Chill Bro: Dubunking Our Fervor for Debunking

By Graham Peterson

Social scientists love to debunk other social scientists.  In the case of Jordan Weissmann’s debunking of the paper claiming that porn is destroying marriage, we’ve got a journalist on the job, but the sentiment is the same — a totally disproportionate trouncing that is supposed to be about standards of evidence but smells a lot like “I hate these people.”

Philip Cohen is into it; he’s ceaselessly  blasted Hannah Rosin for her stuff on declining male outcomes.  Jeremy Freese is into it; he repeatedly went after a stupid study that claimed female named hurricanes are more devastating because we aren’t afraid of girls and don’t run.  My former adviser just wrote a fifty-five page review of Piketty’s Capital, because the book has problems and the left still loves it.

When Durkheim wrote on mechanical (think “knee-jerk”) solidarity, he noted that some punishments were so wildly disproportionate, that deterring individuals from committing crimes couldn’t be their only function.  There’s something more too it when a hundred people cheer while someone has his intestines removed and salted.  That something more, he reasoned, is a collective conscience.

That something more, in the case of social scientific trouncing, is often our own politics, and at a minimum our own prestige and expert pretense.  There’s no sneakier way to stand up for one’s politics, or defend one’s occupational status, than to channel one’s tribal rage through methodology and theory.

I think it is a problem for science because we hide the fact that beliefs are always subject to our community loyalties.  The only way we can make science better is by continually diversifying, and the principle way to do that is to not embarrass and diminish those we disagree with.

We want to raise standards of debate, and a way to do that is channel debate through theory and evidence.  But note how people maintain double-standards for their team and the other team.  That’s what’s not making science any better, and the only solution I can see is to resist the urge to publicly accuse people of being dishonest, lazy, and motivated.

In my (maybe naive) estimation, social scientific trouncing in the long run make us more insular, less open to debate, and ultimately harms scientific progress.

I should note, though I think they know it, that I respect a great deal the people I cited in this article and I emulate most of what they do outside the trouncing (and have even emulated the trouncing, which was mistaken).

2 thoughts on “Chill Bro: Dubunking Our Fervor for Debunking”

    1. Me too; it’s about how we do it. The point isn’t about motivations, or causes, it’s about consequences. As the volume, ad hominem, and so forth go up, the consequence is more tribal and homogenous intellectual communities.

      Toward your argument, though, functionalism (Durkheim’s big thing) has been criticized as a tautology. You go in, see what the result of some behavior is, and then infer that people did it (consciously intended or not) in order to create that outcome. So consequents become their own causes.

      Maybe my logic and Durkheim’s isn’t super clear on how to separate causes from consequences, but in my experience the consequence of scientific pile ons is the same as jocks stuffing dweebs into lockers.


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