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March 21, 2005

Authority & quackery

Over at Mixing Memory Chris expresses frustration at the gap between the general public's perception of cognitive science and the state of affairs within the discipline. It seems pretty clear that enemy #1 in the battle against disinformation in Chris' mind is Steven Pinker, though he seems to view Ray Jackendoff positively, who just happened to recently co-author a paper with Pinker, indicating that the "problem" with Steven Pinker is his outsized influence in the field of public exposition rather than his science within the discipline.

Nevertheless, Chris' concern is a serious point. Ideas from cognitive science like massive modularity (promoted by Pinker) have shaped the discourse in other areas. For example, I am a big fan of the work of Scott Atran, Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber, who all presuppose massive modularity in their work, but, they are all anthropologists by training! The problem seems to be that in interdisciplinary work there is a risk when you "borrow" paradigms from other fields, and make a selection out of the range of paradigms which are still competing as alternative hypotheses and simply assume one as a given. The acceptance of massive modularity by the authors above makes sense in light of the phenomena they are trying to explain (culture, religion, etc.). If massive modularity is correct then their narratives are highly persuasive to me, but, if it is found to be not supported by the consensus within cognitive science then it seems that they will have to start from ground zero.

Due to the complexity of some interdisciplinary scholarly endeavours I think that it is acceptable for thinkers to borrow theories which have not necessarily fixed themselves as orthodoxy in an affinal field. Science is by its nature contingent and most hypotheses will be found to be wanting. You are certainly increasing the probability of falsification if the conditions which your hypotheses assumes to be true are themselves less than certain, but as long as as the tenuousness of some of the conditions are made clear I do not see it as problematic. The sciences are not hermetically sealed intellectual exercises, and the utility of paradigm A borrowed from field y in field x might even have implications for the acceptance of paradigm A in field y. Consider for example Darwin's theory of evolution, it presupposed an exceedingly ancient earth for natural selection to do its work, but physicists estimated that Darwin and the geologists had overestimated by an order of magnitude. With the discovery of radioactivity the objections of physicists disappeared, but, it is a good thing that the biologists and geologists did not give due reverence to physics as the Queen of the Sciences.

Update: Chris has a semi-follow up.

Posted by razib at 01:20 PM