Recent quote on doing agendaless science

Vaclav Smil’s How The World Really Works offers an analysis of foundational materials and processes behind life in 2022 and what these portend for the near future. It also includes this as the second to last paragraph of the book:

Is it possible to have no agenda in carrying out analysis and writing such an overview?

Much of what Smil describes and then extrapolates from could be viewed as having an agenda. This agenda could be scientism. On one hand, he reveals some of the key forces at work in our world and on the other hand he provides interpretation of what these mean now and at other times. The writing suggests he knows this; he makes similar points to that quoted above throughout the book to address the issue.

I feel this tension when teaching Research Methods in Sociology. Sociology has a stream of positivism and scientific analysis from its early days, wanting to apply a more dispassionate method to the social world. It has also has early strands of a different approach less beholden to the scientific method and allowing for additional forms of social analysis. These strands continue today and make for an interesting challenge and opportunity in teaching a plurality of methods within a single discipline.

I learned multiple things from the book. I also will need time to ponder the implications and the approach.

Thinking about Weber as climate change may be the latest issue to join the culture wars

Michael Gerson discusses why climate change has become one of the hot-button issues in the culture wars:

What explains the recent, bench-clearing climate brawl? A scientific debate has been sucked into a broader national argument about the role of government. Many political liberals have seized on climate disruption as an excuse for policies they supported long before climate science became compelling — greater federal regulation and mandated lifestyle changes. Conservatives have also tended to equate climate science with liberal policies and therefore reject both.

The result is a contest of questioned motives. In the conservative view, the real liberal goal is to undermine free markets and national sovereignty (through international environmental agreements). In the liberal view, the real conservative goal is to conduct a war on science and defend fossil fuel interests. On the margin of each movement, the critique is accurate, supplying partisans with plenty of ammunition.

No cause has been more effectively sabotaged by its political advocates. Climate scientists, in my experience, are generally careful, well-intentioned and confused to be at the center of a global controversy. Investigations of hacked e-mails have revealed evidence of frustration — and perhaps of fudging but not of fraud. It is their political defenders who often discredit their work through hyperbole and arrogance. As environmental writer Michael Shellenberger points out, “The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”

The resistance of many conservatives to arguments about climate disruption is magnified by class and religion. Tea Party types are predisposed to question self-important elites. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of secular science, which has traditionally been suspicious of religious influence. Among some groups, skepticism about global warming has become a symbol of social identity — the cultural equivalent of a gun rack or an ichthus.

If Gerson is correct, the battle over climate change is simply a proxy battle. In fact, then we could probably assume that other issues will come along that will also become part of the culture wars. The fervor over the climate change issue will lessen at some point and another concern will become a flashpoint.

All of this seems related to what I had one of my classes recently read: Weber’s take on “value-free” or “value-neutral” sociology. This could help explain a few things:

1. Distrust of elites, particularly academics, is part of the issue. One way to fight elites/academics is to simply suggest that they are biased. Weber suggests all scientists have some biases. However, there are ways to do science, such as subjecting your work to others with a scientific mindset, to minimize these biases. As I recently argued, just because one scientist may have committed fraud or because some scientists have clear aims does not mean that all science is suspect.

2. Weber suggests that scientists need to be clear when they are speaking as scientists looking at facts and individuals proposing courses of action. Mixing facts and ideals or policies can lead to issues. In this particular situation, I would guess conservatives think the scientists are not just exploring the scientific facts but are also pushing “an agenda.” Indeed, Gerson ends this piece by suggesting we need to put “some distance between science and ideology.” Of course, plenty of scientists are religious but the (perceived) mixing of facts and goals can be problematic.

3. In writing his piece, Weber was trying to set guidelines for a journal where people of a scientific mindset could debate sociology and facts. It is interesting that Gerson notes that opposition to secular science is now part of the subcultural identity of some religious groups, making it more difficult to have conversations because attacking/defending one’s identity is contentious. If one doesn’t want to debate facts, how can one have a conversation about science?

Politics in sociology

A behavioral sciences graduate from Israel describes his experiences in a sociology department and compares sociologists to journalists at YNetNews:

Anyone who ever read a sociological essay immediately realized that to a large extent a sociologist is just like a newspaper columnist.

The sociologist’s columns tend to be longer and more deeply reasoned, yet at their base there will always be an expression of a wholly political view.

While this former student describes a department where only one ideology was allowed, he raises an interesting issue in sociological work. On one hand, research is supposed to be science: rational, logical arguments and theories built upon accurate measurements of what is actually happening in the world. On the other hand, researchers do have opinions and political stances and they tend to do work in areas of their own interest.This was first made clear to me in graduate school when professors quickly switched between their activist and political interests and the research pieces they were working on.

My research methods class starts with a discussion of Max Weber’s essay about “value-free” sociology. Weber suggests sociologists should not make value judgments. Students tend to argue that we all have a bias and this is very difficult to remove from our social science work.

The comparison to journalists is also interesting. In my introduction to sociology class, I suggest sociologists are different than journalists in that sociologists draw upon more comprehensive data and are not just writing opinions or drawing conclusions based on a few interviews. Additionally, journalists often describe trends or events while sociologists are interested in explanations and the mechanisms that lead from Point A to Point B.

It sounds like this former student’s call for ideological pluralism in sociology comes from some personal experiences where his opinions did not line up with those of his professors. Yet his essay is a reminder of the (sometimes thin) line between research and politics.