Mumbo jumbo

by Chris Bertram on February 7, 2004

Today’s Guardian has a review of Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions. There are also extracts here and here . Crystals, astrology, rebirthing etc all get explored, as well as management guruism. Philosophers and civil servants both have reason to enjoy Wheen’s acccount of Edward de Bono (from the 2nd extract):

In the autumn of 1998 more than 200 officials from the Department of Education were treated to a lecture from De Bono on his “Six Thinking Hats system” of decision-making. The idea, he explained, was that civil servants should put on a red hat when they wanted to talk about hunches and instincts, a yellow hat if they were listing the advantages of a project, a black hat while playing devil’s advocate, and so on. “Without wishing to boast,” he added, “this is the first new way of thinking to be developed for 2,400 years since the days of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.” So far as can be discovered, the education department has yet to order those coloured hats, but no doubt it benefited from his other creative insights: “You can’t dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper”; “With a problem, you look for a solution”; “A bird is different from an aeroplane, although both fly through the air.”

{ 70 comments }

1

Keith M Ellis 02.07.04 at 9:39 am

From the review:

Wheen’s thesis is simply stated. Reason is on the retreat. The values of the Enlightenment – “an insistence on intellectual autonomy, a rejection of tradition and authority as the infallible sources of truth, a loathing for bigotry and persecution, a commitment to free inquiry, a belief that (in Francis Bacon’s words) knowledge is indeed power” – are daily being betrayed. And, armed with a sizzling pen, a filing cabinet as big as the Albert Hall, and a banner bearing the legend “scepticism and sobriety”, the crusading Wheen has come to open our eyes to the dangers of that betrayal.

I’m not sure I accept this premise. Reason always has had, at best, a tenuous grasp on the public imagination. Radical doubt is very un–fun. People as individuals are no smarter or rational today than they were 10,000 years ago; the repositories for these developments are cultures, not brains. The values, institutions, and social networks of the “enlightenment virtues” of a 150 years ago were rarified, elitist. Today, they have been swallowed whole and transformed by popular culture. An intellectual’s experience of the world today is a cacaphony of irrationality because, frankly, there’s a bazillion of us, we have to live in the real world because there’s no rooms left in the ivory tower and, anyway, they get cable up there, too.

But people are always making this argument. It’s like Amazon.com (Sales Rank #157): The Rise of the Sophists, by Plato.

This just isn’t going to change until there are some fundamental alterations to human intelligence. In this context, it’s fair to say that people are essentially irrational and that this irrationality will continue to be a wellspring of Mumbo-Jumbo.

2

David Sucher 02.07.04 at 11:31 am

Yes there are a lot of fools roaming the world and opining; some even have their own blogs where they pretend to expertise.

But the medium aside aside, was it ever any different? Judging from the calamities and stupidities of the past it appears that the foolishness of our own age has a long pedigree.

Let’s be skeptical of our current roster of weirdos but let’s be skeptical that something brand new is afoot.

3

lazyman 02.07.04 at 3:27 pm

Something brand new may be afoot, but it’s not as much cultural as it is technological [not that the two aren’t intertwined]. With electromagnetic broadcasting, you’ve got a 24 hour “information” (in that raw sense of ‘sequences of bits’) capability on the airwaves, and now there’s this internet thingy, so the people who were always there anyway now have outlets for their views. Essentially, there are more megaphones for the charlatans and weirdos than there used to be, so you’re more likely to come in contact with ’em.

4

David Sucher 02.07.04 at 4:25 pm

Are we more likely today to suffer the megaphones of fools? That is what it boils down to, practically, doesn’t it?

I admit that the digital world makes that a plausible perspective but think of a medieval village, held in thrall to ignoramuses loyal to to one myth or another. Can we possibly suggest that those folks were less immersed in clap-trap than are we? My sense is no. We in 2004 are indeed far more open to antidotes to the poison of anti-reason.

5

Ophelia Benson 02.07.04 at 5:13 pm

Oh, some aspects are new. Most academics used to think reason, logic, science, empiricism, that kind of thing, were good ideas. Now whole disciplines (this is much more the case in the US than the UK, I’m told) rule all of those out in advance. Read some of the comments at Invisible Adjunct if you don’t believe me. Commenter after commenter will say ‘I got out of graduate school in English/archaeology/whatever because once I’d spent a semester being told there was no such thing as knowledge, let alone truth, it’s all just power, I thought well why bother then, and went to law school.’

That’s relatively new.

6

David Sucher 02.07.04 at 5:53 pm

Say it ain’t so, Ophelia.

7

Bob 02.07.04 at 6:42 pm

“People as individuals are no smarter or rational today than they were 10,000 years ago.”

By reports, it seems that some dispute that:

“The results of intelligence tests in different countries show that over the past century average IQ has been increasing at a rate of about 3 points per decade . . ” – from: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/FLYNNEFF.html

8

seth edenbaum 02.07.04 at 6:53 pm

The title makes it seem that there was a time before mumbo jumbo. The author is lying to himself. Isn’t that the definition of delusion, and of “mumbo jumbo?” People make the mistake of identifying themselves with the authority that comes to them only through their participation in a system. Cops tend to think they ‘are’ the law. Scientists imagine themselves as ‘science.’ The essence of fascism is to equation of a self with power. A monarch is the leader within a system, a leader for whom rules apply. A fascist dictator makes the rules himself. Fascism is about power. Monarchy and democracy are about systems. Simple, yes?

“an insistence on intellectual autonomy, a rejection of tradition and authority” led many not only to associate themselves, but to equate themselves with logic, and from that with necessity. This has been the major delusion of modernity. Do I really have to run down the list here? Do I really have to explain what that delusion has meant, for millions?
I’m truly sorry for anyone who is unable to understand or admit their own weakness, I’m truly sorry for those who mock the foolishness of others as a way to avoid admitting their own credulity. Laugh all you want at fools, they’ve been with us forever. But a skeptic is willing to laugh at himself. Do you really think the new popularity of illogic comes from nowhere? Do you not think that the equation of logic with mechanics and mechanization- the mechanization of behavior- has not produced a counterforce? The problem with fiction is that some fools confuse it with reality. But as any connoisseur knows, the good stuff makes even the most intellectual reader a little nervous. That’s the god damn point!
Sorry for rambling but I’m sick of this sht.

9

Abiola Lapite 02.07.04 at 6:53 pm

“By reports, it seems that some dispute that”

I’d argue that what the Flynn effect demonstrates is that IQ testing is more bound up with culture than many would like to acknowledge, rather than that the average European or American a century ago was a moron by comparison with the man on the street today.

10

Ophelia Benson 02.07.04 at 7:17 pm

S.E.,

Fascinating. Rambling is not necessarily a problem, but lack of clarity can be. Which shit are you sick of, exactly?

11

seth e. 02.07.04 at 8:04 pm

People are foolish. None more so than those who endeavor to eliminate foolishness.

GB Shaw. ‘ghoti’=’fish’: gh as in trough, o as in women, ti as in station.
“Wouldn’t it be better if we could neaten everything up a little?”
“What,and drain the color [or is it colour?] out of everything?”

12

Chris Bertram 02.07.04 at 8:06 pm

My guess is that the Flynn effect has something to do with improved nutrition, among other things.

