The Three Professors: Science and the Ideology of World Views

I mentioned it in one of my previous blogs and didn’t really tackle the issue, but a little while ago I got into a twitter debate with Ann Pettifor on the ideology of world views. I stated that “all world views are ideological” and Ann, an eminent economist, disagreed and understandably felt able to very politely “dis” my arguments. Which is not that surprising given that I am not an eminent anything. Anyway after a fairly fruitless attempt at explaining my position on the epistemological status of world views in bursts of 140 characters I decided that I would blog about it.  Knowing full well that not even the people who love me would be likely to read it. But it matters to me so here goes. And just to compound the folly – this is the first of three blogs that I’m going to write on science and the social sciences.

I guess that in unpicking and trying to justify my statement that “all world views are ideological” there two things that have to be tackled:  the first is the concept of a world view; the second unsurprisingly that of ideology. I guess I should start with the idea of a world view but I’m not going to, I’m going to start with love and science you’ll get why in a minute.

In my distant youth, long before I became an occasional social scientist and the parent of a disabled child/ young man – I fell in love with a visiting Austrian student called Katharina. It was my first great love and at the time it was definitely the most important thing that had ever happened to the entire human race. And when her visit ended rather than dealing with a temporarily broken heart, as most sensible people would have done, I decided that it would be a good idea for me to go to Vienna to study Geology despite the fact that I couldn’t speak German. So at the tender age of 19 after a year spent learning German, I followed my heart to study Geology under the guidance of Professor’s Exner, Tollman and Frank at Vienna University.

They were remarkable people as Professors sometimes are. Professor Exner was a man of enormous stature within the department. I remember him being very dignified and kind, but also very confident of his field of expertise – he seemed to me to personify the knowledgeable professor scientist. He had earnt his PhD in 1939 and after a brief spell in a Mountain Jager Artillery Regiment he had spent the rest of his career as an academic geologist or working for the Austrian Geological Society. Becoming University Professor at the Universitat Wien in 1967.

Fairly early on in my studies I remember doing a field trip and it was on this field trip that I learnt a lesson about science that has stayed with me ever since. The trip was an introduction to geological field methods and we were in a small group in the Alps, I think it was around Fieberbrunn and on this particular day our group was being led by Professor Exner. Anyway we students had been wandering about looking at rock outcrops and then we met up with the Professor, who was standing in-front of a small outcrop describing a particular formation as consisting of certain types of rock.  From memory I think that they were mainly lightly metamorphosed slates and quartzite’s of one form or another and I added that the formation also included conglomerates because I had seen conglomerate in a nearby outcrop. The Professor was however quite adamant that the formation did not include conglomerate and that I must be mistaken. After a brief attempt at arguing with an eminent Professor in a foreign language I gave up, probably sulked and we all moved on. However, not much further along the track we came to another rock outcrop – this time a conglomerate and the eminent Professor apologised to the argumentative English student.

For me there were three lessons to be learned from this incident; the first was that Professor Exner was a true scientist- confident and yet ready to accept that he might be wrong about something; the second was that smugness is a very unappealing character trait in a student and the third was the difference between knowledge and empirical observation in scientific enquiry. Professor’s Exner’s knowledge of Alpine Geology was by then based on decades of research and observation and nine hundred and ninety nine times out of a thousand it would have been utter folly for me to disagree with him. But knowledge has to be continuously tested and re-tested and even in the sciences, the belief that a statement is true is simply that – a belief – because what may have been true for one particular part of a rock formation or moment in time isn’t necessarily true for another.  The core of scientific enquiry is the presumption that the conditions that cause a particular effect cannot be presumed to exist unless they have been proven to exist.

Fine  – but how does this relate to world views? Well put simply a world view is a theory or set of theories about the true nature of something that applies to all or part of the social/economic and political world.  They might be Neo-Liberal, Marxist, Liberal, Pluralist, Realist, Systemic, Religious, Discursive world views – to be honest there are hundreds. Every discipline within the social sciences has its own theories and models that it uses to interpret the world and (with the odd exception) each aspires to present itself as a uniquely valid interpretation of the world or of part of it and each attempts to assert their validity by describing other interpretations as false.

The difficulty for the social sciences is the challenge that it faces in developing knowledge about the world that is uncompromised by competing theories and interpretations. So whilst Professor Exner and I, and pretty much every other geologist on the planet could agree about what a conglomerate looks like, most social phenomena are likely to be subject to at least a dozen different interpretations and therefore definitions. Knowledge within the social world is often based on theories about theories, whereas knowledge within the natural sciences is more readily based on observations of phenomena that have been defined and are now ‘relatively’ uncontested.

Ok so world views are big, theoretical and contested, what about ideology?

Well apparently  the term was first used by the Enlightenment thinker Destutt de Tracy who used it to describe the “Science of Ideas”. Now we take it for granted that “Science “ is the best way of trying to make sense of the world but in the late eighteenth century, thought and philosophy was dominated by faith and the new ideas of the Enlightenment were seen as the vehicle of rationality and progress and “ideology” was to be the science of those ideas. However, as we all know the meaning of words shifts, as much as most things in the social sciences and the meaning of the term “Ideology” has probably done so as much as any other. I won’t go into all of its different -meanings  nor the will I bother with the argument of some that the concept has become irrelevant. But my preferred use of the term ideology was that used by James Donald and Stuart Hall who stated:

Ideology is used to indicate the frameworks of thought which are used in society to explain, figure out, make sense of or give meaning to the social and political world.  

Kind of like a world view.

So if you use the interpretation offered by Donald and Hall then my statement “all world views are ideological” would seem perfectly reasonable.

