Friday, January 3, 2014

Story required.

It might seem like it this week, but sex isn't the only recurring theme here on the MT. From various angles, we hit on the culture of science quite regularly, quite relentlessly, and quite hard. We can't help it, we think anthropologically. We want to know the truth of things as much as anyone else, and we think discussing and revealing what we don't know and what obstacles we face are important steps in the process toward knowing. 

One of the ways that science is so clearly cultural is its love of stories. 

I even did the story thing just then. I made science into an actor. 

Try again:  Science is done by humans and humans love stories. 


Hardly anybody I know'd deny that.

But what we scientists (particularly evolutionary scientists) seem to resist like the dickens is that we require stories and we are required to fit our work into others' or to write new ones. 

These superstitions can't be the straightest path toward the Truth, can they?

Back up a sec. First, I'm not trying to dump on the power of analogy. Without analogy we couldn't have gotten this far, scientifically. Lacking analogous thinking is a big reason why chimps don't reason. 

And, second, I'm not trying to dump on anthropomorphism or personification because I've done that already recently (and I'd love to talk about something else today).

I'm talking about making our research, our methods, our findings, our results fit our desired narratives. Or any narrative for that matter.

One of these habits we often discuss here at the MT is selectionism which is closely related to adaptationism.

Ken's recent post on this is brilliant: 'Every trait is due to natural selection!'... often said but is it true?

And since reading his piece (and since before) I've been stewing about some related matters, like, why don't negative results get published? 

I'm of the frame of mind to spin the following: Because the story arc where there is no change (no arc?) isn't usually the one that sells the screenplay to Paramount, and likewise, isn't usually the one selling Nature ads and subscriptions.

There's a pretty big recent exception to the negative attitude toward negative results. When they didn't find dark matter, we heard all about it! 

But that's because it was the first exploration of its kind and the spin was that some big time physics equations were wrong and needed to be scratched and reconceptualized. How exciting and productive! And wtf is dark matter?! 

But when people find no significant p-values for any effect of a food or drug on some aspect of health, who cares right? No change. No cause and effect to bring no change about! No results! which is not true, but still... Boring!

In fact, "boring" is what a reviewer called the last paper I tried to publish in a relatively high impact anthropology journal. It was because I didn't push one hypothesis over the others and instead discussed how unfalsifiable and untestable some present anthropological explanations are. The hypothesis I was expected to push--and it was punishably confusing why I didn't--was the story I'd written not too long ago.  Well, because I had already rewritten this entire manuscript since initially submitting it and because I don't think I could have gotten it through a second round of revisions without insincerely and unscientifically pushing one idea over others (which aren't even falsifiable to my mind), I withdrew the paper and will try somewhere else. All I had to do was convince the reader to join me in favoring at least one clever story and I dropped the ball entirely. I flopped because I didn't even try. The story, I thought, was that there might not be a story! If Charlie Kaufman had co-signed my paper, maybe it'd have had a chance? It might have no chance in anthropology journals, but I haven't given up yet. 

Try to find, let alone publish, an evolutionary paper without a story, without circumscribed causes and real or apparent effects. I haven't tried that hard, but I haven't succeeded yet either. It's probably much more common for people to attempt to publish stories but to have those rejected as the wrong stories, the ones not preferred by reviewers, or pushed by reviewers with vested interest in the 'correct' stories. 

Even my little flipbook classroom exercise, which simulates genetic drift, got rejected for publication partly because they feared it would tell the wrong story: intelligent design.

What's hard to swallow is, we can't really know the real natural history in all its glory, and so there's really nothing preventing us from writing natural history the way we want to (within bounds, whatever those may be). And so why's that enough for so many scientists? Why does that suffice? Maybe doing natural history is more like doing history than I ever thought. You get the details correct and you can write the story, the agents, the causes and effects based on your own interpretation and arrangement of those details. And as long as people like your story, you're good, you might even be golden. 

O! What if I'm just an anal retentive weirdo taking it all too literally? 

I didn't bait you here to read me whine and gasp existentially. I actually had more interesting thoughts about the bigger picture to share today. 

For instance, when you see so many potentially real but unfalsifiable evolutionary hypotheses as the stories that they are, it makes it so awkward to watch when science-minded folks spew venom at the "ignorant fantasy stories" of creationists.  

For more in this vein, or related to it, even remotely, I leave you this afternoon with some recent stories about stories, some favorites, others just plain interesting or relevant:

There's no Santa Claus, There's no Easter Bunny and there's no Queen of England! by Joel Adamson
If you want to know why I love this piece, see the comments.

Are hobbits human? Textual and genetic analysis of our closest real and magical relatives by Matthew Yglesias
~This is great, but took flak from both sides: scientists for the paleo and nerds for the Tolkien.

...and timely follow-up to that...
Myths matter from Maria Popova 

...and a response to Slate's story about a story...
Slate's embarrassing Middle Earth error by Max Read

Standing up for sex by Henry Gee
From the piece: "Now, I advance the above more than half in jest. It’s possibly no better or worse than any other idea, but I’m not going to pin anyone against a wall and shout about it. "
I have a hunch I'll like his book but I'm head-cocking over the attitude given what Nature publishes.

Public's views on human evolution by Pew Research Center

Surprising number of Americans don't believe in evolution by Jaweed Kaleem 
I don't believe in evolution either if it always ends in a white dude like the crappy figure they used here.

I had my DNA picture taken, with varying results by Kira Peikoff

Does reading actually change the brain? by Carol Clark-Emory

Claims of 'virgin births' in U.S. highlight pitfalls of self-reported data by Sharon Begley

In saving a species you might accidentally doom it by Ed Yong
Knowing the story of natural selection saved these birds from the humans who started out by ignoring it.

We need to talk about TED by Benjamin Bratton
From the piece, "If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation." 
So many parallels with what admins and students expect of profs.

And finally...

Editing your life's stories can create happier endings by Lulu Miller


Ken Weiss said...

This is another bell-ringing post, Holly! You have identified the anthropology of science's traits very well. And 'scientific' anthropology departments don't want any 'postmodernists' around because they make somewhat similar points as you do, but too characteristically but slashing and burning the idea of science as well as we poor humans who practice it.

However, you are an actual scientist who understands the trade, and your insightful observations are constructively and carefully made. People should listen.

Perhaps, as imply, scientists, being human, circle their wagons when they feel under challenge--and let the challengers fend for themselves outside the circle.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks Ken. You almost called me pomo! ;)

I should have included up there near negative results that publishing results that replicate or confirm previous reports might be just as hard. If you're not changing the story, who cares? That's boring too. We don't just love stories. We love NEW stories.

Ken Weiss said...

A good po-mo is an insightful person. Most of that became its own irrefutable and destructive ideology.

A good, well-designed negative result should be valued, not stifled. But too many of us become too enamored of our own hypotheses. And journals want sales, as you note.

Holly Dunsworth said...

One of the "wrong" stories in paleoanthropology: The Aquatic Ape