13

Jake McGuire 02.07.04 at 8:15 pm

I suspect chris bertram is right. It’s actually pretty horrifying to read about some of this stuff; like how not eating iodized salt as a child will, on average, reduce your IQ by 15 points. Leaded paint has similar effects.

And naturally, this is more of a problem in poorer countries, which has a very real potential of becoming self-perpetuating.

14

msg 02.07.04 at 9:27 pm

Seth Edenbaum I feel your pain. You are definitely not alone there where you are. Where we are.

In my seemingly endless role as loopy inconsequentialist I would like to stress for what seems the hundredth time this season that there is no consistent biological advantage to “the truth”. That there may be a cumulative advantage, and in some key moments of conflict and crisis; but overall it’s like the poisonous Monarch butterfly and the non-poisonous but identically-marked Viceroy. The Viceroy’s lying but so what?
And the comfort of delusion isn’t all, there’s a fire in the belly the zealot carries into battle. Psychopaths have a leg up as far as doubt goes, sociopaths don’t get bogged down in moral ambiguities. Existential terror and disgust are debilitating, though they may be much closer to what’s really happening than the idea that animal lives are the punishment zone for souls who mess up their human opportunities, or that strict obedience to a particular code of behavior will guarantee eternity in paradise.
This dilemma is played out locally in the arms race, in business, in all kinds of compromised endeavors, where rationalization erodes integrity. The one hopeful thing, that brightens all that for me, a little, is the possibility that the truly long-term may finally matter more than any immediate success, that the universe may be tipped one small degree from neutral, toward the true.

15

Ophelia Benson 02.08.04 at 12:11 am

Hmmmmmmmm.

16

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 12:49 am

Ophelia,

Are you ever not smug and passive/aggressively dismissive of other commenters? I’m just wondering.

Again, there’s always been a nonrational tradition in western intellectualism. I don’t like it, but it’s not new.

And, for that matter, freaking Descartes’ dualism is mumbo-jumbo.

I’ll grant that some individual brains may be more healthy in the same way that average height has increased because of nutrition. But this is a small effect relative to the enormous effect of persistent and increasingly complex culture. People got “smarter” when we developed written language.

17

Matt McG 02.08.04 at 2:00 am

“I’ll grant that some individual brains may be more healthy in the same way that average height has increased because of nutrition.”

On this issue, it’s often pointed out by anthropologists that the nutrituion/disease related dip in height (and presumably also in IQ) is a relatively short term phenomena. Pre-agriculture humans were considerably taller and presumably smarter (if there is a correlation between the combination of absence of animal borne parasites/disease and a richer nutritional base with intelligence as well as body size) than anyone prior to the late 20th century. It’s more like humans are returning to an extant norm (in the statistical rather than ‘teleological’ sense of norm) than we are experiencing an unprecedented increase…

18

Sparta 02.08.04 at 2:02 am

The Flynn effect is most likely due to the fact that you can learn to do IQ tests through practice and more kids are forced to practice. The story about IQ measuring innate ability is crud, I raised my IQ by about 35 points through weekly practice. Everyone else in the class improved their scores, otherwise the school would not have done it. Yes I could join pretty much any high IQ club, but membership of them only proves you are too stupid for words.

IQ is a great example of a modern dellusion. See Stephen Jay Gould. Other examples would include supply side economics, see Krugman.

As for the experts, there are some folk who think that expertise comes from a position. So you make them chair of a technical panel they must be an expert. I am currently dealling with an idiot who thinks because he wrote a ‘Dummies’ book and got made chair of a technical committee he is now the worlds foremost authority.

19

Ophelia Benson 02.08.04 at 2:04 am

Keith M Ellis

You may recall I’ve told you before not to get so personal with me – in fact, not to address me at all. Precisely because of that kind of thing. Allow me to tell you again. Keep your personal remarks to yourself.

I’m not just wondering – and neither are you, of course. You’re not ‘just wondering,’ you’re insulting. I’m not just wondering, I’m telling. I never, ever address you; don’t address me.

20

Abiola Lapite 02.08.04 at 2:06 am

“It’s actually pretty horrifying to read about some of this stuff; like how not eating iodized salt as a child will, on average, reduce your IQ by 15 points. Leaded paint has similar effects.”

I don’t doubt that improvements in healthcare, diet and environment have played a role in the Flynn effect, but I think their role has to have been minor.

The rise in scores has simply been much too great to be explained as an accurate reflection of how the average person’s brainpower has risen in that period. We’re talking about a rise of 30 points (i.e, 2 standard deviations) over 2 generations here, which, if it really were meaningful, would imply that the average European of the early 1940s fitted the clinical definition of retardation; a full third of Europeans then would have had IQs less than 55, with concomittant difficulties communicating and socializing unsupervised. I know that a lot of Europeans were out of their heads in the first half of the 20th century, but to assume that this is an accurate description of what people were like at the time is ridiculous.

People put too much faith in IQ tests when they assume that they are absolute measures of intellectual ability that can be relied upon without regard for time and place. I think we flatter ourselves too much in assuming that most of the rise in raw scores reflects actual improvements in our ability to learn. Mere exposure to TV programs like Sesame street, and video games like Super Mario Bros, with their sequential puzzles and whatnot, probably suffices to account for 85 percent of the rise that has occurred.

21

Ophelia Benson 02.08.04 at 2:12 am

As a matter of fact – Chris, or someone, anyone – would you please tell Keith M Ellis to knock it off? I tried to do it myself via email a few months ago, the last time he pulled this – he had called me a loony, among other things. I told him via email to stop and he simply refused, repeatedly. Kept asserting that he has every right to tell me how to talk, however rudely he wants to. He seems to think he has some kind of expertise in online etiquette, and that I am in dire need of his correction. I’m not.

Time for some moderation. This is the kind of thing that makes online discussion just impossible.

22

msg 02.08.04 at 2:59 am

At the risk of unknowingly committing some online faux pas, uhm, Keith, stop it.
The question I have is Ophelia’s “hmmm…” came after something I wrote. Not that that’s a problem. The etymology of hmmm being general enough and all. But that it was immediately after.
Then Keith.
So is that me there? Being defended obliquely? By personal attack against Ophelia?
Keith you need to not do that.
It would be too time-and-energy-consuming to monitor Crooked Timber’s comments.
Polite discourse, which is what got my attention here in the first place, is paramount. Self-regulating polite discourse. It’s an affection thing, almost. Love of ideas, love of clear language, like that. If there’s an attitude in need of adjusting, doing so from within the bounds of politesse has more zing. And it has the added advantage of being more fun for spectators.

23

setb edenbaum 02.08.04 at 4:41 am

“Hmmmmmm”
What have I done‘?
Yes, IQ has gone up. And sperm count, and cock size, have gone down. Civilization and it’s discontents indeed.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man..”

Nothing dark there, Ophelia? No shadows hanging on the edges of enlightenment?
I could tell you stories.

24

Martin Wisse 02.08.04 at 11:20 am

Being in the process of reading a large chunk of H. L. Mencken’s journalism, I am well aware that illogic, idiocy and superstition was as widespread
80 years ago as it is today. It is somehow comforting that despite the great mass of blithering morons we have still managed to make some progress in the meanwhile.

