Social justice and evidence

Galileo’s Middle Finger has some good coverage of several case studies in politicized science, and ends with a sermon on the importance of evidence to social justice:

 

When I joined the early intersex-rights movement, although identity activists inside and outside academia were a dime a dozen, it was pretty uncommon to run into evidence-based activists… Today, all over the place, one finds activist groups collecting and understanding data, whether they’re working on climate change or the rights of patients, voters, the poor, LGBT people, or the wrongly imprisoned…

The bad news is that today advocacy and scholarship both face serious threats. As for social activism, while the Internet has made it cheaper and easier than ever to organize and agitate, it also produces distraction and false senses of success. People tweet, blog, post messages on walls, and sign online petitions, thinking somehow that noise is change. Meanwhile, the people in power just wait it out, knowing that the attention deficit caused by Internet overload will mean the mob will move on to the next house tomorrow, sure as the sun comes up in the morning. And the economic collapse of the investigative press caused by that noisy Internet means no one on the outside will follow through to sort it out, to tell us what is real and what is illusory. The press is no longer around to investigate, spread stories beyond the already aware, and put pressure on those in power to do the right thing.

The threats to scholars, meanwhile, are enormous and growing. Today over half of American university faculty are in non-tenure-track jobs. (Most have not consciously chosen to live without tenure, as I have.) Not only are these people easy to get rid of if they make trouble, but they are also typically loaded with enough teaching and committee work to make original scholarship almost impossible… Add to this the often unfair Internet-based attacks on researchers who are perceived as promoting dangerous messages, and what you end up with is regression to the safe — a recipe for service of those already in power.

Perhaps most troubling is the tendency within some branches of the humanities to portray scholarly quests to understand reality as quaint or naive, even colonialist and dangerous. Sure, I know: Objectivity is easily desired and impossible to perfectly achieve, and some forms of scholarship will feed oppression, but to treat those who seek a more objective understanding of a problem as fools or de facto criminals is to betray the very idea of an academy of learners. When I run into such academics — people who will ignore and, if necessary, outright reject any fact that might challenge their ideology, who declare scientific methodologies “just another way of knowing” — I feel this crazy desire to institute a purge… Call me ideological for wanting us all to share a belief in the importance of seeking reliable, verifiable knowledge, but surely that is supposed to be the common value of the learned.

…I want to say to activists: If you want justice, support the search for truth. Engage in searches for truth. If you really want meaningful progress and not just temporary self-righteousness, carpe datum. You can begin with principles, yes, but to pursue a principle effectively, you have to know if your route will lead to your destination. If you must criticize scholars whose work challenges yours, do so on the evidence, not by poisoning the land on which we all live.

…Here’s the one thing I now know for sure after this very long trip: Evidence really is an ethical issue, the most important ethical issue in a modern democracy. If you want justice, you must work for truth.

Naturally, the sermon is more potent if you’ve read the case studies in the book.

Comments

  1. says

    “And the economic collapse of the investigative press caused by that noisy Internet means no one on the outside will follow through to sort it out, to tell us what is real and what is illusory. The press is no longer around to investigate, spread stories beyond the already aware, and put pressure on those in power to do the right thing.”

    This sounds plausible but is it really true? It feels right the noisy Internet is full of movements that die off ineffectively, but does this mean that there are fewer effective movements now than there were before the Internet? One thing that comes to mind is the Panama Papers incident, which definitely isn’t Internet generated but stands against the pattern you’ve described. We still have meaningful protests in the age of the Internet – Egyptian revolution 2013 along with a lot of the Arab spring, Occupy, the LGBT community has been organizing in physical displays of consolidation.

    Basically I do see the internet introducing a lot of noise, but I’m not convinced it’s actually decreased the effectiveness of social movements as a result. It may just be that more minor social movements are evident than they were before.

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