Daily Data Dump – Monday

By Razib Khan | September 13, 2010 12:31 pm

One last week of summer.

Models tell us more than hindsight. Tim Harford, the author of The Logic of Life, defends economics and modeling against a critique of a historian-turned-journalist. My main problem with economists isn’t that the field is formalized and expresses itself in equations. Rather, it’s the tendency to speak with greater force of authority as to the nature of the world than they truly have insight of. A modest amount of knowledge over and above plain common sense is greatly useful, but confusing a modest amount of knowledge for a great amount of understanding is a recipe for disaster (this is clearly evident in the engineering analogy which Harford elaborates upon).

Don’t Believe the Hype About Aborigines, Yiddish, or Ebonics. I’m particularly interested in the section on Guy Deutscher’s new book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. It seems that the book is going to make a big splash, but scientific paradigms don’t usually shift with a book, do they? So has there been a shift in the linguistic literature in the journals over the past ten years?


Gene Discovery Could Yield Treatments for Nearsightedness. The recent spike in myopia in developed societies shows how genes express themselves differently in varied environments. I assume that the idea of gene therapy for myopia is for extreme cases, as glasses or lasik surgery seems like a more tried & tested solution for most of us. Interesting that different genes may have the same effect in different populations. Reminds me of pigmentation.

Princess_of_MarsPhoenix Mars Lander Finds Surprises About Red Planet’s Watery Past. Lots of it apparently. There’s a strong bias to find water I think for various normative reasons, so the back and forth has to be understood in that context. But this is the sort of planetary science which I presume will be definitively resolved in the near future, and it’s really great that we’re still sending out these unmanned probes. I’m really hoping that the Chinese want to make their nation even more glorious and harmonious and really ramp up their space program in the near future.

Real-Time Correlates of Phonological Quantity Reveal Unity of Tonal and Non-Tonal Languages. I’m linking to this mostly to prompt others to look at this paper more closely, as I don’t know what to think of this sort of thing because I’m so overwhelmed by the linguistic jargon. Not a criticism of jargon, I don’t throw stones from glass houses. But it’s a field which I want to understand more, but am really at the shallow end of the learning curve. Here’s a section of possible interest to readers: “The results suggest that there is no unidirectional causal link from a genetically-based perceptual sensitivity towards pitch information to the appearance of a tone language. ”

Image Credit: Wikimedia

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  • http://replicatedtypo.com/ Wintz

    It’s funny that you mention the last paper, as I’m in the middle of writing a post about a new paper on the genetic biasing of tone. Guess I’ll have to stop and read this now.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i’s psychic

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  • Chris T

    Models tell us more than hindsight.

    If hindsight shows that a model is consistently wrong, the model isn’t actually telling us anything.

    It doesn’t seem like there is a lot of multi-disciplinary collaboration in economics, a field of study that overlaps a tremendous number of fields. Often it seems economists think their field is too arcane for any outside collaboration to be of use.

    I assume that the idea of gene therapy for myopia is for extreme cases,

    This would have to be done pretty young (preferably before age 5) to be really effective. I imagine the appetite for a gene therapy approach in children for a non-fatal and easily compensated genetic problem is far less than it’s been in other cases. It will be some time before GT is employed against this target.

    Keep in mind too that this only identifies a gene resident in a very small fraction of people with myopia. A considerable amount of effort has been put into conducting genome wide association studies on myopia and little has been shown for it. (I work in a lab that studies myopia and its contributors.)

  • John Emerson

    My argument is that social reality is historical (the way physics and the realities it studies are NOT historical, and the way that evolution is historical) and that the social sciences are really parts of history and tools of history. So if a model works, use it!

    The big problem is that even though economists always put in little caveats about the limits of their models, at crunch time they aren’t nearly as careful as they should be. I have a particular grudge with regard to the present recession (longest and deepest since 1929). The dominant theory of economics (Chicago School) was working with a model (efficient markets) that essentially said that this recession could not happen. The term “The Great Moderation” was floating around, which was a claim that a recent actual historical moderation and stabilization of the economy (consistent with the efficient markets theory and other components of the dominant paradigm) actually meant that the theory was right and that there could be no bubble or slump again. But the Great Moderation ended in 2006 or so. ( I have suggested that this big recession just be named the Great Moderation, but no one has bit on that.)

