Ontological bias and social knowledge in a post-truth era

In a thought-provoking essay, Jana Bacevic reflects on the problem of prediction and its relevance for social scientists in a post-truth era. This issue has become institutionally relevant, as opposed to being a philosophical consideration or a practical challenge, for two reasons:

One is that, as reflected in the (by now overwrought and overdetermined) crisis of expertise and ‘post-truth’, social researchers increasingly find themselves in situations where they are expected to give authoritative statements about the future direction of events (for instance, about the impact of Brexit). Even if they disavow this form of positioning, the very idea of social science rests on (no matter how implicit) assumption that at least some mechanisms or classes or objects will exhibit the same characteristics across cases; consequently, the possibility of inference is implied, if not always practised. Secondly, given the scope of challenges societies face at present, it seems ridiculous to not even attempt to engage with – and, if possibly, refine – the capacity to think how they will develop in the future.

These claims seem far from self-evident to me. If prediction is indeed impossible, it would seem ridiculous to engage with these future developments in a serious way. We can believe it’s possible to infer from one case to another without assuming the stability we impute to these cases is temporal as well as spatial. Even this stability could be radically provisionally, susceptible to representation only through transactional data produced in real time. It seems overreaching to try and build some limited acceptance of prediction into the concept of social knowledge itself. The most that seems plausible to me is to claim that there is some minimal notion of objectivity presupposed by the assumption that research techniques produce discursive outcomes which constitute social knowledge.

My instinct is to reverse the direction in which these issues are addressed. It is because of the evident breakdown of the predictive apparatus elsewhere that the authoritativeness or otherwise of the statements social researchers becomes newly urgent. Some of the factors driving that breakdown, such as mass uptake of social media and the emergence of content factories, in fact play a crucial role in creating these new opportunities for academic speech. A quote from someone attached to a university helping a hastily written article stand out, the veneer of expertise promising to transcend ‘rant-driven journalism‘, creates a pull for academics who are being pushed out to the public sphere under the sign of impact. These academics for the most part aren’t being quoted because a judgement has been made about their authoritativeness. It’s simply that it’s become easier than ever to get some statements from an individual who has at least a vague aura of epistemic privilege. Considered as an isolated transaction, it might solve a problem for a journalist while the currency of expertise nonetheless declines precipitously in the aggregate. The current debate about social media and social science largely fails to capture what’s at stake in these boundary interactions, with the risk that all manner of problems are being generated by the call to use social media to get your research ‘out there’. This has implications of what social scientists do, as well as how what they do is evaluated, which can be characterised philosophically but should be recognised as a messy, over-determined process which resists theoretical closure. The claims being made by academics might (sometimes) be predictive in a semantic sense but the content of those predictions has little to do with the expanded array of speakers and claims.

How much do we know about the sociology of how “social researchers increasingly find themselves in [these] situations”, what they are being asked to speak about and how these statements are being evaluated? These questions seem crucial to understanding how these philosophical problems are unfolding in practice and their implications for the future of social science. As well as the aforementioned case of social media for academics, the other case which I find myself preoccupied by is social research beyond the academic bubble, where it seems likely we will see increasing calls to demonstrate the provenance of research and to root out ‘bad’ research in order to prop up the epistemic credibility of institutionalised social knowledge and its role within government. As someone who has begun to have a (marginal) role in these debates through the Social Research Association, I’m concerned by the tendency to sidestep the philosophical issues which Jana raises and the damage this could do to the subtle fabric of the social research apparatus. It will deepen the failure to account for what she describes as “the way in which social structures, institutions, and cultures of knowledge production interact with the capacity to theorise, model, and think about the future”. But it’s also a failure to address the sociology of the problem, neatly theorising it in terms of a clearly identified deficit then proposing action to address what is lacking. Again the predictions made by social researchers might be predictive in a narrowly semantic sense but there’s much more going on here, including methodological disputes which touch on prediction without being reducible to it.

My point here is not to disagree with Jana’s account, only to reflect that avoiding what she adroitly terms ontological bias (“epistemic attachment to the object of research“) might also require a distancing from a philosophical construct like ‘prediction’. If we consider a class of statements made across institutional sectors in terms of their philosophical status, it might be unproblematic to talk of ‘predictions’. But if we talk of predictions as if they are the same thing across sectors then, at least in terms of the two case studies I know well enough to be confident making this claim about, we obscure crucial differences relating to these claims, why they are made, how they are received and the ‘work’ which they do. In other words, ‘predictions’ might be a better philosophical designator than a sociological one. Or so it seems to me, as someone who has spent academic life torn between a yearning for the concrete and a propensity for abstraction. After reading Jana’s essay I’m now pondering my own ‘ontological bias’ and how, like everyone else, it shapes how I approach questions of the future of the social sciences. It’s really worth reading in full: here’s the link again.

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