Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Scientists Are no Different from Anyone Else

 
I admire Stephen Jay Gould for many reasons but his honesty ranks right up there near the top of the list.

Gould never pretended that individual scientists could be completely objective. He always said that they are no different than other people who have biases and prejudices. The special attributes of a scientist are that they recognize their biases and struggle to not let them influence their science.

He wrote a review of "Not in Our Genes: Biology, Idealogy and Human Nature" - a book by Richard Lewnotin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin, The review was later published in "An Urchin in the Storm."

In that review he acknowledged that he shared many of the opinions of the authors. He also wrote ...
... we scientists are no different from anyone else. We are passionate human beings, enmeshed in a web of personal and social circumstances. Our field does recognize canons of procedure designed to give nature the long shot of asserting herself in the face of such biases, but unless scientists understand their hopes and engage in vigorous self-scrutiny, they will not be able to sort out unacknowledged preference from nature's weak and imperfect message.
The problem in scientific discourse is not the background of the scientist but the strength and logic of the scientific arguments. It may be useful to see *why* certain scientists adopt certain positions at a particular point in time but that explains the history of an idea and not its correctness.
Leftist scientists are more likely to combat biological determinism just as rightests tend to favor this quintessential justification of the statu quo as intractable biology; the correlations are not accidental. But let us not be so disrespectful of thought that we dismiss the logic of arguments as nothing but an inevitable reflection of biases—a confusion of context of discovery whith context of justification.
Gould often laid his cards on the table when he confessed to his background. Whether it was baseball, a love of history, or a preference for New York, these were part of his personality and sometimes they crept into his science.

But honesty is not always the best policy. If you are honest enough to admit to prejudices and biases—even while you fight to suppress them—you aren't necessarily going to be admired. Especially if your opponents don't reveal their biases and pretend to be completely objective.

By drawing attention to the fact that scientists are no different than anyone else, Gould handed his enemies a weapon that could be used against him. How many of you have heard the charge that Gould is a Marxist, or (gasp!) a Liberal, and that's why he advocated Punctuated Equilibria? This is usually meant to discredit Gould because he revealed his background. Other scientists, who aren't so open, are given a free pass.

This is why you see a book about Gould and his politics but not a book about the politics of some of his opponents.



15 comments :

  1. The correct term would be "leftist" not "liberal"

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  2. Anonymous said...

    'The correct term would be "leftist" not "liberal"'

    Correct for whom about whom?

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  3. Sounds like you wish Gould had been more of a "positivist asshole"....I don't

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  4. "How many of you have heard the charge that Gould is a Marxist, or (gasp!) a Liberal, and that's why he advocated Punctuated Equilibria?"

    I can't say that I ever heard anyone claim that Gould's Marxism (or his liberalism) was what motivated him to advocate for Punctuated Equilibria. And I don't see the logical connection.

    I do understand his Marxism as a explanation, in part, for his vigorous opposition to scientific research into the genetic basis of behavior and intelligence (and his willingness to attack not only the science but the scientists to achieve those aims). And I think in those areas a recognition of his political philosophy is critical for anyone to fully understand his arguments.

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  5. And I think in those areas a recognition of his political philosophy is critical for anyone to fully understand his arguments.
    **************
    Wouldn't that be true of those on the other side as well?

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  6. Dawkins is coming to Chile, to speak at a foundation on evolutionary psychology and economics that was set up by Pinochet suporters, including Pinochet's famous ex-minister and once presidential candidate of the far right, Hernan Buchi.
    See, not everyone admits to their political synergisms ...but they are always there.

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  7. "for his vigorous opposition to scientific research into the genetic basis of behavior and intelligence"

    COUGH Make that the uncovering of previously unquestioned fraud and bad science supposedly demonstrating genetic factors of behaviour and intelligence.

    I think Gould fully endorsed research into these topics. Rather, the biology seesm to be theses traits are largely determined by interaction with the environment, with a truly minor role for normal genetic variation.
    Genes are necessary for developing normal intelligence: this is why you have genetic disorders that can cause mental retardation. But form there, whether you are an idiot or not does not depend on your genes, but on your education and what you decide to do with your life.

    The sad bit is that less-than-kosher science continues to be churned for a gene-centered view of human intelligece. Their evidence is ALWAYS tentaive and flimsy. But hey: somehow, it never stops.

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  8. now let me pose the question: don't you think there is some political motivation in seeing the differences in inteligence amnog normal people, as a result of genes? It's the conservatives dream: everyone holds the place he can and must: t's no use trying to drag the poor out of poverty: their gentic stuoidity will drag them right back to the gutter

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  9. Hmm looks like Dennet and Pinker are still on the lits, but Dawkins is no longer...interesting...

    http://www.fundacioncienciayevolucion.cl/seminarios/

    p.s. notice the company logos at the bottom of the page...these are all huge in Chile.

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  10. Hahahaha Dawkins is not coming after all hahaha

    http://www.fundacioncienciayevolucion.cl/general/2009/05/21/expositores-invitados/

    He has to promote his book...hahaha

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  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  12. "Gould never pretended that individual scientists could be completely objective. He always said that they are no different than other people who have biases and prejudices."

    Which is why I've always thought his most important book was "The Mismeasure of Man" where he uses a concrete example to illustrate that science is a profoundly human activity and the consequences that entails. A valuable lesson to scientists and layfolk alike.

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  13. Actually, acknowledging that scientists are prone to error and bias like everyone else in the world gives a good rule of thumb in peer review: "Cross examine assuming the worst about the author".

    Science came from the philosophy of checking things for yourself, not taking ones word as canonical truth. No one scientist is exempt from scrutiny, this is exactly what gives science it's strength.

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  14. "Which is why I've always thought his most important book was 'The Mismeasure of Man....'"

    Don't know about most important, but it was the book that introduced me to Gould and made me want to read much more of his work. I certainly haven't been disappointed (though I found Full House irritatingly repetitive, making admittedly significant points over and over again).

    Another excellent book regarding "intelligence" tests is "None of the Above" by David Owen, unfortunately out of print (though I think you can pick up used copies on Amazon). My favorite part of the book is a reading comprehension segment taken from an American SAT test. I had no problem getting all 4 questions correct. The kicker: The excerpt that the 4 questions are supposedly about is never shown in the book. It's a wonderful demonstration that if one has learned to assess and compare the answer choices, one doesn't even need the question to get the answer "correct."

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