Re: The Culture of Science

Joel and Lynn Gazis-Sax (
Fri, 16 Aug 1996 17:34:21 -0800

Again, beyond this paragraph, I am trying to be nice. If I do offend, try
reading the sentence a second time and see if there is a less personal
way to read it.

Bryant wrote:
> =

> In article <4uvo6p$>, Susan <> wr=
> =

> >>things, and many social scientists and humanities folks and others view=

> >>"science" as a body of theories. Neither view is downright wrong, but =
> >>lead to different conclusions about the role of science in society.
> >
> >True enough. And I also believe that many scientists find comfort in th=
> >scientific approach, which is analogous to the kind of comfort
> >others find in believing in space beings or ghosts.
> =

> I cannot speak for others, but I've found considerably less comfort in
> the scientific outlook than I did in the warm, reassuring,
> purpose-to-life worldview I held in my teens. On the other hand, I don't=

> think that earlier worldview was very accurate.

On this Bryant, we're not far apart. I am leary of the purpose-to-life
world view, too. At least from the broader perspective of evolution.
Cf. my remarks elsewhere.


> >why they find it comforting-- I suspect for scientists, it is because it=

> >is controllable, in that there is nothing that ultimately can't be known=
> =

> Um, I'd be surprised to hear a scientist claim that everything is knowabl=

Perhaps it may be due to what Michael Smith called "bad PR", but there is
certainly a view that some scientists think of themselves as "know-it-alls"=

> >Most scientists I know don't generally think
> >about the fact that science itself of based on assumptions
> =

> They certainly should. Assumptions aren't terrible, they're useful. And=

> you can only identify your likely errors if you're aware of your assumpti=
>Again, no disagreement here. In this forum, you've questioned my assumpti=
and I've questioned yours. It can be a healthy process.


> >focussing on its conclusions which are in a whole different realm. When=

> >pushed, they readily admit that this is so, but they are uncomfortable
> >about it, and generally seem to want to dismiss it as unimportant. But
> >to social scientists, it is very important, hence the tension.
> =

> This is an interesting point. I've long seen the tension between social
> and life sciences (I don't know about sociologists' qualms with chemistry=
> physics) as being a result of social scientists seeing life scientists'
> theories as having dangerous social implications ("genetic determinism"
> being one).
> Not always. Just certain of the life scientists when they become the
darlings of certain radical elements in our society. And for me, it
goes at both ends. I distrust the Gaia Hypothesis people as much as
I distrust the racial theorists who bring out bell curves and claim
social significance.

Science, as I see it, is the creation of models through extensive
testing and retesting.

> >>(Incidentally, few scientists indeed talk in terms of "proven" or not
> >>proven.) There are varying degrees of confidence in a hypothesis or
> >>theory, depending in large part on how many different directions it's
> >>been attacked from and 'survived.' You surrender the surity of religio=
> >>Truth at the lab door.
> >
> >Yes, well, I would differ with you on that point. I think that this is
> >the "party line" (sorry, I have been inundated with the Republican
> >convention of late!), and that most scientists believe it in theory. Bu=
> >in actual practice and everyday conversation, they frequently talk as
> >though most of current scientific knowledge _is_ in fact proven.
> =

> Gosh, what can I say. In my department, you can't say squat without
> having a grad student question your assumptions, ask the experimental
> setting in which something you mentioned was shown, and whether it
> applies in the context you're discussing. I guess that kind of thing var=
> At a student level, that might happen more. A hypothesis which has been
raised before about such procedures is that it is intended to weed out
certain varieties of dissenters, particularly those who might advance theor=
which will destroy the life work of one of the faculty.

