Monday, July 29, 2013


". . . for we act in total ignorance and yet in honest ignorance we must act, or we can never learn for we can hardly believe what we are told. . . " (Norman Mailer, The Deer Park, Ch. 24)

This past month I've run into the notion of "nihilism" three times, at least. The first was in that quote from David Foster Wallace's The Pale King about giving advice. His father[The father of one of his characters] saw self-pity at the root of nihilism. The second occasion was in trying to find a sentence I remembered from my reading of Camus' The Rebel. ("The truck, driven day and night, does not humiliate its driver, who knows it inside out and treats it with affection and efficiency.") I finally found it in close proximity to his thoughts about how to move "beyond nihilism". The third was in a comment to Andrew Gelman's post about his recent piece in Slate about why we shouldn't always trust statistical studies with sensational headlines (like "Women Are More Likely to Wear Red or Pink at Peak Fertility"). Commenter "jb" took "the implicit take-home message [to be] rather nihilistic".

I get jb's point, and probably feel it more radically still. When I read (or write) critiques of particular studies in the social sciences that draw titillating conclusions from pretty flimsy datasets, I feel profound despair about the state of knowledge. Research, especially research about the human animal, seems to be driven by the headlines it can produce more often than the rigor it can achieve. (Making it into the mass media has become a kind of epistemological criterion. It confers additional credibility.) Fortunately, as Andrew pointed out soon after, there are stories where rigor trumped the quest for headlines too. But one is still left with the feeling that much of what we "know", i.e., think we know, about human beings is trumped up, i.e., has little or no evidence to support it.

That's the sense of "nihilism" I'm after here. That there is "nothing" behind the claims made by social scientists—at least often enough to undermine our trust in anything we hear from the social sciences until we check out the particulars ourselves. The "take home message" will be "nihilistic", in jb's sense, if we draw the conclusion that we can learn nothing about people except what we learn for ourselves. That is, even where social science provides a reliable method by which to approach an issue, it provides knowledge only to those who actually apply that method or have the competence (and access) to check whether others have applied it. In short, you can have "scientific" knowledge of society only if you, yourself, are a social scientist. The scientists cannot be trusted.

I'm not yet entirely ready to accept that conclusion. The personal and political consequences are simply too staggering to me. In a philosophical sense, however, I'm willing to consider the idea that the social sciences ultimately "have no object", that there is "nothing", no thing, there to refer to. People, whether alone or in groups, are not things. Society has no "objective reality". But it does have a no less important subjective ideality. Perhaps this is where nihilism can be transcended, albeit at the cost of becoming utopian. Much to think about.


Jonathan said...

Rather than nihilism I would say it's a radical epistemological skepticism about most widely-reported social science results. My response to almost any widely reported result is "yeah, right." Anything smacking of evo psych I tend to dismiss almost immediately.

Thomas said...

Nihilism is basically a kind of despair over one's skepticism. I think you become a nihilist if you come to believe we cannot, in principle, know something that you, at the same time, want desperately to know something about.

There's a social simulation of this, though. Consider the degree to which social policy (and culture in general) is shaped by social science. There's a kind of nihilistic despair in the realization that the results of social science will be "implemented", regardless of how true they are.

Your social reality comes to based on something you essentially don't believe exists. Which is a form of nihilism, born of skepticism, of course.

Jonathan said...

I see social science as legitimizing policy or folk belief that already exists. There could be a moral panic about too much television (or internet, etc...) and then a series of studies showing deleterious effects. Studies that confirm existing beliefs will receive the "duh, we already knew that" response. Nihilism should be more prevalent, actually. I worry more about unquestioning acceptance of shoddy research. One Dutch psychologist figured out he didn't actually have to do the experiments at all. He could just begin with the conclusion and then fake all the data supporting.

Thomas said...

Yes, it's when we realize that there is almost no epistemological difference between what is normally sanctioned as "evidence" (what 124 women said they were wearing 6 to 14 days after they started menstruating) and just making up your data that one becomes a nihilist about social science.

I had a similar experience with anthropology when I started looking into the Mead-Freeman controversy. I was surprised to see how flimsy the data for Coming of Age in Samoa was.