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Lost Down Social Constructionism’s Epistemic Rabbit-Hole

The popularisation of ‘social constructionism’ is widely agreed to be traceable to the publication of The Social Construction of Reality by the sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in 1966. In subsequent years, this concept attracted a large number of young, mostly left-leaning academics to the humanities departments of French universities, where social construction became an ideological tool useful to those engaged in the Parisian youth rebellion of 1968. From there, it spread rapidly though humanities departments in Europe and America, and into the social sciences.

The changes in intellectual thinking that this development catalysed reverberate across the West’s academic institutions to this day. What transpired in the late sixties was nothing short of a cultural revolution, riding a wave of academic trends referred to as ‘social constructionism,’  ‘postmodernism,’ and ‘poststructuralism,’ although it never became entirely clear if or how these concepts differ from one another. While foreign to some, social constructionist jargon is now routinely invoked by the young academics who successfully conquered the humanities over the ensuing 40 years.

These developments have not gone unnoticed in other parts of academia, where they have raised both eyebrows and tempers among social constructionism’s growing number of critics. Sceptics maintain that academic study of any kind demands intellectual rigour, consistency, and coherence if it is to produce meaningful intellectual reasoning and valuable conclusions. However, the major tenets of postmodernism/poststructuralism are that objectivity should be abandoned and academic endeavour should not be devoted to the pursuit of ‘truth,’ because objective truths simply do not exist.

The consequences of abandoning the search for truth and objectivity are grave everywhere. For instance, journalism from conflict zones that does not strive for neutrality and objectivity is of no use. The same is true for sociological or historical studies of social conflicts. It would even be true in the discovery of meaning in aesthetics – at its most extreme, the attack on objectivity leaves us unable to distinguish between the literary merit of a Proust passage and a Trump tweet. Postmodernist premises become especially debilitating in gender studies. Gender studies usually belong to the faculty of social sciences (at others, they belong to the humanities). Social constructionist thinking has been allowed to prevail in the social sciences and humanities, exempt from ideals of objectivity and truth seeking. The result has been that the theories and ‘findings’ of gender studies cannot be accepted by natural scientists.

It is especially unacceptable to natural scientists when social constructionists trespass on their territory. The decisive difference between lay explanations of the natural world and valid natural science is the adherence to a number of principles, such as: the omission of prejudices about the possible outcome of an ongoing investigation; a commitment to objectivity and neutrality; that results should be reproducible; that theories should be falsifiable; that one should test for statistical significance where applicable; and an openness to criticism and countervailing hypotheses.

Consider, for example, the study of the hormone Thyrotropin Releasing Factor (TRF), which regulates the release of thyrotropin from the brain’s hypothalamus in mammals and humans. In 1969, scientists succeeded in isolating sufficient amounts of this substance to be able to determine its  chemical formula. This has been important to understanding the human metabolism and, subsequently, it has been used to cure some types of illness. The scientists responsible for this research were awarded a Nobel Prize. French postmodernist sociologist Bruno Latour, however, spent two years in the laboratory with the researchers who worked on TRF and, in 1979, he co-wrote an influential book about the experience entitled Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Latour and his co-author Steve Woolgar concluded that TRF does not really exist. Chemists produce two mass spectrograms and derive its formula, in part from the difference between the two. But Latour and Woolgar claimed that TRF is the difference between the two spectra, and that it is therefore merely a social construct. They do not acknowledge that chemists can synthesise the chemical in the laboratory, inject it into humans, and observe the expected effect.

Well, I have read Laboratory Life, and it is evident that either the authors are incapable of understanding biochemistry or they simply refuse to understand it. Nonetheless, many of Latour’s peers in the humanities declared themselves impressed by his ability to deconstruct the findings of these Nobel Prize winners and other famous scientists, such as Louis Pasteur. In 2007, Latour was ranked as one of the most cited thinkers within the humanities and social sciences. Furthermore, he has received prestigious prizes for challenging the fundamentals of scientific study. Having read several of his books, I am of the firm view that he can provide no evidence for any of his claims.

A sociologist may find it useful to maintain that scientists’ results depend on their social situation, such as their own financial conditions, institutional hierarchies, and prevailing ways of thinking in society at large. But the formula of the substance called TRF would not have been different under alternative social conditions. Nevertheless, in order to demonstrate that scientific truths are social constructs, humanities scholars routinely defer to writers in the field of the sociology of knowledge, who they say offer support for their claims.

Sometimes, they will refer to a 1935 book by Ludwik Fleck entitled Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Well, I have read that work and it contains no evidence that scientific truths are social constructs. They may refer to a 1929 book by Karl Mannheim entitled Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, but this, too, contains no such evidence. They will refer to Berger and Luckmann’s aforementioned Social Construction of Reality, which I have also read, and which contains no evidence that reality is a social construct.

In the years after Berger and Luckmann’s book appeared, scores more books were published advancing the same claim that scientific truths are merely social constructs. They purport to verify this claim by citing Berger & Luckmann, who have no robust evidence, except for their references to Mannheim, who also has no robust evidence for this. This is the general trend found in postmodern texts that claim something or other is ‘just a social construct.’ They bring no independent evidence, and instead appeal to some previous authority, who also offers no evidence other than a further referral to an authority before them, who also fails to produce actual evidence . . . and so on, ad infinitum. The actual evidence in support of the foundational claim is nowhere to be found.

I had this experience a few years ago, when I made the mistake of becoming entangled in an online discussion about whether or not differences in male and female behaviour can, to some extent, be explained by biological factors like hormones. My opponents vehemently denied that biology plays any role in sex differences. One opponent declared that, “There exists so much literature about sex-typed behaviour being a construct that your insistence on biological determinism is beginning to be amusing.” I had already provided a long list of scientific references documenting the effect of biological mechanisms but my opponents refused to acknowledge it. And when I demanded a similar list of references demonstrating that sex-typed differences are social constructs, it was not forthcoming.

