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Journal of No. 118

February 20th, 2009

"Is" does not imply "Ought" - Why Scientism is Wrong - Penguins @ 10:42 am

Recently, I've been assaulted from several different directions by variations on the same stupid arguments. For the most part, I've been keeping out of things, but now I'm here to set shit straight. The current turmoil has centered on the confluence of a few major threads: evo psych, morality, nature, law, and rather centrally... science.

From time to time, I have been accused of being (or assumed to be) a scientismist.

Now, I defer to no one in the enormity of my appreciation for science. But I deny being a scientismist. Scientism (as I understand it) is just plain wrong, and is practically a strawman, if it weren't for the fact that there are some stupid shits who hold that position (and a larger fraction of people whose philosophical foot occasionally steps on a metaphorical bananaskin, slipping into scientism). This represents one extreme.

At the other extreme are the antiscientists. Again, science is so fucking awesome that this position is practically a strawman, except that there are some stupid shits who hold anti-science positions (and a larger fraction of people whose philosophical foot occasionally steps on a metaphorical bananaskin, slipping into antiscience).

Science is a marvellous tool, but it is not the infinite Swiss Army Knife. It does not apply to every conceivable question. If science is a hammer, then....

Scientismists see everything as a nail and go banging around on hexnuts and lightbulbs like idiots.
Antiscientists either hang their pictures with glue, or they let someone else hang it using a hammer, and watch the tool-user with intense mistrust and suspicion the whole while.

In brief, science is a tool that tells us how things are (in the natural world), not how they ought to be.

Now there are lots of other things that the science tool doesn't do. You can't use science to determine if a building is ugly, or if person X is your one true love. But the scientismists and antiscientists don't tend to make those mistakes. The common mistake is confusing "is" and "ought". Or to cast it in a different light, it is mistaking what is natural for what is good, desirable, or preferable.

Science is very good at figuring out the "is" part, but it is helpless (on its own) for figuring out the "ought" part. For the oughts, we rely on tools like philosophy, morality, ethics, aesthetics, personal taste, etc.

And in most cases, the scientismists are using other tools to make these 'ought' distinctions. They just don't realize it, or admit it. In what follows, mainly I'll bash the scientismists, but Newton knows I have no love for the antiscientists either.

Let me go through some examples to explain what I mean. I'll start with something pretty silly, so hopefully I trust that everyone will see that the two extremes are making errors.

Scientific Fact: Near the surface of the earth, gravity exerts a downward force on all matter.
Scientismist Response: Therefore, we ought to drop as many things as possible, and push over unstable objects like computer towers and standing people.
Antiscientist Response: Stop repressing the rights of birds to fly! I will not rest until every penguin is free from the shackles of gravity!

The scientismist is confusing the fact that things do fall down with the idea that things ought to fall down. Or that since falling is natural, it is therefore desirable. This is dumb.

The antiscientist is confusing the idea that things ought to be somehow else (clearly, penguins ought to fly, if only to gratify my desire to laugh at something so ridiculous), with the idea that things actually are somehow else (and therefore science is wrong, untrustworthy, wicked, etc.). In effect, the antiscientist wants to deny known facts. This is dumb.

Let's move on. The controversy will get louder and more acrimonious the further we go toward the soft sciences, which are justly ridiculed by real scientists.

Scientific Fact: Biological Evolution.
Scientismist: The unemployed/Jews/left-handers/genetically unfit should be exterminated.
Antiscientist: Hitler, therefore evolution is false.

That the 'weak' die does not necessarily mean that the weak ought to die. One can make a case for eugenics, but this does not rely on science alone. For example, one might do an experiment and discover...

In countries that euthanize Down Syndrome babies, the rate of Down Syndrome is 0.1%.
In countries that allow Down Syndrome babies to survive and procreate, the rate of Down Syndrome is 0.5%.

And the scientismist folds his arms smugly and says, "Well, there you are. We should euthanize Down Syndrome babies."

