Science! It works, bitches!

Science 2

Science is constantly pushing the boundaries as to what can be known and it’s the best available tool we have to produce the most reliable knowledge. Scientifically produced knowledge is often taken as legitimate, objective, unbiased and value-free. A scroll through some scientist’s Twitter posts can show just how much a great deal of scientists make it clear that knowledge that science produces is the ultimate fact. Arguably, knowledge grounded in science is perceived as the ultimate and the most authoritative that others need to aspire to – one that is qualified to legitimately dictate correct from incorrect or right from wrong and considered as the standard against all other forms of knowledge should be measured.

This form of knowledge is often presented in sharp contrast with knowledge that is dogmatic and ideological as if they are neatly separable. Those who are reasonable and educated are seen as free from ideologies and dogmas. Those that attempt to dispute this so called fact are often portrayed as anti-science. Typically snarled at “Don’t take it personal it’s science, can’t argue with the facts”.

Don’t get me wrong! I love science. Science is wonderful and yes, as far as the most consensual way of producing knowledge goes, science may be the best tool we have. However, it’s the idea of scientific knowledge as completely objective, free from any values, ideologies and biases that I object to. There is no such thing as ‘a view from nowhere’ and science and scientists are not immune to this. Science as completely free and separable from ideologies, biases and currently available discourses and a tool by which we objectively discover what is out there is simply naive. Nor is science free from theoretical commitments, or epistemological and ontological assumptions on which experiments are founded.

The methods we choose to investigate (and by implication those we choose to ignore) are central to the kind of knowledge we produce. Such methods are essentially tied to certain underlying theoretical commitments, which are embedded in certain ontological and epistemological assumptions. How something is defined has great influence on what conclusion one arrives at. How scientists analyse and interpret data can greatly be influenced by their preconceived notions. These two studies on sex differences on the brain, arriving at almost opposite conclusions despite having comparable data, shows just that. 

Science as a way to establishing facts gets fussier and messier as we move away from the natural sciences and towards studies of human cognition and behaviour. The more socially constructed the concept seems, the more problematic it becomes to make any claims of knowledge as the truth or an established fact. This is evident by the fact that there can be multiple equally plausible theories and research findings explaining certain concepts such as emotions or happinessNot to mention the difficulties defining these concepts in a manner that scientists agree upon. The very idea of defining the concept or phenomena that scientists are trying to get hold on brings with it associated cultural, historical, and ideological baggage.

We operate within a certain cultural context and are situated in a certain geographical location at a certain time in history where certain ways of practicing science are more acceptable than others. The way we frame how we think about certain things as well as the methods we develop to explore these questions are inseparably tangled with these factors. As well as our historical and cultural past, our own perspective is coloured by our immediate interaction with others around us. The very language we use to formulate our hypothesis predetermines, to some extent, the direction that our research follows. For example, despite the underlying similarities these questions are framed “are you pro-choice?” or “Do you object to the idea of murdering unborn children?” will elicit different responses.

This messy picture of science where the objective and subjective are not neatly separable, makes attempts to develop so called objective approaches with regard to socially constructed behaviours such as criminality questionable. What kind of behaviour is criminal? In which society? At what time? There is no simple and universally defined definition of crime. A brief look at the concept of homosexuality that has developed from being a criminal act to now (for most of the Western society, anyway) as a right, shows how slippery and context dependent the very idea of what counts as a criminal behaviour. Any attempt to understand drug-related crimes, for example, shows how unclear the idea of crime can be – both snorting cocaine and smoking cannabis (in certain parts of the world) being defined as criminal acts, legally speaking .

I am not arguing that all science is biased and that the work scientists have been doing is no use. The point I want to make is that how we come to conceptualise certain phenomena in a certain way but not other does not spring out of nowhere but is inextricably linked to our language, the current dominant theories, current discourses available to us, and our history among other things. Therefore we need to be aware that our science is (implicitly or explicitly) influenced and to some extent determined by these – some fields more than others. And as the scientist is not a robot that is devoid of passion, interests, errors, and biases (which is not necessarily beneficial either as I think some passion and interest in our research is important), the least we can do is acknowledge this and actively question and review whether our views have been clouded by such as well as being mindful of any generalizable claims that we make as objective facts.

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What makes me, me?

