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“Where are the new humanists?”

“Where are the new humanists?”

Nick Spencer looks at how social scientists took over the world 23/06/2022

The emergence of Creation Science marked the final victory of evolution over creationism.  

On the surface, it looked like the exact opposite. Darwinism had never been widely accepted at the grass roots’ level in America, but at least opposition had remained quiescent in the 50 years after the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ in 1925. The explosion of Creation Science in the 1970s looked like a victory (of sorts) for anti–evolutionism. 

However, the way in which the movement aped the vocabulary, method and institutions of science revealed what was really happening. The Creation Research Society was founded in 1963, the Creation–Science Research Centre in 1970, the Institute for Creation Research in 1972. A generation later, having repeatedly lost in the courts, the movement morphed into Intelligent Design which was even more determined to ground its authority on science.  

Of course, all creationists and most IDers still claimed that the scriptures (Christian or, increasingly Islamic) were authoritative but the way in which the language and logic of the movements appealed to science, not scripture, showed where the final authority now lay. Genesis may tell us that the world was only a few thousand years old, but it was science that actually proved it. Science was now the ultimate arbiter of truth. 

In truth, creationism is no more than a side show in a bigger and much more significant story. Hugely more important are the multitude of other disciplines that have appropriated the principles and methods of the natural sciences in their (very successful) attempts to appropriate its authority. 

Such is the subject of Jason Blakely’s book We Built Reality, the subtitle of which – How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power – gives a pretty good idea of what it’s about. Here’s the story in outline.  

The natural sciences showed themselves, from late eighteenth century, to be astonishingly good at understanding, predicting, and controlling the material world. That being so, people naturally came to think that the principles and methods that underpinned the natural sciences should be equally successful when applied to the human and social worlds. Minds, behaviours, and the interactions between people could be reduced to constituent elements, studied, and then reassembled in the same way that a master horologist might disassemble, examine, and recreate a complex clock. The principle gave birth to the modern disciplines of psychology, economics and the full range of social sciences that measure and make our daily lives.  

There was a problem, however, namely that the approach never quite delivered the goods. Neither economics nor other social sciences were as impressive at predicting or controlling the human world as the physical sciences were the material world. Sometimes they were embarrassingly bad. 

Being shown round the London School of Economics shortly after the financial crash, the Queen famously asked, “Why did no one see it coming?” Why indeed? What Her Majesty may not have known, is that not only did no–one – well, very few people – see it coming, but some loudly and confidently explained that “it” couldn’t ever come. In 2005, Chris Mayer and Todd Sinai, two Ivy League economists, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “economic logic” had established the nonexistence of the housing bubble and that those who thought otherwise were economically illiterate “Chicken Littles”. I wonder if they lost their jobs or homes in the downturn. 

This may have been an extreme example but there are others. Pollsters – or psephologists to give them their scientific name – repeatedly failed to predict electoral shocks. Political scientists failed to predict the Arab Spring and then failed to predict its bloody demise. Some social scientists doubted whether the public would obey a government mandated lockdown. 

It’s not that social science was uniquely wrong, or inaccurate, or even divided. Natural science can be all those things. It is that, compared to the pinpoint accuracy of natural science, epitomised by the rapid life–saving development of vaccines during covid, they have been measured and found wanting. 

The initial response to this is usually “we need better data” or “we must develop more accurate models”, and no doubt both of these would help. But Blakely’s case is that there is a much more fundamental problem at issue here, namely the subject in question. The subject of the social science, human beings, is fundamentally different to the subject of the physical sciences, i.e. the material world. 

This is not because humans are not made of the same stuff as nature. We are. Blakely has no ‘dualistic’ agenda at play here.  

