The New Yorker bungles its science writing again

I’ve kvetched a lot about the science writing in The New Yorker, but, god help me, I’ve subscribed again for six months, just to get the bargain rate. And already after two issues I think I’ve made a mistake. It’s not just the science writing that continues to irk me, but also the wokeness of the rag, both online and on paper. It’s unlikely I’ll renew my subscription.  My resolve was strengthened when I read a new and pretty dire piece about how science works, which I highlight in this post.

There are two issues with the New Yorker‘s science coverage: the limitations in what it does cover, and the style of writing. I discuss the first one in this old post, quoting a comment of a colleague:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

I’ll add here that the magazine is very soft on religion, and big on “other ways of knowing”, which is expected in the guild war.

The second issue, which I touch on here, is that in true New Yorker style (there are exceptions, of course), many science articles, like the one at hand, use a lot of fancy language to say very little. Often New Yorker authors are so impressed with their own cleverness that they rhetorically enter into their own fundament, trying to make huge points from very little, and in very purple prose.

The magazine would be well advised to use scientists more often when publishing science pieces. It’s not like science is short of good writers who actually know something about what they’re discussing. At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, I’ll offer as an example my first grad student, Allen Orr, who used to write for the magazine. His pieces were superb. Here’s one on Intelligent Design, and if you can get hold of his 2002 assessment of the work of Steve Gould, “The Descent of Gould” (for some reason it’s missing from the magazine’s archives), you’ll see a masterful and accurate analysis of science that most people would find arcane.  But I suppose the rag wants to rely on its house staff for science pieces—to their detriment

The lesson about how science works is ostensibly a review and explication of a book by NYU historian of science Michael Strevens, “The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science”. It’s written by Joshua Rothman, the magazine’s “ideas editor.” Now I haven’t read Strevens’s book, which just came out, so he is likely to have made a more intriguing case than the article describes. But it’s the responsibility of Rothman to set out those ideas fairly and lucidly. What he does instead is glom onto one very obvious point about science—that “truth” must be apprehended by empirical methods—and then drive it into the ground with an auger of fancy prose.

I believe this article is free, so you should be able to access if by clicking on the screenshot.

After a lot of throat-clearing about Galileo and Darwin, Rothman gets to his main take from Strevens’s book, the “iron rule of explanation”—a rule said to be novel, one that supercedes both Popper and Kuhn, and is the key to the success of science.

And it’s just this (remember, I’m using Rothman’s characterization):

The allocation of vast human resources to the measurement of possibly inconsequential minutiae is what makes science truly unprecedented in history. Why do scientists agree to this scheme? Why do some of the world’s most intelligent people sign on for a lifetime of pipetting?

Strevens thinks that they do it because they have no choice. They are constrained by a central regulation that governs science, which he calls the “iron rule of explanation.” The rule is simple: it tells scientists that, “if they are to participate in the scientific enterprise, they must uncover or generate new evidence to argue with”; from there, they must “conduct all disputes with reference to empirical evidence alone.”

Well, first of all, it’s wrong, for theory is part of the scientific enterprise as well. Wasn’t Einstein doing science? Or Heisenberg, or W. D. Hamilton, or Motoo Kimura or Ronald Fisher? My own field, evolutionary biology, happens to harbor a lot of theoreticians who, while they may use data to  help construct their theories (a lot of physicists don’t: the data comes later), may not. Are they not “participating in the scientific enterprise” because they are not uncovering or generating new evidence? No, they are surely participating in the scientific enterprise, which often involves data-free speculations that, with data gathered later, turn into hypotheses and then into “facts”.

Some theories, like the many-worlds hypothesis or string theory, aren’t even capable of generating tests right now. Are string theorists breaking the iron rule, and thus not participating in the scientific enterprise? The complete neglect of theory—he doesn’t even mention it—is a serious problem with Rothman’s thesis and analysis. (Once again, I emphasize that I’m not criticizing Strevens here.)

