Jamie McAfee is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition and a long-time friend and former colleague of mine. Jamie and I both were involved in the early “skeptic’s movement” in middle Georgia and are both atheists. We have both, although from entirely different grounds, taken issue with sloppy epistemology, naive views of the sociology and ideology around the scientific community, and problems with scientism; however, it is also clear that we disagree fundamentally on what is at stake in the problems of the “Skeptic’s movement” and “New Atheism” as problems of the practices of the scientific community and what makes a conceptual distinction of the demarcation line.
This also begins my “marginalia on skeptical thinking” in which I will interview and interrogate different thinkers who adopt various postures in regards to science as a means of knowing, skepticism as a means to philosophical inquiry, and doubt as a part of a dialectical project. Often this series will venture away from politics directly, and into the realms of science, science communication, rhetoric of science, the philosophy of science, sociology of scientific community, science journals, as well as epistemology, onthology, and the semantics of methodology.
Skepoet: You and I have been complaining about the rhetoric in the North American/Australian Skeptic’s movement and in the lay cheerleading for “science” for a while. While I think I am probably more “pro-science” in the way many in the Skeptic’s movement mean than you, but we have both been accused of being anti-science for pointing out the unthinking ideological categories that are hidden in framing in the presentation and even design of scientific work. We are also both skeptical of the scientific community’s representation in popular culture (Dawkin’s, Hawking, etc) who have written off rhetorical and philosophical criticism of ideas. How do you see your own relationship to science and, how is it different from the post-modern strawman that is often thrown at many of who “skeptical” of the “Skeptic’s movement” claim to objectivity?
Jamie McAfee: I’ll start by explaining “what my problem is” with the Skeptics. I’ve got four big, closely related, beefs with the skeptic movement. I’m generalizing, of course, but this is what I’m seeing from those guys:
1. They describe science using what we might (as sloppy shorthand) call a naive modernist or neo-positivist perspective. That point of view is, as an ideology for empowering scientists, just fine, but it’s really untenable as a way to discuss what science is or to talk about the place of science in society or in public debate.
2. They are still fighting the science wars, and they seem to think that any effort to discuss the cultural embeddedness of science is extreme relativism and nihilism. I think that science can be subject to extrinsic politics (like, for example, if a granting agency demanded certain results), and that is inappropriate. Richard Dawkins would agree. The next step though, is to think about all of the ways that politics are intrinsic to science. Scientific methodology does not allow you to be free of always in social context. That’s a truism (or deepity, if you will), so it’s not a big whoop. “Duh,” right? Well, go tell some of the Skeptic spokespeople to stop making fun of people who try to interrogate science using that truism as a starting point. I don’t know if they would concede that truism as a truism (they probably would, actually), but they act as if it’s a threat when people actually try to act on that assumption.
3. They actively disparage non-scientific ways of knowing. Humanities inquiry and, yes, religion have well-developed, robust ways of talking about the world. In fact, for some kinds of problems, we are nowhere close to having built enough hard science for hard science to be as useful as those other ways of talking. A little modesty is in order. (I would say the same thing to some of the more extreme outposts of science studies like some of the post-Lacan business that was going around a couple of decades ago making some really extreme claims. But, you know, that was a faddish avant guard that doesn’t really represent science studies as I know it.)
4. This one is less closely related, but still related. . . the really naive engagement with the public and with their own movement. I haven’t been spent much time with a community that is as as unself-critical as them dudes. A specific place this pops up is in some of the more grotesque sexism that you see from people like Dawkins. That the Amazing Atheist has a following is noteworthy. I think that flows from their naivete in other areas.
Really, my complaint is that they have swallowed the philosophical problems introduced by the enlightenment hook, line, and sinker, and that they are really combative about it.
Why am I not the postmodern strawman?
The biggest difference between me and pretty much everybody in my field who does something like “science studies” and the postmodern strawman is that, to paraphrase Bruno Latour, we “believe” in “reality” and we respect that the practices we call “science” have a unique ability to address some kinds of problems. So like, science is real and it does stuff that other enterprises can’t do.
The biggest difference between how I would talk about science and how Skeptics talk about science is that I talk about science as an industry rather than an epistemological enterprise. I wish, frankly, to avoid the issues that informed the science wars, not to simply take a modified version of the humanities “side” (although, except for the Lacan people, that’s a bit of a strawman too, I think). Science is a rhetorical practice that includes the material, as does all rhetoric. The self correction and rigor of science, along with the increasingly huge networks of material stuff that it includes, make it uniquely powerful for making arguments (which are still just arguments) and for designing technical procedures.
That stance makes science MORE “real” than modernism allows, but it doesn’t divorce science from some of the different things we mean by “politics.” When I say that science is one way of knowing among many or that science is never free of culture, I don’t mean that there is no way to make a distinction between medicine and faith healing.
This is kind of a rhetorical appropriation of Latour, but it’s drawing from a lot of the assumptions of cultural studies oriented rhetoric and professional communication scholarship as well. Technical communication is about understanding a place in a network where material facts are translated into semiotic artifacts so that you can produce other artifacts to help actors make the system work, etc.
