“The picture of science that they defend, however, is what merits the most attention.“
last article for Merion West, I addressed the work of the authors of the Grievance Studies or “Sokal Squared” hoax. This essay is a follow up to the last one with two purposes. First, I want to clarify, as specifically as possible, what my criticisms of their work is. Some of this could have gotten lost—maybe understandably—in discussions of the analytic/synthetic distinction, paraconsistent logics, and mathematical pluralism. Second, I want to address what I think they get right and why it matters for a socialist left. In the previous essay, I mentioned in passing that I do agree with some of what they have to offer, but I did not elaborate. I will do so here. These are not two separate goals; they are necessarily intertwined. The reason why it is important to critique the aspects of their work that are inaccurate is because the things they get right are important and, thus, have a very broad appeal. In that sense, what I am trying to do in these two essays is analogous to what the late Michael Brooks did in his excellent book Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right. In it, he critiques figures in the Intellectual Dark Web, such as Jordan Peterson, while acknowledging that the questions of individual meaning and anxiety in young men that Peterson seeks to address are highly important—and are responsible for his popularity. As such, the Left would be unwise to dismiss them. In the same way, I think Pluckrose, Lindsay, and Boghossian’s claims about knowledge and science touch on fundamental issues.n my
Before moving on, there are a few issues that they bring up that I think are correct in such an obvious way that I will not discuss them. The main examples of this, in my view, are cancel culture and freedom of speech. The former is obviously bad, and the latter is obviously good. We may disagree, I suspect, about how much of an existential threat cancel culture really is—or whether it is possible to cancel outgroup members, for example. However, we agree on its fundamentally bad nature. To begin, then, I will re-state the basic claims of my critique, expand on them, and then explain how they relate to what they get right.
- The structure of claims made by Social Justice scholarship is not unscientific.
- The basic pictures of science and truth that they present are overly simplistic and contrary to actual scientific theory and practice.
- While I take them at their word when they claim they are secular liberal humanists, their picture of science and truth ends up being highly useful for those holding reactionary views.
The second one is, in my view, the most important because it is the one that serves as the basis for all their other claims and critiques. Now, in regards to this, there are two things that I am not arguing: I do not think that science is Western, white, male, or anything else of that nature. Nor do I claim that to be their position. To me, their position is that science and reason are common to all humans and cultures. I agree with this position and, in fact, this is at the heart of what I think they get right. Related to this is the place of science in the West. I have written before why the idea of Western Civilization, Western Society, or the West (as something more than a mere geographic location) is not very helpful. But, for now, let us sidestep this and just take it as a given. In my view, claiming, as Peter Boghossian has, that undermining science in favor of alternate ways of knowing is among the steps toward the destruction of Western Civilization, necessarily implies that science somehow underpins Western Civilization. Saying this, however, does not imply that science is Western. By way of analogy, one could claim that classical Greek culture underpinned Roman civilization. Yet, it would be ridiculous to infer from that statement that classical Greek culture is actually Roman. So, in terms of whether science underpins Western culture, I could even admit it is somewhat accurate, insofar as the legacy of the Enlightenment continues to be strongly felt today.
The problem, then, is not that science is or is not Western but, rather, that their characterization of how it works (and what it does) is simply not accurate. Let us restate the issues as concisely as possible and then explore what they get right. As I argued in the previous essay, the central problem has to do with ideas of truth and how to arrive at truth. James Lindsay, in particular, constantly mentions the term “objective truth.” There are a few entries in the New Discourses social justice encyclopedia (Lindsay’s project) that are helpful. The entry on objectivity is a good place to start. While it correctly identifies the notion of objectivity as an ideal to strive for that cannot be fully achieved in practice, it presents a kind of dualistic picture in which the subjectivist postmodernists who defend relativist notions of truth are on one side, and on the other is everyone who is favor of science and truth as correspondence to reality. This idea, which has been analyzed before (as used by James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian), is echoed throughout several entries in Lindsay’s encyclopedia, such as those entires on reality, truth, and positivism.
