Interacting with some medical professionals, recently, has made me think a bit more about evidence-based belief and practice. I am in favour of evidence-based belief and practice; my ‘theoretical’ perspective is a broadly empiricist one, with an admixture of (to my mind) relatively sophisticated pragmatism. But what does evidence-based belief and practice consist in?

This is a more complicated question than it may appear, and these remarks don’t aim to do more than touch on the relevant issues. But, trivially, for our belief and practice to be evidence-based is for our beliefs and practices to be oriented to, and ‘checkable by’, the way things are in the world. In evidence-based belief and practice, we grant authority to empirical evidence to legitimise or de-legitimise our beliefs and practices. And, further, we evaluate this evidence itself by sets of rationally and empirically justifiable criteria, to evaluate which evidence counts as good evidence and warrants such authority, and which does not.

This granting of authority to specific types of event or entity – ’empirical evidence’ – is a social practice. Authority – on the Brandomian pragmatist metatheoretical approach I endorse – is created and granted by sapient entities’ social practices. We grant a specific social status to specific kinds of non-human things (pieces of evidence), such that these non-human things can possess social authority within human discourse. Once authority has been granted in this way, it cannot – again, as a matter of social practice – necessarily be easily revoked; this is one reason why, on a Brandomian account, the authority of evidence can go against all human preferences or authority-decisions, even when authority has its source only in human action.

In the ‘analytic’ philosophical tradition – as, often elsewhere – there is a tendency to assimilate the evidence-based responsiveness of the typical sapient organism reacting to environmental stimuli (the phenomenon of experience, or perception) to the formalised truth-seeking investigatory practices of the modern sciences. Willard van Orman Quine puts the point as follows:

The scientist is indistinguishable from the common man in his sense of evidence, except that the scientist is more careful.

I disagree with this assimilation: I think that the belief-forming practices of scientific investigation are quite socially and historically specific, and should not be seen as the extension, or fuller realisation, of more mundane and broadly-engaged-in practices of everyday empirical observation. Science cannot be defended on those grounds; it must be defended in its social and historical idiosyncrasy.

I believe this defence is a worthy one; I am an advocate for scientific practice. But engaging in this metatheoretical defence of science involves steering between two, opposing, flawed accounts.

On the one hand, if we understand science as through-and-through a social practice like any other, there is a temptation to see this perspective as robbing science of its authority (rather than as explicating the nature of its authority); this approach can therefore often lead theorists into a relativism that regards our choice of the scientific approach as arbitrary or unjustified. In classical social theory, this perspective is perhaps best expressed by Max Weber’s movingly pessimistic reflections in Science as a Vocation, where Weber’s own commitment to the social scientific endeavour is presented as an ultimately irrational obedience to a demon “who holds the fibers of his very life.” In more recent social theory, a similar perspective is conveyed well by the Edinburgh strong programme’s conviction that the social-scientific analysis of scientific practice leads, inevitably and correctly, to relativism.

Relativism – whether it understands itself as anti-science, as a consequence of science, or both – is a common object of critique. The opposing flaw is also a serious one, however: this is the perspective that grounds science’s authority in an appeal to the way things are in the world, without seeing how this appeal must itself be understood as a social practice embedded in a complex system of social practices. For this approach, in Hegel – and Marx’s – phrase, “the process vanishes in the result”: the mechanism by which truth-claims are arrived at is forgotten, and truth-claims are wielded as if they are the source of science’s social authority, rather than the result of that authority (as is in fact the case). These approaches, then, are dogmatic – they understand themselves as (and, in most practical contexts, are) pro-science, but they have an inadequate understanding of what science is, as a historically-specific set of social practices. Advocates of this perspective may be able to do science, but they are not able to adequately justify their findings, without relying on a tacit set of social norms that their dogmatism overtly denies. Many of the pugnacious contemporary advocates of science, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, belong in this category.

