Wokeness invades London’s Natural History Museum

October 18, 2021 • 9:15 am

I’ve written twice before about the doings of Anna Krylov, a quantum chemist who’s a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California. She’s had a distinguished career even though she’s still young, but my interest was in her recent piece in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters:  “The Peril of Politicizing Science“, which I highlighted in this post.

The piece is a hard-hitting critique of the intrusion of ideology of any sort—from woke to right-wing to Communism—into science, much of the piece based on comparing what happened in Russia (where Anna lived) with what’s happening with the increasing wokeness of science in the U.S. and U.K.  With statements like the one below, her essay aroused both approbation and opprobrium. Kudos to the brave editor who published it!

A short excerpt. I’ve eliminated her numerical references to make reading easier:

Just as during the time of the Great Terror [in the Soviet Union], dangerous conspiracies and plots against the World Revolution were seen everywhere, from illustrations in children’s books to hairstyles and fashions; today we are told that racism, patriarchy, misogyny, and other reprehensible ideas are encoded in scientific terms, names of equations, and in plain English words. We are told that in order to build a better world and to address societal inequalities, we need to purge our literature of the names of people whose personal records are not up to the high standards of the self-anointed bearers of the new truth, the Elect. We are told that we need to rewrite our syllabi and change the way we teach and speak.

As an example of political censorship and cancel culture, consider a recent viewpoint discussing the centuries-old tradition of attaching names to scientific concepts and discoveries (Archimede’s [sic] Principle, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Schrödinger equation, Curie Law, etc.). The authors call for vigilance in naming discoveries and assert that “basing the name with inclusive priorities may provide a path to a richer, deeper, and more robust understanding of the science and its advancement.” Really? On what empirical grounds is this based? History teaches us the opposite: the outcomes of the merit-based science of liberal, pluralistic societies are vastly superior to those of the ideologically controlled science of the USSR and other totalitarian regimes. The authors call for removing the names of people who “crossed the line” of moral or ethical standards. Examples include Fritz Haber, Peter Debye, and William Shockley, but the list could have been easily extended to include Stark (defended expulsion of Jews from German institutions),( Heisenberg (led Germany’s nuclear weapons program),) and Schrödinger (had romantic relationships with under-age girls). Indeed, learned societies are now devoting considerable effort to such renaming campaigns—among the most-recent cancellations is the renaming of the Fisher Prize by the Evolution Society, despite well-argued opposition by 10 past presidents and vice-presidents of the society.

I added a link to the last example since I was part of that effort.

At any rate, Wikipedia says this about Krylov’s piece:

Krylov is an outspoken advocate of freedom of speech and academic freedom.  She is a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance and a member of its academic leadership committee. Her paper, “The Peril of Politicizing Science,” has received 55,000 views and, according to Altmetric, is the all-time highest-ranked article in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters.

Note, though, that Krylov is no opponent of diversity. Like many of us, she is a liberal, and Wikipedia adds this:

Krylov is active in the promotion of gender equality in STEM fields, especially in theoretical chemistry. She created and maintains the web directory Women in Theoretical and Computational Chemistry, Material Science, and Biochemistry, which currently lists more than 400 scientists holding tenure and tenure track academic positions, or equivalent positions in industry, national laboratories, and other leading research establishments. She has delivered several talks on gender equality in STEM including a lecture at the international symposium in Uppsala, Sweden.

Later in August, I reported on a letter written by Krylov and many colleagues to her own university, objecting to public statements by USC’s Department of Gender and Sexuality studies about the Israel/Palestine conflict and the general atmosphere of anti-Semitism at her school.

This is all by way of background for the very short report below. Anna, who was in London, informed me that she had a great trip to the Natural History Museum, one that she documented in some of her pictures of London here.

But there was one fly in the ointment. As she said, “I I was shocked to see these stickers all over the place” in the Museum:

In other words, “Watch this space for self flagellation.”

That sticker bugs me as well. Why does every institution, including  natural history museums, feel that they have to apologize for and somehow rectify the views of our predecessors whose morality doesn’t comport with current views? As Anna said, this isn’t just one sticker—there are many.  I expect that every museum, art gallery, and historical display in the U.K. is going to go this way. They have no choice.

But Anna didn’t just get peeved, she wrote an email to the Museum which I reproduce below with permission (click to enlarge)

If the Natural History Museum responds (I’m not hopeful), I’ll let you know what they say.

Krylov (photo from Wikipedia)

Should we replace the traditional ways of evaluating scientific quality with indices of mentorship?

July 8, 2021 • 12:30 pm

A new paper in PLoS Biology (click on screenshot below) calls for a thorough revamping of the way scientists are evaluated for the quality of their work, replacing traditional methods of assessment (research productivity and quality) with evaluations of “mentorship”. The reason the authors want to dismantle the traditional “meritocratic” methods of evaluation (based, they say, but erroneously, on citation rates) is that these methods are biased against women and minorities. But their evidence for that is almost nonexistent, and, in the end, what they are doing is replacing the traditional empirical purpose of science—to understand the universe—with a social purpose: to increase social justice.

I want to emphasize at the outset that insofar as science is racist, with the racism built into the system, that needs to be changed. The authors feel that science is deeply racist, with the result that women and minorities don’t get cited, don’t get grants, don’t get tenure, and in general achieve less than white people or men. If that is due to current practices in science, or current biases of scientists, then this must change. But the evidence that structural racism is pervasive in science today is nonexistent. (Some scientists, of course, are racists, but the system itself, I claim, is now set up to favor women and minorities, not hold them down.)

Further, as I’ve said before, we do need a form of affirmative action in education and in science. It simply won’t do if the present system somehow results in a glaring deficit of women and people of color in science. I think more equitable representation (though not necessarily proportional representation) is a moral imperative, if for no other reason than to provide a form of reparations for groups who were held back years ago and haven’t yet caught up. What I do claim is that, at present, science is not nearly as racist as the authors represent.

In fact, if you’re involved in American academic science, you know that departments are scrambling hard to get minority and women faculty and graduate students. The reason we have trouble getting minorities, however, is the “pipeline problem”, based on a system of oppression and cultural differences that traces back centuries, and must be rectified not by changing the criteria for advancing in science, or sniffing out a “systemic racism” in science doesn’t exist, but by allowing everyone to have an equal opportunity to become a scientist. And that involves big societal changes that afford equal opportunity from birth.

I’ve said all this before, so let me present the authors’ abstract, which pretty much tells their tale:

Success and impact metrics in science are based on a system that perpetuates sexist and racist “rewards” by prioritizing citations and impact factors. These metrics are flawed and biased against already marginalized groups and fail to accurately capture the breadth of individuals’ meaningful scientific impacts. We advocate shifting this outdated value system to advance science through principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. We outline pathways for a paradigm shift in scientific values based on multidimensional mentorship and promoting mentee well-being. These actions will require collective efforts supported by academic leaders and administrators to drive essential systemic change.

In short, the authors want to replace citations (who cites your papers in their papers, and how often) and “impact factors” (the quality of the journals in which you publish) with “multidimensional” and “holistic” mentorship—a mentorship not designed to produce scientists who find out things, but who are healthy, happy, mentally stable, dedicated to equity, and representing all ethnic groups. This is a proposal to make science into a vehicle for social engineering.

Here’s a figure in which the authors purport to show the problem.

Note that their characterization of how science is done now is said to focus exclusively on “citations” as a measure of one’s impact on the field (encompassed by the “H index“, which didn’t exist for most of my career), while the “inclusive view” focuses on basically everything.

Much of the PLOS paper focuses on the inequalities said to be faced by both women and minorities: fewer citations, fewer awards, less grant funding, greater difficulties in publication, and so on. If one evaluates people based on these factors, especially citations, one is said to be exercising biases that hold down women and minority representations.

