A scurrilous attack on Sam Harris

May 1, 2011 • 10:16 am

The latest issue of The Nation contains 6800-word attack on Sam Harris, “Same old new atheism:  On Sam Harris,” by Jackson Lears. (Lears appears to be the same as “T. J. Jackson Lears,” a professor of history at Rutgers and editor of The Raritan Review). Sam has taken a lot of knocks lately, centered mostly on the neo-utilitarianism he espoused in The Moral Landscape.   But this is a broad-based attack on all three of his books, and contains a number of serious (and largely inaccurate) charges.

Before getting down to Harris, Lears makes a general attack on positivism (a view whose virtues seem self-evident to me) and on science in general, blaming it for all the ills of the twentieth century, including eugenics, racism and war:

Every schoolkid knows about what happened next: the catastrophic twentieth century. Two world wars, the systematic slaughter of innocents on an unprecedented scale, the proliferation of unimaginably destructive weapons, brushfire wars on the periphery of empire—all these events involved, in various degrees, the application of scientific research to advanced technology. All showed that science could not be elevated above the agendas of the nation-state: the best scientists were as corruptible by money, power or ideology as anyone else, and their research could as easily be bent toward mass murder as toward the progress of humankind. Science was not merely science. The crowning irony was that eugenics, far from “perfecting the race,” as some American progressives had hoped early in the twentieth century, was used by the Nazis to eliminate those they deemed undesirable.


Sociologists of knowledge, along with historians and philosophers of science (including Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger and Thomas Kuhn), all emphasized the provisionality of scientific truth, its dependence on a shifting expert consensus that could change or even dissolve outright in light of new evidence. Reality—or at least our apprehension of it—could be said to be socially constructed.

What does this have to do with Harris? Simply that he advocates positivism, Enlightenment values, and science as tools for moving our world forward.  Lear’s beef with Harris is multifarious, including the following accusations:

  • Harris neglects the good side of religion:

Sometimes religion has bolstered the forces of political sanctimony and persecution, as with Prohibition in the 1920s and anticommunism during the cold war; but it has also encouraged dissenters to speak truth to power—to abolish slavery, to regulate capitalism, to end the Vietnam War.

These claims about the net power of religion in regulating capitalism, and in ending war and slavery, are of course disputable.  Some churches did have these aims; others were on the opposite side.

  • The depredations Harris imputes to religion aren’t really due to faith:

Still, it remains an open question how much this ideological offensive depended on religious dogma, and how much it was the work of seasoned political players, such as plutocrats bent on deregulating business and dismantling progressive taxation, corporate-sponsored media eager to curry favor with the powerful and military contractors hoping to sup at the public trough. Even the rhetoric of Providential mission owed more to romantic nationalism than to orthodox Christianity, which has long challenged the cult of the nation-state as a form of idolatry.

What Lear is really on about is capitalism, and he sees Harris—indeed, all the New Atheists—as having an agenda to serve capitalism and the political status quo, using science as a tool:

To define science as the source of absolute truth, Harris must first ignore the messy realities of power in the world of Big Science. In his books there is no discussion of the involvement of scientists in the military-industrial complex or in the pharmacological pursuit of profit. Nor is any attention paid to the ways that chance, careerism and intellectual fashion can shape research: how they can skew data, promote the publication of some results and consign others to obscurity, channel financial support or choke it off. . .

Despite their disdain for public piety, the New Atheists provided little in their critique to disturb the architects and proselytizers of American empire: indeed, Hitchens and Harris asserted a fervent rationale for it. Since 9/11, both men have made careers of posing as heroic outsiders while serving the interests of the powerful. . .

If we evaluate those arguments according to their resonance with public policy debates, the results are sobering. Harris’s convictions reveal his comfortable cohabitation with imperial power.

I’m speechless. Yes, Hitchens supported our incursion into Iraq, and yes, Harris has said that we might want to rethink our policy (either official or unofficial) on torture—more on that in the coming days.  But the blanket accusation that both of these men are dedicated to serving imperialism and capitalism bespeaks a complete ignorance of their work.

  • Harris and the New Atheists lack a sophisticated and “nuanced” view of religion:

But Harris is not interested in religious experience. He displays an astonishing lack of knowledge or even curiosity about the actual content of religious belief or practice, announcing that “most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.”  . . . Harris espouses the Enlightenment master narrative of progress, celebrating humans’ steady ascent from superstition to science; no other sort of knowledge, still less wisdom, will do.

Lears, who is remarkably sympathetic to faith, doesn’t consider whether religion actually provides any “other sort of knowledge” or “wisdom.”

Finally, Lears takes out after Harris’s views on morality.  He makes some points that other critics have made as well, but infuses his critique with a vicious anti-scientism, citing Jonah Lehrer’s misguided interpretation of “the decline effect” as evidence that something is badly wrong with the scientific process itself:

These sorts of problems make replicating results more difficult, and the difficulties are compounded by the standard practices of professional science. Initial research success is written up for scientific journals, rewarded with grants and promotions, and reported to credulous nonscientists; subsequent failures to replicate results remain largely invisible—except to the researchers, who, if they are honest in their appraisal of the evidence, find it hard to accept simple-minded notions of statistically based certainty. The search for scientific truth is not as straightforward as Harris would like to believe.

If you think that Lears is treading on the ground of postmodernism here, you would not be far afield.  And that’s confirmed when he starts espousing moral relativism. He first defends the burqa:

As the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod writes, the burqa is a “mobile home” in patriarchal societies where women are otherwise confined to domestic space. Harris cannot imagine that Islamic women might actually choose to wear one; but some do.

Yes, and many others don’t, and how many of the ones who do have been forced or taught or indoctrinated to do so?  Things get even stickier when we come to the indefensible practice of female genital mutilation.  According to Lears, who comes very close to defending it, Harris simply doesn’t appreciate its cultural significance:

Nor is he aware of the pioneering work of Christine Walley on female genital mutilation in Africa. Walley illuminates the complex significance of the practice without ever expressing tolerance for it, and she uses cross-cultural understanding as a means of connecting with local African women seeking to put an end to it.

Well, this morning I spent some time reading the work of Christine Walley (another postmodernist and moral relativist), and I couldn’t find any intolerance for genital mutilation.  All she talks about is how the West should not impose its cultural hegemony and moral values on Africans who choose to mutilate their daughters (granted, I’ve not read everything she’s written on the topic). Here’s the peroration from p. 430 of her major paper on what she calls “genital cutting,” “Searching for ‘Voices’: Feminism, Anthropology, and the Global Debate over Female Genital Operations” (Cultural Anthropology,  1997, Vol. 12, pp. 405-438.)

