There is more than one way to skin a cat, and the same goes for writing a scientific paper. No single format can claim to encapsulate all the relevant science, nor should it. Yet, presenting original research in a form that is both accessible to the general public while also adhering to the highest standards of scientific rigor can be quite challenging. As a result, many researchers find themselves drowning in a sea of mediocre writing, while a select few rise to the challenge and produce a work that is both informative and elegant.
Inevitably, everyone has views on how things should be, and there are many cases where passionate advocates have taken it upon themselves to push for changes to existing conventions. While these changes have often been for the better, sometimes they’ve not quite gone according to plan. In an effort to provide some clarity on this matter, this blog post will explore several alternative theories and their proponents, highlighting both their strengths and weaknesses.
The Survival of the Fittest
One of the more prominent theories that arose out of the ‘90s alt-right movement posits that scientific evidence only serves to support existing privilege and power. In other words, those who have money, influence, and power are more often than not the ones who get to define what is ‘good science’ and what is not.
The theory goes something like this: because natural selection works in favor of those who are better at adapting to their surroundings, those who are naturally more intelligent, resourceful, and competitive will more often than not survive and succeed in today’s world. As a result, those who advocate for weaker government regulations, lower taxes, and less governmental oversight believe that scientific evidence should be valued primarily for its ability to confirm what they already think. Moreover, this group tends to espouse the ‘greater good’ theory, arguing that the propagation of ideas that threaten their own existence is justified in order to preserve freedom and protect the constitution.
While this theory has merit (and many would argue that it has played a large role in reshaping the modern day landscape), it is still deeply flawed. First off, as pointed out by philosopher and biologist Richard Dawkins, natural selection does not – and cannot – create new species. Indeed, it is the very process that made the earth unique among the billions of planets in the universe is also the very process that made it vulnerable to extinction. Moreover, when it comes to human beings, natural selection works against those who are naturally more agreeable, peaceful, and humble. In other words, it doesn’t do a particularly good job at creating leaders or shaping society as a whole.
So, while this group may thrive on challenging the status quo, they are still an important part of the problem.
An old theory that underwent something of a revival in the ‘90s and continues to be championed by identity extremists, dilution theorists believe that the only way to prevent people of certain races and ethnicities from gaining a disproportionate amount of influence in society is to keep introducing them to different values, ideas, and ways of doing things. In other words, if we are to achieve a more just and equitable society, those who are already marginalized must be allowed a voice in the public sphere, lest they be drowned out by the white noise of mainstream culture. As a result, this group tends to support increased political and social participation, along with a more diverse range of media representation. In fact, it is often referred to as ‘critical whitening,’ and it has largely been championed by people of color, particularly Black Lives Matter activists, who see increased political and social engagement as a way to improve their own lived experience.
The logic behind dilution theory is quite straightforward: because the voices of those who are already privileged are repeated over and over again in mainstream culture, the effect is essentially the same as that of a continuous stream of white noise. As a result, those who are already heard will continue to be heard, while those who are not yet understood will remain muddled in the din. To put it another way, if you’re already drowning in white noise, it’s nearly impossible to hear anything else. This is why those who advance dilution theory tend to favor more media representation for those who are traditionally excluded from the public sphere. Indeed, many activists within the black community see media coverage as a way to shed light on issues that are of interest to them but are often overlooked or ignored by mainstream media. To borrow a phrase, “If it’s important to you, it’s important to us.”
Another school of thought that was largely sidelined during the Enlightenment and subsequently revived in the ‘90s is known as ‘economic competition.’ This school of thought posits that the only way to achieve a just and equitable society is through an increased economic and cultural exchange. In other words, those who are already better off should help those who are less fortunate. Moreover, competition is often used as a way of motivating those who are worse off to improve their lot in life. In short, those who advance this theory tend to favor a more open border policy and a more welcoming attitude towards immigrants.
The theory behind economic competition has some interesting ramifications. Not only does it call into question the very nature of capitalism, but it also suggests that trade and the interaction of different economic systems is a potentially positive development. As a result, those who advance this theory tend to favor institutional structures and policies that encourage trade and capital mobility. Ultimately, they hope that this will create more opportunity and a better quality of life for everyone.
Social and Biographical Factors
In addition to the theories discussed thus far, there are several other schools of thought that have risen and fallen in popularity since the beginning of this century. Some of these theories posit that the only way to achieve social equity is through a fundamental restructuring of society itself. While others believe that the only way forward is through a combination of social and economic change. Still others believe that it is a combination of both. Regardless, proponents of these theories tend to favor decentralization and self-governance, as well as the abolition of government institutions that function in favor of the already privileged.
The theory behind these factors has largely to do with social and historical context. For instance, those who believe that society must be completely restructured tend to do so in light of the horrific inequalities that emerged out of World War II. As a result, they tend to favor a more concentrated and central government, as well as a renewed emphasis on national security. In some cases, these theorists can also be found among the ranks of the alt-right movement, though that affiliation is often tenuous.
One of the most interesting aspects of this entire discussion is how much it mirrors the discussion that takes place in the literature of evolutionary psychology. To quote from a recent article in the Atlantic, “The study of evolutionary psychology has been hijacked by racists and sexists.” Indeed, like much of psychology and neuroscience, EVP has encountered its fair share of problems, particularly when it comes to reproducing the results of its studies. Moreover, like biological theories of race, social theories of race have had to contend with the problem of social constructionism, where theorists question the very idea that there is such a thing as biological differences between groups of people. As a result of these criticisms, many in the field now see biological theories of race as largely outdated, and they advocate for a complete overhaul of the social sciences.
There is also a parallel between the alt-right and social constructionists when it comes to the role that anecdotal evidence plays in their respective persuasions. While the alt-right often points to individual anecdotes as proof that their theories are correct, social constructionists argue that, just like the Encyclopaedists and Marxists before them, they are presenting a biased view of the world that is clouded by class and cultural bias. As a result, they see the need to present multiple sides of a given case or argument, rather than merely cherry-picking the data that supports their viewpoint.
To return to the discussion at hand, it should come as no great surprise that several theories have risen to prominence among marginalized groups, given that all of these theories share an antagonism towards the status quo. Regardless, it is important to remember that while change is certainly desirable, it is not, ultimately, feasible. Indeed, much like the climate change denial movement, these theorists must contend with the reality that their ideas are often unpopular among those who already enjoy privilege and power. As a result, change will likely come piecemeal, with those who are already advantaged seeking to protect their position.