Category Archives: Science

Some thoughts on Marriage:

I have been toying with sociological data on marriage shift in the larger society, and here are some trends. The first trend is that college educated people are increasingly more likely than the uneducated to get married, according to a Pew Study. :

Throughout the 20th century, college-educated adults in the United States had been less likely than their less-educated counterparts to be married by
age 30. In 1990, for example, 75% of all 30-yearolds who did not have a college degree were married or had been married, compared with just 69% of those with a college degree.As those numbers attest, marriage rates among adults in their 20s have declined sharply since 1990 for both the college-educated and those without a college degree. But the decline has been much steeper for young adults without a college education. Young adults who do not have a college degree are delaying marriage to such an extent that the median age at first marriage in 2008 was, for the first time ever, the same for the college-educated and those who were not
college-educated: 28. As recently as 2000, there had been a two-year gap, with the typical college-educated adult marrying for the first time at 28 and the typical adult lacking a college degree marrying for the first time at Among the possible explanations for this shift are the declining economic fortunes of young men without a college degree and their increasing tendency to cohabit with a partner rather than marry. From 1990 to 2008, the inflation-adjusted median annual earnings of college-educated men ages 25 to 34 rose by 5% (to $55,000 in 2008 from $52,300 in 1990), while the median annual earnings of those with only a high school diploma declined by 12% (to $32,000 in 2008 from $36,300 in 1990).

But it was moderated by this bit of information:

A major finding from the above analysis is that college appears to deter marriage for men and women from the least advantaged social backgrounds. For least advantaged individuals college attendance lessened men’s and women’s odds of marriage by 38 percent and 22 percent, respectively. For individuals enjoying status in the highest stratum college attendance increased their marriage chances by 31 percent for men and women by 8 percent.

Another important finding is the pattern of increasing marriage homogamy with increasing social advantage and consistent with a mismatch hypothesis, the authors found the more disadvantaged college attendees were less likely to be matched on education with their spouse.

So marriage is increasingly becoming a classed commodity. This leads me to another thought, the way we view the present in light of the immediate (but not very distant) past, and the distant past in light of the immediate past and the present. We think, for example, the nuclear family, which its love marriage and male provider, was an American norm prior to the 1960s, but was unique to the 1950s as a social creation. On in which female property was beginning to be liberalized and liberated from assumed ownership from men, but was predicated on stronger sexual differentiation than was held prior by most people. There are a lot of factors into this, and it is too easy to play reduce it to just one idea (liberalization of divorce, predominance of love marriage, the economic need for nuclear families for increased mobility within the US, etc), but there is some evidence that married people have tended to be less social than single people and less involved in the larger community. There is also evidence, however, that marriage bonds are pretty much the only social networks that are really strong by the time most people reach their 40s.

This is all very modern. I was reading Philip Larkin’s Ardunel Tomb and then doing research on the family of the tomb it describes. The love match Larkin is talking about was a political second marriage, the countess had probably never met the Earl of Ardunal when he was engaged to her, and his first wife had died in child birth. Larkin though makes the assumption that he didn’t love her, and it that was a show but that seems problematic too. There is evidence to the contrary in the posture, rare among married aristocracy, of the tomb.

The problem is that our ideas of love are based off of love marriage, which seems to privilege the dopamine phases of human sexual interaction, which fade off in most people after a few years. However, sexual bonding between humans does lead, in most cultures, to oxytocin bonds, which may be why arranged marriages have such high satisfaction rates (but then again, it may also be because other options just aren’t common). The privileging of our notions of love to the media portraits and romantic notions which are all based on dopamine reactions, and culturally primed ones at that.

What people say about history also seems to apply to human nature, we rhyme with our ancestors as much as merely replicate them. We are objects of and subjects to history, but we also produce it to paraphrase Marx and Hegel.

The idea that human nature is eternal and unchanging privileges the present, but the idea that we are radically and unknowably “other” to the humans to the past is so discontinuous with my experience of the natural world that it leads me to see the “Chomsky” and “Foucault” positions (Chomsky, human beings are innately what they are and Foucault, human beings are completely historical contingent) as both being sort of a false dichotomy. We are social by our “nature,” and thus primed by social cues, but these cue change us. They change mating habits, change environmental reactions, and even can cause stress hormone releases with change specific manifestations of genes. We are different from our ancestors, but in very consistent ways.

So in a way, we see that marriage has always been about the production of “society” which is to say, it is human relations that reproduce human relations: not just in the form of children. So it should be no surprise how much economic changes affect it, and our ideas about love, which in turn, affects economics. One can see the pull and push here.

Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: A Dialogue with Jamie McAfee, part 3

This is the third  part of an interview series. I strongly suggest you read the first part and second part prior to this.

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.

“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?”

Well, I don’t think anybody has “invalidated Lacan.” I just meant that some of the trendy science studies that was trotted out during the science wars is stuff that rhetoricians don’t read very much. I’ve never seen anybody reference heavily Lacanian science studies article in rhetoric. I’ve never seen Irigaray cited in a rhetoric article of any kind, for example. Laclau is something that I’m interested in. It’s not actually very popular, although not unheard of, in rhetoric. That was just sort of an aside about the science wars stuff. Some of the very technical Lacan business, about math for example, that’s been pored over isn’t really stuff that defines science studies as I know it. So I’m not sure there’s an issue there, unless you think Lacan should be discussed in science studies for some reason that I’m not catching

You’re making an excellent point here by the way about the appropriation of bits of theory out of context. Within rhetoric (and withing literary criticism before I switched over for my PhD program), it was something I tried to deal with to the extend that I could with the resources I had at the time. The magpie approach to theory that people in English departments do can be really problematic. There’s a limit to how deeply we need to get into the weeds as we are rhetoricians and not philosophers, but we need to go deeper than we often do.

“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 . . .It would be mutual in a sense because critical theory does build on rhetoric but doesn’t address it as such and rhetoric seems to using the concepts and boundaries of critical theory while bracketing out the epistemology and political economy that under-girds them. I suppose this is the hostility that only related fields could have to one and other. “

I’d like you explain this more, as I’m interested. There’s plenty of complaint about aspects of leftist theory in some corners of rhetoric. One of the few rhetoricians I know who calls himself a Marxist, not just as a scholar, but as a person, is sometimes pretty brutal about the failures of Marxists theorists. I’m somebody in rhetoric who is particularly interested in some leftist theory, and I fell the friction as well, and not just as a scholar.

I don’t quite follow what your take is, but I’d like to hear more about your take on this divide, as I find it a little puzzling.

S.:  I think you’re losing me too:  I am saying that critiquing something without defining it as a set of social practices but even as a set of social practices that are recongizable as such you have to have a normative definition.   Since science itself lacks a hegemonic
singular epistemological justification at the moment “accepting science’s norms” seems hopelessly confused.   The language about colonization and colonization of other discourses implies meta-demarcations between them and that requires a coherent
epistemology, which are not spelling out for methodological reasons. The rhetoric of rhetoric seems incompatible here with the bracketing.This tension is always there.   I  don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.

This is the crucial frustration is that langauge employed, as you acknowledge, actually assumes a framework but its a framework that cannot be addressed within rhetoric.  That’s fine in a way: that’s true of say physics too (which assumes methodological naturalism and a universal metaphysics that is coherent with mathematics in a consistent way.)  Philosophy itself has such limitations and many checks, but the order of checks seem different.   But it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.

Now put myself in rhetorical mode for a second, I can totally see how frustrating this is for the rhetorician who thinking, “Man, I am just pointing problematic assumptions that is betrayed by the language of the community” and in a way the critical theorist would do that without thinking as consistently on language as rhetoricians do.  Yet I would say that this frustrates the relationship between critical theory and rhetoric/literary theory.  It seems like there are bracketing out of the very epistemological and political economic categories that created the concepts’  specificity. For example, “Hegemony” without some notion of class conflict seems odd to me.   It seems like there has been a move to use that rubric, but to disconnect it from real social conflicts between groups of people over various forms of valuation.  So when we talk about “hegemony” in science, Iwant to go for whom as I don’t see scientists are a class or even a coherent enough community, but mainly as  a set of practices with a specific aim and specific limitations.  The definition I am working with though see to agree with yours until the last instances of “specific limitations” while merely descriptive approach can’t really set.

Here’s what I do like about your posture though: It actually avoids the “linguistic turn” in philosophy in a way by pointing out that this really is the domain of rhetoric and cannot deal with truth.  Badiou would call this an acknowledgement of anti-philosophy, and he wouldn’t consider it an insult.   I actually think this is important admission. It just seems that there are some many assumptions in the language that we trip up.   It is infuriating though to see Marxist theory being divorced from political economy in a way that makes it amendable to ignoring productive and structural elements of  class, and it seems   like methodologically rhetoricians can’t address that and maybe that this can lead to the sort of left-liberal tendency one sees in popular
uses of rhetoric. You can see how this would completely frustrate Marxists and anarchists who think that material conditions would have to be changed for serious  identity change to happen.  It would seem to be losing “our” (if anyone can have a claim to discourse) weapon in a way that doesn’t fight the battle “we” “designed” it for, no?