25

tim 02.08.04 at 2:26 pm

“Scientists imagine themselves as ‘science.’ “

Nonsense. And you know it.

26

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 3:20 pm

Nonsense. And you know it.“—Tim

Is it? Because although I suspect I know what you think, in fact, science is; I also know that there’s quite a bit of discussion and inquiry that make a strong argument that science is closer to what Seth says it is than to what you (I’m guessing) think it is.

For example, Daniel invokes Popper in another thread as a defense of astrology and a critique of climatology. I think he meant it, partly at least, ironically. Nevertheless, I think he should have intended to be completly ironic since there’s lots of reason to think that it’s Karl Popper who’s wrong about the nature of science.

Science is not a body of knowledge, nor is it a methodology. Those things help define it; but it is a community far more than it is anything else. If you’re a working scientist or have spent time around them, you’ll know this to be true.

It’s like the law, really, in this respect. The romanticized view is very different from reality; but the romanticized view serves an important social purpose, within and without.

27

Ophelia Benson 02.08.04 at 3:30 pm

Oh – of course! Now I get it. How silly of me not to have realized. It’s so obvious – Keith M Ellis singles me out for personal attack because he has a bad case of Threatened Guy Syndrome. Duh!

Oh dear, how shaming – TGS, in this day and age. And in a place like this, too. Not impressive.

Glad we got that cleared up.

28

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 3:43 pm

No, actually it’s because I thought you were black and I’m racially threatened.

29

tim 02.08.04 at 4:22 pm

Since it appears that some folks are determined to defend it, here’s the full context:

“Cops tend to think they ‘are’ the law. Scientists imagine themselves as ‘science.’ The essence of fascism is to equation of a self with power.”

In what sense have Einstein, Feynman, Fermi, Bohr, or Pauli – to name a few heavy hitters – thought of themselves as “science.”

Keith explains that science isn’t knowledge or method, “Those things help define it; but it is a community far more than it is anything else. If you’re a working scientist or have spent time around them, you’ll know this to be true.”

This also is ridiculous. There is a community of working scientists. But “science” isn’t that community. The whole endeavor is antithetical to the idea of the “scientist as science.” There is no undue reverence for authorities in the practice of science; the scientists aren’t the ultimate arbiters. Relativity will stand or fall on its own merits, and not Einstein’s merits, just as the aether was discarded despite (for example) Lorentz’s merits.

30

Anthony 02.08.04 at 4:57 pm

Okay, so maybe Relativity *will* stand or fall on its own merits, but so what? How does it really help the non-scientist on the street?

Of what use are complex scientific theories when, say, someone you love has just died? What if believing that there is an aferlife is just more damned comforting than acknowledging that they are six feet under and going through the rational, scientifically recognised process of organic decay?

Yes, science may well be as objective a form of enquiry into the world as we’re likely to get. But is objectivity what we, as human beings, really need? All the time? Perhaps we need a bit of mumbo-jumbo too.

Otherwise, why would so many scientists believe in God?:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/feature/story/0,13026,1034872,00.html

31

tim 02.08.04 at 5:26 pm

A moving target….

Anthony asks (by virtue of the complex scientific theories that have led to our current semiconductor and telecommunications technology): “Of what use are complex scientific theories when, say, someone you love has just died?”

That really puts science in perspective doesn’t it? Of course, while it may not help much if someone you love has just died, it may help a whole lot if they aren’t suffering from polio, haven’t died from small pox, easily overcame an otherwise life-threatening infection by taking antibiotics for a few days, etc.

Really, what *has* science ever done for us?

-Tim

32

TomD 02.08.04 at 5:33 pm

Mumbo-jumbo is fine… as long as the death of the loved ones wasn’t due to substituting crystal healing for modern medicine (“Christian Science” medicine does a roughly similar thing), or accidental asphyxiation during a rebirthing exercise, or the collapse of a building constructed in ignorance of basic engineering principles.

I’m all in favour of entertaining oneself by learning about other people’s folly: it’s been the basis of comedy ever since Aristophanes. It’s also somewhat futile to require a painstaking analysis of one’s own folly before having the right to criticize someone else.

One of the great advantages of other people is that they are much better than you are at seeing your mistakes.

33

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 6:13 pm

This also is ridiculous. There is a community of working scientists. But “science” isn’t that community. The whole endeavor is antithetical to the idea of the “scientist as science.” There is no undue reverence for authorities in the practice of science; the scientists aren’t the ultimate arbiters.“—Tim

I know that’s the romantic view of science, and I know that it quite rightly tries to be this, but it’s not what it is in practice. My education in the history and philosophy of science as well as my experience of knowing, living, and working with scientists demonstrate this.

I love science. I’m an empiricist and a rationalist. I quite often defend science from its critics. But science is not the idealization it is taught as in grade school. Science more than anything else is a community. It’s a special community with very particular and unusual rules of behavior. But it’s foremost a community. The universe does not dictate the truth to the scientist’s brain in the naive way you seem to think. If you don’t understand this, you have no business writing about science. And I only say this as harshly as I do because of your repeated use of strong words like “nonsense” and “ridiculous”.

34

tim 02.08.04 at 6:49 pm

It isn’t my business to write about science, you will be relieved to know. It is only my business to do science.

But the facts are pretty clear – relativity didn’t succeed because of Einstein’s stature. Quantum mechanics was debated fiercely, but it wasn’t the reputations or personalities of the scientists that ensured its success. QED won’t be discarded because the people who champion it fall out of favor. It was his work that made de Broglie matter, and not de Broglie who made his work matter.

There are a handful of competing efforts out there to unify relativity and QM: is it really your assertion that the theory backed by the most prestigious scientists will win the day regardless of whether it works?

Because, of course, if the scientists are science, that’s exactly what we should expect. But it plainly hasn’t been the case, and there’s no evidence to suggest it will be the case. And that’s what makes the assertion nonsense, in spite of your sensibilities.

35

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 7:06 pm

Science in its instutions and practices is conservative, and rightly so. Given enough time, consensus is normalized to empirical results and this can force some radical changes. But those paradigmatic shifts are poor examples of the majority of the activity of science. You are almost certainly not going to present a radical theory which has such a manifest truthhood that it is excepted without regard to your professional stature. Very, very few scientists are Einsteins. Most scientists work within a conservative world where authority matters a great deal, and doing science is more being a part of a community than it is anything like Einstein at the patent office. You couldn’t possibly be successfully functioning as a working scientist if you didn’t know that as a practical matter this is the case. Which is perhaps why you should continue to do what you do and not attempt to write about what you do.

36

Keith M Ellis 02.08.04 at 7:15 pm

That was perhaps a little too harsh. I am sympathetic to your view of the activity of science and I understand your heartfelt allegience to it. But as with a lover, one must eventually come to love on the basis of who the person really is and not on the basis of their idealization. I love science for what she is, even if she’s not the idealized goddess I fell in love with as an infatuated child. Indeed, I think I love her even more for what I now truly understand her to be.

37

tim 02.08.04 at 8:00 pm

“Science in its instutions and practices is conservative, and rightly so.”

And therein lies the problem. If one were to imagine that science were nothing more than the institutions that are operated in its name, or the practitioners who claim it for their own, it is certainly possible to confuse the scientist for the science.

