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"When the world's great scientific thinkers change their minds"
February 12, 2008 6:55 AM   Subscribe

"When the world's great scientific thinkers change their minds". Some Big Name thinkers (Dyson, Pinker, Venter, ...) change their minds on some Big Ideas (race, evolution, global warming,..) and explain why in about a paragraph each. Via Edge.
posted by stbalbach (53 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
The last link contains an essay about the "Third Culture", the mandate of Edge magazine, which is interesting in its own right.
posted by stbalbach at 6:58 AM on February 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


I clicked to see if Pinker was pulling back. No, he says he's been too timid! Awesome.

And this in re: ToE:...I started to doubt unification, finding it to be the scientific equivalent of a monotheistic formulation of reality, a search for God revealed in equations.

I've been wondering about this myself. Physics students are taught about the "four fundamental forces" and so, when 3 of them are combined it is natural to try to combine the 4th. But what if Newton had formulated gravity more like Einstein did, as a curved spacetime? Then gravity would be taught as a pseudo-force that is a useful fiction for understanding what is really curved spacetime, right? So there'd be no real impetus to combine it with "real" forces like EM and the two nuclear ones.

I guess what I'm saying is: Why does gravity has to be at all related to the other three forces just because we use happen to use the word "force" when talking about both for historical reasons?
posted by DU at 7:04 AM on February 12, 2008


Strictly speaking, not a double.
posted by Gyan at 7:15 AM on February 12, 2008


Well, I thought the soundbites were fascinating, roughly within my limited grasp, provocative and excellent.

Which means I've missed the point, probably.

Thanks v. much!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:23 AM on February 12, 2008


Thanks for this - I was just looking for this and the link that Gyan posted last night and couldn't find it. Serendipity does exist!
posted by never used baby shoes at 7:28 AM on February 12, 2008


DU: isn't the point that we can't use any of the other three forces to explain why space-time curves?
posted by leibniz at 7:33 AM on February 12, 2008


This is why science is pretty great.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 7:45 AM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't know, is that the point? I've never heard it explained that way, but it makes sense I guess.
posted by DU at 7:53 AM on February 12, 2008


I wonder how many popes and bishops they asked, and why they couldn't find any to include in the article.
posted by DreamerFi at 7:56 AM on February 12, 2008


The bombs didn't end WWII? That was a new one. Of course they did, despite what side you take on the issue.
posted by Senator at 8:17 AM on February 12, 2008


I wonder how many popes and bishops they asked

They are not part of "The Third Culture"
posted by stbalbach at 8:17 AM on February 12, 2008


I changed my mind about an important historical question: did the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring World War Two to an end? Until this year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no. - Freeman Dyson

New facts? At Potsdam, the Allies (including Russia) agreed to press Japan for an unconditional surrender. The Potsdam declaration calling for Japan's surrender or "destruction" was July 26. The Japanese declined. On Aug. 6, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The Russians invaded Japanese controlled Manchuria on Aug. 8, easily defeating the Japanese army. On Aug. 9 the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese announced their surrender on Aug. 15, 6 days later, ending combat in the second world war. It is inconceivable that they would have surrendered less than two weeks after initially refusing to do so absent the bombing. This is silly.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:17 AM on February 12, 2008


Striving to give people equality of social opportunity is still a value system worth defending, but we have to accept that equality has no place in the realm of biology.

This requires one to first determine the criteria by which one biological feature is superior to another. Those criteria can (and in my opinion, usually are) culturally determined. And because of the complex relationship between biological factors, cultural factors, and survival, you can't just say, "genetically prone to greater strength = better biology" because the system is so complex is so complicated. In other words, Baron-Cohen's statement doesn't mean much, and opens a dangerous door to eugenically-inspired social/biological distinctions between races, sexes, sexualities, or perhaps some other new biologically organized marker.

I.I. Rabi, who, in our many corridor bull sessions, urged his students to run for public office .... A Congress which is overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers and MBAs makes no sense in this 21st century in which almost all issues have a science and technology aspect.

Then I hope those scientists get the training in ethics and critical thinking that our lawyers and MBAs don't, otherwise we've just created a different problem.

[I used to think] Men are at the top because they are smarter .... But I have now changed my mind.

Oh come on. How long did it take you to reach that brilliant conclusion? Welcome to the 1960s.
posted by papakwanz at 8:18 AM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Striving to give people equality of social opportunity is still a value system worth defending, but we have to accept that equality has no place in the realm of biology.

In twenty-thirty years, I suspect the term "equality" will be replaced with "free will", biologically speaking.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:24 AM on February 12, 2008


“Why does gravity has to be at all related to the other three forces just because we use happen to use the word "force" when talking about both for historical reasons?”

Perhaps it will be retconned so it’s biologically based?

Honestly, I think you’re on the correct tack in terms of semantics. But one is still considering unity in conceptualization. Gravity is still a tensor field whether space time is curved or not. It is a ‘force’ in that its effects are felt. The problem is with the standard model of particle theory. Some interesting things done in gauge coupling (superpartners, etc), but again, you’re attempting to work around a conceptualization.

