Friday, February 16, 2007

Poll the experts!   posted by Razib @ 2/16/2007 07:54:00 PM

Do you remember the age before polling in politics? I don't. Today we bemoan the emphasis on polls and idealize the past, before candidates knew in scientific and statistically significant detail the temperature of the democratic water. But no one is going to ban polls in the near future, for every person who complains about survey data there are hundreds who are clicking refresh over & over to find the most recent tracking results on their website of choice.

I think something similar is necessary for the sciences (or scholarship in general). Is George Lakoff a laughing stock (as Chris would have us believe), or a thinker of gigantic Aristotelian proportions? I suppose if you were a cognitive scientist you'd know, your sample of individuals in the field with whom you'd engaged in personal communication would be vast and you could get a sense of the direction that the wind was blowing. But for someone outside the field you basically have to trust someone on the inside and hope they aren't misleading you (or, themselves). Is multi-level selection the next big thing in evolutionary biology, as Bora claims, or is it a relatively marginal and muddled field, my own general perception? Bora has made the Kuhnian claim that multi-level selection's day will come when the older scientists die off, but how do we know that his perception is correct? One's own sample is obviously going to be biased toward those with whom one is on common ground with, perhaps there are enormous social science departments steeped in conceptual metaphor theory that Chris has no knowledge of because he is boxed in within his old fashioned world of symbolicists?

I think my point is pretty clear here: in the sciences quite often laypeople are in the position where they know with great confidence that a theory is absolutely accepted at its level of precision (e.g., Newtonian Mechanics) or totally rejected (e.g., the Aether theories). It is as if our knowledge of allele frequencies was certain with any degree of confidence only if they were operationally fixed (i.e., greater than 99%) or very rare or non-existent (i.e., less than 1%). Not only would my proposal help the public, I think it could give scientists some perspective about their position within their discipline.

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