Saturday, March 03, 2007

Elegy For A Liberal Historian

The Dangers of a Conservative-Cognitive Cohabitation
Posted by olvlzl.
Unless Echidne does one of her great refutations of David Brook’s bilge, he is pretty near the bottom of my optional reading list. Other than as referenced by the writings of her and some others, I avoid the cherry picker. So I hadn’t read his recent citation of Steven Pinker before taking that modest poke at the guy here last week.

A comment asked what I didn’t like about Pinker. You could say that the reasons start with all of the misgivings posted here about behavioral science. But as Brooks has made the logical use of Pinker to back up the status-quo, the question goes way past those.

Discussing the great historian Arthur Schlesinger on another blog the other day, someone disagreed with me that history was a better way to learn about politics and society than the behavioral sciences. I hold that it’s clear that as systems become more complex that the difficulties of studying them grow and the certainty of the results of the study tend to diminish. Eventually the difficulties preclude those subjects from being science. Some of the methods of science can be useful in studying those very complex fields but the results are not science. While a clear demarcation is probably not possible, the science side of the line should include only aspects of behavior and cognition that are quite simple and well defined, at least that’s what I think. Some people aren’t as stringent about what they’ll place their scientific faith in*. I think that the best history is more rigorous in its adherence to fact than a good deal of what is considered to be science. And its facts are no less facts than the product of the behavioral sciences. Quite often there is more evidence that what historians study acutally happened.

The unwise faith holding sway among our intelligentsia, that accords whatever a big name at a big university calls “science” a position of nearly unquestioned authority, is liable to break down most badly when “science” goes past where a reasonable and disinterested person should draw the line. A lot of those caught up in this kind of reverent awe are not given pause by their ignorance of science. It’s quite common among majors in the humanities or viewers of the Discovery Channel who haven’t mastered highschool algebra. It’s in them that the critique of science as a secular religion is particularly accurate.

Emblematic of the ubiquitous, uncritical acceptance of behavioral science is that the treatment of individuals as individuals, with their own abilities, thoughts and preferences, treatment unprejudiced by classification and assignment of abstract, statistical norms feels like it’s becoming ever rarer in today’s over indoctrinated world. People are not merely members of a category, you cannot tell anything about them by relying on classification. They can’t be pinned to a board like a dead insect and assigned a little, printed card. Pinker's very self-serving support of Summers' should be a red flag both within and outside of his specialty.

History, politics and society in general, with their enormous complexity cannot accommodate the precise specifications necessary for really good science. The vast academic subject, “history” is variable enough, flexible enough and sufficiently lacking in authoritative hierarchy to encompass the enormous and difficult mass of evidence in its ambiguity and contradictions. History, with no right to being called a science yet containing a larger part of the real complexity of actual life, can give a better idea of how to avoid the political mistakes that other people have made in the past than just about any science. It’s surely a better guide for our politics than the religion of near science. Not that science doesn’t also have an extremely important role. Careful and accurate science does have an enormous role to play in setting public policy when it’s useful. The suppression and distortion of science by the Bush regime is a crime against humanity and democracy.

There is bad history just as there is bad science. I believe both are a danger to freedom and the continued existence of life. But history isn’t contained in a single, larger, truth. It contains a large number of different viewpoints. You might find what is useful within one viewpoint or it might spread itself over several opinions. The strength of history comes partly from the number of viewpoints, when those viewpoints are honestly arrived at.

Democratic politics doesn’t depend on a single viewpoint for its authority, it can’t. It depends on the information that The People, as a whole, bring to it. It’s an attempt to average out bad ideas and to cast a wide net to find good ones. But in order for democracy to exist, The People need to hold values that can’t be found by science. Those values are as necessary to freedom and as essential to a decent society as accurate information. Equality, generosity and liberty are foremost among them. The rise in popularity of those values grew out of the knowledge of the history that preceded it and the desire to escape the horrors of the past, it continued with a faith that kind of change was possible.

It’s an uncertain life which we have to approach from our own limitations. Many leftists are too quick to accept the too confident and fashionable explanations of biological determinists on these subjects. The scientific trappings of their pronouncements cow too many people out of making a political and, let’s say it, moral critique of their edicts. There is no reason to believe that their work contains more legitimate ground for making good choices in politics than are found in life unfiltered by them. Brooks and others are beginning to use them like earlier plutocrats used other biological determinists to prop up the status quo. The history of that practice, resting on piles of entirely real bones, stolen lives and stunted spirits, makes suspicion of these neo-determinists entirely legitimate. Alleged science used to support the politics of David Brooks, which Pinker more than clearly implies in his contentions, needs a critical look in political terms. The history of their fields should require more skepticism than uncritical acceptance. The emergent political applications of their writings makes that kind of skepticism wise. **

Back when Sociobiology was young, a relative of mine was majoring in biology. They swallowed the fashionable line, then all the rage in biology departments around the country. During one of our frequent arguments on the subject they asked why I didn’t dispute physics but felt entirely free to dispute sociobiology . Other than the arguments made here about complexity, subjectivity and interpretation, the answer included that no physicist, on the authority of their research, had maintained that we didn’t have free will or had supported grossly sexist social norms.*** The real possibility of determinists impinging on other peoples’ lives confers the right to respond to them very skeptically.

The danger in biological determinism for progressives is that its uncritical adoption will result in the left being hollowing out through an abandonment of our essential values. The view of people as “computers made of meat”, of our actions as the results of genetic fitness with little to be done in the way of mitigation, is a way of reducing people to fixed objects.**** That view of people is the core of conservative practice, no matter what line they might mouth. I don’t see any scientific bar to allowing those with more ability or resources to use such human objects in whatever way what will. Biological imperative is a well known excuse for human subjugation even today, there is every reason to believe it will continue to be. If this kind of biological determinism becomes the majority opinion all the evils of the past will reemerge. Other excuses have served exactly the same purpose, the results will be the same, perhaps worse because people will believe that it’s proven fact that subjugation is the best they can hope for. Steve Biko said "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." We will relive the past we have been encouraged to ignore.

The contentions of Pinker et al are suspiciously supportive of the status quo elite that they are a part of. Odd, isn’t it, that their work props up the current establishment instead of undermining it. In pointing that out I’m aware that Pinker’s camp has made the same charge against other, competing, scientists, who they claim have allowed their politics to influence their work. So, it’s a form of critique that they can hardly say is illegitimate when applied to them.

But I’m not going to get involved with that highbrow form of uh-huh, nah-uh. I’ll leave that to scientists. I’m interested in what history has shown us can happen in these kinds of situations. I think that the manifestation of such “science” in history, seeing how it played out in real societies, countries and lives, is infinitely more useful than taking the speculative and schematic findings of “science” and applying them the other way round. At least, they are if you aren’t interested in propping up an elite. Life is too complex to leave to the scientists, alone.

* Though this point was disputed on the other blog, behavioral science is clearly the most subjective branch of science. Given its field of study, it begins with interpretation of behaviors and then goes well past the point of simply describing what can be seen, drawing inferences about unseen aspects and assumptions. Its researchers very often lack an objectively observable, measurable, subject. The field can’t escape its origins, a behavioral scientist can’t escape the place they are observing from, their own mind, and the fact that they are putting their own interpretation on what they’ve observed. As I said in that long piece a few weeks back, cognitive science, even with all it’s measurements and imaging, sometimes pretends to have bridged that chasm when it hasn’t. We can’t know if it might achieve that someday. As of today, it hasn’t.

**I’ll avoid the temptation of making specific comparisons between them and others in history who have claimed a similar kind of authority based on the prevailing standards of reasoning. After all, those people also believed their standards were etched in stone for all time. Science isn’t the full measure of reality anymore than history is.

*** Sociobiology hadn’t accommodated itself to the objections of female sociobiologists yet. And just where did “sociobiology” go, anyway? You hardly ever hear the word pronounced these days.

**** I believe the quote was from the respected chemist turned Anglican Priest, John Polkinghorne, though I couldn’t find a link.

Is anyone else struck by the short shrift given by social and behavioral scientists to the ability of reasoning and logic to change lives? Haven’t you talked yourself out of something you really wanted to do by analyzing what you wanted with reason and common decency? I’d expect lots of people on the left have. Maybe even some on the right. The ability of people to be better than they are is the heart and soul of liberalism. Without that, the oligarches have it right.