If, then, we are to be good – or, more to the point, metatheoretically enlightened – proponents of evidence-based belief and practice, we need to steer a course between these twin dangers of relativism and dogmatism. This can comfortably be done – in the posts here on Robert Brandom I’ve gone some way towards explaining the broad metatheoretical approach that, to my mind, best enables such a position (though, again, Brandom’s work is pitched at the level of everyday empirical experience, rather than scientific practice). But I am interested, now, in beginning to actually do evidence-based work. I’ve still got a lot to do in elaborating the metatheoretical perspective I endorse; but I also want to begin to leave that space behind. Enough with philosophy; enough, especially, with ‘Theory’ that regards itself, in a smug but profoundly confused way, as ‘post-empiricist’. I’ve spent enough of my life in that space already. The task of social science is to describe and analyse the social world, through the collection and interpretation of data; that’s the project I’m committed to; one of these days I’d like to get to work.

Comment on Zizek

July 29, 2012

[I was recently in an argument, over at An und fur sich, about Zizek’s politics – the relevant posts are here and here. After a time Adam Kotsko closed comments; since the last of my comments didn’t make it through moderation I thought I’d paste it here. Comment is below.]


Right. Here’s the quote from Zizek’s article again:

the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS today’s hegemonic ideology – its function is to enable us to evade the deadlock of the hedonist permissiveness which is effectively hegemonic.

Adam initially (in this comment) apparently parsed Zizek’s statement as claiming simply that patriarchy is not hegemonic. But this is not what the statement says: the statement says also that critique of patriarchy “IS today’s hegemonic ideology”. I pointed this out here.

Adam then responded as follows:

There’s a difference between the claim that mainstream liberals like to shadow-box against the kind of forthright bigots and sexists who are actually a fringe element in American society and directly identifying with those bigots and sexists as the real victims! I don’t think Zizek is doing the latter, at all. [CORRECTION: Obviously in the piece on the Roma, Zizek is identifying with the bigots as the real victims. But I don’t think he usually does that.]

It seems to me that the hardcore Fox News Republicans are a small but vocal subculture that succeeds precisely because of the phenomenon Zizek pinpoints — the tendency for liberals to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives.

This is a little difficult to parse in relation to the discussion of Zizek’s statement, because it again doesn’t appear to be putting forward the same claim. Adam seems to be saying:

1) I am accusing Zizek of “identifying with the victims” of the holders of the patriarchal (or substitutes) ideology that is not hegemonic but that still has power.

2) Forthright bigots and sexists [and/or ‘hardcore Fox News Republicans’ which I take it is meant to pick out roughly the same set of people?? though maybe not?] are “actually a fringe element in American society”.

[OK, on this. I’m not sure why we’re specifically talking about American society suddenly, when that’s not the focus of the Zizek or Ahmed pieces in question. But second, I don’t see any very obvious sense in which this is true. On the ‘hardcore Fox News Republicans’, it depends I guess what you mean by ‘hardcore’ – which can be meant in narrow or broad ways (so some sense of this sentence will certainly be true, but not necessarily usefully so). It should be clear that regularly-Fox-News-watching-Republicans are not a fringe element in US society. As a back-of-the-envelope calculation, there are about 55 million registered members of the Republican party, which is about 26% of the adult US population. According to Pew, “40% of Republicans say they regularly watch Fox News”. And also according to Pew, about 39% of those who regularly watch Fox News identify as Republican, and about 49% as leaning Republican. Let’s go with 40% of 55 million, to get 22 million Republican party members who are also regular Fox News watchers: more than 10% of the US adult population. Presumably you have a narrower category of folk in mind with your ‘hardcore’ Fox News Republicans – but that qualifier is having to do an awful lot of work here. I don’t think the statement is persuasive without some pretty idiosyncratic senses of at least some of its terms.

On “forthright bigots and sexists”, again, it obviously depends how we understand the qualifier ‘forthright’. Still sticking with the US (for some reason) a pretty superficial google search gives me this paper, which has some useful graphs tracking various survey responses in the US from the late 70s onwards. (There’s obviously going to be heaps of excellent work in this area; I just don’t know it.) Basically attitudes to gender roles get a lot more egalitarian until the early ’90s, at which point everything plateaus. So, for instance, in the last dataset represented there (from 2008), about 70% of respondents disagreed with the claim that men are better politicians than women. That could obviously be a lot worse – but it’s hard to see it justifying the claim that the critique of patriarchy is hegemonic.