But this is no more true than it is true that mathematics is mathematicians and the universities that support them. Or that music is only a community of music makers.

The insistence by Soviet authorities that Lysenkoism was good science – and the enforcement of that by the soviet scientific (and political) institutions – didn’t make Lysenkoism science.

The funding and publication practices of western academic institutions aren’t science, any more than the research priorities of IBM or JPL or Fermilab are. Although all of those things (along with the late and unlamented Soviet policy) have a lot to do with how scientists may behave, or what they do to feed themselves, science isn’t the total collective behavior of scientists. We who practice it, and make our compromises with the prevailing economic and political exigencies, can tell the difference. Just as we can tell the difference between Mozart, Seji Ozawa, the BSO, the audience in Boston’s Symphony Hall, the critics, the writings of the critics, and the Jupiter Symphony.

You didn’t, one can’t help but notice, argue that the unification of QM and Relativity will be determined by the relative prestige of the backers. Or that de Broglie’s fame made his theory. Or take up any of those other positions that would surely result were the scientists science, or were science no more than the hierarchical community of scientists. So you must recognize this, too.

38

robin green 02.09.04 at 1:58 am

Ah, I get it. Yet again, it all comes down to an occluded difference in what different people mean by a word.

“Science”, to people like Tim and myself, is primarily defined by empiricism and a correspondence theory of truth.

“Science”, to people like Keith M Ellis, and what seems like 99% of the people working in “Science Studies”, and “Science and Technology Studies”, above all means a sociological system.

Of course, they then both come up with conclusions which are pretty much correct – but those conclusions are starting from a different definition of Science.

And ironically, we probably all tacitly recognise the existence *and validity* of these two senses of the word science, but all two often we fail to realise when we’re talking at cross-purposes.

Let’s recognise that the differences in our preferred definitions are more like the differences between sociologists and psychologists – a choice of field of study – rather than the differences between an honest person and a sophist.

39

Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 6:03 am

Yes, well, I want to correct this misimpression anyone might have that I’m a relativist (in the philosophical sense). I’m not. Certainly, I believe that a large part of “science” is “empiricism and a correspondence theory of truth”. But if we are going to discuss what “science” is, then we are having either a philosophical or sociological discussion. And in neither context is “science” the quite naive idealization that Tim claims it is.

40

Lawrence Krubner 02.09.04 at 6:54 am

Thomas Kuhn said science is whatever the community made up of practicing scientists says it is:

http://www.emory.edu/EDUCATION/mfp/Kuhn.html

Science can not be defined as an accumulation of knowledge. That definition doesn’t work. The Bible is an accumulation of knowledge, but it isn’t science.

My grad school researcher friends all seem comfortable with Kuhn’s definition of science as a definition that comes closet to describing what they actually do.

This is an old debate. I remember hashing out this issue with friends back around 1991 when it seemed very cool to talk about Kuhn and Popper. Anyone who finds this subject interesting can go read a thousand web pages devoted to the Kuhn/Popper “what is science” question.

41

tim 02.09.04 at 11:57 am

The sociology of people who do science is sociology, it is not science. Perhaps I *am* too naive to blur the distinction and find the two things essentially the same.

“Thomas Kuhn said science is whatever the community made up of practicing scientists says it is”

While there is a certain practical convenience to this definition, it is only convenient if you agree on who the scientists are – and if you define them as the people who do science, you have closed the circle quite nicely. But it is nevertheless true that science is something different from composing music. And if all the scientists were to start composing music, that wouldn’t make music science, whatever Thomas Kuhn may have to say about the matter.

If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have?

Four.

42

Abiola Lapite 02.09.04 at 12:51 pm

“Thomas Kuhn said science is whatever the community made up of practicing scientists says it is”

Thomas Kuhn was full of bunk. Fashionable theorizing to the contrary, Popper was essentially right; the Duhem-Quine “debunking” of his position is based on an overlooking of the fact that when any of the “auxiliary assumptions” of a theory changes, one no longer has the same theory.

I’m sorry, but I have to give the argument to Tim here. I do know the odd thing about how science is done, and while prestige may occasionally allow nonsense to slip by the odd reviewer, in the end theories really do stand and fall on the basis of how well rooted they are in the empirical evidence. Popperian falsificationism is actually a rather decent description of how good science is done.

43

Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 2:18 pm

Popperian falsificationism is actually a rather decent description of how good science is done.“—Abiola

No, it is not. You’re a biologist, no? Okay. Go ten years back and pick an issue of Nature. Use the papers that appear in that issue as a small sample. Now see:

1) How many times those papers are subsequently cited; and,

2) How many of those experimental results have been replicated?

Science relies upon authority; not, as a practical day-to-day matter, falsification.

Yes, over the long term the empirical nature of the enterprise of science has demonstrated its success in describing the universe in its fashion. I happen to think it’s the best description, but YMMV.

But Popper had some neat ideas. Too bad he was wrong.

44

seth edenbaum 02.09.04 at 2:29 pm

Let’s put this another way, since you’re all getting so blogged down here.
Scientists are interested in a metaphysical construct called ‘truth’. When Steven Weinberg defends the supercollider mad other projects that require lots of money, he refers to the search for ‘truth’. What the hell does he mean? He means the search for facts. We MUST strive to learn what we can. Curiosity he might argue is it’s own reward. But his curiosity is aroused by solving problems that are logical and therefore by implication solvable. He wants to KNOW. But not all questions are solvable. Some are recurring. Guilt or innocence is a recurring question. What defines moral responsibility, is a recurring question. And god damn it! people whose curiosity is peaked by questions that are not recurring, that can be solved ONCE AND FOR ALL, have no patience for the rest. Scientists use ‘logic’ to defend all sorts of crap. Eugenics was ‘scientific.’ Mainstream economics is ‘scientific.’ Tell that to someone working the factory floor for 30 years. Efficiency is ‘scientific.’ These are all metaphors based on a certain idea of problem solving. that is esthetically pleasing to scientists. That’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.

Steven Weinberg loves ‘truth.’ It’s nice to have doctors who know what they’re doing, but I have not love for ‘truth.’ I like problems.

I’m becoming convinced that most scientists and technicians are moral idiots.

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se 02.09.04 at 2:31 pm

Fix:
“But his curiosity is aroused by problems that are logical and therefore by implication solvable.”

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Abiola Lapite 02.09.04 at 3:16 pm

“1) How many times those papers are subsequently cited; and,

2) How many of those experimental results have been replicated?

Science relies upon authority; not, as a practical day-to-day matter, falsification.”

How exactly does your claim that “Science relies upon authority” follow from your first two statements? If you think the replication of past results is anything other than routine, or that bold new claims can be advanced merely on the basis of authority, I suggest you tak a look at one or two actual scientific publications. If you bother to read some of the papers in these two journals, or do a search on PubMed, you’ll notice that these sources are chock full of well-articulated, factually backed responses to other claims advanced within them, none of which rely in any way on mere “authority.”

You’re the one who’s wrong, not Popper. That Kuhnian stuff may wash amongst the literati, but it will not serve as a description of how real, living science is done.

“But his curiosity is aroused by problems that are logical and therefore by implication solvable.”

