About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Massimo’s Picks

By Massimo Pigliucci

* Anthropology, apparently, is officially no longer a science. Was it ever? Discuss.
* Christopher Hitchens on Glenn Beck and the Tea so-called Party. The man’s [Hitchens] still got it.
* Philosophy Talk: how can reasonable people disagree on rational grounds?
* Likely candidate for most idiotic article in Slate, ever: apparently, it’s “a problem” for society that most scientists happen to be Democrats.
* The latest Rationally Speaking podcast: Carol Tavris on why everyone else is wrong, except (all of) us.
* First commercial spacecraft makes it to orbit: to boldly go where plenty of others have gone before?
* Google launches its e-book store to compete with Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. So far, I’m not impressed, but four players is better than three...
* My latest Skeptical Inquirer column: historical vs. nomological (nomo-what?) sciences.


  1. Regarding anthropology, of course it depends what subfield you are referring to. Cultural anthropology is probably not a science but archeology, biological and physical anthropologuy are. The problem is that cultural anthropologists are the dominant in the field right now. This is roughly equivalent to to what happened in psychology. for many years, psychoanalysis was dominating the field but now more and more subfields are moving towards scientific study of the self.

  2. Anthropology, apparently, is officially no longer a science. Was it ever? Discuss.

    You got your hobby horse back from the cleaners, all ready for another charge? Good stuff, it's encouraging to see such dedication, no matter how ill-placed.

    So what do we have? An anthropology association has decided to pursue public outreach and changed their mission statement and you summarize this by saying all of anthropology isn't a science? Wow, that's just about the most misleading summary I've seen, well done. If we needed more evidence that your quest to see an exaggeratedly narrow view of science has blinded you to evidence and reason, this would be it.

    Did you even bother to read the AAA article that is linked to by the NYT which says:

    These responses, however, were amped up by blog headline editors earlier this week: “Anthropology Without Science,” and “No Science Please. We’re Anthropologists.” We believe that the source of the problem speaks to the power of symbols: we replaced the term “science” in the preface of this planning document by a more specific (and inclusive) list of research domains, while explicitly acknowledging that the Association’s central focus is to promote the production, circulation, and application of anthropological research findings.

    Even if this is a coy way of having one group change its mission, it is still one group and doesn't affect the science which many disciplines still perform.

    Ah well, there's always another windmill. Giddyup!

  3. Tyro, sometimes I do wonder about your sense of humor. Did you not detect the irony in my comment? I would have thought it self evident.

  4. Irony is probably easier to pull off if it doesn't resemble other things you say in all seriousness, it's how the Poe first started. Whenever you decide that your long-standing quest to prevent the proles doing science was actually an elaborate joke, do let us know and we'll all share a good laugh.

  5. Massimo:

    Just in case you want a second opinion, I think Tyro is irony-blind.

  6. Tyro: are you making some 1984 reference with "long-standing quest to prevent the proles doing science"? I'm not sure what you're getting at.

  7. Tyro, though I'm not entirely on the same page as Massimo with respect to the demarcation problem, I can tell you right now he's not trying to prevent anyone doing anything.

    It's just an argument about what the word 'science' should normatively mean.

  8. Holy teapot tempests! So let's see - Anthropologists construct models, gather evidence and adjust their models according to that gathered evidence. I suppose they also submit their work to peer review for publication in journals and that work is then thrown onto the huge pile in the cellar of the Ivory Tower that is the Sum Total of Human Knowledge (SToHK) where gathering dust, it is sat and brooded upon jealously by the draconian scientists hoping to hatch out a Nobel prize. As far as I know anthropologists can't do double blind experiments to tightly control for individual factors they are trying to isolate so is that what makes the difference? In that case only Physicists, Chemists, and Biologists would have a chance of meeting the definition of 'scientist'.

    And at the end of the day does it make any damned difference what you call them? Does it affect their rate of pay any? Does it affect any decision that they make? I doubt it. Call them roses if you want, by any other name.

  9. Thameron, much as I am loath to concede that a definition matters, this one does. "Science" currently carries a lot of social capital along with an expectation of strong evidence and replicability. This is (mostly) a good thing because it means that the public will usually at least listen to scientists (though it usually resembles a game of chinese whispers before too long).

