The Devolution of Social Science (unreliable, ideological pseudoscience, etc)

C C Offline

EXCERPT: This article has two themes: first, how in “soft” science fields, increased specialization has led to fragmentation, incoherence and, ultimately, nonsense. And second, an example of the process: race and ethnic studies (RES) and the concept of color-blind racism (CBR) — the idea that treating people according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is itself racist. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous definition of non-discrimination is not accepted by, for example, the 2018 President of the American Sociological Association.

[...] A fatal consequence of this multiplication of social-science sub-disciplines has been a weakening of criticism. Technical languages – mostly jargon – have evolved and, like natural languages, isolate speakers from non-speakers, immunizing research from truly independent criticism. The result has been the emergence of a wide range of new specialties, some truly creative, but many bearing little resemblance to ‘hard’ science. The most famous example of this erosion of scientific standards is the ongoing replication crisis in social and biomedical science. [...] In social science, especially, each sub-division developed its own cluster of journals. A finding in one area that might have little or no credibility in others, can nevertheless find a safe berth in its own publication harbor. Results can be supported by citations drawn from a sympathetic group of like-minded researchers, often publishing in the same journal.

[...] I’m now going to describe how this unchecked subdivision has led sociology to color-blind racism. If this argument is hard to follow, the fault is only partly mine. Modern sociology bounces merrily along from science to anecdote and story-telling, to propaganda, to activism — often within the same paragraph. I have tried to separate these themes and to identify what is scientific from what is merely intended to persuade or induce social change, but it isn’t always easy.

Sociology originated in a self-consciously scientific way: Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), one of the founders, explained his purpose [...] Durkheim was well aware that sociology touched on many other fields, from psychology to history, economics and anthropology. Hence, he sought to define what he called social fact, a kind of fact that lies outside the facts of any other social science. He first acknowledged the difficulty of the problem [...] Durkheim goes on to claim that in fact “there is in every society a clearly determined group of phenomena separable, because of their distinct characteristics, from those that form the subject matter of other sciences of nature” [...] These are the facts of sociology, outside the individual consciousness but affecting people nevertheless: moral rules, the language spoken, the legal currency, the mode of dress “a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him.” Durkheim laid out a subtle path for his new science, related to, but separate from, all other human sciences.

Social facts in Durkheim’s sense are very hard to find. Identifying causes is even more difficult. [...] What about Durkheim’s elusive social facts? Perhaps the most famous candidate is a contribution of his equally famous contemporary: Max Weber’s idea of the Protestant (work) Ethic as a major cause of the success of capitalism. Weber’s argument is closer to economic history than the kind of subtle social analysis envisaged by Durkheim. But Weber also analyzed bureaucracy in terms of its structure (division of labor), regulatory hierarchy and meritocratic hiring practices. These factors seem closer to Durkheim’s idea, being both measurable as well as extra-individual.

Things are different now. I first got an inkling of this more than three decades ago. Sorting through some old papers, I found this quote from an unnamed British sociologist speaking at a talk in 1986: “Theories in science are not constrained in any way by empirical facts.” I noted that most of those listening agreed with him.

The quote is absurd and in the years that followed I noted how widespread this assault on the scientific method has become. A whole field devoted to discrediting science has sprung up under the banner of “Science Studies” which, needless to say, is now a recognized academic discipline with its own association and cluster of peer-reviewed journals. One such is Social Text, which published a brilliantly nonsensical piece ‘Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity‘ by physicist Alan Sokal. Sokal succeeded by using the right words, like “transgressive” and “hegemony,” and promoting the correct political views, like “science as gendered domination” and putting “objective” in quotes.

[...] Without the possibility of objectivity, there is no science. Has sociology become, then, just political activism? To some extent, yes. According to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Tukufu Zuberi: “The aim is to attain epistemic liberation from White logic … We see this edited volume as part of the long march of resistance to White domination in society and in academe.” The Maoist allusion is probably not accidental.

By the end of the book Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva have backtracked slightly, making a shallow bow to objectivity: “Rather than leading to a science of objectivity, White logic has fostered an ethnocentric orientation … however, scholars of color are potentially much closer to being objective…” This will leave many readers puzzled: is the work “biased” when the sociologist is white — or, rather, “White,” to add the mandatory square quotes — but objective when she is a person of color? The authors attempt to clarify by quoting Charles W. Mills: “Hegemonic groups characteristically have experiences that foster illusory perceptions about society’s functioning, whereas subordinate groups characteristically have experiences that (at least potentially) give rise to more adequate conceptualizations.” So the worm’s-eye view is more “objective” than the bird’s-eye view — or, to use the jargon, apparently “subordinate” groups (e.g., people of color) see things more clearly than “hegemonic groups.” Since Jamaican-American Mills presumably considers himself a member of a subordinate group (even though he is a distinguished professor of philosophy in the CUNY Graduate Center) his claim of subordinate superiority invites the Mandy Rice-Davies response: “Well, he would [say that], wouldn’t he?”

Here are some ideas that are generally accepted by the RES [Race & Ethnic Studies] movement as social facts (although the idea of truth is itself questioned from time to time, as we will see):

“White logic” is the idea that white people think differently than people of color and that it is embedded in “the structure that generates racism,” in the words of Anna-Esther Younes, reviewer of Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi’s White Logic. She concludes that “ultimately, what connects all authors is their view of academia as ‘a form of [White] cultural and political hegemony.’” (“Hegemony” is a popular term in the RES literature. It seems to mean “wrong ideas that are accepted by too many people.”)

[...] “Whiteness White logic” is a subspecialty of Whiteness Studies. A leader in the field is George Yancy, whose interviews appear frequently on the pages of the New York Times. He describes his own work as follows (referring to himself in the third person):

[It] has focused on the theme of whiteness and how it constitutes a site of embedded social reality and a site of opacity. He links these two foci to such themes as white subject formation, white epistemic ways of knowing/not knowing, privilege and hegemony, and forms of white spatial bonding as processes of white solidarity and interpellation. He is also interested in how such forms of white epistemic bonding constitute sites of white intelligibility formation. Yancy also explores the theme of racial embodiment, particularly in terms of how white bodies live their whiteness unreflectively vis-a-vis the interpellation and deformation of the black body and other bodies of color. Within this context, his work also explores Black Erlebnis or the lived experience of black people, which raises important questions regarding Black subjectivity, modes of Black spatial mobility, and embodied resistance ….

Many readers, myself included, will find this account hard to follow. But Yancy’s dependence on jargon — “embedded reality, opacity, subject formation, epistemic bonding, interpellation,” and so on — is characteristic of many of the sub-disciplines of social science and humanities. The terms are almost never clearly defined, but serve at least two purposes: they convey expertise — technical competence — while at the same time obstructing outside scrutiny.

This kind of academical obscurantism is not new. Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1561) complains about “names that signifie nothing; but are taken up and learned by rote from the Schooles, as hypostatical, transubstantiate, consubstantiate, Eternal-now, and the like canting of Schoole-men.”3 Theological writing is perhaps clearer now, but the rhetorical techniques of the “Schoole-men” have not been lost.

[...] The problems of sociology have been apparent for many years: In 1986 philosopher Roger Scruton penned a Times op-ed called “The Plague of Sociology.” How did sociology lapse from Durkheim’s high standard? Political forces are always present. In the “harder” sciences they are restrained by rigorous methods of experiment and theory that are universally accepted. Sociology began this way, but differences soon led to many divisions, with each new branch accepting a different set of standards for what constituted valid data and acceptable methodology. This separation reduced the variety and force of criticism. Soon, everyone in RES sociology agreed that anecdote is okay, story-telling is as scientific as chemical analysis, “neo-liberal Amerikkka” is to be condemned, activism is scholarship and the politics of Foucault and Marx are settled truth.

The problem seems to be the endless subdivision of the social sciences. Some means must be found if not to abolish at least to mitigate this protective isolation of sub-disciplines....

Syne Offline
(Oct 10, 2018 04:29 PM)C C Wrote: And second, an example of the process: race and ethnic studies (RES) and the concept of color-blind racism (CBR) — the idea that treating people according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is itself racist. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous definition of non-discrimination is not accepted by, for example, the 2018 President of the American Sociological Association.

This goes all the way back to Booker T. Washington versus W.E.B. Du Bois. Washington believed black people should earn respect by hard work, while Du Bois believed black people should just rely on their elites to secure concessions from white men. The former relies on character, while the latter relies on group identity. Like unions, you only benefit if you remain in solidarity (and today, monolithic political opinion) with the group. The right believes in personal merit, while the left believes in group merit. The left thinks you are racist if you try to judge individual minority members by their own behavior and that if a black person disagrees they are an "uncle Tom". That tells you that the presumption of group identity over individual identity is the actual racism. They are just projecting racists, which is why they are so worried about "white privilege"...somewhere deep inside they know they are racist.

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