Archive for the 'Science' Category

A reasonable European view of religion?–alackaday!

I have criticized Frank Furedi in the past quite a bit, so I was quite happily surprised at what a penetrating analysis of the anti-religious hysteria in Britain and the States he has written, especially since he is, as far as I can tell, one of the old European leftists of the ambiguously socialist variety. I think he gets it exactly right in the following passage:

“Until recently, cultural expressions of religious faith were simply considered old-fashioned and gauche. But over the past decade, scorn has turned into bigotry and hatred…This trend for blaming the rise of theocracy on ordinary folks’ apparent penchant for simplistic black-and-white solutions shifts the focus from the elite’s failure to promote and uphold a positive vision of the future on to the alleged political illiteracy of the masses. That is why discussions of so-called fundamentalist movements often contain an implicit condemnation of the people who support them – and why the alleged creations of fundamentalist culture are implicitly condemned as immoral. It is the insecurity of the Anglo-American cultural elites about their own values and moral vision of the world that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion. There is a powerful element of bad faith here: many leftists and liberals denounce those who appeal to moral values as being inferior, but they are also envious of them…In the confused cultural elite’s fears of a powerful religious right winning over the masses, we can see a good example of bad faith worrying about real faith.”

There are so many perceptive elements here. It’s certainly true that there seems to be a growing intolerance in certain circles simply of people having religious beliefs, apart from how or even if they act upon them. And I have to imagine that it is in fact based on the persistence and strength, so baffling to leftists (Marxism is after all “dialectical materialism”), of a religious-based mindset that is not ostensibly based on material concerns. One hears constantly the frustrated complaint that this mindset “makes people vote against their own economic and social interests.” And so one sees a dramatic shift in attitude. The leftists who used to rant supposedly in favor of the poor, oppressed working-class, having seen that that working-class, even when given the choice, rejects their platform, turns on it for being stupid, fanatical and duped by the manipulation of superstition. And of course they attack the propagators of religion for having supposedly brain-washed the masses to ignore their best interests. And I would add another element: the zealously anti-religious, at least those mentioned in the article, frequently tack away from a direct argument as to the merits of the core beliefs of religion, atheism, etc. Instead, they focus on auxiliary, less controversial issues like the supposed intolerance or fanaticism of the religious. Well, let’s face it, believing you’re right and those who disagree with you are wrong is inherently intolerant at some level, and in that respect there is no difference between, say, creationists and Darwinists. The secularists set up this bugaboo without acknowledging that everyone acts in defense of and to further their own beliefs. What it comes right down to is what beliefs you choose to adopt. I feel that there is a sort of uncomfortable awareness that if you get right down to, say, two naked propositions: “God exists” and “There is no God,” one does not really seem more inherently logical than the other, both seem like equally irrational (or rational) assumptions. But if you can cut the theists off at the base by condemning them for “intolerance,” then you don’t have to grapple with their actual beliefs, or, more importantly, the fact that your own are, at root, also just based on arbitrary assumptions.

Furedi makes one other excellent point. After reading most of the article, I was dreading the typical leftist idea that, having seen the power of religion, one should try to harness it even if one puts no credence in it, the attitude embodied by the London think-tanker who says “the liberal, secular left has somehow to find ways of supplying citizens with emotional and metaphysical comforts even when it does not itself believe in such things.” But as Furedi correctly points out, this is a totally cynical ploy, and hypocritical too in that it would involve leftists in the manipulation of religious beliefs in the the same way they accuse the conservatives of doing. He seems to imply that one ought to perhaps re-evaluate the strength and validity of one’s own beliefs rather than simply trying to manipulate others’. As for myself, I find it more empowering both on the indvidual and general level to provisionally accept the materialistic scientific view because it seems to make it easier to understand, to predict and ultimately control our environment when one assumes that everything is a manipulable object devoid of supernatural forces beyond our control. But this is not an ontological but merely an instrumental belief, and hence not based on the belief that it is true, but only that it is most useful. In one sense this is kind of a meaningless distinction, but the difference is one of emphasis and value; from my point of view the most important thing is that people adopt whatever beliefs most allow them to improve their own living conditions. The metaphysical beliefs are only valuable insofar as they support this project; they have no value in and of themselves. It seems to me that the really committed theists, atheists, etc. have the values of these reversed–our personal lives ought to be put at the service of these big beliefs rather than vice versa.

p.s. I think Furedi is right that religious fundamentalism, far from taking over, has been considerably marginalized, even in America. As he points out, the Intelligent Design equation of Darwinism+God to start the process is, in a sense, an enormous concession to science, certainly a long way from strict creationism. After all, it may be unwarranted from a scientific point of view, but since natural selection has nothing to say about how the whole process got started in the first place, it’s not necessarily any worse than any other speculation about ultimate origins. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that many of those propounding Intelligent Design themselves believe it sincerely, and I suspect that should they ever come to control school curriculae we would be back to purely scripturally-based dogmas soon enough.

