Science, and anti-science, in action

by John Quiggin on December 29, 2007

It’s a familiar story. A striking, though minor, scientific finding, is used to illustrate a well-established scientific theory, and becomes the target of those opposed to the theory, and to science in general, for political or religious reasons. Minor errors in and procedural criticisms of the work supporting the finding are conflated into accusations of fraudulent conspiracy that are then used to attack the theory as a whole. Distorted versions of the whole story circulate around the parallel universe of antiscientific thinktanks, blogs and commentators, rapidly being taken as established fact.

This time, the story looks set to have a happy ending. The case of industrial melanism in the peppered moth was long used as a textbook example of evolution (I remember it from high school). Before the Industrial Revolution, the peppered moth was mostly found in a light gray form with little black speckled spots. The light-bodied moths were able to blend in with the light-colored lichens and tree bark, and the less common black moth was more likely to be eaten by birds. As industrial pollution increased, blackening trees, black forms became more prevalent. With more recent declines in pollution, the process is set to be reversed.

But in the late 90s, it turned out that some of the experimental work used to establish the bird predation hypothesis had been unacceptably sloppy, at least by modern standards. Under ferocious attack from creationists, some textbooks stopped mentioning the peppered moth. Claims of fraud proliferated, and the creationists celebrated a famous victory.

Now for the happy ending (which I found via New Scientist (unfortunately paywalled).

Over the last seven years, Michael Majerus has painstakingly rerun the experiments on bird predation of peppered moths, producing results which he describes as a complete vindication of the peppered moth story, and saying “If the rise and fall of the peppered moth is one of the most visually impacting and easily understood examples of Darwinian evolution in action, it should be taught. It provides after all the proof of evolution.”

Of course, this won’t stop the creationists or their tame journalists and politicians. But as the New Scientist says, this kind of episode shows science at its best, and its enemies at their worst.

Update While I’m at it, a nice piece on skepticism and scientific consensus.

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{ 128 comments }

1

Steve LaBonne 12.29.07 at 12:22 am

I’m glad you linked to that post of Orac’s. It’s an instant classic.

2

seth edenbaum 12.29.07 at 2:03 am

“A real skeptic always sides with scientific consensus.”

That’s not true. “always” is much too too strong a word.

3

seth edenbaum 12.29.07 at 2:06 am

ah well, It’s new years and I’m drunk. I misread the post.
It’s a good one.

4

tom s. 12.29.07 at 2:12 am

… and “sides with” may be too strong as well, at least if it means “unreservedly sides with, for sure”.

5

Steve LaBonne 12.29.07 at 2:18 am

As Orac points out, if you actually read the post, the way seth eventually did.

6

bad Jim 12.29.07 at 9:51 am

People with a faith-based outlook have a paper-thin grasp of reality. They suppose that the falsification of any story ever used to support the idea of evolution refutes the whole, because they consider science exactly such a fragile paper-thin supposition maintained by collusion.

Are they projecting? Boy, howdy. Their faith is so tender that some object to the use of “OMG” meaning “golly”, “gosh”, “gee”, and “oh, shit!”

It’s nice to know that moths may actually be doing what we’d expect of them, but I’d rather their larva didn’t chew up my sweaters.

7

Thomas 12.29.07 at 10:34 am

It’s obvious why religious fundamentalists are so anti-evolution and it’s got nothing to do with theology.

The zoo is a more interesting place to go on sunday than church ever was and most monkeys are more worth watching than evangelical preachers.

It’s just negative advertising.

8

Hidari 12.29.07 at 11:11 am

Could someone who knows something about logic and arguing and that, clear something up for me?

I mean the ‘logical fallacy’ of the ‘argument from authority’….isn’t, is it? Or if it is, it seems weird that it’s a logical ‘fallacy’ that everyone seems to go with. Try as I might I just don’t see the fallacy in someone saying ‘Look, I studied physics for ten years, believe me, I know what I’m talking about.’

I think the problem here is that science is in actual fact not about ‘true’ or ‘false’ but is in reality about the balance of probabilities. And, frankly, if an established heart surgeon with a stellar reputation tells me that I need a heart bypass (or whatever) I’m more inclined to believe him than I would some guy who just walked in off the street.

I think Karl Popper pointed this out many years ago. Of course, I suppose it depends how the argument is framed as well.

The other issue alluded to above (i.e. in the piece linked to) is that science simply can’t get started until one establishes on whom the burden of proof lies.

9

Neil 12.29.07 at 11:14 am

Easy, Hidari: there is no such fallacy as the argument from authority. What people mean, when they cite such a fallacy, is (at best) an argument from irrelevant authority.

10

Neil 12.29.07 at 11:30 am

Just read Orac, and I don’t really know what his problem is. Obviously siding with the consensus requires that there be a consensus; it’s no problem for the claim that sometimes there isn’t.

11

Rob 12.29.07 at 11:34 am

People usually mean the argument from political authority, or indeed religious authority.

12

Peter 12.29.07 at 11:51 am

Hidari: An argument from authority is called a logical fallacy by philosophers because it may fail to preserve truth across the inference step. In other words, true premises don’t necessarily lead to true conclusions when the basis for the conclusions is an argument from authority. Just because a person in authority says something is true, does not necessarily make that something true.

But even fallacious modes of reasoning have their uses. The philosopher Charles Willard has argued that modern life is so complex that all of us, most of the time, have to accept arguments from authority. This is because none of us could master all the domains which impact upon our life (science, economics, transport policy, etc, etc, etc), and so we are forced to accept the claims made by authorities in these domains. The important issue is NOT that some claims are asserted by authorities, but rather under what circumstances is it rational to accept such claims. See his paper, “Authority” in the journal Informal Logic, volume 12, pp. 11-22, published in 1990.

Likewise, it can be rational to use and to accept ad hominem arguments — arguments based on attacking (or defending) the person making the claim. For example, legal proceedings considering witness testimony usually examine the credibility of the witness before deciding whether to accept the testimony. To simply discard the use of such arguments tout court is simply irrational, and, moreover, not realistic.

Contemporary argumentation theorists have devoted a great deal of attention to identifying the circumstances under which it is rational to accept (or to make) claims based on the classical (so-called) logical fallacies. I say “so-called” because not all them were fallacies — circular arguments and begging-the-question are not logically fallacious, for example.

13

Neil 12.29.07 at 11:58 am

Peter, you *must* be wrong. If it were true that any argument that “may fail to preserve truth across the inference step” then induction would be fallacious.

14

Neil 12.29.07 at 12:00 pm

Oops, I meant to write “any argument that “may fail to preserve truth across the inference step” is a fallacy”…

15

martin g 12.29.07 at 12:26 pm

Put more simply, the argument from authority is fallacious insofar as it is an argument only from authority, and not from knowledge. Lots of medical experts didn’t feel the need to wash their hands between doing an autopsy and delivering a baby before Semmelweiss. They might have stated that “I am a medical expert, and I do not believe that I should wash my hands between operations.” What they were doing, in this hypothetical case, was arguing that they were right because they were an authority, not because they had specific knowledge about the issue in question. Authority is just a rhetorical currency for exchanging ethos into belief.

It’s easier to think about this if you think in rhetorical terms: separate _ethos_ from _logos_. The funny thing is, referring to a peer-reviewed study is also a way of boosting your ethos.

16

novakant 12.29.07 at 2:16 pm

I don’t think the “argument from authority” is a logical fallacy since there’s nothing illogical about it.

17

Stuart 12.29.07 at 2:23 pm

Neil, I think the difference he is trying to point out is this:

Let us consider a specialist in field A, he is right 99% of the time but a non-specialist would never know which 1% of his statements are not true.

From a philosophical point of view if he says X is true, then it does not infer than X is true because he is wrong sometimes. Therefore believing what he says for that reason alone is a fallacy.

From a practical point of view the non-specialist should still accept what he says if it is uncontroverisal by specialists in the field, unless the subject is so important to the enquirer that they can devote enough time to understand all the implications (which is very rare). This is more true in fields where some sort of scientific process goes on as that allows those specialists to resolve some of those 1% of cases where they are wrong, by challenging each others views where they differ and adopting the correct version over time.

Obviously there is more to it that this.

18

abb1 12.29.07 at 2:26 pm

Seems to me that in logic as a formal discipline both ‘ad hominem’ and ‘from authority’ are fallacies.

