Austerity is a con, the Tories are authoritarians and they conflated the fact-value distinction.

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One of the first things I realised as an undergraduate is that social “sciences” aren’t. My very first essay was on the topic of the “scientific” basis of sociology and its methodology, and my reading took me deep into the labyrinth of history and philosophy of science. I concluded that science itself isn’t as “scientific” as we are led to believe, let alone a discipline that aims at the study of inter-subjectively constructed human behaviours in a social context. I’ve been attempting to rescue anyone that has succumbed to the mythical, positivist, fraudulent chimera called “objectivity” ever since.

As a critical interpretivist, I believe that social reality is not “out there” waiting to be discovered: we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully. However, politically, there’s been a marked shift away from understanding the lived experiences of real people in context: a systematic dehumanisation. The Tories have depopulated social policy. This is a characteristic of authoritarianism, and other hallmarks include stigmatisation of social groups, moral disengagement, moral exclusion, impunity, and a societal “bystander apathy”. See also Allport’s ladder, which is a measure of the manifestation of prejudice and discrimination in a Society. It’s also an explanation of the stages of genocide, and how the Holocaust happened.

And before anyone invokes Reductio ad Hitlerum or Godwin’s Law, I will point out in advance that it would be unreasonable where such a comparison is appropriate and reasonable, as it is in this case. (For example, in discussions of the dangers involved in eugenics, persecution and stigmatisation of any social group, or tolerance of racist and nationalist political parties, and propaganda campaigns used to promote and justify any of these). In such a context, the dismissal of someone’s proposition on this basis becomes its own form of association fallacy and Ad Hominem attack. Upwards and onwards then.

Authoritarian legitimacy is often based on emotional appeal, especially the identification of the regime as a “necessary evil” to combat easily recognisable societal problems, such as economic problems.

Authoritarian regimes commonly emerge in times of political, economic, or social instability, and because of this, especially during the initial period of authoritarian rule, such Governments may have broad public support. Many won’t immediately recognise authoritarianism, especially in formerly liberal and democratic countries. In the UK, there  has been an incremental process of un-democratising, permeated by a wide variety of deliberative practices which have added to the problem of recognising it for what it is.

Authoritarian leaders typically prefer and encourage a population that is apathetic about politics, with no desire to participate in the political process. Authoritarian Governments often work via propaganda to cultivate such public attitudes, by fostering a sense of a deep divide between social groups, society and Government, they tend to generate prejudice between social groups, and repress expressions of dissent, using media control, law amendments or quietly editing existing laws.

Whenever I listen to the Tories in Parliamentary debate, I’m reminded of the fact/value distinction – the alleged difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be). Facts are one sort of thing, values another sort of thing, and the former never determine the latter. That’s the idea, anyway. But it isn’t considered to be very clear-cut when it comes to the “social sciences” such as politics and economics (although I would go further and propose that it’s not so clear-cut in the physical sciences, either. (Please see footnote).

The fact/value dichotomy was associated with the doctrine of logical positivism, that arose out of a supreme attempt at concept control. Beginning in the eighteenth century, some of the Enlightenment thinkers had declared that values (such as moral obligations) could not be derived from facts.

The verification principle, which is at the heart of the logical positivist doctrine, is a form of vigorous scientific anti-realism – restricting science to (empirically verifiable) observable aspects of nature. Inductive reasoning makes broad generalisations from specific observations. Such observations can be used to make “probability guesses” based on deductive reasoning.

This applies to many theoretical claims, including the beginning of time, gravity, the existence of matter (one of which is the Big Bang Theory), quantum events, the age of the Universe, the age of the Earth, the origin of the Moon, and the occurrence of other magical events in the past.

But the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Values are involved in the very identification or determination of what is “fact”. As Einstein once said: “the theory tells you what you may observe.” 

Similarly, in social research, the area of study is intentionally selected. There are problems related to the connection between observation and interpretation also. Perhaps every observation is an interpretation, since “facts” are seen through a lens of perceptions, pre-conceptions and ideology. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation choose to study poverty. Cynical Iain Duncan Smith simply changes the definition of it.

Tory values. How else can we explain the flagrantes et virulentes Tory political rhetoric manifested in media-wide chanting for the blood and souls of the poor for the sake of “austerity”? There are no “facts” that can ever justify the persecution of a social group.

