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Uncomfortable Science

July 22, 2011

I’ve run into the term “uncomfortable science” in two places.

The first is Raymond Firth’s reflections on whether an “applied anthropology” is possible, delivered in his 1981 Malinowski Award Paper “Engagement and Attachment: Reflections on Applying Social Anthropology to Social Affairs”. In this paper, Firth suggests – with, as it turned out, historically unfounded optimism – that the “dismal science” of economics has already learned to be very cautious about the notion that its abstract models could be applied directly to practical human behaviour. He suggests that social anthropology needs to learn a similar lesson – that its descriptive and analytic strengths do not usually translate in any direct way into proposals for social engineering or behavioural change, and that this limitation should be rather embraced than derided – even if this causes social anthropology to be viewed as the “uncomfortable science”, because it dedicates itself to exposing difficulties and contradictions, rather than to magicking them away:

…working anthropologists know that while the descriptive and analytical part of a job is usually well within their competence if they are given adequate time, any business of making positive suggestions about how to get people to change their behavior is much more chancy. In the most prestigious of the social sciences, economists have discovered this by now, and are apt to be quite cautious in going beyond the controlled area of model construction. The economists’ interest in what I believe is called “rational expectations theory” is pretty abstract, and it seems to be admitted that it is not known how far this theory really describes any actual human behavior, and if so, whether such behavior is general to all human beings or is fairly closely culturally determined (Simon 1980). Charting the formation of expectations in actual life in a given society, and how this bears on economic decisions in particular social circumstances is a field for applied anthropology—one of the most recent exercises is Mary Douglas’s study of consumer patterns in The World of Goods (1979). But while many projects in recent years have mentioned what they refer to vaguely as human or social factors, far too few of them have realized just how difficult social technology is, as compared to material technology. That anthropologists tend to identify problems rather than propound solutions has often been pointed out, by ourselves as well as by our critics. I think we must accept this position, not apologetically but firmly; that we should say straightforwardly that an important part of an anthropologist’s job is to expose the difficulties, the contradictions, the conflicts of interest in a situation in order that false hopes of easy solutions should not mislead. This caution may not increase our popularity. As in times past, economics was sometimes called “the dismal science,” so anthropology may become “the uncomfortable science” if it identifies human factors in ways people do not expect. But if we cannot become popular we may at least gain respect.

The second place I have encountered this phrase is in relation to the work of statistician John Tukey, who used the term, as Wikipedia describes:

…for cases in which there is a need to draw an inference from a limited sample of data, where further samples influenced by the same cause system will not be available. More specifically, it involves the analysis of a finite natural phenomenon for which it is difficult to overcome the problem of using a common sample of data for both exploratory data analysis and confirmatory data analysis. This leads to the danger of systematic bias through testing hypotheses suggested by the data.

A typical example is Bode’s law, which provides a simple numerical rule for the distances of the planets in the solar system from the Sun. Once the rule has been derived, through the trial and error matching of various rules with the observed data (exploratory data analysis), there are not enough planets remaining for a rigorous and independent test of the hypothesis (confirmatory data analysis). We have exhausted the natural phenomena. The agreement between data and the numerical rule should be no surprise, as we have deliberately chosen the rule to match the data. If we are concerned about what Bode’s law tells us about the cause system of planetary distribution then we demand confirmation that will not be available until better information about other planetary systems becomes available.

Both of these past encounters with the term hit on something that, for me, is the core ethical value of science of any kind: epistemological humility – the constant awareness, embodied institutionally if not always individually, of the tentativeness and the fragility of the scientific enterprise. And yet, combined with that tentativeness, a rejection of quietism and fatalism – a commitment to act on the basis of what we currently know, while preserving the constant openness to the unknown future that arises from the awareness that what we know is bounded, finite, partial, and almost certain to be superseded in time.

Weber is of course the master of presenting this ethic in a pessimistic tone:

Scientific work is chained to the course of progress; whereas in the realm of art there is no progress in the same sense. It is not true that the work of art of a period that has worked out new technical means, or, for instance, the laws of perspective, stands therefore artistically higher than a work of art devoid of all knowledge of those means and laws–if its form does justice to the material, that is, if its object has been chosen and formed so that it could be artistically mastered without applying those conditions and means. A work of art which is genuine ‘fulfilment’ is never surpassed; it will never be antiquated. Individuals may differ in appreciating the personal significance of works of art, but no one will ever be able to say of such a work that it is ‘outstripped by another work which is also ‘fulfilment.’

In science, each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years. That is the fate to which science is subjected; it is the very meaning of scientific work, to which it is devoted in a quite specific sense, as compared with other spheres of culture for which in general the same holds. Every scientific ‘fulfilment’ raises new ‘questions’; it asks to be ‘surpassed’ and outdated. Whoever wishes to serve science has to resign himself to this fact. Scientific works certainly can last as ‘gratifications’ because of their artistic quality, or they may remain important as a means of training. Yet they will be surpassed scientifically–let that be repeated–for it is our common fate and, more, our common goal. We cannot work without hoping that others will advance further than we have. In principle, this progress goes on ad infinitum. And with this we come to inquire into the meaning of science. For, after all, it is not self-evident that something subordinate to such a law is sensible and meaningful in itself. Why does one engage in doing something that in reality never comes, and never can come, to an end?

