The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

June 11, 2015

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is one of the best books about writing that I have read. (Not that I have read that many books about writing, but I have read some. Those that comes to mind are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style — didn’t leave much of an impression — Deidre McCloskey’s Economical Writing — did leave a huge impression — much of Barzun’s Simple & Direct and William’s Style — that I didn’t finish them says a lot — Stephen King’s On Writing and the edited volume Ernest Hemingway On Writing — King and Hemingway are not exclusively, but still largely, on writing. Further reading on rhetorics are McCloskey’s The Rhetorics of Economics and Cicero’s De Oratore. Books about reading — surprisingly readable — include Nick Hornby’s Shakespeare Wrote for Money and Stephen Jay Gould’s The Urchin in the StormUrchin is a collection of essays where Gould pursues a special kind of book review, discussing books in an idea-wide scope; as instructive as anything. But I get carried away.)

Pinker’s The Sense of Style is great, perhaps only surpassed by McCloskey’s Economical Writing, in part because of McCloskey’s brevity. But Pinker has so much knowledge and so much to tell; he will be forgiven. What I get from McCloskey and that I miss in Pinker is an account of, and introduction to, the struggle of writing — writing obviously comes easily to Pinker and it seemingly never struck him that people struggle with it and that dealing with this struggle is, sometimes, half the job. Further, McCloskey tells us of the importance of reading well in order to write well; I think McCloskey has an important point that is missed by many, and I would appreciate Pinker’s views on it. Another minor thing pointed out by McCloskey is the value of prudence when it comes to visual effects like italics and bold face, and the disadvantage of distractions like footnotes (the latter pertains in particular to non-fictional writing, of course); I also miss these perspectives in Pinker.

But (again) Pinker is a very great book on writing. He starts out by providing samples of great writing (one example here) and then explaining, in details, what’s so particularly great about the specific examples. (Pinker uses a lot of examples — perhaps too much.) Next, he introduces the classic style, the style of writing he recommend, in particular for clear, non-fictional writing.

Classic style is an ideal. Not all prose should be classic, and not all writers can carry off the pretense. But knowing the hallmarks of classic style will make anyone a better writer, and it is the strongest cure I know for the disease that enfeebles academic, bureaucratic, corporate, legal, and official prose [p. 31*].

To just adopt the classic style is not all that easy, however, and this is one place where I wish Pinker would take a lesson from McCloskey. While Pinker teaches us what the classic style is and why it works, I missed something on how to achieve it. (Perhaps it’s all there, but I didn’t get it?)

Pinker moves on to discuss the curse of knowledge that is the difficulty involved in understanding what your reader knows and what your reader does not know, and our tendency to overestimate what is known. Pinker advice to “always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mindset and find out how other people think and feel” (p. 76).

Then Pinker turns to grammar, that old-fashioned subject that will bore you to death (or so must they think, those who think the grammar support provided by most word processing softwares nowadays is sufficient):

But grammar should not be thought of as an ordeal of jargon and drudgery […] It should be thought of instead as one of the extraordinary adaptations in the living world: our species’ solution to the problem of getting complicated thoughts from one head to another. Thinking of grammar as the original sharing app makes it much more interesting and much more useful. By understanding how the various features of grammar are designed to make sharing possible, we can put them to use in writing more clearly, correctly, and gracefully [p. 79].

Grammar brings together three things: “the web of ideas in our head, the string of words that comes out of our mouth or fingers, and the tree of syntax that converts the first into the second” (p. 79). Pinker spends considerable time on the tree-like structure of sentences; probably both important and useful, but I honestly have forgotten most of it.

One important lesson I do remember, so important that Pinker returns to it on several occasions, is that the passive voice do have a place in good writing, and is even necessary at times:

[Earlier] we saw one of the benefits of the passive, namely that the agent of the event, expressed in the by-phrase, can go unmentioned. This is handy for mistake-makers who are trying to keep their names out of the spot-light and for narrators who want you to know that helicopters were used to put out some fires but don’t think you need to know that it was a guy named Bob who flew one of the helicopters. Now we see the other major benefit of the passive: it allows the doer to be mentioned later in the sentence than the done-to. […] The passive allows a writer to postpone the mention of a doer that is heavy, old news, or both [p. 132].