Finally, after a further 80 comments had passed back-and-forth, I was provided with three references. I was immediately able to reject two of these. The first of these was an article by the Marxist biologist R. Lewontin. He presents a gross caricature of sociobiology and more or less denies the importance of heritable traits. For instance, he writes: “There is not the slightest evidence that different degrees of homo- and heterosexuality are in any way genetically based.” This is completely false.12 The second was a study by British educationalist Becky Francis. She demonstrated that toy preferences of boys and girls were highly gendered, but did not provide evidence of why this is so. She speculated that boys’ toy preferences would stimulate their technological understanding, but did nothing to substantiate this assertion.

The third was The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Education, a 2006 collection of essays edited by Christine Skelton, Becky Francis, and Lisa Smulyan, which runs to 511 pages of text. It contains 35 chapters, written by a total of 46 researchers in the fields of sociology and pedagogy. I did not read it at once, of course, but I did read it later. All of it. Of its 511 pages, only one page deals with possible biological explanations for sex differences, and here, the importance of biology is downplayed as much as possible. All of the remaining 510 pages presuppose that sex-typed behaviour is a social construct. Circumstantial and indirect evidence for this claim is presented in a single chapter. None of the remaining chapters present any direct evidence. However, references that purport to contain such evidence are cited throughout the book. I obtained the texts that looked most promising in this respect and I read those too. To my disappointment, the evidence remained elusive. But all those references cited other references that allegedly contained the evidence I sought. Once again, I obtained the most promising of these secondary references, and once again I did so in vain.

One of the chapters in the SAGE Handbook was written by a sociologist at the University of Sydney, R. W. Connell (who is a transsexual and whose own gender identity therefore, admittedly, is a social construct). Connell refers to Shards of Glass: Children Reading and Writing Beyond Gendered Identities, a 1993 text by Bronwyn Davies, an ‘independent scholar’ in Sydney, Australia. Davies describes innovative educational work that allegedly succeeds in teaching children that they can alter their position in gender discourses. But I have read Davies’s book and it provides no evidence in support of Connell’s claims. Connell also refers to a sophisticated analysis by Ø. G. Holter entitled “Gender, Patriarchy and Capitalism: A Social Forms Analysis” (available in two parts in PDF here and here). Holter purports to demonstrate that gender, masculinity, and femininity are historically specific features in social life. Okay, so I read all 600 pages of that reference. The only evidence provided in support of that claim was a reference to Connell, whose only evidence, in turn, as we have seen, refers back to Holter!

One of the stars of postmodernism is the feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Every person familiar with gender studies anywhere in the world is likely to know of her work. I have read her most important books, Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, in the hope that I could find her evidence for her preposterous claim that gender and sex differences are social constructs. This process was made even more difficult by Butler’s inscrutable prose style, which she learned from the French postmodernists. Some critics have argued that her tortuous, highbrow academic style helps to make her unassailable, but that it is actually nothing more than a cover for a dearth of supporting evidence. After consulting her books, I have concluded that they contain no evidence whatsoever for her claim that gender and sex are social constructs.

From this laborious work, and from all my other efforts in this field, I have drawn the conclusion that the evidence for social constructionism is a mirage in the desert. It does not exist. Most people in the humanities – including those who are able to express their opinions freely without fear of being fired – presuppose that gender roles are social constructs, and that the results obtained by natural scientists are determined by their social and political environment. Thousands of pages of academic ‘research’ express such notions, and thousands of university students are taught that this is how things are. But it is all hot air. The whole scenario is reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes – nobody listens to the little boy who alone has the courage to point out that the Emperor is naked.

Much of this material – and Judith Butler’s obscurantism, in particular – functions like a Latin liturgy. It is not meant to be understood. About 600 years ago, the clergy in England supposedly existed to combat evil and make the world a better place. The sermons were in Latin, and the Bible was only available in Latin, so laypeople had no means of verifying what the clergy told them about religious doctrine. When a number of idealists translated the Bible into English so that common people could read and understand it, the idea – in principle, anyway – was that this would give more people direct access to God’s word. But instead of embracing this opportunity, the clergy fought all attempts at translation. And when the Bible became available in a language that people understood, the clergy burned the English translations, and those who distributed them were caught and executed. Given the choice of either supporting the wider dissemination of God’s word or preserving their own power and authority, they chose the latter.

A similar pattern of motivated self-interest is in evidence today (although opponents are no longer executed). Social constructionism has transformed the humanities departments of many universities into a kind of postmodern clerisy. In its own understanding, this clerical class strives to improve the world by insisting that all differences between groups of people are social constructs that testify to the unfairness of society. Society, therefore, can and must be reconstructed to dismantle these iniquities. But if wide-ranging social change is being demanded, then the basis for those demands needs to be firmly established first. Scholars ought to be labouring to prove the extent to which such differences are indeed social constructs and the extent to which disparities can be mitigated or dispelled by the radical reorganisation of social policy and even society itself. But this step in the process is simply absent. Instead, theorists make claims without bothering to substantiate them. Confronted with a choice between the disinterested pursuit of truth and understanding, or preserving their ideologies and positions of influence, they consistently opt for the latter.

In academic study, the only thing that ought to matter is the strength of the evidence used to support arguments and theories. But when it comes to postmodernist theories, the arguments are weak and the supporting evidence non-existent. I have seen nothing in postmodernist theory that is based on reliable evidence. All academic writing should be open to criticism, but if postmodernist writing were held to this standard, it would simply fall to pieces. Postmodernist theories still prevail and flourish, sustained by a closed and self-serving system of thought which insists that rigour must be discarded as an instrument of privilege and critics must be denounced and shunned as reactionaries.

And so, large swathes of the humanities and social sciences have been corrupted by ideology. Pockets of integrity remain but they are the minority, and they are only tolerated so long as they do not contradict the central planks of the accepted narrative. The unhappy result is that our universities are corroding, and our students will graduate with nothing more than the ability to further corrode the rest of society.