What’s practiced in courts and comment threads is a slightly different concept of ‘logic’.

19

Pablo Stafforini 12.29.07 at 2:28 pm

An argument from authority is fallacious only if it is intended to be deductively valid. Such appeals, when meant to carry only evidential weight, may still be flawed if the authority invoked lacks the relevant epistemic credentials. Appeals to the scientific consensus in the context of a scientific dispute are neither flawed nor fallacious. Indeed, deferring to the authority of science is often the only rational course of action for those who are not themselves scientists and want to maximize the chances of believing the truth.

We are often told to “think for ourselves”; but it is often forgotten that others, far more knowledgeable and numerous than us, have also thought the matter for themselves. In such cases, it is eminently more likely that we will believe the truth if we follow the expert consensus than we will if we persist in thinking for ourselves a conclusion that deviates from that consensus.

20

Steve LaBonne 12.29.07 at 2:39 pm

Lots of medical experts didn’t feel the need to wash their hands between doing an autopsy and delivering a baby before Semmelweiss. They might have stated that “I am a medical expert, and I do not believe that I should wash my hands between operations.”

That’s why you have to take some care to determine whether the consensus is really a scientific one (or in the terms Orac used, whether it’s “weak” or “strong”). (This can be especially tricky in medicine where most of the practitioners on the ground have only an instrumental grounding in science but haven’t really been socialized in the values and methods of the research community). This is why Orac emphasizes the importance of looking beyond the brute fact of an existing consensus to the quality of the data and arguments supporting it, and also cites cherrypicking of data as a key indicator of the crank.

21

Neil 12.29.07 at 2:39 pm

Take it from me: there is no such fallacy (and that’s a non-fallacious argument). BTW, in logic as a formal discipline topics like this are just not discussed. This is a topic in informal logic.

22

abb1 12.29.07 at 2:53 pm

Maybe they are not discussed because it’s just plainly obvious that they are fallacies. If one claimed that Fermat’s last theorem is a true statement because Fermat said so, he would’ve become a laughing stock.

And if the expert consensus was indeed such a powerful evidence, we would’ve still lived in a geocentric universe.

23

novakant 12.29.07 at 3:27 pm

No, they aren’t discussed because they can’t be evaluated with the means of formal logic. And no, it is not plainly obvious that they are fallacies, since we use such arguments all the time invoking the authority of the scientific community. And unless you’re an amazingly intelligent polyhistor, your personal evaluation of the scientific consensus is pretty irrelevant.

24

Pablo Stafforini 12.29.07 at 3:52 pm

If one claimed that Fermat’s last theorem is a true statement because Fermat said so, he would’ve become a laughing stock.

Validly appeals to authority in defense of a certain view are not supposed to make true the view defended; they are supposed to provide justification for believing that the view is true. No one to my knowledge has ever said that the scientific consensus is what makes global warming happen; but the fact that there is such a consensus gives us laymen very good reasons to believe that global warming is indeed happening. Reason-givers need not be truth-makers.

25

Pablo Stafforini 12.29.07 at 3:53 pm

‘Validly’ > ‘Valid’

26

abb1 12.29.07 at 4:02 pm

They can’t be evaluated with the means of formal logic (which is irrelevant), but they can in meta-logic. It’s just that “many guy with phds said so” is not a valid deduction.

Sure, the non-experts have no other choice but to trust the experts, but that doesn’t make it ‘logical’. It’s something else.

27

Steve LaBonne 12.29.07 at 4:08 pm

Logic != deductive logic.

28

abb1 12.29.07 at 4:12 pm

Of course it is.

29

Steve LaBonne 12.29.07 at 4:17 pm

Please Google such terms as “probabilistic logic” and “informal logic” and get back to us after you’ve done some reading.

30

abb1 12.29.07 at 4:33 pm

OK, sure, so in this “informal logic” you can make a decent argument based on the scientific consensus, no question about that. Which is exactly what I started from, see #19.

31

abb1 12.29.07 at 4:42 pm

Steve, you are certainly right about the medical science, btw. My mother worked as a gastroenterologist for about 40 years, she was a big expert in stomach ulcer, people used to come from far away to consult with her. And then – poof – one day the whole discipline, that whole science disappeared. Just like that. What gives?

32

Peter 12.29.07 at 4:46 pm

Neil (comment #13): Yes, inductive inference is a logical fallacy. Induction, which is the drawing of a general claim from particular examples, fails to necessarily preserve truth from premises to conclusions across the inference step. (Note that I am not referring here to so-called “mathematical induction”, which is, despite its name, a form of deductive inference.)

As I said in my comment, an argument being based on a logical fallacy is no barrier to its widespread use, and nor should it be. The whole of the western scientific edifice is built on induction. As a logically fallacious form of reasoning, induction is error-prone. The supreme achievement of mathematical statistics in the 20th century, due originally to Jerzy Neyman and Egon Pearson, was to place bounds on the magnitudes of these potential errors.

33

Steve LaBonne 12.29.07 at 4:54 pm

As I said, medicine is a particularly tricky field. Almost any thoughtful physician will readily admit that it’s still as much art as science. So it’s no wonder that so many examples of flimsy consensuses have to do with medical advice. The intelligent layperson who should neither blindly reject a current consensus, nor fail to inquire into the extent and credibility of the research supporting it. (This is admittedly easier for someone like me who is a trained life scientist than for the average non-physician, but the Internet has made it more and more feasible.) But beware of cranks who bring mined quotes and cherrypicked data to their assault on a consensus opinion.

34

Steve LaBonne 12.29.07 at 4:57 pm

To correct a sentence that got mangled in the editing: The intelligent layperson should neither blindly reject a current consensus, nor fail to inquire into the extent and credibility of the research supporting it.

35

Sortition 12.29.07 at 5:24 pm

If we trusted the experts we would be stuck now in Iraq looking for WMDs.

36

Neil 12.29.07 at 5:30 pm

Peter, no that’s not how fallacy is used in logic, or in ordinary discourse. Wikipedia defines fallacy as a flaw in reasoning (paraphrasing); the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which is peer reviewed, and extremely high standard), offers two definitions:
1. a fallacy is a pattern of poor reasoning which appears to be (and in this sense mimics) a pattern of good reasoning
2. common patterns of poor reasoning which can usefully be identified in the evaluation of informal reasoning.

Induction is not poor reasoning.

Appeal to authority is a not a form of poor reasoning either. Appeal to irrelevant authority is.

37

Steve LaBonne 12.29.07 at 5:30 pm

No, if we had trusted the REAL experts- Hans Blix and his team- we’d have known there were no WMD and would never have gone into Iraq in the first place.
Not to mention the CIA analysts who were saying the same thing but saw their reports politically “fixed” on the way upstairs.

(Moot, of course, since this was only one of BushCo’s ever-shifting pretexts, not one of their real reasons.)

38

Neil 12.29.07 at 5:33 pm

Can’t resist one more. This definition is from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Fallacy

Term of logic. A fallacy is an (often unnoticed) error or flaw in an argument which prevents it from fulfilling its persuasive task; also an argument featuring such an error. Logicians since Aristotle have constructed lists and classifications of fallacies thought to be common and especially deceptive. A fallacy is formal when its invalidity is discernible from the argument’s structure alone. Otherwise, the fallacy counts as informal.

Note the distinction between formal and informal fallacies. If Peter were right, this distinction would go by the board, since all informal arguments would be fallacious.

39

roger 12.29.07 at 5:43 pm

The reliability of authority or consensus would seem to depend on the development of the discipline in which that authority is asserted, no? For instance, Lord Kelvin was certainly one of the great British physicists of the nineteenth century, and his theory that the earth could not have existed for hundreds of millions of years – the assumption of the geologists and of Darwin – had a great weight. Darwin, who thought that Kelvin had to be wrong, was certainly not the expert on the second law of thermodynamics Kelvin was. But Kelvin’s criticism never changed the ‘feeling’ in the geology community that the earth was old – especially as Kelvin tended towards saying the earth was probably ten million years old. The discovery of radiation solved the problem of where the earth’s heat came from and dramatically extended the age back, much further back than Darwin had even imagined. Authority and consensus get one so far in a given science, help shape the contours of research projects, help create the way problems are seen or formed – but don’t solve ultimately solve them. That’s why the trajectory of science counts. Otherwise, science wouldn’t just have a politics, it would be politics through and through.