    Furthermore, the economists who were putting out these ideas are unrepentant. They’re institutionally entrenched and are able to claim that they were never interested in the practical applications of their theories and have not been implicated in the mistakes that were made (something which was not really true) and also that their theories are unscathed, since with the insertion of a few jimmies and shims and kludges they still work pretty well.

    I should add that an additional flaw in economics is that there was, within economics, no way for the rest of the profession to show that the efficient marketers were wrong, except by giving them control of the economy in order to see what would happen. Plenty of economists were suspicious, but there was no way for their suspicions to be brought powerfully to bear against the orthodoxy. Economics is just too inconsistent, incomplete, and ill-formed for that to be possible.

    As science has progressed from mechanics to thermodynamics, evolutionary biology, sub-atomic physics, and social science, at each stage there has had to be a redefinition of science and the renunciation of certain goals of the earlier sciences (eg. WRT predictivity). Economists have underestimated the degree to which this had to be done. (The whole complex of ideas around entropy, chaos, complexity, non-linearity, non-ergodicity, etc. add up to a powerful indictment of the formalisms used by mainstream economics, and people have been saying something like this since Day One.)

    It’s generally true that physicists, chemists, and biologists have been unimpressed by the accomplishments of the social sciences, and my belief is that they are right, ecxcept that many of them have the idea that if they had been the ones doing social science, it would have been done right. What I think is that the social sciences will never get the kinds of results that the “hard” science get, and it’s not because they’re doing it wrong but because that goal is inappropriate.

    I’m also convinced that a lot of social science scientism amounts to pulling rank and fraud. Economists have been extremely arrogant in their claims because they’re “The smartest people in the room”, but this is bogus because they never really got the science right. (Alchemy is difficult too.) There are a lot of money and power at stake, and economists have not resisted the temptations that come with that.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i don’t agree with john e. really on broader macroeconomic policy (he’s left, i’m right), but i have sympathy with a lot of his comment. i propounded the ‘great moderation’ crap until 2007 cuz it’s what i’d read/heard. i even advised friends who were small business people not to stress out, the ‘great moderation’ was here, it wouldn’t be that bad. look at how sanguine dan drezner was in july 2008

    http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/12807?in=00:07:29&out=00:14:51

    he repudiated his equanimity a few months later

    http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/14832

    economics is useful. especially microeconmics. but macro is just voodoo.

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  • Chris T

    What I think is that the social sciences will never get the kinds of results that the “hard” science get, and it’s not because they’re doing it wrong but because that goal is inappropriate.

    What do you mean by the goal being inappropriate? That you can’t apply science to human behavior and develop a decent understanding?

    Human behavior can be objectively understood and studied just the same as any other system. It’s just that humans absolutely suck at objectivity wrt themselves. Social science is especially handicapped because its founding goals had to do with perfecting humanity rather than understanding it. Thus it has become attractive for anyone with an ideology or cause.

    Social science has adopted the methods of science, but not its spirit.

  • John Emerson

    “Macronomics is crap” is, however, the failed Chicago school’s backup position, intended to keep Keynesians (or worse) to horn back into the game. Sour grapes, and taking the ball and going home.

    My understanding of macroeconomics is that, while it’s not scientific in the ambitious sense, it’s part of the policymakers’ proverbial wisdom, rules of thumb, tool set or bag of tricks. Macronomic decisions have to be made by government and big banks, and businesses have to try to figure out what comes next, so you have no choice but to use the imperfect and incomplete knowledge you have. There’s a middle between Science and Voodoo. Most of life is actually lived in that middle, where you can’t have scientific certainty about anything but aren’t flying completely blind either.

    I also think that the uncertainty about the economic future is partly real uncertainty (and incorrigible, as with the weather) and partly because of inadequate science (and thus corrigible).

    I’m looking forward to seeing John Quiggin’s “Voodoo Economics”. There are also books out there by Yves Smith, Dean Baker, James Galbraith, and others. (All from the left, natch.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    My understanding of macroeconomics is that, while it’s not scientific in the ambitious sense, it’s part of the policymakers’ proverbial wisdom, rules of thumb, tool set or bag of tricks.

    fair enough.

    chris t, hope you’re totally right. but it doesn’t seem as if biology has attained the level of precision and prediction of physics, and i think that’s because of the nature of the domain.

