Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

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.]

Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

August 21, 2013

Letters to a Young Scientist entices you with its nice cover, small format, and promising title. ‘Pulitzer Price Winner’ is emblazoned on the front, below Wilson’s name. If you don’t think twice, you may think that he got the Pulitzer for Letters. He didn’t.

letters to a young scientist mech.inddIn Letters, Wilson aims to share wisdom accumulated during a long career as a biologist. Admittedly, I am not among his intended readers, as the book is specifically aimed at scientists in the hard sciences. But, science is science, social or not, so I decided there quite likely was some good advice there for a young social scientist as well (young seems to mean younger than Wilson, and that is just about everybody; I think he is in his nineties eighties).

One of the first of Wilson’s advices is, well, essentially, follow your passion. In Wilson’s words, ‘put passion ahead of training’ (p. 25*). I find this advice interesting because over the last couple of years, I have followed Cal Newport’s blog. Cal Newport is a young professor in computer science or something thereabouts. He is also a prolific writer, and he writes about how to succeed at whatever you do. He wrote a book on it called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I read it. His ideas are particularly suited to young people with high education or much training behind them (like musicians). Cal Newport think passion is the last thing you should worry about if you want to succeed and proceed to live a remarkable life (which, presumably, is the normal course of events; I am sure Newport has a more nuanced view of this, in particular, I think he thinks finding pleasure in being on the way to success is a key element, but this is an aside). Newport has developed something reminiscent of a theory of how to go about to have success. An important part of the theory is that skills developed through meticulous training is necessary to have success. And, to get back to Wilson, Newport’s mantra that following your passion is bad advice clashes with Wilson’s advice, head on. So, who to believe? The experienced, senior, and highly successful Wilson, or the young Newport (on his way to success, I am sure)? I think Newport is right. I do not doubt that Wilson’s advice is ‘an important principle [he’s] seen unfold in the careers of many successful scientists’ (p. 25), but I bet most of them took their training very seriously. If Wilson didn’t, he is probably the lucky guy. Wilson sees a lot of trees, I’m afraid, but there is no forest (his dust jacket notwithstanding). And that most successful scientist has a lot of passion for what they do is not strange at all. It gave them success, after all, and research is supposed to be important and good and I am sure most successful scientist receives a lot of such feedback, and that probably helps if the passion is not always so strong.

Wilson devotes most of his letters to recount success stories from his long life in science. Wilson has studied ants more than anything (and anyone, one gets the impression). Ants are interesting, but do not always feel very relevant to the overarching idea (advising young scientists to succeed). It is not always straight forward to understand what Wilson tries to say. He has a letter with the heading What is Science?, for example, where his answer to his own question leaves something to be desired. In the same letter, he poses What, then, in broadest terms is the scientific method? and again fails to provide a satisfactory answer. In Wilson’s view, a scientific problem leads, after much investigation and in the best of cases, to a scientific fact. He does not find it necessary to make the young scientist aware that there exist an entire literature on philosophy of science that any budding, young scientist should become at least somewhat familiar with and that discusses whether the idea of a scientific fact is indeed well-defined. And, most investigations into scientific problems lead to few answers and more, but perhaps deeper, problems.

A source of the ground strength of science are the connections made not only variously within physics, chemistry, and biology, but also among these primary disciplines. A very large question remains in science and philosophy. It is as follows: Can this consilience-connections made between widely separated bodies of knowledge-be extended to the social sciences and humanities, including even the creative arts? I think it can, and further I believe that the attempt to make such linkages will be a key part of intellectual life in the remainder of the twenty-first century [pp. 62-63].

That is a good advice from Wilson, I think, but already largely taken up in the existing or emerging structure of science, where interdisciplinary work is everywhere pursued and encouraged.

The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper [p. 74].

Another meaningful advice, but I think the ideal scientist finds the ideal balance. The creativity necessary to move science (forward, presumably), and the bookkeeping need both to be kept up throughout and cannot be separated into disconnected modes.

Wilson’s narrow world view, which I think makes much of his advice of little value, manifests itself in the following passage, under the title Science as Universal Knowledge:

There is only one way to understand the universe and all within it, however imperfectly, and that is through science. You are likely to respond, Not true, there are also the social sciences and humanities. I know that, of course, I’ve heard it a hundred times, and I’ve always listened carefully. But how different at their foundations are the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities? The social sciences are converging generation by generation of scholars with biology, by sharing methods and ideas, and thereby conceding more and more to the realities of the ultimately biological nature of our species. […] Yet however much the humanities enrich our lives, however definitively they defend what it means to be human, they also limit thought to that which is human, and in this one important sense they are trapped within a box [pp. 169 – 170].