 

Kåre Fog graduated as a biologist at Copenhagen University and completed a Ph.D. degree at Aarhus University in 1980. As a freelance biologist he worked with chemical research of mull formation, and then nature conservation. He has self-published three books in Danish on the relations between the sexes, and on the corruption of the social sciences and humanities by social constructionism. He lives in Denmark.

 

References:

1 J. Michael Bailey & Richard C. Pillard (1991): A genetic study of male sexual orientation. Archives of general psychiatry 48 (12): 1089-1096.
2 A. R. Sanders et al. (2015): Genome-wide scan demonstrates significant linkage for male sexual orientation. Psychological medicine 45 (7): 1379-1388. 

 

61 Comments

  1. Jakra says

    Yet another well-reasoned, objective article about the logical fallacies and societal dangers of post-modernism. Sadly, however, yet another article with no indication as to how precisely post-modernism is to be actively rolled back. What specific counter-strategy does the Enlightenment cohort propose to regain control of academia, law, the media, and the public sector, other than anguished hand-wringing? The post-modernists have a plan, and it seems to be working. What’s ours?

    • Reasonius says

      This article points out a clear case of academic fraud. If the claims in the article are valid, several options are available. A written case must be made that the author has committed academic fraud. The case should be sent to the author and the offending journal or publisher—then sufficient time to respond must be given. If a timely response is not received, then the complaint should be sent to the university department and the administration at the university whose name is printed on the publication. If there is a relevant organization that oversees a discipline and the author is a member, the complaint can be sent to them.

      What usually happens then is that the faculty and administration circle the wagons, they form stacked committees to “investigate” and that drags out as long as humanly possible. Then the university tries to quietly dismiss the charges. Once that has happened, one has a documented case of systematic fraud in the university.

      If this is done with a dozen or so of the articles involved in this scandalous academic fraud, the public will hear about it and the offending universities along with the offending academics, faculty and administrators will all be smeared in public as they deserve for academic fraud. And then what are they going to do? Take you to court?

      Maybe they can try but if the accusations are true—that’s what should be done.

      • Paolo says

        @Reasonius. It sounds so simple and obvious that I doubt this path has not been pursued yet. Still, it makes so much sense and it’s too tempting to me not to contemplate the idea further. I will look for instances of analogous fraud from the humanities in my field, climate and environmental sciences.

    • TarsTarkas says

      The reputations and careers of too many academics are built on a foundation of social constructionism. Even if they privately accept that the bedrock that their work is based upon is made of fog, admitting it in public would be career suicide. Post-modernism cannot be reformed or rolled back, because by its very nature its findings cannot be falsified. A new foundation for the humanities will have to be built outside of existing academia, one based on reality, not theory.

    • Rainer Rohr says

      I can only think of riducule as a tool to use against such nonsense.

      • Rainer Rohr says

        Damn my fat fingers on a smartphone keyboard…..ridicule !

    • Jim Crabbe says

      Good point! We absolutely need to start in K-12 academia. If we turn young minds into knowledgeable, critical thinkers when they get to college they will be able to see through the sophistry and intellectual fallacies that they will find in university humanities/social science classes.

  2. Benjamin Perez says

    Michel Foucault and Judith Butler planted seeds that, after decades of steady gender and queer studies’ watering, have become trees; those trees have branches, branches to now hang the normies from.

  3. POC says

    I commend Kare Fog on the article. I read it with a growing sense of despair at the huge chunk of the author’s life dedicated to researching the evidence claims of social constructionists. I hope there was some pleasure in the exercise. Social constructionists seem to make these claims based on ideology and they don’t seem to care very much about evidence. Their evidential claims seem more designed to provide a patina of credibility than anything else. What does this imply?

    It’s worth remembering Karl Popper’s dictum that decisions about morality and ethics can never be derived from facts (The Open Society and Its Enemies, Routledge pg 59) – often shortened to “you can’t get an ought from an is”. Popper qualified this by limiting it to what he calls ‘alterable’ facts (he gives the examples of poverty, disease and slavery).

    Whilst it often seems that we are arguing about which facts are true, the social constructionists really only care about which facts are alterable. They don’t really care, for example, whether or not a trait is heritable if it can be changed by social conditioning. If we really want to challenge the social constructionists, we need to debate their aims not the flimsy evidential claims they are based on.

  4. I read the book The Social Construction of Reality probably soon after it was published in 1966 and thought it was a very interesting analysis of the way we are ‘socialized’ into a variety of roles and world-views; it was, as I remember it, a quite readable book. I linked it to Weber and even to the Existentialists, particular Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, as well as to R. D. Laing and Erving Goffman, and their various approaches to symbolic interaction and the construction of the self and of subjectivity. I had no idea that The Social Construction of Reality was one of the sources of the post-modernist plague of contorted, jargon-ridden prose, and of the irrational refusal of science, of evidence, of biology in particular, and of any rational discussion about anything whatsoever. The movement truly is a curse, a form of intellectual and mental pollution and social pollution, which has now hijacked and been hijacked by various causes. How to deal with this? Show how ridiculous, farcical, and self-contradictory many of the stances, and claims, and much of the rhetoric of the post-modern clowns are. And, yes, as “Jack” says, Social Constructionism is a Construct, or, more precisely, an Ideology – producer of false consciousness – and a Religion – and a protector and expression of specific interests, largely the interests of militant charlatans. A little later, early 1970s, I read the Anti-Oedipus while lying on beaches in Sicily – where I was teaching and living – and that, even I understood from the beginning, was highfalutin arrant nonsense, though hypnotically seductive in a way like a choir chanting in an incomprehensible unknown language. I didn’t know I was witnessing the beginnings of the destruction of critical, rational inquiry and intelligence, and the birth of a new form of idiotic and intolerant militancy. There is by now a whole library of books criticizing this farce. And in Canada, where I live, we have several courageous crusaders against the castle of nonsense, notably, most recently, Professor Jordan B Peterson.