Second, while theory can’t be taken by itself as revealing truth, it can spur the discoveries that render the theories either true or false. So relativity theory and quantum mechanics are true theories because they work: they can be tested empirically, have survived those tests, and are now relied on for crucial practical and technological innovations (e.g., GPS devices).

Most important: DUH!!!! Of course the truth about the cosmos has to be ascertained using evidence; and scientific disputes, like those involving the truth of evolution and continental drift, are ultimately adjudicated with evidence. What is new here? Of course in the past, “truth” was judged by other criteria, like conformity to Scripture or the pronouncement of doyens like Aristotle, but those times are centuries gone.

If you think I’m oversimplifying Rothman’s long article, read it for yourself. You’ll have to wade through a thicket of pseudoprofundity, though.

The part which irked me most, though, was the ending, in which Rothman realizes that he has to pronounce something universal and important, tying the “iron rule of explanation” to something in people’s lives. He settles on casting the rule as a “speech code,” a topic much in the news. And so he goes up his fundament:

Strevens offers a more modest story. The iron rule—“a kind of speech code”—simply created a new way of communicating, and it’s this new way of communicating that created science. [JAC: I have to interject here and say this is a ridiculously simplistic way to characterize the history of science.] The subjectivists are right, he admits, inasmuch as scientists are regular people with a “need to win” and a “determination to come out on top.” But they are wrong to think that subjectivity compromises the scientific enterprise. On the contrary, once subjectivity is channelled by the iron rule, it becomes a vital component of the knowledge machine. It’s this redirected subjectivity—to come out on top, you must follow the iron rule!—that solves science’s “problem of motivation,” giving scientists no choice but “to pursue a single experiment relentlessly, to the last measurable digit, when that digit might be quite meaningless.”

On one level, it’s ironic to find a philosopher—a professional talker—arguing that science was born when philosophical talk was exiled to the pub. On another, it makes sense that a philosopher would be attuned to the power of how we talk and argue. If it really was a speech code that instigated “the extraordinary attention to process and detail that makes science the supreme discriminator and destroyer of false ideas,” then the peculiar rigidity of scientific writing—Strevens describes it as “sterilized”—isn’t a symptom of the scientific mind-set but its cause. Etiquette is what has created the modern world.

Does Strevens’s story have implications outside of science? Today, we think a lot about speech—about its power to frame, normalize, empower, and harm. In our political discourse, we value unfiltered authenticity; from our journalism, we demand moral clarity. Often, we bring our whole selves into what we say. And yet we may be missing something important about how speech drives behavior. At least in science, Strevens tells us, “the appearance of objectivity” has turned out to be “as important as the real thing.” Perhaps speech codes can be building materials for knowledge machines. In that case, our conversations can still be fiery and wide-ranging. But we should write those lab reports, too.

No, the iron rule is not a speech code, nor does it resemble one. It doesn’t cover theoretical science, and it is not a “code” in the sense of dictating speech. Rather, it’s simply the age-old guideline, derived not from a priori dictates but from experience, that only consulting nature empirically will tell us the truth about our Universe. End of story.

As for “redirected subjectivity”, I’m not sure what the deuce Rothman is talking about here. If he means that scientists want to get good reputations, and “win” in their field, and must provide empirical evidence to do so, well, that’s trivial, and hardly “subjective”. And of course it leaves out theory as well, as theoreticians need not adhere to the iron rule.

Yes, Rothman’s Big Insight is that scientists settle issues with evidence, and YES! that means you can characterize that enterprise as a “speech code” (if you’re woke and trying to write something meaningful), and to pronounce that “Etiquette is what has created the modern world.” That sentence alone drove me to the medicine cabinet for a big slug of Pepto-Bismol. “Etiquette”, really? What is gained by characterizing the empirical method of science as “etiquette that has created the modern world”? Only a big paycheck for Rothman.

