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13.1.06

The Truthiness Of Cultural Theory

I was reminded of Stephen Colbert's recent coinage of "truthiness" when I read John Adams's attempt to defend Cultural Theory from those who point out that it has fared poorly in empirical tests. "Truthiness" is the quality posessed by an idea that feels so right, that accords so well with who we want to be, that quibbling little things like facts don't matter. Adams says:

Cultural theory might best be viewed in the uncertain world we inhabit as the anthropologists' myth of myths. The validity of such a super-myth is not to be judged by the statistician's correlation coefficients and t-tests, but by the degree to which it accords with people's experience. And its utility can be judged only by the extent to which people find it helpful in their attempt to navigate the sea of uncertainty.


Cultural Theory is, in a way, a theory of truthiness. It argues that when the uncertainty is high and the stakes are large -- the types of problems that Funtowicz and Ravetz call "post-normal" -- the gap in science's ability to provide truth is filled by culture's ability to provide truthiness. CT goes on to propose an explanation for why different people are drawn to different types of truthiness, why certain ideas are truthy to some people but not others.

Of course, just because CT is a theory of truthiness doesn't mean that truthiness is the appropriate standard for judging CT's validity. But a certain understanding of CT can give us a more charitable understanding of why CT should be examined for its truthiness.

(Adams himself seems ambivalent about whether he understands CT in the more sophisticated way I'm about to describe. He certainly advocates it in his more theoretical chapters, such as the one the above quote came from. Nevertheless, in his empirical work on seat belt laws, he slips into a sort of "vulgar CT." In vulgar CT, the CT typology of ways of life is drawn on to show why one's opponents are so blinded by their ideologies that they are unable to recognize the plain objective facts that you, having cast off the shackles of bias, are able to present.)

A more sophisticated understanding of CT recognizes that culture is not simply a distortion of reality, an unfortunate set of misconceptions that should be cleared away by good objective science. It argues that there are many arenas of thought that are inherently the domain of truthiness, arenas that are necessarily value-laden and hence not amenable to a final objective scientific answer. Adams's argument, then, can be taken as a claim that CT itself lies in this post-normal realm. (It's unclear which of the four ways of life should be expected to find CT truthy -- certainly not hierarchy, since hierarchy is committed to the view that objective science can and should find the answer to everything. I suspect that CT's appeal is greatest to fatalists, since it easily feeds their view that agreement and cooperation between people of different views is a pipe dream.)

The big question, then, is whether CT really does lie in the post-normal realm. I suspect it does not, particularly when talking about the proposed typology of worldviews (which is the element of CT that has been subjected to the most empirical scrutiny). The choice of adopting one typology of worldviews over another is not particularly high-stakes so far as I can tell (outside of the small group of researchers who have built their careers on it). And it does not seem like a question that uncertainty need remain high on, since widely used psychological research methods should be quite applicable to discerning the validity of any proposed way of grouping worldviews. Of course, I may be misled by the understandable truthiness of this perspective to someone who, like myself, has staked the next few years of their career on doing an empirical test of CT.

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