This last one is the one that most accurately captures the problem. First, it begins with the following rather odd phrase: “Positivism, or sometimes logical positivism.” This should ring alarm bells for anyone who has studied philosophy of science because positivism and logical positivism are two very different—and mostly unrelated—schools of thought. The former was started by the French sociologist Auguste Comte, and it was chiefly concerned with applying the methodology of the natural sciences to the study of society. Logical positivism, on the other hand, was a school of thought of the early 20th century that sought to explain the impact that new developments in physics—Einstein’s relativity, in particular—had on epistemology, and it grew out of neo-Kantian philosophy. The encyclopedia’s entry on positivism explains that, according to positivism, a proposition needs to be empirically verified or logically proven to constitute knowledge. This suggests that what the entry refers to is specifically logical positivism (also called logical empiricism) because this describes the verification principle—an important aspect of this school of thought. But here, things get quite more complicated.
It is certainly true that logical empiricism was one of the most scientifically-inclined schools of thought, but the entry ascribes to it many other views that provide a kind of foil for what is presented as postmodernism and Social Justice Theory. However, they are questionable at best and obscure the much more nuanced reality of empiricism and the philosophy of science. According to the encyclopedia, “positivist attitudes would therefore say that there is something called objective truth, objective knowledge, or objectivity.” Further, this school of thought is presented as a contrast with postmodernism:
“Positivism is, in some sense, the arch-enemy of both postmodern Theory and, as a consequence, the Theory of Critical Social Justice. Theory (or, these Theories, if preferred) vigorously reject the idea that objectivity is desirable or possible and that truth has any necessary correspondence with reality…
Postmodern philosophy in general is not merely generally anti-realist (seeing no reliable connection between statements about reality and reality itself) but is radically anti-positivist.”
I think it is fair to say that postmodern philosophy is, in some sense, anti-realist. The problem with this is that if one examines both the primary and secondary literature, this radical contrast quickly falls apart. Let us look, for example, at “Empiricism, semantics, and ontology” by Rudolf Carnap, perhaps the most influential of all the logical empiricists. In it, Carnap seeks to address whether we can meaningfully answer metaphysical questions such as what there is. Carnap’s argument is that questions like this are fundamentally undecidable. All we can do is accept linguistic frameworks in which certain classes of things exist. So, for example, asking if numbers are real is a meaningless question, but we can accept mathematics as a linguistic framework which uses numbers. Inside such a framework, the question “are there numbers?” becomes trivially true. What is interesting is that his opening example is the world of things—that is, material reality. With respect to this, he argues the following:
“To accept the thing world means nothing more than to accept a certain form of language, in other words, to accept rules for forming statements and for testing accepting or rejecting them. The acceptance of the thing language leads on the basis of observations made, also to the acceptance, belief, and assertion of certain statements. But the thesis of the reality of the thing world cannot be among these statements, because it cannot be formulated in the thing language or, it seems, in any other theoretical language.”
Here, Carnap—one of the chief exponents of logical positivism—is effectively saying that the question about the reality of the external world is simply what we accept pragmatically—not something that we are committed to as being ultimately provable. If this sounds like anti-realism—what Lindsay’s encyclopedia (accurately) claims that postmodernists advocate—it is. Specifically, it is a form of scientific anti-realism called instrumentalism, which posits that theoretical terms like “photon” or “electron” do not necessarily refer to real physical entities but are just theoretical constructs useful in predicting actually observable phenomena. Additionally, there is the problem of truth and correspondence to reality, which is brought up so frequently by Lindsay, both in the encyclopedia and elsewhere. Yet, the logical positivists endorsed a theory of truth that is, in many ways, the opposite of the correspondence theory, namely, the coherence theory of truth. In a nutshell, this means that for a proposition to be true, it has to be consistent with a larger set of propositions that form our explanation of the world. As James O. Young explains in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, many logical positivists, such as Carl Gustav Hempel and Otto Neurath endorsed this theory. Specifically, he explains that according to their view “we can only know that a proposition coheres with a set of beliefs. We can never know that a proposition corresponds to reality.” Finally, there is the issue of mathematical or logical truths. These, as I explained in the previous piece, were starting to be questioned from schools of thought that had nothing to do with postmodernism: most notably, with W.V.O. Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” and much further with work on the foundations of mathematics, which led to developments like inconsistent mathematics and mathematical pluralism.
