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An Example of Naive Empiricism

July 21, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about naive empiricism lately, as I think conservative Evangelicals, Ayn Rand libertarians, and Fox News are best understood as naive empiricists.

What do I mean by naive empiricism? I mean the view that a thing is what it is, independently of human history or human practices. This is a view that mystifies how things got to become the way they are. This view is strictly anti-historicist.

The best example I can think of today is from the movie Anchorman, which I saw just a few days ago. In this film, which takes place in the 1970s, some male television newscasters are upset because a woman has been assigned to their news team.

One of the characters yells, “It is anchorman, not anchorlady! And that is a scientific fact!”

Yes, this is naive empiricism: there was a long history of patriarchal practices that resulted in the identification of some subjects as “anchormen.” But this naive empiricism can see neither that fact, nor how this apparently descriptive statement is actually prescriptive, nor which set of interests is advanced by perpetuating the use of this classification over other possible classifications.

I’m going to start throwing this example out there—in order to play off it’s obvious absurdity—when I come across claims about who is or is not a terrorist, what is or is not torture, who is or is not “personally responsible” for something (since I think that naive ideas about personal responsibility are at the root of what I think is wrong with libertarianism), and so on.

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