When dealing with the Woke—that is, devotees of the ideology outlined in Critical Social Justice Theory—one assumption (among many) that is an almost sure bet to make about their claims is that some trick of language is being played. What’s needed to expose the vacuity of the Woke position, then, is not necessarily the ability to bring facts to bear on the matter or even to argue better than they can (as they’ll deconstruct your position and leave you looking foolish to anyone slightly sympathetic to their cause). The best thing to do is expose the trick.
Most often, these language games—as Wittgenstein named them, the postmodern theorists then exploited, and the Woke have appropriated—take one of a rather small number of forms. In nearly all cases, it’s some form of a “strategic equivocation,” in which two ideas are being forwarded simultaneously, allowing the Theorist to play both sides of the argument to his own advantage in any given situation.
One example of these sorts of language games is the “motte and bailey” rhetorical structure, in which a radical position (the “bailey” position) is maintained by defending only a highly defensible (but disingenuous) variation (the “motte”). When the pressure is on, the claim being made is just some perfectly reasonable thing (the motte), like that Critical Race Theory is just an analytical tool that fosters racial sensitivity. When it comes off, the radical position (the bailey)—racism is the ordinary state of affairs in society and thus society requires a revolution to reorder it according to the Critical Race Theory view of the world by empowering Critical Race Theorists—comes back out to play. An extreme example of this style of strategic equivocation are “Troll’s Truisms,” as Nicholas Shackel had it (“deepities,” as named by Dan Dennett). Troll’s Truisms occur when something is trivially true in a banal sense with no real implications and false in a profound sense with serious implications (Dennett gives the example of “love is just a word”).
Frequently, these sorts of equivocations are facilitated by another strategic equivocation common to the Woke: meaning something different by everyday words. Among many possible examples of this disingenuousness—racism, anti-racism, Social Justice, diversity, inclusion, critical, tolerance, and antifascist all spring to mind—its subtlest form occurs when the word being used is very much so technically correct but contains at least one assumption hidden from view by the Woke Theorist. Arguably, diversity works this way in that the hidden assumption is that unless a person has a critical consciousness (i.e., is Woke), they have a false consciousness and therefore do not truly represent their views authentically, which in practice ensures basically no diversity of thought. Far more subtle and effective than this, however, is the idea of “social constructions.”
The Woke are social constructivists, or, more accurately, critical constructivists. A critical constructivist is someone who holds to a strong or strict social constructivism view that is then meant to be analyzed by Critical Theory. Social constructivism is the view that the various features of human experience and our interaction with reality are the products of social interactions, and thus to discuss those features in terms of some underlying reality misses the point of talking about the social processes that has made them what they are.
The most prominent example of this way of thinking is the belief that gender is a social construct, which social constructivists would maintain means that the most or only relevant way to think about gender is in terms of the social processes that define it. In its extreme forms, gender social constructivism holds that male and female biology have nothing to do with one’s gender—or, in queer Theory, even one’s sex—and that it is all a product of “socialization,” which is society brainwashing people to believe their gender is as society believes it should be. More important than something like gender in social constructivism, however, is the belief that knowledge is socially constructed.
Critical constructivism takes this further by adding in a layer of analysis that sees all social processes as also imbued with politics. In Critical Theory, the belief is that the political ideologies of the powerful groups in society set the expectations and beliefs for everybody else, and these are then taken as right and natural and not sufficiently questioned. These hidden political beliefs are always, as a rule, said to be self-serving, and Critical Theory believes that the people pushing them are either unaware of them (false consciousness) or cynical and malicious (i.e., everyone but them is either (willfully) ignorant or evil). This is why Critical Theorists always believe they can read everybody’s mind and divine that their motivations are always something horrible, like racism, or the result of having not “educated themselves.” Under critical constructivism, then, saying something is “socially constructed” automatically means it is politically constructed in the interests and service of the people who had the power and privilege to construct it.
The strategic equivocation here is plain: the words “social construction” imply “political construction” (or contrivance) because of the underlying and hidden assumption of Critical Theory that power politics are always at the base of all social processes. When critical constructivists insist that all humans have biases, they aren’t making the banal observation that shocks so many sophomore philosophy majors off their naturally realist feet (oh my gosh, we’re all trapped in our own heads, not even knowing what we don’t know!); they are making the much more radical accusation that self-serving political biases permeate all human activities and do so mostly invisibly. This, in turn, allegedly necessitates employing and empowering critical constructivists like themselves to spot it, point it out for us, and then place themselves in positions of power and influence to make sure that only their biases—which are revolutionary instead of innately “conservative”—have any sway.