But I know of no academic vetting process that just counts citations and ignores mentorship as a way of evaluating quality. What is important is not just impact measured by citations, but by the quality of one’s work, assessed in many different ways. The most important is reading your papers, seeing what you’ve found out, and learning whether other scientists express interest in your work. Have you pushed the field forward with interesting findings? Have you produced some accomplished students (which, by the way, is mentorship)? In the promotion and tenure committees I’ve been on, citation counts have not ever been mentioned. Rather, a candidate’s papers are read and discussed, letters solicited from people in the field are considered, production of graduate students is noted, teaching is assessed (not so heavily at a research school), and—in some places, but not Chicago—outside research support is assessed. Citation numbers are only a small part of this process, and at Chicago weren’t even considered when I was on the promotion and tenure committee in biology.

Are women and minorities really held down by the sexism and structural racism of academic science, though? The evidence is thin.  The authors cite older papers in support of this thesis, but completely ignore newer papers  showing that virtually every metric of women’s advancement in science is now on par with men, that there is no perceptible bias against either women or minorities in assessing grant proposals (nobody ever cites this important paper because it doesn’t meet what people expected to find), that the lower rate of funding by black scientists isn’t due to biases against them, but to differential choice of fields having different amounts of funding, and a survey of faculty and student hiring preferences showed that minority candidates and women are preferred above white candidates and males, especially by faculty. None of these papers are cited by Davies et al.

Removing not just citations but other ways of evaluating scientific productivity—all aimed at answering the question, “Has this person pushed our knowledge forward?”—is a surefire way to erode the quality of science. As I said, our main aim is to find out stuff, not act as a vehicle for social justice, though we should of course behave towards our students and colleagues in an unbiased fashion.

What about replacing the traditional criteria with measures of mentorship? This itself involved problems, because, at least for academic mentorship, exposure to science means exposure to research. One of the signs of a good mentor, like Dick Lewontin, is that they produce lots of students who themselves produce lots of research, so their reach is extended.  You could use grand-citations to do this, but traditionally a “holistic” metric is used: how much knowledge has come, directly or indirectly, from this person?

But what if your goal is to produce teachers or workers in industry rather than researchers?  First, having research experience always helps you get a job in industry. As for teaching, I would argue that exposure to research, even if it isn’t published, is an essential part of producing someone who’s a good teacher of science. Good teachers understand how research is done, and you need to learn to do that by doing it, not by reading about it. In the end, research should always be part of any scientific training. And if you’re at a teaching school, or teaching science in secondary school, citations and research are of minor or no importance.

But Davies et al. aren’t interested in this kind of mentorship. They want a “holistic” mentorship in which research is downplayed in favor of producing students who conform to social-justice expectations. These students are mentally healthy as well as having “bystander intervention training” and “anti-bullying and antiracist mentoring and teaching practices”. One’s mentorship must “promote justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in science.”  Other practices of good mentors include these:

To ensure that training opportunities become valued by participants, institutions may consider implementing mandatory participation by requiring training for career advancement or as prerequisites for recruiting mentees. However, training programs should be mindfully designed to engage those who may complete training for inauthentic reasons. [JAC: What???] Discussions of topics covered in training should become standard practice at regular events including faculty meetings and retreats and graduate student association meetings. Undergraduate programs can include discussions of unconscious bias and how such biases influence classroom dynamics.

And we must become experts in mental health as well:

While good mentorship can foster a sense of belonging in science for the mentee, relationships of many mentees from marginalized groups with their mentors—who are often from the majority group—are not always positive, leading to health issues, such as insomnia and anxiety, and lower retention of these groups in science (reviewed in [93,104]). In order to effectively mentor, all mentors—particularly those who are not familiar with the experiences and perspectives of systemically marginalized scholars—should engage with cultures, communities, and perspectives that differ from their own, connect with communities that are working toward creating justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, and support institutional change already underway. In addition, increasing representation from marginalized communities throughout institutional hierarchies provides greater opportunities for mentees to find mentors with which to build meaningful relationships.

Of particular concern is the recently highlighted decline in mental health of many academics and a growing crisis at the graduate level. Graduate students are at least twice as likely to experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, compared to the general population with equivalent education. This trend is even more striking for women of color in STEMM, who are facing systemic sexism and racism, along with daily microaggressions and safety concerns. Sexual minorities and LGBTQ+-identifying people are also subject to discrimination that adversely affects their well-being, mental health and, ultimately, retention in STEMM fields. Laboratory work, field work, and simple existence in the academy can often place marginalized groups, including those with disabilities, at risk of injury, harassment, bullying, and assault). To combat these challenges, specific strategies for safety and well-being must be supported at the research group, departmental, institutional, and funding organization levels.

Multidimensional mentorship clearly requires expertise in psychotherapy.

While good mentors are sensitive to their student’s psychological needs, there are other groups within universities designed deal with these issues. And emphasis on all of them dilutes the very purpose why one does science, turning it into a vehicle for promoting “social justice” in the community. But that’s exactly what the authors want.

I am drawing to a close, for I’ve seen paper after paper like this in the last few weeks, all suggesting that we ditch traditional ways of assessing scientific merit, because those ways give a disadvantage to minorities and diminish social justice.

I would suggest, though, that there are better vehicles than science for promoting social justice, and that we shouldn’t turn our field into an ideological juggernaut. Of course we must provide equal opportunities for all, but I think academic science is doing a pretty good job at that. There will surely be dissenters touting their own lived experience of oppression, but the data we have now suggests that science is doing a pretty good job at promoting equal opportunity. And I have not yet heard a way to improve the mission of science—to find out truth—than the ways we’re doing it now. We’re casting wider nets for talent, and fighting hard to eliminate any biases that we can find.  All I can say is that I disagree with the idea of replacing the criteria currently used to evaluate someone as a scientist with criteria mainly concerned with mentoring people in a social-justice-y way.

Failures of replication in psychology

June 29, 2021 • 9:15 am

We hear a lot about the “replication crisis” in science, and it’s often cited to imply that science is largely untrustworthy, perhaps just as fallible a “way of knowing” as, say, religion. And indeed, a number of prominent results in psychology and other fields have not been replicated by others. What is not mentioned in such criticisms is the huge number of studies in “hard” science that have been replicated. As far as I know, DNA is still a double helix, Jupiter is larger than Earth, benzene has six carbon atoms, and the continents are moving about on tectonic plates. Nobody, of course, has totted up the proportion of all results in any field that have been replicated. Still, failures of replication are concerning, but also inevitable, since science is an ongoing process. And they also give us a way of adding or subtracting credibility from a hypothesis.

A list of “replication failures” does serve to remind us that science is fallible, an ongoing enterprise that is subject to revision. Nothing is “proven” in science; the concept of “proof” is for mathematics, where there’s no “replication crisis.” Science is a Bayesian enterprise, in which accumulating evidence combines to give us more or less confidence in a hypothesis. But remember, too, that many scientific “facts” are very unlikely to be overturned, and, using any reasonable layperson’s notion of “proof”, have been proved.  A molecule of normal water has two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the normal form of DNA is a double helix, the speed of light in a vacuum is 299792458 metres per second ( roughly 186,000 miles per second) and so on.

This list of “reversals” below is limited to psychology and is 18 months old. It comes from the site argmin gravitas, and was compiled by “Gavin, a PhD candidate in AI at Bristol.”

The caveats are given by Gavin below, and the most important one is that a “failure of replication” does not mean either that the original result was wrong or that somebody cheated. Psychological studies often use different samples from different places; the statistical power of tests to detect effects depends on sample size, which varies among studies; different statistical tests can give different results; and, of course, there could be confirmation bias in whether you accept a result. And if you use the 5% level of significance, roughly 1 in 20 tests will yield a “false positive.” As Gavin says, “failed replications (or proofs of fraud) usually just challenge the evidence for a hypothesis, rather than affirm the opposite hypothesis.” Here are his caveats:

medical reversal is when an existing treatment is found to actually be useless or harmful. Psychology has in recent years been racking up reversals: in fact only 40-65% of its classic social results were replicated, in the weakest sense of finding ‘significant’ results in the same direction. (Even in those that replicated, the average effect found was half the originally reported effect.) Such errors are far less costly to society than medical errors, but it’s still pollution, so here’s the cleanup.

