Saturday, February 17, 2007

More on Steve Fuller and "Social Epistemology"

SOURCE: Cornell IDEA Club

AUTHOR: Allen MacNeill

The debate begun in my previous post continues...

A poster to the Cornell IDEA Club listserve wrote:

"Fuller '... deserves to have his ideas discussed instead of lambasted.'"

Okay, here's something to discuss (a direct quote from Fuller):

"In this respect, 'our' side pulled its punches in the Science Wars when it refused to come out and say that the scientific establishment may not be the final word on what science is, let alone what it ought to be." [emphasis mine]

In that one sentence alone is encapsulated nearly everything that most practicing scientists find so deeply objectionable about Steve Fuller and his ilk. Let's take it apart:

"'our' side"

What precisely does Fuller mean by this? "Our side" in what way? "Our side" in the evolution/ID debate? The natural science/social science debate? The science/sociology debate? The "culture wars" that Phillip Johnson says ID is part of? What does it mean to say you're on a "side"?

When I debate with other scientists about scientific subjects, those debates can be pretty heated, but generally we're all on the same "side": the "side" of empirical verification/falsification of explanations of natural phenomena. In other words, we're all on the "science side," the side that does what it does based on the premise that such explanations should be grounded in observation of nature and the investigation of natural causes for natural phenomena.

I don't think that's what Fuller means by "our side." Sociologists in general, and "social epistemologists" in particular have as a basic starting assumption that all explanations of all phenomena (natural or otherwise) are ultimately socially constructed.

Now, I have no problem with that idea per se, as I believe as well that such explanations are indeed socially constructed. What I and other scientists have a problem with is the seemingly inevitable logical extension of that idea which most sociologists (and I would put Fuller in this camp) seem prone to: that nature itself is therefore "socially constructed." That's what "social epistemology" means, isn't it? That what we know about reality (i.e. epistemology) is socially constructed, and that therefore we can't actually know anything about nature at all outside of our social construction of it.

But this is precisely what science was and is supposed to be about: the discovery and understanding of what nature is, independent of our opinions and "social constructions." That's why statistical analysis was developed, to remove as much as possible our subjective/socially constrained interpretation of what our observations mean vis-a-vis our explanations about how nature works. That's why we have "double-blind" experimental protocols, and why we argue so vehemently over the validity of data and what it means for theories: because, in the end, all scientists agree that this is the best we can do at understanding how nature works.

But Fuller and his cohorts do not agree; they think that real scientific objectivity (and hence the entire scientific enterprise) is impossible, and that since all scientific explanations are "socially constructed," it all comes down to "sides" and "debates" and, most of all, WINNING. It call comes down to politics, in other words.

"Science Wars"

Here it is in a nutshell. Wars between whom, precisely? Between scientists, who believe that they really are able to say something about the nature of nature, and non-scientists, who believe that it's all really about political power and "hegemony" and "patriarchy" and winning. What happens when you fight a "war", including a "culture war"? Somebody WINS.

"the scientific establishment"

More tired 1970s radical political rhetoric, all dressed up in "scienciness" (like "truthiness" only more "scientific") to impress the gullible and gratify the "politically correct". Yes, I'd be the first to admit that there are "science establishments" - I live and work in one of them. But that's not what Fuller is talking about here. He's talking about the capital E Establishment: the "bad guys" on the other "side", the scientists who believe that they are describing physical reality, when what they are really doing is "oppressing" the poor and downtrodden of the world, the victims of "patriarchy" and "political hegemony" and their advocates, the "social epistemologists", who tell them that there is no objective reality outside of social discourse, and debates are all about WINNING and not about refining our understanding about how nature works.

His mention of the Sokal affair is also telling in this respect. The Sokal affair decisively exposed the intellectual bankruptcy at the heart of sociology and "social epistemology" - the belief that everything is socially constructed. Not just our understanding of reality, but reality itself.

"the final word on what science is"

Hmm, well, what does this tell us about Fuller et al? Who should have the "final word" about anything? The people doing it, or the people criticizing it? Who is the real subject - the monster or the critics (as Tolkein so eloquently put it)? True, scientists sometimes don't completely understand why they do things the way they do (i.e. some of them follow instructions, like an apprentice emulates a master), but this does not mean that scientists don't really understand why we do what we do and need somebody like Fuller to tell us.

