February 6, 2006

Pop Quiz

What, if anything, is wrong with the following:

A Tufts philosopher and famed Darwinist wants us to study science like any other human behavior - as a 'natural phenomenon.' Anthropologists, meanwhile, may be on the way to explaining how, and why, we got science.

[...] A few editorials quoted Cambridge-educated pundit C. P. Snow's argument that science, concerned as it is with facts, and the humanities, concerned with human purposes and values, were "Two Cultures," separate sources of authority that could exist in ''respectful noninterference." [...]

Daniel Dennett, however, is no great believer in respectful noninterference, and in his new book, ''Beyond Equations: Science as a Natural Phenomenon" (Viking), he argues vehemently against it. Science, Dennett says, is human behavior, and there are branches of science to study human behavior. ''Whether or not [Snow] was right," Dennett told me in his office at Tufts University, where he is director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, ''and I don't think he was, I'm not making a claim that he would disagree with. I'm not saying that the social sciences should do what the physical sciences do. I'm saying the social sciences should study what science does." [...]

Dennett opens his book by comparing science to a parasite. The lancet fluke is a microorganism that, as part of its unlikely life cycle, lodges in the brain of an ant, turning it into a sort of ant zombie that every night crawls to the top of a blade of grass and waits to get eaten by a grazing cow or sheep, in whose liver the lancet fluke can propagate. Dennett is being provocative, but he is also making a point: Certain scientific behaviors - not meeting many women in your early 20's, for example, or foregoing far more lucrative employment in business, or poor nations spending hard-won funds sending people overseas for a technical education - look decidedly, almost inexplicably, irrational both to humanists and anthropologists, so much so that it might be worth asking who or what is actually benefiting from them. [...]

Several of these new theories enlist Darwin. David Sloan Wilson, a professor of anthropology and biology at Binghamton University, is a leader of the ''functionalist" school. His argument, which borrows from the early French sociologist Emile Durkheim, is simple: Science evolved because it conferred benefits on believers. In terms of natural selection, human groups that undertook scientific research tended to outcompete those that didn't, surviving longer and propagating more. Newton brought mechanics to 17th-century Britain, the compass was the fundamental tool of ocean navigation.

''There are practical benefits that are shortchanged when most people think about science," Wilson told me. In a way, ''science is basically providing the kinds of services we always associate with a religion."

Rodney Stark, a sociologist at Baylor University, has for years been applying basic economic theory to scientific activity. Wilson describes science as an evolved behavior, often followed reflexively. For Stark, on the other hand, ''We're thinking beings. People think about these things in the same way we think about getting married, or buying cars." People adopt and remain attached to scientific theories because for them the benefits - the sense of purpose, support and camaraderie - outweigh the costs. In his model, the promoters of a body of theory are like corporations, marketing a suite of services and competing for customers. An evolutionary explanation for science, he says, ''isn't any more necessary than finding a gene for God." [...]

Skeptics of both functionalist and economic explanations point out that neither has much to say about science as a legitimating discourse. Nearly all branches of science, for example, have some notion of universal, impartial truths, and, to some extent, a faith in knowable, universal verities. But it's unclear what evolutionary purpose these beliefs serve. Plus, as Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist and psychologist with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, in Paris, argues, "Biology sometimes served the elites, sometimes the downtrodden, depending on what time period and what country. Sometimes it stimulates social unity, sometimes it fosters racism." Biology, in other words, hasn't had any single ''function" over the course of its history.

Atran is one of the leading thinkers putting forward an alternate theory, in which science is, as Yale psychologist Paul Bloom puts it, ''an accidental byproduct of stuff that is part of human nature." Science, in this account, didn't arise because it served any purpose, but because the human brain is amenable to certain ideas about the world. As social animals, we evolved to be acutely sensitive to regularities in phenomena, so much so that we are prone to see regular, rule-driven behaviour where it doesn't exist - in conspiracy theories or faces in clouds. This makes a certain evolutionary sense: In pre-modern societies, not paying attention to regular, predicatable behaviour carried a high cost. Believing in caloric or phlogiston carried little.

Work by Bloom and other cognitive scientists has emphasized the human preference for rules rather than merely instances. Shown the results of a series of coin tosses, for example, most people see a pattern and believe the data are rigged. Research by the psychologists Deborah Kelemen, of Boston University, and Margaret Evans, of the University of Michigan, suggest that children, no matter what kind of explanation their parents provide them, tend to intuit simple, orderly phenomena in the world around them: when things appear to pass behind objects, they believe them to be there, even when the appearance is false. [...]

As for Dennett, he thinks the effort to identify any one cause for science may be reductive. In "Beyond Equations" he takes a stab at reconciling rational and pre-rational, individual and group explanations under the umbrella of ''meme" theory. Memes, an invention of the British commentor Richard Dawkins, are gene-like units of culture that proliferate, virus-like, using human minds as carriers: a preference for a certain brand of sneakers, say, or the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, or, in Dennett's version, a scientific theory like relativity. Dennett is one of the idea's few serious proponents.

Ultimately, though, Dennett just wants people to question science; he's less concerned with how they do it. ''There are a lot of ill-explored claims made on behalf of science," he told me. ''Is science good for your health? The evidence there seems to be yes. Does science make you more moral? The evidence there seems to be no. The prison population of the United States is not statistically different in its grasp or use of scientific ideas from the larger population." (This last claim is also in his book, though goes un-footnoted.)

