I recently confessed that my personal feelings toward proponents of a scientific claim affect my judgment of the claim. I focused on cases in which my feelings were positive; that is, I like the proponent.
Things can get even knottier if I dislike the advocate of a claim, theory, worldview. I call this “the Gould effect,” but I could have called it the Gell-Mann effect, Edelman effect, Prigogine effect, Popper effect—and so on. Many of my subjects have irked me. My dislike of Gould, however, had an especially strong impact on my assessment of his oeuvre.
Gould, who died in 2002, was an influential paleontologist/evolutionary biologist who challenged conventional Darwinian theory. He was the co-inventor of punctuated equilibrium, which holds that evolution proceeds not gradually but in fits and starts. Critics dubbed punctuated equilibrium “evolution by jerks.”
When I interviewed Gould in 1995, I found him to be brilliant but pompous. In a profile for Scientific American (which I expanded for The End of Science), I mocked Gould, summing up his view of life—which dwelled on evolution’s randomness—as “shit happens.” I quoted Gould’s Harvard colleague and archenemy Edward Wilson (to whom I shall return below) comparing Gould to a squid, which when attacked “escapes in a cloud of ink.”
I felt a bit guilty for roughing up Gould, because I admired his ferocious assaults on biological determinism past and present. Gould contended that fields such as sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics implicitly justify racism, sexism and other evil isms by emphasizing the biological bases of behavior.
I therefore stuck up for Gould in 2011 when he came under attack and wasn’t alive to defend himself. Anthropologist Ralph Holloway and others accused Gould of presenting faulty data in his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man. Pointing out weaknesses in the accusation, I urged readers to check out Mismeasure, which “abounds in evidence of how science can become an instrument of malignant ideologies.”
A few caveats: First, I don’t necessarily fault subjects for arrogance. Many scientists—Gould included—are justifiably haughty, because their achievements are extraordinary. And pride can be a positive trait, if it helps a scientist to keep hacking away at a thorny problem.
Francis Crick, whose collaborator James Watson famously accused him of never being “in a modest mood,” was arrogant in this positive sense. Crick possessed enormous self-confidence, but his ego didn’t cloud his judgment. If you could point out legitimate flaws in his hypothesis, he’d drop it and search for a better one. Crick’s goal was truth, not glory.
But arrogance can blind scientists to weaknesses in their assertions. I found that to be true of Gould, when he was dismissing criticism of punctuated equilibrium. The trait was even more pronounced in others I interviewed, notably complexity theorist Ilya Prigogine and immunologist-turned-neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. These Nobel laureates were too entranced by their own ideas to see them objectively. Or so I suggested in The End of Science.
The Gould effect poses another complication: Jerks often make more vivid subjects than nice guys. When Murray Gell-Mann derided science journalists as ignoramuses, I thought, “Yes! This is great stuff!” I couldn’t wait to start writing about him. I felt the same way when philosopher Karl Popper, smiling at me as if I were a disabled child, told me that my question (Is his falsifiability principle falsifiable?) was “silly.”
The opposite of the Gould effect is what could be called the Bethe effect. Hans Bethe figured out why stars shine, headed the theoretical division of the Manhattan Project and became a leading advocate for nuclear arms control. He was as great as a scientist can be. But he was so nice! And I couldn’t find anything in his career to fault (not even this bizarre incident involving the Trinity A-bomb test). Writing about Bethe, I felt like a public-relations flak.
Also, if a subject condescends to me, I feel freer to be mean to him or her in print. And that brings me back to biologist Edward Wilson. Although I find some of Wilson’s ideas about human nature to be too deterministic, he could not have been more gracious when I interviewed him in 1994. I liked him. So my profile of him in Scientific American—which I expanded for The End of Science—was for the most part quite positive.
Wilson must have liked my treatment of him--and probably my mistreatment of Gould--because he wrote a great blurb for The End of Science. Since then, I’ve tried to judge Wilson’s work objectively, without being too fawning, but I’m not sure I’ve succeeded. See, for example, my reviews of his 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth and 2014 book The Meaning of Human Existence.
If all my subjects were unlikable, my job would be much easier.