Where’s my magical truth detector? I’m sure it’s somewhere in my lab.

Last week, Mary Beard was getting sneered at because she agreed that the Roman Empire was ethnically diverse, and that — gasp, shock horror — there were brown people living in ancient Britain. She’s still getting sneered at, of course, because one thing racists really hate is being told their prejudices aren’t empirical facts. But at least the silly contretemps stirred up some excellent responses.

Jennifer Raff summarizes the complexities of ancient DNA analysis, and also makes an important point: it takes a village. There isn’t one unambiguous perfect path to the Truth™.

Framing this issue as a debate between hard science and fuzzy humanities is simply nonsense. Reconstructing the past is a multidisciplinary effort, and I can’t think of a single geneticist who wouldn’t candidly admit to many limitations in our approaches. To get around these limitations, and to improve the collection and interpretation of our data, we work closely with collaborators in other disciplines: archaeologists, linguists, osteologists, specialists in stable isotope analysis, and yes, even historians. Perhaps instead of fussing about whether cartoon characters conform to our beliefs about how the ancient world should have been, our energies would be better spent in learning more about how it actually was.

Yes. One of the hallmarks of the current round of Nazi pseudoscience is their claim of far more certainty than we actually have, and insistence that genetics and molecular biology, which they don’t understand, offer perfect clarity on race. The only perfect clarity we have is that it’s a complicated muddle.

Massimo Pigliucci goes after the philosophy behind these biases, and offers a good explanation of scientism.

It’s a good thing Mr. Taleb was being polite, I hate to imagine what he’s like when he’s not. Of course, so far as I know, he is no rocket scientist either, and he also operates under a “structural bias.” We all do, there is plenty of empirical evidence (not to mention good philosophy of science, but of course that’s just part of the humanities, which lack intellectual rigor anyway) that everyone is affected by personal cognitive biases. Moreover, any organized enterprise — not just the academic study of history, but also the practice of statistics, or population genetics, or whatever — is affected by structural constraints and biases. That’s just another way of saying that no human being, or organized group of human beings, has access to a god’s eye view of the world. All we have is a number of perspectives to compare. Which is a major reason, as articulated by philosopher Helen Longino, to work toward increasing diversity in the sciences: many individually biased points of view enter into dialogue with each other, yielding a less (but still) biased outcome.

The mistake of scientism is to elevate scientific knowledge and data crunching to a level of certainty and competence they most definitely do not have, while at the same time dismissing every other approach as obsolete nonsense. But human knowledge and understanding are not zero sum games. On the contrary, they work best when we expand, rather than artificially or ideologically limit, our methods and sources of evidence. The scientistic game is foolish not just because it is incoherent (what statistical, empirical evidence do we have that scientism works? What does that even mean??), but because it is dangerously self-serving. It makes a promise on behalf of science that science cannot possibly maintain. And this in the midst of an already strongly anti-intellectual climate where half of the American public, for instance, rejects the very notion of global warming and does not believe in the theory of evolution.

It really bugs me to see prominent people spreading a cartoon version of what science is — whether it’s Pinker to now, Taleb — and continued progress in science demands that we explore multiple perspectives on the evidence, and try our best to shake ourselves out of our comfortable biases.


  1. blf says

    David Olusoga discusses some of what is going on, Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it:

    What we’re seeing is a backlash against any attempt, whether from the world of scholarship or popular culture, to paint non-white people back into the British past. Those of us who write about this history have long been familiar with this. In the 1990s, an assistant in a London bookshop informed the African American historian Gretchen Gerzina that there were no black people in England before 1945. Gerzina rather effectively disproved that assertion by going on to write the classic book on black people in Georgian London, Black London.

    The deeper, more fundamental question is why? Why are some people so affronted by the very idea that the black presence in Britain stretches back so many centuries? Why, even when historical evidence is presented and the opinions of experts given, are they determined to dismiss the facts and, as we have seen in this case, seek to trash the reputation of respected scholars? The refusal to accept that the black presence in Britain has a long and deep history is not just a symptom of racism, it is a form of racism. It is part of a rearguard and increasingly unsustainable defence of a fantasy monochrome version of British history.

    There’s a nice snark in the column, “In a moment of near hysteria, Taleb announced that an online row about the accuracy of a fictional character in a children’s cartoon was definitive proof that scholarship is dead in the UK.”

  2. sullivanst says

    (not to mention good philosophy of science, but of course that’s just part of the humanities, which lack intellectual rigor anyway)

    Cambridge includes History and Philosophy of Science in the Natural Sciences Tripos right alongside Physics, Chemistry and their various subdivisions of Biology. It’s got a four-year option too so you can graduate with an MSci in it.

