Monday, July 27, 2015

This explains why obscurist, ideology-heavy, “critical theory” interpretations of culture hold so much sway over much of the humanities

From Is a Science of Cultural Change Possible? by T. Greer.

Is it possible to infuse a more science oriented ethos into social science research?
I commend the intentions of this project and have been impressed with the research it has produced thus far. However, I remain skeptical that it will ever be able to dethrone the messy, unscientific narratives most historians use to describe trends in macro-history. In particular, I doubt our ability to ever produce convincing, predicative models of cultural change.
I think he is right to be sceptical that cliodynamics will be able to establish a domain knowledge with the integrity associated with any of the hard sciences such as physics, chemistry, engineering, etc. However, I also suspect that you don't have to have consistent domain knowledge in order to have substantially useful micro-knowledge. we don't have to have a grand theory of education in order to use principles of the scientific method to assess specific aspects of education in order to produce useful knowledge.

Greer goes into a really excellent (for its brevity) history of the dramatic shifts in social models of marriage and parenthood in the US in our four hundred year history. He describes the original Puritan model transitioning in the 1700s to the Democratic Model which lasted through to the 1960s and which has since been morphing into the Soul Mate Model. Independent of the relative benefits of each of these models is the question of interest to Greer; Why? Why are there these distinct shifts over time? Why do they occur? How can we predict them?
Mr. Bruce presents compelling evidence that both American political culture and American popular culture has been “dumbed down” over the last sixty years. Anyone who has watched game shows or news programs from the era Bruce extols, or has read through the archives of magazines like Time, Life, Newsweek, or Foreign Affairs can attest that American information culture has become more vulgar, less erudite, and geared towards smaller and smaller attention spans during this time.

I discussed this passage in a private exchange with Adam Elkus, blogger at Rethinking Security and Zero Derp Thirty several weeks ago. Over the course of our exchange we came up with nine different plausible explanations for why this "dumbing down" of popular media might have happened. In the weeks since then I have developed another three potentials explanations for the trend. But this is precisely the problem. As it stands now, discussions of cultural change are no different than the discussions of Rome's decline that distress Peter Turchin. It is easy to create a story that explains why Americans have grown less articulate and formal over the last few decades, or why their expectations for marriage have changed. It is difficult to prove which of these stories is correct. We simply don’t have the methodological tools we need to scientifically test one hypothesis over the other.

I am unsure this will ever change. A central problem is that many cultural values and meanings at play here are too nuanced to be coded or quantified, and thus hypotheses built on them are quite difficult to falsify. To a great extent this explains why obscurist, ideology-heavy, “critical theory” interpretations of culture hold so much sway over much of the humanities. To outsiders looking in these interpretations are obvious foolishness, but until there is a science of cultural change capable of falsifying these interpretations, the study of culture will remain a morass where nothing but academic fashion and popular opinion can privilege one explanation over another.
Emphasis added. That last paragraph packs a lot.

You can address many individual arguments within postmodernism, critical theory, critical race theory, feminism, etc. and show them to be empirically untrue. The problem is that the small numbers who subscribe to these beliefs are enthralled with the intellectual coherence of the overall theory rather than whether it is actually true, real or useful in its parts. There is no patriarchy, there is little or no institutional racism, there is a hierarchy of cultural productivity. But disproving the structural foundations is irrelevant to those seduced by normative sociology, a profoundly persistent anti-science caste of mind.

None-the-less, an insistence on evidence and empiricism and the scientific method remains one of the greater bulwarks to mere anarchy and rule by thuggishness.

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