Nathaniel Comfort redux: Science doesn’t progress (or does it?)

October 13, 2019 • 10:00 am

Oy, my kishkas! Science historian Nathaniel Comfort has now emitted at least 65 tweets either doing down Pinker for Steve’s one tweet criticizing Comfort’s dreadful Nature article, or promoting Comfort’s own article. This includes a series of 25 tweets that duplicate what Comfort said on his own website about Pinker.  Talk about overkill!

Having read some of Comfort’s other pieces in Nature and The Atlantic, I see that he’s consistently anti-reductionist, anti-progressive (see below), woke, and postmodern.  I don’t want a spend a lot more time bashing Comfort’s pieces, which are pretty flat anyway, nor do I want to mock his appearance or issue ad hominems, as he did with Pinker. Instead I’ll point you to one Atlantic article that summarizes some of the characteristics of his writing. Click on the screenshot below.

This article is a review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s recent book on genetics, The Gene: An Intimate History, which sold pretty well, though not as well as Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. And although I and others had serious issues with Mukherjee’s views on epigenetics and gene regulation, which I think he mischaracterized in pre-publication articles, the book seems to have been tweaked a bit in light of pervasive criticisms.  and Matthew Cobb gave it a mixed review in Nature.

Comfort’s review, though, isn’t very mixed: it’s mostly negative, characterizing the book as “Whig history”, “anti-scientific”, reductionist, ridden with genetic determinism (Comfort, as a pomo historian of science, hates that!), and, in the end, even suggests that the gene may disappear as a meaningful concept. Most bizarrely, Comfort declares that science is not a “march toward truth.”

I’ll give just a few excerpts. First, the wokeness. Referring to Mukherjee’s interludes in India described in the book, Comfort seems to think that they’re merely instances of “India-washing” to hide the hegemony of—you guessed it—Eurocentric revision of the history of genetics:

The curtain rises on Kolkata, where he has gone to visit Moni, his paternal cousin, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. In addition to Moni, two of the author’s uncles were afflicted with “various unravelings of the mind.” Asked for a Bengali term for such inherited illness, Mukherjee’s father replies, “Abheder dosh”—a flaw in identity. Schizophrenia becomes a troubling touchstone throughout the book. But the Indian interludes are tacked onto an otherwise conventional triumphalist account of European-American genetics, written from the winners’ point of view: a history of the emperor of all molecules.

In 1931, the English historian Herbert Butterfield called this approach “the whig interpretation of history.” Most historians, he wrote, were the epitome of the 19th-century English gentleman: “Protestant, progressive, and whig.” The Whig historian “very quickly busies himself with dividing the world into the friends and enemies of progress.” The danger of Whig history is that it justifies the dominance of the ruling class as the outcome of inexorable natural forces.

“Triumphalist”? “Winners?” Science is an international enterprise, and the fact remains that while most of the advances in modern genetics took place in America and Europe (counting the UK), the people who elucidated how DNA worked, made proteins, and was regulated, were international. One of the important figures was Har Gobind Khorana, born in India, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in the U.S. elucidating the triplet nature of the genetic code. As for Protestants, don’t make me laugh! If there’s one thing characterizing the development of molecular genetics after 1953, it was the large number of contributing Jews: Wally Gilbert, Josh Lederberg, Arthur Kornberg, Marshall Nirenberg, François Jacob, Norton Zinder, and of course Rosalind Franklin. There are more “bergs” in the history of molecular genetics than in the Alps!

Speaking of Rosalind Franklin, who certainly was overlooked at the time, but whose reputation has been largely restored by the work of many writers (I agree with Matthew that had she lived, Franklin should have shared the Chemistry prize with Maurice Wilkins, while Watson and Crick could have won the Medicine or Physiology Prize), Comfort throws in a subtle instance of his virtue-flaunting:

In 1953, the brazen Watson and Crick got the credit for solving the double helix, while the heroic Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins were slighted, their roles minimized.