Anyway, we need to refocus on our common concern: Why do you think the New Atheist movement and the Skeptic’s movement has been increasingly co-terminus over time?

J.M.:  Ah. I gotcha. This is an interesting digression, but it’s not what we set out to talk about, so I’ll be quick.

“Since science itself lacks a hegemonic singular epistemological justification at the moment ‘accepting science’s norms’ seems hopelessly confused. . . but it seems like one cannot just assume that there are different discourse communities that are coherent in their social practices when there isn’t always consensus (or even awareness of conflict) within the field.”

Yes. We tend to study controversies in science or think about agency in terms of change. I’m not sure why you’d think that I think that “science” or even a discipline is monolithic. I think this gets at where we might be talking past each other. I didn’t mean to suggest that “science” had “a” set of norms necessarily. I think you have to talk about science as locally and specifically as you can.  I’d respond by saying that if science doesn’t have a single epistemological justification, I’m not sure how it’s a problem to think about it in social terms, particularly in terms of thinking about how people argue. Our starting point is “science is messy, let’s not accept the coherent, neat ways people talk about it and look at what people do instead.”

“It don’t think its cagey, I think there is a ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language being employed here that assumes a philosophical framework without at once bracketing it out.” Yeah. I’m glossing stuff. The alternative way to look at this is to say that rhetoric purposefully blackboxes certain philosophical baggage.

I’m borrowing a technological metaphor here. A machine is a blackbox, and when it works, you don’t open the box. I scan my page in the copying machine and copies come out. It the machine isn’t working right, I open it and see where the paper is stuck. There are many, many moments in rhetoric when people open the box, but in order to “do rhetoric,” you are going to have to close it. The same it true of any intellectual activity. I want to bracket things that you don’t.

The specific complaint you make here is not a new to me though, and I’ve indirectly referenced the problem during the conversation. Rhetorical Hermenuitics, which is an anthology about Dillip Goankar’s essay about rhetoric of science is all about this issue. There are many efforts in there to deal directly with what you’re saying. I won’t claim it’s been solved, but it’s not new territory. The “ideological apparatus at work in rhetorical language” is what Goandar is worried about.  (Again, you are very much on the ball if you are making that complaint.)

You’re point about hegemony is astute, and I like it. Hegemony is, to be clear, my imposition. Talking about modern culture as a hegemony is not a widespread thing in rhetoric. It’s something that I’m working out, and I agree with you about the class thing. There is a response to that in Laclau and Mouffe, but I’m not really getting that into the discussion yet. I’m revealing thinking in progress there. I agree with your critique. I think using hegemony as I am trying to us it is not wrongheaded, but I’m happy to admit I haven’t worked it out. Your comment is a good one, and helpful.

The worry about what happens when we use Marxist theory is a good one, and I’ve complained quite a bit about it (in graduate school, not here).  There is a crisis communication article I know that describes Nike as a subaltern, so I feel your pain. I’m trying to be a lot more contentious than some rhetoricians about using leftist theory, but you are right that our differences in what to explore and what to blackbox, and the anti-philosophical nature of rhetoric is going to make some tension. (I think that antiphilosohpical stance IS the goal, by the way. I saw a presentation from the little Latour cadre at a conference that explicated Latour’s version of anti-philosopihcal. He is against “critique,” and is very emphatic about looking at “surfaces.”)

But enough of that. I think I see our differences better. I appreciate your perspective quite a bit, and this was useful for me. I hope it was, at least, entertaining for you.

Back to our charge. . . . there was an older and smaller group of public skeptics out there, and I think the Atheist thing offered a more ideologically driven position that has created the bigger and more political Skeptic movement.

There has been, for example, a Skeptic society and a Randi orginazation for a long time, and folks like that used to concern themselves with “critical thinking about popular culture” and debunking hokum. Randi going after faith healers, for example. The first Shermer book I read was all about cults, groupthink, and superstition, not about the more political stuff he’s been into in recent years. (Interestingly enough, he talks about having been an Evangelical Christian and then an Objectivist. Micheal Shermer is an interesting guy.)