All of the knowledge and understanding we possess, whether of “facts”, values, or anything else, is contained within our consciousness, as structured by intentionality.  There isn’t an “objective”, mind-independent yardstick – we cannot step outside our consciousness to compare our ideas with anything else “out there” (please see footnote). We cannot experience our consciousness independently of intentionality, and we do have a degree of free-will and moral agency.

This means we have to face our morality, take responsibility for our ethical decisions and own our value-judgements. Rather than disguise them as “facts”, as the pseudo-positivist Tories frequently do.

It’s truly remarkable that Tories loudly attribute the capacity for moral agency to people claiming benefits, for example, formulating sanctions and “assessments” to both shape and question the morality of the poor constantly, yet stand outside of any obligation to morality themselves. It’s always someone else’s responsibility, never theirs.

Any claim to value-freedom in decision-making does not and cannot exempt us from moral responsibility, or justify moral indifference.

The consciousness of each of person is situated, rather than existing independently. A situation is an intentional act (or action) taken in social contexts as we experience them. Our understanding of our situation is embedded in conversational language. We are continually engaged in dialogues with other persons – “discourse”. Dialogue and narrative are how we make sense of the world.

It strikes me that in politics it all comes down to language. Those who can shape a controversial issue in the terms they prefer have the advantage in shaping public opinion. It’s called “framing”. Such concept control is a way of rigging the debate: You must talk about this controversial issue using our categories, terms, and definitions.

As a result, those who have the power to declare the terms of discourse have the power to determine the outcome of the debate, and furthermore, they have the power to determine what is accepted as “true or false”.

Really, for the Tories, it’s nothing more than linguistic bullying. You only need listen to Prime Minister’s Questions to understand this. For the Tories, both facts and values are irrelevant, despite their fake claims to fake empirical statistical data, all that matters is their ideological narrative. As a Society, we really need to pay much more attention to detail.

And we really need to challenge more. In terms of evidence, the Tories have not provided any verification that any of their policies work. There’s a growing body of rich qualitative data that reliably and consistently informs us that those policies do not work as claimed by the Tory-led Coalition, and the sheer volume of those accounts also informs us that this data is both credible and valid. So why are the Government so determined to ignore it?

Value-laden observation: their “theory” tells them what they may observe.

I’m not particularly au fait with economic theory, I just about grasp the differences between Keynes and Hayek, but I do know that after the British depression of the 1920s, Hayek promoted the idea that private investment, rather than Government spending, would promote sustainable growth. However, Keynes proposed that the Government’s job is to increase its own spending to offset the decline in public spending – that is by running a deficit to whatever extent necessary. To cut Government spending is a completely damaging policy in an economic slump. Keynes’s message was: you cannot cut your way out of a slump; you have to grow your way out. Eighty years on and the Tories have still not fully learned the lesson. Well, they probably have, but the fact is they simply don’t care enough to apply it.

I do understand ideology, and the case for austerity is not founded on economic principles, but rests entirely on neo-conservative ideology, with their wide embrace of neoliberalism. The repetition of a lie ad nauseum is based on the idea Goebbels had – that repeated lies will somehow convince people that they are true. Cameron was busted when he repeatedly told the lie “We are paying down the debt.” Despite being rumbled, the Coalition have stuck with this lie doggedly. The bonus of the lie is that it may be used (and has been, repeatedly) to undermine the Opposition’s economic credibility, and the Tories particularly delight in the lie that it’s all Labour’s fault because they “overspent” as it further justifies austerity measures and starving public services of Government funding, with our paid taxes, as well as stripping our welfare provision and public services away.

The Tories have carefully planned these measures for a long time, and attacks on our human rights and public services can be seen in plans and policies of previous Tory administrations. Such attacks on the most vulnerable and the undermining of social programs and services that may offer any support to the most vulnerable are an integral part of Tory ideological grammar.

A leading British academic concludes that the last Labour Government has been tarnished by spin and propaganda, while the US treasury secretary follows Gordon Brown’s lead. Jack Lew, the relatively new US treasury secretary, wrote recently in the Financial Times: “While long-term fiscal policy requires tough decisions, we knew we could not cut our way to prosperity”.

 in today’s Guardian says “Lew has now taken up the baton from Gordon Brown when it comes to politicians who understand the nature of the huge deficiency of demand in the world economy. People go on about the need for supply-side policies, but the fact is that there is no shortage of supply, but of demand, which continues to be constrained by the vogue for totally unnecessary and hugely destructive policies of austerity”.

