Arguing with Reviewers

Personally, I hardly ever do it, because reviewers are hard, cruel, ignorant creatures – at least those who don’t love your work.

Nicholas Wade thinks that I was unfair in calling the 3000-years-in-Tibet cite an error, and in saying that the low estimate of European ancestry among the Ashkenazi Jews was wrong.  He thinks that it’s just a case of me disagreeing with those particular scientists.

He is mistaken.  In the Tibetan case, there were two more recent references that determined that the short time estimate was a mistake. See here, and here.

There are a number of better reports on Ashkenazi  ancestry with very different results,  much higher estimates of European ancestry, both more recent and also using several kinds of evidence, autosomal genes as well as mtDNA.  Here, and here, and here. There is a special problem on this case, because it seems that some researchers on this area are strongly motivated against accepting certain results.

This is a fast-changing field – you can’t afford to be a year or two behind the literature. Even a month can bite you, which is unfortunate for anyone putting out a book.

These errors do not materially impact his arguments in the book – but they could have.

Now this raises the problem of how reporters [or POTUS, for that matter]  are supposed to ensure high accuracy on technical subjects in which they are not cutting-edge practitioners – which they never are.   I think it’s not easy. Appeal to authority is unreliable. Nicholas Wade is one of the best reporters on these subjects, but he faces this problem as well.

How should a reporter have determined that the undersecretaries of defense who were telling him about the Iraqi nuclear program in late 2002/early 2003 were full of shit?  I could tell, but then, I knew the subject.  Could you tell?  How many reporters and columnists figured it out? I can think of few, less than five. On the other hand, the widow next door did figure it out…





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33 Responses to Arguing with Reviewers

  1. Books are beginning to look a bit dated as a way of communicating scientific results. The larger picture about expertise “who really knows anything” is a far bigger worry. Samuel Johnson had it right when he observed: “Even those to whom Providence hath allotted greater strength of understanding can expect only to improve a single science. In every other part of learning they must be content to follow opinions which they are not able to examine; and, even in that which they claim as peculiarly their own, can seldom add more than some small particle of knowledge to the hereditary stock devolved to them from ancient times, the collective labour of a thousand intellects.”

    The problem now is that the hereditary stock of knowledge is being transformed so fast.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      Non fiction books are out of date. I’ll pay Cochran directly (no stinkin’ middle men) for an E book. I’m tired of reading 300 page books where what I’ve learned can be reduced to three pages. I’m not reading for the entertainment I’m reading for the things I don’t already know, that’s all the entertainment i need. So abbreviate what you are saying and then hyperlink it to more complete descriptions. Then i can read what i want interests me, what I don’t know. When information changes update it. When there are differing opinions, don’t take a side, show them both and then in that trademark Cochran manner eviscerate the shoddy work. When there isn’t much progress on the cutting edge of science you can always fall back on the never ending supply of fools who have somehow bullshitted their way to a position of respectability. Updating your E book is a slick way to sqeeze a few more shekels out of the cheap bastards like me who want all their information for free.

  2. reiner Tor says:

    Wade’s book is great. I haven’t yet read it, but it just arrived, and I’m gonna read it anyway, so there’s no point in denigrating it. Hence my decision that it’s a great book.

    OTOH it’s not impossible that he got some things wrong. I am displeased by his treatment of IQ that you mentioned in your review. I think his Before the Dawn made the strong case in favor of a relationship between IQ and race. My best guess is this must have been a kind of political decision on his part.

  3. Maciano says:

    There should be some sort of Wikipedia-like site where authors/scientists/journalists/politicians/business people/autority figures/et al get checked for their “truth”-score. Not just an emotional rating system like, but a fisking of everything they claim — on multiple levels (historical facts, logical mistakes, scientific proof). There should be some sort of penalty for public people who lie.

    The trick would be to only allow factual criticism on the site, to prevent political/religious slant or interest groups from making untrue claims. I believe you’d get a much more transparant view of what/who creates public opinion.

    People like Thomas Friedman would collect a score over the years (or months, heh) which would be very low compared to more wiser/factual obscure writers.

    • amac78 says:

      Maciano, if you want a case study, try climate science. Your notion was, ostensibly, the motive behind the site “Skeptical Science.”

