Sunday, August 28, 2005

Argh Again

This post is a personal rant. Please ignore it.

It's been a busy couple of weeks, what with the beginning of the semester and all, and for the last few days, my son has been sick (sick and grumpy), so I've been way behind on my blog reading for some time. Today, my son is with his mother, and I'm just sitting around, so I decided to catch up on my blog reading. In the process, I came across this post by Brian Leiter from two weeks ago. It's an 1100+ word rant on a review of Friedrich Nietzsche by Curtis Cate in the New York Times. If you're a reader of Leiter, you probably know that 1100+ words is pretty long for a post that Leiter has actually written (rather than mostly quoted). And he is a Nietzsche expert, so I was eager to read it.

The gist of the post is that Leiter doesn't think that the author of the review, William T. Vollman, knows what he's talking about, and he provides several examples of Vollman's ignorance to prove it. As I read it, I was particularly struck by this in the last paragraph:
The broader issue, though, is about the responsibilities of newspapers, like The New York Times, that aspire to be serious and intellectual. If a decision is made to commission a long review of a book, why not enlist someone who actually knows something?
Now that's a sentiment with which I can agree wholeheartedly, as anyone who's read this blog knows (and hey, I told you this was a personal rant, so why are you still reading it?). But as I read it, something didn't sit right with me. It's not that I think Leiter's wrong about Vollman's knowledge of Nietzsche, it's that I don't think Leiter really believes what he says about the "responsibilities of newspapers." I mean, I think the thinks he believes it, but I don't think he really believes it. You see, when I read it, my mind immediately went back to this post . In it, Leiter favorably links to this review of David Buller's Adapting Minds, by Sharon Begley. So favorably, in fact, that Leiter wrote:
Law-and-economics folks, who are often especially partial to this shoddy science, would do well to read the review and the book. [Emphasis mine]
But wait a second. Wait a friggin' second! That review was written by someone with no qualifications in psychology, or philosophy, and it shows. She's a science editor for the Wall Street Journal, and has written on all sorts of scientific topics (ranging from psychology to astronomy), but she's not an expert in any of the areas of psychology or biology that Buller covers. To give one example of the ignorance of the issues that Begley displays, the last sentence of the review read:
After "Adapting Minds," it is impossible to ever again think that human behavior is the Stone Age artifact that evolutionary psychology claims.
Ummm... no. Buller's book is very good in places, especially where he sticks to existing critiques of Evolutionary Psychology, but it fails where a critique of EP must be at its strongest, in critiquing the work of Cosmides and Tooby (see the link under "no" for why this is the area in which it is most important to critique EP, and why Buller fails to do so effectively). And thus, contrary to the title of Leiter's post and the last sentence of Begley's review, Buller has not demolished Evolutionary Psychology. Anyone who was qualified to write that review would have known that, as would anyone who was qualified to evaluate the book and the review.

When I pointed this out, and criticized Leiter for endorsing the review and hyperbolically claiming that the book itself spelled the end of Evolutionary Psychology, Leiter was none too happy, and he made this very clear in an email exchange. All of this begs the question, why does Leiter have no problem endorsing a book review by someone who is not qualified to write it, to the point of being rather angry about any criticism of that endorsement, in one instance, but he writes an extended post ending with a criticism of newspapers that use unqualified reviewers in another? My best guess is that Leiter endorsed Begley's review because it came to the same conclusion he had, and that he cared not about the substance of the review itself, but when the NYT's published a review on a subject that is near and dear to him (he's written a book on Nietzsche, as I'm sure you know), the substance of the review suddenly became important to him. My guess may be wrong, but I can't think of any answer to that question in which Leiter comes out looking good.

OK, thus ends my rant. I'll admit that it's probably unhealthy for me to have spent that much time on it, but this sort of thing really bugs me. I mean, Leiter and I agree about the merits of Evolutionary Psychology, even if the argument he has presented against it isn't a very good one. Heck, Leiter and I probably agree on a lot of things, as we're both on the same end of the political spectrum. Though I must say it's hard to tell, because it's rare that Leiter actually offers any positive political positions on his blog, and his scholarly writings aren't overtly political (at least not the ones I know of). But regardless of whether we ultimately agree or disagree, Leiter's selective criticism of intellectual irresponsibility strikes me as just another instance of the attitude that leads to the politicization of science and other scholarly endeavors. You just can't decide which scholarship is good and which is bad based on whether you agree with the conclusions. Otherwise, you're no better than the creationists and global-warming "skeptics," even if the issues are less pressing.

