By Graham Peterson
Science is a conversation. To anyone who works remotely close to science and has gone through their customary scientific adolescence (when one rebels and falls in love with critical methodology), that statement, rubber stamped from the Humanities, should sound trivially true. But it remains under appreciated.
Positivism is an attractive proposition. Scientists have a great deal of authority. More broadly, objectivity and rational dispassion are authoritative, even in the street. Major partisan news networks sell themselves as “fair and balanced.” Some enormous percentage of people who otherwise hold clearly partisan packages of beliefs and policy preferences identify as Independent.
And objectivity and rational dispassion, independence of thought — these are indeed important — objectively.
But I think we have made a grave mistake in our interpretation of dispassion, objectivity, and positivism. We have allowed the really stupid idea that anyone can be truly non-partisan, un-emotional, un-committed, un-believing, and the rest, sneak in. And this, I think, stems from an error in the particular way in which we think of ourselves as individuals. We are, in any political or scientific universe, even when alone in a room, in conversation with ourselves. We all posses two selves. The ego and the ID. Me and my conscience.
So to me, the recommendation of dispassion and objectivity actually translates into something like this: “Have yourself a heaping helping of value and political and ethical commitments, but don’t stop arguing with yourself. Have a conscience about the fact that you’re probably wrong. Reconsider. And don’t get so whipped up with belief that you stop arguing with yourself. Because if you do, you become dogmatic, or just stupid.”
I think that internal argument, or internal conversation, is so important, and the correct interpretation of political independence and scientific dispassion, because of what it translates to externally. It translates into a critically different attitude toward conversation and debate with one’s peers than someone who does not have a sufficiently critical and open dialogue with herself. The only way we can arrive at the truth is through persuading one another to believe what we, after sufficient reflection and honest debate with ourselves, have come to believe.
We learn to compromise with ourselves, and in turn one another.
Now, what I am describing is critically different from what a lot of the objective pose has become. For most, the objective pose is now just another routine way for people to assume one sort of dogma or another, and abdicate what is otherwise a difficult and lifelong ethical requirement to argue with ourselves and one another.
He who believes in, say, the limited welfare state, sees that the vast majority of people agree with him, that the belief falls somewhere on an average between two extremes, and he feels satisfied that it is therefore an objective and dispassionate belief.
This person has also usually thought very little about it. When pressed, he has little idea what a limited welfare state ought to look like, or why he believes in it. This person reads The Economist or the New York Times or The American Sociological Review and tells his friends he likes the publication because it’s an oasis of objectivity in a sea of ideologues trying to trick him.
Haught positivism is a bargain bin fashion that says that the other side are the ideologues, and that reality has a well known me bias.
It is an even bigger problem in universities, because the idea has become that one can achieve objectivity and scientific dispassion all alone in a room as long as one spends that time in front of a statistical package, say. Or if one reads Hegel critically enough. One learns the rituals of scholastic prestige with some vigor, and then once that hood goes over one’s head at the doctoral commencement, feels reassured to arrive at the truth merely by avoiding things that sound too political, or feel particularly emotional, perhaps.
And as a result, we make our main requirement for deciding whether or not we’re dealing in reasonable statements and beliefs or not, a glance at whether the people around us participate in similar rituals of objectivity, criticism, and dispassion. We surround ourselves with our friends. Objective, all of us, surely. So objective we needn’t sully ourselves by debating ideologues.
This is a disaster, because the only thing that can guarantee that objectivity, scientific dispassion, and reason do their magic, is if we subject ourselves to vigorous argument, both within ourselves, and with one another. And we have progressively less and less of that as the disciplines narrow and silo ideologically. In this world, people slowly surround themselves with fewer and fewer hostile and revolting opponents, and more of their friends, convinced that they and their friends are The Good Guys who take objectivity seriously.
Positivism, reason, and objectivity are merely the guarantees of illiberal and intolerant dogma without the commitment to internal and external debate that they were designed to ensure.