Pure Pedantry

I was distressed to read this at Wired because usually I feel like they are more on top of things. This is by Thomas Hayden:

Even worse, those same cortexes that invented science can’t really embrace it. Science describes the world with numbers (ratio of circumference to diameter: pi) and abstractions (particles! waves! particles!). But our intractable brains evolved on a diet of campfire tales. Fantastical explanations (angry gods hurling lightning bolts) and rare events with dramatic outcomes (saber-toothed tiger attacks) make more of an impact on us than statistical norms. Evolution gave us brains that crave certainty, with irrational fears of crashing in an airplane and a built-in weakness for just-so stories about intelligent design. Meanwhile, the true wonders revealed by the scientific method — species that change into new species over time, continents that float around the planet, a quantum-mechanical world where nothing is for sure — are worse than counterintuitive. To a depressingly large number of us, they’re downright threatening.

Let’s take that sentence by sentence.

Even worse, those same cortexes that invented science can’t really embrace it.

Who? Some people reject science. Some people embrace it. Some people embrace part and reject other parts. This is a flagrant generalization.

Science describes the world with numbers (ratio of circumference to diameter: pi) and abstractions (particles! waves! particles!).

Same comment. Some people are more mathematical than others, but this does not imply that all people are uncomfortable with a mathematical universe. Quite frankly, some people have trouble dealing with the universe on any other terms, often to their own detriment.

But our intractable brains evolved on a diet of campfire tales.

One, I am pretty sure our brain did a lot of evolving before we even had fire. Two, just because science is a recent event on the human horizon does not mean we can’t be comfortable with it. The statement that human’s love superstition can only be verified if humans were presented with both superstition and science and chose superstition. But during the so-called “campfire” period, we had no other choices.

Now there is a different problem. Now you again have some people who accept science and some people rejecting it. However, when face with a diverse set of responses like you have towards science, how do you know that the response are not evolved but the consequence of environmental forces?

Fantastical explanations (angry gods hurling lightning bolts) and rare events with dramatic outcomes (saber-toothed tiger attacks) make more of an impact on us than statistical norms.

Nonsense. In my experience a great many people will believe whatever gives them the best ability to predict, and on that basis science is the biggest kid on the block. For those who reject it, many have been either misled or been in an environment that consistently associated positive effects with nonsensical causes — such as people who love herbal remedies.

None of this implies a general and innate insecurity with statistics.

Evolution gave us brains that crave certainty, with irrational fears of crashing in an airplane and a built-in weakness for just-so stories about intelligent design. Meanwhile, the true wonders revealed by the scientific method — species that change into new species over time, continents that float around the planet, a quantum-mechanical world where nothing is for sure — are worse than counterintuitive. To a depressingly large number of us, they’re downright threatening.

I’ll take this all at one go.

It is true that there are people in this world who are insecure in the absence of certainty.

However, look at it from the other side. Science may some day end disease and radically extend human life. Science has already made life noticeably better for a great many people in this world. Can you speculate about all the knowledge that culminated in the production of an iPod? Can we not expect growth in knowledge and hence improvement in human life to continue? Are these not all reasons for optimism?

True, science has suggested that some parts of the world are uncertain and difficult to predict. However, it has paid in full for that uncertainty with the ability to predict in other cases and more importantly the ability to create wonderful things. In tallying people’s reactions to science, he has left out one entire side of the equation.

This comment is the worst type of evolutionary psychology — and pop-evolutionary psychology at that. (I don’t want to get in a fight about evolutionary psychology, so let me just say that some evolutionary psychology is well-premised and well-supported by the evidence. But a great deal is not, and in my experience that failure rests on generalization run rampant.)

Hayden’s argument is predicated on a generalization about people used to justify behavior as innate. This generalization is then extended to an absurd degree. The world is just more complicated than that.

Anyway, I can only conclude that this post was written in haste because it includes the kind of reasoning usually reserved for bar-room speculation.

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    January 30, 2008

    This comment is the worst type of evolutionary psychology…

    Well said. It’s surprising how often the idea that we’re creatures that are adapted to the African savanna but have trapped ourselves within cities comes up, the notion sometimes inferring that all our woes are due to our inability to adjust to the culture & technology we create. Like you said, there was no (to borrow a term from Jared Diamond that I think is in bad taste) “great leap forward” and there was a lot of evolution going on before Australopithecus and onwards. Indeed, the wired piece is ultimately a bunch of generalities that don’t really hold.

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  3. #3 Luna_the_cat
    January 30, 2008

    …wait…is that a piss-take? ….What the heck? o_O

  4. #4 MartinM
    January 30, 2008

    is that a piss-take?

    Nah, he’s just shilling for his book. He’s done it in many places. When PZ posted on it, he even showed up in the comments to copy-paste some more drivel.

  5. #5 RBH
    January 30, 2008
    Fantastical explanations (angry gods hurling lightning bolts) and rare events with dramatic outcomes (saber-toothed tiger attacks) make more of an impact on us than statistical norms.

    Nonsense. In my experience a great many people will believe whatever gives them the best ability to predict, and on that basis science is the biggest kid on the block. For those who reject it, many have been either misled or been in an environment that consistently associated positive effects with nonsensical causes — such as people who love herbal remedies.

    Without commenting on the evo-psych in the article, it is the case that people are not very good at teasing apart adventitious from real causal/predictive relationships among events. We do give inappropriate weight to rare but salient events, and we do poorly at operating on the light of the ‘typical.’ For example, there’s a pretty large literature now on the failure of physicians to accurately estimate probabilities (see here for a review), and the same is true in finance — see here (PDF).

  6. #6 Caledonian
    January 30, 2008

    To return to the topic…

    It’s clear to me that most people have little interest in learning about science, making their capacity for doing it irrelevant, and even among many of those that have an interest, there are lots and lots of things that they put a higher priority on.

    Our brains are probably very well designed to function in a Neolithic social environment, but they don’t seem very good at handling the challenges of the environment we have created for ourselves.

    There’s sort of a Peter Principle at work here: aspects of our environment that we can easily control, *are* easily controlled, leaving only problems that our psychology cannot handle. Over time, selection pressures will ensure that we’re generally incapable of coping with our surroundings in an intelligent manner.