And with that, he rambles into speculations about extraterrestrial intelligence. But what to take away? If your passion lies with a social science, you should become a biologist as that is where everything ends up in the end, anyway? I don’t think so (I don’t even think passion should matter). Wilson only stretches the meaning of biology, and that is of little use. He may be right that one day, human knowledge may be much more integrated as an entire body of knowledge rather than a number of separate disciplines with a few links in between. But that is really not all that relevant. What we should be thinking, is that all scientific activity sorts under science. To think of different scientific activities in a hierarchical manner is of little value.

Wilson has already proposed a biologically based theory of human behavior; human sociobiology. It caused a lot of upheaval at the time, and understandably so given statements like the following, by Wilson:

In hunter-gatherer societies, men hunt and women stay at home. This strong bias persist in most agricultural and industrial societies and, on that ground alone, appears to have a genetic origin. […] My own guess is that the genetic bias is intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies. […] Even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science [quoted from S. J. Gould’s An Urchin in the Storm, p. 29, Wilson originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine, October 12, 1975].

Stephen Jay Gould has written extensively on human sociobiology. Much of it appears in his An Urchin in the Storm. Among his conclusions are that human sociobiology is founded on a flawed mathematical and theoretical basis, that its empirical content is failing. For anyone interested, I can recommend Gould’s review (pp. 107-ff in Urchin) of Wilson’s popular work Promethean Fire, where Gould attacks, among other things, Wilson’s belief in reductionism.

I am not sure how to round up my review of Wilson’s Letters. As a young (social) scientist myself, I cannot say I learned a lot from it; nothing I had not heard from before. As someone not overly interested in ants (although I do find social behavior among animals and insects interesting), I found Wilson’s accounts of his many worldly and scientific adventures way over the top. And Wilson’s constant glorification of his own career and his own choices are nothing but annoying. My conclusions is Don’t read Wilson’s Letters.

* Page numbers refer to the first edition, 2013.

A Researcher’s Staff

August 15, 2013

The choosing of [collaborators] is a matter of no little importance for a [researcher]; and their worth depends on the sagacity of the [researcher] himself. The first opinion that is formed of a [researcher’s] intelligence is based on the quality of the men he has around him. When they are competent and loyal he can always be considered wise, because he has been able to recognize their competence and to keep them loyal. But when they are otherwise, the [researcher] is always open to adverse criticism; because his first mistake has been in the choice of his [collaborators]. […] There are three kinds of intelligence: one kind understands things for itself, the second appreciates what others can understand, the third understands neither for itself nor through others. The first kind is excellent, the second good, and the third kind useless [paraphrased from George Bull’s translation of The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, chapter XXII].

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

August 14, 2013

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, provides a brief and popular account of the science and politics of climate change. Chapter 2, for example, is the best popular account of the greenhouse effect I have seen (and far better than any unpopular account I am aware of). It is also very well written. (Kolbert has, for example, written extensively for the New Yorker, which has high standards; Field Notes are in fact based upon pieces once written for it.) An excerpt I enjoyed in particular demonstrates the point:

KolbertFieldNotesNo nation takes a keener interest in climate change, at least on a per-capita basis, than Iceland. More than 10 percent of the country is covered by glaciers, the largest of which, Vatnajökull, streches over thirty-two hundred square miles. Dureing the so-called Little Ice Age, which began in Europe some five hundred years ago and ended some three hundred and fifty years later, the advance of the glaciers caused widespread misery. Contemporary records tell of farms being buried under the ice-“Frost and cold torment people,” a pastor in eastern Iceland named Olafur Einarsson wrote-and in particularly severe years, shipping, too, seems to have ceased, because the island remained icebound even in summer. In the mid-eighteenth century, it has been estimated, nearly a third of the country’s population died of starvation or associated cold-related ills. For Icelanders, many of whom can trace their geneaology back a thousand years, this is considered to be almost recent history [p. 59, paperback edition, 2009].

An interesting strain of the science on climate change that I am not much familiar with, but which Kolbert emphasizes, is the study of how ancient civilizations were disturbed by climatic changes (or long-term variations in weather patterns). Peter deMenocal, a paleoclimatologist Kolbert interviews put it like this:

The thing they [the ancient civilizations] couldn’t prepare for was the same thing that we won’t prepare for, because in their case they didn’t know about it and because in our case the political system can’t listen to it. And that is that the climate system has much greater things in store for us than we think [p. 117].

Kolbert’s discussion of the politics of climate change is interesting, but centers mostly around the inability of the US to step forward on the global policy scene, and how the conservative forces are to blame. While the rest of Kolbert’s book certainly can serve to educate the public on the danger of climate change, I am not convinced that her treatment of the politics can be perceived as neutral enough (in the lack of a better phrase) to have much political influence. (But then, the book has been out for years already, and someone more on top of things than I probably knows already.)