It will likely be counter-intuitive for many readers for me to suggest that Marx’s work operates from a similar standpoint of humility – a similar sense of the boundedness and limitations of our present time – encased in a scathing critique of the so-called “scientists” of Marx’s own time, who claimed to be able to find a solid and incontestable ontological ground for their fleeting “discoveries”, who pretended to elevate short-term insights of a particular historical configuration – as if these had always and ever been the implicit and latent truths of material nature or human history. In Marx, this sense of humility – this awareness of our boundedness to our own time – did not stand in the way of a present-day commitment to practical transformation: it was instead its very basis. But even revolutionary transformation stands at a kind of event horizon – obliquely reaching forward with sensibilities engendered in our own moment, grasping for gratifications we have been socialised to desire – but in the process creating a new world, whose sensibilities and desires are necessarily opaque to us.

In an afterword to the second edition of Capital vol 1, Marx responds with some exasperation to a review of the first edition that complained:

that, on the one hand, I treat economics metaphysically, and on the other hand — imagine! — confine myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing receipts (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.

Marx defends himself – typically – with exaggerated paraphrasing of the original objection, sarcastic asides (“- imagine! – “, “Comtist ones?”), and finally with extensive quotations from other reviewers, hence from people responding to the same material, but who are able to extract different possibilities, different meanings – more sense. He thus refutes the original reviewer, not simply by declaring him to be wrong, but by showing that other people, working over the same raw materials, have the capacity to arrive at something better. Whatever the deficiencies of the original reviewer, then, they are not general deficiencies of the time.

Marx is scathing toward the idea of writing recipes for the cookshops of the future – but what he contrasts approvingly to this image is a contrasting image from another review, which argues that any laws Marx has discovered, are laws that apply only to a very specific moment in time – that have arisen, and will fade away:

But it will be said, the general laws of economic life are one and the same, no matter whether they are applied to the present or the past. This Marx directly denies. According to him, such abstract laws do not exist. On the contrary, in his opinion every historical period has laws of its own.

Marx is after, not metaphysical insight, but something more akin to the knowledge gained from studying natural history – with the emphasis on the word history. Marx will try to explain the practical experiences that prime the notion that nature is a realm subject to timeless laws, but his own operating vision of nature is a much more historically pliable one. Built into the project is its own obsolescence – and, with that, an aversion to closed visions of an absolute endpoint or teleological culmination of history. From Marx’s perspective, Weber’s pessimism itself results from an unnecessary foreclosure – a naturalisation of a particular kind of linear historical trend that Marx would regard as itself a contingent historical product. By contrast, for Marx, a major limitation on our ability to anticipate the future direction of history has to do with the possibility for historical creativity and innovation – with the unanticipated possibilities for adaptation arising from creative appropriation of our existing historical materials – with the creative potential to speciate new forms of social life, whose natures cannot be precisely predicted from what we can now experience, even though these new forms are made from reconfigurations of many sorts of practices that we already know.

Here there is a kind of fundamental humility toward the future that does not imply passivity in the present. It does not require a leap outside our own time and place to orient itself to action, nor does it pretend that we can fully anticipate the needs and desires of whatever future results from our actions now. It poses the uncomfortable challenge of needing to act without certainty, and tries to inform this action as well as is possible, by mining as much information as it can from the sensibilities and practices that are available to us at our present moment in time. In doing this, it runs into some of the issues posed by the other meanings of “uncomfortable science” mentioned above: the complexities of theorising the unique circumstance presented by our own history.

On this blog, I’ll hopefully be able to explore some of these issues, and perhaps work my way toward articulating the concerns I’m hitting on obliquely in the current post…


From → Blog, Marx, Weber

  1. Lovely! I’m reminded of a couple similar inspirations, no doubt familiar. From Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life:

    But as important as these borrowings from the established sciences
    may be, they are in no way sufficient; faith is above all a spur to action,
    whereas science, no matter how advanced, always remains at a distance
    from action. Science is fragmentary and incomplete; it advances but slowly
    and is never finished; but life — that cannot wait. Theories whose calling
    is to make people live and make them act, must therefore rush ahead of science
    and complete it prematurely. They are possible only if the demands of
    practicality and vital necessities, such as we feel without distinctly conceiving
    them, push thought beyond what science permits us to affirm.

    From Sorel, Reflections on Violence (albeit with less commitment to getting the present ‘right’):

    A knowledge of what the myths contain in the way of details which will actually
    form part of the history of the future is then of small importance; they are not
    astrological almanacs; it is even possible that nothing which they contain will ever
    come to pass… the myth must be judged as a means of acting on the present; any
    attempt to discuss how far it can be taken literally as future history is devoid of

  2. So my reply ended up too long for a comment, and I’ve lifted it into a post… But I thought I should also reply down here that the comment departed your text a bit… 😉 So I’m afraid I’m not so much replying to you, as taking the opportunity to free associate on other things I was meaning to write about – so apologies if the post sounds as though I’m talking to you, when I’m addressing things you weren’t trying to say… 🙂 Not sure if it helps to say I’ve just taken the opportunity to veer around… But such it is…

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  1. Beyond the Blank Slate « Uncomfortable Science
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