Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Let's Get Critical

I didn't notice at first, but look at those faces.  Are they supposed to represent critical thinkers?  If so, they don't look empowered to me, they look half-asleep, drugged, out of it.  A great advertisement for the power of critical thinking!  But maybe that's just me.

This image was posted on Facebook with the following quotation:
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back. Carl Sagan
Now, appealing to authority is a very common failure of critical thinking.  (Sagan said it, I believe it, that settles it!)  But I've noticed that many people who fuss about the lack of critical thinking in our society seem rather ... vague ... about what they're asking for.

A good example of what I'm talking about is a book called Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior by Kevin N. Laland and Gillian R. Brown, published a decade ago by Oxford University Press.  It's on a subject that interests me and on which I've read quite a lot over the years, but I got bogged down in the first chapter.

Laland and Brown introduce the sociobiology debates of the 1970s and 1980s, which were sparked by the publication of Edward O. Wilson's textbook Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Harvard, 1975).  Most of the book was solid enough, even according to its critics: it dealt with work on the biology of social behavior among other species, especially insects.  But in the final chapter Wilson tried to apply the same approach to human behavior, which led to problems because while he may have known a lot about the behavior of insects, he was flat wrong in many important respects about the behavior of human beings.  Here's how Laland and Brown tell it, though.
In the final chapter of the book Wilson described how the latest advances in the study of animal behavior, particularly the insights of biologists Robert Trivers and Bill Hamilton, might explain many aspects of human behavior. He provided biological explanations for a broad range of controversial topics, including the differences between the sexes, human aggression, religion, homosexuality, and xenophobia. He also predicted that it would not be long before the social sciences were subsumed within the biological sciences. Wilson’s book provoked an uproar and launched what is now known as the ‘sociobiology debate’, which raged throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Social scientists bitterly disputed Wilson’s claims, found fault with his methods, and dismissed his explanations as speculative stories.  Intriguingly, among the most prominent critics were two members of Wilson’s own department at Harvard, evolutionary biologists Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould, who vehemently attacked the book in the popular press as simple-minded and reductionist. Yet most biologists could see the potential of the sociobiological viewpoint, which had paid great dividends in understanding other animals, and many were drawn into using these new tools to interpret humanity. The debate became polarized and highly political, with the sociobiologists accused of bolstering right-wing conservative values and the critics associated with Marxist ideology [4-5].
There are several problems here.  The "explanations" that Wilson provided for those controversial topics were, as his critics charged, speculative stories.  I'm best acquainted with the "explanation" for homosexuality, which attempted to explain the survival of a non-reproductive form of sexual behavior like homosexuality by postulating that maybe men who didn't have children were more helpful with their heterosexual siblings' children, thus increasing the chances of people who shared their genes.  This is a pretty notion, and neither implausible nor illogical.  It got a lot of attention in the gay press at the time; I remember seeing it touted in an article in Christopher Street.  But it was pure speculation, a Just-So Story invented to show how a certain result came to be.  There was no evidence whatever to support it, and in science the way I learned it at my mama's knee, it isn't a scientific explanation until you have evidence that supports it, preferably to the exclusion of alternative hypotheses.  Wilson's speculations were a tad more sophisticated than those of his Social-Darwinist forebears, but still unfounded.  (The same hypothesis is still with us, but still without sufficient evidence to support it.  Notice that in that 2010 story Wilson's idea is clearly and accurately labeled a speculation, "toyed with" in the field since he "raised it.")