Brazen? Well, how about “ambitious and passionate”? And while the “heroic” Franklin and Wilkins were supposedly slighted, and that’s true of Franklin, it’s not true of Wilkins, who won the Nobel Prize in 1962 along with Watson and Crick. But this sentence and its superfluous adjectives is unnecessary, for, as far as I know, the ignoring of Franklin is not done by Mukherjee.

But I digress. As his review mercifully draws to an end, Comfort, like others before him, denigrates the notion of the gene, twisting the facts to suit his anti-reductionist and anti-genetic determinism agenda:

Ironically, the more we study the genome, the more “the gene” recedes. A genome was initially defined as an organism’s complete set of genes. When I was in college, in the 1980s, humans had 100,000; today, only about 20,000 protein-coding genes are recognized. Those that remain are modular, repurposed, mixed and matched. They overlap and interleave. Some can be read forward or backward. The number of diseases understood to be caused by a single gene is shrinking; most genes’ effects on any given disease are small. Only about 1 percent of our genome encodes proteins. The rest is DNA dark matter. It is still incompletely understood, but some of it involves regulation of the genome itself. Some scientists who study non-protein-coding DNA are even moving away from the gene as a physical thing. They think of it as a “higher-order concept” or a “framework” that shifts with the needs of the cell. The old genome was a linear set of instructions, interspersed with junk; the new genome is a dynamic, three-dimensional body—as the geneticist Barbara McClintock called it, presciently, in 1983, a “sensitive organ of the cell.”

Yes, gene structure and regulation is complicated, but regulation of genes is often done by other genes. And the concept of a gene as a stretch of DNA that makes a protein or controls the production of other proteins is still useful: I hear the word “gene” used in that way every day. Regulatory genes can still be understood as genes. And Comfort’s last sentence make little sense to me. If the concept of “the gene” is receding, it’s news to me.

But most important is Comfort’s ending; I’ve put his anti-progressivism in bold:

The point is not that this is the correct way to understand the genome. The point is that science is not a march toward truth. Rather, as the author John McPhee wrote in 1967, “science erases what was previously true.” Every generation of scientists mulches under yesterday’s facts to fertilize those of tomorrow.

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” insisted Darwin, despite its allowing no purpose, no goal, no chance of perfection. There is grandeur in a Darwinian view of science, too. The gene is not a Platonic ideal. It is a human idea, ever changing and always rooted in time and place. To echo Darwin himself, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the laws laid down by Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, endless interpretations of heredity have been, and are being, evolved.

What the bloody hell does Comfort mean by saying “science is not a march toward truth”? Of course science walks into blind alleys or has to back off and revise (Nobel Prizes have been given for bogus findings later revised, and of course we know that continents drift while we didn’t think so before the Fifties), but to say that there’s not a general progression towards truth is simply stupid.

We know the formulae of different molecules, we know the structure of DNA and how it codes for proteins, we know that microorganisms cause infectious disease (and which ones cause which diseases), and we know enough about physics to send probes to Saturn and modules to putter around Mars. Compare what we know about the Universe now to what we knew in the seventeenth century when “modern” science is said to have begun. Really, NO MORE TRUTH???

Yes, the notion of “truth” in science isn’t absolute, but you’d have to be a loon to think that science hasn’t settled on some “truths” so unlikely to be revised that you’d bet your house on them. Water is H2O, benzene has six carbon atoms, a bacillus causes bubonic plague, light travels in a vacuum at 299,792, 458 meters per second. And so on, ad infinitum.

What we see here is a postmodernist making ridiculous statements about the nature of science. Why on earth does Nature employ a man who thinks that science isn’t a march toward truth? If it isn’t, what is it?

Well, maybe it is after all, because earlier in the piece, completely contradicting himself, Comfort says this in a paragraph I deliberately truncated:

The danger of Whig history is that it justifies the dominance of the ruling class as the outcome of inexorable natural forces. It is especially seductive when writing about science, for scientific knowledge does indeed progress.