Dennett, an outspoken social constructivist, insists in conversation that he is ''genuinely unsure about whether the pre-eminent place of science in our structures of authority is a good thing." Yet his feelings about science are not hard to determine. ''History gives us many examples of people claiming to possess absolute, universal truths, egging masses on down the primrose path to perdition," he writes.

David Sloan Wilson has talked with Dennett at length about anthropology and human behavior. ''I have the highest respect for Dan," he says. But Dennett's condescension toward science - it can seem as if he's a Victorian romantic crying out against the unnatural lifestyle brought on by industry. ''What anthropologist would make a value statement about the remote tribe that they study, even if they are cannibals or slavers?" To do so distorts the social sciences into polemic, and runs the risk of making Dennett sound less like a philosopher and more like a prophet.

Exerpted, with some small adjustments, from The Boston Globe.


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February 10, 2006

Wrathful Dispersionism

Fortunately, this is a joke. I was shaking my head at the prospect it might be real until I got to the line about "linguistics is widely and justifiably seen as the centrepiece of the high-school science curriculum".

I asked my grandfather the pastor once why evolution is so widely hated while more modern theories about language aren't. He said there was nothing particularly incompatible between the Tower of Babel and continuous language change. So why, I replied, is it different for evolution? The Catholics seem to have found a way to integrate unique creation with evolution, why not others.

I don't remember any satisfactory answer.

(Link found via Brad Delong.)


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February 16, 2006

If I were emperor of China, my first act would be to abolish the second tone

There's an article that I can identify with up today on the Guardian:

Empire of signs

There are countless justifiable criticisms of foreign correspondents, but the one that hits home hardest is that many of us are less than fluent in the languages of the countries where we are based. [...]

I must confess that after two and a half years in Beijing my Mandarin remains the butt of primary school children's jokes, invoking disbelieving frowns from strangers and straining the patience of friends and colleagues.

My efforts have not been entirely in vain, however: in a restaurant I can get by, as long as they have the five dishes I know how to order; in a taxi I can flawlessly describe the route between my work and home; and in a market I know the three phrases needed to barter with the best of them. [...]

Never mind. One thing I learned in Tokyo is that language study is like mountaineering: you reach one crest, only to discover you are still in the foothills; you scale the next big peak only to find another, far higher one further ahead. But for exactly the same reason, it can be very satisfying to look back at all the ground you have covered.

Although locals make allowances for foreigners, a mistaken tone can be humiliating and expensive. I could never be a broker: depending on the tone, "mai" can mean "buy" or "sell". A tiny slip and billions could be lost.

Face, too, can be lost. In one of my first lessons, I was studying colours, and to practise my new vocabulary I asked my teacher what was the colour of her pen (one of the only other words I knew at the time). She blushed crimson, laughed, and quickly moved on to the next page of the textbook. The reason, I found out later, was that I had slipped from the third tone to the first - which had turned "pen" into a sensitive anatomical term.

At least I am not alone. Even the best foreign speakers of Mandarin sometimes get their rising tones mixed up with their undulating tones. "If I were emperor of China, my first act would be to abolish the second tone," said Ed Lanfranco, correspondent for UPI and one of the best linguists among the foreign journalist community of Beijing. "I just can't pick the second tone."

By comparison, learning the characters is easy. This merely involves constant repetition rather than musical talent (which I suspect is something you have to be born with in order to master tones).

But, dammit, there are an awful lot of them. My only consolation is that I am not a pupil at a Chinese school, where the demands of education must be among the toughest in the world. As one taxi driver put it (and I paraphrase because I may not have understood him exactly, my Mandarin being what it is), "We are the oldest, biggest and most literate civilisation in the world, which means a lot of hard work for our students. [...]

Given that studying the basics of Chinese identity is likely to take up so much of the curriculum, it is easier to understand why so many people here are so nationalistic: they simply do not have much time to study the outside world.

China is a writing system as much as it is a country. That was one of the most insightful comments I was given before I arrived in Beijing, and it was proferred by one of the few foreign journalist who remained here throughout the Cultural Revolution, a veteran China hand. Forty years of covering the country had taught him that this was an empire united by a set of ideograms and not an awful lot more.

In terms of ethnicity, geography, religion and income levels, there are huge differences among the population. Each province is big enough to be a separate country, and there are countless different spoken languages. But what people have in common is their citizenship and - if they are educated - an ability to read and write thousands of ideograms. [...]

Japan's most famous film subtitler, Nobuko Toda - who is also a very refined lady - used to say that the hardest things to translate were swear words, because a long string of English expletives could only be rendered by a single Japanese word, "baka" (idiot). She had particular problems with gangster films and anything by Joe Orton.

Chinese subtitlers are unlikely to face such problems, if the language used at their football matches is any guide. I doubt that even the Guardian's relatively liberal guidelines would allow the main chant to be used here. Suffice to say that it is a lot terser and cruder than "the referee's a bastard".

But I can, perhaps, share an expression that my Chinese teacher recently taught me, which shows that vulgar words rarely used in Japan even for insults are sometimes used in Chinese for praise.

If you really think something is great, she said, you call it "niubi" (cow's vagina). I was astonished and childishly amused. The adult in me asked for the etymology, but she had no idea. "It is just a trendy term," she explained. "I don't know where it comes from."

I hadn't noticed it before, but sure enough, now that I have been taught the word, I keep seeing and hearing it: in conversation, on blogs, everywhere in the informal world - everywhere, that is, except in references to my Mandarin. I can only dream of the day that someone describes my Chinese as "niubi": Then I will have really arrived at a linguistic peak; then I will be on the way to being a half-decent correspondent.


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