    If we allow strictly non-empirical, non-replicable etc. fields to fly the banner of science, they undermine science's social authority in the same way as calling janitors "sanitary engineers," undermines the social capital of engineering. Janitors are worthy people with an important job to do, but it ain't engineering.

    Whether anthro deserves the label of science, I am not sure. It's a borderline case, but I'd probably go for 'yes.'

  10. @ ianpollock

    The fight for the sanctity of the mantle of science is (I believe) already lost and probably has been for some time. Witness the widespread availability of 'The Christian 'Science' Monitor' and Christian 'Scientists', Scientology, Political 'Science', etc. etc. I think that for the near sighted public that word is likely already diluted to near meaninglessness.

  11. Massimo,

    I enjoyed your article in the Skeptical Inquirer; it is far too uncommon that the skeptical community is exposed to technical problems in the philosophy of science in particular and epistemology in general, which is unfortunate since they have obvious implications for skeptics. As far as I can tell you are one of few technical philosophers who interact with the skeptical community, and for that alone you ought to be commended.

    That aside, I have an issue with your article. You write: (1) 'It [the principle of natural selection] can be rephrased as a piece of deductive reasoning where if certain conditions hold..., then it logically follows that natural selection would evolve a given system, no matter what the specifics (historical contingent) characteristics of that system are... .'

    First, as I am sure you are aware, couching law-like statements in conditionals is problematic. For example, per the material conditional (which I take you employed in the above quoted selection), if the antecedent is false, then the conditional is true, irrespective of the truth-value of the consequent. So, e.g., if it is not the case that the 'certain conditions hold,' then (1) is still true, which of course seems paradoxical considering the following conditional would also be true: (2) “If certain conditions hold (heritable variation for fitness-related traits; limited resources), then it logically follows that natural selection would NOT evolve a given system, no matter the specific (historical contingent) characteristics of that system are... .”

    The problem with (1) of course lies with the paradoxes of the material conditional. To avoid them, one may recast (1) in terms of counterfactuals, i.e., if p were to obtain, then q would follow. However, to date, no satisfactory account of counterfactual conditionals has been given. Indeed, the most promising ones thus far proffered (cf. David Lewis) are metaphysically dubious.

    Perhaps one may want to construe, with C.I. Lewis, English conditionals as strict conditionals, but this, too, poses difficulties: the strict conditional itself succumbs to similar paradoxes as the material conditional. A more promising avenue may reside with relevance logics, in which your colleague Graham Priest has done great work, but problems remain there, too.

  12. A, interesting points, but I'm not sure why you think that:

    “If certain conditions hold (heritable variation for fitness-related traits; limited resources), then it logically follows that natural selection would NOT evolve a given system, no matter the specific (historical contingent) characteristics of that system are... ”

    is true. The point of the conditional is that systems would evolve by natural selection *only if* those conditions are fulfilled. And it has to be a material conditional, because only certain (though perhaps very broad) material conditions make evolution possible. I don't think we need to invoke paraconsistent logic here.

  13. As a biologist currently working in an anthropology department, I hold an outsiders view of the whole "science" issue.

    I happen to disagree with Massimo on the demarcation problem, but the AAA's stated reason for the exclusion of the word "science" was to be more inclusive of its members, implying that they agree that some of what cultural anthropologists do isn't science. I happen to think that they'd serve their members much better by simply cutting the historical strings that bind physical and cultural anthropology. That way, physical anth can take its true place among the pure sciences (although as a subset of biology, along side medicine), while cultural ant can join the sociology departments. Archeology can then join sociology or geology departments, leaving linguistics to join language, psychology, or biology departments.

    Having a cohesive "study of human origins" block not only smacks of implicit human arrogance, but also runs counter to a modern Darwinian understanding of natural history.

  14. I completely disagree, Dan. We anthropologists are trained in a four-field approach to the understanding of what it means to be human (the four fields you listed). There are aspects of physical anthropology that are not "pure science" just as there are aspects of archaeology that are not "geology or sociology" just as there are aspects of cultural anthropology that are more scientific and quantitative, just as there are aspects of linguistics that are philosophical and not biological or psychological. And anthropologists should use their training in all four fields in their work. You seem to believe that the four subfields are very clearly divided with no overlap. Is that the case, or am I misreading?