Which is it, Dr. Comfort? Does science march towards truth or not? If not as you say at the end, what does it mean to say that scientific knowledge progresses? Is there a different between truth and scientific knowledge? Is this some postmodernist word game, or did you forget by the end of the piece that you implied earlier on that science does indeed progress in understanding the universe? Or have you redefined the word “march”?

I look forward to Dr. Comfort’s multipart response and explanation on Twitter. But truly, I don’t see why the man is considered qualified to write about science for Nature and The Atlantic. But perhaps those venues want a dose of anti-science and postmodernism as a palliative for the one true way of knowing: science and its empirical methods.

UPDATE: I was reminded that Comfort was once married to Carol Greider, who won the 2009 Medicine or Physiology Nobel Prize along with two others for discovering the enzyme telomerase. This was deeply reductionist work, and telomerase is of course produced by real genes.

54 thoughts on “Nathaniel Comfort redux: Science doesn’t progress (or does it?)

  1. There are some terms used in this post that I am not familiar with. Specifically, what is a “porno historian” (I’m not sure if it is spelled “po m o” or “po rn o”) and what does “reductionist” mean?

      1. Thanks. Therefore, the word is “p o m o” not “p o r n o” and means postmodern. I should have thought of that.

      1. This is how N. Comfort wields “reductionist” [as a slur of course]:

        The reductionist logic of genetic determinism, though, promotes thinking in terms of a unidirectional flow of causation, from the “lowest” levels to the “highest.” The more we learn about gene action, the less valid that seems to become as an a priori assumption. The antiquated “master molecule” idea still permeates both science and science writing

        taken from Genetic determinism: why we never learn — and why it matters January 29, 2014 by “genotopia” [AKA Nathaniel Comfort] HERE

      2. In this context, that is, as uttered by such as Comfort, “reductionist” does not mean anything. It’s just a bogey-word applied to anything they dislike.

        In science and philosophy “reductionism” does have an actual meaning, but what scientists mean by “reductionism” is pretty different from what philosophers usually mean by it. 🙂

      3. ‘Reductionist’ is an adjectival form meaning, ‘seeking to explain or describe the behaviour of a system by the nature and behaviour of its constituent parts’. ‘Reductionist’ can also be a noun referring to a person whose views are reductionist.

        In science, I don’t think there is a point in doing something because you want to be a reductionist — or because it is cool to be a reductionist. You think in terms of constituents if a plausible theory can be formulated in such terms. In physics, chemistry, and biology, observation and experimentation drove people to look for constituents of systems.

        In this context, explaining the propagation of characteristics of living things in terms of genes would be reductionist; so would relating a disease to the action of a chemical. Because these are empirical disciplines and the theories work, the word ‘reductionist’ is not effective as a slur. It’s like calling Michael Phelps a total loser.

        I suppose ‘reductionist’ can also refer to someone who thinks that losing weight is good for health.

      4. Useful answers to Historian’s question, and thanks to all for that. I tend to resist learning more and more scholastic terms that seem invented for the purpose of showing off how many degrees people have earned, as if any degrees are unusual these days. But “anti-reductionist” and “anti-progressive” come up often enough here in scientific contexts that I assume I’d be better off being quite sure what everyone thinks they mean. I’d love to hear Prof. Ceiling Cat’s definition, in particular.

  2. Sounds like something of a futile attempt to repeatedly hammer a square peg into a round hole. My guess is that Comfort’s first love was postmodernism and he is eager to apply this to science, but the only way you can apply theories of social constructs to hard sciences is by making claims that are, for the most part, only trivially true. Sometimes scientists get things wrong. Sometimes scientists update their findings. I mean, ok. In my experience that happens pretty much every time you go to the doctor with something more complicated than strep throat – you get an incorrect diagnosis the first or second time until they finally figure out what the problem actually is. That just means your doctors were wrong, it doesn’t mean there’s “medicine-ism” and that curative medicine is a social construct. In fact, our desire to improve that process – to clear away any biases or red tape or whatever that may make getting at the truth a longer process – is further evidence that we do believe in a true answer at the end of that path, and would very much like to hasten our arrival there. There may be some genuine exceptions to this – the placebo effect, for example – but Comfort doesn’t seem to go into these areas for whatever reason.

