Sunday, 31 July 2016

A messy machine

This week in journal club, we revisited a classic paper of evolutionary biology, Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin's famous/infamous The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptionist Programme, a paper that, among other things, has made amateur architectural history something of a cottage industry among evolutionary biologists. "Spandrels", as it is often known, is almost impossible to discuss as a scientific paper among biologists of a certain age.* It is a cultural artefact, a signifier of its times. Any discussion of "Spandrels" immediately becomes a historiography, an attempt to, on the one hand, understand it in its context that is no longer around us, and, on the other, detect its influence on the different world in which we now live. "Spandrels" is, depending on who you talk to, either the hallmark of a small but significant paradigm shift in evolutionary biology, or the beginning of an unhelpful tangent that has needlessly distracted evolutionary biologists for decades.
But taken on its own terms, "Spandrels" is a bizarre thing. Certainly, it is a kind of paper we would be unused to seeing today. It is a straight up, unapologetic, highly (and variably effectively) rhetorical polemic. As its name implies, it is a critique, not of data, but of ways of thinking. "Spandrels" is all argument, no new data.**
What I think is most interesting about "spandrels" in that regard is the insight it gives us into the messy machine that is science. Specifically, it challenges simplistic notions about what science is.
In her speech accepting the nomination for  presidential candidate for the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton said at one point "I believe in Science". The reaction among scientists (on social media, because that's how I gauge reactions among scientists) was divided into two camps. One we shall call camp relief (as "Thank you, thank you, an existential dread has been slightly lifted from my shoulders"). The other we shall call camp epistemological frustration, best exemplified by this facebook response. Specifically point 2 "Rather, science is a philosophical approach to understanding one's world - one which is rooted in doubt, skepticism and formal testing methods". To which I would add only one thing:
"science, among other things, is a philosophical approach to understanding one's world - one which is rooted in doubt, skepticism and formal testing methods"
Because science is also a social activity, undertaken by people (Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin) supported by institutions (Harvard University, the Royal Society of Great Britain). And these are very much things we can believe (in the sense of have faith) in. Science is values, such as assumptions of good faith (sorely tested of late) and "nullius in verba". Science is also norms of ethics and even of esthetics. Some will argue that these things are ancillary to science's epistemological foundation. Which I think is nonsense. Unless you want to subscribe to some Walden-esque neo-Rousseauian vision where science is limited to ascertaining the depth of ponds we can measure by our own, the social and institutional structures of science, and the Trust which underpins them, are as crucial to science as any theory of knowledge. For without them, no aggregate, collaborative, progressive, growing science is possible.
Science is a messy machine, and like all messy machines we are tempted to make it seem simple, But when we say "science is self correcting", it is like when we say "markets find solutions", or "the eventual overthrow of the Bourgeoisie is an inevitable consequence of capitalism". It makes complex, non linear, messy human processes seem cleaner than they are. And in the process, it obscures all the awful things that humans do when they feel they actions are not being judged.
Because the attitude that limits science to an abstracted epistemological process, the attitude that obscures the social structures that allow science to work, even when it is for the best of reasons, is cousins to the attitude that tells people of color, and women, and disabled folk, and gay folk, and people from developing countries, that the barriers they face are not part of science.
Only an inclusive definition of science, that includes as parts of science the epistemology as well as the institutions, and ultimately, the people DOING the science, can argue that the structural inequalities of science are scientific problem. And to solve those structural inequalities, we must believe they are a problem, and we must believe we can fix them.

*I've noticed with some amusement, being at the tail end of that generation, that younger biologists are completely nonplussed by the paper's tone and cultural importance.
** In that respect, it is very similar, and knowing Gould I suspect this is no coincidence, to Simpson's slim Magnum Opus Tempo and Mode in Evolution

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