A false statement.

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Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 3:48 pm

If you think the replication of past results is anything other than routine…“—Abiola

I made a claim that is empirically verifiable. I told you how to verify it. I am not the first person to make this claim, it’s pretty well-known. So, I think your duty as an empiricist is clear. Hop to it. Or are you an ideologue?

Replication of results is not routine.

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Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 3:58 pm

‘But his curiosity is aroused by problems that are logical and therefore by implication solvable.—Seth Edenbaum’

A false statement.
“—Abiola

A second invocation of Godel within just a few minutes. You are, in fact, wrong. Seth’s was a true statement.

Seth was using ordinary language, and in ordinary language implication is not deduction. The use of logic implies solvability notwithstanding the undecidability of the Godel statement, because the undecidability of the Godel statement is quite clearly the exception and not the rule. As I say in another thread, Godel Incompleteness is a very special, very specific form of incompleteness. One should be careful not to make more of it than it is.

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tim 02.09.04 at 4:22 pm

‘I made a claim that is empirically verifiable. I told you how to verify it….Hop to it.’

While you are waiting for that, perhaps you could respond to a few of mine that have been languishing. I haven’t seen them yet (although I’ll confess, I took your silence as a response). If science is just the sociology of scientists, then we should expect theories to rise and fall with their proponents. Does that check out empirically? Or do the proponents rise and fall with their theories? De Broglie’s wave theory was a big shakeup: remind me again of his authority and position when he posited it, and how that ensured its acceptance. Take a stand on QED: will it be discredited if the people who champion it turn out to be flawed persons? Explain again how Feynman and Einstein have confused themselves with science. And what, finally, do you think will be responsible for the adoption of a successful theory unifying QM and GR: empirical evidence or supporter prestige?

FWIW, the successful replication of an experiment is rarely a publishable result (though it happens often enough in the world of experimental high energy physics, for reasons peculiar to that field). I hope you aren’t drawing conclusions from that: publishing practices don’t say any more about science than the language of those papers. The shift from latin to modern languages didn’t herald a change what science meant, though it certainly indicated a change in the sociology of scientists.

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Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 4:34 pm

If science is just the sociology of scientists…”—Tim

But that is not what I’ve asserted.

Listen, you and Abiola have an axe to grind. I know what that axe is and I know why you want to grind it. Nine time out of ten I find myself on your side of the fence arguing essentially your position for the same reason you are. I am not a philosophical relativist (in this context). I am not saying that science is unmoored from “truth”.

What I am saying is that you have a damn naive conception about the nature of science that, while normally a felicitous misconception to my sensibilities is, in this case, more and more obnoxious as you use strong words, make strong assertions and basically reveal that you may be competent at science but you are certainly not competent at discussing the philosophy of science.

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Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 4:59 pm

An unintended consequence of your romanticized view of science is that it gives credibility to the crackpots.

Like you, the crackpots see the revolutionaries—the Einsteins, the Newtons, the Darwins—as exemplary of exactly what science is all about. Authority, consensus, the community of science is immaterial, the truth will out. Except they believe that science has been hijacked by the conservatives and the authoritarians and is in the service of lies, not truth (but only temporarily, for surely their genius will inevitably be recognized). You, in contrast, believe that no such hijacking has taken place; indeed, that such authoritarianism as exists embraces truth wherever and whenever it appears.

You’re both full of shit.

We can forgive them, they’re egomanical crazy people. But you should know better.

Another unintended consequence of this blind faith in science’s egalitarian embrace of truth is an overconfidence that conventional scientific wisdom is largely “true”, and the result is an ironic conservatism that is deeply resistant to revolutionary truths as they appear. I happen to think that, in these cases, science is working as it should.

And in this sense, I don’t particularly mind if the average working scientist shares this naive view of science as, on balance, the conservatism it engenders squelches more crackpots than it encourages them. But when said scientists began writing in the public sphere about their naive vision of science, the balance begins to tilt the other way. They encourage by their words the crackpots more than they discourage them by their actions. Furthermore, beyond the legions of crackpots out there are the overwhelming majority of humanity who does not understand what science is but in some way contributes to its existence. These people have views reflected in policiemakers who also don’t understand science but have the power to direct research resources. The result is junk science. Bad science that overcomes the inherent skepticism and conservatism of the scientific community with the arguments “they said man would never fly, either” and “Einstein was working as patent clerk when he developed relativity”.

And here we come back to being fully on-topic. By engaging in the public sphere this naive and false view of the nature of science, you and those like you are inadvertently encouraging the milleu in which pseudoscience thrives.

Stop it.

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Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 5:00 pm

An unintended consequence of your romanticized view of science is that it gives credibility to the crackpots.

Like you, the crackpots see the revolutionaries—the Einsteins, the Newtons, the Darwins—as exemplary of exactly what science is all about. Authority, consensus, the community of science is immaterial, the truth will out. Except they believe that science has been hijacked by the conservatives and the authoritarians and is in the service of lies, not truth (but only temporarily, for surely their genius will inevitably be recognized). You, in contrast, believe that no such hijacking has taken place; indeed, that such authoritarianism as exists embraces truth wherever and whenever it appears.

You’re both full of shit.

We can forgive them, they’re egomanical crazy people. But you should know better.

Another unintended consequence of this blind faith in science’s egalitarian embrace of truth is an overconfidence that conventional scientific wisdom is largely “true”, and the result is an ironic conservatism that is deeply resistant to revolutionary truths as they appear. I happen to think that, in these cases, science is working as it should.

And in this sense, I don’t particularly mind if the average working scientist shares this naive view of science as, on balance, the conservatism it engenders squelches more crackpots than it encourages them. But when said scientists began writing in the public sphere about their naive vision of science, the balance begins to tilt the other way. They encourage by their words the crackpots more than they discourage them by their actions. Furthermore, beyond the legions of crackpots out there are the overwhelming majority of humanity who does not understand what science is but in some way contributes to its existence. These people have views reflected in policiemakers who also don’t understand science but have the power to direct research resources. The result is junk science. Bad science that overcomes the inherent skepticism and conservatism of the scientific community with the arguments “they said man would never fly, either” and “Einstein was working as patent clerk when he developed relativity”.

And here we come back to being fully on-topic. By engaging in the public sphere this naive and false view of the nature of science, you and those like you are inadvertently encouraging the milleu in which pseudoscience thrives.

Stop it.

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Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 5:01 pm

Damn these double posts. I guess I need to adopt the same strategy here as I do on DeLong’s site.

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Abiola Lapite 02.09.04 at 5:45 pm

“Replication of results is not routine.”

Evidence? Don’t ask me to do your homework for you; provide evidence for this claim or hold your tongue.

“A second invocation of Godel within just a few minutes. You are, in fact, wrong. Seth’s was a true statement.”

Here’s a tip for you: I’ve done graduate level study of logic. I think I know this terrain a wee bit better than you do. Seth’s statement is (pardon my french) bullshit.

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Abiola Lapite 02.09.04 at 5:50 pm

“You’re both full of shit.”

And you’re an abusive moron. If you can’t argue your way out of a paperbag, at least have the decency to show some manners.

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tim 02.09.04 at 5:54 pm

Now it is getting ridiculous.