15 comments:

Razib said...

you're a cognitive scientist, you know the way to break down such biases. for example, you know i am on the Right side of the political spectrum and like to push biologistic thinking a lot farther than you. this essay by paul krugman praising the evolutionary thinkers i tend to lean on (like j.m. smith) and trashing s.j. gould (sorry bora!) has come in handy many a time. now, does it matter that a neoclassical trade economist has an opinion about evolutionary biology? no. not on the merits. but, the fact that that neoclassical trade economist is (now) a card-carrying liberal anti-bush columnist gives him lots of creds and diffuse immediate perceptions of what "my crowd" is all about.

some sort of thing can be done to creationist christians by appealing to st. augustine's references to genesis being an allegory rather than literal truth. i don't really give a shit about what st. augustine thought, but the reference immediately disorients the emotive centers of the brain and brings the
debate back to quasi-rational earth.

i guess you hold leiter to a higher standard cuz he's real smart. but all that might mean is that he can do dumb things really fast!

Chris said...

I hold Leiter to a higher standard because he spends so much time and energy talking about holding people to higher standards.

Razib said...

hypocrisy in defense of bias is no vice....

BL said...

Whoever you are, you must really have too much time on your hands to repeatedly engage in this kind of stupid and petty sniping. When the author of the book reviewed (namely, Buller) calls the review to my attention, and the review is an adequate precis of the book (by the author's own lights), that is one kind of case. When the reviewer of a book (namely, Vollmannn) makes a series of rather striking mistakes in a much lengthier review, that is a different kind of case. One might think that for a lengthy book review, one ought to get a reviewer who knows something about the subject. That person might be a journalist, or it might not be. In the case of the review of Buller, it was a journalist, who knew enough to write an adequate review that the author himself deemed adequate.

You simply have no business or grounds for irreponsible allegations such as this:

"Leiter's selective criticism of intellectual irresponsibility strikes me as just another instance of the attitude that leads to the politicization of science and other scholarly endeavors. You just can't decide which scholarship is good and which is bad based on whether you agree with the conclusions. Otherwise, you're no better than the creationists and global-warming "skeptics," even if the issues are less pressing."

Since my criticism was not selective--it does require that you be able to distinguish apples from oranges, which apparently you can't do--and since you have no evidence of my endorsing scholarship based on its conclusion, you ought to retract the remark and perhaps also attend to your sick child, or do something useful instead of carrying on like this.

Chris said...

First of all, I don't have too much time on my hands, but that would be nice. Also, I don't consider this petty sniping. I've given reasons for my criticisms, and while I tend to pick on the same people (you and some Volokh conspirators), it's because you, and they, are visible intellectual bloggers. Your intellectual inconsistencies serve as good examples, for that reason.

Now, whether the review was an "accurate precis" of the book is simply irrelevant. It takes reading and writing abilities, and not expertise in a particular field, to read a book and summarize it. But the author of the review does more of that, as evidenced by the sentence I quoted. She tries to draw conclusions from the book that she is simply unqualified to draw. And so do you (having, apparently, never read the book, to boot!). That is exactly the sort of thing I was criticizing you for, and nothing in your comment challenges that.

BL said...

You will be happy to know that I don't tend to pursue this much farther. Let me note that you've now changed the topic, and once again are making allegations about what I do and don't know, and have and have not read, that have no basis in fact.

That the review of Buller was basically accurate, while the review of the Nietzsche biography was replete with errors, is precisely why the two cases are different. That is not a hard point. That you take issue with one claim by the reviewer of Buller does not show that the review was not basically accurate.
Your purported evidence of "inconsistency" is actually evidence of knowing the difference between apples and oranges. It's a useful skill.

I rarely bother to comment on these kinds of stupid smears, but since you are otherwise an intelligent person (judging from what's on your blog--since I've no idea who you are, I've no other evidence to go on), I figure it just might be worth it to call your attention to nonsense when you peddle it. And I would urge you to stop overreaching any actual evidence in order to smear me.

Chris said...

I'm certianly not going to argue this particular point any further.

It is hardly apples and oranges that one reviewer gets Nietzsche wrong (it's not clear, from your post, that he got the book itself wrong, but got Nietzsche wrong) in reviewing a book about Nietzsche, and the other gets psychology wrong in reviewing a book about psychology. Perhaps Vollman's review was inaccurate in regards to the book itself, indicating that Vollman hadn't actually read it, but that's irrelevant to the fact that both the NYT and the WSJ hired reviewers who didn't know anything about the topic of the book they reviewing, and you lambasted the NYT but endorsed the WSJ article.

And I assume you haven't read it for two reasons:
1.) You note that Buller agreed it was an accurate precis, indicating that you yourself could not determine this (again, I could be wrong, but I've got no evidence to the contrary)
2.) On your blog, the argument you've given against EP is the tired Gouldian one that Buller himself debunks in his book. I'd assume that if you believe that Buller demolishes EP through arguments that automatically render the argument you gave on your blog invalid, you would no longer use that argument. Again, I could be wrong, but it would be a strange practice to say that a book effectively critiques a discipline and then use a separate critique that is inconsistent with the one you've just endorsed.

Chris said...

One more quick comment. I think it's safe to say that you think I've criticized you unfairly, and I think I've criticized you fairly. Since I said at the beginning of this post that this was a personal rant about a particular habit that I perceive in your blogging (and I know, you disagree), and which I find particularly irksome, you and anyone else should feel free (perhaps compelled) to ignore it. You've answered my charges. I'm sure it's time to move on, as you note. Feel free to comment about EP specifically, or on any of the other posts.

BL said...

I'm done trying to distinguish the two cases along the obvious dimensions; you are attached to your irresponsible criticism, so you will have to own it and its consequences.

You state: "You note that Buller agreed it was an accurate precis, indicating that you yourself could not determine this (again, I could be wrong, but I've got no evidence to the contrary)." I was pointing out that Buller is probably a better authority on the content of his book than me, and that this better authority was content with the review, so much so that he passed it on to me. At the time he did so, I had not read his book, but I knew other things he'd written on this, so I knew his general line.

You state: "On your blog, the argument you've given against EP is the tired Gouldian one that Buller himself debunks in his book. I'd assume that if you believe that Buller demolishes EP through arguments that automatically render the argument you gave on your blog invalid, you would no longer use that argument." The argument I gave was not the Gouldian one, except in the generic sense that it was anti-adapationism. I know Buller is an adaptationist; this is unfortunate, in my view. Many of his arguments about the evidential support for EP do not, happily, turn on this.

Chris said...

The basic argument is Gouldian, not only in its anti-adaptationism, but in the structure of its anti-adaptationism. It assumes, for example, a certain directionality in Evolutionary Psychological thought, which is simply not there. The work of Tooby and Cosmides is a good example. They do not assume that some behavior or cognitive ability is an adaptation. Instead, using Trivers' work on reciprocal altruism (and the later game-theoretical models built around this), they argue that such and such an adaptation should have evolved, and they go out and look for it. When they find evidence for it, the idea that it is an adaptation is confirmed by the fact that it was predicted based on adaptationist reasoning.

Of course, that doesn't indicate without a doubt that the mechanism they were looking for is, in fact, an adaptation, but it's a far cry from assuming it is one. This is the point that Buller makes in his book that, if it is the case that EP works this way (and in most EP examples it is -- I challenge you to provide sources in which it is assumed that a proximal mechanism is an adaptation, rather than argued from the nature of the EEA that such-and-such an adaptation must have developed, and then looking for it), then the anti-adaptationist argument that you've given, with your examples of non-adaptations, is irrelevant.

Also, the biggest problem with Buller's book is his evaluation of the evidence, particularly in Chatper 4. Buller just doesn't know the literature, which isn't entirely surprising. The literature on social exchange alone is pretty damn big. He also doesn't appear to understand statistics (making arguments about the numbers that cite small differences that, based on the statistical analyses, are likely to have been the result of chance).

bl said...

You write, regarding T & C: "they argue that such and such an adaptation should have evolved, and they go out and look for it. When they find evidence for it, the idea that it is an adaptation is confirmed by the fact that it was predicted based on adaptationist reasoning."

I assume you know that this would not be regarded as remotely adequate for confirming an adaptionist hypothesis in evolutionary biology.

You write: "Of course, that doesn't indicate without a doubt that the mechanism they were looking for is, in fact, an adaptation, but it's a far cry from assuming it is one."

Actually, it is very close to assuming it, if considered in light of the actual methods of confirmation employed in evolutionary biology.

You should send your criticisms to Professor Buller, who I believe has rather good responses to them, but that will have to be his task, not mine.

Chris said...

The point about the methods of EP is actually one that Buller makes.

It may be that he has answers to my criticisms, but it won't help the book, which excludes so many relevant experiments, at least in chapter 4, that it can't be said to really address social exchange theories.

Chris said...

By the way, I fully agree that even that method makes for really, really bad evolutionary reasoning. For one, it involves speculation about the EEA that is based on at most sketchy data, and more often than not, on no historical data whatsoever (as in the case of exchange theory, which is based almost entirely on Trivers and game theoretic modeling data). Then, it assumes that evolution would work like a human engineer, designing the sorts of processes that EPist can think of to solve the problems they've "discovered" in the EEA. And these solutions seem to arise pretty much ex nihilo, with only cursory attention being given to the behavior of nonhuman animals. There is little if any discussion of what sorts of mechanisms evolution might have co-opted in order to build the modules EPers hypothesize, and how these origins might effect the properties of those modules. And finally, since the reasoning goes from EEA problem to proximal mechanism to modern behavior, the EP is left with the ability to make sweeping predictions about behavior that are almost certain to be confirmed by some data, because they're so broad. "People can detect cheaters," or "Men like younger women." It's like confirming a theory of object-recognition by finding data showing that humans can identify artifacts.

ally said...

moncler jacketsmonclermoncler coatsmoncler t-shirtmoncler vestmoncler outletugg bootscheap ugg bootsdiscount ugg bootsugg classic tall bootsclassic ugg bootsmoncler jacketsmoncler
new moncler coatsmoncler vestmoncler outletmoncler polo t-shirtcoach outletcoach handbagscoach bagscoach totescoach outletlouis vuitton handbagsLV handbags 2010Louis Vuitton bags
Louis Vuitton totesrain bootsrainweardiesel jeansTure Religion Jeanslevis jeansabercrombie and fitch outlet
ed hardy wholesaleed hardy outletcheap ed hardy wholesalediscount ed hardy wholesalewholesale ed hardyGHDGHD straightenersCheap GHDDiscount GHDGHD OutletGHD New Pink

ally said...

Fashion trends change on daily basis, like Gold GHD. Following the latest in designer shades has become a passion of everyone, now Burberry Sunglasses. If you are the type of a woman who loves to explore in fashion, our ED Hardy Sunglasses will definitely satisfy your taste. Cheap Ed Hardy Sunglasses is also OK. Ed hardy streak of clothing is expanded into its wholesale ED Hardy T-shirt chain so that a large number of fans and users can enjoy the cheap ED Hardy Clothing range easily with the help of numerous secured websites, actually, our ED Hardy Outlet. As we all know, in fact discount ED Hardy, is based on the creations of the world renowned tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy. Well, this question is bound to strike the minds of all individuals. Many people may say Prada shoes is a joke, but we can give you Prada Sunglasses, because we have Prada handbags. Almost everyone will agree that Prada Purses are some of the most beautiful designer handbags marketed today. Now we have one new product: Prada totes. The reason is simple: fashion prohibited by ugg boots, in other words, we can say it as Cheap ugg boots. Would you like to wear Discount ugg boots. We have two kinds of fashionable boots: classic ugg boots and ugg classic tall boots. Ankh Royalty--the Cultural Revolution. Straightens out the collar, the epaulette epaulet, the Ankh Royalty Clothing two-row buckle. Now welcome to our Ankh Royalty Outlet. And these are different products that bear the most famous names in the world of fashion, like Ankh Royalty T shirt by the way -Prada, Spyder, Moncler(Moncler jackets,or you can say Moncler coats, Moncler T-shirt, Moncler vest,and you can buy them from our discount Moncler outlet), GHD, ED Hardy, Ankh Royalty, Twisted Heart.