I find this lesson about the passive extraordinarily important. Ever since I read McCloskey, who dismisses the passive in forceful turns, I have avoided it like the plague. Now, I relax a little bit, knowing that submitting to a passive phrase does not have to mean that I am a useless writer.

Appreciating the treelike nature of a text can also help you understand one of the few devices available in nontechnical prose to visually mark the structure of discourse: the paragraph break. Many writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to build a paragraph. But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch of a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimited by a blank line or an indentation. What does exist is the paragraph break: a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause, take a breather, assimilate what he has read, and then find his place again on the page [p. 145].

Two cents from McCloskey here: Align, in Pinker’s words, the units of discourse with your paragraphs: One idea, one unit of thought, per paragraph, and the structure of your argument will become more clear.

On page 156 and onward, Pinker discusses the imperative Avoid Elegant Variation in the context of one of his many examples. He does, however, also point to situations where it is necessary to avoid repeating words, for example to avoid confusion. But the general advice is still to avoid variation for variation’s sake. Pinker is in full agreement with McCloskey here, who is rather stern if I remember correctly. Variation leads Pinker onto a discussion of coherence, of utmost important to good writers, of course. And coherence is related to the curse of knowledge:

Figuring out the right level of explicitness for coherence relations is a major reason that a writer needs to think hard about the state of knowledge of her readers and show a few of them a draft to see whether she got it right. It’s an aspect of the art of writing which depends on intuition, experience, and guesswork, but there is also an overarching guideline. Humans are cursed with attributing  too much of their own knowledge to others [curse of knowledge], which means that overall there is a greater danger of prose being confusing because it has too few connectives than pedantic because it has too many. When in doubt, connect [pp. 167-168].

I have a rumor (among me and myself, at least) for being pedantic when it comes to writing. Mostly, I find it a valuable trait.

Pinker end up concluding that coherence amounts to design:

There is a big difference between a coherent passage of writing and a flaunting of one’s erudition, a running journal of one’s thoughts, or a published version of one’s notes. A coherent text is a designed object: an ordered tree of sections within sections, crisscrossed by arcs that track topics, points, actors, and themes, and held together by connectors that tie one proposition to the next. Like other designed objects, it comes about not by accident but by drafting a blueprint, attending to details, and maintaining a sense of harmony and balance [p. 186].

I tend to agree.

The final chapter of Pinker’s Style is devoted to a list of hundred common issues in grammar, word choice, and punctuation, with Pinker’s advice on how to navigate them. Among them, the dreaded dangling modifiers, that versus which, a fun story of when fear of a split infinitive lead to a crisis of governance (in the US, of course), and ninety seven more valuable lessons that I am glad I now have available in my office.

I hope to have convinced you that dealing with matters of usage is not like playing chess, proving theorems, or solving textbook problems in physics, where the rules are clear and flouting them is an error. It is more like research, journalism, criticism, and other exercises of discernment. In considering questions of usage, a writer must critically evaluate claims of correctness, discount the dubious ones, and make choices which inevitably trade off conflicting values [p. 300].

I never intended to put Pinker and McCloskey up against each other, but it kind of turned out that way anyhow. (I remember more from McCloskey than I’m aware!) Which I prefer? I think someone who want to write better should read both, but start with McCloskey, for brevity if for nothing else. They complement each other. And I cannot choose. Pinker provide a much more comprehensive treatment, and is much more an expert. McCloskey is refreshing, in particular when she addresses peculiarities of economic writing, and should not be missed. For all her amateurism, her guide made me appreciate the value and necessity of good writing, and provided me with an understanding that let me navigate other treatises with ease and joy.

* Page numbers refer to the first edition, Allen Lane, 2014.

Pinker

Mathiness in Economics

June 9, 2015

In the Papers & Proceedings section of American Economic Review, Paul Romer* describes, after revealing formal errors in a couple of recent prestigious articles, what he calls the new equilibrium in economics:

[…] empirical work is science; theory is entertainment. Presenting a model is like doing a card trick. Everybody knows that there will be some sleight of hand. There is no intent to deceive because no one takes it seriously.

At a seminar I attended recently, there was debate about the concept of rationality in economics. It was pointed out that any behavior (in the given case discussed, but the claim holds more generally, if not fully) can be rationalized if just the model is rich enough. But then rationality becomes worthless because we cannot falsify it, to use a Popperian term. This may be to take it too far; one can set up a model for rational behavior and find conflicting behavior. While we cannot conclude that behavior was irrational, we can conclude that the model we not rich enough.

