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On In Our Time with Melvin Bragg the host often asks his guests to give him a “flavor” of the debate amongst scholars. I always feel that this is acceptable when they are talking about history (e.g., The Diet of Worms), but somewhat bristle at the presumption when it comes to science (e.g., Galaxies). I suppose that I feel that much of scientific work on an advanced level, when science become more than just natural philosophy, is beyond simple intelligibility via sampling a “flavor.” In other words, the necessary contigency of scientific debate makes is rather difficult to extract out a portion to impart the quality of the argument. In contrast history is a bundle of facts with little theoretical unity, so one can more easily capture via sampling the rough distribution of the debate. Agree or disagree?


  1. I would have thought it’s more to do with the fact that many scientific debates are carried out in technical languages which don’t always translate well to ordinary language. Another related reason is that scientific debates tend to be conducted with a lot of assumed background knowledge. This might be a symptom of theoretical unity, but it certainly doesn’t imply it.

  2. Another related reason is that scientific debates tend to be conducted with a lot of assumed background knowledge 
    that’s something i was getting to with the reference to contingency. to comprehend z, you need to have a-y nailed down….

  3. Razib: 
    And history doesn’t require a-y being nailed down?  
    History isn’t really a bundle of facts, per se, I would say it’s more like a Jenga stack. You can pull out quite a bit, but pull one out the wrong way and the whole thing comes tumbling down. 
    Also, I would say not all historical methodology is complete litcrit derived horsehockey pulled out of some cultural studies pool. It is specialist jargon and information, that while nowhere near as complex as say genetics or geophysics, still takes some training to learn. 
    In order to get the flavor of beefstock for whatever fairly large question out there, most of the meat has to be boiled away, I suppose. 
    I think the key difference here is that while something like the Diet of Worms is a fairly settled historical debate, something still fairly open like The Silk Road has a lot more stuff to boil away.

  4. see this old post spike. in any case, the key is that i think my point is that history is more analog. or, that if you have a distribution of facts toward a central tendency you can approximate that distribution with just 10 facts which you can fit into 30 minutes or so via exposition. in many scientific systems you can’t really make out the whole picture with just a subset of facts.

  5. Razib: 
    Well, if I’m understanding you right, it bugs you when the “flavor” seems like fudging complexity in order to get a simple idea across that’s oversimplified at best, scientifically speaking. 
    I don’t think that this is symptomatic of just science. Frex, in teaching a 100-level religion class, the in-joke among us TAs is how we’re “lying” to the undergrads. A big example of this is the presentations on eastern religions. We have to fudge the often complex nature of how belief and adherence is different in east Asia particularly just in order so we can convey facts like “The difference between Mahayana and Therevada can be remembered by this easy chart” or “Zen Buddhism deals with breaking out of logical thought patterns.” After all, there’s only so much time, and these are freshmen who are already blown away by the fact that Catholics are Christians. 
    The way I remember my undergrad science classes seem more geared towards “flavor”, Namely oversimplified and not as rigorous as could be. Still, it gave me the necessary toolset to be able to come here and learn more about the subject on my own. True this isn’t addressing the whole “Now take the calipers and measure the skull of the frog and then gather a class average from the measurements.” vs. “What is the impact of Pure Land Buddhism in Vietnam.”, but I think it’s somewhat tangential.

  6. C’mon–it’s just a figure of speech, like speaking of “taking the temperature” of those to whom one’s sales staff might be in the process of pitching something. And, prior to that, in internal discussion, with each possible pitch, they’d “run it up the flagpole to see who salutes.” 
    As long as people are capable of circularity, those keen to detect and appreciate the bias of others will angle to get colleagues to express privately their particular slant on a matter, no matter their reputation for being on the level. In such cases, conclusions will be drawn quite as much from oblique references as from flat assertions. And, whether you think outside the box, connect the dots, read between the lines, or merely fill in the blanks, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the shape of things to come. Me–I’m more into getting the lay of the land (or her sister).

  7. Although your intent may be benign, your argument sniffs of high-priest nonsense. “You, the great unwashed cannot possibly begin to understand the subtlety and complexity of the arguments we have.” Sorry, but that won’t wash with possibly a very few exceptions–string theory comes to mind–where the debate is so out there that no lay distillation seems possible. 
    Then again string theory is probably the aforementioned Jenga stack that will, it seems likely, come tumbling down one of these days and be replaced by something intelligible or at least explicable. 
    In any event, consider that the “flavor” Bragg seeks may be independent of the technical complexity and more intended to get at the nature of the argument. Is the debate about major theoretical choices or about the filigree on the edges? He may be trying to gauge the maturity of the field and whether it is time for a serious attempt at lay understanding or is still too volatile to bother.