When applied to the realm of knowledge, the consequences are dire, especially under the current manifestations of Critical Theory that are so deeply invested in identity politics. For them to say that knowledge is socially constructed is to say that it is, more than anything else, a political contrivance of the people (meaning identity groups) who had the privilege of positioning themselves socially as the sole authenticators of what we consider knowledge. For at least the last century or two, this has mostly meant scientists, who are then vigorously accused of failing to realize their own biases, which are eventually stated to be the supremacist politics of white, Western men, among a few other identity factors (like being able-bodied and having sex and gender that match).
So, when Woke people (critical constructivists) say that science is a social construct, what they mean by that is “science is a political construct.” That is, they’re not making the mere claim that science as a set of processes, theories, methodologies, and even bodies of knowledge is the result of social processes, though they will say this is what they mean (that’s the motte). Instead, they mean the much stronger accusation that politics—especially a very narrow and crude form of conflict theory-based identity politics—is relevant to the generation of scientific knowledge and thus scientific conclusions, which means the entire enterprise needs to be rethought on their terms (this is the bailey). So, while it is necessarily true that science in all regards is the result of human social activity, it is not necessarily true that it is a political contrivance, least of all identity-political. Wouldn’t that be shocking?
It seems so shocking because science isn’t so crude, and we all generally know it, even if we don’t know why. The reason is that science utilizes a principle known as universality, which indicates that it doesn’t matter who or what performs an experiment; the result will always be the same if it reflects objective reality faithfully. When combined with the principle of falsification, which is that results in science aren’t proved true but only seen to be not-yet-falsified (by experiments, which could be done by anybody or anything), universality in science completely undercuts the possibility for political contrivance to be a primary determining factor in what constitutes scientific knowledge. Because anyone, regardless of who they happen to be, could falsify a scientific hypothesis, scientific knowledge, by definition, is not easily corrupted by politics—when it is genuinely scientific. The Woke believe that objectivity is neither possible nor desirable, so they reject this entire view, usually by arguing that science is a “social construct,” by which they mean power-politics by specific means.
Speaking practically, it would be best if instead of arguing the point every time we hear that something “is a social construct” we ask for a simple clarification: do you really mean that it is a political construct? The Woke can, of course, make this case on their own terms, so requesting this bit of clarity isn’t a silver bullet and isn’t meant to be. What it does do, however, is prevent the capacity to use strategic equivocation to slide back to the banal observation that everything humans do is technically a social process and thus science must be too, which will then turn into advancing the case that it’s also a political construct that requires “critical engagement” the second people stop questioning them. Forcing them to make the harder argument—which is the argument they actually intend—forces a measure of honesty into the situation that is usually thin on the ground in discussions with or about the Woke.
To be fair, of course, it is true that early attempts at science (proto-science) did suffer these precise problems, both in terms of politics themselves and nasty identity politics, which the Woke will point out to make their case as though what was then is permanently influential on what is now. As scientific philosophy has matured and the principle of universality was identified, however, the human beings involved devised a suite of methods to minimize this problem and, in many disciplines, more or less ended its influence.
Also, of course, there are issues of corruption that may hinder, misdirect, or stain the scientific process, but these are deviations from science, and their results don’t remain “scientific knowledge” for long, if they even make it that far. Indeed, this is only a very significant problem in the softer sciences, especially the social sciences where bad incentive structures discourage replication attempts and politics—mostly Woke politics—corrupt the results (the Woke, more than anyone save religious fundamentalists, aren’t particularly fond of inconvenient truths or the asking of impertinent questions). The answer to all of this, of course, is more and better science and not the injection of intentional critical political biases as though those constitute a “corrective” measure.
So, while it’s true in the most banal of senses that science is something that results from human social processes, and while it’s worth recognizing that those social processes are subject to biases and politics, it’s also incorrect to understand science as being “socially constructed” as the critical constructivists have it. Science, especially in the hard sciences, is only politically constructed when the people doing it replace the effort to understand the world with the aim to change it in accordance with their vision for how the world “should” be. Clearly, then, in the accusation that “science is a social construct,” the Iron Law of Woke Projection applies, just as it does in so many other places.
To understand this topic even more deeply, the following video is strongly recommended: