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For My Zilsel Friends, The Dissenting Sciences April 13, 2016

Posted by Christopher Donohue in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, Commentary Track, History of Economic Thought, History of the Human Sciences, The Unified Theory of Christopher's Scholarly Interests.
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I. Some Opening Thoughts On My Motivations

My friends at Zilsel have invited me to speak on a topic which I have been working on for quite some time, through my various researches in biosocial anthropology and human behavioral ecology, behavior genetics and public choice economics (in the work of Gordon Tullock especially) the “dissenting sciences.” I keep changing my mind on what to call them, having referred to them as “heterodox” and “pariah” sciences.    

I am a bit in a muddle and I have decided to write my way out of this confusion. I have submitted two introductions to introduce my case studies.  This is a version of those introductions.

Writing on the Pseudosciences

I do this because our field not only suffers from the privacy of criticism but also the privacy of ideas.  As Will has written about many times, historians of science are too concerned with only publishing their very polished thoughts. This means that much of the knowledge of the profession is hidden from public view. This behavior is elitist.  

And now everyone reading this hopefully has a better sense of my motivations.  My thoughts on pseudoscience are a bit of a muddle, I am using this blog as a way to puzzle out this muddle, as a prelude to puzzling out some of my confusions in a talk on Tuesday.  I am deliberately not holding back my unpolished thoughts in the hopes that others will do so. 

II.  Pseudoscience and Science are Intermixed: The Case of Phrenology

Here are my issues: how to define pseudoscience and how to determine the characteristics of “not pseudoscience” or science, and how to address my case studies which are somehow neither scientific nor pseudoscience.  Agassi’s philosophical anthropology in particular underscores that science and pseudoscience are intermixed.  But he really does not address the problem further than that.  I think for many this is enough.

But I for one would like some clarity on this issue.   To begin with there are many, many works on the status of the pseudosciences.  A wonderful book edited by Bryan Farha notes that the common characteristics of the pseudosciences are: 1) overuse of adhoc hypothesis to escape refutation 2) absence of self-correction 3) emphasis on confirmation 4) over-reliance on anecdote 5) obscurity.  These characteristics to describe pseudosciences quite well according to their own definitions. Accounts of pseudoscience are infused with Popperian methodology, given Popper’s contributions to our understanding of pseudoscience.  My case studies pose issues according to these criteria. Gordon Tullock writes very well and very clearly.  He has no add hoc hypothesis. Other examples: behavior genetics is in the process of self-correction. A more important point: all modern sciences break the above criteria.  But, of course, not all the time.  But enough to make problems for this definition. 

So, conceptually pseudosciences are a huge mess: what does pseudoscience mean, exactly? Pseudosciences are usually considered to be in some ways anti-scientific or “not science.” But pseudo means having the attributes of science, but not functioning in the same way that science functions.  Pseudo sciences are at most “fake” sciences, not “non” sciences. Furthermore, the given examples of pseudoscience are usually quite limited.  

In the nineteenth century, phrenology was considered by many to be a pseudoscience.  Alchemy too was or is considered a pseudoscience.  Phrenology was the early 19th century inquiry into the connections between brain (as matter) and mind (as faculty of cognition).  The phrenological work by the Fowlers is in many ways exemplary. We now look at phrenology as nonsense. Rightly so. Phrenology was absolutely wrong.  But many of the reactions to its ideas were fruitful.  This was also why the debunking of phrenology was so necessary, it lead to some very good ideas. In refutation, there is growth.  I know here I am being overly Popperian.