Keegan quotes the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, who is a widely respected in the profession, from  the Oxford Review of Economic Policy. It covers the economic record of the 1997-2010 Labour Government in considerable and balanced detail: “The line that the Labour government was responsible for leaving a disastrous fiscal position which requires great national sacrifice to put right is pure spin”.

The austerity movement has damaged recovery from the economic depression, whilst it has also caused a crisis worldwide through its imposition upon many nations. The foundation research that was used to justify the austerity movement came from two Harvard Professors: Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.  A University of Massachusetts student Thomas Herndon found that their work was filled with mathematical errors in their research spreadsheets.

Their spreadsheets were their “proofs” that economic austerity promotes economic recovery and were used to “verify” this theory. The powers that be have imposed this fundamentally flawed doctrine, and the ill-effects fall squarely upon 99% of the people, leaving the wealthiest unscathed.Thriving, actually.

It’s is both infuriating and horrific to witness the sheer suffering and destruction that follows in the wake of these now debunked theories. The unemployment in Europe  has reached record high levels high levels, Countries like Greece and Spain have widespread rioting in the streets and a new neo Nazi movement is gaining popularity throughout Europe.

The cost in human suffering is incalculable, but those fatuous academic asses supporting austerity are not concerned with people, they are concerned with their reputations and salaries, and with catering for the powerful wealthy. Their theories, rather than being based on informed facts, the result of real research and learning experiences, are NOT science: they are nothing more than by-products of overweening egotism in tandem with uncaring self interest. Such highly prized Tory values.

It gets worse. Huffington Post contributor: Mark Gongloff wrote this article : “Austerity Fanatics Won’t Let Mere Economics Stop Them From Thinking They’re Winning”, in it he writes: Like Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who hid on an island in the Philippines for 30 years refusing to believe Japan had lost World War II, austerity fanatics are never going to admit their failure. Instead, they are going to keep pushing the policies that are making millions of people in Europe miserable”.

Another example of their denial is a piece by Michael Rosen of the American Enterprise Institute, a Conservative think tank, entitled Austerity And Its Discontents”. He declares that, far from being shamed by the recent discovery of errors in influential research by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, austerity fans have recently gained “the upper hand in the global argument over austerity”.

We really do need to shout down the public’s passive acceptance of grotesque inequality, social injustice, political justifications for growing poverty and the steady removal of our civil rights. This is now the propaganda of a so-called liberal democracy. Sure, many news articles circumvent the conspicuous propaganda of pernicious sophist, Conservative policies – manifestations of their social Darwinist neoliberalist orthodoxy – which really makes the media complicit in such propaganda: diversions are a silent endorsement, after all. The column of truth has holes in it, no matter which newspaper you read now.

There is a very conspicuous absence of counter agitprop, let alone any semblance of the grim truth. There is no representation of those with alternative principles, values and norms, the ones that challenge, with the potential to trigger much needed cultural changes. Public attitudes are being micromanaged. Whatever happened to counter-culture? There’s no Beat Generation, only a being beaten one. And we, the blogging Bohemians, and other underground dissenters, seceded from the conventionalities of an increasingly right wing public.  

The wealthy one percent have their own problems, just not on par with ours. The poor buggers have to face Government regulation, taxes and those darned pesky workers who want fair wages and decent working conditions. The political solution has been to bring many of the 99% to a level slightly above starvation. This ensures that they will work for any amount that helps them put some food on the table. It necessitates that social welfare and support programs be destroyed so the plebs will have no choice but to seek shelter from devastation at some exploitative, low paying job that keeps them just above subsistence. This adds to the profits of the 1%. The steady erosion of workers rights also adds to profits, and lowers the value of labour further, because there is now a large and pretty desperate, disposable reserve army of labour.

The pay and bonuses of bankers and the tax cuts for the very wealthiest have sunk our Country into obscene levels of inequality. When banks receive money, they invest over 90% in assets like property, that does nothing for the economy. The rich benefit as the value of their assets rises, so 12% of the population now own half the Country’s wealth.

I can’t help thinking of Syria – a peaceful yet divided Country under the authoritarian Alawite regime that represented and reflected the needs of 12% of their Country. Then the Arab Spring lit a spark that led to its disintegration.

Wide gaps in income levels, human rights violations, political corruption and authoritarianism. These conditions tend to happen together. Despite the emphasis and value that authoritarian regimes place on social conformity, and a reliance on passive mass acceptance, rather than popular support, history shows us that it cannot be maintained by repressive and coercive strategies.

In Britain, the minority are exceptionally well-housed, have gold-plated pensions, fine art, fine food, luxury yachts, a big say and shrinking taxes. Many of the rest of the population are fighting to survive. There is a chasm opening between them and the majority of society who are mostly in debt, suffering severely reduced welfare and tax benefits, unable to afford a home, increasingly forced to relocate away from their community, breaking kith and kinship bonds and ways of life, routines and many are being forced to travel for hours in order to pick up menial work for the rich to profit from. Those in a run-down area lucky enough to own a flat pay eight times as much council tax proportionally as the very rich. That beggars belief, but its a social fact, one of many grim facts we are now facing, manifested directly from Tory values.

Edwardian levels of inequality led to the Great Depression. Austerity measures under Chancellor Hindenburg contributed to the rise of Nazism. The drop in household income in Japan between 1929 and 1931 led to a wave of assassinations of Government officials and bankers. Social policies after World War 2 turned the tables and brought peace, with inequality steadily dropping in Britain until recently. But inequality is now returning to pre-war levels.

In response to the atrocities committed during the War, the International Community sought to define the rights and freedoms necessary to secure the dignity and worth of each individual. Ratified by the United Kingdom, one of the first countries to do so, in 1951, those human rights originally established in the Universal Declaration have been steadily eroded since the Coalition gained Office. There’s a clear link between high levels of inequality and failure of Government’s to recognise human rights, and to implement them in policies.

Authoritarians view the rights of the individual, (including those considered to be human rights by the international community), as subject to the needs of the Government. Of course in democracies, Government’s are elected to represent and serve the needs of the population. Democracy is not only about elections. It is also about distributive and social justice. The quality of the democratic process, including transparent and accountable Government and equality before the law, is critical. Façade democracy occurs when liberalisation measures are kept under tight rein by elites who fail to generate political inclusion. See Corporate power has turned Britain into a corrupt state  and also Huge gap between rich and poor in Britain is the same as Nigeria and worse than Ethiopia, UN report reveals.

In the UK, democracy is very clearly faltering. It’s time to be very worried.

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant illustrations.


Footnote

As a sociologist and social psychologist, I am a critical (Marxist) Phenomenologist when it comes to defining “social reality”. Experience is “evidence”.  Existence is fact, which precedes essence. Max Weber’s principle of Verstehen  is a critical approach in all social sciences, and we can see the consequences of its absence in the cold, pseudo-positivist approach of the Coalition in the UK. Their policies clearly demonstrate that they lack the capacity to understand, or meaningfully “walk a mile in the shoes of another”. The Coalition treat the population of the UK as objects and not human subjects of their policies.

My own starting point is that regardless of any claim to value-freedom in social science, we cannot abdicate moral responsibility, and cannot justify moral indifference. We see this positive approach exemplified in our laws, human rights and democratic process. We are also seeing an erosion of this tendency to a globalisation of values, and inclusion of a recognition and account of the full range of human experiences in policy making. Indeed our policy has become an instrument of social exclusion and increasing minoritization.

We are being reduced to little more than economic statements here in the UK. We have a Government that tends to describe vulnerable social groups in terms of costs to the State, and responsibility is attributed to these social groups via media and State rhetoric, whilst those decision-makers actually responsible for the state of the economy have been exempted, legally and morally, and are hidden behind complex and diversionary scapegoating propaganda campaigns.

Sartre once said that oppressors oppress themselves as well as those they oppress. Freedom and autonomy are also reciprocal, and it’s only when we truly recognise our own liberty that we may necessarily acknowledge that of others. Conservatism has always been associated with a capacity to inhibit and control, and never liberate. We need to take responsibility for the Government that we have. In fact we must.

With regard to the philosophical issues raised regarding the physical sciences, to clarify, I believe that there is a mind-independent “reality”, that exists beyond the full grasp of our perception and conception of it: in this respect I am a transcendental realist. My point is that how we choose to perceive reality is very much our own business, and demonstrating a correspondence with reality and our description of it is very problematic. Wittgenstein once said that any attempt to demonstrate such correspondence by theory leads to an infinite regress of descriptions of descriptions of descriptions…

Although it’s fallible, the scientific method is pretty much all we have in terms of validation. My own sidestep criterion for the problems raised with methodology is to recognise the role that values play in determining “facts”, and take responsibility for those values. Identify and declare your interest in an area of research. Although we may have difficulty in proving something to be an ultimate truth, we may at least explore issues and give an increasingly coherent account of them. See Coherence theory of truth
 

It’s not possible to do full justice to the debate about objectivity and relativism, deduction and induction here, so I’ve posted a couple of links for anyone interested in pursuing it further:

These are reasonable starting points: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Social Science

Beastrabban has written an analysis of this article: Kittysjones on the Philosophical and Methodological Errors in the Tories’ Austerity Myth

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39 thoughts on “Austerity is a con, the Tories are authoritarians and they conflated the fact-value distinction.