The last paragraph drags science down into campus debates about speech codes, which have absolutely nothing to do with science.  As he reaches his apogee of profundity, Rothman become obscure, at least to me. The point about objectivity, appearance versus reality, is irrelevant to what the data say, and how they settle disputes. Scientists can be biased, if that’s what Rothman means, and can still play important roles in finding truth, for in the end biases must bow to facts. As for “speech codes can be building materials for knowledge machines,”, that sounds good, but if he’s just saying, “Adherence to the empirical method drove scientific progress,” it’s trivial—a gussied up truism. The “lab reports” refers to Rothman’s youth, when he was bored by science and hated lab reports, but it fails as an ending: it sounds clever but its meaning is obscure.

The New Yorker has truly mastered the art of taking a small point and enlarging it, as Rothman does here, by swaddling it in huge gobs of smooth prose. But when you unwrap the prose, the triviality of the nucleus is revealed.

52 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Yes, there’s some of that, but how does science REALLY work?

    ^^^^see what I did there

  2. GBJames
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. Posted October 18, 2020 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I believe this article is free, so you should be able to access if by clicking on the screenshot.

    If I click on the screenshot, I just get a larger version of the screenshot.

  4. mike cracraft
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Prof Coyne: is Dr. Orr’s article “The Descent of Gould” available somewhere free? It’s behind a paywall now. Thanks.

  5. rickflick
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Holy moley! What claptrap. My eyes bleed reading that kind of Pseudo-intellectualism. I used to read New Yorker. I haven’t in many years.

  6. Mathew
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Regarding:
    “Rather, it’s simply the age-old guideline, derived not from a priori dictates but from experience, that only consulting nature empirically will tell us the truth about our Universe. End of story.”

    Sean Carroll (the theoretical physicist) says that science is based on methodological empiricism. Science is pragmatically rooted in success/failure and if divine revelation was successful then scientists would rely on divine revelation. However, empiricism appears to be the only possible method for discerning success versus failure. Therefore methodological empiricism is, as Sean Carroll claims, a foundation of science, there can be no alternative, even if the universe was supernatural. There is no a-priori guarantee that empiricism will work, but if we lived in a universe where empiricism did not work then ipso-facto science would not be possible.

    • Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      I think this is pretty much what I’ve said, both here and in Faith Versus Fact. Yes, there’s no guarantee that empiricism will work, and no a priori justification for it–which is something science-dissers love to harp on. But it doesn’t matter, because it does work!

  7. C.
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I’d rather read the rest of Orr’s article on Gould than yet more mendacious anti-science claptrap. I dunno how you do it. Even with a cupboard chock full of Pepto, Tums, and aspirin I couldn’t fight through the relentless attacks by pseudo-scholars.

    • Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      As I mentioned somewhere else in this thread, judicious inquiry will yield you Orr’s piece on Gould. It’s very good, though to my taste a bit too soft on Gould’s own scientific work on punctuated equilibrium.

      • C.
        Posted October 18, 2020 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        Got it!

        I admit a fondness for Gould, while disliking his political injections into science. I imagine he would be quite happy with the infestations of woke social justice into scientific thought. But he does fascinate me. I have most of his books, but Structure sits imposing and unread. I don’t have the education or the intelligence to argue for or against his claims in that book but one day, when the stars align, my troubled mind is at ease, and I’ve got f’ all to do, I’ll extract its heft from off the bookshelf and give it a go.

  8. Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the fault may lie in Strevens’ silly “iron rule” rather than Rothman’s credulous acceptance of it. If Rothman is to be believed, Strevens suggests that scientists are driven by some sort of unspoken rule to gather and refine data without any meaningful purpose other than to add another irrelevant digit and perhaps get a paper published as a result. I do not think that is true. Such data grubbing happens, but science is driven by discovery not data grubbing. For example, it was the discovery of seafloor spreading and paleomagnetic evidence that settled the continental drift controversy.

    • Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Some philosophers of science have a rather weird view that they (philosophers) do the thinking, and that science is just about data accumulation.

      I think this stems partly from their need to see philosophy as being distinct from science, and if scientists also do thinking (which, of course, they do!), then the two are not that distinct.

    • Mike
      Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      I’m a working scientist. Since the start of the pandemic and working from home under stressful conditions, I have found it’s quite hard to sustain real thinking. Our host has sometimes commented on this kind of mental malaise. Without coding and data analysis to do, I would have been much less productive. It has made me wonder how philosophers are coping with these conditions, given that thinking is pretty much all they do. Are philosophers much better than the rest of us at focused mentalizing in spite of circumstances (and are they better at blocking out the distractions and stress of the pandemic)? Or has their productivity suffered more than that of other researchers?

      • Posted October 18, 2020 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

        I agree. For me, creativity required a lot of interaction. With colleagues, coauthors, RAs and grad students. Luckily, I’m retired now. The pandemic has afforded me the time to read and reflect, so there is a silver lining for me.

      • Mike
        Posted October 18, 2020 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

        That’s an excellent silver lining.

  9. Charles A Sawicki
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    From the quotes PCC has provided, Rothman seems to be producing buckets of incoherent crap about science. It’s frightening that educated people will read this garbage and think that they have gained some sort of insight.

    • A C Harper
      Posted October 18, 2020 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

      It is alarming that that educated people will pay someone to write garbage like this.

  10. DrBrydon
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I read this and I wonder whether Strevens is trying to explain how Science works, or open the door for more “other ways of knowing.” Talking about how subjectivity can work for Science, about how using the iron-rule to wind up on top (gasp?), about how etiquette created the “Modern World”, when both are under attack in Academia, sounds a lot like he’s preparing the reader for a rejection of the Western scientific method. As a former student of Allen Debus, the idea that irrationality was the cradle of modern Science seems like a cliché (although Debus would never have characterized early science as irrational). I would expect a good book on this topic to deal with concrete historical examples, like how Alchemy began to turn into Chemistry in the 17th century, although looking at Streven’s other books, it seems like he’s more a philospher of Science than a historian.

    • Ben Murray
      Posted October 18, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Definitely not trying to open the door for more “other ways of knowing.” From page 285 of the book: “Do not, then, meddle with the iron rule. Do not tamper with the workings of the knowledge machine. Set its agenda, and then step back; let it run its course.”

      • DrBrydon
        Posted October 18, 2020 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

        Thanks.

  11. phoffman56
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    “It’s not like science is short of good writers who actually know something about what they’re discussing.”

    To me, Steven Weinberg is a good example for physics particularly. New Yorker I don’t know, but he’s had many essays for NY Review of Books, collected in 2 or 3 anthologies with other material (graduation talks, …).

    • phoffman56
      Posted October 18, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      I’d also add Weinberg’s “To Explain the World”, which expounds on the history of science only up to the time these authors seem to think science really began.

      In the part re Alexandrian Greek science, far more valuable to humans than the earlier days of Plato etc., we read again about how it came to be understood that the surface of the earth is very nearly that of a sphere, rather than the surface of a geometric plane. I wonder whether these authors would say this is something other than science?

  12. Jon Gallant
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    A single aperçu of Rothman’s—“Etiquette is what has created the modern world”—would account for ending my New Yorker subscription about four years ago. It illustrates how fake cleverness has created the modern New Yorker. Another major reason for my departure, of course, was that the cartoons were becoming unfunny.

  13. Posted October 18, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    As I usually find with posts of this kind, I don’t find the article as annoying as our host does. Perhaps it is more a matter of expectations than substance.

    Articles about science in publications are more about connecting the general public to some aspect of science. There’s no way they’re going to tell the whole story. The best scientists can hope for is that article doesn’t get the science wrong and lead readers astray and, if we’re really lucky, it increases the general public’s understanding of science. I think Rothman’s piece does pretty well on that basis.

