TSElosophers meeting 5.5.2023. Albrecht Becker, Kari Lukka, Mia Salo, Otto Rosendahl, Veli Virmajoki
Aaltola, E. (2022, 04.08.2022). The limits of science – what can we study? https://blogit.utu.fi/utu/2022/04/08/tieteen-rajat-mita-saamme-tutkia/ (translated by Kari Lukka)
Meyer, R. E., & Quattrone, P. (2021). Living in a post-truth world? Research, doubt and organization Studies. Organization Studies, 42(9), 1373-1383
Tweedie, J. (2022). Against mystifying complexity: On asking simple, burning questions. Organization Studies, 43(11), 1853-1856.
These three texts of very different types share a common theme: the challenge and legitimacy crisis social sciences face in the light of the growing force of ‘post-truth’ and the contribution of the science-internal critique of the postulate of value-free science to creating an ‘anything-goes’ public discourse.
- Aaltola in her blog post argues that this criticism of the idea of value-freedom of science has led to the argument that, given that all knowledge is tainted by value, all knowledge claims are equal to scientific ones, and in the end, it has led to a situation where right-wing actors try to censor research on topics they consider as not in line with their own values. The burning issue, thus, is how we can restore the role and integrity of free science.
- Meyer and Quattrone, in their first editorial as new editors of Organization Studies, start from the same concern as Aaltola, also emphasising how researchers themselves have unintendedly become “accomplices” in nurturing the concept of ‘post-truth’. The challenge, according to them, is how to restore acknowledgement “of the value of our work” in a situation where truth “is a constant struggle to interrogate [the] ephemeral nature of knowledge”, but where the public discourse is more and more structured around binaries, such as true/false, us/them, etc.
- Tweedie takes up Meyer and Quattrone’s idea of academics’ complicity and notes the irony of them striving for impact when their major impact is undermining their own legitimacy. He locates the major source of this complicity in the “complexity arms race” where academics value complexity per se over simplicity, thus reinforcing the ivory tower of incomprehensibility. Instead, he pleads for “elegant simplicity” in research and suggests that research questions should be stated “in the simplest terms we can” and that they should concern the “’burning questions’ of our times”, such as climate change etc.
We first noted that the texts are very different of type, one is a blog post, thus formulated in a bit more everyday language style (Aalto), the second a programmatic editorial (Meyer & Quattrone), and the third an essay (Tweedie). While this may account for the fact that the texts present their arguments in a too straightforward way, it at the same time made them specifically thought-provoking. Probably unsurprising, TSElosophers shared the general concerns raised in these texts regarding the current tendencies inclined to delegitimise the value of research and science.
One strand of our discussion concerned the stated ‘complicity’ of researchers stated in different ways in the three texts. Many of us agreed and saw not least recent discussions on sensitive – or, more pointedly: ‘politically correct’ – use of language as an important driver of the chance for allegations of value-bias and partisanship of social sciences. At least one of us argued, however, that ‘science scepticism’ is much older than these recent discussions and even the critique of value-free science and that during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was rather the traditional idea of self-correction through falsification which fed post-truth and the discourse on the equality of scientific and non-scientific knowledge claims. It seemed clear to us, however, that there is a paradox: On the one hand, authors claim that their critique of the assumption of value-free research has had a public impact and, on the other hand, their complaint that social science research is not adequately heard in public.
We further discussed what distinguishes scientific knowledge from other types of knowledge to make a convincing claim for legitimacy or even superiority in certain situations. One suggestion from TSElosophers, taking up Aalto’s argument, was that scientific knowledge is in a specific way methods-based and systematic. Others, however, countered this by arguing that these aspects are necessary conditions, but not sufficient since it is not obvious which methods should be designated as legitimate. For example, even astrology can also be perceived as rigorous and methods-based.
Other suggestions for solutions from the texts could also not completely convince us. Meyer and Quattrone, for example, go a long way to analyse the issues coming with a social science that accepts that there is no ultimate truth in the era of post-truth. However, their proposed programme for Organisation Studies seems a very standard programme of a social sciences journal and it remains unclear how their analysis is addressed. Tweedie’s suggestion to distinguish ‘crude’ from ‘elegant simplicity’ and ‘mystifying’ from ‘enlightening complexity’, and more profoundly distinguishing simplicity from complexity, seems plausible at first glance but may turn out to be less clear-cut than suggested.
In conclusion, the three texts triggered intensive discussion among the TSElosophers on themes that are of vital importance for all researchers, especially in humanities and social studies. Indicative of the great interest in the themes at stake was that our discussion showed no real saturation, but we only needed to end it due to time limitations.