What is M*****s?

We sometimes think ourselves clever referring to the term “military intelligence” as an oxymoron, a designation we think applicable when, from a more profound perspective, a common appellation can be seen as self-contradictory.

But what about the term “social science”? Or its first cousin, psychological science?

Are not these equally oxymorons, and ones we might regularly if not always use without any awareness, much less humor, of their being such? Social/psychological science clearly has some clear distinctions from what we normally think of as medical science. Clearly, we would rarely if ever think of a broken bone as something derived from genetic predisposition. (A predisposition to clumsiness perhaps, but that's an entirely different matter.)

Counter-intuitively, we agree that a fact is scientific only after we have reached a socially derived consensus that, within a certain context, it's iconic. Such is rarely the problem when it comes to a broken bone. Occasionally we might argue over how it may have occurred, but hardly ever about what it is.

To take a somewhat pointed analogy here, when we use the word “five” as an adjective, insofar as it's referencing something purely numerical, we never look for any further explanation of it. When, however, we use it as a noun, our first response is to ask the follow-up question, “five what?”

Because there is a clearly understood social consensus as to its meaning in the first place, we have no further need for any scientific proof regarding it in any subsequent sense. That is, when we express ”five” as an adjective or number, we consider the reference scientific to the extent it derives from a clear social consensus.

It's easy, however, to get confused, even about something so apparently simple. Do we know what a fifth of gin is because of its standing as a thing in itself, or because of a socially derived consensus about what it is, or both? And what if the Fifth is Beethoven's?

We generally think our clarity of scientific understanding is based on incontrovertible fact, but we usually fail to realize that our certainty here is based on a socially derived consensus of how we perceive such phenomena.

We can extend this sort of comparison far beyond numbers and the way in which they are used. Another hint as to how all this continuously operates on an everyday level comes from comparing ones normal response to a character named The Joker in a Batman film, to that to the expression “that guy is really funny.” A lot more uncertainty, ambiguity, and thus uneasiness, attach to the former than the latter to the extent that, in the end, we just don't know exactly why, at any given moment, “The Joker” is smiling, and on the other hand to the extent that it's a fait accompli we all can agree “that guy was funny, or maybe just big and green.” (Cf. “Five” in the Dark Horse Comic's The Umbrella Academy, “The Hulk” in the Marvel Universe.)

Related. One likely reason why this kind of analysis can prove so difficult is our reliance on the word “consensus.” Specifically, because the prefix "con" can itself, depending on context, mean either for or against, with or without. This makes sense once you realize that the subliminal sound affect/effect of the sign “con" (k/c-ah-n) can be translated to mean “what was once open is closed,” (that is, you can't say “ah" at the dentist's office without opening your mouth and you can't say the letter “n” without closing it ). Thus, the prefix, depending on context, can be used to mean, cognitively, “to bind with” (conscience, contemplate, conduit), “to separate from” (contradict, contrary), and, arguably, sometimes even both (conduct, convict, context). From this we also get the perfect double entendre in the idea of a con job.

Another consideration. The extent to which the social context of language usage and development is commodified, that is, confined strictly within that province of money ultimately connected to survival and therefore the inarguable absolute finality of physical, earthly life and death, the meaning of all our communications becomes “scientized.”

If we wanted to put all this into a political context, we might say that when words have too many meanings, we get anarchy, and to the extent that every word has only a single meaning, we get totalitarianism. (From this angle, we might decide that intrusive ads on the internet, despite our annoyance with them, might derive from capitalism but also help, however unwittingly, to preserve a political balance.)

Coming back to the title question. Given all this stress, convolution (we can't even use the word “convolution” without our thoughts getting convoluted), and ignorance (and all these are certainly not unrelated), it's easy to see why, today, despite our impressive advances as a species in many other areas, drug-free psychological solutions, as well as clear, uncontested understandings in the area of psychology are so rare. On the flipside of the flexibility if not plasticity of our social world are its ambiguity and often seemingly infinite fragmentation of meaning.

Lee Strauss (Copyright @ 2019)