The Duck of Minerva

A Duck of Minerva Interview

Whisk(e)y and Epistemic Pluralism: A Quack-and-Forth (Part II)

January 24, 2022

This is the second part of a three part interview between Adam B. Lerner (ABL) and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (PTJ). It is the first instalment of a new series of interviews on Duck of Minerva entitled Quack-and-Forths. Part I can be accessed here and Part III can be accessed here.

 ABL   Thanks so much for your response, which, unfortunately, has me riled up for two reasons. 

First, this year’s Millennium conference did not include any whisky tastings. It was online only, which meant I drank alone with my dog, who doesn’t like whisky but does enjoy sticking his snout directly into my glass.

 PTJ   I am fortunate that neither my dog nor my cats are especially interested in sticking their noses into my whisky glass (or my beer glass, for that matter). Neither is my wife. In fact, one of the things I miss the most about in-person conferences is the opportunity to drink decent alcohol *with* other people…sigh.

 ABL   Amen to that! The second has to do with what seems to me the bleak picture of the contemporary social sciences you paint. From your argument, it seems that you think it’s a reasonable position for social *scientists* to cordon off their knowledge production from that of, say, whisky connoisseurs, and police their disciplinary boundaries. While you write that international studies at-large should embrace pluralism due to the multiple ways-of-knowing about its subject matter, you recognize that political science (and the IR subdiscipline within it) are almost necessarily exclusionary.

But accepting this separation of knowledge claims into siloed camps comes with costs. Most universities (especially in the US) do not have pluralistic or interdisciplinary international studies departments or graduate programs. The subject matter of international studies is, more often than not, dealt with primarily in political science departments (or differently named departments wedded to social science practices) and social-scientific knowledge production retains a privileged status in policymaking circles. In some ways, accepting that social science is doomed to a singular vision of knowledge production entails acceptance of problematic knowledge hierarchies. I wrote about this for the Duck in relation to the pandemic, but I see related pathologies appear over and over again in policy debates. Reading Craig Whitlock’s The Afghanistan Papers, for example, I couldn’t help but think that the US government’s adherence to a limited, social-scientific vision of what constituted knowledge about Afghanistan and the war effort made the foreign occupying force seem even more alien. The US sidelined those with extensive knowledge of local cultural practices (Afghan whisky connoisseurs, so to speak) in favour of top-down policymaking defined by problematic metrics. 

If every university had parallel international studies and political science departments engaged in heated debate, that would be one thing. But often they have only the latter and, perhaps, a few interdisciplinary scholars interested in related issues sprinkled in other departments with less funding and less influence.

Also, for a friendly détente between epistemic communities to occur, it would require that each appreciates that the others are capable of producing types of knowledge to which your own preferred approach might have more limited access. But this is not the case. Increasingly, I see social scientists encroaching on others’ turf, trying to objectively quantify the taste of whisky or the experiences of Afghans under occupation in ways that overshadow alternative forms of knowledge. I see this oftentimes in what I would call the neopositivist chauvinism of prominent ‘knowledge producers’ like Nate Silver. They develop fancy hammers (or R packages) and then see all potential knowledge, whether it’s of NFL defences or policy preferences, as potential nails to smash away at. 

So, this all leads to some questions: what should epistemic pluralism look like in international studies? Is it competitive, with different camps engaging one another’s knowledge claims to secure the most influence? Is it a détente, in which all epistemic communities operate independently? Is it collaborative, in which different types of knowledge complement one another? In other words, how can we promote good neighbourly behaviour between camps considering the existing hierarchies we’ve described?    

 PTJ   I’m perfectly happy with a bleak picture. Well, maybe not happy, but content. For one thing, consider the counterfactual: modes of knowledge-production that didn’t even have proper names like “science,” so that they wouldn’t even implicitly acknowledge the existence of any alternative. I’d rather fight the fight to disassociate ‘science’ from knowledge per se, than the fight to show that ‘knowledge per se’ is an empty signifier (and I don’t mean that in the technical Laclau sense; I mean it in the vernacular, “this phrase doesn’t mean anything at all” sense). To be clear, one implication I draw from my position on epistemic pluralism and knowledge pluralism more generally is that, as Nietzsche once put it, there is *only* a perspectival knowing, and therefore we always ought to use adjectives — like “scientific” — to qualify any knowledge-claim that we make. Practically speaking I think that’s a more reasonable first order goal to pursue than, say, demanding of a department with the word science literally stamped on its website that *it* consent to *its* members engaging in something that is deliberately and overtly not “science,” and has no interest in being such. In a situation like that I think that the best we can hope for is the rejection of the unity-of-science thesis — and the embrace, even if only grudgingly, of scientific pluralism.

I don’t think one could ever get a robust debate going between the IR part of a Political Science department and a department or program in international studies — not in the least because some of the people in the latter might also be part of the former! An international studies department or school or program *couldn’t* speak with a single voice, methodologically speaking, unless it were tacitly a discipline. In that case you might have a robust contrast — a debate in the broad sense, although probably not a communicative exchange that would yield consensus at the end — between that and the IR part of the Political Science department, assuming that the IR folks weren’t pluralists but that they confirmed to the basic neopositivist outlines of Political Science as a discipline.

The view I am sketching here is one in which international studies is bigger and more inclusive than IR, where “IR” is the Political Science take on things: basically neopositivist, except for the rogue political theorists who are in the department for mainly historical reasons (a story brilliantly told in John Gunnell’s The Descent of Political Theory). I’m deeply pessimistic about even pushing a scientific pluralism agenda in Political Science, although I do it when I can; I’m pessimistic about this campaign because Political Science is a place where people take seriously the notion that there can be such things as basic standards for data transparency, because after all, the mark of any good study is that it is replicable, right? And, of course, any kind of case selection that one does has to avoid selecting on the dependent variable, because you can’t get a valid hypothesis test that way. It’s a really long uphill slog just to get that kind of stuff labelled “neopositivist” and not merely “scientific.” If this were solely an intellectual matter, then maybe we could make some headway, but the narrowly neopositivist notion of science in Political Science is held in place by a whole series of historical and cultural and institutional factors, and those can’t be dislodged by even the most compelling of arguments.

Nate Silver’s work on baseball is his best stuff, because baseball is the most approximately lab-like of the major professional sports. I made that argument a long time ago (see PTJ’s chapter in Making Political Science Matter) and I still stand by it. Hammers are good for the kinds of situations for which they are intended.

The challenge that you pose is significant, and I’d be lying if I said that I had the answer. My default mode of engaging these issues is to treat them as intellectual concerns that we can talk out, but if I’m right — and I think I’m right — these actually aren’t solely intellectual concerns. The practical case for scientific pluralism, let alone the practical case for knowledge pluralism, would seem to me to involve at least two things: widespread *education* in issues about knowledge-production including the strengths and weaknesses of *any* approach to knowledge and the tricky relationship between knowledge of any sort and concrete practical action, and a reorientation of the incentive system of academic life that sets most of us most of the time in conflict with others for very scarce resources. It’s a lot easier to let others do their thing when doing so doesn’t take away from you doing your thing. And if *all of us* lower the stakes a bit, and stop imagining that our approach to knowledge is somehow so in tune with the fabric of the cosmos that everyone ought to listen to our conclusions and people who don’t follow them are obviously cognitively deficient in some way, maybe we could actually confront the challenges facing us with some humility.

Click here for Part III.

Adam B. Lerner

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Adam B. Lerner is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway's Centre for International Security (RHISC).