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How the Scientist Got His Ideas
January 8, 2010 4:21 PM   Subscribe

In defense of Just So Stories
posted by AceRock (27 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
"We believe that a just-so story is simply a story, a tentative, speculative answer to a question, and, as such, a clarification of one's thinking, ideally a goad to further thought, and, not incidentally, a necessary preliminary to obtaining the kind of additional information that helps answer a question (which, in the best cases, leads to yet more queries). When that happens—when the narrative is testable and generates fact-based research—then, in a sense, it is no longer a just-so story, but science, pure and … rarely simple."
posted by AceRock at 4:28 PM on January 8, 2010


I like Kipling. No one forgets their first Kiple.
posted by jquinby at 4:29 PM on January 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Genealogy of Morality by Friedrich Nietzsche: "How the modern man got his ascetic ideal".
posted by litleozy at 4:35 PM on January 8, 2010


Once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, when we two authors were young and the world was so very new and all, and our children even younger, we used to take them on long car trips, during which, when we were finished with Raffi songs and Broadway musicals, we would play the Cream of Mushroom Soup game. It went like this. ...
Hmm, I wonder how this game will work.
Picture a bowl of Cream of Mushroom Soup (a staple comfort food in our family). It is composed of little glops of what are supposedly mushrooms, in a matrix of goo, vaguely resembling cream sauce. Now, discuss it from a _____ (fill in the blank) perspective, say, Marxist: How does Cream of Mushroom Soup contribute to the triumph or enslavement of the proletariat? Is it a bourgeois exploitation of the working class, or perhaps an inexpensive means to a worker's paradise? A Chicago School of Economics perspective: Cream of Mushroom Soup flourishes in a free-market economy; does it taste best there, too?

Next, describe Cream of Mushroom Soup as seen by a Platonist: Wherein lies its essential form—the glops or the goo? How would a postmodern deconstruction of Cream of Mushroom Soup compare with a Buddhist approach, which holds that the soup is made of nonsoup elements and is therefore empty of intrinsic...
What?

--

Anyway I read this whole thing and I'm not exactly sure what their defense actually was. Was it just 'Just so stories are fun!" I certainly didn't see any kind of scientific defense. Also their writing was rather turgid. I get that this is the chronical of higher education, written for and buy stuffy professors but god damn.
David P. Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and Judith Eve Lipton is a psychiatrist. Their most recent book together is How Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So Stories: Evolutionary Enigmas (Columbia University Press, 2009).
hmm...
posted by delmoi at 4:40 PM on January 8, 2010


I like Kipling. No one forgets their first Kiple.

Especially the mark it leaves. Advice to those about to be kipled: protect your neck.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:41 PM on January 8, 2010


I thought the difference between a hypothesis and a just-so story is evidence, or the ability to gather some.

And I won't hear a bad word said against phlogiston theory, you hear?
posted by Sova at 4:48 PM on January 8, 2010


I was just craving a nice plate of beans.
posted by mek at 4:53 PM on January 8, 2010


The author wasn't defending Just-So Stories, but the claims that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are seen as Just-So Stories in a negative light:
Ever since ethologists, geneticists, and ecologists joined together to create "sociobiology," more recently called "evolutionary psychology" when applied to human beings, practitioners have had to contend with the accusation that their work consists of modern-day just-so stories, imaginative accounts of how the biological world came to its current estate.... Among evolutionary biologists in particular, that can be a scathing criticism: To call something a "just-so story" is to dismiss it as unscientific moonshine.
...
We'd like to propose a revision. To our scientific colleagues: Let's stop running from "just-so story" as an epithet and start embracing its merits. To any nonscientist name-callers: Think again before you sign on to a supposed rebuke that isn't.
He feels that the Just-So Story notion in science (proposing hypothesis that might seem a tad outlandish, then testing them) is a valid and something to embrace.

I realize that some fields might be harder to get the initial evidence for a hypothesis, so the first ideas might sound like wild guesses or crazy stories. Or maybe I'm giving credit where credit is not due?
posted by filthy light thief at 4:57 PM on January 8, 2010


I don't think anyone has an issue with people doing Just-So Stories as thought experiments or brainstorming prompts.

What I, at least, mean when I say "This supposedly scientific argument is a Just-So Story" is that it's not actually a scientific argument at all--it bears exactly as much relationship to a scientific argument as this.

"Oh well humans rape other humans because gorillas" is not actually a scientific argument any more than "the other animals pulled on the elephant's nose" is.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:01 PM on January 8, 2010


get that this is the chronical of higher education, written for and buy stuffy professors but god damn.

