and sometimes better than, the IATs for predictions of policy preferences, interpersonal behavior, person perceptions, reaction times, and microbehavior. Only for brain activity were correlations higher for IATs than for explicit measures…but few studies examined prediction of brain activity using explicit measures. Any distinction between the IATs and explicit measures is a distinction that makes little difference, because both of these means of measuring attitudes resulted in poor prediction of racial and ethnic discrimination” (182-183). For further details about this debate, see: Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2013). “Predicting Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: A Meta-Analysis of IAT Criterion Studies,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, pp. 171-192 and Greenwald, Anthony G., Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Nosek, Brian A. (2015). “Statistically Small Effects of the Implicit Association Test Can Have Societally Large Effects,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 553-561.

[18] See: Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2015). “Using the IAT to Predict Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: Small Effect Sizes of Unknown Societal Significance,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 562-571.

[19] Forscher, Patrick S., Lai, Calvin K., Axt, Jordan R., Ebersole, Charles R., Herman, Michelle, Devine, Patricia G., and Nosek, Brian A. (August 13, 2018). “A Meta-Analysis of Procedures to Change Implicit Measures.” [Preprint]. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/dv8tu.

[20] Alcoff, Linda. (2010). “Epistemic Identities,” in Episteme 7 (2), p. 132.

Author Information: Kamili Posey, Kingsborough College, Kamili.Posey@kbcc.cuny.edu.

Posey, Kamili. “Scientism in the Philosophy of Implicit Bias Research.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 1-16.

Kamili Posey’s article will be posted over two instalments. The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and includes the entire essay. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41m

Image by Walt Stoneburner via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If you consider the recent philosophical literature on implicit bias research, then you would be forgiven for thinking that the problem of successful interventions into implicit bias fall into the category of things that are resolved. If you consider the recent social psychological literature on interventions into implicit bias, then you would come away with a similar impression. The claim is that implicit bias is epistemically harmful because we profess to believing one thing while our implicit attitudes tell a different story.

Strategy Models and Discrepancy Models

Implicit bias is socially harmful because it maps onto our real-world discriminatory practices, e.g., workplace discrimination, health disparities, racist police shootings, and identity-prejudicial public policies. Consider the results of Greenwald et al.’s (1998) Implicit Association Test. Consider also the results of Correll et. al’s (2002) “Shooter Bias.” If cognitive interventions are possible, and specifically implicit cognitive interventions, then they can help knowers implicitly manage automatic stereotype activation. Do these interventions lead to real-world reductions of bias?

Linda Alcoff (2010) notes that it is difficult to see how implicit, nonvolitional biases (e.g., those at the root of social and epistemic ills like race-based police shootings) can be remedied by explicit epistemic practices.[1] I would follow this by noting that it is equally difficult to see how nonvolitional biases can be remedied by implicit epistemic practices as well.

Jennifer Saul (2017) responds to Alcoff’s (2010) query by pointing to social psychological experiments conducted by Margo Monteith (1993), Jack Glaser and Eric D. Knowles (2007), Gordon B. Moskowitz and Peizhong Li (2011), Saaid A. Mendoza et al. (2010), Irene V. Blair et al. (2001), and Kerry Kawakami et al. (2005).[2] These studies suggest that implicit self-regulation of implicit bias is possible. Saul notes that philosophers with objections like Alcoff’s, and presumably like mine, should “not just to reflect upon the problem from the armchair – at the very least, one should use one’s laptop to explore the internet for effective interventions.”[3]

But I think this recrimination rings rather hollow. How entitled are we to extrapolate from social psychological studies in the manner that Saul advocates? How entitled are we to assumes the epistemic superiority of scientific research on racism, sexism, etc. over the phenomenological reporting of marginalized knowers? Lastly, how entitled are we to claims about the real-world applicability of these study results?[4] My guess is that the devil is in the details. My guess is also that social psychologists have not found the silver bullet for remedying implicit bias. But let’s follow Saul’s suggestion and not just reflect from the armchair.

A caveat: the following analysis is not intended to be an exhaustive or thorough refutation of what is ultimately a large body social psychological literature. Instead, it is intended to cast a bit of doubt on how these models are used by philosophers as successful remedies for implicit bias. It is intended to cast doubt a bit of doubt on the idea that remedies for racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic discrimination are merely a training session or reflective exercise away.

This type of thinking devalues the very real experiences of those who live through racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. It devalues how pervasive these experiences are in American society and the myriad ways in which the effects of discrimination seep into marrow of marginalized bodies and marginalized communities. Worse still, it implies that marginalized knowers who claim, “You don’t understand my experiences!” are compelled to contend with the hegemonic role of “Science” that continues to speak over their own voices and about their own lives.[5] But again, back to the studies.

Four Methods of Remedy

I break up the above studies into four intuitive model types: (1) strategy models, (2) discrepancy models, (3) (IAT) models, and (4) egalitarian goal models. (I am not a social scientist, so the operative word here is “intuitive.”) Let’s first consider Kawakami et al. (2005) and Mendoza et al. (2010) as examples of strategy models. Kawakami et al. used Devine and Monteith’s (1993) notion of a negative stereotype as a “bad habit” that a knower needs to “kick” to model strategies that aid in the inhibition of automatic stereotype activation, or the inhibition of “increased cognitive accessibility of characteristics associated with a particular group.”[6]

In a previous study, Kawakami et al. (2000) asked research participants presented with photographs of black individuals and white individuals with stereotypical traits and non-stereotypical traits listed under each photograph to respond “No” to stereotypical traits and “Yes” to non-stereotypical traits.[7] The study found that “participants who were extensively trained to negate racial stereotypes initially also demonstrated stereotype activation, this effect was eliminated by the extensive training.

Furthermore, Kawakami et al. found that practice effects of this type lasted up to 24 h following the training.”[8] Kawakami et al. (2005) used this training model to ground an experiment aimed at strategies for reducing stereotype activation in the preference of men over women for leadership roles in managerial positions. Despite the training, they found that there was “no difference between Nonstereotypic Association Training and No Training conditions…participants were indeed attempting to choose the best candidate overall, in these conditions there was an overall pattern of discrimination against women relative to men in recommended hiring for a managerial position (Glick, 1991; Rudman & Glick, 1999)” [emphasis mine].[9]

Substantive conclusions are difficult to make by a single study but one critical point is how learning occurred in the training but improved stereotype inhibition did not occur. What, exactly, are we to make of this result? Kawakami et al. (2005) claimed that “similar levels of bias in both the Training and No Training conditions implicates the influence of correction processes that limit the effectiveness of training.”[10] That is, they attributed the lack of influence of corrective processes on a variety of contributing factors that limited the effectiveness of the strategy itself.

Notice, however, that this does not implicate the strategy as a failed one. Most notably Kawakami et al. found that “when people have the time and opportunity to control their responses [they] may be strongly shaped by personal values and temporary motivations, strategies aimed at changing the automatic activation of stereotypes will not [necessarily] result in reduced discrimination.”[11]

This suggests that although the strategies failed to reduce stereotype activation they may still be helpful in limited circumstances “when impressions are more deliberative.”[12] One wonders under what conditions such impressions can be more deliberative? More than that, how useful are such limited-condition strategies for dealing with everyday life and every day automatic stereotype activation?

Mendoza et al. (2010) tested the effectiveness of “implementation intentions” as a strategy to reduce the activation or expression of implicit stereotypes using the Shooter Task.[13] They tested both “distraction-inhibiting” implementation intentions and “response-facilitating” implementation intentions. Distraction-inhibiting intentions are strategies “designed to engage inhibitory control,” such as inhibiting the perception of distracting or biasing information, while “response-facilitating” intentions are strategies designed to enhance goal attainment by focusing on specific goal-directed actions.[14]

In the first study, Mendoza et al. asked participants to repeat the on-screen phrase, “If I see a person, then I will ignore his race!” in their heads and then type the phrase into the computer. This resulted in study participants having a reduced number of errors in the Shooter Task. But let’s come back to if and how we might be able to extrapolate from these results. The second study compared a simple-goal strategy with an implementation intention strategy.

