I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately

Here’s an extended quote from pp. 95-96 of Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What?, a (very good) 1999 book on philosophy of science. I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot lately.

In terms of the unmasking of established order, constructionists are properly put on the left. Their political attitude is nevertheless very much not in harmony with those scientists who see themselves as allies of the oppressed, but also feel like the special guardians of the most important truths about the world, the true bastions of objectivity. The scientists insist that, in the end, objectivity has been the last support of the weak. Here is a disagreement. It is a rather messy matter, a sticky point involving deep-seated but ill-expressed attitudes. Who is on the left?

I take this question very seriously, for I am deeply sympathetic to both sides. Some years ago, after a talk of mine about verisimilitude, a freedom fighter of days gone by insisted on the extent to which objective truth is called for, as a virtue, when one is fighting tyranny. The enemy always tries to steal it (Pravda and Trud were once newspapers named after the noblest idea, truth). The villains never could get away with that, so long as the last words are: “that simply is not true, liar!” My fighter would’ve hated those who want to unmask the values of truth, reality, and fact. They want, as he sees it, to remove the last ledge upon which freedom and justice can stand. I saw what he meant, and feel humble towards a man who really worked for the liberation of his people.

Nevertheless, a serious issue is joined. Feminists feel most strongly that they well know about oppression. Left/right: what did that mean except an army of men in the French National Assembly? Forget it. They see objectivity and abstract truth as tools that have been used against them. They remind us of the old refrain: women are subjective, men are objective. They argue that those very values, and the word objectivity, are a gigantic confidence trick. If any kind of objectivity is to be be preserved, some argue, it must be one that strives for a multitude of standpoints.

I have nothing to contribute to this debate, precisely because I am torn. Perhaps it is a generational thing…I invite others to confess to these difficulties, and to refrain from dogmatism.

9 thoughts on “I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately

    • “left/right polarisation of politics and scholarship is one that’s long perplexed me”

      Hmm. Except that the Hacking quote is about a division within the left. Can you clarify a bit, I think I may be missing your point?

      • My bad – I read it too quickly and missed the main point – I got hung up on the mention of left/right and the final section on dogmatism. But I think that the wider issue of polarisation of ideas still holds, even if it’s about where one is positioned on the left.

  1. Let me know if I am misinterpreting the passage, but essentially 1) truth/objectivity is the path to liberation; 2) objectivity isn’t neutral in the political sphere, but rather is a tool wielded for political ends (and thus plurality or transcendentalism must be adopted). So, as scientists, how do we reconcile the subjectivity of objectivity?

    Maybe you could clarify the debate here because I don’t quite see the contradiction. Scientists more or less describe the processes that shape nature/reality, but what we do with that information politically depends on our values. I evoke Hume’s Law here–you cannot get an “ought” statement from an “is” statement (you’re more tuned into the philosophy world, so let me know if I’m oversimplifying). In order to answer, “what then must we do?”, we have to have a goal, and that goal depends on our values. For example, I ascribe to John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” view of justice (create a society imagining that you cannot control “who” you will end up being in that society—i.e., minimize variance in the hands that people are dealt), and so I advocate for policies that achieve that view of fairness (e.g., given than we cannot control our genetics nor our developmental environment, and given that these factors can greatly affect our health, a universal healthcare system like Medicare for All is fair). Of course, you have actors from across the political spectrum who have their “economic analysis” on M4A to demonstrate its feasibility – the objective economic analyses are being used for political ends. But I think we can both remain advocates of universal healthcare in whatever capacity while also taking into account the different mode assumptions of these economic analyses to improve the legislation of interest. My interpretation is that Hacking would see these different political camps clinging to a specific analysis in a dogmatic way, and therefore, as someone who rejects dogmatism, he may feel he has no political skin in the game (political apathy if you will). Correct me if I am wrong.

    Also, embedded in there is a simplistic implication that the “left” is dogmatic. Perhaps some strains are, but the socialist tradition that I’ve encountered very much centers self-criticism as a core value to avoid dogmatism, always emphasizing that we adapt our analyses to the material conditions of a particular situation.

  2. There’s a lot to unpack in this quote, which I don’t particularly want to do this morning (the juxtaposition of the ‘freedom fighter’ and the ‘feminists’ is particularly pernicious though).

    I’ll just drop this here: https://iep.utm.edu/fem-stan/#SH7b. Not particularly endorsing this sense of objectivity over others (I haven’t thought enough about it to do so), but the ‘feminists’ have long been well aware of and grappling with this, which does not come across in the quote.

    • +1 and in general, people seem particularly bad at representing other people’s epistomologies in good faith. Maybe because they are hard to explain, there’s always huge gaps between theory and practice, and so we grab the shorthand characatures and run (& run & run) with those.