    His article is a book review. I haven’t read the book itself but, if I had to guess, Rothman has done it reasonable justice. He portrays it as presenting a sort of third way of science to accompany those of Popper and Kuhn. Popper and Kuhn were mostly talking about how science is pursued at the top level whereas the Strevens book looks at the real, everyday work of many scientists, evidently including Rothman’s father. Science is a complex human pursuit so all three approaches can be simultaneously true. It may all seem trivial to a professional scientist but perhaps not so much to the rest of us. I could see it drawing in some New Yorker readers and making them want to learn more about how science works, perhaps reading Strevens’s book. Isn’t that the most we can hope for?

    • merilee
      Posted October 18, 2020 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • EdwardM
      Posted October 18, 2020 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      “As I usually find with posts of this kind, I don’t find the article as annoying as our host does. Perhaps it is more a matter of expectations than substance.”

      I think it is rather more a matter of expertise – in both science and writing.

      • Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, but I think your ranking of my expertise is misplaced. Our host has a lot more in these areas than I do. 😉

    • Jake Jaramillo
      Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Thanks. I felt much the same, as a layperson who read the New Yorker piece before Jerry’s critique. I think Jerry underemphasizes or even ignores two early aspects of Rothmann’s review, and apparently Strevens’ book, that I found clarifying and interesting.

      First, science is a weird activity in the sense that great civilizations have come and gone without it seeming like an obvious approach to understanding the world. Explaining that seems to be a goal of the book, and it surely is worth explaining.

      Second, the start of an empiricist approach to knowledge (and theory resolved by empirical evidence) required creation of a third sphere of human endeavor apart from church and state. Apparently, that took some doing, socially and intellectually, and I’d like to know more. This ground may have been trod before, but I’m sure there are many like me who could use at least a refresher.

      I think Rothmann does a pretty good job of suggesting that if I read Strevens’ book, I can learn more about these two curiosities: why science is not obvious, and what social conditions have made it seem so, in our particular (peculiar) time.

      • Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        Although I am not a scientist, I’ve always felt that I understand what they do and how they think. I’ve also realized that the general public mostly has not much of a clue on the subject. Movies and TV are generally not much help, though some of the nature programs do show a glimpse at most. Certainly you aren’t going to get into the mind of scientists like Hoffman’s father. If the public could get that from Strevens’ book, along with placing it in the context of society generally, it sounds like it would be a good book for a lot of people to read.

      • Ben Murray
        Posted October 18, 2020 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        Both of those issues are discussed at length in Strevens’s book. Of course, you may or may not agree with his conclusions!

    • Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      It isn’t a third way of science to Popper and Kuhn, both of whom favored empiricism. It’s just a restatement of the principle of using observations and tests to decide questions of science. Popper and Kuhn just differed in their view of how empiricism was used to spur scientific advances, with the former emphasizing falsification and the latter scentific “revolutions”. The article could have done a lot more than it did. If you don’t think so, read Orr’s piece to see how much real science can be conveyed in an article much shorter than this one.

      • Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        Not a third way of science but a third angle on what science is all about. Popper was about disproving things, Kuhn about proving things, and Strevens about doing the work of gathering evidence. Science is a combination of all three.

  14. Mike
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    “The subtext of most of its coverage…is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth.”

    That subtext of course is false. But it could seem to be true if scientists continue to violate the Kalven principles and adopt ideological or political positions as part of the framing of their scientific work.

