As an academic I can criticise anything. Even Relativity Theory can be attacked as relying on convention. Social and economic issues are much easier to argue about as we seem to have little objective evidence to observe in comparison with that available in science. This also makes argument about how we do organise and might organise society very difficult because it is so difficult to demonstrate anything through ‘evidence’ and sets of common assumptions that have been thoroughly evaluated.
There are ways we could proceed sensibly, but it turns out to be extremely difficult to even establish the real problems we want to address without being branded as some kind of malcontent or even lunatic. This is because so many of our problems are deeply embedded in what many regard as good practice just because this is what they are used to and have become attached to as they soaked them up. We are influenced in general argument by such matters as who is making the argument, whether it fits with the way we have come to see the world, the way people look and sound, indeed a whole range of personal and socially dominant conventions we can hardly bear to hear broken apart as not good enough for critical reasoning. It doesn’t help either, that ‘argument’ is often used very unfairly to establish or justify power-relations between individuals or groups and that we generally ‘write’ history as propaganda.
It is more or less impossible to find argument as it works in science in general society. The ultimate authorities of logic, special languages of proof (such as mathematics) and detailed, repeated and carefully recorded experimental observation are all missing. This has led many to try to find a ‘scientific method’ which could be applied to our personal and social problems. Frankly, this is a particularly dumb approach, as very few people are capable of learning science even so as to be able to understand scientific explanations in their own terms. Most of us struggle with elementary mathematics, including a lot who teach it, some even with numeracy and basic literacy. If there was a scientific method applicable to social reasoning, most would still have to take the findings of it, done by others, on trust. I’m fairly happy that there is no unitary scientific method, even within science itself. I’m also sure that much scientific practice is esoteric and can only be done by those who get the special experience, materials and resources available in very specialist areas of practice.
Here, in the ordinary world, I am not able to exclude my grandson and his mates after school and will have to continue later. Much more important issues than such disturbance affect us in trying to make sense of social issues, yet even this one is enough to get in the way for now. Science is able to exclude much that gets in the way of its enquiry, including much more troublesome than a few kids wanting to get on with their pressing issues.
In social research, the very idea of uncontaminated enquiry is part of the problem. We may say, and many make this claim, that we want to follow where the evidence leads. Yet it is surely ‘evident’ that much enquiry has as much to do with not searching for or disclosing evidence relevant to rational consideration, as with really trying to look for the real problems and what is genuinely fair. We often rely on ‘professionals’ to gather the evidence, which brings in many issues of credibility and individual and group interests that cannot be resolved as they are in science, through demonstration and widespread peer review in which the data are exposed to public scrutiny.
In many areas, the very idea of exposing the evidence and how it was gathered to public scrutiny is an anathema. We go to war on the basis of secret intelligence and are always told we can rely on the ‘professionalism’ of our intelligence gathering community. History tells a different tale of much bungling. In the UK, the ‘Suez Crisis’ is a classic example, but such history as this is quickly forgotten as we come to make later decisions. More than ‘forgetting’ is involved – there is an active propaganda at work, leaving a very overly-positive and ready-to-hand version of our country and its foreign policy to be soaked-up. CH Waddington once called this COWDUNG – the conventional wisdom of dominant groups.
In social enquiry, from attempts to resolve antisocial behaviour, through the activities of our police and social services and on to the very ‘dirty hands’ areas of foreign policy, many excuses (some valid) are made for not revealing the full evidence to public scrutiny. My wide view is that we are now in such a mess that sensible enquiry is the very thing to be stopped at all costs, much as in the madness of the Soviets or China under Mao. Our classic madness in Western democracies can be seen in our voting rituals and unrealistic aspirations about what these can achieve. It is better to be able to replace one set of clowns with another than rely on divine right to lead us, but do we really know much more about what our systems ‘achieve’? Democracy has not prevented war, or established a wide society that can live without fear of it. Under critical scrutiny, it does not have a favourable history, but one that contains such horrors as Athenian genocides and World Wars. I do not say this to write it off. The examples of Kings and religion are worse.
