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Evolutionary psychology, demarcation, and grand unified theories

May 25, 2011 6 comments

Last week evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa published the highly controversial “Why Black Women are Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women.” I’m not interested in debunking his claims (that has been done quite ably elsewhere). Instead, I’ll add my two cents to a debate that cropped up on TNC’s blog. Should we consider evolutionary psychology a science? And why does it seem to repel people and is open to “hucksterism?”

I’ve discussed the science versus not-science distraction with respect to economics, and I think a similar analysis also holds here. What matters is whether a particular piece of ev-psych research is good scholarship, not whether the field as a whole can be classified as “science.”

The second question is far more interesting, and one that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while. I think ev-psych, with its grand theorizing on how evolution explains everything we observe today, can sometimes display really bad physics envy. Outside of physics, it’s often not possible to explain all phenomena with a single set of laws. Some would argue it’s not even possible in physics.

At any rate, here is the comment I left over at TNC. Of course I quote Natural Reflections at the end!

Frankly, I don’t think we should even be trying to ascertain whether ev-psych is “a science.” That question is too vague to be meaningful. What we should be doing is determining whether a particular claim is backed up by sound evidence, strong analysis and general good scholarship. Being officially considered “science” should almost be besides the point. Some research is very weak and must be taken with a grain of salt even if it is lucky enough to be labeled science. I would put much biomedical science in this category. On the other hand, some historical scholarship (e.g. the role of blacks in the Confederacy) is bolstered by reams of supporting evidence. We rightly trust such work even though historians aren’t considered scientists.

It’s important to note that apart from the opening paragraphs, Ryan spends almost no time questioning the scientific status of evolutionary psych writ-large. Rather, he meticulously and carefully demolishes Kanazawa’s specific research. That’s the approach we should always try to use. In this case, Kanzawa’s work is crap whether or not we deem it science. And since, as Ace Rock shows above, certain aspects of ev-psych do have explanatory power, it makes no sense to offer either blanket praise or condemnation for the field.

As for ev-psych’s being open to hucksterism, I attribute part of the problem to the false seduction of grand unified theories. That is, we’re always trying to find the single theory that will explain everything about everything. Physicists have been very successful at this, and I think other scientists sometimes unfortunately take a similar approach. But once the question gets very hard (basically anything that can’t be described perfectly with math, which is basically everything humans care about), we’re left with the rather boring, mundane statement that we need many different factors working together to explain anything.

I think that many intuitively grasp this concept–that complicated phenomena don’t have single-cause explanations. And so when they see some evolutionary psychologists boldly claiming that they have found the reason for such and such phenomena, people get understandably annoyed.

Along these lines, I strongly recommend Barbara Herrnstein-Smith’s “Natural Reflections.” While the book is about science and religion, she does an excellent job eviscerating the strong interpretation of ev-pysch. From page 66:

In seeking to account for any complex behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon, a good starting assumption would be that it was the emergent outcome of multiple factors of various kinds, operating at many scales and levels, interacting over time.  The starting assumption of evolutionary psychology and “cognitive” approaches to religion, however, is that the best way to explain any behavioral, cultural, or social phenomenon is by demonstrating that it is the outward effect of the activation of some underlying mental mechanism.  A methodological tradition of this sort puts a premium on ingenuity with respect to the hypothesizing of mental mechanisms and, by the same token, encourages negligence with respect to the investigation of possibly relevant environmental, experiential, and developmental factors.

Categories: Philosophy, Society

The STEM Conundrum

May 24, 2011 1 comment

Via the Eduwonk, I came across this discussion on STEM Education over at the National Journal. Steve Peha (scroll down and read his entire response) argues that STEM “is not a real thing” and we should instead focus on aligning curriculum with specific careers:

Smashed together in a nifty though semantically useless acronym, STEM looks like a tight bundle of sci-tech opportunity. But it’s more a case of category confusion.

Science is not a single thing, but many things, including the social sciences—which I imagine have been left out of STEM, right?

For example, where would the work of Everett Rogers (the guy who came up with the “early adopter” technology innovation model) fit into a STEM curriculum? He was a social scientist studying technology adoption patterns, but not often computer technology, so is his work fair game for STEM programs?

And later on:

A program that elegantly integrated the elements of STEM could be interesting, but it could also prove unwieldy since the disciplines are so diverse. STEM itself is a conglomeration of things we think should go together but that really don’t, an artificial grouping of disciplines that obscures rather than clarifies what it is we might do in school to make our kids more future-ready.

STEM is a well-intentioned but ill-conceived approach at marketing technical and scientific literacy—a curricular Rube Goldberg Machine. I’ve asked many people what it is, and many people have asked me what it is. None of us seems to know—and that’s not for lack of trying to find out.