    Also, I find it ten kinds of patronizing when white social justice warriors lecture minorities on the correct way to be a minority. I’m pretty sure Mukherjee can figure out how to be Indian on his own, without instruction from Comfort.

  3. Pinker has long been a target of PoMo criticism, but lately this has been veering more into personal abuse. PZ Myers had this to say recently:

    “When I compare the careers of two Harvard professors, Gould and Pinker, one of whom wrote two great books, The Mismeasure of Man and Ontogeny and Phylogeny, and a multitude of essays revealing his fundamental humanism, and the other of whom is a darling of modern racists and rapists, I have to think that the wrong one died early.”

    1. Indeed. PZ Myers is a vile human being and total anti-science fraud. Has been for a number of years.

      Funny thing is, when I call out his anti-science and vile behaviour on blogs such as Hemant’s, there is STILL a bunch of rotters who pop up to defend him.

      What a sorry state of affairs.

  4. Defending yourself with 65 tweets against one tweet by Pinker is a clear sign you realize that you’ve lost the argument.

  5. March is a wonderful word, fraught by memories and visions of armies in parade then and now, or humorously the Dottie sung as youths about ants marching one by one. N both marching on to an end, inexorable. Truth or a goal of truth in the minds eye. The March in science is fraught with misadventures. In history the historian may review the past in cool unbiased form, but all are warped by their moment in time and unrealized bias. So in science theory or hypothesis are often confused. In both the March goes through quagmires where belief is thought to be truth. Revisions are difficult Rarely heard slow in acceptance For either historians or practicing scientists to presume their voice absolute is an error each should work with the other and avoid the hubris of self exaltation

    Sent from my iPhone


  6. Comfort has little problem with marching forward, backward and then reversing over himself but he has a BIG problem with “Stephen”.
    Po Mo yourself out Mr Comfort, it won’t stop the advance of science in the pursuit of truth and you like us, are the better for it.

  7. “Nathaniel Comfort has now emitted at least 65 tweets either doing down Pinker for Steve’s one tweet criticizing Comfort’s dreadful Nature article”

    Ever noticed that whenever John le Carre wants some free publicity his latest tome he disses the awfully well known James Bond/Ian Fleming novels? Gets headlines every time.

  8. “What the bloody hell does Comfort mean by saying “science is not a march toward truth”?”

    I’m going to guess that, if asked to defend the claim, he would assert that science does not “march” towards truth in the sense that it does not progress in a straight line and at a steady and even pace.

    Of course no-one has ever claimed that it does. A lot of these “revisionist” accounts of science are simply straw-maning the standard picture.

  9. The point is that science is not a march toward truth.

    Ah, the “money shot.” This was what the article was setting up.

  10. As I have pointed out before, the current style in pomo attacks on science, like the retro taste for vintage clothing, is a rerun of an old USSR fashion. Comfort makes this laughably clear with his RE-discovery that genes don’t really exist, a fashion Trofim Lysenko & Co. made popular in the USSR from the 1930s until the 60s. Someday, Dr. Comfort will almost certainly develop some serious medical problem, and he will then suddenly reconcile himself to Eurocentric, Whig medicalism.

  11. “What the bloody hell does Comfort mean by saying “science is not a march toward truth”?”

    Comfort makes it pretty clear in the next 2 sentences:

    Rather, as the author John McPhee wrote in 1967, “science erases what was previously true.” Every generation of scientists mulches under yesterday’s facts to fertilize those of tomorrow.