Another thing I find interesting is that Kolbert cites science which suggest that current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (400 parts per million) represent danger. Forget about the two degrees target, in other words. On the other hand, Kolbert cites research that conclude that we already possess technologies and knowledge to solve the climate problem. The catch, of course, is that involved costs makes it practically (politically) impossible to solve the climate problem with the existing technologies. Kolbert concludes:

It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing [p. 189].

I guess, and hope, Kolbert is already on the reading list of all and any politician (interested in climate change or not), of all concerned citizens, of all social scientists that work on related issues, well, as many as possible should read Field Notes. Its brevity, accessibility, and sharp focus makes it a potential game changer.

What is Science?

August 4, 2013

What is this grand enterprise called science that has lit up heaven and earth and empowered humanity? It is organized, testable knowledge of the real world, of everything around us as well as ourselves, as opposed to the endlessly varied beliefs people hold from myth and superstition. It is the combination of physical and mental operations that have become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations dedicated to the most effective way ever conceived of acquiring factual knowledge [E. O. Wilson, 2013, Letters to a Young Scientist, p. 55].

I find myself reading the latest book by Edward O. Wilson; Letters to a Young Scientist. In a weak moment, I picked it up at an airport. Too late did I realize Wilson is the father of human sociobiology although I recently read harsh criticism, offered by Stephen Jay Gould, of the entire discipline. If I had remembered when I came across Wilson’s Letters, I might not have bought it and wouldn’t have found myself disliking the book now. His explanation of what science is, for example, is not very precise or all-encompassing, and not particularly helpful to the young scientist. Anyway, Wilson has been a researcher for some six decades and I hope some of the lessons he offers will be helpful. (I realize I am not among the readers Wilson had in mind, being a social scientist. But it doesn’t really matter. Science, social or not, is a social enterprise, and all science builds upon the same, philosophical foundation and requires much of the same type of motivation and drive to pursue.)

An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould

July 18, 2013

An Urchin in the Storm by Stephen Jay Gould is a collection of book reviews, mostly written for the The New York Review of Books. Few book reviews standsthe test of time, but Gould does not write ordinary book reviews. Instead, he discusses issues of broader scope, with the book under review as a point of departure and to some extent as a sparring partner.

GouldGould (1941-2002) was a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science, and his wide arsenal of knowledge shines through. He discusses an array of issues with great wit and a rational, down-to-earth attitude. For example, in a harsh treatment of a book on human sociobiology, he swiftly (and rationally) deals with potential complaints about non-objectivity:

As a severe critic of human sociobiology from its inception, I clearly am not an impartial observer. Yet surely the equation of bland nonpartisanship with objectivity – a silly notion fostered by the worst traditions of television news reporting – must be rejected. We may scrutinize a known critic more carefully, but ultimately we must judge his arguments, not his autobiography [p. 29].*

I think many researchers have perverted ideas about so-called objectivity. In most cases, and particularly in the social sciences, objectivity can only be an Utopian idea that should be left behind sooner rather than later. Researchers are subjects and their rhetoric should reflect their subjectivity. And while I am onto rhetorics, I would like to quote Gould on the role of the narrative:

[The narrative style is storytelling in the grandest mode.] Narrative has fallen from fashion; even historians are supposed to ape the stereotype of physics [the prototype objective science, by the way] and be quantitative, or cliometric. Fine in its place, but not as a fetish. Narrative remains an art and science of the highest order, but of different form [p. 90].

And Gould keeps returning to what essentially is a discussion of scientific method:

Creative science is always a mixture of facts and ideas. Great thinkers are not those who can free their minds from cultural baggage and think or observe objectively (for such a thing is impossible), but people who use their milieu creatively rather than as a constraint – as Darwin did in translating Adam Smith’s economics into nature as the principle of natural selection, and as Hutton did in using the principle of finals causes to construct a cyclical view of the world.
Such a conception of science not only validates the study of history and the role of intellect – both subtly downgraded if objective observation is the source of all good science. It also puts science into culture and subverts the argument – advanced by creationists and other modern Yahoos, but sometimes unconsciously abetted by scientists – that science seeks to impose a new moral order from without [p. 103].

And again:

AnUrchinInTheStormAfter all, isn’t science supposed to be a cool, passionless, absolutely objective exploration of an external reality? […] But we scientists are no different from anyone else. We are passionate human beings, enmeshed in a web of personal and social circumstances. Our field [biology here, but the discussion is universal to all sciences, also the social ones] does recognize canons of procedure designed to give nature the long shot of asserting herself in the face of such biases, but unless scientists understand their hopes and engage in vigorous self-scrutiny, they will not be able to sort unacknowledged preference from nature’s weak and imperfect message [pp. 149-150].

Self-scrutiny! That is what it takes. That is also, unfortunately, what they did not teach in grad-school. The message I take from Gould here is that one cannot discount ones personal and social circumstances in a regression (or in other scientific methods), but that does not mean that our personal views and social situation will not interfere with how we read the results. As he wrote earlier, we cannot, simply cannot, think or observe objectively. As scientists, we are not objects, we are subjects.

Gould defends the narrative style as a scientific method (see quote above), perhaps surprising given his expert fields, but not so surprising as he also did work on the history of science. More surprising, to me at least, was his positive discussion of the dialectical approach, but Gould makes eminent sense out of it. As I work in a social science, his parallel between biological and social interaction was particularly delightful (pp. 153-154).

In a final quote, Gould leaves no doubt about the strong link between scientific knowledge and the social setting:

[A]n important theme advanced by contemporary historians of science against the myth of objectivity and inexorable scientific progress: science is socially embedded; its theories are not simple deductions from observed facts of nature, but a complex mixture of social ideology (often unconsciously expressed) and empirical constraint. This theme is liberating for science; it embodies the human side of our enterprise and depicts us as passionate creatures struggling with limited tools to understand a complex reality, not as robots programmed to convert objective information into immutable truth [p. 230].

I learned a lot from reading An Urchin in the Storm; Gould has so much to teach us (me), like what makes for an interesting book review (see p. 10), about biased reporting in science (p. 37), Darwin and evolution (pp. 59, 204-205), the social element in scientific knowledge (p. 84), the on-off history of the Atlantic (p. 96), the problems with IQ (pp, 132-ff), heritability (p. 147), his view of his own deductive powers (p. 165), the extinct solitaire (pp. 187-188), the governance of academic institutions (pp. 194-195), and a really great Gunnar Myrdal quote (p. 216). (I should have quoted all the sections I refer to here, but it wouldn’t make sense. Perhaps in a later post.) The variety of topics combined with Gould’s honest and witful approach makes Urchin a pleasant and interesting read. As my quotations amply demonstrates, a recurring theme is the scientific method and its social element, and anyone interested, and all scientists, should lend an ear (or rather, an eye) to Gould.

UPDATE: An odd thing about Gould’s reviews is that I was left satisfied without any wish to track down the books themselves and read them myself. Not a single one. Perhaps some of the biographies could be interesting, but none of the books Gould reviewed are now on my Amazon wish list (which is how I keep track of books I want to read). What are on my wish list, however, is another of Gould’s books and a detective novel by Dorothy Sayers which was mentioned by Gould. The point should be discounted somewhat because the Urchin is a rather old collection of reviews, but I am still surprised. So, Gould wrote essayic book reviews, but not reviews which generated much interest in the books themselves. Not even the books he liked.

*Page numbers refer to the 1988 paperback edition.

Related post:

Gould on Biased Reporting in Science

July 5, 2013

At Bookish, a used book store in Berkeley, I picked up Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collection An Urchin in the Storm. In an essay on the fundamental problems with human sociobiology, a discipline that tries to explain social behavior with Darwinian selection, Gould has an interesting comment on the problem with biased reporting in science.

Few observers outside science (and not nearly enough researchers inside) recognize the severe effects of biased reporting. The problem is particularly acute, almost perverse, when scientists construct experiments to test for an expected effect. Confirmations are joyfully reported; negative results are usually begrudgingly admitted. But null results-the failure to find any effect in any direction-are usually viewed as an experiment gone awry. Meticulous scientists may report such results, but they disappear forthwith from the secondary literature (and are almost never reported in the press). Most scientists probably don’t publish such results at all-who has the time to write up ambiguous and unexciting data? And besides, they rationalize, maybe next week we’ll have time to do the experiment again and get better results. I call such nonreporting perverse because we cannot gauge its depth and extent. Therefore, we do not know the proper relative frequency of most effects-a monumental problem in sciences of natural history, where nearly all theoretical claims are arguments about relative frequencies, not statements about exclusivity [p. 37, 1988 paperback edition].

Incidentally, I just work through a referee report that asked for more motivation for a model complication which did not affect the main results much. I cannot help but suspect that if the complication had lead to larger effects, the referee would be less inclined to ask for further motivation. The irony: The referee agrees that the complication is novel and leads to a more realistic model, however slightly.

In introducing sociobiology, Gould mentions Kuhn. I sense a sarcastic tone in the final remark.

Thomas Kuhn’s seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, affected working scientists as deeply as it moved those scholars who scrutinize what we do. Before Kuhn, most scientists followed the place-a-stone-in-the-bright-temple-of-knowledge tradition, and would have told you that they hoped, above all, to lay many of the bricks, perhaps even set the keystone, of truth’s temple-the additive or meliorist [the doctrine that the world tends to become better or may be made better by human effort, definition from] model of scientific progress. Now most scientists of vision hope to foment revolution. […] We are therefore awash in revolutions, most self-proclaimed [p. 27].

Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan

June 12, 2013

From time to time, I read books on philosophy of science. A good while ago, I read Progress and Its Problems by Larry Laudan. The book has the subtitle Towards a Theory of Scientific Growth. I have had this book for a long time, but has hesitated to read it after I found Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller an unsettling read. (I actually wrote a longer review of Kuhn vs. Popper than what I posted here, but never got around to edit the last part of it properly; I guess I should, as my ‘review’ is actually just a weird sort of summary.)