    • Truevo says

      Professor Peterson has made a crusade about that, practically between modern science and postmodern psedoscience. But for years now, many people try to make the same concepts understand, and they fight against the pseudo-scientific drifts of postmodern paradigmatic axioms, not least very good scientists like Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins.

    • Jason Kennedy says

      “I had no idea that The Social Construction of Reality was one of the sources of the post-modernist plague of contorted, jargon-ridden prose, and of the irrational refusal of science, of evidence, of biology in particular, and of any rational discussion about anything whatsoever.”

      My basic problem with this article is that I don’t go along with the claim that The Social Construction of Reality *is* one of those sources. It bears none of the hallmarks of a post-modern text, it’s more in the stolid German tradition of intellectual inquiry and far too full of simple common sense. There’s not a single difficult-to-grasp concept in the entire text.

      It even defines an intellectual as ‘an expert whose expertise is not wanted by the society at large.’ !

  5. Truevo says

    But social constructionists do not ask themselves what kind of process has led to the construction of society? Heck, if everything is a social construct, what process has led to the construction of the society that according to them builds social constructs? Try to say that in this process evolution and evolutionary adaptation have a role and you will understand how much pseudoscientific they are, until proven otherwise.

    • Jason Kennedy says

      You don’t know what you’re talking about. The Social Construction of Reality, cited in this article, is nothing but a scholarly, rigorous attempt to explain what has led to the construction of society/ies. That’s its mission.

  6. John V says

    “However, the major tenets of postmodernism/poststructuralism are that objectivity should be abandoned and academic endeavour should not be devoted to the pursuit of ‘truth,’ because objective truths simply do not exist.”

    If the above is the postmodernists/poststructuralists view, then wanting to find evidence from their tortured writing is futile.The author seems to bemoan the fact that he cannot find their facts.

    This is what I find most annoying about postmodernism. It’s self refuting the moment evidence is asked of it because ultimately it’s only about opinion.that is required.

  7. dirk says

    Please, leave this science out, science is about natural laws, not about selective statistics, about what we ought to do, or about identity. I think, all psychology, sociology, history should be left out. Maybe also economics, is also psychology.

  8. A religious cult depends on the ability of a charismatic leader to maintain authority over devotees. Empirical facts that contradict the dogmas of the cult leader undermine the authority of the cult. Therefore, any charismatic, fundamentalist cult has to develop some kind of defense against people challenging the dogma on the basis of empirical facts. Heresy charges are therefore necessary to discount opponents, as well as a theological justification for why you can ignore empirical facts.

    Postmodernism is not necessarily a charismatic fundamentalist cult, but it does have its heresy charges (“racist, sexist, homophobic”) and one is guilty of the crime of “racism” often for noticing empirical facts, like long-standing difference between average group IQ, just as one commits the crime of “sexism” if you notice long-standing mean differences in upper-body strength or personality between men and women. Further, don’t start examining homosexuality and public health literature if you don’t want to be burnt at the stake. That is to say, these heresies are not about attacking bias, they are about shutting down empirical argumentation.

    Likewise, postmodernism is a theological justification for ignoring empirical evidence altogether. And what is postmodernism, if not something like German idealism relativized into various identity groups? Reality is in our heads, and our heads are all different, so why should I care about your version of reality? Obviously, like most idealists, they won’t run out into traffic, but it serves a perfectly good function of protecting an authority-based fundamentalist religious cult. [I say fundamentalist religious because it treats what are empirical questions for normal people as dogmas that cannot be questioned, and questioning is proof of disloyalty to the party/heresy.]

  9. How to stop postmodernism? Like most religions, mockery, public blasphemy, and nasty and transgressive memes!

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  11. dirk says

    Gender is also something that should be ousted on the shortest terms. Even if many professionals are envolved, let them do something else, something more useful, cleaning tables and floors, for example.

  12. Questa Nota says

    Roger Scruton provides some useful observations about Foucault and his ilk. See his book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands.

  13. Ian says

    I think there is some intelligent and clear postmodern writing on science. I would try “Science and Solidarity” by Richard Rorty.

  14. northcascadian says

    In the book “Marx and Satan” Richard Wurmbrand spent some quality time researching Marx’s early poems. And here early on, we see the ‘social construction of reality’ taking shape. The following quotation is taken from Marx’s poem ‘On Hegel’
    Words I teach all mixed up into a
    devilish muddle.
    Thus, anyone may think just what he
    chooses to think.
    Muddled speech it the enemy of clear thinking. Muddled speech is the friend of the post modernist, post whatever, gender studies etc….

  15. The story still not fully told is how Marxists & PoMo’s achieved this dominance. They did it by dodging peer review; they wrote amateur science & philosophy in the lit & art & melanin/genitals advocacy departments, and the infinite variables of human life which the social sciences drown in gave the PoMo/Marxists more to toy with than religious fanatics get with their thousand page unquestionable texts. The entire march through the institution was a power grab that should have been stopped at the beginning when the first student or prof trained in poetry cited a french philosopher to criticize science.

  16. Eisso Post says

    I believe everything in this article. Nevertheless, I think the points are too general, too much stating and too little prove, no citations of the social constructionist nonsense, the reader must trust the author perfectly and gets no opportunity to find out or judge anything for himself. Pity.