  3. cartomancer says

    I get rather fed up with sciencey types who look down on the humanities. So you want to understand something of ethnicity and race in the Roman Empire? Well, yes, DNA analysis of modern populations (and a few ancient remains) can tell us something. But what can it tell us? That there were some people with certain genetic characteristics in certain places at certain times? Well looking at ancient art and literature can tell you that too, and with just as much or just as little certainty.

    Can DNA analysis tell us anything about what the lives of people from ethnic minorities were like in the Roman Empire? No, no they cannot. You can get precisely nothing about how Romans viewed ethnic minorities from DNA analysis. All the statistics in the universe won’t give you one iota of understanding on that.

    You know what can? Poetry. Latin comic poetry. The sort of thing classicists work with all the time, but which a mere statistician would have no clue about. Here’s a snatch from Juvenal’s sixth satire, which gives us a brief window on what an educated Roman from the late 1st century AD might have thought about black people:

    “These (poor) women both undergo the trials of pregnancy and endure
    all the labours of nursing at the urging of fortune,
    But in a gilded bed there seldom lies a woman in labour.
    Such are the arts, such are the medicines they can get hold of,
    that they can make themselves sterile and kill humans in the womb.
    Rejoice, unhappy man, and give her that concoction, whatever it is, to drink,
    For if she wished to distend and torment her womb with bulging children,
    you would be perhaps the father of an Ethiopian, and soon an heir
    of the wrong colour, whom you ought never to see in the morning,
    will be on all your documentation.”

    It’s not much, but it does open up the world of ancient racial tensions in a way mere statistics never could. The poem is a satire, and its theme is the well-worn Roman trope that there aren’t any good women worth marrying anymore, because the luxury and corruption of modern society have made them greedy, sex-obsessed and immoral. It’s not primarily about race, so the racial implications of the final joke are coincidental. On one reading it’s a fairly simple bit of visual humour – the wife has cheated, and the baby is obviously not yours (it’s the wrong colour), but he’s going to be laying claim to your estate through your will anyway (or, on another reading of “impleret tabulas”, lit. “filling your legal documents”, doing your paperwork for you, i.e. he’s going to be a part of the family business). The humour comes not from black people being deemed inferior, but from the obvious nature of the wife’s infidelity and how brazenly she’s going to try to pretend it hasn’t happened.

    Of course, that “whom you ought never to see in the morning” (nunquam tibi mane videndus) bit is somewhat troubling. It could just be saying that you were never meant to find out about this, and as long as it’s all kept in the dark at night time (Roman houses were notoriously shadowy after sundown) the charade is concealed. It’s funny, because the wife hasn’t thought ahead. Some have taken it to be a more racist kind of superstition though – akin to the medieval notion that seeing a black cat cross your path in front of you is unlucky. We can’t discount this possibility (it is what Lefkowitz and Fant, the compilers of a prominent sourcebook on ancient women, seem to think Juvenal is saying, and I wouldn’t want to rubbish their intuitions on this subject lightly), but it is not a well attested cultural trope anywhere else in the literature.

    But we can read between the lines a bit. The idea of having black relatives is not ridiculous in itself for a Roman – indeed, the notion that illegitimate children might be included in the family structure isn’t weird either (a lot of Romans had illegitimate children by their slaves, for instance, and brought them up and freed them). Nor is this the notion, beloved of modern racists, that black men were sex-mad. It’s just one of many hundreds of “yes, but she’ll commit adultery if she gets the chance” stories that make up the bulk of the poem. Compare this to how Juvenal talks about the Greeks and the Syrians in his Third Satire (those Greeks will fuck anything when you’re back’s turned – old women, young boys, the lot!) and the difference is striking. But it is, of course, assumed that the reader will not be black himself (an Ethiopian – the word was used generally for sub-Saharan Africans in Classical Latin), or the joke would not work. Though presumably the wife could be – ancient medicine generally attributed little to no agency to the mother in how the child would look when born.

    And, as ever with Juvenalian satire, we are left wondering quite who we’re meant to be laughing at. The narrator in this piece is a grumpy, crotchety old soak who is always banging on about how much better everything was in the old days. Are we meant to laugh at his immoderate misogyny, or are we meant to take some of it to heart? Is there any of Juvenal himself in here, or is he just creating a comedy grotesque (albeit with familiar bigoted attitudes) for us to roll our eyes at?

    How would statistics, DNA analysis, or anything in the hard sciences let us approach any of these questions? They wouldn’t. They’re irrelevant for the most part. At best we might use what picture we have of the prevalence of sub-saharan genetic markers in the population of late 1st century Rome to make a tentative guess as to whether mention of an Ethiopian adulterer would seem commonplace or slightly exotic, but it really cannot go any further in helping us to understand the culture that Juvenal gives us a valid window on.

