Cool your jets

Social science and the radical politics of not knowing

The real usefulness of social science in times of crisis.

The amount of bullshit circulating at the moment is astounding. And to be clear, it appears to be just as bad in left-wing circles. In fact, what I see happening on the left is the most troubling to me because that’s where I’m positioned. There’s this idea you should “punch up” or focus one’s criticisms on one’s “enemies” but I think that’s a fatally mistaken notion. If you and your friends are thinking or doing something incorrectly, that is the most urgent issue.

As a political scientist, the truth is I usually don’t have that much to offer regarding current affairs. I think most social scientists, if they are being honest, have to admit this with respect to most issues at most times. But if there’s one thing my “expertise” gives me, if I have one valuable thing to offer in a time of crisis, it’s a highly refined bullshit detector. If there is one thing you learn as a well-trained social scientist, it is this: it is so hard to make correct inferences about what is going on in social phenomena. Most of the training of a social scientist is learning all the reasons why you cannot make certain inferences. So in times of crisis, when most people seem over-eager to make inferences (as a way of dealing with all of the cognitive and emotional anxieties), it is perhaps here that social scientists are most useful, to remind you that, whatever you think is going on—you are mostly wrong.

To be clear, when I say most people are “wrong” about most of their inferences, I don’t mean that nobody ever gets anything right, or that nobody understands anything. We all know a great deal, but it’s mostly embodied, practical knowledge. We know not to put our hand in a fire, and a million other important things. But when our mind starts trying to identify causal patterns in a hyper-complex situation (and really all social phenomenon are hyper-complex), collectively we will generate thousands of hypotheses and most of them will be false. Some will be true, but remember that some would be true even by accident. Monkeys typing on a keyboard long enough would produce true statements in some portion of the text.

Recognizing our incapacity to know things shouldn’t be distressing or disempowering; it’s humbling, liberating, relaxing, and empowering. It reminds you that the little ball of fat in your skull is actually a pretty faulty device and it’s not really your job to figure out everything going on in the world. Nobody can do that, but a lot of people think they can (and should); if you think you have this responsibility, not only will it drive you crazy but, as I said, on net you will not actually be contributing or helping anything. Again, don’t get me wrong, I think everyone has a lot to contribute—but not in the form of objective explanations of what is happening in the world. We have this ridiculous, faux-democratic notion that everyone is entitled to their own reading of what is happening, but this is wrong. We are all equal, but if anything, I would say we are all equally disentitled to our own readings of what is happening—we are disentitled by objective reality, which is ultimately chaos, and which does not allow any of us the privilege of knowing exactly what is happening or what is causing what. I think we can find a radically more true, honest, and ultimately connective/solidaristic community in the shared realization that I don’t know, you don’t know, but we both know we have each other in this moment. Crucially, you can adopt this attitude in good conscience as well, because it’s nobody’s moral or political burden—not even social scientists’—to save the world or a country or a people by pretending to have knowledge nobody can have

We are seeing right now the extraordinary mass-delusional implications of a media environment in which every agent believes they are capable of understanding what is happening, there are cultural and often monetary incentives for pretending to know what is happening, and no mechanism for sorting true from false. The primary problem isn’t fake news or purposeful deceit; the problem is massive new injection of noise in the system, everyday cognitive biases, and perverse incentives to perform knowledge where there do not exist mechanisms for testing and sorting knowledge claims (and I would add, absurd Western notions about personal control and responsibility which were temporarily useful in early modernity but are now leading to a kind of mental heat death in the context of the information age).

One of the other reasons an academic social scientist comes in handy here is that we do not primarily get paid to make prognostications about what is going on in the present moment. Sometimes people think this makes us “useless,” but indeed our “uselessness” is what makes us useful in times of uncertainty, deception, and mistrust: it is precisely because we generally don’t care about pretending to be useful that if we feel compelled to comment on current affairs, if only to say it is impossible to know something with any confidence, it should be relatively more trustworthy than someone who gets paid to provide useful commentary on a daily basis. In other words, the uncertain offerings of an academic social scientist are more likely to be a signal and articles by professional commentators are more likely to be noise. There is certainly a new cottage industry for academics who wish to enter the culture market of disingenuously over-confident inferences, but our real value is that generally if we are shooting from the hip with little to gain or lose, then you should be able to trust the academic social scientist, relatively. I would ask you to remember, especially if you are passionate about contributing to politics, that false answers are typically more responsible for evil than honest admissions of uncertainty.

We have to remember that the human mind has evolved to find patterns, even where they don’t exist. This is because, for the greater part of our history, if there was a snake in the grass and we failed to identify it, we could be fucked. But if there was not a snake in the grass and we thought we identified one, no big deal. So we evolved to err on the side of identifying patterns even where there is nothing. But what’s useful for avoiding snakes may very well be collectively suicidal for avoiding an infinite set of possible global threats via the internet. Right-wing people do this with crime and terrorism but left-wing people are doing this just as badly with the new semi-global, right-wing shift. As we now have screens that fling unprecedented volumes of noise at us all day and night (and which allow us to fling noise back into it!), I think we are really underestimating the degree to which our highly faulty human cognition, combined with our individual incentives to perform knowledge, can generate extraordinary harm to individuals and groups, sending collective understandings down systematically erroneous and divergent paths, and ultimately shaping actual behaviors of masses of people. And when the behavior of people is based on any degree of systematic error that is not being corrected over time, this is arguably the most potent recipe for almost all of the worst historical disasters.

To put it yet another way, even highly educated and otherwise trustworthy people right now are doing what social scientists call “overfitting their models.” In other words, developing theories that can fit all of the data they are observing, without realizing that a great deal of that data is noise. The thing is, a good explanation of noise is a really bad explanation of reality; what this means is that if you act or behave as if such explanations are true, almost by definition it will produce consequences other than the ones you are hoping to produce.

Again, this should all be liberating and relaxing to reflect on. If there is honestly a lot of uncertainty, and one honestly does not know, then one honestly deserves to try and relax, pay attention, learn, think, consider possible hypotheses, update them as you go, and in the meantime patiently focus on what you do know (inner convictions, empathy and solidarity for the people you encounter, etc). You are not obligated to go “do something” or “say something” immediately if the actual reality is such that really you are just scared because you don’t know what is going on.

Of course, be vigilant, be courageous, say and do what you believe in, but radicalism is an all-or-nothing proposition. If you want to be politically radical, you better also be radically honest, radically humble, and radically transparent. All I’m calling for is intellectual honesty regarding uncertainty. I’m not saying anyone should dampen their convictions or compromise with anything they find unjust. I’m just saying there’s nothing radical or even defensible about effectively making shit up because you want to produce some consequence, whether it be the soothing of your own anxiety, the production of “hope” for others, or the recruitment of others into your group. One of the most radical things you can do at any time is be correct. And in highly uncertain times, the most correct diagnosis of many things will be “we do not know.” You can still maintain deeply held convictions, and act passionately on various projects, while also maintaining the basic self-discipline of trying to honestly separate signal from noise. Speak and act decisively, at the highest intensity you can sustain, but only on the most correct possible interpretation of information. This is where I think social science converges with the most radical, progressive politics.

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Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2017. "Social science and the radical politics of not knowing," (April 24, 2017).