Romer discusses mathiness in economics further on his blog.

*Romer, PM (2015) Mathiness in the Theory of Economic Growth, American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings 105(5): 89-93.

Steven Pinker on ‘that’ vs. ‘which’

May 23, 2015

A recurrent theme for many writers (of English), particularly non-native speakers and especially me, is whether to use ‘that’ or ‘which’. Here is Steven Pinker:

The real decision is not whether to use that or which but whether to use a restrictive or a nonrestrictive clause. If a phrase which expresses a comment about a noun can be omitted without substantially changing the meaning, and if it would be pronounced after a slight pause and with its own intonation contour, then be sure to set it off with commas (or dashes or parentheses): The Cambridge restaurant, which had failed to clean its grease trap, was infested with roaches. Having done so, you don’t have to worry about whether to use that or which, because if you’re tempted to use that it means either that you are more than two hundred years old or that your ear for the English language is so mistuned that the choice of that and which is the least of your worries. [Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style, Allen Lane, 2014.]

I am not two hundred years old, so that or which is the least of my worries; good to know!

Swans in Bergen

May 8, 2015

Friends have been talking about Swans for years, but I haven’t paid attention. Yesterday, however, Swans had my full attention when they played at USF Verftet in Bergen, and it was a grand time. Gira (frontman and protagonist) is the kind of guy that says ‘Let’s play the same chord for ten minutes and see if anything happens.’ And something happens, ofcourse (he ain’t stupid). Parts were magic. And loud. If you happen to be deaf, no worries; Swans made sure to feed the music directly into your spine (unless you are an invertebrate). Otherwise, the stuff is difficult to describe. Not strange, perhaps, with a young Gandalf on guitar, a long-haired Viggo Mortensen on percussion, gong, pipes, trombone, various strings, including a stringed wooden beam that looked like it once washed up on a beach in Transylvania, Francis Begbie on steel, and a hard-working and surprisingly normal-looking comp. Gira himself looks like a forgotten cousin of Mr. Sandman. Dynamic and prog-like avantgarde-drone-jam stuff with a physical presence. In other words, exactly the kind of music I would have made if I was a musician (read one of my research papers; the parallell is obvious; creativity takes many guises). Swans played for two and a half hours, they played perhaps six ‘songs’ (who’s counting, anyway?). The final number lasted more than thirty minutes, including a ten minute noise wall. When we came out, the rain had stopped.

SwansBergen

 

The Paradox of Hot Food

April 17, 2015

I’ve wondered why food abroad (which almost always means somewhere warmer) often is more spicy than the typical, Norwegian cuisine. A part of the explanation is likely that few spices grow north. In David Landes The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, after extensive discussions of European trade and shipping routes across the world from the 1400’s and onwards, with spice as an important commodity, I came across the following anecdote.

The Spice of Life

People of our day may wonder why pepper and other condiments were worth so much to Europeans of long ago. The reason lay in the problem of food preservation in a world of marginal subsistence. Food supply in the form of cereals barely sufficed, and it was not possible to devote large quantities of grain to animals during long winters, excepting of course breeding stock, draft animals, and horses. Hence the traditional autumnal slaughter. To keep this meat around the calendar, through hot and cold, in a world without artificial refrigeration, it was smoked, corned, spiced, and otherwise preserved; when cooked, the meat was heavily seasoned, the better to hide the taste and odor of spoilage. Hence the paradox that the cuisine of warmer countries is typically “hotter” than that of colder lands–there is more to hide.

Condiments brought a further dividend. The people of that day could not know this, but the stronger spices worked to kill or weaken the bacteria and viruses that promoted and fed on decay. […] Spices, then, were not merely a luxury in medieval Europe but also a necessity, as their market value testified.

Quote of the Day

April 15, 2015

Such in reality is the absurd confidence which almost all men have in their own good fortune, that wherever there is the least probability of success, too great a share of it is apt to go to them […] of its own accord.

– Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book IV, ch. 7, part I

Top Ten

March 13, 2015

Somewhere, I got the idea to list the ten albums that have meant the most to me. So, here they are, in approximate order of appearance (to me):

KeepTheFaithBon Jovi – Keep the Faith (1992). A little bit embarrasing, perhaps, and it have not stood the test of time too well, but I still enjoyed much of it when I gave it a spin last week. Bon Jovi was my first proper favorite artist. Keep the Faith was the first album that really meant something to me and with it I discovered that an album can have more to offer than what one discovers during the first twenty listens. Keep the Faith was the soundtrack of my life for years and made me curious to explore new music. It made me take a deep-dive (to the degree that a fourteen-year-old can take a deep-dive) into the solo career of Richie Sambora.

Motorpsycho-Timothy’s-MonsterMotorpsycho – Timothy’s Monster (1994). Five of the albums on this list could have been Motorpsycho albums, but I will settle for only one and then Timothy’s Monster is the one. It was the first Motorpsycho record I went really deep into and it swept me off my feet. It contains so much, is so varied, and moves from snappy singer-songwriter stuff to pure noise within the first four tracks.  That I discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman around the same time adds to the legend this album is to me. And I still love it, I don’t know why I don’t listen to it more.

rock-actionMogwai – Rock Action (2001). I didn’t really get post rock before Rock Action. Post rock has later given me so much great listening. Mogwai has continued to amaze me and is still a favorite in the post rock genre.

 

 

 

Tonight's the NightNeil Young – Tonight’s the Night (1975). I’ve listened a lot to Neil Young and his presence on this list is obvious. For this list, I am divided between Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Tonight’s the NightTonight’s is so profound, in rock history and in the life of Neil Young. Neil had won everything and lost everything. Then he made Tonight’s the Night. It moves me.
More on Tonight’s here.

KidARadiohead – Kid A (2000). While I never understood what was so great with OK ComputerKid A made me understand what a great band Radiohead is and that they are devoted to their music in a very profound way. And it made me realize that electronic music can be really great and provided a piece to the puzzle it was to understand that great music, or art for that matter, has nothing really to do with genre or form but with heart and soul and having something to tell.

AADAPMotorpsycho – Angles and Daemons at Play (1997). Ok, I had to put two Motorpsycho records on my list. Last week, I thought I would put Blissard, but then I realized that AADAP means much more to me. Motorpsycho made this record in relief after trying to adhere to certain ideas on Blissard (failing gloriously, I might add). AADAP has everything — it is full of life and creativity — and is a hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated tracks (was first released in secrecy as three EP’s and only later appeared as an album). With the Neil Youngish idea to put different versions of the same track on the same album (Sideway Spiral), the noise wall Heartattack Mac back-to-back with the pop tune Pills, Powders + Passion Plays, a part played on saw(!), a piano ballad (Stalemate), the mythical Un Chien d’espace, and the wild closer Timothy’s Monster, which nods both to Sun Ra, as does the album title, and their own master piece and namesake album, it has everything. Oddly enough, my impression of it is that it is a relatively hard and heavy album, but when I listen to it I realize that mellow parts abound and may well make up the lion’s share of it. In addition, I got it’s texture mixed up with the texture of Erik Fosnes Hansen’s novel Beretninger om Beskyttelse, and this mix makes both more vivid.

EliteFireside – Elite (2000). The reviews on Firesideometer [which seems to be down, I hope it gets back up, great site] says everything I have to say about this record, and says it better. The title track is just epic,  as is the closer. But what makes the album legendary are not it’s tracks but everything inbetween (if that makes little sense, check it out, discover and understand). Fireside was hard core punk that turned psycho and I bet their fans had a hard time getting to grips with Elite. So did the band, I guess, they poured everything they had into it and ran dry. They never return to the same heights later.

TakkSigur Rós – Takk… (2005). My favorite Sigur Rós album and post rock at it’s best. A mind saver. Cannot be explained, needs to be experienced.

 

 

 

ShapeOfJazzOrnette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). I have listened a lot to jazz music in my life, but few jazz-albums makes it to this list. Shape, however, finally made me appreciate and understand free jazz, both as an idea and as a mean of expression. Miles’s In a Silent Way would have been the next jazz record if I could make ten last longer.

 


frances-the-muteThe Mars Volta – Frances the Mute (2005). 
Frances was, and is, my gateway into, and is perhaps also the crown jewel of, the world of the Mars Volta. The way leads further to At the Drive-In, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, Life Coach, and the full force of progressive and experimental music at it’s best.