Ultimately, however, the theoretical separation between clitoridectomy in Kikhome as ritual practice and the international controversy surrounding female genital operations as discourse is untenable. Discourse is also practice; it is not simply a way of understanding or thinking about the world, it is also a way of acting in it. Given that our discourse also signals a form of intervention, I would like to encourage feminists of whatever national origins, race, or gender to work against those assumptions being made in Western-oriented media accounts of female genital operations that reproduce colonial and neocolonial ideologies. Feminist anthropologists can also make a productive contribution by examining the social contexts of both ritual practices and international controversies and by exploring the power dynamics surrounding support and opposition to such practices, whether in rural African villages or urban France. For those interested in more hands-on styles of activism, critics of identity politics and hardened notions of culture are also pointing us in the direction of a feminist politics based on alliances and coalitions (Butler 1990; Haraway 1989; Mohanty 1991); hopefully, this brand of feminist politics will also be capable of critiquing practices such as clitoridectomy and infibulation without resorting to neocolonial ideologies of gender or denigrating the choices of women who support such practices.

Note that there’s nothing here about stopping the practice:  the closest Walley comes is the mention of “critiquing” it, although she doesn’t want people “denigrating” it. The vast bulk of her article criticizes Westerners who attack genital mutilation from their privileged colonialist position.  Both Walley’s and Lears’s pieces are steeped in postmodernism, with Lears’s additionally infested with anti-science bigotry.

Actually, Lears’s piece is much worse than I’ve made out here.  It’s largely a tirade, winding up with these words:

In The Moral Landscape he observes that people (presumably including scientists) often acquire beliefs about the world for emotional and social rather than cognitive reasons: “It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.” The description fits Harris all too aptly, as he wanders from neuroscience into ethics and politics. He may well be a fine neuroscientist. He might consider spending more time in his lab.

Harris, who has written serious critiques of religion and attempted—albeit perhaps not with complete success—to ground ethics in reason and science, deserves far better than this sophomoric rant.

140 thoughts on “A scurrilous attack on Sam Harris

  1. He criticises Harris for saying there may well be extreme circumstances under which torturing someone might be the lesser of two evils – and then goes on to say we shouldn’t be bothered that little girls are being tortured needlessly by having the most sensitive part of their bodies cut off without pain relief?


    1. Not to mention that his “defense” of the burqua is itself a (painfully weak) “lesser of two evils” argument, that if it weren’t for burquas, many of these women wouldn’t be allowed to leave the house.

      1. Yes, one could easily defend slavery the same way: better to take people captive than kill them.

        Ironically, I think Sam Harris is the one who would be capable of considering that argument, agreeing with its superficial plausibility — but then go on to look at the larger picture in order to figure out why such an argument would not, after all, justify slavery.

        From what I’ve seen Harris’ critics instead tend to truncate their reasoning into making sense within very small contexts — and then fighting to keep those contexts small and closed from the consideration of larger issues.

        1. “Yes, one could easily defend slavery the same way”

          That’s because it is slavery. It seems to me the greatest scandal of our times that the oppression of women is seldom regarded as genuine, actual, absolute, literal, exact and precise slavery. But it IS.

          I think that Lears, like so many critics of “new atheists”, is not so much arguing about real difficulties as exercising orchestrated prejudice for public approbation. That’s why he and his kind avoid the “larger issues”. He and Waller don’t give a fuck about the plight of suffering women, they just want to carve little respectable niches for themselves.

  2. Who is this idiotic prat? He seems a whiny sort, self serving to boot. His attacks are childish rhetoric and he’s trying to cash in on Sam Harris’s intellectual currency. Sam Harris has been studying religion for years so to say he has no understanding seems to be an exercise in willfull ignorance or just plain lying, not sure which yet with this twit.

    1. Ed Brayton made the same claim today at Dispatches, that Harris endorses the use of torture.

      Sam’s certainly become a popular target.

  3. The burqa as “mobile home.” Just. . . wow.

    Such people are not allies. They are not friends to women. They are not friends to the oppressed. They are anti-enlightenment moral-horrors who characterize their rejection of the concept of universal human rights as a marker of their ethical rectitude.


  4. These apologists for brutality are intellectually dishonest prigs, they attack those who defend the Enlightenment project. Why? What is the first cause of their stupidity? I really would like an answer…

  5. Feminists who have gotten it into their heads that only white women should regard the integrity of their bodies as a right, make me so angry I almost lose all ability to speak coherently.

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali also tears into them in her memoir, Nomad, rather more eloquently than I can.

    1. Amen, sister.

      How anybody can defend the burqa is beyond me, and Walley’s casual dismissal of the sexual torture and disfigurement of young girls makes me want to —

      Excuse me. I must spend a moment to take some deep, calming breaths.


  6. Lears is living proof that incompetence includes his entire rant. Someone needs to medicate him.

    1. Yes – & you know whenever you see the words ‘discourse’, ‘critique’ & ‘dynamics’ in close proximity, you are dealing with regurgitated postmodern vomit.

      As for Lears, I assume he lives in a mud hut somewhere. What would he propose? You cannot change history.

  7. It’s funny how he would accuse Harris of not having any understanding of the religious experience. Harris has repeatedly declared that there are ways, such as meditation, to enrich our lives, to address that part of us which benefits from self-reflection, peace, contemplation and a higher awareness of being.

    1. IIRC you can also take a nap which includes dream sleep. Same effect on brain, less effort.

      And you will live longer according to some studies. Now that is what I call a deal! [zzzz…/]

    2. Actually the argument is a lot stronger. It’s not just that Harris accepts that there is a spiritual dimension to human existence. The problem is that us Gnus actually take religious claims seriously and in their own terms. The only place I’ve ever seen misrepresentations, either of the arguments of the religious or those of the Gnus has been from the supposedly “Liberal” believers who try to make such play of their ability to “understand the other side” while systematically misrepresenting all of them.

  8. There are other types of knowledge besides experimental: historical, emotional, and logical. But all of these can be described by the phrase “reason and evidence,” so that’s really just a quibble about science in a broad sense vs. a narrow sense.

    Still, I think the point ought to be made more often that feeling a certain way in response to certain stimuli counts as evidence and emotional knowledge. Otherwise people will just claim that emotion is spiritual and conflate knowledge of love with knowledge of the divine, and then rationalists and empiricists will be hard pressed to claim there aren’t other ways of knowing, when people manifestly do feel emotion.

    1. This gets into thorny psychological and philosophical problems about what sort of intentional state emotions are. I’ll just refer you to the Stanford Encyclopedia.