My concern is that without a critical awareness of our systems and what they really do, we cannot engage with our real problems and how we might fix them. If I wanted to keep tropical fish, about which I know little other than that they are pretty, I would get a few books on the subject and take advice down the road at Dave’s Aquarium. If I wanted to make urea formaldehyde (a common undergraduate test), I’d get the appropriate chemistry text and practice to get the right skills. I am a ‘tropical fish realist’ (article at SEP online if any interested) – there is no deep philosophical stuff in this, just some trust in previously reported practice. My tomatoes may crop this year because I have read and taken advice.
I am used to ‘experts’ being full of tosh as well as useful advice. The teacher-training I had was all hopeless and based on ancient clap-trap. I can write in postmodern form, demonstrating nothing other than a vapid ability with words to get me to places I want to visit for an academic party with free transport and hotelling. What I want to be able to do is live in a community in which our best minds do not have to exclude others and work on improving the general day-to-day, not just feather a variety of esoteric nests within which only their own forms of life are ‘improved’.
The key questions are not philosophical, though we could do with more widespread knowledge of philosophy in order not to keep re-inventing its wheels as though we are ‘smart’. What we need is more direct ability to say what our experience is, how far this is shared by others, why it might be right, wrong, good, selfish, pathetic or justified. We need the right and resource to get on with what we want to do and a system of ‘policing’ this that recognises policing is not a necessary evil, but something very necessary once we know enough about human nature to stop us believing in ‘anything goes’ solutions or giving as few clowns ‘permission’ to exert power over us, whether bandits, religious zealots or the promise manipulators we elect.
The ‘new’ (it’s really old) ‘Blue Socialism’ is an example of what might work, yet a chilling reminder of how vapid words are in our current politics. Promises mean nothing other than in relation to buying our votes, yet who wouldn’t want government out of our lives as far as possible? To be able to throw scrote drug-dealers, noise nuisances and welfare scroungers out of our communities, be able to work on public projects for a fair wage, really do something for the kids being used by the scrote to ensure they can develop into something better than they are doomed to be by their parents, influential local crooks, education that can’t benefit them, social workers and cops who write them off at the door, free victims of domestic violence and inequity across the world?
This ‘idealistic hogwash’ has been with us for centuries. India is now the tenth richest country in the world. A visit would reveal poverty unimaginable to even the most fervent current affairs watcher. A visit with Inspector Gadget to a ‘home’ in affluent Britain would shock most. His descriptions of police bureaucracy surely cannot be true, and yet they are. More than 30 years ago, I had a sub-divisional commander who did nothing other than write-up sub-divisional memos, try to get my charge office sergeant sacked (one of the finest human beings I’ve met), organise a coach for the Tactical Aid Group with no coach driver and instruct us to keep triumphant Manchester United fans off the grass, thus blocking the road the team bus was supposed to use.
When we come up with our ‘solutions’, we are already doomed because we do not examine the realities which will doom us to failure. We all say we hate bureaucracy and red-tape, yet few can begin to explain what they are. What is worse is that we really are not allowed to open up about the problems caused by an increasingly rich and unaccountable class of worthies who will steal the resources we need to get anything practical done. One ‘faster than the speed of light’ scientist recommends we give them all long prison sentences. We might not think this enough, though he does add we should hang them on ‘release’.
To speak out is to spit in the face of this smiling brotherhood, to lose one’s job, be subject to character assassination and dire cruelty. We need to know much more about this before we can approach real enquiry aimed at practical change. And it is this that is the most dangerous field of enquiry. If we understood this field and found ways to stop it operating, practical free speech and new practices would be possible. Even science has managed this only imperfectly.
What we need is an ethnography of the struggle to cope on the front line, whether as a welfare-sponsored drug-dealing scrote, cop, social worker, victim or job-seeker. We need facts, and to recognise deep philosophy and a range of easy prejudices can destroy any chance of working with them. It is true, but not bright to recognise we can deconstruct anything. It is true, but not bright, to recognise most uses of ‘objective voice’ are manipulative, often of emotions and soaked-up opinion the voice itself is careful to hide. What would be bright is the construction of a core method of public scrutiny authorities cannot cheat.