I was a rather enthusiastic booster of the Skeptic movment a few years ago, believe it or not. Read all the books and even the magazines. Watched my Penn and Teller. Watched all the youtube debates and followed all the gossip. But I’ve come to think of them as being really problematic. I know people who live in very conservative communities for whom the Skeptic thing is a lifeline, and I sympathize. I haven’t written off the concept of a Skeptic movement. But as it is, it’s a mess.
S.: What caused you to see the Skeptics movement as problematic?
J.M.: I think that 5-8 years ago when it was really getting rolling, when the “four horsemen” of atheism were really becoming widely popular and when big conventions like the Amazing Meeting were becoming a regular “thing,” it was a real breath of fresh air. I’ve always been a fan of some of the guys who’ve been in the business of debunking hookum, Shermer and Randi in particular, and to see that corner of pop culture really grow into something bigger that might stand up to the fundamentalists was pretty cool. Like, trading videos bashing Ray Comfort was a lot of fun. (I am, of course, remembering my experience of the skeptic movement here. I haven’t checked up on my history.)
I think the problem, for me, was that skepticism and atheism had made it’s initial splash as a pop culture “event,” it failed to really define itself in a self critical way, and some of the roots of the movement, particularly the science wars stuff I’ve alluded to earlier, have caused a bunch of trouble. The antipathy toward feminism, the snotty attitude about humanities studies of science, etc., seem rooted in that stuff. Dawkins also has his baggage from arguments about culture with Steven Gould. The other problem is that with some exceptions (Daniel Dennet being the big one, obviously) these guys aren’t trained in anything to do with philosophy. So it went, for me, from being a refreshingly honest response to the religious right to being an endorsement of a really problematic brand of commonsense, a synonym for which is “hegemony.”
I’ve kinda watched this thing unfold over the years and gotten increasingly antsy about it. I think maybe the realization that some of these guys (Shermer too) were embracing American styled libertarianism, along with several ugly incidents involving women in the Skeptic movement made me really think that there was a big strain of thought going on there that I was pretty actively repulsed by. That, along with re-reading stuff about the science wars (which I followed, vaguely, at the time as a teenager) made be really wonder if skepticism as a “movement” was something I could identify with. I’ve also done a lot more thinking about religion, and I’ve become bothered that the Skeptic movement defines religion in the fundamentalists terms. It seems to be that they are just reinforcing fundamentalism when they do that. So they aren’t even good at the thing that first attracted me anymore.
The Skeptic “movement” seems to be riddled with problems up and down. I’m particularly troubled by people like Dawkins and Harris who use their authority as “experts” to talk about philosophy and theology when their expertise is in neither. But I’m also troubled by some of the 4Chan like troll culture and the misogyny that you see on the bottom end of the online skeptic community.
As I said before, I sympathize with people for whom atheism provides a way to participate in an alternative community. For me, though, the past few years have been a process of growing increasingly annoyed as this community has developed.
S.: For me the biggest offender was Sam Harris who seems to try to naturalize a political philosophy that is basically a form of militant Benthamite utilitarianism, but even Michael Shermer, whose tone I like more, tries to naturalize markets and conflates the rhetoric of libertarian capitalism with natural selection–ignoring the utter inefficiency of natural selection and its incredibly high failure rate (99.9 of all species that ever existed are extinct). I actually see this as an ideologically motivated ignoring of the demarcation line even in the terms of analytic philosophy. What do you think about the demarcation line?
J.M.: Sam Harris is undoubtedly the worst of those guys, in terms of his work as a public intellectual. Dawkins is worse, for me, in the way he abuses his authority as a preeminent scientist, and he’s done worse in terms of bad behavior, but Harris is, as a thinker, really pathetic. The fact that he gets invited to talk to people about philosophy is a symptom of a problem. I do like Shermer more, even now. I’ve stopped reading his books, but his rhetoric is a lot more modest, even if his claims sometimes aren’t.
By “demarcation line,” I assume you mean between science and “not science”?
I think it’s a sticky wicket. It’s important to have some way to distinguish between the two, but I don’t know of a way to do it that is clean or problem free. I don’t think there is or could be one. What I would say is that science is a social practice that scientists do. It’s not anything else, and when you try to base demarcation on some kind of epistemological something or other, you have erred seriously. I’d base the demarcation on practice, and I’d want to perform that demarcation on the specific circumstances of specific disciplines. So, like, the demarcation in medicine is not the same as psychiatry (I mention those two because there is a lot of messy overlap and because I study therapeutic rhetoric), and neither are the same as for physics. There will always be a way to deconstruct that demarcation, but ce la vie.
When I say “based on practice,” there are two good ways that I know of that you can do that demarcation. One is the “Latour/Harraway” techno-science way, and the other is the Collins and Evans expertise way. I’d endorse, perhaps, some combination of those two ways.
The “Latour/Harraway” (also John Law and the whole Actor Network school) method, which I’ve alluded to in a previous answer, is to understand science as the enrollment of people and objects into networks. The shape of those networks might be variable, but the object are going to have to co-operate. So, like, while the rubber often meets the road through texts of different kinds, and while we are ultimately going to understand science as rhetoric, the objects have to co-operate for it to be science. I could spend all afternoon in an occult bookstore, and no matter how robust the networks of text I might find there, I wouldn’t learn anything that would enable me to make a rocket work. That’s because their was at no point a disciplined transference of data into the network. When networks get really big they get more stable and reliable. So evolution is probably true because there is SOOO much independently collected data that has been incorporated into the networks of practice that study it and that USE it for things like vaccines or animal science.
