Tag Archives: Science

Four Types of Anti-Science

There are scientists, but this post is not about them.

(If you want my career advise for folks who like science, please read the following posts instead: “How Academia Works,” “When It Sucks to Be Young, “Science, Paradigms, and the Old Boys Network,” and How to Escape the Humanities Ghetto.”)

There are people who oppose science in ideological grounds, either out of a specific distaste for science, or else because scientific research or findings leads (or is seen to lead) to objectionable conclusions, or else because they do not know what science is and attack it as part of their other activities.. This post is about them.

Let’s consider two dimensions of anti-scientists, by the nature of their strength.

  • The size dimension accounts for the number of their confederates int their attempt to retard or stop scientific progress.
  • The seriousness dimension accounts for the intellectual rigor and elite infiltration that they and their confederates have gained.

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We can describe each corner of this taxonomy:

  • Popular X Elite: The elite and the public are united against scientific investigation. This is the case in most non-medical human biodiversity research, because of the ideological and historical connotations of such research in the eyes of many. Thus, Human Biomonoculturalists are examples of popular, elite anti-scientists.
  • Popular X Downtrodden: Large, widespread public animosity towards science, but without elite support. In the United States and many Muslim countries, attitudes toward evolutionary biology fall into this category. So Creationists are examples of a popular, downtrodden anti-scientists.
  • Small X Downtrodden: A politically unpopular and generally disenfranchised group is opposed to science, but has not yet gained any form of transaction. So Flat Earthers are examples of small, downtrodden anti-scientists.
  • Small X Elite: A small, highly trained cadre of experts, with elite credentials, attempts to overturn scientific funding. In this post I’ll describe Collectivist Ideologues as examples of small, elite anti-scientists.

An example of such a small but serious attack on science — of Collectivist Ideologues — is Dr. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s recent post, “The Society of Individuals,” which appeared at the popular political science blog Duck of Minerva

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The writing in Dr. Jackson’s article is dense, but the argument boils down to the following

1. Rational Choice Theory immorally operationalizes social decisions on the individual, not the society level

So we have two fundamentally different models here: autonomous individuals — prototypical males? — with preferences making strategic calculations, and relationally embedded actors (I’m not going to push the gender point any further here, but I think that many feminists might agree with me about the relative depictions of autonomy-vs.-embeddedness in a patriarchal society) engaged in deliberation and discernment looking for the right course of action. While the former might end up conforming to one or another moral code, only the latter can actually engage in “moral action” per se, because autonomous individuals would be choosing whether or not to act morally while embedded actors would be endeavoring to suss out the moral thing to do and then doing it.

2. The implications of this are morally objectionable twiceover, for being based on individuality and sexism

I still maintain that rational choice theory — and indeed, the broader decision-theoretical world of which rational choice theory constitutes just a particular, heavily-mathematized province — endorses and naturalizes a form of selfishness that is ultimately corrosive of human community and detrimental to the very idea of moral action.

3. Thus, rational choice research programs — and the communication of those programs are “basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable.”

I think that things like Freakonomics [tdaxp excerpt] are basically corrosive and should be opposed whenever practicable. We owe it to the broader society not to simply tell stories that reaffirm the value-commitments and modes of person-hood prized by dominant social actors who want us to equate our happiness with the satisfaction of personal desires

Dr. Jackson’s collectivism idealism states (apparently) that scientists are immoral if they attempt to help control, predict, and improve variation in the world in a way that doesn’t fit with Jackson’s ideals, biases and sentimentalities.

At first glance, Dr. Jackson’s post is odd. It’s too dense and abstract to gain much popular traction. And his description of Rational Choice theory is ridiculous to anyone familiar with it. But such talking heads have wracked havoc in other ares, by attacking science for opposing their sentimentalities and prejudices.

At second glance, Jackson’s post is somewhat more understandable. Political science does not progress like a normal science, and many people who use terms like “Rational Choice” may themselves have no idea how science works. Few anti-scientists are driven by animosity towards humanity. Ignorance of science, and a love of their idealized and wished-for worlds, doubtless plays a larger part.

