Archives For scientific knowledge

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

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

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

Image by Brandon Warren via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

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

Suppressing the Subject

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

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

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

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

Different Kinds of Realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failed Diversionary Tactics

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

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

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

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

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

Existential Grounds for Scientific Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giving Heidegger Empirical Feet

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

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

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

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

Saving an Edinburgh School Method

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘Tradition’ of SSK – Open or Closed?

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgement

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

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by David Grant via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

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

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

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

Times for the Fortean

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

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

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

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

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

Weird and Weirder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Normal Anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

Another example: in chapter 8, Wills states:

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

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

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

How to Engage With Weird Beliefs

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

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

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

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

Contact details: m.dentith@episto.org

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This essay is in reply to:

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

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

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

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

Creeping Colonialism in Science

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

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

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

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

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

Precious Signs of Hope Amid Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming a Rational Suspicion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Seeds Are Planted, Change Can Come

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

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

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

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

Contact details: jwkochan@gmail.com

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Author Information: Nuria Anaya-Reig, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, nuria.anaya@urjc.es

Anaya-Reig, Nuria. “Teorías Implícitas del Investigador: Un Campo por Explorar Desde la Psicología de la Ciencia.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 36-41.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-434

Image by Joan via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article is a Spanish-language version of Nuria Anaya-Reig’s earlier contribution, written by the author herself:

Anaya-Reig, Nuria. “Implicit Theories Influencing Researchers: A Field for the Psychology of Science to Explore.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 11 (2018): 25-30.

¿Qué concepciones tienen los investigadores sobre las características que debe reunir un estudiante para ser considerado un potencial buen científico? ¿En qué medida influyen esas creencias en la selección de candidatos? Estas son las preguntas fundamentales que laten en el trabajo de Caitlin Donahue Wylie (2018). Mediante un estudio cualitativo de tipo etnográfico, se entrevista a dos profesores de ingeniería en calidad de investigadores principales (IP) y a estudiantes de sendos grupos de doctorado, la mayoría graduados, como investigadores noveles. En total, la muestra es de 27 personas.

Los resultados apuntan a que, entre este tipo de investigadores, es común creer que el interés, la asertividad y el entusiasmo por lo que se estudia son indicadores de un futuro buen investigador. Además, los entrevistados consideran que el entusiasmo está relacionado con el deseo de aprender y la ética en el trabajo. Finalmente, se sugiere una posible exclusión no intencional en la selección de investigadores a causa de la aplicación involuntaria de sesgos por parte del IP, relativa a la preferencia de características propias de grupos mayoritarios (tales como etnia, religión o sexo), y se proponen algunas ideas para ayudar a minimizarlos.

Teorías Implícitas en los Sótanos de la Investigación

En esencia, el trabajo de Wylie (2018) muestra que el proceso de selección de nuevos investigadores por parte de científicos experimentados se basa en teorías implícitas. Quizás a simple vista puede parecer una aportación modesta, pero la médula del trabajo es sustanciosa y no carece de interés para la Psicología de la Ciencia, al menos por tres razones.

Para empezar, porque estudiar tales cuestiones constituye otra forma de aproximarse a la compresión de la psique científica desde un ángulo distinto, ya que estudiar la psicología del científico es uno de los ámbitos de estudio centrales de esta subdisciplina (Feist 2006). En segundo término, porque, aunque la pregunta de investigación se ocupa de una cuestión bien conocida por la Psicología social y, en consecuencia, aunque los resultados del estudio sean bastante previsibles, no dejan de ser nuevos datos y, por tanto, valiosos, que enriquecen el conocimiento teórico sobre las ideas implícitas: es básico en ciencia, y propio del razonamiento científico, diferenciar teorías de pruebas (Feist 2006).

En último lugar, porque la Psicología de la Ciencia, en su vertiente aplicada, no puede ignorar el hecho de que las creencias implícitas de los científicos, si son erróneas, pueden tener su consiguiente reflejo negativo en la población de investigadores actual y futura (Wylie 2018).

Ya Santiago Ramón y Cajal, en su faceta como psicólogo de la ciencia (Anaya-Reig and Romo 2017), reflexionaba sobre este asunto hace más de un siglo. En el capítulo IX, “El investigador como maestro”, de su obra Reglas y consejos sobre investigación científica (1920) apuntaba:

¿Qué signos denuncian el talento creador y la vocación inquebrantable por la indagación científica?

Problema grave, capitalísimo, sobre el cual han discurrido altos pensadores e insignes pedagogos, sin llegar a normas definitivas. La dificultad sube de punto considerando que no basta encontrar entendimientos perspicaces y aptos para las pesquisas de laboratorio sino conquistarlos definitivamente para el culto de la verdad original.

Los futuros sabios, blanco de nuestros desvelos educadores, ¿se encuentran por ventura entre los discípulos más serios y aplicados, acaparadores de premios y triunfadores en oposiciones?

Algunas veces, sí, pero no siempre. Si la regla fuera infalible, fácil resultara la tarea del profesor, bastaríale dirigirse a los premios extraordinarios de la licenciatura y a los números primeros de las oposiciones a cátedras. Mas la realidad se complace a menudo en burlar previsiones y malograr esperanzas. (Ramón y Cajal 1920, 221-222)

A Vueltas con las Teorías Implícitas

Recordemos brevemente que las teorías ingenuas o implícitas son creencias estables y organizadas que las personas hemos elaborado intuitivamente, sin el rigor del método científico. La mayoría de las veces se accede a su contenido con mucha dificultad, ya que la gente desconoce que las tiene, de ahí su nombre. Este hecho no solo dificulta una modificación del pensamiento, sino que lleva a buscar datos que confirmen lo que se piensa, es decir, a cometer sesgos confirmatorios (Romo 1997).

Las personas vamos identificando y organizando las regularidades del entorno gracias al aprendizaje implícito o incidental, basado en el aprendizaje asociativo, pues necesitamos adaptarnos a las distintas situaciones a las que nos enfrentamos. Elaboramos teorías ingenuas que nos ayuden a comprender, anticipar y manejar de la mejor manera posible las variadas circunstancias que nos rodean. Vivimos rodeados de una cantidad de información tan abrumadora, que elaborar teorías implícitas, aprendiendo qué elementos tienden a presentarse juntos, constituye una forma muy eficaz de hacer el mundo mucho más predecible y controlable, lo que, naturalmente, incluye el comportamiento humano.

De hecho, el contenido de las teorías implícitas es fundamentalmente de naturaleza social (Wegner and Vallacher 1977), como muestra el hecho de que buena parte de ellas pueden agruparse dentro las llamadas Teorías Implícitas de la Personalidad (TIP), categoría a la que, por cierto, bien pueden adscribirse las creencias de los investigadores que nos ocupan.

Las TIP se llaman así porque su contenido versa básicamente sobre cualidades personales o rasgos de personalidad y son, por definición, idiosincráticas, si bien suele existir cierta coincidencia entre los miembros de un mismo grupo social.

Entendidas de modo amplio, pueden definirse como aquellas creencias que cada persona tiene sobre el ser humano en general; por ejemplo, pensar que el hombre es bueno por naturaleza o todo lo contrario. En su acepción específica, las TIP se refieren a las creencias que tenemos sobre las características personales que suelen presentarse juntas en gente concreta. Por ejemplo, con frecuencia presuponemos que un escritor tiene que ser una persona culta, sensible y bohemia (Moya 1996).

Conviene notar también que las teorías implícitas se caracterizan frente a las científicas por ser incoherentes y específicas, por basarse en una causalidad lineal y simple, por componerse de ideas habitualmente poco interconectadas, por buscar solo la verificación y la utilidad. Sin embargo, no tienen por qué ser necesariamente erróneas ni inservibles (Pozo, Rey, Sanz and Limón 1992). Aunque las teorías implícitas tengan una capacidad explicativa limitada, sí tienen capacidad descriptiva y predictiva (Pozo Municio 1996).

Algunas Reflexiones Sobre el Tema

Científicos guiándose por intuiciones, ¿cómo es posible? Pero, ¿por qué no? ¿Por qué los investigadores habrían de comportarse de un modo distinto al de otras personas en los procesos de selección? Se comportan como lo hacemos todos habitualmente en nuestra vida cotidiana con respecto a los más variados asuntos. Otra manera de proceder resultaría para cualquiera no solo poco rentable, en términos cognitivos, sino costoso y agotador.

A fin de cuentas, los investigadores, por muy científicos que sean, no dejan de ser personas y, como tales, buscan intuitivamente respuestas a problemas que, si bien condicionan de modo determinante los resultados de su labor, no son el objeto en sí mismo de su trabajo.

Por otra parte, tampoco debe sorprender que diferentes investigadores, poco o muy experimentados, compartan idénticas creencias, especialmente si pertenecen al mismo ámbito, pues, según se ha apuntado, aunque las teorías implícitas se manifiestan en opiniones o expectativas personales, parte de su contenido tácito es compartido por numerosas personas (Runco 2011).

Todo esto lleva, a su vez, a hacer algunas otras observaciones sobre el trabajo de Wylie (2018). En primer lugar, tratándose de teorías implícitas, más que sugerir que los investigadores pueden estar guiando su selección por un sesgo perceptivo, habría que afirmarlo. Como se ha apuntado, las teorías implícitas operan con sesgos confirmatorios que, de hecho, van robusteciendo sus contenidos.

Otra cuestión es preguntarse con qué guarda relación dicho sesgo: Wylie (2018) sugiere que está relacionado con una posible preferencia por las características propias de los grupos mayoritarios a los que pertenecen los IP basándose en algunos estudios que han mostrado que en ciencia e ingeniería predominan hombres, de raza blanca y de clase media, lo que puede contribuir a recibir mal a aquellos estudiantes que no se ajusten a estos estándares o que incluso ellos mismos abandonen por no sentirse cómodos.

Sin duda, esa es una posible interpretación; pero otra es que el sesgo confirmatorio que muestran estos ingenieros podría deberse a que han observado esos rasgos las personas que han  llegado a ser buenas en su disciplina, en lugar de estar relacionado con su preferencia por interactuar con personas que se parecen física o culturalmente a ellos.

Es oportuno señalar aquí nuevamente que las teorías implícitas no tienen por qué ser necesariamente erróneas, ni inservibles (Pozo, Rey, Sanz and Limón 1992). Es lo que ocurre con parte de las creencias que muestra este grupo de investigadores: ¿acaso los científicos, en especial los mejores, no son apasionados de su trabajo?, ¿no dedican muchas horas y mucho esfuerzo a sacarlo adelante?, ¿no son asertivos? La investigación ha establecido firmemente (Romo 2008) que todos los científicos creativos muestran sin excepción altas dosis de motivación intrínseca por la labor que realizan.