    (Mary Beard is the author of a recent study on Roman laughter, by the way, so my choice of example is not entirely at random. I think I might pour a libation at the shrine of Knitted Mary Beard tonight as a mark of anti-fascist solidarity).

  4. says

    Waiiiiiiit, you mean when the Romans were running around splashing in the gene pool, they weren’t a pure-blooded master race? Say it isn’t so!

  5. davidnangle says

    I smirk mirthlessly as I note that the same people that refuse to believe there were dark-skinned people in Europe that must have blended their genes (because that’s what people DO…)

    Also believe that a dark-skinned person in the United States dating a not-so-dark-skinned person is “White Genocide!”

  6. consciousness razor says

    PZ, from your “Pinker” link, regarding scientism:

    Much as I love science, and am personally a committed practitioner who also has a hard time shaking myself out of this path (I find scientific thinking very natural), I’ve got enough breadth in my education and current experience to recognize that there are other ways of progressing. Notice that I don’t use the phrase “ways of knowing” here — I have a rigorous enough expectation of what knowledge represents to reject other claims of knowledge outside of the empirical collection of information.

    That was from 2013 … would you still stand by this statement? Notwithstanding the vagueness about “progressing,” whatever that may mean, it appears to be a very strong claim about the nature of knowledge, which I’d consider a form of scientism or positivism. Whatever you call it, it’s pretty hard to swallow.

    You may simply have in mind religious believers who think they could gain knowledge through revelation or something along those lines. That’s where the reference to other ways of knowing comes from, so perhaps the scope is supposed to be more or less limited to that, even though it isn’t what you’re actually saying, as that reads to me like it’s a much more general claim.

    Of course it’s right that our standards ought to be much higher than that. Nonetheless, that kind of bullshit shouldn’t be confused/equated with other non-empirical (or not entirely empirical) domains like for example logic and mathematics (which you’ll need to do science, obviously). It shouldn’t seem fishy to you that there is knowledge of that sort. It’s perfectly appropriate to say that people throughout academia know things, and it’s not just presumptuous of scientists to suggest otherwise but rather insulting to be honest. In fact they do so, without having to perform tasks such as “the empirical collection of information,” which definitely looks like it’s representing science in very broad terms. If every area of study has to look like science, in order to say we have knowledge of the objects of that study (if there are any such objects to know about), then that’s scientism plain and simple. But this is the kind of shit you were ostensibly rejecting. So what gives? Do you think there’s some kind of middle-ground to stand on here?

    As Pigliucci said, “There is no such thing as reading stuff straight off the data.” Whatever you’re doing whenever you merely collect information about empirical phenomena (opening your eyes and looking around the room, for example), you’re not even close to done yet. As usual, it’s not too hard to see how this kind of thinking is circular or self-refuting or at minimum arbitrary — no empirical methods of any sort could play a legitimate role in the argument. There is no experiment which could indicate to us some such fact (assuming it’s taken to be a fact, as it’s always presented to be) that this is the only method of obtaining knowledge. So, it looks like you’d be cornered one way or another, if you kept at it. You could concede that whatever you’re calling “knowledge” is just an arbitrary decision that comes out of nowhere and is based on nothing. You could claim that really there is no such thing as knowledge, and you were just bullshitting us about this non-thing the entire time. Maybe there are other similarly absurd and indefensible options which might seem more convincing or respectable somehow, if you just don’t see or accept the basic logical problem underlying that whole spectrum of views. I just don’t think there’s a way out of the problem that’s going to keep the basic premises more or less intact, so those have to go if we’re going to have some way of taking it seriously.

  7. says

    I am doing my bit for “white genocide” by not having children, and letting my scandanavian genes die with me. Muaahaaahaaaa!

    Can I get a little hate?

  8. mnb0 says

    Me first, MarcusR. My son is half Javanese. It might very well be that my grandchildren will be 3/4 non-white, because I never noticed a preference for blue eyed blondes. And my son is the last bearer of our surname on our branch of the family tree. That’s my contribution (in my youth I was an Aryan that would have made Richard Heydrich proud) to “the homeopathic dilution of the Dutch population”.


  9. Dunc says

    I get rather fed up with sciencey types who look down on the humanities. So you want to understand something of ethnicity and race in the Roman Empire?

    Most of the time, I get a pretty strong impression that these people aren’t really that interested in understanding anything, they just want to have their preconceptions flattered. Most of them seem to have absolutely no idea how the disciplines they’re so keen to disparage actually function… They seem to get their impression of how historians work more from the “documentaries” on the Hitlery Channel than any reading of actual academic history. I’m no historian, but I’ve read a few serious academic texts on subjects that particularly interest me, and it was a real eye-opener to see the amount of painstaking, detailed work that goes into establishing even apparently trivial matters.