Tuesday, March 5, 2019

A Quick Plea For Interdisciplinary Peace

Here's an interesting blog post I recommend you read. It's about why people end up science denialists. I am going to be pedantic about it and complain, but I will later explain why I still recommend reading it despite these complaints. Near the start there's some conceptual analysis, which I quote at length:

"In social science, the concept of belief describes a statement that people think is either true or false. Beliefs are deep rooted because they evolve from early socialisation. They are maintained tacitly through everyday interactions with our primary social networks like family, religious communities, and through close friendships with people from the same socio-economic backgrounds. Beliefs are hard (though not impossible) to change because there is a strong motivation to protect what we believe. Beliefs are strongly tied to personal identities, culture and lifestyle. Beliefs are harder to change in a short frame time because they’re interconnected to structures of power and inequality. Chipping away at one belief means re-evaluating all beliefs we hold about what is “true,” “natural,” and “normal.”
Beliefs are hard to justify objectively because they represent the social scaffolding of all we take for granted. In this meaning, beliefs represent the status quo of what we’re willing to accept. The key to understanding why beliefs are hard to shift comes down to one question: Who benefits from this belief?"

Take an example of a statement that one might think true or false. Say (as in fact just happened, I write from the Granta pub in Cambridge!)  a bar tender tells me "That'll be 2.70" after I order my drink. Then, trusting sort that I am, I think the price of my goods is £2.70 and thus that their statement is true. Ok so it is a belief, per the opening definition. But suppose (as did not happen in this case, but has in others!)  they then say "Tell a lie, it's 2.80" then I usually immediately revise my belief and pay up because, like, whatever people make such small mistakes all the time.

So here we have a statement held to be true (i.e. belief) that was easy to change in a short time frame, that I was not strongly motivated to protect, not really that strongly tied to personal identity, and admitted of relatively isolated revision without really calling into doubt many of my other beliefs about what is true, certainly nothing about what I believe is natural and normal. I am not sure whether it is hard to justify objectively, but that is mainly because I am not sure what objective justification is. I guess I benefited from the earlier belief that it was 2.70 compared to my later revised belief, but probably this interaction is pretty impersonal and neither me nor the barkeep think too hard about it nor really feel we benefit much either way (I guess if I actually agree to the trade then maybe it's beneficial to me in the economists sense that I think I'd rather have the drink than the £2.80 so benefit from learning it to be available at that price).

So it seems that the conceptual analysis of belief went pretty badly wrong - it instantly made a bunch of false predictions about a very simple instance of the phenomenon it picked out! What happened here?

Well, it's obvious what happened. The author did not have things like this in mind, even if they are technically covered under 'a statement people think is true or false'. The examples used in the post are beliefs about things like the sources and nature of gender differences,  or regarding the safety of GM foods. Beliefs about such matters plausibly will have many or all of the features picked out. Hence I still recommend reading the post because I think it brings up interesting things about science communication on those matters, which are the real topic.

So why my pedantry? Because I think this is the number one source of miscommunication between bits of the intellectual world that I want to bring together and so it is useful for me to have my thoughts on it set down. So next time I encounter this I am just going to link to this blog post and say "Look, this is that thing happening again!"

You see, I work on the social epistemology of science, which means I read quite a lot of sociology of science. I also read a lot of analytic philosophy of science. And, like, the two groups don't get along. And I constantly have to explain to the other lot what the previous bunch are up to. And, like, it's tiring. It's not actually that hard to see what's going on here - if you're an analytic resist the temptation to pedantry and just take on board the obvious intended point, if you're in sociology of science maybe try and not say false things when a quick scope restriction ("the kind of beliefs I have in mind are those which...") would have solved the whole thing. We can all do better, and we can all get along.

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