Psychology is not alone: medicinecancer biology, and economics all have many irreplicable results. It’d be wrong to write off psychology: we know about most of the problems here because of psychologists, and its subfields differ a lot by replication rate and effect-size shrinkage.

One reason psychology reversals are so prominent is that it’s an unusually ‘open’ field in terms of code and data sharing. A less scientific field would never have caught its own bullshit.

The following are empirical findings about empirical findings; they’re all open to re-reversal. Also it’s not that “we know these claims are false”: failed replications (or proofs of fraud) usually just challenge the evidence for a hypothesis, rather than affirm the opposite hypothesis. I’ve tried to ban myself from saying “successful” or “failed” replication, and to report the best-guess effect size rather than play the bad old Yes/No science game.

Figures correct as of March 2020; I will put some effort into keeping this current, but not that much.
Code for converting means to Cohen’s d and Hedge’s g here.

Click on the screenshot to see the “reversals”.

I’ll mention only one example given from each of 13 branches of psychology discussed by Gavin; these are experiments that seem to be fairly well known or whose failure to replicate interested me. Go to the site to see the statistics from the original papers and then from attempts to replicate.  And a lot of other papers are cited as well.

Gavin’s words are indented.

Social psychology:

  • No good evidence of anything from the Stanford prison ‘experiment’. It was not an experiment; ‘demand characteristics’ and scripting of the abuse; constant experimenter intervention; faked reactions from participants; as Zimbardo concedes, they began with a complete “absence of specific hypotheses”.

Positive psychology:

  • No good evidence for facial-feedback (that smiling causes good mood and pouting bad mood).

Cognitive psychology:

  • Questionable evidence for (some readings of) the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Developmental psychology:

Personality psychology:

  • Anything by Hans Eysenck should be considered suspect, but in particular these 26 ‘unsafe’ papers (including the one which says that reading prevents cancer).

Behavioural science:

  • The effect of “nudges” (clever design of defaults) may be exaggerated in general. One big review found average effects were six times smaller than billed. (Not saying there are no big effects.)

Marketing:

  • Brian Wansink accidentally admitted gross malpractice; fatal errors were found in 50 of his lab’s papers. These include flashy results about increased portion size massively reducing satiety.

Neuroscience:

  • Readiness potentials seem to be actually causal, not diagnostic. So Libet’s studies also do not show what they purport to. We still don’t have free will (since random circuit noise can tip us when the evidence is weak), but in a different way.

I’ve read the references about “failure to replicate Libet”, and they don’t show that conscious will is involved in decisions; they show that neural inputs, either random or non-random (i.e., derived from sensory input) influence decisions, and brain activity can predict behaviors before the subject is conscious of having “decided”. But I have no quarrel about that. Free will, if it means anything, especially to dualists, has to involve the causation of a of an action by a conscious decision that could have been otherwise.  And the Libet experiment, and many others since, show a genuine decoupling between brain activity that can predict an action and consciousness of having “decided” to perform that action. That in itself is a sword in the heart of dualistic free will, though of course not of compatibilist free will, as nearly all of its adherents accept physical determinism and reject dualism.

Psychiatry:

  • At most extremely weak evidence that psychiatric hospitals (of the 1970s) could not detect sane patients in the absence of deception.

Parapsychology:

  • No good evidence for precognition, undergraduates improving memory test performance by studying after the test. This one is fun because Bem’s statistical methods were “impeccable” in the sense that they were what everyone else was using. He is Patient Zero in the replication crisis, and has done us all a great service. (Heavily reliant on a flat / frequentist prior; evidence of optional stopping; forking paths analysis.)

Evolutionary psychology:

  • Questionable evidence for the menstrual cycle version of the dual-mating-strategy hypothesis (that “heterosexual women show stronger preferences for uncommitted sexual relationships [with more masculine men]… during the high-fertility ovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle, while preferring long-term relationships at other points”). Studies are usually tiny (median n=34, mostly over one cycle). Funnel plot looks ok though.

Psychophysiology:

  • At most very weak evidence that sympathetic nervous system activity predicts political ideology in a simple fashion. In particular, subjects’ skin conductance reaction to threatening or disgusting visual prompts – a noisy and questionable measure.

Behavioural genetics:

  • Be very suspicious of any such “candidate gene” finding (post-hoc data mining showing large >1% contributions from a single allele). 0/18 replications in candidate genes for depression. 73% of candidates failed to replicate in psychiatry in general. One big journal won’t publish them anymore without several accompanying replications. A huge GWAS, n=1 million: “We find no evidence of enrichment for genes previously hypothesized to relate to risk tolerance.

h/t: Luana

John Horgan makes a strawman argument against “consilience”

June 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

The science writer John Horgan became well known for his 1996 book The End of Science, in which he claimed that the era of “fundamental science”—the kind of science that yielded big discoveries like the structure of DNA, evolution, and quantum mechanics—was coming to an end. That is, all the paradigm-changing views of the universe had already been made.

Since then, of course, we’ve learned about dark matter, dark energy, the Higgs Boson, gotten indications that quantum mechanics may have fundamental flaws, and so on. String theory, though it may be untestable and thereby die, became a big deal. Now you may say that Horgan’s right—that these discoveries aren’t “fundamental”—but I’d never bet on humanity reaching the end of world-changing scientific discoveries about the universe. Still, in 2015 Horgan defended his earlier conclusion in the pages of Scientific American.   He wasn’t calling for science to stop, of course, but promoting the depressing conclusion that we’d found out pretty much all the “fundamental” truths we’d ever get.

I think he was and is wrong.

Now, also in the pages of Scientific American, Horgan has a new “opinion” piece that is again a bit of science-dissing in that it’s the usual criticism of “scientism”, which he defines as science overstepping its boundaries and impinging on “other ways of knowing”, like religion (!) and the “knowledge” we get from psychedelic visions.

But Horgan’s main target is “consilience,” a term used by E. O. Wilson, who wrote a book by that title proposing a sweeping project: the absorption of all forms of “knowing” and endeavor into science. That would include morality, art, psychology, literature, philosophy, and so on. All knowledge would and should, claimed Wilson, be analyzed using the toolkit of science, leaving no room for the humanities as we know them.

Click on the screenshot to read:

My first response is one I made in my exchange with Adam Gopnik at Letter on “ways of knowing”: religion (see Horgan’s title) is not a “way of knowing”, and neither is ingestion of ayahuasca (which Horgan tried and is regularly used by shamans to derive “visions” that Horgan sees as “ways of knowing”).

Horgan says these mystical  drug-induced visions  are ones “in which we seem to glimpse truths normally hidden behind the surface of things.” I’ve recounted my own LSD-induced vision in which my hidden truth, which I wrote down on a piece of paper because it sounded so profound, turned out to be “the walls are fucking brown.” And if you do glimpse truths when you’re on drugs, they’re either private experiences or other claims that, when you’ve come down, must be verified with the toolkit of science. “The universe is one” is not a truth except in the trivial sense that it’s all made of matter and energy.

Since my views on the ambit of science (construed broadly) have been set out in the exchange with Gopnik, I won’t repeat my arguments here, but I deny Horgan’s claim that there are “ways of knowing” about the cosmos that do not employ the empirical toolkit of science. (See also pp. 185-196 in my book Faith Versus Fact.).

But I do agree with Horgan that the Grand Project to subsume art, literature, philosophy and morality completely into the “harder” sciences is futile. The thing is, hardly any scientist I know agrees with Wilson or with Horgan’s characterization. Yes, Sam Harris does think that science can determine what is right and wrong to do, but few agree with him about that (I dissent as well). And even the most “scientistic” scholar I know, Steve Pinker, doesn’t entertain the notion that full consilience is feasible. As Pinker said in the New Republic:

Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.