    He grossly mischaracterizes science to arrive at his desired destination: truth and facts are transitory.

  12. “Is there a different between truth and scientific knowledge? Is this some postmodernist word game…”

    This stuff reminds me of of every sophisticated theologian I’ve ever listened to. It’s a willlful struggle to be misunderstood so that you can continue to posture without danger of correction.

    1. Yes there is, ‘Science & Reason’ were created by the ‘Mud People’ (Whites & Jews) to oppress the ‘Sun People’ (Everyone else), it has no objective validity, is mentally, spiritually and physically harmful to the ‘Sun People’ and should be replaced with Magic…

  13. Statements like “science is not a march toward truth” should be instantly disqualifying to get an article in Nature. Nevertheless, charges of scientism are not completely vacuous, take rather recent hostilities from well known physicists toward subjects in the humanities like philosophy. By my reckoning, “science, broadly construed” and “other ways of knowing” reduce to semantic limitations in how humans have rather arbitrarily organized knowledge into subjects and academic departments. This results in turf wars (in which I’ve brandished a pitchfork or torch on occasion) between knowledge camps.

    “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” is our mantra but I would go further with Comfort’s delusional statement above and add this addendum: “…and assertions that can be proven demonstrably false with considerable evidence should increase the likelihood that the asserter can be dismissed.”

  14. That whole bit about India. Give me a break. The author is Indian. His anecdotes reflect that. And there are loads of Indians who contribute to science. It’s so insulting to claim all of science as a European success. It anything, this author looks incredibly Eurocentric a s racist in doing so.

  15. It seems Mr. Comfort would have been more comfortable at a different point in spacetime, more specifically, Paris in the 1980s perhaps. Re-vomiting the nonsense from Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, even Latour, he leads me to wonder whether unoriginal nonsensical falsehoods and meaningless junk sentences are even slightly more pathetic than ‘original’ ones. At least Latour is sometimes entertaining. We had a list of books about a month ago, books which dealt rather decisively with this junk, authors all of whom were well educated in mathematical matters, as I recall someone mentioning.

  16. If there’s one thing characterizing the development of molecular genetics after 1953, it was the large number of contributing Jews …

    Is that like the “decadent Jewish physics” of the Weimar Republic — you know, the physics that eventually allowed the Allies to build The Bomb before the Nazis? 🙂

    1. The irony is that two prominent people in the campaign against ‘Jewish science’ were physicists, Philip Lenard and Johannes Stark — both Nobel laureates.

  17. “The point is that science is not a march toward truth. Rather, as the author John McPhee wrote in 1967, “science erases what was previously true.” Every generation of scientists mulches under yesterday’s facts to fertilize those of tomorrow.”

    I think the sweating professor needs to re-read (or perhaps read for the first time) Isaac Azimov’s essay “The Relativity of Wrong.”

    1. Great link.

      A difficulty with pomo writing is the tendency to eschew precise language in favour of eye-catching metaphors. The mulch metaphor works, sort of, if we compare explanations of malaria before and after 1880-1900, but a lot of scientific progress is replacing one approximation with a more precise or comprehensive approximation.

      At school more than 55 years ago, we used pi = 22/7; later, pi = 355/113 (accurate to 6 dp); my antique scientific calculator shows 8 dp and calculates at least three more. IIRC, 22/7 could draw a passable circle on an Apple II graphic screen.

      1. I don’t disagree with you, but perhaps your teachers from half a century ago might have thought to not write a falsehood with those verbs “=”, but rather used some different symbol which meant “is approximately equal to”.

        Mathematics is somewhat difficult for a number of reasons, not the least of which is carrying on by teachers of incorrect statements which likely their own teachers taught them by (bad) example. If you can use precise language (symbolic or otherwise), do it, most importantly at the elementary level. There is no excuse for using the symbol “=” with two or more different meanings, especially when teaching beginners.