      Saying that emotions aren’t knowledge doesn’t slight emotions though. I don’t complain that my bicycle can’t bake bread, because that’s not what it’s for. Emotions aren’t supposed to be knowledge. They are suppose to be emotions. It’s people who want there to be “emotional knowledge” that seem to be taking emotions for something other than what it is. Why would someone want love to be knowledge, rather than what it is, love? That’s what weird.

      1. Knowledge of a type of experience does not contradict the existence of the experience as well. One can have knowledge of emotions just like one has knowledge of sensation, and knowledge of the experience does not in any way diminish the experience itself.

        My only point was that to say one cannot have knowledge of love is equivalent to saying one has no reason to think love exists (if you don’t believe me replace love with god).

        Love is an experienced emotion, much like sight is an experienced sensation. Just as sight allows us to agree on an objective reality, so does love in that we can compare notes and find that in normal human beings having someone laugh at your jokes is conducive to feeling a bond of love with that person.

        Humanity is much more complex than rocks, so one would expect emotional knowledge to be a bit more complicated than kinematics.

        Though, it is important to make the distinction that the experience of emotion can only justify the existence of your experience and not of physical things like god or heaven.

        1. Emotions aren’t knowledge, they are an aspect to processing data into becoming information, which then only forms knowledge once it has passed a threshold of reliability.

          We can have knowledge of emotions, but emotions themselves are no more knowledge than eyesight is.

          Or at least that is my understanding.

      2. Nevermind. I just realized that emotional knowledge is little more than a reinvention of the science of psychology.

        I should reduce the types of knowledge to three categories: experimental, observational, and logical. All of which are simple reason and evidence.

          1. It was an attempted joke at my own stupidity. I thought I had discovered a worthwhile new way of looking at epistemology. How arrogant lol! xD

    2. But all of these can be described by the phrase “reason and evidence,” so that’s really just a quibble about science in a broad sense vs. a narrow sense.

      I fail to see it like that.

      Obviously we have evolved to see patterns and to learn. That doesn’t make patterns meaningful. There are patterns in random data (Ramsey theory).

      Moreover we can learn “just so” patterns, that will change when our data (experiences) change. Those may well reflect underlying data but map non-lossless (introduce degeneracy), so not reflect underlying reality.

      A good example would be genomes. They may learn a good enough way to make a nerve under development. But they do so by having alleles selected that have various codons. Most of the making lies in chemical processes of the environment of the genes themselves. They don’t know that they make nerves, and they don’t know how it is done.

      Nor do they know the result more than “it works”, that at some point it has increased fitness. “the recurrent laryngeal nerve originates from the spinal cord in the neck, as a branch of the vagus nerve. But then, bizarrely, rather than taking a direct route across the neck, it instead passes down the neck and into the chest, loops under the posterior side of the aorta by the heart, then travels right back up again to the larynx.”

      The difference is that science is able to get to universal patterns (say fundamental symmetries). It does so by relying on a lot of mechanisms besides trial-and-error and trial-and-reward and monkey-see-monkey-do learning.

      I don’t think there is any fundamental difference between topics though. Astronomy, geology, biology is historical in much the same sense as social history; biology and neuroscience concerns experience of emotions in much the same sense as social experiences of emotion.

      Even if emotions are individual experiences [and I have to agree with Bernard Orcutt, to promote them further is weird] they are shared by biology.

      1. Genomes are not conscious (to the best of my knowledge) and so are not capable of knowledge themselves. I fail to see how genomes have any relevance to a discussion of types of knowledge.

        Moreover I do not see the relevance of patterns. Did you mean that heuristics are another way of knowing that are outside reason and evidence? To the extent that heuristics overlap with reason and evidence, they are provisional knowledge, but to the extent that patterns don’t map to reality, they are false knowledge.

        There is of course a third possibility for any heuristic: getting to the right answer the wrong way (like it’s Tuesday therefore my astrological calendar says it should be sunny and what do you know it is!); this is simply guessing though.

        I still fail to see any problem with classifying all knowledge as deriving from reason and evidence.

        And I fail to see what’s weird with the following argument: experience shows me that I feel pride and happiness when people applaud my work, so I know that congratulations often lead to positive emotion.

        It’s basic psychology I would think, and the more advanced insights of such could someday be the science of morality that Sam is always talking about.

        1. A recent rediscovery of mine you might be interested in Miles:


          There’s also:

          Some people might believe that part of the problem is that emotions so “obviously” exist and yet they lead us to all sorts of painful conclusions (like rejecting moral realism :P) just as that other terribly obvious phenomena (my subjective sense of seeing red) leads so many supposedly rational philosophers to accept dualism.

          As for your comments on knowledge I’ll only caution against using a term quite as loaded as knowledge. It makes it difficult for me to make your comments fit with traditional philosophical analyses of knowledge. Evidence on its own would probably suit your purposes better unless there’s a particular reason you want to contrast it with, well, reason.

          1. All evidence-based knowledge is provisional of course, but I see no sense in abandoning the claim to have knowledge of reality, when theists and other deluded people have no such qualms about alleged things of which they don’t even have evidence.

          2. Sorry, that’s not the point I’m making. When philosophers start talking about knowledge we’re trained to instinctively start thinking Justified True Belief. Reasons and evidence are both just versions of justification. I wasn’t disagreeing with you, just pointing out that the standard philosophical terminology is a little more rich than yours on this question so it would just be nice to keep it in mind just to stop us poor philosophers getting confused.

          3. I’m sorry; I’m still not sure what my error was. I only ever meant that all knowledge comes down to reason and evidence, which is a colloquial way of saying “all knowledge is justified by reason and/or evidence.”

            I examined pattern-seeking, heuristics, and genomes as alternatives, but found them all to be false alternatives. What am I missing?

          4. Generally in epistemology it’s assumed that in order to know something you need three things: Justification, Truth and Belief. You need to believe that something is the case, that thing really needs to be the case and the fact that you believe it is the case needs to be non-accidental, basically it needs to be justified. You’re highlighting just the third part of the traditional analysis of knowledge; you either need the other two or a really compelling argument in order to call reason and evidence (Justification) knowledge.

            The other point was a more technical one about scepticism about supposedly obvious features of our experience like emotions or qualia. It probably wasn’t appropriate to bring it up.

      2. Nevermind. I just realized that emotional knowledge is little more than a reinvention of the science of psychology.

        I should reduce my types of knowledge to three categories: experimental, observational, and logical. All of which are simple reason and evidence.

  9. If the opposite of positivism is constructivism, I’m wondering what construction Jackson Lears would have us accept? Is the world that constructivism reveals to us any less or any more depressing or joyful than the world revealed to us by positivism? Are millions not still dead? Are humans not still corruptible? Do nation states act still not like bullying school children?
    We know the ugly truths of our world – regardless of the philosophy about the mechanism of our knowing.
    And I think, too, that we know – but generally do not admit – that humanity, being what it is, will apply science to a series of social and economic advantages for nation states that shall probably lead to the destruction of our species – if not, ultimately, the destruction of our planet.
    I do not mean to be nihilistic, but I do wonder to what purpose Jackson Lears proffers this attack? At the very least, Harris offers a mechanism to escape from beliefism to reality: Would Lears have us continue as we have? – with the wars and turmoil and destruction?
    C’mon – offer something better than the results of positivism or STFU!

    1. Yes. I hate to use that phrase ‘we are where we are’ but… he does not make any sense. You may not like the modern world, but it is all we have. How can you unravel the complex, modern world? He also makes another error, as technology is not dependant on science to advance, rather it is the science that depends on technology.

    2. My culture is Enlightenment rationality — how dare Lears impose his discourse of post-Modern relativism on my worldview!

      (And thus constructivism refutes itself…)

    3. As Deutsch notes in his “The Fabric of Reality” even the ultimate in constructivism, solipsism, defeats itself.

      (Roughly, we “construct” patterns, they behave as independent therefore anti-solipsist, therefore most of a solipsist is anti-solipsist, therefore it fails parsimony.)

      1. My favourite solipsism quote …
        “As against solipsism it is to be said, in the first place, that it is psychologically impossible to believe, and is rejected in fact even by those who mean to accept it. I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others. Coming from a logician and a solipsist, her surprise surprised me.”
        – Bertrand Russell

    4. Btw, I like the symmetry that constructivism refutes itself by construction, inductionism refutes itself by induction, while testing passes itself by testing.

      If you hit the ball sufficiently many times you may score.

    5. Me, I just struggle to get my head around the idea of anyone who looks at an attempt at knowledge and instead of saying that’s right, or that’s wrong, thinks politics. C’mon kiddies, knowledge and truth aren’t hard: they’re playground concepts we casually bandy around every day at the breakfast table. It’s explaining how we get as much right as we do while fixing the bits we get wrong that’s hard, but thank crud we got science for that.

  10. Give the subject of Lears rant the “Million Year Test,” wherein it won’t mean squat in 1 million years, or,
    it is important that people like Lears spout like they do, and we, as atheists and more so humanists, should encourage his behavior. It makes Harris look good, and thinking people will look at the issues and make the correct choice.

    I, for one, am not a hero worshiper. I like Coyne because he explains things to me, (a non-biologist nor a scientist,) in a manner that I can understand and THEN I get to make my choice.

    Many folks on this board who won’t read and then think about what Coyne posts, and only then make an intelligent response.

    1. Hm, I found it quite apt, considering Harris’ simplistic moral analysis and apparent ignorance of the study of ethics. I’m also rather surprised that many are asserting that Lears is defending or excusing burqas and genital mutilation, though I guess his explanation of what cultural relativism means in the social sciences was not understood. Honestly, it sounds like no one here has taken an introductory social science class. I don’t agree with many of the arguments made by Lears, but these specific criticisms strike me as remarkably poor.

      I’m sorry that I don’t have time to argue it in depth, and I hope someone will address it more thoroughly. I just found the one-sided nature of the discussion intolerable. I do apologize for the drive-by comment, and I will return later to read any replies that might be given.

      1. Don’t apologise for having an informed view. I won’t apologise for having an uninformed one, not having taken a class in social science as a separate topic.
        I do not know enough to say whether S H’s views of ethics are simple or not. I wonder what there is that is so complicated about ethics? ‘Social sciences’ I would say is not a good term. Some things included in the term are hybrid areas like archaeology but it also encompasses things that are not actually sciences at all though they may these days make an attempt to use scientific style methods. I take cultural relativism to mean that all cultures, regional or social (within social groups) are equally valid – ? If that is the case it is wrong as clearly some cultures try to base themselves on evidence (scientific culture) & some on make-believe (religious cultured).
        I expect strong criticism!

  11. What exactly does it mean to say that Sam Harris espouses positivism? Logical positivism in the philosophy of science (the sort of positivism I know) is manifestly *not* a view that can be tenably held anymore, whatever its merits when initially developed. (Part of why I’m confused is that Kuhn’s contributions to philosophy and history of science are in large part very much contrary to many central theses of positivism.) If 20th century logical positivism is the sort of positivism Harris espouses, he very much deserves criticism on those grounds.

    If it’s something else, what is it?

    1. I believe the positivism referred to is that philosophy that states we can know only what has been proven by the scientific method – not the logical positivism created / espoused by Rand.

      1. Rand? You mean Ayn Rand? She is certainly not the creator, or even leading espouser, of logical positivism.

      2. Rand was not a logical positivist, and she would have found it an utter anathema (for instance, logical positivism’s theory of meaning is entirely incompatible with the notion that ethical claims have truth-values*). Logical positivism was developed by real philosophers infinitely more sophisticated and intelligent than Rand, however much I might disagree with them.

        The sort of positivism you attribute to Harris is innocuous enough if properly restricted to empirical claims (which, I will note, claims like “God exists” clearly fall into – my restriction of the scope of the claim is not to pander wishy-washily to believers but rather to protect the idea that we can have moral and other forms of non-scientific knowledge).

        *Unless you espouse an ethical project of Harris’ sort (I don’t, but that’s another matter). Certainly Rand’s “ethics” are not allowable for the positivists.

    2. As I understand it positivism is basically empiricism. If the following sounds wrong to anybody, please enlighten me:

      A positivist sociologist might say that democracy leads to a lower death rate for citizens, because that is what the data shows when adjusted for relevant factors like health, wealth, and education.

      An antipositivist sociologist might say that democracy leads to a lower death rate for citizens, because people commonly value their own existence more highly than the existence of others, and they recognize that they are under the thumb of the government so they endeavor to force their government to value highly the life of each citizen, whereas a dictator’s head is not on the chopping block when deciding safety standards for workers, so there is less incentive to mandate safety.

      While in ultimate agreement, the positivist would say that the antipositivist’s line of reasoning cannot be verified or falsified. One cannot know the truth of the reasoning employed, and therefore the argument as laid out by the antipositivist is only her interpretation.

      This basically dismisses any question about meaning or metaphysics as unanswerable at best, and as one could imagine, scientists generally love positivism, but English professors and religious people hate it.

      1. Or at least, the positivist might claim that antipositivist reasoning cannot be definitive, even if it can give useful clues for further research.

        After all one can easily imagine a pro-dictator philosopher announcing that dictatorship enables efficiency, growth, and greater investment in health, wealth, and education, that ultimately leads to a lower death rate for dictatorships.