So it was quite proper of social scientists to point out that Wilson got a lot of important things wrong in their field, but Laland and Brown suggest that they were just anti-science or at least anti-biology.  They admit that Wilson's speculations also were criticized by other biologists, but they too were just being bad sports who "vehemently attacked the book in the popular press as simple-minded and reductionist."  But this is incorrect.  I read a lot of Gould at the time (didn't get to Lewontin until much later), along with other writers in the debates, and as I remember it Gould (like other scientists) granted that Sociobiology was a valuable and important book when it dealt with insects, but went astray when Wilson addressed human behavior.  (P.S. I recently reread Gould's review of Wilson, and I remembered right.  It's interesting that Laland and Brown got it wrong.) There's nothing wrong per se with calling the book simple-minded and reductionist; perhaps it was; certainly Laland and Brown have mustered no reason to suppose it wasn't, though they promise to address the topic in more depth in a later chapter.  As for "vehement," though, Gould and Lewontin always seemed to me to be quite civil in their criticisms, focusing on evidence rather than personalities.  (Take a look at this 1975 letter to the New York Review of Books for a sample of the criticism Wilson's book received.  I suppose it's vehement, but it's not abusive.  It focuses on the scientific faults of Wilson's argument before it points out its political ramifications.)  It was mostly their opponents who resorted to abuse.  Michael Ruse is a good example; see his attack on Gould I quoted here, and his fussing in an interview that "You don't make progress by sitting on your bum farting on about spandrels" (quoted here). Richard Dawkins, with his idiotic hawker style as Andre Pichot calls it, didn't really join the lists until later, but he did nothing to advance civility in the debates.  Steven Pinker's another late arrival who prefers to attack his opponents for their politics rather than their science.  For that matter, Wilson himself would later rant that "Multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism."  Laland and Brown do the same thing, only more mildly, and with false equivalence between sides (both of them were polarized).

"Yet most biologists," Leland and Brown write, "could see the potential of the sociobiological viewpoint, which had paid great dividends in understanding other animals, and many were drawn into using these new tools to interpret humanity."  As far as I can tell, the critics of sociobiology didn't deny that the approach had "potential."  They were critical of the results sociobiologists claimed to have produced, but that is not merely normal in science, it's normative: scientists are supposed to try to tear each other's claims to bits.  So why did sociobiologists cry "no fair" when their work received precisely the scrutiny that every scientist officially expects?  My own guess is that it's because they weren't doing good science, for political reasons, and they knew it.

Laland and Brown then cite a corrective to all this polarization and fussin' and fightin'.  (Again, it's significant that they see critical disagreement as a bad thing.) 
In the midst of this controversy, when emotions were raised, and knee-jerk reactions common, the position of John Maynard Smith, one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, stands out for its balanced judgment and fairness. In the heat of the debate, Maynard Smith retained a dignified intermediate position, supporting science over politics and being angry at much of the unjust criticism directed at Wilson, while at the same time remaining very conscious of the dangers of an inappropriate use of biology. In an interview in 1981, he stated:

I have a lot of the gut feelings of my age of being horrified and scared of the application of biology to the social sciences – I can see … race theories, Nazism, anti-semitism and all of that. So that my initial gut reaction to Wilson’s Sociobiology was one of considerable annoyance and distress (1981: quoted in Segerstråle, 2000, pp. 240-1).

Maynard Smith confessed to finding some of Wilson’s views on human behavior ‘half-baked’, even ‘silly’. Yet in a balanced review of Sociobiology he described the book as making ‘a major contribution’ to an understanding of animal behavior and was careful to stress its many positive features [5] ...
Here Laland and Brown make a very common and popular error: they confuse moderation of tone with moderation of content, and they confuse both with being correct.  To put it crudely, suppose I say that 2 plus 2 equals 2, and you say that 2 plus 2 equals 4.  We disagree 'vehemently,' voices raised, and are near blows when along comes Maynard Smith to settle the debate by suggesting equably that 2 plus 2 equals 3.  Since he is in the middle of the road, balanced and careful to stress the many positive features of both our positions, we embrace him and his answer, joyously renouncing polarization and all its works.  Two plus two equals three, praise Pythagoras!  Let the lion lie down with the lamb!

