24 Sep

Reflecting on Contradicting Empirical Evidence?

How do you respond to empirical work that you find sketchy? Just a few minutes before writing this article I had a discussion with a person I got to know recently. While talking to each other he brought forward two claims:

1. Men are dominating throughout history

2. Women are by nature more sociable (and that is because of their biological makeup of their brains)

The bad and evil philosopher that I am I told him that I did not share his assumptions straight forwardly. This got him rather angry. He asked why I would not share his claims even though there have been studies on this matter. I told him that in the field of explaining supposedly obivious gender differences there are a manifold of studies and that you can always pick whichever fit your preconfigured opinion. He tried to get me by the old and trusty scientistic route i.e. what can you believe at all if you don’t trust studies. I told him that I trust good studies. The problem is to restrict yourself to publishers and individuals that you find trustworthy. In my case that would include big academic institutions or individuals that I consider as experts in subfields. He found it incomprehensible how I could live like that. Completely without assumptions. I corrected him: I had assumptions. Especially about his second claim (I would not subscribe to 1. either because it is not clear enough). That is because I generally distrust evolutionary explanations when it comes to gender differences. I explained to him that I would be more of a social constructivist in that area. Of course, he tried to pin me down on claiming an absolute social constructivism about everything. When that did not work he tried to attack me by trying to turn my scepticism about his second assumption into some unjustified radical scepticism about knowledge. I told him that belief becomes fact eventually in some sense. The speed of light is a fact now even though we could hypothetically find out that we were wrong about it tomorrow. His second assumption, at least in my opinion, was not in the same category as the speed of light however. It was to contested to be established fact in my opinion. Finally, he asked me to justify my assumption that 2. is not true. I claimed an intuitionist feminist principle by which I find to distrust evolutionary studies about sex and gender or in short: that I am on feminism’s side by intuition (whatever that means, feminism is no unified position that you can adapt). He called it ‘bullshit’. How could I base my opinion on intuition? I never got to tell him that in a field in which there are lots of conflicting empirical studies you are doomed to base your opinion on intuition and just bit the argumentative bullet.

The real problem that is not restricted only to feminism is however: what to do when somebody brings forward some random empirical study in an informal argument setting? How do you respond to that? Should I just search up some contradicting empirical study on the go? Should I just accept it for the sake of argument? Should I try to explain my scepticism about empirical studies in contentious topics like I did in the discussion recounted above?

It seems that if you do not share some empirical assumptions (i.e. assumptions that you can neither prove or disproof in the moment of discussion or assumptions that you genuinely do not share) that you cannot accept them for the sake of argument. Why would I for example argue on the basis of some racist assumption (such as: ‘some racial ‘mark’ is an indication of biological or cultural inferiority’)? It does not matter if there are empirical studies done by some remote university that you do not know. I cannot argue on the base of empirical claims that I perceive as fundamentally wrong. I do not know if 2. is one of these claims. It might be that some feminists would share it while others would not. It might be that a feminist that celebrates perceived female traits (gynocentric feminism?), such as being supposedly more sociable, would accept 2. and argue for some further feminist conclusion.

Should I just brush up on empirical evidence in fields that I believe to be morally significant? What if I do not have the time to do that? How can I match a potentially unpredictable array of empirical assumptions that people can bring forward? Is there a way to restric the area of possible empirical topics that I need to know about? Should I lead the discussion in another direction with something like: ‘I do not know about this study but in a similar area they found xy?’.

Should I delay the discussion and get informed? It is definitely not acceptable to just accept that contested matters cannot be discussed because of me not knowing all empirical studies conducted in that matter. Or is it?