"The chronic-WHAT?"
"-AL of Higher Educa-tion!"

Sorry, your misspelling made me giggle.

My problem with "just so stories" isn't because I'm a fun-killing curiosity-hater. I mean, maybe I am, but I dislike just so stories in science because they're not science, but are often presented as such.

And I might add...often to the detriment of certain groups (nonwhites, women, children) about whom such stories are told.

Be as whimsical as you wish, but then do the work. Nobody's stopping you.
posted by emjaybee at 5:02 PM on January 8, 2010


Well, his argument is that science sometimes starts with 'just so stories'. The problem is only when it ends there.
posted by empath at 5:32 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interestingly, many of the most basic aspects of female sexuality are as yet unexplained, so neither we nor any other biologists currently know for certain why women menstruate, why they experience orgasm, why they conceal their ovulation, why they—alone among mammals—have prominent breasts even when not lactating, or why they undergo menopause. But we have enough information to speculate

But don't stop there. What about speculation about why men evolved to rape, why women are attracted to "bad boys", why women are all emotional, and why women like to shop more? A little speculation never hurt anyone. Besides women, I mean. But it's okay, 'cause we evolved to speculate.

I totally agree with this article at face value but it's ignoring many people's main beef with evo psych, and I find that disengenuous.
posted by shaun uh at 5:35 PM on January 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like Kipling. No one forgets their first Kiple.

Rimshot
posted by Splunge at 5:37 PM on January 8, 2010


why they experience orgasm,

I could make up a just so story about why certain kinds of men are obsessed with finding reasons why any woman anywhere would enjoy sex...
posted by emjaybee at 6:15 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


My favorite thing about evolutionary psychology is their slogan (I find it refreshingly candid):

"Let our pseudoscience justify your gender bias!"

You just don't find forthrightness like that in every discipline.
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 8:10 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't recognise the argument that he's trying to refute. I don't think that anyone would deny that imagination, speculation and hypothesising play an essential role in the advancement of science. The main issue that people have with evo psych is that some punter sitting in an office somewhere grabs a bunch of disparate facts, cobbles them together into a vaguely plausible hypothesis and then chucks them over the fence into the public sphere, complete with a PR blurb designed to get it in the news. The normal intervening step of actually doing some investigation into the implications and predictions of their hypothesis and comparing these to reality are completely skipped. 'Hey, I've just had a great idea' is not science, and it's not helping the debate against pseudoscience in other areas when some of those in the science camp toss flimsy ideas into the public arena with abandon.
posted by Jakey at 3:32 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, not having your ideas taken seriously is tough. I bet that makes him careful to not throw around caricatures of other areas of academia. Oh wait:

...as opposed to postmodernist poppycock in which every "reality" is imagined to be a culturally constructed "narrative," all equally true.
posted by nangua at 4:00 AM on January 9, 2010


him and her. Once I see David Barash's name on an article I sometimes forget that his coauthors may bear equal responsibility for any intellectual smugness present.
posted by nangua at 4:05 AM on January 9, 2010


Jakey nails it. In evolution, just-so stories can be guides in the sense that they're a way to find a place to look for further evidence ("Well, if the whale is some land creature that adapted itself to swimming with its mouth open...") but they aren't scientific fact or anything. Evo-psych tends to be composed primarily, at least in the public sphere, of coming up with just-so stories and saying something like "And that's why men like women with big breasts." But that's just an informed speculation, not scientific research. Personally I think it's quite valid to rubbish the whole field of evo-psych on this ground until they come up with some better models, because at this point it's just reinforcing the researcher's prejudices.
posted by graymouser at 4:36 AM on January 9, 2010


So to elaborate, my problem with evolutionary psychology is not that people publishing and trumpeting results are completely skipping the phase of hypothesis-testing so much as they're engaging in some eye-popping fallacies.

It goes something like this: intrepid evo psych researcher notices something funny about women people, comes up with a reason why it would've been useful back in the good old days of traditional monkey values, decides to "test" his theory to see whether the phenomenon exists, and when it does, claims that this is due to his evolutionary reason.

The most recent groan-inducing evo psych study I read went exactly like this: Researcher ponders why women like to shop. Let's go through the steps.

1) Hmmm, women like to shop more than men do! And they seem to do it differently.
2) Maybe that's because a long time ago, just women were in charge of "shopping", that is, gathering berries and other foods.
3) Let me check it! I will ask women and men how they shop.
4). Look, they shop differently! I was right! It's due to evolution!

