Saturday, May 16, 2015

Egos, ideology and science

Massimo Pigliucci has caused another stir by further distancing himself from the skeptic and atheist groups within which he originally came to public prominence, and by renewing his criticisms of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins in particular.

The trigger for his recent article was the publication of an initially private exchange on a political matter between Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. Pigliucci criticizes Harris's behaviour (not without some justification) and sees it as typical of the so-called 'new atheists' who, in his eyes, are no longer serious intellectuals but rather publicity-seeking cult leaders. Or that's the general gist of it.

This whole business is confusing and not very edifying: the issues are obscured by personal sniping and perceived snubs, etc. It seems, for example, that one of the main targets of Pigliucci's wrath, Richard Dawkins, has not only been publicly dismissive of Pigliucci but also rude to him in person!

All this squabbling wouldn't matter but for one thing. At the heart of most of these disputes are important ideological and scientific questions -- and mixing the two is a recipe for disaster.

For example, Dawkins and Pigliucci are on the opposite sides of a debate about evolutionary theory: Pigliucci is firmly on the side of those who are committed to a so-called 'extended synthesis' -- basically replacing the neo-Darwinian modern synthesis with a much less gene-centred model. But the whole debate seems to be ideologically driven (as indeed it has been for decades, at least since the heyday of Stephen Jay Gould).

In my only published comment on Massimo's recent piece, I spoke in general terms about my concerns and made a reference to Chomsky (whom Massimo clearly sees as a role model, at least in terms of his politics).

I wrote (in part):

"... It's always a pity when partisan politics gets mixed up with science. (The science inevitably gets compromised.)

And it's also a pity when partisan politics-talk gets mixed up with science-talk. It can be great fun, of course -- reassuring, ego-boosting, etc... But unfortunately confusion tends to reign and this sort of discourse is not worth a lot in the scheme of things.

Chomsky is unusual (and admirable) in this respect: he maintains two distinct public personas and (unlike a lot of linguists, social scientists, etc.) keeps his politics quite separate from his work in linguistics. No hidden or half-hidden political agenda as far as I can see in his scientific work. (The universalist assumptions are upfront and not implausible.) Moreover, if you go to a Chomsky lecture -- or read an article by him -- on a linguistic topic, you're not likely to encounter any gratuitous political asides."