Wednesday, May 16, 2007

How to Annoy Scientists

I’ve previously described myself as a conservative post-modernist. This means that I like to use the methods of post modern theory to expose the assumptions of the (usually quite left wing) people who espouse post modernism. As I like to say, all history is fiction, especially if it’s written by Marxists.

I think many of the insights of theory are extremely penetrating. When Michael Foucault’s History of Madness was eviscerated by Andrew Scull in the Times Literary Supplement the other week, I wasn’t sure the attack was entirely fair. Sure, the basis of Foucault’s work in the historical sources was rather shaky, but his ideas were brilliant. As long as we are careful ourselves about keeping the facts sacred, we can use his ideas in many different fields. When I explained last week why I thought that Dennett, Pinker and others were all supporters of a modular theory of the mind because of their loyalty to evolutionary theories and the limitations of their experiments, I was being quite the Foucault disciple.

Scientists dislike having their practices subjected to scrutiny even more than left-wing professors do. They seem to think that the unique methodology of science makes them immune to the subjective pressures that the rest of us suffer from. Not a chance. If anything, the belief of scientists that their discipline is not prone to subjectivity makes them even more prone to it.

A few years ago, a new academic subject was born - the sociology of scientific knowledge (or SSK for short). The SSK mob started saying that scientific theories are social constructs divorced from objective truth. Scientists got cross about this because they had always thought they believed their theories because they were true. Of course, both sides are wrong and both have a point. When I ask the question “why does Richard Dawkins believe that religion is an unwanted by-product of something useful rather than an evolutionary adaptation that benefits its carrier?” or “why does Steven Pinker think the mind is modular?” (see here and here for a discussion of these questions in case they don’t make immediate sense) I can see a menu of options. One of the options is that Pinker and Dawkins are actually right, that their opinion is one reached by a rational examination of the facts that has led them to a correct conclusion. But that is only one option. There are other possibilities, such as the fact that their ideas fit well with their preconceived opinions. Dawkins hates religion and so he cannot accept a theory that claims it must be good for humanity. Pinker loves evolution so adopts a hypothesis of mind conducive to his favourite theory.

So I think I am justified in imagining that scientists often adopt the scientific theories that they do for reasons that are largely subjective. However, much it might annoy them, I think we do need to look at the motivation and biases of scientists before we decide that we are going to believe them.

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