The “Collins and Evans” method is to understand legitimacy in terms of expertise, tacit knowledge, and inculcation into a community. That’s not particularly novel, but they develop that a lot more, and they spend a lot of time worrying over how people who don’t have accredited expertise can be experts. There’s a famous rhetoric of science article (well, we read it as that, but it’s really just British science studies) about sheep farmers who argued with scientist about how widely nuclear fallout was going to disperse. The sheep farmers, because they had a lot more tacit knowledge and local expertise, were a lot more right than the scientists. You get a lot of that kind of “commensuability of expertise” stuff in studies of anything to do with agriculture. They also have the category of “interactional expertise” which is when you understand, tacitly, the problems of a discipline and can “talk the talk.” A lot of what you learn in graduate school is interactional expertise. I have never run a study about teaching composition because I don’t do research about that topic, but am a hare away from being ABD in a professional communication program, so I could go to a conference and have a conversation, perhaps even a heated argument, about somebody else’s research. Many parents with autistic children could sit down with someone who researches autism and have a peer-to-peer conversation about it.
I think that maybe instead of demarcation, I want to think about two different kinds of legitimacy. One is some kind of “downwardly” discriminating legitimacy, which, I think, you could pretty clearly talk about using some combination of the two frameworks presented above.
Of course, being a rhetoric guy, I’m not so sure that “downstream” is the direction we need to think about, and so there are issues of talking about how to critically engage science without cordoning off “bad” science from “good science,” and issues of talking about how the public recognizes legitimacy. The latter is pretty much a straightforwardly rhetorical (or maybe political) problem, but the former is tricky. It is important that we DO NO draw the demarcation retroactively so that we’re ahistorically describing science as a progressive march. That means recognizing errors as being “science.”
Being able to explain yourself in the language of science using the logic of your discipline is what makes you a scientist. For me that is the end of the story. I’m not saying that language or logic can’t be (and shouldn’t be) interrogated, but that when we demarcate “science” from “not-science,” that is the only valid way to do it, for me anyway. If you’d like to to explain the demarcations of process of a specific site, you can go in there and study how they police themselves. These are ongoing struggles that happen in particular scientific disciplines. I’m NOT saying that there are no logical or methodological rules that make science science. It might be that I’m refusing to give a philosophical answer and am giving a sociological answer instead because I think that’s a more appropriate way for an non-scientist to think about science. So it might be that you and I have an incommensurability problem here.
You are onto something very serious when you complain that rhetoric might be doing a bit of a power grab when we want to posit deliberation and argument as the key to demarcation. That’s astute. It’s an issue that we sometimes call the “Goankar problem” after a the author of a very contentious essay about science studies in rhetoric. My knee jerk answer is that I’m trying actually to deffer to the expertise of scientists, but that IS a cop out, so screw that answer. I won’t get all into it here, but Alan Gross’s “Rhetorical Hermeneutics” is a very good book containing the Goankar essay, a bunch of responses, and a bunch of commentary. There are ways to talk about that issue. We sound like we are saying that “everything is rhetoric all the time,” and that is thorny. I don’t think that’s quite what we’re saying, actually. (I think we are saying “rhetoric is a vocabulary for talking about practices all the time.”) But it’s a pretty central issue. I was tempted to bring it up before, but didn’t. I’m glad you caught it.
2. It’s important to note that people can be “doing” science and doing it badly. Some of the sillier evolutionary psychology that gets reported in the popular media is very bad science because the arguments that they make connecting their data to their conclusions is bad, but it’s still psychology. It’s psychology because they are playing by the rules of their discipline, but because it’s right. “Science” does not means something is accurate or good. Deeming something “science” just means that we are saying the people involved are following certain kinds of rules. I think that plenty of “science” is flimsy and transient. It’s still science. We might conclude some sub-disciplines are out to lunch and still say they are doing science.
“Science is what scientists do” is only relativistic (or even tautological) if we put “science” on a pedestal or essentialize science so that it is something other than a kind of practice. (And if it’s a kind of practice, the practitioners get to decide the boundaries.) Because I differ to scientists to discern what science is doesn’t mean I can’t, even as a more informed than average layperson with no particular expertise, make judgements about their work (sometimes anyway). They still get to decide what science is. I can say “this is really shitty science, and people should stop doing it.” Nothing about “science is what scientist do” means that I can have discernment. As somebody (don’t remember who. . Feyeraband?) said, it’s foolish to think that science should only be of concern to scientists.
3. Both the Latour model and the Collins and Evans model I mention are very much concerned with practical knowledge, materialism, and efficacy. Things that don’t involve certain kinds of data or manipulating the material in a disciplined way are not science, and we can have some faith in the legitimacy of “science” because it is able to incorporate material things into its practice. (This, of course, gets messy in social sciences or medicine.) It’s not magic. Or rhetoric, for that matter.
I’m not proposing that we replace demarcation with some kind of free for all, but that we think about science as disciplined ways of acquiring practical knowledge. It is NOT episteme. It is some combination of explicitly discusses techne and tacit, generally unacknowledged phronesis. The “rules” of science are designed to patrol the boundaries of science, but also to accomplish things.
