Cultures and Knowledge Workshop Series: "Fact Culture: Polling and the Politics of Objectivity"

November 17th, 2021

On November 29, the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge will present "Fact Culture: Polling and the Politics of Objectivity" as part of the Cultures & Knowledge Workshop Series. This workshop will be presented by Tal Arbel.


About the presenter: Tal Arbel is a cultural historian of science. Her primary research interests include the history of the behavioral and mind sciences, the sociology of expertise, and the social technologies that sustain the liberal democratic state. Her manuscript in progress, Fact Culture: Polling and the Politics of Objectivity, examines the global circulation of opinion surveys and market research methods in the aftermath of World War II and the influence this scientific practice had on what knowledge claims are considered trustworthy in the public domain. She holds an MA in History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas from Tel Aviv University and a PhD in History of Science from Harvard University. 

Below is a list of further reading on the topic of the workshop, compiled by Dr. Arbel:

A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England
Steven Shapin

How do we come to trust our knowledge of the world? What are the means by which we distinguish true from false accounts? Why do we credit one observational statement over another? In A Social History of Truth, Shapin engages these universal questions through an elegant recreation of a crucial period in the history of early modern science: the social world of gentlemen-philosophers in seventeenth-century England. Steven Shapin paints a vivid picture of the relations between gentlemanly culture and scientific practice. He argues that problems of credibility in science were practically solved through the codes and conventions of genteel conduct: trust, civility, honor, and integrity. These codes formed, and arguably still form, an important basis for securing reliable knowledge about the natural world.

Trust in Numbers - The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life
Theodore M. Porter

This investigation of the overwhelming appeal of quantification in the modern world discusses the development of cultural meanings of objectivity over two centuries. How are we to account for the current prestige and power of quantitative methods? The usual answer is that quantification is seen as desirable in social and economic investigation as a result of its successes in the study of nature. Theodore Porter is not content with this. Why should the kind of success achieved in the study of stars, molecules, or cells be an attractive model for research on human societies? he asks. And, indeed, how should we understand the pervasiveness of quantification in the sciences of nature? In his view, we should look in the reverse direction: comprehending the attractions of quantification in business, government, and social research will teach us something new about its role in psychology, physics, and medicine. Drawing on a wide range of examples from the laboratory and from the worlds of accounting, insurance, cost-benefit analysis, and civil engineering, Porter shows that it is "exactly wrong" to interpret the drive for quantitative rigor as inherent somehow in the activity of science except where political and social pressures force compromise. Instead, quantification grows from attempts to develop a strategy of impersonality in response to pressures from outside. Objectivity derives its impetus from cultural contexts, quantification becoming most important where elites are weak, where private negotiation is suspect, and where trust is in short supply.

The Averaged American:Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public 
Sarah E Igo

Americans today "know" that a majority of the population supports the death penalty, that half of all marriages end in divorce, and that four out of five prefer a particular brand of toothpaste. Through statistics like these, we feel that we understand our fellow citizens. But remarkably, such data--now woven into our social fabric--became common currency only in the last century. Sarah Igo tells the story, for the first time, of how opinion polls, man-in-the-street interviews, sex surveys, community studies, and consumer research transformed the United States public. Igo argues that modern surveys, from the Middletown studies to the Gallup Poll and the Kinsey Reports, projected new visions of the nation: authoritative accounts of majorities and minorities, the mainstream and the marginal. They also infiltrated the lives of those who opened their doors to pollsters, or measured their habits and beliefs against statistics culled from strangers. Survey data underwrote categories as abstract as "the average American" and as intimate as the sexual self. With a bold and sophisticated analysis, Igo demonstrates the power of scientific surveys to shape Americans' sense of themselves as individuals, members of communities, and citizens of a nation. Tracing how ordinary people argued about and adapted to a public awash in aggregate data, she reveals how survey techniques and findings became the vocabulary of mass society--and essential to understanding who we, as modern Americans, think we are.

The Open Mind
Jamie Cohen-Cole

The Open Mind chronicles the development and promulgation of a scientific vision of the rational, creative, and autonomous self, demonstrating how this self became a defining feature of Cold War culture. Jamie Cohen-Cole illustrates how from 1945 to 1965 policy makers and social critics used the idea of an open-minded human nature to advance centrist politics. They reshaped intellectual culture and instigated nationwide educational reform that promoted more open, and indeed more human, minds. The new field of cognitive science was central to this project, as it used popular support for open-mindedness to overthrow the then-dominant behaviorist view that the mind either could not be studied scientifically or did not exist. Cognitive science also underwrote the political implications of the open mind by treating it as the essential feature of human nature. While the open mind unified America in the first two decades after World War II, between 1965 and 1975 battles over the open mind fractured American culture as the ties between political centrism and the scientific account of human nature began to unravel. During the late 1960s, feminists and the New Left repurposed Cold War era psychological tools to redefine open-mindedness as a characteristic of left-wing politics. As a result, once-liberal intellectuals became neoconservative, and in the early 1970s, struggles against open-mindedness gave energy and purpose to the right wing.

Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950
Marwa Elshakry

In Reading Darwin in Arabic, Marwa Elshakry questions current ideas about Islam, science, and secularism by exploring the ways in which Darwin was read in Arabic from the late 1860s to the mid-twentieth century. Borrowing from translation and reading studies and weaving together the history of science with intellectual history, she explores Darwin's global appeal from the perspective of several generations of Arabic readers and shows how Darwin's writings helped alter the social and epistemological landscape of the Arab learned classes. Providing a close textual, political, and institutional analysis of the tremendous interest in Darwin's ideas and other works on evolution, Elshakry shows how, in an age of massive regional and international political upheaval, these readings were suffused with the anxieties of empire and civilizational decline. The politics of evolution infiltrated Arabic discussions of pedagogy, progress, and the very sense of history. They also led to a literary and conceptual transformation of notions of science and religion themselves. Darwin thus became a vehicle for discussing scriptural exegesis, the conditions of belief, and cosmological views more broadly. The book also acquaints readers with Muslim and Christian intellectuals, bureaucrats, and theologians, and concludes by exploring Darwin's waning influence on public and intellectual life in the Arab world after World War I. Reading Darwin in Arabic is an engaging and powerfully argued reconceptualization of the intellectual and political history of the Middle East.


Posted in: