“Extraordinary Scientific Delusion”

It’s important, because it could be just one out of many. And likely is.

Gerard pointed to one of the best articles I’ve ever seen, a few days ago…

Everyone knows that stereotypes are inaccurate, especially psychologists…
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[Many examples, cited by page number]
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Except stereotypes are not inaccurate. There are many different ways to test for the accuracy of stereotypes, because there are many different types or aspects of accuracy. However, one type is quite simple — the correspondence of stereotype beliefs with criteria…One can do this sort of thing for many different types of groups.

And lots of scientists have. And you know what they found? That stereotype accuracy — the correspondence of stereotype beliefs with criteria — is one of the largest relationships in all of social psychology. The correlations of stereotypes with criteria range from .4 to over .9, and average almost .8 for cultural stereotypes. The average effect in social psychology is about .20. Stereotypes are more valid than most social psychological hypotheses.

Of course they have to be. If stereotypes were no more accurate than most psychological hypotheses, they’d never make their way into our evolutionary hard-wiring in the first place. “Stereotypes are not accurate,” as a statement, suffers from the same problem as “Torture doesn’t extract truthful information”; the minute you take it seriously, the question naturally emerges “Well then, how is it that either one ever came into common use?”

So just a little bit of diligent thinking about how things work tells us something is wrong with the stereotypes-not-accurate chorus, and the measurements tell us something is wrong with it too. The chorus fails to find the right pitch, oh-for-two. The article proceeds from there, straight to the point:

Which raises a question: Why do so many psychologists emphasize stereotype inaccuracy when the evidence so clearly provides evidence of such high accuracy? Why is there this Extraordinary Scientific Delusion?

The article then blames the “leftward lean of most psychologists.” Hmmmm, this inspires a lot of thought. Let’s take a look at what might be happening here — I think the problem is widespread, not limited to discussions about stereotypes and not even limited to psychology. So let’s entirely abandon the stereotype issue and look at what’s going on with the institution.

I’m inclined to blame the lefties last, here, and poke around looking for some other causes. Not quite so much because I think they’re blameless, or that I doubt the statement about political leaning within the psychological field. I’m thinking the problem through like an engineer, and I can’t help noticing something: If we could somehow press a magic button, and convert every social science practitioner into a conservative libertarian, there is much of the original problem left unaddressed. We’re told, for generations, that “science” says wet; throughout all that time the correct, measurable and reproducible answer is dry. Am I then to believe the scientists did all their science-ing, found out their cherished beliefs were wrong, and simply chucked the data out the window so they could continue to pursue their impassioned political objective of spreading liberalism throughout the world?

Never blame on malice, that which can be attributed to incompetence. Or, in this case, laziness.

We had on here a certain dissenting voice who sought to prove the existence of anthropogenic global warming by citing the overwhelming “consensus” among “scientists.” This argument was effectively deflated when it emerged there was an inconsistency in defining what exactly a scientist is; at one point, the definition swiveled away from something concerning possession of the proper credentials and affiliations, to “one who does science,” in this case the Eratosthenes after whom this blog is named, with the water-well experiment. These are two different definitions. To argue that they’re not, would be an insistence that the credentialing process seeks to provide an accurate report on who is & isn’t doing-science, which is an idea I don’t think anyone is seriously going to advance or pursue. So it follows that we have a lot of people, at any given time, who qualify for “scientist” under the first definition without qualifying under the second, and vice-versa. This is obviously hazardous to any argument taking the form “97 percent of scientists agree [with assertion] [therefore we know it to be true, since “science” says so].”

My point about social scientists coming up with the demonstrably wrong answer, connects here, through this: I like the one-who-does-science definition better. When we argue about whether or not to believe the science, we seem to be arguing here back & forth about what exactly science is. This all seems strange and surreal to me, since when I was growing up it didn’t seem like there was much ambiguity about it: Science is a process. Because it is a process, we say things to each other like “let’s fix this through the scientific method” or “I don’t think you’re doing this scientifically enough.” It seems the argument that really needed to happen, that never quite happened, has to do with replacing this definition with something about class membership: “All the scientists say” doesn’t have anything to do with a process, unless the speaker is endeavoring to make a point of “Everyone who pursues the scientific process comes to this same conclusion.” That doesn’t seem, to me, to be what they’re trying to say at all. So the question that confronts us is one of: Is science still a process? Or is it a peerage of elites, privileged with membership in some exclusive community, and because of that presumed to be more enlightened than those left outside.