    There are plenty within the anthropology discipline that disagree with the AAA's change; there are also plenty who agree with it. I'm kind of torn on it myself. Also, I don't think that the conclusion you draw from their claims of wanting to be more inclusive are all that obvious. Part of what they're doing, I think, is practicing what anthropology preaches, which is a holistic view of human knowledge that includes ways of knowing about the world other than (and including) science.

  15. Thank you for your reply, Will. Its not that I don't see any overlap between the 4 fields of anthropology, and I definitely agree that their are aspects of each field that don't fit within the purview of the departments that I suggested each move to. I just think Anthropology sees itself in some sense as a privileged field because it is the only one that studies the studier. What I mean by that is ALL knowledge is (or should be) in some way holistic in that what you learn in one field should have its relevance evaluated in other fields. All fields must deal with this, which is why interdepartmental collaborations are becoming more and more common, and are being funded in greater number by the NSF. Answer me this: do you think anthropologists with this perspective would welcome an additional field - human chemistry? It would uncover all there is to know about the chemistry that goes into being human. Hopefully this thought experiment illustrates my point that just as "human chemistry" is no different that other biochemistry, biological or physical anthropology is little more than a highly specific (and interesting! I'm now downplaying the utility of the field) form of biology.

    I'm also frustrated that as I delve into the literature (as recent as the mid-90's), I find more and more instances of highly qualitative physical anth studies that would readily lend themselves to quantitative study. For example, the thickness of a particular region of the skull classified as "thick" or "think" as opposed to just measuring the thickness directly. At this time, ecological journals would have never published a paper allowing these sorts of metrics, (i.e. the soil is either wet or dry), so this isn't just a function of the times. This, to me, isn't just a difference of methodology, its a failing of methodology. I don't have evidence to back this up, but it seems that this could be related to the highly qualitative nature of cultural anth, which in turn is retarding the progress of physical anth by proxy. I'll admit I'm still learning alot about the general themes and methodology of cultural anth, but its conclusions seems more convincing the more quantitative they become.

  16. Regarding the discussion between A and Massimo:

    A states that the conditional 'If certain conditions, C, hold, then natural select evolves a certain system, S.' Let's abbreviate this 'C -> S'.

    It seems A's point is that this conditional is an inappropriate candidate for a law of nature, as the entire conditional will be trivially true in instances in which C is false, that is, when the conditions do not hold. A states that this is a problem inherent with indicative conditionals, and so laws ought to be formulated as counterfactuals.

    Massimo's response to A is to question why A believes the conditional 'C -> not-S' is true. However, this is not what A claims. To assert that is to assert that the proposed conditional is subject to counterexamples. A asserts that formulating a law as an indicative conditional is to get a law too cheaply, because the conditional 'C -> S' is true even when C is false.

    Massimo then states that the point is that "systems would evolve by natural selection *only if* those conditions are fulfilled." This can be abbreviated as 'S -> C', the converse of the conditional A was addressing. If the relevant conditional actually is 'S -> C', then A's complaint no longer applies, because that conditional is false when C is false. However, if this is the relevant conditional, then the one A quoted is not properly constructed. It appears that A quoted it directly from Massimo's article, in which case Massimo formulated C as a sufficient condition for S [C -> S], when he meant to formulate it as a necessary condition [S -> C]. If this analysis is correct, then there really is no disagreement, but rather a small error on Massimo's part in articulating the conditional he meant to articulate.

  17. Dan,

    To answer your thought experiment, I'm not really sure "human chemistry" would be a necessary subfield of anthropology. Further, it could be rolled into physical anthropology if it was necessary. And I'm sure there are anthropologists who look at chemistry (whether physical anthros or cultural medical anthros).

    I can't really comment on the studies you mention as I don't know what they are. But I agree that sometimes anthros do qualitative studies that would do better as quantitative, and they also do quantitative that would do better as qualitative. I can imagine my frustration as, say, a medical anthropologist going to work in a biology department. They are very different mindsets, I'll grant you that! But I don't agree that the qualitative nature of cultural anthropology is slowing the progress of physical anthropology--frankly, I'm not really sure what that even means.

    Anyway, I'd recommend Marvin Harris's work (cultural materialism) to you because it is probably the closest thing one could find in cultural anthropology that attempts to be strictly scientific. Ultimately, though, anthropology gets its strength from its holistic, four-field approach, combining qualitative and quantitative, and working across disciplines (which we anthros actually really love to do!). I don't find that my department privileges the discipline (a few of the people in my department come from other disciplines), but I can see how it may appear that way in other departments. Some of us are really passionate about our field, and that, unfortunately, can come across as arrogance.