  • John Emerson

    Ilya Prigogine (who I know is not generally respected) says that early science was as successful as it was because it was picking the low-hanging fruit.

    Even within physics, Heisenberg said “Quantum physics is easy, but turbulence is impossible”.

  • Chris T

    it doesn’t seem as if biology has attained the level of precision and prediction of physics, and i think that’s because of the nature of the domain.

    Even so, biology has made tremendous progress (evolution, genetics). Social science doesn’t have a lot to show definitively for over a century of effort. Heck, it seems like it’s starting to lose ground to biology as the latter becomes more sophisticated in its capabilities (genetics, neuroscience).

    Personally I expect psychology to be assimilated as a subfield of biology over the course of the century.

  • http://thelousylinguist.blogspot Chris

    Razib, regarding the trend in linguistics towards linguistic relativity, the answer is yes, there has been a trend towards it (probably more over the last 20 years than 10). This comes along with advances in psycholinguistic methodologies which have facilitated more rigorous scientific tools and methods of analysis. We can test these hypothesis much better now than we could 60 years ago. One thing is clear, the strong nativist hypothesis has failed to be confirmed and that alone has opened the door for alternative ideas.

    That said, Deutscher’s book is not being all that well received within the linguistics community as yet. It’s far too light weight to be a serious academic work and Deutscher has ruffled the feathers of some who would otherwise be sympathetic due to his harsh treatment of Whorf. It was designed to be a NYTs bestseller, not a paradigm shifter.

    I’ve been reviewing the book as well as other linguistic relativity related research on my blog over the last 2 weeks and I think this is a fair summation: meh.

  • onur

    Personally I expect psychology to be assimilated as a subfield of biology over the course of the century.

    It has been my personal position for quite some time that social science is a redundant category. When feasible, social sciences should be assimilated as subfields of biology, being purged from their unscientific aspects meanwhile; and the rest of the social sciences should be demoted to the status of humanities.

  • John Emerson

    My point in saying that the social sciences are not sciences is to say that social sciences’ claims against history are bogus because the social sciences haven’t done the job. Anyone who is able history better than historians can look down at them, but no one else can. Whoever is best at studying a topic is best, and it’s historians.

    If your goal is to get a gold medal and a blue ribbon for being really truly scientific, don’t go into history or the social sciences — pick the low-hanging fruit. If you want to gain an understanding of human affairs, do.

  • Chris T

    When feasible, social sciences should be assimilated as subfields of biology,

    I think they’re starting to be in recent decades. Part of the problem is that biology has never really had the tools necessary to examine the physical basis of human behavior until recently. Until you can do that, you’re stuck just describing what people are doing rather than looking for underlying causes.

    The social sciences really went into the weeds when they started conceptualizing human behavior as separate from, rather than emerging from, biology.

  • John Emerson

    I strongly doubt that much of social science will be absorbed by biology.

  • John Emerson

    This expresses part of what I’m saying. This has happened already in economics (disastrously, as I understand) and I’ve seen trial runs in linguistics that were also a mess.

    To me, the idea that the world economy and interstate system will someday be explained by a version of biology strikes me as ludicrous. Biological psychology may sometime be able to explain the actions of individual actors, but that won’t explain the global system. This shouldn’t shock anyone, since the same is true of climatology, which has had to learn to renounce some of its original goals.

    And my point is that I doubt that there ever will be an explanation of the global political and economic system as good as the scientific explanations of carefully-chosen simpler systems. All kinds of scientific tools can be used by historians — genetics, metallurgy, climatology, soil chemistry, demographics, agronomy, and the list goes on. But what you’ll have will still beb history, and it won’t be a science.

  • Chris T

    To me, the idea that the world economy and interstate system will someday be explained by a version of biology strikes me as ludicrous. Biological psychology may sometime be able to explain the actions of individual actors, but that won’t explain the global system.

    That’s not what we’re saying. The systems under study involve the aggregate of large numbers of biological agents, humans. Because the social sciences have failed to remember that the principal agents are ultimately biological organisms, they have made little real progress. Just as biology arises from chemistry which arises from physics, sociology (and economics) arises from psychology, which arises from biology. Each is an emergent system, and more complex than the layer beneath it, but each cannot be understood without taking into consideration the layer that gives rise to it except superficially.