Anti-science is dangerous. Popular-elite anti-science most of all, but even popular-downtrodden (like the hapless Creationists) and small-elite (like Dr. Jackson’s arguments) should be recognized as the threats to human progress than they are. Human history is a record of one stagnation after another, with brief bursts of progress in between. I hope the anti-Scientists do not stop our current progress, and consign us all to castrated academia composed of ideologues and their pet biases.

The Humanities, the Sciences, and Strategy

The Servants of Strategy

The humanities and the Sciences are siblings. Both serve Strategy. Graduates from the Sciences can usefully serve Strategy to the extent they understand the tools of prediction and control: improvement, and are not distracted by non-normal, revolutionary science. Graduates from the Humanities can usefully serve Strategy to the extend they understand the tools of understanding and explanation, and are not distracted by critical political agendas.

Why We Do What We Do

The purpose of Science is to “predict, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being predicted (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Science you are in. Cognitive Psychology focuses on cognitive behavior, “Behavioral” Psychology focuses on overt physical behavior, High-energy physics focuses on the behavior of matter under high energy conditions, and so on.

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The purpose of the Humanities is to “understand, explain, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), explained (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Humanities you are in. English Literature focuses on the written works of the English language, Geography on the nature of space, Anthropology on the nature of communities and so on.

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The purpose of strategy is to “understand, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Policy you are making. Political Strategy focuses on using political influence to obtain and hold offices. Business Strategy focuses on devoting capital and labor to earning a profit. Military Strategy focuses on using violence to achieve political outcomes.

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A Division of Labor

These partially-overlapping purposes make a division of labor sensible. While strategists need to understand phenomenon, they do not need to be able to explain it, thus they can rely on the explanations of others. Likewise, strategists need to control phenomenon, but they do not need to be able to predict it, thus they can rely on the models and planning of others.

Those in the Sciences are useful to the extent they master the tools of prediction and control: tight exemplars, methodology, measurement, and statistics. Those in the Sciences can become useless by being distracted with revolutionary science.

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Those in the Humanities are useful to the extent they master the tools of understanding and explanation, which largely overlaps with the “digital humanities.” Those in the Humanities can become useless by being distracted with political agendas.

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Political Agendas, Like Revolutionary Science…

I’ve written a lot about revolutionary science, so instead I’ll focus on the danger of political agendas in the Humanities. Recently, there have been three articles on the humanities. Michael Berube‘s thoughtful “The Humanities, Unruffled,” Razib Khan‘s philippic Against the Cultural Anthropologists,” Graeme Wood‘s interesting Anthropology, Inc.,” and Megan McArdle‘s stupid “What’s the Use of the PhD?.” In different ways, these four articles all focus on the same two problems:

1. What is the way to ensure that the Humanities PhD fulfills its function of understanding, explaining, and improving society
2. Does “improving” imply a pragmatic or a political objective?

These two questions are interwoven. A pragmatic Humanities ensures jobs for graduates to informing policy-makers, a pragmatic Humanities is fruitful and useful. But a political humanities that focuses on “race studies,” “gender studies,” and so on is simply a predator and parasite on academia, using academic resources to achieve a political objective. Megan McArdle’s post is prety dumb — it’s on the same level of intellectualism as an Afghan hick who dismisses astronomy by saying — but both she and Khan are reacting against the entrenched leftism of the humanities.

What You Do

It’s possible to have a fascinating, rewarding, and fun career in the Sciences or in the Humanities, in academia, in non-profits, government, or in business. Both the Humanities and the Sciences understand the same world, and their purposes overlap in their call to improve the world. How well you learn the tools and avoid the pitfalls of fulfilling these purposes can matter a lot.

This Too Shall Pass

The Big Think has a rather poorly worded article, “Can we reach the end of knowledge.”

The article borders are incomprehensibility, because it confuses three things: ways of knowing, which are how we understand the world, science, one way of knowing based on testing falsifiable hypotheses, and normal science, which is a social phenomenon capable of scientific progress through the exemplars of good research.

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Humans will have “ways of knowing” as long as we exist, and science as long as we desire it, so the only sensible way to ask the question is how normal science will end: how will we stop making scientific progress?

