I’m trying out the blogging feature of MS Office… consider this post an experiment…
When I write about issues from a skeptical perspective, I’m often placed in the position of arguing from the position of someone who has an understanding of the physical sciences. If questioned about Bigfoot, for example, I demand that those who believe in its existence pony up some biological evidence like hair or a body part – or better yet a full corpse or skeleton – and if I’m asked to comment on UFOs or the presence of aliens, I often fall back on to the physical sciences as the starting position for skeptical inquiry. And I’m not alone: everywhere you look in the skeptical movement there are scientists and science enthusiasts who all absolutely agree that ‘science’ is the best tool we have for understanding the natural world. To a great extent I agree. But there’s something else that I’ve noticed in skeptical circles: a distinct lack of social scientists, and an almost deafening silence when it comes to discussing skeptical issues using the tools of social science instead of those of the physical sciences.
When I question skeptics about this phenomenon, I am often met with assertions that since the social sciences are really more like ‘soft’ science (and therefore not really science at all), they make for a pretty poor platform from which to launch a skeptical inquiry into a specific claim or event. Skepticism, I am told, is built upon the rock-solid foundations* of the physical sciences, and the more wishy-washy nature of social science research (with its use of qualitative methodologies, narrative analysis, or ethnographic research) is too provisional or ‘debateable’ to really get the job done. But I argue that skepticism’s overlooking of the value – and I would say necessity – of social science research to the skeptical project is rooted more in an unfamiliarity with – and sometimes downright ignorance of – the utility and functions of the social sciences. Further, I would argue that, if we examine the skeptical project more critically, we would find that a great deal of what is discussed and debated and fought against has more to do with sociology than with biology; more anthropology than physics. That is was I feel like talking about today, and so let’s shuffle on into some examples, shall we?
We all know the score with creationists, right? Creationists want to teach God-fables and creation-myths alongside the biological sciences in high-schools and universities, and they attempt to do so with any number of dishonest arguments (“Teach the Controversy”, “Academic Freedom”, “Alternative Scientific Theories”, etc.). There have been debates without number between scientists and creationists, and in the United States courts have ruled time and again that Creationism, Intelligent Design, or any other faith-based, unscientific perspective is not to be taught anywhere near a science classroom. But here’s the thing: everyone involved in the debates knows that creationism isn’t science; I’ve seen more than my fair share of creationists make this exact claim during debates and presentations. Biologists know it’s not science, the courts know it’s not science, and the creationists know that it’s not science (well okay some of them don’t, but they, like so many of their fellow citizens, are also often scientifically illiterate), so what, precisely is the debate about?
Fundamentally, debates against creationists are effectively rhetorical exercises aimed at convincing an audience that one side is correct and the other is not. They are not about ‘proving’ the science of evolution, nor are they ‘really’ about disproving creationism; they are about making an audience believe that creationists (or ‘evolutionists’ depending on which side you take) are wrong and more than that, they are dangerously wrong. This isn’t a debate about science, it’s a normative debate – it’s about what is ‘good’ for people or for society – it’s about highlighting creationists as social deviants whose ideas and misapprehensions present a threat to the social fabric. This isn’t biology; it’s sociology. What’s more, holding the position that science education is more important to children and other citizens than faith or magical thinking is an epistemological position and a normative one; it’s a question for philosophy. In other words, while the evidence to support evolution is absolutely the realm of biology, the question of why anyone should care is not. Understanding why skeptics take the positions they do is a critical component of understanding what it means to be a skeptic in the first place. Asserting that reason and objectivity are ‘better’ than emotional or subjective viewpoints isn’t scientific, and it’s not self-evident; people must be convinced that it is so, and that has little to do with the physical sciences.
