Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Inquisition and Galileo (redux)

1633 – Galileo Galilei arrives in Rome for trial before the Inquisition

Just a couple of depressing stories for you today.

Professor Jonathan Anomaly (from Duke University) writes: (h/t Razib Khan)
"In the first half of the twentieth century, many public intellectuals made odious claims about the moral or intellectual superiority of men over women and of some races over others. Those claims—which were often couched in pseudo-scientific jargon—helped justify colonialism, discriminatory laws, and even the Holocaust (though the primary group targeted in the Holocaust, Ashkenazi Jews, were killed because of their “domination” of the sciences, medicine, and business, not because of their intellectual inferiority).

"As the twentieth century made clear, beliefs have consequences. So after the Second World War, many academics had an understandable fear of allowing themselves (or others) to believe that different groups have different average abilities or aptitudes.

"Although the fear is easy to explain, and in some cases justifiable, it has led to a widely shared and religiously held dogma in academic circles: that people are, in all relevant ways, biologically identical. Those who deny this dogma should be “educated” about their implicit biases, and made to recant their views, regardless of the evidence.

"After reading some recent work on the biology of group differences last summer, it occurred to me that as an ethics professor, I should write something about the moral upshot: if there are such differences, what are the consequences for how we should treat one another? Should we support policies that attempt to equalize opportunities only if they produce equal outcomes?

"My conclusion was modest: if there are biological differences between groups, and if, as Lee Jussim has argued, some stereotypes turn out to be accurate in part because of correct generalizations about biological differences, these facts should not undermine our commitment to treating one another as moral equals, or to increasing opportunity for all, regardless of group membership.

"But I had committed a sin in the eyes of the two referees who read and commented on my paper. I simply acknowledged the possibility of group differences while arguing that whether or not they exist, they should not matter. For having done that, the two journal referees used expletives and exclamation points to give the most venomous and dismissive feedback I have ever encountered. (Needless to say, the paper was not accepted for publication after such hostile comments.) "
Well, one swallow doth not a summer make .. but wait, what's this (from Henry Harpending)?
"Over a year ago Mike Weight (an undergraduate) and I posted a draft of a manuscript about using quantitative genetic theory to evaluate changes over time in traits. We had in mind a technology useful for distinguishing cultural from genetic transmission. Many readers of our blog made helpful comments and, to our shame, found a large number of typos.  I shudder when I reread that old post.  It was written shortly after I had my temporal lobe bleed and the whole part of my brain that was capable of proofreading seems to have been knocked out.

"We thought we should submit it somewhere where social scientists would read it.  We got back, from a succession of three journals, a stunning set of ignorant and irrelevant reviews.  For example the first sentence of the first one we read said “this is really about race and it ought to be made clear”.  Another said “they are trying to push genetics where it has no place”.  The tone of all of them was like this, angry and scornful.  One reviewer told us that our views were outdated and discredited since epigenetics had swept the field!

"We had two and one half mildly sensible reviews, one about technical aspects of quantitative genetic theory and another by a reviewer unhappy with the level of detail and statistical aspects of the treatment of Amish test results.  Since we regarded the Amish data as a toy set of data, we made no changes. The other reviewers were all hostile and angry at what we had written, several convinced that the paper must be racist but they didn’t quite understand how or why.  We could only laugh at the collection of reviews because none of them had any idea what they were talking about.  None  made it so far as to read and understand the central point of the paper.  With the exceptions mentioned above, they were pig ignorant and proud of it."
I remember watching the Brecht play, the Life of Galileo:
"The Inquisitor represents the geocentric view of the church authorities: “They (the laity) have been assured that God’s eye is always on them – probingly, even anxiously – that the whole drama of the world is constructed around them so that they, the performers, may prove themselves in their greater or lesser roles. What would my people say if I told them they happen to be on a small knob of stone twisting endlessly through the void round a second-rate star?.. I can see how betrayed and deceived they will feel. so nobody’s eye is on us, they’ll say.”

"The authorities  are annoyed that Galileo writes his theories of astronomy in the “idiom of fishwives and merchants”.  They believe that if the peasants start talking about the “phases of Venus” they may even start to question the work of God.  They may not see God as responsible for all miracles. Their world view could change. “Have we got to look after ourselves, old, uneducated, and worn out as we are? Our poverty has no meaning: hunger is no trial of strength, it’s merely not having eaten: effort is no virtue, it’s just bending and carrying”.

"Ludovico explains the perspective of the landowners and farmers. They do not want the peasants talking about the change to the universe. They believe that it would disrupt their livelihood and the status quo. ..."
A commentator Dale wrote the following about Harpending and Weight's experience:
"My observation is that a sudden flash of incoherent rage in your interlocutor is a sign that you’ve violated a taboo. The wise person tries to discern exactly what the taboo is.

"You write, “We had in mind a technology useful for distinguishing cultural from genetic transmission.” But of course that violates the anti-racist taboo because it considers possible that there is a cultural trait in humans that is genetically transmitted. And the core principle of anti-racism is to deny anything that has ever been used by racists in their arguments.

"The significance of all this requires analysis that has not yet been done. Of course, the human brain is an organ for survival and reproduction, not for discerning the truth, and in reality, academic disciplines are at best devices for the propagation of the cultures that nurture them, not for the discernment of the truth per se. With physics, discerning the facts helps our culture prosper (and out-compete others) by enlarging practical technologies … but also, our culture has gone through a lot of agonizing adjustments so that its activities aren’t discomfited by inconvenient physical facts. A few hundred years ago, those adjustments hadn’t been made and physics inquiry could threaten the social order.

"The social sciences are worse off. Partly because discovered facts can be used directly to argue for political positions, and those arguments may be directly harmful to our culture’s competitiveness by messing up the agreements, compromises, and distributions of power that make the culture run smoothly. And partly because the practical technology to be obtained from social science fact seems to be fairly limited."
It's been forty years since E. O. Wilson's "Sociobiology" proposed the reconstruction of social science on biological/Darwinian foundations. The social-sciences have since maintained their invincible, fortress-like ignorance .. but that could be about to change.

As Dale perceptively observed, it's technologies that make ideas matter in the real world, create options for societies to advance and remake the social-order.

Genomics and genetic engineering are the technologies that will empower the future Biotech Galileans against the Inquisition.

Let's hope they're more successful.

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