Founding Science

“The terms “science,”“technology,” and “scientist,” as we understand them today, were not in use in the Founders’ era. There was no distinction between science and technology, the latter being considered as the more practical, usually mechanical product resulting from scientific inquiry. The title “scientist” did not exist prior to 1833, when British scientist and historian William Whewell coined it. Before then, newspapers, magazines, books, and speeches either referred to a specific field of study by name, such as astronomy, or in the aggregate plural as “the sciences,” a label that encompassed a wide variety of fields including rhetoric and political science. Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1755 identified the “curious of nature” as “inquisitive, attentive, diligent, accurate, careful not to mistake, exact, nice, subtle, artful, rigorous.” Such men (and a few women) expressed their “genius” by engaging in “speculation”— making educated guesses about natural phenomena. “Natural philosophy” and “natural history,” the terms regularly used to denote science in the writings of the Founding Fathers and in the contemporary Philosophical Transactions of the London-based Royal Society, seem to us interchangeable. But natural philosophy then referred to what we might term the hard sciences, the mathematically based disciplines of physics, astronomy , chemistry, optics, and hydraulics. Natural history encompassed the soft sciences of botany, anthropology, anatomy, and , to a lesser extent, biology— what Foucault has called “the science of the characters that articulate the continuity and the tangle of nature.” 7”

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment

by Tom Shachtman
Kindle Locations 85-97

On Reasoning: Science and Experimentation

At the most basic level, what did the Enlightenment thinkers mean by reason and the sciences? In practice, what is rationality, critical thinking, and experimentation? What does it mean to seek truth, knowledge, and understanding?  What changes in thought were happening that led up to the American Revolution?

“Franklin also learned as a youth that minds untrained in science could also experiment. He later recalled for Swedish botanist Peter Kalm an experiment done by his father, Josiah: noticing that herring would spawn in one particular stream that led to Massachusetts Bay but not in another , Josiah had guessed that the activity had to do with the geographic location where the fish had been hatched. To test the theory, one year at spawning time he transported fish to the second stream, where they spawned and died; the following year, as Josiah had predicted, their offspring returned to the second stream.”
~ Tom Shachtman *

That offers an insight into the early scientific mind. That is the scientific method in essence. Josiah Franklin made some observations, analyzed those observations, formulated a falsifiable hypothesis, and then tested it with an experiment. He even used controls with the same species of spawning fish in two separate streams.

What is the ability demonstrated with that simple hands-on experiment? Is it reason? Is it science? What processes of cognition and perception were involved? What conditions and factors of influence make that possible?

This was not anything new. I’m sure people were doing all kinds of basic experiments long before the Enlightenment Age. This is an inherent human capacity, involving curiosity and problem-solving. Many other species especially higher primates similarly experiment, although less systematically. Such behaviors obviously have practical advantages for species survival. The Enlightenment Age just gave new emphasis, incentives, and articulation to this kind of activity. Science then formalized and regimented it.

But what is reason, whether pure or applied? Are humans ever fully rational and genuinely free of cognitive biases? Is the human intellect more than being a clever monkey pushed to the extreme?

——-

* Source:
Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment

by Tom Shachtman
Chapter 2: “Variola” in Boston, 1721-1722
Kindle Locations 598-602

The Science of Politics

Many have noted the odd relationship American conservatives have to science. It isn’t just anti-intellectualism. Nor is it even necessarily a broad attack against all science. It is highly selective and not consistent whatsoever. It is a reactionary attitude and so must be understood in that light.

I regularly interact with a number of conservatives. It gives me a personal sense of what it might mean.

There is a sense behind it that scientists are mere technocrats, puppets of political power. This mindset doesn’t separate science from politics. There is no appreciation that most scientists probably think little about politics while they are focused on the practical issues of doing research and writing papers. Most scientists aren’t trying to make a political argument or to change anything within or through politics. Scientists just have their small corner of expertise that they obsess over.

There is a paranoia in this mindset, typically unacknowledged. There is a suspicion that scientists somehow are an organized political elite conspiring to force their will on the public. In reality, scientists are constantly arguing and fighting with one another. The main politics most scientists are worried about is most often the politics of academia, nothing so grand as control of the government. Science involves more disagreement than anything else.

Getting all scientists to cooperate on some grand conspiracy isn’t likely to ever happen, especially as scientists work within diverse institutions and organizations, public and private, across many countries. They don’t even share a single funding source. Scientists get funding from various government agencies, from various non-profit organizations, and increasingly from corporations. All these different funding sources have different agendas and create different incentives. For example, a lot of climatology research gets funded by big oil because climatology predictions are important in working with big oil rigs out in the ocean.

There is also another even stranger aspect. I get this feeling that some conservatives consider science to almost be unAmerican. I had a conservative tell me that science should have no influence over politics whatsoever. That politics should be about a competition of ideas. a marketplace of ideas if you will, and may the best idea win or profit, as the case may be. That reality is too complex for scientists too understand and so we shouldn’t try to understand that complexity. So, trying to understand is more dangerous than simply embracing our ignorance.

This goes so far as to create its own vision of history. Many conservatives believe that the founders were a wise elite who simply knew the answers. They may have taken up science as a hobby, but it had absolutely nothing to do with their politics. The founders were smart, unlike today’s intellectual liberal elite and scientific technocrats. The founders understood that science had nothing to offer other than the development of technology for the marketplace. That is the only use science has, as a tool of capitalism.

This is a bizarre mentality. It is also historically ungrounded. The founders didn’t separate their interest in science from their interest in politics. They saw both science and politics as the sphere of ideas and experimentation. They didn’t just take someone’s word for something. If they had a question or a debate, it wasn’t unusual for them to test it out and find what would happen. They were very hands-on people. For many of them, politics was just another scientific experiment. The new American system was a hypothesis to be tested, not simply a belief system to be declared and enforced.

This view of science is widespread. This isn’t just an issue of cynical reactionaries, ignorant right-wingers, and scientifically clueless fundies. This worldview also includes middle and upper class conservatives with college education, some even in academia itself. Many of these people are intelligent and informed. Very few of them are overt conspiracy theorists and denialists. Much of what I’ve said here they would dismiss as an outlandish caricature. They are rational and they know they are rational. Their skepticism of science is perfectly sound and based on valid concerns.

When these people on the right speak of science, they are speaking of it as symbolizing something greater in their worldview. It isn’t just science they are speaking of. They fear something that is represented by science. They fear the change and uncertainty that science offers. They distrust scientists challenging their cherished views of present reality in the same way they distrust academic historians revising established historical myths about America. These intellectual elites are undermining the entire world they grew up in, everything they consider great and worthy about this country.

Conservatives aren’t wrong to fear and distrust. Indeed, their world is being threatened. Change is inevitable and no one has a clue about what the end results might be. But they should stop attacking the messenger. Scientists are simply telling us to face reality, to face the future with our eyes wide open.

* * * *

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment
by Tom Shachtman

Science and the Founding Fathers:
Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison
by I. Bernard Cohen

The Invention of Air:
A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America
by Steven Johnson

 

 

Scientific Races and Genetic Diversity

For those who want to argue human races are a scientific category, they have to use scientific standards to prove their case. That is precisely the problem. The only way to argue for scientific human races is by defining them differently than for other species, but there is no scientific justification for defining them differently.

One of the factors that makes the human species unique from other similar species is that we lack much genetic diversity. We are a bottleneck species. Twice in human evolution the entire species originated from a single common ancestor. On top of that, human populations have never been isolated for long enough periods to form separate lines of evolution. Humans all around the world have moved around and mixed together almost ceaselessly. Even island people are known to have traveled great distances.

There simply isn’t enough genetic diversity to form separate human races.

Why Your Race Isn’t Genetic
by Michael White
from Pacific Standard magazine

“Templeton examined two genetic definitions of race that are commonly applied by biologists to vertebrate species. In both cases, races clearly exist in chimpanzees, our nearest relatives, but not in humans.

