Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Is there a crisis of credibility in the human sciences?

On a previous occasion I elaborated on the growing natural scientific evidence that the world is at “Red Alert” status regarding a looming ecological crisis. The question arises, whether the human sciences (humanities and social sciences) are in agreement with their natural science colleagues on this issue. In light of the incontrovertible evidence in this regard, uncovered by natural science, one might expect the human sciences to take the next step, as it were, and mediate between natural science and society at large, stressing the urgent need for fundamental social and economic change to avert a disaster the magnitude of which probably cannot even be imagined at present. Or so one would think, on the supposition that humans are “rational” creatures, who would squarely face the implications of the evidence referred to in the post linked above.

Unbelievably the family of sciences that should shoulder the burden of enlightening society in the light of the alarming findings of the natural sciences, seems to be struck by a debilitating paralysis, except that the truth is far worse. In The Ecological Rift – Capitalism’s War on the Earth (Monthly Review Press, 2010) John Bellamy Foster and his fellow authors draw one’s attention to the scandalous complicity, on the part of the social sciences, with the very economic system that is driving ecological ruin. One might wonder why this is the case. In fact, one might expect human scientists to be more radical in their approach to the matter than their natural science colleagues, while the opposite is in fact the case. Foster et al (2010: 18-19) offer the following explanation for this strange state of affairs:

“Tragically, the more pressing the environmental problem has become and the more urgent the call for ecological revolution … the more quiescent social scientists seem to have become on the topic, searching for a kind of remediation of the problem, in which real change will not be required. Although thirty years ago it was common to find challenges to the capitalist exploitation of the environment emanating from social scientists who were then on the environmentalist fringe, today the main thrust of environmental social science has shifted to ecological modernization – a managerial approach that sees sustainable technology, sustainable consumption, and market-based solutions (indeed “sustainable capitalism”) as providing the answers …

“Thus as natural scientists have become more concerned about the detrimental effects of the economic system on the environment, and correspondingly radicalized, asking more and more root questions, social scientists have increasingly turned to the existing economic system as the answer.”

The obvious question is why this is the case (Foster et al 2010: 20). Why have even environmental social scientists relapsed into apathy and inertia in the face of the accumulating, undeniable evidence of anthropogenic ecological deterioration – probably the greatest crisis in the history of humankind? Turning to the “persistent weaknesses that permeate social science” (p. 20), these authors proceed to interrogate the effeteness of human scientists in the face of the present crisis.

Social (or more broadly, human) science, they point out, has always been handicapped by the unavoidable fact of the social itself being its object of investigation. Moreover, because the social cannot easily be separated from ethical questions of right and wrong, this investigation inevitably implicates what is regarded as acceptable or unacceptable, and therefore “tends to be filtered through the dominant institutions and structures of the prevailing hierarchical social order” (p. 20). The human sciences are therefore hampered by the tendency to be uncritical and compliant – Foster et al (p. 20) refer to “ … the system’s commitment to stasis in its fundamental social/property relations”.

To be sure, ingenious social scientists sometimes succeed in circumventing the disapproval of the hegemonic culture, putting forward critical ideas, but according to Foster et al (2010: 20) these usually concern “marginal issues”, with hardly any effect on the fundamental forces driving society. When such social scientists “speak truth to power”, confronting the dominant culture head-on, their claims are simply ignored, denying them the credibility they require to affect mainstream society. Small wonder that they fail to effect change in dominant economic and political practices, as shown in the example of Foucault, whose trenchant critique of panoptical, disciplinary social practices has done little to change them.

Foster et al (2010: 20-23) delve deeper into the question of social scientists’ critical lethargy by recounting the reasons advanced by scientist and social critic, J.D. Bernal, in the 1950s for the “backwardness” of the social sciences in the 20th century, compared to the natural sciences. Bernal dismissed the reasons usually provided for this relative weakness, to wit: (1) that experimentation is not possible in social science; (2) that value judgments inhibit the human sciences; (3) that humans being subject and object simultaneously (reflexivity) in the human sciences leads to scientific failure; (4) that the sheer complexity of human society resists scientific understanding; and (5) that society is always subject to becoming or change, which excludes the discovery of “fixed laws” (uncovered in natural science).

Bernal granted that these characteristics made the social sciences “distinctive”, but denied that they prevented scientific advances. Instead, he argued, the “underdevelopment” of these sciences (Foster et al 2010: 21)

“ … could be attributed almost entirely to the fact that they were seriously circumscribed by and often directly subservient to the established order of power, and specifically to the dominant social/property relations … Despite important advances and revolutionary developments, social science in “normal times” has been more about maintaining/managing a given social order than encouraging the historical changes necessary to human society, where social capacities and challenges keep evolving …

“Social science thus often enters a relatively dormant state once a new system of power is established. A new class-social order, once it surpasses its initial revolutionary stage and consolidates itself, demands nothing so much as ‘the bad conscience and evil intent of apologetics’ – since the main goal from then on is to maintain its position of power/hegemony.”

This explanation by Bernal, of the human sciences’ tendency to “capitulate to the status quo”, avoid “alternative perspectives” and degenerate into “harmless platitudes with disconnected empirical additions” (Foster 2010: 22) reminds one vaguely of Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) account of the typical historical development of the natural sciences (from normal science through crisis to revolutionary science, which again stabilises into normal science, etc.), specifically of the tendency of “normal scientists” to ignore increasing phenomenal anomalies and invoke ad hoc explanations for them, rather than to face the obsolescence of their “normal science”.

It also recalls Jacques Lacan’s (2007) theory of the four discourses (of the master, the university, the hysteric and the analyst), where the master’s discourse is the one that is dominant in a given historical era (that of the Church in the Christian middle ages, of the nation state in the modern era, and of neoliberal capitalism in postmodernity), and the university discourse customarily serves the master’s discourse (as in the case of the human sciences today). The questioning discourse of the hysteric is the authentic discourse of science, while the analyst’s discourse mediates between the hysteric’s interrogation of the master and new, but significantly relativized, master’s discourses (roughly corresponding to Kuhn’s paradigmatically “new” science).

The relevance of Lacan’s schema for the present theme of the human sciences’ obsequiousness is this: just as Bernal pinpointed the true obstacle to their historical scientific relevance as consisting in their neurotic subservience to the current dominant order (capitalism), Lacan has identified their tendency, to play the domesticated slave to the master.

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  • 19 Responses to “Is there a crisis of credibility in the human sciences?”

    1. Short answer: Yes, there is a crisis of credibility for the human sciences.

      Most people would agree that we can’t have socialism/communism, nor can we have unfettered capitalism, although the reasons for saying this are myriad and rarely make sense in a a reasonable way – not reasonable enough to be cited as credible in any event.

      Most people are also on red alert regarding the environment, though there’s a lot of misinformation regarding this. Truth is these are complex systems that nobody really understands yet.

      Though I tend to agree with Bernal that there’s no real reason why human sciences should lack credibility. Here’s a rather solid defence of psychology:

      http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/12/opinion/la-oe-wilson-social-sciences-20120712

      September 23, 2013 at 4:10 pm
    2. Bob #

      Bert, don’t you and Foster and your peers refute your own theory of “scandalous complicity, on the part of the social sciences, with the very economic system that is driving ecological ruin”? You have the freedom to do so, no? Do you really expect every human/social scientist to agree on everything? Some will agree with you; others will not. It is natural in a highly complex field that opinions will go in every direction.