New Atheism, I think, allowed skepticism to become a movement. It wasn’t just explaining away fringy parlor trick stuff or sensational pop culture hokum or aliens, but a serious complaint about the power that religion has in society. I can’t imagine a Skeptic movement as big as what we’ve got without new atheism. Like, there would there be a widespread movement to complain about fortune tellers? The two aren’t exactly inseparable, but from where I’m sitting, they are damn near close.

I think the materialist point of view and the concern about the influence of religion predate New Atheism, but that stuff wasn’t articulated into something resembling politics before New Atheism got rolling.

Here’s an interesting exercize. Go to The “List of Episodes” page on wikipedia for Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit.” The show starts off, in 2003, firmly in the tradition of James Randi, with episodes about psychics and Near Death Experience. By 2006, you’ve got very serious episodes about the Death Penalty and the religious influence on the Boy Scouts. (That is not an orderly progression, as they did some political topics early on, and they kept doing silly hokum stuff until the end of the show.) If we put them in the context of New Atheism in popular culture, in 2006, the Blasphemy Challenge was going strong. The tipping point had been reached by then, I think. There were probably other reasons for for the changes in that show (like running through all of the usual targets for debunking. . . I don’t think they ever did a holocaust denier show though, or P and T getting more self important or self indulgent as the show went along), but I do think there was in increasingly political point of view that Bullshit that became felt along with the rise of New Atheism. Like, these guys who were in the tradition of magic performers to debunk things (which came from Houdini, although he wasn’t a magician) ended up being political commentators. Penn has made appearances on Fox news, and he’s become a popular online personality who talks about politics, ethics and religion. I think that without new athiesm, he’d have remained a magician.

S.:  It found it interesting that some many in the New Atheist movement were actually attracted and assumed to be true some really questionable (by anyone’s standards) science like Evolutionary Psychology and memetics. This is not entirely true for the skeptic’s movement in which memetic and evo-psyche are actually high points for debate and have many within the movement considering them either proto-science or even psuedo-science, but with the New Atheist movement it seemed like evolutionary psychology and memetics were used to push evolutionary biology into the social sciences and the humanities.  I have seen this in narratology where increasingly you see evolutionary psychology used to read literature.  I found this problematic because it seemed to stem from the same disrespect for any demarcation line of discplines in a way that was really scientistic. I also noticed increasingly after Shermer a movement to talk about markets as if they were memes or even evolutionary which is something
one had seen in Von Hayek and in, frankly, in social Darwinism. Now I do know biologists who pushed back on this:  evolution is not efficient and if that comparison is being done then some primary economic assumptions even by neo-liberals can’t be shared with evolution. Do you see this drift? It is interesting to me because I have seen real push back within the Skeptic’s movement itself on evolutionary psyche and I hear fewer and fewer people pushing memes around as a serious science, but now I see it more in the humanities.  What do you make of these tendencies?

J.M.: Yeah. That pushback is maybe a way to kinda untangle the New Atheism thing from the broader Skeptic thing. I seems to me that some of New Atheism’s roots in the sciences (what I mean is simply that some of those guys are professional scientists who became being public intellectuals) have lead to efforts to appropriate, really, science rhetoric as a way to talk about philosophy, religion, or politics. The bizarre hubris of some of those guys, and the really cavalier way they make huge claims, seems to come from confidently using the wrong tools for the jobs they are trying to do. (Here’s my physics hammer that I’m going to unscrew this theology screw . . . ., and then Sam’s gonna come out with his neurology broom to replace the morality light bulbs.)

I’d have to do a lot more study and deeper reading to really make the case, but some of the more problematic scientism that I see in Skepticism seems to be coming from there. I haven’t gotten down in the weeds with that stuff in a while.

As for people in the humanities messing around with claims about  evolution. . . . ug. I haven’t read that stuff, but I’ve heard of it. It seems like the latest version of  something like early psychoanalytic criticism or archetype-oriented criticism or structuralism that some other schools that maybe tried to do to uncover some underlying “truth” in literature. I’m not familiar with the stuff you’re talking about (except for having had previous conversations with you about it), so I’m not sure what it looks like, but that move doesn’t seem that novel. Silly, but not unprcidented. (These are outside of my areas of expertise.  My interests back when I was a literature guy were really different. I haven’t read Nothrop Frye in years, and was never an expert.)