What makes me like coffee over tea? Why do some people engage in criminal activities? What is it that makes some people a rapist? What are the sources of bullying behaviour?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could find simple explanations for such complex questions? Psychology is constantly trying to explain complex behaviour. It’s not uncommon to hear explanations by psychologists, neuroscientists, social scientists, criminologists, and the like, usually each from their own perspective, asserting why we prefer one thing over the other, why we are repulsed by certain things, or why we behave the way we do. These explanations often invoke factors such as parenting style, genes, environment, history, culture and so on, depending on the perspective the subject has been approached from.

Arguably, explanations that closely focus on certain factors and not others serve a purpose when it comes to narrowly defined investigations. The problem is, in attempting to explain complex behaviour, we often fail prey (knowingly or unknowingly) to false dichotomies. Despite the constant warning against false dichotomies, it is common to read scientific papers making attempts, for example,  to ascribe the influence of genes as opposed to environment in seeking to understand the effect of parenting on the kind of person we grow up to be.

The “person” is an extremely slippery and difficult concept to pin down. What makes me ‘me’ is extremely fuzzy (and constantly changing) to the extent that it cannot be separated from those around me, my historical background, the culture and time I am situated in, and the dynamical interactions at play. We are constantly dynamically interacting and influencing others around us, and the physical environment, as well as being influenced by these factors. My view of what constitutes a criminal behaviour for example, does not spring into being from nowhere. Rather it is an interplay of many factors, such as the currently available discourse, my political, social, economic, and geographical position in a certain society, the kind of shared of language that is available for use, as well as my family, culture and historical background.

Given that we are constantly in the process of becoming mediated by the dynamical interplay of inextricably linked factors such as culture, genes, physical environment, history, currently available discourses, local societal norms, diet and so on, attempting to separate these factors and claiming to have determined  the contribution genes and/or environment makes towards complex behaviour such as criminality would be similar to having successfully separated the inside and outside of a Mobius strip.

The thorny issue

I recently attended the launch of a report: “Afrophobia in Ireland: Racism against people of African descent” in the Mansion House, Dublin where Dr. Lucy Michael presented her research findings on racism in Ireland. The report findings revealed the unpleasant racist encounters and discrimination that people of African descent experience in Ireland. The report indicated that the urgency for action is vital. During this event, many Africans living in Ireland spoke of their experience of racism. This was one of the first such events that I have attended where racism and issues surround it were discussed openly in a manner that places the experience of people at the centre. In any case, what caught my attention was the quantification of racist incidents. 

“I have encountered 17 incidents of racism in the last 9 years”, one attendee elaborated. It is difficult not to empathize with this individual’s experience of racism. However, I cannot help but wonder what exactly was being counted as an incident of racism. Is it legitimate to call it racism if one’s questions/inputs are not taken seriously during a meeting/classroom while those same questions/inputs are received with great enthusiasm when made by someone else? What if the person is not given a chance to speak at all? Does the fact that they were ignored imply that their inputs are regarded as not worthy of everyone else’s time and hence an incident of racism? Can the way (unfriendly look, disparaging tone, for example) one is spoken to be identified as a racist incident? How about being looked down on or seen as weird or unusual for the way they approach certain issues or the kind of food they eat? Is it an incident of racism if an African descent fails to get hired despite his/her skills and experiences being well suited for the position and better qualified than his/her non-African descent counterparts?

It was noted by one of the attendees during the event that for those of African descent who have been living in Ireland for most of their lives and regard themselves as Irish, comments such as “where are you from?” or “do you like it here?” have the connotation that regardless of one’s effort to integrate and see themselves as Irish they may never fully belong to the society and that they will be seen as an outsider. Such comments are often well intentioned and people do not see them as incidents of racism (if racist at all). Should the fact that they are well intentioned matter? How about the kind of person such comments come from? Is it as a racist incident if one’s experiences are discarded as unusual and weird by a colleague compared to when such comments comes from a complete stranger? Does it have the same effect if that complete stranger is well educated/regarded compared to an uneducated young person on the street?

There was consensus among the panellists and attendees during the launch of the report that there has been report after report with similar findings, and that the time for action is now. There is an urgent need for legislation against hate crimes. Surely, this is a logical and positive move. If nothing else, I think it will heighten awareness that racism is an issue in Ireland. However, racism is not always explicit. In fact it could be argued that this type of implicit racism is more dangerous than the more explicit one where no interpretations of actions or behaviours are necessary. Implicit racism has the potential to inflict self-doubt, especially when racist comments/acts (knowingly or unknowingly) come from those held in high regard. It has the potential to make the person question whether it really is a racist remark or his/her incompetence. This not only questions the legitimacy of one’s experience, it also invalidates it.

