Adam Gopnik’s second letter to me

March 10, 2021 • 11:00 am

Just a note: Adam Gopnik has responded to my last letter on the “Letter” website of The Conversation. The topic we’re discussing, as you can see in the title below, is “ways of knowing”, and you can see Adam’s latest response (“Letter 4”) by clicking on the screenshot.

There is a lesson to me about how science is done, a statement about Darwin’s view of human evolution that I find dubious (but will check), and some claims about how sociology is best done not through sociological research, but through literature. I shall respond in a week or so. In the meantime, read for yourself, and feel free to respond below, being aware that Adam is my friend and you must not be rude, though you can be critical of either of us.

33 thoughts on “Adam Gopnik’s second letter to me

  1. There is a lesson to me about how science is done


    I’m not at the Feynman-level of dismissing philosophy and humanities’ thoughts on science, but still, the above seems a bit rich.

    1. Every time I am confronted with the term “mansplaining”, my response is: “Ad hominem fallacy noted.”

      (Not criticizing anything you said here. I just detest that term “mansplaining”.)

      1. I admit it bugs me too. Mansplaining is a portmanteau word formed by man and ‘splaining (explaining). I want to ask “what don’t you like? Men or explanations?” However, my wife hates mansplainers so I should keep my trap shut, which I usually do.

  2. From Gopnick:

    The theory of natural selection is not a sum of observations but a wild surmise about a single rule that might gather them all together…

    Huh? He’s confusing ‘theory’ with ‘hypothesis.’ This is rookie stuff, I’m surprised he’s making such an error.

    But it was the insight, not the increments, that made Darwin.

    Darwin’s reputation is not the same thing as science or knowledge. Yes, his reputation comes from the hypothesis he made. However our knowledge of evolution is indeed made from the increments. As the philosophers would say, Darwin’s hypothesis was ‘necessary but not sufficient’ component of our knowledge of evolution and how species arise.

    [Dickens] offers a very insistent, complex view of how social reform happens

    Well that’s great, but if the contribution of the humanities to knowledge is that they offer up hypotheses for testing, and some of those hypotheses turn out to be right, that’s not knowledge. Knowledge is what you get after you do the testing, not what you start with when you’re brainstorming. Archimedes in the tub: not knowledge, hypothesis. Rules of density and displacement: knowledge. Kekule dreaming of a snake biting it’s tail: not knowledge, hypothesis. Then figuring out benzene had a ring structure: knowledge. Dickens providing insight into social reform: not knowledge, hypothesis. Thence testing his ideas and studying the factors that correlate and relate to successful social reforms: knowledge.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hypothesis formation is the wild west of science. Any method is allowed. If Gopnik’s point is that the humanities can do hypothesis formation, that’s not saying much, since literally anything can do that.

    1. I was thinking of writing a comment to make this point, but you’ve done so better than I would have.

      The only difference I have is with your last sentence. It’s true that literally anything can generate hypotheses but some things are better at it than others. There might be something to an argument that literature is a particularly good medium for generating hypotheses about social issues.

      1. I would listen to that argument. I’d expect that good writers do think deeply about the society they’re writing about, so they might do much better than random guess at coming up with viable hypotheses. However, again, “coming up with hypothesis” /= “knowing”.

    2. Just to push back a little:

      and some of those hypotheses turn out to be right, that’s not knowledge

      Shouldn’t “ways of knowing” include all the vital steps toward obtaining it? And isn’t coming up with relevant hypotheses a vital step?

      But this is an argument that Gopnik dropped:

      If we want to call one kind ‘knowledge ‘and the other ‘insight ‘– or call one ‘knowledge’ and the other ‘schmowledge” for that matter –well, have at it.

      — because it’s merely verbal. Still though, I think Gopnik would say that Dickens doesn’t just provide hypotheses. He shows you how to connect the hypotheses to data that you already know.

      1. Shouldn’t “ways of knowing” include all the vital steps toward obtaining it?

        Yes. And I would argue the fine arts don’t. They maybe include the first.

        And isn’t coming up with relevant hypotheses a vital step

        Yes, it’s one of them. But if you stop there, you’re IMO not producing knowledge, as your belief is not really well justified.

  3. Someone may have hit this already:

    So, Darwin’s great book is, exactly as you say, observational – novelistic in this sense, a series of exemplary cases without experimental proof. Like a novel, it’s a study in plausibility.

    Are we quite sure that Gopnik has read On the Origin?

    My several readings of Darwin’s opus showed me that the entire point of the book was pointing out the evidence and how it fits his theory.

    The fact that he wrote very well makes it like a novel? Well, maybe. But it’s a parade of objective evidence. Yes, Darwin leapt beyond contemporary knowledge and made errors (e.g. the mechanism of inheritance), but it was clearly a scientific “proof” if ever there was one.

    Goodness! I was worried with his elaborate wordiness in the very first paragraph of his first letter. Justified, I think.

    All that said, your civil debate on this is refreshing. As I read your (Jerry) first letter, I realized that I will always want to just refer to your letter (link to it) when I want to tell someone what science is about and how we know things. 🙂

  4. I don’t know… I find it a bit depressing to have to deal with the same tropes over and over…. the confusion of evidence with argument, for example. The failure to understand that all science isn’t experimental arises over and over. Why do folk in the humanities never get past that?

    Scientists argue among themselves over this and that controversy. So? Arguments aren’t knowledge, but resolving the argument with evidence produces knowledge. Why this a difficult matter for folk in the Humanities to grok?

