An Antidote to Bullshit

04 June 2018

In the last two installments of this blog, I’ve been discussing the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW): an active and expanding Internet subculture that purports to provide an alternative to academic orthodoxy. Generally speaking, the stars of the IDW and their audience see the humanities and social sciences as hopelessly mired in politically correct ideology, and view their own enterprise as a sort of university-in-exile that is unsullied by feminism, identity politics, and other corrupting influences, and where unfettered freedom of thought and speech are the order of the day.

I’ve also made the point that one of the problems with the IDW, in common with other online, non-academic outlets for discussing big ideas, is that it doesn’t have have any effective mechanisms for intellectual quality control. There’s nothing that resembles peer review, and there’s no need for these pundits to come up against real experts on the topics that they like to pontificate about. Consequently it’s up to consumers to guard themselves against being led down the garden path. As the ancient Roman proverb says: Caveat emptor! Let the buyer beware!

With this in mind, I’ve assembled a twelve-point checklist for evaluating what you might come across on the IDW and beyond. I set out four of the points in last month’s blog, I’m giving the next four here, and I’ll wrap the series up in next month’s installment. It’s a kind of epistemological self-defense manual: a rough and ready guide for protecting yourself from intellectual grifters. Because these points are about form rather than content, even if you don’t have the background to critically evaluate the substance of Mr. Expert’s claims, you can use them to help you figure out whether you should take these claims on board. So, while listening to Mr. Expert, ask yourself these questions:

Does Mr. Expert talk about people as belonging to “types”? Thoughtful people do not march in intellectual lock step with one another, so it’s usually a mistake to lump them together under a single umbrella as “feminist types” or “social justice types” or “right-wing types,” but we’re often inclined to describe people whom we don’t identify with typologically. Psychologists call this outgroup homogeneity bias. This refers to the tendency to imagine that members of out-groups (groups that we don’t identify with) are something like clones, barely discernible from one another. Conversely, we tend to think of members of our own groups as individuals with varied points of view. It’s so easy to slip into a cookie-cutter image of people whose views you are uncomfortable with, and this distorts your perception of their beliefs and values. That’s why it’s important to avoid thinking of others as “types.” So, if Mr. Expert seems to have no compunction about lumping people together in this way, it makes sense to treat this as a red flag.

Does Mr. Expert overindulge in generics? Well, consider the sentence “Mosquitos carry Zika.” We tend to accept it as true, and it may lead us to exercise caution in our dealings with mosquitos, even though it would be far more accurate to say “some mosquitos carry Zika.”  Sentences like “Mosquitos carry Zika” are called generics. These are sentences about whole groups of things that don’t include words like “some,” “all,” “many,” or “few.” Psychologists have found that this form of speech can be both harmful and misleading when they’re used to characterize whole groups of people, because suggest that the specified traits are part of the essential nature of every member of the group, perhaps ensconced in their DNA. Generic statements like “women aren’t interested in engineering” are more than just descriptions. They send the message that an aversion to engineering is an innate and ineradicable characteristic of women, and that women who take up engineering as a profession are either not proper women or will find this career unfulfilling.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about the prevalence of traits in groups of people, but there are far more intellectually responsible ways of doing this—for example, “Many women aren’t interested in engineering” or, better still, “Fewer women than men are interested in engineering.” So, if Mr. Expert habitually throws generic statements around, this should be cause for concern.

Does Mr. Expert champion reason and science but do violence to the norms of scientific reasoning? Often, talking heads of the IDW proclaim that they stand for reason and science, in contrast to the “social justice warrior types” who are dismissed as shallow purveyors of ideology. Claims like this shouldn’t be taken at face value. It’s important to check out whether what these people do matches up with what they say.

Scientific reasoning is grounded in a procedure called “inference to the best explanation.” It goes like this. First, you identify something that you want to explain. Next, you gather together a range of possible explanations for the phenomenon in question. Finally, you devise a test that will allow you to determine which of these explanations is the best one—the one that’s most likely to be true.

This is all pretty clear and straightforward. But all too often, those who claim the high ground of scientific rationality ignore in practice the very thing that they promote in theory. Very often, these people fail to seriously consider the full range of plausible explanations for the phenomenon that they want to explain.

I’ll use a real example to flesh this point out. One argument that I’ve heard from the mouths of more than a few IDW pundits goes like this:

(1) Women are far less likely to graduate with degrees in science and technology than men are.

(2) Feminists claim that this is because of patriarchal oppression, but it might be because not being interested in STEM disciplines is part of women’s innate biological nature.

(3) If the feminists are right, then there should be more women graduating with degrees in scientific and technological fields in egalitarian countries like Sweden, where women are free to choose their own path, then there are in more socially conservative countries. But if women are innately uninterested in STEM, then there should be even fewer women graduating with such degrees in gender-egalitarian countries.

(4) In fact, there are fewer female STEM graduates in the countries boasting high levels of gender equality.

(5) This proves that women are by nature uninterested in science and technology.

This is a slapdash argument. Even if the conclusion turns out to be true (which I very much doubt) the argument doesn’t give us good reasons for accepting that it’s true. The problem with it is that there isn’t any attempt to honestly consider the full range of plausible explanations for the underrepresentation of women in STEM discipline. Here’s an obvious one. Legal equality is necessary for actual equality, but it’s not sufficient. Egalitarian policies don’t make entrenched sexist attitudes vanish. They might even exacerbate them by prompting insecure men to aggressively push back against the threat of women entering and excelling in traditionally masculine fields. This, by the way, might be related to the off-the-charts rate of intimate partner violence against Scandinavian women.

I’m not claiming that this is the best available explanation. I’m only claiming that anyone who’s truly interested in applying scientific reasoning to understand gender disparities (as opposed to dressing up ideological commitments in a scientific disguise) ought to take it and others like it seriously.

Finally, does Mr. Expert offer simple explanations for complex phenomena?  Many of the things that we’re most interested in explaining are intimidatingly complex. This is especially true of social, behavioral, and even biological phenomena. There are no straightforward laws, like we find in physics and chemistry, which we can turn to for help in these cases. Instead, we are saddled with having to make sense of extraordinarily intricate webs of causes and effects that we are not yet equipped (and my never be equipped) to untangle.

Consider the example of behavioral genetics. People who do not know a great deal about this subject are likely to be impressed by seemingly scientific statements that certain kinds of behavior are “in the genes.” Certainly, genetics has an important influence on behavior, but the exact nature of this influence is often obscure, even in quite simple organisms like roundworms. Because there are multiple forces at work—including the background influence of unrelated genes, developmental pathways, environmental factors, learning, and cultural forces—all interacting in ways that are poorly if at all understood—anyone who purports to offer genetics as the explanation (rather than an explanation) social or behavioral phenomena is either ignorant or irresponsible.  So if Mr. Expert purports to offer definitive explanations of complex social and behavioral phenomena, beware!

Come back to the Philosophy Talk blog next month if you want to hear more—next time focusing on the role of emotional manipulation in ostensibly rational discourse.

Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, June 5, 2018 -- 12:59 PM

The five-point argument

The five-point argument regarding women and science is far more, I think, than mere slapdash. It has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, which feminists despise and rightly so. There are too many Mr. Experts to go around, and too few of those who reason out differing scenarios before making knee-jerk pronouncements. Evidentiary foundations are always superior to, uh, bullshit.