The Ostrich-esque Anti-Positivist Abdication
If you’ve read our “About Us” tab, you know that I’m currently a student at a large research university. So in any given week, there are a lot of academic talks I could go to. I try to attend as many as I can (because when else am I going to have the opportunity to see so many smart people talk about things?), but I tend to choose based solely on titles.
Yesterday that approach backfired on me spectacularly. The title was “Civilization Gone Awry: Culture, Capitalism, and Conflict in Contemporary Europe” and I figured it might be interesting.* The first part was. And between his slight accent and frequent use of Greece as an example, it was clear that he was Greek. And I am always happy to see Greeks out and about in the world (at least I am before the inevitable turn to conspiracy theory and thinly-veiled antisemitism, racism, or other generally unacceptable views).** The second part was not. Rather, it was a trite rehash of OWS-style invective against the “subjugation of politics to unaccountable international capital” and the “dominance of Fordist capitalism”. Then he admitted he was a member of Syriza, which just about ruined everything.
During the Q&A session he was pushed on his claim that international capital flows independent of government control had become the dominant feature of political economy. Perhaps, the questioner suggested, the examples he gave were not indicative of the state of international finance the world over, and a data-driven approach might yield different results. Certainly if one considers the degree to which capital in China, Russia, and other BRIC-type economies is deployed to serve political ends (remember all the fuss over state capitalism a couple years ago?) it hardly seems clear that the dominance of capital is a global phenomenon.
His response was, “I am not a positivist.” Which, when it comes to policy, is complete bullshit. It is an absolute abdication of responsibility to say “I am not a positivist” when the answer to the question of whether or not your assessment of a phenomenon, which is verifiably true or false, carries enormous policy implications. This isn’t a blanket indictment of non-positivist research, for example.*** But policy happens in a world in which cause and effect exist, and are in some measure observable (confounding variables, noisy data, etc. notwithstanding). It is complete and utter horseshit to present a theory, draw massive policy implications from it (“We need a revolution”), and then reject a challenge to its validity because you, “are not a positivist”.****
It may be tempting to dismiss this anti-positivism as a symptom of the European left (I don’t think Habermas is much of a statistician), but it’s not. To the extent that it is an ideological phenomenon at all, it is the spectrum-agnostic last bastion of the status-quo, whether it be the jackasses on Fox News who refused to acknowledge the veracity of Nate Silver’s 2012 election forecasts until it was well past too late, Peggy Noonan and her vapid, data-less prediction of a Romney victory because he had a lot of lawn signs, or the populist idiots in Syriza who expect manna from heaven to pay for the perpetuation of a welfare state and decrepit system of tribal capitalism vastly more expensive than the Greek polity could ever hope to afford. In all cases it is the response of people who see their way of life changing in ways that terrify them, and rather than adapt they cling bitterly to the safety of what they’ve come to know as true and good, facts and data to the contrary be damned. Ostriches, all of them.*****
*In my defense, even checking out the guy’s biography wouldn’t have provided sufficient warning
** My family is Greek, I’m allowed to say this, and also, it’s undeniably so enormously true. I dare you to have a conversation with a Greek for longer than five minutes that doesn’t include at least three things that make you cringe because they’re bashing Albanians, foreigners in general (where do you think the word xenophobia comes from?), or every piece of American foreign policy from 1950 onward. Average Greek political discourse is like what you’d get from a racist Noam Chomsky
***The thesis I plan to write is not likely to be a highly positivist piece of research. Exploratory research is a useful thing to do!
****I suppose a rejoinder might be that as long as I am thinking in terms of policy I am still blinkered by the ideological constraints of Fordist capitalism and thus incapable of seeing the “true” state of things. Respectfully, fuck you
*****Actually, not, at least as far as ostrich behavior goes