For example there is no observational evidence that supersymmetry exists, yet it’s a nice working conceptual model which, if it actually does exist, solves a number of major issues in particle physics, unification of the weak, strong and electromagnetic forces among them.

I think Gleiser is both wrong and correct however, given the current tools, it does seem bleak. However, there’s nothing that says we must remain married to a given theory set. One observation of something amazing and it will turn everything on it’s ear.

The Michelson–Morley experiment is an example. 19th century physics demanded “aether” as the medium to propogate light waves. Einstein still clung to the concept for some time even though special relativity had no need of it.
General relativity postulates gravitational waves and these have been indirectly observed, but the observation exists as effects and the math, not as something like a boiling pot of water that reflects light into our eyes so we observe it directly. What then is a “wave”?

Unification is a matter of having the correct conceptualization of the basic forces, not having those forces fit into whatever box we’ve premade for them.
Gleiser then is correct that we probably can’t do it with the set of tools we’ve been using. But of course we’re not limited to just those conceptual tools any more than we had to stay true to Newton.


“The atomic bomb won the war”

Dyson is a brilliant physicist. It’s my understanding that the definition of what is “winning” in war is constituted by the political sciences. Operation overlord was all set to begin the invasion of Japan. Would that have “won” the war? Most assuredly. Would there have been more American casualties? Most assuredly. The choice then is use the weapon(s) or begin the invasion.

The more important question is what move best begins the peace?
What would have been the impact on the Japanese collective psyche to have an invasion of that magnitude on their soil? Given the fury of American troops, a number of other factors that apply to any invading army, would the invasion have been worth sparing the use of atomic weapons?

The question is far more broad than merely winning the war. And perhaps, given the view of history, the use of those bombs and the knowlege of the abject horror they brought prevented their use later in history.
Only madmen have since threatened or even contemplated their use on another population.
Not to delve into the “no true Scotsman” fallacy here, but Nixon and Bush Jr.’s megalomania and ignorance are rather obvious.

It speaks volumes that Henry Kissinger, who had no problem with carpet bombing Cambodia and allowing the resultant genocides to go on, admonished Nixon against using nuclear weapons in Vietnam.
Bush on the other hand is a Charles Cheswick of sorts. Visibly so. Very little of what he says has any bearing on what he may or may not do.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 8:24 AM on February 12, 2008


Pastabagel:

Unconditional surrender vs. conditional. I'm not a WW2 expert, but I have read things that suggest that had the Allies pressed for a conditional surrender, the Japanese would have gone for it, given the very obvious cracks in their military/political machine.
posted by papakwanz at 8:26 AM on February 12, 2008


I should say: what is a “wave” absent a medium?
It is perhaps implied, but not explicit that the question is in the sense we normally use words and in consideration of DU’s comment on the use of the term “force.”
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 8:30 AM on February 12, 2008


This requires one to first determine the criteria by which one biological feature is superior to another.

Inequality does not imply a total ordering. 1 does not equal 1+i (that is, 1+sqrt(-1)), but under the usual "less than" comparison you can't say anything about which one is larger. Similarly, we can note biological inequality without implying biological superiority or inferiority.
posted by agent at 8:52 AM on February 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


10
Races do not exist

Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist, Reading University

There is an overbearing censorship to the way we are allowed to think and talk about the diversity of people on Earth. Officially we are all the same: there are no races. Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. What this all means is that, like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations—including differences that may even correspond to old categories of 'race'—that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem. This in no way says one group is in general 'superior' to another, or that one group should be preferred over another. But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.


Bring on the MeFireworks!
posted by tkchrist at 8:59 AM on February 12, 2008


agent: Similarly, we can note biological inequality without implying biological superiority or inferiority.

Well, most people don't care about the ordering of imaginary numbers relative to real numbers. Some biological traits, most notably intelligence, are assigned value judgments by people and it's not really possible for scientists to banish such thinking.
posted by Gyan at 9:01 AM on February 12, 2008


we can note biological inequality without implying biological superiority or inferiority.

Then call it biological difference. The writer here is using the word "equality" in such a way as to draw on its meaning in political discourse:

"Striving to give people equality of social opportunity is still a value system worth defending, but we have to accept that equality has no place in the realm of biology."

The subtext here seems to me to be: "We can try to make people equal (that is, without advantage or disadvantage) in the social realm, but biologically there will always be inequalities (superiority vs. inferiority)."

My point may seem like semantic quibbling, but the I think that the rhetoric of ordering and hierarchy permeates this writer's discussion of biological inequality, and thus is potentially insidious.
posted by papakwanz at 9:17 AM on February 12, 2008


I wish that gross Einstein picture would disappear forever.
posted by dminor at 9:21 AM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


New facts? At Potsdam, the Allies (including Russia) agreed to press Japan for an unconditional surrender. The Potsdam declaration calling for Japan's surrender or "destruction" was July 26. The Japanese declined. On Aug. 6, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The Russians invaded Japanese controlled Manchuria on Aug. 8, easily defeating the Japanese army. On Aug. 9 the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The Japanese announced their surrender on Aug. 15, 6 days later, ending combat in the second world war.

Pastabagel, his full answer including his facts, is here. Not saying he is drawing the correct conclusion, but at least he did show his work.
posted by never used baby shoes at 9:23 AM on February 12, 2008



My point may seem like semantic quibbling, but the I think that the rhetoric of ordering and hierarchy permeates this writer's discussion of biological inequality, and thus is potentially insidious.

Insidious? I think you are missing larger point entirely.
posted by tkchrist at 9:43 AM on February 12, 2008


Baron-Cohen: Striving to give people equality of social opportunity is still a value system worth defending, but we have to accept that equality has no place in the realm of biology.

papakwanz: This requires one to first determine the criteria by which one biological feature is superior to another.

That's a non-sequitur. It is wrong to jump from the fact that there are different colours of hair, to saying that we must therefore rank brunettes, blonds, etc.. by social worth. The first is simply an observable fact, the second an imposition of cultural values. The differences themselves do not have intrinsic social ranking.

By making such an argument, you prove Baron-Cohen's point. To make sense of human biology, we need to stop conflating cultural values with biological fact. Sensationalizing facts with value judgements produces bad, that is to say not useful, knowledge.

Baron-Cohen's point is that theories about human differences due to gender, "race", disability, etc... may have grounding in real biology (as opposed to, say these guys). Further, there needs to be a space, an understanding that these issues can be talked about. His point is about academic and research freedom, not about social justice.

On preview: it's not a quibble, it's a logic error.
posted by bonehead at 9:46 AM on February 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


papakwanz: "We can try to make people equal (that is, without advantage or disadvantage) in the social realm, but biologically there will always be inequalities (superiority vs. inferiority)."

That's not a bad reading of it but Baron-Cohens point is that your first equal and your second are not equivalent. Conflating the two, cultural value with biological fitness, is the source of your error, and leads to bad science.
posted by bonehead at 9:52 AM on February 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


My argument is that Baron-Cohen is the one conflating biological fact with cultural values. His use of the rhetoric of equality bears witness to that. The statement that he is responding (in the negative) to is "We are all equal" not "We are all identical."

Here's his entire blurb (which, I will grant, could be different in its complete context):

"When I was young I believed in equality as a guiding principle in life."

What kind of "equality" is he referring to? I can't imagine that he means anything but political/social equality. That is, the liberal democratic idea that whatever our other differences (race, gender, sex, sexuality, religion, etc) we possess some innate value that gives us all equal rights, equal political voice, etc. In other words, we are "equal" but not or in spite of the fact that we are not "identical."
Equality contains within it notions of hierarchy/ordering, whereas identity contains difference w/o hierarchy.

"My mind has been changed. I still believe in some aspects of the idea of equality, but I can no longer accept the whole package."

Given his use of the word "equality" in the previous sentence, is he changing his definition to mean identity? Is he conflating identity and equality? Perhaps, in fact, probably, it is merely a rhetorical error on his part. But, it implies that his former liberal democratic notion of equality no longer holds true. It seems to me that here he is (inadvertently?) saying that something (which he'll define in the next statement) has interfered and has made humans unequal.

"Striving to give people equality of social opportunity is still a value system worth defending, but we have to accept that equality has no place in the realm of biology."

Thus my earlier reading of this statement. I think what he intends to say is that biology makes humans non-identical, and that the rhetoric of equality does not belong in the realm of biology at all (ie. let's only talk about difference/identity without value, not a hierarchical ranking of biological characteristics as better/worse). But, his statement can be very easily interpreted to say that biology is a realm in which there is no such thing as equality, that certain factors make one person/group better/worse than another.

So, in other words, bonehead (not an insult!), I'm saying that the conflation of the two different senses of equality is Baron-Cohen's error, not mine, and that he (or people jumping off from his work) are the ones in danger of producing bad science.
posted by papakwanz at 10:11 AM on February 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Fuck Edge. Fuck the "Third Culture."

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.


Fuck this philistine, low-grade pseudocritique. Scientists who have read a book or two, but are still blinded by the prejudices and idiocies of scientism, do not a "third culture" make; in fact, that proud denial that anything written after 1950 is worth reading because it's just commentary on commentary d00d is precisely what makes the second culture so impervious to tempering and humbling influences. Give me Paul Feyerabend, give me Joseph Priestley, give me Mikhail Lomonosov, give me Ernst Mach and Thomas Kuhn and, hell, even Freud: these are scientists who have found the essence of the humanities, who have found their views of life overturned by philosophy. They didn't mince and strut in the shabbiness of their intellectual commitments, with a ready sneer for any un-superficial critique; reading a shelf of Barnes and Noble classics does not an intellectual make.

If Dawkins and Pinker are the new intellectuals, then--as Umberto Eco once wrote--the Middle Ages have truly returned. Goodbye to all that.
posted by nasreddin at 11:56 AM on February 12, 2008 [6 favorites]


The Baron-Cohen paragraph is disquieting, because his specialism is autism: is he implying that some people are less than equal because they are born with (or develop) mental disabilities? And if that isn't his meaning, shouldn't he say so plainly?
posted by MinPin at 12:21 PM on February 12, 2008


DreamerFi: I wonder how many popes and bishops they asked

Stbalbach: They are not part of "The Third Culture"


How is Brian Eno any more a representative of Third Culture than a pope or bishop?

I get the feeling that "Third Culture" is just shorthand for "people John Brockman thinks are cool."
posted by jayder at 12:32 PM on February 12, 2008


papakwanz, I guess we just read it differently. Baron-Cohen's statement says to me that the concept of "equality", as defined in the social justice context, has no place, isn't useful, in biology. It appears to me that your reading of it injects the value judgement. Do you not see the differentiation he tries to make in the last sentance?
posted by bonehead at 12:37 PM on February 12, 2008



Pastabagel, his full answer including his facts, is here. Not saying he is drawing the correct conclusion, but at least he did show his work.


Well, one of his points is:

The Emperor, in his rescript to the military forces ordering their surrender, does not mention the nuclear bombs...

But ...

Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.

-- Emperor Hirohito
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:47 PM on February 12, 2008


bonehead: I'm not saying that he's not *trying* to make that differentiation. I'm just saying that he doesn't successfully do it. His thought process, as his rhetoric expresses it, seems to go:

1. I used to think that people were equal.
2. I studied biology.
3. Now I know that people are not equal.

What he intends is probably more like:

1. I used to think that people were equal.
2. I studied biology.
3. Now I know that people are different, biologically.
4. But, they can still be equal, socially/culturally/politically/economically/whatever.

Regardless of his intention, it is still a disturbing statement because it opens up room for all sorts of nasty interpretations & policies (my interpretation being one that I think such hypothetically nasty people would make to serve their own racial/misogynist/whathaveyou interests). I guess I just don't see why one would even need to change their mind about "I used to think people are equal" based on biology. Did he think that people were identical, biologically speaking, before his scientific education? Like I said, I think he's making the logical error, I'm just trying to analyze how it comes out.
posted by papakwanz at 1:08 PM on February 12, 2008


I'm inferring here, but my guess is that he previously believed in equality of outcomes, "you can do anything you want to", as well as opportunity. Having seen the limitations of some of his patients, my guess is that he changed his mind on the first, while still believing in equality of opportunities. By implication then, "equality has no place in the realm of biology", arises from his new understanding that biological differences cause differences in potential outcomes. Thus, we need to undertand those differences and more, we need social permission to do so.

I do think he uses your second argument, though in the text he reverses your points 3 & 4.

Your "I used to think people are equal" is at least double-barreled: does that mean can have equal outcomes or should have equal opportunities? In any case, identical doesn't have the same meaning as equal at all. That may be another source of your difficulty.
posted by bonehead at 1:34 PM on February 12, 2008


nasreddin writes "If Dawkins and Pinker are the new intellectuals, then--as Umberto Eco once wrote--the Middle Ages have truly returned. Goodbye to all that."

Care to quote Eco on that ? As you named two people who actually are on my map (Dawkins and Eco, Pinker I wonder if it's a justaposition) I'd like to know who said what about who, as it's pretty ordinary to just say "whatever" if reactionary forces suggest a the present look a little more like middle ages.
posted by elpapacito at 1:34 PM on February 12, 2008


On Simon Baron-Cohen: I'm with papakwanz, but I'm going to be nice and hope that something got cut in the editing process that makes his logic more cohesive. I'm also with MinPin - the disability/autism angle is somewhat disconcerting.

Although I don't know that much about Pagel's views and am not going to instantly jump on board with everything that he says, I think he did a better job articulating "social equality vs. biological difference" in a small word count.

On Helena Cronin: Females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males, the variance—the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst—can be vast.

Uh ... well, in fairness, I guess this is marginally less offensive than her first hypothesis. Instead of being stupid, we're just all the same, yay!

Reining in the sarcasm, though, her "answer" - even if it IS true, which has not been demonstrated (I certainly see no reason to believe it) - is not really an answer but a step towards one.

1. Men appear to succeed more than women.
---> 2. They succeed more than women and also fail more than women. (Cronin's observation)
------> 3. Women's abilities cluster around the mean more than men's abilities (Cronin's "conclusion")
--------->4. Why do women's abilities cluster around the mean when men's do not? (The question Cronin fails to ask) Is it biological? Are women comparatively more socialized to minimize their successes and cover up their failures than men? Etc.

"Oh, well, women are just more average" seems to me to be an easy way out of asking the interesting questions. Now, again, there may have been some editing, but the paragraph that is there does not impress me.
posted by bettafish at 1:51 PM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]



Care to quote Eco on that ? As you named two people who actually are on my map (Dawkins and Eco, Pinker I wonder if it's a justaposition) I'd like to know who said what about who, as it's pretty ordinary to just say "whatever" if reactionary forces suggest a the present look a little more like middle ages.