      That website uses the language of science to heap respect upon mainstream reports, when justified, and is dismissive of reports that have less-than-alarmist implications, when justified. Unsurprisingly, SkS’ posters also do mainstream tongue baths and scorn skeptics when those reactions are not justified.

      Next idea.

      • Maciano says:

        Actually that site is horribly done; an immediate turnoff when looking at it.

        I wouldn’t focus on the level of IPCC, UN or IMF. Nobody reads them anyway. I’d want the focus on public intellectuals who twist/abuse/neglect science &or lie on basic facts.

    • JayMan says:

      How do you police that, though?

    • melendwyr says:

      That would be a disaster. The more valuable recognition by the system becomes, the harder people will work to game the system. If being approved by this hypothetical site translated into advantage, people would just subvert it.

      One of the dirty little open secrets of the Internet is that the original goals of sites like Wikipedia have been abandoned because they’ve proven unworkable. Only the entries for topics that most people are indifferent to can be made without central editorial attention. Contentious topics become the foci of edit wars to the point that alterations must be approved by editors.

  4. dearieme says:

    “How should a reporter have determined that the undersecretaries of defense who were telling him about the Iraqi nuclear program in late 2002/early 2003 were full of shit?” Bloody hell, it’s a reporter’s job to assume that they’re full of shit until there is conclusive evidence in the other direction.

  5. aisaac says:

    Didn’t Greg have an article online at the time showing why Iraq couldn’t have nukes? There really was no excuse not to know.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I wrote a letter to a friend who posted it in his blog – but you can’t expect many people to have seen that.

    • melendwyr says:

      To know with certainty that the government officials were lying would require a great deal of information. Recognizing their claims as highly suspicious, however, requires only a few rudimentary heuristics and a sense of skepticism.

      Detecting that their position was wrong was hard, and in practice, not possible for most people. Detecting that their arguments are bogus was trivially easy. As far as I can determine, quite a few people weren’t deceived by the arguments but the meta-arguments: “the stuff they’re saying is nonsense, they can’t possibly be advocating action on the basis of those arguments, there must be secret information they can’t share that’s motivating them and this is the best they can come up with to fill the void”.

      Basically, they were fooled by the government’s bluff, because they couldn’t believe that anyone would bluff so poorly. Those of us who make a habit of never overestimating the competence and integrity of the system had a major advantage over those who believe in it. Cynicism is a survival virtue, which is why it’s disparaged by those it threatens.

  6. Pingback: Roundup of Book Reviews of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance | Occam's Razor

  7. Toddy Cat says:

    “My best guess is this must have been a kind of political decision on his part.”

    Too bad, lots of people on this site could have told him he was wasting his time. Any deviation from PC results in hysterical condemnation, so if you’re going to speak up, you might as well follow the HH/GC route and make sure that your facts are as good as they can be, lets ‘er rip, and call all of your PC critics the idiots that they are. Any temporizing with the truth just puts blood in the water and, like all pack animals, the PC crowd can smell fear.

    • Harry says:

      I disagree, I think there’s a rising undercurrent of acceptance, just, people don’t know what to do about it and don’t want to get beaten up for it in this very dangerous social climate. I base this on the reception of reasonable racist pieces posted to reddit; lots of votes, and the fact that I’ve started to see constructive comments like “What should we do about it?” mixed in with the usual seething both ways.

  8. I dunno about science reporters, but for actual scholars Bertrand Russell laid down the gold standard: “I would rather be reviewed by my worst enemy among philosophers than by a friend ignorant of philosophy.”

  9. My own review, a bit late I know, of Wade’s book, or at least the most psychological parts of it, coming shortly, so my comments were not pre-judgment.

  10. Patrick L. Boyle says:

    Recently while looking for a lost book by Smil I ran across another lost book – your 10,000 Year Explosion. I started re-reading it.

    A lot has happened in genetic anthropology since I first read it. I’m wondering how much you two would want to modify today for a new edition. For example, the idea of Neanderthal intrusions was more of a speculation back then and with Paabo’s publications and popularity of 23andMe it now seems like ‘settled science’ (to use an often misused term). Or do you see it that way?

    You say it’s a fast changing field. How so? Without looking it up, I think when your book came out there were as yet no Denisovians or Florensis. Big findings, but did they change any of your major conclusions?