But there is an unstated assumption here that "We ought to reduce the incidence of Down Syndrome (by any means necessary)." One may choose to agree or disagree with this statement, but whichever side you choose, its truth or falsity is not a scientific result. There is no ought-ometer that scientists can use to determine which case has more ought-itude. If this issue were being debated, I imagine that people would be bringing up issues like quality of life, sanctity of life, the right to life, parental rights, morality, God's will, financial responsibility, government responsibility, our posterity, etc. No one is going to reach for a biology textbook. Science doesn't tell us what we ought to do. At best, science can tell us what would happen if we choose between the different alternatives. This can be a very useful input in the decision-making process, but science does not provide a method for making that decision.

The antiscientist argument is really an antiscientismist argument, which is fine, since scientism is wrong. But then it throws out the baby with the bathwater. For my next trick, I'll focus more on the antiscientist side.

Scientific Fact: On average, men are taller than women.
Scientismist Response: Therefore, women ought to be paid less than men, forbidden from engaging in combat during wartime, and should make me a damn sandwich.
Antiscientist Response: Rulers are sexist tools of the patriarchy. Besides, my sister is taller than my brother. Stop trying to destroy gender equality.

Okay, the scientismist response is just dumb. It assumes some sort of magical connection between height and worth. [Of course, it is a fact that taller people make more money, but again... this does not establish that taller people ought to make more money.]

The antiscientist position starts from the idea that all people are created equal and therefore they ought to be treated equally. This is a fabulous idea enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But neither of those documents is a scientific result. So these great statements about how we ought to treat each other has no power to trump the scientific result that men are taller than women on average. That's how it is.

Scientific Fact: On average, Asians score higher than whites who score higher than Hispanics who score higher than blacks on Wechsler IQ tests.
Scientismist Response: some ignorant shit
Antiscientist Response: some ignorant shit(*)

Really, this is pretty close to the previous example. Last I checked, one's ability to vote or live or be worthwhile or to be treated equally does not depend on waving one's IQ score in front of the authorities. High-IQ scoring people are not treated 'more equal' than others. Conversely, suggesting that blacks ought to be treated as second class citizens is just assholery.

This is not to say that IQ is irrelevant to success in life. Probably it contributes a lot. So does being tall contribute to success in basketball. Nevertheless, some groups of people are taller than others. And some groups of people get higher IQ scores than others. That's the way it is. You don't have to care. You don't have to like it. You don't have to draw any particular conclusion from it. But you're not allowed to deny the brute fact.

It's valid to ask whether IQ tests measure 'intelligence'.
It's valid to ask whether IQ tests are racially/culturally/gender biased.
It's valid to suggest reasons why these differentials in IQ exist.
But it's not valid to say that blacks score as high as Asians on IQ tests, because they just don't.

Scientific 'fact': gay penguins are the best parents in the whole zoo.
Scientismist Response: Homosexuality is natural, and should therefore be legal and have full marriage and adoption rights.
Antiscientist Response: Gay Penguins!?! LALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!!!

Being natural doesn't make something desirable. Arsenic is natural. Infanticide is natural.

On the other hand, one can definitely use this scientific fact to demolish the false (but all too common) claim that homosexuality is unnatural.

Scientific fact: Step-parents are roughly 70-100 times more likely to murder their non-biological children than biological parents are to murder their children.
Scientismist: Step-filicide is natural, and should therefore be legal.
Antiscientist: WTF, dude!

I bring up this case mainly because an evolutionary explanation for this fact is almost certainly correct (see link for more detail). No 'sociological' explanation is likely to produce an effect size of two orders of magnitude. But having a scientific explanation for why something is the way it is, is not a reason suggesting that it ought to be the way it is.

Scientific fact: Observations of non-human animals exhibiting behavior X.
Scientismist: Humans should be like that.
Anti-Scientismist: What are you smoking?

The scientismist not only anthropomorphises the behavior of the animals, but then maps that behavior onto human beings as a prescriptive rule. Shit, that's tantamount to demanding that Queen Elizabeth II pump out hundreds of eggs a day. Stop being stupid.

Scientific fact: Observations of humans exhibiting behavior X.
Scientismist: Humans ought to behave like that.
edgyspice: Fuck you.

For the last fucking time, IS does not imply OUGHT!
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[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 12:48 am (UTC)
I concur that "is" and "ought" ought not be confused.

However, I think it's well established scientifically that IQ tests are a deeply flawed measure of intellectual potential.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 01:08 am (UTC)
Define "intellectual potential".

IQ tests measure what IQ tests measure. It's a particular subset of skills, useful for some tasks and not others. But "intellectual potential" is such a vague term that I feel comfortable saying that your assertion is basically meaningless, barring a specific definition of what you mean by it. I'd even tie it back into essentialsaltes's diatribe:

Scientific fact: IQ tests measure particular mental skills, not all mental skills.
Scientismist: IQ tests are a measure of your worth as a human being.
Antiscientist: IQ tests are meaningless and everybody is just as smart as everybody else, albeit in different ways.

There seems to be a tendency to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to IQ scores, to claim that because they don't measure everything they measure nothing. As I understand it, they correlate very well to success in several arenas.

(No, I have no dog in this fight. I haven't been IQ tested since childhood and my parents never told me what my score was.)
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 04:00 am (UTC)

Malcolm Gladwell on IQ

"The Mismeasure of Man" is a great book on all the things IQ isn't. I recommend it for those interested in the IQ debate.

More recently, however, I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," which makes a very interesting point about a group of 750 geniuses followed by a psychologist named Terman. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis_Terman)

He helped invent IQ testing, believed in it whole-heartedly, and measured the hell out of a group of super-high IQs from a young age.

Very long story very short: once you're past, say 120, IQ is not predictive of success in life. That is, an IQ 130 is no more likely to succeed than an IQ 150. After 120, it has a lot more to do with socio-economic status and background.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC)
I think you're exactly right. IQ tests are good at measuring what IQ test measure. However, there's a mountain of studies from multiple disciplines that show that human intelligence is much more complex than those particular skills.

The problem with IQ tests is not whether or not they're useful in some situations, it's that they've become accepted as an absolute measure of intelligence. That's nonsense. It's the equivalent of counting the number of pushups you can do as an absolute measure of physical fitness. I'd bet good money that I can bench press more than you, but you can probably last longer in an endurance run. Who's in better shape?
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 07:45 pm (UTC)
However, there's a mountain of studies from multiple disciplines that show that human intelligence is much more complex than those particular skills.

Yes, there's a mountain of studies that show that a lot of people are prepared to expand the commonly held definition of "intelligence" to include traits that, while admirable and useful, aren't really what people mean when they say "smart."

The speed and efficiency with which one learns, retains and manipulates information is what 99% of people refer to as "intelligence." Certainly there are other methods than IQ tests of measuring this trait, and the claim that the Stanford-Binet is precise enough to achieve more than a rough triage of intellectual ability is fraught with peril.

But to include things like empathy, musical ability, and communications skills under a definition of "intelligence" smacks of muddying the definition. Not so as to increase understanding, but for the purpose of reassuring people who are talented in other areas but have less capacity in those essential components that we already know comprise "intelligence" that they have the same gifts as a Stephen Hawking or a Niels Bohr.

I would agree that an IQ score is far from an absolute measure of intelligence. But the fact that it doesn't measure your ability to keep a beat or make friends is not why -- these are not the things that people mean when they compliment you on your intelligence, any more than they mean that your circulatory system is particularly efficient when they call you attractive. Not everything that happens in the brain is a function of one's intelligence.

As with many things in life, Dungeons & Dragons provides a valuable perspective on the issue. There is a reason that characters possess Wisdom and Charisma scores, in addition to their Intelligence score. Despite the beguiling similarity in sound, all the Wisdom in the world won't make you a better wizard, because the necessary trait for success at wizardry is not reflected by that ability. Wisdom is certainly valuable in other areas -- and extremely valuable for professions in which success depends directly on one's Wisdom -- but it is not Intelligence, cannot do the job of Intelligence, and thus should not be called Intelligence.

--- Ajax.

Edited at 2009-02-21 07:51 pm (UTC)
Date:February 22nd, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)
I was just going to mention D&D stats!

It all comes back to role-playing games. They are the TRUE PATH. :-P
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)
Like Ian, I wouldn't know how to measure intellectual potential. But IQ is positively correlated with many factors that are associated with success in modern Western society. (And since IQ is relatively stable with age from childhood on, the IQ is established before the success occurs, so success does not cause high IQ.) Of course, IQ may not cause success, either. Maybe both IQ and success depend on unmeasurable magic-success-factor.