  1. Eloquently explained but above my head Kitty.I prefer to stick to basics and as I understood the position of the Economy when Cameron took over, Labour had been making progress in lowering the deficit ,marginally but the situation was not as bad as the Tories made out.What a majority including myself do not understand is that Labour have not promoted this fact or defended themselves when the Tories have attacked concerning the Economy,whether the new regime under Miliband were having internal strife over the Blair years and let the status quo prevail not to complicate the issue I am undecided but it has left the impression that we have a tri-part coalition essentially Tory Policy motivated,which is confusing.You made valid points in your article which I understood but would rather go back to basics rather than muddy an already very murky situation.

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    1. My aim wasn’t to muddy, (sorry) but rather to try and clarify. The point of the article, in part was to try and show that nothing is as clear-cut as the tories have made out. However, it’s one of my rare, and more “stream of consciousness” types of blog, and these tend to meander far more than the ones I set out to write with crystal clear aims. Sometimes, for me at least, it helps to write thoughts and ideas down to help with making sense of them.

      As for Labour’s reluctance to defend themselves, well I have been paying attention there, and for them, it all boils down to presenting evidence. It’s bloody frustrating, but selecting economists such as Simon Wren-Lewis won’t cut it because Osborne also carefully selected leading economists to justify austerity.

      As someone who does pay close attention to parliamentary debate, I can tell you that Labour have opposed austerity time and time again. So I do disagree fundamentally with the proposal that we have a tri-part coalition, motivated by the same policies. That simply isn’t true. However, if you are searching in the news media for evidence of this you won’t find it.

      That reminds me to add “they are all the same” to my growing list of Tory propaganda techniques.

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      1. I totally agree withyou!
        Quite frankly, having an uninformed populace works extremely well, particularly when you have a media that doesn’t understand its responsibility and feels more like it’s an arm of a political party. They can really take advantage of an uninformed populace. Benjamin Carson

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      2. Labour have said, several times, that they would have made the cuts… just not as fast as the Tories have. Labour appear to be in favour of things that the Tories are doing _because_ they will not come out and state that they would either not continue the policies or would reverse them if they get into power. They are afraid that would hand the Tories a stick to beat them with at every PMQ – as Cameron does every week when he ignores questions asked of him and makes attacks on the opposition that have no relation to the question.

        All Labour need to do to counter Osbourne’s “experts” is to hammer home the “testimony from experts who based their expertism on a dodgy spreadsheet that has been thoroughly tested and shown to be worthless” matter. I wouldn’t trust Osbourne to run a Lemonade Stand – he’d be trying to sell tap water instead.

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      3. Labour didn’t say clearly where they would have made cuts, but have implied that increased taxation for the wealthy would have been their priority to preserve our key support services. They have also argued against austerity and the welfare reforms cogently.

        One of the problems that labour face is a public that have increasingly shifted right – I hyperlinked the Joseph Rountree Foundation article about the research they did this year on public attitudes on the blog. It’s all very well and good us prescribing courses of action, but there is the matter of “electablity” and reflecting the “needs” of the wider public.

        There’s little merit to be had in being the best principled government we, as a minority, approve, if they aren’t elected…

        With an increasingly authoritarian government in Office as well, I’d say Labour are in a very difficult place at the moment. But they remain our only viable option as a means of ridding ourselves of the Tories.

        When I want to know about Labour’s position on an issue, I ask them directly. That’s the best way.

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  2. I said it leaves the impression of a tri-part coalition because the majority of the Public have lost interest in Politics and don’t see any opposition to the cuts as you do and with a bias media they go along with their brand of ‘their all in it together’

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    1. Yep, that’s about it summed up. So the only option we have is to try our very best to inform the public otherwise. That’s why I set up this blogsite. We also have the option of talking to the Labour Party directly and asking them about their intentions regarding policies. That’s what I tend to do, anyway.

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  3. Well said! This article explains why I feel like vomiting when I view Cameron at Prime Minister’s question time. The scumbags are setting this country on a trajectory towards fascism – whilst plundering the country to their mates advantage (asset stripping ) the rich become richer / the poor become poorer and at the same time turn on themselves. Also Osbournes lunatic economic policy will bankrupt the country. The next financial crash will be unprecedented with the consequences of unimaginable suffering for ordinary folk of course! We will financially become another Greece or Spain. For ordinary people to survive radical action will be required!

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  4. A very interesting article which makes some very valid points, however i fail to see that the government are creating much austerity. Both parties are lying about the current financial situation, which is far far worse than anyone is letting on. What is needed is someone to take charge and do what needs to be done to get this country out of the mess it is in.

    After Labour last time we were lucky enough to have Mrs Thatcher who revitalised the country. She just got stuck in. All this lot are doing is putting a few sticking plasters on.

    As long as there is a bloated public sector with gold plated pensions, earlier retirement, and wage rates that are higher than the private sector, this country cannot move forward.

    New Labour increased the public sector by over 1.5 million, of which less than 100,000 have been cut. Get the public sector cut down to size and we will be moving forward. Until then, anything is just tinkering.

    The big divide isn’t between rich and poor, it’s between the public sector with their gold plated pensions and the private sector that is having to pick up the bill.

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    1. Hi Nick, clearly we have very different ideas about the imposed austerity, and the nature of the current crisis, and as you are a Thatcherite, I’m not surprised that we disagree fundamentally regarding the public sector.

      I’m surprised though, that you don’t see that this government are selling off our public services to profit private companies, many of which are run by substantial Tory donors. That’s corruption. However, public services are NOT the government’s to sell off. The clue is in the name.

      The big divide really IS between rich and poor. https://kittysjones.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/briefing-on-how-cuts-are-targeted-dr-simon-duffy/

      https://kittysjones.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/quantitative-data-on-poverty-from-the-joseph-rowntree-foundation/

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    1. Thank you sparaszczukster. There’s always a chance that Osborne will read it. I sent IDS a copy of some work I did on the causes of poverty. I explained that poor people don’t cause poverty, governments do because of their policies….he never got back to me on that…but it’s satisfying letting them know that we know the score. Osborne knows his policies are so damaging, but he’s to busy taking money from poor people to hand out to the wealthy to notice the consequences of “austerity”.

      Besides, doing something is far healthier psychologically than inaction, any day.

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  5. Maybe we should take a lead from the Japanese. I can think of a good few government officials and bankers that assassination would be too good for.

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  6. Reblogged this on Sociology + Social Policy = Sociopolocy and commented:
    This is the sort of writing of which I would like to be capable of producing. Unfortunately, my own writings have long since atrophied beyond the redemption point of attaining such wisdom and elegance – at least without some serious psychological magicks being performed upon me.

    Much kudos to kittysjones for writing and sharing this excellent article.

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    1. Thank you 7rin. Yes, I could do with some serious psychological magicks to lift the brainfogs that obscure clarity some days, too. Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comments.

      It was a “write as I think” kind of piece. With that, there is always the potential for not being explicit enough about the connections made – the ones that make perfect sense inside ones own head: so it’s idiomatic in places, but I see we are natives who speak in the same tongue 🙂

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  7. Hi, I discovered your blog recently and have been enjoying it a lot so far. This is a greatly informative post, but I’ve got a couple of gripes with it.
    First of all, I’m a “hard” scientist, but unlike many of my peers, I’m not one to snub my nose at “softer” sciences and dismiss them as lesser forms of academia. With that opinion, I’ve found it very hard to explain to people why I still think that the humanities and social sciences aren’t like natural sciences, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with, “we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully” and “every observation is an interpretation, since “facts” are seen through a lens of perceptions, pre-conceptions and ideology.” My gripe is: do you think there is *any* objectivity in the world, and if so, where do you draw the line?
    I see e.g. the charge on an electron or the evolutionary advantage of peacocks’ plumage as being inherently objective facts, and that subjectivity and values come into play when dealing with that which is human, and can change itself in response to our questioning. This , to me, makes psychology the science which sits on the line. I’m currently not very well-versed in philosophy, so the question of an existence of an objective reality at all is one that eludes me, and it’d be great to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    Secondly, after defining the fact/value distinction, viewing the Tories and pro-austerity academics through its lens to expose their distortion of the facts, you then fail to do the same thing to academics who are on your side. Rather than considering the evidence solely on its own merits, you cast the pro-austerity economists’ views as “nothing more than by-products of overweening egotism in tandem with uncaring self interest,” but the anti-austerity economists are “widely respected in the profession,” with Keynes’ conclusions being the infallible truth which the Tories “simply don’t care enough to apply.”
    I agree with those proposing an alternative to austerity as the weight of evidence seems to support them; however, to not apply the same critical method that you have used on your opponents to them too is just propaganda for a different side.

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    1. Actually I did apply it to “our side” insofar as I stated that aiming at coherence and recognising values and declaring them was the way to go. I added a footnote to clarify this. I also assume that if I raise issues with methodology in social sciences, people will assume that I mean that this also applies to socialist social scientists too…

      I didn’t claim that “our side” is infallible at all. Not at any point in the article, so that criticism is a little unfair. My view is that ALL claims to “knowledge ” are potentially fallible. We must therefore maintain an open mind and critical stance. It’s difficult to stand outside of our own perspectives. The best hope we have in the social sciences is to make sure those perspectives are broad in scope and coherent, and as informed as possible. In political sciences, that would include acknowledgement of the whole range of human experience in the population, and ensuring that policy reflects this range, treating people as human subjects and not objects of policy. That is, after all, what democracy is supposed to be about! (Also please See the footnote about verstehen, I’m an advocate of reflexivity.)

      We can aim for verisimilitude and coherence in our approach. We can also recognise the role that our own values play in shaping both the approach to research and in policy making. Basically, I am saying that in the social sciences, you cannot view the evidence solely on “its own merits” because it is tied up with potentially value-laden observations. Particularly in the political sciences. My point was that conservatives tend to cling to a pseudo-positivism and deny they have any values at all. We know that this is simply untrue, because those values are expressed as “facts” via political statements. I wrote a lengthy piece on propaganda elsewhere that covers this topic. I think that any claim to value-freedom in research does not and ought not provide an exemption from moral responsibility, or give licence for moral indifference.

      With regard to the anti-austerity claims, well there has been very little media coverage of those. So I was delighted to find the articles that I did, and I hope people read the links I put up, since I can’t write a book here, it’s just a blog…. 🙂

      A major criticism of the UK Labour Party is that they have not presented a strong case against austerity as yet, nor have they effectively put up an effective fight against the deficit myth and the Tory claims about the “mess” they left. Well, none that appears in the mainstream media anyway. So there is certainly a need for some balance and scrutiny here. But I guess the social outcomes of austerity are now speaking on behalf of the anti-austerity camp loudly enough.

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  8. Oh, and for the record, I declared my own values here on this site plainly enough. My page describes me as a principled socialist with a strong interest in human rights. Each blog is headed with the words “We are all equally precious. We each have equal worth”. You may take that as MY starting point in any analysis of social science, or basic starting position from a social science perspective.

    (And just a random thought regarding the fallibility of science: it’s worth remembering Lysenkoism if you don’t think politics and values can influence science, lol! At the very least, funding availability can restrict the scope of enquiry/topics of research, and political interpretation of outcomes certainly does happen. Then there is importing and application of scientific theory to social theory: social Darwinism is an excellent example of a breach of is/ought distinction.)

    Thank you for your thought-provoking response, Keir, which I enjoyed. I would love to discuss the idea of “objective reality” with you from a solely scientific point of view, because it’s an interesting debate. I did clarify my own position on this matter in the footnote: transcendental realism. There is an objective universe, but given the fallibility of our methodologies – the problems of induction and deduction – we have to ensure that we maintain a critical stance and recognise those problems of theory-laden observations – “the theory tells you what you may observe”. I think the work of Popper has some worth and he had an interesting perspective on philosophy of science, because he was also a scientist.

    The issue of interpretation in science is also an interesting area, especially in quantum physics… but I believe that Everett’s many world theory has been deemed the most coherent, to date, accommodating Bell’s interconnectedness, and bypassing the need for Einstein’s “independent variables”. See what I mean about “coherence”? It removes the need for ad hoc hypotheses

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    1. Admittedly I didn’t read the footnote first-time round, and my own knowledge of philosophy is too limited to fully understand it (though, I think, still greater than most physical scientists who scoff at it – take the poster boy of physics, Richard Feynman, as an example with his horrid belief that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”).
      I think the universality of simple physical facts suggests an objective reality that’s hard to refute. Anyone contesting them can be shown to be practising poor science, or be corrupting it (not necessarily willfully), as North Korea’s scientists do. After all, both the USSR and USA, each with their own extremist and highly-opposed agendas, were able to independantly send people into space.
      I’m soon going to be launching a blog of my own, just for personal thoughts, and my inaugral post is probably going to be on how science per se has no agenda, but can be used to support one, and that scientsts’ aim should be only on providing the truth – science cannot determine morality or policy.
      On quantum mechanics, the debate is largely on its philosophical implications – the physics itself is sound, and no matter which philosophy you follow, calculations will give the same results. Again, it’s the difference between the facts themselves, and how you choose to interpret and use them. Unfortunately, with so many scientists being ignorant of philosophy, none of my lecturers so far have mentioned the interpretations in detail, and I’d rather get to grips fully with the scientific principles before I tackle the philosophy.