    • Sandgroper says:

      Neanderthal or Neandertal is optional, but the first is old German spelling, the second is new German spelling, and English speakers are more likely to pronounce the new spelling using something vaguely approaching the correct pronunciation (very vaguely, usually).

    • Bones and Behaviours says:

      Rokus van der Meer thinks that relatives of the Flores hominins on the mainland of Asia contributed a craniofacial trait to living East Asians. I think he is the only one who does, though.

      Melanesian crania are keeled and superficially ‘primitive’. It can be no surprise if their Denisovan ancestry is so high.

  11. gcochran9 says:

    On the Neanderthal bit, the conventional wisdom in the field was that there hadn’t been any admixture into modern humans. But if you thought about it, it was fairly easy to see that the arguments for that position were all wrong – that in fact such admixture was extremely likely. One could logic it out. Paabo’s ancient DNA evidence, combined with Nick Patterson’s analysis, clinched it.

    I knew that there had been non-Neanderthal, non-modern hominids in East Asia, and so there was also a good chance of introgression from them. But that possibility is only mentioned in one sentence in the book – I should have given it more space.

    In a do-over, I would talk a lot more about polygenic selection, among other things.

  12. Can I pre-book the next edition?

  13. Chris B says:

    I think it is vitally important for those within the HBD field to criticize, and rip apart each others work more severely then any of the Anthropologist etc critics will, or can. It’s one thing being correct, it’s another thing wining the argument. One of the best ways to ensure it is to run both sides of the argument yourself, so that any valid counter arguments they can raise will be citations of other HBDers.

  14. Pingback: linkfest: A Troublesome Inheritance | hbd* chick

  15. ALS says:

    Here in Canada there was widespread scepticism regarding the Bush administration’s claims on WMD in Iraq–including in the mainstream media. Gwynne Dyer, a prominent Canadian journalist, was featured regularly on major Canadian media and in print explaining in detail that Iraq did not possess WMDs, as did Canadian journalists Scott Taylor, (who was later kidnapped in Iraq), and Eric Margolis, then a contributing editor at one of Canada’s largest newspaper chains, Sun Media. There were no shortage of useful idiots who believed otherwise (the current prime minister included), but polls at the time indicated a strong majority of Canadians believed the Bush Administration was lying. Ultimately, Canada’s government resolved not to participate in the invasion, on the grounds that proof of Iraq’s WMDs were lacking, and that UN approval for the invasion was not provided. Was there really so few journalists in the US who figured out the truth ahead of time?

  16. Magus Janus says:

    you should reprint your letter on Iraq here on you blog, for posterity’s sake.

  17. Nutup or Shutup says:

    Well Cochran you can be obnoxious at times. However, your review of Wade’s book was very nice. You did not call him any names or even say he was stupid. At worst you said his work was flawed because he was not a professional geneticist. Wade is being very immature over your review. Also this reply to Wade’s whinny complaint is nice to. What is happening Cochran? Your silly meanness is the best thing about this blog. E.O. Wilson needs to write another book about group selection, and then the old Cochran will come back.

  18. Gottlieb says:

    If human beings were actually evolving in a concise way, we would not be in the same Roman world of bread and circus. Culturally speaking, human evolution, and only in the West, only took more or less spontaneous way since… 1800??. Whether culture and genetic co-evolve. However, what we call, cultural evolution, as seems to have been repeated in Athens and Sparta, Rome, Egypt … I do not see progress, we’re going in circles. We are trying to bite its own tail.
    The only major events, which incidentally, had already happened before, were the processes of domestication of the northern populations, demographic expansion and subsequent contraction of Europeans, African artificial demographic expansion, miscegenation. Well, but it has happened other times.
    The evolution process needs the exchange of phenotypic frequencies, when for example, a social class, assumes that it is more intelligent, have more children and replaces another social class in relative and absolute frequency. But this is relative because it depends on many factors. How do we immediately assume that a social class is better than another if the selective demands are almost always contextual?
    I do not like to think of domestication as increased intelligence. As I said before, the collective evolution suppresses the individual. For the welfare of all, we must sacrifice ourselves. Which explains why Asians have managed to foster a huge mass of technically smart but within this demographic ocean has almost no geniuses. And this explains why extremely dualistic European civilization could produce so many geniuses, since the same is the depiction of the struggle of domesticated against non-domesticated. Cultural war today.

  19. Why did you know the subject better than journalists? Who is the widow next door?

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