“One natural definition of race is a group whose members are genetically much more similar to each other than they are to other groups. Putting a number on what counts as “much more” is a somewhat arbitrary exercise, but Templeton found that the genetic differentiation between populations of chimpanzees is over seven times greater than the genetic differentiation between broad geographical populations of humans. Furthermore, the level of genetic differentiation between human populations falls well below the threshold that biologists typically use to define races in non-human species.

“Races could also be defined by genetic branches on the family tree. For most of us, this is the most intuitive definition of race. It’s one that, at first glance, is consistent with recent human evolution: After originating in Africa, part of our species branched out first into Asia and Europe, and then to the rest of the world. We should thus expect different geographical populations to be distinct genetic limbs on our species’ recent evolutionary tree.

“But as it turns out, our species’ family history is not so arboreal. Geneticists have methods for measuring the “treeness” of genetic relationships between populations. Templeton found that the genetic relationships between human populations don’t have a very tree-like structure, while chimpanzee populations do. Rather than a family tree with distinct racial branches, humans have a family trellis that lacks clear genetic boundaries between different groups.

“These findings reflect our unusual recent evolutionary history. Unlike the distinct populations of chimps, humans continued to exchange both goods and genes with each other even as they rapidly settled an enormous geographical range. Those ongoing contacts, plus the fact that we were a small, genetically homogeneous species to begin with, has resulted in relatively close genetic relationships, despite our worldwide presence. The DNA differences between humans increase with geographical distance, but boundaries between populations are, as geneticists Kenneth Weiss and Jeffrey Long put it, “multilayered, porous, ephemeral, and difficult to identify.” Pure, geographically separated ancestral populations are an abstraction: “There is no reason to think that there ever were isolated, homogeneous parental populations at any time in our human past.””

What Scientific Idea Is Ready For Retirement?

This is a question asked by Edge.org. They ask a different question each year and that is the question this year, 2014. Several of the responses fit into my recent thinking about human nature, race, genetics, intelligence, behavior, scientific methodology, etc..

* * * *

Biological Anthropologist and Paleobiologist; Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University
Race

“Race has a hold on history, but it no longer has a place in science. The sheer instability and potential for misinterpretation render race useless as a scientific concept. Inventing new vocabularies of human diversity and inequity won’t be easy, but is necessary. ”

Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Biology School, University of Bristol
Life Evolves Via A Shared Genetic Toolkit

“A conserved genome can generate novelties through rearrangements (within or between genes), changes in regulation or genome duplication events. For example, the vertebrate genome has been replicated in their entirety twice in their evolutionary history; salmonid fish have undergone a further two whole genome duplications. Duplications reduce selection on the function of one of the gene copies, allowing that copy to mutate and evolve into a new gene whilst the other copy maintains business as usual. Conserved genomes can also harbour a lot of latent genetic variation—fodder for evolving novelty—which is not exposed to selection. Non-lethal variation can lie dormant in the genome by not being expressed, or by being expressed at times when it doesn’t have a lethal effect on the phenotype. The molecular machinery that regulates expression of genes and proteins depends on minimal information, rules and tools: transcription factors recognise sequences of only a few base-pairs as binding sites, which gives them enormous potential for plasticity in where they bind. Pleiotropic changes across many conserved genes using different combination of transcription, translation and/or post-translation activity are a good source of genomic novelty. E.g. the evolution of beak shapes in Darwin’s finches is controlled by pleiotropic changes brought about by changes in the signalling patterns of a conserved gene that controls bone development. The combinatorial power of even a limited genetic toolkit gives it enormous potential to evolve novelty from old machinery.”

Journalist; Author, Us and Them
People Are Sheep

“Perhaps the behavior of people in groups will eventually be explained as a combination of moment-to-moment influences (like waves on the sea) and powerful drivers that work outside of awareness (like deep ocean currents). All the open questions are important and fascinating. But they’re only visible after we give up the simplistic notion that we are sheep.”

founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute
Large Randomized Controlled Trials

“We need new, more thoughtful experimental designs and systems approaches that take into account these issues. Also, new genomic insights will make it possible to better understand individual variations to treatment rather than hoping that this variability will be “averaged out” by randomly-assigning patients.”

Psychiatrist; Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine
Neuroscientist; Canada Research Chair in Philosophy & Psychiatry, McGill University
Mental Illness is Nothing But Brain Illness

“That a theory of mental illness should make reference to the world outside the brain is no more surprising than that the theory of cancer has to make reference to cigarette smoke. And yet what is commonplace in cancer research is radical in psychiatry. The time has come to expand the biological model of psychiatric disorder to include the context in which the brain functions. In understanding, preventing and treating mental illness, we will rightly continue to look into the neurons and DNA of the afflicted and unafflicted. To ignore the world around them would be not only bad medicine but bad science.”

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Stanford University
The Altruism Hierarchy

“It often appears to me that critics of “impure” altruism chide helpers for acting in human ways, for instance by doing things that feel good. The ideal, then, seems to entail acting altruistically while not enjoying those actions one bit. To me, this is no ideal at all. I think it’s profound and downright beautiful to think that our core emotional makeup can be tuned towards others, causing us to feel good when we do. Color me selfish, but I’d take that impure altruism over a de-enervated, floating ideal any day.”

Eugene Higgins Professor, Department of Psychology, Princeton University
Rational Actor Models: The Competence Corollary

“People are most effective in social life if we are—and show ourselves to be—both warm and competent. This is not to say that we always get it right, but the intent and the effort must be there. This is also not to say that love is enough, because we do have to prove capable to act on our worthy intentions. The warmth-competence combination supports both short-term cooperation and long-term loyalty. In the end, it’s time to recognize that people survive and thrive with both heart and mind.”

Scientist; Inventor; Entrepreneur
Intelligence As a Property

“Based on recent discoveries, I have now come to suspect that the reason for this lack of progress in physically defining intelligence is due to the entire scientific concept of treating intelligence as a static property—rather than a dynamical process—being ready for retirement.

Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The Generous Man
Altruism

“But then this concept is rooted in the notion that human beings (and animals) are really dominated by selfishness and egoism so that you need a concept to explain why they sometimes behave unselfish and kind to others.

“But the reality is different: Humans are deeply bound to other humans and most actions are really reciprocal and in the interest of both parties (or, in he case of hatred, in the disinterest of both). The starting point is neither selfishness nor altruism, but the state of being bound together. It is an illusion to believe that you can be happy when no one else is. Or that other people will not be affected by your unhappiness.

“Behavioral science and neurobiology has shown how intimately we are bound: Phenomena like mimicry, emotional contagion, empathy, sympathy, compassion and prosocial behavior are evident in humans and animals. We are influenced by the well-being of others in more ways than we normally care to think of. Therefore a simple rules applies: Everyone feels better when you are well. Your feel better when everyone is well.

“This correlated state is the real one. The ideas of egoism and hence its opposite concept altruism are second-order concepts, shadows or even illusions.”

Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair in Developmental Psychology, University of British Columbia
Moral Blank State-ism

“Again, experience matters. Several studies have now documented that experience may influence moral outcomes via a “gene-environment interaction.” That is, rather than a simple equation in which, say, adverse experiences lead to antisocial children: [child + abuse – ameliorating experiences = violence], the relationship between abuse and antisocial behavior is only observed in children with particular versions of various genes known to regulate certain social hormones. That is, whether they have been abused or not, children with the “safe” gene alleles are all about equally (un)likely to engage in antisocial behavior. Children with the “at risk” alleles, on the other hand, are more susceptible to the damages of abuse.”