40

John Landon 12.29.07 at 7:53 pm

The debate over the peppered moth has been mostly confusing, and the Darwinian ‘vindication’ has only shown ‘microevolution’, not genuine evolution. That was always the point of the discussion, not all the other distracting issues.

41

Mitchell Young 12.29.07 at 9:24 pm

Well now, this moth appears to have ‘evolved’ under environmental selection in a period of decades. So, is it also possible that groups of homo sapien sapiens, separated for 40 to 100 thousand years by geography (sheer distance as well as environmental obstacles) and subject to greatly varying environments (tundra, tropical climes, etc) could also have experienced ‘divergent evolution’? If so, how? Which organs, tissues, subsystems have been affected?

42

novakant 12.29.07 at 9:27 pm

No. 33 is the strangest thing I’ve read in a long time.

43

Don Grimm 12.30.07 at 12:08 am

To number 41:
The debate has not been confusing in the least. And by the way, when you start talking about “microevolution” and “macroevolution” among biologists, don’t be surprised if they laugh out loud.

44

Peter 12.30.07 at 12:53 am

Neil — I am sure there are as many definitions of “fallacy” and “argument” as there are philosophers and logicians. I work in argumentation theory, and I gave you the definition commonly used by people in that community. See Charles Hamblin’s book “Fallacies” (1970), the first post-medieval treatment of the subject, as a starting point. Induction is understood by logicians as logically fallacious, for the reason I gave. If this fact is shocking, then this simply indicates how far from ordinary life and discourse the study of formal logic has moved.

45

seth edenbaum 12.30.07 at 1:11 am

Religion is not concerned with e the world but with society. Science is concerned with the world but ignores value. Science is not in itself a value. Look at chapter 15 of this book and tell me how it’s anything but a perverse and false extension of science to even think of including it. Scientists are not science and scientists are human.
Who watches the watchmen when the watchmen are “experts?”

I’d vote for an imaginative priest over and a pedant any day,
and I’m more of an atheist that any of you. Most of you confuse people with their ideas. That’s a fallacy. Simply and obviously.

46

seth edenbaum 12.30.07 at 1:12 am

sorry for the typos.
on a laptop, and in a hurry

47

Sortition 12.30.07 at 2:52 am

I am sure there are as many definitions of “fallacy” and “argument” as there are philosophers and logicians. I work in argumentation theory, and I gave you the definition commonly used by people in that community.

Since there is no consensus in the community, we, outsiders, can safely reject your view without being cranks or denialists.

48

Sortition 12.30.07 at 3:12 am

No, if we had trusted the REAL experts- Hans Blix and his team- we’d have known there were no WMD and would never have gone into Iraq in the first place.

You have a fictionalized version of Blix. It is true that Blix was in favor of continued inspections rather than an invasion (what else can you expect from an inspector?), but he never said there are no WMDs. In fact, by backing the UN’s demands for more, better inspections he gave credence to the claims that Iraq was hiding something.

49

GNZ 12.30.07 at 3:15 am

Not to sound like a creationist but I think there is a terminology issue here.

I don’t the moth example is an “example of evolution”. Evolution is a macro process over millions of years. It is like saying that a finger nail is an example of a human.

The moth example is an example of genetic selection* (which the creationist may or may not deny, but anyone who does hasn’t noticed dog breeding or cat breeding or that there are such animals in about half of all first world homes).

A list of fossils over a few million years showing gradual change in a lineage (with appropriate analysis) would be an ‘example of evolution’.

* seems a bit funny to put the word natural in there since it is as man made as the dog example – not that that matters.

50

Roy Belmont 12.30.07 at 5:32 am

Quiggin:“Of course, this won’t stop the creationists or their tame journalists and politicians. But as the New Scientist says, this kind of episode shows science at its best, and its enemies at their worst.”
Edenbaum:“Religion is not concerned with the world but with society. Science is concerned with the world but ignores value.”
Know your enemy.
Why is there so much resistance to the fundamental truth of evolution? The tacit academic attitude is it’s the defense of a mistaken view which then having been held into tradition became a rallying point for tradition itself, there’s more stubbornness than integrity in the minds of the believers. But maybe the antagonism’s because what the peppered moth says about humans is they’re as malleable as anybody else. So the message is we wear the colors of our adaptations, and maybe some of those colors aren’t real flattering. Maybe some of them are scary.
Maybe what passes for religion these days, in the main, is really more like breeding software in an increasingly controlled environment, maybe even a program of intent, that has produced certain outcomes in the population. Self-awareness of those processes would run counter to the interests of those involved, especially past certain points of change. Dogs and horses would suffer and become resistant, or depressed and dysfunctional, if they understood how they got where they are. Or become vehement champions of domestication.
If that’s the case then at some point at least some of the adaptive human subjects will be committed, like the darker peppered moths, dependent on the conditions that created them. So that the argument then isn’t really about abstract truth or right and wrong answers, it’s about survival. Faced with a black-and-white choice lots of people will choose survival over truth.
Religion’s practicum may have a lot of moral/ethical presence in the day-to-day, but the essential task of religion is to commune with what’s outside the known. The idea’s repeatedly been that those rules of conduct come out of that conversation. This never shows up in the WWF-style debates between irritated pedants and the desperate and credulous except as dogma – take it or leave it. The missing ingredient being the same on both sides – no humility.
Science can only bring us closer to the unknown in steps and, given the context of that exploration – the infinite surrounding us – it can never get all the way there. Not even with the grail of the Theory of Everything in its rucksack.
Religion’s about talking with what’s already there. This seems much sillier to the positivist mind than merely hyping a bunch of rules of conduct, lots of them simply pragmatic, which I’m insisting are just a corollary of the larger work. The idea of walking into a forest to cut down a tree and talking to the forest, talking to the tree itself, being grateful, seems silly to that kind of mind as well. It’s the pathetic fallacy in action.
Yet so much comes from that that’s truly vital and necessary – the built-in humility and awareness, openness and recognition. The very things we forgot to bring to our mastery of this world.
The universe is a very large forest.

51

Charles Brown 12.30.07 at 6:13 am

No creationist would understand one damn thing on this page.

52

Neil 12.30.07 at 8:30 am

Peter, if you recall I was responding initially to a query by a non-philosopher. My response was correct: in informal logic, there is no such fallacy as the appeal to authority. If you are right, this is irrelevant to the question, since you’re clearly working with a stipulative and marginal definition.
But are you right? Not according to the first reference I checked: Hans Hansen, writing in “Argumentation” (2002). He writes that according to Hamblin, an argument is inductively valid if it makes probable its conclusion, and inductively fallacious if it doesn’t.

53

Matt McIrvin 12.30.07 at 11:43 am

There are lots of logical fallacies which stop being fallacies if they’re weakened into statements about probabilistic inference. This is probably part of the reason why they are popular enough to become notable fallacies in the first place.

For instance, “A implies B, B, therefore A” is a fallacy (I’ve forgotten what its formal name is at the moment). However, “A implies B, B is not always true, therefore B constitutes statistical evidence for A” can be a valid statement.

Similarly, the known reliability of an authority is a rational reason to find a statement credible. It just doesn’t constitute logical proof.

Yet another example: Ad hominem argument really is a logical fallacy, yet an attack on the credibility of somebody making a statement is a reasonable counterargument to an argument from authority. (People who read a lot of Internet discussions will be familiar with people erroneously crying “ad hominem” to shoot down this kind of thing.)

54

Hidari 12.30.07 at 2:10 pm

‘Similarly, the known reliability of an authority is a rational reason to find a statement credible. It just doesn’t constitute logical proof.’

Yes, I think that’s what I was getting at.

I also think that the point about probabilistic thinking is very important, given that in the ‘real’ world, we don’t live in the black and white ‘true or false’ world of logic: we live in a world of constantly shifting probabilities.

And in THIS world, I think ‘the known reliability of an authority is a rational reason to find a statement credible.’

55

abb1 12.30.07 at 2:49 pm

Though unfortunately THIS world is so complex that it’s often difficult to ascertain the reliability of an authority.

I think what we need here is one infallible authority to rate all the other authorities for us. Preferably in a funny hat.

