Posts Tagged ‘philosophy of science’

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.]

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.

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:

Kuhn vs. Popper by Steve Fuller, Part 1

September 25, 2010

In Kuhn vs. Popper, Steve Fuller discusses and compares the two most important philosophers of science in the 20th century; Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper. The book is not what I expected it to be (what I expected is not entirely clear, but that is not the point). The book as a broader view than I expected, for example, revisiting philosophers from Plato to contemporary and, to me, new names like Rorty, and shuffles over themes from theology to nazism. The broad view is indeed intentional and announced in the introduction:

This book is designed to recapture the full range of issues that separate these two self-styled defenders of science [Kuhn and Popper, of course].  Many of the issues plumb the depths of the Western psyche: What is the relationship beteween knowledge and power? Can science bring unity to knowledge? Can history bring meaning to life? At the same time, these issues are entangled in more secular concerns about economy and society, politics and war  most of which are still very much with us today [p. 3].*

While I cannot say I found every twist of the book equally interesting, it did help me understand the the ideas of Kuhn and Popper better than before and even correct things I got wrong. For one thing, I used to think of Popper as the normative and Kuhn as the descriptive; Fuller claims I was wrong:

It was not, as is often said, that Kuhn was more ‘descriptive’ and his rivals [the Popperians] more ‘prescriptive’ with respect to the history of science [p. 208].


Thomas Kuhn (1922 - 1996)

According to Fuller, the Popperians appeared ‘perversly contrarian’ to the public when they imposed a normative perspective on the history of science; to the public, science’s authority was self-evicent. Kuhn, on the other hand, ‘never articulated the norm’ he imposed when he selected and arranged the historical examples he used in his arguing (p. 209). In other words, one needs a rather good idea of the history of science in order to see and understand that Kuhn presents only the examples that fits with his theory; according to Fuller, hsitory is abound with examples less in accordance with Kuhn’s theory.

A thing I do not like about the book is that it is densely written, and in order to follow it, one need to at least be acquainted with the theories of Kuhn and Popper up front; Fuller only briefly summarizes the ideas. I find this surprising, as the cover is littered with acclaim from newspapers like the Economist and the Financial Times with the obvious purpose to attract the general reader. According to Fuller, this involved writing, presupposing knowledge of the issue at hand was a trademark of Popper, and, I’m afraid, many philosophers:

Popper and Adorno [another philosopher Popper locked horns with] shared the critic’s tendency [not entirely clear to me what ‘the critic’s tendency’ is supposed to point to here] to presuppose that the audience already knows the target of criticism in some detail, so that one’s own discourse becomes a series of reflections on the hidden opponent. This feature made it frustrating for listeners who sought  constructive advice on the conduct of social research [p. 154].

Frustrating indeed, do you listen, Fuller? (I guess not.)

Now, while flipping through the book, I realize I’ve underlined too many quotable passages and marked too many passages to address them all in one post. I will thus try to focus my opinion of this book in a later post; stay tuned.

* To be sure, page numbers refer to the Icon Books 2006 paperback edition.

Related post:

Dense Philosophy of Science: A Necessity?

September 13, 2010

What we call the ‘modern’, and distinctly Western, sensibility emerged as people tried to organise the conduct of the sciences in light of second-order condsiderations of what might be common to all the sciences. The result was a Galilean zeal for spotting latent contradictions between bodies of knowledge, the pretext for eliminating the social, lingusitic and practical barriers to their proper integration into one system of thought. Popper promoted a version of this strategy in his attack on the ‘myth of the framework’, the Kuhnian idea that the presence of incommensuarable theories rendered any explicit normative comparison so difficult that one simply had to wait for history to take its course, as individuals come to adopt one or another theory for their own reasons. In contrast, Popper argued that if the incommensurable theories are truly scientific, they aspire to universality, which means that there will be cases that they have yet to explain or predict. These cases may then serve as relatively neutral ground for designing a crucial experiment to decide amonst the theories.*

I’m reading Steve Fuller’s truly interesting account of ‘The Struggle for the Soul of Science,’ the legendary debate between Kuhn and Popper. Although I enjoy the book, I cannot help but marvel at the dense style Fuller, and many in his field, pledge to. I wrote an essay once, on what I’ve late learned is known as the underdetermination hypothesis (data can be explained by any number of mutually incompatible theories, see, f.eks. pp. 61-62 in Kuhn vs. Popper). I wrote rather dense myself, I seem to remember (I’ll post an example if I can dig it up). I wonder if a complicated style is necessary to philosophy of science, if it is impossible to iron it out more, if it’s somehow inherent to the subject. Philosophy of science is, in a weird way, depending on itself for its own existence. (See; I came up with something rather dense just writing about how dense it is!)

* Steve Fuller (2003), Kuhn vs. Popper, pp. 66-67, Icon Books 2006 edition.