Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

A Partisan Nonpartisan Blog

0 notes &

Steven Pinker on Scientific Etiquette

Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought, pp. 437-438, writes:

… The intuition that ideas can point to real things in the world or can miss them, and that beliefs about the world can be true or just believed, can drive people to test their analogies for fidelity to the causal structure of the world, and to prune away irrelevant features and zero in on the explanatory ones.

Needless to say, this combination of aptitudes does not endow any of us with a machine for churning out truths. Not only is a single mind limited in experience and ingenuity, but even a community of minds won’t pool and winnow its inventions unless their social relationships are retuned for that purpose. Disagreements in everyday life can threaten our sense of face, which is why our polite interactions center on topics on which all reasonable people agree, like the weather, the ineptitude of bureaucracies, and the badness of airline or dormitory food. Communities that are supposed to evaluate knowledge, such as science, business, government, and journalism,  have to find workarounds for this stifling desire for polite consensus. At a scientific conference, when a student points out a flaw in a presenter’s experiment, it won’t do to shut her up because the presenter is older and deserving of respect, or because he worked very hard on the experiment and the criticism would hurt his feelings. Yet these reactions would be perfectly legitimate in an everyday social interaction based on authority or communality. 

… In science and other knowledge-driven cultures, the mindset of communality must be applied to the commodity of good ideas, which are each treated as resources to be shared. This is a departure from the more natural mindset in which ideas are thought of as traits that reflect well on a person, or inherent wants that comrades must respect if they are to maintain their communal relationship. The evaluation of ideas also must be wrenched away from our intuitions of authority: department chairs can demand larger offices and salaries, but cannot demand that their colleagues acquiesce to their theories. These radically new rules for relationships are the basis for open debate and peer review in science, and for the checks and balances and accounting systems found in other formal institutions. 

Filed under religionhumanitiesscience growth class