Study participants in the simple-goal strategy group were asked to follow the strategy, “I will always shoot a person I see with a gun!” and “I will never shoot a person I see with an object!” Study participants in the implementation intention strategy group were asked to use a conditional, if-then, strategy instead: “If I see a person with an object, then I will not shoot!” Mendoza et al. found that a response-facilitating implementation intention “enhanced controlled processing but did not affect automatic stereotyping processing,” while a distraction-inhibiting implementation intention “was associated with an increase in controlled processing and a decrease in automatic stereotyping processes.”[15]

How to Change Both Action and Thought

Notice that if the goal is to reduce automatic stereotype activation through reflexive control that only a distraction-inhibiting strategy achieved the desired effect. Notice also how the successful use of a distraction-inhibiting strategy may require a type of “non-messy” social environment unachievable outside of a laboratory experiment.[16] Or, as Mendoza et al. (2010) rightly note: “The current findings suggest that the quick interventions typically used in psychological experiments may be more effective in modulating behavioral responses or the temporary accessibility of stereotypes than in undoing highly edified knowledge structures.”[17]

The hope, of course, is that distraction-inhibiting strategies can help dominant knowers reduce automatic stereotype activation and response-facilitated strategies can help dominant knowers internalize controlled processing such that negative bias and stereotyping can be (one day) reflexively controlled as well. But these are only hopes. The only thing that we can rightly conclude from these results is that if we ask a dominant knower to focus on an internal command, they will do so. The result is that the activation of negative bias fails to occur.

This does not mean that the knower has reduced their internalized negative biases and prejudices or that they can continue to act on the internal commands in the future (in fact, subsequent studies reveal the effects are short-lived[18]). As Mendoza et al. also note: “In psychometric terms, these strategies are designed to enhance accuracy without necessarily affecting bias. That is, a person may still have a tendency to associate Black people with violence and thus be more likely to shoot unarmed Blacks than to shoot unarmed Whites.”[19] Despite hope for these strategies, there is very little to support their real-world applicability.

Hunting for Intuitive Hypocrisies

I would extend a similar critique to Margot Monteith’s (1993) discrepancy model. Monteith’s (1993) often cited study uses two experiments to investigate prejudice related discrepancies in the behaviors of low-prejudice (LP) and high-prejudice (HP) individuals and the ability to engage in self-regulated prejudice reduction. In the first experiment, (LP) and (HP) heterosexual study participants were asked to evaluate two law school applications, one for an implied gay applicant and one for an implied heterosexual applicant. Study participants “were led to believe that they had evaluated a gay law school applicant negatively because of his sexual orientation;” they were tricked into a “discrepancy-activated condition” or a condition that was at odds with their believed prejudicial state.[20]

All of the study participants were then told that the applications were identical and that those who had rejected the gay applicant had done so because of the applicant’s sexual orientation. It is important to note that the applicants qualifications were not, in fact, identical. The gay applicant’s application materials were made to look worse than the heterosexual applicant’s materials. This was done to compel the rejection of the applicant.

Study participants were then provided a follow-up questionnaire and essay allegedly written by a professor who wanted to know (a) “why people often have difficulty avoiding negative responses toward gay men,” and (b) “how people can eliminate their negative responses toward gay men.”[21] Researchers asked study participants to record their reactions to the faculty essay and write down as much they could remember about what they read. They were then told about the deception in the experiment and told why such deception was incorporated into the study.

Monteith (1993) found that “low and high prejudiced subjects alike experienced discomfort after violating their personal standards for responding to a gay man, but only low prejudiced subjects experienced negative self-directed affect.”[22] Low prejudiced, (LP), “discrepancy-activated subjects,” also spent more time reading the faculty essay and “showed superior recall for the portion of the essay concerning why prejudice-related discrepancies arise.”[23]

The “discrepancy experience” generated negative self-directed affect, or guilt, for (LP) study participants with the hope that the guilt would (a) “motivate discrepancy reduction (e.g., Rokeach, 1973)” and (b) “serve to establish strong cues for punishment (cf. Gray, 1982).”[24] The idea here is that the experiment results point to the existence of a self-regulatory mechanism that can replace automatic stereotype activation with “belief-based responses;” however, “it is important to note that the initiation of self-regulatory mechanisms is dependent on recognizing and interpreting one’s responses as discrepant from one’s personal beliefs.”[25]

The discrepancy between what one is shown to believe and what one professes to believe (whether real or manufactured, as in the experiment) is aimed at getting knowers to engage in heightened self-focus due to negative self-directed affect. The goal of Monteith’s (1993) study is that self-directed affect would lead to a kind of corrective belief-making process that is both less prejudicial and future-directed.

But if it’s guilt that’s doing the psychological work in these cases, then it’s not clear that knowers wouldn’t find other means of assuaging such feelings. Why wouldn’t it be the case that generating negative self-directed affect would point a knower toward anything they deem necessary to restore a more positive sense of self? To this, Monteith made the following concession:

Steele (1988; Steele & Liu, 1983) contended that restoration of one’s self-image after a discrepancy experience may not entail discrepancy reduction if other opportunities for self-affirmation are available. For example, Steele (1988) suggested that a smoker who wants to quit might spend more time with his or her children to resolve the threat to the self-concept engendered by the psychological inconsistency created by smoking. Similarly, Tesser and Cornell (1991) found that different behaviors appeared to feed into a general “self-evaluation reservoir.” It follows that prejudice-related discrepancy experiences may not facilitate the self-regulation of prejudiced responses if other means to restoring one’s self-regard are available [emphasis mine].[26]

Additionally, she noted that even if individuals are committed to the reducing or “unlearning” automatic stereotyping, they “may become frustrated and disengage from the self-regulatory cycle, abandoning their goal to eliminate prejudice-like responses.”[27] Cognitive exhaustion, or cognitive depletion, can occur after intergroup exchanges as well. This may make it even less likely that a knower will continue to feel guilty, and to use that guilt to inhibit the activation of negative stereotypes when they find themselves struggling cognitively. Conversely, there is also the issue of a kind of lab-based, or experiment-based, cognitive priming. I pick up with this idea along with the final two models of implicit interventions in the next part.

Contact details: Kamili.Posey@kbcc.cuny.edu

References

Alcoff, Linda. (2010). “Epistemic Identities,” in Episteme 7 (2), p. 132.

Amodio, David M., Devine, Patricia G., and Harmon-Jones, Eddie. (2007). “A Dynamic Model of Guilt: Implications for Motivation and Self-Regulation in the Context of Prejudice,” in Psychological Science 18(6), pp. 524-30.

Blair, I. V., Ma, J. E., & Lenton, A. P. (2001). “Imagining Stereotypes Away: The Moderation of Implicit Stereotypes Through Mental Imagery,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81:5, p. 837.

Correll, Joshua, Bernadette Park, Bernd Wittenbrink, and Charles M. Judd. (2002). “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 6, 1314–1329.

Devine, P. G., & Monteith, M. J. (1993). “The Role of Discrepancy-Associated Affect in Prejudice Reduction,” in Affect, Cognition and Stereotyping: Interactive Processes in Group Perception, eds., D. M. Mackie & D. L. Hamilton. San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 317–344.

Forscher, Patrick S., Lai, Calvin K., Axt, Jordan R., Ebersole, Charles R., Herman, Michelle, Devine, Patricia G., and Nosek, Brian A. (August 13, 2018). “A Meta-Analysis of Procedures to Change Implicit Measures.” [Preprint]. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/dv8tu.

Glaser, Jack and Knowles, Eric D. (2007). “Implicit Motivation to Control Prejudice,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44, p. 165.

Kawakami, K., Dovidio, J. F., Moll, J., Hermsen, S., & Russin, A. (2000). “Just Say No (To Stereotyping): Effects Of Training in Negation of Stereotypic Associations on Stereotype Activation,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 871–888.

Kawakami, K., Dovidio, J. F., and van Kamp, S. (2005). “Kicking the Habit: Effects of Nonstereotypic Association Training and Correction Processes on Hiring Decisions,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 41:1, pp. 68-69.

Greenwald, Anthony G., Banaji, Mahzarin R., and Nosek, Brian A. (2015). “Statistically Small Effects of the Implicit Association Test Can Have Societally Large Effects,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 553-561.

Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David. (2010). “Reducing the Expression of Implicit Stereotypes: Reflexive Control through Implementation Intentions,” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36:4, p. 513-514.

Monteith, Margo. (1993). “Self-Regulation of Prejudiced Responses: Implications for Progress in Prejudice-Reduction Efforts,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65:3, p. 472.

Moskowitz, Gordon and Li, Peizhong. (2011). “Egalitarian Goals Trigger Stereotype Inhibition,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47, p. 106.

Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2013). “Predicting Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: A Meta-Analysis of IAT Criterion Studies,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, pp. 171-192

Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2015). “Using the IAT to Predict Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: Small Effect Sizes of Unknown Societal Significance,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 4, pp. 562-571.

Saul, Jennifer. (2017). “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Epistemic Injustice,” in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, eds. Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. [Google Books Edition] New York: Routledge.

Webb, Thomas L., Sheeran, Paschal, and Pepper, John. (2012). “Gaining Control Over Responses to Implicit Attitude Tests: Implementation Intentions Engender Fast Responses on Attitude-Incongruent Trials,” in British Journal of Social Psychology 51, pp. 13-32.