  8. So what was the flavor of The Diet of Worms?

  9. One problem is that when you’re talking about a specialist debate in some technical area, it’s often pretty-much impossible for non-specialists to form an independent opinion–in order to be able to form an opinion, you need to understand a huge amount of surrounding material. Then, the discussion for the lay audience has to degenerate into quoting the sources and letting the reader decide if the Berkeley expert is more trustworthy than the Stanford expert.  
    This gets much worse when political and social movements are linked into the questions of fact, here. Is human CO2 production causing global climate change? Are the racial differences in IQ substantially based on genetic differences? Is fission power capable of supplying electricity in an affordable and safe way? These are all political debates in the public, and scientific debates among experts. Deciding which political side you like is a lousy way of deciding which facts are right, but it’s also a pretty common way to do so. (Look at the distribution of people who claim the Lancet study on Iraqi excess deaths since the war started is either deeply flawed or obviously rock-solid.)

  10. Albatross, 
    You bring up a very good point, when you say: 
    the reader [must] decide if the Berkeley expert is more trustworthy than the Stanford expert.  
    I’ve been to any number of IT Sales presentation, where an IT Director – typically in a law firm – has a liberal arts background, and has to make a decision on whether to go with Microsoft or Linux, C# or Java, etc., and completely fails to grasp the details, changes and ramifications of such a decision. I’ve actually had an IT Director tell me, “You seem more confident, so I’ll go with your proposed solution” – LOL. 
    I think it all depends on context and a modicum of intelligence. For instance I have a basic science background, and so have no problem following any of the discussions on this blog, even though I’m not familiar with all the surrounding details, but can usually infer the unstated, or do a little Googling for more background.

  11. Uncle Kenny, David, 
    I agree with the trust of your argument, as “The Diet of Worms” does need quite a bit of background to be put in context. I think that arguments involving politics, history, psychology or sociology, because they are carried out in standard English, and don’t rely too much on jargonese, can seem deceptively easy to comprehend, yet may hide much subtlety for the novice.

  12. “these are freshmen who are already blown away by the fact that Catholics are Christians”: “fact”? Surely you mean conjecture designed to prvoke debate?

  13. bioIgnoramus: 
    I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Roman Catholics are a subset of an overall catagory of Christian. It’s just nowadays, many freshmen seem to think that Catholicism is a completely different religion from “Christianity” due to the fact Evangelicalism has had quite a bit of success in identifying itself as the nominal form of Christianity.

  14. many freshmen seem to think that Catholicism is a completely different religion from “Christianity” due to the fact Evangelicalism has had quite a bit of success in identifying itself as the nominal form of Christianity. 
    this is regionally biased. i’ve noticed it is much stronger in the south, where even major newspapers (e.g., houston chronicle) will distinguish between ‘christianity’ and ‘catholicism.’ growing up among ethnic whites in new york the only protestants i knew of were generally black.

  15. No, Spike, I was being semi-serious. They’re Christians in that they believe in the Trinity, but then they add to that by attributing divine properties to Mary, the Pope, and even the priesthood. I wonder how much you can add on and still usefully be called Christians. Are Mormons Christians? Worth a debate, I’d have thought.

  16. Catholics were pretty much the only Christians for a good deal of time, and the split between west and east was more about politics (whether the pope of rome is a position equal to bishops of other cities) than theology. I don’t know if there are any surviving Christian groups that trace their beliefs back to Arianism. So whether they are “really” Christian seems kind of besides the point when they defined Christianity for so long.

  17. jehovah witnesses and some unitarian christians claim that lineage, though it isn’t direct. the main qualifier you might want to put is that the non-chalcedonian churches of the east, e.g., that of armenia, egypt, the syrian jacobites, along with the nestorian assyrian church are distinct from both the chalcedonian (western and eastern) christian tradition.