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      1. I look forward to your blog 🙂

        Yes, I agree with your view of objective reality, and you have splendidly hit the nail on the head regarding problems of interpretation. I’m not sure about the implications of quantum interpretations being merely philosophical though. For me, each interpretation is a fundamental statement about the nature of reality, and we have yet to make the step of linking particle physics firmly with macro-level cosmology…well in full, anyway. But we are moving forward with respect to that.

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  9. “What is this thing called Science” by A.F. Chalmers is an excellent starting point, and covers the basic debate in philos of science.

    Also an older one – “Paradigms Lost” by John Casti. It covers almost every contentious issue in science, but the section on quantum interpretations, and the section on scientific objectivity are particularly valuable, as he sets these issues out clearly, and often with humour. Each chapter concludes with an evaluation of the merits of each proposition in each controversy, which I liked. He called these conclusions and summaries “Into the courtroom of beliefs”.

    I read History and Philosophy of Science at uni, as part of a single hons, because the subject fascinates me. I was lucky enough to be allowed study of one additional subject outside of my Department. It does link in with the debate within the social sciences about methodology, ontology and epistemology very well. These two books kindled my interest in this subject, and also informed me in advance of the degree regarding the main issues. Evans-Pritchard’s anthropological study of Azande witchcraft and magic contributed much to the debate, and it’s worth reading Polanyi’s interpretation and Kuhn’s subsequent work on paradigmatic science, too.

    You mention maths, replication and verification. One problem here is that whilst we value replicability, all it tells us is that such a process is replicable. This is because the verification principle is itself unverificable, so this means we have the problem of linking testable hypotheses with theoretical frameworks, ultimately. Witchcraft rituals are replicable, but what does that tell us about the nature of the universe?

    One further thought is about cognitive science and the “problem” of consciousness, as we know that did intrude on quantum interpretations (manifested in consciousness-created “realities”). Cognitive science is premised on neuroscience, or at least that is the dominant paradigm. However, there’s a fundamental problem with reductionism and determinism. If our consciousness simply arises from neurological process, that means that all of our knowledge regarding the universe is also reducible to neuro processes. With no intentionality, or a degree of free will (which determinism and reductionism do not really permit) we cannot claim we have freely chosen to study and area of science, and we have no sound basis for making claims to knowledge of the universe since it is simply determined and reducible to a neuro event. It may also be seen as “the problem of “mind-independent reality.”

    These are just some outlines of some the issues that have arisen in philos of science, which I hope will be useful for you.

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  10. I have read books which contain less info than your relatively short article. Scientific method is a goodish foundation for applying to the social sciences. I believe the authorities from the earliest days were threatened by sociology and have steadily subverted it. If you haven’t seen them already articles on the WILLIE LYNCH LETTER and AUTOGENOCIDE will also add more grist to your mill. Also consider the possibility that our leaders are clinically insane. Seems to be an occupational hazard of the ruling class if history is to be believed.

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  11. To defend science, without (yet) engaging with the rest of the argument or the copious comments – it’s false to claim that science is true or objective, but science has built-in corrections that tend to correct scientific “belief” in the direction of truth and objectivity. So where truth and objectivity are relevant concepts, and particularly with regard to the physical world, science is the most effective approach anyone has come up with, or (probably) ever could come up with. It beats “just knowing” or relying on authority into a very dishevelled cocked hat.

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    1. Yes, I totally agree. I’m a realist. I concluded that ‘it’s the best methodology that we have.’ I would go for Popper’s caveat of falsifiability and the time-enduring verisimilitude principle, too.

      However, it’s a distinctive realm of inquiry from that of the social sciences, in that it has a subjective starting point, perhaps, but not a subjective focus. Social sciences are more complex insofar that they are the intersubjective study of the intersubjective activities of subjects…and many social sciences are founded on or shaped by values, furthermore.

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