In the last sentence Pinker raises a point that is the subject of one of the best short pieces he’s written, the one below from The New Republic (click on screenshot; this piece was later attacked by New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier):

You should read this article as a palliative for Horgan’s, as Pinker is calling not for the ingestion of all other disciplines by science, but an expansion of the humanities by using the toolkit of science. Surely science can inform morality, art, analysis of literature, politics and history.  Here’s part of Pinker’s view:

Diagnoses of the malaise of the humanities rightly point to anti-intellectual trends in our culture and to the commercialization of our universities. But an honest appraisal would have to acknowledge that some of the damage is self-inflicted. The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

Those ways do deserve respect, and there can be no replacement for the varieties of close reading, thick description, and deep immersion that erudite scholars can apply to individual works. But must these be the only paths to understanding? A consilience with science offers the humanities countless possibilities for innovation in understanding. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, to say nothing of the kind of a progressive agenda that appeals to deans and donors. The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanists.

In some disciplines, this consilience is a fait accompli. Archeology has grown from a branch of art history to a high-tech science. Linguistics and the philosophy of mind shade into cognitive science and neuroscience.

And of course even religion has been altered by science (I wouldn’t use the word “enriched”), at least in terms of science disproving some of the foundational claims of religion, like the existence of a creation event of biological life by God, the existence of Adam and Eve, the Exodus, and so on. In that sense, any morality that gets its force from from religion loses considerable ground.

But on to Horgan.

First, I again deny that there are ways of knowing about the universe (which is, after all, what Horgan means by “fundamental knowledge”) that do not require the empirical toolkit of science: observation, testing, doubting, predicting, and so on.

But Horgan has other points to make. First, he doesn’t think consilience is possible. Here’s he’s probably right, for we simply will never have the knowledge to connect all human endeavors through scientific hypotheses. Some depend on unknowable historical or evolutionary events, others on knowledge inaccessible to us. Even if, in principle, all phenomena reduce to the motions of molecules, we will never be able to scientifically explain why Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina the way he did or why it affects each of us differently. And no scientist I know, save perhaps Ed Wilson, thinks that we should try to do this, though there are Darwinian analysis of parts of literature.

But Horgan goes further, arguing that we haven’t even achieved consilience within scientific disciplines. Physicists are still arguing about quantum mechanics and string theory, we don’t yet have a unification of all fundamental physical forces (gravity stubbornly refuses to consiliate), we don’t understand how physical processes in the brain produce consciousness, and even evolutionary biologists still argue about the importance of group selection.  But the existence of unsolved problems, some of which will never be solved, does not support Horgan’s argument that greater consilience isn’t feasible. We simply can’t imagine what science will find in the next few centuries and, as Pinker notes, consilience is being achieved in archaeology and linguistics.

It turns out that Horgan thinks consilience is unfeasible for this reason:

If consilience entails convergence toward a consensus, science is moving away from consilience.

I’d take issue with that, too. Scientists are a lot more in agreement on matters of truth than they were 200 years ago. We have a consensus about the major features of evolution, about the structures of molecules, about how DNA and metabolism work, about the age of the Universe, about who were the ancestors of humans, and what the fundamental particles were. Of course we’ll never agree on everything, but to say that “science is moving away from consilience” in effect says that we know less than we used to. And that’s not the case. We have a lot more consensus than we used to. When I was young, there was a big argument about whether the continents moved. We now know that they do.

Further, Horgan asserts that besides being unfeasible, consilience is undesirable. He says he once thought it was desirable, but realized that a pluralism of “ways of knowing” is extremely valuable. Horgan’s argument for pluralism comes from his view that it brings to bear more “ways of knowing” on unsolved questions. But his claim here is weak:

But increasingly, I see pluralism as a valuable, even necessary counterweight to our yearning for certitude. Pluralism is especially important when it comes to our ideas about who we are, can be and should be. If we settle on a single self-conception, we risk limiting our freedom to reinvent ourselves, to discover new ways to flourish.

Wilson acknowledges that consilience is a reductionistic enterprise, which will eliminate many ways of seeing the world. Consider how he treats mystical visions, in which we seem to glimpse truths normally hidden behind the surface of things. To my mind, these experiences rub our faces in the unutterable weirdness of existence, which transcends all our knowledge and forms of expression. As William James says in The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences should “forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

. . . Wilson is a gracious, courtly man in person as well on the page. But his consilience project stems from excessive faith in science, or scientism. (Both Wilson and Pinker embrace the term scientism, and they no doubt think that the phrase “excessive faith in science” is oxymoronic.) Given the failure to achieve consilience within physics and biology—not to mention the replication crisis and other problems—scientists should stop indulging in fantasies about conquering all human culture and attaining something akin to omniscience. Scientists, in short, should be more humble.

And that’s it. (The relevance of the “replication” crisis is obscure, and at any rate isn’t ubiquitous.) It’s all about the “other ways of knowing”. Horgan has a long digression about a shaman’s drug-induced vision of snakes, which, in fact, Wilson says could be genetically ingrained in our psyche. Further, we may learn how drugs like ayahuasca unleash our neurons to produce these visions of evolution-installed fears. A shaman’s vision is not immune to the tools of science.

At any rate, look at Horgan’s last sentence above: “Scientists, in short, should be more humble.”  Where have you heard that before? That’s right—from theologians. Although I believe Horgan is a nonbeliever, here he’s being soft on belief, implying, as he did in the title, that religion has something to say about the nature of truth and scientists should give theologians a break. Well, the nature of religion may tell us why it exists and makes certain claims, but that involves a scientific analysis of religion—an analysis Horgan spurns. You know who needs to be humble? The religionists, because they harbor far less doubt than do scientists!

As Horgan says:

Wilson needn’t have worried. Scientific omniscience looks less likely than ever, and humans are far too diverse, creative and contrary to settle for a single worldview of any kind. Inspired by mysticism and the arts, as well as by science, we will keep arguing about who we are and reinventing ourselves forever.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with much of that: worldviews include subjective issues from outside science, and of course we’ll keep on with these futile arguments about “who we are” (arguments, by the way, that might be partly settled by evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology!). But this is not the point. The point Horgan makes is that there are other ways of knowing what is true about the world beyond science, and science should stop sticking its damn nose into the tent of the humanities. But this is a straw man. Almost nobody claims that literature, music, and art will or should be completely subsumed by science (though they are, at bottom, consistent with it), but on the other hand Pinker is right in claiming that we should not tell scientists to stop impinging on the humanities.

I’ll end with Pinker’s closing of his lovely New Republic article, in which he answers critics who say that the invasion of humanities by scientific practices is “naive and simplistic”:

And the critics should be careful with the adjectives. If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy silos of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.

Sometimes when I read Horgan, and see his endless criticisms about the limits of science, his concentration on scientific disagreements and ignoring genuine consiliences, and his claim that science is but one of many “ways of knowing”, I wonder if the man—despite being a teacher of science writing—really likes science.

h/t: Hos

“Citizen” science?

June 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

At last—an article about renaming things in the name of social justice that is actually a reasonable discussion. This “op-ed” piece in the newest issue of Science, written by several authors, takes up the recent claim that the endeavor of “citizen science” should be renamed “community science”. And it concludes that it shouldn’t be, because it will blur the distinction between “citizen science”, which deals with scientific data collection by non-scientists, and “community science”, which is the collection of data aimed specifically at “protection of human rights and measurable improvements for communities who face environmental injustices and public health challenges.” Both of these are worthy aims, but the second is explicitly in the name of social justice. Conflating the names may have inimical effects on both endeavors, especially in funding efforts.

I of course am not opposed to the goals of social justice, but mainly to some of their performative, ineffective, and virtue-signaling tactics that its advocates use. In this case, I’m not 100% sure that keeping separate names for “citizen science” and “community science” will do what the authors want: preserve the latter practice while making the former more inclusive, but their argument is cogent—if a bit too long. So I’m on their side. They are more concerned with fixing things than with renaming as an easy way to look like you’re fixing things.

Click on the screenshot to read:

First, why do people object to the term “citizen science”? The authors describe two forms of this endeavor, the first being science projects run by institutions who guide many volunteers to collect data to advance scientific knowledge. The second involves participation of a bunch of diverse people in a common goal, but with no formal institutional leadership (I suppose the “annual Christmas bird count” is an example of the latter), and with a variety of goals, including “science, engagement, education, policy, and or/empowerment.

“Community science,” which has specific social justice aims, is defined above.

The objections to the term “citizen science” for these projects are outlined by the authors.

There are dozens of terms used to describe participants in citizen science, including phrases in different languages as well as terms within English that hold different meanings in different cultures. Terms that might offend in one culture (such as “amateur”) may be perfectly suitable to others, underscoring terminology challenges. Much of the debate about the use of the term citizen science has been in the United States. People born in the United States to currently or historically oppressed groups (such as by race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation) could perceive the term citizen as a source of power inasmuch as all these groups have struggled to obtain the rights of democratic citizenship. Although the term citizen also refers to people who reside in a place or are citizens of the world, many people contest the term because they perceive it to exclude, or even convey hostility toward, those without citizenship status within a given nation. Consequently, an increasing number of organizations in the United States, such as the National Audubon Society and others , have adopted the term community science to rebrand their citizen science programs as open to all publics. Other institutions have selected alternative terms such as “civic science” (by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the publisher of Science) and “neighborhood science” (Los Angeles Public Libraries). In our personal experience, we have seen those in the sphere of public engagement in science call on others to use the term “community science” to describe citizen science activities.

But these name changes are done simply as cosmetic efforts, and the authors have better arguments to keep “citizen science” intact while using the traditional term “community science” as the name for citizens’ participation in specific projects of social transformation outlined above.

The authors argue that renaming “citizen science” as “community science” will blur the distinction between the two forms of group endeavors:

The basis of citizen science, in strong contrast to that of community science, is typically volunteerism within the realm of mainstream science, in which funds flow to academic, government agency, or nongovernmental organizations; credentialed individuals at those institutions make decisions, partially or wholly, about research directions; and projects can be geographically large, vastly exceeding the community scale. Relabeling citizen science as community science without consideration of these fundamental and structural differences may actually impede social justice efforts being carried out in the context of existing community science projects. We believe that switching the words citizen and community without regard to the traditions and norms associated with these well-established and quite different approaches to science is at least misleading and disingenuous and at most directly harmful because larger citizen science organizations could dilute the goals of, and potentially siphon donor funds away from, authentic community-driven efforts. Because community science is already underfunded, a clear distinction in terminology is necessary for establishing sources of support for authentic community-driven efforts.

The term community science should be reserved for projects that focus on local priorities and local perspectives and are able to maintain the locus of power in the community. A hallmark of individuals and organizations behind these efforts has been commitment to social action and antiracist, decolonizing research praxis aimed at elevating multiple ways of knowing, engendering trust, and sharing power (9). A name change alone for citizen science, not accompanied by altering underlying practices so that projects bring about structural change, is akin to false marketing.

So here we have a cogent case for not changing the name. The authors also call attention, sensibly, to the lack of historically oppressed people in “citizen science” projects, which is surely true: it’s largely a white person’s game. Including others can have a salubrious effect, not necessarily by increasing the diversity of “ethnic” viewpoints, but by getting more people involved and, especially, drawing into the science pipeline people who historically have not had the means or opportunity to join in. Both types of science should be made more inclusive. One reason we have trouble attracting minority graduate students and professors into STEM careers is because for various reasons their exposure to science, and hence the chance to become enthusiastic about it, is limited from the time they begin school.

Now “community science,” since it refers to projects aimed at helping poor or marginalized communities, is already on the way to inclusivity, for surely people who participate in some of these (one example is the Silent Spring Institute or the West End Revitalization Association of central North Carolina), are already people from historically oppressed groups.

So we agree that the terminology should be kept separate, for the reasons are to get more science done as well as improve society, and that (especially the latter) outweighs any performative offense connected with the use of the term “citizen science.”

But how do we get more marginalized people into “citizen science” so it’s less of a white person’s game? That’s where the problem lies. As the article suggests (my emphasis),

We suggest that citizen science projects will only become inclusive through action. Whether realigning existing projects and programs with inclusive practices or designing new projects, we recommend centering in the margins: If a project is accessible to the marginalized, it will be accessible to all. Although implementation will vary in its details, the broad approach is general and generalizable. For some projects, the best strategy may be to elevate culturally relevant perspectives (emphasizing diversity and inclusion). In others, the best strategy may be a focus on racial and economic disparities in environmental conditions (emphasizing justice and equity), aiming for sustained efforts to produce tangible outcomes beneficial to underserved groups. For institutions that house citizen science, attention to diverse representation in project leadership can assist in fostering accessibility, as will addressing structural barriers, such as economics (for example, costs of transportation and gear). Inclusion can be advanced by making a clear, honest linkage between project outcomes and the lives, livelihoods, values, and cultures of the participants. Prioritizing research funding to address the needs and interests of those historically and currently underserved by science will be a major step in providing the foundation for inclusive citizen science.

But the effective broad approach, beyond attracting minorities by emphasizing diversity and inclusion, is the approach I’ve recommended for years and put in bold above: “a focus on racial and economic disparities in environmental conditions (emphasizing justice and equity), aiming for sustained efforts to produce tangible outcomes beneficial to underserved groups.” In other words, fix society to create the conditions whereby not only the availability of citizen science projects is known, but for which the underserved have opportunities to take advantage of being “citizen scientists”. This seems like nothing less than a major social reform to create equal opportunity, involving reallocation of funding, improvement of schools, whatever cultural changes impede taking advantage of opportunities, and so on.

This will take decades, and we’ve barely started. Yet this is the only way to have true equality in America: to ensure that, from the very moment of birth, all children have equality of opportunity that will enable them to fulfill their potential. I realize that children born in rich families will still have an inherent advantage (homes full of books, private tutoring, etc.), but we can still do a lot—given that society has the will, and people are willing to make both pecuniary and social sacrifice to help those less fortunate.

While the Science article could have made its case in half its length, I applaud the authors for identifying a real problem with renaming, and for suggesting solutions that are more than window-dressing.

h/t: Luana

Why ideology should not be injected into science

June 15, 2021 • 10:45 am

We’re increasingly seeing ideology worming its way into science, with science journals publishing political articles, taking stands on ideology (most often involving race), and condemning scientists of the past whose morals were considered inferior to those we hold today. Some scientific societies have annual meetings that are barely distinguishable from a convention of Progressive Democrats.

I have often criticized this trend, as science journals and meetings are not the place to formally hash out politics, morality, or ideology. There is a chilling effect on speech and on publication when journals or scientific societies consistently take one political line over others. On the other hand, scientists are free to speak about these issues on their own time, and in other venues.

The other day I highlighted (I believe in the Hili Dialogue) a piece by Anna Krylov in The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters (click on screenshot below for a free read, or download the pdf here). Having reread it after reader John sent me the link, I think it’s worth a standalone post. The author, Anna Krylov, is a quantum chemist who’s the Gabilan Distinguished Professor in Science and Engineering and a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Southern California.

Krylov’s thesis, with which I agree, is that the “woke” politicization of science diverts us from what we should be doing as scientists: doing science. Further, she argues that changing names of theorems (like “Newton’s laws”) or canceling scientists whose morality doesn’t comport with ours accomplishes nothing, for it’s performative “Social Justice” instead of real social justice.  Finally, she arrives at these conclusions partly because (though she’s only 52), she lived through a period of Soviet science which saw similar cancellations, name changes, and even erasure of whole branches of science (e.g., the theory of resonating structures, for which Pauling won the Nobel prize).

Krylov:

 Just as in Soviet times, the  [Western] censorship is being justified by the greater good. Whereas in 1950, the greater good was advancing the World Revolution (in the USSR; in the USA the greater good meant fighting Communism), in 2021 the greater good is “Social Justice” (the capitalization is important: “Social Justice” is a specific ideology, with goals that have little in common with what lower-case “social justice” means in plain English).(10−12) As in the USSR, the censorship is enthusiastically imposed also from the bottom, by members of the scientific community, whose motives vary from naive idealism to cynical power-grabbing.

The result, says Krylov, is that “today Russia is hopelessly behind the West, in both technology and quality of life.”  Some of this is due to phenomena that we don’t see in the U.S., like the canceling of entire fields (Mendelian genetics in Russia was felled by the axe of Lysenko.) But we still see instances of ideology impeding actual research, like the conflict between paleoanthropology and some Indigenous American myths, or the taboo on investigating differences between sexes or ethnic groups.

