Social sciences’ lack of common truth criteria invites political attack

Worries about Islamo-leftism in France and free speech in England reflect disciplines’ straddling of science and activism, says Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière

March 5, 2021
A man made of mirrors symbolising the social sciences' muliple perspectives
Source: iStock

Intellectually, I live between France and the UK. One of the consequences of this divided state of being is that I am peculiarly aware of the resonance between the moral panics that periodically trouble the university systems of these two countries.

The panic of the day in France centres around the awkward term of “Islamo-leftism”. Originally coined in 2002 by the philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff to describe a convergence of interests between conservative expressions of Islam and certain left-wing movements, the term has subsequently been adopted by the political right to denounce a new form of identity politics, which, according to higher education minister Frédérique Vidal, threatens to “gangrene society as a whole and [in particular] universities”.

Vidal recently called on France’s main scientific body, the CNRS, to conduct an investigation to identify any activities that might fall within the scope of ideological militancy rather than scientific research. Unsurprisingly, the proposal has been met with outrage and derision from many of my French colleagues, who see it as threatening a new form of state intrusion into academic freedom by a government that is slipping towards ever greater authoritarianism.

Civil society associations and religious organisations have already been targeted by a draconian bill “to reinforce respect for the principles of the republic”, now before the Senate, and French researchers fear that they will be the next victims of state controls animated by the fear of Islamism. 

In England, the debate finds its correlate in the new legal measures to strengthen free speech at universities, announced by education secretary Gavin Williamson on the same day that Vidal ordered her inquiry. At first glance, his proposals seem to run contrary to Vidal’s. In fact, however, both initiatives share a common target: the growing popularity of political expressions on campus that are centred around racial, sexual, gendered, and religious identity claims.

In recent years, the concepts of intersectionality and decolonisation have animated lively new scholarly discussions, recognising previously marginalised dimensions of the human experience. At the same time, these ideas have led to a series of practices intended at restricting the scope of tolerated speech in academia: boycotts against groups and viewpoints identified as undesirable, no-platforming tactics, online shaming, and protests that seek to interrupt certain fora on campuses. 

These developments should not surprise us – we are living in a period of political, social and even epistemic polarisation. Amid the fragmentation or collapse of many of the industries, trade unions, political parties and traditionally dominant religions around which the public sphere has been organised since 1945, many people feel liberated from a range of institutionalised social constraints – while also expressing a need to erect to new dominant norms to structure social life and political practice.

The new politics of identity have also arrived at a time when the social sciences remain, to a large extent, in a state of flux, lacking a paradigm around which to build a scientific consensus. Consequently, as Thomas Kuhn observed, many of our efforts in the social sciences generate only “metaphysical speculation, word games, or mathematical play”. Some colleagues will object that this position expresses a form of logocentrism (a naïve belief in an external truth). However, such a position is surely self-defeating because the only means by which it can be defended, other than through force, is by application of the very tools of objectifying reason that it denounces.

For those committed to the autonomy of academic deliberation, the words of the French higher education minister should cause strong concern, and the liberal rhetoric of her British counterpart should be viewed with scepticism. Such initiatives, whether from Paris or London, can only exacerbate the retreat of the liberal order that they claim to defend.

If there exists a problem of intellectual conformity or ideological militancy in the university, it is incumbent upon us, as academics, to provide a solution. In order to work towards it, we must also acknowledge and address the epistemic problems within our disciplines so that we may be more rigorous and coherent when debating the substantive issues that divide us.

In the social sciences, the specific challenge we face is how to debate differences of opinion in the absence of a paradigmatic consensus on the very standards of truth. If we cannot agree on common criteria for evaluating truth claims or on the distinction between normative and empirical claims, our prospect for scientific progress is limited – as is our ability to defend ourselves from external intervention.

Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière is senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth.

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