[1] Alcoff, Linda. (2010). “Epistemic Identities,” in Episteme 7 (2), p. 132.

[2] Saul, Jennifer. (2017). “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Epistemic Injustice,” in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, eds. Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. [Google Books Edition] New York: Routledge.

[3] Saul, Jennifer (2017), p. 466.

[4] See: Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., and Tetlock, P. E. (2013). “Predicting Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: A Meta-Analysis of IAT Criterion Studies,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 105, pp. 171-192.

[5] I owe this critical point in its entirety to the work of Lacey Davidson and her presentation, “When Testimony Isn’t Enough: Implicit Bias Research as Epistemic Injustice” at the Feminist Epistemologies, Methodologies, Metaphysics, and Science Studies (FEMMSS) conference in Corvallis, Oregon in 2018. Davidson notes that the work of philosophers of race and critical race theorists often takes a backseat to the projects of philosophers of social science who engage with the science of racialized attitudes as opposed to the narratives and/or testimonies of those with lived experiences of racism. Davidson describes this as a type of epistemic injustice against philosophers of race and critical race theorists. She also notes that philosophers of race and critical race theorists are often people of color while the philosophers of social science are often white. This dimension of analysis is important but unexplored. Davidson’s work highlights how epistemic injustice operates within the academy to perpetuate systems of racism and oppression under the guise of “good science.” Her arguments was inspired by the work of Jeanine Weekes Schroer on the problematic nature of current research on stereotype threat and implicit bias in “Giving Them Something They Can Feel: On the Strategy of Scientizing the Phenomenology of Race and Racism,” Knowledge Cultures 3(1), 2015.

[6] Kawakami, K., Dovidio, J. F., and van Kamp, S. (2005). “Kicking the Habit: Effects of Nonstereotypic Association Training and Correction Processes on Hiring Decisions,” in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 41:1, pp. 68-69. See also: Devine, P. G., & Monteith, M. J. (1993). “The Role of Discrepancy-Associated Affect in Prejudice Reduction,” in Affect, Cognition and Stereotyping: Interactive Processes in Group Perception, eds., D. M. Mackie & D. L. Hamilton. San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 317–344.

[7] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 69. See also: Kawakami, K., Dovidio, J. F., Moll, J., Hermsen, S., & Russin, A. (2000). “Just Say No (To Stereotyping): Effects Of Training in Negation of Stereotypic Associations on Stereotype Activation,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 871–888.

[8] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 69.

[9] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 73.

[10] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 73.

[11] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 74.

[12] Kawakami et al. (2005), p. 74.

[13] The Shooter Task refers to a computer simulation experiment where images of black and white males appear on a screen holding a gun or a non-gun object. Study participants are given a short response time and tasked with pressing a button, or “shooting” armed images versus unarmed images. Psychological studies have revealed a “shooter bias” in the tendency to shoot black, unarmed males more often than unarmed white males. See: Correll, Joshua, Bernadette Park, Bernd Wittenbrink, and Charles M. Judd. (2002). “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 6, 1314–1329.

[14] Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David. (2010). “Reducing the Expression of Implicit Stereotypes: Reflexive Control through Implementation Intentions,” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36:4, p. 513-514..

[15] Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David (2010), p. 520.

[16] A “messy environment” presents additional challenges to studies like the one discussed here. As Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg (2008) claim in “The Spreading of Disorder,” people are more likely to violate social rules when they see that others are violating the rules as well. I can only imagine that this is applicable to epistemic rules as well. I mention this here to suggest that the “cleanliness” of the social environment of social psychological studies such as the one by Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David (2010) presents an additional obstacle in extrapolating the resulting behaviors of research participants to the public-at-large. Short of mass hypnosis, how could the strategies used in these experiments, strategies that are predicated on the noninterference of other destabilizing factors, be meaningfully applied to everyday life? There is a tendency in the philosophical literature on implicit bias and stereotype threat to outright ignore the limited applicability of much of this research in order to make critical claims about interventions into racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic behaviors. Philosophers would do well to recognize the complexity of these issues and to be more cautious about the enthusiastic endorsement of experimental results.

[17] Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David (2010), p. 520.

[18] Webb, Thomas L., Sheeran, Paschal, and Pepper, John. (2012). “Gaining Control Over Responses to Implicit Attitude Tests: Implementation Intentions Engender Fast Responses on Attitude-Incongruent Trials,” in British Journal of Social Psychology 51, pp. 13-32.

[19] Mendoza, Saaid, Gollwitzer, Peter, and Amodio, David (2010), p. 520.

[20] Monteith, Margo. (1993). “Self-Regulation of Prejudiced Responses: Implications for Progress in Prejudice-Reduction Efforts,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65:3, p. 472.

[21] Monteith (1993), p. 474.

[22] Monteith (1993), p. 475.

[23] Monteith (1993), p. 477.

[24] Monteith (1993), p. 477.

[25] Monteith (1993), p. 477.

[26] Monteith (1993), p. 482.

[27] Monteith (1993), p. 483.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, Royal Crown College, Social Epistemology Digital Editor, serrc.digital@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “The True Shape of a Society of Friends.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 7 (2018): 40-45.

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

From the March for Justice for Police Violence in December 2014.
Sassower’s book does not directly touch on themes of institutional corruption, like the racialization of police forces as they act with undue violence and exploitation toward minority populations. But the communitarian moralities he thinks can overcome capitalism also has the potential to build progress here. More material for that sequel.
Image by All-Nite Images via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

As a work of philosophy, of political economy, of institutional analysis, Raphael Sassower’s The Quest for Prosperity has only one shortcoming. It makes for a tantalizing setup for his next work, and gives a reader the distinct impression that we are in store for a stunning sequel. Its title would be something like The Nature of Prosperity, or Remaking Prosperity. To the detriment of the actually existing book, reading The Quest for Prosperity makes you want desperately to read Remaking Prosperity, which unfortunately does not exist.

The Quest for Prosperity itself is a brilliant book, synthesizing many different concepts and images from several disciplines and traditions in the history of Western thought. It is a thoroughly researched and beautifully composed groundwork for a groundbreaking new philosophical approach to political economy.

The book drags a little in part three, which catalogues several hilariously inadequate new visions of prosperity that are unfortunately popular today. It would be news to someone who has only heard the hype of Silicon Valley and other ideologies similarly twisted to make working people desire their own slavery. But the average Washington Post, Manchester Guardian, or even Bloomberg News reader or fan of HBO’s Silicon Valley should already understand the toxic lifestyle PR of these moneyed industries.

As for that groundwork for the groundbreaking, the final two chapters offer a tantalizing glimpse of a work that explores the existence and revolutionary potential of the communitarian values underlying several disparate existing institutions. Unfortunately, it remains only a glimpse.

Economies of Scale

Sassower’s book revolves around an important ethical critique of contemporary capitalism and the culture of business and entrepreneurship that has grown so popular this century. In uncritically capitalist ways of thinking, there is only one set of terms in which people, social networks, technology, building and city architecture, institutions, organizations, ecologies, territories, and ideas are valued: their monetary potential. Such a morality of valuation reduces all that exists, including human identity itself, to a single dimension of ethical worth, and a petty-minded one at that.

The typical narratives to validate and venerate the contemporary economic order often appeal to images and concepts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Smith is a touchstone for Sassower as well, but he is wise not to linger on the image of the “invisible hand” that haunts the populist imagery of harmony through competition. Sassower instead focusses on how Smith describes the molecular connections of market exchanges – vendors and tradespeople buying and selling from each other in a town marketplace.

In the marketplaces where capitalist exchange begins, the individuals making money from each other are not themselves competitors. Their relationships are collegial friendships among professionals, and Smith describes their interaction as “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” So when a community’s prosperity flows from its markets and commercial exchanges, that prosperity is not a product of competition, but of friendliness. (Sassower 60-61)

In such a social atmosphere, a community of people constitutes itself easily from the everyday interactions of the marketplace, where people develop feelings of love at a low intensity for the neighbours who sustain their lives. Relationships of everyday economic exchange occur at such a personal level that the mutual benefit of such exchange is a straightforward fact, discovered through quotidian observation. They are, as Sassower describes them, “sympathetic neighbours.” (Sassower 90-91)

The rapaciousness and greed typical of contemporary business cultures could not arise from such relationship networks of friendly truck and barter. The network’s members connect by dynamics of mutual sympathy. Such a network would not be able to sustain business practices characterized by the greed and hostility into which many young professionals are socialized in the 21st century’s most intense economic hubs. Greed and cheating would result in your immediate expulsion from the marketplace, having betrayed the friendships of the others in the network.