This relates to another concern I see emerging: I was always taught that scientists work differently than normal people, because it is in their job description to toil away tirelessly in efforts destructive to their own theories. This new peerage-science, I’ve noted before, seems more interested in keeping the theories propped up, even punishing those individuals within its membership who challenge the ones that shouldn’t be challenged. The former, classical model of science, would rain down on its own cherished theories with the destructive energy of experimentation, by cumulatively gathering more data; if that data were to be discarded for some reason, the disposal was done because of concerns over the input, and in pursuit of an objective of keeping the experiments clean and therefore reliable. This new science, rather than cumulatively gathering more data, seems intent on a more subtractive model, coming up with newer and progressively more creative reasons for disposing of data because of output concerns — the data do not support the conclusion that is desired, so they have to go. And whoever came up with the data should probably hit the road too; don’t let the doorknob hit ya where the Good Lord split ya. And please hand over your credentials on the way out.

So we have two things here, being described with one word, leading to confusion. One thing is an effort to measure things, validate those measurements, and logically infer from all that the nature of the world in which we live. The other thing is a bureaucratic thing, an effort to build a consensus. In the first of those two things, measurement is the point, and apart from that, the inference process; in the second, it is the consensus itself that is the point. We should not be mixing up these two definitions of “science” because they are not adequately similar, their differences are meaningful — hence the confusion. As anyone who works in statistics knows, a statement of the form “everyone within set X does Y” is only as good as the definition of the set X. Blogger friend Phil has raised this point many a time, that in this case if the set is being culled according to a proper orthodox belief in something, then the statement being made about its consistency in that belief, is reduced to nothing more than an exercise in redundancy. “Everyone who agrees with us, agrees with us.” And that is how, I think, psychology sunk its century of desultory thinking into the statement “stereotypes don’t work,” which is found to be demonstrably untrue the first time someone decides to objectively test it. “Science,” as we know it, hasn’t failed us here. What failed us is something else, masquerading under the label.

How do we tell the two apart? After all, the good, solid, classical, process-driven science has every reason in the world to say: “All the scientists agree such-and-such,” just like this modern, phony, consensus-driven elite-group science. That’s what makes a disguise effective, the disguise emulates something that has a reason to be — that is how a disguise evades detection. But if I make a such a statement about all-scientists-agree, and I’m earnestly discussing the solid, utilitarian, classical science, I should be talking more about the process than about the persons involved. My statement should be one of, “everybody who’s made this measurement has come to the same conclusion.” Your waist size is 36 and your inseam is 34. You parked less than twelve inches from the curb. Your expense report adds up to $1,202.34. In implementation, such a test becomes tricky: The fraudster consensus-scientists are trying to make it look like that. And they can make it look like that. And they do. “Everyone within our distinguished peerage agrees X” may mean…they all measured it. Or, it may mean the matter was put to a vote, and the vote was unanimous. There may be nothing untoward about that, but the scientific value is certainly questionable. Or, it may mean there is an effort in place to expel anyone who says not-X, and if you find a “scientist” who says not-X, or who questions X, rest assured he won’t still be a scientist by this time next year, because we’ll get right on that.

The best way to tell the difference, I think, is: Classical science is a positive process. The cumulative collection of information is unending. Therefore, it is “hungry,” always trying to find ways to get hold of more. This new phony consensus science works according to a negative process; its sustained effort is toward pruning. Sooner or later, someone launches into a dialogue about who must be booted out.

Also, real science writes in pencil, and lightly. It’s always trying to find ways to topple its preconceptions. Everything is tentative.

The phony science writes with ink. Its narrative is unchanging, and easily distinguished: They got their anointed experts into a room somewhere, had a symposium with presentations and workshops and committee assignments and papers, and when it was all over they put out a “bible” of some kind. This is to be taken as the final, definitive word. Oh sure, it’s subject to revisions, but only occasionally, and only by the experts — apart from that, the bible is to be revered as the sacred scripture that it is. If it isn’t revision-time, or if you’re not one of the anointed, then shut your mouth and do as your told, don’t question the bible.

That’s not how science works. That’s how religion works…because religion is supposed to work that way. It’s faith-based. Outside of church, there are other things that work like that; bureaucracies work that way. Right before they are properly ridiculed.

Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes and Rotten Chestnuts.

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