Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Calling something a science doesn't make it actually a science

From Sociology’s Stagnation by Brian Boutwell, a sharp criticism of the degraded condition of the field of sociology.

Boutwell's argument is admirably clear.
There is an old saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything is going to look like a nail. Not every social phenomenon calls for a purely biological/genetic explanation; but if you think that a working knowledge of evolution, biology, and behavioral genetics won’t help to clarify every topic that sociologists study then you need to yank your head out of the sand. This is, in fact, the entire point of the essay. It makes zero sense to exempt sociology majors (and criminology, and economics, and social work, etc.) from a working knowledge of genetics and evolution, and presume that they can be good behavioral scientists without this information. Unfortunately, there is an inertia at work in all of this that is deeply resistant to change. Faculty produce other faculty, who then teach undergraduates, who either head out into the world or enter graduate school for more brainwashing, schooling.
Boutwell references an earlier essay (1990), Why Most Sociologists Don’t (and Won’t) Think Evolutionarily by Pierre van den Berghe. Van den Berghe had a cogent argument calling for the reform of the field of sociology but wasn't optimistic. The concluding paragraph of his critique.
Such a theoretical potpourri is premised on the belief that, in the absence of a powerful simplifying idea, all ideas are potentially good, especially if they are turgidly presented, logically opaque, and empirically irrefutable. This sorry state of theoretical affairs in sociology is probably the clearest evidence of the discipline’s intellectual bankruptcy. But let my colleagues rest assured: intellectual bankruptcy never spelled the doom of an academic discipline. Those within it are professionally deformed not to recognise it, and those outside of it could not care less. Sociology is safe for at least a few more decades.
We have a whole generation of quasi Marxists in universities right now. The threat they represent is not so much ideological - the track record of totalitarian marxism is its own indictment. The threat they represent is the habit of lazy and muddled thinking, a condition which manifests itself so unpleasantly in students (and faculty) so desperately seeking safe spaces from ideas and realities which they find unpleasant.

Is there hope? As Max Plack said:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Or, as it has been paraphrased:
Science advances one funeral at a time.
We will emerge from this epoch of flabby thinking in academia but it will take longer than we would like.

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