Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Laughing at our ancestors (is that OK?)

The other day I tried to make a point about current state-of-the-art science at the expense of one WH Sheldon, purveyor of then state-of-the-art science some 60 years ago.  In pursuit of a new science of somatotyping, he took many photos of college students and classified them into body type, from which he then went on to assess personality.  I suggested that his work was misguided, in the same way that phrenology was misguided, and in the same way that modern ideas to assess personality from genes, including genes 'for' face shape are, I think misguided.

A commenter took me to task for mocking Sheldon, noting that he was just doing normal science for the time.  True enough.  But my objective was not just to mock Sheldon, though I'm by no means the first to do that, but to point out that we're doing much the same kind of work today, many of the same kinds of anemically supported extrapolations about personality, not having learned our lesson from the past.  It's easy in hindsight to see that Sheldon was doing what now seems like silly stuff, based on strong self-interested assumptions and not being treated to very critical scrutiny.  But the same sort of work is still being done, with no stronger a rationale, though it has a much more rigorous appearance given the glitzy technology now being used.

Sneering at old-time science that should be dead and gone but isn't, isn't the same as recognizing that alchemy was a foolish pursuit or the four humours, or the idea that the earth was the center of Everything, or you fill in the blank.  These are ideas that it's generally agreed science has moved beyond, and it's not a stretch to find them laughable.  But ideas that should be dead and gone but aren't are a different matter.  I think it's perfectly legitimate to point out, even with humor, where modern science is wrong in ways that some of our antecedents were wrong.  Science builds on the past, but past mistakes should be left buried.

Of course, humor is personal and contextual.  Here context can mean modern science, defined as that which has been discovered since our predecessors who turned out to be so wrong were alive, but also including cultural context.  People who believed things that we would consider not just silly but also contrary to our current view can be and often are subject to after-the-fact judgments. This is where cultural relativism comes in.  That is, the idea that past cultures were as valid for their time as ours is for our time; whether we can judge ours to be superior is a subjective matter.  We have vaccines and novocaine and I'd not want to trade that for Victorian grandeur.  But it is a mistake to think that we are better and they were somehow mentally impaired.

Was the Pope in Galileo's time stupid just because he apparently accepted Aristotelian science as Truth? Was Galen culpable because he did what we would consider horrid vivisections for rather egotistical showmanlike public displays of his anatomical knowledge?  Was Ernst Haeckel a risible character because he believed that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny?

I bring up this last example, because of a nice way that Robert Richards addressed Haeckel's fallen reputation at the end of his biography of that once-leading figure (The Tragic Sense of Life, UChicago, 2008):  "What is the deeper source of the eruptive rejection of Haeckel's work? That he got things wrong?  So has every scientist since yesterday."

Haeckel had his idiosyncracies and was a popular science writer and a terrific artist.  But we all have our idiosyncrasies, and he worked within the time of Darwinian discovery, and this colored his perspective and increased his enthusiasm for evidence of evolution as he saw it.

In fact, there are always clowns, know-nothings, and truly risible figures in any era, including in science where personality is sometimes as relevant as raw insight or talent in making reputations. But even the most intelligent, perceptive, and legitimate scientists can only judge things in the context of the theory, data, methods, and instrumentation of their time.  In that context, Galenic medicine and Ptolemaic astronomy were accurate enough to have survived for 2000 years.  They had what for a long time was taken as sufficient empirical support.  Exceptions could be hand-waved away then, as we see being done every day today, in science.

Darwin disabused (some of) us of creationist explanations for the diversity of life, with an incredibly powerful way of looking at living Nature; but creationist views in earlier times were consistent with what was then known.  Scientists as well as political and religious leaders use various emotional and rhetorical means to retain power by convincing their audiences that what they (the leaders) say is right, and getting the latter to follow along--in the case of politics to undertake self-defeating, even lethal, acts in ways that support the leaders.  But even demagogues may in some sense truly believe they are doing the right thing.  Scientists often have hubris that matches that of any preacher.

Science is not separate from society, especially these days when it is society as a whole that bears the burden of scientific research.  So, how we judge past scientists today will in some ways depend on what we think is right today, both technically and societally.  That is why, as a relevant current example, we can legitimately sneer at, say, the racism and kinds of assumed genetic determinism that may have characterized the views of our predecessors in science--even before anyone knew just what a gene actually was!

Droll musing at our deceased predecessors' expense is perhaps not nice, and we usually do it after they have passed away and cannot be offended.  Maybe we shouldn't. They were just as smart and insightful as we (often, if their work, and they, became famous, much more so than our own pedestrian efforts), and they worked with what they had.  This is obvious and we should always be aware of it.

But the legitimate point of such humor should not be just to get cheap laughs, or to seem self-important, but to help ensure that we, today, don't repeat the same sorts of mistakes that our ancestors made, when we know better.  If we can learn from what seems naive today, we can hope to progress in a substantial way.  That is why we can criticize our ancestors in genetics and evolution when they held views that we no longer accept or think either scientifically or socially appropriate.

And Sheldon, though the product of his time, went far beyond what there was any adequate evidence to show, in a way feeding on the science hubris of the time.  His assertions were widely accepted as legitimate and true.  Indeed, a contemporary was just as confidently asserting that personality was not hard-wired but was entirely due to experience, and this, too, was widely accepted as--shall we say it?--psychological dogma.

Today as in the past, prominence in science is not the most effective way to generate the kind of self-restraint scientists should show. Scientists who do that deserve to be criticized.  History will certainly do it, but we should learn from the past and subject ourselves to a high standard in our own time.

In my personal view, some of life science is currently repeating mistakes that had dire consequences in the last century and before.  A caricature of evolution and genomics is being used to unearth ideas that should remain buried.  The idea that genes for face shape will illuminate personality, Sheldon in modern guise, I think is one such idea.  Something similar seems to be occurring in earth and energy sciences.  If there is no critique, and humor is one means of critique, then humans' tendency to follow along like sheep in sometimes exclusionary tribal fashion can go unchecked until disaster or even just huge sidetracking delays to progress occur.

We lampoon our forebears' errors, knowing that they were part and parcel of their time, but correctly showing how they went beyond what their data actually showed for reasons that can have awful consequences (as in the eugenics era). I think it's totally legitimate to try to point out similar thinking today when we in science should now know better and when societal resources of many sorts are at stake. Of course, people today, including scientists, are no more detached from their personal viewpoints and interests than our predecessors were.  They express, and attempt to justify, their point of view.

And so do we.

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