Associate Professor of Psychology, Director, NYU Infant Cognition and Communication Lab, New York University
Natural Selection is the Only Engine of Evolution

“These findings fit in a relatively new field of study called epigenetics. Epigenetic control of gene expression contributes to cells in a single organism (which share the same DNA sequence) developing differently into e.g. heart cells or neurons. But the last decade has shown actual evidence–and possible mechanisms–for how the environment and the organism’s behavior in it might cause heritable changes in gene expression (with no change in the DNA sequence) that are passed onto offspring. In recent years, we have seen evidence of epigenetic inheritance across a wide range of morphological, metabolic, and even behavioral traits.

“The intergenerational transmission of acquired traits is making a comeback as a potential mechanism of evolution. It also opens up the interesting possibility that better diet, exercise, and education which we thought couldn’t affect the next generation–except with luck through good example–actually could.”

Philosopher; Director, Scientific Vortex, Inc
Crime is Only About The Actions Of Individuals

“Despite the significant role of these “gray” actors, social scientists interested in analyzing crime usually focus their attention only on criminal individuals and criminal actions. Those scientists usually study crime through qualitative and quantitative data that informs only of those “dark” elements, while omitting the fact that transnational and domestic crime is carried out by various types of actors who don’t interact solely through criminal actions. This is a hyper-simplified approach—a caricature—because those “dark” elements are only the tip of the iceberg regarding global crime.

“This simplified approach also assumes that society is a digital and binary system in which the “good” and the “bad” guys—the “us” and “them”—are perfectly distinguishable. This distinction is useful in penal terms when simple algorithms—”if individual X executes the action Y, then X is criminal”—orient the decision of judges delivering final sentences. However, in sociological, anthropological, and psychological terms, this line is more difficult to define. If society is a digital system, it is certainly not a binary one.”

Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; Author, The Science of Evil
Radical Behaviorism

“My scientific reason for arguing for Radical Behaviorism should be retired is not to revisit the now stale nature-nurture debate (all reasonable scientists recognize an organism’s behavior is the result of an interaction of these), but rather because Radical Behaviorism is scientifically uninformative. Behavior by definition is the surface level, so it follows that the same piece of behavior could be the result of different underlying cognitive strategies, different underlying neural systems, and even different underlying causal pathways. Two individuals can show the same behavior but can have arrived at it through very different underlying causal routes. Think of a native speaker of English vs. someone who has acquired total fluency of English as a second language; or think of a person who is charmingly polite because they are genuinely considerate to others, vs. a psychopath who has learnt how to flawlessly perform being charmingly polite. Identical behavior, produced via different routes. Without reference to underlying cognition, neural activity, and causal mechanisms, behavior is scientifically uninformative.”

Information Scientist and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Law, the University of Southern California; Author, Noise
Statistical Independence

“The world is massively interconnected through causal chains. Gravity alone causally connects all objects with mass. The world is even more massively correlated with itself. It is a truism that statistical correlation does not imply causality. But it is a mathematical fact that statistical independence implies no correlation at all. None. Yet events routinely correlate with one another. The whole focus of most big-data algorithms is to uncover just such correlations in ever larger data sets.

“Statistical independence also underlies most modern statistical sampling techniques. It is often part of the very definition of a random sample. It underlies the old-school confidence intervals used in political polls and in some medical studies. It even underlies the distribution-free bootstraps or simulated data sets that increasingly replace those old-school techniques.”

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy & Cognitive Science, Rutgers University
“Our” Intuitions

“About a decade ago, this question led a group of philosophers, along with sympathetic colleagues in psychology and anthropology, to stop assuming that their intuitions were widely shared and design studies to see if they really are. In study after study, it turned out that philosophical intuitions do indeed vary with culture and other demographic variables. A great deal more work will be needed before we have definitive answers about which philosophical intuitions vary, and which, if any, are universal.”

Physicist, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Individuality

“You probably already knew that naïve reductionism is often too simplistic. However, there is another point. It’s not just that you are composite, something you already knew, but you are in some senses not even human. You have perhaps a hundred trillion bacterial cells in your body, numbering ten times more than your human cells, and containing a hundred times as many genes as your human cells. These bacteria are not just passive occupants of the zoo that is you. They self-organize into communities within your mouth, guts and elsewhere; and these communities—microbiomes—are maintained by varied, dynamic patterns of competition and cooperation between the different bacteria, which allow us to live.

“In the last few years, genomics has given us a tool to explore the microbiome by identifying microbes by their DNA sequences. The story that is emerging from these studies is not yet complete but already has led to fascinating insights. Thanks to its microbes, a baby can better digest its mother’s milk. And your ability to digest carbohydrates relies to a significant extent on enzymes that can only be made from genes not present in you, but in your microbiome. Your microbiome can be disrupted, for example due to treatment by antibiotics, and in extreme cases can be invaded by dangerous monocultures, such as Clostridium difficile, leading to your death. Perhaps the most remarkable finding is the gut-brain axis: your gastrointestinal microbiome can generate small molecules that may be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and affect the state of your brain: although the precise mechanism is not yet clear, there is growing evidence that your microbiome may be a significant factor in mental states such as depression and autism spectrum conditions. In short, you may be a collective property arising from the close interactions of your constitutents.”

Physician and Social Scientist, Yale University; Coauthor, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives
The Average

“Yes, we can reliably say that men are taller than women, on average; that Norwegians are richer than Swedes; that first-born children are smarter than second-born children. And we can do experiments to detect tiny differences in means—between groups exposed and unexposed to a virus, or between groups with and without a particular allele of a gene. But this is too simple and too narrow a view of the natural world.

“Our focus on averages should be retired. Or, if not retired, we should give averages an extended vacation. During this vacation, we should catch up on another sort of difference between groups that has gotten short shrift: we should focus on comparing the difference in variance (which captures the spread or range of measured values) between groups.”

Physicist, Computer Scientist, Chairman of Applied Minds, Inc.; author, The Pattern on the Stone
Cause and Effect

“Unfortunately, the cause-and-effect paradigm does not just fail at the quantum scale. It also falls apart when we try to use causation to explain complex dynamical systems like the biochemical pathways of a living organism, the transactions of an economy, or the operation of the human mind. These systems all have patterns of information flow that defy our tools of storytelling. A gene does not “cause” the trait like height, or a disease like cancer. The stock market did not go up “because” the bond market went down. These are just our feeble attempts to force a storytelling framework onto systems that do not work like stories. For such complex systems, science will need more powerful explanatory tools, and we will learn to accept the limits of our old methods of storytelling. We will come to appreciate that causes and effects do not exist in nature, that they are just convenient creations of our own minds.”

Journalist; Editor, Nova 24, of Il Sole 24 Ore
The Tragedy Of The Commons

“Ostrom’s factual approach to the commons came with very good theory, too. Preconditions to the commons’ sustainability were, in Ostrom’s idea: clarity of the law, methods of collective and democratic decision-making, local and public mechanisms of conflict resolution, no conflicts with different layers of government. These preconditions do exist in many historically proven situations and there is no tragedy there. Cultures that understand the commons are contexts that make a sustainable behaviour absolutely rational.”

Anthropologist, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris; Author, Talking to the Enemy
IQ

“There is a long history of acrimonious debate over which, if any, aspects of IQ are heritable. The most compelling studies concern twins raised apart and adoptions. Twin studies rarely have large sample populations. Moreover, they often involve twins separated at birth because a parent dies or cannot afford to support both, and one is given over to be raised by relatives, friends or neighbors. This disallows ruling out the effects of social environment and upbringing in producing convergence among the twins. The chief problem with adoption studies is that the mere fact of adoption reliably increases IQ, regardless of any correlation between the IQs of the children and those of their biological parents. Nobody has the slightest causal account of how or why genes, singly or in combination, might affect IQ. I don’t think it’s because the problem is too hard, but because IQ is a specious rather natural kind.”

University Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Northeastern University; Research Scientist and Neuroscientist, Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School
Essentialist Views of the Mind

“Ridding science of essentialism is easier said than done. Consider the simplicity of this essentialist statement from the past: “Gene X causes cancer.” It sounds plausible and takes little effort to understand. Compare this to a more recent explanation: “A given individual in a given situation, who interprets that situation as stressful, may experience a change in his sympathetic nervous system that encourages certain genes to be expressed, making him vulnerable to cancer.” The latter explanation is more complicated, but more realistic. Most natural phenomena do not have a single root cause. Sciences that are still steeped in essentialism need a better model of cause and effect, new experimental methods, and new statistical procedures to counter essentialist thinking.

“This discussion is more than a bunch of metaphysical musings. Adherence to essentialism has serious, practical impacts on national security, the legal system, treatment of mental illness, the toxic effects of stress on physical illness… the list goes on. Essentialism leads to simplistic “single cause” thinking when the world is a complex place. Research suggests that children are born essentialists (what irony!) and must learn to overcome it. It’s time for all scientists to overcome it as well.”

Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Management and Organizations, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
Humans Are By Nature Social Animals

“At the same time, the concept of humans as “social by nature” has lent credibility to numerous significant ideas: that humans need other humans to survive, that humans tend to be perpetually ready for social interaction, and that studying specifically the social features of human functioning is profoundly important. ”

Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan; Author, Intelligence and How We Get It
Multiple Regression as a Means of Discovering Causality

“Multiple regression, like all statistical techniques based on correlation, has a severe limitation due to the fact that correlation doesn’t prove causation. And no amount of measuring of “control” variables can untangle the web of causality. What nature hath joined together, multiple regression cannot put asunder. ”

Evolutionary Biologist; Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth, The Magic of Reality
Essentialism

“Essentialism rears its ugly head in racial terminology. The majority of “African Americans” are of mixed race. Yet so entrenched is our essentialist mind-set, American official forms require everyone to tick one race/ethnicity box or another: no room for intermediates. A different but also pernicious point is that a person will be called “African American” even if only, say, one of his eight great grandparents was of African descent. As Lionel Tiger put it to me, we have here a reprehensible “contamination metaphor.” But I mainly want to call attention to our society’s essentialist determination to dragoon a person into one discrete category or another. We seem ill-equipped to deal mentally with a continuous spectrum of intermediates. We are still infected with the plague of Plato’s essentialism.”

Professor of Genomics, The Scripps Research Institute; Author, The Creative Destruction of Medicine
One Genome Per Individual

“But we still don’t know if this is merely of academic interest or has important disease-inducing impact. For sure the mosaicism that occurs later in life, in “terminally differentiated” cells, is known to be important in the development of cancer. And the mosaicism of immune cells, particularly lymphocytes, appears to be part of a healthy, competent immune system. Beyond this, it largely remains unclear as to the functional significance of each of us carrying multiple genomes.

“The implications are potentially big. When we do use a blood sample to evaluate a person’s genome, we have no clue about the potential mosaicism that exists throughout the individual’s body. So a lot more work needs to be done to sort this out, and now that we have the technology to do it, we’ll undoubtedly better understand our remarkable heterogeneous genomic selves in the years ahead.”

Managing Director, Digital Science, Macmillan Science & Education; Former Publishing Director, nature.com; Co-Organizer, Sci Foo
Nature Versus Nurture

“Inheritability is not the inverse of mutability, and to say that the heritability of a trait is high is not to say that the environment has no effect because heritability scores are themselves affected by the environment. Take the case of height. In the rich world, the heritability of height is something like 80 per cent. But this is only because our nutrition is universally quite good. In places where malnutrition or starvation are common, environmental factors predominate and the heritability of height is much lower.”

Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Philosophical Baby
Innateness

“All three of these scientific developments suggest that almost everything we do is not just the result of the interaction of nature and nurture, it is both simultaneously. Nurture is our nature and learning and culture are our most important and distinctive evolutionary inheritance.”

Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angels of Our Nature
Behavior = Genes + Environment

“Even the technical sense of “environment” used in quantitative behavioral genetics is perversely confusing. Now, there is nothing wrong with partitioning phenotypic variance into components that correlate with genetic variation (heritability) and with variation among families (“shared environment”). The problem comes from the so-called “nonshared” or “unique environmental influences.” This consists of all the variance that is attributable neither to genetic nor familiar variation. In most studies, it’s calculated as 1 – (heritability + shared environment). Practically, you can think of it as the differences between identical twins who grow up in the same home. They share their genes, parents, older and younger siblings, home, school, peers, and neighborhood. So what could make them different? Under the assumption that behavior is a product of genes plus environment, it must be something in the environment of one that is not in the environment of the other.

“But this category really should be called “miscellaneous/unknown,” because it has nothing necessarily to do with any measurable aspect of the environment, such as one sibling getting the top bunk bed and the other the bottom, or a parent unpredictably favoring one child, or one sibling getting chased by a dog, coming down with a virus, or being favored by a teacher. These influences are purely conjectural, and studies looking for them have failed to find them. The alternative is that this component actually consists of the effects of chance – new mutations, quirky prenatal effects, noise in brain development, and events in life with unpredictable effects.”

Publisher, Skeptic magazine; monthly columnist, Scientific American; Author, The Believing Brain
Hard-Wired=Permanent

“So it has been and will continue to be with other forms of the hard-wired=permanent idea, such as violence. We may be hard-wired for violence, but we can attenuate it considerably through scientifically tested methods. Thus, for my test case here, I predict that in another 500 years the God-theory of causality will have fallen into disuse, and the 21st-century scientific theory that God is hardwired into our brains as a permanent feature of our species will be retired.”

Political Scientist, University Professor, University of Washington & University of Sydney
Homo Economicus

“The reliance on homo economicus as the basis of human motivation has given rise to a grand body of theory and research over the past two hundred years. As an underlying assumption, it has generated some of the best work in economics. As a foil, it has generated findings about cognitive limitations, the role of social interactions, and ethically based motivations. The power of the concept of homo economicus was once great, but its power has now waned, to be succeeded by new and better paradigms and approaches grounded in more realistic and scientific understandings of the sources of human action.”

Race Realism and Racialized Medicine

I came across the passage below (pp. 143-145) which brings up one of the most important problems. I came across this in the essay “Evolutionary Versus Racial Medicine: Why It Matters” by Joseph L. Graves, Jr. It is from the collection Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Culture:

Thus far, health disparity research and literature has not incorporated the full evolutionary medical approach. Generally, when biology is addressed as a cause of disparity and the focus has been on genetic differences that exist between reputed racial/ethnic groups, the evidence supporting the connection has been tenuous.5 The logical errors concerning genetic causality result from either ignoring or misunderstanding evolutionary genetics. The lack of training in evolutionary biology among medical researchers and practitioners accounts for this oversight.6 In particular, biomedical scientists often confuse the existence of geographically based genetic variation as proof of the existence of biological races. They also incorrectly assume that genetic differences in loci associated with complex diseases between populations is one of the causes of health disparity.7

[ . . . ] Despite the fact that most physicians practice medicine as if biological races are clearly defined in modern humans, there are few scientists or physicians who can or are willing to construct an argument to support racial medicine. The modern medical literature still utilizes nineteenth-century anthropological categories in group studies. For example, a recent search of Entrez Pubmed (conducted on January 6, 2010) utilizing the term “race” returned 114,305 articles from the human biomedical literature. More specifically, searches on Caucasian, Mongoloid, and Negroid race returned 52,846, 22,667, and 38,792 citations, respectively. While one can still debate the utility of the term “race” in the human biomedical literature, almost no one defends the idea that nineteenth-century racial categories are legitimate or that these (Caucasian, Mongoloid, or Negroid) are of much use in twenty-first-century research.

This touches upon a similar point I previously came across in a context that had nothing to do with race and racialized medicine.

