Sunday, May 31, 2015

Empirical Evidence

“Intoxicating symmetry, the prize,
Converted all but science into lies.”
—An Enigma on Man

[Although the poem, “An Enigma on Man”, is certainly “…a triumph!”, it apparently is an unreadable one, so despite my continuing edits, it may never see the light of day. Nevertheless I will probably quote it from time to time.]

In our current age empirical evidence, often called scientific evidence, is evidently king. Of course some, like Michael Polanyi and, Myk’s favorite, Thomas Kuhn, have cautioned equating truth with data. I would like to relate a peculiar story told by Steven Pinker in a Ted Talk about some incendiary criticisms to his book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. This story has a little relevance to the Fishtown discussion, but only tangentially. Mostly it is a story how conclusions about human behavior are difficult to come by. 

Pinker begins talking about the censure he and others have received for presenting unpopular conclusions from research. He tells about his favorite example: a pair of researchers who were criticized for doing a study about left-handedness—collecting data and concluding that left-handers are, on average, more susceptible to disease, more prone to accidents, and have shorter life-spans. Soon the two were barraged with enraged letters, death threats, and banned by scientific publications. The rage, as you might guess, came from left-handers and their advocates. 

And then Pinker makes an off-handed comment about the pair's research, for which I really admire him:
“it’s not clear, by the way, whether that is an accurate generalization, but the data at the time seemed to support that.”


Mike said...

His potshot at Judith Butler left a lot to be desired. One could literally do that with most academics, or - God forbid - a Hegel, Heidegger, Kant, etc., who Butler is writing in the tradition of. Just because someone's work isn't intelligible to a general audience doesn't mean it's junk, as Pinker suggests. Butler also gives a lot of public speeches, which are readily accessible, and which Pinker conveniently chose not to quote from.

My suspicion deepens...

James R said...

My story of Pinker's story is not intended as any advocacy of Judith Butler, Steven Pinker, Hegel, Heidegger or Kant. I'm too dense to understand what suspicions are deepening. If anything, I guess you could say I took a potshot at Pinker. I just found the most interesting line he gave in the whole talk, not only undermines, to some extend, his talk, but also research in general. I probably didn't tell it very well, but, since you listened to the talk, didn't you find it odd he would make the off-handed (left-handed) comment?

Big Myk said...

There was a time in my life, deep into middle age, when I attempted to educate myself about postmodernism and de-construction, a hole in my philosophical background. I concluded that the entire project was a clever attempt to convince people that the emperor had his clothes on. The general technique was to use totally mystifying prose to make the reader think that somehow something profound was going on, only he or she was not smart enough to grasp it. In reality, the impossible language was simply a mask for a complete lack of any real content. Alan Sokal made a bit of a splash writing a postmodern parody that was published in an academic journal, having convinced the editors that his deliberately written drivel was a serious piece.

Of all the post-modernists, however, I found Judith Butler to be the most impenetrable. The sentence presented by Pinker is actually a famous sentence that won first prize in the Philosophy and Literature Journal's Bad Writing Contest in 1998.

Big Myk said...

By the way, I know that Heidegger and Hegel are both quite difficult also, and I think would be impossible to understand without the guidence of a professor or other adept. (I never read Kant directly). I confess that I'm not really prepared to discuss why Heidegger and Hegel and fundamentally different from Judith Butler, except to say that I beleive that I know content when I see it.

Big Myk said...

To go back to Jim's original post, I’m not exactly a Pinkerite, and I know that he’s been subject to plenty of criticism over the years, some of it from honorable people. But, he’s a good writer and at least has some interesting things to say.

I’ve never actually sat down and read any of Pinker’s books, but I’ve read parts of them and articles and essays he’s written. One thing about Pinker is that he either likes to talk out of both sides of his mouth or he’s on a journey of discovery and isn’t worried about “foolish consistency.” This is apparently the point Jim makes when he points out that Pinker criticizes the critics of the left-handed studies, only to add that those studies weren’t worth much as it turns out.

Another example: in Pinker’s 2009 NY Times article My Genome, My Self, he states initially that “[t]he most prominent finding of behavioral genetics has been summarized by the psychologist Eric Turkheimer: ‘The nature-nurture debate is over. . . . All human behavioral traits are heritable.’” My understanding is that this idea was the basis for much of his book The Blank Slate.

But then at the end of the article, he says that greater knowledge of our genomic makeup will make little difference: “the issues about self and society that it brings into focus have always been with us.” Indeed, Pinker reaffirms what “we have always known,” that people are liable “to varying degrees” for what they do, that, while people can’t accomplish just anything, they should be encouraged to develop themselves and confirms the adage that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Pinker adds that “we know that holding people responsible for their behavior will make it more likely that they behave responsibly. ‘My genes made me do it’ is no better an excuse than ‘We’re depraved on account of we’re deprived.’”

Maybe there’s a subtlety here I’m missing, but seems to me that, if we’re all hard wired to behave certain ways, we shouldn’t be holding people accountable for their conduct.

Big Myk said...

Again, because Blogger limits the size of each comment, here's the rest:

But there’s an even bigger inconsistency in Pinker’s writing. Again, as I understand it, Pinker’s point in writing The Blank Slate was to put to rest the naïve idea that human nature can and should be changed. This, for Pinker, was the goal of tyrants from the Jacobins to Hitler (see Godwin’s Law) to Stalin.

But then Pinker came out with his Angels of our Better Nature. In this book, he presents evidence that violence of every kind has declined over the years (his account, if nothing else, is a refreshing rejoinder to the widespread belief that everything generally is going to the dogs). As I discussed in a prior post, The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades, Pinker posits the notion that violence in the world is decreasing due to the “moral Flynn Effect.”

As we are all now aware, we can’t explain the Flynn effect itself by invoking evolution: it just doesn’t work that fast. Rather, as James Flynn himself argued, this effect occurred because we now live in a much more intellectually demanding environment and are required to apply abstract reasoning to more complex problems just to get through the day. Living in this environment has led to the increase in IQ scores overall. Pinker then picks up on this and argues that our enhanced powers of abstract reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and perspective, and frame our ideas in more universal terms. From this distance, we can see that the universe does not revolve around us and that we have no more claim to the good things in life than does anyone else in the world. This is Pinker’s “moral Flynn effect” that makes us overall morally better people, and less inclined to violence.

The problem here is that Pinker seems to be undercutting the very argument that he made in The Blank Slate. Pinker’s now argues that human nature not only can change but it has changed -- for the better, due to environmental factors. So, it seems to me that some revolutionary regime who wanted to change human nature could do so by intellectually enhancing the environment to force people to think abstractly by, say, requiring that quantum mechanics be a part of school curriculum, and, given enough time, we would see a new human arise who would show a lot more compassion for fellow citizens.

The New York Times has also noted this inconsistency: “So don’t the trends that Pinker chronicles prove that our nature is more the product of our culture than our biology? (contrary to his books How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought).

James R said...

Bingo! As usual, I like what you say and how you say it.
We measure nature, and nurture pops up somewhere unexpected. We measure nurture and now we're not sure about nature. Currently we use the term superposition, but long ago the church called it original sin. OK, I'm being funny, but superimposed on this is some seriousness.

Mike said...

Back! Sorry for the delay.

To Myk: That criticism seems to make sense. But does Pinker say that "environmental" factors drive change in human nature? And is human nature wholly dependent on genetic composition? I'm still a little confused and fear I have to just read the book.

Regarding postmodernism and deconstruction, fair enough. I wasn't around during the heady days of the PoMo theory wars. And the Sokol Affair sounds pretty awful. It seems like it involved equal parts media-friendly anti-intellectualism and unnecessarily (and strategically?) obscurantist social science/humanities theory, so maybe all sides had a point?

But, to your specific criticisms about lacking content, I'd push back and say 1. the same charge is brought against any number of philosophers. Choose any page of the Phenomenology or the Critique of Pure Reason and try to make heads or tails out of it. Is Butler's comment on Althusser any more obscure than Hegel's explanation of the dialectic? I didn't think so. And 2. despite Butler's supposedly impenetrable work, she's probably the most cited female social theorist of the 20th century (along with Arendt), and within the top 10 generally.

Whatever.. that's not a strong defense, but Pinker's very public and blithe dismissal seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited. Who knows... Maybe this kind of petty scholarly sniping is common. But I suspect this has to do with Butler's work on the social construction of gender and sex (among other supposedly "fixed" attributes), a position that Pinker would probably vehemently deny. If intelligence isn't innate but something that is constructed out of complex social this-and-that, Pinker's thesis is essentially dead. But why not argue with her, instead of resorting to ad hominem attacks? It's just bizarre to me. Does he think there's no there there or is she just a bad writer?

A short clip of Butler:

Mike said...

To Jim: Understood. My comment was really apropos of nothing except the section of the talk I mentioned. Anyway, to your question specifically, him saying that the left-handed thing was inconclusive doesn't really undermine his main point (i.e. that we ought to be looking into these questions, regardless of how they are received by the public). He's only saying that sometimes there will be causation, sometimes correlation, sometimes we won't understand the mechanism at all, and sometimes none of the above. To say that he found no relationship between left-handedness and Variable X is only to reassure the audience that 'my method works, and sometimes we'll find clear and socially palatable answers and sometimes we won't.' Of course, assumptions regarding his field or the methods it employs and the supposedly innate and objective existence of the categories under question (e.g. IQ) are left unquestioned... though that seems to me where the true controversy lies.

So, to me, all this is strategic. Maybe I'm just trolling James at this point, but Pinker seems to pull the evangelical Christian move of claiming endangered status of his ideas - Can't we just ask the questions without the PC police coming after us?! - while at the same time being hugely popular and influential and representing a pretty dominant opinion (see: book sales & tenure at Harvard & TED talks, which is pretty much the definition of popular intellectual ideas nowadays).

While I'm yet to be convinced of a genetic-anything regarding intelligence (or even of what "intelligence" is), I'm happy to have the topic explored and the results debated. As an aside, genetic analyses generally receive huge amounts of funding, and - to my knowledge - the field's largest issues haven't been uncomfortable findings, but rather unfulfilled promises regarding genetic explanations. Though, I do think critics of this line of inquiry are right to be wary. Consider Larry Summers's comment regarding women and intelligence and their under-representation in certain scientific fields. What do those statements do? Erase the socialization that women (and men!) go through that would lead them away from science, or the discrimination they might face on the way to such jobs that dissuades them from pushing through highly competitive environments, or the more subtle but pervasive myths in society regarding men and genius (another ill-defined term) or women and caring for newborns ... and all via measures and methodologies that are highly contested. Anyone should expect backlash when they make claims that erase the social, the economic, the political, the historical from explanations of any phenomenon -- especially ones that "science" has made erroneous claims about in the past and by way of a genetic explanatory model that has been relied upon to justify all sorts of terrible things.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a nice commentary on this (while sitting next to Dawkins! Notice the unenthusiastic clapping in response to Tyson's comment):

Mike said...

That's all to say... I'd be annoyed if a group that had been historically hostile to left-handed people started making supposedly scientific (or "scientistic") claims about left-handed people that ultimately led to the further mistreatment of left-handed people in society (or conversely further justification for the dominant group - "the right handed") and precluded more ethically just and substantive social changes for my fellow left-handed. 'Don't worry about female faculty under-representation,' the evolutionary biologist running regression models tells us, 'they're genetically predisposed to cluster around the average IQ.' Don't worry about the plight of Latino migrant farmworkers, they're physically built lower to the ground to pick strawberries all day. African slaves, mentally born to serve. 19th c. Irish, predisposed to hard labor and life in crowded New York tenements. Polish immigrants, bricklaying. Etc. Etc. Etc. And there was that genetic explanation for violence in Latin America a few years back ("the warrior gene")... of course that violence has nothing to do with the global politics of drug trafficking from Latin America to the US, non-existent social safety nets, semi-feudal land holdings, high rates of poverty and inequality, impunity, etc.

Sorry. Brevity next time!

James R said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James R said...

In regards to the "To Jim:", your (first) paragraph pretty much covers it. I'll put it as perhaps Polanyi might have: empirical research, as Pinker knowingly or unknowingly points out, is just another kind of clue to judge reality. It requires the same epistemological scrutiny as any other clues.

In the other issue: I don't have the breadth of knowledge in regards to the genetics vs. culture question as you or James (or Myk) have, but I will say this: Anyone who thinks genetics doesn't play a huge role in life hasn't lived, and anyone who thinks that culture doesn't play a huge role in life hasn't lived or thought.

Mike said...

And I'd add that research also doesn't escape the social environment and biases of its time. Here's the Pinker/Murray response that I wish I could have written:

James R said...

That is a well written, seemingly well researched, and cautionary article. Thanks for sharing.

Mike said...

"seemingly well researched".... And I guess that's the issue. One has to trust his analysis of the technology. I'd imagine the evo/bio people would have a response along the lines of... you're downplaying the potential degree of heritability and/or genomic "big data" analysis will ultimately vindicate our claims.

Big Myk said...

To Mike: RE: Your first comment dated July 1, 2015, addressed to me . I said that I couldn't really defend my position that Judith Butler's writing was any more obscure than any number of other philosophers. Indeed, in support of your argument, I share this quote with you from Heidegger: "Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy."

But your Judith Butler clip reminded me of the real reason why I detest Butler: her ideas are simply atrociously stupid. Her contention that human sexual dimorphism is a "social construct," i.e, artificial, and does not exist in fact can be recognized by even the most simple-minded as nonsense. (She contends, for example, that the doctor's announcement that “It’s a girl!” is not a statement of fact but is the first step in the process of “girling,” an artificial differentiation between men and women imposed by the heterosexual hegemony.) Of course, this notion isn't all that radical when we consider that the entire postmodern movement denies that the field of biology exists independently of social construction.

I don't know if Butler believes that the presence of seven billion people on the earth is just another social construct, but, in any event, these folks had to come from somewhere, and I suggest that it had something to do with the sexual differences between men and women.

As one New York Times editor was fond of saying to his staff as a way of explaining the difference in the use of the words "sex" and "gender": “Nouns have gender. People, bless their hearts, have sex.”

James R said...

I love when older topics are revitalized. This is separate from Myk's comment, but a week or so ago, I came across an article saying similar things as Mike's referenced Pankaj Mehta's There's a Gene for That. It is titled Die, selfish gene, die by David Dobbs. Ostensively it is a criticism of Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene (although he greatly admires the communicative skills of Dawkins). It is a pretty severe condemnation of the same biological determinism that Mehta talks about. We seem to be finding this more and more in science—that the gestalt is not the sum of the individual parts.

Mike said...

Myk, nice Heidegger quote. He also said that we speak the world into being... a social constructivist par excellence!... Ok, maybe not. But we do live in a world mediated by language. I haven't read much Butler, but she is in the water here. The social construction of gender seems mostly noncontroversial to me. Maybe you think it's wrong, but it's certainly not radical today. I know a lot of people who try and raise their children without expectation of how they are to "perform" (Butler's word) their gender (or "gender"). I think parents in the 21st century feel very ambivalent about imposing gender norms on their children, at least parents on the coasts.

Regarding the construction of biological sex... I don't know. Your comments may or may not contradict Butler's work. Certainly humans reproduce along some kind of lines of difference. She'd agree with that. Certainly there is something "out there" in the universe that is, in a sense, real when it comes to human reproduction, but I think Butler's issue is how that then becomes socially ... constructed? represented? reified? understood?

I do know that some proportion of children are visually ambiguous as to their biological sex (often with terrible consequences as the physician decides their sex at that moment with a scalpel). And people can be chromosomally one "biological" sex and assume (perform?) a different sex publicly (and of course there are chromosomal arrangements that aren't XX and XY). And we see people identify as a different sex than the one they are "announced" at birth. And we have female athletes who are disqualified from sporting events for having - what are called - male levels of testosterone (the IOC determines sex by testosterone level).

I'm not sure if I'm getting at Butler's point, but it seems to me that the categories are much fuzzier or overlapping than they are represented socially/biblically/biologically/etc. I'm in over my head, but - even after having done almost no reading on the subject (a prerequisite for posting) - I'm not interested in policing what are, at the very least, porous "biological" boundaries. Are there no social constructivists in this family???

Anyway, my concern isn't really with defending Butler. It was rather with Pinker's cheap shot. Maybe the emperor (that is, Butler) has no clothes, but they seem to have amassed a powerful empire. I'm not sure if logical positivists feel threatened by people like Butler or see her as an academic joke, but I feel inclined toward the former explanation when her arguments (written decades ago) are elided in favor of straw men and pot shots at a TED talk.

I guess I'll say too that I think the questioning of seemingly obvious and natural categories (like man and woman) isn't just postmodern navel-gazing but instead useful in thinking about how people use those categories in the world and to what purposes. Certainly, "Be a man" and "The proper role of women" are phrases that have relied on those categories to do all sorts of bad things. I'm thinking too of "freedom", "democracy", and "liberation" in regard to our misadventures in Iraq. Maybe troubling these ideas isn't so bad a thing.

Mike said...

And 8-bit philosophy posted something on this just 2 weeks ago.

I think I got it mostly right?

Big Myk said...

Mike, I think that your video presents a fair summary of Butler’s thought, at least as I understand it, and I give it credit for presenting her ideas in a comprehensible way – something she is incapable of. And I have no problem with your view that we shouldn’t try to force children to dress, move, speak and act according to the culture’s assumptions about gender. Although, don’t kid yourself, parents of all stripe still socialize their children according to gender. Even the most progressive parents buy their sons clothes from the boys department and their daughters clothes from the girls department.

In any event, I concede that gender performance is a cultural phenomenon, even though the social biologists may think otherwise. Certainly, men and women were expected to conform to types over history that are much different anything we have today. Women were not expected to go to college before; now they make up 60% of all graduates and are obtaining a higher percentage of advanced degrees than men. The idea of a woman doctor used to be unthinkable. Now, half of all medical students are women. As cultures change, so do the expectations, and people conform to them. Clearly, there’s not much biology there.

Gender, however, is not the only thing that is performative. Actually, almost everything is. Rich people perform a certain way, and so do middle-class suburbanites and the poor. That was Charles Murray’s one great insight about the bubble. People inside the cultural bubble construct and perform a particular identity that is unlike the identities on the outside. They drink different beer (and know what ABV and IBU mean), watch different TV (or none at all), eat differently and raise their kids differently.

Professions also “perform.” Police behave differently than attorneys; academics perform differently than plumbers. Performance may also be based on ethnicity. We even have a term, “code-switching,” to label the practice of changing from one performance to another. See Key & Peele - Phone Call.

People conform to all sorts of social norms and expectations, most of which have nothing to do with gender but are based on some other ways of identifying themselves. This is just the way we live in society. Of course, how our various identities are performed is established by culture. There’s nothing sinister in this, and, as you say, this is not controversial; it’s also not very profound.

But you have to understand that – and the video points this out -- Butler goes way beyond saying that there is socialization along gender lines. Butler contends the sex differences themselves are socially constructed. Here, from her Gender Trouble is her almost impenetrable way of saying this:

“It would make no sense, then, to define gender as the cultural interpretation of sex, if sex is a gendered category. Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex (a juridical conception); gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which ‘sexed nature’ or ‘a natural sex’ is produced and established as ‘prediscursive,’ prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts.”

To be continued...

Big Myk said...

If I understand this correctly, Butler is saying that there is nothing “natural” about sexual categories. Rather, the terms male and female are themselves gendered, that is, created by culture – cleverly disguised as “prediscursive” and “politically neutral” – but have no real existence outside of culture. I happen to think that this is crazy – I can’t overstate this -- and the fact Butler is taken seriously is a severe indictment of academia. Belonging to one sex or another is natural and, indeed, necessary, if the species is to continue. These are not categories created by the heterosexual power elite.

As for your argument and the position laid out in the video that the human race being not 100% dimorphic is evidence that the categories of man and women are artificial and have no foundation in reality, I leave it to The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt:

“If some tiny percent of people are born biologically sexually anomalous, like the intersexed, why does that call biological sexual dimorphism into question? There are many genetic anomalies, like extra fingers and conjoined twins. But basically, people are born with ten fingers, and live in individual bodies. We don't go around saying, well, actually it's just the hegemonic discourse of digits that makes us think of people as having ten fingers. In fact, some have nine, some have eleven, some are born with no hands at all! Nor do we say, actually, physical individuality is another social construct-- look at siamese twins! What one does about genetic anomalies like intersex is a social decision, of course. But it's a different question than that of whether sexual dimorphism is a social construct in the first place.”

The fact is: there are physical differences between men and women, but it is difficult often to get to the bottom of things because, as Polanyi points outs, science is not value-free and is influenced itself by culture. But Butler’s take-no-prisoner’s approach does not allow us to even inquire into what sexual differences exist as a matter of biology and which are culturally created.

Philosopher Martha Nausbaum points this out in her article on Butler, “The Professor of Parody.” She says that, to take one example, women are right in challenging male-dominated assumptions about female athletic ability. But, women, says Nausbaum, are also “right to demand the specialized research on women's bodies that has fostered a better understanding of women's training needs and women's injuries.” I’m feeling this right now because Ellen just had a second ACL repair surgery. Nausbaum concludes, “In short: what feminism needs, and sometimes gets, is a subtle study of the interplay of bodily difference and cultural construction.” Butlerism forbids this.

I could go on with my criticisms of Butler, like her rejection of feminist politics -- because you can’t advocate in favor of a group that has no actual existence. So, there is no need to actually engage in messy things like lobbying legislatures and organized movements. Rather, says Butler, we should be making the daring subversive and parodic gesture of – wait for it – cross dressing, to make fun of gender conventions. You can imagine how this sort of thing will make the gendering powers tremble.

But we’ll stop here.

Mike said...

Alright, you've forced me to go and actually read Gender Trouble (and maybe Polanyi). I'll also take a look at the Nussbaum criticism. It will take some time, but I'll be back with a graceful acquiescence or a devastating counterattack! In any event, I appreciate the hard line in the sand.

Big Myk said...

I meant to place a link to the Nausbaum's piece I referred to, published in The New Republic in 1999, The Professor of Parody, an error which I have now corrected. I also found interesting a New York Times article on Nausbaum, Who Needs Philosophy?

Mike, may these help you on your journey of discovery. In all fairness, if you just Google "the Professor of Parody" you will find any number of attacks on and criticisms of Nausbaum's critique of Butler. I'll look for your response in a few years, which is what it's going to take you to get through Gender Trouble.