Call me old-fashioned, if you will. I confess, I am a Comtean positivist. I love science. I love the scientific method. More importantly, I love what science has done for us: life expectancies have never been higher, vaccines have eradicated diseases, and—as hard as life has been for us all in 2020—it is infinitely better than it was for us in 1420. If you had contracted COVID19 in medieval times, the prescription would have been bloodletting.
Of course, most scientific advances have occurred in the realm of the natural (biological, chemical, and physical) sciences. The social sciences have been far less effective in terms of their ability to increase quality of life—clinical psychology excepted. Many times, the social sciences have even caused harm to society. A good example of this is Erving Goffman’s Asylums, which had unintended consequences. It’s difficult to distil a book into a single sentence, but Goffman basically argued that placing people in mental asylums made them act and behave like people with mental illness, in that they were simply conforming to the label that had been attached to, and imposed on, them. Politicians in 1960s America seized on this book and used it as justification to close down state-run mental facilities. Not coincidentally, this action resulted in a steep rise of homelessness. Still today, the vast majority of people living on the streets are there because of untreated mental illness.
But, as Jules from Pulp Fiction says, we (social scientists) are trying, Ringo. We’re trying real hard. And with the rise of machine learning, I believe we are on the precipice of a veritable social science revolution, where we will be able to predict social problems before they happen and intervene.
Not everyone is as optimistic about social science as I am. The postmodernists are hellbent on killing the scientific method. Personally, I don’t have much patience for postmodernism. Postmodernists believe, in short, that there is no such thing as truth, but rather multiple shades of truth. If you really want to frustrate a postmodernist, then ask him or her if it’s true that there’s no such thing as truth. They will get angry and then call science a “grand theory” that ignores cultural relativism, exploitation, privilege, and oppression. I would beg to differ. Especially social science recognizes now more than ever that all social problems are somewhat context-dependent, and most social scientists genuinely want to remedy said problems.
“Postmodernists believe, in short, that there is no such thing as truth, but rather multiple shades of truth. If you really want to frustrate a postmodernist, then ask him or her if it’s true that there’s no such thing as truth.”
My beef with postmodernism is multilayered. It prides itself on impenetrable writing. (Have you ever tried to read Foucault’s The Order of Things? I rest my case.) It has a lot to complain about, but offers no real solutions. It is hypocritical. (A bunch of academics who rage against “the system” are actually one of its main beneficiaries.) It is obsessed with social conflict and bites its thumb at co-operation. The list could go on and on.
But let me end by throwing an olive branch to my postmodernist friends (and I have many good friends in this camp). Firstly, I agree that social science has not delivered on its potential (as admitted above), but I do not wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Secondly, I recognize that the battle over what’s true and not true is an important social phenomenon, evidenced by the war against “fake news” and “misinformation” on social media at the moment. For these reasons, I would argue that postmodernism is probably a waste of time, rather than an outright waste of time.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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