July 2, 2014 | 1
Scientists undertake a peculiar kind of project. In striving to build objective knowledge about the world, they are tacitly recognizing that our unreflective picture of the world is likely to be riddled with mistakes and distortions. On the other hand, they frequently come to regard themselves as better thinkers — as more reliably objective — than humans who are not scientists, and end up forgetting that they have biases and blindspots of their own which they are helpless to detect without help from others who don’t share these particular biases and blindspots.
Building reliable knowledge about the world requires good methodology, teamwork, and concerted efforts to ensure that the “knowledge” you build doesn’t simply reify preexisting individual and cultural biases. It’s hard work, but it’s important to do it well — especially given a long history of “scientific” findings being used to justify and enforce preexisting cultural biases.
I think this bigger picture is especially appropriate to keep in mind in reading the response from Scientific American Blogs Editor Curtis Brainard to criticisms of a pair of problematic posts on the Scientific American Blog Network. Brainard writes:
The posts provoked accusations on social media that Scientific American was promoting sexism, racism and genetic determinism. While we believe that such charges are excessive, we share readers’ concerns. Although we expect our bloggers to cover controversial topics from time to time, we also recognize that sensitive issues require extra care, and that did not happen here. The author and I have discussed the shortcomings of the two posts in detail, including the lack of attention given to countervailing arguments and evidence, and he understood the deficiencies.
As stated at the top of every post, Scientific American does not always share the views and opinions expressed by our bloggers, just as our writers do not always share our editorial positions. At the same time, we realize our network’s bloggers carry the Scientific American imprimatur and that we have a responsibility to ensure that—differences of opinion notwithstanding—their work meets our standards for accuracy, integrity, transparency, sensitivity and other attributes.
(Bold emphasis added.)
The problem here isn’t that the posts in question advocated sound scientific views with implications that people on social media didn’t like. Rather, the posts presented claims in a way that made them look like they had much stronger scientific support than they really do — and did so in the face of ample published scientific counterarguments. Scientific American is not requiring that posts on its blog network meet a political litmus test, but rather that they embody the same kind of care, responsibility to the available facts, and intellectual honesty that science itself should display.
This is hard work, but it’s important. And engaging seriously with criticism, rather than just dismissing it, can help us do it better.
There’s an irony in the fact that one of the problematic posts which ignored some significant relevant scientific literature (helpfully cited by commenters in the comments section of that very post) was ignoring that literature in the service of defending Larry Summers and his remarks on possible innate biological causes that make men better at math and science than women. The irony lies in the fact that Larry Summers displayed an apparently ironclad commitment to ignore any and all empirical findings that might challenge his intuition that there’s something innate at the heart of the gender imbalance in math and science faculty.
Back in January of 2005, Larry Summers gave a speech at a conference about what can be done to attract more women to the study of math and science, and to keep them in the field long enough to become full professors. In his talk, Summers suggested as a possible hypothesis for the relatively low number of women in math and science careers that there may be innate biological factors that make males better at math and science than females. (He also related an anecdote about his daughter naming her toy trucks as if they were dolls, but it’s fair to say he probably meant this anecdote to be illustrative rather than evidentiary.)
The talk did not go over well with the rest of the participants in the conference.
Several scientific studies were presented at the conference before Summers made his speech. All these studies presented significant evidence against the claim of an innate difference between males and females that could account for the “science gap”.
In the aftermath of this conference of yore, there were some commenters who lauded Summers for voicing “unpopular truths” and others who distanced themselves from his claims but said they supported his right to make them as an exercise of “academic freedom.”
But if Summers was representing himself as a scientist* when he made his speech, I don’t think the “academic freedom” defense works.
Summers is free to state hypotheses — even unpopular hypotheses — that might account for a particular phenomenon. But, as a scientist, he is also responsible to take account of data relevant to his hypotheses. If the data weighs against his preferred hypothesis, intellectual honesty requires that he at least acknowledge this fact. Some would argue that it could even require that he abandon his hypothesis (since science is supposed to be evidence-based whenever possible).
When news of Summers’ speech, and reactions to it, was fresh, one of the details that stuck with me was that one of the conference organizers noted to Summers, after he gave his speech, that there was a large body of evidence — some of it presented at that very conference — that seemed to undermine his hypothesis, after which Summers gave a reply that amounted to, “Well, I don’t find those studies convincing.”
Was Summers within his rights to not believe these studies? Sure. But, he had a responsibility to explain why he rejected them. As a part of a scientific community, he can’t just reject a piece of scientific knowledge out of hand. Doing so comes awfully close to undermining the process of communication that scientific knowledge is based upon. You aren’t supposed to reject a study because you have more prestige than the authors of the study (so, you don’t have to care what they say). You can question the experimental design, you can question the data analysis, you can challenge the conclusions drawn, but you have to be able to articulate the precise objection. Surely, rejecting a study just because it doesn’t fit with your preferred hypothesis is not an intellectually honest move.
By my reckoning, Summers did not conduct himself as a responsible scientist in this incident. But I’d argue that the problem went beyond a lack of intellectual honesty within the universe of scientific discourse. Summers is also responsible for the bad consequences that flowed from his remark.
The bad consequence I have in mind here is the mistaken view of science and its workings that Summers’ conduct conveys. Especially by falling back on a plain vanilla “academic freedom” defense here, defenders of Summers conveyed to the public at large the idea that any hypothesis in science is as good as any other. Scientists who are conscious of the evidence-based nature of their field will see the absurdity of this idea — some hypotheses are better, others worse, and whenever possible we turn to the evidence to make these discriminations. Summers compounded ignorance of the relevant data with what came across as a statement that he didn’t care what the data showed. From this, the public at large could assume he was within his scientific rights to decide which data to care about without giving any justification for this choice**, or they could infer that data has little bearing on the scientific picture of the world.
Clearly, such a picture of science would undermine the standing of the rest of the bits of knowledge produced by scientists far more intellectually honest than Summers.
Indeed, we might go further here. Not only did Summers have some responsibilities that seemed to have escaped him while he was speaking as a scientist, but we could argue that the rest of the scientists (whether at the conference or elsewhere) have a collective responsibility to address the mistaken picture of science his conduct conveyed to society at large. It’s disappointing that, nearly a decade later, we instead have to contend with the problem of scientists following in Summers’ footsteps by ignoring, rather than engaging with, the scientific findings that challenge their intuitions.
Owing to the role we play in presenting a picture of what science knows and of how scientists come to know it to a broader audience, those of us who write about science (on blogs and elsewhere) also have a responsibility to be clear about the kind of standards scientists need to live up to in order to build a body of knowledge that is as accurate and unbiased as humanly possible. If we’re not clear about these standards in our science writing, we risk misleading our audiences about the current state of our knowledge and about how science works to build reliable knowledge about our world. Our responsibility here isn’t just a matter of noticing when scientists are messing up — it’s also a matter of acknowledging and correcting our own mistakes and of working harder to notice our own biases. I’m pleased that our Blogs Editor is committed to helping us fulfill this duty.
*Summers is an economist, and whether to regard economics as a scientific field is a somewhat contentious matter. I’m willing to give the scientific status of economics the benefit of the doubt, but this means I’ll also expect economists to conduct themselves like scientists, and will criticize them when they do not.
**It’s worth noting that a number of the studies that Summers seemed to be dismissing out of hand were conducted by women. One wonders what lessons the public might draw from that.
A portion of this post is an updated version of an ancestor post on my other blog.