Monday, February 12, 2007

The Mooney-Sokal op-ed   posted by the @ 2/12/2007 07:40:00 PM

I already miss Just Science week...

Chris Mooney and Alan Sokal wrote an op-ed in the LA Times titled "Can Washington get smart about science?" This post is a response of sorts, mostly an appeal to recognize that the "war on science" goes beyond the participants identified by Mooney and Sokal. For the most part, I am operating under the assumption that the problems identified by Mooney and Sokal are real and important, but I will argue that the problem they identify extends into academia.

I'll briefly summarize my main argument, and then try to respond to specific anticipated issues.

Main argument:

Per the Mooney-Sokal op-ed, when political figures obscure science for political ends, it distorts the ability of science to inform policy. Likewise, when academic scientists and scholars seek to obscure science (e.g., cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology) for political ends, they are contributing to the same problem.

Ostensibly, politicians attack science where they fear that the results will be damaging to their policy preferences. We can imagine that they might have yet been able to defend their policy preferences while accepting the empirical findings of scientists, but that they found it easier or more effective to sow doubt about the science itself (see this post). For discussion, let's stipulate that this is a generally bad practice for a variety of reasons. In another form, religious individuals and organizations fear the corrosive effect of Darwinism on religious belief, moral values, etc. In response, they attack the empirical findings of Darwinism rather than confronting the issue at the intersection between facts and values.

A highly analogous situation has existed and continues to exist with respect to various areas of science in which the opposition to science comes from with academia, but the motivations for the opposition are primarily political, particularly the fear of that the results will have corrosive effects on the preferred moral and political positions. The most vivid case was the controversy over sociobiology, where Gould, Lewontin and others attacked sociobiology for predominantly political reasons (including their commitment to Marxism). The phenomena is seen in the resistance to new results from "the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution" documented by Pinker in The Blank Slate. And it is seen in social prohibitions against research or discourse on certain "dangerous" topics in the human sciences (and others) as taboo subjects, exemplified in the response to Larry Summers' speech.

To approximately the extent that it's appropriate to identify the problem in Washington as a "Republican" war on science, it is appropriate to identify the problem in academia as a "Leftist" war on science. Each is damaging to the proper application of science to public policy. Each can be confronted at the same time without having to split resources between the two fights. And to confront one without confronting the other only opens one to accusations of unequal or biased treatment of the subject.


What is the problem in academia?

The political interference with science in academia is a different phenomenon than the 1990s "science wars" over postmodern criticisms of science. It is better identified as left-political objection to certain results, predominantly from the human science, and especially as they relate to human evolution, human behavior and society. This interference occurs in sciences at many levels of progress or scholarly acceptance. It includes the differential scientific treatment of hypotheses based on inferences about their political and moral consequences, rather than on their scientific merits. It includes the differential acclaim and reward given in the media and by scientific publishers to scientific hypotheses based on inferences about their political and moral consequences. And for the most taboo topics, it includes public disapprobation of scientists on the basis of inferences about the political and moral implications of hypotheses they advance, interference with their ability to publish, interference with their ability to secure funding, threats to their job security, and legal threats.

Perhaps the best studied example is the sociobiology debate, one of the most extreme and publicly visible episodes. The debate has been summarized in various books (e.g., Defenders of the Truth), and a suitable summary of the political motivations behind the strongest positions against sociobiology can be read at GNXP here. Pinker (2002) has explored many facets of the issue in detail, expanding beyond the scope of the sociobiology debate. It may help to quote Pinker's (2006) summary of The Blank Slate to give a sense of the situation:
I've suggested that the dominant theory of human nature in modern intellectual life is based on the Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine, and that these doctrines have been challenged by the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution. The challenges have also been seen to threaten sacred moral values. But, in fact, that doesn'’t follow. On the contrary, I think a better understanding of what makes us tick, and of our place in nature, can clarify those values. This understanding shows that political equality does not require sameness, but rather policies that treat people as individuals with rights; that moral progress does not require that the mind is free of selfish motives, only that it has other motives to counteract them; that responsibility does not require that behavior is uncaused, only that it responds to contingencies of credit and blame; and that meaning in life does not require that the process that shaped the brain have a purpose, only that the brain itself have a purpose.

Finally, I've argued that grounding values in a blank slate is a mistake. It's a mistake because it makes our values hostages to fortune, implying that some day, discoveries from the field or lab could make them obsolete. And it's a mistake because it conceals the downsides of denying human nature, including persecution of the successful, totalitarian social engineering, an exaggeration of the effects of the environment (such as in parenting and the criminal justice system), a mystification of the rationale behind responsibility, democracy, and morality, and the devaluating of human life on Earth. [source]
All of these topics share in common the accusation that they are dangerous. We can get a sense of this concept from the 2006 question:
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?[source]
The lengthy discussion at is worth exploring.

