Perils of Incorrect Thought

A colleague pointed me to this essay by an academic who mentioned in a submitted paper that the possibility of biological differences among human groups ought to be considered.  His submission was firmly rejected in the face of “… expletives and exclamation points to give the most venomous and dismissive feedback I have ever encountered” from the reviewers.  This essay ought to be read by anyone concerned about the sorry state of our social and behavioral sciences.  The author also points us to a  website at Heterodox Academy with useful comments and discussion.

Long ago when I was in graduate school I attended a “workshop” sponsored by an outfit called the “Foundations’ Fund for Research in Psychiatry.”  The attendees were mostly chairs of Psychiatry at US and Canadian medical schools.  Each had been invited to bring along a promising graduate student or postdoc, hence my presence.  The meeting, to my innocent eyes, was hilarious.  The opening session led by David Hamburg outlined the theme of the meeting, the movement to rid psychiatric education of analysis and all its baggage and to replace all of it with biological psychiatry.  It was a carefully thought out session with a lot of emphasis on evidence and the scientific method.

The afternoon session featured the analysts and they completely torpedoed the meeting without providing a trace of substance.  The talks were variants of “let us think about why you feel this way and understand the source of your antagonism”.  They were a smooth talking lot and, sure enough, nothing at all was accomplished.  I didn’t know much at that time but I knew enough to recognize a faith-based cult of true believers.

Our social and educational sciences are, much of them, in the hands of a cult like this, devout creationists all with their heads in the sand of social science as it was envisioned half a century ago.  We recently had an experience much like Anomaly’s.  Over a year ago Mike Weight (an undergraduate) and I posted a draft of a manuscript about using quantitative genetic theory to evaluate changes over time in traits. We had in mind a technology useful for distinguishing cultural from genetic transmission. Many readers of our blog made helpful comments and, to our shame, found a large number of typos.  I shudder when I reread that old post.  It was written shortly after I had my temporal lobe bleed and the whole part of my brain that was capable of proofreading seems to have been knocked out.

 We thought we should submit it somewhere where social scientists would read it.  We got back, from a succession of three journals, a stunning set of ignorant and irrelevant reviews.  For example the first sentence of the first one we read said “this is really about race and it ought to be made clear”.  Another said “they are trying to push genetics where it has no place”.  The tone of all of them was like this, angry and scornful.  One reviewer told us that our views were outdated and discredited since epigenetics had swept the field!

We had two and one half mildly sensible reviews, one about technical aspects of quantitative genetic theory and another by a reviewer unhappy with the level of detail and statistical aspects of the treatment of Amish test results.  Since we regarded the Amish data as a toy set of data, we made no changes. The other reviewers were all hostile and angry at what we had written, several convinced that the paper must be racist but they didn’t quite understand how or why.  We could only laugh at the collection of reviews because none of them had any idea what they were talking about.  None  made it so far as to read and understand the central point of the paper.  With the exceptions mentioned above, they were pig ignorant and proud of it.

In a recent post here, Greg’s conclusion about the social sciences was that “they’re just no damn good”. It is easy to come up with social scientists who are excellent— Steve Pinker and Charles Murray and Dalton Conley and Jonathan Haidt pop to mind — but my sample of reviewers suggests that for most of them Greg is right on the money.  We surrendered to the collective social science wisdom and submitted the paper to our friends at the Journal of Biosocial Science where it is in press, out any day now, as an open access article.





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19 Responses to Perils of Incorrect Thought

  1. JayMan says:

    Check out some of these that Amir Sariaslan has been tweeting:

    These are the people you’re trying to impress upon with your work. Seems like a hopeless case.

    One way or another we need to clean house in academia.

  2. The scientific mindset is a rarity. It requires high ability, high curiosity, and low attachment to hypotheses.

    • JayMan says:

      And many other things…

    • harpend says:

      Thinks James. My observations support your statement, but I can’t in my gut understand it for a moment. 50 volts is 50 volts and we can measure it. I just completely lack empathy with folks who don’t live in a world of science.

      • The trek from writing an essay to measuring voltage is a long one

      • melendwyr says:

        If the concept of “50 volts” were in any way related to emotional responses, people wouldn’t be able to deal with it rationally, and probably electronics wouldn’t exist.

        I’ve occasionally seen the “Mr. Spock” archetype mocked, but dispassionately distancing from something we’re trying to think about seems to be the only successful method. Also, I’ve noticed that the people most actively contemptuous also tended to be pushing irrational ideas.

        Don’t feel bad about proofreading. No matter how many or how few, everyone feels like an idiot when they find something they let slip. I hope we were of some use to you; may we be so again.

    • Bob says:

      “Die Wissenschaft denkt nicht.”

  3. Anonymous says:

    Welcome back, and glad to hear your brain has gotten better.

