Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A Dialogue with Jamie McAfee, part 2
This is the second part of an interview series. I strongly suggest you read the first part prior to this.
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’ll start with some clarification about the epistemology thing, since that is related to the modernism thing. While I insist on being disinterested in epistemology, getting away from it is an important “move” in a lot of the literature from which I’m drawing my ideas about science, so it’s important. That move is, as I think we’ve made clear, important for justifying a sociological/rhetorical approach for discussing what science is. I do mean to bracket it, and I do not to say it’s impossible. I also mean to bracket it deliberately, not so skip it as Harris skips stuff. (Although I generally don’t dwell on it as we’ve done here.)
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?
I might be missing you, but he’s pretty emphatically not making those mistakes. Now, then, you might argue that he’s implicitly making those mistakes regardless of what he claims. If there’s a good explication of that position around, it’d be interesting to read, but Latour claims rather emphatically that he’s not doing those things.
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 wanted to go into one of the first assumptions of Sokal and Bricmont text: It literally asserted that all philosophy of science was silly including Popper and Kuhn, not just the sociological and po-mo critiques of the science wars. I found this fascinating because it was defending the idea that science is just rigorous common sense. What do you think that assertion?
It is a very interesting problem. We keep trying to get out of epistemology and keep getting sucked back in. I think that trying to get out is a good move, but I’ll acknowledge that those of us who think that was are going to keep having to perform variations of that move that over and over. Pretty much every philosopher I’ve mentioned has made versions of that move multiple times. I do, actually, appreciate being made to wrestle with it a bit. Its something that’s easy, in my field, to gloss over. That phenomenon, repeating the move of “departing” from some problem (incommensurability was a popular one for a while), is common in rhetoric, so I’m comfortable with it. I dunno how it looks to other people. Seems like something anybody with a toe in philosophy will spend time doing.
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.
Posted on May 7, 2012, in Humanism, ideology, Interviews, Philosophy and Politics, Science and tagged argumentation theory, evaluating science, Latour, new atheism, politics, Sam Harris, Science, Skeptic's Movement, sociology of science. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.