        Without the positivist to actually test the claim, there would be no way of knowing for sure which argument is right.

      2. Your “antipositivist’s” view is the way that evolutionary psychologists would weigh things, is it not, with survival strategies etc?

        1. It is indeed.

          Reason based arguments often have hidden assumptions with known exceptions like “survival is optimal,” or overlook alternative explanations and mitigating effects.

          In other words, there are many ways a reason-based argument can go wrong if it does not rely on evidence at some step. Positivists require evidence to keep the reasoning from wandering into crazy-town.

          For example, evolutionary psychologists can do animal studies to determine whether a presumed survival strategy is really at play, so they can turn a constructionist, or antipositivist, pure reason argument into a positivist experimental hypothesis.

      3. Positivism in the social sciences is as I understand it, simply the attempt to make a rigorous science of the social on a par with the physical sciences.

        Logical Positivism was a sort of outgrowth of positivism. It’s closely tied with the Vienna Circle of the early 20th Century, a group of scientists and scientifically minded philosophers. Their particular project was a little stronger than the positivist project. Famously they attempted to defend the Verification Principle which defined a meaningful statement as one which you could verify, prove as true. If you couldn’t at least conceive of what would make your statement true the statement was literally meaningless. For intance if you buy the Verificationist Principle then religion, ala NOMA, by definition has no meaning, it is literally non-sense.

        I’m not entirely sure about where the debate on positivism stands in the social sciences, but given of the amount of data running around the field it looks like rejecting it wholesale would involve rejecting a lot of actually good social science. On LP, in philosophy it’s generally thought to have seen its day, although almost nobody seems able to say why: they just gesture at Quine as if that answers the question.

        I’ll end by saying that critics when they bring up positivism on the whole tend to be very fuzzy about what they’re trying to argue against. More often than not when they do get specific you discover that what they *think* they’re arguing against is LP, but what they’re really arguing against is Physicalism, a somewhat related, but largely different proposition. Sadly it’s a shocking lack of scholarship that’s all too bloody typical.

        1. Well it’s a little bit more complex than that. My experience tends to suggest that many philosophers reject positivism not for its own sake but rather because they see it as correlated with utilitarianism.

          1. That’s a new one to me but my analysis is mainly aimed at people like Mary Midgeley and Marilyn Robinson. The only people I’ve seen making a big deal of the fall of “positivism” (sic) tend to be people with an ideological axe to grind. About the most charitable thing I can say about these people thought is that their ideology has hopelessly blinded them; sometimes I suspect them of something far more malevolent.

            In any case I find it strange to see arguments against positivism linked to arguments against utilitarianism. Maybe in the broadest sense in that utilitarianism is a positivist project, but it strikes me as odd that anyone would consider utilitarianism a bigger problem than “scientism”(sic).

    3. Btw, “There are now no fewer than twelve distinct epistemologies that are referred to as positivism.” [Wp.]

    4. Yes, the confusing thing for me was Lears specifying that he was not referencing Compte’s positivism, but it clearly wasn’t logical positivism either, since that didn’t appear until the early 20th century. I imagine he was speaking of what I might term “naive positivism”. Basically, the idea that studying human ideas, cultures, societies, and so on are as easy to study “objectively” as chemical reactions, climate, and sub-atomic particles.
      Great. Now I’m gonna be late. Thanks, Internet.

  12. I don’t think anybody tries to claim science isn’t a social process with historical (astronomy, geology, biology) and social (economy) constraints. Nor that it isn’t affecting society (medicine, computers).

    But anyone who claims that facts and theories are absolutely provisional hasn’t kept up with science history: the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood. Which is ironic, since this is supposed to be a professor of history.

    More generally, this is exactly what we would expect from testing, where variation and selection provides “fit” individuals! And since we can only expect a finite set of theories to parsimonously predict a finite set of test on finite sets of parameter values, we will barring constraints arrive at an exclusive answer too.

    I believe Kuhn has spoken of paradigms as “the set of practices that define a scientific discipline at any particular period of time”. But in this loose sense there is really only one paradigm of science as a whole since about 16th century when it all come together in a useful process. And that has never changed much nor lessened in usefulness.

    That subtopics will change in usefulness and popularity et cetera, is to be expected and what is found. Specifically, what is supposed to be a measurable definition of “paradigm”? If you want to replace common models of science, you would need to predict that they do and more.

    Lears makes a general attack on positivism (a view whose virtues seem self-evident to me)

    Right. As somebody noted over at Sean “Physicalist” Carroll’s blog, most working scientists seem to hold that view – because it works. You can’t argue with that.

    Someone who is unabashed positivist is the tremendously knowledgeable Cosma Shalizi.

    science as the source of absolute truth

    I do think he means “science as the absolute source of (provisional) truth”. And yes, it is.

  13. His critique of religion is a stew of sophomoric simplifications: he reduces all belief to a fundamentalist interpretation of sacred texts, projecting his literalism and simple-mindedness onto believers whose faith may foster an epistemology far more subtle than his positivist convictions. Belief in scriptural inerrancy is Harris’s only criterion for true religious faith. This eliminates a wide range of religious experience, from pain and guilt to the exaltation of communal worship, the ecstasy of mystical union with the cosmos and the ambivalent coexistence of faith and doubt.

    I read Lears’ essay, and was rather surprised at what I saw — or, rather, what I didn’t see. I didn’t see any mention, any concern, or any discussion of whether or not God exists, or whether the supernatural authority on which religion must rest, in order for it to be correctly classified as religion, is in any sense true. And I don’t think Lears got overmuch into faith, or the value of faith as a way of knowing things beyond the need for test or doubt. He instead mentions here the “ambivalent coexistence of faith and doubt,” as if faith’s struggle to live despite doubt solves all the problems which may or may not be inherent in knowing things through mysterious, mystical, private means — problems which he barely glances over in his mad rush to castigate “positivism” for its tendency to rush madly.

    And yet, Lears apparently thought he could adequately address Harris in particular and the gnu atheists in general without delving into any of that.

    Presumably, it shouldn’t matter to anyone — least of all the religious themselves, along with the atheists of course — whether any of it is true, or trustworthy, or believable. That’s all besides the point, the point apparently being Lear describing why his ideal world would not include ideals built upon the scientific mindset, lest we become dogmatic. He is alarmed at the irrationality of those who dare be alarmed at irrationality. Life is so much more.

    The enlightenment moral values embodied by science involve a desire to minimize our biases, question our own answers, and listen carefully to the critics who also question our answers. Harris might rephrase this as trying to develop a “habit of reasonableness.”