Eco wrote an essay called "The Return of the Middle Ages," and he doesn't mention Dawkins and Pinker. Sorry for the confusion.

You can rant about the evil reactionaries all you want, but that doesn't concern me; I only care about the cultural and intellectual sphere. I also have no idea what the hell you're trying to say.
posted by nasreddin at 2:11 PM on February 12, 2008


> I wonder how many popes and bishops they asked, and why they couldn't find any to include in the article.
> posted by DreamerFi at 10:56 AM on February 12 [+] [!]

They couldn't ask Thomas Aquinas because he's, y'know, dead and all. But as a Christian thinker he outranks any bishop and all but a tiny handful of Popes. And he changed his mind pretty radically. The Summa Theologica is one of the great peaks of human thought, but it is unfinished because in 1273 Aquinas experienced an ecstacy--it's hard not to imagine it as a kensho moment--during Mass after which he said "I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value."
posted by jfuller at 2:40 PM on February 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Men are at the top because they are smarter" is supposed to be the thing that Helena Cronin has changed her mind about. Except that the conclusion she comes to is 100% in line with this statement. There is greater spread among males, meaning that the smartest men are smarter than the smartest women and the dumbest are dumber than their femail counterparts.
In other words, at the top, men outperform women (i.e. those men who are at the top are there because they are smarter).

"Men are at the top because they are smarter on average" would have been a better way to phrase the idea tossed onto the trash heap.
posted by sour cream at 2:55 PM on February 12, 2008


"femail" -> "female" Urgh.
posted by sour cream at 2:56 PM on February 12, 2008


Damn. I almost argued with my biology professor once on the "we've stopped evolving" point. I took Evolution and Anthropology at the same time, and he definitely had a few misconceptions that aren't backed up by what we now know but that were I think well accepted a generation ago. He and one other professor both pushed some version of a "we are successful because we eat meat" argument, too.
posted by Tehanu at 4:05 PM on February 12, 2008


"Why do women's abilities cluster around the mean when men's do not?"

I'll throw one out there, highly speculative but something I suspected since high school - think about all of the genes located on the X chromosome. Men get one X chromosome, with a few (and a very few) genes thrown in on the Y. Women get two X chromosomes, one of which is deactivated into a Barr body at random throughout the cells (although this can be, in some instances, not as random as we had thought).

To vastly oversimplify, the net effect of this is that men roll one die, and so get results all over the board - 1 through 6, equally distributed. Women roll two dice and average them out ... women can still get snake eyes (2 / 2 = 1) or boxcars (12 / 2 = 6), but you'll see a much greater clustering around 3.5. It's the beginnings of a bell curve.

Now, this is only one lousy chromosome, but genes for what we might think of as related, macroscopic traits are scattered over all of our chromosomes - height is on a few chromosomes, if I recollect (not a fair example, due to the testosterone factor, but illustrative). Thus, with only one dice roll, guys get no backup in the case of a really disastrous number, but they also don't have a second roll that might drag down the average in case they get a great number the first shot out.

Yes, there are other factors, both biological, sociological, cultural, etc. But I'd bet that, throughout various sexed species, you'd see more variation in the sex that has only the one "information-heavy" sex chromosome to fall back on. Biologists, help me out.

Can you tell I play too much D&D?
posted by adipocere at 4:10 PM on February 12, 2008


My problem with Edge is that it's horribly organized, and you're never sure if you're reading the main body of an article, an excerpt used as an introduction, a second writer that's introducing the introduction, or an excerpt of the introduction used as an introduction to the introduction.

That, and everything gets reused and hyped until I end up, over the course of several weeks, reading introductions the same introduction several times until I realize that I've already read the article.

Similarly this article is a distillation of the full question of the year, if you want a bit more from Simon Baron-Cohen.
posted by Llama-Lime at 4:28 PM on February 12, 2008


Men get one X chromosome, with a few (and a very few) genes thrown in on the Y. Women get two X chromosomes, one of which is deactivated into a Barr body at random throughout the cells (although this can be, in some instances, not as random as we had thought).

I think this might hold some weight if women were diploid and men were haploid. Even though it's true that many traits are controlled by genes on more than one chromosome, that one pair shouldn't weigh so heavily into the variation within each sex for something as multivariate and likely scattered across the autosomal chormosomes as "intelligence." I don't think that's a single variable even though it often gets discussed as if it is.

I suspect it's more social environment than genes. A more constrained realized niche compared to men, but maybe a more similar fundamental niche. Compared to similar women, the "Nobel" men may have less holding them back, and the "dumbell" men may have more of a safety net. Why are there so few female mathematicians, for example? There was a study I read awhile ago (sorry I can't find it) that found that women feel more pressure to do well in college compared to their brothers because the degree gives them a big jump in job opportunities and pay. Conversely, their brothers are more likely to drop out, but also more likely to find a job they consider "good enough" once they leave. I think when you are struggling for equality, it may be more difficult to realize your potential and more risky to fail to realize a certain amount of it, so women may fall closer to a mean due to limits both above and below.