It’s not just that most medical research about race is problematic. In general, medical research is one of the most problematic fields of research. It’s not just that most medical researchers and practitioners lack training in evolutionary biology. Most of them also lack training in research methodology and analysis. Anyone can do research and many doctors are interested in doing research, but it isn’t their field of expertise. Because of this, medical research is often of a lower quality and so less reliable.

We know so little about genetics. Considering what we do know, there appears to be many people doing research who don’t even understand that small amount. Medical researchers are still using obsolete racial terms from centuries ago, really?

The context for this is race realism which reminds me of capitalist realism. The two seem to go together. Both offer a pessimism about human nature, whether seen as humans constrained to their genetics or to their greed. This kind of false pragmatism is the most dangerous thing our society faces. It blinds us to the larger reality that surrounds us. It precludes new possibilities and unconsidered solutions.

When researchers think ideologically instead of scientifically, the entire scientific method is undermined. This racial realism isn’t reality. It is an ideology about reality. The racial ideology is being used as an assumption upon which to base research instead of a hypothesis to be tested. This makes it inevitable that the ideological results sought are found. By dividing the data according to a social construct, those social constructs are reified. This is how structural racism operates.

Race realists believe genetics causes and contributes to not just race but IQ, poverty, violence, mental illness, and just about every other aspect of society. All problems are the inevitable results of inborn traits. It is a genetic determinism that often goes hand in hand with a cultural determinism, ethnicity being the connection between the two. With this worldview, there is very little to be done about any problem other than keep the genetically inferior people out of our communities and out of our country. Build walls and gated communities.

There is no room for compassion and hope in such a reactionary worldview. There are no solutions, just damage control.

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

A Dangerous Pragmatism

 

Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

Biblical historicism and anthropogenic global warming, these are two of the most important issues. They clearly portray the two sides of religion and science, belief vs fact.

I don’t want to get complicated with this post as it would be easy to do so, or at least I don’t want to waste the space explaining the detailed background (something I’ve done many times already). Trying to explain the history, demographics, and psychology behind it all is complex. For my present purposes, I simply want to use these examples to show a trend.

* * * *

I’ve observed many trends in recent years. The trends in biblical studies and climatology interest me because they are so symbolic. Their symbolism allows for a deeper trend to be seen, a trend that I perceive as including or causally related to these many diverse trends.

Over the years, I’ve become aware of how the general public has become increasingly supportive of liberal views, especially what in the past had been considered liberal or even radically leftwing: drug legalization or decriminalization, health care reform with public option or single payer, better government regulation, decreasing inequality, etc.  Oddly, the majority of Americans support these liberal positions even as they label themselves as ‘conservatives’.

So, liberalism has become the new conservatism, by which I mean it is the new public opinion status quo and it is the conservative inclination to defend the status quo. As the old guard of reactionary conservatives dies off and as the younger moderate conservatives come to defend the former liberalism (specifically 20th century liberalism), this will free up the liberal-minded to take on new liberal positions which will be partly defined by the direction in which the leftwing leads.

Nonetheless, the shift isn’t clear. It’s not about liberals defeating conservatives. What is going on is more profound. The very notions of liberalism and conservatism are shifting.

No one can know where to the shift will ultimately lead. If anything, the shift is best understood in terms of something like Spiral Dynamics. Liberals defend science and conservatives defend religion, but not necessarily for intrinsic reasons. Rather, it’s the historical circumstance that puts these two political movements in defense of these two social institutions.

* * * *

Two events got me thinking. First, I was having one of my standard debates about climatology science with a conservative. Second, I was looking at biblical studies books from these past few years. The first is irrelevant other than giving my thinking context for the second.

The book that really got me thinking is a book I haven’t even read, but I did read several very in-depth Amazon.com reviews and the author is someone I’m very familiar with through his other work. The book in question is Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth and the author is Bart D. Ehrman. Even some of the reviewers who agreed with the author’s conclusion didn’t agree with his way of defending it, instead some even thought he had fallen into the traps of apologetics that Ehrman had previously criticized.

Most interestingly, some reviewers noted that it seemed Ehrman was on the defense. This is a new event in biblical studies. Belief in a historical Jesus has been the academic consensus, given that most biblical studies academics are believers and those who aren’t believers are typically former believers. Biblical studies is the only academic field that is so dependent on belief, as both a starting and ending point. The field itself and many if not most academics in it began with apologetics, Ehrman included.

Another academic that began with apologetics is Robert M. Price. Like Ehrman, Price went from believing apologist to non-believing scholar, the apologetics having led to the academic study which in turn led to doubt. The difference between Ehrman and Price is that the former couldn’t let go of the last remnant of biblical literalism (i.e., belief in a historical Jesus) and the latter could let it go. Price, although often a fence-sitter holding no allegiance to a single theory, has gone even further in recent years. He once held to the historical position until he looked at the mythicist position in detail, but Ehrman apparently has refused to look at it in detail and prefers to protect his beliefs by dismissing out of hand anything that would challenge it. The irony in this is immense considering Ehrman is one of the most well known enemies of apologetics.

Anyway, none of that is my concern here. All that interested me is how it has become clear that the table has turned. Mythicists are no longer on the defense and instead historicists are. The arguments and criticisms presented by mythicists has become an insurmountable challenge, as demonstrated by the increasing number of mythicist scholars – besides Robert M. Price, there is: G.A. Wells, Alvar Ellegard, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, D.M. Murdock, etc. Add to this the Gnosticism scholars and the disagreement with academic consensus keeps growing.

* * * *

Consensus is an interesting thing in academia.

As I pointed out, biblical studies is the only academic field so fully dominated by believers. The contrast with climatology is immense. Conservatives agree with the biblical studies consensus despite the lack of evidence and conservatives disagree with the climatology consensus despite the surplus of evidence. Their criticisms of science are inconsistent and self-serving. They aren’t being anti-intellectual out of principle (as Richard Hofstadter pointed out, no one is ever anti-intellectual about all issues). Conservatives simply realize that in certain cases the facts contradict their beliefs and so they pragmatically prioritize the latter, even as giving lip-service to the former.

Belief and fact are two very different worldviews. We have lived in a world, despite all the changes, that has remained held in check by ancient beliefs. However, we are finally coming to a point when those ancient beliefs are being challenged.

This is tremendous. Even many non-believers have been unwilling or undesirous of challenging the belief in a historical Jesus. Almost everyone wants a historical Jesus, just as long as it is their preferred version – for example: God born in human form to save mankind, travelling philosopher, enlightened wisdom teacher, failed apocalyptic preacher, political revolutionary, etc. To challenge this belief is to challenge a core assumption of all western civilization.

* * * *

There is one historical detail I will add as my concluding thought. I add it partly for the simple reason that it comes from another book I’m reading: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan Israel. As I said, I want to avoid the complexity to the extent I can, but I feel compelled to give a brief view of it.

There was no single Enlightenment (the reason for why there is no single classical liberalism, i.e., liberalism prior to the 20th century; also, why there still is no single liberalism; and, furthermore, why there is no single conservatism). Radical Enlightenment, according to Israel, began in the 17th century with Spinoza; and the proponents of the Radical Enlightenment (such as Paine) led to the reformist progressive liberals and paved the way for socialism. The moderate Enlightenment was a reaction to the radical Enlightenment and led to what Corey Robin calls ‘reactionary conservatism’.

I bring this up to clarify a point. We all are children of the Enlightenment, liberals and conservatives alike. This relates to Hofstadter’s observation that no one is absolutely and consistently anti-intellectual, at least not any modern post-Enlightenment person. The point that is clarified by Israel’s book is that the moderate Enlightenment proponents were wary of reason even as they respected it. They wanted the positive results of reason, but they also wanted to make sure reason was subjugated to religious belief, to hierarchical authority, and to social order. They didn’t want to destroy the aristocracy, just re-create it so that it would be less oppressive and more meritocratic. Both sides argued for reason, although one side argued more radically.