  18. SJK,

    Well said. I attribute the misunderstanding to myself since I was less than clear, and even less direct, in my comment. As you more clearly point out, the conditionals Massimo proposed in his Skeptical Inquirer article and his reply to my comment are, logically, not identical, in which case he may want to revise the formulation given in the article.

  19. Thanks A. Are you a philosopher?

  20. Just wanted to share this. Tom Boellstorf, the current editor of American Anthropologist (the journal of the AAA), responded to the NYT article linked by Massimo.


  21. A, SJK,

    thanks for the discussion. However, I re-read the SI column, where I say exactly:

    "[The principle of natural selection] can be rephrased as a piece of deductive reasoning where IF certain conditions hold (heritable variation for fitness-related traits; limited resources), THEN it logically follows that natural selection would evolve a given system, no matter what the specific (historically contingent) characteristics of that system (e.g., whether the hereditary material is RNA, DNA, or artificially generated computer code)."

    As the last example (computer code) shows, this is meant to be a universal statement about certain classes of systems. I don't see anything wrong there from a logical perspective, although the IF clause should be more exhaustive then it is in the column.

  22. Massimo,

    When you say "the IF clause should be more exhaustive..." do you mean that it should also read that "IF certain conditions do not hold, THEN it will not logically follow that natural selection will evolve a given system..." (not-C -> not-S)?

    If so, then by contraposition, this is stating that the conditions are necessary for natural selection to evolve a given system, (S -> C).

    This is supported by your response to A, when you said that, "systems would evolve by natural selection *only if* those conditions are fulfilled," which can be formalized as (S -> C).

    If this is what you meant by a more exhaustive IF clause, then you have presented the necessary and sufficient conditions for natural selection to evolve a given system. Is this what you meant to do?

    If so, then A's complaint does not apply, because your proposed law is a biconditional, not a conditional.

  23. Correct. I should add that this is not my proposal, it's a fairly common view among philosophers of biology, including Sober and Dennett.

  24. SJK,

    Actually, I am an undergrad so I am a philosopher in training.


    As SJK notes, the conditional stated in the SI column is a material conditional, not a material biconditional, and thus possesses different, undesirable logical implications. The point, however, is merely one of clarity, not of substance: I agree that, given specifiable preconditions, natural selection possesses law-like generality.

    However, framing natural selection as a law of nature is, logically speaking, a difficult task. But, in my opinion, this is not a problem unique to biology: from a logical point of view, establishing laws in general is arduous work.

  25. A, yes, I agree with your point. In the SI column I simply proposed that as a possibility, since it is seriously entertained by several philosophers of biology. I'm pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea of natural laws anyway, let alone those that seem to come by as a matter of logical necessity...

  26. Massimo,

    In my opinion, we ought to stop trying to formulate laws of nature in terms of logical necessity because of the ugly metaphysics that seem to ensue (I have in mind here David Lewis's modal realism and D.M. Armstrong's necessitarian view of laws of nature). Part of me thinks metaphysics qua metaphysics is ugly (to paraphrase C.S. Peirce: Metaphysics is like a coral reef, it's best to steer around it).

    I am comfortable with construing physical laws as merely well-confirmed statistical generalizations which convey the scientific communities degree of belief in the patterns of experience which deductively follow therefrom.

    In this sense, I think, natural selection fits the bill as a physical law.

  27. Natural selection is not a physical law (or not yet in any case), it's a label for the theoretical explanation of an apparent process that gave rise to a variety of plausible and not so plausible hypotheticals. There is no consensus to the degree that one variety takes clear precedence over others.

    Laws are not formulated by computer modeling based on non-computer based assumptives.

  28. Baron, with all due respect, you missed the point. You might want to re-read the original article.

  29. Massimo: I was reacting to A's comment, not your article.
    You had commented earlier that "I'm pretty uncomfortable with the whole idea of natural laws," and I in turn was uncomfortable with A's thought that "natural selection fits the bill as a physical law" in any sense.

  30. Baron, sorry, I misunderstood you. That's why it's useful to start a comment with the name(s) of those to whom it is addressed... ;-)


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