  3. I agree with Dr. Ollerton. Nothing gets the gander of people on the left more than that a politician on the right would embrace pro-environmental policies. Elizabeth May, former leader of Canada’s Green Party, used to work for Brian Mulroney, a conservative who was arguably Canada’s most environmentally conscious PM. Fast forward to today, and greens are often mischaracterized by opposing politicians as “conservatives on bikes,” perhaps because they make fiscal responsibility part of their platform.

    As for the objectivity or otherwise of facts, some facts (e.g. Earth is an oblate sphere, genes are the units of inheritance) are so well-established as to be beyond question. Other facts, perhaps those mainly couched in theory, may be more, let’s say, fungible, and open to interpretation. Maybe what we’re talking about is not so mush the existence of objective facts as the political interpretation and use of said facts.

  4. My goodness Jeremy- talk about Pandora’s Box! You raise many important issues, and I do not know if there exist any easy answers. My lobbying career began in 1984 & continues to the present day. Sometimes, I work at it FT, others PT, and sometimes not at all. Politics is blood sport- & I’ve been bloodied more than once.

    I started out as a died-in-the-wool liberal. Over the decades, I softened my stance to such a degree that I am now completely non-partisan. Many don’t believe me when I say that, but it’s true. I stopped voting after the 2012 US elections- not because I am jaded, but because I just don’t care who wins or loses. Why, you ask?

    Well, I secured many short term successes when I lobbied exclusively with liberal politicians. When they were in the majority, I would win. When they were out of power, the gains I achieved were wiped out by the conservatives. Talk about disheartening- seeing your hard earned gains erased. But then, in 2012, US Senator John McCain took me under his wing and taught me the nuances of non-partisan negotiation. Dayum- it works like a charm, but it ain’t easy.

    Long story short- when you get both sides of the aisle on the same page, you achieve real legislative success, because your accomplishments stand the test of time. It requires really hard work, but I found it to be doable. My lobbying achievements since have become permanent fixtures. I find that very gratifying.

    Your point about feminism is something I’ve pondered. In some ways, I find their agenda to be extremist, but in others not so much. For example- the feminist lobby in the US insists upon no-limits abortion, including partial birth abortion of viable fetuses. Yet, the lion’s share of other nations limit abortion to 12 weeks gestation. I think that’s reasonable, unless some rare medical condition threatens the mother’s life. But even then, a C-section, which is far less invasive & dangerous than an induced late term abortion- would rescue the mother’s & baby’s lives. So I just don’t get it, I guess.

    On the other hand, I believe in equal pay for equal work. Equal funding of men’s & women’s college sports/programs, etc. So in this vein, I support the feminist movement.

    Hopefully some of the gibberish I’ve spewed out here is of use…

  5. I think Jordan has this right. I believe that what sets scientific knowledge apart from other ways of knowing is that the primary objective of scientific knowledge is to get closer to knowing what’s true about how the world works. But ultimately, ‘truths’ or distortions of the truth can be used to support very different kinds of values. So, while, in my opinion, science, done properly, serves a single end – but how scientific knowledge gets used is at the mercy of the intentions of the ‘user’.
    What it means to be ‘on the left’ has become so splintered during my life that I’m not sure where I fit anymore. The core of ‘the left’ to me was always about equitable distribution of wealth, health care, education and justice. But believing in these things is about values not about facts. It’s the way I would like the world to be, not how it is or even how it should be…it’s just how I wish it to be. And where ‘what is true about the world” fits into that – I’m not sure. However, if we reach a place where we see ‘what is true about the world’ is an impediment to achieving our shared values (on the left), it alarms me.
    I haven read Ian Hacking’s book but it seems to me he is anticipating an issue (maybe a serious one?) that has arisen, primarily on the left – that there are issues that are becoming difficult to discuss. For example, there is room for serious discussion about what the future consequences of climate change (for material well-being, for human health, wealth disparity, for other organisms on the planet) will be, but the heterodox view on the left that it will be homogenously catastrophic.
    Similarly, the transgender discussion is fraught because the range of acceptable positions is so narrow in some circles. In those circles, any opinion outside the prescribed range is seen as transphobic no matter how good the intentions of the people involved.
    And we have seen recent reports that early claims that masks weren’t very helpful for reducing covid-19 transmission were motivated by a concern that the people most in need of PPE wouldn’t be able to get it, if the general public was told that masks were a good thing.. Similarly, the negative consequences of free trade for some industries were often denied because there was a concern that the general public wouldn’t be able to appreciate the ‘greater good’ argument . Any time the truth is seen as an impediment to achieving some shared value (e.g. ensuring that those most in need get masks or generating support for free trade) I get worried.
    Useful discussion has to allow for people of good faith to be wrong about climate change or on transgender issues or on wealth distribution without being pilloried. The role of science isn’t to be the ultimate arbiter in these discussions – because, all science will be able to provide is our best estimate of the ‘truth’. The idea that a shared vision of the ‘truth’ can get us to a kinder, gentler more equitable society is, in my mind, misguided. The shared preference for a kinder, gentler more equitable society is what will get us there. But the idea that a shared vision of what’s true is an impediment is deeply worrying to me.

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