Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Republican Brain

“Why are today’s liberals usually right, and today’s conservatives usually wrong?” To answer this question, asserts Chris Mooney, we need to explore “the emerging science of the political brain” (7). The result is Mooney’s latest book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality (New York: Wiley, 2012). 




Basically, Mooney sets out to explain what he sees (and has seen before) as Republican aversion to science by using the object of that very aversion–namely, various studies from the mind and social sciences. 

I won't go into too much detail on the book's argument, but a key question for Mooney is whether the split between “liberal” and “conservative” that runs through the book constitutes an a priori category of analysis and, if so, whether it’s a legitimate one. For Mooney, “conservatives” (and their opposite) are real, set apart by a deep, psychological “resistance to change,” which is tied to “less Openness to Experience (and other related traits), and helps to assuage conservatives’ fear and uncertainty about life and the world” (92). 


What you'll note is that this idea of "Openness"—one of the “Big Five” traits believed by some to constitute human personality—is itself a psychological category, one he defines as leading to “intellectual flexibility, curiosity, a willingness to entertain new ideas, and a toleration of different perspectives and values" (65). That is, “conservative” is both a legitimate social category to analyze psychologically and is itself defined in psychological terms.


If this sounds tautological, well…it is. And that tautology has a history. As Jamie Cohen-Cole has shown, the traits that cluster around Mooney’s “liberals”—flexibility, creativity, curiosity, tolerance—were brought forth by a very specific set of liberals working in the cognitive sciences in the midst of the Cold War. Research—and funding—on virtues like “creativity” exploded as part of the fight against an “authoritarian” other; political and social forces built the traits Mooney’s studies now take for granted. 


This revelation doesn't–or shouldn't–delegitimate the scientific ideas themselves. Why? As Ian Hacking and others have shown, it's the peculiar nature of the social sciences to build categories of analysis out of their purported object of study—society—and, by doing so, to change the nature of that object in turn. That Mooney finds evidence of shared psychological proclivities in a group defined a priori in (admittedly loose) psychological terms may be no fatal flaw—after all, there may be no other way.


So what's the upshot for us at AmericanScience? Mooney's analysis is certainly polemical, and there's probably a lot to doubt for experts and others, but what's new and useful is the fact that he puts flesh on the political "dispositions" and "epistemic virtues" that structure our political identities and culture. Invoking science to explain science (or antipathy toward it) is fraught with issues of reflexivity–but what account of mind or society isn't?


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See Jamie Cohen-Cole, “The Creative American: Cold War Salons, Social Science, and the Cure for Modern Society,” Isis 100: 2 (Jun., 2009), pp. 219–262.

8 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Hank. I remain pretty skeptical about Mooney's argument, but here's a different question: is Hacking right in wanting to limit the domain of applicability for his "dynamic nominalism" to the social sciences?

    On p. 40 of his collection of essays, Historical Ontology, Hacking lays out his position in no uncertain terms: “we ‘make up people’ in a stronger sense than we ‘make up’ the world," he says. The reason he gives is that whereas “the objects of the social sciences—people and groups of people—are constituted by a historical process” the “objects of the natural sciences … are … not constituted historically.”

    Is that right? Leaving aside the question of whether the human sciences and the natural sciences are a priori categories, as you put it, is there truly no sense in which the objects of natural sciences -- things like quarks, lasers, and species -- are socially, culturally, and historically constituted?

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  2. How are classifications in the human sciences different from those in the natural sciences? For Hacking, "human kinds" and "natural kinds" (his language, in *The Social Construction of What*) are different because the former "loop" while the latter don't. This looping means the former ("human kinds") are what he calls "interactive," while the latter ("natural kinds") are "indifferent."

    This is the key, and the key to answering your question. Do "natural kinds" impinge upon the objects they classify? Of course. But are they "interactive"? Not for Hacking. For him, to be interactive means classifications, "when known by people or those around them, and put to work in institutions, change the ways in which individuals experience themselves.." (104).