Click to read:

Among the instances of cancellation mentioned by Krylov are principles named after Archimedes, Newton, Schrödinger, Curie, Fritz Haber, Linus Pauling, Ronald Fisher, and so on. Here are a few more examples:

Today’s censorship does not stop at purging the scientific vocabulary of the names of scientists who “crossed the line” or fail the ideological litmus tests of the Elect.(11) In some schools,(33,34) physics classes no longer teach “Newton’s Laws”, but “the three fundamental laws of physics”. Why was Newton canceled? Because he was white, and the new ideology(10,12,15) calls for “decentering whiteness” and “decolonizing” the curriculum. A comment in Nature(35) calls for replacing the accepted technical term “quantum supremacy” by “quantum advantage”. The authors regard the English word “supremacy” as “violent” and equate its usage with promoting racism and colonialism. They also warn us about “damage” inflicted by using such terms as “conquest”. I assume “divide-and-conquer” will have to go too. Remarkably, this Soviet-style ghost-chasing gains traction.

With the danger of erasing their names comes the danger of erasing their scientific legacy. Who wants to read about Ronald Fisher after he’s been demonized as a eugenicist? While, argues Krylov, there’s a place for discussions of the character of scientists in history of science courses, according to her we “should evaluate, reward, and acknowledge scientific contributions strictly on the basis of their intellectual merit and not on the basis of personal traits of scientists or a current political agenda.” And if those scientific contributions greatly outweigh the bad a scientist has alleged to have done, it is okay to honor those contributions with windows, statues, and other honorifics.

I’ll give just one long quote from Krylov’s article, but I recommend that you download the whole piece and give it to those trying to purge science of both words and of “impure” but famous scientists.

Fast forward to 2021—another century. The Cold War is a distant memory and the country shown on my birth certificate and school and university diplomas, the USSR, is no longer on the map. But I find myself experiencing its legacy some thousands of miles to the west, as if I am living in an Orwellian twilight zone. I witness ever-increasing attempts to subject science and education to ideological control and censorship. Just as in Soviet times, the censorship is being justified by the greater good. Whereas in 1950, the greater good was advancing the World Revolution (in the USSR; in the USA the greater good meant fighting Communism), in 2021 the greater good is “Social Justice” (the capitalization is important: “Social Justice” is a specific ideology, with goals that have little in common with what lower-case “social justice” means in plain English).(10−12) As in the USSR, the censorship is enthusiastically imposed also from the bottom, by members of the scientific community, whose motives vary from naive idealism to cynical power-grabbing.

Just as during the time of the Great Terror,(5,13) dangerous conspiracies and plots against the World Revolution were seen everywhere, from illustrations in children’s books to hairstyles and fashions; today we are told that racism, patriarchy, misogyny, and other reprehensible ideas are encoded in scientific terms, names of equations, and in plain English words. We are told that in order to build a better world and to address societal inequalities, we need to purge our literature of the names of people whose personal records are not up to the high standards of the self-anointed bearers of the new truth, the Elect.(11) We are told that we need to rewrite our syllabi and change the way we teach and speak.(14,15)

As an example of political censorship and cancel culture, consider a recent viewpoint(16) discussing the centuries-old tradition of attaching names to scientific concepts and discoveries (Archimede’s [sic] Principle, Newton’s Laws of Motion, Schrödinger equation, Curie Law, etc.). The authors call for vigilance in naming discoveries and assert that “basing the name with inclusive priorities may provide a path to a richer, deeper, and more robust understanding of the science and its advancement.” Really? On what empirical grounds is this based? History teaches us the opposite: the outcomes of the merit-based science of liberal, pluralistic societies are vastly superior to those of the ideologically controlled science of the USSR and other totalitarian regimes.(17) The authors call for removing the names of people who “crossed the line” of moral or ethical standards. Examples(16) include Fritz Haber, Peter Debye, and William Shockley, but the list could have been easily extended to include Stark (defended expulsion of Jews from German institutions),(18) Heisenberg (led Germany’s nuclear weapons program),(19) and Schrödinger (had romantic relationships with under-age girls).(19) Indeed, learned societies are now devoting considerable effort to such renaming campaigns—among the most-recent cancellations is the renaming of the Fisher Prize by the Evolution Society, despite well-argued opposition by 10 past presidents and vice-presidents of the society.(20)

I’ve added her link to reference (20) out of self aggrandizement, as it’s to a post on this site about a letter some of us wrote about Fisher to the Society for the Study of Evolution.

Clearly, the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters is braver than many other scientific journals, for I can’t imagine a piece like this being published in Science, Nature, New Scientist, or Scientific American.

Anna Krylov

Krauss on the universality of science

June 3, 2021 • 9:00 am

Although I’ve severed any personal communication with Lawrence Krauss, I don’t think that someone who did bad stuff should have their ideas or writings completely ignored forever. Ergo, I present this short piece by Krauss that was just published in Quillette (click on screenshot). It emphasizes the universality of science.

By “universal values,” Krauss could mean several things. First, the development of empirical investigation, though it reached full flowering in the West, occurred throughout the world, including China and Arabia, though progress slowed considerably in the latter two places.

Second, what one discovers in science is pretty much independent of your sex, race, or ethnicity.  Now there may be a few exceptions to this dictum. I’ve always thought that progress in understanding sexual selection in evolutionary biology was promoted by female researchers, who emphasized the role of female choice in this subset of natural selection.  But I have to add that Darwin himself, who originated the theory of sexual selection, also emphasized female choice in animals (in his case, preference for male “beauty”). Further, progress in understanding and modeling female choice has been made by many men as well. And that’s about the only perspective where I think a “diverse” panoply of investigators has led to scientific progress based on “viewpoint diversity”. Of course we want diversity in science because to get the best minds, ergo the fullest understanding of the universe, we have to cast our net widely, looking for talented investigators from many places, and of all genders and races.

But that in itself is not a reason to promote diversity in science. Rather, it’s a reason to look for talent everywhere and ensure that everybody has an equal chance to study science from the outset. (The latter, of course, is not the case.)  For, with the possible exception of “female-centric” views of sexual selection, I don’t think there are ways of studying the world that are specific to particular genders or ethnicities. While it’s true that indigenous peoples have hit on folk remedies that have proven useful to the world (aspirin and quinine come to mind), this is really the result of empirical investigation (what plants work to help people?), and has to be confirmed with double-blind studies unique to modern science. If scientists have suppressed indigenous knowledge or the aspirations of minorities because of bigotry, that is not inherent in science itself but is the fault of flawed human beings.

Finally, as emphasized by Krauss and a gazillion other people, truth is truth, wherever it comes from. Just as there are no group-specific “ways of knowing” different from science’s empirical toolkit, there is no “truth” about the universe that is specific to a given group. That last trope, of course, is a staple of postmodernism, which sees scientific truth as the simple outcome of which investigators in science have power.

Krauss emphasizes this by describing a physics seminar scheduled at the University of Oregon and promoted by the Divisional Dean of Social Sciences. The seminar was mysteriously canceled, but here’s the original announcement reproduced by Krauss:

Title: Scientists vs. Science: Race, Gender, and Anti-Intellectualism in Science

Abstract: Black thought can help us free science from the white supremacist traditions of scientists. Scientists vs. Science will use Black feminist and anti-colonialist analyses to show that white supremacy is a total epistemic system that affects even our most “objective” areas of knowledge production. The talk hinges on the development of the concept of white empiricism, which I introduced to give a name to the way that anti-intellectual white supremacy plays a role in physicists’ analysis of when empirical data is important and what counts as empirical data. This white empiricism shapes both Black women’s (and other) experiences in physics and the actual knowledge produced about physics. Until this is understood and addressed directly, systems of domination will continue to play a major role in the practice of physics.

