Disrespecting Social Theory

Katha Pollitt (The Nation) recently wrote an article posted on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science website (link here) about the results of the recent Gallup poll on evolution.  Although I found that the article was an enjoyable read, one comment brought to my attention a disturbing trend I’ve experienced of academics and intellectuals not appreciating (or respecting) the opinion of social scientists.  Here was the statement from the article:

“My brilliant husband, a sociologist and political theorist, refuses to get upset about the [Gallup] poll.  It’s quite annoying, actually.  He thinks questions like these primarily elicit affirmations of identity, not literal convictions; declaring your belief in creationism is another way of saying you’re a good Christian.”

She went on to add:

“That does beg the question of what a good Christian is, and why so many think it means refusing to use the brains God gave you.”

I should also point out that a commenter on the site went further than Pollitt by stating:

“Part of the problem. “affirmation of identity” my a**!  This is ignorance that borders on stupidity that is enabled by “brilliant”  people in the humanities and social sciences.”

I want to make it clear that Pollit makes a few very valid points throughout the article, and I do agree with her that the Gallup poll is disturbing (although not as disturbing as the National Science Foundation poll I wrote about a few weeks ago), it was upsetting that she did not appreciate her husband’s opinion, because he has a really insightful and nuanced interpretation of the poll.  Basically he was arguing that if you take the poll at face value (e.g., 46% of Americans are creationist) you are failing to understand that when confronted with questions about origins many people care less about what is scientifically true, and care more about their social identity (e.g., how they relate to family members, friends, institutions and their country).  That means that someone in America may be more inclined to pick the religious answer to the Gallup poll questions because it reaffirms their social identity as a Christian.  So while it may be true that 25% of Americans with graduate degrees answered the poll with an ‘agree’ when asked about the question of a biblical interpretation of human origins, 25% of Americans with graduate degrees probably don’t believe that “dinosaurs and humans romped together before Noah’s flood.”  In order to understand that you would have to design a more complex polling methodology, which is something, I suspect, a sociologist or political theorist would be able to do.

Personally, being a biological anthropologist, I walk a very poorly defined line between the life sciences and the social sciences.  I believe that it gives me an interesting perspective and a unique ability to deconstruct the nature/nurture; genetic/social dichotomy that has been erected, not just in theory, but also in practice.  Nevertheless many academics continually strengthen the divide between these scientific subfields by openly criticizing and disrespecting anybody that attempts to use well-established social theory.

Unfortunately, this criticism is not rooted in a healthy dialogue.  It usually consists of an individual in the natural sciences openly laughing at a social theory they have not taken the time to understand and/or have not really thought about what perspective the theory could add to scientific methodology and data interpretation.  This is incredibly unfortunate, because all scientists can add to the overwhelmingly powerful amount of evidence that religion is not true and God is a social construction.  And social scientists may be the most valuable when it comes to understanding why so many Americans still identify with Judeo-Christian religious traditions.



About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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