Anyway, another reason for my hesitation was that I was quite frustrated with philosophy of science and did not realize it was my understanding (or depth) which frustrated me. Most who has tried to produce knowledge (to be a scientist) and tried to understand Popper and Kuhn must agree that both their theories are artificial. Laudan, however, presents a theory for scientific growth which makes good sense and agrees well with empirical (anecdotal?) knowledge of scientific development.

ProgressAndItsProblemsThe central element in Laudan’s theory is the research tradition:

[…] I propose that the rationality and progressiveness of a theory are most closely linked-not with its confirmation or its falsification-but rather with its problem solving effectiveness. I shall be arguing that there are important nonempirical, even “nonscientific” (in the usual sense), factors which have-and which should have-played a role in the rational development of science. I shall suggest, further, that most philosophers of science have mistakenly identified the nature of scientific appraisal, and thereby the primary unit of rational analysis, by focusing on the individual theory, rather than on what I call the research tradition. This study will show, moreover, that we need to distinguish between the rationality of acceptance and the rationality of pursuit if we are to make any progress at reconstructing the congitive dimensions of scientific activity [p. 5,* italics in original]

Laudan aims to shift the research focus from a search for truth (which we cannot identify anyway) to a focus on progress:

[…] the rationale for accepting or rejecting any theory is thus fundamentally based on the idea of problem-solving progress.  If one research tradition has solved more important [scientific] problems than its rivals, then accepting that tradition is rational precisely to the degree that we are aiming to “progress,” [that is], to maximize the scope of solved problems. […], the choice of one tradition over its rivals is a progressive (and thus rational) choice precisely to the extent that the chosen tradition is a better problem solver than its rivals [p. 109].

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to give a decent and comprehensive account of Laudan’s ideas, for that, I must refer you to the book. (I am not even sure a decent account of short length is probably; the book is perhaps as brief as it can be. Laudan mostly writes economically.) Some key parts that to some degree can be studied out-of-context: The discussion of anomalous problems (pp. 26-ff). On problem solving and ambiguous tests (pp. 42-ff). The deconstruction of Kuhn and Lakatos (pp. 73-ff). On the progressiveness of ad hoc modifications (p. 115). The discussion of rationality at the beginning of chapter four (pp. 121-ff) should be read by every rational scientist, and perhaps in particular economists for whom rationality has such an central, theoretical role. On scientific revolutions, and Kuhn again (pp. 133-ff). Finally, on the justification for scientific research (pp. 224-225).

Some further interesting points: The note on on why Adam Smith wrote his treatise on moral philosophy (to resolve tensions between his economic theory and the Newtonian thesis of a balance of forces in nature (endnote 10 to chapter 2, p. 230). The (long) note on Foucault (“[…] Foucault has benefited from that curious Anglo-American view that if a Frenchman talks nonsense it must rest on a profundity which is too deep for a speaker of English to comprehend[!]”) (endnote 12 to chapter 6, p. 241). Again finally, the note on sociology of knowledge is also great (endnote 29 to chapter 7, pp. 244-245). Why do so many nonfictional writers put so much of interest in small print at the back? Who started this odd tradition?

I should have written a proper review of Laudan when I had it fresh in mind. What I can say is that it reinserted a feeling of aim and purpose into my own work as a researcher (something neither Kuhn nor Popper will likely do for you). It also felt like some sort of closure, as my thirst for further insights into the philosophy of science has since dried up(?). My unread volumes on Popper and Feyerabend will likely remain unread for a while still. But, in parts Laudan only sketches out his ideas. Some day I will most likely try and follow some of the loose ends; perhaps there are some interesting problems at the end of some of them? (A [long run] better solution would of course be to befriend someone in the philosophy department, but who has the [short run] courage for that?)

I am trailing off. Let me rather conclude with a sobering economic comment on research funding from Laudan’s epilogue:

Far too much scientific research today is devoted to problems which are as cognitively trivial as they are socially irrelevant. If the “pure” scientist is to deserve the generous support presently being lavished on him [Laudan might be thinking of English college professors here], he must be able to show that his problems are genuinely significant ones and that his program of research is sufficiently progressive to be worth gambling our precious and limited resources on it [p. 225].

* Page numbers refer to the 1978 paperback edition.

The postdoc dilemma

April 25, 2012

A while ago, I read a column in Nature which I related to. Like the author, I am currently a postdoc researcher, and recognize the dilemma. The column ‘The postdoc dilemma’ appeared in the Careers section and was written by Gaston Small. The crux of the dilemma:

The job–career balance is a fundamental challenge for postdocs. Fulfilling the obligations of the project that currently pays your salary is, of course, essential, but at the same time postdocs need to push previous work through the publication process, which often entails multiple revisions. Writing grant applications, and applying and interviewing for faculty jobs are necessary activities; […] postdoc funding runs out quickly. These additional responsibilities to our careers are as time-consuming as obligations to our full-time jobs.