Dawkins talks to the dulls

Here’s Richard Dawkins being slightly more restrained and less arrogant than usual. I suppose that’s probably the effect of talking to an audience that is not necessarily predisposed to agree with you. Nevertheless he of course reiterates his assertion that evolution is the truth and that there is no God, a position that in its epistemological absolutism and certainty has more in common with his religious opponents that most scientists would be willing to go along with these days. Personally, I doubt that any of the current evolutionary theories are true in the sense that they will not be substantially overhauled at some point in the future, just as every major scientific paradigm of the past has. And I find that likely even though there isn’t necessarily any better or more plausible competing theory right now. Most scientists, I think, are aware that there is a big difference between being the best available theory and being the truth. Dawkins may just be condescending to his audience by simplifying, but he doesn’t appear to make any acknowledgement of that. Which is ironic for him of all people, because that is exactly what evolution is about–namely the difference between relative fitness or adaptation, i.e. being better suited to survive in one’s environment than one’s rivals, and absolute fitness, which would be I suppose having the best possible adaptations for survival. Of course relative fitness is the only relevant concept, but truth, like absolute fitness, is an absolute: something is not true just because it is the best of a selected group of explanations, any more than Newtonian physics was the truth just because there were no more viable theories until the 20th century.

Hence truth is somewhat of a chimera, and one needs in the short term a little more solid foundation for separating them. The virtue of scientific theories lies in their ability to make predictions. I wish defenders of evolution like Dawkins, just as much as their religious opponents, would deal on this level rather than in metaphysical fantasies. There is no harm in many cases, surely, in believing in a benevolent power ruling the universe. It may in fact be very beneficial internally, especially in cases like the person dying in a hospital and in search of comfort. But if they are, say, dying of a rapidly mutating pathogen like HIV, knowledge of evolutionary theory is surely at least equally useful and benefiical. I think there is an implicit understanding among a certain number of people that regardless of how one may feel emotionally or aesthetically about something like evolution, the knowledge that it confers brings many tangible benefits, like immunology. So not only are Dawkins’ grandiose claims about the truth of evolution probably epistemologically unjustifiable, they miss the real strength of the theory, which is to say its usefulness. Creationism may be comforting for people (although I’ve never understood the appeal myself), but it’s rather otiose. This sort of explanation is really a form of causistry or ad hoc explanation, where any information can be retroactively fit into the scheme of the dogmatic premises, yet doesn’t generate any useful predictions about untested cases. But since it is infintely flexible, it can organize all known information into some sort satisfying explanatory schema. This is why the division of scientific and religious knowledge into different realms seems to often work on a practical level even though it doesn’t make much sense from a theoretical perspective. Scientific work will continue to pile up useful knowledge about discrete physical phenemona, while almost inevitably people will form (or accept others’) big metaphysical theories to satisfy the need for complete explanations about the world.

Science 1, Realism 0

I’ve been reading Tom Jones, which is probably today most known for, if anything, a somewhat quaint 18th century salaciousness. But like Lolita, there is a very learned intention behind the scandal. It is probably one of the first novels in English to overtly propound realism in fiction (by overtly I mean directly, in little essays at the beginning of each section).

Two hundred years of indoctrination have dulled our awareness of just how paradoxical the claim of verisimilitude in fiction is. After learning Jamesian distinctions between “specific” and “general” truths in literature classes most of us probably didn’t even feel any conscious violation of our basic categories of truth and falsehood in this. This may be because it seemed like merely an abstruse historical controversy, as the dogma of realism is taken less seriously these days. But in any case, that claim of truth for a genre which is by definition unreal on the factual level is just that-a violation.