  5. My goodness, boss, Gopnik called you a “verificationist”; you’re not gonna take that sitting down, are you? 🙂

    On a more serious note, Gopnik’s argument in this letter seems built on a syllogism with an undistributed middle:

    Science requires imagination (viz., hypothesis-generation);
    Fiction-writing requires imagination;
    Therefore, fiction-writing is the same as science.

    Since Mr. Gopnik raises Mamet, tell him first prize here will be a Cadillac Eldorado; second prize, steak knives. And coffee is strictly for closers.

  6. I think that Gopnik would do well to become familiar with Bayes’s theorem as a model for scientific progress, with its concept of successively increasing priors until little doubt is left about the hypothesis under consideration. The Origin can be read from this point of view. I searched for “creation” and its derivatives and found 30+ example of Darwin comparing the likelihood of natural selection being a better explanation than creation. Darwin (no statistician) did not formally concatenate these, but any reader can do so, leading to almost unshakeable confidence that Darwin got it right on the basis of the evidence that he considered.

    1. Interesting point – also, as I understand it, Bayes’ Theorem was buried in the literature as a theoretical interest until computers became powerful enough to do the computation for important problems.

      1. I was advocating the principle as a model. That is easily understood without elaborate calculations.

        1. Right, I was just curious if the method was explicitly applied by Darwin himself, or contrmporaries, before the advent of computational machines.

          1. No, sorry. I should have made that clearer. I have never come across the idea that Darwin was effectively following a Baysian approach anywhere else.

    2. I agree: Bayes’s theorem is crucial here. Of course Bayes probably counts as a “verificationist” in Gopnik’s (and Karl Popper’s) sense, but so much the better for verificationism.

      This seems to be mostly coming down to a debate about what science is and how it works (I told you so, by the way). I’m on Jerry’s side for that debate, but I’m glad it’s not me who has to make the case.

    1. Pretty sure I recognize that one from the “sequences” at LessWrong, the rationality website begun by autodidact Eliezer Yudkowsky.

      I’ve been following him since the old days when he did the “Overcoming Bias” bl*g with Robin Hanson .

  7. I am amused that just earlier, the day of this post, I had a thought about the common caveat that science is provisional, e.g. Newton -> Einstein. But it is important to emphasize that this means penicillin as medicine is also provisional, the physics that engineers use to design vehicles, AA batteries, coffee.

    Yes, science is “provisional”, but there is quite a bar to clear to move science in that way.

  8. how sociology is best done not through sociological research, but through literature.

    What? That’s like … (searches for a simile) … well since there is a lawyer in the house, would the difference between “hearsay” and “admissible evidence” be a good simile? Literature would, maybe, tell you about the writer’s view on social questions and human psychology. Or it would tell you about the ideas they wanted to explore by putting various arguments into their characters and scenarios (straw or not). But actual evidence about what is really happening?
    Is there a polite legalism for “likely to be laughed out of court, with the judge sobbing slightly that such a pathetic argument was actually being presented”?

    1. I contemplate whether economics is best done via literature. is there anything not best done through literature? Would Mr. Gopnik hold that mathematics is best done via literature?

        1. Oh no, you stimulated an idea cascade – here it comes :

          I think the literature discussed here satisfies the universal human need for storytelling.

          That’s great, but I think a confusion arises when science is cast as storytelling. That is great too, to tell evolution as a story, to reach certain audiences, or as an approach to stimulate different ideas.

          However, for the best literature – I’ll take Paulo Coelho for instance – it is a complete disservice, even if it were possible, to convert that story to some sorts of programs or equations.

          It is unclear if Mr. Gopnik was alluding to the storytelling approach of sciences, etc., because there are a lot of great writers who are researchers (PCC(E), for instance!) who can write a story for a wide audience about a challenging academic subject such as evolution, others for mathematics too.

          But that is not research – the engine for knowledge about Nature, to understand it. Major distinction to make there – telling stories and making discoveries.

  9. If I’m following Mr. Gopnik,

    There seems to be presented a romantic view of e.g. Einstein, of his experience, pencil and paper, exploring the cosmos. Darwin’s Origin, with its Victorian prose, and the knowledge that these individuals – lone, bold, geniuses, perhaps – produced insights on Nature, that we use today. The personalities of the scientists are well known, and their work we can read and non specialists can even grasp some of it, and that’s great.


    In general, for sciences and mathematics, these are the survivors. They are the ideas that made it, all the other possibly unknown work, lost as unreproducible, or other unfortunate circumstances, was ruled out. Survivorship bias. The peer review selection processes across the centuries, millennia, have a vast unknown pile of casualties of the process of truth finding.

    To take Gopnik’s angle, the great, insightful works of literature that survive do so for very different reasons. Usually, I think they are discussed as if they reached a truth that nobody found before, the authors expressing unique knowledge, a truth. To draw that parallel is to miss the underlying mechanism of why knowledge survives.

  10. I don’t buy Gopnik’s schtick at all. Seen it all before tracking creationists through the decades. Darwin was lucky or Darwin guessed or Darwin made sweeping generalizations. None of it true. Darwin, for example, spent nearly a decade studying barnacles as a demonstration of evolution by natural selection. Gopnik minimizes this achievement, and waves it away.

    No, “other ways of knowledge” is simply God’s revelation and the “failure” of science to know everything is a god of the gaps argument. It’s pitiful. It doesn’t deserve rebuttal because it’s old, old old. Gopnik’s argument deserves dismissal and if he persists, ridicule.

    Sorry, Gopnik, I read Dickens and I don’t believe I need to read it more closely. That’s a common creationist ploy for folks who, in the words of Texans, are all hat and no cattle.

    Try reading Darwin more closely, Gopnik, you might learn something.

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