I don’t have the answers to the questions raised above and I am highly skeptical of any attempts to provide a simple answer to this very fuzzy and complex matter of what exactly counts as a racist incident. Accounting for such issues in relation to drafting hate crime legislation is bound to be extremely tricky, if at all possible. I do however believe that the better we are aware of the subtle and different forms that racism can take, the better positioned we are to recognize and possibly reduce its occurrence.

Interdisciplinary research through the lens of emotion studies

Interdisciplinary has become a buzz word, especially within the Arts and Human Sciences. The number of interdisciplinary journal articles in philosophy with interdisciplinary in the title has risen from 14 in 1987 to 1570 in 2014. However, there remains a lot of confusion as to what exactly interdisciplinary entails, how it is best pursued or what kind of research best represents interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity often refers to a field of enquiry that goes beyond distinct disciplinary boundaries and combines two or more academic disciplines in order to provide an understanding/explanation of certain subjects/phenomena – an approach that fluidly crosses disciplinary boundaries and relates to more than one branch of knowledge. 

The definition of what is an emotion is immensely varied and controversial. In fact, most of the controversies in the study of emotions can be said to arise partly due to the definition one adopts. This is evident in the literature as it is possible to find studies on emotion that address different phenomenon but claim to address emotion.This is not to say each approach makes a valid argument within its own framework and contributes in its own way. However, the lack of consensus and the immense disagreement surrounding the study of emotions, makes an interdisciplinary approach towards the study of emotions seem perplexing. How should we synthesize and find a middle ground when faced with a variety of competing and at times incommensurable perspectives? Such questions are often left to the philosopher. 

Interdisciplinarity, within the human sciences at least, is heavily tied to philosophy. Fuller (2013), for example, places a great emphasis on the philosopher as someone serving as an architect who designs the blueprint for the independent disciplines to fill in with empirical evidence or as an alchemist who makes something remarkable out of the ordinary elements taken from the distinct disciplines. The philosopher, it seems, is often seen as the synthesizer. Such assessment is valid to some extent, given philosophy’s role as provider of conceptual analysis. It is nonetheless not without question.

One not only needs the tools and skills to philosophically analyse ontological and methodological assumptions to find a middle ground and synthesise disciplinary research, but also needs the skills and knowledge to read, interpret, and critically analyse what has been presented from a given discipline. Not only are the skills to philosophically analyse essential here, but also the disciplinary expert knowledge such as reading and interpreting empirical evidence, critical engagement, and examination of theoretical as well as methodological issues in a given discipline’s approach to a certain subject.

Take emotions, for example, which profoundly colour our everyday experience. Emotions are investigated across a variety of distinct disciplines ranging from neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, biology, social sciences, and even within the arena of cognitive modeling. It would appear that to get the fullest picture of emotion studies, an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates philosophical analysis of what emotions are/aren’t, empirical evidence from neuroscience and biological studies, as well as recognition of the social and cultural subjectiveness of emotions supported by a computational model would be the ultimate – although this would without doubt require a great deal of work.

However, although these distinct disciplines seem focused on their investigations of emotions (and are mostly fruitful from their own perspective), it gets messy and difficult when attempts are made to synthesize such a variety of approaches. Not least because each discipline’s definition of what is an emotion is varied, but also because there exists methodological differences in the way emotions are investigated as well as the varied ontological assumptions each discipline adopts. These differences can be extremely varied to the extent that they become incompatible. The biological approach which typically focuses on bodily and facial markers of emotion aspires to provide a universal theory, compared to the social and cultural centred approach that sees emotions as inextricably linked to a given society’s culture and language. For these two approaches, emotions are framed in a fundamentally different manner which influences what follows, the kind of questions considered worth asking, and subsequently the research methods developed as well as the way data are interpreted.

The point I want to highlight here through the example of emotion studies in an interdisciplinary manner is that, it becomes difficult and sometimes problematic to practice an all encountering interdisciplinarity contrary to how it appears at first. At least not if one wants to do interdisciplinary research in a manner that considers and scrutinises all the deep issues while attempting to synthesize miscellaneous and sometimes incompatible methodological and ontological assumptions. Depending on the view point, certain aspects might be seen as crucial by one discipline while ignored by the other, even when dealing with a similar subject matter. If one is not mindful of all the subtle issues – how a certain research question is framed to suit a given methodology for example – affects the kind of empirical evidence obtained, and, gone unnoticed, may contribute to a confused interdisciplinarity.