An important point made in the column is that in the postdoc will work on papers from the postdoc project in years after the project is over and thereby catching up on whatever time lost on non-project work.



Vijay Iyer: A Scientific Musician

March 23, 2012

Perhaps it is about time to kick this old blog back to life. I will start with a post about Vijay Iyer. I came across an interview with him, of all places, in Nature (483, p. 157). Vijay Iyer is a jazz pianist who plays a kind of progressive jazz, very interesting stuff although not entirely my cup of tea. It is nice, but not very groovy. What is extraordinary about Iyer is that he has a scientific background which he applies to his music. He started out in physics, but took a PhD in music perception and cognition. In his dissertation, he studied the perception of rhythm. From the Nature-interview:

Why focus on rhythm?
At the primal level, music is rhythm first, the sound of bodies in synchronous action. That is why there is a pulse in music. Rhythm perception is an imagined movement in the motor centres of the brain. Our skill for coordinating our actions is the real foundation of music, and possibly of civilization.

I have listened to Iyer and his trio quite a bit the last couple of days. Rhythm, and the seeming lack thereof, is an important part of Iyer’s music. What he does with the rhythm on Mystic Brew is simply amazing. No doubt, he is a highly skilled musician. It is also fascinating how he applies scientific ideas to his music in a very direct way.

How do you use scientific ideas in your music?
Some composers might write a string quartet ‘about’ string theory, but that is just inspiration, it is not really discovery. I’m more of an experimentalist. There is an auditory illusion of a constantly ascending pitch, known as Shepard tones: the musical equivalent of M. C. Escher’s infinite staircase. As the pitch goes up, the distribution of harmonics shifts down, and your ear can’t find the place where it doubles back on itself. I used this illusion in a string quartet by asking the players to perform a synchronized glissando in parallel octaves and imposing a bell curve on their amplitudes. It worked. After that, I asked, can we do this with tempo? At the end of the title track on Historicity, there is a rhythm that constantly decelerates. On Accelerando, there is a piece giving the illusion of constant acceleration, of a tempo that flexes.

What is the future of music?
People walk around with headphones on, thinking of music as a solitary, personalized pursuit. But it has connected us by synchronizing our actions throughout human history. Because we are so engrossed in the technical aspects, it is easy for scientists, and even for musicians, to forget that the effects of music are primarily emotional. That is why people keep it in their lives.

The emotional side of music is what makes it interesting, and why mainstream, popular music seldom has much appeal to anyone with more than a superficial interest.

Dealing with Referees

November 19, 2010

It is hard and frustrating to work on a revision and a letter to the referee, in general, but particularly when the editorial board finds it hard to decide whether to ask for a revision or that the paper is not suited for their journal.

In weak moments, I see the value and purpose of the peer-review process the way it currently works in economics and most other scientific disiplines today. They are, however, weak moments. What comes out of the peer-review process? Usually a long list of minor issues which, for the general finding, has no real importance. Sometimes, of course, major flaws are pointed out. Ultimately, peer-review (is supposed to) guarantee quality and relevance.

How would the world be like without the process? Crazy, perhaps? Would it be a world where one could not trust the written word, and where quality, relevance, and importance were without meaning? Of course not. Instead, every journal would have an open-source, continually ongoing review process, where the responsibility for quality and relevance was placed solely with the author and the editorial board; where poor work would be openly critisized in responses and comments; where authors could focus more on developing ideas and writing skills (instead of excuses, irrelevant details, and cover-up operations); and where authors would be forced to think harder about problems before submission (and not during the revision). Scientists would perhaps write more monographs and fewer articles as the main difference (the peer-review process) ceased to exist, and as the monograph are better suited to report on many scientific findings. Citations would be a better measure of importance and influence; today, a good deal of the references are included on the whim of referees. Finally, perhaps it would dawn on us that knowledge evolve, and that to be knowledgable on a given subject requires familiarity with a whole literature, not only a handful of articles from the leading journals.

The Ensemble Kalman Filter

October 27, 2010

The standard Kalman filter and even the Extended Kalman filter (for nonlinear problems) proved inadequate. I’ve now placed my hope in what’s known as the Ensemble Kalman Filter:

Another sequential data assimilation method which has received a lot of attention is named the Ensemble Kalman Filter (EnKF). The method was originally proposed as a stochastic or Monte Carlo alternative to the deterministic [Extended Kalman filter] by Evensen (1994a).  The EnKF was designed to resolve the two major problems related to the use of the [Extended Kalman filter] with nonlinear dynamics in large state spaces, i.e. the use of an approximate closure scheme and the huge computational requirements associated with the storage and forward integration of the error covariance matrix.