In theory, STEM is the wave of the future. In practice, “STEM” is wonkspeak for “We want to stop handing out H-1B visas and off-shoring tech work.” But we don’t need the H-1Bs and the offshoring because we’re short on techy types here at home. We seek tech help beyond our borders because it’s cheaper and because technology itself facilitates the management of distributed teams. Regardless of what degrees our kids end up with, Americans will continue to be more expensive and technology will continue to make distributed teams more effective. STEM may not only be confusing; it may be irrelevant compared to more “traditional” high tech disciplines like computer science.

If we want more scientists, let’s create amazing science programs, and push them down to the lower grades. If we want engineers, let’s create cool engineering programs. If we want more computer kids, let’s start teaching kids computer science instead of just PowerPoint and Word. If we want more kids to get hooked on more math, we probably need an age-appropriate, ultra-relevant applied math track for kids to pursue in parallel with traditional math instruction.

If we weren’t hung up on STEM, it wouldn’t be hard to see how simple sci-tech programs could be created, programs with direct links to sci-tech career opportunities. I learned computer programming in my freshman year of high school in 1976. I guess Mr. Erickson, one of our math teachers, was pretty STEMy for his time (though he didn’t try to teach us math during computer class, so perhaps he wasn’t so STEMy after all).

He also argues that we need to emphasize the literacy component of all STEM training, and suggests the new (catchier? worse?) acronym L-STEM. Oh dear!

While I agree with much of this, I think he does get very close to arguing that STEM education  should simply be job training (even though he insists otherwise!).

An interesting read.

Categories: Education

Stuff to read

May 20, 2011 Leave a comment

In the off chance you’re lucky enough to not be updating resumes, applying to jobs, and preparing for interviews this weekend, here’s some stuff to read:

  1. David Bruggeman reminding us that science isn’t just for scientists!
  2. The economic impact of the Human Genome Project…
  3. …and the inevitable skepticism about the numbers!
  4. The crisis in higher education yet again!
  5. A nice take-down of Sam Harris (h/t Freddie)
  6. An excerpt from Tim Hartford’s new book on innovation, just discussed here!
Categories: Blog Dump

Fostering Innovation

May 14, 2011 1 comment

Another quick link to another blog. Check out Financial Times columnist Tim Hartford calling for more experimentation and risk-taking:

I think our system for promoting innovation, which is funded by a combination of government grants and private enterprise, struggles with large and adventurous projects, such as clean energy. The private sector is terrific at producing lots of experiments (just think of Silicon Valley) but not at funding expensive, long-term projects. Government grants can do that but are often rather risk-averse. One promising approach to get the best of both is innovation prizes. Another is to use a far more risk-loving system of grants.

Recently there seems to be many articles along these lines. In principle, I’m all for more grants for risky research, more experimentation, and the expansion of innovation prizes. But I haven’t seen anyone detail how we would implement such a system in practice, how it would be structured, and perhaps most importantly, how to get buy-in from the advanced faculty who sit on the grant committees!

Categories: Economics

Unclogging the drug pipeline

May 11, 2011 1 comment

David Bornstein reports on a promising approach to increase the number of drugs produced by medical research:

Researchers in the foundation’s four partner labs say that the relationship hasn’t constrained their science; it’s improved it. “We are certainly looking for targets to enhance the reparative potential of the central nervous system,” explained Brian Popko, the Associate Chair for Research in the Department of Neurology at the University of Chicago. “But we weren’t encouraged to develop therapeutic approaches before we understood the system we were trying to repair.”

Johnson has also assembled some of the country’s most accomplished neurologists and immunologists, as well as industry experts to sit on M.R.F.’s three advisory boards, which focus, respectively, on basic science, drug discovery and clinical issues.

To date, researchers have identified a number of targets, of which five to seven are strong candidates that M.R.F. is actively pursuing. They are in close contact with industry researchers and will be farming out the “translational” research needed to attract pharmaceutical interest. They control 50 percent of the licensing of patents for research they fund and, as a nonprofit, can be very flexible in negotiating fees. Within five years, Johnson envisions partnerships with four or five companies, each of which will be moving a couple of targets forward. “We hope to have our first clinical trial for myelin repair by 2014,” he says. “To get to a clinical trial within ten years in an area of research that until recently no one thought was therapeutically relevant would be hugely significant.”

If the M.R.F., and like-minded foundations, succeed, their models will likely influence the bigger actors in medical research. Francis S. Collins, the head of the N.I.H., is pushing to create a new drug development center to be named the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

In an admission that I know some people will appreciate, Stanford professor Ben Barres admits that academia incentivizes basic rather than “useful” research:

“Pure science is what you’re rewarded for,” notes Dr. Barres. “That’s what you get promoted for. That’s what they give the Nobel Prizes for. And yet developing a drug is a hundred times harder than getting a Nobel Prize. We really have to have the very best scientists engaged in this. For a long time this hasn’t been the case. Until five or ten years ago, working on disease was kind of shunned.”