It seems like this speaks to some authority (we’ll not call it “hegemony,” but it’s some legitimacy granting sparkle dust that we seen to believe in) that science has. Like, if we can enroll ourselves in the physical, even if it’s some indirect semiotic structural way, we’re getting at an underlying reality. I know this problem a little better, oddly enough, in some social sciences and in medicine than in the humanities. There was a fallout recently in Anthropology between the social people and the “sciency” people (I don’t know what to call them).  The DSM is now supposed to be “evolutionary,” and whenever they work on a new edition, there is an outcry from therapists and researchers who see their work as being social. Or the sometimes whacky ontology of medicine. (I think by the way, that this psychical/social division is a really screwed up way to categorize things, but that’s where the fault lines of argument are. I’d say that those fault lines are problems for talking about how people do things.)

Not a “rhetorical” question: while there is pushback from skeptic people against some of the abuse of scientific rhetoric that some of the New Atheists have committed, are there people arguing for the validity of knowledge that makes no effort to do the sparkle dust thing? That, for me, would be the move that would align skepticism more in line with the arguments I’d want to make about legitimacy of practice. As was the reason for our discussion, I’ve dropped out of the skeptic thing except for reading about the occasional flashpoint, so I don’t know exactly what the conversations are right now.

S.:  I find the humanities aping the sciences problematic, and it always seems to be done with a prior paradigm is just lingering too long. In this case, I think this comes from a push back to dominant historicism. Still what bothers me is that this doesn’t seem to be the same kind of theoretical enterprise, the claim is that we are making literary studies scientific by using the sciences, not scientific by adopting their methodology. That seems to indicate that the humanities have already fell into some of this cache. Now I come with a harder sense of the demarcation line, but I see this move as invalidating in two fronts: One it weakens to humanities separate project and two it weakens clear demarcations.  To use your rhetoric, it’s self-colonization.

Do you see this as a problem?

J.M:  Probably so.

One of “our” (rhetoric’s) answers for identity/demarcation stuff is an insistence on some idea of a classical heritage, which tends to mean that we define problems according to our vocabulary. So, like, when I read Collins and Evans, for example, I want to use it to figure it out how to discuss ethos or agency. Of course, this gets us back to the Goankar problem, since that vocabulary comes with ideology. (It’s very “thin” theory, though, that can be built upon in different ways.) Actually, some of the liberal-rhetorical vs. cultural theory tension might come from that. I think the dialogue between those two ways of thinking about relationships between discourse and material culture is harder than, I think, many rhetoricians let on. (Of course, lost of folks aren’t interested in that.) And, I think, that common exigency is the reason those ways of thinking are important, and why I think they should be in dialogue. (Although, again, it’s a bear though. We’ve, I think, found differences though this conversation that I’m not sure rhetoric has thought about very much. At least not in the professional communication areas where I am.)

Arguing for the strength of the humanities (or social science that doesn’t do the magic phsycialist sparkles) as a way to know things (as opposed to it being a pedagogical or aesthetic tradition or something) without appropriating problematically or doing some other odd thing is, frankly, really tough. Not just for “cultural” or institutional reasons, but because it can be tough to argue for the legitimacy of recursive social ways of knowing that don’t end up as some kind of “linguistic turn” defense. I think the kind of literary studies you’re describing (which, again, I don’t know much about) is a major misstep in trying to think about this problem.

S.:  Anything that you would like to say in closing?

J.M.: One tricky thing about this discussion that we didn’t explicitly talk about is the difficulty in defining a “Skeptic movement.” Is is the active online communities who participate, the public intellectuals, the activists, or something else? My having “dropped out” a few years back makes me less in touch with the conversations going on at the moment, but I think I’d be a little fuzzy on that even if I were reading the blogs every day and going to events. I’m glad you pointed out that its not a monolithic perspective. One issue that we didn’t get into is that we might talk about it as a kind of identity politics, or at least, there’s some identity politics involved. That I don’t identify with.

I think many of the issues that have come up in this discussion, both in terms of talking about lenses through which we can discuss science, and in terms of the ways that science discouse is used, might be understood in terms of the constraints/affordance theme that I recognize in my rhetoric. Of course, by focusing on that theme I’m giving up other possibilities. And with the shadow of the meta creeping up again, I’ll call it a day.

Thanks for the invitation, and I really appreciate your toughness. For me, the most valuable part of this has been seeing your more political take on the Goankar problem. You’ve cogently elaborated problems in trying to think across the rhetoric/Marxian theory gap.

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.

 S.:  I am going to go back to the epistemology question:  In this way the sociologist of science you are citing and Sam Harris sound alike, honestly.   “The meta-ethics is too boring, let’s skip it move” Sam Harris has done on morality since he started talking about objective morality, which is funny given that Harris is the only one of the new atheists outside of Dan Dennett to have any formal training in philosophy is similar to a lot of the dismissal I am seeing you do in epistemology.    I must call you out on it because it seems like are
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.