Such sympathetic neighbourliness could most easily be overcome with an outside disturbance. For our case, that disturbance was the flow of massive economic income to those small marketplaces. This was the income of industrialization and colonialism. Speaking more descriptively, it was the income of exponential energy growth in domestic manufacturing, and a huge influx of many kinds of wealth from distant continents (raw materials, currency metals like gold and silver, agricultural goods, slaves).

These enormous flows of capital are too large for truck and barter, too massive to engage instinctual human sympathy. As the stakes of economic activity grow hugely higher, this depersonalization of economic activity leaves a person adrift in commercial exchange. Unable to form the same intimate connections as in the far less intense marketplace exchange, the alienated, angry approach to business as a zero-sum game. No longer sympathy and friendliness, but fear and aggression characterize the psychology of someone engaging with this sort of economic system in daily life. (Sassower 105)

Art by Shepard Fairey. Image by Wally Gobetz via Flickr / Creative Commons

What Would a Virtuous Oligarch Be?

In an economic system where capital flows massively overpower the capacity for everyday personal relationship networks to manage them, business life tends to condition people psychologically and morally into sociopaths. This problem of the depersonalized economy remains a wall in The Quest for Prosperity that, on its own terms, is insoluble. On its own terms, it likely is impossible to restore the virtue of sympathy to the psychological tendencies of people growing up in a high-intensity industrial capitalist economy. Sassower therefore forges an alternative image of the economic leader.

If capitalism can only express justice when the mega-rich are generally benevolent, community-minded people who care about their neighbours regardless of wealth, breeding, or class, then Sassower can at least describe how an oligarch could become kind. He identifies one economic principle, the recognition of which begins to transform an oligarch from a greedy sociopath to a personal ethic of rationally-justified sympathy. That principle is demand-centric economics.

This is a simple economic principle, fairly well-known in popular culture. If too many people in a society are in poverty, then the economy will stagnate from cratering demand; too few people will have enough money to spend, even for basic necessities. When a very wealthy person accepts this principle, he consents to submit a healthy portion of his income to taxation so that government services can close these poverty gaps. A business owner who accepts the principle of demand-centric economics will pay the workers in his business more, so that their spending can continue to drive economic development (Sassower 123-124).

Demand-centric thinking in economics has not been a major principle in how government policy on incomes and wealth inequality has developed over the last 40 years. The Reagan-Thatcher era of Western governance took the opposite principle, supply-side or trickle-down economics, as gospel. This is the notion that as the wealthy’s tax burden becomes lower and lower, they will spend more of that money in capital investment, backing new business ventures, and expanding private-sector employment.

Although the policy was widely mocked in popular culture from its first emergence, it has become the foundation of tax policy for all the largest political parties in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and among almost all conservative or centrist parties in Europe. Despite its success as legislature, the material consequences have been disastrous, as supply-side tax policies have decimated social democratic institutions throughout the West, intensifying economic precarity for millions across Europe and the Americas.

Why supply-side economics succeeded in becoming, until recently, uncontested common sense in popular culture and state-level politics is its intuitiveness in particular contexts. If an ordinary person’s annual income rises from $40,000 to $50,000, she will spend more money. The supply-side propagandist then derives a universal principle: If you have more money, you will spend more money. With that generality in hand, a principle that applies at middle-class incomes will be taken to hold at oligarchical incomes.

This is, of course, false, for three reasons that Sassower describes. One, personal consumption cannot proceed at an intensity of millions or billions of dollars each year. Two, most of that massive personal income never returns to their domestic economies anyway, and is instead burrowed in tax havens. Three, the capital investment industry no longer focusses on supplying startup funding for businesses. (Sassower 116)

Instead, global finance investment concentrates on the day-to-day trading of stocks in already existing companies, securities bundles, and speculation on the future value of stocks, securities, and currencies. High-frequency trading is a blatant sign that these investments are not for reinvestment into the productive economy. In this practice, a firm’s single algorithm will make millions of trades each day, based on its analyses of minute-to-minute market fluctuations. (Sassower 117)

Turning these massive fortunes away from the communities of non-rich people in their surroundings and around the world is a subtle but harrowing moral failure, considering the many hundreds of billions of dollars are wrapped entirely in these trading concerns.

A Fantastic Book That Falls Short of Its Potential

An economy of oligarchial inequality produces an elite for whom the purpose of living is cartoonishly grotesque personal self-enrichment. Such an economy as the one we live in today on Earth also deranges those who have virtually no wealth at all compared to these titans of mass ownership and securities gambling.

Anxiety over a precarious life of low pay and debt maintenance consumes all personal energy to help others. That anxiety encourages hatred of others as desperation and stress pervert any reflective capacity for long-term judgment into a paranoid social reflexivity. Reduced to egotistic, short-term thinking and habituated into distrust and hostility toward others, the poor become easy prey for financial fraud. The payday loan industry is built on this principle. Poverty does not breed virtue, but fear and rage.

This ties to what I think is the only notable flaw in The Quest for Prosperity. Stylistically, the book suffers from a common issue for many new research books in the humanities and social sciences. Its argument loses some momentum as it approaches the conclusion, and ends up in a more modest, self-restrained place than its opening chapters promised. How he does so reveals the far more profound shortcoming of Sassower’s book.

Sassower is admirable and innovative in his call to regenerate communitarian philosophy as a politically engaged popular intervention. His method is a philosophical examination of how four quite disparate civic institutions express effective communitarian ethics in their habitual structure and behavioural norms. The Catholic and some other Christian Churches socialize its dedicated members as “of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), whose primary economic concern is safeguarding people from the indignity of poverty. (Sassower 242-247)

The Israeli kibbutz movement governs distribution of goods and the financial results of their community’s work literally according to Marx’s principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Countercultural communes in North America operated according to similar rules of management as kibbutzim, but with quite different moral orientation. Kibbutz political philosophy is a secularized agrarian marxism organized around a utopian purpose of building a communal Zion where all oppressed people of the world can live in a Jewish homeland.

American counterculture communes sought to create a living alternative to the immanent political problem of rapacious capitalism’s continuation of genocidal imperialism. Sassower also offers a phenomenological exploration of how military training builds strong interpersonal bonds of solidarity, a communitarianism among soldiers.

All these templates for communitarian alternatives to the increasingly brutal culture of contemporary capitalism share an important common feature that is very dangerous for Sassower’s project. They are each rooted in civic institutions, material social structures for education and socialization. Contrary to how Sassower speaks of these four inspirations, civil rights and civic institutions alone are not enough to build and sustain a community each member of whom holds a communitarian ethical philosophy and moral sense deep in her heart.

The Impotence of Civil Rights

You may consider it a bit excessive that a book review would include a brief argument that civic institutions are not on their own adequate to ensure and maintain the freedom and dignity of the people who live in their domain. Nonetheless, Sassower wrote The Quest for Prosperity with an ambition of a similar scope, critiquing fundamental concepts of contemporary ideology and economic morality as part of an argument for communitarian alternatives. So I will maintain my own intensity of ambition with his.

There are two reasons why civic institutions alone, while needed, are not sufficient to overcome with communitarian values the ambitions of people to become oligarchs. Each of the two reasons is a different philosophical approach to the same empirical fact about human social capacities and institutions.

I first want to mention a logical reason. This is the simple fact that, conceptually speaking, law is not itself a material power. There is nothing about the law, as law, that compels your conformity to itself. There may be a moral motive to obey the law, whether that moral reason is a universal imperative or the injunction of social pressure. There may be a coercive motive to obey the law, as when you are under threat of police violence such as arrest, imprisonment, torture, or summary execution. Most often, people obey the law for practical reasons, as when a government’s legislation and regulations structure institutions we need to manage our techno-industrial society. But law alone is not justice, and so compels no obedience.

Law having no power to compel obedience, the existence of laws prohibiting violence against human rights does nothing to prevent such violence. If recognition of the law were all that was needed for obedience, then laws would never be violated. Only some material power, existing in addition to those laws, can ensure their application in managing the actions of a population.

The ultimate material power in the application of the law are state institutions, and any related institutions they support. Raising money through taxation, investment in industrial developments, and central bank mechanisms, states fund law enforcement institutions like courts, rehabilitation centres, prosecutors, and police. But even in institutions whose laws promise equal and fair treatment, individuals operating within those institutions can still use material power to give themselves unfair advantage over the less powerful.

Consider a civil suit whose defendant must make do with the cheapest legal representation in Albuquerque, but whose plaintiff walks into court with Alan Dershowitz at his side. Consider also the many instances where the power of institutions and institutionally-reinforced morality of solidarity encourages police abuse of citizens.

