Saving Social Sciences with a Multiversity
Let’s try something better than a poor imitation of hard science mired in politics
By MARTIN REZNY
So, the incentives in academia are all perverse, quantity has all but murdered quality, at least about half of all soft science research is garbage, next to no studies get replicated, and virtually everyone who doesn’t have a cozy job in academia agrees it’s all bullshit, along with many people who do currently have cozy jobs in academia, which are in extremely short supply.
And I’m hearing no solutions, other than trying to somehow do better within the confines of the current system. A system which is in practice radically opposed to proper replication, divergence of thought, curiosity, creativity, honesty, valuing the advancement of knowledge above career ambition, inclusiveness… Everything that’s essential for progress.
What I’d like to propose is to simply throw the current way of academic organization of social sciences on the thrash heap of history and try a different project — a multiversity. A space that’s interdisciplinary instead of specialized, distributed instead of centralized, inclusive instead of exclusive, and dialogical instead of authoritative. But before I go into more detail on the specifics of this form of organization, let’s address why it’s needed.
How Soft Science Is Actually Harder
While the concept of university has had a good run and isn’t particularly problematic for material sciences where one can disagree subjectively only up to a very inarguable point, social sciences are different. They started off on the wrong foot right out the gate with the now obviously wrong foundational assumption that the nature of the psycho-social phenomena should be as uniform as physics were thought to be at that time.
Ironically, hard sciences like physics have since corrected themselves by finding out how un-singular and delocalized even particles are, despite the disbelief of some all-star scientists like Einstein, and now are contemplating the existence of alternate universes. The difference is that if some similar breakthrough has happened in social sciences, we wouldn’t know, because even a perfect qualitative explanation of the world can be easily rejected.
In a politicized academy with exclusive membership and stranglehold on resources, a consensus of the authorities is what determines which ways of explaining social or psychological phenomena are deemed valid or invalid. By authorities that have gotten to their position and retained it by the virtue of having been well-respected for a long time, adding bias on top of bias. Until such authorities retire, any chance for paradigm-shifting progress is halted.
There are no undeniable forces that can be measured by a new device, there’s no eclipse that would prove something like, say, psychoanalysis definitively right or wrong, there’s no new medical screening tool that will unveil hidden harms of currently used techniques for all to see. In the realm of the social, you either observe and understand a relationship, meaning, or experience accurately and are able as a group to recognize when that happens, or the bias wins and everyone only thinks that any of these things are happening.
Some therefore conclude that social sciences are not really sciences at all and should be abandoned, while others only focus on quantitative methods that provide an illusion of tangibility through number fetishism, but neither approach is constructive or productive. Socio-psychological phenomena are real and important and demand a qualitative explanation, if such knowledge is to have any depth and real usefulness, while no use of it can be neutral.
How to Build a Multiversity
Consequently, to free social sciences from the biased hands of authorities that are more political than scientific and from the false equivalency to fundamentally different hard sciences, this is how they should be studied:
1) No one has to be either all-in, or all-out
At the root of all the problems that hold back social sciences much more than their material counterparts is the ideal of a scientist as an elite insider with highly specialized knowledge that can only be communicated in convoluted, arcane language. As long as scientist remains an exclusive career that requires years of formal, ritual initiation, most social scientists will be shaped into creatures that have difficulty relating to their subjects of study, removed from the reality that most people inhabit, and tightly constrained by politics.
When one looks down on humanity from an ivory tower, one is more likely to understand it inaccurately, and a humanity that feels comfortable delegating such knowledge to a handful of specialists has already started to lose itself. Moreover, to the extent to which those few exalted priests of science attain accurate knowledge, they will likely become a danger to society rather than its saviors, as secret knowledge breeds abuse in the service of established powers. Especially if those powers are the main benefactors of the academia.
A much more sensible situation would be one where social scientist isn’t an exclusive career, but a lifelong pursuit informing professional efforts of people active in the the social domain. This is the case already for psychologists involved in therapy or anthropologists actually studying living cultures in the field, but what exactly do, say, political scientists do today, or academic philosophers? Justify current social order? Study what other experts think? People involved in social sciences need to come from disparate environments, have different educations and funding schemes, and engage with people.
2) Every study has to be considered in an interdisciplinary context
Uniformity and specialization are other key aspects of the university model that are much more problematic for social sciences than the material ones. While math, physics, chemistry, or even biology have different subjects of study and theories unique to them, one can prove with an experiment objectively that they don’t contradict each other and whether any material phenomenon even exists to begin with. No such luck in psychology or sociology, where whole schools can be chasing mirages and agree in error.
There are two basic strategies how to deal with this hurdle — one is to have as many groups as possible pursuing as many different phenomena in as many different ways as possible, and the other is to not lock anyone inside of a narrowly defined box that isolates them from everyone else. Ideally, one should aim for both, as one of the key components of creativity is looking at the same problem from different perspectives. When a whole academia agrees on and enforces a singular set of problems and tools, it’s doomed.
When all psychologists just choose to rely on statistics, or all political scientists on the counting of chairs and chambers in political systems, or all sociologists on treating people as black boxes defined by their actions, and that’s all they do, they’re guaranteed to get incredibly reductive (and out of a very narrow context useless) results. The drive for simplicity or, even worse, singularity of scientific answers has shown itself to be misplaced in social sciences, which, if anything, have shown themselves to be all about contexts and complex interrelations between nurture, nature, cognition, and inertia.