  17. Robert Darby says

    I think the sad case of David Reimer is sufficient disproof of the claim that biology plays no role in sex differences. He was born a normal boy, but when his penis was burned off during a routine circumcision a then reigning social constructivist in the sexual field, John (Frankenstein) Money said, “No worries: just cut the rest off and raise him as a girl.” Unfortunately the testosterone that had flooded his body during gestation would not be denied, and – although was treated and socialised as a girl, was made to wear frilly dresses etc – he never felt he was a girl and was sure he was a boy. The story is usually told as a parable of the risks of circumcision, but it can also stand as a warning against the excesses of social constructivism. Wikipedia has a reasonable summary:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Reimer

  18. Mad social science student says

    If I remember well the constructivism of The social construction of reality is compatible with a evolutionary aproach. I dont know the use they did to their theory, but what they point in that book is that many things we experiment as objective could be explained looking up to the society.
    It seems that people forget what they call “reality” is what it is felt as it for the subjetivity.
    The easy example is: a bunch of people believe in the flying spaghetty monster. That believing isnt just a something that apears to bealievers as “I think that that monster is real” but “that monster is real”. It is an enunciation about the extrasubjetive (the reality) not about some mental states that person could have or not depending on the evidence.
    The theory is that as we are social, we learn some things as if it were real (we dont use to think about them), but they cant be explained just by the believings of the individuals. They apear as something relatively stable and sistematic, what autors call institutions.

    I know, I know, it hasnt been used but in a partisan way. Thats not that books problem.

    PD: i tried to write clear but I think my english isnt good enought.

  19. Intelligent Designer says

    I sometimes think the root cause of the popularity of social constructivism is intellectual laziness, or the fight of emotion against rational thinking. Emotions, spirituality and inspiration are easy and cheap for humans, while rational thinking is tedious and demanding. Many people tend to seek the easy way out. Emotional harmony is socially rewarding and scepticism is excluding. It is religion.

    • Jeremy H says

      I think you’re on the right track with “the fight of emotion against rational thinking”. One of the overall effects of the rapid accumulation of knowledge through science has been to severely limit the scope of possible realities that define the human condition. We’ve gone from a world of gods, ghosts, magic, afterlives, and so on to one in which all the mysteries of existence, which were once so present and immediate, have been pushed back to the abstract and contemplative (cosmology, quantum mechanics, etc.) The specific attack on the construction of scientific facts, cited above, is no accident, but is related to other anti-science trends (anti-GMO, anti-vaxxers) where the more established the truth is that is “defeated” the greater the sense of power and mystery that is returned to the believers. If you can assert that the Earth is flat, and actually believe it by sheer will, then a whole range of other things forbidden by science are suddenly once again available to you. Post-modernism is just a more sophisticated rebellion against this loss of possibility.

  20. dirk says

    An influential book I miss in the article and reactions: Le Deuxieme Sexe, 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, amant of Sartre, the existentialist. In this book, Simone explains that a woman is not borne as such, but made so by education and society. I wonder whether there is a more influential 20th century book on the issue (and much wider than this, because women were only part of all the oppressed identities to come). Quite the opposite message as the one of J.Peterson on women, of course, but it took a lot of time to find out (and, of course, Simone was not 100% wrong in her analysis, as neither is Jordan).

    • WeronikaD says

      I think it’s some kind of philosophical metaphor. Men and women aren’t “made” by society and education, we made our society and education. Being a man or a woman is not a lifestyle or a costume. I can’t believe I have to explain that.

      • dirk says

        @Weronika & John: very late reaction(probably not noted even): the Original French goes ” on ne nait pas femme, on le devient”, I am not going to read the rest of the texts, but it is clear that Simone did not speak about “choosing”, as her lover Sartre so often did, to make clear what existentialism meant (a.o. anti-authoritarian). Buckler in his recent essay on becoming a man also dealt with it, one of the last reactions, of a certain Kotel, was about the Mitzva ritual in which Jewish boys become a man, also not a choice but a ritual (culture, religion, society). Same thing with all the other manhood rituals as described by Buckler, e.g with the Masai, and other tribes. On le devient! Et pas du tous un choix. Bien sur!

    • The irony of de Beauvoir saying that a woman is not born a woman, but chooses to become one, is that it is simply an extension of Sartre’s existentialism. Sartre would say that a man is not born a man but chooses to become one.

      De Beauvoir then goes on to discuss polygamy without even the simplest consideration of basic arithmetic. She says that in the Middle East they practiced massive female infanticide, then men have at least two wives, but rich men have four, princes and lords can have as many as a hundred. This, of course, advantages men. Simple arithmetic says that as boys and girls are born in roughly equal numbers, and the number of girls is further reduced by female infanticide, it is likely that fewer than one in three men would ever marry. So what happens to the others in this ‘male paradise’? Death, castration, or a life without sex and reproduction seem the likely outcomes. So much for male privilege.

      • In the first volume of her book, de Beauvoir wrote that one is not born a genius, one becomes one. This sentence seems to have been the inspiration for the very first sentence in the second volume of her book “One is not born a woman, one becomes one”. That sentence is simply put there as a statement. Is is not followed up by any kind of evidence whatsoever for its veracity.

  21. ccscientist says

    If gender was a social construct, it is certainly a remarkable one which manifests in children before they have any exposure to life outside their home. All over the world, parents try to ensure that their children keep the same religion, belong to the same political party, marry within their race, don’t hit their siblings, brush their teeth, and stay out of jail, and all over the world they fail at these goals. Every other cultural trait, from clothing to food to whether people are shy about their bodies or share steam rooms, differ wildly from place to place. Yet boys are boys and girls are girls all over the world with far less divergence than a purely cultural explanation would predict.
    The objection to science is, I think, simply a rearguard action against any sort of rigor which would destroy their house of cards. Yes of course scientists sometimes fool themselves, but the periodic table has no race and is not imaginary. They can only make such absurd claims because they live in a world where scientists have provided abundance and safety. They found logic and facts too constraining on the absurd theories they wanted to put forth and therefore jetisoned them.
    The desire to tear down the system is not only misguided but stupid. There has never been so much freedom, comfort, and abundance. America is the most evil only by comparison to a world with does not and never will exist.

  22. Keir Plaice says

    It does seem important to me to try to understand the philosophical tradition that these thinkers are playing into in order to offer a compelling critique.

    Very shortly:

    One of Kant’s main insights was that we cannot know the nature of objects in and of themselves; rather, our reason works to create a coherent model of our observations and experiences. We define the categories we use to understand the world and try to grasp the relations between them. Knowledge is constructed by active human minds. It is always a working model.