    This old post on Andrew Gelman’s blog (focused on a slightly different problem, whether criticisms of published bad science research should be moderated in order to protect the feelings of the criticized, and to protect the “community” of scientists) shows why that would be so dangerous to science and scientists. Search for the comment by “Plucky”. The last paragraph of Plucky’s comment has a dire warning for scientists and science institutions that allow their work (not their personal views of course) to be seen to have adopted an indeology or a political stance (cf. woke statements).

    https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2016/09/21/what-has-happened-down-here-is-the-winds-have-changed/

  15. Steve Gerrard
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    When I see a title like “How Does Science Really Work?” and it is an article in the New Yorker, I don’t rub my hands together and think “Oh boy, I’m finally going to find out how science works!”

    People who do taxonomy are usually either lumpers or splitters, depending on their fondness for separate species. Lumpers say there is one giraffe species with four varieties, splitters say there are four species.

    Lumping all science together leads to ridiculous results like the one shown here. What can you really say about the nature of science that encompasses general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, evolution, biochemistry, plate tectonics, epidemiology, and all the other sciences? There is a reason that universities have different departments and libraries have different sections.

  16. Ben Murray
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I was inspired by the New Yorker review to buy and read Strevens’s book. I liked the book a lot. The New Yorker piece, in my opinion, is a good reflection of the content of the book.

    Strevens doesn’t deprecate theory, but he argues (as would I) that science requires theory ultimately to be tested against empirical data. One of his big examples (a complicated one) is the experimental testing of relativity theory by Eddington et al early in the twentieth century. (And the example of string theory – discussed in a fairly long footnote by Strevens – reflects that it’s controversial when a theory doesn’t have current, or maybe even eventual, prospects of an empirical test.)

    Strevens DEFINITELY argues that the “iron rule of explanation” is not just a trivial restating of an obvious truth about science. He thinks it’s one of the big reasons why the Scientific Revolution happened in the Enlightenment rather than in ancient Greece or India or China or the Islamic world. He also thinks that it’s a nonobvious (and even irrational) move that would have been ridiculed by ancient thinkers such as Aristotle – what do you mean that you are going to cut yourself off from big areas of insight into the world, such as philosophy, theology, or aesthetics? But it has proved to be the right move! Strevens pointed out that Aristotle definitely was in favor of testing theory against empirical evidence, and of rejecting the theory if the evidence was against it – but he still didn’t come up with the Scientific Revolution.

    The “speech code” aspect says that scientists can still resort to aesthetics or philosophy or even theology in their private thoughts and discussions – you just can’t appeal to them in published work. And that means that published work consists of a record of empirical information that can be used by others, even if their private beliefs are very different. It’s also a way of reconciling the subjectivist analysis of actual scientific procedure by those like Bruno Latour with the observed fact of scientific progress.

    I didn’t agree with everything that Strevens said in the book, but much of it resonates with my own (pre-retirement) experience as a scientist. (Disclosure: I’ve always been a big Karl Popper fan. I’m not as big a fan of Thomas Kuhn, though I read Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions as an undergraduate and found it interesting. Strevens builds extensively on both Popper and Kuhn – he both likes and criticizes a lot of which each one says.)

    I definitely would recommend reading Strevens’s book!

    • Posted October 18, 2020 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

      Well, as I said, I was reviewing the review, not the book, and that the book may be far better than the review. Sounds like that may be the case.

    • Posted October 18, 2020 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      I was about to post the following after reading your comment to DrBrydon. But WEIT rejected my comment for some reason.

      I’m getting the feeling that Rothman painted a misleading picture of Strevens’s book. I wonder if the “iron rule” actually implies that theoretical science isn’t science, as Rothman’s description makes out. Or if, instead, Strevens is pointing out that science must stand or fall on empirical evidence, and that given this rule, it doesn’t matter how subjective an individual scientist is. It’s this last bit which would change the thesis from a DUH!! to a Hey, that’s interesting.

      I wasn’t too far off the mark.

  17. davelenny
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    A bit too much of the fine-words-dodgy-thinking school of writing for my taste.

    In our political discourse, we value unfiltered authenticity; from our journalism, we demand moral clarity.

    A nicely balanced sentence, but what do the two concepts mean and how much should we value them? I’m sceptical.