As another example, Rhett Allain, a professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University, wrote an essay for Wired magazine arguing that science is actually not about finding the truth but, rather, simply about building models.
None of this is meant to imply that we cannot trust science or empirical methods (we should!), or even that there is anything wrong with subscribing to the idea of truth as correspondence to reality. The problem is that scientific knowledge and epistemology—the discipline that studies knowledge—are much more complex and nuanced than the dualistic picture in which one side believes in science, reason, and truth as correspondence to reality, and the other is postmodern, relativist, and anti-realist. In fact, leaving philosophers aside, even practicing scientist do not always adhere to the correspondence theory. Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll has suggested that he finds the coherence theory most compelling. As another example, Rhett Allain, a professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University, wrote an essay for Wired magazine arguing that science is actually not about finding the truth but, rather, simply about building models.
If the actual theory and practice of science are not as two-sided, then it is easier to see why the first out of my three specific criticisms might be the case: namely, that the structure of claims made by Social Justice scholarship is not unscientific. Here, I am not arguing simply that there are relevant and valuable studies on racism or sexism that make concrete empirical predictions. What I am saying is that the specific fields they criticize make claims that are perfectly intelligible in causal scientific language, as shown by Liam Kofi Bright et al. in their paper “Causally Interpreting Intersectionality Theory.”
I mentioned three specific criticisms, and I have only addressed two. I will address the third further on. As I stated in the introduction, my main goal here is to address what they get right. The only reason the previous section was as long is because I want to be as precise as possible about what my criticism is. A good place to start with what they get right is something that I already mentioned briefly: their defense of science as our best method of approaching knowledge. This may not seem like a novel idea; however, I want to emphasize the “our” part of this position. Unlike other public intellectuals such as some members of the Intellectual Dark Web like Ben Shapiro—or some others even further to the right—Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian emphasize the universal character of science: It belongs to humanity as a whole—not just to the West. This is something that they extend to politics and ethics, I believe rightly. In chapter 10 of their book Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody, they discuss how liberal democracy, regulated capitalism, and scientific knowledge are the answer to the problems that they see as afflicting modern society. In this chapter, they write the following:
“Liberalism is also hard to place. It makes little sense to speak of when it began or how it developed, even though we can name philosophers who have articulated its essence, most of whom lived in the West in modern times. These thinkers include Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Bacon, Thomas Paine, and many, many others. They drew inspiration from earlier thinkers in other traditions, reaching all the way back to Classical Greece two thousand years earlier, and provided concepts and arguments that continue to persuade and inspire liberals to this day. They did not, however, invent liberalism, which belongs neither to a historical period nor to a geographical location. The underlying impulse toward liberalism can be found in every time and place.”
This raises a very valid point and one which is crucial for the socialist left. Now, I think their contention that liberalism is hard to place is questionable. It is hardly controversial to assert that the political ideology that we now know as liberalism began with the English social contract theorists like Thomas Hobbes and, particularly, John Locke—and that the theorists that they mention were theorists of liberalism insofar as they were working on the tradition started by them. In a way, this is anachronistic in the same way that it would be to ask whether Plato was a Marxist because he advocated for collective ownership. However, I think their underlying point is correct and essential.
They are in good company, as well. In some ways, the argument they are making here is similar to the one that the Indian Nobel-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen makes in his excellent essay “Human Rights and Asian Values.” Sen wrote that essay partly to criticize certain Asian authoritarian political models. The leaders of these countries, such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew often invoked Asian values as a justification for their anti-democratic and anti-human rights tendencies. Liberalism and democracy, they claimed, worked in the West because they were compatible with Western values. But the East—influenced by philosophies like Confucianism and Hinduism with its embrace of castes—would always work better under strong authorities. Sen counters this by pointing to important Asian figures and philosophical traditions that embraced values that we would identify with liberalism such as equality and toleration. As such, the claim that certain political systems and ideologies “belong” to certain peoples or geographical areas become rather suspect and, likely, little more than a rationale for autocratic rule.