      September 23, 2013 at 5:17 pm
    3. Maria #

      I listened to Foster’s keynote address at a conference recently, and judging by the passion with which he speaks, his commitment compensates somewhat for what you rightly refer to as the “obsequiousness” of the vast majority of social scientists today. The passage in his/their book that is really shocking because of its accuracy, is where they state that, by all accounts, most people would rather contemplate the end of the natural and social world as we know it than the end of industrial capitalism. Every time I think I have witnessed the nadir of cynicism, I come across something like this, which takes one lower still. Reminds me of Dante’s descent into Inferno, to the deepest of all the hells…

      September 23, 2013 at 6:32 pm
    4. Maria #

      This short piece gives a good indication of what’s at the center of traitorous social scientists’ apologia for capital:

      http://za.news.yahoo.com/pope-attacks-global-economics-worshipping-god-money-100138147.html

      September 23, 2013 at 8:32 pm
    5. @Bert,
      There seems to be a tendency in certain circles to ascribe all negative aspects of life on earth to capitalism. What is lacking is any illustration of how any viable alternative economic system would fare better. Fact is, the main contender, socialism, particularly in its communist guise, has generally generally been associated with a much more dismal environmental record without even being able to provide adequate living conditions for the vast majority of subjects. Only the very top political echelons secretly rewarded themselves with luxurious living conditions.
      Maybe the social sciences have become more realistic and adaptations within the capitalist system probably provide the best prerequisites to deal with global challenges.

      September 25, 2013 at 9:23 am
    6. The Creator #

      The crisis of credibility affects the whole university system, not just the social sciences. Essentially the university system has restructured itself to be more corporate-friendly and in the process has junked most of the critical thinking which made universities worthwhile. The grim fact is that while a handful of scientists have indeed done useful work around challenging global warming, a very large number of scientists and engineers have done their best to promote it because it is at the heart of their discipline.

      Social scientists are actually much more culpable in other spheres than in global warming — for instance, most economists are culpable in lying about the way in which the economy works. Who believes economists any more? One could go on, but in fact the problem is fairly widespread. And the reason why philosophere and most of the other humanities have not sold out, is that nobody with any money is buying!

      September 25, 2013 at 11:43 am
    7. The Mentor #

      The problem is that the human race is consumed by greed. Sort that out and you can sort everything else out.

      September 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm
    8. Bob #

      @Maria-Bert:You are calling those who simply disagree with you ‘traitors’ and accusing them of being pawns of the system or similar. There is no honor in that. Why can’t you respect the natural diversity of opinion in the humanities and social sciences?

      In any case, it seems that the people you thus label, who want ‘sustainable technology’ (how awful!) actually agree with your ends. The fact that there is disagreement about the means is absolutely normal and to be expected.

      September 25, 2013 at 2:29 pm
    9. Momma Cyndi #

      There is a crisis at all levels of academia. The need to stand out from the herd and get published is at the heart of the problem. It is ‘publish or perish’ and that creates an environment where being ‘controversial’ for the sake of attention gets you more notice than good science does. Some of the recent published works would be more at home in a tabloid than a scientific journal.

      September 25, 2013 at 9:38 pm
    10. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Bob, I can still forgive someone like Garg, who is in IT and is not a social/human scientist, for missing the point here, but if I recall, you are indeed a social/human scientist, and should not have missed the point of the above post. Which is: that the natural scientific evidence of an anthropogenic planetary crisis of unimaginable proportions is incontrovertible (natural scientists agree about this in the light of the tested, checked and mutually confirmed evidence, documented at length in Foster et al’s book), and that the kind of disagreement you are talking about is ‘fiddling while Rome is burning’. But I am not surprised, really. As Foster et al point out, we face the height of irrationality today, where people would rather contemplate the end of life on this planet, than contemplate the end of a finite economic system like consumer capitalism. Who ever said humans are rational creatures? They are driven by their manufactured needs and desires – manufactured by the very system that is causing the slow death of living beings on earth. People will only sit up and take notice when the natural calamities become too frequent and too devastating to ignore any longer.