4. “So while it may be true there are always ways to deconstruct the demarcation line, it does not logically follow that there is no demarcation line or lines.” Agreed. Here’s an issue though. . .science is often driven bey exigency (there’s my using “rhetoric as a vocabulary”), and exigencies do not always match up very well with the disciplinary division we have. Science is ontologically and epistemologically messy, and dismissing the difficulty of demarcation as “deconstruction” (I said it first. . .I’m no accusing you of anything) is deeply misguided. Here’s a statement from the profile page of a rhetorician working at Los Alamos National lab:
“Many of the ‘big science’ problems that come to the national labs are “messy.” That is, they aren’t clearly a physics problem, or a chemistry problem, or an engineering problem. Like in the fable of the blind men around the elephant, multi-disciplinary communities often stand around these problems unable to define the problem in a way that they all can begin collaborative work. Dr. XXX uses qualitative tools to begin to build shared understandings of the problem space, and he uses graphical methods to map out the different areas of knowledge about the problem so that interdisciplinary communities can begin to talk and perform work.”
I’m my brief encounters with actual scientists (and because I generally study how scientific rhetoric is used publicly, I don’t have the experience doing that that some rhetoricians do) and conversations with rhetoricians who work with scientists (we do that more than you’d think)I see a lot of messiness and disciplinary miscegenation, to borrow a word from Latour. I’m, as a little part time job, working on something right now that’s a bizarre, from a demarcation perspective, interdisciplinary, political, and industry project. (I’m the English monkey who is helping write some reports for a big meeting.)
Latour, and Harraway, argue that impurity is THE defining feature of science. Not A feature, but the very thing that makes science more efficacious than other ways of knowing. It’s not a trick I’m doing to unnecessarily problematize something; it’s the thing that makes science powerful. So when I seem like I’m circumventing the demarcation issue, it’s for more serious reasons than it might seem. Boundary policing is crucial, but I’m not sure that “demarcation,” in the way you mean it, gets me anywhere. If it gets somebody else somewhere (and, hey, Collins and Evans have two whole chapters about it, so they don’t agree with me), that’s fine.
The major objection you could make that I would agree with is that I’m saying that science is only science when institutionally recognized authority recognizes it. Because science is an industry housed in universities, government labs, etc, I’m essentially saying that science is what happens in those spaces. I’m also making it difficult to think about the history of science before the 20th century when that infrastructure existed. That’s a can of worms I’m not that interested in. (Although it’s really serious stuff.) Peer review, for example, would be a standard I’d think that most efforts to handle demarcation would discuss, and those institutions are where the people who do peer review work.
There’s a very good early rhetoric if science article by John Campbell tracing the development of the scientific article from a brief note that reported some novelty to a developed genre that discussed methodology, etc. That development can be understood in part as a growing sophistication in our efforts to control the material, and it can also be understood as the development of a style of argument. Eventually you had to be able to argue in a certain way to participate in the conversation. So, like, where on that spectrum is it “science”? What about people outside of those institutions who follow scientific rules? Can we gerrymander in some practices from outside of the establishment? I’m at the boundary of my concern right now, but this is seriously problematic, perhaps destabilizing stuff. Imma leave it alone though.
I think the question you concluded with cuts to the heart of all the unpacking of my defense that I just did. Scientists discipline themselves in particular ways so that they remain within the boundaries of science. There are good reasons that they do that (most notably, to try to filter out, or at least responsibly account for, their own cultural position and bias . . . that’s the goal anyway, to construct some kind of objectivity), and the recursiveness of how more “informed” people like scientists, and hobbyists, approach problem solving has advantages. I’d say that hobbyists and scientists are approaching problems from disciplined perspectives, and while the “disciplining” works according to different rules, it allows for the creation of tacit expertise (slipping into Collins and Evan speak here).
Again, science is what scientists do, but we can recognize expertise in non-scientists. Perhaps using tools that scientists have developed.
Skepoet: So moving you away from epistemology or avoiding it: Do you think the skeptical movement is just naive about both the philosophy and the sociology of science, or is there something more generally problematic going on? I am particularly interested in the assumption of sort of center-left or libertarian liberalism as a default assumption, and also roblematics around gender relations within the movement.
Jamie McAfee: Ha. More or less, yeah.
I’ve been persuaded that epistemology is a bit of a tarpit that isn’t productive to get into. One thing about all of the sociological approaches I’m referring to is that they tend to be really emphatic about rolling their eyes at epistemological debating in favor of evaluating science, to paraphrase the bible, based on the fruit it produces. Collins and Evans and Latour are in very different camps withing sociology, but they both make the emphatic move of tossing epistemology aside. (I mean that they explicitly say “we think epistemology isn’t helpful.) Scientists are good at doing stuff, so lets talk about it as people doing stuff. They can make arguments based on the stuff they did (like making matter behave in particular ways), which is where rhetoric, in the diminished, conservative sense of “arguing,” comes in. You could, I guess, use argumentation theory, which is a lot more like philosophy than the “rhetoric” that I do, to talk modestly about epistemological issues if you wanted. I’d go along with that. Epistemology is always creeping up, and I think we have to be careful when claiming not to imply claims about epistemology, since we might be doing so. I guess the length of my last answer is what “boundary policing” might look like in my subfield. I’d like to keep myself away from epistemology, or to manage it so I can do other things. I don’t really want to make claims about it.