In fact, it's Laland and Brown who place politics over science: Can't we all get along? they ask. Can't we be nice to each other? There's no need for anyone to raise their voices.  But while civility and calm are nice to have, they are irrelevant to truth in a debate.  Laland and Brown are also incorrect in ascribing "balance" to Maynard Smith alone.  Stephen Jay Gould was not alone in admitting the value of much of Wilson's book.  This did not, however, in any way, mean that Wilson's chapter on human behavior wasn't mistaken, simple-minded, reductionist, or pernicious.  Tone and content are two separate issues.  The content must be addressed on its merits, not by throwing tantrums about socialist feminists who hate science.

I don't deny that people let their emotions (or politics or wishful thinking) cloud their reasoning and arguments.  That should be a given when you're applying critical thinking.  Among the many things you learn in learning how to think critically is how to peel away the layers of emotion to try to get at the underlying argument -- which may or may not be rational.  It's not that people always try to obfuscate in order to distract attention from the flaws in their reasoning; I don't think Laland and Brown are doing that, for instance.  But they do obscure the issues by laying stress on tone and politics, all the while evidently convinced of their own reasonable rationalism.  Once you have laid bare the bones of your opponent's argument, you can then wax polemical, but only as long as your own argument remains correct.  Personally I like polemic, an admission that should surprise no one who reads this blog; but I demand that my polemics be rational and well-informed.  But I've also observed that any criticism, no matter how calm and mild in tone, will be perceived by its subject as mean and hateful -- and it will feel all the meaner and more hateful the more correct it is.

Finally, bear in mind that Laland and Brown are both scientists themselves, a research fellow and a research scientist respectively at the University of Cambridge.  Supposedly they have been trained in critical thinking and scientific method.  One reason for the stylized form of scientific publication, much like a recipe, is to try to keep emotion and politics out of the product so that fellow scientists can focus on the scientific substance.  Still, this usually works only in what Thomas Kuhn called "normal science," the routine work that doesn't upset any apple carts.  When someone comes along with a radically new theory, no matter how routine the presentation, it will still arouse emotion.  And once a scientist ventures outside the paradigm of the scientific journal article, he or she usually finds it difficult to stay rational and critical, and the scientist's temperament comes to the fore.  For Laland and Brown, the temperament involved prefers to avoid conflict and raised voices, to the extent that they find it difficult to cope with temperaments that delight in dialectic; their training fails them the minute they most enter unfamiliar territory.  But the failure isn't their subjects' rationality, it's their style.  Which has nothing much to do with scientific substance.

At the time of the 1990s Sex Panic, largely targeting gay men in New York, some people pointed out that "unsafe sex" was simply sex. Safe sex, whatever its necessity in certain circumstances, was not the default setting.  It occurred to me the other day that "magical thinking" is ordinary, vernacular, commonsense thinking, not some bizarre marginal (worse yet, "primitive") variety of thought.  Learning to think of the universe as not alive, not purposive, not something like a person, is very difficult, probably impossible.  Some people can manage this trick better than others, but they too fall back into natural language and natural thought when they're off the clock.

Of course I'm not suggesting that "natural" is always better.  What I hope to warn against is the assumption that it's only necessary to brush away a few conceptual cobwebs, obsolete heirlooms of our tribal, Stone Age past, to think clearly and See the World As It Is.  Because here's the thing about Critical Thinking: neither the world (or "Nature" -- at any rate, the impersonal Out There) or other human beings are going to hand you problems neatly on a platter.  (See?  Here's your Major Premise, and here's your Minor Premise, and here's your Conclusion.  And I've trimmed away the fat of emotion, politics, and wishful thinking for you, so all you have to do is look at the bare structure.  I think that because this is how Logic is taught, many people who should know better believe that it's how Logic works.  But once you're out of the playpen of Logic 101, you have to learn to trim away the extraneous matter yourself -- and that's not easy.)  You're going to have to look at them, think them over a while, and then try to figure out what is going on here.  Nature, not being a person, doesn't have likes or dislikes; people often do.  But more often they don't realize how they're obfuscating.  Because they are scientists, they are rational and critical by ascription.  But you only need to watch them a while to see how wrong they are.