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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ideology and science

Science is not – nor can it be, in fact – immune to ideological influences. Sometimes such influences may have a positive effect, but it would be naive to believe that such factors do not have the potential to cause distortions also.

Scientists, like anybody else, need to be motivated and often this involves them seeing their own research as defending or furthering broad convictions they might have about human nature or the world in general.

There are many cases of great scientists whose major contributions to science were largely inspired by what we now see as utterly false assumptions. Copernicus and Newton might both be seen as examples of this, their discoveries as it were transcending the flawed intellectual matrix – or worldview – within which the theories were framed.

The institutions and practices of modern science are not designed to screen out personal biases and unwarranted assumptions so much as to ensure that published conjectures and theories and experimental results are exposed to rigorous testing and assessment procedures. The system works pretty well on the whole, encouraging intellectual rigor while not excluding the human element – imagination, creativity, etc. – which is essential for innovative thinking.

Areas such as evolutionary biology and the human sciences are particularly prone to ideological influences.

I have previously hinted at such influences in the case of research into linguistic development and evolution, notably in relation to the work of Michael Tomasello and his colleagues who seem to be adamantly opposed to certain formal approaches to the study of language. I am following up on this, and will have more to say in the future. (James Hurford's views appear to chart a sensible middle course, and are looking very plausible to me at the moment.)

And I have recently come across another example of ideology apparently driving scientific judgment and interpretation.

Last week Massimo Pigliucci published a list of his 'best' research papers on biological topics. It's clear from this list (and another on his Curriculum Vitae) that Pigliucci had from the beginning of his research career a special interest in defending and promoting the notion of phenotypic plasticity – the property of the genotype to produce different phenotypes in response to different environments.

In just about all the cited papers – most involving experiments with plants – the power of environmental factors to alter features of the organism are emphasized. A cursory look at the abstracts certainly suggests that the researchers (the papers are collaborative efforts) are highly unsympathetic to any approaches which could be construed as tending in the general direction of what has sometimes been characterized as genetic determinism.

Which is fine. It's only to be expected that researchers will approach such issues with strong opinions, and a degree of adversarial debate and discussion can be productive. In the end, the weight of evidence usually settles disputes, and the controversies then move on to other areas.

So I am not questioning the scientific value of Pigliucci's work – the scope and nature of phenotypic plasticity is clearly a topic of considerable interest.

But it is interesting to juxtapose his research interests in biology with his published comments about human intelligence.

In another of his recent blog posts, Pigliucci claims that environmental – cultural, in fact – factors are solely responsible for differences in patterns of involvement by males and females in different research areas. Genes don't have anything to do with it, apparently.

"[T]he fact," he writes, "that there are fewer women than men in a given field is likely the result of a large number of cultural factors (no, I don’t think it has anything at all to do with “native” intelligence, Larry Summers be damned)."

A commenter makes the point that "the greater variance of male intelligence is well established", and that genetic factors are obviously involved. The greater variance of male intelligence in this context means essentially that there is a greater proportion of individuals with very high intelligence amongst men than amongst women (and also a greater proportion of individuals with very low intelligence).

It is not impossible that some purely environmental explanation for this pattern could be found, but the evidence, even if it is not conclusive at this stage, certainly points to an at least partly genetic explanation. So the fact that Pigliucci seems to have a very strong disinclination to accept that genetics is significant here clearly goes beyond the science and points to a prior ideological commitment.

The emotional tone of his references to Lawrence Summers may not strengthen but certainly doesn't weaken my case. "I can't stand the bastard," Professor Pigliucci notes in a comment.

Pigliucci's strong ideological and moral convictions – which no doubt played a part in his decision some years ago to shift his focus from science to philosophy – may be able to be explained largely in terms of cultural factors.

But I just can't help thinking about Massimo's (hypothetical) monozygotic twin who was raised by a Swedish family. Did he too follow a scientific career? Does he have a penchant for bow ties? Is he a religious skeptic? Does he too have strong views on political and social questions? And what is his attitude to Lawrence Summers, I wonder?