56

novakant 12.30.07 at 4:07 pm

He‘s already amongst us, infallible, funny hat and all.

57

seth edenbaum 12.30.07 at 4:16 pm

“I think what we need here is one infallible authority to rate all the other authorities for us.”
Depending on who you ask, a believer or a “bright’ that authority would be either Plato or the Pope, neither of which are particularly appropriate foundational authorities for a democracy.

58

JP Stormcrow 12.30.07 at 4:40 pm

He’s already amongst us, infallible, funny hat and all.

Now this is more along the lines that I was thinking of.

Final answers to life’s rich pageant. DO NOT WANT.

59

Katherine 12.30.07 at 5:03 pm

@52: You have a fictionalized version of Blix. It is true that Blix was in favor of continued inspections rather than an invasion (what else can you expect from an inspector?), but he never said there are no WMDs. In fact, by backing the UN’s demands for more, better inspections he gave credence to the claims that Iraq was hiding something.

Sorry, but I have heard Hans Blix speak in person about this very issue, at length and in detail, and he was very clear that as far and he and his team were concerned, they found nothing. Of course, he never said there were no WMD’s because you can’t prove a negative and he’s not stupid.

He also made it very clear that his team had looked at a representative sample of the various sites pointed to by the US and found nothing. And that his team’s conclusions were entirely accepted within the confines of the Security Council, but very different things were being said by the US administration outside in the media.

60

Order of Magnitude 12.30.07 at 5:05 pm

I don’t think the moth story explains evolution in its most critical aspect: how did humans evolve from apes?

Genetic mutations occur at random and most of them are detrimental. Say, one mutation affects the color of the moth AND is not immediately lethal. Few such moths can live in the pre-industrial forests as they are too dark, and they exist as a marginal subpopulation. Rapid environmental changes (tree barks shift color over years or decades) make the light colored moths vulnerable and they are wiped out quickly. The dark ones prevail because of (1) more resilience vis-a-vis predators and (2) less competition for resources (few or none of the hitherto dominant light moths can survive in the new environment).

Evolution is real but complex phenotypic features (self awareness, for example, or speech) are much more difficult to acquire than a simple change (such as color or, probably one of the more important human implications today, plasmid-mediated antibiotic resistance in bacteria) and the unfit specimens are quickly wiped out. There is no doubt that murine and human genomes are AFAIK 90% common (that’s why one can use mice models to research human diseases).

This story, however, typifies an evolutionary bottleneck. It does not explain how humans evolved from apes, and why have some apes not evolved into humans (in its crudest form: why would you ‘choose’ to remain a monkey when you could evolve into a superior species?).

61

JP Stormcrow 12.30.07 at 5:30 pm

I don’t think the moth story explains evolution in its most critical aspect: how did humans evolve from apes?

OH NOES!! Moth story does not explain humans from apes! Must go back to drawing board!

Sorry oom, I just could not resist. And I will just say that why would you ‘choose’ to remain a monkey when you could evolve into a superior species? indicates that you really should go read (or reread, but pay attention this time) a very basic intro to evolutionary biology. Short answer: because being a monkey “worked” in many environments (and has continued to work over a good period of time).

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JP Stormcrow 12.30.07 at 5:44 pm

Back on the point of how the results of the use of skeptical language and approach of science is often used against science by opponents:

In this situation I like to think of “science” as adopting the rope-a-dope approach to this type of attack. Practitioners and defenders have to accept that the very nature of the discipline leaves this avenue of attack open, and that there invariably will be short-term setbacks, but they must proceed with the confidence that they will prevail in the long run.

“A single breaker may recede; but the tide is coming in”

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Order of Magnitude 12.30.07 at 5:53 pm

JP Stormcrow: The moth example is great to illustrate an evolutionary bottleneck. Evolution is A LOT more than that, though. That’s all I am saying.

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geo 12.30.07 at 6:23 pm

#62: “Final answers to life’s rich pageant. DO NOT WANT.”

Well then, if any true ones come bothering you, just send them over my way.

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Sortition 12.30.07 at 6:46 pm

Sorry, but I have heard Hans Blix speak in person […] Of course, he never said there were no WMD’s because you can’t prove a negative […]

Clearly, you are already stating a different position than that of Steve Labonne (“No, if we had trusted the REAL experts- Hans Blix and his team- we’d have known there were no WMD”).

But let’s pursue your own version of Blix – it seems to be very different from the public version: Could you point out to any public statement before the invasion that gives the reader the impression that there is no reason to think that Saddam is hiding banned weapons?

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Sortition 12.30.07 at 7:26 pm

BTW, since this thread discusses fallacies: why can’t you “prove a negative”? Can’t I prove “this tree is not in bloom”? What is “a negative”?

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novakant 12.30.07 at 8:43 pm

Good god, how hard is this to understand: to find out if there are WMD you have to investigate the matter, without such an investigation there are nothing but wild guesses. Before he undertook the investigation, Blix certainly didn’t say that there were no WMD in Iraq, because he wouldn’t have had any basis to justify such claims. Half-way through the investigation he reported that there was no evidence for the claim, but he wanted to finish the investigation in order to reach the level of certainty attainable under the circumstances. Had he been allowed to do so, we would have known that there are no WMD; not with absolute certainty because Saddam might have hidden a mini A-bomb in his upper right wisdom tooth, but with the amount of certainty that can be achieved by conducting such an investigation. Now one might claim that in such cases only absolute certainty will do, but then you would have to live with the fact that anybody could invade anywhere without any evidence and therefor for any reason. This is exactly what the US did in this case, which was only consistent because they wanted to invade no matter what and weren’t interested in the WMD issue at all.

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a very public sociologist 12.30.07 at 8:58 pm

Just goes to show what desperate lengths creationists and their ilk will go to uphold their theory. Haha!

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Sortition 12.30.07 at 10:53 pm

Good god, how hard is this to understand: to find out if there are WMD you have to investigate the matter, without such an investigation there are nothing but wild guesses. Before he undertook the investigation, Blix certainly didn’t say that there were no WMD in Iraq, because he wouldn’t have had any basis to justify such claims.

No need for vexation.

You are saying Blix was saying he knew nothing and that he was not even in a position to know anything. At the same time, Blix was obviously implying that Saddam may be hiding banned weapons (see my link above and links from the Hans Blix Wikipedia article). This is a very far cry from the original claim in this thread that the “REAL experts”, such as Blix, told us that there are no WMDs in Iraq.

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SG 12.31.07 at 1:01 am

I thought that on the scale it is described at, the story of the peppered moth is just one of population dynamics, with no particular bearing on evolution for another couple of hundred thousand years at least. Isn’t it just a little tiny bit of evidence supporting hypotheses about the selection process, rather than an example of evolution itself?

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bigcitylib 12.31.07 at 1:05 am

If scepticism = deductivism (Popperian, for example), then it was pointed out long ago that the sceptic is biased towards conservative science. That’s simply because old and established theories have survived more attempts at falsification, and should by this particular metric never be discarded in favor of newer theories which have greater PROMISE, but have yet to be thoroughly worked out.

This is more a problem for philosophers of science than scientists, because the latter don’t pay any attention to the former when picking a theory to support.

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Tsmoss 12.31.07 at 1:45 am

70: The slogan applies to claims of existence within an area that is not possible to comprehensively search–for instance, that there is is a Santa Claus somewhere in the world, or that there are nuclear weapons in Iraq. You can prove a positive to the point where someone would have to contend that they are hallucinating to conitue to hold the negative claim. The negative claim, can only be proven in the sense that it becomes unreasonable after a certain point to continue to search for evidence of the positive claim–that is, almost five years with 100,000+ coalition troops in Iraq have failed to turn up any evidence of nuclear weapons, and so it’s unreasonable to continue to insist that we just haven’t found them yet. The tree example doesn’t quite work, since it’s possible to actually dcument its entire surface and show a lack of blossoms. The reasonable-search argument for the negative can still be used, though.

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Sortition 12.31.07 at 3:08 am

The slogan applies to claims of existence within an area that is not possible to comprehensively search—for instance, that there is is a Santa Claus somewhere in the world, or that there are nuclear weapons in Iraq.

Ok – that makes sense. Someone should notified the public that Blix’s mission (as defined by the UNSCOM mandate) was not in the realm of the possible.

