Positivism and “facts”

A guest blog on Scientific American lumps opponents of nuclear power and people who resist vaccines together with those who deny climate change or fear fluoride in drinking water:

You can plug in any issue where passion seems to trump science; climate change, or vaccines, or fluoride, or food irradiation. While denying scientific evidence is irrational in one sense, it is entirely rational in the sense that the brain’s job is not to do physics or chemistry or math or win Nobel Prizes. Its job is to help us survive.

And strengthening the tribe on which we social animals depend is a rational way to help achieve that fundamental goal. So it is a form of science denial for rationalists to deny the evidence of what cultural cognition suggests about what “rational” really means.[1]

David Ropeik offers taxonomy for science-deniers and suggests that all of us fit on continuums between individualists and communitarians and between hierarchists and egalitarians.[2] It actually sounds a lot like the political compass which plots political views based on your answers to a multiple choice quiz on economic right-left and authoritarian-libertarian axes.[3].

But I’m concerned about Ropeik’s assumptions about what constitutes “facts.” Because this is not merely a contest between the rational and irrational but rather about competing views about what’s real.

A couple weeks ago, the professor in a class I’m continuing to participate in alleged that there was a difference between science and religion. I immediately challenged him, suggesting that these are both belief systems. Another student responded that science allows for a progression of knowledge through doubt and testing of hypotheses. The professor, in turn, asserted that religion is based on absolute faith which denies doubt.

All this is true, in so far as it goes. But Plato—and conservatives since—have taken the doubt of our senses as an indication that experiential knowledge is an inferior form of knowledge.[4] Richard Weaver, a preeminent conservative theorist, asserted the supremacy of a single truth in every society—his “tyrannizing image”—as

commanding all things . . . and open to imaginative but not logical discovery. It is a focus of value, a law of relationships, an inspiriting vision. By its nature it sets up rankings and orders; to be near it is to be higher; to be far from it in the sense of not feeling its attraction is to be lower.[5]

Such a truth is not based on controlled experiments. It enables an elite to impose their own form of truth on a culture. And it allows for a socially constructed reality that can be very oppressive indeed.

But there are other forms of truth as well. Extending an original doubt about the information derived from our senses, it is possible to critique the notion of a single truth, applicable to everyone. With systems theory, we could choose any living thing. Fritjof Capra points to the cells of the body which from identical DNA differentiate themselves to form the various parts of a human body: muscles, bone, organs, etc., that all combine to make an entire body. How, he asks rhetorically, do they know which ways to differentiate, so for instance, we only get one brain and two eyes, all in the right places? Clearly, there is something in the pattern; an undifferentiated cell finds itself in a particular location in that pattern and differentiates accordingly. There’s an interaction there, between the cell and its environment; they guide, constrain, and mutually condition each other to produce a greater whole and that whole has properties would could not be imagined from a single differentiated cell. And that process is cognitive—even when it isn’t conscious. The resulting combinations produce effects, called emergent properties, which are difficult to forecast or even understand from the perspective of their components. Capra explains that this works both ways—one can neither analyze the components from the whole nor analyze the whole from the components.[6]

Looking at this from the perspective of individual human beings, this opens an understanding of truth that goes beyond the partial perspectives of feminist theory. Feminist theory asserts that our views of reality are the products of our social locations, a consequence of culture, race, gender, class, ethnicity, and every other construction we use to categorize ourselves. With systems theory, we would begin with an individual human being coming into the world, finding itself in a particular environment, surrounded by certain people, with specific artifacts. All of this comprises a facet of reality that is all ours. As Edgar Morin put it,

Why do we continue to see human beings solely in terms of their social or professional status, their standard of living, their age, gender or however else they figure in opinion polls? Every human being, even the most anonymous, is a veritable cosmos. Not only because the swarm of interactions in her brain is larger than all the interactions among stellar bodies in the cosmos, but also because she harbors within herself a fabulous and unknown world.[7]

And that world is a world from which we cannot generalize to other worlds. What is true for you, my reader, is not necessarily true for me. What works for you, my reader, does not necessarily work for me. And vice versa. We might have common elements that we share, but at some level, our realities are profoundly different.

This leads to the opposite conclusion from Richard Weaver, that instead, for any one person or any group of persons to dominate others is to universalize and impose their own facets of reality onto everyone else within their realms, to impose truths on those for whom they simply aren’t true. Importantly, it allows for diversity and multiculturalism, which many conservatives find intolerable.

Yet positivism assumes a single objective reality which we can, with the aid of instruments, accurately perceive and measure, that the measurement and the reduction of all reality to the mathematical makes our conclusions repeatable and verifiable. It privileges method over reality by assuming that the methods of classical physics were universally applicable—even to rather complicated humans.

Ropeik seems to rely on a positivist notion of reality that assumes the veracity for example, of western medicine despite an appalling history of involuntary experimentation on slaves and on disadvantaged people, very often of color[8] that would never be approved by an institutional review board today, science that can never be knowably free of a taint of possible research subject deception, that is, dishonesty by subjects who fear and loathe the researchers. Ropeik’s notion of reality appears to assume, for example, that girls’ sexual initiations can be reduced to statistics rather than the amazing narratives that Sharon Thompson collected which illustrated how girls attitudes towards sexuality and the communication they have with their mothers can affect not only the quality of their initial experiences but the control they have over the timing of those experiences.[9]

When I look at reality, I see a lot—a preponderance in fact—that can’t be reduced to numbers. And yet numbers are the scientific basis of truth that Ropeik appears to privilege over traditional knowledge. It is a very narrow view. Ropeik concludes that,

Naively clinging to the expectation of perfectly fact-based reason denies the powerful instinctive influence cultural cognition has on our judgments and behavior, and consigns us to more conflict and less compromise in dealing with the dangers these perceptions can create.[10]

Ropeik does not consider the possibility that alternative views may actually have some validity. They don’t always, as with climate change. But it is an arrogant faith that asserts positivism over other ways of knowledge.

  1. [1]David Ropeik, “Trains, nukes, marriage, and vaccines (and anything else): Why the facts don’t matter,” Scientific American, April 22, 2011, http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=trains-nukes-marriage-and-vaccines-2011-04-22
  2. [2]Ropeik, “Trains, nukes, marriage, and vaccines.”
  3. [3]Pace News, “The Political Compass,” http://politicalcompass.org/
  4. [4]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  5. [5]Richard M. Weaver, “Humanism in an Age of Science,” ed. Robert Hamlin, Intercollegiate Review 7 (Fall 1970), 17, quoted in Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 3rd. ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2002).
  6. [6]Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (New York: Anchor, 1996); Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995); Edgar Morin, On Complexity, trans. Robin Postel (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  7. [7]Morin, On Complexity, 93.
  8. [8]Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid (New York: Doubleday, 2006)
  9. [9]Sharon Thompson, “Putting a Big Thing into a Little Hole: Teenage Girls’ Accounts of Sexual Initiation,” Journal of Sex Research 27, no. 3 (August 1990): 341-361.
  10. [10]Ropeik, “Trains, nukes, marriage, and vaccines.”

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