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Scientific Regress

Scientific Regress by William A. Wilson at First Things is absolutely fabulous!  It helps to make a point I’ve been trying to make for years.  Also helping to make my point is Liberal Arts & the Limits of Social Science by Colin Barnes at The Imaginative Conservative.

WESTERN CULTURE ITSELF, AS A WHOLE, is deeply, blindly, almost unknowingly entrenched in the “two hundred year tangent” of “The Rationalist Delusion,” Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics,” Rauch’s “Kindly Inquisitors,” and naïve realism.

As the American Founders knew, experience truly is our surest guide, even, and often especially, if “science” can’t put it’s finger on precisely why some things work and others don’t.

By placing its faith almost entirely in the epistemic arrogance of the rationalist, Platonic, WEIRD, abstract reason and technical knowledge based, cognitive style….

….and by eschewing and demonizing as anti-science blind faith the epistemic humility of the intuitionist, Aristotelian, holistic, empiricist and practical knowledge based cognitive style…

…Western culture is depriving itself of a wide and deep range of potential sources of knowledge and insight.

The blame for this lies with the education system, of course, which seems almost entirely to rest on the former cognitive style and to vilify the latter. If the education system and the academics and administrators who work in it really were interested in the pursuit of reality-based truth they would be against pure rationalism and would enthusiastically embrace both styles of thought and their fruits.

This goes far beyond mere viewpoint diversity and contests between liberalism and conservatism. It extends to culture and psyche themselves. After all, “culture and the psyche make each other up.”

The all-foundation moral matrix and Aristotelian cognitive style of conservatism feels this problem in its bones and does its best to stand “athwart” the tsunami of rationalism that Western culture has become. And for its troubles it is demonized by that culture as “anti-science” superstition-based.

The Coming Apart really, truly, is a contest of moral and intellectual Spacelanders vs Flatlanders. Moral foundations and cognitive styles are the color receptors of the social mind. The debate about social issues between the two major viewpoints is like a debate about rainbows between a color blind faction and a fully sighted faction. The members of the colorblind faction think the fully sighted one is “crazy” and “extremist” for seeing moral colors that everybody knows are just not there. And the fully sighted faction thinks the colorblind faction is naive, short sighted, and small minded for NOT seeing moral colors that clearly ARE there.

Unless and until we recognize this and stop forcing The War On Partisanship into the Procrustean bed (1) of a flatland vs flatland tug of war between two factions of individualizing and binding or change and stability that are equally blind but in different ways I fear that, even with viewpoint diversity, we have little chance of moving off of top dead center in ameliorating the Coming Apart and partisan divisiveness.

Wilson’s and Barnes’ articles should be required reading for anyone and everyone interested in slowing or maybe even reversing the Coming Apart. They could not be more spot on. Here are some of my favorite passages from my first of what I’m sure will be many read-throughs of Wilson’s piece:

“if positive and negative evidence were written up and accepted for publication in equal proportions, then the majority of articles in scientific journals should report no findings. When tallies are actually made, though, the precise opposite turns out to be true: Nearly every published scientific article reports the presence of an association. There must be massive bias at work.

One way we know that there’s a great deal of fraud occurring is that if you phrase your question the right way, scientists will confess to it.

Cajoling statistical significance where in reality there is none, a practice commonly known as “p-hacking,”

the farther from physics one gets, the more freedom creeps into one’s experimental methodology, and the fewer constraints there are on a scientist’s conscious and unconscious biases. If all scientists were constantly attempting to influence the results of their analyses, but had more opportunities to do so the “softer” the science, then we might expect that the social sciences have more papers that confirm a sought-after hypothesis than do the physical sciences, with medicine and biology somewhere in the middle. This is exactly what the study discovered: A paper in psychology or psychiatry is about five times as likely to report a positive result as one in astrophysics.

If peer review is good at anything, it appears to be keeping unpopular ideas from being published.

Peer review switches from merely useless to actively harmful.

The quantum physicist Max Planck famously quipped: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Planck may have been too optimistic.

The hagiographies of science are full of paeans to the self-correcting, self-healing nature of the enterprise. But if raw results are so often false, the filtering mechanisms so ineffective, and the self-correcting mechanisms so compromised and slow, then science’s approach to truth may not even be monotonic.

ours is a world in which things once known can be lost and buried.

At the same time as an ever more bloated scientific bureaucracy churns out masses of research results, the majority of which are likely outright false, scientists themselves are lauded as heroes and science is upheld as the only legitimate basis for policy-making.

science is an enterprise with a superhuman aim whose achievement is forever beyond the capacities of the flawed humans who aspire toward it.

science and especially science bureaucracy is a career, and one amenable to social climbing. Careers attract careerists, in Feyerabend’s words: “devoid of ideas, full of fear, intent on producing some paltry result so that they can add to the flood of inane papers that now constitutes ‘scientific progress’ in many areas.”

If science was unprepared for the influx of careerists, it was even less prepared for the blossoming of the Cult of Science. The Cult is related to the phenomenon described as “scientism”; both have a tendency to treat the body of scientific knowledge as a holy book or an a-religious revelation that offers simple and decisive resolutions to deep questions. But it adds to this a pinch of glib frivolity and a dash of unembarrassed ignorance. Its rhetorical tics include a forced enthusiasm (a search on Twitter for the hashtag “#sciencedancing” speaks volumes) and a penchant for profanity. Here in Silicon Valley, one can scarcely go a day without seeing a t-shirt reading “Science: It works, b—es!” The hero of the recent popular movie The Martian boasts that he will “science the sh— out of” a situation. One of the largest groups on Facebook is titled “I f—ing love Science!”

Some of the Cult’s leaders like to play dress-up as scientists—Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are two particularly prominent examples— but hardly any of them have contributed any research results of note. Rather, Cult leadership trends heavily in the direction of educators, popularizers, and journalists.


(1) In Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion Haidt makes the following observation about liberal morality:

But if you try to apply this two-foundation [i.e., liberal] morality to the rest of the world, you either fail or you become Procrustes. Most traditional societies care about a lot more than harm/care and fairness/justice. Why do so many societies care deeply and morally about menstruation, food taboos, sexuality, and respect for elders and the Gods? You can’t just dismiss such concerns as social conventions. If you want to describe human morality, rather than the morality of educated Western academics, you’ve got to include the Durkheimian view that morality is in large part about binding people together.

Procrustes is a figure from Greek mythology who would invite travelers passing by to stay the night with the promise that he had a bed that was a perfect fit for any person, no matter their size.  He would then ensure the fit by either stretching the person or amputating a portion of their legs. 

Procrustean analysis is where the data are forced to fit the theory.


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