    I found it enjoyable, then, to substitute phrases like “habits of reasonableness” whenever Lears used the term “science” in a disparaging way. Or “self-correcting processes.” Yes, indeed — approaching morality and ethics from the standpoint of trying to reduce it to reasonableness and thoughtful self-correction is surely a dangerous path to start down.

    1. I found it enjoyable, then, to substitute phrases like “habits of reasonableness” whenever Lears used the term “science” in a disparaging way. Or “self-correcting processes.” Yes, indeed — approaching morality and ethics from the standpoint of trying to reduce it to reasonableness and thoughtful self-correction is surely a dangerous path to start down.

      😀 Lovely!

  14. “The provisionality of scientific truth” is a classic deepity. “Truth” and “true” are words that shift easily across the word-world or representation-represented divide. So, it either means

    (1) “the provisionality of scientific claims”, in which case it is uncontroversial, or

    (2) “the provisionality of scientific reality”, in which case it is insane.

    Once you’re aware of these confusion, a lot of what passes for profundity in the social-construction-of-science crowd is a load of deep-sounding nonsense.

    1. Agree entirely. It’s always the case that these post-modern boobs use to the fullest all of the technical advances that science has provided them, for their childish attacks on science. Suggestion: for the word ‘nonsense’ insert the word ‘bullshit’.

      1. We probably agree but I don’t really like that particular formulation because it lends to other deepities. There are scientific claims which just are true. These claims “reach the truth” entirely. Others claims are false but we haven’t found that out yet. Science is provisional because we don’t have a god’s eye view to determine which claims are true or false, not because there isn’t a fact of the matter which are true or false. Science corrects itself by doing more science, not by taking a god’s eye view outside of science. Talking about asymptotes and truth suggests that no scientific claims are making contact with reality, which is unfortunately what social constructivists want to push. (I’m not saying that you are making that mistake, just that certain ways of putting things play into the social constructivist’s hands.)

        1. Hmm…

          I think we do agree.

          But you say, firstly, “There are scientific claims which just are true. These claims ‘reach the truth’ entirely.” Then, secondly, “we don’t have a god’s eye view to determine which claims are true or false”.

          So what kind of hermeneutics allows us to determine which claims “just are true”? That sees like hubris.

          I agree there are theories and laws — evolution, second law of thermodynamics — that are so hugely supported by evidence that it isn’t rational to consider them as anything other than true. The difference from the asymptote is vanishingly small. Science is as close to reality as makes no difference.

          Newtonian mechanics and gravitation are “true enough” for quotidian purposes (barring the internals of, say, GPS systems). So, for most of us, there’s no practical difference here.

          However, although Bohr and Einstein got us closer to the asymptote, but we know we are still not quite there.

          1. “what kind of hermeneutics”.

            In what sense is that a science question? Maybe you mean “how can we understand” or “how can we model”.

            I present one model below. Undoubtedly there are others, but here the point would be that they exist. So no hubris, I think.

          2. Re “hermeneutics”, I was just being facetious, as BJO’s statements reminded me of the claims that some scripture is literal and some metaphorical.

            Perhaps unfairly.

            But I think that is is hubristic to say, “There are scientific claims which just are true”, without adding “as far as we know” — even if that may be very far indeed. We still allow for necessary modification & refinement — even refutation — in the face of future evidence, no?

          3. I say that because semantics and epistemology are different. Something can be true regardless of whether we know it’s true. Goldbach’s Conjecture is true or it is false. We just don’t know yet. Claims can be true without any way of knowing whether they are true. I have to resist this idea of “true enough” as well. Newtonian physics is false. That doesn’t mean that someone can’t use it when they believe that it is a adequate approximation under the conditions, but it is still false. There has been an attempt to develop a analyses of “truthlikeness”, but truthlike false claims are still false.


          4. I’m not sure Goldbach’s Conjecture is a good example. Math[s] (& logic) have different notions of truth & proof than empirical science, no.

            Perhaps a binary true/false description of science is inappropriate… ?

            I think “true enough” is a useful concept. The Earth is not a sphere, but that’s true enough. It’s not false in the same way that “the Earth is a disc” is. (This, I think, from Asimov’s “The Relativity of Wrong”.)

            So, I think it’s wrong to say Newtonian physics is false: it is, rather, a partial & incomplete truth.

            If Newtonian physics is false, then so is modern physics, which we know is itself only an adequate approximation under certain conditions.

          5. OK. How about “Alexander the Great ate cheese for breakfast the day before the Battle of Gaugamela”? That is either true or false, but it is not something that we could ever determine. Nature isn’t so kind as to provide us with evidence relating to any possible empirical question. That doesn’t pose a problem for truth or falsity though as long as the claim is well-specified.

          6. @ BJO: I think that’s even less relevant; it’s not a scientific claim, is it?

            Anyway, surely some documentary evidence could turn up to evince how Alexander broke his fast that day? 😉

          7. @antallan, I don’t see any principled reason for deciding that empirical matters of fact aren’t science, but you can substitute a claim about the colors of dinosaurs instead if that is more sciency to you. “Triceratops had red spots on their heads” is true or false even if the evidence for it might be unavailable. Semantics and epistemology are different. “Partial truth” is a problematic concept. It can either mean that some of the claims of a theory are true, or that only some of the claims of a theory are approximate under certain circumstances. In either case, it is really falsity.

          8. Well, I would’ve called it history rather than science.

            If you want to switch to paleozoology, fine. Again, we might find fossilised skin that retains sufficient pigment to determine that Tricerotops had red spots on their heads. But: All species in that genus? Only males? Only adults? (Esp. as it now seems as if Triceratops are really adult Torosaurus!) If only some did, is your statement true or false?

            But that’s by the by.

            I’m not sure I see what the problem is with “partial truth”. For Newtonian physics, I think both the things you state are true: Some of the claims are true and some of the claims are approximate under certain circumstances.

            But if you claim that Newtonian physics is false, then, modern physics (quantum theory, general relativity, and so on) must – as we know that it is an incomplete and disjointed theory, and some of the claims are approximate under certain circumstances – also be false.

            And that seems absurd.

          9. * apologies for the HTML fail – only ‘both’ and ‘know’ should’ve been italicised.

            PS. Do you own a brown hat?

          10. Sorry to butt in on a good little Barney here, but aren’t you looking a little far afield for your truth? Sure we all agree that knowledge gets fuzzy around the far edges but 99.99% of human existence occurs in the region where truth and knowledge really isn’t under much threat.

          11. @That Guy Montag

            I was just making what I thought was a basic point, which is that truth and knowledge are different and that a claim’s truth is independent of our knowledge of its truth. (Something that Post-Modernists fail to get.) I wanted to illustrate that by producing examples of things which are undoubtedly true or false, but where we don’t know which. If someone gets the basic point, then the examples are superfluous.