    Psychology has attempted to conceptualize the mind as apart from the brain (“mind/body problem”). This approach has utterly failed and biology is now starting to encroach on psychology’s field of study because of it.

    Imagine trying to study weather or climate while acting as though thermodynamics and atoms were irrelevant. This is what the Social Sciences have attempted to do.

  • John Emerson

    At the time social science got started (only ~125 years ago) biology had little to offer. Many social scientists did used evolutionary models, but they thended to be progress-by-stages models which weren’t very good.

    Pretty much any level can be and has been successfully studied independent of the lower level, and unsuccessful attempts at reduction are as harmful as ignorance. As I understand, for example, it’s only in the last 50-70 years that chemistry has been integrated with physics. Same for biology and chemistry. However, certainly the more the later-emergent science can be described in terms of the earlier, the better.

    I basically disagree that social sciences have made “little real progress”. People who say that usually have little understanding of any social science, and often are speaking on the basis of Social Science 101, and, which has been my main point here, are often looking for more from the social sciences than will ever be found, like someone criticizing meteorologists for not being able to predict a system which is not predictable.

    In the case of economics, the failure to conceive of the world economy in physical, geographical, ecological terms certainly has been a flaw, and certainly the assumption of a certain kind of rationality of economic agents leads to problems. These, however, were not theories of behavior, but formal assumptions for the sake of modelling, justified on analogy with some of the formal assumptions of physics. The attempts I’ve seen to revise the rationality postulate (by Gintis and evolutionary economists and by Sen, very different attempts) don’t seem to me to be modelable.

    One of the things about the rationality postulate was that it was criticized over and over again from many different points of view, but because it was scientifically motivated, these criticisms were dismissed until a few dinky little experiments were done by people who called themselves economists.

  • Chris T

    Pretty much any level can be and has been successfully studied independent of the lower level,

    Very true, but you’ll only ever get a superficial understanding of that level. Once you understand why something happens you can predict it with extremely high precision along with its characteristics.

    like someone criticizing meteorologists for not being able to predict a system which is not predictable.

    Yet meteorologists can predict the weather out to a week or longer with high accuracy. The system is incredibly complex, but not completely random. The same applies to human behavior, highly complex, but not really random either.

    These, however, were not theories of behavior, but formal assumptions for the sake of modelling, justified on analogy with some of the formal assumptions of physics.

    I’m not aware of physicists losing sight of the fact that the world is more complicated than their models. This has very much happened in economics.

    Right now, SS has islands of information, but little connecting them. It has many schools of thought, but has been unable to make much progress in consolidating or eliminating any of them (excepting psychoanalysis in psychology).

  • John Emerson

    Meteorologists cannot predict the paths of hurricanes even a day into the future, which is one of the things we most like them to be able to predict. One social scientist said once, “We can predict what will happen as long as things stay the same”. That’s about where meteorology is, they have normal patterns they can predict fairly well and other things they can’t.

    Most of organic chemistry was developed before the connection with physics was understood. I’m not saying that the physical reduction didn’t revolutionize chemistry, but just that you can go a long ways without a connection to the lower layer.

    Psychology is sometimes called a social science but much of it is individual — some people use the term “human sciences” to evade that question. Psychology is certainly the best chance for biological reduction. But most of social science is about the aggregate behavior of enormous groups of people organized in multiple overlapping complex non-natural (i.e. culturally coded and learned rather than biologically innate) systems. Sociobiology can give some clues but the termite analogy only works so far, and it’s not cultural. Birds and higher mammals have learned cultures, but they’re pretty simple.

  • John Emerson

    When feasible, social sciences should be assimilated as subfields of biology

    This is what I was originally arguing against. It’s a far different thing than saying that social science are an emergent level relating to biology the way chemistry relates to physics. In addition, I would say that social sciences are a level above psychology. The idea that economics is a branch of psychology strikes me as ridiculous.

    And then again: Boas separated anthropology from biology in part because the biological anthropology of the time was really crap. It was an attempt to make anthropology seem scientific in terms of the science of the day, but there just wasn’t much science. Language groups, social groups, and even nations were taken as “races” and their behavior and institutions explained from that. Many people here believe in race, more than the average social scientist does, but even here nobody talks about the Polish race or the Spanish race any more.

    the rest of the social sciences should be demoted to the status of humanities.

    So what are you saying? That no scientific approach will ever understand human affairs? Or that eventually psychology will understand it all?

  • onur

    John, like you, I am pessimistic about the absorbing capacities of biology of many social sciences. Psychology, archaeology, linguistics and parts of anthropology can eventually be absorbed by biology, but I have serious doubts about much of the rest of social sciences. I think with progress in science and especially in biology, what is a science and what is not a science will be easier to discern and non-absorbed (by biology) social sciences will look less scientific than today, so there will be a strong motive to demote them to the status of humanities.

  • John Emerson

    I think you missed my point.

    My point is that social sciences are defined by a topic, human society, human history, human culture. (To me those are three ways of designating the same thing, or different aspects of it). This topic, I’ll call it human history, can be studied, and it can be studied in a secular way on the basis of objective data using rational methods of investigation, and some studies will be better and more successful than others.

    What I claim that there will not be is a scientific breakthrough of the type achieved by Newton, Watson and Crick, Mendeleev, Einstein, et al. History, archeology, and anthropology can absorb a lot of science (as in your examples) but for e variety of reasons (complexity, change) they will not thereby become sciences.

    My objection is to the word “demote”. The best work on history is the best work on history. Historians are not competing with physicists for the scientificity blue ribbon. One of the things the social sciences, whatever you call them, have suffered from is that science envy, and economists played on that to claim priority for their scientific-seeming work, and not only that, their iitation of what they thought were the methods of physics caused their work to be much worse than it would have been.

    This all came up in the aftermath of CS Snow’s “Two Cultures debate about 60 years ago. He drew a distinction between the sciences and the humanities and the arts and noted that those on the different sides of the line (especially the humanists) were sometimes ignorant of what was on the other side. At some point in the debate historians (I remember Peter Laslett) argued that even though they they could not claim to be scientists, they also were not just men of letters, authors of fiction, or long-form essayists expressing their personal intuitions about things.

    Analogically, someone who wants to jump a long ways should compete in the long jump rather than the high jump, but that doesn’t mean that long jumpers have bragging rights over high jumpers.

    As Razib said, there’s a similar gradient between physics and biology. Physicists are unimpressed with biology’s theoretical power and level of rigor. But that isn’t really a judgement against biology, though physicists often feel that it is. It comes from the nature of the topic.

  • onur

    A simple question: is history a social science? If it isn’t, I don’t see much reason to accept the majority of social sciences (including economics and sociology) as social science.

    At some point in the debate historians (I remember Peter Laslett) argued that even though they they could not claim to be scientists, they also were not just men of letters, authors of fiction, or long-form essayists expressing their personal intuitions about things.

    I am sure no one confuses the two.

  • John Emerson

    I am sure no one confuses the two.

    When you say “demote”, that’s confusion is understood.

    As I’ve said a number of times here and elsewhere, though it seldom gets through, what’s at stake here is the scientific imperative and the scientific pecking order. It’s commonly felt at some gut level by people in the sciences that everything should be made scientific, that everything scientific is superior to everything non-scientific, and that non-scientific forms of study are of little intellectual interest (“stamp-collecting and social work”), and so on. When you say “demote”, that’s what comes through.

    What I say is that history (and the social sciences) are not scientific in the sense the word is usually used, but that that’s not a defect. It’s just in the nature of the material. One consequence is that attempts to make history scientific should be looked on very skeptically, and in fact a lot of them have turned out to be crap. Another consequence is that even after history absorbs a lot of science it still is not scientific. The logic of the historian’s work as a whole will still be a historian’s logic and not a scientist’s.

    In short, the work of a historian (and a social scientist) should be compared to other work studying the same topic, rather than to any ideal of science. And critics of the unscientificity of history should roll up their sleeves and write better, more scientific history, if they can.

    As Razib hinted above, this same argument has occurred between physicists and biologists. As far as I’m concerned, biology and history are what they are, and whether or not you call them scientific depends on the definition of science you use. It’s OK with me if the line is drawn between history and biology, but it would be OK with me if it were drawn between physics and biology too. Once you know what’s going on in each study, the labelling is nominalistic.

  • onur

    John, we are saying the same things. Our only difference of opinion is nominal: what you call social science, I call discipline of humanities. That is our sole difference of opinion.

  • John Emerson

    I couldn’t be sure. But the word “demote” leads me to suspect that the agreement is not total.

  • Chris T

    Most of organic chemistry was developed before the connection with physics was understood.

    But did any chemist ever think that physics was not involved?

    But most of social science is about the aggregate behavior of enormous groups of people organized in multiple overlapping complex non-natural (i.e. culturally coded and learned rather than biologically innate) systems.

    Massively complex, but not completely random either. There are limits to even the behavior of large groups. Those limits can be found and understood. Because group behavior is an aggregate of individuals, the characteristics of the individual can be studied to learn more about the behavior and characteristics of the group.

    I’m not expecting perfection out of Social Science, but I do expect something coherent that can be built off of.

  • onur

    Well, the category of humanities is composed of disciplines that are traditionally seen less scientific than social sciences (hence the non-use of the word science in the term humanities), so transfer of a discipline from the social science category to the humanities category is in a sense a kind of demotion. But I think it is actually stating the obvious.

  • John Emerson

    Onur, it’s more like an expulsion from science. From the purist point of view, history is not a less scientific science, it’s a non science. From an anti-purist point of view, it’s a science of a certain type appropriate to its material. Where does the “more scientific” / less scientific pecking order come from.

    I really object to the whole science pecking order, whether it’s within science or between science and something else. Physicists say that physics is more scientific than biology, but that’s crap. Philip Anderson says that particle physicists say that solid-state physics is less scientific than particle physics, but that’s crap too.

    The pecking order, as far as I know, comes from highly ambitious individuals with a mystical devotion to Science and an equal obsession with their own egos and their own careers. It’s really locker room one-upsmanship. And people will do that, but they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

    Chris, around 1900 (Boas) anthropologists bracketed out biology and to a degree, psychology from anthropology. They did this mostly because the psychjological, medical and biological explanations of culture were so crappy, and also because they wanted to specialize their study in large group behavior and in learned / transmitted culture and institutions. It’s been fruitful, alberi flawed, though not fruitful in the way you wish it was.

    Unfortunately the methodological bracketing out came to be taken as a truism, and that’s been being corrected over the last 40 years or so. But the first two waves of biological anthropology, — sociobiology and ev psych — both had plenty of their own flaws which are now widely recognized, many of which some have been avoided if the authors in question had paid a little attention to sociology, politics, history, etc.

    I was not saying that the behavior of large groups is unintelligible. I’m saying that it’s emergent from group interaction, only in some degree a function of psychology. For exampe, if you have two nations, one of them warlike and one of them not, the difference is not because of differences in the psychologies of the two peoples. For example, until at least 1709 the Swedes were military brutes, whereas the Russians and Germans were militarily feeble victims. After 1815 Sweden was militarily of no importance and general neutral, while the other two countries became war machines.

  • onur

    Onur, it’s more like an expulsion from science.

    In a sense yes, but most of them are already far from being sciences when called social sciences. That is why I said “stating the obvious”. There is a huge difference in terms of scientificity between natural sciences and most social sciences, but we don’t see a similar difference between humanities and most social sciences, so it is often the case that a particular social/human discipline is sometimes called a social science and sometimes a discipline of humanities.

  • Chris T

    You work with the tools you have of course. My expressed complaint is that there is still a substantial amount of resistance to biological explanations even though it has shown its obvious utility and has been steadily encroaching on areas that were originally considered a part of Social Science.

    ie: There is a nasty tendency to declare genetics inadequate as an explanation by saying that controlling for a particular variable makes it negligible without ever considering that a genetic trait might be responsible for both.

    Or considering only socioeconomic or environmental reasons for a particular characteristic without ever discussing genetics.

    It’s basic missteps like this that tend to make people in the natural sciences skeptical of SS.

  • miko

    “My expressed complaint is that there is still a substantial amount of resistance to biological explanations…”

    This is because there is a lack of biological evidence for most of the claims of those enamored of biological explanations. Somehow, a plausible genetics-based argument just sounds better than a plausible (or demonstrably relevant) social/cultural argument to a lot of people. I frequently encounter people who fervently believe in biological explanations for this or that (sometimes on this blog) who seemingly haven’t an inkling of what evidence for or against a genetic explanation would look like.

    “Or considering only socioeconomic or environmental reasons for a particular characteristic without ever discussing genetics.”

    There are very few complex human characteristics for which we have genetic models. Some day we will, my personal taste is to bracket gene x environment for complex human traits until we understand the effects of genes and environments on the traits we’re interested in. Biology is good at the genes part (almost), social scientists are often good at the environments part, but some currently non-existent hybrid of the two will at some point be required to sort it all out. Political scientists, economists, psychologists, and sociologists have perhaps not done great jobs with prescriptions for social problems, but to think biologists are going to trot in with them any time soon is just stupid.

    On that note, I find biological “explanations” are usually used to justify or explain away perceived problems rather than address them, and when they are presented as the source of solutions they seem ridiculous. e.g. – allele X makes one susceptible to lifelong mental problems if one is abused as a child, so let’s really work hard on allele X. Which is better, research into fancy molecular strategies for manipulating the activity or effects of allele X, or doing a better job at stopping child abuse? In the end, even where biological explanation exist, my suspicion is that they will remain forever irrelevant.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    On that note, I find biological “explanations” are usually used to justify or explain away perceived problems rather than address them,

    but do know that i know hereditarian rawlsians. in fact, i’d probably say i’m far less libertarian than when i was younger because i accept substantial biologically heritable (and frankly, non-biological too) endowments.

    gave me an idea for GSS post btw. has some ?’s regarding genes vs. enviro for various classes.

  • Chris T

    This is because there is a lack of biological evidence for most of the claims of those enamored of biological explanations.

    You don’t really need direct biological evidence; there have been a number of methods that have been developed to get around the lack of a known physical mechanism (ie: twin studies). However, this digresses from my point – social scientists have been hostile to even the consideration that genetics (and therefore evolution) might be involved. This has made for very incomplete research since they are heavily intertwined.

    Somehow, a plausible genetics-based argument just sounds better than a plausible (or demonstrably relevant) social/cultural argument to a lot of people.

    Conversely, the social/cultural one sounds better to a lot of people too, especially on the left.

    To be frank, a lot of processes studied in social science must have at least some genetic mediation or we could not have come about as a species. There are firm theoretical grounds to expect them.

    Political scientists, economists, psychologists, and sociologists have perhaps not done great jobs with prescriptions for social problems, but to think biologists are going to trot in with them any time soon is just stupid.

    That was not an argument made on this blog. The argument was that human behavior cannot be completely divorced from its biological basis. There is no ghost in the machine.

    Without a sound theory, practical prescriptions are very difficult to come by. Failing to consider biology is going to result in ideas that have very limited success.

    In the end, even where biological explanation exist, my suspicion is that they will remain forever irrelevant.

    Really? Knowing what you can and can’t change is irrelevant? Knowing how the biological system known as a human is likely to react to a particular stimulus (technically all human behavior is biological in origin) and why is irrelevant?

  • miko

    “Really? Knowing what you can and can’t change is irrelevant?”

    Obviously, a trait having a “biological” basis (this is poor semantics, all traits are at some level biological) or strong genetic component has nothing to do with whether or not it can be changed, enhanced, or ameliorated by non-biological factors.

    Twin studies and heritability estimates tell us that genomes have a lot of influence on individuals’ behavioral traits. They don’t tell us that genes have been selected to produce those traits, and they are difficult to extract from epistatic effects and gene x environment correlations. This is my beef with calling this a biological “explanation.”

  • miko

    “in fact, i’d probably say i’m far less libertarian than when i was younger because i accept substantial biologically heritable (and frankly, non-biological too) endowments.”

    Do you mean in the sense that we have a social obligation to those who are less physically or mentally capable? I agree with this… a caricature of liberals popular with stupid conservatives (and a reality among some very stupid liberals) is that “everyone is equal” means “everyone is equivalent.” That equality is somehow a statement about measurable traits than about social, moral, and legal standing.

  • Chris T

    Obviously, a trait having a “biological” basis (this is poor semantics, all traits are at some level biological) or strong genetic component has nothing to do with whether or not it can be changed, enhanced, or ameliorated by non-biological factors.

    You can figure out which approaches to changing a behavior are more likely to work and yes, some things can’t be changed (ie: homosexuality). By determining how genes and environment interact you can determine what the actual likely causes are rather than blindly groping at phantoms which has been the current method.

    eg: If propensity for weight gain is significantly genetic, telling an obese person that they’re a fat, lazy, slob that should exercise is both harmful and highly unlikely to work.

    It’s funny that you criticize one sentence with practically the exact same statement I made one sentence later.

    They don’t tell us that genes have been selected to produce those traits, and they are difficult to extract from epistatic effects and gene x environment correlations.

    They don’t need to, just knowing that they have a substantial effect is significant. It suggests courses of action and expectations that are different than if it was entirely environmental. Instead of being completely blind, we’ve lit a candle.

    This is my beef with calling this a biological “explanation.”

    I never made the argument that one could only explain behavior in terms of biology in the absence of environment. I was criticizing the opposite – the belief that behavior can be entirely explained by environmental factors and the belief which still influences social science (although not nearly as strongly) that there is a mind/body duality.

  • miko

    “and yes, some things can’t be changed (ie: homosexuality)”

    I didn’t say there weren’t deterministic genetic traits, like Huntington’s, just that “genetic” does not mean “deterministic,” but I know you know that.

    “They don’t need to, just knowing that they have a substantial effect is significant.”

    OK, for lots of people that makes sense–you’re huffed that some people dismiss heritability. For me, it’s a given that our traits are the results of complex GxE interactions. The point is the reaction norms and interactions are not understood and are definitely not linear. When we are at the stage where we can say “someone with your profile of alleles 1, 2, and 3 has a tendency toward liver disease in combination with environmental factors a, b, and c, so modify your life in way x,y,z,” the utility will begin to become apparent. Where we are now is something like: allele X explains 3% of the variance in liver disease incidence across Californians who had insurance through K-P in the 90s and had the wherewithal to fill out an IC and show up for regular bloodlettings. Meanwhile, you can barely convince people to modify behavior (or the government to regulate, say, the food industry) in response to real, known environmental risk factors of major effect.

    Part of what I’m saying is that any remotely satisfying or useful “biological explanation” has to include the environment, but this is too hard to do so far. So I don’t see how you’re going to convince me that “biological explanations,” are in some way superior, do more conceptual or practical work, or are any less “phantoms” than environmental ones.

    So, my question is: what do you want people to do with the information that many traits have strong genetic components? It seems like your interpretation is that trying to address negative consequences of these traits is therefore a waste of time and effort–correct me if I’m wrong. If that’s not what you meant, what is “significant” about recognizing heritability? Besides apathy, what course of action does it suggest today?

  • Chris T

    So, my question is: what do you want people to do with the information that many traits have strong genetic components? It seems like your interpretation is that trying to address negative consequences of these traits is therefore a waste of time and effort–correct me if I’m wrong.

    Not at all, knowing how genes influence behavior or a person’s physical propensity for something close off some routes for changing behavior, but may suggest others.

    To go back to the obese example, knowing that genetics has a significant impact on that person’s ability to lose weight may mean that just eating less and exercising won’t help, but might suggest dietary changes in the event they have trouble metabolizing a particular food type. You have fewer options, but are far more likely to find one that works.

    Part of what I’m saying is that any remotely satisfying or useful “biological explanation” has to include the environment, but this is too hard to do so far.

    Agreed, unfortunately I think some things are fairly intractable without a holistic approach. Gene/environment interaction is incredibly complicated and I’m not sure you can meaningfully separate them.

    A lot of people seem to believe genetics makes it impossible to change; I’m not one of them. I want to understand it so that we can find methods that are effective.

  • miko

    OK… we don’t disagree.

  • Chris T

    There are good practical reasons for knowing group variations as well. Let’s say your local population has a high percentage of people belonging to a particular population cluster. Let’s also say that the group has a genetic propensity for a particular malady (say diabetes). Knowing this, you can better plan and equip yourself for a higher percentage of people having that malady (by stocking up on insulin).

  • miko

    Did you need to genotype them to know there is a high incidence of diabetes?

  • Chris T

    Not necessarily, but knowing that it is a genetic predisposition specific to the population cluster rather than a general problem in the environment in the region also helps you avoid overstocking for the other clusters. It also allows you to better target behavioral interventions.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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