The EnKF gained popularity because of its simple conceptual formulation and relative ease of implementation, e.g. it requires no derivation of a tangent linear operator or adjoint equations and no integrations backward in time. Furthermore, the computational requirements are affordable and comparable to other popular sophisticated assimilation methods […].*

* Excerpt from Geir Evensen’s Data Assimilation: The Ensemble Kalman Filter, 2007, p. 38.

Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller, Part 2

October 19, 2010

Part 2? Take Two, rather (This is Take One). It surprises me how difficult it is to get to grips with this book, particularly given its apparent brevity (the main body of the book runs through page 215 in a relative small format). Of course, I’m not even an amateur philosopher of science, but still.

A part of the difficult lies in the chaotic or at least hidden structure of the book. Fuller announces his motives in the introduction (‘to recapture the full range of issues that separate [Kuhn and Popper],’ see p. 3*). The ‘full range’ is presumably a lot of material; the already mentioned brevity is thus surprising. But Fuller do not list nor declear the ‘issues’ he wants to address. There seem to be no plan or structure. Rather, he seems to move from issue to issue in a haphazard fasion, and the motive or aim of the discussion is often out of sight and elusive. The conclusion of the book is also something of an anti-climax. The last chapter seemingly only discusses one of the issues separating Kuhn and Popper; there are no final remarks, no conclusion, or anything that resembles a closure.

Kuhn vs. Popper did increase my understanding and knowledge of the ideas of both Kuhn and Popper, and also how their ideas connect to the ideas of other important thinkers. Perhaps more importantly, Fuller has helped me see the important differences between Kuhn and Popper. Throughout the book, for one thing, Fuller comes up with comparative statements.

Kuhn and Popper represent two radically different ways of specifying the ends of inquiry: What drives our understanding of reality? Where is the truth to be found? [p. 56].

Kuhn was indeed authoritarian and Popper liertarian in their attitudes to science. This point has been largely lost, if not inverted, by those who regard ‘Kuhn vs Popper’ as a landmark in 20th-century philosophy of science [p. 13]

Popper was a democrat concerned with science as a form of dynamic inquiry and Kuhn an élitist focused on science as a stabilising social practice. Nevertheless, they normally appear with these qualities in reverese. How can this be? [p. 68].

To dig deeper into these differences, one has to dig into the actual ideas. Kuhn first:

For Kuhn, science begins in earnest with the adoption of a ‘paradigm’, which means both an exemplary piece of research and the blueprint it provides for future research […] Kuhn deliberately selects the phrase ‘puzzle-solving’ (as in crossword puzzles) over ‘problem-solving’ to underscore the constrained nature of normal science […] A ‘revolution’ occurs [upon a ‘crisis’] when a viable alternative paradigm has been found. The revolution is relatively quick and irreversible. In practice, this means that an intergenerational shift occurs [pp. 19-20].

An important aspect of Kuhn’s philosophy of science is how history is rewritten after a scientific revolution, such that the scientific development appears streamlined and meaningful. In Kuhn’s view, Fuller writes,

[…] the secret of science’s success – its principled pursuit of paradigmatic puzzles – would be underminded if scientists had the professional historian’s demythologised sense of their history. After all, in the great scheme of things, most actual scientific work turns out to be inconsequential or indeterminately consequential [p. 20].

Another important feature of Kuhn’s ideas regards how people become scientists. One becomes a scientist through a “conversion experience or ‘Gestalt switch,’ whereby one comes to see the world in a systematically different way” (p. 21).  These features, combined with the conservative flavor of Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, led Popperians to liken Kuhn to ‘religious and politcal indoctrinators’ (p. 21).

But of course, this was not how Structure was read by most of its admirers – if they actually did read the book. For while Kuhn’s examples are drawn almost exclusively from the physical sciences, these are the disciplines that have probably paid the ‘least’ attention to Structure, even though Kuhn himself was qualified only in physics. Kuhn’s admirers are to be found instead in the humanities and the social and biological sciences [p. 21].

Kuhn’s admirers persisted in wrenching Structure from its original context and treating it as an all-purpose manual for converting one’s lowly discipline into a full-fledged science. These wishful readings of Structure have been helped by its readers’ innocence of any alternative accounts of the history of science – often including their own – with which to compare Kuhn’s [p. 22].

When Fuller turns to discuss Popper, his sympathies with Popper become obvious:

[Popper] was always a ‘philosopher’ in the grand sense, for whom science happened to be an apt vehicle for articulating his general world-view [pp. 22-23].

For the ‘grand philosopher,’ philosophy of science is only a reflection of more fundamental attitudes:

Once Popper’s philosophy of science is read alongside his political philosophy, it becomes clear that scientific inquiry and democratic politics are meant to be alternative expressions of what Popper called ‘the open society’ [p. 26].