On racism (which I’ll take as an initial proxy for your ‘bigotry’, just to stop this comment blowing out indefinitely), it’s equally obviously not the case that forthright bigots are a fringe population. I’ve exhausted my googling patience for now, so let’s leave the US behind – but here’s a report on survey data from eight European countries. An eye-watering 56.9% of Polish respondents believe that “Jews in general do not care about anything or anyone but their own kind.” In Britain it’s a mere 22.5%. Still – 45.8% of Britons agree with the statement “Because of the number of immigrants, I sometimes feel like a stranger in [country]”. More than a third (34.6%) of UK respondents agree with the statement “There is a natural hierarchy between black and white people.” And so on. Bigotry is really common. (And it’s not as if the US is untarnished in this respect either.) I don’t think you’re coming from a very convincing place when you characterise forthright bigotry and sexism as ‘fringe’, even given the slightly hazy qualifier ‘forthright’.

But putting all that aside…]

3) “the phenomenon Zizek pinpoints” (in the sentence quoted above) is “the tendency for liberals to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives.”

(This is the real point:) I can’t stress enough that this isn’t what Zizek is saying in the passage under discussion. Zizek is not saying, in this sentence that I quoted and that we are discussing, that liberals have a tendency to be satisfied with themselves as long as they’ve established that they’re not like those crazy conservatives. Zizek is saying that the critique of patriarchy is hegemonic. Again:

the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS today’s hegemonic ideology

Adam – you simply haven’t defended this statement. You have defended other statements that are somewhat but not very closely related. But this statement, that Zizek writes very plainly and that is a central claim of this piece (not at all incidental illustrative material) is:

a) untrue: the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology IS NOT today’s hegemonic ideology. (Neither is liberal multicultural tolerance, as Zizek also claims.)

b) reactionary, because (I am claiming) it is in fact reactionary to claim that anti-racism, anti-sexism, and “the critical statement that patriarchal ideology continues to be today’s hegemonic ideology” are themselves hegemonic. This is an empirically incorrect view that is nevertheless widely believed and articulated from within the (reactionary and widespread) viewpoint that sees itself and its privileges as under unjust assault by the partial victories of ‘identity’ politics: feminism, civil rights, GLBT rights, etc. (This is a perspective that Zizek’s work shares with Fox News.)

Now, further to the ‘political correctness’ issue, and on a factual point – Adam wrote upthread, in response to Adswithoutproducts: “I don’t recall any anti-P.C. swipes in Living in the End Times at all.” But the article we have been discussing is published in ‘Living in the End Times’. So no. One can also consult the index of ‘Living in the End Times’ to find page references for that work’s anti-P.C. swipes, such as this one, the first listed, from pages 38-39:

As every close observer of the deadlocks arising from political correctness knows, the separation of legal justice from moral Goodness – which should be relativized and historicized – ends up in an oppressive moralism brimming with resentment. Without any ‘organic’ social substance grounding the standards of what Orwell approvingly referred to as ‘common decency’ (all such standards having been dismissed as subordinating individual freedoms to proto-Fascist social forms), the minimalist program of laws intended simply to prevent individuals from encroaching upon one another (annoying or ‘harassing’ each other) turns into an explosion of legal and moral rules, an endless process (a ‘spurious infinity’ in Hegel’s sense) of legalisation and moralisation, known as ‘the fight against all forms of discrimination’. … In France, there are associations for obese people demanding that all public campaigns against obesity and in favour of healthy eating habits be stopped, since they damage the self-esteem of obese persons. The militants of Veggie Pride condemn the ‘speciesism’ of meat-eaters (who discriminate against animals, privileging the human animal – for them, a particularly disgusting form of ‘fascism’) and demand that ‘vegeto-phobia’ should be treated as a kind of xenophobia and proclaimed a crime. And we could extend the list to include those fighting for the right to incest-marriage, consensual murder, cannibalism…

Really this is not sophisticated argument – it is the same crass, hyperbolic, lazy, empirically inaccurate (has anyone ever used the phrase ‘vegeto-phobia’ in this sense except Zizek? Let’s check. No.) anti-‘p.c.’ polemic found in newspaper columns by Andrew Bolt or Richard Littlejohn – it just includes incidental references to Hegel, since Zizek’s audience is continental Theory nerds, rather than tabloid newspaper readers. It is not an “utterly ridiculous conspiracy theory” to place the stance articulated in these passages on the political right.