Del mismo modo, desde Hayes (1981) sabemos que se precisa una media de 10 años para dominar una disciplina y lograr algo extraordinario. También se ha observado que muestran una gran autoconfianza y que son espacialmente arrogantes y hostiles. Es más, se sabe que los científicos, en comparación con los no científicos, no solo son más asertivos, sino más dominantes, más seguros de sí mismos, más autónomos e incluso más hostiles (Feist 2006). Varios trabajos, por ejemplo, el de Feist y Gorman (1998), han concluido que existen diferencias en los rasgos de personalidad entre científicos y no científicos.

Pero, por otro lado, esto tampoco significa que las concepciones implícitas de la gente sean necesariamente acertadas. De hecho, muchas veces son erróneas. Un buen ejemplo de ello es la creencia que guía a los investigadores principales estudiados por Wylie para seleccionar a los graduados en relación con sus calificaciones académicas. Aunque dicen que las notas son un indicador insuficiente, a continuación matizan su afirmación: “They believe students’ demonstrated willingness to learn is more important, though they also want students who are ‘bright’ and achieve some ‘academic success.’” (2018, 4).

Sin embargo, la evidencia empírica muestra que ni las puntuaciones altas en grados ni en pruebas de aptitud predicen necesariamente el éxito en carreras científicas (Feist 2006) y que el genio creativo no está tampoco necesariamente asociado con el rendimiento escolar extraordinario y, lo que es más, numerosos genios han sido estudiantes mediocres (Simonton 2006).

Conclusión

La Psicología de la Ciencia va acumulando datos para orientar en la selección de posibles buenos investigadores a los científicos interesados: véanse, por ejemplo, Feist (2006) o Anaya-Reig (2018). Pero, ciertamente, a nivel práctico, estos conocimientos serán poco útiles si aquellos que más partido pueden sacarles siguen anclados a creencias que pueden ser erróneas.

Por tanto, resulta de interés seguir explorando las teorías implícitas de los investigadores en sus diferentes disciplinas. Su explicitación es imprescindible como paso inicial, tanto para la Psicología de la Ciencia si pretende que ese conocimiento cierto acumulado tenga repercusiones reales en los laboratorios y otros centros de investigación, como para aquellos científicos que deseen adquirir un conocimiento riguroso sobre las cualidades propias del buen investigador.

Todo ello teniendo muy presente que la naturaleza implícita de las creencias personales dificulta el proceso, porque, como se ha señalado, supone que el sujeto entrevistado desconoce a menudo que las posee (Pozo, Rey, Sanz and Limón 1992), y que su modificación requiere, además, un cambio de naturaleza conceptual o representacional (Pozo, Scheuer, Mateos Sanz and Pérez Echeverría 2006).

Por último, tal vez no sea razonable promover entre todos los universitarios de manera general ciertas habilidades, sin tener en consideración que reúnen determinados atributos. Por obvio que sea, hay que recordar que los recursos educativos, como los de cualquier tipo, son necesariamente limitados. Si, además, sabemos que solo un 2% de las personas se dedican a la ciencia (Feist 2006), quizás valga más la pena poner el esfuerzo en mejorar la capacidad de identificar con tino a aquellos que potencialmente son válidos. Otra cosa sería como tratar de entrenar para cantar ópera a una persona que no tiene cualidades vocales en absoluto.

Contact details: nuria.anaya@urjc.es

References

Anaya-Reig, N. 2018. “Cajal: Key Psychological Factors in the Self-Construction of a Genius.” Social Epistemology. doi: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1522555.

Anaya-Reig, N., and M. Romo. 2017. “Cajal, Psychologist of Science.” The Spanish Journal of Psychology 20: e69. doi: 10.1017/sjp.2017.71.

Feist, G. J. 2006. The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Feist, G. J., and M. E. Gorman. 1998. “The Psychology of Science: Review and Integration of a Nascent Discipline.” Review of General Psychology 2 (1): 3–47. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.2.1.3.

Hayes, J. R. 1981. The Complete Problem Solver. Philadelphia, PA: Franklin Institute Press.

Moya, M. 1996. “Percepción social y personas.” In Psicología social, 93-119. Madrid, Spain: McGraw-Hill.

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Author Information: Jim Butcher, Canterbury Christ Church University, jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk.

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

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

Maori dancers about to perform at the 2017 Turangawaewae Regatta in New Zealand.
Image by Hone Tho via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This paper was prompted by the prominence of new arguments in favour of ‘decolonising geography. This was taken by the 2017 Royal Geographical Society–Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IGB) annual conference as its theme, with many preparatory papers in Area and Transactions and sessions organised around this. In both, to ‘decolonise’ was presented as an imperative for geography as a field of study, and for all geographers within it, to address urgently (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017; Jazeel, 2017).

In the USA, the annual American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference in New Orleans of 2018 also featured a number of well attended sessions that took the same perspective. The number of journal articles published advocating decolonialism has also increased sharply in the last two years.

The spirit in which this paper is written is supportive of new debates in the academy, and supportive of the equality goals of decolonise. However it takes issue with important assumptions that, it is argued, will not advance the cause of marginalised or of geography as a discipline.

The paper is in three related parts, each written in the spirit of raising debate. First it considers the principal knowledge claim of decolonise: that a distinctly Western epistemology presents itself as a universal way of knowing, and that this is complicit in colonialism of the past and coloniality of the present through its undermining of a pluriverse of ontologies and consequent diversity of epistemologies (Sundberg, 2014; Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). The paper also illustrates further how this principle of decolonialism is articulated in some key geographical debates. It then highlights a number of contradictions in and questions with this epistemological claim.

Second, decolonialism’s critique of universalist epistemology is effectively, and often explicitly, a critique of the Enlightenment, as Enlightenment humanism established knowledge as a product of universal rationality rather that varied cultures or deities (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014). The paper argues that decolonialism marks a retreat from what was positive about the Enlightenment tradition: the capacity of (geographical) knowledge to transcend time and place, and hence act as universal knowledge.

In conclusion I briefly broach the value of decolonising geography in terms of its claim to be challenging injustice. I suggest that a truly humanist and universalist approach to knowledge has more to offer geographers seeking ways to tackle inequality and differential access to the process of producing knowledge than has the epistemic relativism of decolonize.

The Epistemological Claim of Decolonise

One of the claims made prominently at the conference and elsewhere by advocates of decolonisation is that geographical knowledge can be ‘Western’ (Radcliffe, 2017), ‘Eurocentric’ (Jazeel, 2017) ‘colonial’ (Baldwin, 2017; Noxolo, 2017) or ‘imperial’ (Tolia-Kelly, 2017; Connell, 2007 & 2017). This is not just a question of a close link between geographical knowledge and Western interests per se – it is well established that geographical understanding has developed through and been utilised for partial, often brutal, interests. For example, one of the principal figures in the history of UK geography, Halford Mackinder, regarded geography as central to Britain’s colonial mission (Livingstone, 1992).

At issue here is an epistemological one: Do the ideas, theories and techniques that today’s geographers have inherited constitute a universal geographical tradition of human knowledge to be passed on, built upon and critiqued, or; are the ideas, theories and techniques themselves ‘saturated in colonialism’ (Radcliffe, 2017: 329) and hence part of a particular system of knowledge in urgent need of decolonisation.

In his advocacy of decolonialism, Grosfoguel (2007: 212) argues that it is wrong to say that ‘there is one sole epistemic tradition from which to achieve truth and universality’. Rather, he and other decolonial theorists argue for a pluriverse – a variety of ways of knowing corresponding to different historical experience and culture (Sundberg, 2014; Mignolo, 2013).

Decolonialism holds that systems of knowledge existing in colonised societies were effectively undermined by the false universal claims of the West, claims that were in turn inextricably bound up with colonialism itself. Hence in this formulation the persistence of the ‘sole epistemic tradition’ of ‘the West’ well after formal decolonisation has taken place ensures the continuation of a discriminatory culture of ‘coloniality’ (Grosfoguel, ibid.).

As a result it is not deemed sufficient to oppose colonialism or its legacy within the parameters of contemporary (geographical) thought, as that thought is itself the product of a Western epistemology complicit in colonialism and the denial of other ways of knowing. Jazeel quotes Audre Lorde to accentuate this: ‘the masters tools will never demolish the masters house’ (2017: 335).

This leads decolonial theory to argue that there needs to be a delinking from Western colonial epistemology (Mignolo, 2007). Here they part company with many post-colonial, liberal and Left arguments against colonialism and racism and for national independence and equal rights. These latter perspectives are viewed as unable to demolish the ‘masters house’, as they are using the ‘master’s tools’.

For Grosfoguel, rights – the basis around which almost all liberation struggles have been fought for the last 250 years – are ‘ … articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labour of core / periphery that overlaps with the global racial / ethnic hierarchy of Europeans / non-Europeans’ (2007: 214). Rights discourse, as with ‘Western’ knowledge, is regarded as part of a Cartesian ‘Western global design’ (ibid.).

The relationship to the Enlightenment, then, is key. Enlightenment ideas are associated with modernity: the mastery of nature by people, as well as notions of rights and the social contract that influenced the development of the modern state. But for decolonial thinkers, modernity itself is inextricably tied to colonialism (Grosfoguel, 2007; Mignolo, 2007). Hence the challenge for decolonisation is to oppose not just colonialism and inequality, but also the Enlightenment universalism that shapes academic disciplines and fields including geography (ibid.).

Decolonial theory proposes in its stead the pluriverse of ways of knowing (Sundberg, 2014). For example (Blaser, 2012: 7) writes of a ‘pluriverse with multiple and distinct ontologies or worlds’ that ‘bring themselves into being and sustain themselves even as they interact, interfere and mingle with each other’ under asymmetrical circumstances (my italics). Effectively this answers philosopher Ernest Gellner’s rhetorical question: ‘Is there but one world or are there many’ (Gellner,1987: 83) with the clear answer ‘many’.

It is important at this point to distinguish between a plurality of ideas, influences and cultures, as opposed to a pluriverse of ontologies; different worlds. The former is uncontentious – openness to ideas from other societies has to be progressive, and this is evident throughout history, if not self evident.

Cities and ports have played an important role in the mixing of cultures and ideas, and often have proved to be the drivers of scientific and social advance. Scientists have learned much from traditional practices, and have been able to systematise and apply that knowledge in other contexts. Equally, reviewing curricula to consider the case for the inclusion of different concepts, theories and techniques is a worthwhile exercise.

A pluriverse of ways of knowing has much greater implications, as it posits diverse systems of knowledge as opposed to a diversity of viewpoints per se.

The Debate in Geography

The RGS-IGB 2017 Annual Conference call for sessions set out the aim of decolonising geographical knowledges as being to ‘to query implicitly universal claims to knowledges associated with the west, and further interrogate how such knowledges continue to marginalise and discount places, people, knowledges across the world’ (RGS-IGB, 2017).