Think about it: women like Hillary Clinton are constantly criticized for not being feminine enough, for being too manly, for acting like a man. She's acting like a politician, but that role, like many high-profile and high-stakes roles, requires a suite of skills and behaviors that are still considered to be "manly." So women who aim for those roles find it difficult to land them, and many more women who might be qualified will not try. So there are very few women who run for highly visible political positions, but there are many wives of politicians who are involved in the process and many women who are elected at local levels. But still few are involved in a high-profile and high-stakes way.
posted by Tehanu at 5:00 PM on February 12, 2008


Hey nasreddin, care to explain some of your vitriol? I see a lot of the science-hate from people that consider themselves young intellectuals in the humanities, but have never got anybody to explain it or defend it. Edge's characterization of 20th century "intellectualism" seems fairly accurate to me. A *lot* has happened since Marx and Freud, and even their remaining defenders not claim that Mark and Freud alone are sufficient for an education. And the chain of movements since the 1950s, Structuralism, Post-structuralism, and even Post-post-structuralism (yes, I'm serious) all seem to be best explained as reactions to previous movements. Not that you could ever really get somebody to claim that they were a member of any of these movements, so it's kind of a problem to even to try to characterize them, but any characterization attempted seems to note the reactionary elements.

Specifically, what "prejudices and idiocies of scientism?" Some circles seem to take this as a given, and nobody will tell me what they are, as if daring to ask them means that I could never understand. I once got somebody to mention "assuming linearity," but they obviously didn't know what it meant, and it's obviously untrue. If you have any references, I would absolutely love to see them.

How does Dawkins "mince and strut in the shabbiness of their intellectual commitments?" (I'm excluding Pinker, because I don't really take him seriously).

And finally, how does science possibly return us to the Middle Ages? I like what I have read by Eco, and I doubt that a culture of scientists is what he meant with that. I'd check now, but for some reason it's not available online, so I can't get to it for a while. In fact, science's rejection of textual supremacy is the very opposite of Middle Ages scholarship.

Basically, I feel like we are on different planets, and would really appreciate if you'd take the time to take smaller steps, or at least send references.
posted by Llama-Lime at 5:51 PM on February 12, 2008


Hey nasreddin, care to explain some of your vitriol? I see a lot of the science-hate from people that consider themselves young intellectuals in the humanities, but have never got anybody to explain it or defend it. Edge's characterization of 20th century "intellectualism" seems fairly accurate to me. A *lot* has happened since Marx and Freud, and even their remaining defenders not claim that Mark and Freud alone are sufficient for an education. And the chain of movements since the 1950s, Structuralism, Post-structuralism, and even Post-post-structuralism (yes, I'm serious) all seem to be best explained as reactions to previous movements. Not that you could ever really get somebody to claim that they were a member of any of these movements, so it's kind of a problem to even to try to characterize them, but any characterization attempted seems to note the reactionary elements.

I'm not hating on science. I'm hating on people who think they speak for the scientific worldview, when they really represent only a particularly stereotypical and narrow slice of what science is about, and then try to pass off their flatulent pronouncements as the voice of a Third Culture that has vanquished those pesky English majors once and for all.

Additionally, do you know what you're talking about with regards to structuralism/poststructuralism? What does it mean to say that they're "reactions to previous movements"? In that sense, quantum mechanics is just a reaction to nineteenth-century electrodynamics is just a reaction to Newtonianism is just a reaction to Cartesianism--does that invalidate any of those theories? If you read Levi-Strauss, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Adorno, it's difficult to suggest that there's no originality there, unless you happen to be closed-minded from the beginning. Plus, I've never claimed Marx and Freud alone were sufficient for anything, and neither does anyone else--it's a strawman erected by Edge to appeal to mouthbreathing Third Culture types.

You speak as if you've read any contemporary work in continental philosophy or lit theory, but it's evident you have not. What is "post-post-structuralism"? Care to name any authors? I've never heard anyone use the term except in jest. They're not really movements, either: people who are familiar with them will tend to borrow eclectically, both from structuralists like Levi-Strauss and post-structuralists like Kristeva.

Specifically, what "prejudices and idiocies of scientism?" Some circles seem to take this as a given, and nobody will tell me what they are, as if daring to ask them means that I could never understand. I once got somebody to mention "assuming linearity," but they obviously didn't know what it meant, and it's obviously untrue. If you have any references, I would absolutely love to see them.

How does Dawkins "mince and strut in the shabbiness of their intellectual commitments?" (I'm excluding Pinker, because I don't really take him seriously).


Scientism implies a lot of prejudices and half-truths and, yes, idiocies (I don't know what "assuming linearity" means either). Many of these have to do with science itself: for example, the Popper falsifiability criterion, which is always trotted out as a hallmark of science; the idea that there is such a thing as a rigorous scientific method that fits theory to raw data; the idea that the Scientific Revolution is a watershed moment because of the tremendous qualitative methodological differences between Galileo and Ptolemaic astronomy (for why these are false, read Feyerabend, Against Method, and Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century. England). These ideas create an ideological construct called "science" which in fact bears comparatively little relation to science as it is actually practiced. Scientism is the appeal to this ideology, and I think its central idiocy is the idea that "science" ought to limit or determine the horizon of our ethics and metaphysics.

