Learning to live with ambiguity

Photo by Shayan Sanyal

Photo by Shayan Sanyal

Writing in the Pacific Standard, Jerry Adler suggests that research psychology—like most branches of experimental science right now—is facing a crisis. Poorly proofed journals, unreproducible results, questionable statistical models …

It leads him to ask the headlining question: “Can Social Scientists Save Themselves?” Or will reformation need to come from the outside?

Ironically the article opens with a discussion of physicist Alan Sokal’s prank on the journal Social Text, which is often credited with dethroning post-modernism from humanities departments. The irony comes in because many of the problems that the social science (and beyond) are running into now were predicted by post-modernism.  The cultural conditioning of a “science culture” that led to fairly obvious bind spots; the need to take diverse cultural perspectives into account (the vast majority of social science experiments assume that the experiences of white college students are universal to mankind—a huge problem); the overreliance on quantitative models that fail to question their own assumptions …

“Today’s intellectual fashions tend instead toward the empirical, the data-driven, and the breezily counterintuitive,” Adler writes. “But experimental science, it turns out, is no less susceptible to a good, thorough hoaxing than postmodern blather was.” The jargon of post-modernism was awful, but the diagnosis it made of science has proven prescient.

This is not to suggest that we all need to brush up on our Baudrillard, but it is to suggest that we may need to take one of the key insights of post-modernism seriously:  that the world is more uncertain than we like to think, and epistemological humility is a virtue.

Adler envisions a world in which the highfalutin claims of single studies are seen as worthy of further study rather than immediate celebration; a world in which it is more difficult to prove effects of any kind because we are less prone to convenient statistical modeling; a world in which the simple claims of the TED Talk are replaced by the complex understanding of multiple factors that don’t lend themselves to easy analyses;  and a world in which scientists of all stripes spend a lot more time looking at their own work skeptically, asking “what do I really know?”

This is a world in which existential psychology has a great deal to offer precisely because existential thought is comfortable with ambiguity. Relying on wisdom as much as data, it acknowledges the primacy of the individual’s capacity to make meaningful choices and change themselves. It may therefore not have as much to say about what the nature of the world, but it has much more to offer about how we can live in it, and what will bring us purpose and happiness.

In a world where certainty is harder to come by, even for the most hard headed data analysts, this is a more attractive option.

And unlike French literary theory, very little jargon is needed.

— Benjamin Wachs

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