Virginia Heffernan vs. ScienceBlogs

Virginia Heffernan over at the New York Times has an essay today, Unnatural Science, which launches two strong attacks on science blogging: its naivete and its corruption.

She starts with the recent controvery over at ScienceBlogs, the so-called PepsiGate where the Seed organization gave Pepsi its own blog on par with all the other science blogs there. PepsiGate then led to the departure of many prominent science bloggers from ScienceBlogs. This is where Heffernan calls science bloggers naive, not used to being part of the media:

I was nonplussed by the high dudgeon of the so-called SciBlings. The bloggers evidently write often enough for ad-free academic journals that they still fume about adjacencies, advertorial and infomercials. Most writers for “legacy” media like newspapers, magazines and TV see brush fires over business-editorial crossings as an occupational hazard.

But the heart of Heffernan’s critique is actually the way science bloggers behave – too much vindictiveness and bigotry, not enough science.

But the bloggers’ eek-a-mouse posturing wasn’t the most striking part of the affair. Instead, it was the weird vindictiveness of many of the most prominent blogs. The stilted and seething tone of some of the defection posts sent me into the ScienceBlogs archives, where I expected to find original insights into science… And while I found interesting stuff here and there, I also discovered that ScienceBlogs has become preoccupied with trivia, name-calling and saber rattling. Maybe that’s why the ScienceBlogs ship started to sink… Hammering away at an ideology, substituting stridency for contemplation, pummeling its enemies in absentia: ScienceBlogs has become Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd.

She in particular highlights PZ Myers, one of the most popular science bloggers out there:

PZ Myers revels in sub-“South Park” blasphemy, presenting (in one recent stunt) his sketch of the Prophet Muhammad as a cow-pig hybrid excited about “raping a 9-year-old girl.”

And though science bloggers of all stripes are jumping to defend science blogging, and to insist that Heffernan has it wrong (posts at Neuron Culture, WordYard, NeuroDojo, The Thoughtful Animal, Deltoid, A Blog Around the Clock, Pharnygula, Mike the Mad Biologist), Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Brian Switek, and EvolutionBlog; It’s Not a Lecture and Uncertain Principlies say some similar things to here), there is enough ring of truth in what she says.

As Bora has well-described in discussing ScienceBlogs, PepsiGate, and his departure from Seed, science bloggers are now part of the media. I recall very distinctly the thrill of building an audience, of realizing we had an audience beyond the classroom and a small group of colleagues. One way to take that is, yes, scholarship means something! Another is, I mean something! Popularity and arrogance can inflate our own commentary.

Heffernan’s reaction to the content and style of ScienceBlogs came from an outsider’s perspective. As she writes in a comment at Neuron Culture:

I have no training in science. My surprise at ScienceBlogs was akin to the surprise a scientist who might feel if he audited a PhD seminar on Wallace Stevens. Why aren’t they talking about “Anecdote of the Jar”?! Why are they talking about how “misogyny intrinsic to the modernist project”? I saw political axe-grinding bring the humanities almost to a standstill in the 1990s. I thought science was supposed to be above that!

In one sense it’s not at all surprising, science is as political as anything else. But her expectation, and her disappointment, is also part of the story:

With notable exceptions, blogging, as a form, seems to me to have calcified. Many bloggers who started strong 3-5 years ago have gotten stuck in grudge matches. This is even more evident on political blogs than on science blogs. In fact, after being surprised to find the same cycles of invective on ScienceBlogs that appear on political blogs (where they’re well documented), I started to think the problem might be with the form itself.

Grudge matches and invective make for high popularity in our society today. Heffernan’s done some of that herself in kicking up a hornet’s nest from on high. But what she wrote, and why, also deserves attention.

Science does have its problems at multiple levels. Greg took on medioce and bigoted science blogging in Language extinction ain’t no big thing?. I took on the Netporn/FanFiction Survey controversy in Sex, Lies and IRB Tape. Other blogs also do critical inquiry, from Mind Hacks and The Neurocritic on the science side to Somatosphere and Open Anthropology on the anthropology side. But Heffernan adds a new dimension, calling out people who have let themselves get corrupted by being able to shout and undercut and slander without much critique from those who know better.

