With Apologies to …

….Brad Delong (and to you readers, for whom this post was promised yesterday)…

UPDATE: Arrrgh. More apologies to all here. Brain bubbles affected my attribution of small pox vaccination to Jonas Salk, who, of course, invented the first effective polio vaccine. Edward Jenner performed the first smallpox vaccinations with a cowpox preparation in 1796. I conflated the two in my head as I have been thinking about the fact the difficulties faced in eradicating polio, compared with the success of the anti small pox campaign — which in fact formed the prompt for this post on the latest reported polio case in Pakistan. I regret the error.


Why oh why can’t we have a David Brooks-free press corps, at least when it comes to bloviating about science?

In his most recent column, Brooks writes (under the pretentious and meaning-free headline, “The Luxurious Growth”) that the research community has grown “more modest about what we are close to knowing and achieving.”

That is, Brooks is once again channeling what “science” thinks — and he’s wrong, of course.

Headline writers may have made the kinds of claims he decries, that genetics would soon explain all of human behavior, but I can’t recall any scientist involved in, say, the genetics of alcoholism, claiming a single gene-behavior connection. Instead, fifteen seconds on Google turns up lots of statements like this.

Alcoholism is a complex, genetically influenced disorder. Multiple phenotypes – measurable and/or observable traits or behavior – contribute to the risk of developing alcoholism, particularly disinhibition, alcohol metabolizing patterns, and a low level of response (LR) to alcohol.

In other words: scientists have known as they do their research that individual studies of particular measurable and or observable phenomena will not produce a synoptic view of any complex behavior. Brooks knows this too. After all, with a magisterial air of explaining the hard truths to resistant materialists, he writes that

It’s now clear that one gene almost never leads to one trait. Instead, a specific trait may be the result of the interplay of hundreds of different genes interacting with an infinitude of environmental factors. must know this too — I can’t believe he’s that bloody ignorant, though perhaps I’m just too much of a polyanna here.

Again — this is a revelation only to those who haven’t been paying attention for years. And I do think that Brooks knows that as well. But if he does, that means he has an ulterior motive for claiming that once arrogant science has learned humility — and he does, the usual one that data-averse ideologues acquire: nasty scientists who seek material explanations are evil:

Starting in the late 19th century, eugenicists used primitive ideas about genetics to try to re-engineer the human race. In the 20th century, communists used primitive ideas about “scientific materialism” to try to re-engineer a New Soviet Man.

And Jonas Salk, that commie, used his “primitive ideas” to invent a smallpox polio vaccine, the key step in what has become the first ever may yet, I hope, become the second eradication of a human viral pathogen….and so on; this is an old and stupid back and forth.

Brooks wants to say that there are other sources of insight into the human condition — that “novels and history can still produce insights into human behavior that science can’t match.”

I’m not sure what he means by “match,” in this case. I suppose we don’t need science to say that happy families are all alike (you sure about that, Leo?) or that England’s Catholic King James II fell not due simply to his religion but because of his political ineptitude. But such insights, no matter how valuable are of a different quality, a different explanatory timber, than that which has investigated, for example, something as material and as essential to the human condition as the evolution of tool use.

But again — I fear it gives Brooks too much credit to engage the debate at this level. His goal is not to examine honestly the power and limits of scientific inquiry into human nature. The goal is to devalue the enterprise to the point that inconvenient facts can be ignored. Brooks gives the game away about half way through the piece. He writes that

There is the fuzziness of the words we use to describe ourselves. We talk about depression, anxiety and happiness, but it’s not clear how the words that we use to describe what we feel correspond to biological processes. It could be that we use one word, depression, to describe many different things, or perhaps depression is merely a symptom of deeper processes that we’re not aware of. In the current issue of Nature, there is an essay about the arguments between geneticists and neuroscientists as they try to figure out exactly what it is that they are talking about.

Brooks takes as evidence of ignorance the fact that different disciplines argue about terms. By that token, as of 1900, the state of play on the nature of matter would have led us to conclude the issue was intractable. Chemists had used the concept of atoms as real material objects to enormous theoretical and practical advantage since the days of Dalton and Berzelius — that is for a century or so.

Histories written from a physicists point of view, by contrast, commonly date the confirmation of the reality of atoms from Einstein’s 1905 papers on molecular dimensions and on Brownian motion. So — I guess for a century all those chemists had no idea what they are talking about.

In fact, of course, there are valuable, vital working definitions of depression, and they are involved in the still imperfect, but real body of knowledge that identifies clinical depression as a material illness of the brain. That understanding is what permits interventions — chemical and surgical — that dramatically reduce human suffering in many cases. Cherry picking disciplinary debates may give the appearance of deep disagreement – but doing so, as Brooks does, is really just garden-variety intellectual dishonesty. Put it another way: acknowledging limits to knowledge is not the same thing as denying the power of the same body of knowledge up to that limit.

But, of course, that’s what Brooks needs to do if he is to make his real point:

This age of tremendous scientific achievement has underlined an ancient philosophic truth — that there are severe limits to what we know and can know; that the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws.

Nice sleight of hand, eh? Brooks is back to his most comfortable role, masquerading as the honest broker, while anyone in hearing better hang on to his/her wallet. The con takes place in incremental steps. Limits to knowledge become “severe” — that is, forseeably unsurmountable. Sez who? Sez Mr. Brooks, of course. Trust him — he speaks so nicely and has a marvelous tan.

And then…we are supposed to pass over the lack of logical connection…that due to such scientific lacunae, it is a philisophical truth (no limits to knowledge for those emerging from the cave, eh?) that political incrementalism is best.

This is more than a logical idiocy. It is historical nonsense as well. Incrementalism is good sometimes — perhaps most of the time. But consider: It would have been respectful, of course, not to dismiss the loving succour of King George III, but John Adams, no incrementalist at the moment of truth, persuaded his compatriots otherwise. Humans have owned slaves since earliest human memory; surely, respect for accumulated practice makes the 14th amendment a travesty. Peculiar circumstances can be invoked to justify polygamy and child marriage — and yet it seems possible to object on a range of more abstract and universal grounds, and so on….

That is — Brooks wants to be able to pick and choose, based on criteria known only to him, what change meets some ill-defined criteria of respect and particularity. This is nothing more than a cartoon version of what some conservatives say conservatism is about (though the last few years might give an honest man pause about the incompatibilty of this flavor of conservatism and power). Brooks would rather not have to defend it in detail (see revolution, American in the paragraph above), so instead he comes up with a parody of scientism and hopes that it sounds grand enough to deflect scrutiny.

As Delong says so often, why, oh why, can’t we do better than this codswallop.

That is all.

Image: Vincent van Gogh, “Sorrow,” 1882. Location: Wallsall Museum and Art Gallery, the Garman Ryan Collection. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Explore posts in the same categories: bad ideas, brain and mind, genes, genetics, History of Science, Journalism and its discontents, mental illness, political follies, Politics, Republican follies, Stupidity, words mattter

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6 Comments on “With Apologies to …”

  1. […] little context: In this post, I made a glancing reference to the eradication of smallpox, a victory achieved in 1979 after a […]

  2. Alonso Says:

    A nice read, the quote about “tremendous scientific achievement” was good, i liked it.

  3. DetWaveRider Says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

    No right-wing or conservative-affiliated journalist or columnist should be allowed to write out science. Now that we’ve dispatched Ben Stein, let’s target John Derbyshire next.

  4. Tom Says:

    DetWaveRider….I’ve got a little list, as my men G and S would say.

    Alonso — thanks.

  5. Michael R. Says:

    While I agree in spirit ,and with much of the critique, having read the article (and wondered to myself what Brooks’s ulterior motives were–a sly rationalization for why we shouldn’t rush legislation to curb climate change?)…I never-the-less recognized a deeper motive, or perhaps fear.

    Fear of science (conflated with scientific materialism or progress) can in part be attributed to a) historical knowledge and suspicion (the uses to which science has been put, and their consequences), and b) the rate of change foisted on society as it seeks to adapt to scientific and technological change. Like it or not, these are REAL fears and concerns.

    Science does a disservice to Society when it dismisses societal concerns, anxieties and fears. Some of these are irrational and founded upon ignorance, and some are founded upon an emotional-ethical concern. Science has no implicit or explicit Ethics. Religion–insofar as it embodies an Ethics, remains central to human social existence. This is the source of most of human values (the social arena, not the science lab).

    Also, Brooks’s point about the eugenics movement is valid and has been noted by other, more liberal science observers. As of the current state of genetics, we are fast approaching a new era in eugenic possibilities, and dangers; we are in danger of creating a “genetic class”, and bio-technology is now capable of producing genetic “chimeras” (which are contrary to the mission of the USPTO, btw). Some of these developments hold out real hope and promise, and some pose nightmarish possibilities (and science is never exploited for money or power, right?)

    My point is that scientific progress is held back , often, by science itself. Scientists can be arrogant and insulting (socially ignorant). The manufactured “controversy” of evolutionary theories, of late, is an indication of a deep need for dialogue between “the two cultures”. There may be no resolution, but clearly, science is viewed as threat (to tradition) by many people–especially people who derive no emotional benefit from science.

    Putting aside the religious point, there is a parallel movement in the Arts,that has been growing steadily for some 20 or so years. It is the convergence of art and science (and technology). While its practices and products vary, most are concerned with placing art (and its artistic inquiries) central to the dialogue between Science and Society. This is an Art that interrogates Science as much as it uses its tools or products in its expressions. AS one of these artists (and also a naturalist), I find this inquiry to be vital to the future of human society.

    But even if you reject this need, or reject any central, continuous place in society for such non-scientific (whether religio-psychological or ethico-aesthetic) “truthiness”, such criticisms of science raise important, fundamental questions, like:

    Who gets to decide the values and goals of a society? Who gets to define and control “progress”? Who gets to say “enough” or “not so fast”? Who determines what is “truth”?

    These are the questions that Brooks was alluding to.

    Good night and good luck.

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