Thursday, June 11, 2015

More on Science and pseudo-science (with valuable insight from Collingwood)

This weekend I finished reading The Idea of History by R. G. Collingwood, and I am still elated by the richness and the riveting stimulation of the theses it bristles with. Although he is not a household name today (one unidentified commentator has called him “the best known neglected thinker of our time”), he was a quite renowned scholar in the first half of the XXth century, recommended to me by one of my most admired teachers (Amelia Valcarcel). He made significant contributions to the fields of history (his field of specialization was Roman Britain), archaeology (being the son of an already noted archaeologist) and of course Philosophy, which he taught at Oxford. But back to the book I just read, he makes in there some points that I found especially relevant to my own research (so I’ll have to make some room for them in my dissertation, damn, the journey truly never ends), namely:

·        He decries the poverty and unjustified arrogance of the proponents of a reductionist explanation, based on the methodology of natural sciences (what we call today “scientism”), to attempt to describe all human experience. In Collingwood times that meant essentially positivists (who were still founding sociology and thinking it was a scientific endeavor, poor souls), logical or not. I can not but wonder what he would have made of the likes of Steven Pinker or Sam Harris… but then again, there is little new under the sun (and less so every day as the rate of technological advance keeps on slowing), and our current techno-idiots are just a watered down version of a kind that has been babbling the same worn out mantra for a hundred years already and still think it is new and revolutionary (again, the discussion between Pinker and Wieseltier is exemplar here, and the results of “scientified” sociology, literary criticism and philosophy can not be more pathetic so far, as I already said in this post: Science and pseudo-science). However, for him there was no question that History was a Science, as was the study of Latin, or numismatics, or Sigilography (a blink to all Tintin fans). Science was for Collingwood a catchall term for describing any body of knowledge that had some internal structure, regardless of what that knowledge was about, and regardless of what methods it used to arrive at their particular truths. His objection was to the (as much ill-founded and misguided back then as they are now) attempt to employ the methods of one discipline (Physics) on the rest as the only valid one for attaining true knowledge. We will have more to say about this point later on
·        He identifies the true goal of History as re-enacting in the historian’s mind (or in his readers) deeds of the past. What the historian should strive for is to gain as much understanding as possible of the period he is studying (material conditions, social rules, level of economic development, but also ideological outlook and level of discourse in the different disciplines people back then practiced), so he can think as the main actors (or the ordinary citizens) thought back then, that’s the ultimate measure of him claiming to have understood his subject
·        The deeds that constitute the traditional stuff of historical recounting (battles, revolutions, acts of parliament and the like) require that mental component to be understood because they are in the end the expression of human agents, and thus are manifestations of their freedom, and are to be comprehended in the light of that freedom, a freedom that may be uncertain a priori, or when projected to the future, but that is always an essential component of our re-enactment of the past, as we have to be able to consider the different alternative courses of action open to them as real possibilities for that re-enactment to be truthful. Thus all History is in the end a history of ideas: if we want to re-enact, for example, the thoughts of Caesar in the Gallic wars his education, past history, current ideas about what a honorable life was like, what the value of territorial acquisition was, which virtues and features of character were admirable, and the like, were as important as (or even more important than) the number of legionaries he carried with him, the average population of the villages he razed or the knowledge of metallurgy of the tribes he fought (although all of those are important for the overall picture, as they help to correct and refine incorrect notions we may have in our reconstruction of the period). Being then a history of ideas, the guiding discipline for History should Philosophy (as the overarching body of knowledge that has historically dealt with comparing, refining, judging and enhancing how we think in abstract, with independence of what that thought is applied to).
·        The value of History (what it is good for, what makes it a worthy endeavor) is not that it helps us live better, or that it somehow equips us with some practical rules on how to organize our current affairs (the famous “lessons of History” that nobody learns), but the fact that it helps us understand ourselves better, it turns us into better versions of ourselves (into more “fully human” humans). This is a really nice, at the same time sobering and soaring, insight. Let’s stop pretending to justify humanities by some appellation to their “practical” value (you still read in the comment section of the almost daily news about the bleak prospect of students of those careers the by now traditional retort of how “useful” philosophy doctorates could be in companies big and small… puh-leeeze!). They are valuable because they enrich our inner lives, they help us lead fuller, more rewarding, better rounded lives (not in terms of the material rewards they help us obtain, not because they will get us a better employment, or because they will give us enhanced social recognition). Using an expression that has somehow gone out of fashion, humanistic disciplines are intrinsically valuable, or valuable in and by themselves, without requiring an appeal to some purported utility derived from their acquisition (something, by they way, they share with pure science, understood as a pursuit of certain kind of truth, not as a promethean pursuit of dominion over nature whose unintended consequences normally create at least as many problems as they solve)
Now by one of those unplanned quirks of fate we humans sometimes face what I started reading immediately afterwards was the two-volume paperback edition of Anthropologie Structurale by Claude Lévi-Strauss, which presents a very different understanding of what constitutes a science (between the social disciplines, he assigns that category only to linguistics –and only since it had its own structural “revolution”, and denies it to his own field). What he is trying to do, then, is not to somehow get inside the mind of the populations he studies, to be able to think as they think, but to identify universal rules, highly abstracted if needs be, that reveal a common “structure” underlying apparently distinct cultural manifestations. He had already done it in his previous Les structures élémentaires de la parenté, where he interpreted the different institutions found in many traditional societies (mostly what back in the day was unashamedly called “primitive peoples”) as a set of relatively simple rules for exchanging women (determining who should marry who) to minimize endogamy and at the same time diminish conflict (analogous to the exchange of information through language, which is why he was so fascinated with the works of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand Saussure –the original structuralist- and of his own friend Roman Jakobson).