Recent papers advocating decolonise argue in similar vein. Radcliffe argues that: ‘Decolonial writers argue that the modern episteme is always and intrinsically saturated with coloniality’ (2017: 329), hence the need to be alert to ‘multiple, diverse epistemic and ethical projects’ and to ‘delink’ from ‘Euro-American frameworks’ (ibid. 330). She goes on to argue that decoloniality should cover all aspects of geographical education: ‘racism and colonial modern epistemic privileging are often found in students selection and progress; course design, curriculum content; pedagogies; staff recruitment; resource allocation; and research priorities and debates’ (ibid. 331).

This challenge to the development of knowledge as a universal human endeavour, across history and culture, is often regarded not only as an issue for geographers, but is posed as a moral and political imperative (Elliot-Cooper, 2017; Jazeel, 2017 ). For Elliott-Cooper:

Geographers sit at a historical crossroads in academia, and there is no middle, benevolent way forward. We can either attempt to ignore, and implicitly reproduce the imperial logics that have influenced the shape of British geography since its inception, or actively rethink and dismantle imperialism’s afterlife by unlearning the unjust global hierarchies of knowledge production on which much of the Empires legitimacy was based. (2017:334)

To see contemporary geography as an expression of ‘imperialism’s afterlife’ serves to dramatically reinforce a sense of geographical knowledge – knowledge itself, not its origin or application – as ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’. This approach often involves eschewing one’s own, or ‘Western’, knowledge in favour of that of marginalised people. Two academics, reflecting on their teaching, state: ‘Our efforts do not even begin to live up to decolonial land based pedagogies being implemented across indigenous communities‘ (Daigle and Sundberg, 2017: 339).

This deference to ‘land based pedagogies’, speaks to an eschewal modern geographical knowledge and method in favour of a plurality of knowledges, but with authority granted on the basis of indigeneity. Noxolo makes a similar case, arguing that ‘[t]here are material conditions of experience out of which both postcolonial and, crucially decolonial, writings emerge’ (2017: 342). Emphasis is placed on intellectual authority of the lived experience of the marginalised.

We may well want to read something due to the experience of the writer, or to consider how a society gathers information, precisely in order to begin to understand perspectives and conditions of others who’s lives may be very different to our own. But these writings enter into a world of ideas, theories and techniques in which individual geographers can judge their usefulness, veracity and explanatory power. The extent to which they are judged favourably as knowledge may well depend upon how far they transcend the conditions in which they were produced rather than their capacity to represent varied experience.

This is not at all to denigrate accounts based more directly upon lived experience and the diverse techniques and ideas that arise out of that, but simply to recognise the importance of generalisation, systematisation and abstraction in the production of knowledge that can have a universal veracity and capacity to help people in any context to understand and act upon the world we collectively inhabit.

Contradictions: Geography’s History and Darwin

There is a strong case against the epistemic relativism of decolonialism. Geographical thought is premised upon no more and no less that the impulse to understand the world around us in order to act upon it, whether we seek to conserve, harness or transform. Geographical knowledge qua knowledge is not tied to place, person or context in the way decolonise assumes – it is better understood not as the product of a pluriverse of ways of knowing the world, but a diverse universe of experience.

From ancient Greece onwards, and indeed prior to that, human societies have developed the capacity to act upon the world in pursuit of their ends, and to reflect upon their role in doing that. Geography – ‘earth writing’ – a term first used in 3,000 BC by scholars in Alexandria, is part of that humanistic tradition. From Herodotus mapping the Nile and considering its flow in 450 BC, up to today’s sophisticated Geographical Information Systems, knowledge confers the capacity to act.

How elites act is shaped by their societies and what they considered to be their political and economic goals. But the knowledge and techniques developed provide the basis for subsequent developments in knowledge, often in quite different societies. Knowledge and technique cross boundaries – the greater the capacity to travel and trade, the greater too the exchange of ideas on map making, agriculture, navigation and much else.

The 15th century explorer Prince Henry the Navigator acted in the interests of the Portuguese crown and instigated the slave trade, but was also a midwife to modern science. He was intrigued by the myth of Prester John, yet he also helped to see off the myths of seamonsters. His discoveries fueled a questioning of the notion that knowledge came from the external authority of a god, and a growing scientific spirit began to decentre mysticism and religion, a process that was later consolidated in the Enlightenment (Livingstone, 1992). Geographical knowledge – including that you were not going to sail off the end of the world, and that sea monsters are not real – stands as knowledge useful for any society or any individual, irrespective of Portugal’s leading role in the slave trade at this time.

So whilst of course it is important to consider and study the people, the society and interests involved in the production of knowledge, is also important to see knowledge’s universal potential. This is something downplayed by the calls to decolonise – knowledge and even technique seem at times to be tainted by the times in which they were developed and by the individuals who did the developing.

Deciding what is the best of this, always a worthy pursuit, may involve re-evaluating contributions from a variety of sources. Involvement in these sources, in the production of knowledge, may be shaped by national or racial oppression, poverty and access to resources, but it has little to do with epistemic oppression (Fricker, 1999).

Take for example, Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (1998, original 1859). Darwin’s research involved all of the features regarded as ‘imperial’ by Connell (2007) and by other advocates of decolonialism: an association with the military (The Beagle was a military ship) and the use of others’ societies for data gathering without their consent or involvement. The voyage was funded by the British state who were engaged in colonial domination. Geography and scientific voyages were closely linked with imperial ambition (Livingstone, 1992).

Yet Darwin’s theory marked a major breakthrough in the understanding of evolution regardless of this context. As an explorer sponsored by the British imperialist state, and having benefitted from a good education, Darwin as an individual was clearly better placed to make this breakthrough that native inhabitants of Britain’s colonies or the Galapagos Islands – he had ‘privilege’ and he was ‘white’, two terms often used by decolonial activists to qualify or deny the authority of truth claims. Yet the Origin of the Species stands regardless of context as a ground breaking step forward in human understanding.

Darwinism has another link to colonialism. Social Darwinism was to provide the pseudo- scientific justification for the racism that in turn legitimised the imperialist Scramble for Africa and attendant racial extermination (Malik, 1997). Yet the veracity of Darwin’s theory is not diminished by the horrors justified through its bastardisation as Social Darwinism. Contrary to the view key to decolonialism, geographical knowledge can be sound and an advance on previous thinking regardless of the uses and misuses to which it is put. That is in no way to legitimise those uses, but simply to recognise that ideas that have a universal veracity emerge from particular, contradictory and often (especially from the perspective of today) reactionary contexts.

Geographical knowledge can be (mis)understood and (mis)used to further particular politics. Darwin’s ideas received a cool reception amongst those in the American South who believed that God had created wholly separate races with a differential capacity for intellect and reason. In New Zealand the same ideas were welcomed as a basis for an assumed superior group of colonisers taking over from an assumed less evolved, inferior group. This was in the context of struggle between Mauri and land hungry colonialists.

For Marx, Darwinism provided a metaphor for class struggle. For economic liberals social Darwinism buttressed the notion of laisser-faire free trade. Anarchist geographer Kropotkin advocated small scale cooperative societies – survival of those who cooperate, as they are best fitted for survival (Livingstone, 1992). So as well as being produced in contexts of power and inequality, knowledge is also mobilised in such contexts.

However Darwin’s theory as the highest expression of human understanding of its time in its field stands regardless of these interpretations and mobilisations, to be accepted or criticised according to reason and scientific evidence alone. Geographical and scientific theory clearly does have the potential to constitute universal knowledge, and its capacity to do so is not limited by the context within which it emerged, or the interests of those who developed it. We cannot decolonise knowledge that is not, itself, colonial.

Decolonialism’s Critique of Enlightenment Universalism

It is clear that the epistemology of decolonialism is based, often explicitly, upon a critique of the Enlightenment and its orientation towards knowledge and truth. Emejulu states this clearly in a piece titled Another University is Possible (2017). She accepts that the Enlightenment viewed all men as endowed with rationality and logic, and with inalienable rights, that human authority was replacing the church – all the positive, humanist claims that defenders of the Enlightenment would cite.

However, she questions who is included in ‘Man’ – who counts as human in Enlightenment humanism? How universal is Enlightenment universalism? Who can be part of European modernity? She argues that the restriction of the category of those who are to be free was intrinsic to Enlightenment thought – i.e. it was a Western Enlightenment, not only geographically, but in essence. Knowledge, ideas themselves, can be ‘Eurocentric,’ ‘Western’ or even (increasingly) ‘white’ in the eyes of advocates of decoloniality.

Emejulu quotes Mills from his book The Racial Contract (1999):

The contemporary interpretation of the Enlightenment obscures its exclusion of women, ‘savages’, slaves and indigenous peoples through the prevailing racial science as inherently irrational beings. Savages – or the colonial other: the Native or Aboriginal peoples, the African, the Indian, the slave – were constructed as subhuman, incapable of logical reasoning and thus not subject to the equality or liberty enjoyed by ‘men’. It is here, in the hierarchies of modernity that we can understand the central role of racism in shaping the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is brought into being by Europe’s colonial entanglements and is wholly dependent on its particular patriarchal relations – which Europe, in turn, imposed on its colonial subjects.

So these authors argue that the Enlightenment did not establish, nor establish the potential for, universal freedoms and rights or knowledge either, but that it stemmed from particular interests and experiences, and played the role of enforcing the domination of those interests. Humanistic notions of the pursuit of knowledge are considered partial, as a false universalist flag raised in the service of Western colonialism.

Matthew Arnold’s 19th century liberal humanist vision of knowledge (in schools) referring to ‘the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’ (Arnold, 1869: viii) is rejected in favour of a view of knowledge itself as relative to incommensurate diverse human experience. This perspectival view of knowledge is central to the advocacy of decolonialism.

Sundberg (2014: 38), citing Blaser (2009), claims that the concept of the universal is itself ‘inherently colonial’, and can only exist through ‘performances’ that ‘tend to suppress and / or contain the enactment of other possible worlds’. This is a striking rejection of universality. Whilst logically universal claims can undermine different ways to think about the world, assuming that this in inherent in universal thinking questions geographical thought from any source that aspires to transcend diverse experience and be judged as part of a global geographical conversation across time and space.

Whilst this point is made by Sundberg to deny the wider veracity of Western thinking, logically it would apply to others too – it suggests Southern scholars, too, should not aspire to speak too far outside of their assumed ontological and epistemological identities in search of universal truths.

Saigon Opera House in Ho Chi Minh City.
Image by David McKelvey via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

In Defence of the Enlightenment Legacy

The view as set out by Emejulu (2017) and implicit or explicit through much of literature is both one sided and also a misreading of the Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment thinkers articulated ideas that were new and revolutionary in that they posited two things: the centrality of humanity in making the world in which we live (through reason and through scientific understanding replacing religious and mystical views of one’s place and possibilities), and; the possibility and moral desirability of universal freedoms from subjection by others – natural, universal rights applicable to all. Both the study of the world, and the idea that people within the world were equal and free, were central to the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2015; Malik, 2014).