I do think she misses the point that the problems at ScienceBlogs have been building over time, and that the decision by many bloggers to leave is their own way to protest and to critique what has happened at one of the dominant places in science blogging. They took action. But science is also about discourse by people. Blogs are now one of the most prominent ways that scholars engage in discourse among themselves, with students, and with the wider public. And there Heffernan takes on the role of Marcellus in Shakespeare:

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Language extinction ain’t no big thing?

Language diversity around the world is decreasing and Razib Khan of the Discover science blog, Gene Expression, doesn’t think you should care. I was going to let it slide because I don’t like getting in little blog tiffs, but then Khan went and tried to co-opt into the whole thing, so he forced my hand.

I had started to do a quick survey of the obvious, easily Googled data that might support or refute Khan’s argument, but decided that it was petty to point out the glaring logical, empirical and philosophical problems with his arguments, so I was just going to let it go. But then Khan took the liberty of demeaning my discipline and even linked through to my own site to supposedly support his argument, so I’m going to take the liberty of blogging while angry, which is kind of like drunk texting only more time consuming. I’m not really worried that Khan will actually read this post carefully, however, as he apparently didn’t bother to read closely the post to which he actually linked.

Khan doesn’t think linguistic diversity matters. After all, language diversity correlates with poverty, he argues. The evidence he produces for this is a graph that is apparently more of a thought experiment than any sort of actual data plot. So I thought I might just explore this question with a little anecdotal data like comparisons between nominal GDP/capita and numbers of indigenous languages in Ethnologue and how well these seem to correlate. I’m neither a statistician nor do I want to devote more time to this, but I want to just present some evidence in the discussion (especially because he implies anthropology is a kind of salon game for the intelligentsia and for fact-challenged jargon heads).

Normally, I try to be a pretty positive online presence, not prone to hurling invective or belittling other writers, but there are a few things that get me really hacked off, and one of them is conservative Social Darwinism thinly veiled with pseudo-science, as if this is just ‘nature’s’ way of sorting out the winners from the losers. Razib Khan’s example makes me particularly angry because he links in the direction of like something we argue supports this (please take down the link, Khan, if you read it – we don’t need your traffic if it comes from people who think we’re in your corner). Moreover, Khan’s argument demonstrates an extraordinary callousness, suggesting that concern about language rights assured in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other UN human rights documents are just a kind of bourgie latté sippers’ hysteria that people concerned about the ‘real world’ don’t share.

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Edge: Getting at the Neuroanthropology of Morality

Edge has just posted a new seminar, The New Science of Morality. You get lots of access to interviews, links to papers, videos, exchange of views, reactions from the press, and more. Quite stimulating.

What proved interesting to me is the inherent duality in the discussion. There is a marked division between the assumed basis for this research and what many of the main researchers are actually saying. The assumed basis is in evolution and functional biology:

A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials… For the first time, we have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature… Using babies, psychopaths, chimpanzees, fMRI scanners, web surveys, agent-based modeling, and ultimatum games, moral psychology has become a major convergence zone for research in the behavioral sciences.

But the researchers themselves often sound a lot more like neuroanthropologists, taking into account culture, relying on cross-cultural research, thinking about the dynamics of development and the interaction of nature and nurture. There’s no ethnography yet, which would really help in getting at how people and institutions think and act morally in reality. Still, the researchers’ work shows that many of these people are not in the “morality as a naturalistic brain module that simply acts on the world” camp.

Here are some examples:

Jonathan Haidt: “Morality is a social construction, but it is constructed out of evolved raw materials provided by five (or more) innate “psychological” foundations… Each culture’s morality is unique, but an aspect shared by all five-foundation moralities is that they do not regard society as a social contract created for the benefit of individuals. Rather, they see society in more organic terms, as an entity that is of value in and of itself, and they think the building blocks of society are not individuals but rather groups and institutions.”

Sam Harris: “I propose that answers to questions of human value can be visualized on a “moral landscape” — a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to states of the greatest possible wellbeing and whose valleys represent the deepest depths of suffering. Different ways of thinking and behaving — different cultural practices, ethical codes, modes of government, etc. — translate into movements across this landscape. Such changes can be analyzed objectively on many levels — ranging from biochemistry to economics — but they have their crucial realization as states and capacities of the human brain.”

Roy Baumeister: “The human being was designed by nature for culture: That is, the distinctively human traits are those that enable us to participate in this new kind of social life, namely culture. Culture is humankind’s biological strategy. To understand human traits, therefore, it is useful to ask how each trait would have been selected for as a way of helping an individual flourish in this new kind of social environment.”

David Pizzaro: One of my primary interests is in how people arrive at judgments about moral responsibility. Most people seem to have intuitions about what sorts of things matter when determining whether a person deserves blame (or praise) for any given act. In another ongoing set of studies, we have demonstrated that moral reasoning can be influenced by motivations that may have nothing to do with moral concerns… I am particularly interested in specific emotions (anger, disgust, fear, etc.), and on “visceral” affective states (e.g., thirst, hunger, sexual arousal) and their impact on how we process information, how we remember events, and how these emotions impact our moral judgments.”

Elizabeth Phelps: “My primary focus has been to understand how human learning and memory are changed by emotion and to investigate the neural systems mediating their interactions. I have approached this topic from a number of different perspectives, with an aim of achieving a more global understanding of the complex relations between emotion and memory. As much as possible, I have tried to let the questions drive the research, not the techniques or traditional definitions of research areas… It is my belief that having focused questions and a broad approach to answering these questions has enhanced the overall quality of my research program and the cross-disciplinary relevance and appeal of my work.”

Joshua Knobe: “Over the past few years, a series of recent experimental studies have reexamined the ways in which people answer seemingly ordinary questions about human behavior. Did this person act intentionally? What did her actions cause? Did she make people happy or unhappy? It had long been assumed that people’s answers to these questions somehow preceded all moral thinking, but the latest research has been moving in a radically different direction. It is beginning to appear that people’s whole way of making sense of the world might be suffused with moral judgment, so that people’s moral beliefs can actually transform their most basic understanding of what is happening in a situation.”

To be sure, there were researchers at the Edge seminar who are fully in the evolution/innatist camp. But nonetheless, the younger researchers seem to embrace a wider and more natural approach to studying morality. And by natural I mean understanding that we are biological and cultural beings, individual and social, with the interaction between the developing person and a rich social and material environment central to how we understand our own nature.

I would encourage more serious thinking about culture, and not just the brain and psychology. Take Knobe’s statements, about “people’s whole way of makign sense of the world might be suffused with moral judgment.” That’s a statement familiar to most cultural anthropologists. The question becomes, How? It’s not as simple as saying culture imprints it on people, not at all. Pizarro’s work on disgust and visceral experiences points to embodiment and complex interactions to understanding how moral thinking gets developed inside a person.

Baumeister indicates that we are actually cultural animals, not moral ones, and that we have mechanisms designed to interact with our social-cultural milieu. But what sorts of mechanisms? And how do complex interactions among groups of people and environments create the sort of social construction of morality that Jonathan Haidt advocates (construction albeit with biological and psychological components!)? These sorts of questions need to also be part of the new science of morality.

The moral consequences of this sort of research is also important. It is something I critiqued a couple years back in the post Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct, writing:

To help you make a final decision [about what he is selling], a linguist like Pinker will surely appreciate a little content analysis of his New York Times essay, “The Moral Instinct.” The word “science” appears ten times in the article, often in close association with “moral” or “morality.” How about Bill Gates helping out? “Help” appears six times, four of those times about how selfish genes can get ahead through reciprocal altruism. And justice? You guessed it. Zero, zilch, nada.

Also, I can’t resist this final quote from Robert Trivers, posted way, way at the bottom of the Edge seminar:

“If i fuck a goat i may feel ashamed if someone saw it, but absent harm to the goat, not clear how i should respond if i alone witness it.”

Link to Edge’s The New Science of Morality Seminar

Link to my critique of Steven Pinker’s The Moral Instinct

Four Stone Hearth brought to you by Zenobia

That's MacTut, laddie!

Zenobia: Empress of the East is hosting the latest edition of Four Stone Hearth, the anthropo-carnival. It it’s 97th edition, the carnival this time brings us a pile of good stuff, and although Judith admits she prefers her subjects long dead, and buried in hardened volcanic ash, she brings us a wide range of the fun and fascinating. From Pompeii to monkey adoption, prognasticating octopus to the first cuneiform tablet ever found in Jerusalem to King Tut’s surprisingly small penis, you know that Four Stone Hearth is going to bring you the best of virtual anthropology. And the best is damn good.

So if you’re wondering whether Tut was cursed to be both under-endowed and Scottish (ouch), whether passive sentences are really hard to understand or if it’s just the ‘paper-airplane effect’ in action, or if the Dutch truly have found the answer to the question of overcoming human differences — orange — the what are you still reading this for!? Get ye to Four Stone Hearth!

And by the way, am I the only her person who winds up shouting at the television set, ‘Caster Semanya’s GENDER was never in question! It was her SEX, dammit!’ simply because I hate the way that the word ‘gender’ seems to have simply become a euphemism for whether someone has a winky or not? Okay, maybe it’s just me.

Life without language

Thought without symbols — life without language — it’s a cognitive reality that is virtually impossible for most modern humans to fathom. For the vast majority of us, our thought processes have been profoundly shaped by the introjection of language into our cognitive worlds, the taking on board of a massive intellectual prosthesis, the collective product of countless generations. Human thought, for the majority, is not simply the individual outcome of our evolved neural architecture, but also the result of our borrowing of the immense symbolic and intellectual resources available in language. What would human thought be like without language?

Author Susan Schaller

The question of the relationship between language and ‘mind’ (a word I hate using), or between symbolic resources and cognitive abilities (there, that’s equally vague!), is philosophically intriguing, but hard to address in anything other than the hypothetical.

Herodotus tells the story of the Pharoah Psammetichus (Psamtik I), who allegedly gave two newborn children to a shepherd to raise without language, taking care of them and paying close attention to their first words. Psammethicus hoped to learn which language was the oldest, which one infant allegedly revealed by calling for ‘bekos,’ the Phrygian word for ‘bread.’ In fact, most historically recorded cases of feral children, however, suggest that they do not develop any language ability at all, perhaps even failing to develop symbolic abilities (or maybe not enough researchers speak Phrygian).

We might try to imagine thinking without language, but, of course, we’d be doing that with language itself. In my own work, I’m interested in thought — or maybe I should say perception and action — that is only partially rendered into language (high speed, perceptually-driven decision making and action in sports). But what would thought be like for those without language?

The rare case of individuals without language offers some potential window in on life across the intellectual Rubicon, if we had developed mentally without immersing ourselves in the shared symbols and communicative reality of language. Although we tend to think that only those who are profoundly intellectually disabled, criminally neglected or raised by non-humans fail to learn language, in fact, adolescents and adults without language may not be as rare as we think. Author Susan Schaller has written about the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who grew up in a house with hearing parents who could not teach him sign language in her book, Man without Words.

The website, Works and Conversations, has a discussion of Schaller’s story, how she became interested in sign language through a fluke accident, but especially her work with Ildefonso, who had grown up without learning sign language or any other form of communication. The piece, Leap of Faith, the Story of a Contemporary Miracle, was written by Richard Whittaker in 2009 (although I only recently came across it). It’s a fascinating interview, and, although I may disagree with Schaller in certain ways, I think her story of trying to teach Ildefonso, not merely sign language, but the symbolic process itself, is absolutely fascinating.

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Behavioral Economics Is Not All That

An excellent editorial today in the NY Times – Economics Behaving Badly by George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel. The basic gist – behavioral economics, while important, has limits; traditional economics still matters greatly for policy; behavioral economics is being used in politics as an avoidance mechanism (hmm, sounds behavioral?) when traditional economic solutions would be better though politically more difficult.

So to repeat:

[Behavioral economics] has its limits. As policymakers use it to devise programs, it’s becoming clear that behavioral economics is being asked to solve problems it wasn’t meant to address. Indeed, it seems in some cases that behavioral economics is being used as a political expedient, allowing policymakers to avoid painful but more effective solutions rooted in traditional economics.

They use two main examples – obesity and conflicts of interest in medicine, like the drug industry giving lavish gifts to doctors.

Take, for example, our nation’s obesity epidemic. The fashionable response, based on the belief that better information can lead to better behavior, is to influence consumers through things like calorie labeling — for instance, there’s a mandate in the health care reform act requiring restaurant chains to post the number of calories in their dishes.

Calorie labeling is a good thing; dieters should know more about the foods they are eating. But studies of New York City’s attempt at calorie posting have found that it has had little impact on dieters’ choices.

Obesity isn’t a result of a lack of information; instead, economists argue that rising levels of obesity can be traced to falling food prices, especially for unhealthy processed foods.

