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.