Gene Expression

Science is rational; scientists are not

Just a small point. I do not believe scientists are particularly rational people as compared to the normal human. Because the average scientist has a higher IQ than the average artist I am willing to grant marginally higher rationality to an average scientist. Their ability to decompose and abstract any given conceptual system is greater. That being said, the contrast between the disciplines of art and science are far greater than those of individual artists and scientists. Why?

Because at the end of the day science does not rely on the rationality of a scientist. It relies on the cumulative and self-correcting rationality of the scientific community. It is the “wisdom of the crowds” at its apotheosis. Additionally, the domain which science addresses is generally skewed toward those which are amenable to abstraction and decomposition. I do not believe that physics is such an awe inspiring science in comparison to biology simply because physicists are more intelligent. They are more intelligent, on average, but that in an of itself does not explain the ability of physics to predict at such a fine grained level. Rather, it is the subject matter of physics which is the variable that makes it so.

I bring this up because many scientists believe that because science is such a superior method of extracting information about the world around us, and constructing predictive models which have been shown to have great utility, that that means that they as scientists can simply transfer their godlike powers to other domains with the greatest of ease. But as the above should make clear I believe this is a false perception, because the power of science arises from the intersection of the communal wisdom of tens of thousands of individuals over decades with the nature of the subject at hand. Granted, there are individual geniuses of great brilliance such as the great Isaac Newton, but the outcomes of his dabbling in alchemy and scriptural hermeneutics should go to illustrate that cognition applied to a fool’s errand only results in glorious foolery.

More modestly, this of course applies to the problems that evolutionary biologists have with experts from other scientific disciplines, especially engineers. Engineering is a magnificent profession which serves as one of the bases of our civilization. It is constructed upon tried & true science of the first caliber. Standing upon the shoulders of the geniuses of the past some engineers with little knowledge outside of their domain, great sincerity, and ideological convictions of extra-rational origin, confuse their facility with the tools of their trade with a general ability to conquer any systematic body of knowledge. But of course the power of engineering is due to the centuries of accumulated wisdom on the part of scientists and engineers, not the acuity of any given individual.

Comments

  1. #1 Milan
    September 3, 2008

    The other day, I was trying to ‘science’ and it became evident that the term has a stack of meanings. Those at the top arguably have the most day-to-day relevance, whereas those at the bottom are arguably more fundamental to the nature of science:

    At the highest level, science consists of the people and institutions generally considered to be undertaking scientific work. This includes today’s physicists, chemists, biologists, and so forth. In an earlier era, it would have included alchemists. It also includes universities, research centres, funding bodies, and the like.

    At the next level, science consists of a collection of theories that explain aspects of the world. Contemporary examples include special relativity, quantum mechanics, and the germ theory of disease. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is an enlightening text largely about how these emerge and change.

    At the next level, science is a set of key beliefs. Basically, these are that the universe operates in a manner that is consistent and comprehensible. In addition, it is at least theoretically possible to come to understand its workings through observation – using the mechanism of formulating and evaluating hypotheses.
    The first two are very much affected by general trends in society and thought. The third is essentially assumed in the way through which our minds access the world. While we certainly cannot always understand the causal relationships involved (and random chance may always play a role that makes complete solution impossible), our mode of thinking fundamentally requires the assumption that things cause other things according to certain rules and that in the same conditions the same rules hold. We may never be able to track the course a hurricane will follow (or the hallucination a brain will have) on the basis of what atoms were where beforehand and what laws apply to them. Even so, a basic assumption of science is that such things are theoretically knowable, within the limitations created by random chance.

    When it comes to the universe as a whole. it is quite possible that the collection of governing laws exceeds the human capacity to understand and/or discover. That becomes especially plausible if we accept the possibility that ours is just one of several universes, or that it is itself embedded in something far more complex.

  2. #2 Danny
    September 3, 2008

    Does the bar chart in this post serve any purpose? Is there any data behind it? Is it rational?

  3. #3 razib
    September 3, 2008

    it’s not a matter of rational or not. it’s just not precise. but i wanted to communicate something qualitative visually since readers often skim the text.

  4. #4 Colugo
    September 3, 2008

    “with little knowledge outside of their domain, great sincerity, and ideological convictions of extra-rational origin, confuse their facility with the tools of their trade with a general ability to conquer any systematic body of knowledge.”

    I have seen the scientific-academic sausage factory from the inside and that is indeed a big problem. A lot of scientists seem to believe that their individual political, moral, philosophical, theological, and aesthetic beliefs have the authority of scientific rationality. But they don’t; these views deserve to be taken no more seriously than those of any crank lacking credentials spouting off on his or her favored conspiracy theory.

