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How to counter "everything is a construct" worldview?

  1. Feb 15, 2015 #1
    Many of the people in humanities I encounter seem very wedded to mindset I refer to as "construct = everything". For example, they say bazar things such as gender is 100% a construct. They say this as if sexual selection doesn't exist (to be fair, they honestly don't seem to know it exists).

    In many ways, I feel as if it's a lost cause. If someone wants to treat objective questions as subjective ones, then we likely disagree on the premises of how to negotiate the world.
    I've been involved in experiments where I went in with a strong bias about the outcome, and been forced to accept I was wrong when the numbers just didn't work out the way I wanted. I feel as if many of people I describe here have had no such life experience.

    At any rate, I'd be interested hear if anyone has had any luck injecting science into the "everything is a construct", "if it's offensive it must be false" mindset.
     
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  3. Feb 15, 2015 #2

    mfb

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    Every concept is made up by humans - I would not try to argue against that, it don't think that helps. The important point: some concepts we made up are useful to describe the universe. Sex and gender belong to those.
    "It is a construct, but it is useful."
    It can be unpleasant to learn how wrong you are (and we are all wrong about many things), and it is often possible to avoid that - in the worst case you have to construct your own phantasy world and extend it a tiny bit more each time conflicting evidence comes up.
     
  4. Feb 15, 2015 #3

    jfizzix

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    I think we would need some clarification here. Isn't it true that everything in science is actually a construct (by my understanding of the word)?

    Ultimately we come up with models and theories which either do or don't agree with experimental data.

    These models and theories use concepts like "mass" "energy", and "temperature" because they can be used to better explain and understand what we see.
    In that sense, all of science is "best guess" even if it agrees to like eighteen decimal places sometimes sometimes. it is at least reasonable to assume the data agrees with the theory to the same extent as the theory agrees with the data.

    Physics (and the physical sciences) have the luxury of studying (in a sense) very simple systems (i.e., described by a relatively low number of degrees of freedom).

    The humanities are studying very complex systems; ones where we simply cannot account for all possible causes leading to a given effect, and all possible effects from a given cause. It's not much harder than in the physical sciences to come up with theories explaining human behavior, but disproving them with experimental data is a lot harder because there is often some sort of loophole, or possible factor not accounted for.

    If I were to argue about the results of some study to someone who doesn't like what they see, I would use the integrity of the study as a talking point. If they can't see what was done incorrectly in the study, then maybe they can be convinced.
     
  5. Feb 15, 2015 #4
    I don't think I've run into this and I'm not sure what you're talking about. Can you elaborate?
     
  6. Feb 16, 2015 #5

    Ryan_m_b

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    I gather the OP is referring to social constructionism, a popular theory in the social sciences that treats social phenomena (like gender) as the result of group interaction over time rather than a physical/objective truths.

    @HizzleT with regards to gender I believe part of your objection/confusion is that you are confusing it with sex. Sex is broadly an objective thing (though our definitions for sex vs intersex can be somewhat arbitrary) whereas gender is the social expectations of personality, characteristics and behaviours applied to people of a specific sex.
     
  7. Feb 17, 2015 #6
    @zoobyshoe , @Ryan_m_b got it.

    Yes. I am aware of the difference between sex and gender. I understand and, to the extent I can, appreciate that difference.
    I am not particularly vested in this particular example -- it was simply one example of social constructionism that came to mind.
    However, to take the gender-sex example, sex is objective because it's relatively fixed.
    Gender appears to be more like a spectrum, due to the seemlingly obvious fact it is both constructed as well as a product of biological realities (fixed).
    These biological realities likely inform what is constructed.
    E.g., http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0163-6383(00)00032-1 [Broken].*

    Yet, when you say this, it somehow always gets converted to something along the lines of "I believe women can't do math and should just stay home".
    This is always baffling to me: I intended and believe nothing of sort (in fact, I think that view is vile). It's not even clear to me how that interpretation is arrived at.
    Yet, this is often what I meet when I encounter purported social constructionists (which, granted, is pretty rare and may not be represenative).

    What I seem to be encountering is the view that if something unpleasant, it's OK because it has simply been constructed, suggesting
    it can simply be changed with the right slogan. This may be true for many things about humans, but everything? I find this notion to be, literally, unbelievable. A meaningful portion of our cognitive architecture appears to be fixed -- and some of the parts of it that are fixed can likely be predicted on this basis of sex, which informs gender. For example, sexual choosiness in women due to higher reproductive risk and burden.

    I suppose this can be taken as a comment, unless you have a critique of my view you'd like to offer. I don't doubt it has some holes.

    *Last note: the paper I cite above is far from perfect and don't wish to hang my hat on it, so to speak.
    It has been critiqued nicely here.

    Cheers.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  8. Feb 17, 2015 #7

    Pythagorean

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    Not even sex is as crisp and clear in biogy. Ignoring functional hermaphrodites and sexual function swapping in lots of different species, we can just focus on humans.

    Gender has four types: social, functional, gonadal, and genetic. Above, people have chosen to call either genetic or gonadal (or both?) gender "sex" (Which is fine, its accepted semantics, but here I'd like to clearly separate the two types of sex).

    Humans aren't always just male or female. For instance, they can be genetically male and gonadally female, or they can be gonadally both male and female. So you have to ask yourself about differences in the brain and if a gonadal female that's genetically male might have a more masculine brain. Or if masculinity in the brain is more of a response to social pressures (that happened to fit men historically in the past but don't anymore).

    Further, you have to be careful about drawing conclusions about individuals based on statistical claims? 20% more women do thing A. So what? That could mean 40% males and 60% females. That means you could easily be a male that does thing A, talking to a female thay doesn't and be informing her of what she's capable of.
     
  9. Feb 17, 2015 #8
    OK. I looked up "social constructionism" and found it extends even to science. That made me remember I have run into it before. At some point in the past year I read a science fiction book in which one of the characters maintained mainstream science was a 'mere' construct. He threw out two big names of purveyors of this idea, which I googled at the time.Unfortunately, I can't remember the book or the names. I classified this in my mind as "fringe" and this thread is the first time it's come up again.
    If I recall correctly from what I googled, there are two Frenchmen who are most responsible for disseminating the notion that science is a construct. One of them wrote a controversial book detailing his visit to a lab to watch the scientific process in action. Instead, he claimed, all he found were lab workers making sure all results came out the way it had been previously decided they should come out. The scary thing was they didn't seem to realize what they were doing was not the scientific method, and considered their procedures to be normal science. In other words, they seemed to embody the crackpot misunderstanding that the Laws of Physics (or science in general) are decided by people and enforced in nature.

    I didn't know what to make of that. It sounds unbelievable, but then Feynman tells the story of people faking the results of their replication of the Millikan experiment for quite a while. They weren't getting the same results as he did, so assumed theirs were wrong, and fudged their data to more closely agree with Milikan. It turns out Millikan had been off to begin with.

    Anyway, stuff like that would be wonderful fodder for someone wanting to undermine science by asserting it was all a construct.

    I haven't actually encountered anyone from this camp and so, am not sure what my reaction would be. It would depend on their specific tack, of course. In any event, the wiki article on "construct (philosophy)" makes it clear that a construct is not a socially negotiated fiction, it is simply not a physical object you can point to.

    The obvious trouble, if you read that article, comes with the possibility of misunderstanding the fact that a construct requires a human mind to exist. It certainly takes a human mind to perceive that objects act as if all their mass were centered at one point, but that behavior is in the mass, not the human mind. The construct, "center of mass," is arrived at by observation. Observation requires an observer (a human). Regardless, you could remove all human minds from the universe and objects would still behave in the way that lead to the emergence of the construct in the human mind.