Assuming a lack of a nuclear holocaust or other calamity, we will stop making progress in science for the same reason that we will stop making progress in the construction of propeller planes (a technology that has been in decay since the 1940s): the costs will exceed the benefits.

Three broad possible mechanisms for the end of normal science, therefore, are:

1. Increase in the costs of normal science, all other things being equal, or
2. Decrease in the benefits of, normal science, all other things being equal, or
3. Some external change, in other words, all things stop being equal.

On way the costs of normal science might increase is if that non-scientific fields outbid scientific fields for workers whose skills are essential to science. We may already be seeing this happen. A bit ago, Razib Khan had a much better written article, “The Real End of Science,” in which he noted the increase in scientific cheating. This is presumably undetected because there are too few scientists relative to the work we have available to them, and how much we are paying them.

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Related to this, normal science may end because of a decrease in the benefits of normal science. Perhaps the economic return on capital in both the short, medium, and long terms will be relatively low for scientific investments as opposed to capital improvements, and so it does not make sense to pay enough for scientists to engage in research that can make progress.

Thirdly, the ecosystem that supports normal science might collapse, changing the costs and benefits simultaneously. For instance, folks like Diane Ravitch are openly hostile to normal science and the federal-academic complex that supports it. A coalition of leftists and rightists could take down or deform the Large Research Universities and the Grant Funding Agencies to greatly retard normal science, subjecting them to the same lobotomy of low wages that has destroyed the American teaching profession.

Of course normal science will end. The important questions are when it will end, and who will miss it?

Progress, Science, and Exemplars — or — when it sucks to be young

Some people divide the ways we know about our world into two types, Science and Inquiry. Science typically refers to using falsifiable hypotheses to make predictions about the world. Inquiry refers to any deviation or alteration of this method.

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For the rest of this post I’m going to talk about fields in which the objective is to control, predict, and improve the behavior of some object (cancer cell, human being, State, whatever). That is the purpose for which the tool of science is most applicable.

Some people further divide Science into two types: Normal Science and Revolutionary Science. These terms from from Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Normal Science, in Thomas Kuhn’s original model, was capable of progress but governed by religious-like “paradigms.” Revolutionary Science, likewise in Kuhn’s outdated model, was capable of freedom but incapable of progress.

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I say “original” and “outdated” because no one — except for pretentious modern literature types, and including Kuhn himself — takes that model seriously anymore. While The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a breakthrough at the time (because it implied that science was not completely free, and that not all science would yield progress), the feedback to the model was intense and Kuhn’s model of science rapidly improved.

Instead of two distinct types of Science, Kuhn’s revised models described any scientific field as having “exemplars,” or examples of how the best research is conducted. Some fields (like structural equation modeling, say) have exemplars which are very similar and allow creativity only within that narrow and defined space. These “Normal” fields are capable of rapid progress. Other fields (like political science, say) have exemplars which are so wide and dispirit that researchers can basically do anything they want, and progress is extremely difficult.

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The looser the set of exemplars, the more role there is for “inquiry” within the science. For instance, take my own field (Educational Psychology). My dissertation was a mixed methods inquiry that involved a substantive literature review that stretched back to the 1970s as well as qualitative interviews with participants. That sounds a lot like inquiry and non-science. But my methodological section involved a literature review that went only back to 1999, with most of the work having been published within just a few years of my dissertation. That sounds a lot like science and progress.

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One way this matters is that in less-progressive, more scientific, looser-exemplar, fields, “knowledge” and “experience” are both measured in years. The less things change — the less progress is made — the less youth matters relative to years of experience.

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The worse your bargaining position as you start in life, the more you find yourself without experience in an experiential field, the harder everything is. In some antiquated and retrogressive societies, workers with poor negotiating position are even told who they may and may not marry.

Of course, it’s possible for the young to do well in less progressive fields of study, as the old may do well in more progressive fields of study. It’s just that the field is never balanced. Experience pays, and the level of progressive in the field determines how much.