It’s naivete, but hubris as well. Not to get too meta, but the problem in the Skeptic movement is, I think, a lack of respect for the disciplining that takes place in the humanities. When I see Dawkins, Harris, or an internet troll straying into philosophical debate, the word “precocious” comes to mind. I don’t expect public intellectuals, or anybody not writing in a scholarly journal, to perform scholarly literature reviews in their writing, but I do expect them to approach conversations with either some familiarity with what people who have expertise in a topic have said or with modesty. I’m not saying you have to be a professional philosopher to talk about philosophy. I’m saying you probably shouldn’t write books about it or start a movement about it. Skeptic folks dive right into debates without doing the work required to become expert. They certainly have some expertise in what they are talking about, since they are generally speaking to broad questions that relate to anyone. Since Collins and Evans are on the table, we can call the experience they have “ubiquitous” experience. But ubiquitous experience doesn’t make you a philosopher.
Modernism is a hegemony, which is, I think, why a naive celebration of reason and science allows people to charge ahead confidently and wrongly. As I discussed a bit in my last answer, science is a very institutional thing that is obviously well articulated to power. I’m not claiming that because people have respect for (or participate in) institutions, their ideas will be predetermined. I am, however, claiming that that kind of critical, in the “capital C” sense that cultural studies people mean it, work is deliberate and requires some real engagement with power and culture (when I say “culture” here I don’t mean something that is apart from materialism). That is work that Skeptics seem unwilling to do.
When you charge into debates demanding that everything behave like “science,” and you are unwilling to do the work to understand how other people think about the world, you are going to end up in some of our default small “c” conservative categories. I’d say that center left or libertarian liberalism are those. I’d say that being suspicious of people who want to interrogate gender is one of those. These are “commonsensical” ways of seeing the world. To make matters somewhat worse, Skeptics embrace and ethos of commonsense (in opposition to superstition, etc.) and they embrace the idea that reason is unproblematic. Political radicals and feminists are in violation of that common sense, and for people who define themselves as primarily “rational,” that stuff is just not to be taken seriously. (Coincidentally, or not, perhaps, a lot of conservative rhetoric is based around some form of common sense. “Conservative prudence” for example. Were American conservatism not so overly inane, I’d guess there’d be more Skeptics over there. Oh, and the religion thing, of course.)
So, for example, when feminists are concerned about privilege or objectification, that’s a step too far for common sense.”Equality” (of. . .something?) is fine, but asking people to question the power that comes with gender is out of bounds. So you end up with Richard Dawkins finding it preposterous that someone might be (mildly, originally) offended by an inappropriate proposition, or to use a more extreme example, you end up with the Amazing Atheist ridiculing rape victims. (Yeah, yeah, conversations about those issues can be problematic on the feminist end too, but I think it’s safe to say there’s a “there” there.) The way Shermer reifies capitalism is, in my mind, the same thing.
One more thought:
Since I’m talking about rhetoric, I’ll throw out the analogy sometiemes called “Burke’s parlor,” after Kenneth Burke. Burke wrote:
“Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”
That’s how scholarship, or any kind of serious intellectual work, happens. The trouble, for me, with the Skeptic movement is an unwilliness to “listen for a while” and “catch the tenor of the argument” when they talk about things that other people are talking about. Their movement is, because it doesn’t have the patience to become serious, remakably shallow and remarkably beholden to a liberal status quo.
trying to say “We’re bracketing that it” and “it’s impossible” at the same time. The later is a philosophically substantive claim; the former is not. However, I am going to charitable read you as saying the former for now.I, however, really do like your other points here: One) since the demarcation lines of science are under-developed at best and philosophically impossible at worse, it does seem problematic to ignore it. Two) There is a hubristic problem of completely ignoring non-scientific expertise, which given the problematic standing of the demarcation line is science right now can’t work. Three) This leads to all sorts of ideological and psychological heuristics being presumed as a sort of baseline of truth. Ironically, the last bit would be an anti-scientific move itself.
You made an assertion about modernity I find interesting: would you like to go into how you see the Skeptic’s movement as a philosophically modernist project? Also I think there has been, to defend the “Skeptic’s movement” for a moment, some push back on this political assumptions. For example, there were many within the movement who started agreeing with me on Sam Harris with his last book, and there were many who took Rebecca Watson’s side in the Watson/Dawkin dispute. What do you see going on there? Do you think there could be a skeptic’s movement that learned from the sociology of science and dealing with the philosophy of science seriously? Massimo Pigliucci, for example, has definitely taken on the problem of “scientism” within the skeptic’s community.
I would, however, say that trying to work out “epistemology” seems to lead to endless debate and discussions of problems that don’t seem to be useful to think about. Rorty’s prolonged explication of that stuff in “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” or Latour’s various efforts to contrast a more modest epistemology (if you want to call it that) with Cartesian problems or Collins’s and Evans’s deference to “expertise,” or various efforts by rhetoricians to reclaim parts of some kind of Aristotelian or Roman worldview are all various ways of trying to get some traction that epistemology doesn’t offer. Some of the “thin” theory that is rhetoric is similar.
