Sunday, October 6, 2013

Come, Let Us Reason Together

I'm reading A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind (St. Martin's, 2013) by the neurologist Robert A. Burton, and it's really quite good.  Mostly because it agrees with me, of course, but it goes beyond that into some areas I hadn't already explored as much as I should have.
Scientists from Cardiff University found genetic differences between two groups of children -- a normal control group and a group diagnosed with ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder].  According to the lead author, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry, "Too often people dismiss ADHD as being down to bad parenting or poor diet.  As a clinician it was clear to me this was unlikely to be the case.  Now we can say with confidence that ADHD is a genetic disease and that the brains of children with this condition develop differently to the brains of other children."  The authors argue that the study proves that gene differences cause ADHD [49].
That bit about "As a clinician it was clear to me..." reminded me of an online exchange I had with a gay psychologist who declared that his training had taught him to look for biological causes for things like homosexuality, because they were always there.  I asked him why that should be, since science is supposed to be looking for causes without making advance assumptions about what they were?  He didn't have an answer, as I remember.  Burton continues:
The actual data: fewer than one-fifth of 360 children with ADHD had a particular genetic variant, while more than four-fifths didn't.  After reviewing the same data, others with equal background and expertise have come to an opposite conclusion: most ADHD must be caused by nongenetic factors [50].
I have no formal background or expertise, but I know that some others with such expertise would not have come to the "opposite conclusion."  (Burton's endnote points to a story that doesn't really back up that claim, while muddying the waters even further.)  They hold that the respective roles of the genes and the environment can't be separated, neatly or perhaps at all.  (I'd point to Richard C. Lewontin and Evelyn Fox Keller, especially the latter's The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture [Duke, 2010].)

But Burton redeems himself.  Well, partly.
What fascinates me is that the study authors would feel so strongly about the causal relationship between genes and a complex, controversial, and ill-defined condition.  Surely the authors must intellectually understand that behavior is a murky mixture of nature and nurture and rarely attributable to a single cause.  It is easy to dismiss their interpretation as mistaking correlation with causation, but let me cautiously suggest an additional possibility.  If each of us has his/her own innate ease or difficulty with which a sense of causation is triggered, the same data may generate different degrees of a sense of underlying causation in its readers.  Though purely speculative, I have a strong suspicion that those with the most easily triggered innate sense of causation are more likely to reduce complex behavior to specific cause-and-effect relationships, while those with lesser degrees of an inherent sense of causation are more comfortable with ambiguous and paradoxical views of human nature.  (Of course, for me to make any firm argument as to the cause of the authors' behavior would be to fall into the same trap).

Unfortunately for science, there is no standard methodology for objectively studying subjective phenomena such as the mind.  One investigator's possible correlation is another's absolute causation.  The interpretation of the cause of subjective experience is the philosophical equivalent of asking every researcher if he/she sees the same red that you do [50].
I think this is very good, though I think Burton could have left out words like "innate" and "inherent" without doing any harm to his speculation.  I've noticed before, and pointed out often, that people (including scientists) have a tendency to turn relative differences into absolute differences.  Whether this is "innate" or not seems to me not important, except for pricking the pride of some scientists.  "You just think that, but it's your genes talking."  That's what they are supposed to say to us!   They're above mere emotion, existing on a plane of pure reason and intellect!

I don't reject out of hand the idea that some people have more of this tendency than others, or that such temperamental differences might be partly "innate," whatever that means.  I do believe that the tendency is amenable to training: scientific training is supposed to correct our commonsense misperceptions, and I learned just from reading scientists to watch for this tendency in myself.  So even if it is innate, it's not immutable.  And even if it's a temperamental temptation in some individuals, the social environment of other scientists and peer reviewers in professional journals is supposed to correct for individual weaknesses by giving them input from their colleagues.  Even in the absence of a standard methodology for settling such questions, it's hard for me to see how a trait detected in fewer than 20 percent of an experimental group becomes "confidence that ADHD is a genetic disease".

But I liked Burton's admission that any argument he makes about others would apply to him too, and I recognize the same for myself.  And he concludes:
There is a great irony that underlies modern neuroscience and philosophy: the stronger an individual's involuntary mental sense of self, agency, causation, and certainty, the greater that individual's belief that the mind can explain itself.  Given what we understand about inherent biases and subliminal perceptual distortions, hiring the mind as a consultant for understanding the mind feels like the metaphoric equivalent of asking a known con man for his self-appraisal and letter of reference.  In the end, we should start at the beginning, with the unpleasant but inescapable understanding that the less than perfectly reliable mind will always be both the mind's principal investigator and tool for investigation [51].
And, I'd add, the mind as a tool will also often be the monkey wrench in the investigation.   This doesn't mean that we should simply give up the investigation, except for those whose temperament demands belief that the mind is a transparent window on the world; it just makes the investigation that much more difficult.  But simply pretending that the obstacles don't exist won't produce better results.  Come to think of it, one reason I seem to be more comfortable than many people with this paradox is that I encountered it many years ago in the writings of Alan Watts, starting with his book The Wisdom of Insecurity.

This indicates that I should pursue a question that occurred to me several years ago: What are the evolutionary roots of science?  It's a common assumption that a human phenomenon -- religion, say -- can be understood and discredited if scientists can construct a Darwinian origin-story for it.  We believe these foolish things because they're in our genes, because they might have served us well a million years ago, but not in modern times we must go along with Progress!  But everything we are was produced by evolution, on this assumption, so where did science come from?  How did Evolution select for test tubes and cyclotrons on the African savannah hundreds of thousands of years ago?  When I raised this question online a few years back, I got blank incomprehension.  Part of the origin myth of modern science is that Science humbles Proud Man by showing that he is part of  nature, not its head: that we are not at the center of the universe as our superstitious forebears believed, but live on a smallish planet orbiting a smallish star near but not at the rim of the vast galaxy; nor are we a special creation by the hand of the Lord but one more product of natural biological processes, like every other organism; and so on.   But many people apparently still want to believe that Science transcends biology, that it allows us to be not slaves of Nature but her Master.  This is doubtful just a priori, but the very evidence of science also undermines the fantasy.

Which reminds me of the science blogger who believed "social constructionists" should feel "uncomfortable" because "the best evidence" for their critiques of certain scientific claims comes from science.  As I wrote, I don't see any conflict here at all.  But maybe scientists should feel uncomfortable when evidence from "science" undermines their particular construction (essentialist, determinist, mechanistic) of "science."  The biggest mistake for those scientists' critics would be to cede that construction to them as What Science Is.