Lévi-Strauss work, then, is a good example of trying to apply the rules of physics (and a bit of its language, as there was not a mathematical, or rather “mathematical-ey”, formula he was not more than happy to apply, boneheaded as the application may seem from our vantage point) to the social world, and of understanding the anthropologist’s work as a direct correlate in the realm of culture of what the Physicist does in the realm of elementary particles: identify basic components that can be understood in isolation and wring out from repeated observations the simple, basic rules that govern the interaction between those basic components. I am still midway through the Anthropologie, and I will withhold my judgment until I finish it (although being a collection of articles published through the years, I’d be surprised if I came across some section that substantially changes my current impression), but so far I will advance my impression of the whole approach being wrongheaded to the hilt. No surprise that later anthropologists have been overly critical of the seriousness of his original research (done in Brazil, but rarely staying more than two days with the same tribe, and most times not being conversant enough in their dialect) and eve of his scholarship, and do not put so much stock in his theories as they carried in the 60’s and 70’s. You can hardly avoid the impression that his continuous references to those underlying structures a) do not help much in the understanding of the configuration of the rules of the groups he studied and b) are rather an effort to push a square peg through a round hole, having to leave out a lot of evidence that doesn’t fit with his schemas and distorting some of the ones he presents to better adapt to them.    

What I have found valuable in the Collingwoodian outlook is to try to understand the different disciplines (be them scientific –in my own terminology or not) as communities of practice (in the sense of “practice” formulated by Alasdair MacIntyre in his very famous After Virtue –they require some virtues like humility to recognize the authority of their predecessors, and to submit to an external criteria of validity, perseverance, selflessness, etc.) and to describe those communities of practice using the conceptual tools I’ve developed to be applied to organizations, according to my own definition, where members forsake some freedoms because they share some of the ends of the group, and are (when the ability to achieve those ends diminish) subject to more virulent conflicts, for which there is no way of adjudication, unless the discipline keeps innovating (like physics, with the development of dazzling new paradigms in the last thre centuries... but physics has also stagnated lately, as illustrated by Marcelo Gleiser in his latest article on the NYT: A Crisis at the edge of physics). Ideally they all belong to the organizational type I described as “educational”, as their professed end is the extension of knowledge of certain (this-worldly) truth. So anthropology tries to extend what we know about human beings as social animals (how they organize their societies in different places and different times), psychology tries to extend what we know about how the mind works (with some interesting, and I would dare to say self-contradictory restrictions that make the whole enterprise unfeasible), physics tries to extend what we know about the world that doesn’t include us (or so it did, this business of quantum entanglement and the collapse of the wave function due to observation is really messing that ages old distinction) and so on and so forth. To that end, they set certain rules, specifically they define strict criteria to distinguish what constitutes knowledge from what constitutes opinion, or hypotheses, or mere flight of fancy, and what I will argue is that precisely the kind of rules they accept as binding are what distinguishes the different disciplines:

·        On the one hand, we have the “hard” sciences: (Physics, Chemistry (which since Pauling may be considered just a variant of Physics), and basically that’s it. They agree in one basic method to separate true statements from false ones: performing an experiment under controlled conditions with a well defined, measurable result. This method has become so firmly established that is sometimes known simply as the “scientific” method, without needing further clarification, and has become a yardstick for what a serious “science” should look like. You want to claim what you do is “scientific”? then perform experiments, clothe your arguments in mathematical language and defend that the validity of your claims is confirmed by experimental results. Even if the mathematical language doesn’t go beyond statistics 101, and the “confirmation” is underpowered by a tiny sample size…
This key rule has allowed, with time, for the development of specialized organizational forms (subgroups and subsets of rules) devoted to its refinement and exploitation: peer reviewed journals (that, among other things, ensure the experiments are replicable, based on sound methodologies and relevant for the field of study), well defined career paths (university departments, laboratories, job descriptions that state in a universal language what practitioners fo the craft should understand and be able to do) and recognition (grant approval process and prizes) that have become part and parcel of our modern social landscape.
·         On the other hand, we have the “life” sciences: Medicine, Biology, Veterinary. Without discussing the overall validity of the bare bones experimental method, they face the extra difficulty of needing to counteract a quirk of sentient beings called “the placebo effect” that tends to show up in the more unexpected venues (those pesky beings tend to improve just by being tended after, even when the tending method should do nothing whatsoever for them). To prevent that piece of unexplained “causality” to creep up on most of their models and invalidate many a brilliant result, they had to refine the criteria for determining what really causes an improvement of the general condition of their subjects from what doesn’t, and that role is played by the double blind trial. Now the need for that “blindness” (both in the person receiving the treatment and in the one interpreting the result) is already highly symptomatic of a relevant difference between the previous set of disciplines and this. The kind of questions we may seek to answer with this procedure are of the following kind: “will providing a higher dose of statins actually translate in a smaller number of people dying of a heart attack in the first five months after a stroke?”, which prima facie does not look much like “what is matter made of?” Or “does the boson responsible for all other particles having mass have 100 GeV of energy?”, but rather looks like “what curvature of the blades of a pump manage to move more liquid at high pressure and high speed?” in the sense that both posit a question that has an objective answer (either what is asked is the case, obtains, or it is not and does not) but that does not necessarily expand our knowledge of how the world works at a “deep” (“basic”, “fundamental”) level. Hence my contention that life sciences are more akin to engineering in that they allow us to solve practical problems (and they can be very important problems, I’m not trying to minimize their relevance to our daily lives, quite the opposite) than to the “hard” sciences some take as the prototype for all scientific activity.
Almost as an aside, these organizations (the ones devoted to the pursuit of increasing our knowledge in the life sciences) have unapologetically adopted most of the features of the ones we just reviewed: separated university departments devoted to each specialty, peer reviewed journals, grant approval mechanisms, prizes to recognize excellent research… plus some troublesome practices of their own that taint a bit the whole field (collusion of interest with companies that make money selling drugs, and that finance both some areas of research and  some channels of disseminating information between practicing clinicians).