Another hypothesis is that this is just an example of passing the buck. Th=
kids at home get shit from the undergrads because they are getting shit fro=
the grads at the university who are getting shit from the professors who
go to conventions and read journals where they get shit until they get tenu=
and can safely ignore it if they please. :) (For the record, I favor this=


A factor in this method of scientific education could be nothing more, ther=
than the release of tensions. Pity the poor gerbils at home, though! :)

It leads one to wonder if there might not be a better way to transmit =

knowledge. One thing seems clear: the hostility which the public has
towards scientists and intellectuals in general mustn't just appear. Usual=
where there is rage, there is something that did indeed tee the person
off. I doubt the inability of most people to understand the rudiments
of the scientific method. What I think is that in the last thirty years,
it has been taught so badly and perhaps so meanly that people react
out of frustration and spite when they haven't been given enough to underst=

> >example, how often do scientists say "our best evidence suggests that th=
> >structure of DNA..." as opposed to "we now know that the structure of
> >DNA..."
> =

> Oh! Nice example. Touche. But the first sentence is certainly implied in=

> the lazy vernacular of the second; there's just a very high degree of
> confidence in our understanding of the chemical structure of
> deoxyribosenucleic acid.

Just a note here: it sounds like we're in agreement about the
probalistic nature of scientific knowledge.

> =

> >Not wanting to get between you and Gale (I am often motivated by pure
> >self-interest!), or wanting to interpret Gale's motivations and
> >assumptions, I would say that "standards of evidence" are of course part=

> >of the scientific worldview. As you imply, you are aware that you are
> >operating in a scientific mode, and thus evidence becomes important. Bu=
> >for one thing, evidence is not necessarily always pertinent in other
> >world views.
> =

> Sure, right. And that's fine. My trouble started, I think, when I
> suggested that demanding evidence and testing predictions allows one to
> better approximate the nature of an object/subject of study than other
> ways of knowing. There are limits, as we have both said, to what can be
> studied in this way. Morality will never be a scientific venture, I susp=
>Science can certainly provide information useful in making moral
judgements. I would not kick scientists out of the moral arena --
I think there are some interesting questions being discussed for
which the moral response needs scientific information. (To pull
an example out of a hat, just what is relationship between species? In the=

great question of species extinction, the information is vital.) The =

information should not determine the standards by which we determine
what is right and wrong. But it can help moral theorists come up
with ethical alternatives which fit the real world.

> >And for another, "evidence" often comes in the form of
> >individual experience, which is very frustrating for scientists.
> =

> I find that kind of anecdotal evidence "suspect," not "frustraiting." I
> may have the impression that hispanic males are very aggressive fellows,
> but when I ran 120-odd subjects through the wringer and got their
> fighting history and all, I found that there are no racial differences to=

> aggressiveness in UNM's students except one: blacks are less prone to
> pick fights.
>Interesting. Put that study up sometime. I may have misjudged you. (I k=
that you have misjudged me, but I am willing to work on my understanding of=


> >>Myth can offer insight into emotional experience and cultural outlook, =
> >>course. But are myths as powerfully predictive as theories?
> >
> >Depends on the context of the question (am I getting repetitive?). Ther=
> >is growing evidence that the roles of egg and sperm in conception are
> >somewhat different than the mythic roles they are often given-- that
> >rather than being active and energetic (terms like "arrows" or "bullets"=
> >etc are often used), sperm are actually fairly poor swimmers, and
> >wouldn't get far without help from currents produced in the vagina.
> =

> Yes, scientists have shown that female orgasm "upsucks" sperm. Sperm
> motility is still a predictor of success in sperm competition, however.
> Your assumptions above (that scientists call sperm "bullets" and the
> like) sound to me (no offense intended) more like something out of a
> Women's Study text than a biology text or biology dept. conversation.
> =

> >the egg, rather than sitting and passively waiting to be penetrated, in
> >fact undergoes chemical changes that both entice and then facilitate the=

> >sperm to enter and produce conception.
> =

> Agreed. And ten years ago, your point about "passive egg/active sperm"
> assumptions were true in biology depts. A prof I've worked with here at
> UNM, Randy Thornhill, was literally laughed at when he first suggested
> the concept of cryptic female choice mechanisms. But the crude male
> biases (including Gould's, which Randy and I touched on in our Psychology=

> Today article on female orgasm) are falling away. Just as academic
> feminists are becoming nearly paranoid, seeing male bias absolutely
> everywhere, a generation of scientists is coming of age which finds ol'
> boy sexism truly objectionable.