It seems clear to me that the high correlation between IQ and SAT and other tests (and the weaker correlations with success measures) shows that what IQ tests measure might be better termed 'standardized test-taking ability'. To the extent that life is like taking a standardized test, it helps on average. Life is not very much like taking a standardized test.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 12:51 am (UTC)
And here I was thinking about the confluence on my flist of penguins.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 12:51 am (UTC)
My only complaint is that I would much rather have witnessed this rant in person.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 12:56 am (UTC)
I'm just happy to read one that's been spellchecked and has actual references.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 21st, 2009 07:06 pm (UTC)
I think what gets in the craw of many anti-scientists is the fact that elementary logic can often pick apart the extremely broad generalizations they often like to make about morality, aesthetics, behavior, etc. -- generally proving that they don't really believe the things that they claim to, or that those beliefs are based in received wisdom that quite often contains inaccuracies. Since scientists are trained in elementary logic (some better-trained than others, admittedly), the anti-scientists then blame science for their resulting feelings of inadequacy, because that's easier than blaming themselves.

Few things irritate me more than the expostulation, phrased as a criticism by somebody who's been confronted with an uncomfortable truth, "You always have to be right!" Well...yeah. I learned from an early age that being wrong wasn't something to be proud of. How about you?

--- Ajax.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 22nd, 2009 05:14 am (UTC)
I would like to make one small caveat, if I could:

In brief, science is a tool that tells us how things are (in the natural world), not how they ought to be.

To my mind, it's just a bit more accurate to say that science is a tool for finding out how things are in the natural world, and then tells us what it found out. If science was an entity (as so many people believe it to be) that functioned as a source of received wisdom, well, it could easily be just what anti-scientists accuse it of being. Or, to put it another way, science isn't a thing, it's a process.

Don't get me wrong. The basics that we've discovered so far seem pretty unassailable to me, what with having been backed up by hundreds of years of evidence and experimentation. I don't think there's any need to revisit these things. But, well, you know - the aether, and all of that. Sometimes we need to go back a bit.

Science doesn't tell us how things are, it tells us what the best evidence is and what experimentation seems to indicate. It may sound wishy-washy but that willingness for self-correction is what makes it, in the words of Carl Sagan, the most precious thing we have.
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Date:February 22nd, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
I happily accept your caveat. Certainly all scientific knowledge is tentative, and the process produces theories, not Truth with a capital T.

I even thought about hedging the phrasing of "Scientific Fact," but these important subtleties seemed to be putting me on a train bound for 'what is the meaning of is?' that I didn't want to ride.
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Date:February 23rd, 2009 07:02 am (UTC)
The controversy will get louder and more acrimonious the further we go toward the soft sciences, which are justly ridiculed by real scientists.

I think a lot of psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists would take issue with that statement.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 23rd, 2009 03:09 pm (UTC)
Yes, it was a mean joke.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 23rd, 2009 08:42 pm (UTC)
Lol, no worries.

Us soft scientists are probably a little too sensitive about this, precisely because you're right that it does get more acrimonious in those fields -- people who are less rigorous in their thinking find it a lot easier to get away with using soft sciences to justify scientism. My wife's an evolutionary psychology professor and she has to explain the naturalistic fallacy to her students every semester to try and dissuade them from that sort of thinking. Unfortunately, this tendency to conflate what is with what ought to be seems to be pretty deeply ingrained in a lot of people and they really resist being told it's bunk.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 23rd, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
Us soft scientists are probably a little too sensitive about this

Which, of course, is why hard scientists always twit soft scientists about it... because they always react!
Date:February 24th, 2009 12:42 am (UTC)
An excellent discourse, but I take issue with the claim "No 'sociological' explanation is likely to produce an effect size of two orders of magnitude.". That seems like pure opinion. I can think of some possible counter-examples (gender selection by means of abortion, Sati) that are almost purely sociologically explained, existing to a substantial magnitude in some populations but not in others. Or is there a caveat here, limiting the observation, that I am not inferring?
[User Picture Icon]
Date:February 24th, 2009 03:57 am (UTC)
"No 'sociological' explanation is likely to produce an effect size of two orders of magnitude." ... in this case.

I was thinking of the particular problem of step-filicide.

Journal of No. 118