    Of course, socially negotiated fictions do exist. Consider the Amish "shunning" someone. They all agree to treat the person as if they simply no longer exist. Under the Nazis it was a "scientific fact" that Jews were racially inferior to "aryans." The latter proving that science can be infected by socially negotiated fictions masquerading as constructs. It sounds from your post like "everything is just a construct," is one of those socially negotiated fictions gaining currency in the service of who-knows-what social agenda.
     
  10. Feb 17, 2015 #9

    mfb

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    @zoobyshoe: Does that mean ' "everything is just a construct" is just a construct'? ;)
     
  11. Feb 17, 2015 #10
    Well, what I meant to say was, "All generalizations are false, including this one."
     
  12. Feb 18, 2015 #11
    At the risk of sounding impolite, I don't believe I did this?
    I believe I go so far as to offer a quite thorough critique of the paper I reference.
     
  13. Feb 18, 2015 #12

    Pythagorean

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    I don't know if you did it or not in the discussion you had off the forum that sparked this thread, but it was a caveat worth mentioning.
     
  14. Feb 19, 2015 #13

    Ryan_m_b

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  15. Feb 19, 2015 #14
    Yes, but, there's a difference between saying a thing is a construct, and saying a given construct is so oversimplified it's useless in some cases. Identifying a thing as a construct doesn't say anything about how good or bad a construct it is. The badness, or maybe mere incompleteness, of the construct, "sex," in light of that piece, is the issue, as I see it, not the fact it is a construct.
     
  16. Feb 19, 2015 #15

    Ryan_m_b

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    In this case pointing out that it is a construct is very useful as it's not something most people would consider, rather they would think that it is a firm physical phenomenon.
     
  17. Feb 19, 2015 #16
    OK, but where do you take it from there?

    Some people, according to the OP seem to be arriving at the conclusion that, everything being a construct, changing your idea about it will change the thing.
     
  18. Feb 19, 2015 #17

    Ryan_m_b

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    My only response to that is I don't think there are people like that, or if there are they aren't serious researches. I think the OP's perception is a misunderstanding of the field more than anything. I know a few sociologists quite well who think very highly of constructivism, they aren't the type of people the OP seems to think. They use it to challenge preconceived ideas.
     
  19. Feb 19, 2015 #18

    Pythagorean

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    The phenomena of sex itself isn't a construct (unless you get over-meta about it) but we construct the divisions between what's male and female, both in the lab (genetics and morphology) and on the street (gender). Much like different cultures place the dividing wavelength between orange and yellow in different place. In some ways, it changes the thing (if the thing is one of these categories) since the thing is only defined based on human-devised criteria. Classification systems often undergo change as deeper research reveals more complicated relationships between classes and removes relationships that were only apparent.
     
  20. Feb 19, 2015 #19
    It seems to me that this was happening before the advent of Social Constructivism. The concept of gender divisions was getting torn apart by feminists way back when I was in college, and Newtonian Physics was reclassified way back before I was born. I question the benefit of constructing a new construction for the kind of reconstruction that's always been happening.

    I'm glad you explained it in terms of color in a way that distinguishes what is firm physical phenomenon from what is an arbitrary human assignment of division.

    I see a problem from what is in the wiki article. The thing we mean to illuminate by creating the idea of Center of Mass is going to be there even if we didn't create that concept. And Center of Mass can be rigorously defined. However, there are other things mentioned as constructs that are actually quite slippery: intelligence, gender, race. Some arbitrary division between yellow and orange isn't going to be there, unless we put it there, but objects hung at various point on a moment arm are going to act on it as if their mass is located all at one point whether we observe that or not. So there's a fundamental difference between things getting put in the same set, that kind of buggers the point of making such a set.

    Do we need Social Constructivism? We already knew we make arbitrary distinctions sometimes, and we already knew ascribing fixed behaviors to a race or gender was not accurate.
     
  21. Feb 19, 2015 #20
    Here's a quote from a lengthy article called "Science as a Social Construct" I found online, which paints a picture of Social Constructionism as anti-science:

    https://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~l38613dw/website_spring_03/readings/ScienceSocialConstruct.html
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
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