As such, we are still fighting the battle between the radial Enlightenment and the moderate Enlightenment. Should faith be subjugated to reason? Or should reason be subjugated to faith? Should we follow reason as far as it will go? Or should we withhold reason when it gets too close to what we deem fundamental?

For the first time in American history, the radical Enlightenment may be getting a foothold in public opinion and hence in mainstream society. Religion has never been weaker and science has never been stronger.

* * * *

If my observations are correct, this will be an earth-shaking shift and American society will never be the same again. Most people don’t notice the changes, not even most experts in their respective fields. That is the nature of such changes. They go below the radar for they can’t be understood within the present context. It’s a paradigm shift. The ideas planted centuries ago may be finally coming to fruition or at least experiencing a major growth spurt.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the proposed shift will make those on the left happy. It’s not to say that it will make anyone happy. We will all be challenged by it. The precise results can’t be predicted.

Intuitive Conservatism & Analytical Liberalism

I had two related thoughts.

First, I was considering the actual meaning of liberalism and conservatism. I noticed someone mention that conservatives rarely are interested in conserving and liberals are rarely interested in liberating. Actually, in the US, liberals are generally more interested in conserving than conservatives, but certainly conservatives aren’t more interested in liberating.

Second, I keep pondering what conservatism actually is about. Liberalism is more straightforward in some ways. Liberals may not put as much priority as left-wingers in liberating people, but liberals aren’t against liberating people. Liberalism more is about an attitude of openness which can express both in a desire to liberate from what is bad or conserve what is good. Conservatism, however, plays out on two levels where symbolism simultaneously represents and hides the deeper issues of meaning and values. For this reason, conservatism often can’t be taken at face-value.

These two thoughts relate in the data I’ve shared before about how most Americans self-identify as conservatives and yet support liberal policies. So, Americans tend to only find conservative principles attractive in the abstract, but what conservatives (and Americans in general) seek to conserve on the practical level are the achievements of the liberal movement, specifically the policies of the Progressive Era of the first half of the 20th century and the policies of Liberal Era around the middle of the 20th century.

How is symbolic thinking so powerful when it doesn’t seem to relate to concrete issues? The tricky part is that for conservatives the concrete conservative issues are the symbolic form of conservative values. So, conservative issues are never concrete even when or especially when they appear to be. For example, the conservative moral order grounded in in the conservative vision of family values is very compelling to many Americans. This gets expressed in concrete issues such as abortion, but when you get down to practical details conservatives don’t directly care about abortion, in terms of the gritty details of factual data. Liberal policies have proven themselves to decrease more abortions by decreasing unwanted pregnancies which is accomplished by better sex education, better availability of contraceptives, better women’s health services, etc. Conservatives won’t agree to liberal practices simply because they are more effective for the issue of abortions is symbolic, not practical.

The power of conservative symbolic thinking is that it conflates the symbolic with the concrete, the subjective with the objective, the metaphorical with the literal. This can be seen in religious fundamentalism where stories are so compelling because they are taken as real, even when there is no evidence of their reality. It is the refusal to submit to objective evidence that gives such symbolic stories their objective-seeming reality.

Liberals, on the other hand, seek to disempower such symbolic-minded conflation. This is why liberals speak more directly. When a liberal speaks about the issue of abortions, they are more genuinely concerned about the practical issue of decreasing abortions, among other concerns. Even religious liberals will tend to more clearly demarcate the symbolic and historical aspects of religion, sometimes even going so far as refusing to apologetically argue over historicity of religious figures. This is why liberals are greater defenders of analytical thinking and the scientific method. This is also why liberals aren’t as effective with political rhetoric. In undoing the conflation, liberals undo the very power of the conflation. Liberals love symbolic thinking taken on its own terms of symbolism such as with art, but symbols only have power as a political force when they become identified with concrete and social realities.

This creates quite the dilemma for liberals. Conservatives can never admit to their own way of symbolic thinking, can never admit that the superficial political issues are mere symbols. Conservatives intuitively understand that their effectiveness as a movement and that the compelling nature of their abstract principles necessitate never admitting this fundamental truth. For many of them, they can’t even admit it to themselves. Symbolic conflation can only work if there is no overt awareness of how it works, at least among average conservatives, although there are cynical conservative leaders (SDOs – Social Dominance Orientation types) who understand this and use it to manipulate the conservative movement (the relationship is very interesting between SDO leaders and Authoritarian followers).

Liberals seek to increase self-awareness, but this very kind of liberal self-awareness is the Achille’s heel of the conservative mind. Conservatives don’t want to question and analyze, not in this psychological introspective sense. They want to take action and create results. There is pragmatism in the conservative method, despite its apparent disregard of pragmatic details that get in the way of political ends.

There is a polar opposition between understanding and effectiveness. Liberals have better psychological understanding which ends up being the very reason they are politically ineffective, although it makes liberals into helpful therapists and service workers. This is a seemingly impossible situation. Liberals put so much emphasis on education and journalism because they understand liberalism can only operate effectively to the degree the conservative method is undermined, by way of undoing the conservative conflation that originates from anti-analytical intuitive thinking. In a world where rhetoric rules over facts, liberals will never win. Liberal ideals can never compete with the power of fundamentalist religion combined with right-wing think tanks. This is a major aspect of the pathetic weakness of liberalism. By its nature, liberalism is incapable of fighting dirty in this way. The moment liberals try to meet conservatives on the playing field of rhetoric, liberals are out-matched. Some liberals like Lakoff are trying to teach liberals to be able to play this kind of game better, but it’s not clear that liberals are capable of coming even close to competing with conservatives on this level.

The only hope liberals have is that which can be found in the younger generations. Kids growing up these days are more well educated relative to past generations, especially about the difference between religion and science. More importantly, kid these days are raised from a young age in the worldview of psychological understanding. Slowly over time, psychology and the social sciences in general have seeped into mainstream culture. This will eventually give liberals the advantage they need, but it isn’t clear that even this advantage will be enough.

I don’t wish to just criticize conservatism, but the conservative style of symbolic conflation is one of the most dangerous issues we face as a society. Liberals need to be criticized as well in that liberals aren’t well-equipped in dealing with the power presented by such conflation. Most liberals can’t even comprehend the conservative mindset or why their rhetoric is so persuasive. Liberals, despite their desire to understand, too often are clueless. Liberal values of mutual understanding are impotent in face of this conservative force that hits below the belt, that hits with an emotional punch that can’t be comprehended rationally. Liberals are barely even coming to terms with the problem, much less figuring out solutions.

In their desperation, liberals just cling tighter to their Enlightenment values. Liberals just don’t undersand why throwing more facts at the problem doesn’t persuade the public, why no matter how strong the scientific consensus a large part of the population will go on denying evolution and global warming. Liberals assume that there eventually has to be a breaking point where facts win over beliefs. This liberal faith in rationality is admirable, but maybe ill-advised. Time will tell.

I should add that in describing conservatives I have a basic sense of respect. They understand one thing about human nature seemingly better than liberals. They may not have a broader understanding, but this one thing they understand very very well.

In being so effective, conservatives could be argued to prove they are correct about human nature. Unlike liberals, conservatives don’t believe humans are primarily rational in this broad sense. Conservatives, instead, believe that humans only act responsibly (in a moral and social sense) for reasons of emotion: fear, shame, guilt, etc. It’s the punishment/reward model of both fundamentalism and capitalism. Conservatives are certainly correct in terms of it being easier to influence and/or manipulate people through negative emotions.

It makes me wonder. What does this say about human nature. Are liberals truly wrong about their faith in Enlightenment values and ideals? If so, where does that leave liberalism? If rationality will continue to fail or continue to not suceed to any great extent, then what value should we place on rationality? Should we all just accept the conservative assumption about human nature?

Anti-Science in Academia?

There is a phenomena I came across again: anti-science.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it again, though, if it didn’t frustrate me so much. The reason I feel frustrated in this moment is because of three different interactions I’ve had this past week or so. What stood out to me is that these interactions weren’t entirely typical in that it demonstrated how widely spread this problem is.