  18. Razib: 
    It’s spreading outwards. I live in a very blue state, and professors tell me this is something that’s come up just within the past 10 years that never came up before. 
    Academically speaking, yes, Mormons for the most part are regarded as under the rubric of Christianity, despite their very unique theology, Academic definitions of Christianity being wider than most in-group interpretations. It’s a pretty complex issue how you catagorize when you take it one step out further, like frex Hindu orgin NRMs that claim to be “Christian”, yet are not arising from a Christian context, are essentially Hindu in theology, development and practice and claim to be Christian because Christ is an avatar and they use parts of the bible as scripture.  
    I really wish I could describe it better, but like I said, it’s fairly complex and outside of my focus.

  19. Against the general sense of Razib’s post, I’d like to say that the general run of popular science writing by competent (or major) scientists is higher than the general run of popular philosophy and social science writing. (History is pretty good too, though). A non-specialist reader won’t be able to resolve debates within the profession, but you can get a pretty good idea of what’s at stake. I think that someone who read Gould’s book, plus his five sharpest critics and maybe a couple of supporters, could get a pretty good grip on what was going on, without necessarily being right about how to resolve it. 
    Two things to watch out for are tendentious readings finding spiritual and political lessons in science (Tao of Physics, etc.), especially if they’re by non-scientists, especially if they’re written in a very popular style. 
    I distinguish “general science” from “popular science”, though they overlap. Popular science is for the 20% of the population that’s interested, while general science is for specialists in different areas. (At a higher level of competence still is stuff like “Physics for Chemists”, etc.)

  20. i’ve let the discussion wander on its own, but let me jump in. i don’t really know if i had a clear and precise conception of what i was saying, rather, it is simply a general sense that welled up within me. regarding history and science i focused on these two areas because they are where my interests run the deepest. i’m a lay person myself, i have no graduate level qualifications, my lack of facility with language blocks me from a genuine primary source of pursuit of history (unless i want to do american or english history i suppose). in relation to science i think i have a decent grasp of evolutionary theory and population genetics, but the great expanse of knowledge are black waters to me as they are to many. i depend on the guidance of professionals like anyone else. 
    re: the charge of making something a priesthood. i tend to cop a guilty plea, and not just for science. the professionals know, and the workings of their mind influenced by the knowledge base must be subtle indeed. i speak as a lay person with a pretty good grasp of many varied topics and i myself get frustrated communicating with people who simply wade into an area and bandying about a few google queries thing they can offer an assessment. i am interested a great deal in reformation history, which is why i gave the example of the diet of worms. from what i know i think historians are able to communicate with the general public in an economy of words. and yet i am generally frustrated with the depth of exposition by scientists. this i distinguish from works of geat lucidity such as the selfish gene, which probe a specific scientific topic in minute details. and yet the essence of evolutionary logic is communicable via verbal logic since that was its origin before the formalization of the theory by fisher et. al. i don’t know if one can say the same about string theory (which i know nothing about). we trust the scientist priests to be our guides through the dark waters here, and only they may pass on judgement on the fidelity that their brethren keep to the torch of truth. while evolutionary science has gone beyond its verbal origins, history  
    remains predominantly verbal. though its transformation into a social science does introduce some statistical analyses when the data sets suffice, ultimately like evolutionary science this is retransformable to verbal logic, and unlike evolutionary science the essence of history, human affairs, is intuitively transmissable.

  21. It isn’t just a matter of “verbal” historiography vs. “statistical” sciences. The form that a verbal argument takes affects how “intuitively transmissable” it is, too.  
    Think “narrative” vs., I don’t know, “treatise”. Narrative forms dominate historical writing (even highly technical monographs.) History is about people, places, and events. Even the abstractions (social changes, “forces”, etc) work as “characters”, influencing the story*. Narratives somehow hit the cognitive sweet spot and thus are easy – and enjoyable – for us to unpack and understand. (* Yes I’m aware that this is an oversimplification; I’m making an elementary point here so elementary models are what I’m selling.) 
    In contrast, in other highly verbal, a-statistical fields, narrative forms aren’t as useful or necessary to understanding and making sense of what data there is. The “treatise” category of forms is the only way to approach subjects which are basically complex systems of interacting abstractions (for instance, legal studies – US constitutional law scholarship being the pre-eminent example.) The trouble is, if a layperson asks for the “flavor” of the debate within the legal academy, either they will get a crude schematic (concealing more than it reveals) or they will be swamped with jibber-jabber. If the latter happens, the show will then suck and people won’t listen. It’s better to keep it simple, stupid. 
    So, the sciences aren’t unique in having priesthoods. Nor are their priesthoods alone in resorting to making shadow-puppets on the cave walls.