Popper grew up intellectually among the positivists in the Vienna Circle, but disagreed with them on their attitude towards the role of logical deduction.

For the positivists, deduciton demonstrates the coherence of a body of thought, specifically by showing how more general knowledge claims explain less general ones, each of which provide some degree of confirmation for the more general ones. For Popperians, deduction is mainly a tool for compelling scientists to thest th econesequences fo their general knowledge claims in particular cases by issuing predictions that can be contradicted by the findings of empirical research. This is the falsifiability principle in a nutshell [p. 25].

Fuller neatly sums up the difference between the 20th century’s giants in the philosophy of science:

Whereas actual scientific communities existed for Popper only as more or less corrupt versions of the scientific ideal, for Kuhn the scientific ideal is whatever has historically emerged as the dominant scientific communities [p. 6].

* Page numbers refer to the Icon Books 2006 paperback edition.

Related post:

Dancing with Professors: An Essay on Academic Prose & Rhetoric by Patricia Nelson Limerick

September 7, 2010

Robert Kozinetz gave a really interesting talk in Bodø last week; he talked about how to develop ideas and how to make them matter. During the talk, he brought up Dancing with Professors; an article from the New York Times (I think it was) discussing troublesome academic prose. The article is written by Patricia Nelson Limerick and is from way back (2001, perhaps), but is still relevant, of course (old habits die hard, I guess).

While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world, horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right-wing scholars and most left-wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language.

The dancing comes in when Limerick claims (perhaps rightfully so) that those who become professors are those nobody wanted to dance with in high school; you know, the shy, fearful, and lonely guy in the corner:

Professors are often shy, timid and fearful people, and under those circumstances, dull, difficult prose can function as a kind of protective camouflage. When you write typical academic prose, it is nearly impossible to make a strong, clear statement. The benefit here is that no one can attack your position, say you are wrong or even raise questions about the accuracy of what you have said, if they cannot tell what you have said. In those terms, awful, indecipherable prose is its own form of armor, protecting the fragile, sensitive thoughts of timid souls.

After a couple of (dreary) parables and sidetracks, Limerick returns to how academic prose is hindered from improvement: Professors think they are supposed to teach bad writing in grad school:

This is a very well-established pattern, and it is the ruination of scholarly activity in the modern world. Many professors who teach graduate students think that one of their principal duties is to train students in the conventions of academic writing.I do not believe that professors enforce a standard of dull writing on graduate students in order to be cruel. They demand dreariness because they think that dreariness is in the students’ best interests. Professors believe that a dull writing style is an academic survival skill because they think that is what editors want, both editors of academic journals and editors of university presses. What we have here is a chain of misinformation and misunderstanding, where everyone thinks that the other guy is the one who demands, dull, impersonal prose.

The lesson? Think more like a carpenter than, say, an artist:

Ego is, of course, the key obstacle here. As badly as most of them write, professors are nonetheless proud and sensitive writers, resistant in criticism. But even the most desperate cases can be redeemed and persuaded to think of writing as a challenging craft, not as existential trauma. A few years ago, I began to look at carpenters and other artisans as the emotional model for writers. A carpenter, let us say, makes a door for a cabinet. If the door does not hang straight, the carpenter does not say, “I will not change that door; it is an expression of my individuality; who cares if it will not close?” Instead, the carpenter removes the door and works on it until it fits. That attitude, applied to writing, could be our salvation. If we thought more like carpenters, academic writers could find a route out of the trap of ego and vanity. Escaped from that trap, we could simply work on successive drafts until what we have to say is clear.

The Schrödinger Experiment

October 8, 2009

The Economist reports on a couple of scientists who will try to perform the Schrödinger cat experiment on living organisms for the first time. I must admit, despite having studied physics for a full year at the university level, I never really grasped the relevance of the Schrödinger experiment. Anyway, it is the first time I’ve seen such an accurate and at the same time brief description of the experiment in the popular press:

[One] of the most famous unperformed experiments in science is Schrödinger’s cat. In 1935 Erwin Schrödinger […], who was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics, imagined putting a cat, a flask of Prussic acid, a radioactive atom, a Geiger counter, an electric relay and a hammer in a sealed box. If the atom decays, the Geiger counter detects the radiation and sends a signal that trips the relay, which releases the hammer, which smashes the flask and poisons the cat.

The point of the experiment is that radioactive decay is a quantum process. The chance of the atom decaying in any given period is known. Whether it has actually decayed (and thus whether the cat is alive or dead) is not—at least until the box is opened. The animal exists, in the argot of the subject, in a “superposition” in which it is both alive and dead at the same time.

The thing I struggle with, I guess, is Don’t the cat know if it’s alive? Now, what the cat know may be irrelevant for the purpose of the up until now hypothetical experiment. The point is that an object can be in more than one state at the same time. Or, at least it makes the equations add up.