“Overselling Science” at Chicago Boyz

Shannon Love has an interesting post entitled “Overselling Science” over at Chicago Boyz. I suspect her history may be a little shaky, but she makes some good points. Excerpts:

The problem with polling “scientists” is that there is a wide divergence in the predictive power of different fields of study that we lump together as “science”.

“Scientists” definitely come in a wide assortment of shapes, sizes, and credibilities. There’s nothing magical about “science.” It’s just a way of getting at the truth. The term “scientific” has been so oversold it’s almost meaningless. Think “scientific Marxism/Leninism.”

Non-predictive sciences are highly vulnerable to social and political fads and scientists often get swept up in them. For example, a hundred years ago you would have found a wider agreement on the validity of eugenics than we see today on global warming.

I’ll buy the comment about social and political fads. Environmental scientists are having a particularly tough time of it these days. It doesn’t help their credibility when they shoot themselves in the foot, as they did when Bjorn Lomborg published the “Skeptical Environmentalist.” It would certainly be a travesty to call the abject creatures who sat on the so-called Danish Committee of Scientific Dishonesty, a kangaroo court of politically motivated hacks who smeared Lomborg and declared his book “dishonest,” by any name as honorable as “scientist.”

However, I doubt that there was ever such “wide agreement” on eugenics. It just wasn’t politically incorrect to discuss it before the Third Reich. Intellectual heavyweights spoke out on both sides of the issue, and there was no lack of them on the “con” as well as the “pro” side. Maybe one of these days I’ll post some examples.

Imperial German militarism, Marxism, communism, fascism, eugenics, etc. were all based on this flawed model (orthogenesis) of evolution which the vast majority of scientists of the day nevertheless pushed onto the public as settled science.

Hmm, I thought they were all invented by Sarah Palin.

Will the Turkey take a Swan Dive?

According to this article in the Washington Post, NASA is planning to “de-orbit” the International Space Station in 2016. As I mentioned in an earlier post, scientists can actually be fallible. I don’t know what they were thinking when they approved this $100 billion white elephant. We could have done a lot of good science with that kind of money. Instead we got a high-flying albatross.

I rather suspect this rather shocking announcement is meant more as a scare tactic than anything else. After all, the people who thought it was such a brilliant idea to put it up there to begin with will want to “protect our investment.” I’ll believe in the swan dive when I see it.

Robert Ardrey and the Amity/Enmity Complex


Robert Ardrey was a man who had the unusual combination of a brilliant mind, and a rare talent for explaining to a broad audience what he was thinking.  The series of books he wrote in the 1960’s and 70’s emphasized a common theme; the effect of innate predispositions, or human nature, if you will, on human behavior.  One aspect of our behavior that has had a profound and decisive impact on our history, and may well bring that history to an end one day unless we learn to understand and control it, is the Amity/Enmity Complex, our innate tendency to categorize others of our species into in-groups and out-groups.  Ardrey describes it in a chapter of his book, “The Territorial Imperative,” taking the reader through a review of the origins of the idea, salient observations of human and animal behavior that support it, and the logical basis for the hypothesis.  If you read nothing else of Ardrey’s writings, read this chapter.  If you do so with an open mind, I think some of the constantly reccurring manifestations of the Complex, including such notorious examples as the anti-Semitism that has stained the histories of so many European countries, the racism that has justified slavery and rationalized discrimination in the United States and many other countries, and the religious bigotry now fomenting such violence in the Middle East, although it is hardly unique to that region of the world, will begin to make a lot more sense to you.  One would think that the innumerable irrational and devastating wars that have been such a constant and persistent phenomenon in human history would have tipped us off by now when it comes to this aspect of our nature.  It seems that, when it comes to understanding ourselves, we are remarkably slow learners.

The Amity/Enmity Complex as an aspect of human moral behavior and most of the other ideas Ardrey presented weren’t really original.  He made that clear himself.  In addition to his other talents, he had a rare grasp of history, and was well able to follow the intellectual paths leading from his own theories back to their sources.  His books were very popular at the time they were published, and enlightened many.  They also made him many enemies, because his theories flew in the face of cherished ideological certainties posing as science.  Those enemies reacted with a vehemence and bitterness that had little to do with disinterested logic, but which I’m sure Ardrey understood very well himself. One can still trace the effects of their malice on the web today, where Ardrey’s “biographers” continue to bowdlerize his thought as “The Killer Ape Theory.”   Ironically, they proved his point.  By threatening the shibboleths that made up the ideological boxes they lived in, Ardrey put himself squarely in their “out-groups,” and elicited all the rage that he himself had so clearly described and predicted. 

