Richard F. Hamilton, The Social Misconstruction of Reality: Validity and Verification in the Scholarly Community — January 25, 2014

Richard F. Hamilton, The Social Misconstruction of Reality: Validity and Verification in the Scholarly Community

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The basic question in here is how it happens that false ideas continue to be believed for many years after they’ve been comprehensively refuted. This is a terrifically interesting question, of course. Hamilton goes about answering it with a few scholarly examples:

1. The Weber thesis that the capitalist spirit is inseparable from Calvinism.
2. The idea that the Nazi party’s support in 1930s Germany came from the lower middle class.
3. Michel Foucault’s thesis in [book: Discipline and Punish], that the Western world had replaced punishment of the body (torture, drawing and quartering) with comprehensive control of the mind. Foucault claimed that the design of this mind control originated with Jeremy Bentham’s vision of a prison from which prisoners could be watched at all times.

Hamilton’s interest is mainly in the reasons why false ideas persist, but the book is rather overloaded with detail from each specific example. It turns out, for instance, that Weber’s work contains a basic numerical error (the sum of the entries in a particular table row not equaling 100%, as it should have) that propagated through multiple editions and was quoted in multiple other works. It also contains a lot of hasty generalization, such as assuming that Benjamin Franklin speaks for all Puritans and their descendants. It’s kind of a silly book, so why do people continue to cite its conclusions?

Oddly enough, Hamilton only addresses this question at the beginning and end of the work; the middle is a very deep dive on the data from each case, demonstrating that Weber was wrong (or at least that his argument remains unproven), and that Hitler’s support only appears to have come from the lower middle class if you ignore the effect of religion (Catholics voted against Hitler, Protestants for).

These middle bits are interesting, but, if I’m envisioning most readers correctly, you came to this work for the conclusions about why false ideas persist generally. You’re looking for a “theory of idea contamination,” perhaps. And the deep dive on the data doesn’t necessarily help with this broader theorizing. Bad ideas persist because, for instance, their inventor is too prestigious to contradict. Even physics has suffered this problem, as Richard Feynman explained:

> We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.
>
> Why didn’t they discover the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of–this history–because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong–and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number close to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.
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> But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves–of having utter scientific integrity–is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

The middle parts of Hamilton’s book *are* valuable if you might have believed that ideas like Weber’s or Foucault’s were not subject to quantitative scrutiny. Hamilton does a fine job showing that Bentham’s prison idea never went anywhere — certainly not far enough to have become the basis for anyone’s design of a society — and more to the point that Foucault rejects ordinary standards of argument. Hamilton shows that, Foucault’s desires aside, there’s no reason to reject the usual standards of logic and evidence. It’s a model of how critique should work.

For most readers, I would suggest skipping the Weber bit (unless you’ve come to his book convinced that the Protestant ethic was somehow vital to capitalism), reading the Foucault bit for its effortless dissection of [book: Discipline and Punish], and spending lots of time on the first and last sections; those are the analytical sections that help us understand why bad ideas persist, and how institutions can be shaped to prevent their spread.