I see the egg/sperm example in a different light. Here I see anthropomorph=
of the sperm and the egg by calling one passive and one aggressive. It see=
to suggest that they have wills of their own. This I doubt. =

My alternative explanation is that this was selected for. Consider this:

Passive egg/passive sperm -- everyone sits there and there is little or no =
Active egg/passive sperm -- Some get fertilized. Species survival is possi=
Passive egg/active sperm -- Same thing.
Active egg/active sperm -- This method is the most successful and results i=
n the =

most fertilizations, hence the best reproductive rate.

Put enough sperm and enough ovum in the same place and by the numbers game
you will get fertilizations occuring. If one or both components is able to=

move until it bumbles into the other, so much the better!

> =

> >>All I claimed was that *if* you accept that predictive value is
> >>an indicator of how well a system of ideas approximates reality,
> >>scienctific ideas better approximate reality than, for example, a liter=
> >>interpretation of Genesis.
> >
> >Agreed in part. But much of the theory in science is not really about
> >prediction, but about explanation, and that's where the two become
> >different ways of explaining the same thing.
> =

> A good hypothesis explains and predicts. They're not alternatives.

Just a little invasion from the dictionary here:

hy=B7poth=B7e=B7sis (h=EC-p=F2th=B9=EE-s=EEs) noun
plural hy=B7poth=B7e=B7ses (-s=EAz=B4)
Abbr. hyp., hypoth.
1. A tentative explanation that accounts for a set of facts and can be test=
ed by =

further investigation; a theory.
2. Something taken to be true for the purpose of argument or investigation;=
an =

3. The antecedent of a conditional statement.

The fact is that many of us go around with many assumptions in our head,
many of which prove quite workable in this context called reality. At
least they don't kill us off so we can't breed.

> =

> >scientific explanations have certain implications for society, so they
> >aren't entirely neutral.
> =

> This is where I see the real difficulties between social and life
> sciences. Life scientists worry about describing stuff, while social
> scientists fret about how that information might be abused.
>I've known a few life scientists who were concerned about the abuse
of information. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has certainly
been concerned about the abuse of the knowledge of the atom. The
social sciences aren't alone in being concerned about abuse and
the life and physical sciences aren't alone in wanting to describe =

what is actually out there. =

What is true that social scientists (including psychologists, historians,
and other humanities types) get called on /more/ than hard scientists
do to resolve matters where there is a question of abuse of information.
In this sense, the "harder" sciences are darned lucky that their =

attention isn't always being drawn away by people knocking on their
doors trying to separate out what is bias and what is factual. A
social scientist can be driven to wits end and foul temper by such
constant demands.

> But the methodological issues are real, too. (A friend got a paper back
> in cultural anthro 360 on which the TA had written: "What is a T test?
> What's statistical significance? Why the lingo?")
> =

I can't judge the relevance of this without knowing what the question
was, Bryant. If that came back to him/her on a paper about Jane
Austen, I'd certainly think that the student was a bit daft in bringing
that sort of thing in.

> >Do thank them for me! It's nice to know that there are some people out
> >there who pay attention to this sort of stuff, and don't just
> >automatically dismiss it as a feminist whine!
> =

> I think (hope) that most folks recognize the very real problems sexism
> has caused for the academy. Slowed progress, for one thing. I think
> some scientists (even female ones) are getting exasperated with academic
> feminism because it sees bias *everywhere* (I mentioned the one about why=

> fluid dynamics was studied after solids), and because now many feminists
> are encouraging female students to avoid the sciences (which don't
> conform to "women's way of knowing.")...
> =

> Bryant

Here, I'd say, hold off a bit. You're making a big generalization about
academic feminism. I've seen many extremes to this. I've seen people
condemned for demanding the respelling of the word "woman" (put that on
the silly end -- ridicule that at will) to objections to the way their
male colleagues called them "honey" and made passes at them. I'd suggest
hanging around academic feminists more than you have. Some of them
/are/ insufferable. But others will open your eyes just as your
life science professors have opened them.



-- =

___ ___ =

/\ _|_ /\ Joel and Lynn GAzis-SAx
/ /\_|_/\ \
/ / /\|/\ \ \
\ \ \/|\/ / / "If we try to flee from our human condition into =

\ \/_|_\/ / the computer, we only meet ourselves there."
\/__|__\/ William Barrett