Saturday, February 09, 2008

Reactionary (Pseudo-)Science

Okay, I am still wandering the life & style section of newspapers and found another disgraceful and infuriating article. Apparently some "research" somewhere has shown that women prefer breeding and rearing babies more than climbing corporate ladder. I have absolutely no interest in getting into the details of this so-called research but this has become part of a very annoying trend so I thought I will vent some of my irritation here.

First of all the abuse of scientific method and the dishonest way the researchers in humanities try to piggyback on the prestige and the certainties associated with "hard sciences". To be fair, the original research paper generally would make (it has to, actually) the methodological assumptions very clear before stating any conclusions but the same can't be said of journalists who report it in the popular media or the scientists themselves who write popular books for mainstream consumption. Now, I am not denying the possibility of the use of scientific method in these subjects even though they most certainly fall far short of standard criteria of verifiability, falsifiability, repeatable experiments etc which are the hallmarks of scientific method. After all, there are many different levels of certainties. It may not ever reach the certainty of laws of physics but still there are different gradations of truth. But still you just have to think about the good old problem of induction to see the essential ridiculousness of any such research which observes a sample size of few thousands and concludes for the entire human race. I wonder what would Hume have made of it? He even doubted common-sensical causation as logical invalid. (The fact that causation can never be concluded just from spatio-temporal adjacency and succession of two events!) And not to mention the irony of the whole thing! The same arts and humanities people never miss a chance to belittle claims of objectivity and superiority of scientific method by using fanciful theories (Thomas Kuhn et.al.)

As I said I am not arguing against the use of scientific method in these subjects but the essential limitations and assumptions should be properly stated when one is advertising the results. That brings me to second and even more important point. The way science is being used more and more to make normative judgments about social policies. The job of science is to explain phenomena, and not to tell us what we should do. If we confuse facts with values we will be prone to both factual error and also doubtful ethical judgments. Doing otherwise would be to commit what is called naturalistic fallacy - that is, what should be doesn't imply from what is. They are both two very different things. So even though by some truly remarkable and groundbreaking research one "proves" that women indeed prefer breeding and lack the will to succeed in a career, it still doesn't justify the wage differentials between the two genders. Again, it is generally not the scientists but the journalists and popular science writers who abuse science in this manner to set their own personal political agenda.

There is standard problem in philosophy of science called the demarcation problem, that is, finding the principles on the basis of which we can differentiate science from non-science and pseudo-science. Science and Philosophy are two very different things. If you mix both of them together it will create confusion in both camps. Just to take the example of gender, science can explain how male and female sexual organs work but it can't say anything to the ontological questions about the existence of gender as a category. Science can't help us in finding the meaning of what we mean when we say "X is a Man." Science can't help us decide which of the two is better, whether we should see ourselves as "men" and "women" or simply as "persons" - simply because it is a normative question which should be decided based on normative goals of individuals and society as a whole. There can be both conservative and progressive arguments which require persuasion and sustained thought and that's what these journalists and pop-science writers should focus on rather than crying eureka every second day.

10 comments:

puccinio said...

The language of science is very attractive I guess. Not just the jargon but saying that these statistics based on "reliable" sources you immediately give justification for the most horrible and reactionary and in this instance misogynist ideas. It's done so that people who hold such ideas can justify saying "statistics says...".

Most of such statistics are done on entirely fraud lines and can't be taken in any way seriously by any thinking person.

By the way, Alok have you been seeing movies lately.

Cheshire Cat said...

On the contrary, I don't think Science and Philosophy can surivive without each other. The great scientific revolutions were all driven by simple and profound philosophical questions - what is Time? what is the universe made of? what is life? etc. And the scientific method with its commitment to rational inquiry is touchstone for philosophy... It is true there are many important ethical questions on the boundary (or in the overlap) between Science and Philosophy, but the methods of both science and philosophy should be applied to these questions.

Research in the sociological sciences does mean something - it's just that we should be careful about saying exactly what.

Alok said...

cat: I am not saying that science and philosophy can survive without each other. Just that they shouldn't tread on each other's turfs. Philosophy should stick to clarifying conceptual confusions and answering questions about definitions and meanings and not attempt to explain phenomena. Similarly scientists shouldn't meddle in conceptual things like what do we mean when we say something exists or that something is real. They should stick to things they can observe, measure and repeat in experiments.

Things get specially problematic in subjects like human psychology where there is so much confusion about basic concepts. You really can't have any scientific progress, the linear accumulation of knowledge, unless everybody agrees on answers to these basic conceptual questions.

Also as I said in the post above scientific method can be used in sociological studies but we should be wary and careful because they use the same vocabulary as those of hard sciences which is not entirely justified. For example, I think words like "proof" should never be used in studies like these.

Alok said...

puccinio: exactly. the trouble in these kind of pseudo-scientific studies is that you can find enough data to support any crackpot hypothesis and then you can exploit scientific vocabulary to ward off and preempt any criticism.

About movies, yes... I have been spending more time on youtube lately :) Been a little busy and distracted lately.

Crp said...

Alok: Re Philosophy and Science, I think the waters are a lot muddier.... even in the physical sciences, even today. A good example would be String Theory, where the whole acrimonious battle of the last decade over some of the most important physics questions revolves around what is essentially a philosophical (one may even say aesthetic, since the mathematicians entered the fray) issue.

I don't think this is a new phenomenon -- for example calculus..... the whole debate over the reality of fluxions? infinitesimals ? real numbers ? the philosophical questions were central for the mathematicians right from Newton to Weirstrass.

But your other point about sloppy journalism I completely agree with and I would like to add a related point about the mainstream trivialization of science.

I once saw a 2 hour program on PBS on String Theory featuring, almost exclusively, a pretty woman passionately sawing away on a cello (because it's "string" theory right ?). The whole theory was apparently nothing more than the fact that the universe is a cosmic cello -- anyone could have come up with this over lunch.

If this is how we present some of the most intricate and beautiful thought systems (whether it is ultimately right or wrong is immaterial to my point) ever conceived by the human brain, is it a surprise that religious/non-scientific nutcases apply artistic license to scientific truth and dismiss it with impunity and considerable success ?

Vidya said...

@alok,
When I asked one humanities professor what the criteria are for something becoming a theory, among other things she listed,'Being cited or referred in n other works' as academic acceptance.This made my head reel.

Even in life sciences there is an issue of statistics saying something and their interpretation saying something else. I see the whole problem as reliance on hypothesis theory an how that works.In a lot of cases it seemed like how your result turns out depends on how you formulate your null hypothesis. May be the trick is to supplement it with other methods and techniques in addition to the hypothesis theories.

Lastly I find this trend to emphasize quick conclusions (and papers/mags using them as headlines) not in philosophy but in life sciences,psychology, biology, history and all those fields that might grab a wide attention and that which has a scope for impacting public opinion as a whole.May be it is the newspapers that look for and publicize viral research rather than other more grounded results?

Vidya said...

And do check out www.jir.com incase you have'nt heard of it.

Alok said...

crp: entirely agree that scientists have to rely on philosophical concepts... it is only when they don't agree on some meaning of concepts or try to define it themselves that things get complicated. Not just string theory, it is the same reason why we still don't have any science of consciousness.

It is also, I think, extremely arrogant for physicists to claim that they can (or have) found solutions to questions which the greatest thinkers have been thinking about for thousands of years.... these questions are not "problems" in the scientific and mathematical sense, which can be solved in labs or through fancy equations.

vidya: lol! I had never heard of that journal. Thanks a lot for the link.

The hypothesis theory works well in natural sciences because the implicit assumption that natural laws are consistent and not random holds true. The same can't be said of social studies (misleadingly called "social sciences").

I am not saying we can never have any predictive and explanatory theories in these subjects but we just have to keep in mind the basic assumptions and preferably use a different vocabularly so that people are not misled.

Jim H. said...

One interesting area where scientific finding impacts philosophical understanding is in the understanding of the place of human life in nature and in the universe. We all know that at some point in the (hopefully) way distant future, life on earth as we know it must end. Science shows us the sun will burn out; but we also know the dinosaurs were wiped out by cataclysm.

Philosophers need to take this finding and help us understand our politics and economics and science and literature and practically everything else in this light: should everything we do be geared to survival of our species? Is this, indeed, the meaning of life?

I've been blogging on this issue (and much more) over at Wisdom of the West. Come join the discussion

BTW: I've become quite a fan of your blog here from Zembla, as I am of VN!

Best wishes,
Jim H.

Alok said...

Jim, I agree one can't ignore facts and make ethical judgements and think about philosophical things (like meaning of existence etc) but we need to understand that they are two different domains (i.e. facts and values). It reminded me of some paragraphs from Wittgenstein which I read recently. I copied some extracts from Tractatus in the next post.