However, these ideas emerged within and through a world of interests, prejudices and limitations. So there is a dialectical relationship: the new ideas that point to the possibility and desirability of human equality and freedom, and the world as it was which, as Emejulu rightly says, was far from free or equal and far from becoming so.

Consider the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 – a document shaped by the new ideas of the Enlightenment, and associated with freedom and rights subsequently. Some of its signatories and drafters, including Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders or had a stake in the slave trade. Yet the Declaration served as an emblem for opponents of slavery and inequality for the next 200 years.

The most famous clause in the Declaration states: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ (US Congress, 1776). At the time principled abolitionists played on the contradiction between the grand ideas and the practice of men like Jefferson. Some even argued that the clause relating to the ‘right of revolution’ (which was there to justify fighting for independence from the British) could apply to slaves who were not being treated equally.

Martin Luther King referenced the Declaration in his famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech at the Washington for Jobs and Freedom Demonstration of August 28, 1963: ‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ (King, 1991: 217). King’s speech, holding society to account by its own highest, universal moral standards, was in a long and noble tradition.

In the same vein the French Revolution’s Declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1791) also states: ‘All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.’ The dialectical tension between by the ideas that informed the French Revolution and the reality of the society is well illustrated by CLR James in The Black Jacobins (2001, original 1938). James writes of the Haitian revolution, a revolution in revolutionary France’s colony, in which slaves and their leaders took the ideas of the revolutionaries at their word. They directly confronted the limits of the revolution by insisting that its demand for liberty, fraternity and equality be made truly universal and applied to themselves, the slaves in the colonies.

The force of these Enlightenment influenced universalist conceptions of humanity, central to both Declarations, feature throughout the history of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. For example, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945 cites both the famous ‘all men are created equal’ clause from the American Declaration, and its equivalent in the French Declaration, to accuse both of these imperialist countries of denying these ‘undeniable truths’ (Ho Chi Minh, 1945). In the Vietnamese Declaration it was assumed that the denial of Enlightenment ideals, not their assertion, characterised colonialism and imperialism. This is reversed in decolonial theory.

Equally, colonialism involved the denial of the fruits of modern geographical knowledge and technique, not an imposition of ‘colonial’ ideas. Just as geographic technique and knowledge developed in the imperialist West no doubt played a dark role in the war in Vietnam – not least cartography in charting bombing missions – so those same tools (or more advanced versions) in mapping, agriculture and much else are utilised today to enable a sovereign Vietnam look to a better future.

Enlightenment ideas, expressed in the American Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, were drafted by people complicit in slavery and formed a rational and moral basis for equality. The former does not contradict the latter. In similar vein geographical knowledge was harnessed to oppress, and provided the basis for post- colonial governments to progress. The Declarations were both of their time and transcendent of their time, as is good geographical knowledge. It is in the latter sense that we judge their worth as knowledge to help us understand and act upon the world today.

There is much else to be said about the Enlightenment of course. There were great diversity and contradictions within it. What Enlightenment scholar Jonathan Israel (2009) terms the Radical Enlightenment consisted of thinkers who pushed at the contradiction between the potential in Enlightenment thought and some of the backward beliefs prevalent amongst their contemporaries. They went well beyond the limiting assumption of humanity characteristic of their time: that some were capable of citizenship rights, and others were not.

Thomas Paine argued against slavery on the grounds that it infringed the universal (natural) right to human freedom. He did not restrict his category of ‘Man’ to western Man. He criticised colonialism too. He argued that Africans were productive, peaceful citizens in their own countries, until the English enslaved them (Paine, 1774). Diderot, Raynal, d’Holbach and others contributed to a 1770 volume titled Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes (The Philosophical History of the Two Indies). The book asserts that ‘natural liberty is the right which nature has given to everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’. It prophesied and defended the revolutionary overthrow of slavery: ‘The negroes only want a chief, sufficiently courageous to lead them to vengeance and slaughter… Where is the new Spartacus?’ (cited in Malik, 2017).

So Emejulu’s account, and the assumption of decolonialism, are wrong. The issue is not that the Enlightenment is racist and partial, and the intellectual traditions that draw upon its legacy comprise ‘imperial’ or ‘colonial’ knowledge. Rather, the Enlightenment put reason and rationality, scientific method and the potential for liberty and equality at the centre of intellectual and political life. It provided a basis for common, human pursuit of knowledge.

The growth of scientific method associated with the Enlightenment, as an orientation towards knowledge, was not linked to any particular culture or deity, but to universal reason (Malik, 2014). The implication of this is that theories should be judged for their capacity to explain and predict, concepts for their capacity to illuminate and techniques for their efficacy. That they should be judged with consideration for (or even deference towards) the identity, political or social, of their originator, or with regard to context or contemporary use – all key to decolonialism – undermines the pursuit of truth as a universal, human project.

Knowledge, theories and techniques are better seen as having the capacity to transcend place and power. The veracity of a theory, the usefulness of a concept or the efficacy of a technique are remarkably unaffected by their origin and their context. Audre Lorde’s idiom, ‘The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, invoked by Jazeel (2017: 335) to argue that the traditions of knowledge and rights associated with the West cannot be the basis for the liberation of the non-West, is simply untrue in this context. The anti-colonial and anti-racist movements of the past achieved a massive amount through struggles that explicitly drew upon iconic assertions of the ‘Western’ Enlightenment. There is clearly some way to go.

Concluding Thoughts: Decolonialism and Liberation

To decolonise has been presented as a moral imperative connected to liberation (Jazeel, 2017; Elliot-Cooper, 2017). I think it is better regarded as one approach, premised upon particular political views and assumptions such as critical race theory and the intersectional politics of identity. In its advocacy of an ontological pluriverse and of diverse systems of knowledge, there is one knowledge claim that cannot be allowed – the claim that knowledge, from any source, ultimately, can aspire to be universal. In addition, presenting decolonialism as a moral and political imperative leaves little room for alternatives which become, a priori, immoral.

By contrast, Brenda Wingfield, Vice President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, argues that: ‘What’s really important is that South African teachers, lecturers and professors must develop curricula that build on the best knowledge skills, values, beliefs and habits from around the world’ (2017) (my italics). She fears that the rhetoric of decolonialism will effectively delink South Africa from science’s cutting edge. She points out that this in turn reduces the opportunity for young black South African scholars to be involved with the most advanced knowledge whatever its source, and also the opportunity to adapt and utilise that knowledge to address local issues and conditions. In other words, decolonialism could damage the potential for material liberation from poverty, and for promoting a more equal involvement in the global production of knowledge about our shared world.

In the spirit of the Radical Enlightenment, I would argue that the best of geographical knowledge and technique be made available for the benefit of all, on the terms of the beneficiaries. In judging ’the best’, origin and context, whilst important and enlightening areas of study in themselves, are secondary.

Academics and universities could certainly more effectively challenge the marginalisation of parts of the world in academic life and the production of geographical knowledge. Suggestions would include: Truly reciprocal academic exchanges, funded by Western universities who can better afford it, where budding academics from the South can choose freely from the curriculum around their own priorities; greater joint projects to understand and find solutions to problems as they are defined by Southern governments; increased funding for twinning with under resourced universities in the South, with a “no strings attached” undertaking to share knowledge, training and resources as they are demanded from academics based in the South.

In other words, we should prioritise a relationship between knowledge and resources from the best universities in the world (wherever they are located), and the sovereignty of the South.

None of this necessitates the decolonisation of geographical knowledge. Rather, it requires us to think afresh at how the promissory note of the Enlightenment – the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality (and I would add of the potential to understand the word in order to change it) – can be cashed.

Contact details: jim.butcher@canterbury.ac.uk

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Grosfoguel, R. (2007). The epistemic decolonial turn. Cultural Studies, 21:2-3, 211-223. DOI:10.1080/09502380601162514

Ho Chi Minh. (1945) Declaration of independence, democratic republic of Vietnam. Retrieved from: https://www.unc.edu/courses/2009fall/hist/140/006/Documents/VietnameseDocs.pdf .

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King, Martin Luther. (1991). A testament of hope: The essential writings of Martin Luther King. New York: Harper Collins.

Livingstone, David. N. (1992). The geographical tradition: Episodes in the history of a contested enterprise. London: Wiley

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Malik, K. (2014). The quest for a moral compass: a global history of ethics. London: Atlantic.

Malik, K. (2017) Are SOAS students right to ‘decolonise’ their minds from western philosophers? The Observer. Sunday 19 Feb Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/19/soas-philosopy-decolonise-our-minds-enlightenment-white-european-kenan-malik .

Mignolo, W. (2007). Delinking. Cultural Studies, 21,2-3, 449-514. DOI: 10.1080/09502380601162647

Mignolo, W. (2013). On pluriversality. Retrieved from http://waltermignolo.com/on-pluriversality/

Mills, C.W. (1999). The racial contract. Cornell University Press.

Noxolo, P. (2017). Decolonial theory in a time of the recolonization of UK research. Transactions, 42, 342-344. DOI:10.1111/tran.12202

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Paine, T. (1774). Essay on slavery, 1774. In Foot. M and Kramnick I. (eds) (1987). Thomas Paine Reader: London:Penguin: 52-56

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RGS-IGB (2017). Annual Conference, conference theme. Retrieved from: http://www.pgf.rgs.org/rgs-ibg-annual-international-conference-2017/ .

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Author Information: Bernard Wills, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College (Memorial University), bwills@grenfell.mun.ca.

Wills, Bernard. “Weak Scientism: The Prosecution Rests.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 31-36.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-41T

Whoever has provoked men to rage against him has always gained a party in his favour too

Image by Vetustense Photorogue via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

On a lazy afternoon there is nothing like another defense of Weak Scientism to get the juices flowing. This one “Why Scientific Knowledge is Still the Best” is quite the specimen. It includes, among other delights, an attempt to humble my perceived pride based on a comparison between myself and my wonderful colleague Dr. Svetlana Barkanova. (Mizrahi, 2018c, 20)

Here I must concede defeat. I don’t hold a candle to the esteemed Dr. Barkanova and would never claim to be her equal. Plus, I need no metrics to convince me of this. I am well aware of her overall excellence as she is an acquaintance of mine. However, this petty display overshoots its mark. All I said was that journals have, in fact, published things (by me) Mizrahi explicitly claimed no journal would publish (2018b, 46) and, frankly, I think I have established that point with any objective reader. I am certainly not bragging or claiming I have some rock star status as a scholar. Let’s proceed then to address the specific arguments he offers in his essay.

Material Causes Behind Intellectual Appearances

I will begin with quantity. This is a point he claims I overemphasize though at the same time he claims it is a crucial component of his own argument. (2018c,19) At any rate, he goes on yet another tangent about the superior quantity and impact of scientific research. To this I respond again, so what? It is no doubt true that more research and more ‘impactful’ research is produced in the sciences but why is this so?

To quote Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy stupid”. Science serves the interests of corporations and the military in ways that the humanities do not and so more money gets directed to the sciences. Since this is the case more scientific research is produced overall.

Now one could make an argument that this speaks to an overall greater utility for the sciences as opposed to other domains, but this is not the argument Mizrahi makes. Rather he asserts raw quantity itself as a feature that makes for the superiority of science. In both my replies I explained the problem with this and in neither of his replies has Mizrahi rebutted my points.

I pointed out a. that commercials are not superior to great artworks even though their number and impact is greater and b. Shakespeare scholarship would not be superior to physics if it simply happened that there were more of it. Mizrahi’s response to this is to complain about the word ‘odd’ (Mizrahi, 19) as if I intended it as a gratuitous personal insult. Actually though, I intended only to imply that his position seemed odd. It still seems odd to me to claim that if Shakespeare scholars suddenly put out a tremendous burst of articles (and pulled into the lead in the great race to produce more and more research) then that would somehow throw particle physics in the shade.

But, if Mizrahi wants to accept that conclusion then he is certainly welcome to it. If he wants to say that weak scientism is only contingently true and that it is only contingently the case that the sciences happen currently to produce more impactful research (for whatever reason), then he has done only what he all too often does; won a debating point by reducing his own thesis to a truism, here, that more =more. (Mizrahi, 19) At any rate, the frustrating thing here is that while Mizrahi asserts again and again the quantitative superiority of science he never condescends to explain why quantity is a valid metric in the first place, he asserts the fact without explaining why I or anyone else should regard that fact as significant.[1]

An Unanswered Question: Recursivity and Science

And, since Mizrahi is obviously sensitive on the point, let me say that calling an argument a sophism is merely an objective description not a personal insult as Mizrahi seems to think. (Mizrahi, 21) Mizrahi still does not recognize the fallacy, perhaps a kinder, better word than sophism (mea culpa), he committed in his reply to my point concerning recursive knowledge. Let me try again. My point was simple. Any argument founded on the claimed quantitative superiority of science founders on the fact that recursive processes, any recursive processes, can produce an infinity of true propositions.

In response to this Mizrahi said that this is not a problem for scientism for we can reflect recursively on scientific propositions in the same manner. To this I responded by saying that this was true but irrelevant as this had nothing whatsoever to do with whether a proposition was scientific or not. Nor does his account of scientific explanation include reflexivity as a source of knowledge. Reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is not the same as thinking scientifically.  His response his fallacious because it conflates two distinct processes.

This is why it does not matter in the least whether two people, a scientist or non-scientist, can produce an equal amount of knowledge by performing recursive acts in parallel. Neither are doing science. This perfectly obvious point is something Mizrahi claims he addresses in his replies to Brown (Mizrahi, 21) yet my examination of the passages he cites leaves me baffled for nothing in them touches remotely on the question of recursivity or explains how reflecting recursively on a scientific proposition is equivalent to uttering a scientific proposition as a scientist.

Since Mizrahi does not intend to reply any further I suppose I will just have to scratch my head on this one and bewail my own lack of native wit. Plus, as Mizrahi seems to set great store by citations and references even in informal spaces like a review and reply collective it is a little jarring to see HIS not quite panning out (more on this below however).[2]

Systems and Ideologies

Why does Dr. Mizrahi still think I am calling him a racist when I intended to speak only in terms of systemic and not personal racism (Mizrahi, 21-22)?   In a systemic and so intersectional context, non-white identity does not mean one cannot occupy a place of privilege. He still does not see the difference between an ad hominem attack and an ideological critique of scientism. (Mizrahi, 23) Lorraine Code and Helen Longino, among others, have explained how standard accounts of scientific method have (WITTINGLY OR NOT!!) excluded women as knowers and Mizrahi can consult their works if he is interested.[3]  He may also consult Edward Said on how pretensions to scientific ‘objectivity’ underwrite colonialism.

I, however, will use a different example, one closer to my own interests and experience. In the institution in which I teach a significant portion of the students are of indigenous Miq’maw heritage. They are, by and large, NOT interested in hearing that their elders convey a secondary and qualitatively inferior kind of knowledge when compared to western scientists. Now, you could say that this is simple perversity on their part; they should ‘man up’ and accept the gospel of weak scientism! Things are not however so simple.

It is idle to claim that the experience of colonial oppression is irrelevant because science is universal, objective and politically neutral. It is idle to claim that the elevation of scientific procedures to qualitative superiority has no social and political ramifications for those whose knowledge forms are thereby granted second class status. This is because the question of scientism is bound up with the question of authority.

The fact that Indigenous knowledge traditions are grounded in local knowledge, in traditional lore and in story means that on questions of importance to them indigenous peoples cannot speak. It means they have to listen to others who ‘know better’ because the propositions they utter have the form of science.[4]

Thus, whether intended or not, the elevation of scientific knowledge to superior status over indigenous knowledge elevates white settlers to authority over indigenous people and justifies the theft of their land and even of their children. Worse, indigenous people can see for themselves (because they are not blind) that this privileging of settler knowledge over their own is not benign. It is viciously exploitative and intended to keep indigenous peoples in a place of dependence and inferiority. Thus, Mizrahi’s facile assumption that scientism is ideologically innocent will not stand even cursory examination.

Partiality of Knowledge and the Limits of Learning

When I say that Mizrahi’s position is self-interested I am again simply pointing out a fact. If I were to write a paper arguing that the humanities are qualitatively superior to the sciences, deserved more funding than the sciences and that the hermeneutical practices of the humanities should be adopted by the sciences would Mizrahi not wonder if I was, in fact, being a little bit partial? Of course he would.

I, though, am not making that kind of argument, he is. I am not suggesting anyone is inferior to anyone; he is and as such I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask whether his position is tainted with bias. This is so especially as he has no much to say about the lack of ‘good faith’ in others.

On now to our unexpectedly long-lived example of Joyce scholars. Here I must thank Mizrahi for proving my point for me. Unaware that he is shooting his own argument in the foot he takes great pains to distinguish simplicity in scientific explanation from simplicity as an aesthetic quality.[5] He also distinguishes ‘accommodation’ (which the Joyce scholar seeks) from ‘novel prediction’ (which the scientist seeks). (Mizrahi, 25) It is indeed the case, as I myself asserted, that explanation in the humanities and in the sciences are related analogically not univocally. Terms from one domain do not immediately transfer directly to the other.

This is a perfect illustration of why scientific explanation is not the same as literary explanation. Simplicity is a desideratum for both forms of explanation but there is no answer to the question of whether general relativity is simpler than reader response theory for the obvious reason that different disciplines will parse the notion of simplicity differently.

But if this is so I ask again what makes a scientific theory qualitatively better than a critical reading of Joyce when they do not employ commensurate standards and have such fundamentally different aims? I ask again, what could ‘better’ possibly mean in this context? In what sense is a scientific theory simpler than a Joyce commentary if on Mizrahi’s own admission we are not dealing with univocal standards or senses of simplicity? In what sense is a scientific theory more coherent if we are not using ‘coherence’ in the same way in both domains?

Further I asked and ask again why the Joyce scholar even needs to make a novel prediction? Why is it a problem for his discipline if he does not use things he does not need? Further, Mizrahi resorts yet again to the canard that I am accusing him of saying the Joyce scholar does not produce knowledge as if this was even an answer to my question. (Mizrahi, 26)

Next, Scriabin. I think the best description of what my daughter did with the Prometheus chord is that she reverse engineered it. She worked backward from it to tell a story about how it came to be. Obviously this did not require any novel prediction about future Prometheus chords by future Scriabins. There is one Prometheus chord and it already exists. Further, the process by which it was created occurred once in the past.

Thus we are constructing an explanatory story about the past concerning a singular object not formulating a general law or making a testable prediction. This kind of story is used in all kinds of contexts. It is used here in music theory. It is used in those sciences concerned with past events. It is used by law enforcement to reconstruct a crime. Now, even if by some feat of prestidigitation one could contort such explanatory stories into the form of testable predictions this would be an after the fact rationalization not description of how actual people reason.

A World of Citations

Thus, let me emphasize once again that testability does not make science superior to on non-science for the simple reason that non-science does not typically need tests such as Mizrahi describes. Or, to put it another way testing is not employed in the same way in science and non-science so that if one says that, in some sense, the Joyce scholar ‘tests’ his ideas against the text one is speaking analogically not univocally as I attempted to point out in my previous reply. (Wills, 2018b, 38) Thus, Mizrahi’s claim about testability (Mizrahi, 28) is, yet again, beside the point.[6]

Now I turn to the minor objections. Dr. Mizrahi is upset that I have I have not cited the extensive literature on scientism. (Mizrahi, 18) Well Mizrahi has professed to show that science is superior to things like historiography and literary criticism even though he himself does not cite anything from those fields and shows no familiarity with what goes on in them.

Two can play at the rhetoric of citation and it is Mizrahi who claims that scientific procedures are better than non-scientific ones without making any direct comparison with the latter except for his cherished bugbear ‘armchair philosophy’. To return to the question of privilege, Mizrahi seems to assume that he is owed a deference he does not need to grant to others. As Latour says, citation is not accidental but essential to the rhetoric of an academic paper. (Latour; 1987, 30-62) Mizrahi’s use of the rhetoric of citation conveys the message that that his side has an epistemic privilege the other side does not: they are obliged to engage his literature but he is not obliged to engage theirs.

Again, Mizrahi accuses me of Eurocentric bias in citing Augustine and Aristotle (Mizrahi, 23) yet a glance at his own references does not reveal ANY citations from Shankara, Ashvaghosa, al Ghazzali, al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Lao Tzu, Kung Fu Tzu, or any other thinker outside the western tradition. Miizrahi’s own citation list betrays the very story he is trying to tell about mine!  Finally, in a somewhat involved passage he responds to the charge that he vacillates between Weak and Strong Scientism by citing the full text of a passage from one of his replies to Brown. (Mizrahi, 24) I don’t why he does this because his words say the exact same thing even when put in this larger context.

He reports that certain philosophers and scientists think of knowledge as “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study studies, as opposed to non-scientific study.” He then states, directly, that he follows this view. (Mizrahi, 24) This does indeed look like vacillation between weak and strong scientism.

However, I will not hammer him on one passage for what might, after all, be an unintentional slip or loose phrasing. If he says his position is weak scientism and weak scientism only then I take him at his word.

Conclusion

I will reiterate again the one basic reason why I think weak scientism is unconvincing and that is that it seems to be an exercise in bare arithmetic. Is there more scientific research than non-scientific? Well, more is better! Does science have 4 of the features of good explanation and history only 3? Science wins! This purely arithmetic procedure completely ignores the contexts in which different scholars work and how they reach their conclusions.  I conclude by saying what I said in my first reply: that Mizrahi’s Weak Scientism is the mountain that gave birth to the proverbial mouse.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Bohannon, John. “Hate Journal Impact Factors? New Study Gives You One More Reason.” Science Magazine. 6 July 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/hate-journal-impact-factors-new-study-gives-you-one-more-reason.

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

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

Van Wesel, Maarten; Sally Wyatt, and Jeroen ten Haaf. “What A Difference a Colon Makes: How Superficial Factors Influence Subsequent Citation.” Scientometrics 98, no. 3 (2014): 1601-1615.

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

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

[1] Mizrahi is not going to like this but some have questioned whether impact ratings and other quantitative metrics have the significance sometimes claimed for them. See Callaway, as well as Van Wesel, Wyatt,  ten Haaff, and Bohanon. Indeed, Mizrahi seems to have internalized the standards of the university’s corporate masters (with their spurious emphasis on external metrics) to an uncritical and disturbing degree.

[2] Is Mizrahi claiming in these passages that ‘scientific knowledge’ is any knowledge that happens to be produced by a scientist as ‘practitioner’ in a field (Mizrahi 21) whether accidental to her practice or not? If so, he has yet again defended his thesis at the cost of making it trivial.

[3] He may begin with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if he likes.

[4]  See D. Simmonds on this point (addressing an anti-indigenous activist notorious in Canada): “My particular interest here is the way in which science has been reified by Widdowson and Howard and used to legitimate state decision-making on behalf of oppressed peoples. Science is counterposed to indigenous traditional knowledge, which by way of a children’s parable (The Emperor’s New Clothes) is denounced as mere superstition in the service of a corrupt “aboriginal industry.” The state is called upon to harness scientific rationalism in the old colonial interest of “civilizing the savages.” In the words of Widdowson and Howard, “It is not clear how the remnants of Neolithic culture that are inhibiting this development can be addressed without intensive government planning and intervention” (252).

[5] Simplicity as I use it here does not refer to ‘simple language’ but to the economy of a work’s design. I admit though that I should have distinguished between two kinds of simplicity here. The simplicity of the work itself and the simplicity of the critic’s exposition of the work which of course formally differ. It is the latter case that more closely resembles the simplicity of a scientific theory though if Mizrahi wants to deny they are identical that is entirely to my own purpose for I deny this as well.

[6] This speaks to the overall banality of Mizrahi’s thesis. He tells us that the best explanation is one “explains the most, leaves out the least, is consistent with background knowledge, is the least complicated, and yields independently testable predictions.” (Mizrahi, 28) He then adds “Wills seems to grant that “unity, simplicity and coherence are good making properties of explanations, but not testability. But why not testability?”. (Mizrahi, 28) Well I have said many times why not. Testability as Mizrahi defines it is not relevant to all inquiries. It is not even relevant to all scientific inquiries. ‘Testing’ can take different forms that resemble each other analogically not univocally. I don’t know how many different ways I can say this: the test of a thesis on metaphysics is elenchic. The test of a thesis about Joyce is a close examination of his texts. The test of an archeological claim is the examination of artefacts. Mizrahi’s entire argument boils down to the claim that science beats non-science 4 to 3! Yet clearly Mizrahi has tilted the field by asking non-science to conform to a standard external to it and applied arbitrarily. Unity, coherence, testability and so on are resemblance terms that cash out differently in different inquiries.

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

Mizrahi, Moti. “Why Scientific Knowledge Is Still the Best.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 9 (2018): 18-32.

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

For context, see also:

Image by Specious Reasons via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

It is common knowledge among scholars and researchers that the norms of academic research dictate that one must enter an academic conversation by properly acknowledging, citing, and engaging with the work done by other scholars and researchers in the field, thereby showing that a larger conversation is taking place.[1] See, for example, Graff and Birkenstein (2018, 1-18) on “entering the conversation.” Properly “entering the conversation” is especially important when one aims to criticize the work done by other scholars and researchers in the field.

In my previous reply to Bernard Wills’ attack on Weak Scientism (Wills 2018a), I point out that Wills fails in his job as a scholar who aims to criticize work done by other scholars and researchers in the field (Mizrahi 2018b, 41), since Wills does not cite or engage with the paper in which I defend Weak Scientism originally (Mizrahi 2017a), the very thesis he seeks to attack. Moreover, he does not cite or engage with the papers in my exchange with Christopher Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), not to mention other works in the literature on scientism.

In his latest attack, even though he claims to be a practitioner of “close reading” (Wills 2018b, 34), it appears that Wills still has not bothered to read the paper in which I defend the thesis he seeks to attack (Mizrahi 2017a), or any of the papers in my exchange with Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), as evidenced by the fact that he does not cite them at all. To me, these are not only signs of lazy scholarship but also an indication that Wills has no interest in engaging with my arguments for Weak Scientism in good faith. For these reasons, this will be my second and final response to Wills. I have neither the time nor the patience to debate lazy scholars who argue in bad faith.

On the Quantitative Superiority of Scientific Knowledge

In response to my empirical data on the superiority of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge in terms of research output and research impact (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-22; Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44), Wills (2018b, 34) claims that he has “no firm opinion at all as to whether the totality of the sciences have produced more ‘stuff’ than the totality of the humanities between 1997 and 2017 and the reason is that I simply don’t care.”

I would like to make a few points in reply. First, the sciences produce more published research, not just “stuff.” Wills’ use of the non-count noun ‘stuff’ is misleading because it suggests that research output cannot be counted or measured. However, research output (as well as research impact) can be counted and measured, which is why we can use this measure to determine that scientific research (or knowledge) is better than non-scientific research (or knowledge).

Second, my defense of Weak Scientism consists of a quantitative argument and a qualitative argument, thereby showing that scientific knowledge is superior to non-scientific knowledge both quantitatively and qualitatively, which are the two ways in which one thing can be said to be better than another (Mizrahi 2017a, 354). If Wills really does not care about the quantitative argument for Weak Scientism, as he claims, then why is he attacking my defense of Weak Scientism at all?

After all, showing that “scientific knowledge is [quantitatively] better – in terms of research output (i.e. more publications) and research impact (i.e. more citations) – than non-scientific knowledge” is an integral part of my defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 358). To know that, however, Wills would have to read the paper in which I make these arguments for Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a). In his (2018a) and (2018b), I see no evidence that Wills has read, let alone read closely, that paper.

Third, for someone who says that he “simply [doesn’t] care” about quantity (Wills 2018b, 34), Wills sure talks about it a lot. For example, Wills claims that a “German professor once told [him] that in the first half of the 20th Century there were 40,000 monographs on Franz Kafka alone!” (Wills 2018a, 18) and that “Shakespeare scholars have all of us beat” (Wills 2018a, 18). Wills’ unsupported claims about quantity turn out to be false, of course, as I show in my previous reply (Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44). Readers will notice that Wills does not even try to defend those claims in his (2018b).

Fourth, whether Wills cares about quantity or has opinions on the matter is completely beside the point. With all due respect, Wills’ opinions about research output in academic disciplines are worthless, especially when we have data on research output in scientific and non-scientific disciplines. The data show that scientific disciplines produce more research than non-scientific disciplines and that scientific research has a greater impact than non-scientific research (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-22; Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44).

Wills (2018b, 35) thinks that the following is a problem for Weak Scientism: “what if it were true that Shakespeare scholars produced more papers than physicists?” (original emphasis) Lacking in good arguments, as in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, Wills resorts to making baseless accusations and insults, calling me “an odd man” for thinking that literature would be better than physics in his hypothetical scenario (Wills 2018b, 35). But this is not a problem for Weak Scientism at all and there is nothing “odd” about it.

What Wills fails to understand is that Weak Scientism is not supposed to be a necessary truth. That is, Weak Scientism does not state that scientific knowledge must be quantitatively and qualitatively better than non-scientific knowledge. Rather, Weak Scientism is a contingent fact about the state of academic research. As a matter of fact, scientific disciplines produce better research than non-scientific disciplines do.

Moreover, the data we have (Mizrahi 2017a, 357-359; Mizrahi 2018a, 20-22; Mizrahi 2018b, 42-44) give us no reason to think that these trends in research output and research impact are likely to change any time soon. Of course, if Wills had read my original defense of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a), and my replies to Brown, he would have known that I have discussed all of this already (Mizrahi 2017b, 9-10; 2018a, 9-13).

Likewise, contrary to what Wills (2018b, 36, footnote 2) seems to think, there is nothing odd about arguing for a thesis according to which academic research produced by scientific disciplines is superior to academic research produced by non-scientific disciplines, “while leaving open the question whether non-scientific knowledge outside the academy may be superior to science” (original emphasis). If Wills were familiar with the literature on scientism, he would have been aware of the common distinction between “internal scientism” and “external scientism.”

See, for example, Stenmark’s (1997, 16-18) distinction between “academic-internal scientism” and “academic-external scientism” as well as Peels (2018, 28-56) on the difference between “academic scientism” and “universal scientism.” Again, a serious scholar would have made sure that he or she is thoroughly familiar with the relevant literature before attacking a research paper that aims to make a contribution to that literature (Graff and Birkenstein 2018, 1-18).

Wills also seems to be unaware of the fact that my quantitative argument for Weak Scientism consists of two parts: (a) showing that scientific research output is greater than non-scientific research output, and (b) showing that the research impact of scientific research is greater than that of non-scientific research (Mizrahi 2017a, 356-358). The latter is measured, not just by publications, but also by citations. Wills does not address this point about research impact in his attacks on Weak Scientism. Since he seems to be proud of his publication record, for he tells me I should search for his published papers on Google (Wills 2018b, 35), let me to illustrate this point about research impact by comparing Wills’ publication record to a colleague of his from a science department at his university.

According to Google Scholar, since completing his doctorate in Religious Studies at McMaster University in 2003, Wills has published ten research articles (excluding book reviews). One of his research articles was cited three times, and three of his research articles were cited one time each. That is six citations in total.

On the other hand, his colleague from the Physics program at Memorial University, Dr. Svetlana Barkanova, has published 23 research articles between 2003 and 2018, and those articles were cited 53 times. Clearly, in the same time, a physicist at Wills’ university has produced more research than he did (130% more research), and her research has had a greater impact than his (783% more impact). As I have argued in my (2017a), this is generally the case when research produced by scientific disciplines is compared to research produced by non-scientific disciplines (Table 1).

Table 1. H Index by subject area, 1999-2018 (Source: Scimago Journal & Country Rank)

H Index
Physics 927
Psychology 682
Philosophy 161
Literature 67

Reflecting on One’s Own Knowledge

In his first attack on Weak Scientism, Wills (2018a, 23) claims that one “can produce a potential infinity of knowledge simply by reflecting recursively on the fact of [one’s] own existence.” In response, I pointed out that Wills (2018a, 23) himself admits that this reflexive procedure applies to “ANY fact” (original capitalization), which means that it makes no difference in terms of the quantity of knowledge produced in scientific versus non-scientific disciplines.

As I have come to expect from him, Wills (2018b, 35) resorts to name-calling again, rather than giving good arguments, calling my response “sophism,” but he seems to miss the basic logical point, even though he admits again that extending one’s knowledge by reflexive self-reflection “can be done with any proposition at all” (Wills 2018b, 35). Of course, if “it can be done with any proposition at all” (Wills 2018b, 35; emphasis added), then it can be done with scientific propositions as well, for the set of all propositions includes scientific propositions.

To illustrate, suppose that a scientist knows that p and a non-scientist knows that q. Quantitatively, the amount of scientific and non-scientific knowledge is equal in this instance (1 = 1). Now the scientist reflects on her own knowledge that p and comes to know that she knows that p, i.e., she knows that Kp. Similarly, the non-scientist reflects on her knowledge that q and comes to know that she knows that q, i.e., she knows that Kq. Notice that, quantitatively, nothing has changed, i.e., the amount of scientific versus non-scientific knowledge is still equal: two items of scientific knowledge (p and Kp) and two items of non-scientific knowledge (q and Kq).

Wills might be tempted to retort that p may be an item of scientific knowledge but Kp is not because it is not knowledge that is produced by scientific procedures. However, if Wills were to retort in this way, then it would be another indication of sloppy scholarship on his part. In my original paper (Mizrahi 2017a, 356), and in my replies to Brown (Mizrahi 2017b, 12-14; Mizrahi 2018a, 14-15), I discuss at great length my characterization of disciplinary knowledge as knowledge produced by practitioners in the field. I will not repeat those arguments here.

Baseless Accusations of Racism and Colonialism

After raising questions about whether I am merely rationalizing my “privilege” (Wills 2018a, 19), Wills now says that his baseless accusations of racism and colonialism are “not personal” (Wills 2018b, 35). His concern, Wills (2018b, 35) claims, is “systemic racism” (original emphasis). As a white man, Wills has the chutzpah to explain (or white-mansplain, if you will) to me, an immigrant from the Middle East, racism and colonialism.

My people were the victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide, lived under British colonial rule, and are still a persecuted minority group. Since some of my ancestors died fighting the British mandate, I do not appreciate using the term ‘colonialism’ to describe academic disputes that are trifle in comparison to the atrocities brought about by racism and colonialism.

Perhaps Wills should have used (or meant to use) the term ‘imperialism’, since it is sometimes used to describe the expansion of a scientific theory into new domains (Dupré 1994). This is another sign of Wills’ lack of familiarity with the literature on scientism. Be that as it may, Wills continues to assert without argument that my “defense of weak-scientism is ideologically loaded,” that it implies “the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers,” and that I make “hegemonic claims for science from which [I] stand to benefit” (Wills 2018b, 36).

In response, I must admit that I have no idea what sort of “ideologies” Weak Scientism is supposed to be loaded with, since Wills does not say what those are. Wills (2018b, 36) asserts without argument that “the position [I] take on scientism has social, political and monetary implications,” but he does not specify those implications. Nor does he show how social and political implications (whatever those are) are supposed to follow from the epistemic thesis of Weak Scientism (Mizrahi 2017a, 353). I am also not sure why Wills thinks that Weak Scientism implies “the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers” (Wills 2018b, 36), since he provides no arguments for these assertions.

Of course, Weak Scientism entails that there is non-scientific knowledge (Mizrahi 2018b, 41). If there is non-scientific knowledge, then there are non-scientific knowers. In that case, on Weak Scientism, non-scientists are not excluded from “the circle of knowers.” In other words, on Weak Scientism, the circle of knowers includes non-scientists, which can be women and people of color, of course (recall Dr. Svetlana Barkanova). Contrary to what Wills seems to think, then, Weak Scientism cannot possibly entail “the exclusion of various others such as women or indigenous peoples from the socially sanctioned circle of knowers” (Wills 2018b, 36).

In fact, if it is “the exclusion of various others” that Wills (2018b, 36) is genuinely concerned about, then he is undoubtedly aware of the fact that it is precisely white men like him who are guilty of systematically excluding “various others,” such as women (Paxton et al. 2012) and people of color (Botts et al. 2014), from the academic discipline of philosophy (American Philosophical Association 2014). As anyone who is familiar with the academic discipline of philosophy knows, “philosophy faces a serious diversity problem” (Van Norden 2017b, 5). As Amy Ferrer (2012), Executive Director of the American Philosophical Association (APA), put it on Brian Leiter’s blog, Leiter Reports:

philosophy is one of the least diverse humanities fields, and indeed one of the least diverse fields in all of academia, in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. Philosophy has a reputation for not only a lack of diversity but also an often hostile climate for women and minorities (emphasis added).

In light of the lack of diversity in academic philosophy, some have gone as far as arguing that contemporary philosophy is racist and xenophobic; otherwise, argues Bryan Van Norden (2017a), it is difficult to explain “the fact that the rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are completely ignored by almost all philosophy departments in both Europe and the English-speaking world.”

In fact, Wills’ attacks on Weak Scientism illustrate how white men like him attempt to keep philosophy white and “foreigner-free” (Cherry and Schwitzgebel 2016). They do so by citing and discussing the so-called “greats,” which are almost exclusively Western men. Citations are rather scarce in Wills’ replies, but when he cites, he only cites “the greats,” like Aristotle and Augustine (see Schwitzgebel et al. 2018 on the “Insularity of Anglophone Philosophy”).

As for his claim that I “stand to benefit” (Wills 2018b, 36) from my defense of Weak Scientism, I have no idea what Wills is talking about. I had no idea that History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) and Science and Technology Studies (STS) “can often assert hegemony over other discourses” (Wills 2018b, 36). I bet this will come as a surprise to other HPS and STS scholars and researchers. They will probably be shocked to learn that they have that kind of power over other academic disciplines.

More importantly, even if it were true that I “stand to benefit” (Wills 2018b, 36) from my defense of Weak Scientism, nothing about the merit of my defense of Weak Scientism would follow from that. That is, to argue that Weak Scientism must be false because I stand to benefit from it being true is to argue fallaciously. In particular, it is an informal fallacy of the circumstantial ad hominem type known as “poisoning the well,” which “alleges that the person has a hidden agenda or something to gain and is therefore not an honest or objective arguer” (Walton and Krabbe 1995, 111).

It is as fallacious as arguing that climate change is not real because climate scientists stand to benefit from climate research or that MMR vaccines are not safe (e.g., cause autism) because medical researchers stand to benefit from such vaccines (Offit 2008, 213-214). These are the sort of fallacious arguments that are typically made by those who are ignorant of the relevant science or are arguing in bad faith.

In fact, the same sort of fallacious reasoning can be used to attack any scholar or researcher in any field of inquiry whatsoever, including Wills. For instance, just as my standing to benefit from defending Weak Scientism is supposed to be a reason to believe that Weak Scientism is false, or Paul Offit’s standing to gain from MMR vaccines is supposed to be a reason to believe that such vaccines are not safe, Wills’ standing to benefit from his attacks on Weak Scientism (e.g., by protecting his position as a Humanities professor) would be a reason to believe that his attacks on Weak Scientism are flawed.

Indeed, the administrators at Wills’ university would have a reason to dismiss his argument for a pay raise on the grounds that he stands to benefit from it (Van Vleet 2011, 16). Of course, such reasoning is fallacious no matter who is the target. Either MMR vaccines are safe and effective or they are not regardless of whether Offit stands to benefit from them. Climate change is real whether climate scientists stand to benefit from doing climate research. Likewise, Weak Scientism is true or false whether or not I stand to benefit from defending it.

Image by Maia Valenzuela via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Revisiting the Joyce Scholar

Wills (2018b, 36) returns to his example of the Joyce scholar as an example of non-scientific knowledge “that come[s] from an academic context.” As I have already pointed out in my previous reply (Mizrahi 2018b, 41-42), it appears that Wills fails to grasp the difference between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism. Only Strong Scientism rules out knowledge that is not scientific. On Weak Scientism, there is both scientific and non-scientific knowledge. Consequently, examples of non-scientific knowledge from academic disciplines other than scientific ones do not constitute evidence against Weak Scientism.

Relatedly, Wills claims to have demonstrated that I vacillate between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism and cites page 22 of his previous attack (Wills 2018a, 22). Here is how Wills (2018a, 22) argues that I vacillate between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism:

Perhaps it is the awareness of such difficulties that leads Mizhari [sic] to his stance of ‘Weak Scientism’. It is not a stance he himself entirely sticks to. Some of his statements imply the strong version of scientism as when he tells us the [sic] knowledge is “the scholarly work or research produced in scientific fields of study, such as the natural sciences, as opposed to non-scientific fields, such as the humanities” [Mizrahi 2018a, 22].

However, the full passage Wills cites as evidence of my vacillation between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism is from the conclusion of my second reply to Brown (Mizrahi 2018a) and it reads as follows:

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.

Clearly, in this passage, I am talking about how ‘knowledge’ is understood in the scientism debate, specifically, that knowledge is the published research or scholarship produced by practitioners in academic disciplines (see also Mizrahi 2017a, 353). I am not saying that non-scientific disciplines do not produce knowledge. How anyone can interpret this passage as evidence of vacillation between Strong Scientism and Weak Scientism is truly beyond me. To me, this amounts to “contextomy” (McGlone 2005), and thus further evidence of arguing in bad faith on Wills’ part.

Wills also misunderstands, as in his previous attack on Weak Scientism, the epistemic properties of unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability, and their role in the context of hypothesis testing and theory choice. For he seems to think that “a masterful exposition of Portrait of the Artist as Young Man will show the unity, coherence and simplicity of the work’s design to the extent that these are artistically desired features” (Wills 2018b, 36). Here Wills is equivocating on the meaning of the terms ‘unity’, ‘coherence’, and ‘simplicity’.

There is a difference between the epistemic and the artistic senses of these terms. For example, when it comes to novels, such as A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, ‘simplicity’ may refer to literary style and language. When it comes to explanations or theories, however, ‘simplicity’ refers to the number of entities posited or assumptions taken for granted (Mizrahi 2016). Clearly, those are two different senses of ‘simplicity’ and Wills is equivocating on the two. As far as Weak Scientism is concerned, it is the epistemic sense of these terms that is of interest to us. Perhaps Wills fails to realize that Weak Scientism is an epistemic thesis because he has not read my (2017a), where I sketch the arguments for this thesis, or at least has not read it carefully enough despite claiming to be a practitioner of “close reading” (Wills 2018b, 34).

When he says that the Joyce scholar “tests [what he says] against the text,” Wills (2018b, 37) reveals his misunderstanding of testability once again. On Wills’ description of the work done by the Joyce scholar, what the Joyce scholar is doing amounts to accommodation, not novel prediction. I have already discussed this point in my previous reply to Wills (Mizrahi 2018b, 47) and I referred him to a paper in which I explain the difference between accommodation and novel prediction (Mizrahi 2012). But it appears that Wills has no interest in reading the works I cite in my replies to his attacks. Perhaps a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the difference between accommodation and prediction would be more accessible (Barnes 2018).

Wills finds it difficult to see how the work of the Joyce scholar can be improved by drawing on the methods of the sciences. As Wills (2018b, 37) writes, “What in this hermeneutic process would be improved by ‘scientific method’ as Mizrahi describes it? Where does the Joyce scholar need to draw testable consequences from a novel hypothesis and test it with an experiment?” (original emphasis)

Because he sees no way the work of the Joyce scholar can benefit from the application of scientific methodologies, Wills thinks it follows that I have no choice but to say that the work of the Joyce scholar does not count as knowledge. As Wills (2018b, 37) writes, “It seems to me that only option for Mizrahi here is to deny that the Joyce scholar knows anything (beyond the bare factual information) and this means, alas, that his position once again collapses into strong scientism.”

It should be clear, however, that this is a non sequitur. Even if it is true that scientific methodologies are of no use to the Joyce scholar, it does not follow that the work of the Joyce scholar does not count as knowledge. Again, Weak Scientism is the view that scientific knowledge is better than non-scientific knowledge. This means that scientists produce knowledge using scientific methods, whereas non-scientists produce knowledge using non-scientific methods, it’s just that scientists produce better knowledge using scientific methods that are superior to non-scientific methods in terms of the production of knowledge. Non-scientists can use scientific methods to produce knowledge in their fields of inquiry. But even if they do not use scientific methods in their work, on Weak Scientism, the research they produce still counts as knowledge.

Moreover, it is not the case that scientific methodologies are of no use to literary scholars. Apparently, Wills is unaware of the interdisciplinary field in which the methods of computer science and data science are applied to the study of history, literature, and philosophy known as the “Digital Humanities.” Becoming familiar with work in Digital Humanities will help Wills understand what it means to use scientific methods in a literary context. Since I have already discussed all of this in my original paper (Mizrahi 2017a) and in my replies to Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), I take this as another reason to think that Wills has not read those papers (or at least has not read them carefully enough).

To me, this is a sign that he is not interested in engaging with Weak Scientism in good faith, especially since my (2017a) and my replies to Brown are themselves instances of the use of methods from data science in HPS, and since I have cited two additional examples of work I have done with Zoe Ashton that illustrates how philosophy can be improved by the introduction of scientific methods (Ashton and Mizrahi 2018a and 2018b). Again, it appears that Wills did not bother to read (let alone read closely) the works I cite in my replies to his attacks.

Toward the end of his discussion of the Joyce scholar, Wills (2018b, 37) says that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases.” If he accepts that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases” (Wills 2018b, 37), then Wills thereby accepts Weak Scientism as well. For to say that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases” (Wills 2018b, 37) is to say that scientific knowledge is generally better than non-scientific knowledge.

Of course, there are instances of bad science, just as there are instances of bad scholarship in any academic discipline. Generally speaking, however, research done by scientists using the methods of science will likely be better (i.e., quantitatively better in terms of research output and research impact as well as qualitatively better in terms of explanatory, predictive, and instrumental success) than research done by non-scientists using non-scientific methods. That is Weak Scientism and, perhaps unwittingly, Wills seems to have accepted it by granting that using scientific methods “may mean better knowledge in many cases” (Wills 2018b, 37).

Inference to the Best Explanation

In my (2017a), as well as in my replies to Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a) and to Wills (Mizrahi 2018b), I have argued that Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) is used in both scientific and non-scientific disciplines. As McCain and Poston (2017, 1) put it:

Explanatory reasoning is quite common. Not only are rigorous inferences to the best explanation (IBE) used pervasively in the sciences, explanatory reasoning is virtually ubiquitous in everyday life. It is not a stretch to say that we implement explanatory reasoning in a way that is “so routine and automatic that it easily goes unnoticed” [Douven 2017].

Once this point is acknowledged, it becomes clear that, when judged by the criteria of good explanations, such as unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability, scientific IBEs are generally better than non-scientific IBEs (Mizrahi 2017a, 360; Mizrahi 2017b, 19-20; Mizrahi 2018a, 17; Mizrahi 2018b, 46-47).

In response, Wills tells the story of his daughter who has attempted to reason abductively in class once. Wills (2018b, 38) begins by saying “Let me go back to my daughter,” even though it is the first time he mentions her in his (2018b), and then goes on to say that she once explained “how Scriabin created [the Prometheus] chord” to the satisfaction of her classmates.

But how is this supposed to be evidence against Weak Scientism? In my (2017a), I discuss how IBE is used in non-scientific disciplines and I even give an example from literature (Mizrahi 2017a, 361). Apparently, Wills is unaware of that, which I take to be another indication that he has not read the paper that defends the thesis he seeks to criticize. Again, to quote Wills (2018b, 38) himself, “All disciplines use abduction,” so to give an example of IBE from a non-scientific discipline does nothing at all to undermine Weak Scientism. According to Weak Scientism, all academic disciplines produce knowledge, and many of them do so by using IBE, it’s just that scientific IBEs are better than non-scientific IBEs.

Wills asserts without argument that, in non-scientific disciplines, there is no need to test explanations even when IBE is used to produce knowledge. As Wills (2018b, 38) writes, “All disciplines use abduction, true, but they do not all arrive at the ‘best explanation’ by the same procedures.” For Wills (2018b, 38), his daughter did not need to test her hypothesis about “how Scriabin created [the Prometheus] chord.” Wills does not tell us what the hypothesis in question actually is, so it is hard to tell whether it is testable or not. To claim that it doesn’t need to be tested, however, even when the argument for it is supposed to be an IBE, would be to misuse or abuse IBE rather than use it.

That is, if one were to reason to the best explanation without judging competing explanations by the criteria of unity, coherence, simplicity, testability, and the like, then one would not be warranted in concluding that one’s explanation is the best among those considered. That is just how IBE works (Psillos 2007). To say that an explanation is the best is to say that, among the competing explanations considered, it is the one that explains the most, leaves out the least, is consistent with background knowledge, is the least complicated, and yields independently testable predictions (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-362).

Wills (2018b, 39) seems to grant that “unity, simplicity and coherence” are good-making properties of explanations, but not testability. But why not testability? Why an explanation must be simple in order to be a good explanation, but not testable? Wills does not say. Again (Mizrahi 2018b, 47), I would urge Wills to consult logic and reasoning textbooks that discuss IBE. In those books, he will find that, in addition to unity, coherence, and simplicity, testability is one of the “characteristics that are necessary conditions for any explanation to qualify as being a reasonable empirical explanation” (Govier 2010, 300).

In other words, IBE is itself the procedure by which knowledge is produced. This procedure consists of “an inference from observations and a comparison between competing hypotheses to the conclusion that one of those hypotheses best explains the observations” (Mizrahi 2018c). For example (Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2015, 196):

  • Observation: Your lock is broken and your valuables are missing.
  • Explanation: The hypothesis that your house has been burglarized, combined with previously accepted facts and principles, provides a suitably strong explanation of observation 1.
  • Comparison: No other hypothesis provides an explanation nearly as good as that in 2.
  • Conclusion: Your house was burglarized.

As we can see, the procedure itself requires that we compare competing hypotheses. As I have mentioned already, “common standards for assessing explanations” (Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin 2015, 195) include unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability. This means that, if the hypothesis one favors as the best explanation for observation 1 cannot be tested, then one would not be justified in concluding that it is the best explanation, and hence probably true. That is simply how IBE works (Psillos 2007).

Contrary to what Wills (2018b, 39) seems to think, those who reason abductively without comparing competing explanations by the criteria of unity, coherence, simplicity, and testability are not using IBE, they are misusing or abusing it (Mizrahi 2017a, 360-361). To reason abductively without testing your competing explanations is as fallacious as reasoning inductively without making sure that your sample is representative of the target population (Govier 2010, 258-262).

Image by Specious Reasons via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The Defense Rests

Fallacious reasoning, unfortunately, is what I have come to expect from Wills after reading and replying to his attacks on Weak Scientism. But this is forgivable, of course, given that we all fall prey to mistakes in reasoning on occasion. Even misspelling my last name several times (Wills 2018a, 18, 22, 24) is forgivable, so I accept Wills’ (2018b, 39) apology. What is unforgivable, however, is lazy scholarship and arguing in bad faith. As I have argued above, Wills is guilty of both because, despite claiming to be a practitioner of “close reading” (Wills 2018b, 34), Wills has not read the paper in which I defend the thesis he seeks to attack (Mizrahi 2017a), or any of the papers in my exchange with Brown (Mizrahi 2017b; 2018a), as evidenced by the fact that he does not cite them at all (not to mention citing and engaging with other works on scientism).

This explains why Wills completely misunderstands Weak Scientism and the arguments for the quantitative superiority (in terms of research output and research impact) as well as qualitative superiority (in terms of explanatory, predictive, and instrumental success) of scientific knowledge over non-scientific knowledge. For these reasons, this is my second and final response to Wills. I have neither the time nor the patience to engage with lazy scholarship that was produced in bad faith.

Contact details: mmizrahi@fit.edu

References

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American Philosophical Association. “Minorities in Philosophy.” Data and Information on the Field of Philosophy. Accessed on August 13, 2018. http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apaonline.org/resource/resmgr/data_on_profession/minorities_in_philosophy.pdf.

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Offit, Paul A. Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

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Rosenberg, Alexander. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

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Schwitzgebel, Eric, Linus Ta-Lun Huang, Andrew Higgins, Ivan Gonzalez-Cabrera. “The Insularity of Anglophone Philosophy: Quantitative Analyses.” Philosophical Papers 47, no. 1 (2018): 21-48.

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Van Norden, Bryan. Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017b.

Van Vleet, Jacob E. Informal Logical Fallacies: A Brief Guide. Lahman, MD: University Press of America, 2011.

Walton, Douglas N. and Erik C. W. Krabbe. Commitment in Dialogue: Basic Concepts of Interpersonal Reasoning. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Weinberg, Steven. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. New York: Random House, 1994.

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

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

[1] I would like to thank Adam Riggio for inviting me to respond to Bernard Wills’ second attack on Weak Scientism.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Part One: Critiques of Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limits to Skepticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limits to Belief

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

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

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

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

On Responsible Critique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part Two: The Politics of Post-Truth

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

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

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

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

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

Political Indifference to Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out-Gaming Expertise Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is the Mark of an Open Society?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part Three: Post-Truth Revisited

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

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

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

A Problematic Science and Technology Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Limits to Tolerance

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

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

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

Contact details: rsassowe@uccs.edu

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

References

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