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John Quiggin 12.31.07 at 5:10 am

sortition certainly reminds us of the kind of logical gymnastics that were required to insist that the weapons were certainly there, long after the inspection of the sites at which we had been told they were surely located turned up nothing.

It’s surprising, but appropriate, to see it resurrected in comments to a post on another (ultimately failed) campaign of deception and self-deception.

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Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 5:18 am

I thought that on the scale it is described at, the story of the peppered moth is just one of population dynamics, with no particular bearing on evolution for another couple of hundred thousand years at least. Isn’t it just a little tiny bit of evidence supporting hypotheses about the selection process, rather than an example of evolution itself?

In a word, no- the most widely accepted definition of evolution among biologists is simply “change in allele frequencies in populations over time”. In a lot of time, a lot of change occurs. In addition to selection, other major sources of change are the appearance of new mutations, and random genetic drift (sampling error due to the finite size of populations.) Selective processes occurring at a higher level, such as species sorting, may or may not contribute significantly to what happens over long periods- that remains controversial.

If you would like to learn more about evolutionary biology, I suggest reading a good intro textbook on the subject. Douglas Futuyma’s is the one I recommend. It’s a good read and does a very balanced job of presenting different schools of thought.

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Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 5:23 am

This is more a problem for philosophers of science than scientists, because the latter don’t pay any attention to the former when picking a theory to support.

Which is why Feyerabend is my favorite philosopher of science- he argued quite effectively that we not only don’t but shouldn’t. ;)

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Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 5:34 am

It does not explain how humans evolved from apes, and why have some apes not evolved into humans (in its crudest form: why would you ‘choose’ to remain a monkey when you could evolve into a superior species?).

This makes no sense- there are no goals toward which evolution is moving. Humanness is not some special state of blessedness which some apes were “trying” to attain. (And we ARE apes, by the way.) And if you want to talk about “superiority”, best bow down to the bacteria, which dominate the biosphere in both biomass and genetic and ecological diversity, were here a hell of a long time before we were, and will be here long after we’re gone.

Please see my recommendation for self-education, above.

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abb1 12.31.07 at 8:41 am

Sortition,
here’s Blix’s last report before the war, according to CNN:
http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/03/07/sprj.irq.un.transcript.blix/index.html
This is how it ends:

How much time would it take to resolve the key remaining disarmament tasks? While cooperation can — cooperation can and is to be immediate, disarmament, and at any rate verification of it, cannot be instant. Even with a proactive Iraqi attitude induced by continued outside pressure, it will still take some time to verify sites and items, analyze documents, interview relevant persons and draw conclusions. It will not take years, nor weeks, but months.

Neither governments nor inspectors would want disarmament inspection to go on forever. However, it must be remembered that in accordance with the governing resolutions, a sustained inspection and monitoring system is to remain in place after verified disarmament to give confidence and to strike an alarm if signs were seen of the revival of any proscribed weapons programs.

You said: If we trusted the experts we would be stuck now in Iraq looking for WMDs.

Blix said in March 2003 that it would take months, not years. So, it appears that the “looking for WMDs” task would’ve been completed about 4 years ago. The monitoring task, though, would probably still be ongoing.

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Uncle Kvetch 12.31.07 at 4:55 pm

Now one might claim that in such cases only absolute certainty will do, but then you would have to live with the fact that anybody could invade anywhere without any evidence and therefor for any reason.

I understand your point, novakant, but surely you realize that if you replace “anybody” with “the United States” in this sentence, you’ve encapsulated the mainstream American consensus on foreign policy in 2007. Consider that the only presidential candidates who are explicitly challenging this view are roundly dismissed as lunatics.

And most people seem to be “living with it” quite nicely, if not actually “living off it.” Why, Bill “Iraq’s Always Been Very Secular” Kristol just got himself a gig with the most influential newspaper in the country!

What we do about that, I haven’t a clue.

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Sortition 12.31.07 at 5:04 pm

abb1 – thanks for the quote. I think it is very much the one we are interested in.

Blix states:

1. 12 years of inspections have not yielded verified disarmament.

2. This is due to Iraqi non-cooperation.

3. With increased pressure on Iraq, verification can be carried out in months.

4. But monitoring will have to go on indefinitely.

This is a complete failure of expertise: On the one hand, Blix is naive enough to think that he could produce within months what has eluded others for years. (“Pressure” on Iraq has been on-going throughout those years, including at least one bombing campaign.) He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that verified disarmament was not achieved simply because it is not what the West was after. On the other hand, even if things go right this time, Blix, with his promise of ongoing inspections, indicates that Iraq would continue to be a potential threat.

A message like that makes the alternative – invasion – seem attractive: a certain and swift way to eliminate a permanent threat.

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Uncle Kvetch 12.31.07 at 5:15 pm

A message like that makes the alternative – invasion – seem attractive

Thank you, sortition. You made my point better than I did.

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Sortition 12.31.07 at 5:32 pm

sortition certainly reminds us of the kind of logical gymnastics that were required to insist that the weapons were certainly there, long after the inspection of the sites at which we had been told they were surely located turned up nothing.

It is not clear to me if this is meant to say that I am engaged in such gymnastics, or that the experts engaged in them in 2003. In case it is me who is being blamed, let me suggest what the experts could have said, and didn’t. The experts could have made statements similar to those of Scott Ritter:

We eliminated the nuclear program, and for Iraq to have reconstituted it would require undertaking activities that would have been eminently detectable by intelligence services.

If Iraq were producing [chemical] weapons today, we’d have proof, pure and simple.

[A]s of December 1998 we had no evidence Iraq had retained biological weapons, nor that they were working on any. In fact, we had a lot of evidence to suggest Iraq was in compliance.

Ritter’s counter-consensus position made him the target of a discrediting and even a vilification campaign.

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abb1 12.31.07 at 5:46 pm

Well, the non-cooperation is, of course, easily explained by a couple of factors.

One is that the inspections and sanctions were accompanied by the policy of “regime change”, giving the regime exactly zero incentive to cooperate. They still did cooperate for a while, though, but then the second factor was that the inspectors in the 90s were more interested in spying than weapons.

So, non-cooperation was a totally natural and easily predictable result of US policies and actions.

If you want to change the behavior and verify it – you act accordingly; and if you want confrontation and eventually a war (invasion “seems attractive”, as you put it) – then do you what the US did. Then, when it goes sour, you, of course, will try to rationalize and pretend that you had no choice. But it’s a hard sell now.

And why are you selling it, anyway? It’s pretty much settled now.

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Sortition 12.31.07 at 6:11 pm

Hey – I am not arguing that the invasion was a good idea. I am arguing that the consensus among experts on the Iraq WMD issue was wrong. They were either asserting or implying that Iraq possessed banned weapons and was a threat to the world.

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abb1 12.31.07 at 6:18 pm

Maybe some or even most of them had it as a working hypothesis, but the investigation wasn’t finished, the point is moot.

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Neil 12.31.07 at 6:35 pm

I think Sortiton is more or less right about the consensus. Of course, there were people who got it right – John Quiggin among them – but they were heavily outweighed by the voices of apparent experts who were wrong. Fortunately (bringing us back to the topic) this is does not show that we ought to distrust scientific experts. There is now a large body of empirical work on when groups of experts are likely to get things right, and when they are not. It’s important to encourage dissent to get good conclusions; it’s also important that people are not silenced for fear of losing their standing. Both these conditions are realized by the peer review standard in science. The 9/11 commission showed that neither were realized in the CIA, where dissent was seen as betrayal.

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seth edenbaum 12.31.07 at 7:42 pm

The unasked questions: What is the role of experts in a democracy? Why is their role limited to that of advisors? Are scientists less likely to be seduced by their own authority? Are they more capable than others of separating their assumptions from their knowledge?
etc etc.

Creation science is bullshit, but religious fundamentalism is a reaction to a perceived attack to the moral foundation of society. The only debate to have with creationists, the only way to engage them, is on the level of moral philosophy. But arguing for science on the level of moral philosophy becomes silly pretty fast. Science for science’ sake is as absurd as anything else. The unending search for facts without engaging the question of application is banality iself, unless of course you think of it in religious terms. And that brings us back to questions of value in a democracy

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Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 8:06 pm

Do you think questions of value are best debated from a starting point of ignorance or knowledge? What you try to pejoratively label “science for science’s sake” could more sympathetically be described as preferring knowledge. I don’t quite see how ignorance can provide a “moral foundation” for anything.

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Sortition 12.31.07 at 8:07 pm

It’s important to encourage dissent to get good conclusions; it’s also important that people are not silenced for fear of losing their standing. Both these conditions are realized by the peer review standard in science.

On the contrary – peer review is a censorship mechanism. If your view is unpleasant to the reviewers, it never gets published.

The 9/11 commission showed that neither were realized in the CIA, where dissent was seen as betrayal.

So now the 9/11 commission, a commission who was appointed and controlled by the people being investigated, a commission which relies on third hand evidence gathered through torture-induced confessions, is a reliable source of analysis?

The unasked questions: What is the role of experts in a democracy? Why is their role limited to that of advisors? Are scientists less likely to be seduced by their own authority? Are they more capable than others of separating their assumptions from their knowledge?

I concur. Also, what are the connections between these matters and the scientific method, the scientific establishment and the notion of skepticism.

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Roy Belmont 12.31.07 at 8:37 pm

#91 -Also to questions of moral goals. All moral systems have goals – unwritten, tacit, assumed, stated, or/and occult. The default non-religious moral goal is survival of the status quo ante including its metamorphic aspects – the selection processes at work in “things as they are”; religious moral goals generally are about the survival of the congregation and its leaders, including its deities. This explains a lot of the seemingly bizarre strictures of long-established dogma. It also helps explain the desperate fundamentalist resistance to some of what science has produced as fact; not because it’s antithetical to their beliefs, but because it’s directly antagonistic to their main life support, what holds them together.
Science has no valence in its pure form, no loyalties no chauvinisms no subjective moral/ethical platform. There’s no difference between the tiger at the zoo and the teenager at the zoo, in a purely scientific sense.
Affinity in scientists occludes pure research without care and vigilance. Scientists are human, science is not, just as mathematics is not but mathematicians are.
Even in the lighter air of democratic social morality you still get that tacit assumption, that the goal is to preserve what’s there. It gets dressed up in the shiny suit of “whatever human future comes must come from what’s here already”, but as we see with experience, most of the moves the powerful, including the powerful mass, make are only to preserve themselves. A biologically sensible thing, but it has no moral/ethical substance whatsoever.
That this morality of self-interest has intensified to a world-destructive pathology in our time isn’t repugned by science, or by scientists speaking as scientists, only by scientists speaking as human beings. You can use the data and the predictions, but without a moral center there’s no stimulus for objection. Ecological collapse, genocide, slavery, theocratic conquest, extinction – science can only observe, there’s no heart to say “No!”. Instead we have the atomization of the subjective, little camps of self-interested primates, each with its goals and strategies. In that context the theocrats have a leg up, as their moral dogma’s based on unimpeachable, unresearchable revelation. But they’re lunatics, and so mostly dysfunctional in a pragmatic sense. The other team’s got no core solidity, no nucleus, nothing but the assertion of their own being, which is what every other organism has.

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abb1 12.31.07 at 8:45 pm

What’s wrong with banality? Kill some time, make some money, publish a paper, a book, become a celebrity in some circles. What is the role of baseball coaches in a democracy?

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seth edenbaum 12.31.07 at 9:04 pm

“What you try to pejoratively label “science for science’s sake” could more sympathetically be described as preferring knowledge”

I’m more interested in questions of law justice ethics communication and culture than I am in answers to questions about the geology of Pluto. If that means I’m not interested in “knowledge” then that’s fine with me.

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Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 9:10 pm

What about answers to questions about human biology and psychology? Do you maintain that those answers have nothing to do with questions about law, justice, etc.?

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Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 9:12 pm

Or to use an example that turns purely on knowledge of the non-human world, do you think a discussion about environmental ethics can profitably be conducted without any reference to knowledge about ecology and climate science?

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seth edenbaum 12.31.07 at 9:23 pm

Science is a tool, not a value. It’s a useful tool of course.

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Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 9:24 pm

Did I say otherwise? But ignorance is neither a tool nor a value.

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seth edenbaum 12.31.07 at 10:48 pm

“Did I say otherwise? ”
You ignored my point.
I’m more interested in looking at another person looking back at me than I am at looking at a god damn rock. And to the extent that looking at a rock can teach us anything, that knowledge is secondary, philsophically and morally, to the questions that are engaged by the considering of people by their peers.
People who argue logic with the faithful are less irrational than the faithful.
I’m done. Happy new year.

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Steve LaBonne 12.31.07 at 11:10 pm

Oddly, the fundies disagree with you. They think that they are in possession of the hard facts about life, the universe and everything, and that biologists and geologists are simply wrong. And they attach a lot of importance to this. That’s why they’ve gone to so much trouble to cobble up “creation science” in its various guises. So ironically enough, at least that segment of the “faithful” would be less than impressed by your obscurantist “defense” of them.

Happy New Year.

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engels 01.01.08 at 5:06 am

The unasked questions: What is the role of experts in a democracy? Why is their role limited to that of advisors

It’s not. Supreme Court Justices are legal ‘experts’ but they are not merely ‘advisors’: they hold considerable power.

Science for science’ sake is as absurd as anything else. The unending search for facts without engaging the question of application is banality iself

Charles Clarke would agree with you there. However, pure science is really not an “unending search for facts”…

On the contrary – peer review is a censorship mechanism. If your view is unpleasant to the reviewers, it never gets published.

Yes, because if your paper is rejected by a peer-reviewed journal and you then decide to publish it on your website you will be hunted down and killed!!!

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JP Stormcrow 01.01.08 at 6:12 am

you will be hunted down and killed

And quite rightly so. Back on the veldt unauthorized innovations were met with similarly harsh methods.

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Sortition 01.01.08 at 6:43 am

you will be hunted down and killed

Worse than that – you will never make tenure.

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abb1 01.01.08 at 10:48 am

…you will never make tenure…

Now, that’s a given, but it gets significantly worse in some cases.

The Fate of an Honest Intellectual.

…Well, Finkelstein wrote up a short paper of just preliminary findings, it was about twenty-five pages or so, and he sent it around to I think thirty people who were interested in the topic, scholars in the field and so on, saying: “Here’s what I’ve found in this book, do you think it’s worth pursuing?”

Well, he got back one answer, from me. I told him, yeah, I think it’s an interesting topic, but I warned him, if you follow this, you’re going to get in trouble—because you’re going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they’re going to destroy you. So I said: if you want to do it, go ahead, but be aware of what you’re getting into. It’s an important issue, it makes a big difference whether you eliminate the moral basis for driving out a population—it’s preparing the basis for some real horrors—so a lot of people’s lives could be at stake. But your life is at stake too, I told him, because if you pursue this, your career is going to be ruined.

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seth edenbaum 01.01.08 at 4:01 pm

Supreme Court Justices are legal ‘experts’
political appointees and intellectual second raters.

Questions of law justice ethics communication and culture are questions of history engels. You missed #96

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Neil 01.01.08 at 4:42 pm

Sortiton, in all the areas with which I’m familiar, there are multiple journals. Yes, papers get rejected for bad reasons all the time. But the chances that your paper will be rejected because the reviewers are biased across all journals are relatively low (not zero; the system isn’t perfect. It’s just good).

Your comment about the 9/11 commission is a wonderful illustration of the 9/11 fallacy. I did not appeal to authority, you will notice: I didn’t say that it was true *because* they said it. I said they demonstrated it. I was thereby suggesting that it could independently be verified, by looking at their evidence. Cass Sunstein has done this for you. But of course given that you think that referees can’t assess the quality of articles, you will think that there’s no point in your checking. Unless you think you’re a magical exception from the biases you detect in others, you will think that you can’t assess the evidence either.

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Sortition 01.01.08 at 5:37 pm

political appointees

Anyone appointed to a position of power is a political appointee. It may be politics that is mostly internal to the expert community, like it is in the academic world, but it is still politics.

intellectual second raters.

Who is decide who is a first-rater and who is a second-rater? Is the academic mechanism what you are after – counting publications and citations?

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Sortition 01.01.08 at 6:14 pm

But the chances that your paper will be rejected because the reviewers are biased across all journals are relatively low (not zero; the system isn’t perfect. It’s just good).

And this assertion is based on what evidence?

