One thing I’ve noted through the years is that there is a rough divide in academia between theory and observation. Actually, this is a pretty commonplace observation. What is less discussed, though, is the sort of hierarchy of prestige that tends to place theory above observation. Of course, there are exceptions, and unconventional theories often have to do both theory and observation in order to gain any recognition.
One sad byproduct of all this is that academics tend to cluster in tribes, and often recreate pre-existing theory under new names. Why? Well, because theory is more prestigious than observation! Take an example. “Einstein” is a household name. Why? Because Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity in physics. But could you name someone (and there are many names here) whose observations confirmed Einstein’s theory? Probably not. If there was more parity between theory and observation, academics would probably be more willing to conduct observation according to existing theory, rather than constantly trying to posit an influential “new” theory that may disregard existing theory in a completely self-aggrandizing way.
There also is relatively little ground for synthesis of different theories. Academics tend to have “departments” in universities and other institutions, and inter-disciplinary efforts are difficult in such an environment, on top of the difficulties trying to integrate theories within a given discipline.
Add to this the problem of ideology, in that, practically speaking, most social science theorists pick out a desired solution — what they want society to look like — and then conjure up a theory that points toward that desired solution, without spending much if any time making explicit their desired solution. Put another way, many social science academics actually spend most of their time making sales pitches for their pet solutions, rather than constructing theories, testing them, and only then devising suitable solutions to theoretically verified root causes of problems. That isn’t to say such an approach is inherently wrong, but those who deny doing that should be viewed skeptically — as ideologues not “scientists” or “academics”.
I think a radical solution to much of this would be to disallow name attribution on scientific and academic work. After all, is it really about the work itself, in its “objective” advancements, or about accumulating social and cultural capital?
Link to an article by Jonathan Latham:
“The Biotech Industry is Taking Over the Regulation of GMOs From the Inside”
The central dispute between industry and critics like Latham is over which of two approaches to adopt: (1) reasonably prove safety before commercial release, or (2) presume safety (and permit commercial release) until harm is proven.
Link to an article by Tom Bartlett:
“Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not”
A problem with “implicit bias” theory is that it has its own implicit bias of the cognitivist and/or politically liberal variety. In short, the question of detecting “implicit bias” is inexorably tied to a supposed “solution” (or “acceptable” range of solutions) that is less explicitly discussed, thereby denying the political character of how the question is formulated in the first instance. While no doubt the elimination of bias/discrimination/oppression is important, it is possible to question whether advocacy of political liberalism under the guise of “neutral” science is worthwhile to those ends. Conservatives, who are mostly the problem in terms of advocating for biased institutions, obviously oppose this stuff because they realize it is set up to be against them and their desired hierarchies of inequality. Moreover, offering political liberalism as the solution to the problem of bias has the subtle effect of excluding liberalism from being part of the problem — especially if liberalism is seen as being about limiting/softening but still maintaining the sorts of hierarchies of inequality that conservatism seeks. So consider what follows a critique of “implicit bias” theory from a left perspective.
- “[B]y policing the acceptable boundaries of conflict, liberals end up denying the existence of conflict altogether. Injustice, in the liberal narrative, is a product of misunderstanding, an offspring of faceless processes that no one really benefits from and only the ignorant line up in defense of. *** In the liberal imagination, education and accommodation are self-evident solutions, since the problem can neither be understood as a matter of brute power struggles nor as a product of structural inequality fundamental to the functioning of entire institutions.“
- “Implicit bias” theory focuses on individuals as the cause of the problem of bias, as opposed to systemic/institutional causes, and therefore posits solutions generally limited to individual choices as being both necessary and sufficient. The impact of socially-constructed institutions that mediate individual action is bracketed out of the discussion. See “Social Constructs” (there are more than “objective facts” and “subjective individual thought” categories, namely, “social constructs” exist beyond one person’s individual control and “subjective” thoughts but are also not immutable material/scientific “objective facts”). In this respect there is the problem of the supposedly post-political “third culture” and “scientific realism” tied to “implicit bias” theory, which fails to recognize the role of ideological social constructs.