‘An unintended consequence of your romanticized view of science is that it gives credibility to the crackpots.’

The simple truth is that whether or not the crackpots’ perpetual motion machines work has nothing – absolutely, positively nothing – to do with the authoritarian structures of the scientific community. As for other ideas the crackpots may have, I’m willing to let the evidence do the talking there, too. Speaking of which, you were going to provide some evidence for my challenges, weren’t you? QED, de Broglie, etc.? It was going to be something more than ‘You’re both full of shit.’ I hope.

‘You, in contrast, believe that no such hijacking has taken place; indeed, that such authoritarianism as exists embraces truth wherever and whenever it appears.’

No, I, in contrast, believe that such authoritarianism may be part of the sociological structures in which scientists work, but that it is not science; that a musicians union is not music; that the federal agencies sponsoring grants aren’t mathematics; that a tail is not a leg. Naive of me, perhaps.

‘And here we come back to being fully on-topic. By engaging in the public sphere this naive and false view of the nature of science, you and those like you are inadvertently encouraging the milleu in which pseudoscience thrives.’

On the contrary. Pseudo-science thrives when people believe that ‘science relies upon authority’ and not (for example) empirical evidence or falsification; when people believe that science and truth come from having a prestigious endorsement, not from having experimental results. Pseudo-science – like, for example, Lysenkoism, Keith – arises when people accept the authorities instead of evidence. Those people selling pseudo-science are selling it based on authority, on testimonial, on charisma, on claims that it comes from members of the scientific community (preferably in white lab jackets).

If in fact there is a problem with the understanding of science that leads to this undesireable state of affairs, it comes from the people telling us that ‘science relies on authority,’ that science is whatever someone who is a part of the scientific ‘community’ says it is. And I think we know who has asserted these things in this debate.

But I’ve had my say, time to get back to doing science.

You get the last word.

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Abiola Lapite 02.09.04 at 6:05 pm

“Like you, the crackpots see the revolutionaries—the Einsteins, the Newtons, the Darwins—as exemplary of exactly what science is all about. Authority, consensus, the community of science is immaterial, the truth will out. Except they believe that science has been hijacked by the conservatives and the authoritarians and is in the service of lies, not truth (but only temporarily, for surely their genius will inevitably be recognized). You, in contrast, believe that no such hijacking has taken place; indeed, that such authoritarianism as exists embraces truth wherever and whenever it appears.”

A fancy bit of ad hominem wrapped up in mind reading. All there is at the heart of Popperian falsificationism is modus tollens; if there’s something wrong with it, why not say so in plain english? Why all the blather about “authoritarianism” and so on?

It seems clear to me that you don’t really know what you’re talking about. You lecture others about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem even though you probably couldn’t give an accurate outline of Gödel’s proof if your life depended on it, much less tell us what his Compactness Theorem or the Löwenheim-Skolem Theorems imply. You dismiss the evidence of people with real experience of what science is about in favor of a nice long rant about “authoritarianism” and so on. You engage in cheap name-calling and peremptory commands rather than fill in the gigantic gaps pointed out in your “reasoning.” Engaging in further discussion with you looks to be a losing proposition. Ars longa, vita brevis, and I have better things to do.

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Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 7:21 pm

Abiola, I repeat: in common parlance, “implies” does not mean “requires”. You well may know Godel’s proof better than I, but you seem to have difficulty parsing a simple sentence. And we both know Godel’s proof well enough to know that the Godel statement certainly does not imply that in general logical statements are undecidable. It demonstrates only that a certain kind of statement is undecidable. Godel is inappropriate as refuation of Seth’s statement.

But it was nicely authoritarian. Isn’t that ironic?

Evidence? Don’t ask me to do your homework for you; provide evidence for this claim or hold your tongue.”—Abiola

This is not my homework, it’s yours. You’re dismissing Kuhn and countless people who have done work you have not. You claimed that:

Popperian falsificationism is actually a rather decent description of how good science is done.“—Abiola

Unless you want to aver that most actual scientific work isn’t “good science”, then for this statement to be true most scientific results would need to replicated so that their falsifiability is relevant. But most experiments are not replicated because there is a community of trust that allows that if an experiment has all the trappings of a good solid experiment, then replication is assumed possible but unnecessary. Authority and credentialism win the day. This is how the majority of science is done. By necessity, it’s not how revolutionary science is done. But revolutionary science is no more the model for the entire activity of science than is a consitutional convention a model of the entire activity of representational government.

Tim keeps challenging me to demonstrate something I have not asserted. I never once claimed that empirical truth does not play a decisive role in science; I have no need, then, to demonstrate how opinion necessarily must win the day. I never claimed such a thing.

You both are arrogant and propietary about science in the way that a basketball player might be arrogant and propietary about physics. That is to say, improperly. That you practice science no more means you have an aquaintance and facility with the study of science than does living in the physical world make one a physicist. The points I am making are well known and uncontroversial to people that do study science, however, and when you waltz onto this field of study and make loud, obnoxious and contrarian claims:


Thomas Kuhn was full of bunk. Fashionable theorizing to the contrary…I do know the odd thing about how science is done…I suggest you tak a look at one or two actual scientific publications. If you bother to read some of the papers in these two journals

…the onus is on you to back up your assertions with proof. Furthermore, your demeanor is arrogant and rude and fully warrants a “you’re full of shit” from someone who’s lost patience with it.

There is nothing “wrong” with Popperian falsificationism; but as a model for the enterprise of science it is inappropriate.

I have bent over backwards for you and Tim and repeatedly reminded you that I agree with you in the essentials of empiricism and that I am not the least some pomo trotting out a vulgar relativism in an attempt to knock down the “false god of Science”. Here, there, and everwhere else I play your present role as Science’s defender. Yet you insist on responding to me as if I were arguing things I am not, as if they were your strawman version of the pomo argument you clearly have a chip on your shoulder about.

And, Abiola, our exchange about Godel is revealing: you quite inappropriately invoked Godel as an authority to contradict Seth Edenbaum. Whether it was a willful or unwitting misreading of Seth doesn’t matter. When challenged on it you double down and yet again invoke authority. In doing so you are demonstrating mine—and even his!—point.

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seth edenbaum 02.09.04 at 7:23 pm

I think the problem many people have is that they can only imagine one kind of machine. Machines are logical so we must be logical as well. But consciousness is flawed awareness. There’s no reason to argue any metaphysical mumbo jumbo, we make our own. We make mistakes. We act out of misconceptions and fear. Ambiguity makes some of you nervous.

And there’s no comparison between Godel’s theorum and the questions in a courtroom. Am I going to argue that the uncertainty principle means that I can’t rely on data from a hidden camera? Did the camera cause my wife to be in the hotel room with that man? I saw the tape!!
Lets leave Godel out of this. Respond to something else on my bill of particulars.
Remember I’m not talking about science, but about its use as general principle. I’ll leave Kuhn to Ellis. I’ve never read him.

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Keith M Ellis 02.09.04 at 7:45 pm

From another thread:

The Mathematical Experience, Phillip Davis and Reuben Hersh. A nice mix of history, philosophy and the odd bit of actual mathematical insight. Useful for dispelling the notion that maths is the dry stuff taught to engineers and economists.“—Abiola

A book I, too, highly recommend (as well as Innumeracy).