If what you submit can be called “dissent”, i.e., unpleasant to the established players, it is likely to encounter widespread hostility. The system is not a perfect system of censorship, it’s just a pretty effective one.

I said they demonstrated it.

Theoretically, they may have. Given their track record on other matters, and their inherent conflict of interest, I find it highly unlikely that they could. If you told me that an oil industry appointed commission “showed” that global warming is not occurring, I would be just as skeptical. I would not bother to go through their 300 page report to find out.

By the way, it would be a great surprise to me if dissent is encouraged at the CIA – it is just that conclusions by the 9/11 commission do not amount to serious evidence on this issue (or any other).

Unless you think you’re a magical exception from the biases you detect in others, you will think that you can’t assess the evidence either.

People can evaluate evidence and quality – but it is neither easy nor straightforward in many cases. I am just as likely to develop bias as everybody else given the appropriate incentives. It is therefore important to try and set systems so that people do not have incentives to be biased, and so that they don’t have opportunities to impose their biases on other people. The peer-review system is antithetical to these principles.

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Neil 01.01.08 at 6:35 pm

I clicked on Sortiton’s link. It’s worth doing. It takes you to a post at which he (?) makes the same points here. But where’s the evidence? Ah here it is: the claim that referees make political decisions is a clickable link; that will surely cite some evidence. But no, that takes me to another post in which he makes the same claims, again without evidence. For some reason, Sortiton thinks that referees (across all disciplines, apparently) do an especially bad job at evaluating claims, much worse than other people do in other contexts. He won’t tell us why he thinks this; he just cites himself telling us this instead. Perhaps he’s had a few papers rejected?

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Sortition 01.01.08 at 7:12 pm

I had papers rejected and I had papers accepted. I was also a reviewer a couple of times and saw how the system works from the other side. I found the entire system arbitrary and essentially political. Discussing this with other people, including well-published people, gave me the impression that my experiences have not been atypical (of course, the well-published people still see the system as essentially rational, just and well functioning). Here – 1, 2, 3 – is one case I was involved in as observer only, but which demonstrates how thoroughly disfunctional the system is.

If you are interested in mainstream research on this topic, you can have a look at a book called “The Golem” by two sociologists, Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch (my review here.)

In my comments here, and in more detail in posts on my blog, I give theoretical reasons for the state of things. Of course, what makes sense to me may not make sense to you – you should be easily able to reject any evidence or theoretical analysis claiming that they are not convincing. To you, this may indicate that I am a fool, or that I have some unreasonable bias. In fact it is just the way things usually are – natural language (in the context of science or in other contexts) is not a formal system and arguments cannot be made tight enough so as to overcome any reasonable doubt.

109

abb1 01.01.08 at 7:28 pm

I don’t know anything about papers and referees, but just as a (probably useless) generalization, couldn’t one argue that any bureaucratic organization evolves into a system where the incentives are tilted towards the orthodoxy? Thus, if not many papers get rejected, it might be because people, knowing what’s good for them, don’t submit any unorthodox ones (except for a few lunatics). This is, of course, pure speculation; it would be difficult to analyze objectively.

110

Sortition 01.01.08 at 7:44 pm

abb1’s argument is valid. The peer-review mechanism would have to be exceptional not to have a conservative bias. Many people tend to hold that peer-review is exceptional because it is rational – it’s actions are constrained by pure logic – and thus has no room for politics. This view is unrealistic.

As for rejections – many papers are rejected, and the more prestigious and high visibility a journal or a conference is the higher is the rejection rate – going over 90% in many cases. In fact, having high rejection rate is the mark of a high-prestige publication venue. In a way, this is unavoidable with the way system is set up right now: a high-prestige publication venue will attract a lot of submissions, necessitating a high rate of rejections.

[I have an answer to neil held in moderation (probably because it has 5 links in it).]

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SG 01.02.08 at 1:03 am

seth’s planetary studies example seems a little off to me. Not only were the orbits of the planets essential in confirmation of the theory of relativity, but further research into their orbits was the mechanism by which newtonian dynamics improved, and was thus able to build very accurate calendars, rather important tools in the time before solid state physics and the digital watch (which owes its science in part to the work of Einstein, if not also to relativity). Also our understanding of global warming is at least partly informed by the climate of Venus.

Plus of course the worldview of religious fundamentalism was set back more than a little by the particular values exposed by the revelation that, amongst other things, the planets are more than 6000 years old, and they revolve around the sun, not us…

112

Neil 01.02.08 at 2:18 pm

Sortiton, I’m not going to bother looking for it, because you would reject it as question-begging, but there is a peer-reviewed literature on peer review. It shows that the system has problems – and on one point you’re quite right, one of the problems is that it is conservative – but it works pretty well. The conservative bias is, on balance, a good thing: most innovations are bad (for good Kuhnian reasons). As for your personal experiences, they are simply worthless – confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, availability heuristic, etc. etc. Because of these psychological mechanisms only quantifiable data with proper controls is worth anything here.

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Sortition 01.02.08 at 7:50 pm

Neil,

You are quick to dismiss my personal experiences as “worthless” (wouldn’t “may not be representative” be a bit more ‘scientific’?), and chide me to only use “quantifiable data with proper controls”. Yet while you have obviously formed entrenched opinions on the issue of the utility of peer-review it appears you have done so without relying on the methods you prescribe for me. As usual, unpleasant ideas (i.e., dissent) are held to higher standards (often, impossibly higher standards) than pleasant ones.

Also, note how within the space of a few comments you moved from “It’s important to encourage dissent” to “The conservative bias is, on balance, a good thing”.

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seth edenbaum 01.02.08 at 10:40 pm

As two of the authors of a recent document advocating a one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli colonial conflict we emphatically intended to generate debate. Predictably, Zionists decried the proclamation as yet another proof of the unwavering devotion of Palestinian — and some radical Israeli — intellectuals to the “destruction of Israel.” Some pro-Palestinian activists accused us of forsaking immediate and critical Palestinian rights in the quest of a “utopian” dream.
Inspired in part by the South African Freedom Charter [1] and the Belfast Agreement [2], the much humbler One State Declaration, authored by a group of Palestinian, Israeli and international academics and activists, affirms that “The historic land of Palestine belongs to all who live in it and to those who were expelled or exiled from it since 1948, regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin or current citizenship status.” It envisages a system of government founded on “the principle of equality in civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens.”
It is precisely this basic insistence on equality that is perceived by Zionists as an existential threat to Israel, undermining its inherently discriminatory foundations which privilege its Jewish citizens over all others. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was refreshingly frank when he recently admitted that Israel was “finished” if it faced a struggle for equal rights by Palestinians.

The pretense that peer review in the social sciences is somhow akin to reveiws in mathematics and physics is just bizarre.

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Neil 01.02.08 at 10:42 pm

Sortiton, worthless is what I meant. Worthless is what it is. I was interested in your claim that you know that refereeing is biased, based partly on seeing it from inside. Were you biased, and assumed that everyone is like you? Or were you unbiased, but assumed you’re the only one? I have not formed opinions on the basis of my personal experience: this is a topic on which I have read and written for a long time. Of course, I am subject to the same biases as you, and am committed to the somewhat uncomfortable position that the collective enterprise works, bc it cancels out individual biases, which are sometimes very badly distorting for the individual. I have no evidence that my biases are not badly distorting.

Finally, there is no incompatibility between the dissent and conservatism claims. In order for dissent to be maximally effective, it needs to function against a background of taken for granted claims. The system is worst at recognizing really new moves in the debate; that is its conservative bias. Within the shared background, constrained dissent is normal; real consensus on anything (beyond quite broad claims) is relatively rare.

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Sortition 01.03.08 at 1:11 am

Sortiton, worthless is what I meant. Worthless is what it is.

I’ll ignore this little bit of offensiveness. I cannot see how this kind of language (and the thinking it expresses) is compatible with the detached and unbiased approach you ascribe to scientists. It is definitely compatible with the kind of heightened emotions that I find is typical of scientific politics.

this is a topic on which I have read and written for a long time.

Interesting. In that case, I would like to look at your own work and that of others on this issue. Can you provide citations?

The system is worst at recognizing really new moves in the debate; that is its conservative bias.

This is a direct contradiction to the claim that the peer-review system encourages dissent. Dissent is certain to be seen as a “new move”.