An individual officer may coerce sex from women under threat of arrest, or shoot a civilian with little or no cause; fellow officers or police unions will cover for him. An entire police department will prey on citizens as a matter of policy, as in many cities in the United States whose municipal police departments require a minimum (and growing) number of misdemeanor and bylaw violation fines for budgetary purposes. One of those such cities, incidentally, is Ferguson, Missouri.

The Impossibility of Prosperity?

I give these illustrations to emphasize the ethical importance of the fundamental purpose driving The Quest for Prosperity. Most of the book is taken up by Sassower’s clear and insightful argument for why contemporary capitalism is a moral and ethical disaster. The Quest for Prosperity is a stellar addition to this tradition of critical thought that has accompanied industrial development since its beginning.

Sassower takes a more noble stand than a critique, however, in proposing an alternative to capitalist practice for the domain most essential to resisting and overcoming industrial and economic injustice: public morality and personal ethics. His analysis of existing institutions and societies that foster communitarian moralities and ethics is detailed enough to show promise, but unfortunately so brief as to leave us without guidance or strategy to fulfill that promise.

My illustrations – deep pockets undermining a court’s fairness, police predation and corruption – describe real injustices rooted in the greed and hatred facilitated through capitalism and the racism that turns the exploited against each other. They are here to remind thinkers who are likewise against such injustice of the urgency of our challenges.

Sassower has offered communitarian approaches to morality and ethics as solutions to those challenges of injustice. I think his direction is very promising. But The Quest for Prosperity offers only a sign. If his next book is to fulfill the promise of this one, he must explore the possibilities opened up by the following questions.

Can communitarian values overcome the allure of greed? What kind of social, political, and economic structures would we need to achieve that utopian goal?

Contact details: serrc.digital@gmail.com

References

Sassower, Raphael. The Quest for Prosperity. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

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

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

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3W1

Please refer to:

Image by eltpics via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In my (2017a), I defend a view I call Weak Scientism, which is the view that knowledge produced by scientific disciplines is better than knowledge produced by non-scientific disciplines.[1] Scientific knowledge can be said to be quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as scientific disciplines produce more impactful knowledge–in the form of scholarly publications–than non-scientific disciplines (as measured by research output and research impact). Scientific knowledge can be said to be qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge insofar as such knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge.

Brown (2017a) raises several objections against my defense of Weak Scientism and I have replied to his objections (Mizrahi 2017b), thereby showing again that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since then, Brown (2017b) has reiterated his objections in another reply on SERRC. Almost unchanged from his previous attack on Weak Scientism (Brown 2017a), Brown’s (2017b) objections are the following:

  1. Weak Scientism is not strong enough to count as scientism.
  2. Advocates of Strong Scientism should not endorse Weak Scientism.
  3. Weak Scientism does not show that philosophy is useless.
  4. My defense of Weak Scientism appeals to controversial philosophical assumptions.
  5. My defense of Weak Scientism is a philosophical argument.
  6. There is nothing wrong with persuasive definitions of scientism.

In what follows, I will respond to these objections, thereby showing once more that Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Since I have been asked to keep this as short as possible, however, I will try to focus on what I take to be new in Brown’s (2017b) latest attack on Weak Scientism.

Is Weak Scientism Strong Enough to Count as Scientism?

Brown (2017b) argues for (1) on the grounds that, on Weak Scientism, “philosophical knowledge may be nearly as valuable as scientific knowledge.” Brown (2017b, 4) goes on to characterize a view he labels “Scientism2,” which he admits is the same view as Strong Scientism, and says that “there is a huge logical gap between Strong Scientism (Scientism2) and Weak Scientism.”

As was the case the first time Brown raised this objection, it is not clear how it is supposed to show that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017b, 10-11). Of course there is a logical gap between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism; that is why I distinguish between these two epistemological views. If I am right, Strong Scientism is too strong to be a defensible version of scientism, whereas Weak Scientism is a defensible (weaker) version of scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353-354).

Of course Weak Scientism “leaves open the possibility that there is philosophical knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 5). If I am right, such philosophical knowledge would be inferior to scientific knowledge both quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) (Mizrahi 2017a, 358).

Brown (2017b, 5) does try to offer a reason “for thinking it strange that Weak Scientism counts as a species of scientism” in his latest attack on Weak Scientism, which does not appear in his previous attack. He invites us to imagine a theist who believes that “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” (emphasis in original). Brown then claims that this theist would be an advocate of Weak Scientism because Brown (2017b, 6) takes “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century” to be “(roughly) equivalent to Weak Scientism.” For Brown (2017b, 6), however, “it seems odd, to say the least, that [this theist] should count as an advocate (even roughly) of scientism.”

Unfortunately, Brown’s appeal to intuition is rather difficult to evaluate because his hypothetical case is under-described.[2] First, the key phrase, namely, “modern science is the greatest new intellectual achievement since the fifteenth century,” is vague in more ways than one. I have no idea what “greatest” is supposed to mean here. Greatest in what respects? What are the other “intellectual achievements” relative to which science is said to be “the greatest”?

Also, what does “intellectual achievement” mean here? There are multiple accounts and literary traditions in history and philosophy of science, science studies, and the like on what counts as “intellectual achievements” or progress in science (Mizrahi 2013b). Without a clear understanding of what these key phrases mean here, it is difficult to tell how Brown’s intuition about this hypothetical case is supposed to be a reason to think that Weak Scientism is not “really” a (weaker) version of scientism.

Toward the end of his discussion of (1), Brown says something that suggests he actually has an issue with the word ‘scientism’. Brown (2017b, 6) writes, “perhaps Mizrahi should coin a new word for the position with respect to scientific knowledge and non-scientific forms of academic knowledge he wants to talk about” (emphasis in original). It should be clear, of course, that it does not matter what label I use for the view that “Of all the knowledge we have, scientific knowledge is the best knowledge” (Mizrahi 2017a, 354; emphasis in original). What matters is the content of the view, not the label.

Whether Brown likes the label or not, Weak Scientism is a (weaker) version of scientism because it is the view that scientific ways of knowing are superior (in certain relevant respects) to non-scientific ways of knowing, whereas Strong Scientism is the view that scientific ways of knowing are the only ways of knowing. As I have pointed out in my previous reply to Brown, whether scientific ways of knowing are superior to non-scientific ways of knowing is essentially what the scientism debate is all about (Mizrahi 2017b, 13).

Before I conclude this discussion of (1), I would like to point out that Brown seems to have misunderstood Weak Scientism. He (2017b, 3) claims that “Weak Scientism is a normative and not a descriptive claim.” This is a mistake. As a thesis (Peels 2017, 11), Weak Scientism is a descriptive claim about scientific knowledge in comparison to non-scientific knowledge. This should be clear provided that we keep in mind what it means to say that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. As I have argued in my (2017a), to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and that the impact of scientific knowledge is greater than that of non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research impact).

To say that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific knowledge is explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than non-scientific knowledge. All these claims about the superiority of scientific knowledge to non-scientific knowledge are descriptive, not normative, claims. That is to say, Weak Scientism is the view that, as a matter of fact, knowledge produced by scientific fields of study is quantitatively (in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitatively (in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) better than knowledge produced by non-scientific fields of study.

Of course, Weak Scientism does have some normative implications. For instance, if scientific knowledge is indeed better than non-scientific knowledge, then, other things being equal, we should give more evidential weight to scientific knowledge than to non-scientific knowledge. For example, suppose that I am considering whether to vaccinate my child or not. On the one hand, I have scientific knowledge in the form of results from clinical trials according to which MMR vaccines are generally safe and effective.

On the other hand, I have knowledge in the form of stories about children who were vaccinated and then began to display symptoms of autism. If Weak Scientism is true, and I want to make a decision based on the best available information, then I should give more evidential weight to the scientific knowledge about MMR vaccines than to the anecdotal knowledge about MMR vaccines simply because the former is scientific (i.e., knowledge obtained by means of the methods of science, such as clinical trials) and the latter is not.

Should Advocates of Strong Scientism Endorse Weak Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 7) argues for (2) on the grounds that “once the advocate of Strong Scientism sees that an advocate of Weak Scientism admits the possibility that there is real knowledge other than what is produced by the natural sciences […] the advocate of Strong Scientism, at least given their philosophical presuppositions, will reject Weak Scientism out of hand.” It is not clear which “philosophical presuppositions” Brown is talking about here. Brown quotes Rosenberg (2011, 20), who claims that physics tells us what reality is like, presumably as an example of a proponent of Strong Scientism who would not endorse Weak Scientism. But it is not clear why Brown thinks that Rosenberg would “reject Weak Scientism out of hand” (Brown 2017d, 7).