    Classifying dinosaur bones *changes* dinosaur bones, but does it "change the ways in which [dinosaur bones] experience themselves"? Probably not. And that's the rub, at least in his 1999 book: ontology seems subsumed beneath a notion of phenomenology ("experience themselves") that's imported to distinguish humans and the sciences that study them from others. But that's just my reading.

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  3. Yes, I know that's what *Hacking* thinks. My question was: is he correct?

    My reading of his argument is as follows:

    Let's think about the difference between a schizophrenic person and a laser. For Hacking, it's not possible for anyone to be schizophrenic prior to the psychological / psychiatric profession coining that term. The reason he cites goes back to an argument from Elizabeth Anscombe's book Intention, which states that all intentional action is action under a description. If we accept that to be a schizophrenic person is to act schizophrenically, it follows that one cannot be schizophrenic prior to the availability of a description in which that person is acting schizophrenically. This is not just a point about epistemology. He literally means it ontologically: to *be* a schizophrenic is to engage in *actions* that can be described as being schizophrenic.

    In contrast, lasers don't engage in intentional actions and hence exist independent of our descriptions. To be a laser is to be a thing that lases. And, Hacking says, although it is true that nothing lased before modern physics intentionally brought lasers into being, the ability to lase was always *potentially* inherent in the universe. Had the right particles been brought into the right relations with one another, even prior to the evolution of the human species, a laser would have come into being all on its own.

    I think the argument follows, given the way Hacking sets up the premises. But my question is: has Hacking staked the cards in the dialectical deck such that you can't help but agree with his conclusion?

    My sense is that Hacking has helped himself to a thick description of schizophrenia while insisting that we describe lasers in a very thin way. But if we insist that lasers also admit of a thick description, then their ontology suddenly becomes much more complex. And, I would add, it suddenly admits of a social dimension!

    The obvious question is what a thick description of lasers would look like. I'll leave the answer to that question for another time, but suffice it to say that supplying such thick descriptions is precisely what I understand History of Science, STS, etc., to be engaged in doing.

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  4. Oh my – I think we might agree! Since this rarely happens, let me just (a) clarify one point about Hacking's perspective on this and (b) raise a further issue with his framework.

    As far as (a), I think Hacking *has* stacked the cards, but I think the cards just *might be stacked* on this one. If, as you suggest, Hacking is primarily interested in *ontology* (especially in the collection of essays you cite), we need to ask why the ontologies of humans are different from those of all other things.

    This is where (self-) experience comes in – humans can have a sense of what "they are" (which is determined by psychology, external classifications, &c.), while dinosaur bones can't. Now, to bridge the ontological gap between schizophrenics and lasers, you can say either (a) other things do experience themselves! or (b) experience actually doesn't matter (as much as Hacking seems to think it does) for ontology. Which of those (or some other option) do you hold?

    As far as (b), and I'll keep it brief, I actually think there's a more troubling issue in Hacking's formulation. He bases the distinction between "intervention" and "indifferent" on the existence of this looping (which requires the "experience" I raised above) – and then proceeds to muddy the categories in the very psychiatric classification terms he studies (or at least some of them). So, on p. 119, he says that autism is both indifferent/natural (based on a biological pathology) *and* an interactive kind due to the human act of classification.

    This seems messy to me. Maybe Joel Isaac's concept of *Tangled Loops* might help us out here?

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  5. No, of course I don't mean to suggest that humans are just like lasers in every respect. That would obviously be preposterous!

    I was saying that Hacking is wrong when he writes that “the objects of the social sciences—people and groups of people—are constituted by a historical process” whereas the “objects of the natural sciences … are … not constituted historically.” But I never recommended we jump to the conclusion that just because the ontology of lasers is also historically constituted means there are no relevant distinctions between lasers and humans.

    I'm also not sure I agree that Hacking is wrong to "muddy the categories," as you put it, when he says that e.g. autism is both a natural and a social kind. I think that's precisely the point! He does not want to deny that a diagnosis of autism rests on a (real) empirical basis. That latter view is what constituted the traditional nominalism that he explicitly rejects in favor of his own "dynamic nomianlism" (which I think is actually better described as "dynamic realism"). For Hacking, the point is precisely that the ontology of autism is BOTH historically constituted AND endowed with a real, empirical basis. I see this as being a virtue of his analysis, not a fault.

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  6. So, I don't have my copies of Hacking here with me, but let me ask a question anyway. What if you HoS lads added tool use (or laser use in your example) to your consideration instead of focusing merely on the epistemic dimensions of the issue? I think this is a way of dodging Hank's contention that "Now, to bridge the ontological gap between schizophrenics and lasers, you can say either(a) other things do experience themselves! or (b) experience actually doesn't matter (as much as Hacking seems to think it does) for ontology." Let me explain.

    While our notions of what constitutes petroleum may have changed over time, probably more important is how our use of it has transformed. People have known about the existence of petroleum, shale oil, and other such substances for thousands of years, but it was only after we found new uses for them that we bothered to investigate them scientifically.

    Have the things we discovered about petrochemicals always been true? Sure. Whatever. But it is only through Lukas's "thick description" of energy technologies and the exploitation of mineral resources that we can begin to understand why the categories born out of petroleum engineering and thermodynamics (in Crosbie Smith's account) matter. Then we really are in an interactive space, and phenomenology (experience) is essential. The categories are also muddy: like autism, we can think about the scientific dimensions of shale oil, but we can also think of its socio-technical aspects.

    I would argue that "use" is just as important in constituting the "tangled loop" of the social sciences, as Hank softly noted. We've obviously used notions like schizophrenia, autism, and race to create social order. THAT, not merely the transitory nature of our self-conceptions, is why we care about the loops in the first place.

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  7. Good stuff. Here are a few thoughts:

    (1) Lukas, St(res)S-ed OUt, and I all agree that, if Hacking says non-human things have ontologies that are "not historically constituted," he's wrong to some extent. Our relationship to things – our ideas about, experiences with, and uses of them – helps to make/construct/define the ontology of them. No doubt.

    (2) I never said Hacking was *wrong* to "muddy the categories" – and I think we agree here again, Lukas. Basically, I think he's *imposed* a set of categories that, while legitimate in his own system (where "interactive" is defined solely as "looping in and out of the human self-conscious experience of the object"), he then proceeds to mix together because the world is mixed together. Just mixed together differently depending on the object in question (mental disorder vs. laser, &c.).

    (3) To this last point, I like the attention to *use*, but I think that (as far as Hacking's concerned) that doesn't constitute interaction in the sense of looping in and out of the consciousness of the object in question. So: do we think that there *is* something distinct about human and non-human objects of study and, if so, whether Hacking's distinction in their ontologies, even if wrong in its ascription of "historicity," is right to prise them apart?

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  8. I can go along with the distinction between human and non-human objects (though I am not sure where non-human animals fall in this division). This distinction is fundamental to many philosophical accounts, including many phenomenological ones. Sartre thought the difference was so important that he created some jargon for it, calling human consciousness "being-for-itself" and non-human objects "being-in-itself." (Of course, the really interesting point here is how the gaze of others makes me into an object and turns me into in-itself.) I am a realist and this separation seems, well, really real.

    My only caveat would be that, as historians, we cannot know what this distinction amounts to before the fact but only through our empirical diggings. We have to be so, so sensitive to how our actors' thoughts and behaviors are changing the very "natures" of the things around them.

    Also, we should be aware of accounts that challenge this distinction between consciousness and non-consciousness. For instance, on the one hand, schools of panpsychism--including the work of Galen Strawson--argue that consciousness is an attribute of many, if not all, things. Strawson also suggests that physics might be able to discover this characteristic of non-human things one day. On other hand, Speculative Realists, like Graham Harman (author of Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics), argue that consciousness hardly matters. Yet, Harman is willing to posit, for example, that a current could "enjoy" swooping around the ocean.

    Once we become aware of these challenges, we might turn to a certain school of American philosophy that has been animating me recently, and ask, "What is this distinction between the human and the non-human doing for us? What's its use?"

    For my money, ontology and metaphysics are tools for shaking up our worlds and creating problems and questions, not for giving us something to hold onto and supporting our common sense. I fear that Hacking's ontology assuages my anxieties just a bit too much, but I have already wandered too far afield...

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