Scientific Cynicism Is Not Sexy

By Graham Peterson

Social science is dismal.  There is the adage about economics, but we are all guilty.  Is it less dreary to believe that people enjoy dominating one another than that they maximize their self interest?  Is sociology’s orthodoxy — that everyone is a latent sexist, classist, and racist — sun-kissed?

I had an instructor remark that it’s difficult to not be cynical in social science after you look at all the data.  But I don’t think so.

There are a lot of data that suggest optimism.  It turns out that people who socialize more online socialize more offline.  It’s not the case that the internet is an alienated dystopia.   The economists will tell you how incredibly rich the world’s poor have gotten.  The criminologists will tell you how much violent crime has dropped.  It goes on.

So social scientists aren’t cynical because their data tell them the world is a sad place.  Social scientists are cynical because cynicism is sexy.

Why is cynicism sexy?  Because sexy is sexy.  And sexy is sexy because sex is taboo.  We like a dirty little secret, don’t we?  It’s sexy to claim that underneath the pleasantries, people are really motivated by sex, power, greed, neurosis . . . and more sex.  Those are all things we wouldn’t otherwise like to believe about ourselves — dirty little secrets.

Social scientists dig for sexy, taboo explanations because it is an effective way to get people’s attention.  Not only does it create novelty and shock on the front end – social scientists build up over the long run a reputation for being seers.  Claiming mystical powers of prediction and insight has been a stable occupation since before settled agriculture.

Interestingly, the media does exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons – exposing the juicy dirt on human behavior and developing a reputation as someone who has access to said dirt that others do not.  We call that fear mongering when it comes to the media, but academics are supposed to be above all that right?  Apparently not.

To be fair, it’s good to have human scientists (and journalists!) who are brave enough to ask uncomfortable questions.  Challenging orthodoxy and common sense is a good thing.

But it is not, anymore, terribly controversial or taboo to believe that others are unrepentant shitheads.  People’s views of their bosses are pretty godawful in my experience.  Same goes for the opposite sex.  Not to mention public figures who represent the opposing tribe.

It is not novel, brave, or counterintuitive to expose human beings for their shitheaddery.  Exposé social science leads to a bleak view of the world, which is sad.  And we bankrupt science if we’re unwilling to consider hypotheses that don’t undress our research subjects.

I think it’s time to recognize that optimism, beneficence, faith, and hope are the new taboos.  And it should follow in human science that they are the new sexy.  Even better, it’s maybe worth considering that a science based on the logic of tabloid exposé, even if conjuring a lot of sophistication, is a science that needs to reconsider its constitution.

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