However, there are a great many people who use the term differently and I accept that its current dominant use is more pejorative and its application to a framework of thought or world view implies that the world view is in some way false or at best misguided. Ideological world views are therefore driven by political bias and false consciousness rather than objectivity. If applied in this way, and if correct my statement “all world views are ideological” would have to mean that all world views are in some way false and that no world view can claim or even aspire to the truth. Which would probably be why Ann Pettifor implied that I was being cynical.

Alternatively it could be that I am wrong and that some world views are ideological and others are not – which I believe reflects the principal position that Ann Pettifor adopted during our Twitter discussion. But if some world views aren’t ideological then it must follow that they are true.

Maybe but probably not – The difficulty is the complexity of the social world and the problem that the social sciences have in developing scientific or “true” interpretations of the world. This doesn’t mean that social phenomena aren’t ultimately subject to the same laws of science as every other phenomena within the universe. As far as I am aware nobody has ever yet seen any evidence that would indicate otherwise. It is rather a reflection of the epistemological status of our sciences. We are not only trying to study the most complex system’s known to us – we are also studying them from the inside and every time we act on them, observe them or even think about them we change them.

At our best, we might at certain times be able to develop models of aspects of the world. Models and theories that at a given moment in time offer an accurate representation of the conditions that brought about a specific event or phenomena and that we can test and re-test through modelling, experiment and empirical observation. However that does not mean that the occurrence of similar conditions will necessarily bring about the same effect. For the simple reason that similar doesn’t mean the same and if it is sometimes unwise to presume that conditions have remained the same across a rock formation it is profoundly unwise to do so across a view of the world.

So even using a pejorative definition of the term ideology, in my opinion the statement “all world views are ideological” remains valid because the complexity of the social, political and economic world prevents us from developing views of the world that are at this moment in time sufficiently uncontested and sufficiently scientifically robust for us to be able to describe them as “true”. Does this mean that we shouldn’t try? No it doesn’t – it just means that the first tool of a social scientist isn’t certainty, theory, nor even observation, it’s the question.

As for Katharina – well she dumped me and married a bank manager.


2 thoughts on “The Three Professors: Science and the Ideology of World Views

  1. The key thing about an ideology, AIUI, is that it’s based on a single “idea” that becomes the main rationale for subsequent actions. And often comes with a program of actions that can only be rationalised by reference to the single idea. For example the UK Chancellor, George Osborne, is following a course of action that is based on his rigid adherence to the singular idea that the national finances are like a household budget. It’s not a logical course, but based on a fixation. No amount of argument or evidence can cause him to change his mind.

    A worldview more generally need not be based on a single idea, it can be more nuanced and allow for contradiction. All ideologies are worldviews, but not all worldviews are ideologies.

    So your geologist was not following an ideology. He was sure of himself because of long experience. Your conglomerate conflicted with his worldview, but he could consider the possibility when presented with evidence beyond the testimony of an undergrad (see David Hume on the value of testimony in his essay “Of Miracles”). Had the geologist’s view been ideological in nature, he would not have been likely to admit to a conglomerate, even when presented with one. He would have found a way to argue that the conglomerate was not salient, even if he had admitted that your testimony was accurate.

    There’s a long argument I’ve made elsewhere about the difference between the accuracy of a proposition and it’s salience for decision making. The two are very different. One processed by intellect, the other by emotion. Salience is *felt* and can easily over-ride accuracy as a criteria for accepting a proposition. People with an ideology experience strong emotions in relation to the idea that underpins their views and rationalise decisions and actions after the fact with reference to their single idea. These feelings drown out the salience of counter-factual propositions or other views. It’s why religious fundamentalists don’t get evolution – they feel so strongly about their religious view that it makes other arguments seem irrelevant. This argument is based on theories by various scholars including Antonio Damasio, George Lakoff, Dan Sperber, and Hugo Mercier.

    I think you make a serious mistake in referencing “truth” in relation to science. A scientific theory can be more or less accurate and precise, in the sense that it gives measurable predictions. But it can never be true. Truth is an absolute, strictly for philosophers only. Scientists deal in the measurable. Every measurement has accuracy, precision and error. If I predict the answer will be 2 and measure 20 that’s inaccurate. If I predict 1.9999 and measure 2.0 that’s imprecise. If I predict 2 and measure 2 +/- 0.5 that’s the margin of error. “Truth” doesn’t apply under these conditions. A scientist ought never to describe any theory as “true”. So your last statement about the validity of your view is flawed. It’s basically Positivism, which is a discredited ideology based on the idea of “verifiability”.


    • Hi thanks for the comments – it probably won’t surprise you if I tell you that I disagree with most of them. Whilst I agree with you about Osborne, I don’t agree that ideologies are based on a single idea. They are often very complex sets of ideas – Colin Mercer’s work on Italian Fascism illustrates this very well and there are loads of other examples.
      I didn’t say that Professor Exner was being ideological I used the example to illustrate the importance of always and repeatedly relating knowledge to empirical observation.
      Your thoughts on Salience and the role of emotion sound very interesting – I’ll check those out.
      I also agree that referencing “truth” in relation to science can be problematic but I don’t agree that it is strictly for philosophers – the philosophy of science should be an integral part of all science . All knowledge has some relationship with the “truth” otherwise we wouldn’t be able to predict anything or make anything work and its the role of science to develop methods and theories that allow us to develop some sense of what that “truth” is or might have been at a certain moment in time. None of which makes me a Positivist.
      And as for your point that ” All ideologies are worldviews, but not all worldviews are ideologies” I suspect you might be wrong about that …but who knows?


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