The New Core sets the New Rules, on Designer Babies

Today’s food for thought:

Many discussions on designer babies — that form of eugnics which operates by selecting attributes for the next generation of your biological family — seem to assume that the culture and moral compass of the United States and Europe will matter much. America and Europe are comfortable, labor-poor, capital-rich societies, and can rely on a large and generous government to protect them. Economic growth and welfare policies mean that few Americans or Europeans will ever know true poverty, and while the poor are effectively punished in numerous ways (such as having to live with a violent underlcass), these concerns are politely ignored and the poor are criticized for raising them.

The rising countries of the New Core are not so lucky. Things which are matter of convenience for us are matters of survival for them. Terrorism, high energy prices, and similar things inconvenience us but threaten to relegate rising nations like India and China back into poverty and neglect.

So India and China are hungry. They are changing the game. And that applies to designer babies, too.

In America, we take education for granted to such an extent that only rare politicians like George Bush and Ted Kennedy take the political heat for trying to fix it. We do not have the National Exams of China, or the Indian Institutes of Technology, that aggressively weed out all but the best students. In the United States, for most students, the difference between attending a school in the top 5, top 10, and top 50 is pretty negligible — your success will largely be a result of your ability and effort. A 2% of 10% better chance of gtting a good grade or doing well in high school simply isn’t a concern of parents in Europe or the United States.

Those things do matter is in India and China.

So when genetic screening for positive traits hits the $10,000 range, expect a large Indian and Chinese middle class to begin selecting for socially desirable traits, such as dilligence, future-orientation, intelligence, height, fair skin, and so on.

All this chatter about Gattaca won’t matter much. One might as well have tried to turn back the Industrialization of the United States by citing “And did those feet in ancient time.”

Hungry nations care about success for more than sentimentality.

Sentimentality may a drug for the rich and the poor, but not those among the poor who desire to be rich.

Be Resilient, Part IV: The Importance of Measurement

SOA, Resiliency & Consiliency,” by Stephen DeAngelis, Enterprise Resilience Management Blog, 16 May 2006, http://enterpriseresilienceblog.typepad.com/enterprise_resilience_man/2006/05/the_blogger_wig.html.

Child Labor & Resilient Nations,” by Stephen DeAngelis, Enterprise Resilience Management Blog, 7 September 2006, http://enterpriseresilienceblog.typepad.com/enterprise_resilience_man/2006/09/child_labor_res.html.

But why measure? Why not just wax poetically about social OODA loops, revised OODA loops, and other unfalsifiable concepts? Just because those are unscientific concepts, of course, do not make them wrong.

Maybe we should just think that

that resilience can’t be developed sector by sector. It must be developed holistically, with challenges in each sector attacked simultaneously. Otherwise, advances in one sector are cancelled out by setbacks in others.

The answer is: a “holistic” view of resilience is operationally worthless. Holism replaces action with an ephemeral philosophy that is not relevant for Development-in-a-Box, or anything “in-a-Box.”

I don’t think I am saying anything controversial here. Enterra CEO Steve DeAngelis, who gave the above quote about holistic approaches, earlier qualified his speech by emphasizing that his words should not be taken precisely

Both Safranski and Weeks are correct that resilience, strictly defined, refers only to a bouncing back. Unfortunately, I live in the business world where words are used to “sell” not just explain. In Enterra Solution sales pitches we try to make the point that resilience (i.e., bouncing back) is no longer sufficient if organizations want to thrive, not just survive, when faced with emerging 21st century challenges.

In business, science, are any progressive enterprise that focuses on development, selling is critical. It is crucial to generate theories and objective facts that can be understood, even without some deeper philosophically harmony between partners.

There are times and places for subjective arguments. I’ve lauded subjective perspectives, such as interpretivism and constructivism, on this blog before. Great scientific theories, such as the Wary Cooperator Model, are built from horizontal thinking. Positivism will never explain everything to us, and it may not even explain much that matters to us. When we try to induce meaning from brute facts we may even be deceived.

But that does not detract from the insistence that developmental, progressive fields of study need measurement. That’s how we build useful bodies of knowledge. That’s how we create useful fields for engineers, such as resilient software development.

That’s how science works.


Be Resilient, a tdaxp series
1. How to Measure Resilience
2. How to Measure Agility
3. How to Measure Resiliency
4. The Importance of Measurement