Author: Ajay Verghese

Ajay Verghese is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Riverside. He is currently writing a book on secularization in Hinduism, a project that has been funded by the Fulbright Program and the American Institute of Indian Studies.

What If Academia Had a ‘Scout Mindset’?

Exensor - Infrared Scout Camera - UGS 2 - Army Technology
Source: https://www.army-technology.com/contractors/surveillance/exensor-technology/attachment/exensor-infrared-scout-camera-ugs-2/

Imagine you are reading a theoretical social science article that is dedicated to making an argument (let’s call it Argument X). You get to a section of the article called “Alternative Explanations,” which discusses Challenges A, B, and C to Argument X. At the end of this section, the author writes: “Challenge B is the superior explanation, and Argument X is therefore disconfirmed.”

Or imagine you are reading the “Robustness Checks” section of a quantitative piece and the author concludes by writing, “The majority of these robustness checks failed and therefore the main hypothesis of this article is wrong.”

These are the kinds of things you might expect to read if academia had a “Scout Mindset,” a term taken from Julia Galef’s new book [Full disclosure: I haven’t finished the book yet, so these are initial observations]. But you don’t read these kinds of passages very often. And that’s a problem.

Scouts and Soldiers

In a recent interview, Galef describes a ‘scout mindset’ as:

“…my term for the motivation to see things as they are and not as you wish they were, being or trying to be intellectually honest, objective, or fair minded, and curious about what’s actually true.”

This can be contrasted with ‘soldier mindset,’ which is what most people have:

“…a lot of the time we humans are in what I call ‘soldier mindset,’ in which our motivation is to defend our beliefs against any evidence or arguments that might threaten them. Rationalization, motivated reasoning, wishful thinking: these are all facets of what I’m calling a soldier mindset.

I adopted this term because the way that we talk about reasoning in the English language is through militaristic metaphor. We try to ‘shore up’ our beliefs, ‘support them’ and ‘buttress them’ as if they’re fortresses. We try to ‘shoot down’ opposing arguments and we try to ‘poke holes’ in the other side.”

Sound familiar? Like many things it purports to be (e.g., a meritocracy), is it really the case that academia uncovers the best explanations or simply defends privileged explanations? The prevalence of soldier mindset seems especially relevant for academia because a career can be made on the basis of having the “right” argument. 

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Fieldwork and Your Health

Fieldwork – “leaving one’s home institution in order to acquire data, information, or insights that significantly inform one’s research”

(Kapiszewski, MacLean, and Read 2015: 1)

– has long been a cornerstone of social science research. It is a remarkably diverse enterprise: ‘doing fieldwork’ can mean carrying out archival research, interviews, surveys, focus groups, participant observation, ethnography, or experiments. Fieldwork is also quite valuable: it helps orient scholars toward under-addressed ontological questions, including whether many of the concepts that we routinely study actually exist ‘out there’ in the world, or at least exist in the form that our theories postulate. Fieldwork also enables scholars to take measurement seriously, as sometimes our indicators and scales do not accurately describe or quantify our concepts. Fieldwork, in short, is vital in aligning social science concepts and measurement with the real world that we seek to study.

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Bringing Ontology Back In


Political science has long had debates over methodology – i.e., ways of knowing about the world – but has had fewer over ontology – i.e. what exists in the world. This was noted by Peter Hall in his 2003 book chapter, “Aligning Ontology and Methodology in Comparative Research,” but other authors like Colin Hay and Liam Stanley have made the same critique.  

Why is this a problem? Two examples, one personal and one not:

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