Skeptics deal with conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking on an almost daily basis. Who ‘really’ caused 9/11? What is Freemasony ‘really’ about? Is the government secretly spraying us all with chemicals from high-altitude airliners, and are the major air-travel providers ‘in on it too’? Where is Elvis, ‘really’? Anyone who has ever spent any amount of time arguing with conspiracy theorists can be forgiven if they come away from the affair convinced that their opponent cared little – if at all – for scientific evidence that showed them that they were wrong. This is because in a lot of cases, conspiracy theorists don’t care what the science says. Anti-vaxxers haven’t stopped fear-mongering just because their ‘concerns’ about vaccines aren’t justified, nor have moon-landing deniers stopped denying just because someone points out that every shred of scientific evidence available points to the fact that Armstrong and Aldrin visited the moon. The reason for this is that, for the most part, the issues conspiracists have with world events aren’t rooted in physical anomalies or a lack of physical evidence to support the ‘official version of X’. As Jonathan Kay, author of “Among the Truthers” pointed out at his blog by the same name; conspiracy theories are almost always deeply rooted in a heavy and paranoid distrust of social, political, or economic institutions. For conspiracists, the evidence is not the point – often the evidence is dismissed out of hand because, for one reason or another, it is either suspect or biased or flawed in some hidden way. For example, anti-vaxxers say vaccines cause autism and point to a paper by Wakefield; the paper is shown to be not just flawed, but fraudulent as well and its conclusions therefore highly suspect but, rather than accept this blunt scientific fact, the movement simply turns Wakefield into a martyr for the cause, a victim of attempts by the medical-industrial complex or ‘Big Pharma’ to discredit his revelatory truths. The evidence doesn’t matter; the narrative does. The narrative then, is the important topic to discuss and debate, and by doing so, we’ve left the realm of the physical sciences behind and have dived headlong into the turbulent waters of social science research because by seeking to address the narrative, we are now tasking ourselves with understanding and changing how conspiracists and others perceive the world.
I think this tends to be a point where oftentimes skeptics take issue with social scientists. The common refrain I’ve heard over the years is that ‘well, the social sciences see the world as subjective; there’s no physical world to speak of or if there is, then it doesn’t matter, and that’s just a fairly ridiculous position’. I’ve also heard that since many social scientists accept the subjectivity of the social world, that we’re all relativists as well, but that’s a debate for another day. The point I want to make here is this: I happen to believe in the existence of a physical, material world. It’s here, it’s around us, we’re part of it. But here’s something else that I believe: the meaning we attach to things in the material world – why we value Samsung TVs more (or less) than Sony, or why black cars are seen as more luxurious (and therefore better) than orange ones – comes entirely out of social processes. These processes are the result of human interactions – social interactions between conscious being whose beliefs, motivations, and justifications are often unpredictable or irrational – and so they are by their very nature subjective. iPhones are not intrinsically ’good’, ‘bad’, ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘fashionable’ or ‘gauche’; those attributes are relational and therefore fluid, and that’s what the social sciences seek to understand.
What’s the point?
Only this: if we, as skeptics are truly interested in fighting the good fight against the alt-meddlers, charlatans, conspiracists and creationists of the world, we need to understand how they work. Focussing on science-based evidence, while helpful for establishing our own position, is not enough to enable us to effectively ‘take the fight’ to our opponents. We need to recognize the existence of the social sciences as a repository of tools to enable us to gain a better insight into the motivations and beliefs of the groups we try to oppose, because if we don’t, then we are tacitly accepting that we’ve ceded the social realm to our opponents.
In a follow-up post, I’ll lay out some of the tools used by social scientists to understand the world, and I’ll try to show (successfully, I hope) that the physical sciences and the social sciences are, for practical purposes, not mutually exclusive entities.
* I would suggest that anyone who is at all interested in the foundations of science or the philosophy or sociology of science should add Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to their ‘required reading’ list. If you have yet to read it, do yourself a favour and do so. Kuhn’s work does not undermine the validity of the scientific process as a tool of discovery, but it highlights that the project of science is one that is just as fraught with bias, politicking, and as influenced by social pressures as any other field of human endeavour.