Writing in 1966, Ardrey described the Amity-Enmity Complex as “the resolution of a paradox posed by Darwin, solved by Wallace, explored by Spencer and Sumner, revived and extended by Keith, and for the last twenty years cast aside under the pretense it does not exist.  The paradox may be simply stated:  If the evolutionary process is a merciless struggle among individuals to survive, with natural selection determining the fittest, then how could such human qualities as altruism, loyalty, charity, and mercy have ever come into existence?  If Darwinian evolution presents a picture of dog eat dog, then how did dogs ever get together?”

After describing some of the behaviorist and other psychological myths that, being more in tune with the preferred ideological narratives of the day, suppressed the theory for so long, Ardrey goes on;

“All, of course, are false.  What seems to have occurred to no one, excepting possibly Keith, is that the animal is a moral being, and that human morality is a simple evolutionary extension of a form of conduct which has existed in nature for many hundreds of millions of years.  But unless we inspect both the history of the falsehood and the history of the truth, we shall not in least part grasp our contemporary predicament.”

He goes on to do just that with compelling arguments based on a profound knowledge of the history of evolutionary thought.  In the process, he gives us thumbnails of the ideas of some of the great thinkers who contributed to the development of the theory.  One of them already mentioned above, Sir Arthur Keith, is almost forgotten today.  It would be well if we recalled some of his words, and took them to heart.  In one passage of exceptional insight cited by Ardrey he said,

“Human nature has a dual constitution; to hate as well as to love are parts of it; and conscience may enforce hate as a duty just as it enforces the duty of love.  Conscience has a two-fold role in the soldier:  it is his duty to save and protect his own people and equally his duty to destroy their enemies… Thus conscience serves both codes of group behavior; it gives sanction to practices of the code of enmity as well as the code of amity.”

It grieves me to think that ideas as seemingly simple and self-evident as this have not become commonplaces of human knowledge.  They explain so much, and could help us to understand and control so much that is destructive and self-defeating in our nature.  Must we eternally experience the misery, pain and death accompanying each new manifestation of the complex, slowly come to the realization that it is an evil that must be controlled, and then invent some new “ism,” whether racism, anti-Semitism, or what have you, to finally categorize the behavior as an evil and place it in its own out-group in turn?  Instead of dealing with each one of these manifestations of a common behavioral trait piecemeal, one-by-one, and applying palliatives after they have already done their damage, would it not be better to finally grasp and understand the unifying phenomenon that is the basis of them all? 

Sometimes it takes a long time for our species to grasp the obvious.  Actually, we have come a long way since Ardrey’s day.  Nowadays one begins to see many of the ideas about human nature he so ably presented accepted as commonplaces in the popular media, often described as if they were novelties of modern research, with no allusion to the fact that they have a history going back to the time of Darwin, or that they were suppressed for so long by ideological obscurantism.   Still, it is unfortunate that it has taken us so long to come this far.  I am confident that, as long as research into uncovering the secrets of the human mind can go on freely without ideological suppression of inconvenient truths, the recent encouraging progress we have made in understanding ourselves will continue.  One must hope so, because we have also been making rapid progress in acquiring the means of self-destruction.  Unless we learn to understand and control the Amity/Enmity Complex, it may very well become the reason for our final demise.

Scientists Don’t Really Know it All

As a scientist, I’m gratified by our current high favor in the court of public opinion.  I must admit, though, sometimes our omniscience is overrated.  In the first place, scientists tend to have narrow areas of specialization.  As a result, they are not remarkably superior to other mortals in seeing the big picture.  In the second, we simply lack the knowledge and/or adequate data in some areas to justify positive opinions one way or the other.  Finally, scientists are human beings, subject to human needs.  It is not out of the question that their research results may occasionally be influenced by such mundane considerations as the desire to eat.

To illustrate the potential liabilities of narrow specialization, let us consider the issue of nuclear power, with which I have some passing familiarity.  If it’s a question of solving the neutron transport equation for a particular core design, a scientist is definitely the guy you want to talk to.  However, if it’s a question of deciding whether the nation should prefer nuclear power to the various competing sources of energy, it ain’t necessarily so.  To address such overriding issues, one must be well informed not just in a narrow technical area, but also in a host of environmental, political, economic, other matters of relevance.  I have seen anti-nuclear advocates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) defeat nuclear engineers hands down in debates over the merits of nuclear power, because they were better informed on such matters.  That doesn’t necessarily imply the anti-nukers were right.  Rather, it illustrates the fact that narrow expertise is not adequate for deciding every issue.  I’ve known scientists who were brilliant within their own technical bailiwick, but shockingly ignorant if they ventured outside it.

