Let’s get it wrong

6 02 2017

November 8, I snapped: something fundamental in me, something I thought I knew, I did not.

Now, the consequences for the country—and, perhaps, the world—of electing a poorly-informed, thin-skinned, D-list celebrity are dire: ‘malevolence’ and ‘incompetence’ are fighting for descriptive supremacy of this GOP-administration-on-meth.

Just in case it wasn’t clear what I thought about all of this.

But there’s also the personal, intellectual side, and here the unpredictability is more promising.

As I’ve mentioned, I followed respected Americanists in understanding the 2016 elections, in particularly, their understanding of historic trends and of the polls. It was reasonable to do so, and for that reason, I don’t regret it. They, and by extension I, got it wrong, and that sucks—hard—but they were wrong on the margins in one of those exceptions in which the margins matter. Such error requires reconsideration, not the wrecking of an entire model (although how much reconsideration is for them, not me, to decide).

No, what I regret is that I only followed those respected Americanists, and discounted my own abilities as a theorist.

I’m not a great theorist—too much the syncretist to toss out something truly original—and goddess knows I’m not a great academic (haven’t published anything in years). But I am a pretty good theorist, and I let my failings as an academic blind me not only to my own skills as a theorist, but also to the insights that political theory and the humanities can bring to political phenomena.

I’ve tried to hold the line for political science and the social sciences generally as sciences, that is, as forms of inquiry into the human subject and human systems, but I’ve never considered political theory scientific. I (and not a few other theorists, I’d guess) cede the contemporary empirical observations to the quants and to those who follow closely Congress or the parties or the policy process, and let their regressions and outlines guide me in my judgements of the course of modern American politics.

Okay, this sounds snarky, but I don’t mean it to be: instead, I’m telling on myself for not having the courage of my own disciplinary convictions. I think quantitative analysis is useful, and limited, and that past is often, although not always, prologue, but when it came time to taking seriously what theory—what an analysis of rhetoric, of what may be animating partisan declarations, how various actions may be interpreted, how this fits, or doesn’t, with what Americanists were saying—I. . . didn’t.

I don’t know why. This may be due to the distance so many (although not all) political theorists have traditionally held themselves from contemporary politics, to the low esteem for theory everyone not a theorist has for the field, to the fact that I’m currently engaged in a project which has my head in centuries past—and I think all of that’s true.

But it’s also the case that I had inklings, anxieties, about this election that I dismissed. Now, the main reason for that dismissal is that I have anxieties about everything, so I work (to varying degrees of effectiveness) to dial it all down so I don’t find myself curled up under my bed with gin and the cats. But I also knew our social fractures were not just figments of my neurosis—see my various entries regarding ‘loaded dice’—and I didn’t collect those fractures into any kind of coherent skepticism of the ‘this is fine’ narrative.

Why not? Maybe because it’s all too impressionistic, reeks too much of Peggy Noonan’s ‘vibrations’ or comes off as political woo: the quants, after all, have the sharpness of their predictions (even as the best of them warn us of the fuzziness on the margins) and offer beguilingly ‘scientific’ understandings—proof! evidence! facts!—of electoral politics. Abashed by my own field’s meager offerings of ‘interpretations’, I was suckered into forgetting that ‘voting behavior’ and ‘party politics’ are themselves not the whole of politics.

Again, I don’t blame them for my willingness to follow and, again, I won’t stop listening to them. But I will return to what political theory can do, what I can do, and try to make sense from here. It will be, of necessity, more tentative, smaller, and much messier, but may offer the kind of clarity one can only find amidst the tumult.

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She blinded me with science

17 02 2014

When to let go and when to hang on?

This is one of the conundrums ways I’ve come to interpret various situations in life big and small. I don’t know that there is ever a correct decision (tho’ I’ll probably make the wrong one), but one chooses, nonetheless.

Which is to say: I choose to hang on to the “science” in political science.

I didn’t always feel this way, and years ago used to emphasize that I was a political theorist, not a political scientist. This was partly due to honesty—I am trained in political theory—and partly to snobbery: I thought political theorists were somehow better than political scientists, what with their grubbing after data and trying to hide their “brute empiricism” behind incomprehensible statistical models.

Physics envy, I sniffed.

After awhile the sniffiness faded, and as I drifted into bioethics, the intradisciplinary disputes faded as well. And as I drifted away from academia, it didn’t much matter anymore.

So why does it matter now?

Dmf dropped this comment after a recent post—

well “science” without repeatable results, falsifiability, and some ability to predict is what, social? lot’s of other good way to experiment/interact with the world other than science…

—and my first reaction was NO!