It is my prerogative as a thinking being to decide on what I believe the ontological status of the external world to be, to determine my ethical relationship to it, and to formulate various methodological criteria by which I can distinguish acceptable judgments from unacceptable ones. The actual conclusions I reach at any given moment are more or less immaterial: I can be a solipsist, a Berkeleyan idealist, a Schopenhauerean pessimist, whatever. This is because the true value of this philosophical liberty of thought lies in its ability to change and adapt to the needs of the individual, in response to them. (This is a broadly Nietzschean position). Scientism, though, postulates the empirical data of science as facts that have ontological priority over any other kind of experience: SCIENCE says this, and if you don't believe it, you're a bad person and are not to be trusted! And yet the data of science cannot have ontological priority over other kinds of experience, because they are just as questionable as anything else, and there are so many filters between the working-out of the data and its reporting that any talk of objectivity is pretty laughable.

You probably think this is an irrelevant objection, since only crazies believe in solipsism anyway. The trouble comes when this attitude transmits itself to ethics, which we see in the post itself--the confusion between various senses of equality. At root, treating people as equal is an ethical decision, not an empirical one. But the ideological claim of scientism is always, implicitly, that because the empirical data do not correspond with your ethics, the problem is with the latter; the empirical has to bind and determine the ethical, which is why all the garbage about racial intelligence differences is held to represent a triumph of some sort. I think that that's both bad and wrong.

For example, seethis interview with Dawkins:
Q. What are your thoughts about the despair some people feel when they ponder natural selection and random mutation? The idea of evolution and natural selection makes some people feel that everything is meaningless--people's individual lives and life in general.
A. If it's true that it causes people to feel despair, that's tough. It's still the truth. The universe doesn't owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn't owe us a nice warm feeling inside. If it's true, it's true, and you'd better live with it.
Now, what Dawkins is suggesting here is not that human beings shape their own ethical explanations and life-purposes, which is the only acceptable answer. He's committing the same error the creationists are: that the empirical data of science should determine whether your life has meaning or not. Evolution false, life has meaning; evolution true, life is devoid of meaning and you should just live with that. Both answers are idiotic, because only you have the ability and obligation to decide this question for yourself--science cannot do it.


And finally, how does science possibly return us to the Middle Ages? I like what I have read by Eco, and I doubt that a culture of scientists is what he meant with that. I'd check now, but for some reason it's not available online, so I can't get to it for a while. In fact, science's rejection of textual supremacy is the very opposite of Middle Ages scholarship.


It's a good essay, you should read it either way, but it only bears on my argument in a general sense (Eco is arguing that the widespread cultural fascination with the Middle Ages suggests or can be attributed to the return of many medieval attributes in social and intellectual life). I actually find a lot to like in medieval thought, but I think scientism partakes of the worst aspects of it.

You see, it wasn't just textual supremacy that the scholastics defended. Up until the thirteenth/fourteenth century, they also defended what was then called "realism." Realism is the idea that Platonic universals (tableness, Evil) actually exist up there in the realm of ideas. This implies that the individual experience of reality is fundamentally flawed, because it does not partake of these universals, which ought always to trump it (see the allegory of the cave, for instance). This appeal to an ideologically constituted ontology is precisely what I see happening with science today. Sorry if that's impenetrable; what I mean to say is that these "intellectuals" take something invented and constantly reinvented by human beings--the empirical data of science in one case, concepts corresponding to objects in the other--and make it into a supreme and unquestionable authority that is to ground any ethical or political practice (which is what happened in the Middle Ages).

(Sorry for the length.)
posted by nasreddin at 8:06 PM on February 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


I clearly haven't read or digested as much philosophy as you, nasreddin, but this does seem to be anti-"scientism": "And yet the data of science cannot have ontological priority over other kinds of experience, because they are just as questionable as anything else, and there are so many filters between the working-out of the data and its reporting that any talk of objectivity is pretty laughable."

If you don't believe in the ability to verify observations (because of the "many filters between data and reporting"), I don't see how you can claim to believe science works. Feyerabend aside (and his ideas are fascinating), reproducibility is a basic tool. Anecdotes aren't data. Observation, that is controlled experimentation, must have "ontological priority" or we're all just playing silly buggers. Perhaps you can explain how I'm wrong here, because I sure don't see it.
posted by bonehead at 9:37 PM on February 12, 2008


Actually, thanks for the length, I appreciate your effort and it was fruitful. I get most of my information about other fields from conversation, which can be a poor format for some ideas. Point taken about the reactions, that is perhaps a strength in all schools of thought. I agree with the vast majority of what you have written. What you cite as idiocies, I agree completely! I just don't know anybody who trots them out except on Internet forums. (I do think that the Scientific Revolution was a watershed moment, but mostly politically, not because of the quantitative merits of Galileo's ideas.) And I absolutely don't think that science should determine our ethics or metaphysics, but I think they do offer some ideas that shouldn't be ignored.