Then there’s the matter of technical uncertainty.  Here, one might cite global warming as exhibit A.  It happens that my personal opinion on the matter is that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases do inhibit the re-radiation of solar energy back into space, and, as a result, we are likely to see significant increases in global temperature and sea levels over the next century.  However, I have a problem with those who claim they know with certainty exactly what the effects of global warming on our climate will be and how long it will take before it’s “too late” to do anything about it.  They can heap scientific opinion on scientific opinion ad nauseum.  It doesn’t matter.  Given the current state of the art, we cannot predict with certainly what will happen one way or another. 

In order to accurately predict the future behavior of a system, it is necessary to have means of accurately measuring all the data relevant to the response of that system.  In the case of climate modeling, the necessary data, ideally from many billions of data points, is inadequate.  The data we do have is subject to significant measurement uncertainties, or “noise.”  Furthermore, we’re not even sure what data we need, assuming it were even available, to accurately solve the problem.  Finally, even if the necessary data were forthcoming, no perfect mathematical models would be available to use it.  With the biggest and fastest computers that exist now or in the foreseeable future, only dominant or critical climate effects could be modeled.  Such models are prone to leave out “minor” effects that may actually turn out to have a critical effect on the accuracy of the outcome.  Even the effects that are included must be modeled with approximations that are never perfect. 

Climate modeling today is not and cannot be based on any deterministic model.  Significant uncertainty is built in to the current ensemble and Monte Carlo forecasting models.  Scientists know they can’t even be sure they have accurate knowledge of the starting conditions to plug into their models.  As a result, they often just come up with an “ensemble” of plausible ones, and run them all through the model.  Then they use interpolation and approximation methods based on all the outcomes to decide which one is “best.”  In other words, while it would certainly behoove us to take what effective steps we can to avoid potentially harmful climate changes, we have no way of knowing “for sure” what those climate changes will be.  Our mathematical models are even less capable of predicting exactly what the impact will be of the steps we might take to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  It is inadvisable to mandate extremely expensive but highly visible measures to limit global warming if they are unlikely to have any significant impact on the problem one way or another.

A third weakness of “scientific expertise” is the human tendency of scientists to tell customers what they want to hear.  There is intense competition for research grants and awards.  There is also a wide and probably accurate perception among scientists that the sponsors of the limited available research funds are more interested in positive and striking findings than in null results, and are, therefore, more likely to reward those who produce positive results with more funding.  I leave the effects this might have on the result, for example, of studies of global climate change to the imagination of the reader.

We scientists can be proud of our contributions to the welfare of society.  However, we have our limitations, and we need to keep them in mind.  Do not even the lawyers the same?

Physics Flavored with Politics

Here’s a good blog for those of you who like to keep track of what’s going on in the world of physics. The author throws in some interesting and thought-provoking comments on politics and other topics outside the realm of science, from the point of view of someone who is obviously very smart, but not a policy wonk. For example, here’s one of his latest about Obama’s visit to Russia. It includes the following remark about why we may have elected Obama:

“Where does the difference between the reactions come from? Well, I think that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries have done pretty sophisticated things to improve their propaganda methods and to make the citizens join the official bandwagon and to respect the official cults. They had to be increasingly sophisticated because the citizens were increasingly more able to see through the tricks. Today, the citizens themselves are pretty realistic and many of them can see if someone tries to manipulate with them, especially if the methods are too obvious.

“The Americans and many other nations seem completely naive in these respects, like little kids from a kindergarten who see a magician for the first time. Naive child-like people may be cuter and happier but they may also do many more silly things.”

I rather suspect he overestimates the effectiveness of Communist propaganda and the naiveté of my countrymen here. I lived in Germany in the 70’s for over three years, and occasionally listened to East German radio. It wasn’t grossly inept, but seemed rather crude to me. As for us, we may have elected Obama, but his opponent wasn’t exactly charismatic, and, if the election had taken place in most west European countries, they would have elected him by a much greater margin than we did.

As for our “simplicity,” I suspect it’s not quite as extreme as most Europeans think. We’re used to listening to sophisticated spin, and have much better access to alternative viewpoints than the citizens of any European country I’m aware of. Most of them have nothing like our talk radio, or influential blogs with massive audiences on both the left and the right that are a rapid and effective check on the accuracy of stories that appear in the mainstream media.

Be that as it may, Mr. Motl obviously has no anti-American ax to grind, and his comments are a refreshing departure from the vanilla stuff one usually reads on the European left and right.