I should first explain that the issue frustrating me isn’t precisely an anti-scientific attitude, but something that nearly approximates it in specific contexts.

Several interactions I had were all well-educated people who have spent much time in academia. I know at least some of them have worked in the capacity of teaching. All of them are typical intellectual types who are well informed about the world and are certainly way above average in IQ. Also, they also seem like people who are more than capable of independent thinking and rational analysis. Basically, they aren’t anti-intellectual and, of course, wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Nonetheless, the doubts they express about certain scientific issues is so strong that it comes close to the doubts expressed by people who are more obviously anti-intellectual.

One commonality is that all of them have spent time outside of the country of their birth, at least one of them having lived significant part of his life in another country. A couple of them even speak another language besides English. So, these are relatively worldly people.

Besides the commonalities, my attention was caught by the fact that they are ideologically and academically quite diverse. Between them all: They run the entire ideological spectrum from left to right. And they include a diversity of academic knowledge and experience. They are even diverse in their religious proclivities or lack thereof.

I should point out that all of these people are intellectually respectable. In fact, I personally respect them for their intellects. It’s because of their general knowledgeablity and rationality that I enjoy discussing issues with them on occasion, although only one of them did I meet directly through such a discussion.

It is for this reason I felt so disheartened by my feeling the need to defend science against people who should know better… or maybe that isn’t quite the right way of saying it. It’s not that I think all of them are wrong in their views per se, except for one of them who I think is obviously wrong about the data. More basically, it’s just frustration at trying to communicate. Science is one of those topics that brings up a lot of ideological baggage which gets in the way, myself included. It seems odd to me that science is so often one of the most polarizing of issues. It makes me aware of how much views on science can diverge when even well educated people can disagree so widely. On top of that, it has become clear to me how much we are divided simply because of the powerful role of media.

These interactions involved a variety of scientific issues, all related to research: psychology of ideologies, IQ testing, global warming, etc. Fundamentally, all of these people felt some variation of mistrust about potential bias in various aspects: the researchers themselves, the limitations of research, the agendas of scientific institutions, how data was being interpreted or reported, etc.

The specifics aren’t all that important. In some cases, the doubts they shared were to some degree within reason. What didn’t seem reasonable to me was how strongly they held onto those doubts, how resistant they were to treat as trustworthy the scientific method and scientific community. Of course, my own biased opinions about science played into my own sense of conflict and frustration. It’s hard to discuss neutrally many of these kinds of issues, especially when they seem very important in how they touch upon many other issues (global warming being a particularly clear example of this).

It seemed to me that they didn’t want give scientists their due. Despite their being well educated, they were all speaking about science as laypeople. As a layperson myself, I tend to want to put more trust in scientific experts until I discover very good reasons to doubt; for certain, I feel annoyed when an entire scientific field is dismissed or devalued without any seeming good reason besides the consensus of that field not fitting the person’s worldview.

More specifically, it seemed that they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that scientists are more aware of and careful about such potential problems than anyone outside of the scientific fields. I would point out some of these scientific researchers (specifically the soccial scientists) are experts in bias and in some cases experts in the biases of science itself. If you want to know what are the reasonable doubts to have about science, you just need to ask scientists. Science works by trial and error. If there is bias or limitiation to some type of testing, scientists will be the first to point it out and fix the problem. The scientific method is a self-correcting system.

Doubt within the scientific method is essential and necessary. But doubt about the scientific method itself is a direct attack on the very ideal that puts knowledge above belief or opinion. That said, I’m sure none of these people meant to attack such an ideal and probably would see themselves defending it in their own way. It’s  just that it felt like their criticisms weren’t all that helpful coming from the sidelines of science.

Here is my response to all of this:

If we can’t trust that the best experts on bias can deal with potential problems of bias, then we lesser mortals are beyond any hope of non-scientifically dealing with biases. Attempting to dismiss or discredit a particular field of science is the opposite of helpful. As long as even well-educated intellecuals end up undermining science and the scientific method, whether intentionally anti-scientific or not, we are going to have a hard time advancing as a society. Considering the possibility of losing our collective faith in the ideal of knowledge, do most people realize what we would be giving up?

These interactions demonstrate the apparent failure of the non-scientific fields of academia… or maybe just failure of science education in general (I know the science education I received from the public school system was probably a bit lacking). I would imagine that even many of those working in higher education need to be better educated about science. Our entire society needs to be better educated all around, and I have no doubt that the people I speak of would agree with me on that.

My emotional response to these interactions might have less to do with the interactions themselves. Instead, it might just be that these interactions helped clarify my sense of the problem we face. My perception of science being undermined not only saddens me, it makes me fear for our future. This isn’t about any individual person or any individual doubt. We could argue about the specifics endlessly. What I’m pointing out is much more insidious, the undermining of scientific authority itself where any doubt almost automatically trumps even the vast knowledge accumulated by decades of experts, where scientific peer-review and consensus becomes a reason for doubt of expertise instead of a reason for trust… worst still, where the science itself and the scientists who do it seem to get lost in the cloud of conflict and the whole media charade, where we no longer even have a shared set of facts to work from, much less a shared set of values.

The line between questioning doubt and nihilistic denialism may be thinner than many realize. It’s a line that might be easy to cross. As individuals ocassionally going a little too far over the line isn’t necessarily problematic, but if such a crossing is done on a society-wide scale it may not be easily undone. Nothing good can come of this. We seem to be livng in a an era ruled by mistrust that dangerously verges on collective cynicism. We should tread very carefully.

Bashing My Head Against a Brick Wall: Love of Truth or Masochism?

I’ve come to a point of frustration. Let me explain.

A conclusion I’ve flirted with for many years is that humans are fundamentally NOT rational (which isn’t necessarily to say humans are irrational; a better word is ‘arational’). Humans have some minimal capacity for rationality, but I suspect most of what is considered ‘rational’ is too often largely just rationalization. This is no grand insight per se. Still, I’ve resisted it. I want to believe that humans can be persuaded by facts. I want to believe that truth matters. However, I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that people don’t change much once set in their ways (which tends to happen early in life). As such, people don’t usually change their minds even when confronted with new facts and new ways of interpreting the facts. It’s just that people die and new generations come along (with new biases). The best hope one has of changing another’s mind is to meet them when they are a small child. After that point, there is little hope left for any further change.

Debating most people is about as worthwhile as bashing your head against a brick wall. Even worse, the people most interested in ‘debate’ tend to be the very people who are least interested in truth. It’s rather ironic. People tend to seek out debate because they want to ‘prove’ themselves right, not to explore possibilities, not to learn something new. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. You might bash your skull to a bloody pulp before you find them.

And, no, I’m not excluding myself from my own criticisms. I know from my own experience how challenging it is to try to be ‘rational’ (objective, emotionally neutral, self-critical, aware of cognitive biases, being on guard for logical fallacies, genuinely trying to understand different viewpoints, being fair toward another’s argument, considering all the data instead of cherrypicking, and on and on). It’s hard enough for me to deal with all this within myself. It’s just too much to have to try to deal with it in other’s as well, especially when those others in most cases don’t want to (or don’t have the capacity to) deal with it in themselves. Spending so much time online, I end up interacting with many people who don’t bring out the best in me and who put me in a generally combative, irritable mood. And it’s my fault for being so easily effected. I’m the way I am. People are the way they are. There is nothing that can be done about that. In this post, I merely wish to explain my frustration.

– – –

I’ll give some examples.

I recently wrote about the differences between Southern and Northern cultures. There are two ways of treating these differences. The standard liberal view is that cultures are different with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects. The standard conservative view is that some cultures are inherently or fundamentally superior. The problem with the conservative view is that conservative states and societies don’t rank well on many factors most people consider worthy (education, health, economic equality, etc). The conservative will often dismiss this data outright or rationalize it away. And, of course, a lot of (most?) conservatives have little interest in conceding to the liberal view of openminded and tolerant multiculturalism. As a liberal, how do I win or how do I find a win/win middle ground of understanding? I often can’t.