This is nonsense, of course, with the worst part being the notion that the “objectivity” of science is merely a reflection of white supremacy, even in areas like physics (the seminar was, of course, by a physicist, whose name isn’t given). This physicist did one other questionable thing:

I happened to attend another online talk by this individual, in this case a physics seminar. Each slide shown also included a reference to a different racist incident that had happened in the US. Speaking to other colleagues after the seminar, I wasn’t the only one who questioned the appropriateness of this political commentary from beginning to end in a seminar on dark matter, as would I would have equally squirmed had each slide quoted a different lie uttered by Donald Trump when he was President. Yet none of us spoke up at the time to raise any concerns.

In general I object to this fusion of science and politics, whether it be in the classroom or the seminar room. The way I feel about that is expressed at 2:35 in this monologue by Ricky Gervais when he hosted the Golden Globe awards last year.

And this leads to Krauss’s conclusion, somewhat anodyne, that “we need to be more vocal up front in our critical assessment of nonsense emerging in academic science settings.” Well of course! But the seminar above shows how deeply and how well the termites have dined on the edifice of science, and there’s considerable opprobrium attached to even criticizing woke nonsense like that above.  But nevertheless, we will persist.

The end of my conversation with Adam Gopnik about “ways of knowing”

May 14, 2021 • 9:15 am

Adam Gopnik and I have now finished our written “conversation” at the link below (click on the screenshot). He has produced letter #8 in partial response to my letter #7, so we’ve each had four chances to say our piece.  Since the conversation is now finished, I’ll make a few brief remarks, particularly with respect to our last two letters (#7 and #8).

This is a recurrent debate, one intensified by the rise of postmodernism which claims (along with religion) that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond the methods used by science (empirical exploration, testing, falsification/verification, etc.) Adam adheres to neither religion or po-mo, so he’s not on those sides. Rather, he sees art (literature, music, and painting, including abstract painting) as a “way of knowing.” I defined “knowledge” at the outset as “justified true belief.”

I’ve discussed individual letters before, so will just mention what’s in the last two letters.

I’ll take up three issues. The first is Adam’s insistence that I admit that Darwin’s theory of heredity was wrong (I gladly admitted that), but yet the whole theory wasn’t discarded, as a Popperian might have done. I noted that Darwin’s theory, which has several parts, doesn’t depend on the accuracy of a particular theory of heredity: only that there is genetic variation for traits and some variants leave more copies of their genes than others. In truth, I’m not sure what this was all about unless it’s to make me admit that scientists don’t conform strictly to Popperian falsification. But we’ve known that for decades.

Adam also leveled several “challenges” to me that he accused me of not answering.

Meanwhile, we have evolutionary psychology and epigenesis: I know from reading that you take a soft view on one, and a hard view on the other, but there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think   epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.

(I also note that you evade my challenge on the status of  epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, which experts like yourself, with ‘voting rights’ , find equally vapid or vital, underlining my point that the settled truths of science you cite are the very tip of the iceberg of argument.)

I didn’t really have time to deal with both epigenetics and evolutionary psychology, as those weren’t part of our argument; but I took time to answer the evolutionary psychology “challenge”. My words:

The other challenges I’m accused of evading involve two current debates in biology, the value of epigenetics and of evolutionary psychology. Yet this was not evasion, but rather my realization that full answers would require long essays on issues largely irrelevant to our exchange. But I’ll make room to deal with evolutionary psychology.

You note that “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud”. Well yes, there are biologists who think that, but I don’t know any good ones who do. No thoughtful biologist would argue that while our bodies are products of a long evolutionary history, and still show traces of that history, our brains (which after all are also made of cells) show none. While it’s not easy to study the evolutionary roots of human behavior and mentation, evolutionary psychology has shed substantial light on human sexual behavior (why do the two sexes look for different traits in a potential mate?), parental behavior (why do we favor kin over non-kin?) and differences in behavior between men and women (why is it males who typically engage in competitive risk-taking?). These are scientific hypotheses that have been supported by observations and experiments. To dismiss this whole endeavor as “fraud” is to be both incurious and ignorant. Certainly a lot of work in the field has been overly speculative. But opposition to evolutionary psychology as a whole comes not from some shoddy work in that field, but from a “blank slate” ideology that objects to any claim that human behavior could reflect our genetic and evolutionary past.

I still maintain that biologists who dismiss the entire field of evolutionary psychology as worthless are not doing so for good biological reasons, but for ideological ones. Adam then hit me with what he thought was a zinger:

So, in discussing evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that you are offering an excellent instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, when you say that no good biologist can doubt the relevance of evolutionary psychology. If Richard Leowontin [sic] and Stephen Jay Gould were not good biologists, then none exists – but they both were largely hostile to evolutionary psychology.  I don’t endorse their view—though obviously evolutionary psychology becomes perilously silly perilously soon, in the unskilled hands of someone like Robert Wright – but there’s no gainsaying the debate is taking place among equally ‘good’ scientists.

Well, it’s not exactly a “No True Scotsman” fallacy, though I’d rephrase my assertion this way: “I think anyone who dismisses the entire field of evolutionary psychology (of humans), a field that has progressed substantially since Lewontin and Gould (read Pinker’s The Blank Slate), is doing so for ideological rather than biological reasons, and in that sense is not acting as a good scientist.”

I still believe this of Gould and Lewontin, though of course both made considerable contributions in other areas of biology. But in the battle over the simple validity of evo-psych as a field of endeavor, I think Lewontin and Gould lost the war to Wilson, Trivers, Buss, and their colleagues.

I note, though, that Adam completely ignored my challenges to him! To wit:

But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.”  And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet?  If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.

Not a peep from Adam!

Finally, Adam, in defending Mozart against Bach, not only conflated “knowledge” with “understanding,” but, more important, conflated “knowledge” with “values”. Values are subjective, while knowledge, in principle always tentative, is not a matter of opinion refractory to being settled by observing nature. Here’s Gopnik’s discussion of Mozart vs. Bach:

So let me move back to the other, though related, issue I raised, that about the ‘content ‘of the arts: the point is that all arguments about aesthetics end up being arguments not about ‘sense impressions or ‘taste’ in the shrugging sense of whether or not I like it. They are arguments about values, judged by the evidence marshalled.   There’s a terrific video that everyone ought to watch that helps refine this point. In it, Glen Gould assaults Mozart – or at least the later Mozart – as a mediocre composer.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pR74rorRxsThis  – to me, shocking—claim is not one that Gould simply offers as ‘my feeling’ or ‘how it seems to me.” No, on the contrary he argues from evidence: he shows as a master musician what we mere listeners might now ‘hear’ – how mechanical and predictable Mozart’s sequence of development is in his piano concerti, running predictably round the ‘circle of fifths’.  Unlike a master, Bach, Mozart’s architecture is shoddy even if his ornamentation is flashy.

Now, as a Mozartean I was shocked and amused by this – but also arrested by it. I couldn’t dismiss it.  It forced me to argue back, not by saying “Well, I don’t care. I like it’ but by reference to other values that Mozart’s music possess. Melody, after all, is not ornament but substance of another kind– if Mozart is less intellectually architectural than Bach, it is in part because the beautiful flow of melody in his work would be defaced by too clever a development.  When we hear a great melody – say the theme from the slow movement in the 27th piano concerto in the heartbreak key of B flat – we want to …hear it again.

Note that “other values”, like a beautiful melody, are dragged in to save the thesis that Mozart is at least as good as Bach! But Gopnik seems to think that everyone will agree what constitutes a “beautiful melody”, or that everyone will rank melodies in the same order.

Gopnik continues:

Now, every listener might have their own place on this spectrum; but it is not a spectrum of’ opinion’ or ‘impression’ in the sense that all views about the issue are equally valid.  Someone who just shrugs and says, “Well, I prefer Black Sabbath” may have a right to existence – I doubt it; but okay [JAC: LOL! Here we agree!] – but no right to a place at this table.  We marshal arguments on behalf of Mozart, and the arguments, though they may start as arguments about formal structure, always end as arguments about values. Bach, we may say, may be a greater musical architect, but architecture is not the whole of art. Rococo ornament has a place in our system of values. And such arguments have within them other, still deeper arguments about human existence: As I pointed out at length in a recent essay about Helen Frankenthaler, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/12/helen-frankenthaler-and-the-messy-art-of-life deprecating ornament is a familiar way of deprecating the merely feminine’ aspects of life; standing up for mere decorative is a way of affirming aspects of life wrongly relegated to the rear.