Perhaps you’ve forgotten a central theme of the book: that what mathematicians feel they do is not exactly (or not at all) what they believe they do which may, in turn, be quite different than what they claim they do.

Particularly, Davis and Hersh argue that most mathematicians are secretely Platonists while publicly, and rigorously, presenting themselves as formalists. And this is a very important matter to Davis and Hersh because, to them, understanding the tension between these two dual-minded views is essential to understanding what mathematics is. That is the theme of their book.

Science is this same situation turned on its head. Scientists present themselves as naive realists the way mathematicians present themselves as formalists. But as a practical matter, scientists are consensualist pragmatists, where mathematicians are idealists. In both cases, to really get to the heart of what this means for mathematics and science, you have to understand the whole of this apparent dichotomy and not just a part.

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robin green 02.11.04 at 2:22 am

I’m not sure that there is anything to the distinction between Platonism and formalism, beyond the worshipping of concepts.

Platonism says that mathematical facts “really exist” in some “platonic sphere” which is independent of any real-world contingencies.

Whereas, formalism says that mathematical facts follow as logical – or rule-following – consequences of the formal systems in which they are “embedded”, and that they have no existence _independent_ of those systems.

When stated that way, there is no necessary incompatibility. The Platonic sphere simply _is_ formal mathematics!

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Keith M Ellis 02.11.04 at 8:15 am

Well, Robin, I suggest you read Davis and Hersh’s book. It’s very interesting. It’s been many years since I’ve read it, but I do believe that they argue that there would be practical consequences for a wholly consistent platonist or formalist mathematician.

And this is why I brought it up in this context. A completely culturally relativist science would be something quite different from what it is, as Tim was pointing out. But also so would a pure empirical realist science. The reality is more complex; and, I think, more interesting.

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sennoma 02.12.04 at 9:02 pm

Seth: Scientists imagine themselves as ‘science.’
Tim: Nonsense. And you know it.

That seemed to set the whole pile ablaze. Seth’s painting with too broad a brush, IMO, and in fact there are relatively few scientists who conflate themselves with the larger endeavour. Not to say that we (better get that out of the way: I’m a biologist by trade) don’t have ego problems in the scientific community, but I think all but the most egotistical scientists feel that they are only a part of something larger than themselves.

Keith (to Tim): there’s quite a bit of discussion and inquiry that make a strong argument that science is closer to what Seth says it is than to what you (I’m guessing) think it is

I’d like to argue for a position much closer to Tim than Seth, but perhaps not all that far from Keith if I read him right. But I’ll start by disagreeing pretty strongly with Keith on this: Science is not a body of knowledge, nor is it a methodology. Those things help define it; but it is a community far more than it is anything else.

I think that one of the basic mistakes in sociology of science is to confuse the community with its purpose, and one of the basic mistakes in knee-jerk reaction to sociology of science is to try to insist that the two are entirely separate.

From the dictionary (why yes, I do remember usenet; why d’you ask?):

1 : the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
2 a : a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study <the science of theology> b : something (as a sport or technique) that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge <have it down to a science>
3 a :knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b : such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena : NATURAL SCIENCE
4 : a system or method reconciling practical ends with scientific laws <culinary science>

The word “science” covers quite a bit of ground in common use, so it’s as well to say up front that I want to talk about definition #3, a body of systematic knowledge. That’s not a community, or a methodology, it’s a thing that can be (even if it usually isn’t) examined separately from the way it was produced and the people who produced it. It’s a cultural artefact, and to fully understand it you have to understand the culture that made it; but it stands on its own in relation to any observer from outside that culture. That’s because it’s not just any “knowledge”, it’s essentially a systematized set of observations and models built from those observations. The observations can be, and are, repeated; and the models can be, and are, tested; anything found to be false is discarded. I don’t much care whether you choose a realist version of “false” or equate falsehood with “lacking predictive power about future observations”, and I don’t think academic definitions of what it means to test a model count for squat in the long term. Anything that doesn’t work — that is contradicted by empirical evidence — is removed from the system. But to bend Keith’s way a little, that’s not to say that how and why and how fast things are discarded doesn’t matter. Those questions are important, and sociology of science can have important things to say about them.

On falsification, we find Abiola saying Popperian falsificationism is actually a rather decent description of how good science is done, and Keith replying:

No, it is not. […] Go ten years back and pick an issue of Nature. Use the papers that appear in that issue as a small sample. Now see:

1) How many times those papers are subsequently cited; and,
2) How many of those experimental results have been replicated?

I decided I’d have a go at that, and if you care for the grisly details they can be had here. I only got through two papers, but I found that the essential results in both had been both directly replicated and confirmed in other ways. In one case, a paper with 124 citations, it took about four years — although I didn’t try to find the earliest replication, so it may have been done earlier. In the other case, I got verification in the same year (1993); that paper had been cited 444 times. I don’t think Keith expected that when he wrote Replication of results is not routine, but to be fair, two is a tiny sample and among all those citations there are almost certainly a goodly number of studies which accepted the original finding and built on top of it without replication. I think this is what Keith means when he says Science relies upon authority; not, as a practical day-to-day matter, falsification. It’s what Kuhn called “normal science”: working within a paradigm, because challenging everything in strict Popperian fashion just takes too much damn time. I don’t think it’s “authority”, I think it’s better called “trust”, and I don’t mean trust in whoever made whatever observation one is relying on. I mean trust in the long term working of the empirical method, regardless of (even despite) its cultural context. Anything that comes into conflict with new empirical evidence will be re-evaluated and, if false, discarded. Anything, no matter who proposed it. Keith agrees with me even as he is disagreeing when he says: most experiments are not replicated because there is a community of trust that allows that if an experiment has all the trappings of a good solid experiment, then replication is assumed possible but unnecessary. Authority and credentialism win the day. This is how the majority of science is done. Yes, it’s how most science is done; no, it’s not authority and credentialism. Because of the way new work builds on old, in Kuhnian “normal science” you very rarely get tripped up by assuming replication to be possible but unnecessary: everyone knows that, sooner or later, a dodgy result will be found out and having published it will come back to bite them in the ass, hard.

As between Popper and Kuhn, it seems that the difference between Tim/Abiola and Keith is in which set of factors, empirical or social, is thought to be the most important in determining the fate of any given theory. If you take Popper to be saying “this is how it should be” and Kuhn to be saying “this is how it is in the real world, Karl”, some of the tension disappears. I don’t think science progresses by strict Popperian falsification from theory to better theory, but I do think that, in the long term — and I mean months to years, not decades or, pace Planck, lifetimes — the requirements of Popperian falsification are satisfied by the somewhat more ad hoc way that real scientists go about things. When Kuhn claims that sociological forces play the determining role, I think he is taking too short term a view. In the longer term, he is flat wrong: politics must give way to empiricism, simply because we want stuff to work — improved crops, better sources of energy, cures for disease, and so on. If Popper is unworkably restrictive, Kuhn (and Feyerabend!) go too far. A looser view of Popper’s model seems to me able to account for both the vagaries of real scientists working in a real, social, political context, and for the technological success of the scientific endeavour.