Categories: Basic Research

Complicated, deeply reported, long-form science journalism

May 1, 2011 2 comments

About one month ago DC reporter Shani Hilton caught some flack for ignoring the poor in a piece on black middle-class gentrification. Rather than add to the criticism, TNC suggests a better response:

From my perspective, Shani is introducing a narrative, and an angle, we see too rarely in discussions about the problems of the city. There is no question in my mind, that more reporting–and specifically more reporting beyond her social circle–would have made Shani’s story better. I hope she’ll take up that challenge in the future.

But I also hope that the people challenging her now will follow suit, and do some writing and reporting, themselves. The biggest problem with this story is that it bears too much weight–there simply aren’t enough stories like it. The same can’t be said of the always booming industry of black poverty porn.

I’m not trying to be dismissive, on the contrary I’m aiming  for a call to arms. We desperately need complicated, deeply-reported, long form journalism about black people.  Don’t like Shani’s story? Make another one. Make a better one. Start now.

Creation is the ultimate critique. [Emphasis in original–PK]
Science as well as race relations can benefit from more complicated, deeply-reported, long form journalism. Instead of attacking the always booming science is god industry, I hope the STS crowd takes up TNCs call to arms. We desperately need much more along the lines of Jonah Lehrer and David Freedman, and we shouldn’t be satisfied with the present narrative.
Categories: Communication

Why scientists should learn philosophy

May 1, 2011 5 comments

In a sprawling, dense, 10,000-odd word tract on philosophy in science that took me several weeks to get through, Michael Pearl suggests that advancing scientific discovery should be philosophy’s ultimate goal. That is, philosophers of science should be trying to help scientists do better research:

The first point of note here is that when the essential core of science is considered in terms of discovery rather than knowledge, it begins to become more apparent why the endeavors of philosophers of science are not only largely irrelevant to practicing scientists but also misdirected when, as per Papineau, these philosophers continue the ancient concern with whether (or to what extent) claims of knowledge (in this case scientific knowledge) are justified and true. This is to say that if philosophy is to contribute genuinely to the scientific enterprise, then that contribution will be one that focuses on the mechanisms and conditions which bring forth discovery. Haggling over the natures of justification, truth, and knowledge does not itself come close to fostering scientific discovery. [Emphasis added-PK]

This strikes me as a bit misguided, and not at all how I think about the worth of philosophy, and science studies more generally. As far as discovery goes, scientists seem to be doing just fine on their own, and it’s not clear what philosophers–even in principle–can do to help. Leaving aside certain abstract topics that may have some room for philosophical conjecturing (perhaps something like the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics), the vast majority of scientists themselves offer very little outside their field. Given both how balkanized and specialized science has become, we surely shouldn’t expect much from anyone without a deep familiarity of the specific research problem at hand.

For better and for worse, academic research is no longer a vocation for an all purpose, general intellectual. The focus on obtaining grants and publications (more often than not in boutique, specialty journals) along with the explosion in research output demands budding scientists focus on at most a handful of topics at one time. My colleagues in my own research group weren’t always able to help me “bring forth discovery”, and so I’m deeply skeptical that a walk to the philosophy department would have done so.

None of this means that philosophers of science have nothing to offer. Rather, it means that we should recalibrate what we mean when we say something is “irrelevant to practicing scientists.” There is more to life than improving your experimental setup or debugging your Matlab code. There are diffuse, unquantifiable personal benefits of a broad liberal education, and in my experience most scientists accept this without further justification. On top of this, philosophy can illuminate and clarify what scientists do even if it doesn’t help them do it better. These two justifications alone are enough, I believe, to make the philosophy of science worth studying.

In an interview with The Philosophers’ Magazine, physicist Alan Sokal (yes, that Alan Sokal!) echoes my sentiments:

But going back to the other side, that philosophy is just good for itself and is not necessarily intended to help working scientists, you know the famous quote from Feynman which says ‘philosophy of science is about as useful for scientists as ornithology is for birds.’ Most people would see that as denigration of philosophy of science, but I don’t see it that way at all. Ornithology is not intended to be useful for birds. In principle ornithologists might, by studying the physics of how birds fly, come up with some suggestions to birds about how they could fly more efficiently, except that natural selection has probably beaten them to it anyway. In the same way, philosophy of science could come up with suggestions for working scientists, but that’s not necessarily its major goal. I like that Feynman quote precisely because it’s not, in my view, pejorative towards philosophers of science. It’s saying that the philosophy of science is different. It clarifies what scientists do whether or not it helps scientists.

Categories: Philosophy