      September 26, 2013 at 11:33 am
    11. Bert Olivier
      Bert #

      Bob, I can still forgive someone like Garg, who is in IT and is not a social/human scientist, for missing the point here, but if I recall, you are indeed a social/human scientist, and should not have missed the point of the above post. Which is this: that the natural scientific evidence of an anthropogenic planetary crisis of unimaginable proportions is incontrovertible (natural scientists agree about this in the light of the tested, checked and mutually confirmed evidence, documented at length in Foster et al’s book), and that the kind of disagreement you are talking about is ‘fiddling while Rome is burning’. But I am not surprised, really. As Foster et al point out, we face the height of irrationality today, where people would rather contemplate the end of life on this planet, than contemplate the end of a finite economic system like consumer capitalism. Who ever said humans are rational creatures? They are driven by their manufactured needs and desires – manufactured by the very system that is causing the slow death of living beings on earth. People will only sit up and take notice when the natural calamities become too frequent and too devastating to ignore any longer.

      September 26, 2013 at 6:31 pm
    12. Derek Marshall #

      The environment needs less people to survive. Neither capitalists, human/natural scientists nor politicians are prepared to brace up to measures to curb population growth & reduce the population. Any bleat about the environment that excludes this is fast becoming inane.

      When last did we see a vasectomy promotion campaign? It should be on every ad break on every TV station.

      September 27, 2013 at 8:16 pm
    13. Simon Howell
      Simon Howell #

      I think there is one word here that looms large over any new or innovative research project – funding. While I agree that the humanities and social sciences should and must play a key role in mediating between ‘hard’ sciences and society at large in this regard, funding in South Africa is at a premium and as I am sure you aware, is generally directed in the direction of science, engineering, technology and maths (STEM). Research takes time and money and unless their is paradigm shift in the prioritisation and ‘stature’ of humanities/social science research, many of these innovative and necessary conversations will fall by the wayside. Which is infuriating in my mind, but something that we have now to deal with in the ‘business’ of research and education.

      September 28, 2013 at 3:56 pm
    14. @Bert:
      I’m sure you’d agree that ideas should stand up to the severest scrutiny and be supported by sufficient evidence – not by credentials and certainly not by an Ivory Tower laager mentality.

      You posted a question, I gave you my answer. I motivated my answer and even agreed with a large part of the analysis given above. If there are sins that I should atone for, you should atone for the same sins.

      Most times, I just play devil’s avocado. Some of my references (like this one, exponential economist meets finite physicist that you no doubt peruse as I peruse yours) support your conclusions, they just don’t rely on pathos, buying into appeals to authority or special pleading.

      These tactics are to blame for the perceived lack of credibility in human sciences in my view. You and Maria should be warning your students about these instead of advocating them bold-faced ‘end justifies the means’ style.

      There’s been a recent public dialogue involving Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennet and Leon Wieseltier on precisely this topic.

      “The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.”

      http://www.edge.org/conversation/dennett-on-weiseltier-v-pinke

      September 28, 2013 at 10:48 pm
    15. Chris Stevens #

      As a graduate in the social sciences, I would like to come to their defence and present a fresh opinion for discussion. Namely the credibility of the social sciences being measured according to practical value.

      The natural sciences are rife with examples of scientific knowledge which allows for practical contexts in which to be implemented, however sometimes these practical contexts do not exist contemporaneously to their discovery. This is particularly true when a discourse is relatively young, much like the social sciences are. An example of this in the natural sciences is that of the aeolipile or Archimedes Windball, an item of amusement from antiquity which implements the scientific principles of thermodynamics and steam power. This as I have said was however a mere amusement and presented very little “credible” value was associated with it. Not until the Industrial Age some 1800 years later did we find value in these principles with the implementation of steam engines.

      Perhaps then the social sciences, particularly sociology, still requires some historical context to develop a practical credibility, a point which is demonstrated by the recent movie World War Z to some degree.

      Furthermore I would like to comment that Galileo Galilei was ostracized for his theories which challenged the powers that be. Perhaps the social sciences requires a similar revolutionary visionary to establish its credibility as a discourse.

      October 17, 2013 at 8:24 pm
    16. After I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Is there any manner you possibly can remove me from that service? Thanks!

      January 11, 2014 at 5:38 am

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