  18. I’m not too fond of criticising a quantity (e.g. amount of tweets). Had he put the same into one blog post, would it be better? I associate this criticism of quantity with the woke, who (projecting, as usual) often accuse other people as “obsessive” while they give themselves permission to mob around the clock and brigade until someone gets fired. It’s better to deal with the quality rather than by how many quantifiable chunks there are.

    Now onto Comfort…

    Comfort wrote (in the article linked to above): If Copernicus displaced the Earth from the center of the universe and Darwin displaced humanity from the pinnacle of the organic world, a Whig history of the gene puts a kind of god back into our explanation of nature. It turns the gene into an eternal, essential thing awaiting elucidation by humans, instead of a living idea with ancestors, a development and maturation—and perhaps ultimately a death.

    New discoveries might enthuse a generation of scientists; lead to a release of funds; create a buzz of speculation, hypotheses and bad headlines; and much of that might simmer down over time. But that sounds much less earth-shattering than Comfort presents his points, which reminds me of one of Sokal’s central criticisms of postmodern critique, that it is often trivially true or somewhat unexciting, but the same text also gives off a second interpretation that is total nonsense if true. In this case it’s the enormous suggestion that what we thought the genes are doing is someday replaced by something totally different.

    In the end, postmodern critics are into their genre because of subcultural reasons. They rationalize afterwards, and look for anything that doesn’t conform to their cartoonish understanding of realism or the scientific method. That doesn’t mean that naïve realism or old fashioned positivism would not exist. But criticizing this and the scientific method are different things.

  19. I’m chagrined to learn that Comfort is on the faculty at my graduate alma. And, hey, let’s cut PZ some slack. It can’t be easy being the woke conscience for the entire scientific enterprise. The magnitude of that burden is illustrated by the fact that he has never published a bit of original science as an independent investigator. What a noble sacrifice.

  20. I suppose an emergent pattern with Ray is that he is fine with science as a divining rod for finding truth in most areas external to the human epidermis. Astronomy? Fine. Chemistry? Alright. But the moment it enters a human cell and uses its talents to learn things about human biology he is all ‘now waitaminute’.

    Anyway, it would be fun to watch a discussion about genetics between him and a non-caucasian human geneticist from India, Asia, or Africa. I don’t think he would know what to do then.

  21. I think that it was Richard Dawkins who pointed out that almost all science is “reductionist” in the sense that we seek to understand complex things in terms of the properties and interactions of their constituent parts, usually just one or two “levels” down Using “reductionist” as a slur is just dumb.

    1. I think he got Nathaniel Comfort mixed up with the evangelist Ray Comfort (another boneheaded critic of science, albeit from the right instead of the left.)

  22. Comfort has contrived an academic career in “history of science” out of the conventional pomo denunciation of the idea of progress in science . Since he does this with a barrage of digital tweets, an Email address, and a CV that includes a radio broadcast on NPR, it appears that a sense of the ridiculous is not his long suit. Comfort’s academic niche at Hopkins is in a “History of Medicine” program, yet here he his dismissing medical progress as mere Whig ideology—-despite the simple fact that child mortality rates have dropped from 30-50% to about one tenth of that since the early 20th century, largely due to the elimination of once-common infectious diseases.

    Postmodernism has made the assertion of plain counterfactuals into a canny career move in the academy. We can count ourselves lucky that we do not yet enjoy postmodernism in medicine, dentistry, civil engineering, aerodynamics, or automobile repair. But since we already have pomo posturing here and there in “Science History” and “Science Ed” programs, maybe it is only a matter of time before aircraft designers and neurosurgeons will be trained to operate on the principles enunciated by Lacan, Foucault, Irigaray, and similar thinkers.

  23. Has there not been an increase in breadth, depth of our understanding, an increase in complexity/diversity of our understanding/knowledge? This increase underwritten (enabled) or covariant with an increase complexity of brain anatomy – form/function.

    An argument for progress!?

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