Like other proponents of scientism, Rosenberg should endorse Weak Scientism because, unlike Strong Scientism, Weak Scientism is a defensible view. Insofar as we should endorse the view that has the most evidence in its favor, Weak Scientism has more going for it than Strong Scientism does. For to show that Strong Scientism is true, one would have to show that no field of study other than scientific ones can produce knowledge. Of course, that is not easy to show. To show that Weak Scientism is true, one only needs to show that the knowledge produced in scientific fields of study is better (in certain relevant respects) than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields.

That is precisely what I show in my (2017a). I argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is quantitatively better than the knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because there is a lot more scientific knowledge than non-scientific knowledge (as measured by research output) and the former has a greater impact than the latter (as measured by research impact). I also argue that the knowledge produced in scientific fields is qualitatively better than knowledge produced in non-scientific fields because it is more explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively successful.

Contrary to what Brown (2017b, 7) seems to think, I do not have to show “that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge.” To defend Weak Scientism, all I have to show is that scientific knowledge is better (in certain relevant respects) than non-scientific knowledge. If anyone must argue for the claim that there is real knowledge other than scientific knowledge, it is Brown, for he wants to defend the value or usefulness of non-scientific knowledge, specifically, philosophical knowledge.

It is important to emphasize the point about the ways in which scientific knowledge is quantitatively and qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge because it looks like Brown has confused the two. For he thinks that I justify my quantitative analysis of scholarly publications in scientific and non-scientific fields by “citing the precedent of epistemologists who often treat all items of knowledge as qualitatively the same” (Brown 2017b, 22; emphasis added).

Here Brown fails to carefully distinguish between my claim that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge and my claim that scientific knowledge is qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge. For the purposes of a quantitative study of knowledge, information and data scientists can do precisely what epistemologists do and “abstract from various circumstances (by employing variables)” (Brown 2017b, 22) in order to determine which knowledge is quantitatively better.

How Is Weak Scientism Relevant to the Claim that Philosophy Is Useless?

Brown (2017b, 7-8) argues for (3) on the grounds that “Weak Scientism itself implies nothing about the degree to which philosophical knowledge is valuable or useful other than stating scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge” (emphasis in original).

Strictly speaking, Brown is wrong about this because Weak Scientism does imply something about the degree to which scientific knowledge is better than philosophical knowledge. Recall that to say that scientific knowledge is quantitatively better than non-scientific knowledge is to say that scientific fields of study publish more research and that scientific research has greater impact than the research published in non-scientific fields of study.

Contrary to what Brown seems to think, we can say to what degree scientific research is superior to non-scientific research in terms of output and impact. That is precisely what bibliometric indicators like h-index and other metrics are for (Rousseau et al. 2018). Such bibliometric indicators allow us to say how many articles are published in a given field, how many of those published articles are cited, and how many times they are cited. For instance, according to Scimago Journal & Country Rank (2018), which contains data from the Scopus database, of the 3,815 Philosophy articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 14% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 160.

On the other hand, of the 24,378 Psychology articles published in the United States in 2016-2017, approximately 40% are cited, and their h-index is approximately 640. Contrary to what Brown seems to think, then, we can say to what degree research in Psychology is better than research in Philosophy in terms of research output (i.e., number of publications) and research impact (i.e., number of citations). We can use the same bibliometric indicators and metrics to compare research in other scientific and non-scientific fields of study.

As I have already said in my previous reply to Brown, “Weak Scientism does not entail that philosophy is useless” and “I have no interest in defending the charge that philosophy is useless” (Mizrahi 2017b, 11-12). So, I am not sure why Brown brings up (3) again. Since he insists, however, let me explain why philosophers who are concerned about the charge that philosophy is useless should engage with Weak Scientism as well.

Suppose that a foundation or agency is considering whether to give a substantial grant to one of two projects. The first project is that of a philosopher who will sit in her armchair and contemplate the nature of friendship.[3] The second project is that of a team of social scientists who will conduct a longitudinal study of the effects of friendship on human well-being (e.g., Yang et al. 2016).

If Weak Scientism is true, and the foundation or agency wants to fund the project that is likely to yield better results, then it should give the grant to the team of social scientists rather than to the armchair philosopher simply because the former’s project is scientific, whereas the latter’s is not. This is because the scientific project will more likely yield better knowledge than the non-scientific project will. In other words, unlike the project of the armchair philosopher, the scientific project will probably produce more research (i.e., more publications) that will have a greater impact (i.e., more citations) and the knowledge produced will be explanatorily, instrumentally, and predictively more successful than any knowledge that the philosopher’s project might produce.

This example should really hit home for Brown, since reading his latest attack on Weak Scientism gives one the impression that he thinks of philosophy as a personal, “self-improvement” kind of enterprise, rather than an academic discipline or field of study. For instance, he seems to be saying that philosophy is not in the business of producing “new knowledge” or making “discoveries” (Brown 2017b, 17).

Rather, Brown (2017b, 18) suggests that philosophy “is more about individual intellectual progress rather than collective intellectual progress.” Individual progress or self-improvement is great, of course, but I am not sure that it helps Brown’s case in defense of philosophy against what he sees as “the menace of scientism.” For this line of thinking simply adds fuel to the fire set by those who want to see philosophy burn. As I point out in my (2017a), scientists who dismiss philosophy do so because they find it academically useless.

For instance, Hawking and Mlodinow (2010, 5) write that ‘philosophy is dead’ because it ‘has not kept up with developments in science, particularly physics’ (emphasis added). Similarly, Weinberg (1994, 168) says that, as a working scientist, he ‘finds no help in professional philosophy’ (emphasis added). (Mizrahi 2017a, 356)

Likewise, Richard Feynman is rumored to have said that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds” (Kitcher 1998, 32). It is clear, then, that what these scientists complain about is professional or academic philosophy. Accordingly, they would have no problem with anyone who wants to pursue philosophy for the sake of “individual intellectual progress.” But that is not the issue here. Rather, the issue is academic knowledge or research.

Does My Defense of Weak Scientism Appeal to Controversial Philosophical Assumptions?

Brown (2017b, 9) argues for (4) on the grounds that I assume that “we are supposed to privilege empirical (I read Mizrahi’s ‘empirical’ here as ‘experimental/scientific’) evidence over non-empirical evidence.” But that is question-begging, Brown claims, since he takes me to be assuming something like the following: “If the question of whether scientific knowledge is superior to [academic] non-scientific knowledge is a question that one can answer empirically, then, in order to pose a serious challenge to my [Mizrahi’s] defense of Weak Scientism, Brown must come up with more than mere ‘what ifs’” (Mizrahi 2017b, 10; quoted in Brown 2017b, 8).

This objection seems to involve a confusion about how defeasible reasoning and defeating evidence are supposed to work. Given that “a rebutting defeater is evidence which prevents E from justifying belief in H by supporting not-H in a more direct way” (Kelly 2016), claims about what is actual cannot be defeated by mere possibilities, since claims of the form “Possibly, p” do not prevent a piece of evidence from justifying belief in “Actually, p” by supporting “Actually, not-p” directly.

For example, the claim “Hillary Clinton could have been the 45th President of the United States” does not prevent my perceptual and testimonial evidence from justifying my belief in “Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States,” since the former does not support “It is not the case that Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States” in a direct way. In general, claims of the form “Possibly, p” are not rebutting defeaters against claims of the form “Actually, p.” Defeating evidence against claims of the form “Actually, p” must be about what is actual (or at least probable), not what is merely possible, in order to support “Actually, not-p” directly.

For this reason, although “the production of some sorts of non-scientific knowledge work may be harder than the production of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 19), Brown gives no reasons to think that it is actually or probably harder, which is why this possibility does nothing to undermine the claim that scientific knowledge is actually better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is harder to produce than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is harder to produce than philosophical knowledge. It is also possible that scientific and non-scientific knowledge are equally hard to produce.

Similarly, the possibility that “a little knowledge about the noblest things is more desirable than a lot of knowledge about less noble things” (Brown 2017b, 19), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, does not prevent my bibliometric evidence (in terms of research output and research impact) from justifying the belief that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. Just as it is possible that philosophical knowledge is “nobler” (whatever that means) than scientific knowledge, it is also possible that scientific knowledge is “nobler” than philosophical knowledge or that they are equally “noble” (Mizrahi 2017b, 9-10).

In fact, even if Brown (2017a, 47) is right that “philosophy is harder than science” and that “knowing something about human persons–particularly qua embodied rational being–is a nobler piece of knowledge than knowing something about any non-rational object” (Brown 2017b, 21), whatever “noble” is supposed to mean here, it would still be the case that scientific fields produce more knowledge (as measured by research output), and more impactful knowledge (as measured by research impact), than non-scientific disciplines.

