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Social sciences: The war on empirical fact and objectivity

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Some of us have a perhaps unhealthy fascination with just how bad the social sciences have become. We hope we can justify our amazement (and hilarity) over the easy hoaxes and all that on the grounds that real science also faces a war on math (“say goodbye to x and y”). Watching what happens to the previous victim may be instructive, and here’s one analysis worth considering:

Things are different now. I first got an inkling of this more than three decades ago. Sorting through some old papers, I found this quote from an unnamed British sociologist speaking at a talk in 1986: “Theories in science are not constrained in any way by empirical facts.” I noted that most of those listening agreed with him.

The quote is absurd and in the years that followed I noted how widespread this assault on the scientific method has become. A whole field devoted to discrediting science has sprung up under the banner of “Science Studies” which, needless to say, is now a recognized academic discipline with its own association and cluster of peer-reviewed journals. One such is Social Text, which published a brilliantly nonsensical piece ‘Transgressing the boundaries: Towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity‘ by physicist Alan Sokal. Sokal succeeded by using the right words, like “transgressive” and “hegemony,” and promoting the correct political views, like “science as gendered domination” and putting “objective” in quotes.

The anonymous sociologist’s claim that empirical facts are irrelevant does apply to much of social science. It raises an important question: if theories in the social sciences are not constrained by empirical facts, what are they constrained by? As I will try to show, the answer seems to be that theories in Race and Ethnic Studies (RES) sociology are mainly constrained by the political opinions prevailing in that branch of the field.

In RES sociology, it is simply assumed that the findings and reasoning of sociologists are determined by their ethnicity and position in society. Editors Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva in a book called White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology (2008) write: “Most White sociologists, reflecting their dominant position in the discipline, have complained that sociologists of color are ‘biased’ and thus do not take seriously their work or their criticisms. Conversely, many sociologists of color, reflecting their subordinate position in sociology, have doubted the research findings by white sociologists to explain the standing of people of color in America.” This passage is just one of many that either directly or indirectly denies the possibility of objectivity (which is perhaps why the authors don’t bother to present any research evidence in defense of their “identity epistemology”). We’re just supposed to accept it’s true without question, although, having said that, the concept of “truth” appears to be equally suspect. Indeed, in another place, Bonilla-Silva scorns the very idea, speaking of the “devil of ‘objectivity’” (note the scare quotes).

Without the possibility of objectivity, there is no science. Has sociology become, then, just political activism? To some extent, yes. According to Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva: “The aim is to attain epistemic liberation from White logic … We see this edited volume as part of the long march of resistance to White domination in society and in academe.” The Maoist allusion is probably not accidental. John Staddon, “The Devolution of Social Science” at Quillette

A legitimate question arises whether a diverse public can be required to support this odious circus through tax dollars on the same basis as it supports science as such. The argument usually runs like this: Even the people who believe the moon landings were faked benefit from the technology developed to enable space flight. But who benefits from this stuff other than its writers?

See also: Sokal hoaxes strike social sciences again!

Will social sciences morph into physics and economics using Big Data?

and

Which side will atheists choose in the war on science? They need to re-evaluate their alliance with progressivism, which is doing science no favours.

2 Replies to “Social sciences: The war on empirical fact and objectivity

  1. 1
    EricMH says:

    If science was just funded by companies that could use the science, we’d probably get a lot less junk.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Sociology has never even TRIED to be a discipline. It has ALWAYS been pure leftist activism, with jargon borrowed directly from Marx. Other social “sciences” formerly pretended to be objective once in a while. Not sosh.

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