As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t trust my first reactions precisely because they are so reactive, but in this case, with second thought, I’ma stick with it.

What dmf offers is the basic Popperian understanding of science, rooted in falsifiability and prediction, and requiring some sort of nomological deductivism. It is widespread in physics, and hewed to more or less in the other natural and biological sciences.

It’s a great model, powerful for understanding the regularities of non-quantum physics and, properly adjusted, for the biosciences, as well.

But do you see the problem?

What dmf describes is a method, one of a set of interpretations within the overall practice of science. It is not science itself.

There is a bit of risk in stating this, insofar as young-earth creationists, intelligent designers, and sundry other woo-sters like to claim the mantle of science as well. If I loose science from its most powerful method, aren’t I setting it up to be overrun by cranks and supernaturalists?

No.

The key to dealing with them is to point out what they’re doing is bad science, which deserves neither respect in general nor class-time in particular. Let them aspire to be scientists; until they actually produce a knowledge which is recognizable as such by those in the field, let them be called failures.

Doing so allows one to get past the no-good-Scotsman problem (as, say, with the Utah chemists who insisted they produced cold fusion in a test tube: not not-scientists, but bad scientists), as well as to recognize that there is a history to science, and that what was good science in one time and place is not good in another.

That might create too much wriggle room for those who hold to Platonic notions of science, and, again, to those who worry that this could be used to argue for an “alternative” physics or chemistry or whatever. But arguing that x science is a practice with a history allows the practitioners of that science to state that those alternatives are bunk.

But back to me (always back to me. . . ).

I hold to the old notion of science as a particular kind of search for knowledge, and as knowledge itself. Because of that, I’m not willing to give up “science” to the natural scientists because those of us in the social sciences are also engaged in a particular kind of search for knowledge. That it is not the same kind of search for the same kind of knowledge does not make it not-knowledge, or not-science.

I can’t remember if it was Peter Winch or Roger Trigg who pointed out that the key to good science was to match the method to the subject: what works best in physics won’t necessarily work best in politics. The problem we in the social sciences have had is that our methods are neither as unified nor as powerful as those in the natural sciences, and that, yes, physics envy has meant that we’ve tried to import methods and ends  which can be unsuitable for learning about our subjects.

So, yes, dmf, there are more ways of interacting with the world than with science. But there are also more ways of practicing science itself.

We just have to figure that out.





Are spirits in the material world

8 08 2010

I don’t believe in life after death.

There is life, here, in this world, and death both is and signals the end of life.

Now, is there something else, after life? That, I don’t know.

If there is something else, it doesn’t seem that it would conform to notions of Christian or Muslim heaven; those seem so earth-bound, so reflective of what we already have here, only someone’s version of better.  (A multitude of virgins or streets paved with gold? Really?) If there would be something else, wouldn’t it be. . . something else?

Backing up: I think of life as bounded by this earth, but I’m fudging on the whole existence thing, that is, we exist in life, here, and if our existence continues, then it would be in some other way.

Furthermore, that there could be something else doesn’t mean it’s supernatural. I don’t believe in the supernatural; I think everything—everything—is natural, and that that which is called ‘supernatural’ is simply something for which we lack understanding.

(And woo? Woo is a cover, a con: obfuscation masquerading as understanding.)

This isn’t rank materialism. I also don’t believe the (natural or social) sciences are sufficient to make sense of all worldly—universal—phenomenon; I’m not arguing that understanding necessitates a reduction of all things to the latest brand of physics. It’s simply that, if there is nothing beyond nature, then we’ll need new ways of understanding—new sciences—to make sense of that which current scientific methods cannot.

Does this tend toward a Theory of Everything? Perhaps, but since TOE is conceptualized in contemporary terms, it may be inadequate to describe all that there is.

And ‘is’ itself may be—hell, already is—called into question, along with ‘all’ and ‘that’.

*Sigh* It’s late and I”m not making sense.

I’m wondering about death because a little over a week ago Bean died and a little over a year ago Chelsea died.  I don’t think they’re in pet heaven or regular heaven or whatever. I don’t know if they’ve gone some place after death, if their existence continues, or what relationship that existence has to any worldly one. Maybe there’s nothing, maybe there’s something. I know they’re not with me.

But I would like to think, that if there is something, that they neither forget nor are constrained by life. This existence on earth, this life, is powerful, and if there is something else, I’d like to think it offers us more without taking away what we already were. Perhaps there is no full understanding on this earth, no way for us to comprehend all there is; perhaps life is to get us started, but it’s not enough, not enough for us to know.

I don’t know this, of course. And maybe this is it, and this life which is not enough is it. Perhaps this life is enough.

My methods are insufficient to determine one way or the other.