I wrote a *lot* more, then reread your message, and decided that posting them would feel like jerking off, particularly when I agree with most of your post. I don't entirely agree with your picture of "scientism", but unless you want me to bore you I'll hold them to myself for now. And I do really really hate the mysterious authority and unity with which science is portrayed in the media, and I think that maybe that's where a lot of people get their perception of scientism. But one thing I can't leave alone.

Others here say that Simon Baron-Cohen is wrong, that he's conflating the meanings of equality, and correct him by explaining the difference. But when I read the paragraph, his whole point is that there is a distinction, and that in the past he did not realize it.

Similarly, I do not see how you can get that reading of Dawkins. He's not saying that the empirical evidence is what gives your life meaning or not. In fact, it's quite the opposite: he's saying that it's there whether or not it gives your life meaning, and if you choose to base your life's meaning on that and it gives you despair, that's just tough, and therefore foolish. The obvious implication from his words being exactly what you call the only acceptable answer, that we as humans shape our own meaning, not what our current models of evolution.

From my point of view, it looks as though somebody has read a quote, said "that's wrong!" and then gone on to correct it by repeating the original quote. Scientists have always been bad at communicating to non-scientists, maybe this is just a different type of example?
posted by Llama-Lime at 9:45 PM on February 12, 2008


Similarly, I do not see how you can get that reading of Dawkins.

Ditto. Dawkins is saying, perhaps clumsliy, that meaning must be self-generated, that there do not seem to be abstract values embedded in the universe. "Reality" does not have a sub-text, except where humans give it one.
posted by bonehead at 10:04 PM on February 12, 2008


Wow, that's some awful grammar in my comments, I don't know why some days I can't get simple agreement down. Apologies for any confusion it causes.
posted by Llama-Lime at 10:18 PM on February 12, 2008



If you don't believe in the ability to verify observations (because of the "many filters between data and reporting"), I don't see how you can claim to believe science works. Feyerabend aside (and his ideas are fascinating), reproducibility is a basic tool. Anecdotes aren't data. Observation, that is controlled experimentation, must have "ontological priority" or we're all just playing silly buggers. Perhaps you can explain how I'm wrong here, because I sure don't see it.


Reproducibility is a basic tool, yes. But that in no wise implies that conclusions that are scientifically verified are infallible or not contingent on the given circumstances or paradigms.

In short, what I'm arguing is this:

1. We all exist in a state of uncertainty with regards to our external reality. It's not that we don't believe it exists--it's that we're willing to admit that our perceptions are not objective, that we, in many ways, create the world that we see. Our senses aren't a blank slate.
2. Scientism claims that the data provided by some nebulous, totalized concept of science transcend the limitations of our perception and access some sort of inherently more reliable objective external world. This then serves as the grounding for a denial of individual agency, both epistemologically and ethically.
3. In fact, data provided and verified by experiment is probably in most cases more reliable than data that isn't. But it's still part of the phenomenal, subjective world, and as such does not deserve a privileged role in our ethical or ontological calculus; it's just one among many different sources that contribute to the world we create for ourselves.

There aren't many people explicitly argue [2], and Dawkins was certainly not arguing it directly. But it's implicit in statements like:
Wouldn't it be lovely to believe in an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, can give you advice? Of course it's satisfying, if you can believe it. But who wants to believe a lie?
Or:
A: You have the power to make a pretty good model of the universe in which you live. It's going to be temporary, you're going to die, but it would be the best way you could spend your time in the universe, to understand why you're there and place as accurate model of the universe as you can inside your head. That's what I would like to encourage people to try to do. I think it's an immensely fulfilling thing to do.
Q: And that will be a better world?
A: It will certainly be a truer world. I mean, people would have a truer view of the world. I think it would probably be a better world. I think people would be less ready to fight each other because so much of the motivation for fighting would have been removed. I think it would be a better world. It would be a better world in the sense that people would be more fulfilled in having a proper understanding of the world instead of a superstitious understanding.
The bringing-in of the scientific truth criterion to questions that are entirely outside its scope, which Dawkins assumes science allows him to do, is the problem here.

I have no issues with admitting that a molecular biologist has a clearer, more evidence-based, more consistent idea of enzyme operation than I do, or an physicist of fluid dynamics, or a neurologist of basal ganglia. But that's all science is: an innumerable multitude of local problems, increasingly adequately addressed, but which can not lay claim to answering questions of "fundamental truth."
posted by nasreddin at 12:28 AM on February 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree with bonehead. Dawkins seems simply to be saying that if you think that the universe, in some inherent, objective fashion provides a meaning that all human being must accept, then you're taking refuge in an illusion. He doesn't claim we can't find meaning - as I understand it he's something of a humanist himself, and doesn't claim to derive this from objective scientific facts.
posted by AdamCSnider at 12:47 AM on February 13, 2008


what nasreddin said.
posted by nicolin at 6:28 AM on February 13, 2008


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