Though a sociological process that is beyond me to detail, the most dangerous topics become taboo as the inferred political implications of research findings move from merely unpleasant to unthinkable. Thankfully we live in a time where intellectual heresies are not punished with death (or house arrest), but there are still social and professional impediments to the investigation of taboo topics, mostly from the left within academia, but also from the right. I will return to taboo topics later.

Even granting the existence of a "Left's war on science", isn't the "Republican war on science" much worse?

I don't know, and I'm not sure how one would measure this. No mere compilation of anecdotes would be sufficient to decide that issue and so I will not build one here. As Razib has pointed out, the sample space is so large that all but the most thoughtful and careful answers to that question is bound to be marred by sample biasing. Similarly, Will Wilkinson has pointed out in a similar context that confirmation bias is a problem in attempting to answer this kind of question.

Instead, I argue that there is a strong analogy between the motivations and end results of each party's war on science, with results of a similar kind if not magnitude. The analogy is most obvious in the two-front attacks on Darwininism (from left and right). A lengthy quote from Pinker captures the problem:
Many people are sorry to "lose God" when they hear of these findings, or at least sorry to lose the values that have traditionally been associated with God. There has been a widespread fear and loathing of human nature, both from the left and from the right, for some reasons that are distinct and some that are overlapping.

From the academic left, there was a vehement, and sometimes violent, reaction to the people who first publicized these ideas in the 1970s, such as E. O. Wilson. An example is the manifesto called Against Sociobiology, written by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin and published in the New York Review of Books, which said:

The reason for the survival of these recurrent determinist theories is that they consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo, and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race, or sex. These theories provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws, and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.

Because of such accusations, Wilson, was often picketed and assaulted when he spoke about these ideas in the 1970s and 1980s. One campus poster read, "Come and hear Edward O. Wilson, sociobiologist and the prophet of right-wing patriarchy. Bring noisemakers."

For all this, the right-wing patriarchy wasn’t so thrilled with these ideas either. There were also denunciations from the religious and cultural right, such as an essay by Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard which said that "biological theories of the mind are sure to give you the creeps, because whether a behavior is moral, whether it signifies virtue, is a judgment that the new science, and materialism in general, cannot make." He contrasted it with the Judeo-Christian view, according to which "human beings are persons from the start, endowed with a soul, created by God, and infinitely precious. And this is the common understanding the new science means to undo." (This, I think, is the real motivation behind the movement to discredit Darwinism in the schools by teaching "Intelligent Design" as an alternative, rather than a concern to provide students with the best theory of where earthworms and mushrooms and oak trees came from.) Another example is Tom DeLay's theory of the cause of the Columbine High School shootings, who said that such outbursts are inevitable "because our school systems teach children that they are nothing but glorified apes, evolutionized out of some primordial soup of mud." And the US House Judiciary Committee heard the following testimony about the dangers of Darwinism from a representative of the Discovery Institute (the main force behind the revival of creationism). They were told about the pernicious effects of biological thinking in popular culture such as the lyrics to a rock song:

You and me, baby
Ain't nothing but mammals,
So let's do it like they do it
On The Discovery Channel.

Though these reactions seem extreme, they raise serious moral and political issues. Indeed, the brouhaha at my own institution (Harvard) last January shows that they are by no means a thing of the past. I think it's essential to look at the connection between the politics and the science with some care, and to ask why are there such emotional reactions, and how are they best addressed. [source]

What's the point of bringing this up? How does this relate to the Mooney-Sokal op-ed?

First, note that Mooney and Sokal call for a response from the community:
TO ADDRESS this new crisis over the relationship between science and politics, we propose a combination of political activism and institutional reform.
I would argue that anyone heeding this call is obliged to consider the issue of the academic left's treatment of science if for no other reason than intellectual honesty and openness. They should take the time to familiarize themselves with the controversy and should attempt to make a determination for themselves about the issues. This is the "consciousness raising" motivation for my post.