Part of the problem seems to be pomo relativists who want to wave Kuhn as a flag of triumph over truth — sorry, “truth” — and the understandable backlash against them from, well, anyone with half a clue. I note that Keith keeps pointing out that he’s not a pomo relativist, but talking about “authority and credentialism” doesn’t help him to make that case. In particular, I disagree with this:

That you practice science no more means you have an aquaintance and facility with the study of science than does living in the physical world make one a physicist. The points I am making are well known and uncontroversial to people that do study science

That second sentence smells suspicously like an appeal to authority to me, and the first is just plain wrong. As a working scientist, I might not have read Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend et al., or their contemporary inheritors; but I do have some idea as to how real science gets done, and I’m not being proprietary by insisting that my experience is valid and useful in discussions about what science is and how it works.

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Keith M Ellis 02.12.04 at 9:46 pm

Very, very nice and thoughtful comments, Sennoma, and I appreciate them. I think overall you and I are pretty much in agreement. I got stuck arguing the position I did because, yes, Seth made an overstatement but then so did Tim and Abiola in response.

That second sentence smells suspicously like an appeal to authority to me, and the first is just plain wrong.—Sennoma

Well, I respectfully disagree.

My education is deep in the history and philosophy of science, and not in the sense of reading someone’s survey. We read the original works and did a lot of the experiments up to mid-twentieth century science. There’s six semesters of laboratory science and eight of math.

And I was a physics major before I went to SJC.

Anyway, I’m not arguing primarily from a “science studies”/Kuhnian point of view. I am familiar with a fair bit of his and related work; but my opinion on this arises from a combination of my understanding of western science in its progression, and in my experience training in science and being (then and later) among and observing scientists. It’s my opinion that there’s a hell of a lot that scientists don’t know that one would expect them to know; and they are especially naive about the philosophy of science. It’s especially weird to me given that many of them are quite cynical about the daily practice of science; but I don’t think many people can become scientists without being in some sense deeply idealistic about the enterprise of science. It’s my observation that this creates a sort of intellectual blind spot.

Anyway, I think it’s sort of odd that people like yourself who are normally quite skeptical could imagine that practicing science equates to a deep understanding of the enterprise of science. This is rarely the case with anything else—what would be so special about science?

Yes, I understand you’re on the defensive from the attacks of the pomo relativists and that most of them don’t know jack shit about science. But, you know, there are people that do. And they’re not all scientists.

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sennoma 02.12.04 at 10:16 pm

I was a physics major before I went to SJC

What’s SJC? <tongue location=”cheek”>I hate to give in to credentialism</tongue> but now I’m curious as to what you do and how you got qualified to do it. (I work here via a PhD in molecular parasitology and four years in HIV replication.)

there’s a hell of a lot that scientists don’t know that one would expect them to know; and they are especially naive about the philosophy of science

I confess that I’ve long thought it odd to earn a PhD without reading any philosophy. I mean none, nada, not a jot or tittle; there was no philosophy requirement, not even in ethics, in my graduate degree. (I understand that the US system is a bit more rigorous than the Aus one in this regard.)

I don’t think many people can become scientists without being in some sense deeply idealistic about the enterprise of science

That’s very true, but it’s not a common insight in my experience. You have spent a lot of time around scientists. :-)

I think it’s sort of odd that people like yourself who are normally quite skeptical could imagine that practicing science equates to a deep understanding of the enterprise of science. This is rarely the case with anything else—what would be so special about science?

I’m not really following this line of argument; perhaps it’s “experience” vs “deep understanding”. I’m really only arguing for the former, and not trying to dismiss the value of a shifted or outside perspective. But when you say “Authority and credentialism win the day”, and you’re talking about the “community of trust” (your phrase!) method of doing day-to-day science, you’re using terms that I just don’t think are appropriate and that don’t match my experience.

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Keith M Ellis 02.13.04 at 12:38 am

Sorry. I talk about where I went to school a lot since it’s so unusual. I’m almost certainly obnoxious on the subject, actually. That’s why I mentioned it here only in an off-hand way. Kinda backfired, huh?

But when you say ‘Authority and credentialism win the day’, and you’re talking about the ‘community of trust’ (your phrase!) method of doing day-to-day science, you’re using terms that I just don’t think are appropriate and that don’t match my experience.—Sennoma

Well, perhaps it’s a connotation of what I’m saying that you have trouble with. I think I’m just saying that those things are a lot more of the reality of day-to-day science than is commonly supposed.

You really should spend some time on a USENET newsgroup like sci.physics.relativity. You’ll be adopting an credentialist/authoritarian position pretty quick, I bet. I say that jokingly but also half-seriously. This is my point about how the over-romanticized view of science plays into the hands of crackpots.

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Keith M Ellis 02.13.04 at 12:39 am

Whoops. Extra “http:” in that link.

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Keith M Ellis 02.13.04 at 12:48 am

That’s very true, but it’s not a common insight in my experience. You have spent a lot of time around scientists. :-)“—Sennoma

Yep. I have. :) Seriously, no one could work even remotely as hard as a scientist does for so little pay without being motivated by a deep idealism.

Well, okay. One woman I was involved with, an astrophysicist, was one of the most deeply pragmatic people I’ve ever known. She once said that she does what she does because she “gets to play with the big toys”. Which, since I’m pretty idealistic about science, sort of took me aback. (Had I continued in physics I would have gone into cosmology, so I think had a little case of hero worship going on and I was disapointed in her.)

All the scientists I’ve known are amazingly dedicated and hard working people.

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allen claxton 02.14.04 at 12:17 am

Just thinking out loud here.

When Kuhn claims that sociological forces play the determining role, I think he is taking too short term a view. In the longer term, he is flat wrong: politics must give way to empiricism

I don’t know if there is an “in the long run” for Kuhn. I assume that you mean that in the long run, faulty “normal science” gets dropped. But dropped in favor of what? Isn’t it at the moment when it would get dropped (when the paradigm is in danger from contradictory evidence, and it can’t be, or isn’t, ignored) that social factors–the politics–are most important?

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sennoma 02.16.04 at 1:35 am

Keith: I think I’m just saying that those things are a lot more of the reality of day-to-day science than is commonly supposed.

Well, I can live with that. Interestingly, my wife, who is not a scientist, was suprised to hear your point of view and even more suprised by the extent to which I agreed with it. In particular, she imagined replication of individual observations to be rather stricter and more routine than my experience indicates it is. It seems that the lay view of science may be rather different from what I imagined it to be (although I should add that my wife has a deep and abiding interest and autodidactic background in science and is probably not a good example of an “average” view).

Allen: Isn’t it at the moment when it would get dropped (when the paradigm is in danger from contradictory evidence, and it can’t be, or isn’t, ignored) that social factors—the politics—are most important?

I would think so, yes; but my contention is that all the politics can ever do is delay acceptance of the new model, not prevent it: the evidence always wins. Also, I was explicit about the length of time I am talking about: months to years, not decades or lifetimes. Years of delay because of politics might seem — well, it is — miserably inefficient; but even so, the enterprise of science can claim remarkable success, and no other system that I know of has ever come close to matching it. (I should confess here that I have Kuhn’s ideas only at second hand; a copy of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is on its way to me as I write, since this conversation has revived my interest.)

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