Scientists Are Responsible For Their Rhetoric

Featured Image is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt

What is the duty of the scientist, the researcher, the pursuer of facts, data, and insights? The consensus in our culture is that the duty of the scientist is to the truth. That is, he or she ought to follow their research, regardless of how it challenges established norms or makes people uncomfortable. We cannot persist in ignoring reality anyway, and so we owe it to ourselves to gaze at every new discovery unblemished by spin or political appropriation.

This, it seems to me, is a deeply naive doctrine. Every discovery can only be understood as a truth in the context of some larger projection of the whole truth. In a social world rife with contradiction, the partial contributions of the researcher will feed into the political struggles of various factions. This occurs at as low a level as the politics of academic careers as well as at the highest level of national politics.

In what follows, I will attempt to demonstrate that academics’ duty is not simply to the content of their conclusions, understood as something neutral and true on its face. On top of what they conclude, they also have a duty to attend to the rhetoric of their work—how they pursue their research, and most of all how they present it. How, they could anticipate, it will be received into existing frameworks. How they can tailor their work to preclude appropriation by some of those frameworks.

Charles Murray provides a good example of how this works in practice. He is the author of the famous Coming Apart and the extremely infamous The Bell Curve. Given the controversy that surrounds any discussion of his work, I want to be very clear in what I am doing here. The human sciences will necessarily involve the examination of uncomfortable possibilities. I am not criticizing Murray for pursuing this goal. I am criticizing him because I believe he did so under the influence of a naive theory of science, which did not take into account how his rhetoric would be received.

This is my reading of Murray: he is untroubled by his research on IQ because within his framework it does not matter much. A person’s moral worth has nothing to do with their intelligence. The problem in his view is the implicit framework behind our current institutions. They are ordered around the ideals of meritocracy, where “merit” means facility with the highest levels of abstraction. These institutions leave behind the below average by design, and all while the leaders pay lip service to liberal values. Murray sees himself as an advocate for people that are bad at calculus, because our elites have ignored them when not expressing outright contempt for them. Murray thinks we owe them financial aid at minimum.

But it doesn’t matter what Murray thinks. What matters is how his rhetoric has been received.

To see this, we need to consider the situation in which academic rhetoric occurs. Academic work is tailored to a very specific set of institutional games. This is clear from the language its authors employ to set up and defend their conclusions. I refer not only to jargon, which obviously situates the paper within a specific community of rhetoric. Everything from the style to the structure of the paper and the content of the assertions does, as well. Most of these choices reflect moves made in games played with fellow academics, living and dead.

But the implications of these games extend beyond the communities. Modern research is conducted in an institutional background characterized by universities, nonprofits, private R&D, and the administrative state. It is conducted within a space of public rhetoric shaped by mass and social media, as well as the authority of science. That the latter is increasingly contested is undeniable, and the general contestation of authority is another important part of the current public rhetoric. Nevertheless, the status and authority of science remains quite high relative to alternative sources of authority.

The choice to market the results of a study outside of academic circles, then, is a choice to make moves within those larger background games. And those academics who play the game with skill can advance their careers. Success brings book deals, and a general increase in wealth and status.

But their work has implications beyond what they may have considered, and success will impact more than the authors and their careers. In attempting to give their conclusions an air of authority, they defend not only what is explicitly articulated in the paper, but the larger framework which gives it sense and significance.

This framework will be one of several rivals seeking to reshape our practices in various ways. And so self-promotion serves political ends whether intended or not. Even when it is intended, the political ends that get served may not be the ones the authors had in mind.

In Murray’s case, most people have vigorously opposed him, seeing his work as a cover for racism. And whatever Murray’s intentions, his work has become that. A group claiming to be traditionalists, but in reality merely taking progressivism back to its late 19th century roots, has embraced an ideology of intelligence on the basis of his work. This ideology is in direct contradiction to the spirit in which he undertook his work, but again, that does not matter, because he made it all too easy to be appropriated in this way.

The idea that intelligence defines human worth is still on the table at all because it is implicit in our current institutions, and so remains deeply resonant with the hermeneutic situation of many. The so-called alt right has simply embraced the rationale which motivated the original architects of the research university, the administrative state, and the whole academic-government complex as we know it now.

In this environment, Murray’s research—whatever its other flaws—will not simply promote scientific discussions of the biological or environmental influences on intelligence, much less a sustained critique of meritocracy. No, in this environment it will be treated as something to be feared by those who believe in the current system but cannot accept its ugly side. Worse than that, it has helped a growing group who do accept that ugly side, and embrace it.

For this latter group, meritocracy remains the ideal, and those left behind by it are simply undesirables. Their participation in politics tarnishes it, so democracy is fatally flawed. Their influx from elsewhere hastens our decline, so immigration must be strictly limited. And their higher birth rates threaten the future of our civilization, so we ought to consider going back to the good old days of forced sterilization.

I am willing to give Murray’s intentions a charitable reading. People whom I trust, who have looked into the matter more deeply than I have, assure me that it is the correct reading. But if this is so, Murray has been completely irresponsible in his rhetoric. If he could anticipate that the dominant framework among elites would appropriate his work a certain way, he should have made a robust critique of that framework the centerpiece, and been much more careful about how he presented the results of his research. His approach shows at best naive trust in the neutrality of the scientific community, something he of all people should know better than to presume.

In general, rhetoric and hermeneutics have been relegated to the cultural garbage heap with the rest of non-STEM knowledge. So it is no wonder that we are so reckless with our dangerous questions.

The fact of the matter is that there is never a guarantee that “the truth shall prevail.” A truth probably will, but which and in what way are crucial questions. Depending on the answer to those questions, a new truth could very well make matters worse than before. It certainly won’t be as simple as adding to a stock of knowledge.

Some truths are more important than other truths, and it is important when exploring the less important truths to emphasize their relationship to the important ones. If Murray had centered his work on a critique of elitism and meritocracy, perhaps he could have made positive contributions to the public conversation. Instead, factions have seized aspects of his work to support some very evil frameworks.

We need to revive a serious humanism, so that scholars like Murray can relearn how to navigate the thorny waters of public rhetoric.

4 thoughts on “Scientists Are Responsible For Their Rhetoric

  1. This strikes me as profoundly illiberal. For one, what would be the punishment for a scientist who presents his data with the “wrong” narrative? Shame? Exclusion from the community? No matter what, the outcome is less information. Especially less information that makes anyone uncomfortable or challenges the consensus. But really, I don’t think it matters what kind of information is suppressed. I think more information is always a good thing. I think you do, too, so this post surprises me.

    It’s not as if the scientist’s own rhetoric is the last word on the matter. It may be disproportionately influential. Still, rhetoric isn’t the scientist’s job in the first place. You are asking them to be scientists and philosophers simultaneously. Why not leave it to philosophers? Once the information is out there, it can be interpreted any which way. As you admit, Murray’s research is used in ways he argued against at the very time he published it. Yet he’s still to blame? What else is he supposed to do, wag his finger and say racism is very bad? I don’t think that would help. Regardless, I don’t see why it should be a prerequisite of information-gathering in the first place. (Murray was primarily trying to create a narrative, and only creating knowledge to that end, so he might be a bad example to begin with.)

    I think this is an over-reaction to a very small group of intellectual racists. What if Murray himself was a racist, and didn’t even try to present another narrative? Should his results have been censored? Ignored? He would be condemned for his personal views if he expressed them or implied them. Rightly so. But what about the information itself? It seems the best thing to do, rather than discourage “bad” people from creating information, would be to analyze and re-interpret the information in a different context. Which is philosophy. Not science. I think you are over-reacting to a very small group of quasi-intellectual racists making bad arguments on the internet. What you are proposing isn’t a path to censorship, it *is* censorship.

    1. I’m going to have to write a follow up (at minimum to reply to Sam) but I think people are missing a few key pieces. For instance, it’s not that scientists put information out and I’m saying they should get better at marketing it. There’s no such creature as sanitized, rhetoric free information. Their entire work is rhetoric, from description to conclusion. It is an invitation to trust a particular picture, and a defense of that picture. They anticipate criticism as a matter of course, meaning they anticipate *response* and attempt to get ahead of it.

      In Murray’s case I’m saying the response was very easy to anticipate and you don’t have to be a philosopher (or more appropriately, a marketer) to have seen it at the time. *Especially* given his own reading of the situation into which he brought his work.

      I don’t think “more information is always a good thing” because:
      -too much information can simply be meaningless noise, and
      -no matter how much we have, it’s always partial, and so what is added to it becomes part of how we try to piece together the whole picture. Bad information therefore takes us down bad paths.

      It seems peculiar to me to call my position illiberal, when as offered it is little more than a call for personal responsibility. What we should do in cases like this is exactly what I have done, criticize, attempt to provide context in a way that changes the narrative around a person or set of ideas.

      It’s very odd to jump from what I said to censorship, but I guess that’s a consequence of living in a society where “bad” is taken to mean “needs to be outlawed.”

  2. Whoops, wish I could edit comments… anyway, there’s more to unravel here but I don’t have the time right now.

    I’ve never been partial to “you are responsible for nutjobs who wrongly interpret you” arguments. JD Salinger didn’t deserve this.

    1. Personal responsibility is a tricky thing. Even in many first degree murder cases, the most dogmatic proponent of personal responsibility could probably concede that there were many things that led the murderer down that awful road that were not their fault. Less straightforward matters water down a specific individual’s responsibility even more; for many of the big things we would do well to remember that we are all in some sense responsible.

      So I think I can ask a more reasonable question: did he do his due diligence? Certainly there’s nothing in Helter Skelter that the Beatles could have guessed would inspire murderers.

      My claim is simply that Murray is a case of someone who did *not* do his due diligence, and so he shares more of the blame for the misuse of his work than Salinger or the Beatles.

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