 Many contemporaries, particularly in France, ranked phrenology with “necromancy, alchemy and astrology.” But the discipline of anthropology in the United States found the tenets of phrenology very useful to say what it was not.  What phrenology is, anthropology is not.  Therefore anthropology is better.  Phrenology thus provided anthropology with a theodicy, an account of evil. Did phrenology provide inspiration to many who then had careers in psychology and medicine? Of course, this is unprovable, but possibly.  As importantly, although it was close to “necromancy” to many, phrenology privileged the unity of the human species. This was not necessarily an argument against hierarchical racism, but the plurality of species was an argument for hierarchical racism in the 19th century.  Many critiques of phrenology centered around how it was a poor copy of proper scientific reasoning.  This is very important.  Phrenology was scientistic, taking on the outward attributes of science but learning none of its lessons.  The excesses of phrenology lead in the nineteenth century (especially in neurology, medicine, psychology and anthropology) to useful self-reflections.  

Phrenology by providing a theodicy, a bed time story for young scientists, a threat if they did not eat their supper, served a good purpose. Do pseudosciences have a purpose in this regard? absolutely.  They tell the developing sciences (like physical anthropology) how they should conduct themselves, aka not like phrenology.

III. In Critiques of Pseudoscience and Among Individuals Whose Work is Called Pseudo-scientific, An Unrealistic Account of Science Emerges 

Phrenology, as I mentioned above, served a useful purpose.  It impacted the course of social science.  But if pseudoscience assists in the development of science, what is the divide between science and pseudoscience? We must also keep in mind another series of related issues.  In every pseudoscience, be it phrenology (and according to many minds) astrology or studies of ESP (extra-sensory perception, or the science of “Ghostbusters”), there is an envy of science.  There is a among pseudoscientists an unrealistic picture of consensus in science and of how science works, of what science can accomplish and with what evidence. Phrenology constructed a grand system from little evidence.  

As importantly, among critics of pseudoscience, there is an unrealistic account of science as well.  Science in both accounts is “normal.” Science is a utopia. It is Kuhnian. Along these lines there is an alternate conception of pseudosciences which has emerged recently, that of misbehaving sciences by Aaron Panofsky.  Misbehaving sciences, such as behavior genetics, one of my case studies, are “misbehaving” because there is: no consensus among misbehaving sciences of the core tenants of their inquiry; a loose sense of professionalization, of proper pedagogy and institutionalization; a tendency to politicize claims and to make them extravagant; endless public controversies, a constant fight over resources, and anomie.

This account of misbehaving sciences is in many ways wonderful.  It is clear and provocative. It is however simply unworkable.  In the first instance it underplays to a fantastic degree the role and presence of dissent and disagreement in normal sciences. Panofsky considers a certain level of disagreement good, above a certain level, destructive. Criticism and controversy are then presented as foreign to functioning science.  Panofsky does not say this but this an extension of his argument.   This is very Kuhnian. One can also make a very good argument that many of the features that Panofsky presents are present in all “behaving” sciences.  He very much has an idea that dissent and disagreement in science are pathological or can become so at the shortest notice. This underplays the role of dissent in the growth of scientific knowledge as well.  In any case, although Panofsky does interesting work, he too presents an unrealistic account of science which trivializes dissent and presents disagreement as pathological to science.

IV. Some Solutions

Let us not discuss pseudoscience for the moment.  If the line between science and pseudo is vague and pseudo can be productive, let us rid ourselves of this term.  It is too confusing.  But how can we describe properly inquiries, personalities and methodological insights  in the social sciences which are, 1) not only are not rejected by the majority of the profession in a field (such as economics, anthropology and psychology) but also are, 2) due to their rejection by the majority, fervently accepted by a minority (who still call themselves economists).  I call them dissenting sciences.  This gives proper honor to the inquiries I address.  It gives them proper space within the sciences they critique (and from the inquiries they sometimes loathe.)

I also put my cards up front. Anthropology is a science. If it was not, the dispute between monogenesis and polygenesis would still be raging.  But it is not. Economics is also a science. This is easier to defend.

Dissenting sciences acknowledges that they are very fully formed communities of practitioners, with established social networks and peer review journals, institutional affiliations, etc. Dissenting acknowledges that they are at a social, institutional and intellectual distance from the “center” and the intellectual consensus of the field. All three of my case studies wish to reform the field from within.  They express disappointment, even bewilderment, when their work is not adopted by others in their field..  These dissenting sciences are also extraordinarily strident, even vicious in their exchanges within their fields. But viciousness, though painful and unfortunate, is to be an expected part of any modern science. Viciousness is a case a bad manners. 