So, I am not sure why Brown keeps insisting on mentioning these mere possibilities. He also seems to forget that the natural and social sciences study human persons as well. Even if knowledge about human persons is “nobler” (whatever that means), there is a lot of scientific knowledge about human persons coming from scientific fields, such as anthropology, biology, genetics, medical science, neuroscience, physiology, psychology, and sociology, to name just a few.

One of the alleged “controversial philosophical assumptions” that my defense of Weak Scientism rests on, and that Brown (2017a) complains about the most in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, is my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers do. In my previous reply, I argue that Brown is not in a position to complain that this is a “controversial philosophical assumption,” since he rejects my characterization of philosophy as the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce, but he does not tell us what counts as philosophical (Mizrahi 2017b, 13). Well, it turns out that Brown does not reject my characterization of philosophy after all. For, after he was challenged to say what counts as philosophical, he came up with the following “sufficient condition for pieces of writing and discourse that count as philosophy” (Brown 2017b, 11):

(P) Those articles published in philosophical journals and what academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy teach in courses at public universities with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science (Brown 2017b, 11; emphasis added).

Clearly, this is my characterization of philosophy in terms of the scholarly work that professional philosophers produce. Brown simply adds teaching to it. Since he admits that “scientists teach students too” (Brown 2017b, 18), however, it is not clear how adding teaching to my characterization of philosophy is supposed to support his attack on Weak Scientism. In fact, it may actually undermine his attack on Weak Scientism, since there is a lot more teaching going on in STEM fields than in non-STEM fields.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2017), in the 2015-16 academic year, post-secondary institutions in the United States conferred only 10,157 Bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies compared to 113,749 Bachelor’s degrees in biological and biomedical sciences, 106,850 Bachelor’s degrees in engineering, and 117,440 in psychology. In general, in the 2015-2016 academic year, 53.3% of the Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the United States were degrees in STEM fields, whereas only 5.5% of conferred Bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Bachelor’s degrees conferred by post-secondary institutions in the US, by field of study, 2015-2016 (Source: NCES)

 

Clearly, then, there is a lot more teaching going on in science than in philosophy (or even in the humanities in general), since a lot more students take science courses and graduate with degrees in scientific fields of study. So, even if Brown is right that we should include teaching in what counts as philosophy, it is still the case that scientific fields are quantitatively better than non-scientific fields.

Since Brown (2017b, 13) seems to agree that philosophy (at least in part) is the scholarly work that academic philosophers produce, it is peculiar that he complains, without argument, that “an understanding of philosophy and knowledge as operational is […] shallow insofar as philosophy and knowledge can’t fit into the narrow parameters of another empirical study.” Once Brown (2017b, 11) grants that “Those articles published in philosophical journals” count as philosophy, he thereby also grants that these journal articles can be studied empirically using the methods of bibliometrics, information science, or data science.

That is, Brown (2017b, 11) concedes that philosophy consists (at least in part) of “articles published in philosophical journals,” and so these articles can be compared to other articles published in science journals to determine research output, and they can also be compared to articles published in science journals in terms of citation counts to determine research impact. What exactly is “shallow” about that? Brown does not say.

A, perhaps unintended, consequence of Brown’s (P) is that the “great thinkers from the past” (Brown 2017b, 18), those that Brown (2017b, 13) likes to remind us “were not professional philosophers,” did not do philosophy, by Brown’s own lights. For “Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Locke, and Hume” (Brown 2017b, 13) did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Another peculiar thing about Brown’s (P) is the restriction of the philosophical to what is being taught in public universities. What about community colleges and private universities? Is Brown suggesting that philosophy courses taught at private universities do not count as philosophy courses? This is peculiar, especially in light of the fact that, at least according to The Philosophical Gourmet Report (Brogaard and Pynes 2018), the top ranked philosophy programs in the United States are mostly located in private universities, such as New York University and Princeton University.

Is My Defense of Weak Scientism a Scientific or a Philosophical Argument?

Brown argues for (5) on the grounds that my (2017a) is published in a philosophy journal, namely, Social Epistemology, and so it a piece of philosophical knowledge by my lights, since I count as philosophy the research articles that are published in philosophy journals.

Brown would be correct about this if Social Epistemology were a philosophy journal. But it is not. Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy is an interdisciplinary journal. The journal’s “aim and scope” statement makes it clear that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal:

Social Epistemology provides a forum for philosophical and social scientific enquiry that incorporates the work of scholars from a variety of disciplines who share a concern with the production, assessment and validation of knowledge. The journal covers both empirical research into the origination and transmission of knowledge and normative considerations which arise as such research is implemented, serving as a guide for directing contemporary knowledge enterprises (Social Epistemology 2018).

The fact that Social Epistemology is an interdisciplinary journal, with contributions from “Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, cultural historians, social studies of science researchers, [and] educators” (Social Epistemology 2018) would not surprise anyone who is familiar with the history of the journal. The founding editor of the journal is Steve Fuller, who was trained in an interdisciplinary field, namely, History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), and is currently the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at Warwick University. Brown (2017b, 15) would surely agree that sociology is not philosophy, given that, for him, “cataloguing what a certain group of people believes is sociology and not philosophy.” The current executive editor of the journal is James H. Collier, who is a professor of Science and Technology in Society at Virginia Tech, and who was trained in Science and Technology Studies (STS), which is an interdisciplinary field as well.

Brown asserts without argument that the methods of a scientific field of study, such as sociology, are different in kind from those of philosophy: “What I contend is that […] philosophical methods are different in kind from those of the experimental scientists [sciences?]” (Brown 2017b, 24). He then goes on to speculate about what it means to say that an explanation is testable (Brown 2017b, 25). What Brown comes up with is rather unclear to me. For instance, I have no idea what it means to evaluate an explanation by inductive generalization (Brown 2017b, 25).

Instead, Brown should have consulted any one of the logic and reasoning textbooks I keep referring to in my (2017a) and (2017b) to find out that it is generally accepted among philosophers that the good-making properties of explanations, philosophical and otherwise, include testability among other good-making properties (see, e.g., Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2010, 257). As far as testability is concerned, to test an explanation or hypothesis is to determine “whether predictions that follow from it are true” (Salmon 2013, 255). In other words, “To say that a hypothesis is testable is at least to say that some prediction made on the basis of that hypothesis may confirm or disconfirm it” (Copi et al. 2011, 515).

For this reason, Feser’s analogy according to which “to compare the epistemic values of science and philosophy and fault philosophy for not being good at making testable predications [sic] is like comparing metal detectors and gardening tools and concluding gardening tools are not as good as metal detectors because gardening tools do not allow us to successfully detect for metal” (Brown 2017b, 25), which Brown likes to refer to (Brown 2017a, 48), is inapt.

It is not an apt analogy because, unlike metal detectors and gardening tools, which serve different purposes, both science and philosophy are in the business of explaining things. Indeed, Brown admits that, like good scientific explanations, “good philosophical theories explain things” (emphasis in original). In other words, Brown admits that both scientific and philosophical theories are instruments of explanation (unlike gardening and metal-detecting instruments). To provide good explanations, then, both scientific and philosophical theories must be testable (Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20).

What Is Wrong with Persuasive Definitions of Scientism?

Brown (2017b, 31) argues for (6) on the grounds that “persuasive definitions are [not] always dialectically pernicious.” He offers an argument whose conclusion is “abortion is murder” as an example of an argument for a persuasive definition of abortion. He then outlines an argument for a persuasive definition of scientism according to which “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

The problem, however, is that Brown is confounding arguments for a definition with the definition itself. Having an argument for a persuasive definition does not change the fact that it is a persuasive definition. To illustrate this point, let me give an example that I think Brown will appreciate. Suppose I define theism as an irrational belief in the existence of God. That is, “theism” means “an irrational belief in the existence of God.” I can also provide an argument for this definition:

P1: If it is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being, then theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

P2: It is irrational to have paradoxical beliefs and God is a paradoxical being (e.g., the omnipotence paradox).[4]

Therefore,

C: Theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God.

But surely, theists will complain that my definition of theism is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition. For it stacks the deck against theists. It states that theists are already making a mistake, by definition, simply by believing in the existence of God. Even though I have provided an argument for this persuasive definition of theism, my definition is still a persuasive definition of theism, and my argument is unlikely to convince anyone who doesn’t already think that theism is irrational. Indeed, Brown (2017b, 30) himself admits that much when he says “good luck with that project!” about trying to construct a sound argument for “abortion is murder.” I take this to mean that pro-choice advocates would find his argument for “abortion is murder” dialectically inert precisely because it defines abortion in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept.

