Stupid but not incorrigible

Posted on August 5, 2011


On several occasions Dawkins has used the example of an originally random string that rapidly becomes a recognisable sentence so long as any random changes in the string that are in accord with the predetermined sentence are retained. He uses the example to talk about random evolution leading to adaptive function thanks to selection. Together with the story of the thousand typing monkeys, however, it kind of makes me think of human science.

The thing which fascinates me about science is that here is a human construct that takes the profoundly limited and biased human cognitive abilities, who original function was to find food, shelter and mates, and engages them in the process of discovering truths about the universe that are so deep that we are the very edge of our imagination to even grasp them. This would not be so surprising if there were a Scientific Method which allowed knowledge to be produced by the mere ‘turning of the crank’ on the scientific mechanism. But science is far from that, with inventiveness, happenstance and an often-unrewarded perseverance being part and parcel of what research is about. ‘And yet it flies!’ is what I find myself saying quite often with an amazed look on my face.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the research that draws my attention often explores how it is that humans have managed to put together a social institution that allows them to achieve this despite everything. Indeed, an article I came across recently made me realise that this is precisely what I particularly like about a recent BBS article by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber that I have already used in a couple of ways in my own research. But I’ll let Cordelia Fine, the author of that article, make the point:

Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Let’s take pigheadedness first. In a much discussed article this year in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that our reasoning skills are really not as dismal as they seem. They don’t deny that irrationalities like the confirmation bias are common. Instead, they suggest that we stop thinking of the primary function of reasoning as being to improve knowledge and make better decisions. Reasoning, they claim, is for winning arguments. And an irrational tendency like pigheadedness can be quite an asset in an argumentative context. A engages with B and proposes X. B disagrees and counters with Y. Reverse roles, repeat as desired — and what in the old days we might have mistaken for an exercise in stubbornness turns out instead to be a highly efficient “division of cognitive labor” with A specializing in the pros, B in the cons.

It’s salvation of a kind: our apparently irrational quirks start to make sense when we think of reasoning as serving the purpose of persuading others to accept our point of view. And by way of positive side effect, these heated social interactions, when they occur within a scientific community, can lead to the discovery of the truth.

Ultimately, I think, the basic reason why science is able to achieve as much as it has achieved was originally made by C. S. Peirce and has been rephrased in many ways in the tradition of Peircean pragmatism (for example by Mark Bickhard). The point is not that science has found a way to discover the truth so much as that “science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves” to quote someone who’d know. Correct ideas are merely what remains after the chaff has been winnowed away. Much like the meaningful sentence in Dawkins’ example.