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November 10, 2003

Fact or opinion

Assume two people get together to have some coffee.

"Fact" operates on the assumption that the senses can collect enough information to form an accurate picture of the world and that our reasoning capacities can construct theoretical models that have predictive power (ergo, congruency with reality). Fact is basically a methodological naturalist.

"Opinion" takes a more solipsitic tack, asserting that our view of reality is a construction of our minds, that we are influenced by preconceived notions and biases informed by our highly garbled (and already subjective) window on The-World-Around-Us. Opinion is the type of person who is wont to state that science is just another superstition.

Now, assume Fact and Opinion turn to expositing their positions on Human Nature. Fact makes a few statements that she believes align with reality. For instance....

  • Men are stronger physically than women
  • The human species is characterized by both cooperation and competition.
  • War is a human universal.
  • Patriarchy, more or less, seems to be the lowest energetic state transculturally.

Opinion thinks this is all bunk, he believes that such assertions are reflections of social biases and prejudices that have been constructed by the edifice of European patriarchy. The fact that Fact believes such things can have objective concreteness implies that she accepts the validity of the dominant power structure. Additionally, many of the traits that she believes are "natural," basically her essentialist positions, are most likely a reflection of genuine identification with the power structure. The raison d'être of the dominant European male patriarchy is the perpetuation of the status quo, war, competition and male physical & sociological subjugation of women, two gender categories which issue out of deep seated structural biases within the dominant paradigm in any case.

From the perspective of Opinion, though Fact seems to be a kind and compassionate person, the fact that she expresses such regressive opinions about human nature does not reflect well upon her consciousness of injustices wrought by the pervasive presence of the power structure that she aids and abets. Though Fact might not be evil, the opinions she expresses most certainly are, at least from the perspective of Opinion.

Stepping over to the other side of the mirror, Fact is a bit confused and amused by Opinion's opaque locutions and solipsistic rendition of "reality." Fact believes that Opinion is wrong, and in her more quizzical moments she might wonder if Opinion is wrong-in-the-head. But there is no great value judgement about Opinion's character from where she stands, and her own positions are absolutely provisional, pending further finds of fact or analysis.

The above thought experiment I have created encapsulates some of the problems encountered when the camp of Fact and the camp of Opinion engages in dialogue, at least from where I stand! While Fact maintains a high wall between is and ought, Opinion sees no great distinction and disputes the possibility of any accuracy in ascertaining an "is" in the first place, in which case, ought takes priority and suffuses all judgements.

Ultimately, such hyper-axiomatic caricatures are self-contradictory, Opinion after all shouldn't be able to pass judgement on Fact if all assertions are de-privileged. Additionally, I have been careful to qualify that Fact is a methodological naturalist to ward off charges of naive materialism. The negative light could be flipped around if Fact is portrayed in a Kelvinesque[1] manner and Opinion is viewed as a mild corrective that serves as a skeptical filter upon the premises of Fact's models.

But the reality on the ground is that the partisans of the camp of Fact tend to be a bit more moderate in their assertions, while the camp of Opinion in the commanding heights of the culture have slaughtered the camp of Fact in the humanities and are waging a ferocious pitched battle in the social sciences. In the natural sciences the camp of Opinion has used the leverage of politics to bludgeon any attempts to make statements about human nature that might conflict with the authority of its oughts.

And yet like the battles with the Creationists and assorted religious fanatics of all stripes, the camp of Fact has a difficult time taking the camp of Opinion seriously. After all, partisans of Fact wonder, "Can anyone doubt that those who assert the universe is 10,000 years old or that '...gender is but a social construction....' are daft, outside the bounds of reason and the circles of evidence?" On the other side, invigorated by their consilience of is and ought, the camp of Opinion is confident of the perfidy of their opponents, who produce "theories" that are clearly based on retrograde and destructive ideologies that buttress the established order and de-humanize those who are oppressed.

In many social contexts, it seems that the two camps are speaking past each other, not seeing the banality or political import in the talking points of the other. They exist as two dichotomous mind-sets in elite culture that are waging war across intellectual disciplines, and the participants in the individual battles often do not realize that the outcome of the conflict might determine the course of "Western" civilization....

fn1. William Thomson, or Lord Kelvin, stated at the end of the 19th century that all the great theories were under the umbrella of physics-only a few years before the emergence of Special Relativity and a generation before Quantum Mechanics revolutionized the field.

Posted by razib at 02:44 PM

How is your footnote not a nonsequitur? even if physics got a new umbrella, it's still possible to assert that the other sciences are under it. Possible to dissent too, but then it always was.

Posted by: Dick Thompson at November 10, 2003 04:01 PM

i was trying to present the "close-minded" stereotype that some have of scientists and their knowledge of the world. i am obviously of the Fact camp, so i personally don't think that the problem is that egregious, science is self-correcting & additive as you imply. nevertheless, the style of some scientists in excising qualifications and contextual information from their statements to the lay public are part of the problem when getting into dialogues with those who assert that "science is another superstition."

Posted by: razib at November 10, 2003 04:05 PM

Fact = she, Opinion = he? Methinks your pronouns are juggled :)

Posted by: lurker at November 10, 2003 04:13 PM

As a Fact myself, with an interest in the social sciences, but an inability to participate in serious discourse due to the dominance of the Opinions - don't you think this is at the bottom of why the social sciences go nowhere? Being a multi-disciplinarian by nature, I took an interest in trying to apply computer science principles to sociology. Imagine my dismay when I find that sociologists seem to spend most of their time discussing what "Karl Marx meant on page 37". Opinion seems to be nothing but a shifting sand, a cloud, a dream.

Posted by: Jamais Vu at November 10, 2003 06:02 PM

well, social science wasn't always so squish, and isn't everywhere. i recently read a factor analysis primer, and noted that the two people who authored it listed themselves as sociologists. these are types more interested in matrices than marx....

Posted by: razib at November 10, 2003 06:05 PM

As ? said: "Solipsism is great-more people ought to try it".
I drink my Truth coffee with two teaspoons of suspicion, but that doesn't mean I don't dismiss people who assert they are made of soft boiled eggs as lunatics. Relativism still makes room for little t truth.
But no fact is an island.
A web of understanding is woven around everything. Even if the center is strong enough to catch prey, its when you get to the farthest reaches of the web that you realize how flimsy and unsupported the whole thing really is.

Posted by: martin at November 10, 2003 06:17 PM

well, social science wasn't always so squish, and isn't everywhere

How true.......it all depends on the area of social science. I would bet that almost any quantitative psychologist would fit in well in almost any other branch of science. Whereas, a feminist psychologist, on the other hand, would probably make a difficult transition into any field that requires hard data collection and analysis.

It has been my experience that the more quantitavely oriented the social science (i.e., behavior genetics, statistics, psychometrics) the less "squish" you will find.

Posted by: Alex B. at November 10, 2003 09:38 PM

The "prescriptiveness" test often works well when chatting w/ with Opinion folks without requiring a capital T Truth.

It's trivial to postulate a different theory of gravity and trivial to prove that the idea that things fall down is more prescriptive than other theories (generally... in non-relativistic environments here in one local area on earth).

Once you start with the kernel that certain things are objectively Better than other things (if not necessarily True).... you can ratchet up to more and more abstract truths....

Posted by: Vinod at November 10, 2003 10:42 PM

Razib!?!?!?! Have you been spying on me when I'm out on dates?!?!?!?!

This was an uncanny description of how many of my conversations with people go.....

Posted by: Jacqueline at November 11, 2003 12:04 AM