Neurontic

Hello Seed Readers and Science Bloggers

Neurontic is thrilled to be one of the newest members of Science Blogs. As you can see, I’ve gone ahead and stocked up the archives with past entries. I hope those of you who aren’t familiar with Neurontic will take some time to go through them and make any comments, corrections, and/or augmentations you see fit.

As per usual, I’ve spent the better part of Sunday morning catching up on my favorite science blogs and I’d like to direct your attention to a few postings that caught my interest:

First, Noam Chomsky — Linguist-cum-Know-It-All — has a brief essay on The Edge in which he declares that:

“On the ordinary problems of human life, science tells us very little, and scientists as people are surely no guide. In fact they are often the worst guide, because they often tend to focus, laser-like, on their professional interests and know very little about the world.”

You have to admire the man’s certitude. That said, I couldn’t disagree with him more. A brief perusal of Science Daily or New Scientist demonstrates that scientists have plenty to say about “ordinary problems.” The articles currently on display in Science Daily’s “Mind & Brain” section, for example, offer die-hard smokers advice on how to quit, warn hockey superfans that they may end up deaf, and caution those with inferiority complexes to steer clear of novel plot twists.

I can’t help wondering if Mr. Chomsky is making the mistake of equating all scientists with his hyper-theoretical MIT colleagues Steven Pinker and Marc Hauser. If so, I’d like to be the first to remind him that most scientists don’t occupy the nosebleed section of the Ivory Tower. Only a very select group has the luxury of trying to determine “how nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong,” or the time to rail against the “modern denial of human nature.” And I’d be willing to wager that they too see their work as an attempt to address issues that impact people’s daily lives.

In other news . . .

After an extended hiatus, Clive Thompson is back online at Collision Detection and has an interesting post on “why interactive websites can create false memories.”

Over at Gladwell.com, The New Yorker’s resident systemitizer is trying to outline the “hierarchy of hate speech,” on the heels of Michael Richard’s outburst.

And speaking of Gladwell, those of you who enjoyed his take on mass hysteria in The Tipping Point may be interested to learn that there was a recent outbreak among English school children after a small number watched a video on “human biology.” Oddly, neither Mind Hacks nor the article it cites goes into any detail about what was in the video. Color me curious.

Comments

  1. #1 steve
    December 10, 2006

    It’s good to see you here on scienceblogs :)

  2. #2 Clark
    December 10, 2006

    It’s interesting that scientists have the stereotype for being lab types with no life or understanding outside of that. Yet, when I worked at Los Alamos it seemed most scientists I knew were very well versed in the arts and literature, had thoughtful analysis of the news and were always up on current events, and so forth.

    Contrast this with the opposite direction where most artists don’t know much about science. Ditto with political science and so forth.

  3. #3 Mondo
    December 10, 2006

    Ordinary problems of human life, not just ordinary problems. In other talks on this subject he uses human affairs in place of “ordinary problems of human life”. My interpretation of this comment in the context of the entire talk, is that he is referring to issues such as as commerce, politics, war, religion etc.
    He is most certainly not referring to advice on how to quit smoking or that loud noises damage your ears.

  4. #4 Orli
    December 11, 2006

    Mondo:
    It’s certainly possible that I missed the nuances of Chomsky’s argument having not heard the entire talk. But given what’s posted on the Edge at the moment (http://www.edge.org/discourse/bb.html#chomsky) this isn’t difficult to do.

    Chomsky also says:

    “However, it should be obvious to everyone that by and large science reaches deep explanatory theories to the extent that it narrows its gaze. If a problem is too hard for physicists, they hand it over to chemists, and so on down the line until it ends with people who try to deal somehow with human affairs, where scientific understanding is very thin, and is likely to remain so, except in a few areas that can be abstracted for special studies.”

    Does science reach “deep explanatory theories?” Certainly. Do problems get passed back and forth between disciplines? Yes, of course. But I think Chomsky is indulging in a little bit of grandstanding by implying that scientists aren’t concerned with finding ways to “deal somehow with the human condition.” This may not be their primary mandate, but what else is Hauser doing writing a book about man’s moral machinery other than trying to find a way to wrest morals and values from the hands of those who claim that all nonbelievers are immoral hedonists? This seems to me to be a problem of great import that we humans are currently dealing with.

    All that said, I’m not a believer in the Dawkin’s-led campaign to pit science against religion, which is what this conservation was purportedly about. I find it a bit stunning that men as smart as Dawkins and Dennett apparently fail to see that faith is not based on reason and rationality.

  5. #5 Alon Levy
    December 11, 2006

    It’s a political ploy, mostly. Radical politics and science never intersect, and radicals have a tendency to discount science whenever possible as a way of justifying their own lack of political rigor. It’s not just non-scientists like Chomsky; Lewontin does the same thing in Biology as Ideology, going as far as quoting wrong statistics in order to claim that medical science hasn’t improved people’s lives.

    On another note, welcome to the Borg Collective, Orli.

  6. #6 Clark
    December 11, 2006

    “not just non-scientists like Chomsky”

    Umm I’d have a hard time calling Chomsky a non-scientist.

  7. #7 Mondo
    December 12, 2006

    Interesting you mention Hauser. He and Chomsky have co-written
    papers before.
    http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/%7Emnkylab/publications/languagespeech/EvolLangFac_Cognition.pdf
    Is a recent one.
    Whether Chomsky would consider this an area that can be abstracted for special study I can’t say.

    Alon Levy’s comments are ignorant of Chomsky’s place as an academic of the highest order, and reflect that for some, their exposure to Chomsky is only through his political and social writings.

  8. #8 DocOne
    January 19, 2007

    “have a tendency to discount science whenever possible as a way of justifying their own lack of political rigor…”

    Oh, please. This is a completed outmoded way of thinking, and it reveals you have very little association with contemporary “radical” circles. Most anarchists I know are scientists. Really! (Ok, one is an anarcho-capitalist, but he is a nice guy apart from that).

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