  4. The contrast you heard long-ago in public at a single conference in psychiatry I had to endure in mutters behind people’s backs over decades, and it is still not fully resolved. I note sardonically that such resistance to giving up terrible ideas occurred among people who supposedly care deeply about relieving the confusion and emotional pain of others.

    I think Young Earth Creationists are deeply wrong, but danged if I can find much actual damage they do compared to people preventing GMO foods from getting to the starving. I suspect they simply annoy the wrong people.

  5. I had a recent rejection that had as its central plank “the authors at one point make a claim that this trait is biological in origin, yet later on they claim it is learned!” I actually wrote back to the editor on this one, asking if they were going to continue to use reviewers that did not know that learning was a biological function, and that the important questions were how rapidly, readily and resistant to extinction certain canalised learning paths were. The exchange was simultaneously useful to me (I can now brush off rejections like this without my ego taking a hit) and depressing (some major journals are edited by morons)

  6. Dale says:

    My observation is that a sudden flash of incoherent rage in your interlocutor is a sign that you’ve violated a taboo. The wise person tries to discern exactly what the taboo is.

    You write, “We had in mind a technology useful for distinguishing cultural from genetic transmission.” But of course that violates the anti-racist taboo because it considers possible that there is a cultural trait in humans that is genetically transmitted. And the core principle of anti-racism is to deny anything that has ever been used by racists in their arguments.

    The significance of all this requires analysis that has not yet been done. Of course, the human brain is an organ for survival and reproduction, not for discerning the truth, and in reality, academic disciplines are at best devices for the propagation of the cultures that nurture them, not for the discernment of the truth per se. With physics, discerning the facts helps our culture prosper (and out-compete others) by enlarging practical technologies … but also, our culture has gone through a lot of agonizing adjustments so that its activities aren’t discomfited by inconvenient physical facts. A few hundred years ago, those adjustments hadn’t been made and physics inquiry could threaten the social order.

    The social sciences are worse off. Partly because discovered facts can be used directly to argue for political positions, and those arguments may be directly harmful to our culture’s competitiveness by messing up the agreements, compromises, and distributions of power that make the culture run smoothly. And partly because the practical technology to be obtained from social science fact seems to be fairly limited.

  7. Sean says:

    Have you ever thought of doing advice posts on how to deal with typical problems faced by young academics?

  8. Matt D says:

    I made the mistake of going to graduate school in sociology (at a UC, so I was deep in the belly of the beast). When I was a graduate student, I posted this quote from an E.O. Wilson speech to my facebook:

    “Postmodernist critics present a Disney World representation of science, a
    fantasy of what science is, and how scientists work, and why they work, a
    distortion embellished variously by obsolete theories of psychoanalysis and the
    battle cries of political ideology. Within the academy, it seems to me that
    postmodernism and the divisive forms of multiculturalism are substantially a
    revolt of the proletariat, wherein second-rate scholarship is parlayed into
    tenured professorships and book contracts–not by quality, not by originality,
    but by claims of entitlement of race, gender, and moralistic ideologies.”

    A few weeks after posting that on facebook, I found myself in the Graduate Dean’s office being threatened by multiple university bureaucrats because I created a ‘hostile climate’. The social sciences are little more than a leftist beauty pageant.

  9. PV van der Byl says:

    I very much agree with your approval of Murray, Pinker, and Haidt. But what is about Dalton Conley’s work that you found impressive?

  10. Julian says:

    This is all consistent with Jon Haidt’s observations here.

    “The fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became more exclusive after the 1960s, according to Dr. Haidt. “The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy,” he said, arguing that this shared morality both “binds and blinds.”

    “If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace “intelligent design” while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism.

    “Moynihan was shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as racist,” Dr. Haidt said. “Open-minded inquiry into the problems of the black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have liberal sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along.”

    Similarly, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends). “This was not a permissible hypothesis,” Dr. Haidt said. “It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.”

  11. Botti says:

    I see that Jonathan Kaplan, philosophy academic at University of Oregen, has revealed he was one of the reviewers of the Anomaly paper. Judging by his comments it’s hard to see how he can ethically act as a referee given his explicit view that someone like Wade is a “r8cist piece of sh8t”.

    Ethical Guidelines for Reviewers

    1.Reviews should be objective evaluations of the research. If you cannot judge a paper impartially, you should not accept it for review or you should notify the editor as soon as you appreciate the situation. If you have any professional or financial affiliations that may be perceived as a conflict of interest in reviewing the manuscript, or a history of personal differences with the author(s), you should describe them in your confidential comments.

    2.If, as a reviewer, you believe that you are not qualified to evaluate a component of the research, you should inform the editor in your review.

    3.Reviews should be constructive and courteous and the reviewer should respect the intellectual independence of the author. The reviewer should avoid personal comments; Science reserves the right to edit out comments that will hinder constructive discussion of manuscripts.

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