Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Faculty Follies - Socrates was not sophisticated enough to be a social scientist

Recently, I have been re-reading older publications in my areas of interest (informal fallacies in thinking and flawed reasoning). These older books and articles (from the 1950s and 1960s) are usually worth reading, as the authors of that era were less likely to be running a theoretical agenda, and were more likely to be able to write clearly. The book "Guides to Straight Thinking" by Stuart Chase was published in 1956. In that book, Chase reminds us that there were "two contrasting uses of logic as developed by Greek thinkers - uses still in sharp contrast today". The contrasting uses were (a) those employed by the sophists, in order to "advance somebody's power or position", and (b) those employed by Socrates (and later Aristotle), in order to "advance human knowledge".

In today's academy, the intellectual progeny of Socrates and Aristotle (the truth-seekers) tend to be located in the natural and life sciences. The intellectual progeny of the Sophists (power-seekers) tend to be located in the social sciences and humanities.

Chase provides a useful shorthand description of the modus operandi of real scientists:

The three steps in the scientific method follow naturally: First, get together the facts bearing on your question. Second, develop a theory, or hypothesis, to explain the facts. Third, arrange experiments to verify (sic) the hypothesis. Arrange them in such a manner that other competent observers can repeat them. Maintain a healthy skepticism throughout, and be ready to say "I was wrong".

I will use Chase's description as a framework for my own description of the modus operandi of many social scientists and other flaky denizens of the contemporary academy.

The three steps in the social-scientific method follow naturally: First, seek out a theory which accords with your world-view and social-emotional predilections and prejudices. Second, seek facts that seem to be in accord with your theory and ignore facts which challenge your assumptions. Third, arrange opportunities for selective observation in the field; and confound observation and interpretation in your data-gathering. Write up your study so that other like-minded social researchers can endorse your study for publication. Maintain an unwavering commitment to your a priori prejudices throughout, and never admit to the possibility that you may have been wrong in your assumptions.

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