It is probably true that to insist on some sort of rigorous factuality in literature would be to grossly mistake its true value and strengths. But I do not particularly buy the aforementioned distinction between “specific” and “general” truth, with literature staking just as firm of a claim to truth as any other discipline, but on a general rather than specific level. For the so-called “general” truth typically (this is certainly true in Tom Jones) seems to consist of subjective interpretation, such as matters of character or ethics, rather than objective facts. Which is fine, but it tends to negate (or rather evade) any objective distinction between truth and falsehood. As the scientific method demonstrates, warring general interpretations are often irresolvable; it is only through prediction of specific facts that theories are ultimately delineated. Fiction, by remaining in the realm of the hypothetical, claims freedom from fidelity to specific facts, but cannot regain the trustworthiness that that fidelity implies, or the respect that prediction of new facts brings.

What any of this matters is debateable. Since most people don’t take novelistic claims of veracity all that seriously anyway, probably not terribly as far as readers are concerned. But maybe it pertains more to the writing than to the reading of fiction. A writer really attuned to the diversity and mutitudinousness of the world has to be aware of the fallibility and the non-universality of all interpretations. Hopefully, this might have the additional benefit of dampening the academic pretensions of fiction writers, and turning them back towards their entertainment function (and also, perhaps, a sort of moral pedagogical function, as Fielding definitely claims for himself in Tom Jones). But even in the realm of theory, I think an awareness of the essential difference between fact and theory will ultimately lead to a greater awareness of plurality and diversity at the level of the intellect and spirit, a realization to which science, surprisingly, has greatly contributed.

To summarize: the pretensions of realim have been largely discredited by an awareness of how suspect interpretations are objectively when unconnected to any specific factual content (as fiction by definition is). Therefore, writers ought to carry on their projects of entertaining and inspiring in the awareness of their own subjectivity.

Hooray for Soviet education system!

Although lack of money is one of the problems discussed, those who still insist that American schools fail to do a competent job of educating their students because they are under-funded after reading this and this should probably just swallow their tongues. My brother will probably be nodding in agreement at this part:

“Russian students have a much deeper understanding of the models of mathematics,” says Alexei Odinokov, general co-manager of an Intel Corporation lab in Nizhny Novgorod, a city that was closed to Westerners in Soviet times.

Such mathematical training provides Russian computer programmers with more flexibility in crafting computer software, Mr. Odinokov says. “In the West, they know one algorithm and try to apply it more efficiently,” he says. Russian programmers, by contrast, consider other algorithms that could be used to solve a programming problem, he says.

Also relevant. Key line:

Teacher to classroom full of Asian kids: “Wun Lung, given two functions u(x) and v(x), the first derivative of uv with respect to x is u(dv/dx) + v(du/dx). True or false??

To gringo kids: “Billy, if during Grub Moon, one heart-warming aboriginal finds seven repellent grubs to eat, and another heart-warming aboriginal finds nine, how many will they have together?? (Answer: They won’t have a clue because their number system doesn’t go that high.)

The racist gene

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the concept of “ethnic nepotism,” the idea that racial/ethnic discrimination is grounded in kinship selection, a.k.a. The Selfish Gene, which posits that organisms seek to maximize the evolutionary fitness of their genes even if this involves a sacrifice of their personal reproductive fitness. This is the standard biological explanation of altruism to which most biology textbooks nowadays adhere. But of course using it to explain racial and ethnic discrimination has proven considerably more controversial, partly for scientific reasons, partly no doubt because it is feared that doing so would in a sense legitimize it. For all that it might still be the case.

This posting gives a good summary of some of the main issues and a decent selection of links. As I understand it, the main objection to the linkage of ethnic nepotism to kin selection is crystallized in the following analogy from The Selfish Gene:

“Kin selection is emphatically not a special case of group selection…If an altruistic animal has a cake to give to relatives, there is no reason at all for it to give every relative a slice, the size of the slices being determined by the closeness of relatedness. Indeed this would lead to absurdity since all members of the species, not to mention other species, are at least distant relatives who could each therefore claim a carefully measured crumb! To the contrary, if there is a close relative in the vicinity, there is no reason to give a distant relative any cake at all. Subject to other complications like laws of diminishing returns, the whole cake should be given to the closest relative available.”