    Nietzsche took this further. To him, the belief that world is in itself coherent, and thus totally comprehensible, was inseparable from belief in a rational creator. The search for systematic unity and completeness of knowledge that is inherent to reason was aimed at a transcendental illusion, which depended upon blind faith in God. It was akin to Plato’s postulation that the real world in fact exists in a divine realm of Ideas. If God does not exist, as Nietzsche believed, knowledge must be much more conditional.

    Post-modernism generally focuses on the conditions that give rise to the ways we think. Social constructivism, for example, as its name suggests, examines the social conditions that affect how knowledge is constructed. Especially in its radical forms, it falls into error however. When it pretends to explain not how social conditions affect what we believe to be true, but how social conditions effect what we believe to be true, it is seduced by its own transcendental illusions. For instance, when it posits its own conjectural theories as unconditional truths about how scientific knowledge is constructed, it ignores the conditions by which scientific knowledge is constructed, which include a rigorous devotion to the scientific method and adherence to verifiable evidence. It is thus a bad working model, which ought to be rejected. Its insights certainly cannot take the place of scientific knowledge.

  23. Rustle J. says

    It’s also worth noting that Butler, in Gender Trouble (1989) and Bodies that Matter (1993), did not make any argument against the biological claims of differences. Moreover, the general claim that arose out of her work – “gender is performative” is circular. Just because *some* aspects of gender are performed does not mean that gender in its entirety is performative.

  24. Jason Kennedy says

    This statement by the author is problematic: “They will refer to Berger and Luckmann’s aforementioned Social Construction of Reality, which I have also read, and which contains no evidence that reality is a social construct.”

    In The Social Construction of Reality, reality is defined socially, and each mention of reality in the text must thus be understood. As they write: “Sociological interest in questions of ‘reality’ and ‘knowledge’ is thus initially justified by the fact of their social relativity. What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman.” (from the Introduction).

    Throughout the book, there is no sense in which the objective phenomena measured by scientific instruments is called into question. What is called into question are the epistemological consequences of ‘a social distribution of knowledge’, and it is this that Latour examines. That scientific knowledge (not objective phenomena) is socially constructed is simple fact. A real-world example is when the methods of modern science ‘confirm’ the ethnobotanical knowledge of an indigenous culture; we see here the idea that somehow the truth was not settled until modern science’s methods were brought to bear upon objective phenomena, despite the real-world use of such ethnobotanical knowledge for millennia.

    This article discusses further examples:

    http://theconversation.com/its-taken-thousands-of-years-but-western-science-is-finally-catching-up-to-traditional-knowledge-90291

    On a final note, The Social Construction of Reality is *not* a post-modern text. It’s full of simple common sense and written in the most accessible prose imaginable. What the book aims to do is answer a simple question: why does reality strike us as self-evidently right, and it takes as its departure the many different realities that many societies each feel are self-evidently right and then develops various simple models that might explain this.

    Rather than be a defense of identity politics, with the idea that there’s a ‘Latino physics’ as opposed to a ‘white physics’ and other such nonsenses we have grown familiar with, the book provides a way to understand how such views are formed, and never loses sight of the fact this ‘subjective reality’ is of social origin.

    Lastly, I think it’s truly bizarre to attack social constructionism of the sort Luckmann and Berger develop, as it’s by far the best explanation for the SJW antics on US college campuses. As worlds-in-themselves, these spaces have constructed a social reality that they then wish to export into all the other social spaces of the US, be it workplace, cyberspace, cultural space, even the bedroom.

  25. To Jason Kennedy:
    “The social construction of reality” is a theoretical text. The authors write that they want that it stimulates someone to carry out empirical testing, but they practically do not themselves provide any evidence. There are few facts in the book, that is there is very little evidence for their prepositions. And the very brief mentions of something that could have been some sort of evidence, are wrong.
    As to formation of sex roles, for instance, they write that if both men and women function as the persons closest to the child in its socialisation, then they transfer to the child certain opposing realities. Such a brief sentence does not constitute evidence, and generally, it is not true that children acquire sex roles simply by receiving them as social influence from their parents. Some part of the “sex roles” – probably the main part – is inborn, created by the effects of hormones before birth.
    Their claim that “the self” reflects the social inputs from the environment, and is merely that reflection, is a speculation without evidence.
    They write about the incest taboo: “The incest taboo by itself is nothing else than the negative side of a collection of typifications, which in the first instance define which sexual behaviour counts as incest and which does not.” They bring no evidence for this claim, and it is wrong. The incest taboo is universal for good reasons, and some inborn dispositions and aversions contribute to it, in humans as in most other organisms.
    In short, there are few precise indications of any sort of evidence, and these small bits of evidence are flawed, misleading or wrong.

    • Mad social science student says

      “They write about the incest taboo: “The incest taboo by itself is nothing else than the negative side of a collection of typifications, which in the first instance define which sexual behaviour counts as incest and which does not.” They bring no evidence for this claim, and it is wrong. The incest taboo is universal for good reasons, and some inborn dispositions and aversions contribute to it, in humans as in most other organisms.”

      Thats not good example, because what is considered incest vary from society to society. There are some universals mother-son, brother-sister, father-daughter (this one less)… but then, if you start digging in kinship, there are some complex prohibitions that are not self evident taking into acount biology as the only explanation.