The comparison to Sam Harris’s meta ethics (or lack thereof) I can see, but I think there’s a huge difference between trying to carefully (and recursively, by the way) bracket something because it’s not useful and plowing through without acknowledging your assumptions. To borrow a metaphor from actor network theory (since we’re talking about that), you have to blackbox things. You can’t have everything in play all the time. But you should be able to justify the choices you make, and to, when problems arise, go back into those blackboxes and do work there. There’s a parallel between what I’m doing and what Harris does, but the people who’ve persuaded me to make that move are a whole lot more conscientious than he is. I hope I’ve satisfactorily explained why I’m don’t think epistemology “is impossible” but, rather “it’s a useful a point of departure and not a thing to be solved.” It’s down in the weeds, but it does matter since I’m complaining about scientism.
And that point of departure is pretty closely related to this “modernism” business. “Modernism,” of course, is a messy, term that can mean a lot of different things. In the context of talking about science, I mean “Modernism” in, more or less, in Latour’s way, which is filled with odd paradoxes, some of which explain how scientistism ends up being at odds with itself. Latour’s shtick is that Modernism is the division of the cultural from the physical from the discursive, and those divisions are what enables science. He bashes this division for creating unnecessary philosophical problems, and he makes fun of Cartesian dualism a lot. He has a lot of bad things to say about “discourse” as a category, for example, although he has come back around to celebrating “rhetoric” in recent years, which he understands as something other than postmodern “discourse.” He also points out that science, when you trace what it does, is good at bending those Modernist categories and then discursively and through practice purifying them.
Modernism is a hegemony, not a “real” thing. Nobody behaves as if they actually believe in the divisions of Modernity, but they talk as though they do. A departure I make from him (although he says this, it’s not his point) is that people who can ground their arguments in some kind of physicalist language can gather a lot of ethos for themselves, because the modern. (Before the latter stages of the Modern that we call post-modernism, but Latour insists is late modernism. . . .my interest in synthesizing Latour with rhetoric is a pretty serious departure from the “pomostrawman,” and the fact that Latour has been often lumped into the “pomo” side of the “science wars” speaks to the light/heat ratio of the science wars.)
I would argue that the Modernist, in the Latour sense, way of talking is the problem. Modernism has empowered science, but as a way of talking about knowledge, it’s a mess. The Skeptics I’m complaining about talk that way.
You are right that there is pushback. The Skeptic thing isn’t monolithic, and their core goals of arguing with fundamentalism and superstition are fine by me. I’d like to see a skeptic movement that was more feminist, that contained expertise in thinking about philosophical problems, and that was more interested in rhetoric (not the discipline, necessarily, but persuasion). I’m aware that there are participants in the movement who are tying to do that.
The question “do I think there could be a skeptic movement that took philosophy of science seriously” however, is trickier. I’d say “yes, there COULD be, but I think it’s unlikely.” Why do I think that? I think that because it’s hard to imagine a well articulated skeptic “movement” that wasn’t rooted in that problematic commonsense stuff discussed earlier. I obviously (I hope it’s obvious) think that a pro-science, pro-skepticism position does not mean one accepts scientism, etc. However, it’s hard for me to imagine a “movement” based on that kind of a position. What’s it in opposition to? What are it’s boundaries?
Now were kinda talking about politics. Here’s an analogous issue. . . “Christian” movements have been all over the political spectrum over the years, but more recently, “Christian” culture is really right wing Evangelicalism. That narrower, activist group has claimed the word, even though there are more Christians who are not conservative Evangelicals than who are. (I’m thinking about this because there was a flap about it yesterday.) While I’d be happy to see more pushback against that appropriation of the word “Christian,” until there is some other movement that’s articulated out of some exigency and has some clear idea “what it’s not,” I think we’re gonna keep having to remind people that not all Christians are Republicans. Christianity, as a political movement, is defined by oppositions and tensions. Skepticism is the same way. It’s hard for me to imagine a nuanced, non-scientistic Skeptic movement coming out of the U.S. right now. There are plenty of us who are, nominally, skeptics who do not embrace skepticism as a part of our identity of who have any need for a movement. The attitudes that have pushed people to embrace skepticism as a “cause” seem increasingly foreign to me.
Like, even if everybody in the Skeptic decided to embrace Massimo Pigliucci and Rebecca Watson, I’m not sure what it would be that they would do with themselves. It’s hard for me to imagine.Why people who are dissidents from scientism and anti-feminism stick around in the skeptic movement? I dunno. Sometimes people define their ideas through smart dissident positions. That’s valid. Some of those folks are probably really interested in science and like participating in the community of other people who are as well. There might be people who, like me, were attracted to the idea when it was (or seemed, anyway) more narrowly focused on pushing back against the religious right but who have invested more than I did. I’m an apprentice academic. I have plenty of outlets for talking about philosophy. Not everybody has that, and the Skeptic movement is, for all of it’s problems, one of the places in American mass culture where people have those conversations. (Libertarianism, oddly enough, is another.) They’ve created a sort of weird counterculture that looks sorta like academia in some ways. It’s oddly like the religious right, actually, in that way.
One thing that hasn’t been brought up is the overlap between the Skeptic thing and pop culture subculture like sci-fi or gamer communities. In my completely undisciplined observations, there is a lot of overlap, and some of the hostility toward the humanities and problems with gender can be an issue in those communities. I don’t mean to suggest that those are monolithically sexist communities, but there are quite a few blogs by female “geeks” and quite a bit of scholarship that suggests there are problems there. That’s about all I have to say about that, really, but it’s worth bringing up.