  18. Roy Black
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    I had the same reaction—I.e. a long article saying nothing new. Glad to have my opinion backed up. What’s interesting is that somehow the centrality of empirical investigation in science IS news to some people. Sad—-and a serious problem.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Imagine a hammer get a similar review asking “how it really works”. The reader may want to take a hammer to such an article.

    Speaking of pet peeves, I know it is fashionable to claim that string theory can’t be tested. But it is not a hard guess that it is rapidly evaporating as a suitable candidate for anything else than a math tool.

    The problem comes from two directions:

    1. WIMPs are in practice mostly dismissed as potentially candidates for dark matter.

    Many WIMP candidates are expected to have been produced thermally in the early Universe, similarly to the particles of the Standard Model according to Big Bang cosmology, and usually will constitute cold dark matter. Obtaining the correct abundance of dark matter today via thermal production requires a self-annihilation cross section of {\displaystyle \langle \sigma v\rangle \simeq 3\times 10^{-26}\mathrm {cm} ^{3}\;\mathrm {s} ^{-1}}\langle \sigma v\rangle \simeq 3\times 10^{-26}\mathrm {cm} ^{3}\;\mathrm {s} ^{-1}, which is roughly what is expected for a new particle in the 100 GeV mass range that interacts via the electroweak force. Because supersymmetric extensions of the Standard Model of particle physics readily predict a new particle with these properties, this apparent coincidence is known as the “WIMP miracle”, and a stable supersymmetric partner has long been a prime WIMP candidate.[1] However, recent null results from direct-detection experiments along with the failure to produce evidence of supersymmetry in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment[2][3] has cast doubt on the simplest WIMP hypothesis.[4]

    [“Weakly interacting massive particles” @ Wikipedia]

    With the search for WIMPs seemingly on its last legs, researchers at NIST and their colleagues are now considering a more direct method to look for dark matter particles that have a heftier mass and therefore wield a gravitational force large enough to be detected.

    [ https://phys.org/news/2020-10-billion-tiny-pendulums-universe-mass.html ]

    2. The observed inflation field is inconsistent with the “swampland” of false string solutions that surround the putative “landscape” of real solutions.

    Here, we show that the swampland conjectures are inconsistent with existing observational constraints on single-field inflation.

    [“The zoo plot meets the swampland: mutual (in)consistency of single-field inflation, string conjectures, and cosmological data”; William H. Kinney, Sunny Vagnozzi, Luca Visinelli; Class. Quant. Grav. 36 (2019); https://arxiv.org/abs/1808.06424 ]

  20. Roo
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I hope Steve Pinker tweets about this article, as I think it relates to some of his writings… I think this gets back to the debate on “Does language decide what we can think, or, alternately, is language a reflection of intuitions that we already have, that are formalized in language when are able to express those pre-existing intuitions in abstractions such as speech (or writing mathematical equations, perhaps even using art or music, etc. – but formalized in a symbolic communication system.)

    In general, the latter view makes more sense to me and just jives much more with what I observe about how the world works. (In fact, I have often been kinda annoyed with the Left for giving language fairly magical, talisman-like powers, as if it is master of thought and not the end result.) I just think one can see many non-scientific related instances of the ardent or even obsessive pursuit of knowledge, pre-scientific language. Babies and small children have a level of curiosity that can be, quite frankly, exhausting. They are involved in mini-scientific endeavors all their waking hours. Parents, as well, are happy to Google until their fingers bleed about everything from the pros and cons of baby led weaning to traditional baby food to the deeper meaning behind various shades of baby poop. Those are just a couple of examples that come immediately to mind, but I’m sure there are plenty more – humans seem to have an innate desire to figure out the world around them, no special codes required, and it certainly makes sense to me that they would have needed this to survive. Presumably it was good to pay a great deal of attention to whatever game you were hunting back in the day, for example, how it moved and behaved, or what foods caused what reaction (medicinal, poisonous, edible, etc.), and so on.