To further this appeal to reason, I'll quote from review of The Blank Slate in the journal Social Anarchism, which is a admirable display of intellectual openness (along the lines of Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left; credit):
In these first years of the new century anarchism, as a philosophy and as an ongoing praxis, is faced with a number of disconcerting adjustments. Chief among these is the growing evidence that we, along with most other ideologies on the Left, have based our theory on a mistaken concept of human nature. We have learned over the years to distrust words like sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, and above all that dreaded buzzword, "hard-wired" -- yet we can no longer ignore the fact that these sciences are probably right about human nature. It does exist; it has biological roots; and while it does enjoy a large measure of free will, its most basic drives and emotions are indeed hard-wired. The Left has long resisted and denied these facts, on the grounds that they might justify discrimination based on heredity, or that they militate against the possibility of radical social reform, or both. I hope to demonstrate that these fears are groundless.
If there's one good thing we have learned from modern science, going all the way back to Bacon and Galileo, it's this: you can't pick and choose your evidence to fit your preconceived opinion." [source]
Second, if those who heed the Mooney-Sokal call ignore these issues (e.g., remain ignorant of them), they will open themselves to counter-arguments that they are simply ideologically motivated themselves, and thus their specific arguments can be dismissed. I know of two relevant instances where similar arguments have been made; one is a response to The Republican War on Science. I quote them here to offer evidence that this kind of response is fresh on the mind of potential critics, not to suggest that the responses are themselves correct in their original context.

John Holbo:
Being pro-science is, on average, part of your self-conception if you are an 'enterpriser'. You are an optimistic believer in the power of technology and science to generate wealth and improve human life. This lot will look at Mooney's cover and feel personally slandered. 'How can I be part of a war on science? I think the X-Prize is great! I want science to make me live forever! I love my new digital camera! Liberals are the ones who are always refusing to look at the facts. Look what they did to poor Larry Summers because he tried to speak truth to power! They buried their heads in the sand when The Bell Curve came out! Whimpering about 'frankenfood'. Postmodern nonsense! [source]
Jonah Goldberg:
And that gets us to the heart of why this study is more bogus than a $6 dollar Rolex. Virtually all of the characteristics the authors attribute to the right can be equally laid at the feet of the left. If you think left-wingers have a high tolerance for ambiguity, tell one it's not clear that Head Start does any good at all. Talk to them about racial differences. Say: "Even if gay marriage were worth doing, there would be many devastating negative consequences." Mention that a factory closing can be a good thing. Tell them it's okay for economists to put a specific monetary value on a human life. Tell them intelligence tests measure intelligence. Tell them something can be simultaneously bad and constitutional. Indeed, don't get me started on the myopia of the left on constitutional questions; tell a campus liberal that Brown v. Board of Education had a good effect but was a terribly reasoned decision and they will look at you as if you'd said grobn gleebin grobbin grobin while standing on one foot. I've just watched my wife spend a year debating Title IX please don't tell me that feminists have a rich love of exchange and a gift for understanding nuance.[source]

I argue that it won't be sufficient to merely deny that there are problems on the left. This argument is too easily defeated, and it opens one's other arguments to suspicion. I suggest that the only way to address the issue of the "left's war" is to tackle it head on.

Taboo topics

Although it is a sad admission, I recognize that many academics are not prepared to separate their moral feelings about many taboo topics from their treatment of scientific research which addresses them. However, I argue it is essential to recognize that this is a failing, not a virtue; just as it is a failing, not a virtue, for politicians to ignore and misrepresent scientific findings for political ends regardless of their justification. Some may be tempted to argue that some "dangerous ideas" are legitimately dangerous and research on them should be proscribed. If these same people want to address the issues of Republican political interference with science, they will have explain why this is not a case of special pleading.

For example, I don't think it's obvious that fundamentalist Christian fears that Darwinism will lead to the death of morality and the collapse of civil society are less reasonable or strongly-believed than the fear that the discovery of a genetic or biological contribution to social inequalities will lead to death of empathy for the disadvantaged and the collapse of all progressive values. Parenthetically, I don't think either inference is warranted as I actually believe both antecedents to be true without finding myself compelled to endorse either consequent.

To make these issues concrete, I'll offer a partial listing of taboo research topics:
* sex differences in intelligence, personality, aptitudes, emotions, and interests (remember Larry Summers)
* homosexuality, especially its causes and consequences
* human reproductive cloning and human genetic enhancement
* racial and ethnic group differences in socially-valued traits like intelligence and social-disvalued traits like propensity to criminal behavior, especially their causes (e.g. the CHC hypothesis of Ashkenazi intelligence, Arthur Jensen's 1969 HER paper)
* the social value and impact, current and historical of religions
* native/tribal peoples, especially the nastiness of their societies, their impacts on their environment, and the causes of their conquest by Europeans (think Jared Diamond -- GGS and Collapse)
* intelligence differences between individuals, their causes, their impacts on social outcomes, and dysgenic trends (e.g., the real topic of The Bell Curve)
* rape and other aspects of human sexual behavior
* markets for adoption, egg "donation", human organs, etc.
* anything else related to race that isn't emotionally uplifting (e.g., biological contributions to health outcome disparities)

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