Althusser or Foucault, that historical “epochs” have structural practices that are real but not evenly distributed among society. So I wouldn’t reject Latour’s way of thinking outright, but I wouldn’t accept it’s conclusion either.My point in being critical of you here is not political, but that I think there is still a problem of naturalization of practices that the empirical approach, of which bracketing out questions of philosophy necessitate, do lead to certain conceptual limitations.
That said, I think I we should talk about two key events that can be seen as points of tension in the skeptic movement: the “Sokal Hoax” as the beginning of the hostility towards to the humanities and the Watson/Dawkin’s break as beginning of re-politicization in movement. What do you think about the Sokal hoax?
He wants us to talk differently about science and technology by insisting on them as networks, and he thinks that that move is a way out of the Cartesian trap. That’s another way to paraphrase him. The parts that rhetoric people are interested in are things like unpacking the processes of transcription or re-inscription that create data or the way that writing helps to articulate networks together. Also, his blurring of human and non human is something that some folks look at as a way to try to recover materialism in rhetoric.
The problem with historical demarcations is a problem though, as it always is when people talk that way. I’d go along with “structural practices that are real but not evenly distributed among society.”
I’m leaning on Latour here as a way to talk about modernist discourse because it’s the way that I know because that’s most informed by concern for how scientist work. It’s compatible with more narrowly rhetorical ways to do that, but I don’t want to give you impression that Latour is THE guy for us, or for even for a booster like me. He’s pretty good though. This is one part of an ongoing conversation that involves different syntheses of Latour that I’m sharing. Plenty of rhetoric folks dislike Latour. My advisor is sorta one of them, actually. I think over-focusing on him might distort my position, which is a lot more in flux than it seems, even in this response, by making it seem like I’ve put all the eggs in the Latour basket. We are having a conversation that people have withing rhetoric.
(While I’m thinking about it Pandora’s Hope has some chapters from which you might extrapolate some implicit argument about Latour’s epistemology. He works overtime to be a realist, if one who’s modest about knowledge but who glosses over many of the problems that philosophers might worry about. The Sam Harris analogy might fit at some moments there.)
I agree. Affordances and constraints are intertwined. I think Latour is useful, but when I slip into Latour mode I sacrificed the ability to make other kinds of arguments. Although I have taken issue with the specifics of what you say Latour sacrifices, I suspect you’re kinda in the ballpark. I wouldn’t know quite how to articulate Latour’s problems without re-reading it with that in mind, but yeah. When I defend him, I don’t mean to say that you aren’t getting at something important. I just don’t think you’ve put it together in a way I agree with.
“Naturalization” is actually my biggest concern with Latour. Donna Harraway is, in my view, Latour on radical and feminist steroids (and they have been in contact with each other). She’s really dense and difficult to haul around though. When I’m doing academic writing, I always try to stick here in there. I’d like to move toward here as I keep doing this stuff.
I’d be quick to note that Latour is not a philosopher by training, and I’d be happy to concede that he’s probably not put the Enlightenment to bed. Let’s leave the poor guy alone. He’s had a long day.
As for “What do I think about the Sokal hoax?” I think it makes a lot of people look very bad.
My understanding of the Sokal hoax is that it has been, in part, misrepresented. I might be incorrect, but my understanding is that the Sokal piece was not blind reviewed in the usual way, but published, in part, out of excitement that an actual scientist was trying to participate. Given the nature of the performative writing that was going around at the time, I have no idea the degree to which Sokal actually “fooled” people and the degree to which people regarded his piece as whimsey. I am certain that he put in a lot of jokes that Social Text readers didn’t understand. So I don’t quite “buy” the conventional account of the story. It’s cheap and kinda dumb.
Having said that, you couldn’t pay me to read an issue of Social Text from that period. I tend to be something of a defender of the Social Text side as they were doing experimental, avant guard stuff. It was also trendy and not particularly robust of good. I think Sokal killed some of the faddish postmodernism of the time, so it wasn’t all bad.
The follow up stuff Sokal wrote (and Dawkins talked up) was silly. I actually kinda sympathize with some of the points he was trying to make, both politically and about philosophy, but sheesh. The lessons that people took from the whole fiasco are wrong though. The legacy of the Sokal Hoax is to embolden people who want to embrace scientism.
This, by the way, popped up on facebook while I was typing this out, and it serves as a convenient artifact. Ug. I am holding fire on about Dawkins and Watson.
I think I agree with the assertion that science can be understood as rigorous common sense. The techne/episteme thing from Rorty I was talking about somewhere earlier is a way to say that. I think most of the people I’m drawing influence from would agree. One of the really fascinating things about the science wars (once I get past being annoyed, and once I manage to forget how they helped to empower scientism) is that there was a lot of people talking past each other. Once you take the Lacan brigade off the table (some of the complaints about them were substantive differences, and the science people had a point there), I think everybody who was arguing with each other agrees that science is rigorous common sense.