          12. Oh no, your point is very clear and well put. I just saw a chance to crowbar in a hobby horse of mine that discussions about epistemology generally have a very distorted view of the world.

            I’m actually thinking of working on a more general “Philosophy of the Mundane” which includes a treatise on the boringly obvious truths about pants and at least one titled The Moral Virtues of Stamp Collecting

      2. I don’t like that formulation as it suggests inductionism, which is refuted even in its own terms. (Roughly, inductionism can’t protect from “black swans” rule-breakers, so it isn’t asserted the path to knowledge that it asserts.)

        The problem with such discussions is that “truth” doesn’t start to describe what science actually concerns itself with. Facts are uncertain, not “true”, or invalidated, not “false”. So are theories.

        Further, truth values are always relative some system of axioms (math, philosophy), not absolute a non-existent “gods view”.

        Finally, realism is a validated hypotheses (Samuel Johnson). So we are assured that facts and theories concerns themselves with realism as we fail those observations and theories that doesn’t work. I made a comment above that the elimination process will converge.

        In the best case it will converge on what is real. We aren’t assured this what I know of. But the stability that for example Carroll speaks of makes it a valid hypotheses to suggest that this happens and have happened.

        No doubt there are more to know on what is real, more fundamental theories. I just don’t think it can be easily described as an “asymptotic” process. More like a chain of different maps.

        1. “In the best case it will converge on what is real.” Yep, asymptotically! 😉

          I don’t disagree (in any substantive way) with what you’ve said.

          I didn’t mean that the method is asymptotic in any strictly mathematical sense, only figuratively, inasmuch as science makes better and better models that ever more closely approximate the true nature of the Universe.

    2. Get down-and-dirty with the more blatantly postmodern authors and you quickly realize that they’re nothing more than well-disguised conservatives.

    1. From my oppressed wage-slave position, I cannot definitely deduce that John Danley is not a poe.

  15. the catastrophic twentieth century

    -development of the vast majority of universities and tremendous increases in education
    -vaccines for many major worldwide diseases like polio
    -the UN
    -the EU
    -moon landings
    -personal computers
    -and an overall doubling of life expectancy.

    catastrophic, indeed.


    sometimes I wonder why these people can’t see how tunneled their vision is?

    1. Bear in mind also the nice chart early on in Pinker’s Blank Slate, a chart showing the percentage of adult males killed by others in a range of societies in the twentieth century. Strikingly high – up to 80% in some societies, such as that of Yanomami – and strikingly low in others, including western Europe and the US – a couple of percent each. If science gives us not only spaceships and microwaves, but also lower rates of person-on-person killings, then hooray for science!

      1. Keep in mind that when you invoke this example, you probably invoke one of the biggest controversies around evolutionary psychology, namely Napoleon Chagnon’s research among the Yanomamo, serious ethical questions surrounding his interactions with the tribe, and ongoing controversy about these ethical breaches and about the validity of the conclusions Chagnon comes to about Yanomamo society. This has not stopped evolutionary psychologists like Pinker from using Chagnon’s problematic work as evidence for Pinker’s self-admittedly Hobbsean view of human nature.

        A recent documentary, “Secrets of the Tribe” revisits the controversy, ongoing after 30+ years.

        There’s also the problem of lack of data points in the conclusions Pinker draws. Even if Chagnon’s portrait of the Yanomamo is accurate, Pinker uses the Yanomamo as a stand-in for “primitive” human societies in general, which in fact, were highly diverse.

        1. Peter,

          That’s definitely not a fair portrayal of Pinker. For one, his view of human nature is anything *but* Hobbesian. He may appeal to Leviathan and I guess it’s fair to say that he thinks Hobbes gives a good account of what generally count as giving people’s reasons within the state of nature, but his fundamental point is at odds with Hobbes’ because he consistently argues that violence is a *rational* response to the state of nature and the role of Leviathan is to rebalance the scale of reasons, not to impose it.

          On the Yanomamo point I’ll need to try and fish out the section again (I’m a bit stretched for time right now) but by my memory he used the Yanomamo simply as an evocative case study which he contrasted with at least one other tribe in his discussion of his conclusions, and certainly a lot more tribes with death rates spanning across the range when setting out the tables. It’s certainly very clear that he’s painfully aware of how much of his case rests on the data because every example comes packed with discussions of the statistical problems and the reasons for the particular methods he uses so I’m slightly surprised to hear you question his data. Would you be willing to flesh that out a bit maybe?

  16. It’s striking to me just how much the intellectual world divides into two “camps”.


    Mainstream Analytic Philosophy
    Scientific Medicine


    Social Constructivism
    Intelligent Design
    Continental Philosophy and “Theory”
    Religion (esp. of the woo-woo Karen Armstrong variety)
    Alternative Medicine

    I’m sure other people could add more to these lists. The thing I find irritating is Lears claiming Leftism or Liberalism for Camp #2. That would surprise many left-liberal scientists and atheists.

    1. I’m a socio-cultural anthropologist, and a left-liberal. I am also an atheist and a sceptic. Even at great universities, anthropology departments are turning wholesale to the (2) formulation, where before issues in anthropology were inspired by problems in analytic philosophy, and solved by or discussed in terms of scientific knowledge and empiricism. I find this disturbing and also worrying on a professional level. It sometimes leads me to genuine despair.

      Note that Lears cites Donna Haraway in his piece, and Judith Butler – famous nutters. In a lecture at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, I was introduced to the ‘work’, if it deserves anything resembling that name, of Donna Haraway, and I came away from both lecture and article, after I read it, disgusted and shaking with rage at having been recommended it. I nonetheless recommend reading her trite bollocks here, because it is priceless – inane, lacking in wit, and really lacking in both sanity and purpose:


      Read it and weep for the study of human cultural diversity, true anthropology having been usurped by the postmodern cuckoo.

      1. That manifesto exemplifies Poe’s Law. I would think it was a parody if you hadn’t told me. It is a shame that Cultural and Social Anthropology is overrun with postmodernists, because it is a subject that deserves better.

        1. A shame indeed. Here, the change is far from complete, but nonetheless, it’s scary. I’m a grad student here, but I know some post-docs who have had perfectly excellent proposals turned down and articles rejected for their unfashionably empirical, scientific views, and I know some of the staff feel angry at the postmodernist encroachment. There appears to be a major divide in the department. Plenty of the postmodernists would reject that term themselves, by the way – the nutty field is far more variegated than it seems, the reason for the impression of unity being that, while they may disagree, they appear to have abandoned the law of contradiction. Logic is never good enough for these folks.