·         Sitting somewhat uncomfortably in the middle we have the “exact” sciences (Math, and I’ve been considering for some time if linguistics may belong here too, but I mostly lean against it now), which generate the most universal statements, so universal indeed that they can not be empirically validated (for the most part), and that have grown in their demonstrations to such level of sophistications that what constitutes a “proof” has to a great extent been outsourced to computers (see the recent polemic about the second conjecture of Fermat, where it was difficult to decide if it had been properly proved or not… my limited understanding is that the consensus now tends to be that it has, but by a different road than what led Fermat to announce it). We may consider they have their own particular rule to separate what they accept as true from what they deem false (formal logic and deduction from fixed postulates, although see Gödel's theorem for the limits of such method), but really what they do is the basis for the development of all the rest of disciplines, so I’m not 100% sure I would call it “science” either. It deals, again, with the purest universal (what can not be even conceived as being any different), but being in the end an elaborate system of tautologies it is the ultimate contingent construction (if we named variables differently, or we started from different axioms, would it take a totally different form?). For the time being I’ll just get back to my mathematical realism (numbers are as really existing as atoms, the fact they do not have mass, or extension doesn’t make them less so), and thus take the whole of math as unimpeachably scientific, it just happens to deal with non-material (but equally existing) entities, regardless of how we (contingently) choose to call them.
·         And finally we have what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call the humanistic disciplines, which, as we have seen, for Collingwood also deserve the denomination of science as much as the previous ones. Now what do “human” sciences have as a distinct rule to separate false statements from true ones? Persuasive argumentation? But persuasiveness is in the eye of the beholder, no wonder nobody seems to ever agree if a certain current in economics, politics, literary criticism or ethnology (to name a few) is ascendant or descendant, has proved its merits or been entirely refuted. They just never seem to progress, but to ebb and flow according to their attunement to the cultural zeitgeist (which in turn they help to shape). In my recently developed dualistic metaphysics, there is no wonder why the humanities can not rely on a mechanism like the experimental method to confirm (or refute) their hypotheses: humans are made of two “substances”, and one of them is not bound by the laws of causality, but is free to decide how is it going to behave (and how it is going to interact with the physical world). The moment you take strict determinism out of the equation, you loose the possibility of experimental confirmation (there is no way to strictly “predict” what the result of the experiment should be for it to count as a validation of whatever is being postulated); without experimental confirmation there is just no criteria, and you just have the current shouting contest of our political discourse where the same fact of the world (like the continued lack of economic growth in the economies of the South of Europe) is taken by some people as a confirmation of certain preconceived ideas (that austerity doesn’t work) and at the same time by some other people as confirmation of exactly the opposite ones (that austerity does indeed work, as there is always some counterexample or some additional fact with purported explanatory power that can be called in to salvage even the most factually challenged theory).
The funny? Sad? Unavoidable? Fact is that the glaring absence of a rule for separating false statements from true ones has not deterred humanities to acquire much of the organizational elements that were developed by the other “educational” groups. So they have their university departments, they have their peer reviewed journals (where hilarious pieces of Forgery like Sokal and Bricmont parody of an academic article can pass undetected), they force their professors to publish in them as if that was a mark of seriousness, they vie for public money for the most fantastic “research topics” (and when the awarded topics are publicized they are always followed by an outcry of indignation, given the downright idiotic nature of some of the activities) and they even grant themselves prizes (not that it is a bad thing, the Nobel prize for literary achievement predates the one for “contributions to economic science” by more than a half-century, and nobody claims literature to be a science… yet). Be it as it may, another unassailable fact of the humanities is that there is no objective “progress” in them. If their goal is to expand the kind of truth they care about (measured in number of people familiar with it or in the depth of the insights about it they can discover) they are failing abysmally. So according to my model, the conflicts within each of the humanistic disciplines should be growing, and already pretty vicious. As anybody familiar with the dynamics of University departments can attest. QED 

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