J.M.:  First of all ” Ironically, the last bit would be an anti-scientific move itself” is something I agree with a lot. I think I’ve been pretty consistent in trying, even in cases where I disagree with science, to respect that people “do science” for good reason, and I hope it’s implicit that I think science is uniquely capable of certain kinds of decision making and exploration. I hope it goes without saying that I think that science should inform philosophy, politics, etc.also  What I’m against using scientific rhetoric (for the lack of a better phrase) irresponsibly, and I’m against the hubris of scientism, which is, as you say, really at odds with science itself.

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.

S.:  There is so much philosophical assumptions that I find that I am turning this into a interrogation of rhetorical claim and I do not mean do but it seems to stem from sociological categories that have philosophic roots and baggage that cannot be entirely bracketed out.   Hegemony in the Gramscian sense seems only vaguely related to sense you are using because an ideology is much more than just an illusory belief or world view, it is a fetish or representation of social relationships that has material effects.

This leads me to another philosophical question:  are you aware of the Marxist critique of Latour?
J.M.:  Anyway, an anti-scientism skeptic movement would be rooted in a skeptic’s movement that attached itself to different parts of the “Enlightenment” tradition that Latour basically denies has a practice.  I will say I have always found Latour hyper-problematic here: there are sharp demarcations in social organization after 17th century, so one has to have a fairly strange notion of practice to embrace “pre-modernity” as a kind counter to the way people actually operate. I think it is just clear, in a way that one sees in a thinker like
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?

J.M.:  I don’t know that critique, but I’m either misunderstanding it, or it’s a misreading. He’s emphatic that he is not “pre-modern” or “a-Modern.” (He coins “non-Modern.”) What he denies is that the justification that the enlightenment has of itself is accurate. He doesn’t deny that Modernism is a practice. He gets there with somewhat playful writing, so he’s prone to saying things like “Modernism never happened,”  just as he’s also prone to make fun of philosophers (Foucault, for example) even as he’s obviously drawing influence from them. He goes on at some length about not rejecting Modernism, and he makes fun of the idea that being pre-Modern is possible.

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 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.”

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.

You assert that “Hegemony in the Gramscian sense seems only vaguely related to sense you are using because an ideology is much more than just an illusory belief or world view, it is a fetish or representation of social relationships that has material effects.”  Good call pointing out my sloppiness there. I was thinking (as always. . hey, I’m planning a dissertation, so I’m not gonna keep talking about some of the same stuff for at least another year) about Laclau and Mouffe, but I was talking sloppy. Hegemony being the fractured terrain of acceptable debate about reality. It’s not monolithic, but shifting around discourses where people argue about things. Social relationships come from interaction with these discourses. “Articulation theory” is sometimes the phrase people use for their version of hegemony because you stick together incommensurable stuff and you define yourself in relation to society when you do so. The chat about “movements” included in my last contribution to this conversation is informed by L and M as well. I dunno if you can reconcile this with the way I expressed myself earlier, that this is what I was thinking about.

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.

S.:  This may be a misreading of Latour, but it is a common misreading by both his enemies and his friends.   Although it is fair to point that out to me, I still find the problem of bracketing to be interesting because the nomenclature one must use does not respect the bracketing methodologically required.    But this gets to how much messy philosophy there is underneath all these issues.

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?

 J.M.:  t is a very common and very understandable misreading, but unless I’m missing something, it’s a misreading. Latour is a somewhat literary writer, and he likes to come up with paradoxical ways to say things. Of course, I’m reading translation, so the issue of the authorship of his “style” is messy. (Again, I’m leaving open the possibility that folks are sometimes disagreeing with Latour about the implications of his work. The objections to him that people have in my field are different objections, so I’m not that familiar with the complaints you are relating. Certainly, they don’t match up very well with how I read Latour, even if you seem to be in the ballpark.)

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.

TO be continued.  Jamie and I hash it out on epistemology for a while.  We continue to debate bracketing, and then we remember we were talking about the “Skeptic’s Movement.”

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. 

I have interviewed Jamie on populism and argued with him about liberalism in practice.  This is is the first part of several sections of this interview which have been broken down for length. 

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.”

S.:  The rhetorical definition as you laid 0ut is circular and can be reduced something like “science is what scientists do” which is logically tautological in the same way the  economic definition of rationality is.  I will be frank, I find this to be a logical cop out.   So while it may be true that there are always ways to deconstruct the demarcation line, it does not logically follow that there is no demarcation line or lines.  This is especially a problem when you have claimed that other means of inquiry are valid. Philosophically that’s incoherent.