Harvesting in a Fishery with Stochastic Growth and a Mean-Reverting Price

February 14, 2015

EREAt the end of last year, my research team got a study accepted in Environmental & Resource Economics. Our long and unsexy title — Harvesting in a Fishery with Stochastic Growth and a Mean-Reverting Price — tells only part of the story (but as much as we could fit!): We study a fish harvest model in two stochastic state variables (stock and price), where the price further is mean-reverting. Perhaps the most important finding is our demonstration of the complexity that arises in relatively simple models. The complex behavior of the optimal solution that we observe is difficult to understand intuitively, something which gave us a hard time in the peer-review process. As it should be, I guess. Anyway, our abstract reads as follows:

We analyze a continuous, nonlinear bioeconomic model to demonstrate how stochasticity in the growth of fish stocks affects the optimal exploitation policy when prices are stochastic, mean-reverting and possibly harvest dependent. Optimal exploitation has nonlinear responses to the price signal and should be conservative at low levels of biological stochasticity and aggressive at high levels. Price stochasticity induces conservative exploitation with little or no biological uncertainty, but has no strong effect when the biological uncertainty is larger. We further observe that resource exploitation should be conservative when the price reverts slowly to the mean. Simulations show that, in the long run, both the stock level and the exploitation rate are lower than in the deterministic solution. With a harvest-dependent price, the long-run price is higher in the stochastic system. The price mean reversion rate has no influence on the long-run solutions.

Economics of Climate Change: A Problem from Hell

February 13, 2015

The economics demigod Martin Weitzman recently published a review of William Nordhaus’ The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World, where he provides the following characterization of the climate change economics problem:

The economics of climate change is a problem from hell. Trying to do a benefit-cost analysis […] of climate change policies bends and stretches the capability of our standard economist’s toolkit up to, and perhaps beyond, the breaking point. First and foremost, disconcertingly large uncertainties are everywhere, including the most challenging kinds of deep structural uncertainties. The climate change problem unfolds over centuries and millennia, a long intergenerational human time frame that most people are entirely unaccustomed to thinking about. With such long time frames, discounting becomes ultra-decisive for [benefit-cost analysis], and there is much debate and confusion about which long-run discount rate should be chosen. Irreversibilities abound, including the very long residence lifetime of atmospheric CO2. To add to the challenge, costs of new carbon-free technologies are uncertain. More importantly, for global mean temperature changes much above about 2 [degrees] C, estimating damages is mostly educated guesswork with a distressingly wide error cone. The evaluation and aggregation of such damages add yet another significant layer of uncertainty; we are even unsure even about what form the “damages function” should take. Climate change due to high [greenhouse gas] levels involves nonnegligible tail risks of low-probability catastrophic outcomes, ranging from “known unknown” tipping points to the “unknown unknowns” of black-swan bad-feedback events that we cannot even imagine today.

Striking. The review was published in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy.

Quote of the Day

February 5, 2015

JaynesQuote

Describing Something in 27 Ways

January 24, 2015

I was put onto Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje after Nick Hornby’s ecstatic discussion. Great book indeed, crazy but great. The main character is based on the legendary originator of jazz, Buddy Bolden, and Slaughter could perhaps be perceived as a literary biography. Or perhaps a dramatization of his life. As Hornby pointed out, Ondaatje writes about jazz like no other.

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot — see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes. Listening to him was like talking to Coleman. You were both changing direction with every sentence, sometimes in the middle, using each other as springboard through the dark. You were moving so fast it was unimportant to finish and clear everything. He would be describing something in 27 ways. There was pain and gentleness everything jammed into each number.

But jazz wasn’t like that in the early 1900’s, I refuse to believe that. But it became like that, and Ondaatje got it down on paper!

We Are Going to Die

December 18, 2014

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potentail people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here [Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow].

I read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. The first chapter is organized around four excerpts that Pinker uses to illustrate good writing; the one above from Richard Dawkins is the first one.