    Personally, I think if science has changed our thinking, it’s not because it’s an area where we have trained ourselves, via speech codes, to be objective. Rather, I think human already have a tendency towards objectivity simply because it is reality-based (In the relative realm at least. Weird Buddhist disclaimer there, sorry. If there is no subject there is no object and all that.) Rather, I think science took what was already our strongest area in terms of communal agreement – subject-object relationships – and held this up as an example of how causal relationships could be studied. If we were all suffering from just massive sensory processing disorders, the idea that working with the physical shows ‘objectivity’ might not be so obvious. But in general, when it comes to physical objects, we all encode the huge, potentially overwhelming amount of data in the world around us in remarkably similar ways, making the task much easier. By way of example – imagine that we did not instantly and intuitively understand how a styrofoam cup is different from a glass cup is different from a projection of a cup on a wall, and so on. Then imagine we tried to figure out ‘what happens when you drop a cup?’. We might, for a time at least, say “Oh, lots of different things, it’s subjective, it’s different for everyone”… but because our ability to sort out salient differences very quickly when it comes to physical objects is much stronger, that tends not to be an issue until you reach much more advanced levels of physics. I think things like Buddhist psychology show promise in creating a similar paradigm for areas that are generally considered ‘subjective’ – I don’t know that they’re subjective so much as we struggle much more to see the salient differences between situations quickly there. I think seeing this demonstrated fairly clearly in science creates an understanding that this paradigm can apply in other areas as well and perhaps influences our thinking by serving as an example in that way. So I think simply seeing science in action may well influence people’s intuitions about how it’s possible to understand other realms knowledge, I just don’t think that’s particularly speech-code based.

    • Ben Murray
      Posted October 19, 2020 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know about Pinker, but his wife provided a blurb for Strevens’s book: “The Knowledge Machine is the most stunningly illuminating book of the last several decades regarding the all-important scientific enterprise.”

      • Roo
        Posted October 19, 2020 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        That is kinda surprising! Of course the New Yorker article is a review and thus Rothman’s take, so maybe the book has a subtly different tone (on the Amazon review, it looks like it might lean more towards suggesting that science-based language encourages scientific thinking vs. outright causing it, for example). Or maybe Goldstein has totally different views on the matter, I guess it’s not like they’d hash out every difference of opinion publicly. If I remember correctly Pinker does not support the idea that language creates thought or constrains what we’re able to think about in any significant way, so I’d be pretty surprised if he supported that idea about scientific language specifically.

        I gotta say, the idea that science is some sort of newfangled addition to humankind really throws me. It strikes me as positively innate to homo sapiens. Of course we weren’t doing large scale projects together until recently, historically speaking, but it seems like there could be all sorts of logistical reasons for that. Little way to record or share knowledge, more survival-based activities taking precedence, etc. But, I haven’t read the book, so perhaps it does make a compelling case that there is something truly ‘new’, qualitatively, about the type of science we do now.

  21. dd
    Posted October 18, 2020 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Dear Dr. Coyne, thank you for reading this article on our behalf.

  22. KD
    Posted October 19, 2020 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Yep, oncology is defined by a mechanical adherence to a treatment protocol, so it is indistinguishable from performing human sacrifices based on astronomical observations. Just different rules of etiquette. . .

    [If I had to guess, employing control groups and the development of statistics went a long way toward distinguishing mere correlations and causes, and this is not etiquette, its methodological and mathematical innovation.]

    • KD
      Posted October 19, 2020 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      To be a classicist about it:

      1.) Stuff that works;
      2.) Stuff that you can make money off;

      Science is about 1.), technology depends upon science [and 1.)] but is about 2.).

      Religion, post-modernism, and wokeness are about 2.), but generally inversely correlated to 1.), and at best neutral.


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