I admit that this is not the position that rhetorical studies which is concerned with social legitimacy as a matter of method, but to say “instead of” demarcation, it looks like a legitimacy grab for rhetoricians to claim that demarcations of process and method don’t matter and social legitimacy does.     That is, by the way, a relativistic claim that seems to assume that truth of a discourse isn’t relevant outside of social practices.  I don’t think you mean that or most in the rhetoric of a science mean that but it was it looks like to those schooled in analytic philosophy.   So you may want to elaborate more.
I think the question of social legitimacy is important, but that it is an entirely separate question from demarcation line(s).
I think the questions raised by Collins though is interesting.   I recently read a report on types of expertise which indicated that layman, specialists, an hobbyist have different kinds of knowledge.  The intuitive reasoning of a understanding being only valid in a structural since to hobbyist and scientist who shared almost a subconscious ability to understand the projects correctly, which lay people who had not invested significant time in study, but the intuitive and structural knowledge between hobbyists and scientists was fundamentally different but no less correct.   What do you make of this study in relevance to the rhetorical frameworks you mention?
J.M.:  Well stated objection, but I’m not sure we are understanding each other, or at least, not completely. You’re saying a couple of things about my position that I don’t think.I think you might still think I’m coping out. I might concede that I’m punting, but I’m punting contentiously.I DO, actually, think that the answer is “science is what scientists do,” but I think it’s a more thoughtful move than you are giving me credit for. It might be that I’m saying, essentially, that I don’t think it’s appropriate for ME to have an answer for the demarcation problem, but I can talk a bit about demarcation. I’ll make four points to clarify what I mean, then I’ll talk about a major problem with my answer that I would acknowledge that you imply but didn’t state explicitly. I’m building up to answering the question you asked, sine this is all related stuff.1. A part of what scientist “do” is what we call “boundary policing” (I dunno if other people call it that- it’s what it sounds like), and they have methods for doing that. Here’s where we are missing each other: ” for rhetoricians to claim that demarcations of process and method don’t matter and social legitimacy does . . .” That would be a ludicrous thing to say. I understand how it sounds like I mean something like that, but I absolutely don’t. That’s a silly position.

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.

To be continued.  There will be arguments about demarcation lines, the meaning of discourse, and the whether or not rhetorical doesn’t bracket out the very categories it bases many of its criticism on.  Fun if highly technical.  

On various false dialectical oppositions

There is a ideological binary opposition presented in much of the popular media for the last few decades about nature and nurture being opposed: it works itself up into the academy too with sometimes strong genetic determinist arguments–generally from scientifically questionable speculations by evolutionary psychologists–and then (admittedly rather rare) arguments from the humanities that everything is sociologically constructed (generally pulling from either Foucaultian influenced post-structuralism or structuralists visions of ideological apparatuses). Really, though, this dialectical opposition seems rooted in the early Enlightenment when both biological determinism and Cartesian special-pleading for the self set out two different visions of the human future.

I, however, increasingly doubt this move: The structural elements that wanted do deal only with the synchronic and not diachronic elements was a methodological move that gets reified into a stance that views ideas as either without a history or having a history, but biology is a historical science. It describes the development of organic life over time through processes that we have not entirely understood but have several mechanistic grasps of. This was why I always found the idea of nature problematic: nature implies as non-human totality, which seems to be special-pleading for the human species, or an undifferentiated totality, which is cognitively empty.

This has led to in re-reading Althusser, which I still find as problematic as I ever did as his hermeneutic for interpreting Marx implies that Marx either didn’t mean or didn’t understand his “true” methodology because even late works have “lingering” Hegelian idealism. This led me to take Althusser’s statement that ideology is not “ideal” but physical as manifested in the way we live and pair it, admittedly even to my mind, dangerously, with some ideas I have seen about the acceleration of human evolution. What I am about to articulate takes care of my view that Althusser’s synchronic understanding of historical materialism actually has the structure of the “means of productive forces” in ideology emerge almost without a history before there was an ideology there.

