Monday, May 09, 2005


In the past, I've criticized bloggers who comment on topics, especially scientific or otherwise intellectual topics, about which they know little or nothing. In that post, the examples I used were all from conservative blogs. In the interest of fairness, I'm going to now criticize a liberal blogger for doing the same thing. In fact, it's hard to distinguish what he does from what Todd Zywicki did in the posts I previously referred to as examples of what I was criticizing.

The blogger is the philosopher and legal scholar Brian Leiter (what is it with legal scholars and intellectual laziness?). It is true that Dr. Leiter and I have different views of when and how civility should be used in discussion and debate, but some of what he does on his blog is, in my opinion, inexcusable. I'll give two recent examples. First there is his recent short post titled "Evolutionary Psychology Demolished." I figure I should start with this one since one of my previous examples was of someone using the ideas of Evolutionary Psychology despite having no expertise in the area. In this case, Leiter is criticizing them despite giving any indication that he has the requisite background knowledge to be able to do so. In that post, Leiter writes:
A new book, Adapting Minds (MIT Press), by philosopher David Buller (Northern Illinois) is discussed here:Download wall_street_journal_review.pdf. Law-and-economics folks, who are often especially partial to this shoddy science, would do well to read the review and the book.
And this isn't the first time Leiter has attacked Evolutionary Psychology. In previous posts, he has made similar remarks about Allen Orr's review (subscription required) of Pinker's The Blank Slate. Why does Leiter think that Evolutionary Psychology is "shoddy science," and what particular expertise does he have for making such an assessment? Well, his reasons are a mystery, as nowhere on his blog (or, as far as I can tell, in any of his published work) does he offer a critique of Evolutionary Psychology. I'm not even sure if he's read The Blank Slate, and I would bet money that he hasn't read Adapting Minds. How can he possibly know from a short review in the popular press, written by a good science writer, but one who has no training in any of the fields that Buller discusses (a fact that is just as true of Leiter!) that the book really does demolish Evolutionary Psychology? If he had read Adapting Minds, he'd know that Buller himself criticizes other critics of Evolutionary Psychology (especially Gould, but there are plenty of others) for just the sort of blanket criticisms that do not address the specific claims of Evolutionary Psychology.

A scholar, and a philosopher in particular, should know better! As an intellectual authority (and as a professor and widely-respected author and intellectual blogger, he is one), he should either remain silent on issues about which he knows little or nothing, or, if he in fact does know something, as a scholar, he should give reasons for his opinions. Simply referencing a book review of a book he hasn't read does not constitute giving reasons. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Leiter understand this. He once wrote:
[O]ne of the decidedly weird aspects of the blogosphere is discovering that one is being denounced as “ignorant” or “stupid” by noxious mediocrities, individuals of no discernible accomplishment or intelligence. ... Have these people no critical distance from themselves, no sense of their own limitations, no perspective on how out of their depth they are?
But Dr. Leiter, apparently, has little sense of his own limitations, or how out of depth he is. Or perhaps he does, and that is why he fails to offer any criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology. Maybe he realizes that he doesn't have any, because in the area of Evolutionary Psychology, he is out of his depth.

The second comes from an equally pithy post on the abstract of a paper from a field within which Leiter has demonstrated no expertise, but still feels justified in critiquing. Here is his post, including the abstract, in its entirety:
This abstract is by a professor of English at a major university; it is for "A Prolegomenon to Cognitive Aesthetics." It will not, I fear, enhance the opinion of philosophers about what goes on in some English Departments:
In this essay I begin with the proposition that AI [Artificial Intelligence] programs attempt to construct poems to blow our heads off. Beginning with this proposition opens up at least two pathways. The first pathway leads to the investigation of the nature of theories of mind, logic, and language. This is the domain of cognitive science and philosophy. I will say something about this pathway, but my concerns involve the construction of a second pathway, a path characterized by the transformation of the question 'what does it mean to be human?' into the question 'can one construct a philosophy of mind from literary aesthetics?'. Both questions should be understood as ways (failed ways) of trying to figure what is real as what is meaningful, what I understand as the paradigmatic goal of theology. Consequently, the mind understood in this way is both a theological and aesthetic problem, as much as a scientific question. Accomplishing the transformation of these two questions will delineate a domain of inquiry in which the relation between what counts as the mind and what counts as ways of meaning can be sensibly questioned.

These questions are partly motivated by the conflicting claims a string of related words have on me, or anyone, words through which I emerge as a human being to myself within language: 'psyche', 'animate', 'inanimate', 'soul', 'mind', 'inhabit', 'meaning', understand', 'description', 'justify', 'I', 'we', 'mine', 'our', 'world, 'before', 'after', 'then', 'now', 'soon', 'change', and 'time'. I organize this collection around four superordinate words: 'meaning', 'self-reflection', 'mind' and 'animation'. These four words mark the primary areas of contention between the disciplines of literature, analytic philosophy, and cognitive science (or AI). I call these words and the area of contention they delimit cognitive aesthetics.
Reading this brings to mind John Searle's famous remark about Derrida: "this is the kind of stuff that gives bullshit a bad name."
The abstract, which was apparently for a talk given at a conference a few years ago, strikes me as out in left field in places (and the "blow our heads off" metaphor, while I get it, is a bit silly), but that's not surprising, given that I've got no expertise in literary theory, and in fact haven't read any of the author's (Brett Bourbon) work, or any related work in the field (I do actually own Bourbon's book, Finding a Replacement for the Soul, which I believe is an extension of the work presented in the paper to which Leiter refers, but which I haven't read and do not plan on reading anytime soon). Many of the abstracts of physics papers sound like they're in left field to me, simply because I'm not a physicist, and have no real experience with the literature. Perhaps if Leiter had taken to the time actually read some of the literature, instead of discussing something that, in all likelihood, falls well outside his knowledge base, he might actually understand the abstract, and be able to critique the paper/talk's claims on substantive grounds. Or does Leiter believe that jargon, communicative practices and standards, etc., are unique to philosophy, and therefore he should be able to understand scholarly work in any other field without having to immerse himself in the literature simply to grasp the field's language, common allusions, etc.? It may turn out that Boubon's work on "cognitive aesthetics" is a bunch of hot air, but Dr. Leiter is in no position to know this after having read one abstract.

Honestly, I like Dr. Leiter's blog. I often find news stories that I would not have otherwise discovered, there. But intellectual laziness, or arrogance, like this makes me sick, whether it's coming from Leiter, Zywicki, or any other intellectual, liberal or conservative. I especially hate that it might have influence over less than discerning readers, who might believe that someone like Leiter, who is obviously quite bright, must know what he's talking about if he criticizes scholarship that, at least ostensibly, lies well outside of his area of expertise. I genuinely hope that people read Buller's book (it is excellent) and other critiques of Evolutionary Psychology, in order to understand the paradigm's flaws, but if it comes down to accepting the claims of Evolutionary Psychologists, or dismissing them simply because a non-expert like Leiter dismisses them without offering any reasons, I'd rather people just accept them. At least Evolutionary Psychologists present reasons for doing so.

Postscript: I just want to reiterate that my beef, with Dr. Leiter's posts, as well as the posts I criticized previously by Zywicki and others, is that they are made by scholars, in public forums (in some cases, widely read forums), without any attempt to give reasons or arguments for the positions which, in some cases (e.g., Leiter's) involve broad generalizations. In Zywicki's case, it was quite clear that he had absolutely no knowledge of the IAT, the object of his derision. In Leiter's case, it's not clear whether he is qualified to comment on EP or not, but it is quite clear that he offers no reasons for his dismissal of it as a research paradigm, and endorses a review article that presents at best a short and perhaps inaccurate summary of a book that he shows no evidence of having read. This is now how scholars should make public comments on any scholarship, and it is a particularly dangerous way to discuss science publically. Given how poor the general public's representations of science, scientists, and scientific reasoning already are, even among many scholars in non-scientific fields (e.g., law!), general comments on entire research paradigms without justification in public forums can do no good, and can quite easily do harm. Perhaps it is unfair to single out Dr. Leiter, as his posts are no different from those of many other intellectual bloggers on a wide range of topics (hell, I've probably done this before), but I felt, and still feel, they serve as good examples of exactly what scholars should not be doing, especially since they correspond nicely to some of the posts I had previously criticized by other bloggers.


Razib Khan said...

hm. i'm only halfway through buller's book, but when i read the WSJ piece i was really curious as to whether the review had really read his first chapter very closely at all. here is my comment on buller's book. i like it so far, and share many of the same issues with standard EP....

Razib Khan said...

p.s. you and will wilkinson are on the same side!

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I've never really understood what "evolutionary psychology" entails. Are there some special methods, some models, or what? If it's the abstract theoretical position that some aspects of human behaviour and cognition are shaped in response to particular environments, well, duh. That's kind of obvious, isn't it? If it's a statement that all elements of human cognition can be explained by reference to an evolutionary environment, then I'm still waiting to see some evidence. Otherwise, this whole thing feels like a "glass half full/glass half empty" kind of argument.

I mean, even hardline naturalists like Pinker admit that evolutionary pressures can explain only some aspects of language acquisition, for instance (there's a reason he called his book "The Language Instinct" and not "The Human BIOS"). And hardline empiricists would concede that any plausible learning mechanism needs some biases, otherwise we'd be looking for linguistic structure among the blades of grass.

So what's all the fuss about? In scientific terms, it's important to know which things are largely innate and which are largely learned, but that doesn't seem to justify the vitriol coming from outside. Do people really think that humans are somehow either entirely immune from or else totally enslaved by evolution? Nothing in life is that simple. Honestly, I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

I was reminded of this post, and the earlier discussion about the merits of civility in debate, while reading a speech that cites this line from Thomas Jefferson: "Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life are but dreary things."

It's a pretty sad commentary on the state of democracy when we're willing to spend more energy justifying cheap snarkiness on petty issues than on improving our ability to build bridges enough to have substantial, reasoned discourse about the things that really matter.

(So come back, Chris, the blogosphere-- not to mention the country-- needs more voices like yours!)

Chris said...

Thank you for the kind words. I will be back. Between my computer problems and the end of the semester, I've just been too busy to blog. But summer is upon us, and I plan on blogging like mad.

I agree with you on the state of public discourse, particularly among intellectuals. I think one of the problems with blogs is that it tends to cause a certain level of intellectual laziness and snarkiness. It's particularly tempting to be that way for reactionary intellectuals like Dr. Leiter. Having reactionary intellectuals can be important, especially in a democracy, but combine the reactionism with blogs and you often get something that looks more like a food fight than an intellectual discussion.

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