Why not? Because social "scientists" like Fuller (and like ID "theorists") don't do natural science. They "interpret" or "criticize" or "analyze" what natural scientists do, but they don't do what natural scientists do. If they did, Alan Sokal's trick would not have worked, but instead it sucked them all in, so deep that some of them still don't realize how completely their intellectual bankruptcy was exposed by the "Sokal affair."

"let alone what it ought to be"

And there it is, right there in plain English. The people who DO science are probably the last people who should have anything to say about how science ought to be practised, right? Because, of course, we're all "blinded by science" and don't understand that it isn't about objective analysis of nature, it's about "social construction of reality" which ultimately is about politics (from the Greek polis, for "people"), which is about WINNING.

So, yes, I find it fascinating that ID advocates, the vast majority of whom are deeply committed Christians, can find common cause with Fuller and other "social epistemologists." Christian belief, as I understand it, is ultimately based on unshakable faith in the truth of the Word: the logos of the gospel of John. But, to somebody like Fuller, the Word is just another form of "social discourse", just part of a political struggle of which the ultimate point is WINNING. Why does Phillip Johnson call what he's doing part of a "culture war?" Why does William Dembski and Robert Crowther and Stephen Meyer and Jonathan Witt and Benjamin Wiker (but, significantly, not Michael Behe nor Gullielmo Gonzales, both natural scientists) agree with Johnson? Because that's what they're doing, they're fighting a war, and as I said in my last post, wars aren't about truth, they're about WINNING. Truth be damned, so long as your side WINS. "Lying for Jesus" is justified, and no amount of distortion of experimental results or character assassination or egregiously twisted and vicious propaganda is too much, so long as your side WINS.

Isn't the quotation from Fuller that stands at the top of this post an indication that he sees what he and other "social epistemologists" do is ultimately all about winning? Seems like it to me...


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At 2/17/2007 12:58:00 PM, Blogger Macht said...

"That's what "social epistemology" means, isn't it? That what we know about reality (i.e. epistemology) is socially constructed, and that therefore we can't actually know anything about nature at all outside of our social construction of it."

As far as I can tell, no that isn't what it means. See here, for example. Perhaps that's what Fuller means by it, but I have yet to see him make that claim. Social epistemologists seek to understand the social aspects of knowledge and it doesn't follow that "we can't actually know anything about nature at all outside of our social construction of it." Some may believe that, of course. If you want to say that Fuller holds that position, you should probably quote him or something.

As far as the quote goes, I think it is pretty clear that he is talking about the two sides of the "Science Wars" (given the rest of the paragraph it came from) and not talking about ID or the "culture wars" or anything else.

And I think you are being a bit uncharitable in your reading of Fuller. "Science Wars" is of course the name of the Social Text issue that Sokal's paper appeared in (and which Fuller also had a paper in) but also the name of the intellectual debate that followed. The charitable reading of Fuller would be that he is using "Science Wars" as short hand for that entire debate and "our side" as shorthand for position the folks in the "humanities" departments were taking. For you to read into that, that Fuller is all about "winning" will require a lot more evidence than the weak speculation that you provide here. There very clearly were to "sides" to that debate and perhaps some people in that debate were all about "winning" but you give us absolutely no reason to think Fuller is one of them.

At 2/19/2007 02:35:00 AM, Blogger SPARC said...

Nice to see you blogging again. Did you finally give up commenting at UD?

At 2/21/2007 10:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a post on this topic over at The Design Paradigm, but a comment I made several days ago has not shown up yet.

At 2/23/2007 07:23:00 AM, Blogger pedigreen said...

hello Mr. MacNeill,
I´m in the process of studying your site! I am an artist working, in a different way of course, on the same subject: evolution! As I am aware of the man-made climate catastrophe that is (hopefully later, than sooner) to come upon us, I ask myself, what is it that I can do? My idea is to help bring about a change in the thinking of mankind. What I want is for an evolutionary jump to happen.
As you are an expert on this field, maybe you have some suggestions for me and my work? is my blog.

very many greetings,


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