Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Jay Gould’

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]

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.

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].