3) Seniority cannot be used to justify higher status or veto power
While there will be people who have been studying something longer than others who can definitely be valuable as mentors, reviewers, or consultants, these are also people who have likely become set in their ways. Unlike in most other human activities, in science there’s an expectation, a hope even, that what was previously established will at some point be proven wrong, at least to a degree, and it’s very human to resist being proven wrong beyond reason.
There’s even some research suggesting that deaths of elite scientists, who hog most of the funding and hold political clout, allow for new ideas to get funding and permission to go ahead, resulting in a period of progress (presumably until new elites get established). In order to fix this structural deficiency, how long one has worked on what or where has to be treated as irrelevant regarding the authority to allow or shut down research.
In social sciences in particular, personal rivalry, tribal exceptionalism, arbitrary denial, political inconvenience, cultural taboos, and petty animosities are often the real motives behind firing professors, shutting down various avenues of inquiry, or prohibiting specific methodologies. Or that’s at least common (unspoken) knowledge in my part of the world that every academician would of course publicly deny and never try to study.
4) All abundant resources should be freely accessible to all
Unlike material sciences, key resources for social or psychological experiments aren’t particle accelerators or other expensive toys, but humans, who are a very abundant resource, and information, which is a near-infinitely copiable resource. In the status quo, it’s only unjustifiable greed that keeps the wealth of published research behind insane paywalls, and egotism that drives researchers to hoard sample data for themselves.
It’s also this exclusionary, elitist attitude of career and status-driven scientists that leads to so many researchers not getting any people into their samples other than university students for reasons of convenience, who can hardly be considered sufficiently representative of all of humanity. In the age of internet, detailed information can be collected from millions of participants in real time, if only they were enticed to participate as equals in the endeavor.
It’s not like it hasn’t already been done successfully in natural sciences. Astronomy has been involving many volunteering citizen scientists for some time in the colossal effort to map the heavens, while games have been used to figure out tough problems like the identification of the structure of a key HIV protein. Coming down from the ivory tower to do community outreach should be normal, especially when community itself is the subject of study.
5) We need to strive collectively to be aware of and disclose biases
Ultimately, when one opens up science to everyone who wishes to participate and distributes the funding and control instead of concentrating it, the main fear is that it will lead to pseudoscience rather than science, performed by people who don’t uphold professional standards. There are many valid responses to this. First of all, apart from psychotherapy, errors in social sciences are not exactly deadly, an error will usually mean nothing dramatic.
Secondly, the current state of professional social sciences is that most of them are already questionable due to their corrupted nature. It’s hard to see how anything else could produce worse results — more uncertain, less biased or more in the service of the powers that be, wasting more money, time, and effort. Similar fears have proven unfounded in the most relevant example of Wikipedia, where errors and attempts at manipulation of information do happen, but tend to self-correct in the spirit of the wisdom of the crowd.
It’s simply the much lower number of people involved that guarantees less transparency and self-correction. Only a small community of experts can get away with pretending they’re neutral and choosing an unnecessarily dry, dense, and impersonal voice designed to obfuscate rather than clarify. That’s a situation in which establishment can more easily classify an undesirable group of people as mentally ill and justify a harmful “treatment”, help a ruling party retain its dominance by hacking elections, or engineer more effective propaganda. A few experts can be bought, but not crowds of citizen scientists.
Parting Words for the Journey
Understandably, a shift like this cannot happen overnight, and probably never completely, at least not forever. I cannot literally see the future, so I won’t pretend that I know what will work, but a change like this could be similar to how the internet bypassed previously existing centralized media. The traditional universities will likely continue on existing in any scenario, while the quality of the effort and its progress will depend on the quality of the continued efforts of many individuals who will be variably (dis)organized.
Internet itself is experiencing a period of regression toward centralization in the form of social media with the ultimate result currently uncertain, but what has been shown is that organized resistance can stop attempts at further consolidation. In the case of the opening up of academia with the help of the internet, there are already significant efforts under way, especially in the area of smuggling published research from behind paywalls. As the academic establishment likely won’t sympathize, such disobedience may be inevitable.
The real change will start happening when sufficient number of people with an inclination toward social sciences will reject the traditional scientific authorities and will organize outside of their circles to do science freely. If and when something like basic income becomes a reality, anyone who would wish to be a citizen scientist will have the ability to do so. But even without that, collective funding schemes, now used mainly to fund movies, games, or gadgets, could become a way in which a community can support free science.
In any case, what’s essential to the rise of anything resembling the multiversity model is science becoming a cultural movement rather than a mere profession. There are indications that such a thing is possible with the help of popular science work in the line of Carl Sagan, today continued by the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson, if mostly for natural sciences. It has already become socially acceptable to be a “nerd” or a “geek”, and speculative fiction is on the rise, slowly awakening from its current dystopian nightmare phase.
Social sciences only need to remember and show the people that they’re here to help them live a more fulfilling life and build a better future, embracing their normative dimension once again in the search of good ways to live and good social orders. Not with the expectation to find one-solution-to-fit-them-all to dictate to everyone, but instead trying to help people become the best versions of who they are by figuring themselves out. After all, when the spaceships transport the colonists to new worlds, they will still be people and they’ll need to establish societies there, choosing which technologies to use.
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