      • Yes, of course, but they write that the incest taboo is “nothing else than . . . ” so they do not allow for any contribution from inborn patterns of behavior. There exists evidence that part of the basis for incest avoidance is coded in our biology; but there does not exist evidence that biology plays no role at all. So when they write “nothing else than . . . “, they are wrong.
        Also, if you look at relative pristine tribes or societies, these had some very elaborate rules about who was allowed to marry whom, dividing their populations into clans and forbidding people to marry somebody from their own clan. Such rules are of course social constructs. However, there are some remarkable similarities in the clan systems from widely separated populations in different parts of the globe, and the explanation for this could be that only populations with such elaborate clan systems and incest taboos avoided inbreeding. So those that did not have such systems to avoid inbreeding died out and left no descendants (remember that these things happened in a period when populations were small and inbreeding was a real danger) . In this way, there could have been an interplay between cultural memes and the conditions set by nature – actually all biological /genetic evolution of humans happens in an interplay between genes and social environment. So the evolution of certain memes, certain rules and certain systems of culture do not happen in a vacuum. Nature sets some conditions, and those cultural systems that survive are those that function well, given the constraints set by nature. Again, this means that writing “nothing else than . . . ” is wrong.
        In the end you write “taking biology as the only explanation”. Why do you write that? I have not written that biology is the only explanation. And in general, it is stupid to set things up like black or white. It is not a choice between either culture or biology. It is always a matter of biology in an interplay with culture, and the discussion could be about how important is one factor relative to the other factor. But to suggest that one factor explains 0 % or 100 % is to spoil any sensible discussion.

        • Mad social science student says

          True, my bad at “biology as the only explanation”. Im sorry I still have not enough knowleage on the matter.
          Thank you for your comments and post.

  26. “What is called into question are the epistemological consequences of ‘a social distribution of knowledge’, and it is this that Latour examines. ”
    No, that is not what Latour examines. Latour postulates that the thyrotropin releasing factor does not exist as such, but only as a social construct. He postulates that the tuberculosis bacterium did not exist before Pasteur made people believe that it exists.

  27. howardbe@mail.gvsu.edu says

    It would be nice if articles like this came with a suggested reading list.

  28. Gordon Danning says

    It seems to me that the author errs severely in equating social constructivism with post-modernism. Taken to an extreme, social constructivism can lead to the idiocies that the author mentions, but that does not mean that social constructivism has not made valuable contributions to many fields. For example, here is an excerpt from a discussion of social constructivist accounts of \International Relations:

    “In the Constructivist account, the variables of interest to scholars—eg military power,
    trade relations, international institutions, or domestic preferences—are not important
    because they are objective facts about the world, but rather because they have certain
    social meanings (Wendt 2000). This meaning is constructed from a complex and specific
    mix of history, ideas, norms, and beliefs which scholars must understand if they are to
    explain State behaviour. For example, Constructivists argue that the nuclear arsenals of
    the United Kingdom and China, though comparably destructive, have very different
    meanings to the United States that translate into very different patterns of interaction
    (Wendt 1995). To take another example, Iain Johnston argues that China has traditionally
    acted according to Realist assumptions in international relations, but based not on the
    objective structure of the international system but rather on a specific historical strategic
    culture.

    A focus on the social context in which international relations occur leads Constructivists
    to emphasize issues of identity and belief (for this reason Constructivist theories are
    sometimes called ideational). The perception of friends and enemies, in-groups and outgroups,
    fairness and justice all become key determinant of a State’s behaviour. While
    some Constructivists would accept that States are self-interested, rational actors, they
    would stress that varying identities and beliefs belie the simplistic notions of rationality
    under which States pursue simply survival, power, or wealth.

    Constructivism is also attentive to the role of social norms in international politics. Following March and Olsen, Constructivists distinguish between a ‘logic of consequences’ — where actions are rationally chosen to maximize the interests of a State—and ‘logic of appropriateness’, where rationality is heavily mediated by social norms. For example, Constructivists would argue that the norm of State sovereignty has profoundly influenced international relations, creating a predisposition for noninterference that precedes any cost-benefit analysis States may undertake.”

    https://www.princeton.edu/~slaughtr/Articles/722_IntlRelPrincipalTheories_Slaughter_20110509zG.pdf

    it is pretty tough to argue that those are not important observations, IMHO.

    • Gordon Danning: I deliberately wrote “social constructionism”, NOT “social constructivism”. Social constructivism is that which you write about, and I am sympathetic towards that. To avoid confusion and mark that we are speaking of two very different concepts, it is recommended to use the two slightly different terms. I can here refer to
      Christian Reus-Smit (2013): Constructivism. Pp 217-240 i S. Burchill m.fl. (eds.): Theories of international relations. 5th edition. Palgrave Macmillan.

  29. Hi Kåre,

    I’ve been trying to formulate responses to post-modernist social constructionism for some time now, and I’ve also been reading source material, namely “The Post Modern Condition, a Report on Knowledge”, by J.F Lyotard, “Gender Trouble” by J. Butler and relevant passages in “The Order of Things” and “The Will to Knowledge” by M. Foucault. I’m not sure if I should thank you for the addition of “The Laboratory Life” and “the Social Construction of Reality” to the list, but down the list they go.

    I believe that the sort of criticism that you make in this article is insufficient.

    First I’m startled that your paper does not give a definition of what the constructionists mean, and what you mean, by “social construct”. Then, I’m not surprised either that you find no support in the source literature for the claims of “non existence” of the effects under study by the scientists whose work was examined. Yes, plain scientific negationism is all over the folk version of post-modernist social constructionism, and it may be what some post-modernists were aiming at. But it’s not equivalent to what they wrote in their books either. If these authors were committed to the epistemology of the natural sciences and were explicitly denying the facts, it would be ridiculously easy to rebut them.

    What they actually do is often more subtle. Critical thought in general is in the business of shifting the topic of speech : from the chemical phenomenon to it’s theoretical representation and its formalized manifestation, from biological differences between the sexes to the terms used to characterize them and the sociological history of these terms. Their rhetoric strategy is to have people “talk about” the social determinants of scientific speech, rather than “talk about” what scientific speech is about. It is speech about speech, not speech about stuff.

    This is the reason why the goal of the first paper I wrote on the topic was “immunization” of the scientist against constructionist speech. In this paper (which you can find on my blog via my commenting profile), I think I manage to show that, actually, in most cases, social constructionist accounts of the development of a theory should be of no concern for us scientists, even if this account is true, because these accounts are logically independent from scientific theories.