My case studies (behavior genetics, human behavioral ecology, and public choice economics) are somewhat good for their fields (mostly). Public choice, the most; human behavioral ecology, the least. Social anthropology has benefited from its disputes with Chagnon. Behavior genetics is reemerging into respectability. I shall explain further in a subsequent entry. All three, as I shall explain later, do a great deal to keep out virulent racism, among other things.  Public choice economics, human behavior ecology and evolutionary psychology, through their own disciplinary and community dynamics keep out more destructive elements, as they police their own borders and lament the state of their respective fields.  

By looking at the dissenting sciences, we shall have a clear idea of non-sciences. Non-sciences are truly destructive.  Here is an example, the work of Richard Lynn, and another   in the work of Arthur Jensen. I shall explain non-sciences too. The work of Lynn and Jensen allows me to make a very clear point. Although I enjoy dissent and think dissenting sciences important, I think it necessary to the proper conduct of science, there must be criteria for refutation, criticism and even debunking. If not, if we just embrace lazy pluralism, Paul Feyerabend is right and we should shut down hospitals and see shamans for broken bones.

V. More on The Dissenting Sciences

Very interestingly, in each of my case sciences, there is a dogmatic insight at the root of departure of the founders in the field from the main tenets of economics, anthropology, and social psychology.  This is often explained biographically. 

For example, Gordon Tullock and Napoleon Chagnon both have Pauline conversions and have written about it especially.  At root of both men’s conversions is a methodological insight.  This insight is then used to castigate the rest of the field. It is they who see clearly.  It is the rest of their field which do not.  Persecution of members in inquiries by the rest of their field is taken to be a test and proof of sincerity. The more criticism was heaped upon Napoleon Chagnon, the more that he was convinced he was correct.  Tullock, much to the complaint of many, could never disentangle personal anecdote from intellectual work. Chagnon published a polemic autobiography.  Robin Fox (a fellow traveler of Chagnon’s and a fierce critic of social anthropology along similar if distinctive lines which I shall explain) has also published a pugilistic and literary autobiography.

Regardless of these personal dynamics, public choice economics and my other case studies produce works which are extremely interesting, they are sometimes correct.  They are provocative, full of good ideas. Nothing is better than a wrong idea. I borrow this sentiment from Joseph Agassi, who says much the same of metaphysics.  All three of my case studies are like metaphysical systems.  Perhaps they are wrong or strange, but in reading and thinking about them, you are left with more knowledge. You are able to approach any inquiry or field with new ideas.  

Thus, in sum, they draw from heroic, self-fashioned personalities who act as “founders,” key methodological insights and very entrenched metaphysical commitments. I enumerate these features for each.  For public choice economics they are: 1) the figure of Gordon Tullock 2) the inherent failure of government intervention 3) the idea that man in every decision economizes and that all behavior can be understood in some way through basic economic models (game theory.) For behavior genetics: 1) the figure of Steven Vandenberg  2) the failure of social forces to explain human behavior 3) the causal power of genes and genetics.  And for human behavioral ecology they are, 1) the figures of William Irons and Napoleon Chagnon 2) the failure of social anthropology to explain “primitive” human social behavior 3) the insights of theoretical population genetics in the work of W.D. Hamilton.

Last, there is a frequent Popperian tinge to the dissenting sciences today as well as a critique of relativism embedded in all three. Historically, all three come from the post-war developments in biology and economic and statistical methodology.

In my next entry I shall discuss more this idea of the “dissenting” science.  I will also take each dissenting science and describe them, their founders and their histories in much finer detail.  I will also outline more the traditions, methods, and persons which they dissent: social psychology , Keynesian macroeconomics and social anthropology.


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