Now, these aesthetic arguments are not as neatly resolved, and they are, in their nature, looser and less obviously progressive than the arguments of science.  But they are not without standards of progress too: no one with a feeling or understanding of art, for instance, would any longer argue for a neat hierarchy of values in which, say, illusionistic Greek art   stands unquestioned at the top and ‘primitive’ or African sculpture stands dismissed at the bottom.  We have learned too much, from modern art and anthropology alike, to subscribe to so facile a grouping: the artists of Benin will always hold a place now alongside the masters of Athens. (Those who wish to exploit the masters of Benin to deprecate those of Athens have no sympathy from me.)   You may not want to call this ‘knowledge’ in the sense that understanding the structure of DNA is knowledge, but it is certainly an advance in understanding, one as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides.

And yet, after hearing, and after having been convinced that Mozart’s music is more mechanical than that of Bach, Gopnik still insists that Mozart has a “beautiful flow of melody”. So who is the better musician: Mozart or Bach? Gopnik doesn’t tell us, but somehow seems to construe this discussion on the same plane as one about whether DNA is a double or a triple helix. Saying that the artists of Benin are not inferior to those of Greece is not an objective view that can be justified by empirical reference (unless you define “artistic quality” in advance and everyone agrees on those tenets), but a subjective view that some will agree with, and others not.

Given that aesthetic standards inevitably differ among people, this is not in any sense a question equivalent to a dispute about how nature works. You may say that whether Benin vs. Greek art is a dispute “as important and significant as the advances in understanding that science provides”. (But although I’m a big art fan, I’d take issue with that, for presumably Gopnik gets his kids vaccinated, and would consider the debate between antibiotics and shamanism as more important than the debate about whether Benin art is better than Greek).

I’d say that the entire dispute between Adam and me is encapsulated in his paragraphs quoted above. He regards a subjective assessment of relative value as “knowledge”, and I don’t.  This is why he says that art confers knowledge. What he means is that it confers value, and some art confers more value (to him!) than others. I’d add that yes, that’s true, but that value depends on the observer.

A prescient friend of mind, reading this exchange, wrote me this:

One word that Gopnik uses in passing—“understanding”—might have led to some terrain of agreement. Gopnik wants to assimilate “understanding” to “knowledge.” Perhaps you could have gotten him to see that these are different things. Understanding is a mental state that’s plausibly attuned to some facts; those facts are knowledge. Obviously, we’re all in favor of both. But if someone doesn’t realize the difference, he’s apt to fantasize that works of art yield immediate “truth.”

Anyway, the discussion is over, and I’m not convinced that art, music, or literature conveys knowledge, especially in light of Adam’s having avoided my very clear challenges above. Or perhaps he thinks that Pollock and Kandinsky confer “value”, which they do, but also believes that value is identical to scientific knowledge.

Clearly no agreement is possible here, but, as Adam notes in his ending,

Art is not optional.  It is mandatory for anyone claiming to want to understand the way the world wags and how we wag it.  On that thought, and with the promise of a good dinner someday in Paris, I send my final brotherly salutations.

I will agree with all of that, and particularly of the value of a good dinner in Paris!

New letter from Adam Gopnik in our “ways of knowing” exchange

April 1, 2021 • 10:00 am

Adam Gopnik has written his third letter (the sixth between us) in our continuing exchange on the topic shown below (click on screenshot to see all the letters, but then scroll down on the site to “Letter 6” to see Adam’s latest.

You may want to read my last letter (Letter 5) in conjunction with his latest one.

Adam defends his views on Darwin and argues that he’s not, as I suggested, projecting his own views onto writers like Dickens and Trollope. (I didn’t argue that; I said he picked from the smorgasbord of literature just those views that he found congenial to his own, and labeled those as “knowledge”). He then begins what will be an interesting discussion: do music and abstract painting give us “knowledge”? His view is “yes, they do.” I doubt I’ll agree!

I’ll respond after I get back to Chicago, and that will be my last contribution. Adam, in his fourth letter, will get the final say.

Some may feel that this is a futile exchange and the issue can never be settled, and of course I didn’t expect a lot of agreement. But my own view is that there has to be a place where the arguments about “ways of knowing” are collected, and I hope this is one such place.

A brain dump from Richard Dawkins

March 12, 2021 • 11:30 am

UPDATE: My friend Andrew says that this book, by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, was pretty good (click on screenshot to buy):

I’m pretty puzzled by this short Spectator piece by Richard Dawkins, as the pudding has no theme.

Click on the screenshot to read it:

A summary of the contents:

a.) A claim that science is not a social construct, though of course it is in an important sense: The profession of science was constructed by humans, and its “rules,” such as they are, were also formulated by humans, though this was through trial-and-error rather than an a priori Diktat. Even Richard corrects himself here:

Science is not a patriarchal instrument of colonial oppression. Nor is it a social construct. It’s simply true. Or at least truth is real and science is the best way we have of finding it. ‘Alternative ways of knowing’ may be consoling, they may be sincere, they may be quaint, they may have a poetic or mythic beauty, but the one thing they are not is true.

The second and third sentences contradict each other. Science cannot be “true”, just like plumbing or dentistry can’t be “true.” What is considered “true” is what science finds out using empirical methods, and those truths are provisional (though some are nearly certain).  I do appreciate, though, that there are no other credible ways of knowing, for I’m arguing with Adam Gopnik at the moment (he thinks there are).

b.) Richard is baffled by Wokeness.

Strangely, when I have expressed hostility to woke nonsense, a significant reaction from American readers has been: ‘Well, people like you brought it on yourselves.’ Mystified, I dug deeper. Apparently the permissible spectrum of opinion is so all-or-none, so left-or-right, so yes-or-no that you can’t oppose both Trump and the loony left simultaneously. I’m now nursing an urgent worry: President Joe Biden needs to go out of his way to distance himself from this mental virus or he’ll play into the hands of the Trumpers in the 2022 and 2024 elections.

I agree with the last sentence. Biden has done some great stuff, and will do more, but he’s going to make some missteps in the direction of Wokeville. That doesn’t detract for a second from the vast improvement we have in him over Trump, but I anticipate that I’ll have to kvetch about some of his policies in the near future. Right now, though, I’m immensely pleased with our new administration.

Richard also gives a mixed review to Pluckrose and Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories, liking it in general but also finding it “obscurantist.”

c.) Richard has some new books coming out, including a novel. 

This week I find myself in the unusual position of putting to bed two new books at the same time, plus the audio reading of an earlier book, Unweaving the Rainbow. Of the new books, Flights of Fancy is about how animals and humans defy gravity and get off the ground. The second, Books Do Furnish a Life, is a collection of book reviews, forewords, afterwords, book-related writings in general. Some editorial voices were raised against the Powellian title, on the grounds that it sounds retrospective. Fair point, but if you can’t be retrospective when you’re rising 80, when can you?

Happily, there’s no rule against being prospective at the same time. Accordingly I’ve just started work on my first novel. Provisionally called The Genetic Book of the Dead, its scientist heroine reconstructs the genome of australopithecines. Will she actually bring a new Lucy to life after three million years? The bulk of the novel, of course, will explore the social, political, ethical, theological etc implications of such a resurrection.

Ummm. . . novels differ from popular science, and I’m worried that this one will be overly didactic. What made me even more worried was Richard’s statement after it: “This fiction business, it’s harder than I thought. How do you write convincing dialogue?”  That is something that one can improve at, but my view is that you’re either a born novelist or you’re not one. In fact, I know of no good fiction by scientists, though I’m told that J. B. S. Haldane wrote a good sci fi book.

At any rate, I’ve never seen Richard write an essay that didn’t have a theme that was coherent and eloquently espoused. In contrast, thie piece seems like a collection of random thoughts. But Flights of Fancy is the book I most look forward to, though the essay collection should also be good.