    Coupled with this shifting attitude, post-modernist social constructionists often hold very radical metaphysical stances, in which modern scientific thought cannot operate, but which are harder to refute on scientific grounds. These range from existentialist dualism (cf. the articulation between the “necessary” and the “contingent”, with which scientific explanation generally has nothing to do), structuralism, and plain idealism.

    The example you give about there being no alternative formula for TRF is interesting. It is true that if the chemical model is logically sufficiently constrained by the theory, then there is only one formula for TRF, and if a post-modernist understands that, she has to accept the logical necessity of the formula. But then she can always go one step higher in abstraction and show that the acceptance of the model itself is socially constructed, contingent, etc. This is a typical example of retreat to a more radical, more metaphysical standpoint against which it’s harder to argue. I deal with some of that in my first article, but I’m preparing a piece about the prevalence of the “necessity/contingency” duality in social-constructionist philosophy where I will try to paint a more rigorous picture.

    In my opinion, our criticism of post-modernism has to engage more seriously into the study of the metaphysical and methodological aspects of this literature, and depart from the assumption that constructionist just claim that “science is not true”, because it is too easy for them to answer that it is “just not their point”. What we might begin by doing is focus on quirks in the way they apply their own methodology, to try and aim at real philosophical weaknesses in even the most radical of their stances and the way they articulate them. Allow me to dwell on an example, on which I will also close.

    Butler’s exact attitude towards scientific knowledge about sexes is actually not clear at all. She definitely oscillates between mere displacement of the topic, and retreat to some sort of ontologically idealist version of structuralism, where only symbols and relationship between symbols exist – although she means to criticize such an ontology in other authors, and actual chunks of scientific negationism. But rarely is this negationism acknowledged in the more formal statement of her theses. There’s an interesting passage where she directly engages what she claims to be biological knowledge on the “sexual binary”. She criticizes an author’s reliance on a gonadal criterion for sex determination, seemingly as a departure from the chromosomal definition. What she means to criticize is this author’s attempt to find a “master genetic” ground of the “sexual binary” that would be even prior to chromosomal criteria, and she finds examples of XX individuals which would be male according to the “master gene”, and have male gonads, but are sterile and lack other male functionalities. She then goes on addressing the social and symbolic construction of the gonadal criterion. But this criticism is largely a strawman, because the master gene theory does not appear to be mainstream, and on the other hand she never attempts to show ways in which the chromosomal definition would be “socially constructed”, which would probably be difficult since chromosomes are not really part of folk sexual ontology.

  30. Anton K: I do not quite follow you.
    Concerning Butler, I tried, as I write, to find where in her books is the evidence for her claims. In “Gender trouble” she nearly approaches an argumentation for her prepositions on page 46 (or chapter 1, page 10-11, in another edition). She discusses if there is a difference between “gender” and “sex”. She starts out to notice that
    “If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally constructed as gender . . ” . . “It would make no sense, then, to define gender as the cultural interpretation of sex, if sex itself is a gendered category.” (notice the two “if”s !!). In the sentence that follows, she writes “Gender ought not to be conceived . . “. That is, here appears suddenly an “ought”. Then follows “gender must also designate the very apparatus of production . . . ” That is, here appears a “must”. And the next sentence starts: “As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature . . . “.
    The syntax in this series of sentences is that first we have twice “if”. After that, we have “ought”, in the next sentence “must” and finally “As a result . . . “.
    This looks like a logical sequence. However, she never answeres if the “if” sentences hold true. It seems that she counts on that the reader will forget this, and will only remember the postulate that follows after the “if”. So the text continues as if she had indeed shown that “sex itself is a gendered category”. On this basis she writes “ought not to be” and “must also” . . but this still hinges on whether the “if” holds true. And then she jumps to the unwarranted conclusion with a sentence that contains an “is”.
    In my view, this way of writing is deliberate cheating. The sentences are som complicated and tortuous, that the reader, in his attempts to understand this highbrow, philosophical discussion, forgets to notice that sentence B does not follow from sentence A. She performs a magic trick, leading the reader´s attention astray, while she performs the trick.
    This is THE PLACE in her books where she comes the closest to bringing some sort of rational argumentation for her preposterous claims.
    I consider this to be deliberate cheating. She is dishonest. She knows what she is doing here. She knows that seh cheats.
    So I have no respect for her on a more philosophical level. On the level of actual argumentation, she is dishonest. It is enough for me to know that.

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  33. Arloe says

    I once had an article rejected from the journal Theoretical Criminology because I used the word “truth” in the last sentence of the conclusion. The editor based the rejection on that single word. My article was an argument about the inevitability of scientific discovery in criminology, just as it has occured innumerable times in other sciences. For the postmodern academician who denies the existence of any “truth”, might I suggest a reading of Robert Merton’s “Singles and Multiples in Science”.

  34. Dan Hughes says

    The author of this article doesn’t appear to understand a thing about the subject of the article. It’s… nonsensical.

  35. Anne says

    “Latour and his co-author Steve Woolgar concluded that TRF does not really exist.”

    No, they did not. And if you don’t understand that they didn’t deny the existance of this molecule, then you obviously do not understand social constructionism at all – and probably should not be writing about it.

    (“Once again, to say that TRF is constructed is not to deny its solidity as a fact. Rather, it is to emphasise how, where, and why it was created.” (https://books.google.de/books?id=vJ-JueUwptEC&pg=PA127&lpg=PA127&dq=to+say+that+TRF+is+constructed+is+not+to+deny+its+solidity+as+a+fact&source=bl&ots=yT2vlQaxYM&sig=w64P-77tvVGFsSXYMcbOj0IY_Jg&hl=de&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiJ_qmN3L7aAhXGd5oKHVn8AKgQ6AEIKDAA#v=onepage&q=to%20say%20that%20TRF%20is%20constructed%20is%20not%20to%20deny%20its%20solidity%20as%20a%20fact&f=false)

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