          I would add to your list the ‘actor-network theory’ of Bruno Latour, and other similar ideas. Not epistemologically relativist – they try to transcend even that, to the creation of ‘worlds’ rather than ‘worldviews’. ‘Ontological anthropology’ sounds moronic, and it is, but it nonetheless appears to exist, albeit not necessarily under that name.

    2. Nice.

      But isn’t “scientific medicine” just “medicine”? As in, “what do you call alternative medicine that’s been shown to work?” (h/t “Storm”).

  17. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

    I think we’re firmly in the “fight” stage.

  18. If anyone bashes science like he did, they ought to be arrested or something. This country is scientifically illiterate and gullible enough as it is without more people telling citizens to stop trusting science. Sometimes, I think that ancient people would look at us and say “Wow, they’re dumb!”

  19. Hi Jerry, can you define what you mean by positivism? There are various strains I think. Not sure what Lears means when he uses the word either.

    1. Simply the idea that truths about our universe are only discoverable through empirical observation or experiment, combined with reason.

      1. Cool. Thanks. I have to think about this. I actually endorse some position like this. You’re bonkers if you don’t. No other ‘method(s)’ has given us knowledge about the universe that is reliable. But it is tricky to phrase in a way that doesn’t make it self-refuting.

  20. The Nation–ideology above thought, and certainly above rationality.

    Not at all surprising. Basically their typical writer works on the knee jerk position that all the problems in the world are somehow connected with ‘western values’. And don’t you dare call it the ‘enlightenment’.

  21. It so happens that I did cancel my Nation subscription a couple of months ago, after 25-plus years, during which, to my dismay, I had witnessed it slide unmistakably deeper and deeper into a bland “liberalism” which I have never had much sympathy for.
    Seeing that they just published this despicable piece makes me think that my move was not premature nor unwise. If the Nation, which is the oldest magazine in existence in this country, should fold, it will be an outcome to which their editorial decisions contributed greatly.

    1. No he’s not. Everybody knows he’s with Elvis partying hard at Emmanuel Goldstein’s pad.

    2. YES! We defeated Terrorism! Finally the War on Terror is over! Now we can repeal the “Patriot” Act!

    1. But if evolution had stopped in the pre-cambrian we wouldn’t have had Hitler!
      On a more serious note it’s interesting to note that the pro religion sorts that claim christianity is the reason for science, never try to claim responsibility for the negative aspects of technology.

  22. but it has also encouraged dissenters to speak truth to power—to abolish slavery, to regulate capitalism, to end the Vietnam War.

    And don’t forget how religion has led the charge for marriage equality!

    What’s that you say? You don’t believe me? Crap, I guess I’m a few decades too early to be making that claim. Everybody will buy it by 2040 at the latest…

  23. Even with the burqa on, in many countries women cannot go outside without a man of their family accompanying them.
    Does this Jackson Lears endorse the lack of vitamin D is good for them?

  24. Interesting that Walley uses language like “clitoridectomy” and “genital operation” to make it sound clinical and suggest it’s like any other operation. Totally ignoring the fact that they aren’t done under anaesthetic.

  25. Totally fatuous post. Rather than respond to any of the arguments made in the Nation piece substantially on their own terms. It pulls quotes out of context to beef with them, but makes absolutely no effort to understand their significance (and as a result, completely misunderstands them). An “ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance” indeed.

    On positivism…

    “Before getting down to Harris, Lears makes a general attack on positivism (a view whose virtues seem self-evident to me)”

    Its virtues may seem evident, but what about its faults? Positivism in the social sciences makes claims to objectivity which (a) gives it a patina of authority, and (b) makes its adherents feel that it is unnecessary to do the kind of self-critique required to really get at and over the biases that inevitably seep into any work on an object in which the social scientist is herself implicated (broadly, society itself).

    The failure of positivism to guard against being warped by issues relating to social power (culminating at its worst, yes, in phrenology and eugenics) has been pointed out again and again, every time it resurges (as it seems to every half century or so — last time culminating in its widely recognized defeat in the Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, previously in Nietzsche critiques, prior to that when it lost its debate with the Hegelians). It’s been so roundly and repeatedly defeated, that even the smartest among those social scientists that apologetically tend in its direction (e.g. Popper) refused to label themselves positivists.

    It resurges every half century or so because the people that are drawn to it (fetishists of the natural sciences, mostly) have no interest in social history full stop, let alone the history of the social sciences. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and all that.
    EDIT: Another major problem is its tendency to mistake the heuristics it uses to measure socio-psychological phenomena for the phenomena themselves, not to mention its systematic failure to think systematically (thanks to its methodological overemphasis on compartmentalization (isolation) of variables).

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the empiricism has no place in the SocScis, but its place is certainly not in a primary role, as positivists like Harris would have it. It’s place is to augment the historical/philosophical human moral dialectic, not replace it. It needs to be subject to ideological criticism.

    1. Ben:

      I have a hard time deciding if you’re the enemy here. At least tell me what in the world gives you the idea that politics or ideology, however you define that, could ever stand in a position to critique inquiry? As far as I’m concerned a prerequisite to both making claims about the world and incidentally getting those right is, silly enough, a commitment to making claims about the world. Banishing that commitment and bringing in politics to replace it is simply silly because we’re no longer engaging in the discussion we started with. But if you don’t banish it then you’re not proposing anything more than the common sense fact that human beings are better at knowledge in a community. Wow, great insight. I wish they’d thought of that when they were inventing scientific journals in the 17th century.

    2. Eugenics is a ludicrous example of science entering sociology. Just because something claims to be science, doesn’t make it an example of science.

      If you actually look at the history of eugenics, it failed to meet even the minimum standards of scientific enquiry. In particular, the “scientific” assessment of fitness was an absolute farce, as pointed out by Stephen Jay Gould and others.

  26. It looks like Jackson Lears beefs with science and “positivism” are yet another manifestation of what CP Snow referred to as the “two cultures” in intellectual life, describing the fundamental split between scientists and humanities-oriented intellectuals (to which could be added artists and social scientists).
    And unfortunately, it’s a problem that if anything has gotten worse in the 50+ years since Snow wrote his essay. Albeit, the split was probably at its worst in the 1990s “science wars”, and there have been some attempts at bridging the gap since then, especially in the area of art-science collaboration.

    Unfortunately, you still have plenty of snottiness coming from people like this Jackson Lears person, who’s commitment to a fuzzy kind of relativism and “social constructionism” they imagine is in some way critical to progressive politics. Lots of this in the humanities and social science departments still, especially among those that fancy themselves “radicals”.

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