Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A Dialogue with Jamie McAfee, part 1
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.”
Boundary policing, of course, involves issues of social legitimacy (cultural capital might be a term I would use), but it involves a lot of deliberative rhetoric about process and method. Studying boundary policing has at times been a preoccupation of rhetoric. It involves logic and data and disciplinary rules. I don’t want to imply otherwise.
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.
Posted on May 4, 2012, in Education, Interviews, Logic, Media, Science and tagged Analytic Philosophy, Bruno Latour, Critical Theory, Donna Harraway, Naive Realism, new atheism, Rhetoric, Sam Harris, Scientism, The Skeptic's Movement. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.