When I was writing about the Southern/Northern culture issue, I also brought up the related issue of race and IQ because it’s a favorite discussion of conservatives. As a liberal, I have a bias toward believing in egalitarianism. It bothers me on a fundamental level that conservatives are always seeking to prove others (usually those different than them) are inferior. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to defer to science on these kinds of issues. Facts are more important than my beliefs and preferences. I take it seriously when conservatives reference studies suggesting a correlation between race (i.e., racial genetics) and IQ. Because I take facts so seriously, I’ve researched the subject extensively by looking at all the studies I could find along with meta-analysis of the studies. It’s true there are some studies that suggest a possible correlation between race and IQ. But what these conservatives don’t wish to acknowledge is that there are also many studies showing no correlation between race and IQ and also many studies correlating IQ to many other factors. Simply put, the data is complex and the research is inconclusive. There is no scientific consensus, as far as I can tell.

I find odd this conservative attitude. These conservatives will cite research that supports their preconceived conclusions while ignoring all the research that contradicts their views. They completely ignore the issue of scientific consensus. I’ve found conservatives quite suspicious of scientific consensus. Conservatives like science when it agrees with them, but they realize scientific authority is a two-edged sword. Once you accept scientific consensus, you eliminate your ability to cherrypick the data. As a comparable example, most conservatives utterly despise the fact that most scientists in all fields and vast majority (98% as I recall) climatology experts who are active researchers agree that the data supports the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). It took decades for conservatives to accept global warming was even happening, but seemingly most still don’t accept that humans contribute to global warming. So, despite the strong scientific evidence and strong scientific consensus, conservatives are wary about science when it disagrees with their beliefs. They’ll ignore what most scientists conclude about AGW and instead they’ll find the small minority of studies and scientists who agree with them.

Accordingly, science is just there to be referred to when convenient and ignored when inconvenient. I don’t understand this attitude. I just don’t get it. If the majority of experts agree about something, I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim that I know better nor will I simply cherrypick the data that agrees with me. Why would I do this? What is to be gained by such anti-intellectual tactics?

One last example. I was looking at reviews of some books by Jim Wallis. One reviewer (in reference to God’s Politics if I remember correctly) mentioned the abortion issue. The person was criticizing the ‘moderate’ position that Wallis was proposing. As I understand it, Wallis is against abortions except when they are absolutely necessary (such as to save the mother’s life) and so is against banning abortions entirely. This position is ‘moderate’ in two ways. First, it strikes a balance between the practical and the moral and seeks a middle ground between two extremes (of pro-life and pro-choice). Second, it is the view held by most Americans and so is the ‘center’ of public opinion. The critical reviewer was promoting the common conservative view that abortions are bad and so compromising principles is to let liberals win. In a sense this is true because compromise is a liberal principle but not a conservative principle. Polls show that liberals support and conservative don’t support compromise. Even independents, although more supportive than conservatives, don’t have a majority that supports compromise. So, when Wallis is promoting a ‘moderate’ position he is by default promoting the ‘liberal’ position. Also, on many issues, most Americans hold positions that are ‘liberal’ (even though Americans don’t like to label themselves as ‘liberals’).

It just seems like liberals in America always lose even when they win. The liberal can have facts and public opinion on their side… and, yet, liberals are treated like an elitist minority to be dismissed and distrusted. It’s understandable that conservatives are wary about science considering most scientists identify as ‘liberals’.

– – –

All of this has made me increasingly pessimistic. I grew up among idealistic liberals which rubbed off on me a bit, but I’ve over time become cynical in response. What is the point in bringing up facts and analyzing the data? Those who agree with me probably already know what I know or are at least open to learning. And those who disagree with me probably won’t accept the facts no matter what.

My frustration isn’t entirely limited to those on the right. I often find a simplemindedness in the idealism and egalitarianism on the left. Even so, I rarely find the same radical anti-intellectualism on the left as I described above. Plenty of liberals don’t understand science and misrepresent scientific research, but they tend to do so out of an admiration (albeit a confused admiration). There are, for example, the New Age type liberals who want to turn science into a pseudo-religion about the beauty of nature and the wonder of the universe. It’s well intentioned even if naive. From my view, this liberal simplemindedness is mostly harmless. Liberals generally aren’t interested in trying to use science against some race or culture. This isn’t to say I don’t feel frustrated by the liberal New Age woo, but it doesn’t usually make me angry and it won’t make me lose all hope in humanity. Even if a liberal dismisses out of hand scientific studies suggesting a possible correlation between race and IQ, they do so because of worthy ideals of egalitarianism. Liberals want to make the world better for everyone, not just better for one group. Liberals are correct that many conservatives will use any scientific research, with or without scientific consensus, against those they perceive as ‘other’. Yes, we should be wary of ulterior motives when scientific research is being cited.

It’s hard for me to grapple with my frustration or to fully understand it. It’s my own personal issue (which relates to the depression I’ve experienced for a couple of decades), but it’s obviously not just about me. I’m a liberal in a society that is dominated by a conservative ruling elite. I see the polls showing most Americans agree with liberals like me on many issues, but none of that seems to matter. Those with the most power and those who are loudest aren’t generally the liberals. It’s rare for the majority public opinion to become visible such as with the protests in Wisconsin. The liberal majority is largely a silent majority. Most ‘liberals’ (whether or not they identify themselves as such) are ‘moderates’ and so they aren’t radicals who want force their opinion onto others. Anyway, polls showing what most Americans believe or support is quite likely irrelevant to most conservatives. Either they just know most Americans agree with them (no matter what the polls may show) or else the general masses isn’t to be trusted (any more than the intellectual elite).

I’m just frustrated. I have many non-fiction books that interest me and many posts I’d like to write if I had the time… but what is the point? Time is a precious commodity. I could be spending it on activities less frustrating. Yes, I enjoy learning new things, but the process of learning can be less than enjoyable at times because of those I run into while doing research online. I think I just have to accept that what interests me isn’t what interests most others, including in many cases most other liberals. I can get obsessive when my curiosity is piqued. It’s not unusual for me to spend weeks or months doing research and thinking about some subject before writing about it and it can take equal amount of time to gather my thoughts into the form of a post. After all that, very few people typically will ever read what I write. I largely do it for my own reasons and so this shouldn’t matter, but it does matter. It just makes me feel isolated. Truth matters to me in the same way God matters to a religious believer. Truth is my religion. There I said it. I know it sounds silly. I know most people don’t idealize truth in this way and to this extent. It’s because truth matters to me that I want to communicate my own understanding of truth. I want truth to matter to other people. I want to live in a society that values truth above all else. But that isn’t the world I live in.

Honestly, does truth matter? Why should it matter? Why should anyone care about truth?

My frustration makes me feel cynical, but I don’t want to be a cynic. Still, I do understand the attraction of ‘giving up’. As Thomas Ligotti once wrote, in response to superficial optimists (which can apply to all the superficialities of human society): “Once you understand that, you can spare yourself from suffering excessively at the hands of ‘normal people’, a pestilent confederation of upstanding creatures who in concert keep the conspiracy going by rehashing their patented banalities and watchwords.” I can’t begin to explain how much I sympathize with Liotti’s words, but he presents a conclusion of radical pessimism that goes far beyond even my own frustration. What I like about his advice is that bashing one’s head against a brick wall becomes unnecessary and avoidable once one realizes the brick wall for what it is. The brick wall ain’t going to move, not easily anyway. Even the best of us can only bash our heads against a brick wall for so long. I can’t say I’ve given up on my ideal of truth. I just need to let my fractured skull to mend a bit for the time being. Maybe I should read some fiction.