Four Types of Anti-Science

There are scientists, but this post is not about them.

(If you want my career advise for folks who like science, please read the following posts instead: “How Academia Works,” “When It Sucks to Be Young, “Science, Paradigms, and the Old Boys Network,” and How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto.”)

There are people who oppose science in ideological grounds, either out of a specific distaste for science, or else because scientific research or findings leads (or is seen to lead) to objectionable conclusions, or else because they do not know what science is and attack it as part of their other activities.. This post is about them.

Let’s consider two dimensions of anti-scientists, by the nature of their strength.

  • The size dimension accounts for the number of their confederates int their attempt to retard or stop scientific progress.
  • The seriousness dimension accounts for the intellectual rigor and elite infiltration that they and their confederates have gained.

antiscience_dimensions

We can describe each corner of this taxonomy:

  • Popular X Elite: The elite and the public are united against scientific investigation. This is the case in most non-medical human biodiversity research, because of the ideological and historical connotations of such research in the eyes of many. Thus, Human Biomonoculturalists are examples of popular, elite anti-scientists.
  • Popular X Downtrodden: Large, widespread public animosity towards science, but without elite support. In the United States and many Muslim countries, attitudes toward evolutionary biology fall into this category. So Creationists are examples of a popular, downtrodden anti-scientists.
  • Small X Downtrodden: A politically unpopular and generally disenfranchised group is opposed to science, but has not yet gained any form of transaction. So Flat Earthers are examples of small, downtrodden anti-scientists.
  • Small X Elite: A small, highly trained cadre of experts, with elite credentials, attempts to overturn scientific funding. In this post I’ll describe Collectivist Ideologues as examples of small, elite anti-scientists.

An example of such a small but serious attack on science — of Collectivist Ideologues — is Dr. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s recent post, “The Society of Individuals,” which appeared at the popular political science blog Duck of Minerva

antiscience_types

The writing in Dr. Jackson’s article is dense, but the argument boils down to the following

1. Rational Choice Theory immorally operationalizes social decisions on the individual, not the society level

So we have two fundamentally different models here: autonomous individuals — prototypical males? — with preferences making strategic calculations, and relationally embedded actors (I’m not going to push the gender point any further here, but I think that many feminists might agree with me about the relative depictions of autonomy-vs.-embeddedness in a patriarchal society) engaged in deliberation and discernment looking for the right course of action. While the former might end up conforming to one or another moral code, only the latter can actually engage in “moral action” per se, because autonomous individuals would be choosing whether or not to act morally while embedded actors would be endeavoring to suss out the moral thing to do and then doing it.

2. The implications of this are morally objectionable twiceover, for being based on individuality and sexism

I still maintain that rational choice theory — and indeed, the broader decision-theoretical world of which rational choice theory constitutes just a particular, heavily-mathematized province — endorses and naturalizes a form of selfishness that is ultimately corrosive of human community and detrimental to the very idea of moral action.

3. Thus, rational choice research programs — and the communication of those programs are “basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable.”

I think that things like Freakonomics [tdaxp excerpt] are basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable. We owe it to the broader society not to simply tell stories that reaffirm the value-commitments and modes of person-hood prized by dominant social actors who want us to equate our happiness with the satisfaction of personal desires

Dr. Jackson’s collectivism idealism states (apparently) that scientists are immoral if they attempt to help control, predict, and improve variation in the world in a way that doesn’t fit with Jackson’s ideals, biases and sentimentalities.

At first glance, Dr. Jackson’s post is odd. It’s too dense and abstract to gain much popular traction. And his description of Rational Choice theory is ridiculous to anyone familiar with it. But such talking heads have wracked havoc in other ares, by attacking science for opposing their sentimentalities and prejudices.

At second glance, Jackson’s post is somewhat more understandable. Political science does not progress like a normal science, and many people who use terms like “Rational Choice” may themselves have no idea how science works. Few anti-scientists are driven by animosity towards humanity. Ignorance of science, and a love of their idealized and wished-for worlds, doubtless plays a larger part.

Anti-science is dangerous. Popular-elite anti-science most of all, but even popular-downtrodden (like the hapless Creationists) and small-elite (like Dr. Jackson’s arguments) should be recognized as the threats to human progress than they are. Human history is a record of one stagnation after another, with brief bursts of progress in between. I hope the anti-Scientists do not stop our current progress, and consign us all to castrated academia composed of ideologues and their pet biases.

10 thoughts on “Four Types of Anti-Science”

  1. Not even sure what to say here except to suggest that you read more closely. Not only do I explicitly say that the criticism I am voicing is *not* a scientific criticism and has *no* bearing on the scientific worth of decision-theoretic accounts, but I claim nothing about anyone being “immoral.” I am only claiming that the set of theoretical assumptions at the core of decision-theoretic accounts makes moral action impossible, which is a claim not about persons using an argument, but about the logic of the argument itself.

    As for the charge that I am “anti-science” because I don’t seem to agree with your rather narrow definition of science, well, I seem to remember having written a book on that so I am not going to try to summarize the case for scientific pluralism in the comment section of a blog 😉 But I’ll also say that you are misreading me if you think I am a “collectivist ideologue” (and while we’re on the subject, why aren’t decision-theorists “individualist ideologues”?), since I never in any of my posts on the subject call for anyone to stop doing rational choice theory or any other form of decisionist analysis. Save your defense of science for those interlocutors who are suggesting that only work that proceeds with a particular set of assumptions qualifies as “scientific.”

  2. Hey ProfPTJ,

    Thanks for your comment. You were kind enough to make several important points very close to each other, so I’ll respond to them in order. 🙂

    “Not only do I explicitly say that the criticism I am voicing is *not* a scientific criticism and has *no* bearing on the scientific worth of decision-theoretic accounts”

    Indeed, this is my point.

    If you had stated, “X is scientifically incorrect, because of Y,” and Y isn’t part of the scientific process, that would be a wrong statement.

    Instead, your statement was to proscribe a form of scientific research because it is ugly to your morality. There was no attempt at critiquing the scientific legitimacy of your opponents. Only their moral legitimacy.

    Hence, why your post is an example of anti-Science, and not science-done-poorly.

    “but I claim nothing about anyone being “immoral.” “

    Certainly the moral accusations you make are all on the level of theories and arguments, not persons.

    ” I am only claiming that the set of theoretical assumptions at the core of decision-theoretic accounts makes moral action impossible”

    This is surely not true. You make multiple claims and assertions, including that some things are “basically corrosive,” and that others should be “opposed wherever practicable.”

    “because I don’t seem to agree with your rather narrow definition of science, well, I seem to remember having written a book on that so I am not going to try to summarize the case for scientific pluralism in the comment section of a blog”

    I’m not sure if this is an argument to authority, or a refusal to engage, but in any case it is empty and devoid of meaning. 😉

    “But I’ll also say that you are misreading me if you think I am a “collectivist ideologue”

    Such is certainly a vague term. I literally made it up, trying to come up with a description of your writing here. Which would you prefer?

    “(and while we’re on the subject, why aren’t decision-theorists “individualist ideologues”?), “

    I didn’t come across a post by a rational choicer attacking science on Duck of Minerva. My reactions are driven by my reading list 😉

    since I never in any of my posts on the subject call for anyone to stop doing rational choice theory or any other form of decisionist analysis.

    This contradicts your earlier claim:

    “I am not suggesting that there are empirical phenomena that for some intrinsic reason can’t be accounted for in decision-theoretic terms … My point — my plea — is that it shouldn’t be”

    How can this be resolved?

    “Save your defense of science for those interlocutors who are suggesting that only work that proceeds with a particular set of assumptions qualifies as “scientific.””

    I’m not sure how to read this line.

    Certainly there are assumptions that are used in science, and assumptions that are not. Indeed, without this, science would have no definition.

  3. Oddly, the system here won’t let me sign in with Twitter so I am just going to post a reply this way. Three quick replies:

    1) my point about not wanting to try to compress the case I make in my book into a blog comment was supposed to be an acknowledgement that any effort to telegraph a nuanced point is going to lose something. I would be more than happy to engage in a longer discussion about different definitions of “science” and why I think that the neopositivist one that you seem to prefer is inadequate both philosophically and practically, but I don’t think we can do that in the comments section of a blog very effectively. I did write a book addressing this, and would be more than happy to have you rip it apart 😉

    2) I’m not proscribing a form of scientific research. The “it” to which I refer in the sentence “My point — my plea — is that it shouldn’t be” is not the use of decision-theoretic tools, but the tendency among some authors to seek to subsume everything under decision-theoretic explanation without acknowledging that, like every scientific theory, decision-theoretic approaches have their in-built limitations and simply cannot ask and answer certain kinds of questions (Phil’s point about the toolbox and the paintbrush). And then, stepping outside of this scientific criticism, we have the other set of considerations, which — and I suspect we disagree here too — stem from my basic position that no piece of scientific research is *purely* science; there’s participation in a broader cultural dialogue as well, and when we select theories we select them not just as scientists, but as embedded human beings.

    3) I suppose that you could say that I am criticizing a certain ideology of scientism: the idea that just because some set of theoretical assumptions is useful in a scientific explanation it necessarily follows that every other sphere of life ought to be subordinated to those assumptions. This is the kind of category mistake that people make when they critique religious myths as though they were supposed to be factual explanations, or conclude that since the earth wasn’t factually created in 7 days that there is no worth or value to religious discourse. I think that’s a conflation of different language-games. What bothers me about Freakonomics etc. is that it takes a ideal-type that has explanatory uses and pretends that it’s an established, incontrovertible fact, and proceeds to cognitively reorganize all of human life in accordance with it. I find this troubling and problematic.

  4. ProfPTJ,

    Thank you again for your comment. It’s fun to have this discussion.

    I don’t hold to the opinion that “science” is a synonym inquiry, or language game, or of any way of knowing that the speaker wishes to take seriously. [1] Science is a tool for predicting, controlling, and improving variation, and the subset that incorporates its useful aspects — normal science — is more narrow still [2].

    But back to the main topic…

    You attack Rational Choice moral grounds, and state that an ideological allergy to a research program is a reason to oppose it.

    To continue on from the excerpt from your post:

    “My point — my plea — is that it shouldn’t be. The “model of man” (sexism in original, and that’s almost certainly important…) at the heart of decision-theoretic accounts begins, as a matter of assumption, with individuals isolated from one another in a deep ontological sense. ”

    Whatever the “it” is, the justification provided is twofold: (1) it is selfish and (2) it is leaves “individuals isolated from one another in a deep ontological sense” which is problematic because “In my view, reducing social outcomes to individual decisions is thus problematic for ethical, rather than explanatory, reasons.”

    In other words

    1) A science approach has ideological implications I dislike
    2) Ideological implications are more important than explanatory power
    3) Therefore, the scientific approach should not be used

    This is the heart of your anti-scientific argument.

    You’ve begged to refine this or that part of the argument — that perhaps its more correct to say the argument is “corrosive” rather than “immoral,” or perhaps it should not be used in this or that case, or perhaps you would append “in discussions in the broader cultural dialog” to part 3, but these are distinctions without differences.

    Your comment is as valid as an theologist stating that the theory of gravity is immoral, because God creates and destroys the universe in an instance. It is a subordination of science to a pre-existing belief.

    You openly promote ideological purity over explanatory power. This is not a scientific argument. This is an anti-scientific argument. It’s as anti-scientific as creationism, but more elitist, and less popular.

    Thank you for this dialog. I’m enjoying it. 🙂

  5. “In other words
    1) A science approach has ideological implications I dislike
    2) Ideological implications are more important than explanatory power
    3) Therefore, the scientific approach should not be used
    This is the heart of your anti-scientific argument.”

    I don’t see how #3 follows from #1 and #2. I certainly am arguing that decision-theoretical accounts, which I admit and accept are scientific have substantive assumptions embedded in them that I am not fond of for reasons I try to spell out in the post(s). And I would only argue #2 if we are no longer talking about explanation, but about broader social impact; as long as we focus on explanation, the only criteria that matter are internal consistency, systematically, and the like.

    At best you could say that I am opposed to the global adoption of decision-theoretic approaches based purely on their explanatory power because of their deleterious effects on social life. I am likewise opposed to the global adoption of natural science accounts as some kind of a substitute for religious discourse as though religious discourse and scientific discourse were substitutes for one another; they occupy different categories, and should not be thought of as competitors. I’m a big fan of science in its place, which is explanatory power focused on facts.

    Please do not conflate my criticisms of a particular scientific approach with a critique of science per se; as I said in my previous reply, it’s scientism I’m rejecting, not science. Whether the theory of gravity is immoral is a completely separate question from whether or not it is explanatorily useful, and the one does not have any consequences for the other. The idea that we can base morality on science: now that I would categorically reject, just as I would categorically reject the opposite. Separate, complementary, distinct. Neither wins because they aren’t competing.

  6. Hey ProfPTJ,

    The odd thing about this conversation is that you keep agreeing with my statements, and then denying that you are.

    Here’s another agreement:

    “And I would only argue #2 if we are no longer talking about explanation, but about broader social impact;”

    Yes, that is my whole point.

    You would subjugate science for your ideological objectives. Hence my description of your initial piece as anti-science. Indeed, your kindly written follow-ups continue in this vein.

    Over and over, you have attacked decision-theoretical approaches as” deleterious” to social lie, or some such, and therefore oppose adoption of them (whether “globally” or “specifically” is irrelevant — you oppose the theory for its moral implications to your philosophy, not for its scientific efficacy).

    This is a higher level criticism certainly than Creationist pseudoscience, but is on the same level as Creationist anti-science: the theory is wrong not for its internal consistency or its nature as a scientific theory, but because it fails an arbitrary ideological test.

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