Likewise, theists would find the argument above dialectically inert precisely because it defines theism in a manner that transfers “emotive force” (Salmon 2013, 65), which they cannot accept. In other words, Brown seems to agree that there are good dialectical reasons to avoid appealing to persuasive definitions. Therefore, like “abortion is murder,” “theism is an irrational belief in the existence of God,” and “‘Homosexual’ means ‘one who has an unnatural desire for those of the same sex’” (Salmon 2013, 65), “Weak Scientism is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32) is a “dialectically pernicious” persuasive definition (cf. Williams 2015, 14).

Like persuasive definitions in general, it “masquerades as an honest assignment of meaning to a term while condemning or blessing with approval the subject matter of the definiendum” (Hurley 2015, 101). As I have pointed out in my (2017a), the problem with such definitions is that they “are strategies consisting in presupposing an unaccepted definition, taking a new unknowable description of meaning as if it were commonly shared” (Macagno and Walton 2014, 205).

As for Brown’s argument for the persuasive definition of Weak Scientism, according to which it “is a view that has its advocates putting too high a value on scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32), a key premise in this argument is the claim that there is a piece of philosophical knowledge that is better than scientific knowledge. This is premise 36 in Brown’s argument:

Some philosophers qua philosophers know that (a) true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing and (b) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for true friendship and (c) (therefore) the possession of the moral virtues or a life project aimed at developing the moral virtues is a necessary condition for human flourishing (see, e.g., the arguments in Plato’s Gorgias) and knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge (see, e.g., St. Augustine’s Confessions, book five, chapters iii and iv) [assumption]

There is a lot to unpack here, but I will focus on what I take to be the points most relevant to the scientism debate. First, Brown assumes 36 without argument, but why think it is true? In particular, why think that (a), (b), and (c) count as philosophical knowledge? Brown says that philosophers know (a), (b), and (c) in virtue of being philosophers, but he does not tell us why that is the case.

After all, accounts of friendship, with lessons about the significance of friendship, predate philosophy (see, e.g., the friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh). Did it really take Plato and Augustine to tell us about the significance of friendship? In fact, on Brown’s characterization of philosophy, namely, (P), (a), (b), and (c) do not count as philosophical knowledge at all, since Plato and Augustine did not publish in philosophy journals, were not academics with a Ph.D. in philosophy, and did not teach at public universities courses “with titles such as Introduction to Philosophy, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Normative Ethics, and Philosophy of Science” (Brown 2017b, 11).

Second, some philosophers, like Epicurus, need (and think that others need) friends to flourish, whereas others, like Diogenes of Sinope, need no one. For Diogenes, friends will only interrupt his sunbathing (Arrian VII.2). My point is not simply that philosophers disagree about the value of friendship and human flourishing. Of course they disagree.[5]

Rather, my point is that, in order to establish general truths about human beings, such as “Human beings need friends to flourish,” one must employ the methods of science, such as randomization and sampling procedures, blinding protocols, methods of statistical analysis, and the like; otherwise, one would simply commit the fallacies of cherry-picking anecdotal evidence and hasty generalization (Salmon 2013, 149-151). After all, the claim “Some need friends to flourish” does not necessitate, or even make more probable, the truth of “Human beings need friends to flourish.”[6]

Third, why think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32)? Better in what sense? Quantitatively? Qualitatively? Brown does not tell us. He simply declares it “self-evident” (Brown 2017b, 32). I take it that Brown would not want to argue that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” is better than scientific knowledge in the quantitative (i.e., in terms of research output and research impact) and qualitative (i.e., in terms of explanatory, instrumental, and predictive success) respects in which scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge, according to Weak Scientism.

If so, then in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) is supposed to be better than scientific knowledge? Brown (2017b, 32) simply assumes that without argument and without telling us in what sense exactly “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge” (Brown 2017b, 32).

Of course, philosophy does not have a monopoly on friendship and human flourishing as research topics. Psychologists and sociologists, among other scientists, work on friendship as well (see, e.g., Hojjat and Moyer 2017). To get an idea of how much research on friendship is done in scientific fields, such as psychology and sociology, and how much is done in philosophy, we can use a database like Web of Science.

Currently (03/29/2018), there are 12,334 records in Web of Science on the topic “friendship.” Only 76 of these records (0.61%) are from the Philosophy research area. Most of the records are from the Psychology (5,331 records) and Sociology (1,111) research areas (43.22% and 9%, respectively). As we can see from Figure 2, most of the research on friendship is done in scientific fields of study, such as psychology, sociology, and other social sciences.

Figure 2. Number of records on the topic “friendship” in Web of Science by research area (Source: Web of Science)

 

In terms of research impact, too, scientific knowledge about friendship is superior to philosophical knowledge about friendship. According to Web of Science, the average citations per year for Psychology research articles on the topic of friendship is 2826.11 (h-index is 148 and the average citations per item is 28.1), and the average citations per year for Sociology research articles on the topic of friendship is 644.10 (h-index is 86 and the average citations per item is 30.15), whereas the average citations per year for Philosophy research articles on friendship is 15.02 (h-index is 13 and the average citations per item is 8.11).

Quantitatively, then, psychological and sociological knowledge on friendship is better than philosophical knowledge in terms of research output and research impact. Both Psychology and Sociology produce significantly more research on friendship than Philosophy does, and the research they produce has significantly more impact (as measured by citation counts) than philosophical research on the same topic.

Qualitatively, too, psychological and sociological knowledge about friendship is better than philosophical knowledge about friendship. For, instead of rather vague statements about how “true friendship is a necessary condition for human flourishing” (Brown 2017b, 32) that are based on mostly armchair speculation, psychological and sociological research on friendship provides detailed explanations and accurate predictions about the effects of friendship (or lack thereof) on human well-being.

For instance, numerous studies provide evidence for the effects of friendships or lack of friendships on physical well-being (see, e.g., Yang et al. 2016) as well as mental well-being (see, e.g., Cacioppo and Patrick 2008). Further studies provide explanations for the biological and genetic bases of these effects (Cole et al. 2011). This knowledge, in turn, informs interventions designed to help people deal with loneliness and social isolation (see, e.g., Masi et al. 2010).[7]

To sum up, Brown (2017b, 32) has given no reasons to think that “knowledge concerning the necessary conditions of human flourishing is better than any sort of scientific knowledge.” He does not even tell us what “better” is supposed to mean here. He also ignores the fact that scientific fields of study, such as psychology and sociology, produce plenty of knowledge about human flourishing, both physical and mental well-being. In fact, as we have seen, science produces a lot more knowledge about topics related to human well-being, such as friendship, than philosophy does. For this reason, Brown (2017b, 32) has failed to show that “there is non-scientific form of knowledge better than scientific knowledge.”

Conclusion

At this point, I think it is quite clear that Brown and I are talking past each other on a couple of levels. First, I follow scientists (e.g., Weinberg 1994, 166-190) and philosophers (e.g., Haack 2007, 17-18 and Peels 2016, 2462) on both sides of the scientism debate in treating philosophy as an academic discipline or field of study, whereas Brown (2017b, 18) insists on thinking about philosophy as a personal activity of “individual intellectual progress.” Second, I follow scientists (e.g., Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 5) and philosophers (e.g., Kidd 2016, 12-13 and Rosenberg 2011, 307) on both sides of the scientism debate in thinking about knowledge as the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields of study, such as the humanities, whereas Brown insists on thinking about philosophical knowledge as personal knowledge.

To anyone who wishes to defend philosophy’s place in research universities alongside academic disciplines, such as history, linguistics, and physics, armed with this conception of philosophy as a “self-improvement” activity, I would use Brown’s (2017b, 30) words to say, “good luck with that project!” A much more promising strategy, I propose, is for philosophy to embrace scientific ways of knowing and for philosophers to incorporate scientific methods into their research.[8]

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

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Ashton, Z., and M. Mizrahi. “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the “Received Wisdom” about Armchair Philosophy.” Erkenntnis (2017): DOI 10.1007/s10670-017-9904-4.

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

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[1] I thank Adam Riggio for inviting me to respond to Brown’s second attack on Weak Scientism.

[2] On why appeals to intuition are bad arguments, see Mizrahi (2012), (2013a), (2014), (2015a), (2015b), and (2015d).

[3] I use friendship as an example here because Brown (2017b, 31) uses it as an example of philosophical knowledge. I will say more about that in Section 6.

[4] For more on paradoxes involving the divine attributes, see Mizrahi (2013c).

[5] “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create)” (Lewis 1960, 71).

[6] On fallacious inductive reasoning in philosophy, see Mizrahi (2013d), (2015c), (2016), and (2017c).

[7] See also “The Friendship Bench” project: https://www.friendshipbenchzimbabwe.org/.

[8] For recent examples, see Ashton and Mizrahi (2017) and (2018).