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Sortition 01.03.08 at 4:16 am

Regarding my experiences as reviewer:

When I reviewed papers I noticed that the scores I gave the papers were to a large extent arbitrary. It is always easy to set the bar high enough so that a paper would be found in need of revision or more work. It is also possible to set the bar sufficiently low so that only papers that are pure nonsense would be found wanting. Even in the best of cases, when the reviewer has no over-riding motives, personal characteristics of the reviewer (interests, beliefs, taste, and mood) determine where the bar is set in any specific case.

At the anecdotal level, I also had on one occasion seen how a paper with a fundamental error received passing scores by reviewers (and special treatment by the editor) – with the likely reason being that it was written by two prominent figures in the field.

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Sortition 01.03.08 at 4:41 am

seth,

As the politics of global warming show, if some powerful players could gain something by denying basic principles of physics, physics would become just as political as the most political areas of social science.

The only arenas where one could decide the correctness of a statement based solely on rigorously rational grounds are those of purely formal systems such as mathematics, or formal logic. When an attempt is made to apply the formal system to the real world (e.g., physics), non-rigorous considerations come into play and those can be, and to some extent must be, political.

Even when within working within purely formal systems, the decision to accept or reject a paper is not based on the truth of statements made in the paper alone. One can always reject papers that contain only true statements based on claims that they are obvious, irrelevant, unclear, incremental, do not cite the relevant literature, or any subset of these.

The conclusion is that peer-review is, and must be, primarily political.

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Neil 01.03.08 at 8:14 am

Sortiton, I do not mean to be offensive. No really. Individual biases simply make all uncontrolled observations worthless for veritistic purposes. You aren’t special; neither am I. Yes, Virginia, the system does not work perfectly. I too have seen good work rejected on bad grounds, and bad work accepted because of someone’s prominence or power. Once again I call your attention to the confirmation bias, and the worthlessness of uncontrolled obervations. You’re just making the mistake that Engels (in comments) mocked earlier: thinking that if the system isn’t perfect it must amount to nothing more than censorship.

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Sortition 01.03.08 at 3:27 pm

Neil,

The shortcomings of personal observations are well known. This does not mean they are “worthless”. Rejecting such observations in the face of systematic observations to the contrary may be justifiable. Your attitude – blanket rejection without trying to address specifics, simply because the observations are unpleasant – demonstrates how easy it is to set the bar for evidence at a level that produces desired results.

Again I would like to express my interest in any work of yours or of others in the area. Can you provide citations?

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Neil 01.03.08 at 4:40 pm

I won’t argue, but I do disagree: they are worthless. Glad you now see that I did not mean to be offensive in saying that. For reading, you might start with the relevant sections in Goldman’s *Social Epistemology*, which contains a discussion of alternatives to peer review (you do think that it’s better than random, right? If so, the right question to ask is can it be replaced with a better system – and it may be that the answer to that is “yes”).

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seth e 01.03.08 at 4:41 pm

Its a question of puffery. You can call academic ‘freedom’ the right to be stupid or sloppy… earned after a good deal of professional hoop jumping.and still defend the policy. We’re better off with it than without it.
Sociolinguistic systems are impure. Deal with it.

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Sortition 01.03.08 at 5:48 pm

I won’t argue, but I do disagree: they are worthless. Glad you now see that I did not mean to be offensive in saying that.

It is not a matter of intent, or at least not only a matter of intent. The fact that you allow yourself to use this kind of language – and this kind of thinking – is telling, whether or not you had an explicit intent to be offensive.

I have in mind various adjectives that I could attach to your arguments – yet I choose carefully which ones to apply and which ones to keep to myself. Skepticism involves giving the benefit of every doubt to opinions that are contrary to those you hold dear. Injudicious use of strong and potentially offensive language is not compatible with skepticism.

Goldman’s Social Epistemology

Thanks for the reference – I’ll see if I can find it. Does this book, or any other work that you know, contain “quantifiable data with proper controls”? If so, what kind of data? Also, I am still interested: what is your own work in this area?

Regarding alternatives to peer review – I have made a proposal in the blog post to which I linked above:

My proposed system is, thus, to give each author a quota of publications – say one article every 3 years. The author can choose what work to put in that article – which is guaranteed to be published. Preferably, the article will still be refereed, but it would be up to the author to decide whether to incorporate any suggestions by the referees into the work. A researcher would then choose carefully, picking the best of their work of last 3 years (and incorporating any useful ideas of the referees) to produce the best paper he or she could come up with – with 3 years between publications it makes sense that there will be a lot of good work to choose from and a lot of time to write the paper well. The result will be more enjoyable and productive for the author, for his or her readers, and for the scientific community.

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Neil 01.03.08 at 6:01 pm

Work develops through publication; I publish something, someone responds. The response might be wrong, but even when it is, it contains something helpful; an alternative explanation of the data which actually fails, or which I haven’t controlled for. Sometimes the response is right, or partially right, and I need to go back to the drawing board. Scientific work develops through debate. Your proposal ensures that the debate slows down so considerably that much of its value is lost. There is a reason why if paper from 2001 is cited in, say, cognitive neuroscience, it is a classic. The debate just moves too fast. Of course it is possible to move the debate out of journals, and this does already happen to some extent already (eg, swapping papers, conferences). But in a big field, or even a medium one, there needs to be some gatekeeper or I don’t know what to read. So your proposal simply necessitates a new gatekeeper outside the journals, and doesn’t actually touch the problem.

I do not believe that reasonable people find it offensive to be hold that their personal experiences are useful for evidentiary purposes (unless the claim is that there is something special about their personal experiences). My experiences, as I’ve been at pains to point out, are equally worthless.

My own work assumes that the scientific communities are relatively good at assuring quality, it does not directly argue for it. So I don’t think it will be of any relevance to you.

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Sortition 01.03.08 at 8:29 pm

Your proposal ensures that the debate slows down so considerably that much of its value is lost.

I do not believe that a person is able to generate an original idea that would be of wide interest more frequently than once every few years. The present high rate of publication is a product of the convoluted incentives of the academic system. Note that if a laboratory has 10 people working in it, then by rotating authorship they would be able to publish a paper every 3-4 months.

My experiences, as I’ve been at pains to point out, are equally worthless.

First, I fail to find where in your previous comments you point that your own experiences are worthless. More importantly, your arguments (as those of everyone) are constantly peppered with claims that are not backed up with “quantifiable data with proper controls”: For example, “paper from 2001 is cited in, say, cognitive neuroscience, it is a classic”, or “I do not believe that reasonable people find…”, etc. I could challenge almost every sentence that you make claiming that it is “worthless” without a thorough, and practically impossible, data collection effort.

My own work assumes that the scientific communities are relatively good at assuring quality, it does not directly argue for it. So I don’t think it will be of any relevance to you.

According to your own standards, if you assume that “scientific communities are relatively good at assuring quality” then you must cite some studies with “quantifiable data with proper controls” that show that. The citations in your articles would therefore be of interest in the context of our discussion. Do you have a paper of yours available online?

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Watson Aname 01.03.08 at 9:25 pm

sortition, as far as I can see your suggestion is hopelessly naive. Leaving aside the issue of dissent entirely, there is an awful lot of objectively shoddy work being shopped around, and how would your system possibly deal with that? Guaranteed publication will guarantee a lot of drek, and we’d have to invent a new gatekeeper function to filter most of it out.

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Sortition 01.03.08 at 10:13 pm

Watson,

Since any single person would be able to publish only one article every three years, you would need a lot of people who would be interested in publishing nonsense for that to become a problem.

Who do you think will those people be? Do you know personally a lot of people who you think would put the time and effort into writing some nonsense just because it will be published in an academic journal? I know no such people. (Of course, that’s just my “worthless” personal experience.)

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Watson Aname 01.04.08 at 5:37 am

Sortition,

I know *of* loads of them (or at least their papers), even if I don’t personally know many. There are tens, (even hundreds!) of nominally qualified people for every full time research slot after all — a different problem. Not all of them try for academic positions of whatever stripe, but still there is a lot of weeding out to be done somewhere. Also, how would you handle decisions for better journals? Even restricting everyone to a paper every three years or so, it’s still not possible to read everyone in related fields. Someone has to be sifting through this, somehow.

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