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

November 25, 2014

I’ve read the dry and comprehensive, but interesting and important The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. The Mismeasure of Man discusses problems with mental tests and their interpretation as measures of something innate. The argument about innateness stems from the more general theory called biological determinism. Gould discusses problems with biological determinism in several essays in the collection An Urchin in the Storm (his discussion there has a more general flavour, if I remember correctly; a few comments on Gould’s critique of E.O. Wilson here); in Mismeasure, the discussion centers around mental faculties. Gould’s general message:

TheMismeasureOfMan[T]hat determinist arguments for ranking people according to a single scale of intelligence, no matter how numerically sophisticated, have recorded little more than social prejudice—and that we learn something hopeful about the nature of science in pursuing such an analysis [p. 60*].

I admire Gould as writer and thinker. His honest , clear, and profound thoughts on the objective scientist, for example, align with my own, admittedly somewhat more muddled, ideas:

Scholars are often wary of citing [personal] commitments, for, in the stereotype, an ice–cold impartiality acts as the sine qua non [indispensable or essential] of proper and dispassionate objectivity. I regard this argument as one of the most fallacious, even harmful, claims commonly made in my profession. Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences—and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice.
Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence—so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be attained!  No conceit could be worse than a belief in one’s own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools. […] The best form of objectivity lies in explicitly identifying preferences so that their influence can be recognized and countermanded [pp. 36-37].

I criticize the myth that science itself is an objective enterprise, done properly only when scientists can shuck the constraints of their culture and view of the world as it really is. […] I believe that science must be understood as a social phenomenon, a gutsy, human enterprise […] I also present this view as an upbeat for science, not as a gloomy epitaph for a noble hope sacrified on the altar of human limitations [p. 53].

And, all glory ideas about scientific progress through breakthroughs aside, much scientific progress happens through criticism:

Working scientists are generally good at analyzing data. We are trained to spot fallacies of argument and, especially, to be hypercritical of supporting data. We scrutinize charts and look at every dot on a graph. Science moves forward as much by critiquing the conclusions of others as by making novel discoveries [p. 25].

Gould eventually enters a discussion of the feedback between scientific change and scientists:

An old tradition in science proclaims that changes in theory must be driven by observation. Since most scientists believe this simplistic formula, they assume that their own shifts in interpretation only record their better understanding of newly discovered facts. Scientists therefore tend to be unaware of their own mental impositions upon the world’s messy and ambiguous factuality. Such mental impositions arise from a variety of sources, including psychological  predispositions and social context. […] When scientists adopt the myth that theories arise solely from observation, and do not scrutinize the personal and social influences emerging from their own psyches, they not only miss the causes of their changed opinions, but may also fail to comprehend the deep and pervasive mental shift encoded by their own new theory [p. 406].

As a scientist myself, I realize how hard it is to fully understand and embrace Gould’s insight; but I also find that the insight should be superficially obvious in that scientists are inherent to scientific change.

The Mismeasure of Man, then, is a critique of the idea that mental tests, IQ–tests in particular, are measures of some physical phenomenon in the brain. The idea has roots back to the days of craniometry, the ‘measurement of the skull and its content’, and Gould shows how the old masters did little more than interpreting their precious numbers as confirmations of their prejudices:

Science is rooted in creative interpretation. Numbers suggest, constrain, and refute; they  do not, by themselves, specify the content of scientific theories. Theories are built upon the interpretation of numbers, and interpreters are often trapped by their own rhetoric. They believe in their own objectivity, and fail to discern the prejudice that leads them to one interpretation among many consistent with their numbers. Paul Broca [an old champion of craniometry] is now distant enough. We can stand back and show that he used numbers not to generate new theories but to illustrate a priori conclusions. Shall we believe that science is different today simply because we share the cultural context of most practicing scientists and mistake its influence for objective truth? Broca was an exemplary scientist; no one has ever surpassed him in meticulous care and accuracy of measurement. By what right, other than our own biases, can we identify his prejudice and hold that science now operates independently of culture and class? [p. 106.]

The allure of numbers and even words is captured in a great quote by John Stuart Mill that Gould actually quotes twice in Mismeasure (the second time in an essay that was added to the revised edition). The quote captures the problem with reification (reifyto convert into or regard as a concrete thing):

The temptation to reify is powerful. The idea that we have detected something “underlying” the externalities of a large set of correlation coefficients [the basic, statistical idea in assessing mental tests], something perhaps more real than the superficial measurements themselves, can be intoxicating. It is Plato’s essence [note Gould’s deep scope], the abstract, eternal reality underlying superficial appearances. But it is a temptation that we must resist, for it reflects an ancient prejudice of thought, not a truth of nature [p. 282].