Rather, it is because “human social and political behaviour is not law–abiding or mechanistic in nature… no set of antecedent conditions is ever sufficient to determine a consequent belief or action.” (xxiii) We change and, in particular, we change under investigation. While the material world is inert to our investigations. (We can leave aside the interesting exception of the quantum world here, as that does not affect the argument). Humans are not. “Humans create and embody meanings in a way that requires the art of interpretation and not simply scientific explanation.” (xxiii)  

This makes the human world vulnerable to what Blakely calls the “Double H” – or “double hermeneutic” effect, whereby “an interpretation of the world shapes the very interpretations that comprise it.” (xxvi) The coronavirus gives not a hoot if it finds itself under the microscope and simply carries on doing whatever it does. Human beings and the societies they create do notice, in particular, if the observations and theories of social science are then fed back into society. By observing and interpreting the human world, we alter it. “Social science rarely simply neutrally describes the world, but rather plays a role in constructing and shaping it… it is a poeticizing, creative act of meaning and more merely a descriptive science of the world.” (60) It is, to use the jargon, performative rather than descriptive. 

Where this all becomes dangerous is that, left unnoticed, it becomes a self–fulfilling prophecy. 

There are some things humans do that can be interpreted as if they were isolated, calculating, utility–maximising units. Economics (commonly) interprets their actions in this way. And then interprets the humans who perform such actions in this way. People are told they are isolated, calculating, utility–maximising units. And having been told so, they come to believe they are so. And having come to believe it, they become it. Hence Homo economicus. Hence Freakonomics.  

Or take the human mind. If depression and anxiety and melancholy, and the many similar ailments that have afflicted the human from time immemorial are described by neurobiology to be neurochemical problems, then that is what they become. If brains are not working properly, as Steven Pinker put it, then “tweaking” them with drugs may be “the best way to jump–start the machine that we call the will.” (54)  

And if this thing called the will doesn’t start, after we have cranked the neurochemical engine, we can still keep cranking. The long–term result is a multi–billion dollar and somewhat self–perpetuating industry of antidepressants and other prescription drugs. As Blakley says, “studies of commercial culture surrounding the sale of antidepressants like Prozac found that antidepressant advertising consistently ‘propagate[d] narrowly biological explanations of depression’” (56) In a similar vein, despite the fact that those scientists who first developed the diagnosis ADHD hypothesised that a maximum of 1–2% of children would exhibit the pathology, by 2013 nearly 15% of American high schools had been diagnosed with the disease and were being treated… with pharmaceuticals. 

The way in which social science has appropriated the authority and prestige of the natural sciences has led to Nudge units, and Choice Architecture, and ubiquitous management courses, and much else besides. 

Quite how deleterious all this is will depend on your point of view, and Blakely, I think it is fair to say, views such developments as ominous rather than apocalyptic. I would broadly concur. Science – as the Theos/ Faraday Science and Religion project discusses – is a highly complex, multi–dimensional, overlapping and grey–bordered entity. There is certainly much that is legitimately scientific in the social sciences and those who are inclined to dismiss them altogether on account of their more egregious failures are as guilty of making sweeping statements as those who think they are as solid as the natural sciences. It is possible for something to be partially scientific. 

None of this undermines Blakely’s central point, however, namely that “not all forms of knowledge ought to be crammed into its conceptual boxes, assumptions and standards” of natural science. (xix) There are more ways of knowing the world that hypothesise, isolate, reduce, test, predict, and repeat until you falsify. “There is an art to interpreting human behaviour that is never reducible to a strict of exact science.” (135) It is called the humanities. 

Blakely concludes with a clarion call, for the recovery of a discipline, the name of which has been hijacked over the last two generations to mean something much narrower and more negative, more or less the rejection of organised religion. We need, he argues, a new and enriched commitment to the irreducible significance stories, meaning, interpretation, and the human being. “Where”, he asks at the end of the book, “are the new humanists?” (136) Where indeed? 

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos 

We Built Reality: How Social Science Infiltrated Culture, Politics, and Power by Jason Blakely is published by OUP 


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Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 23 June 2022

Economy, Humanism, Psychology, Science, Science and Religion


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