It's completely circular. The researcher has done absolutely nothing to prove that the phenomenon in the result of evolution and not socialization and culture. It's atrocious science and it deserves to be called out. But you know, science is not perfect and there is bullshit and bias and occasionally outright fraud even in the best journals and if we had a system that encouraged integrity and exactness instead of just "getting results" maybe we wouldn't have this problem so much. It just sucks that this particular instance of shoddy science is being used to justify sexism.
posted by shaun uh at 8:30 AM on January 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


It just sucks that this particular instance of shoddy science is being used to justify sexism.

Um, even if you're right in your characterization of the case, why is it an example of sexism? I mean, do you believe that zero differences exist between men and women (on aggregate) in their attitudes and approaches to shopping? I'm not clear on why it's sexist, rather than plain old circular reasoning.
posted by smorange at 6:38 PM on January 9, 2010


That particular hypothesis, like most evo-psych hypotheses, is sexist because it assumes that men are the norm, even though there are more women than men.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:52 PM on January 9, 2010


I don't see how it does that.
posted by smorange at 3:55 AM on January 10, 2010


Um, even if you're right in your characterization of the case, why is it an example of sexism? I mean, do you believe that zero differences exist between men and women (on aggregate) in their attitudes and approaches to shopping? I'm not clear on why it's sexist, rather than plain old circular reasoning.

It's sexist because it's using said circular reasoning to reinforce a harmful stereotype about women*, and to naturalize it - to claim it is just the way things have been, since the dawn of time. So there's no need to fight it, the way one might fight it if we believed socialization or culture was responsible for the differences.


* Actually, I can see two different harmful stereotypes here - both woman as the consumption-obsessed bimbo who can't be bothered about more important things, and woman as the natural homemaker who should have to do all the shopping because she's just genetically better at it than her husband.
posted by shaun uh at 9:28 AM on January 11, 2010


It seems like what you're doing is denying that differences exist between men and women (on aggregate) in their attitudes and approaches to shopping. Which is fine, if that's what you want to do, but wrong, in my experience. Either that, or you're imputing ideas (re: "consumption-obsessed bimbo") and motives (re: "should have to do all the shopping") that may, but also may not, be there. I'm still not certain which it is, exactly.

Suppose the hypothesis is true; circular reasoning can be correct, after all. It's not going to affect how you and I deal with individuals in our lives, is it?
posted by smorange at 12:09 AM on January 12, 2010


It seems like what you're doing is denying that differences exist between men and women (on aggregate) in their attitudes and approaches to shopping.

Nope, I think there are differences. However, I've no idea if they're due to evolution, to socialization, or to something else entirely. If I had to bet money, I'd say it was socialization.

Either that, or you're imputing ideas (re: "consumption-obsessed bimbo") and motives (re: "should have to do all the shopping") that may, but also may not, be there.

There are many different kinds of sexism in the world. Not all of it comes in the form of angry old men telling women that they should stick to the kitchen. Sometimes it comes in the form of implicit assumptions about what women can, or should, or frequently do. You may think that my guesses about the motives and assumptions behind the research are a stretch, and you may be right. But let me ask you - what is the purpose for this research, then, if there's absolutely zero value or meaning assigned to differences in shopping?

When I, as a woman, read this research, I think about being a young girl and not liking to shop and feeling forced into it, because that's what my friends liked to to; I think about not wanting to support the beauty industry and feeling unfeminine because of it; I think about the fact that women in relationships handle far more of the household tasks than the men do, including shopping, to the detriment of their careers and social lives.

It is entirely possible that women shop differently from men because in our grandmothers' time that was one of the few things we were allowed/expected to do. An evolutionary explanation dismisses that - it says, "women, you are this way because nature made you this way, not because of the unfair rule of men". That's a hell of a thing to say, without scientific proof - which evolutionary psychology so frequently lacks.

It's not going to affect how you and I deal with individuals in our lives, is it?

It does affects me. I've listed some of the ways above. Do I cry myself to sleep at night over it? No. Is it still wrong, and deserving of a call out? Yes.
posted by shaun uh at 12:40 PM on January 12, 2010


what is the purpose for this research, then, if there's absolutely zero value or meaning assigned to differences in shopping?

Finding out about why we are the way we are?

At bottom, I don't see why the genesis of gender differences should affect the validity of moral claims one way or the other. It's fallacious reasoning. Does it make you feel better to believe that gender roles--the ones that you evidentally resented while growing up--are socially constructed and not the result of nature? Maybe it does. Even so, that can't be a good reason to presume it to be correct.
posted by smorange at 5:45 AM on January 13, 2010


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