Interestingly, while Sen is primarily concerned with discourse coming from Asian leaders, and Lindsay and Pluckrose, with discourse coming from academia in the West, there is one quotation that Sen uses to characterize his opponents’ position that looks exactly like the kind of discourse that Lindsay and Pluckrose are criticizing. The quotation comes from the Singaporean foreign minister who, at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, argued that “universal recognition of the ideal of human rights can be harmful if universalism is used to deny or mask the reality of diversity.” Now, the problem with criticizing a statement such as this one is that it is not completely baseless. John Stuart Mill, for example, one of the most influential liberal thinkers was a defender of British Colonialism. Furthermore, his defense was predicated on the idea that less advanced cultures would benefit from British rule precisely because it would bring the values of liberty and toleration to those societies. This kind of reasoning clearly makes a statement like the Singaporean foreign minister’s much harder to ignore.
Again, I am not disputing that science has been misused for nefarious and inhumane purposes, but once phrases like “inextricably entangled” are used, I think the criticism goes into dangerous territory.
The problem is also not limited to the political sphere. In a piece for The Conversation titled “Decolonise science – time to end another imperial era,” University of Reading professor Rohan Deb Roy explores the ways in which science was used to advance and justify colonialism. Again, he provides ample evidence for his assertions, but he also makes some claims that—while defensible—do go too far for me. He argues, for example, that “modern Western science was inextricably entangled with colonialism, especially British imperialism.” This type of argumentation is what makes the work of Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian so attractive. Again, I am not disputing that science has been misused for nefarious and inhumane purposes, but once phrases like “inextricably entangled” are used, I think the criticism goes into dangerous territory. This is because I think it can suggest in some ways that science cannot be separated from its misuses. This, again, makes the arguments from Lindsay and Pluckrose that I just described very attractive. Ultimately, however, Deb Roy is not saying that we should abandon science. He even contrasts his own position with that of a student from the University of Cape Town who, in a viral YouTube video, actually argues that science cannot accommodate non-Western perspectives and experience. As such, he believes it should be scrapped completely and built again from scratch in a more inclusive way—again, exactly the kind of argument that Lindsay and Pluckrose so often criticize. I should add that, as of the time of writing, the video has almost 1.4 million views but about one upvote for every ten downvotes. This suggests that the popularity of the video is probably based more on negative reactions to it than widespread agreement with its ideas. It is also a student making these points, not a professor, or anyone else who is charged with imparting knowledge. As such, it would be a mistake to take these views as somehow mainstream, but the fact is that they do exist and some people hold them.
Insofar as they are criticizing this type of views in particular, I think Lindsay and Pluckrose have a valid point. Whether the authors to which they attribute them do hold them is a different matter, which I will not address, but which Samuel Hoadley-Brill, a PhD student in philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center addresses in his review of Cynical Theories for Liberal Currents. Ultimately, however, even if he is fully onboard with the idea of decolonializing science, Deb Roy still argues that trying to uproot science is a bad idea that would be seized by religious fundamentalists and others such as climate change deniers. Furthermore, he argues that it would do a disservice to the legacy of people such as anti-caste and atheist activists in India who fought for science. Here, though, I suspect, again, that Lindsay and Pluckrose would not be satisfied with this and would probably also object to the idea that science has been inextricably linked with its misuses during colonialism. As I said earlier, I also think this is a problem because it suggests that the wrongdoings of the people who misused science are somehow imprinted on scientific knowledge. And while I think it is crucial that science education includes the history and anthropology of science, precisely so that future generations of scientists are aware of these horrific events, we cannot fall into the trap of putting the blame directly on science—something that the student on the video certainly does (and that someone like Deb Roy might do to a lesser degree or, at least, leave the door open to it).