But this is not sufficient to rebut the possibility that other forms of “group selection” adhere to the same basic principle, i.e. degree of genetic relatedness. This is because Dawkins seems to overlook the shifting nature of group identification. Sure, if there were only one tribe or one family in the world to divide up its resources, it would probably make sense for individuals to look after only their own offspring or “closest relative available,” to the prejudice of all the others. Perhaps the nearest real counterpart to this are dynasties in despotic states. The more a single family monopolizes power, the greater and more vicious the level of intra-familial competition that usually ensues. But confronted with a rival outside the family the group will tend to cohere to a much greater extent. This is the insight implied in the old saw that the world will only unite in the face of an extra-terrestrial invasion. So maybe within a group kin selection will favor only the nearest relatives, but in the face of competition from outside the group solidarity among all the members will likely increase. In essence, then, Dawkins seems to be attacking the linkage between kin selection and other forms of group selection on the grounds that there is a firm division rather than a gradation between altruistic and competitive favor. However, that is not to say that that division does not vary depending on the situation and the nature of the competition. We see this on a daily basis in, for example, the greater social solidarity in times of war or other (perceived) general emergency. Racial and ethnic variation are not bad proximate indications of genetic difference and, although eluding a rebuttal is certainly not a convincing argument for a theory, given the greater explanatory power and simplicity ethnic nepotism gives to the theory of kin selection I see no reason to dismiss the possibility at this point. And if it should prove to be true it would also seem clear that even avoiding the naturalistic fallacy racial and ethnic differences are not the meaningless or arbitrary distinctions that they are generally portrayed as being, nor, having a biological basis, could they probably be culturally conditioned out any more than can be sexual jealousy.

Thomas Szasz, Kantian

An interesting review of an anthology of Thomas Szasz and his critics, although the seeming intellectual conflict of interest of this article appearing in Reason, to which Szasz is a contributing editor, and written by a man who has received something called “the Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties,” is a bit suspect, but it nonetheless raises some interesting points. Szasz is the professor of psychiatry who became mildly famous in the ’70’s for his fervent denunciations of not just the abuse but the very concept of “mental illness.” However, from what I have read of Szasz his opposition to it seems to be essentially dogmatic, i.e. predicated on the foundational belief that the mental and the physical are inherently separate, and that therefore the application of conditions associated with the body, such as illness, can only inappropriately be applied to the mental. Sure, that debate has been carried on for hundreds of years, but with medical science having advanced as it has, it seems quite obtuse to me to reject a priori the notion of a fundamental indivisibility or even unity between the two. In other words, it seems pretty evident that a host of physical factors and chemicals have been shown to have a profound effect on personality, and so it would not be unfair to speculate that any and all personality traits are the result of some chemical condition in the brain. Granted, psychiatrists seem to be inclined to assert an absolutism diametrically opposite to Szasz’, i.e. that the mind is totally physical in nature, and the American Psychiatric Association sneering at an archaic belief in “mind/body dualism” seems almost equally presumptuous, although slightly more supported scientifically (though we should not be surprised by that since, as I have argued before, science is pretty much materialist by its very nature).

In a way, this whole discussion up to a certain point is pretty irrelevant. If one wishes to pursue medicinal solutions to one’s mental problems, no one but the bill collector will get in the way. If not so be it. But the real issue is when free choice is revoked–in other words, whenever the legal system gets involved. Now it would be too facile to insist that everyone should be able to make a choice about whether they wish to be treated for mental disorders in all cases. There is always going to be a division between relative competency and incompetency, and there is always going to be a certain number of people that are considered incapable of making their own decisions in this, although in this regard curiously it is probably precisely the diagnosis of insanity that will often result in the loss of discretionary rights. But in any case, those distinctions are not my concern to define and develop here. Suffice it to say that it all pretty much pertains to the well-being of the individual, which except in cases of true incapacity should ultimately be within their own powers to decide.

Where I diverge from this sort of libertarian attitude towards psychiatry are in those cases that touch upon the welfare of society, particularly criminal cases. Psychiatry and mental illness have obviously become institutionalized concepts in the judicial system, and Szaszians seem particularly irate about criminals being “let off the hook” via the insanity defense, and in fact the first anecdote in the article consists of Szasz giving a quasi-religious sermon about moral responsibility at a trial to which he was called as an expert witness. I have to wonder, though, what the Szaszians think the real point of the criminal justice system is. When the author makes a distinction between “deterrence” and “justice” in his evaluation of punishments of criminals it seems to give an indication, and I hope it will not be construed as an exaggeration if I take “justice” in this context to basically mean revenge. I have never understood the privileged position that revenge, under whatever euphemism it goes, continues to enjoy in our judicial system, but I think it’s almost indisputable that it plays a primary role, for example given the fact that a murderer is actually more likely to be executed if it be established that the crime was entirely rationally premeditated and directed against a specific target, on the grounds that that proves that he or she really was fully responsible for the deed, whereas the real maniacs who get some uncontainable sensual pleasure from killing are less so, because of course they are mentally ill and therefore not responsible for what they did! In my opinion the reverse should be true. The killer whose crime was entirely directed against a specific target is probably less likely to kill again simply because of the specificity of the crime, whereas the person who kills for the sheer pleasure of it is almost bound to, therefore it is that person that may need to be excised from society, due to the unlikliehood of their being re-integrated into the community without posing a constant danger to it. It is only to the extent that I doubt in the redeemability of such people that I remain open to the validity of capital punishment.

If someone steals money, the crime can be compensated by the return of the money. But the killing or injuring (and the various other crimes of this nature) cannot be reversed. To rather crudely employ an analogy from economics, they are conceptually similar to sunk costs. In this case the only thing of value that can be extracted from a prosecution of the criminal is the prevention of future crimes of a similar nature (this consideration plays a role even in crimes, like robbery, where the crime is reparable). These fall broadly into two classes evoked by the rather clichéd terms of deterrence and rehabilitation, in other words preventing the criminal from repeating their crime and discouraging anyone else from doing so. Revenge, I repeat, is absolutely to be avoided, it being an indulgence of a morally unjustifiable passion and prerogative, one rather similar to the even more repulsive envy. Now if a diagnosis of mental illness holds the promise of a treatment of the criminal that really will cure them of the motivation to commit future crimes, this would supersede morally and practically the deterrent value of punishment, and prevent a rather shameful indulgence in an orgy of vengeance. Whether this is really feasible is of course debatable, and as the example above indicates, psychiatric practice can of course be abused to lead to the opposite result, but the word “abuse” itself indicates a perversion of something with a greater underlying validity. In any case, I am rather incapable of sympathizing for this mania for “holding the guilty accountable.” You want a better world, focus on preventing future crime. You want to assume the mantle of acting as a surrogate for the Lord on Judgment Day, go ahead and have their hides. As Nietzsche wrote: “the categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”

p.s. I recall a newspaper article that got some national circulation by seemingly holding up to ridicule a study which concluded that 47% of Americans have suffered at some point from some form of mental illness. How this number was arrived at, I have no idea. But I don’t at all find it prima facie absurd, as so many others seem to. After all, if one takes as a premise that the mind is at least partly a physical system, this almost seems like a low figure. After all, I would guess that the number of people who have at one point suffered from a physical illness is near 100%, and the medical treatments available for the mind are at this point far more remedial, and the afflictions less well-understood, than those of the body

Mathematics and sex

In reference to Curt’s latest post, I feel obligated to make a quick comment on the linked discussion between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke, specifically Spelke’s comments on mathematical aptitude. Now, I’m not (yet) a card-carrying member of the mathematical establishment, but I like to think two years in an Ivy League Ph.D. program has given me some insight into how mathematics works, certainly more than I think Spelke, despite her apparently solid reputation as a psychologist, demonstrates. Her argument is that any difference between men and women in performance in the hard sciences and mathematics is socially, not biologically, determined.1 Okay, as valid a hypothesis as any other. What’s her evidence?

Well, it turns out to be surprisingly elusive, especially coming on the heels of Pinker’s well-reasoned argument that there is some biological basis for the difference of performance between men and women. Of course, she’s right that it’s misleading to look at, e.g., the SAT math test to provide a definitive answer, because the writers of that test can tweak it to get pretty much any result they want (although it is interesting to note that she apparently doesn’t even consider the possibility that the writers of the test are trying to create a test that most closely tests mathematical aptitude, whatever that is, instead talking about how “they can create a test that makes women look like better mathematicians, or a test that makes men look like better mathematicians”). That having been said, it seems downright disingenuous to me for her to acknowledge that males and females tend to have different cognitive profiles, while denying that there’s any chance that has an effect on aptitude for mathematics:2

Finally, the mathematical word problems on the SAT-M very often allow multiple solutions. Both item analyses and studies of high school students engaged in the act of solving such problems suggest that when students have the choice of solving a problem by plugging in a formula or by doing Ven [sic] diagram-like spatial reasoning, girls tend to do the first and boys tend to do the second.

This comes as a continual surprise to non-mathematicians (who imagine that mathematicians sit around doing more and more complicated arithmetic and calculus problems all day), but plugging into a formula is virtually worthless from a mathematical perspective, whereas “Ven[n] diagram-like spatial reasoning” is fundamentally similar to the sort of thinking that a professional mathematician does. Thus, if women tend to be plug-and-chug types, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that they are underrepresented in mathematics departments. Of course, this doesn’t demonstrate that there’s any biological basis to the difference, but Spelke’s apparent contention that plug-and-chug methodology and more abstract reasoning constitute equivalent levels of mathematical aptitude seems pretty naïve.

That having been said, she does make a strong argument when she points out that women and men get equal grades in math classes in college and are math majors in roughly equal numbers. However, it needs to be pointed out that undergraduate math courses and professional mathematics are qualitatively different, not just quantitatively, which Spelke implicitly assumes:

I suggest the following experiment. We should take a large number of male students and a large number of female students who have equal educational backgrounds, and present them with the kinds of tasks that real mathematicians face. We should give them new mathematical material that they have not yet mastered, and allow them to learn it over an extended period of time: the kind of time scale that real mathematicians work on. We should ask, how well do the students master this material? The good news is, this experiment is done all the time. It’s called high school and college.

The qualitative difference is the following: in undergraduate math courses (at least in my experience), performance is based largely on one’s ability to internalize a few examples and follow their template in solving other (relatively easy) problems; the professional mathematician must take known results and integrate them in a novel way to solve problems nobody has ever solved before (which, given that they are unsolved, are pretty much universally very, very difficult). The former is, needless to say, much more amenable to the plug-and-chug mindset than the latter.

Spelke summarizes this section of her argument as follows:

The outcome of this large-scale experiment gives us every reason to conclude that men and women have equal talent for mathematics. Here, I too would like to quote Diane Halpern. Halpern reviews much evidence for sex differences, but she concludes, “differences are not deficiencies.” Men and women have equal aptitude for mathematics. Yes, there are sex differences, but they don’t add up to an overall advantage for one sex over the other.

Again, this is just disingenuous. The outcome of this large-scale experiment is not that men and women have equal talent for “mathematics”; it is that they have equal talent for undergraduate mathematics classes. Certainly, high performance in undergraduate math classes is a prerequisite for getting into graduate school, which is, in turn, a prerequisite for getting a Ph.D. and becoming a math professor, but, as untold grad school dropouts can tell you, there’s a hell of a difference between the sort of thinking that you do as an undergrad and the sort of thinking you must do as a “real” mathematician (in this context, it’s telling that Spelke uses the fact that 57% of accountants are women as evidence that women have the same mathematical aptitude as men). Of course, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that a psychologist has an apparently naïve view of what constitutes professional-grade mathematical aptitude when psychology styles itself (these days, anyway) as an empirical science, which is to say an analytic discipline, while mathematics is practically the definition of a synthetic discipline.

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t significant social causes of the male/female discrepancy in the hard sciences and mathematics (in fact, I really haven’t said anything at all about biology; it’s certainly possible that all of the above differences are due to social factors). Spelke makes good points about how parents seem to perceive the performance and capabilities of male vs. female children differently and how faculty hiring committees tend to receive male candidates more favorably than equally qualified female candidates (this latter should come as no surprise to readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which touches on the fact that a significant contributor to the increasing gender balance of classical symphonies in the last few decades is the fact that virtually all reputable symphonies these days conduct auditions with the candidate performing behind a screen). These and probably many other social factors almost certainly play a role in women’s under-representation in math and science; as may be, Spelke’s apparent ignorance of mathematics makes it hard to accept her position on the issue which is, as Pinker rightly points out at the beginning of his presentation, extreme.


1. I’m quite aware that in this post I’m cherry-picking from Spelke’s argument by addressing only that component of it which I feel like I have some expertise in. I’m not trying to offer a comprehensive rebuttal of her argument and just because I disagree with what is essentially one point in a larger argument do I mean to suggest that the other points are also wrong. As usual, it’s probably best to read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
2. The usual caveat applies: when I talk about men or women having more or less aptitude for something, I’m speaking of statistical averages (to whatever degree those even make sense), not of individual people. There are plenty of women who are wonderful mathematicians (some of whom I’m lucky enough to know) and countless men who are abject morons (many of whom I also know); the old adage that statistics lie and liars use statistics is never more true than when someone tries to use statistics to “prove” statements about individuals.

Finally I get to use the “sex” category!

Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke debating the issue of the day at Harvard, probably the only issue of any importance in the world, as Pinker implies, if your view of the universe begins and ends in Harvard Yard. It seems to me that Pinker has the better case, since, as he points out, Spelke’s evidence is largely about general mundane mental activity, not the sort of highly specialized and possibly male-favorable kind of work that is specific to university-level scientists. However, there is really nothing the least bit conclusive about any of it, and I am inclined to side with Pinker only because his claim is the more modest and intuitive one. In other words, I can’t understand how any of these very tentative hypotheses are being taken as having immediate implications on public policy, and not just within the university. After all, what do Pinker and Spelke disagree on at the practical level? He calls himself a feminist, with her it pretty much goes without saying. They both no doubt wish to end discrimination, and hopefully not only against women, and make scientific merit the criterion in hiring and admissions.

But I imagine that this assumption of immediate applicability comes about precisely because at least one faction, probably the one to which Pres. Summers was addressing his comments in the first place, has taken an absolutist and extremely over-deterministic attitude, predicated on the view that not only are there no differences in cognitive ability between the sexes (which are obviously just social constructs anyway), and not only is a rigid 50-50 parity in employment desirable, but a failure to attain this goal is itself prima facie evidence of discrimination. In the way of opposing this notion it perhaps behooves me to criticize the whole notion of using statistical blocks as specific social goals in this way, since the practice transcends this particular issue. My hometown, for example, has apparently decided to institute a monthly harvest–sorry, I mean quota–of DUI arrests.

In this case the folly of such quotas is perhaps more evident. For example, suppose hypothetically that there simply are not as many drunk drivers to be accosted as are called for in the quota (hardly an absurd possibility, since it simply takes a couple of over-zealous bureaucrats inflating statistics and/or possibility). Logically, some non-drunk drivers would have to be arbitrarily arrested to fulfill the quota. If the officers had consciences they probably wouldn’t do it, but the very issue proves the cleft between the actual goal (hopefully), which is apprehending criminals and reducing crime, and the artificial authoritarian goal, which is attaining a monthly haul of arrests. In academia I don’t think it is any more ludicrous to presume that, even should men and women be fundamentally “equal” in scientific ability, in any given year there will surely almost never be an exactly equal number of qualified candidates from both genders. This is usually not a problem, since statistics are simply meant to more or less reflect reality, not prescribe it. But as any quantum physicist will tell you, the statistical fuzziness is never as precise as we would desire it, and if the point gets pushed it will result in some less-qualified candidates being hired. I would go further and assert that while incidental discrimination may be a result of the present system, a quota system is virtually the only way to institutionally mandate it.

Why should this be the case? Well, why don’t scientists write up their conclusions before performing the experiments? Assuming an outcome in advance, no matter what it is, betrays a fundamental inflexibility to reality. Even if police set a quota of arrests which decreases every year, they really can’t guarantee a commensurate decrease in crime. The reason that fuzziness is built into statistical analysis is because there is an implicit assumption that it is only an approximation, that reality can always exceed or disappoint expectations, etc. So if one wishes to remain “within the conditions of life,” as Flaubert would say, then one must, like a scientist, focus on the methodology, but not presume the outcome. So perhaps if there is a reason scientists are rushing to try to resolve an issue that they know well (and say so on several occaisons in the transcript) cannot be decided with any competent degree of certainty at the present, it is probably in response to those that made up their minds at the very outset.

Oh heavens! the people they are so healthy!

I’m always amazed by Frank Furedi’s Nietzsche-like ability to make perfectly innocuous, even admirable concepts sound like curse words. For example, from this article on our culture’s fetishization of sickness:

“Governments today do two things that I object to in particular. First they encourage introspection, telling us that unless men examine their testicles, unless we keep a check on our cholesterol level, then we are not being responsible citizens. You are letting down yourself, your wife, your kids, everybody. We are encouraged continually to worry about our health. As a consequence, public health initiatives have become, as far as I can tell, a threat to public health. Secondly, governments promote the value of health seeking. We are meant always to be seeking health for this or that condition. The primary effect of this, I believe, is to make us all feel more ill.”

While I’m not sure that I would call examining one’s testicles introspection, it could be justly argued that men over, say, 50 doing so occaisonally may prove more useful than the average afternoon brooding session. I don’t deny that the obsession with physical health does tend to induce the “normalization” of illness, nor that governments, especially (a point my brother has made before) in a system of at least partly government-run healthcare, take the prerogative of intruding themselves more and more on our ability to make decisions regarding our health. However, that by no means entirely negates the value of “health-seeking” in general. Isn’t that, after all, what survival is?

But Furedi is one of these professorial Marxists for whom a single moment lost from re-distributing income in society is a total waste. It is just as extremist a view as that of the health nuts. This is a man that a year ago was bewailing the fact that people no longer identify themselves by their political faction, that they were searching for gasp “personal meaning.” And as intellectually solid as it may seem to moan about moral concepts of right and wrong, good and evil giving way to healthy and ill, I would say that the process is both overstated and, to the extent that it exists, somewhat of a move to re-ground those terminal abstractions in something concrete. For one thing, it’s not like ethics was ever entirely divorced from survival concepts: at least two of the first five books of the Bible, for example, while couched in authoritarian moral-directive language, are pretty much pure health-and-lifestyle manuals (circa 2000 B.C.). I think Plato and Kant have exercised a deceptive influence, because considerations of personal and group well-being have been pervasive in ethics, whether it be hellfire in the afterlife for the Revivalist preachers or some sort of statistical well-offness for the utilitarians. So natural is the urge to connect morals and resultant well-being at some level that I was convinced until the age of 17 that Kant’s categorical imperative was founded on some sort of utilitarian principle.

Perhaps I’m one of the “morally illiterate,” but I find very few a priori moral directives very helpful anymore, and they always seem to be pierced by innumerable valid exceptions. In science, rules are assumed to provisional and subject to revision; in ethics, they tend to override any other consideration. As a result, we wind up with completely deracinated dogmas, and even great minds like Kant deceiving themselves into believing that a utilitarian principle is actually an a priori one. If we actually take the concept of health seriously, but not only in a reductive physical sense, it might restore an element of clarity to our thinking which has been lost in the decline of archaic ethical structures like religions.

And finally, I am quite aware of the role of medicalization in reducing humans to a position of dependency and helplessness. This point has been made, from quite a different extremist angle, by the ultra-libetarian Dr. Thomas Szasz, for example. Then again, people have said much the same thing about, for example, evolutionary psychology. What Furedi, Szasz and Richard Lewontin for that matter don’t seem to realize is that the perceived loss of control over one’s own mind and body (although, as B.F. Skinner pointed out, the results of such a theory, if correct, cannot actually be called either a loss or gain, since they were that way all along) is counter-balanced by the parallel development of technology that allows the manipulation of our biological systems. In other words, maybe someon’s “melancholy temperament” today would be diagnosed as mild schizophrenia, but on the other hard on the heels may come a treatment to cure it. So just like anything else there are two sides to the issue, but it seems to me that if the premises neurobiology are correct humanity in fact has more control over the mind and mental and emotional states today than ever before.

p.s. One might expect that intellectuals of Furedi’s ideological temperament would be more open to this trend. After all, it seems so recently (well, ok, it was 40 years ago, but I discovered it relatively recently) that Michel Foucault published Madness and Civilization to decry the wealthy and powerful élite shutting off and isolating the proles by labelling them as “insane.” Well, these days the élite are much more likely to identify themselves with the plebes by slugging a few Prozac with them. And if that’s not class solidarity, what is?

p.p.s. As evidence of the rather authoritarian and hierarchical basis of ethical norms, I might point out the near-total lack of development of a moral code regulating the interaction of nations, where there is no body invested with supreme authority to impose such a thing and whose behavior as a result frequently, as has been often noted, resembles strongly that of myopic psycopaths. Many people would take this as evidence of the efficacy of ethical norms, at least on a group or general level, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. However, if it is just a matter of my own actions, I generally trust my own instincts more.