Gould’s reason for going into the details of and problems with mental tests is, among other things, their use in arguments of innate differences between human races and social groups. The common racial prejudice about different mental capabilities makes little sense:

[A]ll non–African racial diversity—whites, yellows, reds, everyone from the Hopi to the Norwegians, to the Fijians—may not be much older than one hundred thousand years. By contrast, Homo sapiens has lived in Africa for a longer time. Consequently, since genetic diversity roughly correlates with time available for evolutionary change, genetic variety among Africans alone exceeds the sum total of genetic diversity for everyone else in the rest of the world combined! […] Africa is most of humanity by any proper genealogical definition; all the rest of us occupy a branch within the African tree. This non-African branch has surely flourished, but can never be topologically more than a subsection within an African structure. […] I suggest that we finally abandon such senseless statements as “African blacks have more rhythm, less intelligence, greater athleticism.” Such claims, apart from their social perniciousness, have no meaning if Africans cannot be construed as a coherent group because they represent more diversity than all the rest of the world put together [p. 399].

The Mismeasure of Man is a dissection of an entire field, it seems, and one cannot help but be impressed by Gould’s comprehensive knowledge and insight into something that largely must be regarded as secondary to his primary field of paleontology. Gould reveals scientific fraud, both conscious and, with the benefit of doubt, unconscious, in the science behind mental tests. In Gould’s eyes, the unconscious cases result mostly from ignorance of or lack of interest in the workings of science, in that objectivity is only an Utopian dream, and in the necessity of the difficult exercise to honestly examine one’s own prejudices. And ideas do matter, and scientists and thinkers more generally (that includes all of us, I gather) need to be aware and respect that.

Scholars often suppose that academic ideas must remain, at worst harmless and, at best, mildly amusing or even instructive. But ideas do not reside in the ivory tower of our usual metaphor about academic irrelevancy. People are, as Pascal said, thinking reeds, and ideas motivate human history. Where would Hitler have been without racism, Jefferson without liberty? [p. 412.]

* Page references to the 1996-edition [W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London]

UPDATE: Irony has it that Gould himself is accused of fudging numbers to make his conclusions align with his preconceived notions: Stephen Jay Gould accused of fudging numbers. Gould proves his own point, and demonstrates how hard the necessary introspection is. Now, I did not read the article describing Gould’s misconduct, but understood that among his errors was to exclude small samples (four observations or less). To exclude small samples seems reasonable to me, but there are perhaps better ways to retain the information in the observations and acknowledge the inherent uncertainty in the small sample size. I need to look further into the debate, but for now I am willing to give Gould the benefit of doubt. And the accusations regarded one of a number of cases Gould looked into, and does not bring down the overall argument in Mismeasure, which also relies on methodological problems with IQ–measures, for example. I sense that I will return to this topic in the near future.

UPDATE 2: After a closer look on the article mentioned in the previous update (here), I am fairly convinced that Gould was unable to keep it straight when he started to move figures around and they ended up supporting his beliefs. But, I am frustrated by the focus on means, for example in the table of measurements, where ranges or a notion of distributions would have been appropriate. Why didn’t the authors, that went through all that trouble to take new measurements, carry out some simple t–tests? I, for one, would be more at peace if it was made clear whether there was any statistical differences to talk about. [Disclaimer: I did not read the article in full and statistical tests may be reported, but it is not brought clearly out into the open and I do not understand why.]

Political Geometry

November 25, 2014

Interesting stories often lie encoded in names that seem either capricious or misconstrued. Why, for example, are political radicals called “left” and their conservative counterparts “right”? In most European legislatures, maximally distinguished members sat at the chairman’s right, following a custom of courtesy as old as all our prejudices for favoring the dominant hand of most people. (These biases run deep, extending well beyond can openers and writing desks to language itself, where “dextrous” [sic] comes from the Latin for “right” and “sinister” for “left.”) Since these distinguished nobles and moguls tended to espouse conservative views, the right and left wings of the legislature came to define a geometry of political views.

–Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man [1996, p. 401]

Quote of the Day

November 14, 2014

The tendency has always been strong to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or being, having an independent existence of its own. And if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something particularly abstruse and mysterious.

–John Stuart Mill


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers