Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ideology and science

Science is not – nor can it be, in fact – immune to ideological influences. Sometimes such influences may have a positive effect, but it would be naive to believe that such factors do not have the potential to cause distortions also.

Scientists, like anybody else, need to be motivated and often this involves them seeing their own research as defending or furthering broad convictions they might have about human nature or the world in general.

There are many cases of great scientists whose major contributions to science were largely inspired by what we now see as utterly false assumptions. Copernicus and Newton might both be seen as examples of this, their discoveries as it were transcending the flawed intellectual matrix – or worldview – within which the theories were framed.

The institutions and practices of modern science are not designed to screen out personal biases and unwarranted assumptions so much as to ensure that published conjectures and theories and experimental results are exposed to rigorous testing and assessment procedures. The system works pretty well on the whole, encouraging intellectual rigor while not excluding the human element – imagination, creativity, etc. – which is essential for innovative thinking.

Areas such as evolutionary biology and the human sciences are particularly prone to ideological influences.

I have previously hinted at such influences in the case of research into linguistic development and evolution, notably in relation to the work of Michael Tomasello and his colleagues who seem to be adamantly opposed to certain formal approaches to the study of language. I am following up on this, and will have more to say in the future. (James Hurford's views appear to chart a sensible middle course, and are looking very plausible to me at the moment.)

And I have recently come across another example of ideology apparently driving scientific judgment and interpretation.

Last week Massimo Pigliucci published a list of his 'best' research papers on biological topics. It's clear from this list (and another on his Curriculum Vitae) that Pigliucci had from the beginning of his research career a special interest in defending and promoting the notion of phenotypic plasticity – the property of the genotype to produce different phenotypes in response to different environments.

In just about all the cited papers – most involving experiments with plants – the power of environmental factors to alter features of the organism are emphasized. A cursory look at the abstracts certainly suggests that the researchers (the papers are collaborative efforts) are highly unsympathetic to any approaches which could be construed as tending in the general direction of what has sometimes been characterized as genetic determinism.

Which is fine. It's only to be expected that researchers will approach such issues with strong opinions, and a degree of adversarial debate and discussion can be productive. In the end, the weight of evidence usually settles disputes, and the controversies then move on to other areas.

So I am not questioning the scientific value of Pigliucci's work – the scope and nature of phenotypic plasticity is clearly a topic of considerable interest.

But it is interesting to juxtapose his research interests in biology with his published comments about human intelligence.

In another of his recent blog posts, Pigliucci claims that environmental – cultural, in fact – factors are solely responsible for differences in patterns of involvement by males and females in different research areas. Genes don't have anything to do with it, apparently.

"[T]he fact," he writes, "that there are fewer women than men in a given field is likely the result of a large number of cultural factors (no, I don’t think it has anything at all to do with “native” intelligence, Larry Summers be damned)."

A commenter makes the point that "the greater variance of male intelligence is well established", and that genetic factors are obviously involved. The greater variance of male intelligence in this context means essentially that there is a greater proportion of individuals with very high intelligence amongst men than amongst women (and also a greater proportion of individuals with very low intelligence).

It is not impossible that some purely environmental explanation for this pattern could be found, but the evidence, even if it is not conclusive at this stage, certainly points to an at least partly genetic explanation. So the fact that Pigliucci seems to have a very strong disinclination to accept that genetics is significant here clearly goes beyond the science and points to a prior ideological commitment.

The emotional tone of his references to Lawrence Summers may not strengthen but certainly doesn't weaken my case. "I can't stand the bastard," Professor Pigliucci notes in a comment.

Pigliucci's strong ideological and moral convictions – which no doubt played a part in his decision some years ago to shift his focus from science to philosophy – may be able to be explained largely in terms of cultural factors.

But I just can't help thinking about Massimo's (hypothetical) monozygotic twin who was raised by a Swedish family. Did he too follow a scientific career? Does he have a penchant for bow ties? Is he a religious skeptic? Does he too have strong views on political and social questions? And what is his attitude to Lawrence Summers, I wonder?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Life, death and computation

I have been spending a bit too much time lately reading other people's blogs and (to some extent) participating in associated discussions. The main problem with this sort of activity is that – largely because the focus of discussions is always shifting – it encourages superficial debate at the expense of deep understanding.

But, interestingly, two recent blog discussions on two very different sites which I happen to follow touch on a similar theme.

Biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci recently precipitated a freewheeling discussion of the relevance of computers and computing to understanding the human mind and the universe in general. In fact, Pigliucci's post on the topic prompted more than 200 comments, many of which are well worth reading.

Professor Pigliucci has a disarming tendency to rush in where more cautious academics fear to tread – that is, beyond his areas of specific expertise. (I suspect his approach owes something to the intellectual traditions of his native Italy, where academics have traditionally played an important role in the broader cultural, moral and political sphere.)

Pigliucci argues strongly against functionalist and computational views of the mind. I don't have strong views on this question, though I share Pigliucci's skepticism about some of the (as I see it) wilder claims about mind uploading and the scope of simulations etc.

I did, however, question his contention that seeing the operations of nature in computational terms is likely to lead to mathematical Platonism, commenting as follows:

My understanding is that many of the leading proponents of an information- and information processing-based approach to physics see information as physical. The bits or qubits are always 'embodied' in actual physical processes, albeit that these processes are understood at a deep level in terms of the processing of information. (There are close parallels between information theory and thermodynamics.)

So I'm not sure that such a view leads to Platonism. Seeing physical processes as algorithmic (and scientific theories as predictive algorithms) seems to me a genuinely interesting perspective: but it may well be that there is no way actual physical processes can be perfectly simulated (or predicted).

Adrian McKinty is a novelist with a strong interest in social, cultural and philosophical topics. In the comment thread of a post at McKinty's nicely named site, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (I know – Freud got there first), a post about Philip Larkin featuring his confronting poem, 'Aubade', McKinty mentions Nick Bostrom's simulation argument: that if we accept two fairly plausible-seeming assumptions then our universe is almost certainly a 'simulated' universe created by an advanced civilization.

As I commented there:

I am ... (prompted by your comments, Adrian) having a look at Nick Bostrom's ideas. My initial attitude is skepticism, but that may just be what he would call my status quo bias jumping in.

I do think it makes sense (simply in terms of physics) to see natural processes in terms of information processing, but it is a big jump from there to thinking about beings who might have set the process going (and to calling it a simulation).

And what would Larkin make of all this? (Turning in his grave, I suspect.)

I am continuing to look into the simulation argument which I first encountered some years ago. More later, perhaps.

But regular readers will know that I am very skeptical of arguments and points of view which take their origins from a philosophical (as distinct from a scientific) base. Bostrom's main argument for the simulation hypothesis is in part statistical but basically philosophical – and far from convincing from my point of view.

I can't help feeling that people like Bostrom (and David Pearce who influenced him) are driven by a kind of religious instinct. Certainly some of the groups with which they are associated have a cultish feel.

The other thinker mentioned by Adrian in the comment thread is Samuel Scheffler. Scheffler applies 'what if' scenarios to thinking about death. What if we knew the world was going to be destroyed soon after our death? His general point seems to be that we are underlyingly less concerned about our own personal fate per se than about our fate seen in the light of a continuing social context.

This may well be, and such thinking is very much in accordance with the view that the sense of self derives from the linguistic, cultural and social context in which we grow up. But I think Scheffler overplays the extent to which future generations give meaning to our lives.

Also, I had a look at Scheffler's background. And it seems pretty clear that his being a socialist (he is apparently a disciple of the 'analytical Marxist' G.A. Cohen) would have – to some extent at least – shaped and played a part in his approach to thinking about the future in general, and about ethics.