Science, ideology, and human origins

A link from Tyler Cowen led me to this long blog article by Razib Khan, discussing some recent genetic findings on human origins in the context of the past twenty-five years of research and popularization of science.

I don’t know much about human origins (beyond my ooh-that’s-cool reactions to exhibits at the Natural History Museum, my general statistician’s skepticism at various over-the-top claims I’ve heard over the years about “mitochondrial Eve” and the like, and various bits I’ve read over the years regarding when people came over to Australia, America, etc.), but what particularly interested me about Khan’s article was his discussion about the various controversies among scientists, his own reactions when reading and thinking about these issues as they were happening (Khan was a student at the time), and the interaction between science and political ideology.

There’s a limit to how far you can go with this sort of cultural criticism of science, and Khan realizes this: he goes back and forth between stories about scientists fighting each other, to his own reflections, to the scientific findings. I’m not personally so interested in the details of human origins, but these details are needed to back up Khan’s sociological comments.

It’s unsurprising that political ideology and personality clashes are inextricably woven into social science. Consider, for example, Krugman’s disparagements of Galbraith (see here for an example) or whatever people have been writing about John Dewey, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, etc. The most notorious bit might be journalist Paul Johnson’s book, several years ago, arguing that left-wing intellectuals (or, as Johnson called them, “intellectuals”) were all a bunch of perverts. Or pundits making oh-so-confident but data-free assertions, backed up by editors who don’t know any better.

But ideology comes up in biology as well (even beyond this sort of thing). I came across this a few years ago when reading a book, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond, by Ullica Segerstrale, which had been recommended to me by statistician/biologist Bob O’Hara. My reaction to Segerstrale’s book was that her description of the interaction between science and political ideology represented only a small part of the story, even in biology. Her story was nature vs. nurture, or (in my words) “the IQ guys vs. Margaret Mead,” without noting everything else that was going on. (See here for my further comments on Segerstrale’s book.)

One might argue the writings of popular journalists should be irrelevant to our thoughts about science (or even social science), but, as Khan makes clear in his essay, all of us were nonspecialists at one time, and, in any case, researchers in one area of science will commonly rely on the popular or semi-popular press to learn about other fields. (To put it another way, lots more people are learning about statistics from this sort of article on Slate magazine than from the blog you’re reading right now.) Sometimes a field gets lucky in its popularizers—I’m pretty happy with the influence of Nate Silver on popular understanding of statistics and political science, for example—but in any case we can’t ignore them.

P.S. In the second paragraph above, I was about to write “fierce controversies,” but then I realized this would be ugly journalistese (along the lines of phrases such as “the lion’s share”)—the sort of thing that people write but would never say. “Fierce controversies” indeed. What was I thinking?? I’m glad I caught that one before it came out of my fingers.

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