Monday, June 8, 2015

Attacking the Truth

I think the Chronicle now publishes a version of this article every few months or so. I still think the claim that postmodernist questioning of the epistemology of science much of anything to do with right wing denialism is the very essence of an academic claim, without much validity outside of academia--it's a conflict of the faculties. Most right wing denialism is on the order of arguing against statistical sampling to determine census numbers -- it's a denial of how science is carried out now, not an Attack on Truth. For sure, smart rhetors of the right have lifted arguments made by Butler, Foucault, Latour, etc., on Truth, but the underlying epidemiological claims the Right makes against Science are against techniques that are accepted in science to establish validity of phenomenon (statistical sampling for example), or more radical claims that exceed the horizon of Newton. (Or that whole age of the Earth thing.)
What really needs debunking is the shibboleth that is "evidence-based", especially when it is used in the context of promotion of public policy. In that context, the phrase is almost empty. For instance, none of the reforms touted by No Child Left Behind policies are "evidence based" but are based on gut assumptions such as that the principal should be the CEO of the school, or multiple assessments of learning ("accountability") will help improve schools. If you think just briefly about either, you can see how these ideas resonate, but that is because they agree with assumptions you have or you know people have. This explains the attraction of the zombie idea that austerity will lead budget surplues as much as anything. (In Greece and Kansas, there are strong counterexamples.)
The further oddness of the rhetoric of "evidence-based" in the context of policy is that most scientists are pretty aware that the phrase means "the preponderance of evidence leads us to believe the outcome projected is some% probable, with other scenarios this % probable." A mouthful, which is unhelpful when it comes to media communications, which is why the rhetoric that conveys the idea that "evidence-based" means a "sure thing" wins out. More radically, since Science never establishes something metaphysically, counting on evidence to do that leads to very metaphysical nihilism and nominalism that for which postmodernism is blamed. (Whitehead's phrase, "misplaced concreteness", always comes to mind for me.)
Two responses that emerged in Science in the 1930s against the frailty of its claims were Einstein and Logical Positivism. Einstein, unhappy with the indeterminacy that emerged at the level of quantum physics told us, God does not play dice. Logical Positivism, taking its cue from Russell and Wittgenstein, tried to ringfence all concepts that had truth, according to Science, and banish the rest as metaphysics, i.e. empty or BS. Einstein might be right, but we have no paradigm yet to explain away his worry. (Maybe God is too smart for us.) LP as a system ate its own tail, when folks like Quine deconstructed the idea of verificationism as itself metaphysically founded. So there is no evidence that makes anything a sure thing, just better informed guesses and studies bolstered with better stats and math. Furthermore, if a lot of scientists working roughly in the same area agree, something is up. For some reason, folks have been revisiting Paul Ehrlich's claims about population, which lead to the idea that parts of America would be starving, like now. His are colorful, but the Club of Rome did statistical projections that lead to similar consequences. The similarity with worries about climate change is there superficial. The difference with climate change is that it is not being promoted an individual or a think tank but 1000s of scientists. So preponderance of minds as well as evidence. If someone was a philosopher of science, wouldn't be better to explore why that fact makes climate change something to believe in rather pouring scorn on a different discipline whose ideas seem to have traveled. (Not that the other discipline does not pour scorn on PoS. Time spent in Pittsburgh taught more than I really wanted to know about the conflict of the faculties on cultural studies.)