    Some offenders: all Intelligent Design advocates with scientific credentials, theistic evolutionists, Richard Dawkins (piss-poor and hackish sociology of religion), New Atheists, Bertrand Russell, Charles Murray (well, he thinks he’s a scientist, I’m sure), George Lakoff (ditto), Science For The People, William Shockley, scores of ‘race realists’, Eric Pianka (I’m sure very amusing to sit in his lectures), David Barash (ethologist and peace studies maven), Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein (his sociopolitical blathering), Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin (egregious as hell), Joan Roughgarden, a truckload of evolutionary psychologists of variable credentials speculating on all kinds of things outside their depth, and on and on.

    It’s OK to have Rain Man give you a estimate of how many matchsticks there are, but you don’t ask for his advice on whom you should marry. The opinions of scientists on things outside of their expertise should be regarded the same way. And even within their area of specialty individual scientists are far from infallible.

  5. #5 G.D.
    September 3, 2008

    To pick one from the list of names you mentioned, what exactly is your truck with Bertrand Russell’s musings? Do you mean his humanitarian work after WW2? Cause if you are talking about his musings on the existence of God, I can assure that he didn’t muse on claims going beyond his expertise, quite the contrary.

  6. #6 agni
    September 3, 2008

    yes, you are right. so who love and believe science s/he will be a rational person.

  7. #7 David Marjanović
    September 4, 2008

    Sagan on what?

  8. #8 Colugo
    September 4, 2008

    Bertrand Russell on sexual liberation, world peace etc especially in his dotage when he was praising North Vietnam. Sagan’s musings about global government and his ardent, almost millenarian, yearning for contact with other civilizations. Not that they were necessarily wrong; it’s just these opinions don’t have the authority of science – even if some of their supporters believe that they do.

  9. #9 Colugo
    September 4, 2008

    Correction: Should have written “extraterrestrial” instead of “other” civilizations.

  10. #10 Roger
    September 4, 2008

    Is IQ a measure of intelligence or rationality or of anything but ability to do IQ tests? Ability to do IQ tests may correlate with intelligence or rationality, however you define them, but it doesn’t mean it measures them.

  11. #11 RNB
    September 5, 2008

    Excellent. Jonah referenced this and has highly complimentary too. But in the comments a fairly incidental mention of IQ brought loads of distraction, but I thought the core message here was not about comparing that factor across sciences or against other disciplines, it was about the scientific process itself.

  12. #12 DrDan
    September 5, 2008

    I bring this up because many scientists believe that because science is such a superior method of extracting information about the world around us, and constructing predictive models which have been shown to have great utility, that that means that they as scientists can simply transfer their godlike powers to other domains with the greatest of ease.”

    – this is absolutely spot on, although, to be fair, I don’t think it’s a conscious thing on the part of scientists. We’re so used to extrapolating from existing data that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing the same in everyday life. The result is a tendency , if someone asks you for information, and you don’t know the real answer, to give your best guess on the basis of the available information, but to forget to mention that this is what you are doing! I used to find myself doing this a lot, but now I catch myself in time, and just admit that I don’t know the answer.

  13. #13 razib
    September 5, 2008

    to give your best guess on the basis of the available information

    and scientists are often quite ignorant. even something that is amenable to “free information” generation through deduction like physics isn’t something that a chemist or biologist would be able to tackle without some background knowledge.

  14. #14 Mike
    September 7, 2008

    @Colugo

    Your point is perfectly correct, and dovetails with Razib’s point nicely. Just because an individual is accomplished in one field does not give license to pretend expertise in another.

    I disagree, however, with your specifics. Richard Dawkins’ knowledge of biology and evolution gives him a higher platform from which to speak than the religious thinkers he’s debating. I’ve thought of Bertrand Russell as more a philosopher than a scientist.

    I guess my point is that we all have the freedom to come to our own philosophical conclusions about the “non-scientific questions.” But I think it is reasonable to listen more intently to someone who has actually studied life scientifically, even in a slightly different context, than someone who has not. A demonstration of analytical ability in any field demonstrates analytical ability in general. Their experience is not a license to spout off without criticism, of course, but it is a feather in their cap that has earned them a slightly higher stage than those with empty caps.

  15. #15 Anti Citizen One
    September 7, 2008

    I posted a rebuttal on my blog. Interesting though.

    http://www.methodinit.org.uk/methodinit/2008/09/07/is-the-scientific-community-necessary-for-science/

    Anti Citizen One

  16. #16 Roger
    September 7, 2008

    “That being said, the contrast between the disciplines of art and science are far greater than those of individual artists and scientists. Why?”
    From a friend- the psychologist Liam Hudson many years ago showed that there were self-perceived- and often self-imposed- differences in personality between university science and arts students- “divergent” vs. “convergent”- which reflected the areas of study and their methods.

  17. #17 Joel
    September 11, 2008

    How can anyone have a discussion of science and philosophy without throwing down Charles Peirce’s name? I’m disappointed.

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