To combat the epidemic effectively, then, we need to change the relative price of healthful and unhealthful food — for example, we need to stop subsidizing corn, thereby raising the price of high fructose corn syrup used in sodas, and we also need to consider taxes on unhealthful foods. But because we lack the political will to change the price of junk food, we focus on consumer behavior.

As they point out, behavioral economics tries to understand how and why people behave irrationally, using elements from psychology to examine deviations from rational choice. The general prescriptions from this policy approach are to manage how options are presented and to present better information so that people better understand the real costs and benefits. Loewenstein and Ubel don’t go so far as to say that these policy solutions still remain rooted in rational man assumptions – individual choice, better information, costs and benefits – but it is rather obvious. And that’s part of the problem.

Behavioral economics reinforces the individual and rational biases there in psychology and economics, rather than addressing community, institutional, and meaningful aspects of people’s lives. In this sense, it’s not too surprising that the pay-off from behavioral economic solutions is not that great.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain recently promoted behavioral economics as a remedy for his country’s over-use of electricity, citing what he claimed were remarkable results from a study that reduced household electricity use by informing consumers of how their use compared to that of their neighbors.

Under closer scrutiny, however, tests of the program found that better information reduced energy use by a mere 1 percent to 2.5 percent — modest relative to the hopes being pinned on it.

Compare that with the likely results of a solution rooted in traditional economics: a carbon tax would instantly bring the price of energy into line with its true cost and would unleash the creative power of the marketplace to generate cleaner energy sources.

Still, it’s quite refreshing to have two such distinguished professors saying that what matters is looking at the true costs of things. Nothing irrational about that!

George Loewenstein is a professor of economics and psychology; here’s his webpage in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. You can access a lot of his publications through the live links in his cv – it downloads as a Word document and the one I clicked one then led to a pdf.

Peter Ubel, a physician and behavioral scientist, looks like he’s just moved to become a professor of business and public policy at Duke (he still has a live listing at Michigan’s Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine). But he does have his own website,

And finally their editorial – Economics Behaving Badly.

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?

The most recent edition of Behavioral and Brain Sciences carries a remarkable review article by Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan, ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ The article outlines two central propositions; first, that most behavioural science theory is built upon research that examines intensely a narrow sample of human variation (disproportionately US university undergraduates who are, as the authors write, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or ‘WEIRD’).

More controversially, the authors go on to argue that, where there is robust cross-cultural research, WEIRD subjects tend to be outliers on a range of measurable traits that do vary, including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits. They don’t ignore universals – discussing them in several places – but they do highlight human variation and its implications for psychological theory.

As is the custom at BBS, the target article is accompanied by a large number of responses from scholars around the world, and then a synthetic reflection from the original target article authors to the many responses (in this case, 28). The total of the discussion weighs in at a hefty 75 pages, so it will take most readers (like me) a couple of days to digest the whole thing.

It’s my second time encountering the article as I read a pre-print version and contemplated proposing a response, but, sadly, there was just too much I wanted to say, and not enough time in the calendar (conference organizing and the like dominating my life) for me to be able to pull it together. I regret not writing a rejoinder, but I can do so here with no limit on my space and the added advantage of seeing how other scholars responded to the article.

My one word review of the collection of target article and responses: AMEN!

Or maybe that should be, AAAAAAAMEEEEEN! {Sung by angelic voices.}

There’s a short version of the argument in Nature as well, but the longer version is well worth the read.

Of course, I have tons of quibbles with wording or sub-arguments, ways of making points, choices of emblematic cases and the like in the longer BBS article (and I’ll get to a couple of those below the ‘fold’), but I don’t want to lose my over-arching sense that there is so much right in this piece. So before I get into the discussion, I just want to thank all of the authors, not just Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan, but also the authors of the responses, who pulled it together when I didn’t try. The collection is a really remarkable discussion, one that I find gratifying in such a prominent place, and I do hope that the target article has a significant impact on the behavioural sciences.

If you have one blockhead colleague who simply does not get that surveying his or her students in ‘Introduction to Psychology’ fails to provide instant access to ‘human nature,’ this is the article to pass along. If that colleague still doesn’t get it, please stop talking to them. Really. You. Are. Wasting. Your. Breath. If Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan don’t shake their confidence, I’m not sure what can.

The weirdest people in the world?

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