Mark Signorelli reviews Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity:
Considerable portions of Aping Mankind are devoted to explaining the empirical shortcomings of recent neurological “research.” Tallis describes the significant limitations of fMRI scans, the favorite evidentiary talisman of the neuromaniac. He also points out the absurdly reductionist nature of some widely trumpeted experiments, in which a subject is asked to answer a simple yes or no question, or perform some simple gesture, while their brain activity is being measured. Such experiments are interpreted in a way that isolates the results from the remainder of the subject’s life, that takes no account of the subject’s history or beliefs. But as Tallis notes, such actions bear no resemblance to the sorts of actions we routinely carry out in our day to day lives, which are all emerge from a vast context of intentions, experience, and aspirations. Omit that context, and it is quite easy to construe behavior as materially caused: “their crude experimental design…treats individuals as passive respondents to stimuli and then discovers that they are passive respondents to stimuli.” The experiments, devised on materialist presuppositions, are guaranteed to render materialist conclusions.
I’ll try to balance my two glowing reviews of Natural Reflections with some mild criticism. There are two specific complaints I have. First, as I’ve experienced with much writing in this genre, Herrnstein-Smith cites a research paper or puts something in the footnotes when an example would have clarified much. Throughout the book, she alludes to the fact that scientists exhibit some of the same cognitive limitations (such as confirmation bias) that other humans do. But other than an introductory anecdote, I wasn’t left with anything concrete. Rather than references a study by Mynatt, Doherty and Tweney (on p. 133), it would have been nice to see an example.
My only other (even more minor) gripe is that her discussion on the relationship between basic research and technology towards the end of the last chapter would have benefited from an economics perspective. But she managed to effectively make her point anyway, so it wasn’t a big deal.
Given my long standing interest in clarifying the public vocabulary of science and highlighting the diversity of scientific practices, I was heartened to see Barbara Herrnstein Smith raise a similar point regarding belief:
We are all aware of the diverse array of ideas and dispositions that we carry around in our own heads (and bodies): creedal statements learned in childhood, emotion-laden memories and habits, academically acquired knowledge, individually worked-out convictions that vary in strength and articulateness from one context to another, vagrant images, transient impulses, and so forth. In the face of such evidence of the fluidity, variability, and heterogeneity of cognitive states, cognitive processes, and mental content-types, the continued invocation and deployment of static, atomistic, logicist, and dualistic conceptions of belief by philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists is itself a revealing example of the peculiar (and officially irrational) operations of human cognition. (p. 76)
Portraying either science or belief as simplistic monoliths is unhelpful and obscures more than it reveals.
I just finished Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s wonderful book Natural Reflections: Human Cognition ad the Nexus of Science and Religion, and I can’t recommend it enough. One of the best parts is that it’s pretty short (~150 pages) and quite readable–way less dense compared to so much I’ve read in the social sciences.
Smith spends much time examining, and debunking, some recent efforts to explain religion/religious behavior entirely in terms of evolutionary psychology and genetics. More strongly, natural sciences alone offer minimal explanatory power for religion in particular, and human culture and behavior more generally. Our beliefs, attitudes, and cultural patterns depend intimately on context and cannot be traced solely to evolved cognitive processes. As she says eloquently on p. 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.
Smith goes on to argue that these recent analyses of religion, dubbed the New Naturalists, have a very misguided view of what natural science offers. In trying to construct a grand unified theory of religious behavior, they cherry pick data, distort the available empirical evidence and, in short, engage in some of the very same unscientific practices they accuse the religious of.
Smith does not use these observations as a cudgel with which to bash the New Naturalists (although I wish she had!). Rather, she wishes to highlight that both science and religion are ultimately derived from a similar set of cognitive processes and functions, and there is much overlap between what we call science and what we call religion.
Another message that I found appealing was her insistence that natural science does not provide the only or even best means with which to query religions. There are “intellectual aims and purposes other than those associated with the natural sciences and, accordingly, of other marks and measures of intellectual value” (p. 143). That is, while evolution and genetics are useful and illuminating, they do not tell us everything we want to know. So-called interpretive approaches (history, sociology, cultural anthropology) also have a role. On p. 111:
Although our general structures and modes of operations as biological creatures have been strongly shaped by selection pressures, not everything we do as particular persons involves the furthering of our own reproductive fitness or the perpetuation of our genes. We may also remind ourselves that, as creatures who continue to develop throughout our lives, we are affected by particular experiences that shape our responses, purposes, judgments, and actions…no less significantly than our biological endowments.
In the end, this was a fascinating and eloquent read. I’ll have a big more along with a few minor complaints in a future post. This has gone on long enough.
This past week I’ve been at the Gordon Research Conference on Science and Technology Policy. It’s really a great conference with a nice mix of academics and practitioners. I’d discuss more here, but it’s unfortunately off-the-record. I could try make the case that given my underwhelming readership, my blog should qualify as off-the-record, but I don’t think it’d fly. Oh well, such is life.
I will say that I just had some very fruitful discussions on Rethinking Expertise, which I just gave a glowing review. Definitely gave me some perspective on how the work is viewed by people in the field.
My earlier post neglected to mention another reason I liked the book. On page 51, EC noted that the failure to wrestle properly with expertise gives a “misleading picture of the power of logical thought and experimental genius.” In light of my views on scientific thinking, this message had special appeal. Ultimately content knowledge and specific expertise matters much more than an amorphous, poorly defined method of thinking.
Now resolving the problems of expertise won’t necessarily make contentious debates any easier. Climate change and genetically modified crops are contentious for reasons deeper than a misunderstanding of expertise. But addressing the misconceptions might be a useful place to start.
So I just plowed through Harry Collins and Robert Evans’ [henceforth CE] Rethinking Expertise. Though it’s a bit dense, you’ll find it insightful if you can get past the STS jargon. I’ll give a brief review now, and try to expand more in future posts.
Very early on, the authors insist that expertise does matter and all else being equal, we should prefer their judgment on technical matters. Their attitude contrasts with some of the more egalitarian (and misinformed in both mine and the authors’ views) approaches that deprivileges science completely. While science studies has performed admirably in deconstructing and removing science’s mystique, it can go too far. There are actual facts about the physical world, and oftentimes these do matter. Neither democracy nor science expertise should dominate a decision, and we must welcome but limit public involvement. Ultimately, CE aimed to provide a vocabulary and way of thinking about expertise to help us negotiate this terrain. They succeeded in the latter goal, but their clumsy and inelegant terminology will hinder the former.
CE spend quite some time developing a taxonomy and diagrammed it in a rather unhelpful “Periodic Table of Expertise.” While the figure itself was unclear left much to be desired, the corresponding discussion was excellent. What I found most interesting was their distinction between interactional and contributory experts. The latter group consists of scientists publishing in a fairly constrained field in (to use their example) gravitational wave physics. Interactional experts can talk-the-talk but aren’t qualified to publish. Their arguments were bolstered by what appeared to be carefully run experiments. Such experimentation and data analysis are rarities in science studies, and I greatly appreciated their presence here.
After reading their work, I realize my insistence that only climate scientists be allowed to speak on global warming is a bit restrictive. There are people–namely interactional experts–who can speak on aspects of the problem without actually being a part of the IPCC. Joe Romm and Roger Pielke Jr both probably qualify, though I’m sure they’d both hate to be lumped together! Interactional experts can even be non-scientists, as the sheep farmers in Brian Wynne’s famous study showed. The fact that their framework coherently incorporates both scientists and non-scientists makes it even more impressive.
I wish they had applied their model to a contemporary science controversy, and the omission of an in-depth case study is the only major omission. It will hopefully be corrected in the future.