I’ve never encountered, by the way, anything with a whiff of Lacan in rhetorical science studies. We have spent a lot of time theorizing the word “practical,” so that stuff is a little far out for us to even read. I’ve seen Lacan elsewhere in rhetoric, of course, but never in science stuff. One of our saving graces, when it comes to that stuff, if that we came to science studies, in part, through technical communication. We had an inside/outside relationship to science and technology that Social Text did not. Digression over.
BUT. . . there’s the trick. . . both “rigor” and “common sense” deserve very serious interrogation.
When Latour spends months following scientists around and watches them transfer data from one place to another, isn’t that an interrogation of what counts as “rigor”? Can’t “rigor” be interrogated? When Feyeraband or Kuhn did there early work discussing communsurability, isn’t that also a discussion of rigor? I once sat through a presentation/workshop by a college dean trying to describe what “rigor” looked like in teaching. (It was a shitty presentation, as most presentations of that nature are, but it was a good topic.) I’ll go along with rigor. It seems to be a useful place to start if you want to defend science studies.
And I’ve already pointed out, and you’ve pushed me to more carefully explain, that “common sense” is an extremely loaded phrase. My dissertation research, which is why Laclau and Mouffe keep coming up, is all about “common sense” in therapeutic rhetoric that is used in politics (James Dobson). “It’s common sense” says to me that “it” needs to be unpacked and that we need to trace what “it” is, does, and where it comes from. Calling something “common sense” is putting a post it note saying “study me.” (Let’s be careful though, and say that “study me” does not mean “debunk me.” “Redescribe me” might be better)
I think, to offer some benefit of the doubt to Sokal and Bricmont, that that assertion might have been a response to some of the bolder claims of avant guardians who were trying to stake territory. Even the more modest science studies people in rhetoric were doing a lot of sloppy colonizing. That’s what early work can look like sometimes. So there’s an opening for some benefit of the doubt for them.
One counter argument I’d make against the claim that philosophy of science is silly is to point out that before Kuhn and Feyeraband, we understood science through a highly edited, retrospective point of view. “Oxygen was discovered in such and such, and that was some more science, and then somebody did and experiment using cowpox, and then. . . .” The process of the community that is science was erased. Kuhn’s breakthrough was to imperfectly introduce that process to the discussion.
One last thought. . . . I have a former professor who does rhetoric stuff with science who is very skeptical of postmodernism, science studies, Marxian theory, etc. His argument with that stuff was that it was just too mundane, and the thought the “action” was in taking more traditionally about persuasion and public policy. I disagree with him about the value of that kind of interrogation, but his point is well taken. Meaningful science studies does more than say “THAT IS LANGUAGE” or “THAT IS HEGEMONIC.” Those are really obvious things to say, and even Sokal agrees. I think, though, that using those claims as a starting point can be useful. William Keith argues that “redescription” is a key step in scholarly work. I think that it’s a STEP, but to make that step and start spouting radical claims is silly. That premise does not mean that humanities studies of science isn’t potentially valuable.
Skepoet: I find the rhetoric of the rhetoricians quite interesting. I feel like we are diverging on the topic, but I keep meaning to point out that there is a danger to high level specialized academic discourses and that is one can forget that other academic discourses may completely reject the terms of engagement. For example, the way literary historicists u e Foucault without interrogating his notion of power which Foucault rejected any attempt to pin down as reductive. This has always seemed to me to be a cop-out. Here’s another example: your tropes of meaningful, colonizing, imply normative boundaries that you can’t make without a coherent social epistemology which is something you are bracketing out.
This is why I reject the idea of “science as rigorous common sense” in that those notions are over-filled signifiers semiotically which have almost no cognitive meaning to demarcate them even in “everyday” language. What does it mean to say science is “rigorous common sense” and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is none science,” and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.
Again, I feel like we have similar problems with the Skeptic’s community, but for reasons of method, we can’t make the same critiques nor can we even recognize the validity of the critiques. This allow puts out the necessary for structural demarcations and not just the borrowing of political-philosophical language to talk about ideas. I suspect this is why there is some hostility between rhetorical scholars and leftists in practice: one uses the other’s categories but uses them to almost opposite ends.
I want to push you on another assertion: What is the substantive difference that invalidates Lacan? How is Science Studies in Rhetoric avoiding it, particularly when using frameworks from liberal post-Marxist who extensively use Lacan like LaClau?
Jamie McAfee: You’re losing me a bit here.
“What does it mean to say science is ‘rigorous common sense’ and this seems like saying “We don’t need any normative constrains on method and thus any rigorous applications about what is not science.’ and it seems to me that the bracketing that is done methodologically in rhetorical science studies makes that impossible.”
I’m perplexed. What is “rigor” if is doesn’t include normative constraints? As I discussed way back, rules and norms make science science. I’m not trying to be glib, but I don’t see where this is coming from. I’m deferring, as a rhetorician, to scientists about what the norms are. I’m not saying there are none. Sokal was, as a scientist, saying that there rules that defined what he did. (Well, that’s my charitable interpretation. If he meant something lazier, then up against the wall with him.)
I’d concede that I’m unable, as a the kind of rhetorician that I am, to comment on what the norms are. I don’t have any interest, as a rhetorician, in doing so. I can understand why they are and what they afford though. I can talk about the discrepancy between why the norms are, and they are justified, and I can talk about how arguments that flow from those discrepancies are problematic. Arguments are safely rhetoric, so I think I’m okay if I can get to that point.