I think this is crucially important for the Left because, after all, the Left should aim towards a universal cosmopolitan ideal like the one that Michael Brooks defended. If we are going to reach an ideal like that, it cannot be done on the basis of particularistic or essentializing ideas. The problem is that, even if this is the goal, I think the Left can quite often get caught up in language and issues relating to conflict and struggle. This is particularly true of those that pit, for example, the developing world against the developed world. Now, there is a reason for that, of course. Imperialism was a real historical process, and its impact can still be felt strongly today in many of the worlds ex-colonies. Committed Marxists—such as Lenin and many like him in the developing world—dedicated much of their thought to imperialism and the conflict meant to bring about its end, and for good reason. But again, a universalist cosmopolitan political ideal cannot be built solely on anti-imperialism. This is, in part, because after imperialism we are still left with nations and peoples throughout the globe each pursuing their own interest and potentially entering into further conflict; but it is also because, as Amartya Sen argued, the language of anti-imperialism can be appropriated and deployed against ideas such as human rights that should not even be considered Western. With all this in mind, I think it is clear why a defense of universalism and liberal values can be so appealing. Now, I would go further in many ways. I think that we should go further even than regulated capitalism. I believe that the market will remain a good method of distribution, but I would also argue that companies should be collectively owned by their employees. Finally, to borrow from Michael Brooks one last time, I also believe that liberal values such as legal equality and civil and political rights have to be part of a socialist project, even if it includes more ambitious goals like direct democracy wherever practicable.
In much of this, they, therefore, are largely correct. It then falls on the Left to address these valid concerns, much like it remains important to address questions of meaning and fulfillment raised by figures like Jordan Peterson because, if it does not, the space will be taken up by those whose goals are antithetical to the Left. I would argue that in this case it is even more important because the criticisms raised by the likes of Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian deal with issues that are much more tangible than abstract questions of meaning. Questions of science and political systems are as material as things get, and materialism is where the Left is supposed to excel.
Finally, I want to address here the third out of the three criticisms that I laid out at the beginning because it gives a good rationale for why I think all of this is important. My claim is not that they are reactionaries but that their project is ultimately most useful to reactionary worldviews. This is not a claim about motives or intention—simply about effects. This is also related to their claims about science, as I think it should be clear by now that I do not have much of a problem with defending “small l” liberalism as they do. I say “mainly,” however, rather than “only” because some of their apocalyptic political language is reminiscent of the language used by reactionary postmodern conservatives. This can be seen, for example, when they argue that “we have reached a point in history where the liberalism and modernity at the heart of Western civilization are at great risk on the level of the ideas that sustain them” in the introduction of Cynical Theories. The picture of science that they defend, however, is what merits the most attention. As I argued previously, it is highly inaccurate, in the way it deals with issues like truth, realism, anti-realism, and the way different schools of thought addressed these issues. But the specific ways in which it is inaccurate matters because they are particularly amenable to reactionary thought. To start, the distinction between the good, objective, realist side, and the bad postmodernist anti-realist one has a rather Schmittian feel of friend versus foe. Further, I think it should be obvious that a project aimed at criticizing scholarship against racisms and sexism will be seized upon by racists and sexists. Again, I am not claiming that this is the reason why they are doing it, but I am saying that it is a predictable result. This also does not mean that I think this scholarship is beyond criticism as I hope I have made clear, and people like Robin DiAngelo have been thoroughly criticized from the socialist Left. The problem in this case is that so many issues begin to add up, which make this kind of project attractive to reactionaries. Finally, to use the example of gender, take a view that supports the idea that gender is solely determined by biological sex (and that there are only two genders), and everything else amounts to degeneracy. A position like this is obviously much more compatible with views of science predicated on cleat-cut boundaries, simple facts, and things of that nature rather than the complex relationship between language, reality, observation, and logic defended by the logical empiricists, for example.
Hopefully, anyone on the Left will take away from this more than just the criticism. Even if we find their solutions and conclusions widely off the mark, it is important to understand why the concerns they raise need to be addressed and why that makes their way so attractive. Only if we do this can we hope to take up that space rather than leave it for those who would use it against the Left much more aggressively than Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian do.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.