- “Implicit bias” theory presupposes an “identity politics” framework built around instilling a fear of making offense. See “The Politics of Identity”. However, doing so treats bias as a root cause rather than a symptom or tool (i.e., means to pursue another end). See Racecraft: The Soul Of Inequality In American Life and Malcolm X Speaks and “Stamped from the Beginning” (basically a circuitous description of things Malcolm X spoke about many decades ago); see also The Wretched of the Earth; Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
- “Implicit bias” theory also fails to address Hannah Arendt‘s notion of the “banality of evil”. In precisely the same way Arendt characterized the Nazi functionary Adolph Eichmann not as a monster but as a stupid man seeking career advancement without concern for the impact his “career” as an administrator for concentration camps had on others, most “bias” is applied in order to obtain something (economic capital, social capital, etc.) within a framework of social constructs. Most academics seem to exclude the “banality of evil” from “implicit bias” as a matter of definition. In this way, it is of no surprise that any link between supposed “implicit bias” and biased conduct has failed to hold up to empirical scrutiny, because the “implicit bias” theory focuses on a kind of conduct that is rare (monstrous bias for its own sake, unconnected to the accumulation of various forms of capital), and avoids confronting the more common type of morally ambivalent, malignantly narcissistic social ambition in which people simply have no empathy or concern for effects on others.
- Perhaps the key thing that “implicit bias” theory (and liberalism in general) fails to address is precisely what Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality: “This destructive potential of envy is the base of Rousseau’s well-known distinction between egotism, amour-de-soi (that love of the self which is natural), and amour-propre, the perverted preferring of oneself to others in which a person focuses not on achieving a goal, but on destroying the obstacle to it [quoting Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques, first dialog] . . . An evil person is thus not an egotist, ‘thinking only about his own interests’. A true egotist is too busy taking care of his own good to have time to cause misfortune to others. The primary vice of a bad person is that he is more preoccupied with others than with himself.” Quote citation: “The Cologne Attacks Were an Obscene Version of Carnival”
- “PC anti-racism is sustained by the surplus-enjoyment which emerges when the PC-subject triumphantly reveals the hidden racist bias on an apparently neutral statement or gesture” See also “The Destructiveness of Call-Out Culture on Campus”
- “[F]ights for racial and economic justice have historically been intertwined, and black leftists have led the charge. This history shows that a separation between race and class is by no means inevitable: It took a concerted ideological and political effort by the Right and center to stop the rise of a powerful, interracial working-class movement.” (this article historically identifies the separation of race and class issues with red-baiting and McCarthyism)
- All too often “implicit bias” programs take for granted unequal power, refuse to combat unequal power (if they don’t outright bolster it), and merely offer at most coping/defense mechanisms to the enablers and agents of power structures.
- “The essence of liberalism is negotiation, a cautious half measure, in the hope that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a parliamentary debate and permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.”
- What is really lacking are programs to address how bigots should cope with the loss of privilege, coupled with (political) programs to distribute power/capital equally and eliminate privileges. That is, people who have psychological desires that are furthered by biases need to be helped to change their desires, which is very difficult. This seems to only happen at the fringes, if at all. One example of an attempt in this direction is Judith Katz‘s book White Awareness. See also The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South and “Life After Hate”.
Bonus link: “Understanding the Racial Wealth Gap” and “A Southern City With Northern Problems”
Link to David Wineberg’s review of Chris Knight‘s book Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics (2016):
“The Man With Two Brains”
Bonus links: “Decoding Chomsky. Science and Revolutionary Politics. Chris Knight. A Review.” (this review usefully relies on Bourdieu), and “Understanding the Labyrinth: Noam Chomsky’s Science and Politics” (“Chomsky’s stance undercuts the responsibility of scientists to speak out as public intellectuals against dishonest invocation of pretended science [o]n behalf of commercial and political interests.”), and Systemic Functional Linguistics, and Denial AKA disavowal (“In Verleugnung, the defense consists in denying something that affects the individual and is a way of affirming what he or she is apparently denying.”)