Even when I was in anthropology classes in the late 1990s, I remember being told that it was the consensus view that human evolution stopped with agriculture removing “natural” pressures from the evolutionary ecology of humans. I remember thinking though: How come Europeans developed lactose tolerance if this were true? Then I read Gregory Cochran’s The 10,000 Explosion, which is controversial and has some severe limitations even in my lay mind, but does talk about how social pressures would have genetically selective impulses and this could show up from disease immunities and, more controversially, relationships to authority and impulse control. Cochran admits that there are real limitations here and that there isn’t enough anthropological fieldwork paired with genetic testing to prove or disprove, but sexual selection in early agricultural society was exactly more extreme than in hunter-gather society since there was far more restrictions put on the survival of children, and in certain extreme examples, chieftains sometimes out reproduce serfs 1000 to 1.

Now I don’t know if we can take it as far as Cochran does, but he get to a point: Ideological and social impulses, which emerge from social arrangements in resource production and distribution actually change us physically. Furthermore, there is evidence that culture exists in any social mammal and thus emerges from “natural” conditions. This is say that both the “essentialist” view and the “social construction” view would largely miss the point: there is no dialectical opposition between “nature” and “nurture” nor does genetic determinism limit all social arrangements, but they modify each other in a feedback loop. Both the rubric of “nurtural” stances (or sociology) and “natural” stance (biology, comparative genetics) describe two different ways that human societies develop and interact. The question of dominance or innateness may miss the point: furthermore, both seem to assume that culture somehow emerges as a modern human conception out of nothing, or solely out of the means of production in ways that make “evolution” not possible. This confuses morphological differences with other differences too easily. There would be little morphological difference in modern humans because our social technologies have enabled us to stabilize our environment, but a variety of pressures socially would emerge to have influence on sexual selection.

So not only is ideology physical in the way Althusser meant as manifested by what we do and not just what we “believe,” but ideological pressures factor into to sexual selection ‘naturally” and thus have real effects there as well. It’s not eugenics or anything so crude at play here but developments from “natural” social responses because unless one believes the structures of production and the structures of society emerge ex nihilo, the social interactions come out of our biological and ecological limitations.

The dialectic of “nature/nurture” isn’t a dialectic at all. It is a false binary. Naturally.

Enlightenment Contested: Scientific Skepticism

Despite my love of philosophy, my first love in philosophy was philosophy of science and as a child, I read Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer to show up the locals in science in my small middle Georgia town. My first love was biology and anthropology, and my first crush on a writer was the science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, and the scientist and science journalist, Stephen Jay Gould. One of the things you will notice is that while I will make critiques of scientific community’s publishing practices, of the sociology of research, on fields with have little historical, comparative, or experimental checks (such as Evolutionary Psychology): I do, however, think the chanting of many in the New Atheist and “Skeptic’s Community” about “reason” is vapid and more than a little unreasonable as what is meant by “reason:” moves from meaning “science” to “logic” to “commonsense” to “critical thinking” without realizing that these are not the same thing, and even individually

Despite my philosophical critiques, I actually still consider myself part of that moment. I listen to Skeptic podcasts, and while I avoid the new atheist, one of my favorite popular philosophers is Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking (Blog and Podcast). I was struck, however, listening to a recent episode of Rationally Speaking: the difference between intuitive and deliberation reason is fascinating as it indicates that a) most people actually don’t think deliberately rationally, and b) this is rational in a extreme way. This leads to a set of flukes: human beings do not have a base-line “system b” intuition about probability and advanced numbers.

If one wanted to talk about “dialectics of Enlightenment” (to borrow a phrase from Horkheimer and Adorno and use in in a completely different way), it is clear that the more you study the “reasoning brain,” the more complicated our picture of human logic becomes. Most logical skills are not innate, and the optimistic vision of the 17th century Enlightenment enables the science which makes us question “natural” reasoning states. No wonder why post-structuralists philosophers can appear so convincing when you understand them, the more you know about science and logic, the more you realize that people do not automatically think scientifically and logically even without “substitution” and other forms of cultural habit.

So the legacy of the Enlightenment, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Israel, is contested within itself. This, by the way, is why I am not “anti-modern” in a simple sense: I am a loyal opposition to modernity because I think “reason”–by which I mean logic and scientific rigor–actually undoes most of the optimism in the early parts of the Enlightenment and the violent meloncholia that Nietzsche calls nihilism can emerge if one is burned to bad by the dreams of a completely reasonable world. I, however, don’t think it is just philosophy that gets you there–either in analytic breakdown of modal logic or the speculative categories of modern European philosophy and critical theory.

Still understanding “reason” in a not naive way, and realizing the limitations of framing and limits of a particular sociology, science is one of the modern gifts that one should fight, tooth and nail, to preserve even when one is critiquing “scientism” (abuses of the scientific demarcation line) and bad practices, of which there are many, in the scientific community.


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